Saturday, May 26, 2012

Inch by Inch, Row by Row

Today I played a music/movement game with the 8th graders that has been a favorite for just about my entire 37 years at school. Kids from five to fourteen equally enjoy it and it’s always there waiting for a rainy day or the moment when you’ve exhausted all your other class plans. The rules and procedures have stayed constant during almost four decades of play, but lo and behold! today, two variations arose today that improved the game significantly. As my Mom is fond of saying, “Imagine that!”

I have often been labeled as a curmudgeon resistant to change and though it is true that I sometimes am loyal to a product, person, way of doing things far beyond the expiration date, I like to think that there is a deeper purpose at work. Change is, as the cliché says, inevitable, but I find it useful to distinguish between the different levels of change and pay attention to the motivation, the rate, the reason. After all, I still follow a meditation practice over 2,000 years old, play a repertoire of piano music over three hundred years old, work with a pedagogy over fifty years old, all practices that have evolved and changed through time, but kept certain core disciplines unchanged. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is my guiding motto, but I stay alert and open to the next improvement.

The gift of longevity is the chance to carry a vision and guide it to further flowering by staying attentive to small and slow-paced changes that make sense for a particular time, a particular place and a particular group of people. The healthiest change is that which responds organically and intelligently to the needs of the moment, change arising from within from the people most directly affected.  Conversely, change imposed from without from people not on the scene, change that merely follows mindless trends or complies with bureaucractic codes or tries to keep up with the neighbors, is a blow to local culture.

From the beginning of my tenure at school, I was often at the center of shaping school ceremonies, rituals and traditions, both because it was my passion and interest and because music and dance are inevitably at the center of it all. There was often resistance from the kids and staff about these weird gestures (what one student called “candle-crap”) and some of it deserved because the ideas were raw, unformed and needed time to work themselves out. But we stuck with it and each year they improved as kids and teachers alike began to enjoy them, anticipate them and offer suggestions to do them better yet.

No matter what subject I look at, it almost always comes back to the conversation between repetition and variation. Whether it’s the timestables, Zen meditation, mastering Chopin, hosting the annual samba contest or teaching for decades, disciplined repetition is essential for learning to take root and for culture to evolve and grow. Equally essential is to keep the windows open in the house of committed practice and keep awake and searching for the next innovation that moves it all one step higher.

I never planned to stay in one school so long. I just kept signing up year after year and suddenly, the years had piled up to a decade or two or three. But what a pleasure to have hung in there for the long haul and see how a culture can grow, one small innovation at a time, according to the genuine needs of the moment. What’s that song? “Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow, all it takes is a rake and a hoe and a piece of fertile ground.” Same truth, be in gardening or a school.

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