Sunday, February 23, 2014

Jumping Through Hoops

Winging home on yet another plane from yet another day giving a workshop. My spirits are high and my body catching up to itself yet again. Though my immune system is bolstered by my love for this work, I’m not invulnerable. The day at home between the Philippines and Las Vegas was brutal and made me doubt my sanity as I headed back to the airport. But a blessed good night’s sleep and six hours spent with dedicated music teachers willing to give up a Saturday to rise one inch closer to the high bar of their craft has once again energized rather than exhausted me. Have I mentioned how much I love this work?

Las Vegas is in Clark County, one of the only school districts in the nation that has wholly embraced Orff Schulwerk as its preferred approach to music education. Over 200 schools and virtually each with an Orff teacher. And this has held steady for over 25 years! It’s a success story unimaginable in a place like California, still suffering the ravages of Proposition 31 some 35 years back. As always in politics, it comes down to the almighty dollar. Las Vegas generates lots of revenue and though the methods of moneymaking would hardly have been approved of by our Puritan forefathers, at least they’ve made the good decision to pour some of it into music in the schools. The city also features Orff classes in the local University, a healthy Orff summer training program that ranks among the top five in the country, boasts an ex-President of the national Orff association and a couple of local teachers who have written best-selling Orff books. Plenty to be proud of.

And yet. Virtually all these music teachers see their kids once a week for 50 minutes. That’s not a lot of time to cultivate the demanding understanding, techniques, aesthetics of a field as profound as music. One might say that it’s a token amount of time that reveals a lack of real commitment to nurturing the musical intelligence.

Then class size. I heard lots of stories of double and triple classes, meaning between 25 and 60 kids. That’s far too many children for most musical endeavors other than choir and certainly far too many for the intimacy Orff Schulwerk requires. It’s another sign that those in charge are asking music teachers to settle for something unfriendly to their craft.

Besides too little time and too many kids (shall we try reversing that for a change— too much time and too few kids?), then there’s the accountability some teachers have to the next “new idea” to tsunami through the schools. Most maddening of all is the constant story I hear about requiring teachers to state their objectives at the beginning of the class, leaving no space for intrigue, mystery, magical unfolding. (See my blog “Spoiler Alert” for more about this).

I keep trying to level down to the rock bottom of what feels wrong with the "next educational theory" even when its tenets are right. So far I’ve uncovered three things:

  1. Just as in the Orff class, nothing is accomplished without the model experience, it’s clear that teachers don’t learn to teach better just by hearing ideas or steps about how to teach better. They have to experience things themselves as a learner, be guided from the experience to the generating idea and back again. The ideas may be great, but they can’t penetrate by just saying them or hearing them or reading them.

  1. Because these theories are elaborated by people who mostly are not teaching daily classes to children— and therefore have way too much time on their hands— they are often too complicated and elaborate for the mind to wholly absorb them and keep track of them. Again, even when written by smart good-intentioned people, it betrays the cardinal rule of K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple, stupid!).

  1. How little children are mentioned in all of this! How little we are reminded of the way children play their way into discovery, engage themselves in fascinating tasks and figure stuff out, ask questions far beyond what the teacher imagines. As the Las Vegas Orff Chapter’s t-shirt says, good Orff teaching is “child’s play,” but this game of making teachers jump through hoops with proscribed steps is an adult game all the way— and a deadly one for the kids,

Easy enough to complain about all of this, but I have more to offer— some tried-and-true thoughts about what actually works based on fairly lengthy experiences with the subjects of the whole educational deal— meaning the children themselves. Not that anyone cares to listen to a lowly music teacher, but I’ll tell them anyway.

  1. Orff training always begins with experiencing its tenets as a student and then reflecting on its pedagogical ideas. In a mere six weeks spread out over three years (two weeks per summer), people’s teaching improves dramatically. This is not mere conjecture, but tried-and-true fact.

  1. Pedagogical points can be expressed in adultese, but should be translatable so children can understand. And plain talk or poetic talk is better than pseudo-scientific terms. The simple list that Alfred North Whitehead proposes saves reams of paper—learning proceeds from Romance to Precision to Synthesis. In kid talk, you play first, work second and then make up something new where play and work join together. Simple but transformative.

  1. Children are the true north of the whole deal. Watch them, see what works, see how often it works and what other strategies you might need, talk to them, ask them what they need. When they’re happy, it’s working. When they’re miserable, it’s not. No matter how great a pedagogical idea seems, it’s worth nothing until it reaches the children. If it doesn’t, either learn how to apply it better or throw it out. If you have to jump through hoops, jump through with the children the way they like to. (Or like we do in Orff class— three overlapping hoops, one kid steps /dances in and out while three instrumentalists are assigned one hoop each and play when the dance is happening in theirs. That’s the kind of jumping through hoops that kids like!)

Educational policy-makers, you need to come to my workshop. And bring your hula hoop.


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  3. I enjoyed your blog very much. Indeed, children are the true north for us educators.


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