Saturday, May 31, 2014

Color in Nature, Flavor in Food

And so the day arrived that no one can imagine will. Sometimes when I teach my first class to 3-year olds, I look at them and think, “I may be talking about you at graduation eleven years from now. Imagine that!”

And so it came to pass that we arrived at the last music class after eleven years of playing, singing and dancing together. I’ve seen them blossom from that tender — or explosive— little seed to young people with large bodies and personal opinions. That’s quite a journey. For some 8th graders, it has been a short, but intense, three years (we accept 12-15 new kids in 6th grade), but even then, plenty of room for astonishment at how much growth there is. In either case, here we were at the last class. What to do?

We began with the ritual 8th grade shtick where I finally move from “Dougie!” to a tongue-in-cheek respect. “Good morning, class” I begin and they stand and say in unison “Good morning, Mr. Goodkin.” Some of them are tired of the game, but for the most part, they’ve bought into it and truth be told, it sounds good to my ears. From here, they spread out around the room to fill in a written evaluation I gave them while I played a few jazz ballads on the piano. That done, they gathered on the floor like the old singing times and we had a delightful romp through the 50 plus songs on the board that they used to sing as long ago as preschool. Nostalgia and love filled the room and at the end, a hug line as they passed under the Side by Side song sheet and out of their San Francisco School Orff musical training into their unknown musical future.

The last question on the evaluation was this:

Imagine you are grown with children of your own and they go to a school that is about to cut out the music program. You go to the school board meeting and try to convince them otherwise by telling them what your San Francisco School music experience meant to you. What do you say?

My purpose is twofold: First, a kind of backdoor way to reflect and share with me their thoughts. Secondly, a real little timer set in the back of their minds that may someday go “Ping!” if they are confronted with that actual situation, a reminder to advocate for what was valuable or suggest changes for that which was not. I read them later that night and will confess that not all were 100% glowing, but most were moving and some astounded me with their eloquence and brought a tear to my eye. For those advocating for music ed, forget all the research studies and the Mozart effects— just read out loud some of these sharings and/or ask your own students for theirs. From the emotional to the intellectual to the social, these kids got it! Some samples:

• Music class always put me in a happy mood. When I looked at my schedule and saw I had music, it changed my feeling about the day.

• Music is very important because it gives kids a way to express themselves. It can calm them or energize them. It can make them feel safe. 

• Music is an alternate place for kids to exist. You might not be good at math, but could be good in music— and vice-versa. It gives a place to be creative and to learn life skills. It’s a place for kids to be themselves and also bond with their classmates.

• Music is not just banging on a drum to make a sound. People learn history and rhythm and life skills from music. Music is a part of life because it keeps you sane, it keeps you cool and composed through the many wavy roads in what is called life.

• Music is the key to life if taught correctly. It can open new doors and take you to places you’ve never been before.  

• Music is a way to work with sounds with your hands. It forms your brain, helps you to think in a different way. It’s a way speak to people and a way to listen to people.

• Learning music made me think in a way I never had before. It made my brain more flexible. 

Music is essential to a kid’s academic development. The connection that I made from music to academics was astounding. I would use music techniques and to study and finish work. It was an important part of my life and I don’t know where I would have been if I didn’t have it. 

As someone with a lot of personal catastrophes and trauma, music became my escape from them. I often spent my day counting minutes until I could be in music. I don’t think most people realize how important the music program is to people like myself and I want more kids like myself to find their escape from sorrow into joyful music.

• Without music, I would be a mess. Music is my best friend. It sticks by me through thick and thin, It makes hard times better and good times simply the best.

Not bad, eh? And to end, my two personal favorites:

• Music is what completes an education. It is such an essential part of our culture and everyday life that taking it away would be like taking away color from nature and flavor from food. 

• For some kids, music is the voice they never had. 

Farewell 8th grade!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Sliding Screens

When I first taught at The San Francisco School, back in the day when the word Google didn’t exist and the only person who used lower-case “i” was e. e. cummings, the elementary school was one giant open space with mixed grades— 1st-2nd, 3rd-4th, 5th-6th. As the years ticked by, the thin Indian bedspreads defining the spaces became tall bookshelves, 1st grade succeeded from the Union and became it’s own self-contained class, later followed by 2nd-3rd and finally, last to go some ten years later, 4th-5th. Those bookcases were now genuine walls and each class had its own space, its own curriculum, its own identity.

As the music teacher, the mixed ages worked okay, but I was happier to focus more specifically on the developmental needs of each age and not introduce recorder two years in a row. And truth be told, within those mixed age classes, kids still congregated according to their age, some deep human need to be amongst their own and create some kind of pecking order, no matter how mild. Yet because we came from those roots, the kid culture was accepting of hanging out at recess with kids above or below your age. And still to this day, singing time is all the kids from 1st through 5th grade.

The first thing I admire about going to a culture is the level of integration amongst the ages. In a Balinese or Ghanaian village, everyone hangs out together. Yes, the kids may be flying kites, the adults busy with work, the elders hanging out playing cards, but they’re all together in the same village compound. It’s a marked contrast to the old age home, retirement village, teenage hang-out, pre-school where we sequester each age group away from the others. People in our culture of isolation suffer greatly in this arrangement, especially the old folks needing the sounds of children’s voices and the young folks who only visit the elders on scheduled occasions, if at all. If in our schools and institutions there is a logic to the same-age-gatherings, we would do well to have sliding Japanese screens instead of fixed walls and locked doors.

All this on my mind because of a music class yesterday with 1st grade and 3-year olds. Such a joy! So good for the older kids to learn how to be a guide and teacher to the younger, so great for the younger kids to play with someone 3 years older instead of just someone 60 years older (that’s me!). What a difference it made for both groups! Later, the 2nd graders sang with the whole preschool and occasionally, I have the 8th graders join me in a class with the 5-year olds. Such pleasures!

Lately, my daughter Talia, 1st grade teacher, has been coming to Singing Time and sitting up front with me. She who used to sit on the other side on the rug for her five years as an elementary student is now my young colleague singing Side by Side with me while she is side by side with me. It doesn’t get any better than that.

And so let’s keep the spirit of the one-room school house and the feeling of the village compound alive in our contemporary culture. I believe we all would be refreshed.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Christmas in May

I woke up today like a kid on Christmas morning, so excited about the classes I was going to teach. But instead of tearing open gifts like new skates, a sled, a picture book or an i-Pad, the kids and I will sing uplifting songs, jam on The 8th Grade Blues, play Japanese children’s games, dance to great music and watch clips from old movies featuring happy songs like High Hopes, Pick Yourself Up and My Favorite Things. 6th grade, 8th, 8th, 2nd, 2nd, 4th, 4th and an elementary sing lined up like a reception line at a wedding, smiling and eager to shake hands with the joys of making music.

What is extraordinary is that I feel such eagerness and pleasure in the last three days of school, a time when teachers are dreaming of the summer lake and eager to live through a day without managing a group of unruly, over-energetic children. What is extraordinary is that I’m completing my 39th year in the same school and I enjoy it as much, and perhaps more, as when I began. What is extraordinary is that an intense day of eight 45-minute classes in a row with barely a break working with over a hundred kids can feel like so much fun. All I can do is marvel that I found this work and this work found me.

A practical tip for music teachers— or perhaps any teacher. Two opposite strategies at the end of the year to keep the flame lit:

1.  Review all the songs, games, dances and more you’ve done. Just play! Just sing! Yesterday, I opened my planning book and sang the first part of each song we had done since September, which is especially fun when you get to singing Halloween and Hanukkah songs in May! Some 35 songs and 20 minutes later, we had to stop and a girl came up in tears and said, “We didn’t get to Free at Last!” (I’m working on sneaking in an extra singing time in the next few days.)

     2. Give a class as if it’s the first class of the next year. I started the 5-year olds working on reading rhythms with cups, a 1st grade activity that was fresh and new and intriguing for them. And for me, too.
   3. If the above don’t work for you, remember: only two more days until that summer house at the lake!!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Joys of Compliance

Anyone who knows my work in education or has been reading these blogs knows that I’m not a fan of fundamentalism. I stand for independent thought, analytic critique, relentless curiosity, probing inquiry, articulate expression and standing up for your unique perceptions. I’m a lover of the parachute mind, the wide perspective, the turning things inside out and upside down to reveal the hidden. I’m close to fanatic about the absolute necessity of flexible thought— while being flexible in my fanaticism! My classes with children are designed to cultivate these kinds of minds, my writing and music and the life I live aspire to model the cultivated point of view married to the spontaneous improvised response, the conversation between the tried-and-true techniques of former times and the experimental risk attending to the needs of the moment.

But every once in a while, I wonder what it would be like to have all my opinions ready-made by my church or political party or Fox news pundit, to simply shake my head— or my fist— in agreement, to feel bonded with my fellow non-thinkers and relax into the soft cushion of unquestioning obedience in the house of manufactured consent. I happen to think that even if it might be personally comfortable, it would be— and is— dangerous for the health of a culture and a person and a planet. But still I wonder.

I thought about this after today’s staff meeting at my school. We had an issue on the table and everyone had an opinion and wasn’t shy about expressing it. Don’t get me wrong— it was a good meeting and we came to some good compromise solutions. But what made it difficult is that people had different ideas than me!! Why can’t they just nod their heads and acquiesce to my well-crafted thoughts? Why did we have to probe deeper to clarify what we meant? It took a lot of time and it was exhausting!

Happens in my music classes sometimes. Some sassy 8th grader thinks he has a better idea than I do about how to end the piece and makes no bones about telling me so. Or another thinks my idea connecting a Baroque piece with a be-bop tune really doesn’t work and is not shy about expressing it out loud. What kind of respect is that?

Well, I hope you see my tongue in my check here (feeling the filled-in space where my fake tooth fell out yesterday). It does take time, it can be tiring, it sometimes feels misguided or too arrogant or even disrespectful. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s in the give and take between multiple perspectives that real understanding takes place and the very real problems facing us in all sorts of areas will move towards solutions. It’s not quick, it’s not efficient, it’s not always easy, but it’s perhaps the single most important thing demanded of us in these troubled times— independent thought moving towards interdependent solutions.

Don’t you agree? Just nod your heads and say, “Yes, Doug.”

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Everything in It's Place

You know you’re getting old when the happiest moment of your day is finding a sunglass strap. But stick with me here. It’s not exactly that my life ambition has shrunk so small that a dangling piece of fabric is enough to satisfy my deepest longings. But it is very real that age insists that you spend precious minutes— and sometimes hours— looking for something you need, accompanied by a stream of four-letter words and deep heaving sighs.

Now I am not now, have never been, and hope I’ll never be, a key-loser. They’re always in my left–hand pants pocket and if not, I’ll know it in a nanosecond. Likewise, the wallet in the right. (See my faith here that my blog readers are not pickpockets.) In the front shirt pocket lie my glasses, memo book and Niji pen. When I’m home, those five things sit on my desk, all my change in a little jar. As Maria Montessori says: “A place for everything, everything in its place.”

But keeping track of my sunglasses drives me crazy. Too big for any pockets, not yet assigned a place in the backpack, I’m just constantly putting them one place, then another and then searching for them helter skelter. And so I decided to get one of those glasses straps and just hang them around my neck. The first two stores I tried didn’t carry them, but then my wife showed me four different ones we have at home. Score!! Even different colors for different shirts.

And so for two days straight, I’ve happily tromped around San Francisco fully aware of the presence of my sunglasses. It’s a bit inconvenient when you hug people, but after a college education, I think I can figure out how to solve that problem. And now with all the time freed up from looking for them and all the emotional angst spared me, I believe I can now be a fully realized compassionate being with time to write the great American novel. Working on my opening sentence:

“It all began with a sunglass strap…”