Friday, October 31, 2014


“Bad behavior is often a symptom of bad teaching.” This popped out of my mouth in a recent workshop and of course, teachers have enough on their plate and don’t need to be blamed for children’s rudeness. And yet. When the activities are engaging and hit children where they live and give them what they need, bad behavior mysteriously evaporates.

Like in our ritual Halloween event with 100 elementary children. We rehearsed without a single moment of unnecessary threats or praise because the children knew how cool this ceremony is when well-executed— and thus, were motivated beyond the norm.

After the event, the kids went out to the yard to partake of the Middle School booths and there was an alum parent who I’ve known for almost 30 years out snapping pictures, as she does year after year. I told her how impressed I was with her dedication and she replied, “It’s selfish. It’s just that I’m a better person when I’m part of this collective joy.”

And so my acronym for the education children need and deserve:

Humanistic. Pay attention to the best of human possibility and care enough to fight for it. And remember to also be Humoristic. Take it seriously and have fun.

Arts. How much of human depravity comes from the inability to express genuine feelings? Not having the tools to speak in multiple languages— tones, shapes, colors, words, gestures. Or the opportunity or invitation to speak. Arts matter.

Play. It’s indeed the work of children and without a sense of playfulness, all is dull and deadly and drill-like and everyone stops caring.

Pedagogy. Teaching is 90% intuition and vision, but at least 10% is science and art, both of which demand attention to details. A well-crafted pedagogy goes far.

Yes! To the adventure of learning, of living, of loving, to children’s extravagance and unbridled joy and suddenly sullen moods, the whole crazy catastrophe from short to tall.

Put it all together and what do you get? Happy children, happy teachers, happy parents, happy culture. It’s that simple.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to say “Yes!” to Halloween and go play in the streets in my artful costume after reflecting on humanistic pedagogy. Happy Halloween!!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Confessions of a Fair Weather Fan

We won!!!! As that high fly ball descended so sweetly into Pablo Sandoval’s glove, I erupted with the hundred of thousands other Giants fans into the thrilling explosion of victory. We did it!!! 2010, 2012, 2014— World Series Champions!

But some pronoun clarification is in order. Any of the players might say, “What do you mean by ‘we?’ I didn’t see you out in the field. All you did was click the remote or walk to the neighborhood bar and order a beer.” Good point! Why should I take any credit it for it?

But the human imagination is so constructed that I— and my fellow fans— put myself into that game and felt the agony and ecstasy of every one of those thousands of pitches spread over the 20 plus fair-weather-fan games that I sat down to watch. I not only entered the body of each player, but I also became the ball itself, hurtling toward the plate seeking the sweet thud of the catcher’s mitt and the umpire’s “Striiiiiiike!” or searching for the crack of the bat and the ball finding the hole in the infield. It was exhilarating and it was exhausting. It was art, the “willing suspension of disbelief” that I was just watching some guys running around in a field and who cares? The deeper I allowed myself to enter the game, to commit my nervous system to each moment, the higher the exultation and the deeper the disappointment came. That’s the life of the sports fan and the reason why otherwise reasonable human beings would spend $7,000 for a World Series seat.

Truth be told, I watched the first six innings alone in my house and then went to a meeting with four other men and watched the gratifying finale. But not wholly gratifying without being at Yancey’s Bar with hundreds of others or down in the Civic Center with thousands. And five minutes later, we were discussing propositions for the upcoming elections while fireworks exploded outside. I should have just left and joined the throngs, it felt a little like sex without orgasm, missing the sensation of being a tiny molecule in the collective uproar.

These are moments that don’t come often and deserve large groups for company. Like Obama’s two election victories or the other two Giant’s victories or other events when hopes and dreams throw themselves into the stream of time and people work and pray for a defined moment of election returns or the end of the 9th inning. I get it. It’s an investment that gives big returns when the dream comes true, big let-downs when it doesn’t and so you risk your heart knowing either can happen rather than blow it off with an apathetic, “Doesn’t affect me one way or another.” Of course, in the long run, it doesn't. But life is just a bit more exciting when you commit yourself as if it does.

But it is exhausting. Having invested some 80 plus hours as a sports fan, I’m more than ready to get back to life’s more normal pace and reclaim my time. It’s fun feeling like a winner vicariously through the efforts of others— and I did grow to admire Madison Bumgarner’s remarkable cool, Pablo Sandoval’s thrilling last game, Hunter Pence’s Wild-Man quality and more— but now it’s time to remind us all to be our own heroes in whatever field we play. In the daily round, there are no waving orange scarves thunderously cheering as we correct homework assignments or weed the garden or organize a well-run meeting. It’s just meeting the details of the dream that shapes our life with all the qualities of a major league ballplayer in the World Series. In my field of teaching, there are the endless thrilling little victories and painful defeats and when we’re in the zone and teach some remarkable classes, no ticker-tape parade or million dollar contract await us. There’s the World Series and then there’s life and there’s room for both. On with the game!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Testing 1-2-3

“Test” is a four-letter word in my book, made obscene by 14 years of insanity in American schooling. Testing mania has sapped passion from teachers, disheartened our children and crippled any sense of school as a place to explore, discover, enjoy the fruits of knowledge. “Out with the tests!” is the rallying cry to restore education and I’m often at the front of the charge.

Of course, the problem is not tests, but the inflated weight, the dubious reasons behind them, the random choices about what’s important to know. Any teacher knows that tests are a tried-and-true strategy to review information, to assess what each student knows, to develop valuable study habits. There’s no reason to throw out that baby with the bathwater.

Today I gave my first Jazz History/ Jazz Listening test of the year and a joyful experience it was. The kids came in with just the right amount of tension to make the game of testing interesting and mostly left with the pleasure of showing themselves and me how much they’ve learned, how much they know, how satisfying— and dare I say fun?— it was to study. Well, when your study involves listening to Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and the like, hey, that’s my idea of fun. And even more gratifying, it feels like the kids are either infected by my enthusiasm or genuinely turned on to the music, humming along with it, yelping in pleasure when they recognize a tune. And why shouldn’t they be? This is great music and they’re open enough to stretch beyond the narrow bandwidth of contemporary pop and smart enough to catch the infectious rhythms, great melodies and a lifetime of nuances.

When the stakes are low (no one’s high school acceptance depends on their jazz history score, but a better choice than other scores they need!), when the ratio of test to discovery is in balance, when the material is fabulous, testing can be fun! We all love to know what we know, to show what we know, to know things worth knowing.

Please read this blog carefully. There will be a test.

Still Here

More than any other poet, Mary Oliver keeps appearing in these postings. I admire her practice of doing nothing but walk in the woods each day to renew her membership in the Grand Mystery mixed with her unflagging determination to tell us about it through the hard work of crafting poems and getting them published. In her late 70’s, she still keeps cranking them out, some 30 books of poetry saying the same thing a thousand different ways.

In her most recent one, Evidence, I feel her awareness of mortality stepped up a notch. She opens one poem:

“Summer begins again.
How many
Do I still have?…

How did it come to be
that I am no longer young
and the world
that keeps time

in its own way
has just been born?…”

In still another:

I have walked in these woods for
more than forty years, and I am the only
thing, it seems, that is about to be used up…”

Well, no surprise for a poet. Next to love, mortality is probably the number one theme of poems ranging from ancient China to Shakespeare (…but sad mortality overtake their power…”) to Hayden Carruth. But creeping up the numbers myself, I’m paying sharp attention to her solutions. Which are simple, elegant and the only possibility:

“…the holiest of laws
Be alive
Until you are not.”

“…as for myself, I keep walking, thinking
once more I am grateful
to be present.”

“…I’m still here, alive!”

 Last night, I watched a 40-minute slide show celebrating the life of one of my wife’s old friends, from her babyhood to her untimely death at 64. Such a mixture of joy in photo after photo of her smiling face and the unfolding arc of her life from baby to young woman to mother to elder, complete with a varied soundtrack, and grief that it ended so soon by today’s standards. But numbers are not the main measurement of a life well-lived and why not celebrate the miracle that she was here and lived deeply and left her mark?

And so I awake to another day thinking, “I’m still here, alive!” and prepare to make merry music with children, my own version of the morning walk in the woods and this blog my way to share my gratitude that I’m present to witness the day’s glory. Onward!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Oxygen and Flowers

"Honor thy father and mother" says the first commandment and my wife and two brother-in-laws passed that test today. A party six months in the planning and it all came together beautifully. A crisp sweater-weather day, Fall’s final colors lit by an afternoon sun and friends and family gathering from all corners of the country to honor my mother-in-law, Pam Shultz, by organizing an art show with some 46 of her rug hookings brought together for the first time in one space. It was mildly connected with Pam’s 90th birthday coming up in January, which makes it all the more poignant that it’s never too late to make your art world debut.

Some 90 or so friends and families from all corners of Pam’s life joined together to ooh and aah at the exhibit and chat with the artist, as well as enjoy the fabulous catered food and reunite with each other. About midway through, my wife gave a lovely talk honoring her mother, followed by two friends talking about other admirable parts of Pam’s long and varied life— as special education teacher, nature lover, devoted grandmother and more. For once, I had no formal role to play as a speaker in the event, but after seeing the artwork, I just couldn’t resist and gave an impromptu talk. And so here it is:

You might be impressed that someone would travel a long distance to honor his mother-in-law. And more impressed yet that I came from San Francisco and gave up my box seats to the Giants World Series game to do so!!!! No, just kidding. But my devotion is not too far short of that mark. Especially after what I’ve seen here today.

The other day, I took a multiple-intelligences test and each one was ranked between 1 and 15. As a music teacher and author, it’s no surprise that I scored 15 in musical and linguistic intelligence, but even I was shocked by my lowest score— 4 on visual-spatial skills. That means that when I was looking at these rug hookings and told my wife that one looked really familiar, she sighed and said, “Yeah, it’s been hanging in our house for 15 years.” That gives you an idea about how fatally stupid I am about art.

I’ve known Pam for some 40 years now, mostly spending time together in that fabulous paradise of a cottage on Lake Michigan. And night after night there, I’ve often noticed Pam bent over a piece of fabric doing some kind of stitchery. But because of my cognitive disability, I’ve rarely expressed curiosity or asked her to show me what she’s working on.

But today, as I saw piece after piece and really looked at them and notice the fine details and admired the colors and the shapes and forms and the variety between pieces, my admiration for Pam zoomed beyond its customary high mark. These were beautiful! How could I have missed it? And how humble she’s been about her artist’s soul, just quietly going about her work and producing works borne from great patience, attention and some inner need to express beauty. It takes my breath away.

So, Pam, forgive me for taking so long to notice but today, I did and I couldn’t be more proud to have you for my mother-in-law. Congratulations!

After three hours of holding court, Pam looked exhausted so we whisked her away back to her Assisted-Living Home. I parked the car and checked in at the front desk with flowers in one hand and her oxygen tank in the other and the woman there said, “Oxygen and flowers. The two things we need most!” Well, I believe that’s true.

And one more. Family and friends who take the time to celebrate those who have beautified this world. Kudos to Karen, Barclay and John for honoring their mother and to Pam for her lifelong work.