Friday, September 30, 2016

Back to the Future II

In planning our Strategic Plan (see yesterday’s blog), it was described as people getting together in a “think tank.” Now let me be clear. Anyone who has read these blogs has a sense of how my mind works. Something triggers associations with a lifetime of philosophical ruminating and inspires a reflection on our use of language and looking past the words to the inherited stories we carry with us. I guess most of my life is about trying to change narratives that I consider limited or unimaginative or exclusive or hurtful or harmful or downright dangerous. This is on the lower end of the scale, but a good chance nonetheless to think deeper about the images we use.

Like the image of the “think tank.” A tank is not a good place to get imaginative work done and this is work that demands the full range of the imagination. A tank is a hard-shelled protected space, sometimes used for military purposes, sometimes to house sharks. The windows to the outside world are tiny slits. Thinking works best in contact with the living, flowing, breathing earth, not holed up in a canister of steel breathing stale air. In dreaming about our children’s future, a tank is not the best place.

And the assumption is that there will be thinking going on there. But what about dreaming, imagining, feeling, touching? The human brain works best when it connects to the heart and body and all the regions of its landscape.  I picture disembodied ideas thrown randomly out and bouncing off the walls, finally to be captured into some list that feels like a bunch of disconnected thoughts with no vital juices, no flowing blood or beating hearts. The images we choose to describe our thinking actually shapes that thinking.

Now consider an alternative. We have a seeds and pods theme at our school this year. Ah, there’s an image! A seed idea that drops from a plant that already exists in a real landscape (like a teacher in a school!), already has endured weather, competing plants, foraging animals. The blueprint for the plant is encoded in the seed and with just a little bit of light and water and other friendly natural conditions, something pops its head above ground and announces its presence. How does it do this?

Oats, peas, beans and barley grow, oats, peas, beans and barley grow.
Do you or I or anyone know, how oats, peas, beans and barley grow?

No, we don’t!! Science has its explanations, but at the bottom of it all, it’s pure mystery, magic, cause for wonder and astonishment. So I hope our strategic plan has space for some marvels, some surprises, some unanswered and ultimately unanswerable questions.

As seeds drop from plants, so with ideas. They work best if they come from a plant already in motion, fall into a soil prepared to receive it in an environment that offers the requisite light and water. We humans can help it along, care for it, water it, protect it a bit, but some of it is out of our hands. We just do what we can, let go, step back and trust that if it’s meant to flourish, it will. And it will grow at its own rate. We can’t hurry it or force it.

Now these are the kinds of ideas that will make sense for our Strategic plan. The seed. Instead of a tank to shelter them, the pod will do. And at the end, there will be beautiful and fragrant flowers, nutritious and tasty fruits. The Strategy of a good Strategic Plan is to toss the seeds homegrown from our own garden and see what bears fruit. Plan to water and prune and weed and watch grow, but that’s as far as a genuine plan can go. The rest is the mystery and magic of a will outside of the human sphere. The thing that makes sense for this particular time and place, nourished by our faith that if it’s meant to grow and feed our children, it will.

Finally, the seed, that carrier of the future, has encoded in it the entire evolutionary past of the plant. Another reason why we go back to the roots to reacher higher in the branches. 

PS For the record, the people on this committee are smart, imaginative and thinking people and I’m confident they will do good work. This is just to offer some thoughts that might help them along.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Back to the Future

It’s Strategic Plan time again at our school. To kick it off, someone came to show a presentation that included images of the “cutting edge” classrooms of the future. What I saw was bad architecture, kids spread out privately engaged in their devices, not connected to each other, not looking with wide eyes at a living, breathing teacher telling a story or reciting a poem or singing a song or demonstrating a scientific principle or modeling the technique of a basketball move or yoga pose. I didn’t see kids on the buses with chickens looking out the window at breathtaking natural scenery or people working in the fields. Instead, they were on the virtual bus looking at the window at a Mars Space Station or locked inside some Virtual Reality machine.

I guess people’s vision of the future hasn’t changed much from the Jetson cartoons of my childhood. But it never looked very attractive to me, all those cold, smooth, slick machines and not a tree in sight. My futuristic vision is not that much different from my own childhood past, where most of my interactions took place in the park near my house or cozied up inside my house with a few analog machines, some toys, lots of books and things like rope to figure out a system to open the downstairs kitchen door from my upstairs bedroom.

We all agree our machines are here to stay—at least until the electricity runs out. Yet everything I know about the needs of the developing child—and I daresay all my years of teaching, parenting, grandparenting, reading and writing had helped me know quite a bit—affirms my intuition that engagement with the three-dimensional living breathing sensual world produces happy, healthy children who can grow to be happy, healthy and intelligent adults. Who may or may not end up working in the field of IT. But first, they need to play in dirt and plant seeds in dirt, swing from trees and hug trees and climb trees, lie on their backs and look up at the cloud shapes in the sky, hold and pet and stroke and play with animals, pick mint leaves and ripe tomatoes, play clapping games with other kids and dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving fee. In short, experience fully the unmediated world, the direct contact with things that have texture and smell and taste and touch.

From the body, the first media is then balls and pencils and paintbrushes and drumsticks and legos and such. Things that respond to the touch and eloquence of the hand. Things that require control and practice and craft. Hands that help build the brain. Hands that take things apart and put them back together again, hands that build structures, shape clay, coax sound from pianos, all of which require more skill, connection and engagement than pushing buttons.

And then there’s those abstract numbers and words stored on paper, books, blackboards, whiteboards. When you’re reading a great book, does it make a difference if it’s a Kindle or a thumbed-through paperback with a weight and heft and smell, one you can mark passages with in pencil and carry with you anywhere? Aesthetically, I believe it does. And in a well-lived aesthetic and artistic and sensual life, these little differences start to add up. But that’s a small battle to fight next to the Virtual Reality machine and the too-young addiction of children to constantly flashing and changing at button-pushes screened “realities.” I think this unthinking acceptance of more and more machines as our necessary future is so narrow and unimaginative and so ultimately damaging to the kind of education that gets born from these thoughts.

One of the slides I saw sent chills down my spine: “Knowing is obsolete.” Not sure what it meant, but it felt like the learning of and memorization of and thinking about actual facts has been trumped my mere sensation. (And given the deliberate disdain for facts in this election year, that verb is the correct one.)

And so I speak on behalf of direct experience of the natural world and disciplined familiarity with simple tools. An hour working in the garden has more to teach than the same hour on a virtual reality tour. A xylophone is a brilliant technology for children (and adults) that carries important and useful information. A living teacher holding the class enthralled telling an old fairy tale is of more value than the Artificial Intelligence version. And at the end of the matter, it’s not a question of quantity of information, but the sense of immersion in a world of wonder, of magic and mystery. Childhood is the time to store memories like these and when strategic planning comes, it’s back we go to go forward to the future.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Bigger Question

“If you expect to see the results of your work, you’re not asking a big enough question.”

                                                                        -I.F. Stone

“When we win, it’s with small things and the winning itself makes us small…”

                                                                        Rainer Marie Rilke

If my first Orff teacher had presented this work as a clever way for kids to play quarter and eighth notes accurately, I believe I would have declined the journey. How fortunate that Avon Gillespie had such a far-reaching vision of what this work offers to the soul and the spirit, to the best part of ourselves and the company of neighbors reaching for the best part of themselves. The beckoning finger that has kept me moving forward on this path is the one asking big questions about what the Orff approach has to offer beyond creating competent musicians. 

Of course, my first questions when I started out all these years ago were things like: 

• How can I keep kids in the class without them running out the door?
• How long can I pretend to know what I’m doing before people find out?
• How can I make some sounds with kids that resembles music?

But then the questions began to grow and so did I. What are the different, needs, interests and desires of each age between 3 and 14- years old? How can I organize the years of experimentation into a coherent curriculum and still keep the windows open? How can music connect and invigorate the whole school community? How can it help kids feel like they belong to something larger than themselves? How can they discover they’re more musical than they thought they were?

And as I reached each plateau and found a satisfying answer, the finger beckoned me to keep climbing. How does work training teachers inform the work with the kids? How does performing with other Orff teachers feed into the teaching of children? How to balance my practice as a musician with my practice as a teacher? How does it help to be a perpetual student, constantly trying out new things—body music, Balinese gamelan, Bulgarian bagpipe, Ghanaian drumming and dance and more? How does this work resonate in different cultures across the country? How does it touch teachers in different cultures around the world? How does music of diverse cultures fit inside of the Orff framework? How does jazz? How do new advances in body percussion?  How does this work relate to myth and ritual and ceremonial life?

Pant, pant, puff, puff, on I kept climbing. How does this approach to teaching and learning fit with the latest findings of neuroscience? With the older insights of Montessori, Steiner, Whitehead, Dewey? How does a deeper understanding of orality and literacy play into this work? What is the role of advancing technology and/or how can this be a balancing point for too much screen time? How does poetry play into this work? Storytelling?

Enough? Not nearly! What about social justice? What about making music with babies and infants and seniors and the dying? What about high school and college jazz bands? Conservatory students? What’s it like to give workshops to Zen monks, computer folks, community food store workers? What about working with kids in Ghana?

The latest whisper in my ear is working with prisoners, kids in Juvenile Hall, kids in homeless shelters. And just yesterday, an exciting connection with someone doing precisely that work.

My biggest critique of some of the Orff teaching I’m seeing these days? The boundaries are too narrow, the horizon too close, the tone is one of answers instead of questions. Not from beginners, that’s to be understood, but more seasoned teachers and some of them out there marketing Orff Schulwerk like an packaged item that fits neatly inside a box. That reduces this twisting path with a heart to a freeway with fast-food stops.

And then at the end of all of this is the political side, the sense that I’ve done nothing to restore music to the public schools in San Francisco, music torn out almost 40 years ago with the passing of the property tax fiasco called Proposition 13. The best story I heard was that a teacher who was going to get her schedule cut in half had her administrator watch my TED talk and it changed her mind. Hooray for that! One tiny result in 42 years of advocating for music education. And hopefully a bit more, making some kids lives a little happier because of the teachers I’ve trained using the ideas and material I’ve passed on. But if the dream of quality music to touch the hearts, minds and bodies of every child who enters a school in this country— or any country—is ever to come to fruition, I don't believe I'll be here to see it. I guess that means I've asked big enough questions that I won't see the results of my work. I.F. Stone would be proud.

What new question awaits me tomorrow?

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

One Inch from Bottom

It took a supreme effort to not walk away from the debates last night. But I held steady and starting taking notes. There is so much to be depressed about that a man of Trump’s low moral character, lack of experience, psychopathic narcissistic personality, inflated ego and—shall I go on?—more, is running for the highest office in the land and indeed, in terms of power to affect others abroad, the world. Of course, the most depressing thing is that there are sizable portions of the American population that are making this possible. And the most maddening is this new level of bottom, where facts don’t matter, job qualification doesn’t matter, commitment to service doesn’t matter. All that seems to matter is that it makes for good TV and that people who feel unsatisfied with their lives can find others to blame and someone willing to publicly blame them.

But two good things happened. The first is that if people were paying attention, he couldn’t help but reveal exactly who he is. Yes, I understand it doesn’t matter to many, but for anyone who still cares enough about clear thinking and upholding the American democratic experiment, you’d have to be pretty dense not to notice the following:

1)             Clinton: He didn’t pay any of his Federal taxes.
Trump: That makes me smart.

2)             Clinton: He rooted for the collapse of the housing market.
Trump: That’s called business.

3)             Clinton: He is not an ethical businessman. The architect for his clubhouse was never paid his fee. 
           Trump: Maybe I didn’t pay him because I wasn’t satisfied with his work.

4)             Trump: Our country has been ripped off by every other country in the world.

5)             Trump: (speaking of his business)
My obligation is to do well for myself, my family, my employees, my company.

 So the logical conclusion is that:

1)             It’s okay to evade paying taxes that are the economic backbone of this nation.

2)             It’s okay to cheer when thousands (millions?) of Americans are kicked out of their homes because you can get some good deals.

3)             It’s okay to dishonor a business contract after the work has been done.

4)             It’s okay to alienate ourselves from every one of the 195 countries in the world and lie in the process. (Are Monaco, Fiji, Finland, Costa Rica, Laos and 190 other countries really stealing our money?)

5)             If government should be run like a business (his idea) and your business model is to do well first for yourself and then your family, are you qualified to actually serve the American people?

None of this is to mention all the questions he simply refused to answer by talking about something altogether different— his insistence that Obama was not a citizen years after the birth certificate had been shown, his refusal to make his taxes public, his slander of women in general and Hilary in particular (changing “looks” to “stamina”) and more.

So much more. His mentioning that Muslims were allowed in his Florida café without mentioning that he plans to deport all of them. His anger at business going offshore (I agree with that) and blaming Mexico and China even as his store in Trump Tower sells a vast array of imported Chinese goods. And on and on.

So again, one of the good things about the debate was that he was getting tangled in his own contradictions, lies, inability to take responsibility for anything he has said or done.

But the second good thing is that he was put on the defensive about it all. Some part of him realized that without his homies cheering him on, he couldn’t say out loud the same outrageous things he said in his campaign. Some part of him knew that the whole American public would not accept him saying blatantly racist, sexist, homophobic things and that he had to temper himself. In fact, near the end, he boasted about resisting saying something really nasty about Hilary, but you could tell it was a big effort. I hope he breaks down and starts spewing his venom in the next debate. Because in the end, as far as we’ve dropped to new bottoms that are intolerable for any person with a beating heart and a functioning brain, we’re still an inch above the bottom of the bottoms.

And that gives me a glimmer of hope.