Thursday, October 19, 2017

Doing Nothing


Had some unexpected free time at school today and instead of checking e-mail, made the brilliant decision to go outside. Met up with some kids drinking tea made from herbs in the garden, watched my 4th graders playing a game in P.E., just stood for a moment listening, observing, smelling the finally smoke-free air. And while savoring those moments, thought about how proscribed my life had become—an ongoing series of scheduled events, habits, routines, commitments. Each one worthy and enjoyable, but the combined effect of which is the sense of just “getting through the day” ticking off the things on my list. Such a far cry from being wholly present and ready for the unexpected, wholly aware that this particular moment, whatever presents itself, is the paradise we’re all seeking if only we paid enough attention.

The other day, I presented a theory of education to the Interns from Alfred North Whitehead and passed on an article about it I wrote many years back. It held up and so I present it here. Part I is just the introduction, but is a good reminder of the wisdom of just going out (away from screens!!!!) and doing nothing. Enjoy!

"WHERE DID YOU GO?"  "OUT."  "WHAT DID YOU DO?"  "NOTHING."  How it was when you were a kid— and how things have deteriorated since." is more than just one of the world's longest book titles. It's an obscure little jewel I found in my parent's bookshelves that never was a best-seller or a literary masterpiece, but is filled with great insight, much humor and a call back to a childhood that has largely been lost in our contemporary world. "When you were a kid..." meant when the author—Robert Paul Smith—was a kid in the 1920's; "how things have deteriorated..." meant the year it was published—1957. When I opened it as a 16-year old in 1967 already nostalgic for the lost romance of my childhood, I recognized an earlier version of my own delight in growing up. I didn't play marbles or know much about mumbly-peg or building a treehouse, but I did spend quite a bit of time making forts from abandoned Christmas trees, exploring vacant lots, reading comic books, playing hide and seek, choosing up teams for baseball without a single grown-up nearby and generally doing what the author called "running around."

"That was the main thing with kids then; we spent an awful lot of time doing nothing. There was an occupation called 'just running around.' It was no game. It had no rules. It didn't start and it didn't stop...Many, many hours of my childhood were spent in learning how to whistle. In learning how to snap my fingers. In hanging from the branch of a tree. In looking at an ants' nest. In digging holes. Making piles. Tearing things down. Throwing rocks at things. Spitting. Breaking sticks in half. Unplugging storm drains, and dropping things down storm drains, and getting dropped things out of storm drains (which we called sewers.) So help us, we went and picked wild flowers...Catching tadpoles. Looking for arrowheads. Getting our feet wet. Playing with mud. And sand. And water. You understand, not doing anything...."

Growing up in the 50's in the United States was a bit different from the 20's. TV and Little League were kicking in, but mostly the adults in my neighborhood left us kids free to entertain ourselves. With a 200-acre park a block from my house, lots of kids in the neighborhood, books, records and a few board games in the house, we were masters of self-entertainment, experts at "just running around."

Like many children since the institution was invented, school came as quite a shock to us. Suddenly there were rules and schedules that stopped and started. Whistling and snapping fingers were considered useless, hanging from a branch dangerous, getting wet unhealthy and doing nothing an offense when there was so much to do—adding things, then subtracting them again, seeing Dick and Jane going, then coming back again. There were things that had to be learned and adults who never could quite explain why they had to be learned. But we kids somehow understood that, Peter Pan notwithstanding, we couldn't spend our lives "just running around doing nothing"—there were newspapers to read, bills to pay, jobs to be worked, all of which needed the kind of knowledge that came from books and math worksheets. School was a necessary evil, to be patiently endured until the weekend or, joy of all joys! summer vacation. Occasionally, the two worlds came together —a report on our favorite book or science project probing the question we had always yearned to know. But mostly, there was school and there was summer and never the twain shall meet.

My whole adult career as a teacher, I have been obsessed with this question: are the worlds of discovery and curriculum indeed so separate? Might there be a way to bring them together, or rather, restore them to their intrinsic wholeness? Can a child stay a child while growing towards adulthood? Can an adult be an adult without sacrificing the quality of childhood? Might "school and summer" be part of the same continuum?

When I fell into teaching music at schools, the choice seemed promising. Now whistling and snapping fingers were restored to their seat of importance and playing music was a summer-friendly verb. Yet much of music as I had learned it was school-groomed—notes to read, beats to count, right and wrong keys to push down, constant homework (called practice) and final exams (called recitals). There were rewards to be had, from gold stars to prizes, and occasionally, punishments from strict teachers for not curving the fingers. The typical piano lesson was school all the way.

I was fortunate to bump into an approach to music education that encouraged play and exploration—Orff Schulwerk. The Schulwerk was a "schoolwork" unlike any I had ever known. My first Orff teacher, Avon Gillespie, went so far as to speak about the "curriculum of joy." "Joy" was not a word easily spoken inside the school building. Yet Carl Orff and his successors not only permitted fun to enter the picture, but also insisted that it was actually essential to successful education. I entered my teaching career in faith that this was so, spending the first fifteen years relearning how to have fun in the classroom and the next twenty finding out what it meant for children and their development.

To be continued tomorrow…

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