Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Christmas Carol Wars

Our school head recently came back from a meeting of other school heads and the question of what Holiday songs to sing came up.  For myself and my colleagues, we long ago thought this out and came up with what feels like a satisfying answer to the dilemma of inclusion. Mostly, schools either unthinkingly carry on traditions that can be exclusive, as in accenting Christmas only in December, or they swing to the other side and prohibit all songs and traditions, leaving kids with either nothing or some bland generic Frosty the Snowman fare.  For those faced with these issues, it might be of interest to hear how my colleagues and I responded. As follows:

James wrote:

I am proud that at the San Francisco School we don't have to eliminate the beauty of these songs in the interest of not offending. 

What we do now is sing some songs that are "winter" or pagan (Jingle Bells, Deck the Halls, Winter Wonderland, Let It Snow, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, This Little Light of Mine, none of which refer to Christmas directly) some that are Jewish (Oh Hanukah, Dreydl, Shalom Chaverim) and some that are Christian or mention Christmas (Silent Night, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, We Three Kings, Joy to the World, Silver Bells, Mi Burrito Sabanero). In singing time, we identify the differences between these kinds of songs, and we let the kids know that we are enjoying the messages and beauty of these songs, not singing them as expressions of belief in one faith or another. 

And what of the other major religions? Around December 8th, we often tell the story of Buddha's enlightenment day. The school celebration of Diwali in November brought in the Ramayana and that Hindu festival of light. We also mention the Sufi poet Rumi’s Wedding Night (when he died) around December 17th. We have children who celebrate Hanukah volunteer to tell the story of the Maccabees and children who celebrate Christmas tell the story of Jesus’ birth (which is news to many who celebrate Christmas thinking it’s mostly about Santa and Christmas trees and such). Many years back, we did a Holiday Show theme called Festivals of Light where we did stories from each of these traditions.

The "everybody celebrates Christmas" assumption IS oppressive, but that doesn't mean we have to avoid singing the songs. There are lots of Christian biases built into the way schools in the U.S. are set up. The fact that we have a two-week vacation centered around the 25th of December is based on the dominant Christian culture (we don't get Ramadan off or Chinese New Year, for example). But we're probably not going to mess with that. What about THANKSGIVING, celebrating...a probably fictitious moment in the early days of colonization and genocide...pass the pumpkin pie! 

I think that in relative terms, the messages of Christmas Carols represent one of the sweetest, most universally inclusive messages of Christianity...we're singing "Silent Night" not "Onward, Christian Soldier!” I think it's better to name the potential confusion or oppression about singing religious songs and still get to experience their power and beauty in school. 

Sofia added:

 In Spanish class we look at what celebrations are happening in Latin America with repertoire that include Venezuelan Parandas (celebratory songs that have nothing to do with Christianity), Hanukah songs in Spanish (celebrations in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile etc) and Villancicos from many countries. And the 8th graders perform the ritual mummer’s play St. George and the Dragon, with all the accompanying traditions from ancient Winter Solstice rites.

And I joined in:

The question of inclusiveness is a real one and not one to be taken lightly. My hope is— and always has been— to use this as an opportunity to widen the conversation and take a look at the historical context of people’s hunger for the miraculous, their thirst for mystery, their hope for the return of light and all the diverse forms those common yearnings have taken. By educating ourselves about how these traditions overlapped and sometimes borrowed from each other, tasting the power of each through song and stories and accenting the common humanity behind them, I think we’ve found a wonderful alternative to mindlessly celebrating one or banning all.

Come join us as we sing “Angels We Have Heard Spinning Dreydls in a Winter Wonderland.”

Have a Nice Day

My hotel room is an open air tent with a cot, a gravel floor and no furniture. I’m getting ready to teach an Orff workshop in China and am rifling through my luggage looking for clean underwear that I forgot to pack. I was just told that my class starts in two minutes and there is no time to eat breakfast. That’s when I remember that I forgot to plan my class and don’t have the slightest idea of what I’m going to do.

The dream life of the traveling music teacher.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Frosty Says Stay

Singing Time at school these days is as good as Halloween. The latter is an ongoing etude in D minor bringing out kids extravagant impulses into acceptable artistic forms. The former is ripe with multiple traditions, not only out in the culture at large, but within the school community.

High on the latter’s list is Wrong Words Day (upcoming annual blog about that), the Dreydl Song variations on all the things that dreydls can be made from and the challenge of rhyming them (plastic/ fantastic, glue/ spinning too, air/ hair, water/ daughter, etc.) and then the Frosty the Snowman challenge. Passing on the urban SF School legend that in order to graduate in 8th grade, all students have to learn all the words to Frosty. If you’re very quiet, you can hear those that failed still practicing in some deep, dark closet in a corner of the school. Shh. Listen.

And then there’s my annual announcement that hey, I’m getting old. My daughter, the 5th grade teacher, turned 33 on Sunday and I was 33 when she was born and now I’m twice as old and if you do the math, you can see it’s just past the usual retirement age. So I told the kids that people are always asking me when I’m going to retire and I say, “When one of the three things happen.”

1)    I don’t like kids anymore. (Here I glare at them and then smile and say, ‘Nope. That hasn’t happened yet.’)

2)    I can’t get up from the floor. (Here I sit on the floor and pretend to have a hard time getting up and then leap—well, get—up.)

3)    And the third is when I start to lose my memory and can’t remember the words to Frosty the Snowman.

And then tell them:

“So here I go with Frosty. If I forget the words, I’m going to put down the guitar, walk out that door and never come back again. Wish me luck.” (I might add a 4th reason for leaving—if the kids kind of cheered at the prospect of me leaving! Luckily, not yet.

So off I went, with the high stakes drama bringing the room to a quiet hush. Fact is, I did this a couple of years ago without going over the song in my head and truth be told, came to a place where I came up blank. I pretended I did it on purpose and bought enough time to retrieve the words. But this time, I actually had the good sense to review the whole song by myself before starting off.

So what happened? Happy to report I got through the whole song without a single mistake. Looks like Frosty wants me to stay. Who am I to argue?

Monday, November 27, 2017

King Don's Christmas

My wife brought her old copy of A.A. Milne’s book Now We Are Six to our granddaughter just turned six. The title poem itself is quite short, so after reading it, began to look at some other selections. Turns out that the book is a treasure-trove of poetry that trips off the tongue and fills the ears of the young ones with musical language, vibrant images and short little stories worthy of their fertile imagination. I was particularly struck by a little masterpiece called King John’s Christmas and couldn’t resist my hand at making it more contemporary. Below is the first draft.

Note: In 2000, when the Internet was new and clunky, I wrote a parody on the Grinch regarding Bush’s election and it went viral. But my name became unattached to it and I had distant friends sending it to me telling me “You would like this.” And then I’d write back, “You’re right. I wrote it!” In case you’re inclined to share it, which you’re welcome to do, please keep my name attached to it. Unless you’re sending it to Homeland Security.

© 2017 Doug Goodkin (drawing from and with apologies to A.A. Milne)

King Don was not a good man—
He had his selfish ways.
He never said a kind word
For days and days and days.
And men who came across him
Or gathered at his feet
Had to praise and clap and cheer
Had to kiss his nasty rear
Live each day in mortal fear
Of his daily ghastly tweet.

King Don was not a good man,
And no good friends had he
Each week he fired one or two
And sometimes fired three.
And round about December
The cards upon his shelf
Which wished him lots of Christmas cheer
Proclaimed him Time’s Man of the Year
Were never from his near and dear
But only from himself.

King Don was not a good man,
He gave no hope, just fears
Demanded that he be adored
For years and years and years.
And so this year at Christmas
While his cronies stood about
To collect more taxes from the poor
To give the rich yet more and more
To bring us to the brink of war,
The people they did shout.

“King Don, you’re not a good man!
Your heart’s the Grinch’s size
All we hear from you each day
Is lies and lies and lies.
Your Christmas list to Santa
Is a sorry sight,
When you’re not busy tweeting,
This is what you write:

“I want to change each single thing
By next year’s Rosh Hashana
That the one before accomplished
I mean, Barack Obama.
Away with all the Dreamers!
Away with all the Healthy!
Let’s bring out the Streamers
And make tax cuts for the Wealthy!

Away with Education!
Bah Humbug climate change!
Why not drill for oil
On every mountain range!

Away with woman’s right to choose!
Away with immigration!
Away with the Bill of Rights!

The tenets of this nation.

No more freedom of the press,
Just cheers for me, no boos.
Everything that I don’t like
Is heretofore Fake News!

And oh, dear Santa,
If you love me at all
Bring to me that great big dream
Of my Mexican tall wall.”

King Don was not a good man—
Next morning when the sun
Rose up to tell a waiting world
That Christmas had begun.
And people seized their stockings
And opened them with glee.
And felt within their hopeful reach
A message Santa did beseech
All to shout with a joyful screech
The best gift of them all: