Fellow teachers, don’t we all love those classes where everything is flowing smoothly, the children are 100% engaged, the music is happening, the groove is groovin’, the spirit is palpable? Of course we do! And we do learn something from them as we attend to what we did right.
But though it’s almost a tiresome cliché, we learn the most from the difficult classes, from the difficult unengaged kids in those classes and though we wouldn’t choose them, they keep us alert, flexible and yet more determined to understand the importance of what we’re doing.
I taught four guest classes at a school in Fort Erie, Canada today and approached them as I always do. Not the least bit nervous that I’ll have four classes for 45 minutes each with 80 to 120 kids in them. With ages ranging from 4 years old to 8th grade. Wrote my plan last night on a scrap of paper, as I do, spent a few minutes today making sure all instruments and such were in their place and sat down eager to meet these kids that I will most likely never see again. We’ll cross paths for this short time and it’s up to me whether any of it is memorable.
The first class was 1st through 3rd graders and didn’t we have fun with the theme of “Singing is just about the best technology on the planet.” We learned how to welcome people, use appropriate pronouns, work to a steady rhythm, learn the lesson of man against technology and test our coordination skills while learning world geography. They were in heaven and so was I and when one of them came up at the end and said, “You’re a good singer!” I knew he wasn’t talking about the quality of my voice or my intonation, but that he caught the spirit of the venture. Yeah!
The next class of 4th through 6th graders was jazz through Soups and Booms and didn’t they do a fine job improvising with their voice, singing and a select few playing instruments. Except for the disappointment from the 95 who couldn’t play drums in that class, it all worked great.
And then came the ninety 7th and 8th graders. We all celebrate David and Goliath, but who knows how impressive it is that one teacher can hold his own against ninety Middle Schoolers?!! If you’re not impressed, try it. They came in rowdy and I thought I’d get them with my cute shtick of learning Juba through my “ice cream at summer camp story.” It starts with a simple rhythm that I assume most can do and then gets complex through a mosquito attack. (Come to my workshop someday, you’ll understand.) But the first problem was that most couldn’t get the initial simple rhythm. And some immediately blew it off and starting fake body percussion at lightning speeds and amidst all of this was the chatter of side talk. It wasn’t going well.
So I had to take out my sling. I stopped and my tone changed and I said straight out,
“Okay, folks this is not going well. And I know why. There’s three kinds of students in my mind.
1) Those who focus and watch and listen and attend and persevere through the hard spots and actually make progress and learn something.
2) Those who begin focused, but have a hard time with the activity and give up too soon. And then end up disrupting others trying to learn.
3) Those who don’t even try and just blow it off and make fun of it and thus, have no chance of learning anything, wasting my time and their time. As some famous hockey player said, “You will miss 100% of the shots you never take.”
So I want you all to think about which kind of student you are. And if you’re number 2 or especially number 3, I’m not happy about it and you shouldn’t be either. Especially doing this song. Because this comes from people who would have loved to have the opportunity to learn things in a school. But if they got caught reading a book, they could have been beaten or even killed. If someone tried to teach them to read or do math, the same punishment could happen. Here you are with this incredible opportunity to learn things and here I am with something to teach you and some of you are wasting that privilege.
And this song is about the difference between privilege and oppression. I’m from the United States and I carry that identity with a mixture of shame and pride. That shame comes from this story I’m about to tell you. That pride comes from this story I’m about to tell you. So listen.”
And lo and behold, they had gotten quiet. Not from threats of punishment or enticements of praise, but because they could sense that I was talking about something I cared deeply about and had a firm conviction that they should too. I then told the story of slavery, of people having everything taken from them and having to create a new life from scratch. I explained how Juba was a brilliant way to keep drumming when drumming was outlawed, a way to protest their condition secretly, a way to bear up and survive what was unbearable. On I went.
“Can you imagine what incredible fortitude it took to survive that? Heck, I get upset if my e-mail is slow! I can’t imagine how I would have survived the conditions of slavery for even one day. Can you? And yet somehow these folks carried on for over 250 years. 250 years!!! And the music that came out of it ended up giving birth to just about everything you young people listen to today. So the least we can do to thank them is take this a little more seriously and play as well as we can. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to make a serious effort, both out of respect and for your own satisfaction when you can actually learn how to do it. Let’s go.”
And so we played again and they were with it 100%. Who knows what they really where thinking about what I was saying? But I hope they were thinking, “Wow! This guy is not reading from a history book. He really feels what he’s talking about! He’s talking from his heart and at the same time, telling us things none of us knew. I think if all school was like this, I wouldn’t fool around quite as much as I do.”
I went on to tell them some stories about Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong and played some of their music on the piano and they were with me. I showed them a Powerpoint I put together with quotes about slavery (see yesterday’s post) and pictures of the above artists and they were with me. But I had to rush because the bell rang for lunch. I regret that there was no time for questions or peer discussion or reflection. But I was very happy that I tamed the wild beast of Middle School kids with some good, hard, clear truths spoken firmly with just the right dose of mild shame to get their attention.
And what came after that? Why, of course, the story of Rumpelsiltskin for the 4 and 5 years olds, woven together with songs (Cataline Madelina/ Sarasponda/ A Ram Sam Sam) and other stories (Tikki Tikki Tembo) that we practiced at the beginning. Their mouths were open and their eyes were wide. Nothing like a good story.
When the day was over, I sat in the hall a bit waiting for my ride and various kids from all those classes (including Middle School) came over to thank me or hug me or tell me a little story. In our short 45 minutes together, I had made the time memorable. No ego behind this, just the fruits of the practice of music and how it touches so many more parts of the human being, of any age, than just about anything else. And my genuine love for children of each developmental stage and ability crafted over such a long time working with 3 to 14-year olds to understand how to reach them where they are. It would be false humility to claim that I don’t feel pride in that, but it’s not the pride of “look at me,” rather the satisfaction of having something worthy to offer. And of course, the equal pleasure in what comes back from the kids. Because the way they react or don’t react teaches me more than the most prestigious doctorate-level class in music education taught by the distinguished professor.
If I am a good teacher, it is largely because children have taught me how to teach.
And they still do.