Tuesday, May 5, 2020

What I Have Learned

I was invited to write something about having to figure out online learning for my school newsletter and so I did. And here it is.

And so in my last two months of 45 years of sitting on the floor in the music room with kids of all ages, playing clapping games together, dancing, putting our hands on skins and strings and mallets striking wood and metal, singing with our own human breath with all the vibrations mixing so powerfully in the air, throwing out the ping of a musical call and receiving the pong of the kids’ musical response, something snatched away the music room rug from under my feet and I was left hanging in the ether of electrons flying between machines. Just when I thought I could sneak out the door without having to master the kind of mediated learning that I have felt is often an obstacle to the real deal, an unnecessary distance created in the direct transmission of music, ideas, human connection, it suddenly became the only show in town. No choice but to turn on the screens and figure out what’s possible.

I quickly discovered that there are two sides to online learning. One is simply learning the mechanics of it and while it can be maddening and at times overwhelming, it’s always good for the human brain to keep well-oiled and awake by having to make new neural connections—ie, learn new things. Because school is using so many pre-fab electronic systems and they differ according to the divisions of preschool/ elementary/ middle and because as a music teacher, I teach kids in all divisions, the steep hill of the learning curve was of Lombard Street proportions. It was like suddenly deciding to take up the ukulele, clarinet, djembe and  steel drum all at once. Each has its own technique, its own way of arranging the scale, its own specialized vocabulary. Not easy.

But like all human learning, the key is repeated practice, doing something often enough that it becomes myelinated in the brain, familiar and eventually routine. And the more you do it, the more you get a feel for how all of these work and begin to intuit things you don’t know—“Aha, let’s see what the two-finger click offers. Hmm, maybe it’s inside those three dots. Aargh, it’s not working! Think I’ll restart the computer.”

So that’s challenge enough and if anyone’s impressed that an old Doug can learn new tricks, I’m happy to receive the praise. However the real—and most exciting and worthy challenge—is to figure out how to communicate the essence of what you want kids to know given the limitations of the technology. Sometimes it’s a bit like playing piano with thick gloves on—or worse yet, manipulating some mechanical hand to play the piano. But some things work as well and a few even better—the way Schoology gathers the student work in a file without you having to dig in your disorganized backpack to find which folder had this class’s papers. The way student work can be publicly displayed on Flipgrid or Seesaw and shared with other kids. The way you can teach a jazz history class in a live “online” format without the kids talking to their neighbor (hint: turn off chat!) and share your screen to show relevant videos and play recorded pieces. I’d already praised the ease and accessibility of Youtube and Apple TV compared to the old days of cuing up obscure videos on the VCR and rewinding for the next class. “The right tool for the right job for the right reason at the right time for the right amount of time” has always been my technological motto and never so much as today. And in my other life as an Orff Schulwerk teacher giving workshops to people around the world, I’m now experiencing this stunning new  possibility of inviting all those people I’ve met into my home for an online workshop with 350 people from every continent. What it lacks in depth it gains in breadth and sharing pedagogical ideas and demonstrating musical understandings is just fine online, with a little bit of ping-pong in the chat comments and some hilarious participation with everyone dancing and singing in their homes viewable on little gridded squares. 

In short, learning what to click is a good intellectual exercise, but learning how to transmit the essence of what you want to share given the limitations of any media is an aerobic workout of the imagination, a Zoom-ba class of creative problem-solving. That has been one beneficent take-aways of this challenging time.

But I think that the most important lesson is to return to real, live teaching with a renewed sense of the precious gift of turning off the screens and coming back to the world of touch and movement and singing together and hugs and the ping-pong of things thrown back and forth, whether they be balls, musical ideas, dance steps, thoughts, emotions. The direct, physical, sensual, connected co-experience of this glorious life gifted to us without the glare of screens, the clumsy technologies, the distractions and the sensations, the obstacles placed between us when direct experience is mediated. I hope we’ll emerge understanding precisely what the gifts of these technologies are and also much more aware of their limitations, much wiser as to when to turn them on and when to shut them off and at what age and for how long and for what reason. We can be grateful for what they’ve offered us during this sheltered time and grateful for the irreplaceable joy of direct human contact and experience that awaits us. May it come soon!

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