Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Painted Cakes


      Painted cakes do not satisfy hunger.  -  Buddhist saying


I had the mixed blessing of getting to sit in on my grandson’s school music class. I was pleased to see that his teacher was a pleasant person who seemed to enjoy teaching the kids, but my bar for music teaching is pretty high and his was set pretty low. The worst was his dependence on pre-packaged music “education” videos that were teaching 5-year-olds the terms Presto, Allegro, Moderato and Largo. Not precisely at the top of a kindergartener’s wish list when it comes to making music. In typical school fashion, it was teaching something about music rather than having the kids express their innate musical selves. Looking at painted cakes rather than getting to eat them. And if you’re in a good Orff class, also learning how to bake them. 


Here I am, a forever teacher who devoted 45 years of his adult life teaching in a school, but always with the sense that school as we have known it is such an artificial construct that narrows the whole cake of our possibility to a thin narrow slice kept too long in the freezer. And so I had a good fortune to teach in a school that had the freedom to re-define school and begin with a profound understanding of the dignity and delight of each developmental stage of the children and wrap the curriculum around who they genuinely are, what they genuinely need, who they’re about to become. School turns from a dull factory/prison run by adults who have forgotten the children they once were to a community gathering where people of all ages come together to discover what they can do, what’s important to know, why and how to gift their accomplishments and understandings to the greater world. Anything less is wasting everybody’s time. 


There were dozens of opportunities in that music class for the kids to not only fully express their musical selves in the moment, but for the teacher to help shape it and refine it and bring it to a more expressive and colorful blossom. Instead it was mere screen entertainment with fancy Italian words that do little to advance the kids pleasure, skill and understanding. In the well-taught music class, kids learn about music by making music and in the Orff class, it goes further as they create music. So my advice to Malik’s music teacher: “Get thee to an Orff training!”


Naturally, this simple (but still too often overlooked) idea of learning about something by engaging in it with the full range of our ways of knowing— through the senses, through the hands, through the whole body, through the heart, through the analytic mind, through the intuitive mind, through the imaginative mind, through direct experience imitating those further along, through the act of creating and rearranging and restating and reimagining— applies to all subjects. Once you begin to teach like this, you’ve hit the motherlode. It’s more fun and engaging for the kids and more fun and engaging for you as the teacher. It’s the real deal. Everything else is painting cakes— or these days, downloading photos of them from Google images. 


For adults to lead children to their promise, they have to re-imagine the mind and body of the child at each stage of development and begin with who they are, not the fantasy images of the miniature adults we think they should be. When human beings trust Nature—both the actual cycles of the natural world and the natural cycles of the human being as a product and participant of Nature’s intricate evolution— things work better. 


A few quotes to drive the point home. And if this were a class, I’d have you write a poem about the main points or put it in a song or dance it. But let me appear to contradict myself. Painted cakes do not satisfy hunger and simply reading words is a kind of painted cake meal. But if the words are arranged artfully to strike the imagination, it can release something close to the memory of the taste and texture of the cakes themselves and be a kind of nutrient for the soul. So read on: 


“What is nature sharing with us? If something is allowed to grow the way it was designed to, it works. When we try to get it to conform to the supposedly more efficient image we have of it, we get grotesqueries, imbalances. When we try to get difficulties to conform to our way of thinking, we often push them to being fancier, and thus, absurd. We strip away the grace of what is real and true, and maybe even lovely.”   - Anne Lamott: Dusk, Night, Dawn(p. 87)


“What method was used to obtain such results? …There was no method to be seen. What to be seen was a child. A child’s soul freed from impediments was seen acting according to its nature. The characteristics of childhood which we isolated belong quite simply to the life of a child, just as colors belong to a bird and fragrance to a flower. They are not at all the products of an “educational method.” It should, however, be obvious, that education can have an influence by protecting them and nurturing them in a way that protects their natural development.…


The first thing to be done is to discover the true nature of the child and then assist him in his natural development. “  - Maria Montessori:  The Secret of Childhood: p. 136



“And so Orff Schulwerk invites us to release in the children that which they already are. It asks us to understand rhythm as a natural phenomena, not a human invention with piano teachers tapping out the counts. It’s in our bodies, it’s in our speech, it’s in our walk, our breath, our work. How to release it and how to shape it once released is the key question for the music teacher.”     


 - Doug Goodkin: Rhythmic Training in the Orff-Schulwerk (Le Rythme magazine: 2013)


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