Tuesday, May 10, 2022

What Is Permitted

After the group of music teachers in Verona played their “secret songs” (see last post), one teacher commented: “That was lovely the way we were all listening so intently. But we are mature adults. What do you do when the kids aren’t listening? As my kids probably won’t be!”


My answer?


Celebrate! Now you know what you need to teach them—how to listen better.

In my class, any behavior that doesn’t directly harm someone physically or mentally (name-calling, ridicule, bullying, etc.), that doesn’t harm the materials, etc. is permitted. The first time. That’s how I know what they need to learn and what I need to teach them. If they’re talking while the teacher gives directions or not listening when their fellow classmates are playing or are doing something wrong on purpose to try to be funny— you know, all the things that kids do and have always done and so did we—I see it as an opportunity to convince them to consider how what they’re doing hurts the music, the group atmosphere, their own learning. I don’t stop it right away the first time, but just watch when the dancers going into the center bump into each other and think it’s sooooo funny. And then I give a little talk and we practice again how to go 4 steps in and 4 steps out keeping our neighbors in our peripheral vision so no-one goes in further than anyone else. And certainly no one bumps into each other. We practice it. "In 2-3-4- freeze!! Oops! Looks like two people are ahead of their neighbors. Let's try again."


Mostly, I make clear what I think we’re trying to do— I mean, really trying to do on a deep level. Creating something beautiful, finding beauty in ourselves and each other, surprising ourselves with doing something better than we ever thought we could, etc. And I find that kids respond to this kind of talk. Simply telling them to stop or yelling at them is what they get all day long from parents and teachers and siblings. But calmly clarifying why it’s better to listen when others are playing changes the game. No guarantee—kids are flawed human beings like all of us— but in my experience, much more effective.


Behavior is the language of children and when I see behavior that falls short of the mark, I smile and think, “Okay, what are they trying to tell me? I thought today’s lesson was going to be about eighth notes, but I see we need to spend some time attending to how to play the drum without breaking the skin.” This idea not only applies to kids’ “bad behavior,” but to every aspect of responding to the activity. The teacher is constantly observing and then thinking, “Oops! Didn’t spend enough time on mallet technique. Oh my gosh, I thought they could play this game with a scarf, but first they need to actually know how to fold up the corner.” And so on.


By giving permission to kids to show us their first draft response to the activity, we understand what is actually needed in today’s lesson. Instead of burdening them with some perfect student fantasy, we let them be the imperfect beings they are and then move them one inch closer to a better musician, student, human being. And that, after all, is what we’re here for.

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