This Brazen Teacher

"Think wrongly if you please, but in all cases think for yourself." – Doris Lessing

I’m Fine, Thanks

A friend posted this link from Kick Starter the other day on Facebook.

I donated a little money. It really touched my heart. My whole life has been trying to reconcile the path I want to create with the pressure of fitting in.

“What happens when you spend your whole life climbing the ladder, and when you get to the top you realize you have the ladder against the wrong wall… don’t even know what the right wall is.”

How could this change the way we view teaching?

Learning?

The reason for education?

Convo Between Child and Education Reformer

John James Audubon (1827) Baltimore Oriole, 1 & 2. Males, 3. Female and Nest. Icterus baltimore. Plant Vulgo, Yellow Poplar. Liriodendron tulipifera

Child: How does a bird know the way to build a nest?

Education Reformer: Why it goes to nest school and takes a series of tests.

Child: Mkay… how bout a honey-bee buzzin’ over flowers, what does he do?

E.R.: Why he pulls out a pollen collection manual.

Child: Hm, so how does the bear know it is time for her winter sleep?

E.R.: Why she consults her calendar of course.

Child: Wow. How can a mother deer teach her fawn to find food?

E.R.: Well we look at her value added scores.

Child: Really? I guess I just thought… I mean, you know… they were like programmed on the inside… to kinda just know how to do that stuff.

E.R.: hehehe… you’re a cutie. So young and impressionable. Who told you that? Some hippy?

***

Child: I dunno. I guess I didn’t think birds fought with each other over the right way to fly south. Right? I mean aren’t humans animals too? Didn’t we used to be connected to that inside understanding stuff like the bird? It just seems like we’ve forgotten a lot about our insides. Wouldn’t the answers to education reform be where the bird finds it? I’ve never seen a bird flit about looking for data before nest building.

E.R: Look sweetie, I know it seems that simple because you’re young. The world is rife with people who cannot be trusted to follow a good inner voice. It leads to anarchy. There is misery surrounding us, and it was created by humans who were allowed to do what they like: The insane. The poor. The unemployed. The criminals. See what happens when we let them listen to their inner voice? Clearly people do not know the right way to do things like the bird. That’s why we created solutions. Systems. Rules. Control Measures. 

Child: Sheesh, wouldn’t a honey-bee forced to use a pollen collection manual and report back gains to some system get all stressed out n’ stuff? You know, and then what he did naturally would be like all fake and uncomfortable. Plus he would get punished if he didn’t “do it right!” If I were that bee I would definitely get crazy, lazy and violent. Maybe all three! What if the solutions are causing the problems to begin with?

You know after lots and lots of bees live under systems, I bet they all forget that once upon a time, they lived in a deep communion with each other. Then the saddest thing EVER will happen! The bees will believe this big stupid lie!… That they are separate from each other, and also separated from the knowledge it will take to learn, work and live harmoniously. They will think they need to be organized and standardized for their own good! You know they won’t even be able to describe how to do basic stuff like hive building without a manual. They will be so rusty, scared and angry. They’ll start blaming all their fear on each other! Then they will start fighting even though they all just want the same thing. ohhhh… I need my blankie.

E.R.: Did you just say the word “communion” back there? How old are you? Look, even if that’s true you aren’t considering that the world is very complex now. We cannot just let people start listening to this “voice.” We don’t even know if it’s there. Clearly we can’t touch it, see it, or measure it. If we get rid of our systems, people will become shocked. We will have chaos and anarchy. The world is held together by systems, we cannot just wave a magic wand you know.

Child: Welp, I was thinking maybe we could start you know teaching that in schools.

E.R.: Teach what?

Child: Like, teach young kids to hold onto that inside voice like the bird has. Then maybe they’ll grow up and work on education reform like the bird works on her nest… with peace and love. You gotta admit, animals create pretty cool stuff without manuals, stress or fighting. ANNND the stuff they create is in harmony with the earth too…

***

Child: Hello?

E.R.: Yeah… um… I think there’s just way too much you don’t know. I would have to explain a lot to you, and I just don’t have the time.

Child: Oh, okay. I guess there is a lot I don’t know about systems. Maybe I thought that would give me a cool perspective on helping out schools.

E.R.: It’s okay kiddo. There’s never any harm in dreaming.

Accountability, Shakespeare & Scribbling

On Sunday, my professor and his wife had students over for a post-finals celebratory barbecue– mostly grad and PhD students in communication studies. I was the only education person.

The conversation turned to learning…

<Well okay I turned it there>

Shiner Bock and three double chocolate cookies. Sugar and spirits enhance… brazenness. I was center of attention and well… loving it.

“The academic in me resists ultra-fringe thinking but I can’t help getting all conspiracy theorist over federal education interventions. They fly in the face of everything… everything we know about human learning. I mean they have  to know what they’re doing is hurting kids.”

Nervous laughter from the others cued me back to earth.

<Okey dokey… took that one too far>.

My professor’s wife smiled.

“Well we need some accountability. Perhaps it’s about striking a balance.”

I was embarrassed.

“This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

I nodded and smiled warmly. Eye contact. Polite chuckle. “You’re absolutely right” I conceded.

The energy at the table relaxed, and I shared in their sense of relief.

I focused attention back on my Shiner Bock.

Perhaps Shakespeare meant accountability to thine ownself except for Common Core Standards (and at barbecues.)

Maybe this was the balance she was talking about.

***

Sugata Mitra has done over a decade of research on human learning. It suggests, quite compellingly so, that human learning is a self-organized system.

(read: self-accountability) (read: humans can learn anything from foreign languages to biotechnology on their own*.)

This is an idea most aren’t ready for and I’m sympathetic. To tell a lion born behind a fence that he can survive without the zoo keeper would be a hard sell.

We can’t solve a problems at the same level of thinking that created that problem.” ~A. Einstein

Perhaps we do need accountability after all.

***

“Oh honey,” she said to her son. “Why did you scribble on your art portfolio?”

I watched out of the corner of my eye.

He didn’t try to tell her, and I saw her comment didn’t phase him either. To her credit, she raised her boys to have confidence in their voice. To her credit, they were in fact scribbles.

He knew it was silly to explain. Even at seven years old he knew what it looked like to an outsider. A sloppy, mindless aberration of materials.

I considered telling her, but thought better of it. (How does one measure the meaning of a scribble?)

Shakespeare got it right.

We can’t. And we shouldn’t try.

The meaning is meant for the scribbler’s “ownself.” That is enough after all.

But if I had to…

(try)

I might have said

The scribble on the left was a color mixing experiment for khaki shorts on a bungee jumper. The scribble on the right was a texture experiment for a volcano.

_____________

_____________

* “On their own” means without teachers, tests, or formal school intervention. The children in his studies were motivated by individual curiosity and peer interaction.

7 Steps of Education Reform

Step 1: Pick up the whole ed system in your hands like this.

Mkay. Good.

Step 2: Put it over there.

Don’t look at it.

Nope! I see you peeking. No peeking!

Step 3: Look over HERE.

Gooood.

Step 4. Dream.

The table is EMPTY. ANYTHING is possible.

Good?

Okay Step 5….

Whoa!

Whoa Whoa Whoa!

That’s looking suspiciously similar to the old system…

(but bigger?)

okokokok….

Look back over here

Throw out the rules.

Pretend.

Pretend you have a magic wand

Good.

Are you imagining?

You are?

Excellent.

Step 5: Now what materials will we need?

ohhhhhh

Wow.

Good job.

I’m impressed

It’s going to take a lot of work

I mean that’s pret-ty dang different

You up for the challenge?

OK!

Well in that case here….

We’re ready for Step 6.

Here’s the old one.

Remember?

Put your ear real close.

… and you can hear the sounds

moneygovernmenttests!!jobscapitalismteacheri’mrightyourewrong

i’mrightyourewrongpovertytaxespowereconomyindustrybureaucracyhealth

carecommoncoremeritpayteacherstandardsstandardsi’mrightyourewrong

i’mrightyourewrongassessassessassess?moneymoneymoneyunionvaluea

i’mrightyourewrongddedmoneygovernmenttestsjobsbusinesscapitalism!

povertypowereconomyindustrybureaucracyhealthi’mrightyourewrong

i’mrightyourewrongtaxescarecommoncoremeritpaystandardsstandards

!assessassessassess?moneymoneymoneyunioni’mrightyourewrong

i’mrightyourewrongvalueaddedmoneygovernmenttestsbusinessjobscapitalism

teacherpovertypowereconomyindustrybureaucracyi’mrightyourewrong

i’mrightyourewronghealthcarecommoncoremeritpaytaxstandardsstandardsassess

assessassessmoneyteachermoneymoneyunionvalueaddedi’mrightyourewrong

I know…

it’s intense

Mkay ready?

Take a deep breath.

We’re going in.

Yes…

back in the old system.

yeah…

I know it sucks in there but that’s where the people are.

What are we doing to do?

Welp,

we’re going to love on them.

Yep.

That’s it.

Step 7.

I know, I know…

We’ll have to do other stuff too.

But we’ll figure that out later.

As long as we keep doing Step 7 it will work out.

hmmmm….

that’s a good point

Let’s make a pact,

every time I make a decision, ask me if I’m following Step 7.

I’ll do the same for you.

Step 7 is magical.

If we remain true to it, every choice will be the right choice

no…

haha…

I’m not a hippy.

Just an art teacher

Thesis RIP

And so she gave her life for the noblest cause of all… thesis writing

Karl Paulnack on the Value of Music

“Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet.”

This is the first (and likely only) time I will copy/paste another’s words to this blog. This speech changed me when I first read it and I stumbled onto it again today. It is one of the most eloquent and pertinent explanations of the value of art I have ever come across. While he talks about music, the connections to every art— dance, visual, theater etc— are powerfully clear.

***

Welcome address to freshman class at Boston Conservatory given by Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of music division at Boston Conservatory:


“One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school-she said, “You’re WASTING your SAT scores.” On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they LOVED music, they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music, and how it works.

The first people to understand how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you; the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.

One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940, sent across Germany in a cattle car and imprisoned in a concentration camp.

He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose. There were three other musicians in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.

Given what we have since learned about life in the concentration camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture-why would anyone bother with music? And yet-from the camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”

On September 12, 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. That morning I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice as was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn’t this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day.

At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, that same day, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome”. Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.

From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.

Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heartwrenchingly beautiful piece Adagio for Strings. If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us the way a good therapist does.

I bet that you have never been to a wedding where there was absolutely no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some really bad music, but I bet you there was some music. And something very predictable happens at weddings-people get all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks: Music is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.

I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in Fargo, ND, about 4 years ago.

I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation.

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier-even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?

Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. This concert in Fargo was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year’s freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this:

“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevies. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.”

Happy Birthday Keith Haring

Today would have been Keith Haring’s 54th birthday. 

I suppose I respect Haring more than most because of his enduring love and support for children. The Haring Foundation has dedicated considerable amounts of money and resources to art education for kiddos in his memory.

Hope he can see all the love today. You know you’ve made it when Google takes notice. 

Measuring Education

“While you and I have lips and voices which
are for kissing and to sing with
who cares if some oneyed son of a bitch
invents an instrument to measure Spring with?” 

~ ee cummings

***

I went to MedMob Austin for Earth Day… a meditation flash mob if you will. This month’s mob was at the Earth Day Festival. After an hour of silence, the group moved into a circle for an OM. As the last chant quieted I opened my eyes. There on my outstretched palm was a spider. She walked out onto a silken thread attached to the tip of my finger. I watched as she daintily floated across the thread like a miniature tight rope walker… walking… walking…

Until she landed on the outstretched index finger of my neighbor. His eyes were closed… his hands on his knees…

None the more aware that an invisible connection between us had just been bridged.

***

Leaving the art building today, I passed a young man while riding my bike.

He cut me off in his motorized wheelchair. His chin was up, his head turned unnaturally to one side, elbows jutted outwards, one hand on a lever, the other curled up under his head. His legs were were short and bent, his feet dangling. As I passed him we locked eyes for a moment… his eyes were sharp and intelligent. As I got closer I saw they revealed more than intelligence…

Frustration.

As I pulled up to a red light, a thought seemed to come from somewhere outside of me… a thought I didn’t hear in my brain, but almost in my ears:

Why should he have to suffer such a burden, and I do not?

***

I returned a few weeks ago from Antigua, Guatemala. We were there for many reasons, and one of the (smaller) reasons was to make art with children at a local community cultural center. I worked with a friend and colleague to plan art for them. I was nervous… one of my first art classes in two years would be without a common spoken language.

As I sat in the middle of the room that day– a golden sun poured through windows and reflected off glitter on Jennifer’s shirt– an 8 year old with a shy smile who taught me how to say the names of animals in Spanish. The sparkles from her shirt danced around the room animating the moment. I watched as children and adults “spoke” with their eyes, laughed, pointed with fingers, and nodded with heads.

The conversation was more rich than I ever expected.

[“tortuga” means “turtle”]

***

Tonight I came home to catch up on media.

Talking pineapple in NYC…Behind the Standardized Test Curtain, and Who is responsible? on Twitter

Multiple Choice Assessments… Education is the key to a healthy economy…  and Teacher of the Year… in Google reader

I want to be relevant, educated and aware of current events. I think I can speak in an educated way on many topics. I think I have something to give to the conversation. I plunged back into writing this week, and ran into this weird ambivalence to what are supposed to be important things going on right now.

Not because they’re not important (because they are,)

and not because I’m not interested (because I am),

and not because I don’t care (because I do.)

But because sometimes it all just seems like measuring Spring.

Life is Not Like Art…

20120502-111013.jpg

Democratic Name Calling

Saying she would not tolerate name-calling in political debates, Christine C. Quinn the City Council speaker, walked out of a rally on Monday after a participant derided New York’s mayor as “Pharaoh Bloomberg.”

I stumbled across this in my twitter feed this morning: “Christine says in Democracy, name calling not allowed.”

It made me think:

In a democratic classroom, would a teacher allow name calling?

Not sure of many that would.

Name calling is commonplace these days I suppose…

On the national stage.

In the media.

Yesterday I read a thought provoking post on name calling in the teacher’s lounge.

Yesterday I made fun of Arne Duncan. 

Why do I hold myself to a different standard than my students? (Or society’s adults to a different standard than its children?) Maybe I hold different standards, because I hold fast to an idea that we are separate… that the energy I put forth into the world is separate from the energy I expect from my students.

If believing we are all separate has created this world full of problems and pain, why do we still draw from this belief when addressing current problems? If I want a more loving world, why write a post as if I’m better than Arne Duncan?