Saturday, November 28, 2015

Evil

Nothing says "evil" like a fluffy white cat.

Yesterday, I saw SPECTRE, the latest installment in the half-century old series of films about superspy James Bond. Overall, it was an enjoyable film, with some great action set-pieces, an encounter with the first age-appropriate Bond woman (she's no girl), and, as usual, a Byzantine plot that it's best not to think too much about.

As in all three previous films starring Daniel Craig, this chapter was something of a reboot, introducing us to the latest incarnation of supervillain Blofeld. As with all supervillains, Blofeld is obsessed with a particular type of crime. In this case, it's one of the more boring evil obsessions: control of the internet. Ho hum. I've lost count of the number of suspense and action movies, including the last Bond film, Skyfall, that have rolled out this particular plot point. One gets the impression that the film industry has it in for the internet, and considering how many ticket sales have evaporated thanks to online streaming, whether legitimate or pirated, that's not terribly surprising. But seriously, Hollywood, we've been over this far too many times. It's high time your supervillains had an original evil thought.

This tired threat is not, however, the movie's greatest flaw. That lies in the evil-to-the-bone nature of the villain.

This is, of course, a feature of many villains of print and screen: the villain who's just plain bad to the bone, who has no redeeming qualities at all, no features that could lead any member of the audience to empathize in any way. Blofeld, we learn as he reminisces about his childhood and Bond puts two and two together, has always been evil, and we're never told why. He's like the Joker in that regard: far from being a cold-blooded killer, he's a psychopath who delights in torture and murder. His mission is to sow chaos throughout the world he inhabits. Whatever monetary reward he obtains is merely a byproduct of this quest to make the world a colder, darker place for everyone but him.

Not all supervillains are like this. Many comic book villains have origin stories that are every bit as detailed and sophisticated as the heroes who are their nemeses. The current FOX TV show Gotham is a series built around the origin stories of, it appears, every villain who will ever do battle with Batman, whose own origin story runs in parallel with theirs. Providing the reader or viewer with such a story--the brutality of the character's childhood, the experiences of cruelty and abuse that shaped his or her development into a character as complex as she or he is evil--makes that character far more real, more believable, even with all the comic book trappings of costume, customized weaponry, and vocal tics. 

Which brings me to the very real supervillains of the news cycle.

ISIS, Al-Qaida, the Lord's Resistance Army, the SS, Aryan Nations, the Westboro Baptist Church--a comprehensive list of organized evil-doers could fill books. Whether they are followers of a single evil mastermind or gatherings of like-minded sociopaths, they share a fanatical devotion to a cause with which many outside the organization sympathize. They commit acts of larceny, terror, kidnapping, rape, and murder. Their moral codes are narrow: any crime committed for the cause is justified, while any act of resistance to that cause merits brutal retaliation. They cannot be negotiated with. The only way to stop the madness is to lock them up or kill them.

As impossible as it may be to empathize with such organizations, there is no avoiding the fact that, like any fully-realized supervillain, their evil is rooted in an origin story. Whether it was the slaughter of their family and friends by NATO drones or being able to trace deprived childhoods to inequities in the social structure, there is trauma in all their back stories. Individuals who've grown up in trauma react differently from those who never had to fear for their lives as children.

This is, in case you haven't figured it out by now, where I leave the comic books behind and focus completely on the evil of the real world, setting aside levity for the remainder of the essay.

There is a subset of misbehaving children at my school that we call "high flyers." Their homes are theaters of neglect. Their parents may or may not be in the picture, but whoever is raising them has a parenting kit that lacks fundamental tools. There is often violence in the home. Alternatively, home may be the back seat of a car, or whichever couch they're able to sleep on for a few days until having to move to someone else's living room. During the school week, they eat both breakfast and lunch at school; on weekends, they may fill up on whatever junk food can be afforded on a parent's drug money.

Given the horrible home life so many of these children experience, it's a wonder that so few of them fit the high flyer label, which we apply to students whose records are full to bursting with trackers and referrals; who, if they had a punch card for the front office, would be earning bonuses every week. And as amazing it is that there are just a handful in every grade, those who make up that handful are hardcore. As an example, there are two students--one in fourth grade, the other in fifth--who've been to, at most, three music classes this year. The rest of the time, they're just channeled to alternative activities, because when they're present, their extreme misbehavior makes it impossible to conduct class.

I know the backstories of these children. They've got ample reasons to misbehave: dead parents, birth trauma, migrant lives that have had them moving from school to school. These factors don't excuse the behavior--as I said, many children at this school share similar stories and somehow manage to transcend them--but they do help me to understand why they act as they do, and to sympathize with the lost innocence playing out in the classroom.

The restorative justice model of school community-building tells us that children like this, who seem incapable of acting appropriately in a classroom setting and who, are a result, are suspended, if not expelled, or far more likely to continue these patterns into adulthood, to become repeat offenders, and to swap out the principal's office for jail and prison. Never internalizing the proper way to deal with conflict, they continue to act inappropriately as adults, their frustration spilling over into explosive interactions with neighbors, co-workers, romantic partners, employers, and anyone else who gets in the way. Behind the wheel, they endanger other drivers. If a gun is handy, they may take out their aggravation in even more lethal ways.

They may even understand that how they're acting is harmful to others, and regret what they have done, even try to make amends for past wrongdoing--and yet still be lacking in the skills necessary to control themselves when the demon of a violent childhood rears its ugly head. And if, as is often the case, the victim standing in the way is a child, then we have the makings of a cycle. The sins of the parents are visited upon the children for generations.

What happens to these children is evil. No matter how traumatized the abuser was in his or her own childhood, revisiting that trauma on the child of a new generation is evil. It cannot be sugar-coated or excused. Yes, the adults who commit these crimes need help more than punishment, but before that happens, the crimes must be stopped, the children sheltered from harm.

I don't know if the highest flyers in my school can be helped, or if they will just continue on their disruptive, explosive track through middle school and into as much high school as they can handle before they are finally passed off to the juvenile justice system. I hope there's a way to tame their demons, to safely ease them back into the school community; but I worry that it may be at the expense of those many other students who've either been blessed with more stable home lives or who, somehow, have miraculously acquired the coping skills to transcend their unstable homes. I can say that I'm not willing to sacrifice the education of the many to the trauma of the one or two who can't function in my classroom; but that doesn't mean I'm ready to give up on the few. Perhaps the answer lies in a high-flyer music class at each grade level, a time when the most difficult students have more individualized attention from me. If that's what it takes to draw these children back from the traumatic abyss, to help them figure out how to function in the circle of community, making music together with others and, in the process, learning to be with those others in beautiful, creative ways, then I'm up for it.

I just hope it's not too late.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

So You Think You've Got It Bad

Some music teachers teach classes larger than this closing ceremony at the AOSA National Conference.

I've been whiny.

I'm not going to apologize for it: this is my blog, a diary about my personal struggles and accomplishments. As a reflection of my life, it naturally is filled with both highs and lows. Since 2009, music education has handed me a lot of lows: layoff, unemployment, underemployment, competing with teachers who are younger (and, with less experience and education, less expensive) for the few positions available, and once I finally found that elusive full-time elementary job in a high-poverty district, having to contend with teaching in the gymnasiums of two schools, with ineptly applied "restorative justice" behavior management, and, this year, again losing my classroom, as well as having my instructional time cut by a third. Teaching music in the Portland area has not been a walk in the park.

Administrators don't have time for such complaints. They know it's tough. They know the teaching space and the schedule are far from ideal. Neither is going to change this year, though, so I've been told to quit lamenting what's been lost. Wise words from Doug Goodkin helped me move on past those laments, and to focus on making the best of what I've got, deciding this will be my best year of teaching. 

That's what I've been doing for the last month: celebrating the gift of sharing music with children, and receiving back from them the open-hearted gratitude they feel for what I share. There is so much joy in teaching children to play a game and sing a song. I may not have access to most of my equipment--the best instrumentarium in the district is essentially in mothballs, awaiting the day when Margaret Scott Elementary School finally has a dedicated music room once more--but the most elemental teaching (and that is, after all, what Orff Schulwerk is all about) resides in these singing games. I've seen Doug Goodkin, James Harding, Sofia Lopez-Ibor, and Kofi Gbolongyo effectively teach hundreds of Ghanaian children with no instruments at all. Why shouldn't I be able to do the same with twenty children, a guitar, and some beanbags?

That's my approach for the rest of the school year, as I continue to teach in the now. Thanks to the AOSA National Conference I attended last week in San Diego, I've now got another tool to add to my coping bank: compared to public school music teachers in California, I'm sitting pretty.

In San Diego, I talked with friends who commute over an hour each way to itinerate among four or five different schools. One spoke of teaching a thousand fourth and fifth graders, divided between two schools, each of which she goes to for one day a week. Compared to stories like these, my 35-minute commute to a single, 500-student building seems plush. No, I don't have my own room, and I'm not seeing my students as much as I'd like; but wow.

To be fair, AOSA conferences also bring me into contact with teachers who have dream jobs teaching small classes in well-equipped rooms with plenty of instructional time. Some of those teachers are even in public schools; but most of them, I'm realizing more and more, are in private schools. I even had a gig like that myself for a year, in a Catholic school, and there was much to like about it--though non-unionization, lower wages, and toeing the Catholic doctrinal line were not among the perquisites. But those are parochial problems. If I had to choose between my decent (for Oregon) wages and a lower-paying gig in a secular private school, I'd take the cut. As nice as the money is, there's something to be said about having one's profession valued for more than baby-sitting.

With that said, though, what I do each day, and what my colleagues with a thousand or more students do each day, is not about conditions, teaching space, commuting time, or salary scales. It's about children. If I ever stop loving my students, it'll be time for me to find another job. That time has not come yet, and I don't expect it to come in the twelve or thirteen years I have left before retirement.

I just picked up a duty at my school: for 35 minutes each day, I wander around the lunch room, helping kindergartners and first graders remember to keep their conversations at a non-screaming level, to stay in their seats, and to clean up after themselves. Seeing me patrolling the tables, these little ones greet with my smiles, high-fives, and hugs. I'm a celebrity because I bring them music. All the other compensations of the job--as well as the frustrations--pale in comparison to those smiles and hugs.

I expect it's the same for everyone I shared time with last week in San Diego: we do this because we love to share music with children, and they return that love many times over. Whatever our classroom colleagues and administrators may tell or show us about our value to them, the children tell us every day that we matter, from their delight at seeing us in the hallway to the disappointment they express when music class is over. However "bad" the conditions may be, we will always love this work.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

We're All Immigrants

Between 1755 and 1764, more than 80% of the Acadians living in the Maritime Provinces were expelled by Great Britain.

As persecutions go, it's penny ante.

Some of my ancestors were Acadians, French colonists in Canada's Maritime Provinces. They took Acadia, their name for the region, from Greek mythology: Arcadia (the "r" was dropped by the French), meaning "refuge," was an abundant land, a Utopia where all could live in peace, free from want. And in fact, the Acadians coexisted with the native Mi'kmaq tribal peoples, intermarrying with them and allying with them against frequent British invasions.

Over the course of Acadia's 150 year history, the power of the British Empire came to dominate. For the last fifty years of its existence, Acadia and its Mi'kmaq allies engaged in a series of small-scale wars with the Empire, culminating in the expulsion of 11,500 of the 14,100 Acadians still living in the region. Most were resettled in New England, though some traveled (via a crazily circuitous route, crossing the Atlantic twice) to Louisiana, where they became the Cajuns. In time, the British relented, permitting many to return to Canada. My ancestors, who had been relocated to New England, chose to stay there. That's how the Richards ended up in New Hampshire.

Measured against other historic diasporas, that of the Acadians was small and (if it's possible to apply this term to any mass expulsion) relatively humane. 11,500 is about enough population to get a town a couple of stop lights. And while any forced migration is, by its very nature, genocidal, the British appear to have practiced great restraint in this one, relocating most of the Acadians to other British colonies, and only doing so because the ongoing, Catholic-priest-led guerrilla warfare on British interests were proving impossible to quell through either diplomatic or military avenues. Add to this the decision of the empire to permit Acadians to return a few years after the expulsion, and this may have been the least vicious, shortest term persecution in the history of the western world.

And yet, there was a time when some of my ancestors were refugees. More importantly, all my American (and that includes those who came first to Canada) ancestors were immigrants--even the tiny fraction (and this is utter speculation at this point, as I just learned of it from the Wikipedia article on Acadia) who may have been Mi'kmaq. Even the "first peoples" or "native Americans" were, themselves, immigrants to this continent during the last Ice Age, traveling across the land bridge from Asia.

The point of this meditation on the roots of all Americans? That of all people on the Earth, we should be the very last to reject refugees and immigrants, or to threaten those who already live here with registration, interment, and deportation. 

But that is exactly what we have done, time and again, in knee jerk reaction to overseas trauma. The most recent case, of course, is the terrorist assault on Paris, which has led 26 governors and the House of Representatives to issue proclamations or pass legislation attempting to close our borders to Syrian refugees--people who are, themselves, fleeing the sort of violence that just took place in Paris, but on a much larger scale. Hundreds died in Paris; thousands are dying in Syria. The victims in Paris died in explosions and shootings; in Syria, chemical weapons have also been used by the government, while ISIS forces have subjected their victims to amputation, decapitation, and being burned alive.

Two passports found at the scenes of the crimes in Paris appear to connect two of the perpetrators to the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe in the last year, but there is also evidence that these documents were forged. Certainly the planning and execution of the attacks were carried out by French nationals.

In addition to the 26 governors insisting they will not permit Syrian refugees to enter their states--authority they do not have--the Republican candidates for the Presidency have launched a composition to see who can propose the most fascistic response. While all have called for turning away Syrian immigrants, some have sought to soften that proposal with a religious test for entry: Christian Syrians would be permitted, with vetting, to enter the country, while Muslims would be turned away. Others go as far as they can in the other direction, calling for added restrictions on American citizens of Arab descent. Donald Trump wants mosques closed and identity cards issued so that Arab-Americans can be tracked.

If this is sounding scarily familiar, there are ample reasons in recent history. Hitler registered and labeled Jews, closed and burned synagogues, and eventually shipped them off to internment camps, where they were slaughtered in the millions. During the same period of time, our own government interned Japanese-Americans, while largely ignoring the possibility that German- and Italian-Americans would've made far better spies. In the 1930s and 1950s, the U.S. engaged in campaigns of mass deportation of Mexican-Americans, many of them U.S. citizens. 

But xenophobia is far older than that. Throughout the nineteenth century, wave upon wave of immigrants entered America, fleeing poverty and persecution in their homelands. Those who looked white enough were met with suspicion, but over time were allowed to assimilate; those of Asian, Latin American, or African heritage had a much harder time of it. None had it easy.

Yet of all the nations on the planet, none has as gestalt an identity as the United States of America. We are a tossed salad of a country. Our popular music is a blend of so many influences that it ought to be a cacaphony; instead, it has merged those influences into a sound that is emulated around the world. The history-makers that populate our national story are a succession of ethnicities, genders and, now, orientations, each struggling up from rejection to acceptance and affirmation to emerge with a voice in policy and government. We are never more divided than at the hour of worship, and yet all these different expressions of faith have learned to tolerate and, in many cases, to affirm each other for our distinctions.

Immigration made us who we are. Welcoming refugees brings out the best in us. To reject the immigrant or the refugee is to turn out back on our story and our identity.

I'm proud to be able to say that Kate Brown, the governor of Oregon, has announced that this state will remain open to Syrian refugees. Of course, the office she holds was once held by a Syrian-American: Vic Atiyeh, a two-term Republican governor and one of Oregon's greatest statesman, was the son of immigrants, just another shining example of what makes this nation and its people so unique.

If we're fortunate, this xenophobic panic will fade quickly, and we can go back to recognizing that two of the GOP candidates are, themselves, sons of immigrants, and that this is what has always made this nation great.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Tempo


Estevao Marques performs with Sandra Salcedo and Jackie Rago at the AOSA National Conference in San Diego.

One does not go to a professional development conference for a philosophy lesson. And yet, that's the most important thing I brought back from San Diego.

This was my third American Orff Schulwerk Association conference. After each of my previous conferences, I came home with a boatload of ideas which I eagerly transformed into lesson plans, some of them so productive that I got entire units. I went to San Diego hoping for more of the same, and I did, indeed, get some ideas that I'll be incorporating into my lesson plans.

For once, though, the content was not the big takeaway. Maybe it's that I have had, for the first time in my career, enough time with the students I'm teaching, and enough experience with the methods I use, that finding new ideas for lessons is not a problem. Like most Orff teachers, I create my own curriculum, teaching concepts through performance and play. The concepts are the same from year to year, the difference lying in my choice of music and which activities I'll draw from that music. After teaching this way for a decade--with, it must be admitted, a four-year interruption that gave me little opportunity to practice my vocation--I'm feeling secure in trusting my intuition on how lessons are going, what will work best with each age group, and how reasonable my expectations for progress can be.

Which set me up perfectly for what I really learned in San Diego.

If this were any other conference, I'd be thrilled with the stack of content I brought back from the fourteen sessions I attended. There's enough stuff there to create several months' worth of lessons. What made this conference different for me, though, was a sense I got during the first of my two workshops with Estevao Marques, a Brazilian performer and educator who shared ideas and pieces that used an absolute minimum of equipment.

Estevao uses very little language during his workshops. In part, I'm sure that's because he speaks very little English. Much more than that, though, he understands that the best music teaching is wordless. Using gestures, pantomime, movement, and vocal sounds, Estevao taught us dances and games that challenged me physically. There was one game that involved crossing my arms and holding my nose and one ear, folding my arms, then reaching up and, with arms crossed again, holding my nose and the other ear. This proved far more difficult than it sounds. I'm very ambidextrous--I have to be to play the piano--but I just couldn't get my hands to cooperate. I kept winding up holding both ears, or groping around trying to find my nose with either hand. I felt like an intoxicated driver trying to pass a sobriety test, and I was not alone: all around me were other Orff teachers, all of them, like me, trained movement and music teachers, who couldn't find their noses. It was hilarious and, at the same time, profoundly frustrating.

Clearly Estevao understood this. In fact, he gave us time to play this silly game with partner after partner, starting at a slow tempo, gradually picking up the pace, drawing it out until everyone in the room was successful.

And that's where I had my breakthrough.

Most of the workshops I attend at these conferences go down smoothly for me. I'm an old hand at Orff training now--all three levels, several master classes, the trip to Ghana, and dozens of local workshops--and all of that is on top of a lifetime of learning and playing music. From time to time, though, I encounter something that challenges me. Keith Terry's body percussion classes have done that, as he has participants play complicated patterns that switch back and forth between the right and left sides of their bodies. I've found myself becoming frustrated and anxious in these classes, working and working until, suddenly, something clicks and I've got it--or at least have enough of it that, with practice, I know I can perform the patterns with some consistency.

In Ghana, the challenge was learning songs in languages other than English taught orally. If I have a text in front of me, I can usually learn it fairly quickly; unfortunately, that's not how music is taught in most folk traditions, and even after two weeks of singing those songs, I was still groping for words that many of my fellow participants had learned on the first day.

Experiences like that--and like the workshop with Estevao--laid down a lesson for me that I didn't understand until I'd had a day for the workshop to percolate through my mind. It's something that, as a musician, I should've understood long ago, especially as I came to see that an Orff lesson is, itself, a piece of performance art: tempo matters.

Teach a piece too fast, and you'll lose some students. By too fast, I don't mean playing or singing it at a breathless, breakneck pace. I mean expecting students to get the concept, and moving on to the next part of the lesson before they're ready. Students who haven't mastered the concept before the lesson moves on to the next one are left in the dust, become frustrated, are more likely to give up on trying and, once they have, become bored and disruptive. The lesson has left them behind, but they don't want to be abandoned, so they drag down the rest of the class with them. Ultimately, it means the lesson can't succeed: the bored disruption of the first students to give up spreads quickly, derailing the lesson.

Deep learning, especially of a new skill (like holding one's nose and ear at the same time), takes time. A skilled teacher knows this, knows how to look for the learning to happen, and makes the space and time for the learning to settle in with the entire class, not just the most talented.

There's a trade-off in this, of course. I don't know how many games Estevao meant to teach us, but I'm sure he had more in his plan than we were able to get to. Permitting students the time they need to learn often means postponing or scrapping other activities that were intended for later in the lesson. If one has limited time--in San Diego, a single hour-and-fifteen-minute workshop; at Margaret Scott, for most classes, just one half hour a week--one simply can't cover as much material as one really wants to. That's more frustrating for the teacher than for the student, though: the satisfaction of learning to do something well more than offsets the desire to learn more things shallowly. 

So that's what I've brought back to my students: the commitment to teach at a tempo that makes it possible for all of them to learn these concepts. It means I won't get to all the concepts I'd like to teach, and that is, of course, frustrating to me. On the other hand, it means my students will be learning the most important lesson of all: the joy of making music well, of learning to play and sing something with all one's heart, mind, and soul, and not just with whatever fraction of one's brain was able to engage. I've been moving in this direction for awhile; yesterday and today, I applied it. And it was marvelous: my students clearly appreciated being to go deeper on a song I began teaching them two or three weeks ago, rather than having something new presented to them before they'd had a chance to master the first song.

Teach deep, my friends. Take the time to do it. Your students will thank you for it, and you'll thank yourself, too.

Monday, November 9, 2015

How They See Us


O would some power the giftie gie us 
to see ourselves as others see us.
--Robert Burns


Well look at that, Andrew. You're keeping company with Robert Burns.

Andrew is a Comedy Sportz veteran, a brilliant improviser who has performed in more shows than I can imagine. He's also a world traveler, both for business and pleasure. Right now, he's in Barcelona, attending an international improv festival. That's what led him to make this observation on Facebook earlier today:

You know how our shorthand for French people is smoking, and our shorthand for Italian people is hand gestures and kissing on the cheek?
Well here in Europe, improv shorthand for American people is grabbing guns and shooting.

That landed him squarely in the company of Robert Burns, and the quote at the top of this blog.

Improv shorthand is an occasionally uncomfortable thing for me as I do my work behind the keyboard. I hear that we're doing something French, and I find the accordion setting, play "La Vie en Rose" or "La Marseilles" to underscore the scene, which always--I've played hundreds of shows, and have yet to see it any other way--features dramatic mimed smoking and a snooty attitude. As Andrew notes, there's also shorthand for Italians. If the scene is Spanish, there is often flamenco included. And now we know that Europeans have their own shorthand for us, and it involves shooting guns.

That doesn't surprise me at all. In fact, 26 years ago I found myself coming up against an American stereotype that was extremely hard to dispel.

I was working as a student pastor in Cheadle, a suburb of Manchester. One afternoon the phone in the manse rang. It was my circuit superintendent, Alan Mimmack, telling me he'd been contacted by one of my parishioners telling him his wife had died, and asking him to perform the funeral. Alan wondered in his dry, polite voice why this person, whom he'd never met, would be coming to him about the funeral. He said he was perfectly willing to do so, but thought it would be good for me to have a chat with the fellow first, just to see what was going on. I told him I'd get right on it. He gave me the man's name and phone number, and I discovered then that I had something in common with my boss: I had no idea who this person was.

I did a little research prior to contacting him, checking with some of my church officers, and learned that he and his wife had been members of one of the three churches that had merged fifteen years earlier to create this new parish. I also learned that his wife had attended occasionally, though he had not come once, always complaining that the new, very modern building just didn't feel like a church next to the old chapel that had been torn down to make way for it. Furthermore, she'd only been to services once when I'd been in the pulpit (in the English Methodist Church, pastors itinerate around a circuit, preaching more often in the church[es] they're appointed to, but also appearing in all the others at least once a quarter). She had told her friends that she didn't care for my informal preaching style, my American accent, or my youth (I was 27). Just hearing me once didn't keep her from talking about me: she referred to me disparagingly as "The Boy."

Armed with this knowledge, I called her husband and made an appointment for a visit. Sitting in his living room, I mostly listened as he talked about his grief, how the church building wasn't churchy enough, and how much he'd heard about "The Boy"--and about why he hadn't wanted an American presiding over his wife's funeral, with a ten-gallon hat, a giant grin, and saying "Howdy." That's when I realized his only point of reference for Americans was Dallas, which was then in its final season on the BBC. I talked with him for an hour, long enough for him to realize I wasn't anything like J.R. Ewing, that I would be absolutely respectful and dignified in presiding over his wife's funeral, and that my first concern was honoring her memory. By the end of the conversation, he'd agreed to withdraw his request for a British pastor. It was a lovely funeral, and the family thanked me sincerely after it was over, though I don't believe I ever saw that gentleman in church the rest of the time I was there. Of course, he had been very clear about how the modern decor made him feel, so there is that.

What I love most about being American is knowing that no other American has higher status by birth than I do. We have no lords, no dukes, no princesses or queens or satraps or sheiks. Some of us hold higher office, and are guarded by secret service agents, but they got there by campaigning; and while I might have to salute such an official if I were in the military, as a civilian I am not required to make any gesture of obeisance to them. This is not simply an artifact of living in a democracy: If I were a British citizen and I met the queen, I would be required to bow to her and, at the end of the meeting, to walk backward as I left. As an American, I can be just as callous as I want around foreign dignitaries.

That sense of civilized anarchy is, of course, also the problem. We're rude, coarse, vulgar. We don't know the proper manners and worse, we don't care. Our cultural ambassadors are pop stars with big voices and bigger egos. It could be worse, of course. We could be judged not so much by our glad-handing personalities as by our proclivity to kill each other with guns.

Oh, wait. That actually is happening.

I read Andrew's post about European improvisers using guns as shorthand for Americans and felt terribly sad. My experience in Europe was extremely limited--except for a ten-day rail trip on the continent, and a week in Ireland, I spent the entire two years in Britain--but in that time, I had the opportunity to see my country through the eyes of many Europeans. What I saw was a nation of labradors, a people who are loudly, aggressively friendly. Except for that skeptical widower, I didn't meet anyone who viewed Americans negatively. If they had a criticism of us, it was that we were just too loud.

That was then. This is now. Since September 11, 2001, the world has discovered a different side of America. We're the invaders, the aggressors, the avengers who will blow up an entire wedding party to get one terrorist--and that's just the Americans in uniform. The Americans they never meet, the ones who stay here in the United States for their entire lives, are even scarier, because we cling to our guns, our ignorance of science, our backward ideas about religion, sexuality, health care, economics. And we kill each other with those guns at a rate that has horrifying to the rest of the world and, much worse, is somehow not horrifying to the majority of Americans. Our obsession with firearms is poisoning our relationship with the rest of the world even as it is killing the innocent in shocking numbers.

For a short time in 2009, America's image improved: we had a new President who at least talked about peace, who seemed to be moving us away from the war-mongering of his predecessor. The change was significant enough that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But even in his acceptance speech for that award, President Obama made it clear that, whatever ideals he might have professed coming into office, the reality as he saw it was going to be more of the same. In fact, he stepped up the drone war in the Middle East and Afghanistan. And as for guns: he's good at lamenting the mass shootings that come so frequently, but there don't seem to be any teeth to those laments.

That may just be a reminder of that huge difference between the rest of the world and us I alluded to earlier: the President is not the King. He's not even the Prime Minister. For all the pomp of his office, his powers are limited. Those powers that he has are much more in keeping with blowing things up than with reducing the trafficking of civilian weapons.

I wish the world saw us differently. My personal experience was that it only took a conversation to dispel the stereotype I was up against in 1989. America as a people could have, and ultimately will have, the same experience in the world: once we finally wake up from our psychotic obsession with instruments of murder, the world will take notice.

I just hope I live to see the day when a European improviser chooses a glad-handing Texan, rather than a wild-eyed gun nut, as shorthand for an American.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Teaching in the Now


Every music teacher has a story like this:

Last Friday, the lesson had wings. The second grade class I was teaching it to were completely in tune with me. We were riffing off each other, sharing a vibe that was magical. When I told the children we were out of time, they sighed: how could it be over? It felt like we just started! I left that classroom feeling great, knowing I had a winner here. This was especially important to me because I'd be teaching the same lesson to a different class Monday morning with my principal observing as part of my annual evaluation.

I walked into that class on Monday, confident, assured, ready to tackle this group. The principal was a few minutes late, but that didn't faze me: this was a great lesson, I knew, fast-moving, action-packed, with plenty of opportunities for students to interact with the material in creative ways.

But the kids weren't having it.

Something was off: the children just weren't feeling it. The high flyers were out of sync with me, and needed frequent reminders not to distract other students. Transitions were nowhere near as smooth as they'd been with Friday's class. This was much more work for me than it had been then. I could feel myself struggling against the tide, and as the half hour neared its end, I knew I needed to find some way to put a bow on this battered and bruised lesson. And then, out of nowhere, it came to me: I told the children to sing and play the song game I'd just taught them (Doug Goodkin's arrangement of "One Potato") as they walked back to their desks. It worked beautifully: their voices sounded more unified than they had at any point in the lesson, and by the time they finished singing, they were all sitting in their own seats, alert and ready for their classroom teacher to take over from me.

Later that week, when I had my post-observation conference with the principal, I told her I'd been disappointed in the lesson overall, but felt very good about that final, improvised trick I'd just pulled out of thin air, and which, I said, I'd been using with every class since as a way to both summarize the lesson and move children out of the music space and back to their desks or into a line. She smiled, and told me many of her best teaching moments had happened in the same way. Sometimes teaching magic just happens.

But only in the moment.

Twelve years ago, when I began teaching elementary music full time, I worked from lesson plans. At first, those plans came from whatever music education series I found in my classroom when I took up residence there: Share the Music, Silver-Burdett. I'd have children pick up a text book as they entered the music room, turn to the page for today's lesson, and we'd work our way through it as it was laid out in the teacher's edition. Three years later, when I had my first Orff level training, I discovered a new way of teaching: take a piece--a song, a dance, a game--and teach that, keeping myself open to all the possibilities to teach concepts from that piece, and to expand it into other areas of musical and movement education. At first, it was awkward, especially with older children who expected much more visible scaffolding than came with this approach. Over time, I settled into the method, finding ways to rework lessons to accommodate, affirm and, ultimately, be transformed by whatever the children brought to them. Instead of serving them fully-cooked dishes from the McGraw-Hill restaurant, I was inviting them into the kitchen to share the cooking duties with me, encouraging them to offer up their own ideas of how to create unique gourmet experiences.

Teaching like this is not for the faint of heart. One has to put an enormous amount of trust in the learning process, and that only comes with experience. One also has to be prepared for sabotage: when teaching is improvisational, it can be hijacked by an aggressive child who wants it all to be about whatever turmoil he or she is experiencing at home. That means trusting the administration to deal with these high flyers, to find ways to address the underlying causes of their dysfunction and help them participate appropriately, and frankly, that's not a trust I've been able to have during my two previous years in this building. The children have to be able to trust their teacher, as well. Those two years have shown these children that I care about them, and most of them now realize that my presence in a room means were going to do something that's as fun as it is educational. That makes it possible for the magic to happen more often.

More often is not, of course, always. When the magic isn't happening, that's when it's most important that, like the children in that first class, I'm completely present in the moment, riding whatever wave I'm on all the way to shore. I can't spare any of my bandwidth for thinking about the emails I need to answer when I'm back in my office, how I'll work out after school, or what we'll have for dinner. The children and the lesson I'm teaching them demand my all.

This sounds like hard work, and it is, but I'm not aware of how hard it is until I'm done. I can't afford to think about how hard it is: I've got to be fully present, no part of me grumbling about those high flyers, how long I'm waiting for an administrator to remove one of them, or what I'll be writing on the referral form once I finally have a moment to reflect on how naughty that child was. I'm not teaching for that later: I'm teaching now. This is my teaching moment, and their learning moment. I'm doing all I can to maximize that learning, separating children from their chatty friends, sending an especially challenging child to sit in a different part of the room, scrapping part of the lesson that just can't work in this atmosphere, adjusting the remaining activities to better accommodate the jittery vibe of the class, pausing everything to reteach basic music class behavior.

As hard as it is, it's also invigorating, inspiring, immensely rewarding. I complained a lot at the start of the year about the setting for my classes: the echoing gym, the cramped rugs in classrooms, the difficulty of only being able to use what I could carry with me from room to room. Hosting a workshop with Doug Goodkin helped a great deal, reminding me that this is much more than a job, it's a vocation, and part of that calling is to be utterly dedicated to making every teaching moment the best it can be. Accepting the constraints this year is placing on me, I've been able this last couple of weeks to simply teach: to transcend setting and give these children the best musical education they've ever had.

In doing this, I find I'm entering a whole new stage of my career. I'm actually moving beyond teaching as vocation, to teaching as spiritual practice. I'm finding that, as with my outdoor adventures, I'm feeling vibrantly alive as I teach, present, focused, conscious, creative, connected to all my students and to the music I'm teaching them.

This is what I commend to you who read this: embrace the now of your teaching moment. Plunge into it, wrap yourself up in it, let it penetrate your being. Like the best of improvisers, make every one of your students a scene partner as you create a new world right here, right now, surprising each other with all the wonders it contains.

This is the Zen of teaching. It is, I am coming to believe, why so many brilliant people have chosen this career path rather than something more lucrative and predictable: we are never more fully ourselves than when we are partnered with students, opening our hearts, opening their minds, changing their world and our world for the better.