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Archive for May, 2009

Enjoying the delightful anarchy of children (as long as it’s not at my expense)

I had just finished a school show. Before I could turn off the microphones, a slightly officious administrator had taken the stage (I use that term loosely – there was no stage, it was the gym floor)

“Students!” she said in a voice that immediately quieted the audience. “I have an important announcement that you need to hear.”

Amazing how adults have that voice – I mean, this was really important! Kids can tell when an adult really has something to say.

“Starting today, we will have only two playground monitors on the playground at recess. Fourth graders, this means that you must stay on the nearside of the playground. No one may go past the gym door.”

No sooner had those words gotten out of her mouth than hands shot up. Just in case you didn’t think anyone was paying attention. Who knows the geography of the playground better than a fourth grader? Who can divine the ramifications of policy based on budget restraints better than an eight year old? She was trying to sneak something by them, and they knew it.

She held her hand up to stop the questions – she wasn’t done with the outline of the policy.

“You must go directly from the lunchroom to the playground. No students are allowed in the hall between lunch and recess. You will go directly to recess from lunch.”

She paused to catch her breath. Bad idea. Now there was a sea of hands up. Even if you have authority, that many hands up is hard to ignore – it’s enough to give even Dick Cheney pause. Well, okay, maybe not Dick, but…

“What about our coats?” a kid asked. “What if we need coats?” Everyone nodded as if they were all concerned about their coats. It was probably the first time they were worried about wearing their coats, but ignore that.

“Bring your coats to the cafeteria,” she answered. This was an improvised answer, and everyone knew it.

Uh oh.

There was a slight stir in the crowd as the students imagined this process. Perplexed looks passed over the faces of the teachers, but the dogged administrator was still in charge.

“You will have to plan ahead,” she said.

Hmm. Good idea, I thought.

If she were going to maintain order and have any chance of her new policy surviving, she should have stopped the discussion right then, but she genuinely wanted to make this work. She made the mistake of calling on someone else.

Children smell the spawning of anarchy and are happy to aid in its growth. Another dozen hands went up. It looked like open season on the vice-principal, and the collective fourth grade mind was beginning to work with wild abandon.

“What about our lunch boxes?” a girl asked.

“What lunch boxes? What do you mean?” she answered, trying not be annoyed.

“What do we do with our lunchboxes after lunch?”

“Bring them to the playground.”

The students looked at each other.

“Can we bring them back to the room?” someone shouted.

“No – because there will be no students in the hallway. We can’t have any students in the hall because they won’t be supervised.”

More hands. She didn’t want to call on anyone.

“What if we have to go to the bathroom?” someone asked anyway.

The entire mass of humanity nodded as one. Now, the chaos was self-organizing. What if you had to go the bathroom? What then? Every teacher knows that the bathroom question is a student’s first method of sabotaging the system.

“Go before you go to lunch. You will have to think ahead.”

There was one boy in the front who had his hand up through this entire interaction – ever since the beginning. He held his right hand up straight and high. He would not be denied. She wanted to dismiss them, but he was so insistent – staring at her. Just waiting.

She pointed at him.

“Can we play basketball?”

It was silent. They all awaited her response. It was like walking into a trap in a chess game, and she knew it. Basketball had, to this point, been a God-given right of fourth graders at recess.

“You need to stay on this side of the gym door.” An evasive answer, as if they couldn’t extrapolate the consequences.

“The basketball court is on the other side!” someone shouted.

I was reminded of the townspeople in Frankenstein. I wondered how fast she could run.

“For the time being, you’ll have to do without basketball.”

There were gasps.

“We’ll get some courts up,” she offered. Sure, I thought. And so did they.

Now there was a sea of hands up. Teachers waded out into the mass of students, trying to reassert control at the local level. I shook my head.

Bathrooms, coats, lunch boxes, basketball courts. Who would have know that a simple budget cut could lead to this result? Who would have guessed that two hundred elementary school students could see the holes in a hastily-applied plan and the mayhem it would engender?

The poor woman.

It was a beautiful, beautiful thing.

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We'll Build a School - fourth grade play at Paul Cuffee School, Providence, RI

We'll Build a School - fourth grade play at Paul Cuffee School, Providence, RI

When I first started working as an artist in the schools, I was often asked to prepare a final performance at the end of my time at a school – a play, a performance of stories and songs, a book or recording. I chafed under this pressure, and fought against it. I felt that all the emphasis on the end product tended to sabotage the process of what the kids were doing and learning. I wasn’t interested in putting on a little show so that the local paper could come and take pictures and the school could show the PTO money was being put to good use. The victims of this goal would be the kids, I figured – trotted out like a dog and pony show, the best ones put forth as what the school was producing while those not quite so talented were asked to mouth the words. I have seen the pressure put on children by adults who have some product in their mind that is not really about what’s best for the kids.

While I still am concerned about process, I’ve changed my thinking over the years, and now see the wisdom in a production at the end of a project so students can show what they’ve done. Process is important, but so is the idea that the work they do is not just for them, but for somebody else. There is a great deal to be gained by everybody working toward something. There’s also something to be learned through some failure and disappointment, if it’s put in the right context.

Part of my change in attitude can be traced to my many years of mistakes and experiences, along with absorbing the experience of others. Mem Fox, the great children’s book author, has written eloquently about the need for children to write not just for an assignment, but for someone else. In her book Radical Reflections, Fox points out there’s nothing worse than an assignment that gets read by one adult, graded, passed back, and then thrown away. What’s the point? A letter that actually goes to someone will receive more care on the part of a writer than a dozen sentences using the vocabulary words for the week. I think this is because all of us, even eight year olds, want to have a purpose and make a difference.

I was reminded of all this last week as I helped to produce the fourth grade play at Paul Cuffee School. I wrote the musical several years ago with the then fourth grade kids, and we’ve produced it the two years since. There are enough parts for everyone in the fourth grade – some large speaking parts, some only singing in the chorus. We’ve gotten better at figuring out how to audition those kids who want bigger parts, and how to find a place for those who are not at all interested in standing on stage. Predictably, when the parts get handed out, there’s some grumbling, disappointment, and confusion. Kids complain and whine. Some who said they really wanted big parts then don’t seem interested in learning their lines. The director (that would be me) threatens and cajoles and issues ultimatums, just like all directors seem to do (I was hoping I was immune from passive/aggressive behavior, but evidently I’m not). It’s a mess the week before. Kids mumble the songs. Some are more interested in costumes than acting.

Some I want to throttle.

I’m thinking particularly of one girl who complained the whole time about her part. Even though she got the part that fit her, I was not immune to her protest, and began to feel bad about it. But rearranging parts would have caused an uproar. Right or wrong, this is the way things were, and everybody had to work together. This was my mantra, and after awhile, I just said, “Pal, I don’t want to hear about it– your part is your part, and it’s important.” She stewed and I muttered under my breath.

The day before the play, I realized that something wonderful had happened. Kids were challenging each other to be better. There was a cohesiveness in the group I hadn’t seen before. Some said they were too nervous to speak and wanted reassurance. All this because they realized people were going to watch them. THEY STARTED TO CARE.

The girl that had harassed me came up and said “I’m really good at my part now!” My mouth dropped open.

It was a success. Oh, they made mistakes. They forgot lines. If we could have done it three more times, we would have gotten better and better. But what was very obvious in the performance was that they were earnest, and committed, and doing the very best they could. And they were proud, too. The eye-rolling had disappeared, and they smiled and laughed at the end.

Without the deadline and the performance before others – their parents and grandparents, their younger schoolmates, and the fifth graders who had been in the play before and were watching them very carefully – I don’t think we would have seen the commitment to learning and working together. Their work needed to be bigger than them – not about them. When it was given to others, it transcended schoolwork, and served the community.

And in the end, I’m now wondering if part of my reticence about productions in my early years was my fear of failure. I still have that fear, but try not to let it stop me.

So, school plays? Yeah. I love ‘em.

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I wrote my book, Night of the Spadefoot Toads, after being introduced to a local vernal pool by my friend Carol Entin. Vernal pools are ephemeral – there in the spring, and dried up and gone by the time the hot days of summer arrive. The very small vernal pool near my house is home to fairy shrimp (one inch long!) the Eastern spadefoot toad (endangered in our area) and also, probably, to wood frogs, though I haven’t found any there yet. Vernal pools are the only place these species can breed. Because of their size and their seeming unimportance, they are often destroyed by human’s development of land.

No vernal pools? No wood frogs, no fairy shrimp, no blue spotted salamanders, no spadefoots.

Vernal pools are kid-sized – I’ve found that when I talk about them, kids immediately know one in their area. In this way, children are much more aware of the geography of the land around their homes than most adults.

The small vernal pool near my home

The small vernal pool near my home

I was out at the pool this morning to see if there were tadpoles there, and sure enough, found masses of them – spadefoots, I think .

A spadefoot tadpole

A spadefoot tadpole from a vernal pool


I’ll talk more about the spadefoots another time, but wanted to put up this video about the absolutely amazing wood frog. Wood frogs are the first frogs we hear in the spring in the Northeast. They don’t hibernate in the winter, they just plain freeze up and stop breathing – no heart beat – nothing!

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Earlier this spring I was performing at Northville Elementary School in New Milford, CT. Kids filed into the gym (great acoustics – ask any gym teacher!) and by the time the 250 students all arrived, it was fairly noisy. The principal, Susan Murray, walked to the front of the group and sang,
“Ha ha ha ha”
“Ha ha ha ha” some kids sang back.
“Waaaay – oh!” she sang.
“Waaaay-oh” more responded.
“Gooba gooba gooba gooba” she continued.
“Gooba gooba gooba gooba” everyone sang.

My mouth dropped open. I really hadn’t expected to hear a principal (recently from Boise, Idaho) sing a New Orleans classic “Don’tcha Just Know It” to settle an audience down. But it worked like a charm. A few more “ha ha ha’s “ and “gooba goobas’” and the audience was ready to listen to me. No lectures. No yelling. And I suspect Susan Murray was not hired for her coloratura soprano voice.

One of the challenges of working in schools is managing large groups of children – it’s a problem presented by the institutionalization of learning. Large groups of people make noise – they’re hard to control. How do you do it?

Clapping in rhythm, having the group respond, works pretty well. So does holding a hand up, if people understand the rules.

In the same situation, I’ve seen some principals stand in the front and demand total silence as students walk in. “Show our guest what good students you are by how quiet you’re being,” one principal said, confusing silence with academic achievement.

Singing is a painless way to organize a group. Throughout the history of the human race, music’s major function has been to express community. It gets everybody doing something together. It’s fun. And it also focuses the group so they can move on to the next task. Singing, by the way, teaches rhythm and pitch, central to language development.

A number of years ago, in Tucson, Arizona, I watched Bob Wortman, one of the best principals I’ve ever met, walk in front of his whole school and start to sing “I Can Sing a Rainbow”. Soon the whole school was singing. I choked up. The school WAS a rainbow. And again, Bob was in no danger of getting a recording contract. You don’t have to be a professional to use song – kids don’t care.

A teacher at Paul Cuffee School in Providence, RI, where I work regularly, asked me to come up with song to help her kindergartners get to morning circle. Here’s what I came up with – a couple weeks later, and I heard the kids singing it as they ran to the rug. It’s called “Sit on the Rug” . Click on this link.sit-on-the-rug1

sit-on-the-rug
I forget all the time how a simple song eases the way through the day – and I do it for a living!

Note: I’ll post a blog every Friday. I promise. And I’m pretty good at promises.

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I’ve often thought a great employment program would be to give artists a $1000 each – this would keep them employed for six months at least. Part of being an artist involves being foolish, which is a good thing for those around them. Liz Lerman is an innovative choreographer who has been in the forefront of the movement to foster community-based arts programs. She’s also married to my friend, storyteller extraordinaire Jon Spelman. In this piece, A Proposed Job Swap To Save American Capitalism, Liz suggests that bankers might have something to learn from artists. Imagine!

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