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Posts Tagged ‘arts in schools’

hand-appleHere are some thoughts I’ve had for awhile about the nature of schools and learning.

The book The Gift by Lewis Hyde has had a deep impact on my life and work. In it, Hyde proposes that artists have a hard time making a living because their work is based in one kind of economy, but they live in another. Hyde posits that the mainstream culture is a commodity culture but artists live in a gift-giving culture.

Bear with me while I try to explain what he says.  In a commodity culture, goods and services are exchanged tit for tat – I give you money, or some expression of value, and you give me some good or service in return. Then we’re even and the transaction is done. See ya later.

In a gift-giving culture (and Hyde gives examples of a number of traditional cultures that use gift-giving, like the potlatch of Northwest natives) the gift is given freely without expectation of immediate reciprocity – he says the gift “goes around the corner”, out of sight. Since the transaction isn’t complete, the relationship stays – a gift-giving culture builds a web of interdependence. In a way, wealth is expressed not by what you have, but by how much you give away. Hyde says artists, by the nature of their work, are gift-givers. Musicians can’t help but play, dancers dance, artists paint and writers write. If they hoard, waiting for proper monetary compensation, they dry up and the gift stops. They offer these things up, believing that something will come back. Art builds community.

But therein lies the rub for the artist. It’s hard for them to get a fair commodity value for their art, since these works arrive to them as gifts and are passed on as such, whether they’re paid in money or not.

Okay, that’s a short and fumbling explanation of Hyde’s book – if you want more, I highly recommend it, though I will add that for all its brilliance, to my mind, the second half is kind of a slog.

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to schools, and it explains a lot about the current (and perhaps chronic) fight over whether schools are succeeding or failing. When I look at the schools I work in, I see, overarching everything, a gift-giving culture. Almost everything is offered without expecting immediate return. Children give assignments to teachers, and offer to read out loud to their classmates. Nurses hand out band-aids. Teachers bring in their own books to the classroom and parents bring in snacks. Children share their French fries. Teachers fill in for their co-workers at recess, or as lunch monitors. Children bring in small gifts for their teachers. Cupcakes appear in the teacher’s lounge. In all of these exchanges, and thousands more, there is no tit for tat, no final accounting, no exchange of any currency (okay, French fries)– they are done to make the culture go, and with each of these simple gifts, the web of connection grows. For all the math that’s taught, it’s amazing how little is measured in a school. And this ignores the greatest gift-giving of all – the one that truly goes around the corner – the teacher gives the gift of teaching and knowledge without ever seeing the final result. Only years later, a grown person may realize the gift they were given, and have no way to pay it back except to offer something similar to someone else.

That return on investment is a hard one to measure.

Even though we don’t name it, all of us understand intuitively that the school is a gift-giving culture. That’s why when a teacher demands a raise, or decides only to work as much as they are actually required (“work to order”), or walks out on strike, many people are incensed. How dare that teacher insert filthy money into this situation? We feel that the unspoken rules of an unnamed gift-giving culture have been broken. By and large, teachers are loath to make waves. Most teachers, in my experience, are nurturers and accomodators – it takes a lot to get them to speak up about being treated fairly. In this, they’re like artists, or nurses – their work offers gifts that can’t quite be monetized. They really would rather teach.

I especially see this paradox playing out in high-stakes testing and the ongoing push to measure educational achievement. We have witnessed the emergence of the quantifiers, the bean counters, as the major arbiters in whether an education is valid. Calibrating things, measuring their value, giving merit pay based on test scores, counting the number of minutes of instruction time and doing away with activities not easily measured (um, for instance, like a storyteller’s visit or a class party), are done in the belief that this will be more educationally effective.

Except schools don’t work like that, and neither do humans. When we leave no room for these “valueless” activities, these expressions that have no immediate return, or we insist on finding a way to measure them, we’re destroying the fabric of the culture. While we need to reach agreement on what things are important to teach, and find ways to see how a child is growing, when the measurements drive the activity of the school, the culture is damaged and you get a lot of sullen people who are going to think twice about giving without return. Not just teachers, but kids and staff.

I think some people who institute this stuff have good intentions. But they’re wrong. No matter how you cut it, a school isn’t a profit-making corporation offering goods and services in exchange for equal financial value. It’s a bad model.

A test score that punishes isn’t a gift at all.

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I have been away. In many ways. Let’s see if I’m back. Here’s something:
I’ve been reading Liz Lerman’s really great book Hiking the Horizontal – Field Notes of a Choreographer. I’ll write more about it in another post. The book has made me think a lot about my work. Her discussion about site-specific dances (designed for a particular space) got me thinking about performance spaces.
Performers are confronted with many different kinds spaces, and many are not initially conducive to good performances. For artists who do a lot of community work, sponsoring organizations often aren’t in the business of presenting performance and only have a vague idea of what’s involved. They don’t know that the space is important. Hey – it’s big, it’s open, there are some chairs, here’s a platform! No problem!
And the truth is that the environment a performer works in has a HUGE influence on how successful the performance goes. Yet, it’s often the thing that is last considered in community performance. One mark of good performing artists is that they take care to make the space as welcoming to the audience and conducive to the performer’s work as can be.
For storytelling and solo performance, here are some things I try to keep in mind:
The performance space is my home – people are coming to my place to see me. I try to get there early and walk around and know the place. I like to do at least a fifteen minute sound check, even with a simple set up – not just to make sure the sound is all right, but to get the sense that the stage is mine.
How close is the audience? For solo performance, I want them as close as I can get them. It’s ironic that many theaters don’t put the audience where they need to be – I hate high school auditoriums with the first row twenty-five feet away. That is a physical and psychic distance that needs to be bridged and it’s not easy. (Not to mention, for family performers, the danger of kids just running around in front of you, unattended…). There’s a lot of wasted energy in those places. I often ask if there are chairs that can be brought in to bring the audience closer.
How close are audience members to each other? An audience is a living, breathing thing, and in order for it to be alive, it must be a group, not a scattered assemblage. Open seating in a large auditorium that won’t be filled presents a real problem. People sitting in the back in ones or twos while the first three rows are empty can kill a good performance. In one nightmare performance venue, the sponsors brought in inner city kids and in the first show demanded that there be a seat between each child so that “nothing bad” happened. In a fit of weakness, I allowed it. It was horrible. Death on wheels. Nothing happened. Good or bad – a completely dead show. The next show I insisted they be brought together. All were amazed at how good the show was. No one was hurt. Maybe they learned a lesson. I know I did.
Is the audience comfortable? Do they feel cared for? While a lot of this is out of control of the performer, I try to do everything possible to make sure that the physical comforts of the audience are taken into account. In a school show, I insist that chairs be brought out for the teachers (some teachers, god bless them, sit on the floor with students) – I’ll wait until they’re there, because I don’t want teachers standing for forty-five minutes. I will close off portions of a space if the sight lines are bad. I try to make sure there’s some music playing when groups walk in (not always successful) that sets some tone – I have a couple of playlists on my ipod that I feel set the tone. And under some conditions, if it seems appropriate, I’ll talk to the audience before hand in the aisles – (Sometimes not appropriate – the magic of someone appearing on stage when the lights dim is a potion, for sure).

Sometimes to shake things up I will change the rules about how people sit. In a school where the kids always sit in the gym one way, I’ll have them face another wall. “What’s this?” they say. Something different? And I do everything I can to get the blowers turned off and will pull the plug on the cooler holding the milk boxes if it’s making too much noise. White noise is very tiring to an audience. And the performer.
While school gyms don’t allow much adjustment, elsewhere, lighting matters – the focus should be on the stage. While storytellers like to see the audience, a darkening of the audience shifts the focus towards the stage – we’re so easily distracted that it helps to give people some place to naturally have their attention drawn.
What’s all this mean? Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. And don’t be afraid to make changes to a space that haven’t been made before. “We’ve always done it this way” is not a reasoned argument, it’s an excuse, and it’s worth fighting it.
I believe, in the end that performance places ought to be sacred spaces, if only for the time the show is taking place. Aside from street performers (who create sacred spaces nonetheless), we need to try to make our theaters a place where people feel lucky to be. I will never forget the feeling of walking into Clowes Hall at Butler University to see Louis Armstrong when I was ten years old. The carpet was lush, the seats were comfortable and you could bounce on them until your parents stopped them, and when the lights went down and Louis Armstrong came out and started to play “Hello Dolly” I thought I was in another world.
I would like my show to be a little (just a little) like that.

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Just one of those moments that reminds you of what you’re doing and why.

Last week I was at Israel Loring School in Sudbury Massachusetts, in my customary position, standing in front of a microphone, underneath the backboard in the gym in front of three hundred kindergarten, first and second graders sitting on the floor.

I was telling my own twisted version of Sody Salleratus, “Big Bert”, which I have told WAAAAAY too many times, but still love to tell. As I’ve said in other posts, when you know a story really well, something else happens when you tell it.

It sure did.

I got to the point where the girl in the family is going over the bridge to the store. I use the word “sashay” to describe her movement (“She sashayed out the door. She sashayed down the road. She sashayed over the bridge.”) (I think I owe a nod here to Roadside Theater and their version – “Fat Man”.)

I stopped.

The audience looked at me, wondering what I was up to.

“Sashay,” I said. “What does that mean anyway. Anybody know?”

Usually, nobody does. So I tell them it’s a little dance step and go on with the story. Vocabulary lesson accomplished, and I’ve engaged the audience.

But that day, a kindergartener on the far end of the front row raised her hand.

I stop and look at her.

“Do you know what it means?”

She nods. She’s sure.

Well, this is just great, I think. I love this.

“What does it mean?”

“It’s a ballet step,” she says.

Now I am surprised. (Would that be chasse? I didn’t know that term until I went searching today…) No ballet expert myself – I learned how to sashay in fourth grade gym class with a scratchy record, Mr. Keller the gym teacher, and Janice Kahn, who I kind of liked. It was a nice move for a fourth grade boy, because no one touched.
Now I’ve stopped telling the story. This is interesting.

“I didn’t know it was a ballet step,” I said. “Thank you.”

I take a breath to go back into the story, but the lexicographer in the kindergarten class is not done. She has her hand raised again, and she is very self-assured.

I pause, “Yes?” I ask

“I know how do it,” she says.

Well,” I say, “that’s fantastic. Would you like to show us?”

She nods and stands up. Completely fearless. She is a dancer by trade! If only her teacher were here to see!

“Go ahead!” I say.

She raises her arms to her sides, faces the audiences, side-skips from one side of the gym to the other, keeping her arms perpendicular to the ground, her feet crossing ever-so-slightly at each step, then back again across the floor, and sits down. There is a spontaneous round of applause.

It is the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen. I am struck near speechless.

“Thank you,” I said. “Now we all know what sashay means.”

I go on telling the story, knowing the picture in three hundred heads is different than it was before.

Actually, make that three-hundred and one.

Mine, too.

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I’ve come across several articles in the last month about technology and education that have got me thinking about where educators, schools, and society spend their energy and money. In one, a teacher shows how using youtube and online information has changed how he teaches. In another, the US government announces it is going to focus more on the use of digital technology in education.

In both of these articles, there is an inherent assumption that technology is a key to solving our educational problems.

I ain’t so sure.

I am, I guess, a semi-Luddite, in that I have a “prove it to me” approach to whatever the latest hot thing is. Technology (like computers, ipads, and, um, books) has its place. And something in the whole slew of new generation of software and hardware and connectivity has value. But figuring out which thing it is and how to use it isn’t that easy.

And there are other things that are important, too.

What would you expect from a storyteller? – a guy who spends most of his time in front of warm bodies, emitting intentionally formed bits of air out of his mouth.

But I’m no enemy of technology – as long as it’s considered. And I want to be careful and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

But all this talk about technology in education has me thinking several things about its limits and problems.

First, in almost all the literature extolling the use of new media and technology, there is the underlying, still unproven assumption that all this stuff is going to do a better job at teaching students. We still don’t know if that’s true, but we are always attracted to what ‘s new, hoping it’s our savior. A recent article in the NYTimes about a district outside of Phoenix notes that their heavy investment hasn’t reaped the rewards they were hoping for. Defenders are quick to say that the testing used to measure student achievement doesn’t really measure what the technology is helping to develop – a new way of thinking. We artists use that argument against standardized testing too, but it’s a little surprising that technology rides in on a promise of raising test scores, and then shifts its argument. (And actually, the arts has proven their value that time and time again, to no apparent acknowledgement or effect on the part of the powers that be.) I’m no fan of standardized testing, but if we’re going to spend billions on something, it would be nice to know it works.

Second – there is no way technology would be everyone’s darling if it didn’t involve huge amounts of money. There is a lot at stake here, and it’s notable that the people who are crowing the loudest about its possibilities are those who have spent their lives designing and selling technology. Apple and Google run the workshops for teachers on how to use technology and in the Internet in the classroom. Should we be surprised that they see technology as the answer to our problems? Is it shocking that the Gates Foundation has found a way to influence the discussion about what American education needs? Education is a gold mine for corporations, and they spend a great part of their time lobbying everyone about its possibilities.

I’m not saying these people don’t have good intentions. Of course they believe in what they’re doing.

But that doesn’t mean they’re right.

National, state and local governments have bought in. Lobbyists help.

Schools spend millions of dollars every year on new technologies to help teachers. And the truth is, the companies that sell the stuff already have plans for something else that will make it obsolete in five years. When you buy a hundred computers, you know you’re going to buy a hundred more in a couple of years. Corporations selling it have that figured out.

You don’t make that much money off pencils.

Or teachers. Corporations don’t really benefit from developing skills in a teacher (unless it’s to use their product). I am left wondering what it would be like if we spent anywhere near the money we do on technology on working intimately with teachers on classroom management skills and group dynamics. Or (here it is…) on being good storytellers. Or on how to really foster good relationships between home and school and giving parents support. These things are teachable, but they’re not bright and shiny – they are actually kind of hard to do, and they have no glossy flyers and videos with pulsing beats that promise the moon and stars.

One result of the ever-increasing dependency and worship of technology as a teaching panacea will be an increasing gap between the rich and the poor. If you’re like me, you’re more and more upset about the widening rift between the haves and have-nots. I walked into a teacher’s room at a fairly well-heeled school a couple of weeks ago and saw all the teacher’s assistants (which means two adults in each classroom) sitting around a table – fifteen of them all with identical Apple laptops.

Not happening in Bedford-Stuyvesant, I think. Or most places, really. Most school districts will never be able to afford the luxury of the newest technology. Especially since we don’t really want to spend money on education for those less fortunate. And Apple donating computers doesn’t really solve the problem.

The more we praise technology and the latest development, the more we ignore those who will never see it. The more all this stuff costs, the more students we leave behind.

So I’m brought back to the notion that a lot of energy is being devoted to one aspect of learning at the expense of other things. Technology will not close the gap between rich and poor. Technology is not the answer to someone who does not know how to teach. And I don’t believe a video has the same impact as a flesh and bones teacher, well trained and familiar with the student, giving the same information. It may provide support, but not replacement.

I think we praise technology because we’re hoping it’s the quick fix. Tech purveyors want us to think that, too.

And the deeper, more long range truth, is that the growth of all this technology and continued production of more and more stuff is unsustainable. We can’t afford, in the long run, to depend on more and more. There is a reckoning up ahead, and it will probably force us to fall back upon some simpler approaches to communicating.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve talked with a number of teachers and principals about this. Several principals (and good ones, I think) noted that it’s not all or nothing – they are really figuring out how to incorporate technology into teaching so it’s a useful tool. That’s good. A good teacher has a wide array of resources and methods they draw on when teaching. And advanced technology, within limits, is a great idea.

Like I said, I’m a semi-Luddite. Until we use up the fossil fuel, we’re not going back. But I don’t believe the hype and promise. Because I’ve also seen what good administrators and teachers can do with more limited resources.

They need some attention, too.

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My friend Willy Claflin sent me a link to this youtube video of a young girl telling a story. She’s amazingly eloquent (and wow, she speaks French…) and it presents a way to look at what happens when children are involved in story.

One of the most striking elements at first viewing is Capucine’s vocabulary – all the animals, all the naming of things in the world, and their descriptions. Her use of those words insures they’re going to be part of her world.

What’s even more striking to me is her ability to incorporate all these things into a narrative. This connecting of elements is really what the mind does in making a story. Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, a witch, bats, and crocodiles have no relationship with each other outside of the story, but she wraps them together, into a story that also incorporates motifs found in many stories – lost babies, being eaten, going to heaven, “something going amiss”, gaining and losing magic, and death. There’s also a moral element that runs through the story – a concern for the “poor animals”, the conquering of the witch, the lion losing its powers, people being safe at the end. You can almost see her brain making connections, drawing on different stories and images, and even her immediate surroundings (her mother’s ring!). I’m reminded of Vivian Gussin Paley’s book on storytelling with kindergarteners, “The Boy Who Would be a Helicopter”, and Robert Coles’s work with children and story.

In watching this video, I have to put my critical mind on hold a little – the story lacks some narrative logic and if you start thinking about the lack of causality in spots, or the quick jumps, you miss the amazing thing that is happening. It’s a reminder that story is a way people work things out and it’s not always necessary for it to have water-tight plot points like a John Grisham novel.

And then, of course, there’s the mom – an open accepting presence through the whole story – I love her surprised “Oh!” when Capucine introduces a a twist in the plot. It’s this encouragement that lets the girl go on in her process of discovery. I think of all the times I’ve been with a kid who is telling a story, obviously making it up as they go along, and the adults in the room (me included) start rolling their eyes or say “Okay, how does it end?”. That’s fine sometimes, but adults who give themselves completely to a kid’s story-making are doing a great service.

This little girl is going to be very good at something, and a lot of it will be because of the ears of the adults around her.

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This month I’ve been working with the third graders at Paul Cuffee School in Providence on storytelling. Every student has had to find a story to tell, and is now in the process of learning it, with an eye towards telling it to a wider audience. It’s a process I’ve done a number of times, though not nearly as much as some other folks, like Beauty and the Beast (Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss) or Karen Chace.

One of the hardest things for any storyteller, regardless of age, is to take a story they’ve found on the printed page and make it their own. The translation from the written word back to oral is much more difficult than one might think. Children (and adults, too) can be pretty daunted, thinking they have to learn a story word for word. You can tell them, as I do, that they need not worry about particular words, but instead think of the scenes, work on the images, and tell their story in their own words. Still, there is that awkward memory of the words on the page, as if that is really the story. This is true for all art – making something your own, and not acting according to the schematic that is first presented – the work has to come from inside. As they say, the map is not the territory. But getting off the map is very difficult.

I developed an exercise last week that begins to address that process. The students had chosen the story, read it over a number of times, and made story maps of it – trying to identify each scene and drawing a picture that represented it. But they needed to tell it in their own words. Here’s what I did:

I had the students set up chairs in two circles, one inside the other – the chairs facing each other, so each kid had a partner. I then told them that the students on the inside had two minutes to tell their stories. More precisely, to just tell what happened. I timed them. When they finished, their partners on the outside told their stories. When the pair had finished, I had the people on the outside move one chair to their left, and we repeated the process. When those pairs had finished, I had the people on the inside move one chair to their left and repeat the process again. But this third time, I told them they were allowed to take three minutes to tell the story.

It worked pretty well. With the directions given, there was an eruption of protest. Kids said they couldn’t remember the whole story, or if they could, they couldn’t tell it in such a short time. “Too bad,” I said. “Just get through it”. They did. The second telling was easier. With the third telling, when I gave them an extra minute, they breathed a sigh of relief, and with my encouragement, slowed down to tell a little more. There was till some struggling, but after telling the story three times in fifteen minutes, the outline of the story was becoming clear in their minds. Because of the time limit, they had to throw away the written text and just get to the point. Now they had it fixed in their mind what happened in the story, and could begin to make it their own.

The exercise got me thinking about the challenge of being real in one’s art. It is hard to move from a concept of what the art is to the art itself, because in the end it has to come from inside of us if it’s going to be real. I was reminded of this when I went to see a play last weekend. It was pretty uninspiring, and my brother-in-law, Philip Stewart, who has done a lot of acting in his time, noted that the lead was not really acting, but indicating – the role wasn’t coming out of him, instead he was doing things that pointed towards what his character should be doing or feeling – like using shorthand. It’s like a kid who draws a picture of a tree where the trunk is brown and spread at the bottom, and the top is a round, scalloped ball of green – the schematic tree in the head, not a tree that actually exists. Or the writer that uses metaphors someone else has used before. Or the storyteller reciting a script they have memorized, rather than using their own language to impart the pictures in their head.

Making the students respond in a short amount of time, pulling the script away from them, leaves them to their own devices. They don’t have time to think, they just have to do – and it’s just doing that leads to authentic performance. When they have to use their own words, they begin to make the story their own. Then the story can grow.

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I did a school show the other day at 2 pm. There were about two hundred kids sitting in the school auditorium No one died, but it was a dead crowd. Teachers and kids came up afterward and told me that they liked it, but you woudn’t have known it during the show. Most of them sat there, semi-comatose. Great periods of silence. Quite the contrast to the show I had done in the morning. That morning, it seemed I could do no wrong. What was wrong with my show in the afternoon?

I don’t think it was me.

If you’ve been performing for a while, you know a dead room almost immediately – three minutes into the performance, you’re pulling out all your tricks, every thing you’ve learned to get some kind of reaction, but they sit there, deep in their seats, and they ain’t moving for you. It’s just something to get through, and you accept it. It’s not always about me – it’s just where they are.

That show was a dead room. And the truth is, most school shows in the afternoon are much more difficult than the ones in the morning. The teachers don’t react. It’s harder to get the kids to participate. Their attention wanders. Everyone is tired. You can see it in their eyes and in the way they sit.

Generally, I try to avoid doing afternoon shows.

All this has me thinking about the move towards having longer school days. I would like to know whose bright idea this is. Who thinks that kids can learn more than a certain amount in any given day? Who thinks that extending the day will raise the almighty test scores?

Ask any teacher when they teach math and reading. Not at 2:30 in the afternoon, that’s for sure. It’s too late, at that point. As my memory serves me, that was when the health teacher taught us how to brush our teeth – a lesson I was taught every year, and a lesson I still haven’t learned, according to Peggy, my dental hygienist.

More instruction is not the answer to greater learning. It’s a simple answer, and easily instituted (ah, then, perhaps the politicians…), but not an intelligent one. The proof to this is the kids I meet who are taught well at home in a home schooling situation (and not all home schooling situations fit this description). Academics can be handled in a couple of hours, when the kids is alert and attentive. Another class at 2:45 is not going to solve the problems faced by the American educational system.

This observation is so transparent it boggles my mind that there’s any discussion about it. Who does anything well at 2 pm in the afternoon? A good time for a kickball game, I think. Or for doing something with your hands.

There are two arguments for a longer school day – one sad, and one logical, but not really about education. The first is that instituting a longer school day frees adults from having to deal with children for another hour or so. This is the argument for school as warehouses or holding bins – not a particularly positive aspect of education. The other, with more merit, is that for many kids, especially in urban areas, the late afternoon hours are fraught with danger – it’s when kids are most at risk for bad things happening. But this is not really an argument for more instruction, but instead an argument for a safe place for them to be.

Other than that, I don’t know why anyone thinks more hours of school is a good idea.

I sure don’t.

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