I am a parent. Just like you. I know my kids. Just like you. I care so deeply about my kids. Just like you.
Sometimes I worry about my kids. Just like you. I worry about who they are and how they present at school. Just like you. I worry that they will fail and show their dark side. Just like you.
At home, sometimes I see my child upset, scared, frustrated, irritated, explode, freak-out, give up, talk back, melt down, hurt others or themselves, say mean things to others or themselves, give excuses, belittle and shut down. Just like you.
However, when your kids are with me, I see the young person you hope them to be. I see your child strong, determined, excited, happy, ready, resilient, independent, fierce, curious, flexible, cooperative, intrigued, humble, humorous, positive, helpful and kind.
My kids are not perfect everyday. Just like yours. My kids don’t always share this side of themselves with me. Just like yours.
Just know that it’s happening. They are shaping their futures and gaining independence. They are trying out their ideas and trying on new identities. They are practicing being their best.
Just like mine.
I have been thinking about what we as educators expect out of our students when we ask them to be creative. So often we ask students to share their learning in a way that expresses their creative understanding as if it should just ooze out naturally. The problem is creativity is not a natural or genetic preset. It is an active and intentional decision that arrives through the stages of consuming creative work and then copying elements of those creative works.
Only after enough time to imitate and play with those elements can students begin to piece together their own creative works.
As educators, I have to wonder if we are expecting too much sometimes out of our students. Or more accurately, expecting too much too soon. If students don’t have the chance to “try on” or experiment with the ideas of others, is it reasonable to expect them to synthesize those ideas into something of their own?
A recent example of this extreme expectation came from a respected friend who commented on a student dance troupe performance that it was “pretty gimmicky”. The students had not only performed at a very high level but these dances were entirely choreographed by the students themselves.
Had we chosen to go see a professional dance ensemble, would the quality have been better? Sure. Less gimmicky? Not so sure. But we didn’t choose that. We chose to see our students expressing their creativity.
I am not throwing my friend under the bus. This teacher does much to facilitate student growth. But comments like this are dismissive rather than celebratory. We all make these comments sometimes and thanks to the internet an entire culture of full of this language has been created. And maybe this is a call to not only accept creative work but to be mindful of our responses to that work.
This type of corrosive language does more to deter students from creating. There is no dearth of people in this world unwilling or unable to express their true self and I would guess that the way teachers, parents and their peers have responded to their attempts at creative expression is a large part of their decision to stay dormant.
We have all experienced the frustration of students copying the example or seeing one student do something interesting and suddenly everyone has the same look or sound. And sure, sometimes their work is gimmicky but consuming and imitating are important steps toward new and unique expressions.
If I reach back to remember my own early attempts at creative expression, I very quickly find empathy and acceptance for the early attempts of others. May we all search for this empathy as we encourage our students, and maybe even ourselves, to move beyond the consumption level towards the creating.
Tonight, my sons began learning how to program different tasks into an Arduino. They were working together but I wouldn’t quite call it collaboration. My oldest son was very controlling and particular about what was happening. Every time his brother, who, to be fair, is quite enthusiastic, would touch a piece or move something around, daggers would dart from my older son’s eyes or a nagging command full of exhaustion would spew from his mouth.
This was driving me nuts because I was trying to enjoy a podcast.
It got me thinking about how I used to (maybe still am a bit) be very much like that. Especially in my teaching though maybe without the nasty words and evil eyes. I would write a lesson plan and I wanted things done in a certain way. Veering from the path was not accepted.
If I peel back the layers of reasons why I needed so much control it most likely had to do with fear.
Truth Disclosure: These fears still creep into my life more often than I would like.
I would wager that I am not alone in this. External fears drive so many of us to keep things looking clean and orderly. They keep us from sharing mistakes and getting messy. They keep us from trying new ideas and branching out.
For some reason, we have culturally (globally?) settled for a "middle of the road, don’t rock the boat, keep it identical to the next" mentality, for the sake of feeling secure and part of the pack. There is certainly an evolutionary explanation for this but this inability to be individually expressive leads to a distorted sense of what happiness means.
In my lessons, I wanted to look the part of a teacher and from my experience and imagination, teachers were in control. They had control over the students. They had control over time. They had control over materials. They had control of directions, instruction and processes.
I can remember giving out projects to students where I literally spelled out every single step of a three week project. All students had to do was go down the list and check things off.
I thought it was quality because I always added some element of creativity in the lessons but honestly, I still wanted things to be creatively done in the way that I imagined. This was less like scaffolding new skills and more like sprinkling glitter on a basic facts poster. Just the facade of creativity.
But who do activities like this serve? Definitely not the students. (Though there is something to be said about modeling creativity and working through recipes)
As I move toward greater student independence in my classes, I expect to feel uncomfortable and un-teacher-like. I expect things to be messy and I am going to be ok with that. Perhaps I just need shift my title from teacher to guide and flip the script from fear to joy.
As an educator/guide I will experience the….
My orchestra classes for upper elementary and middle school are only 35 minutes long. I have mixed instruments and skill levels in each group. Best practice in education usually requires a few components to any lesson or unit. These elements are usually:
They can be condensed into one day or along the course of a unit.
If I am completely honest, I don't do all of these every lesson. I do usually find a time for each component but they are often spread throughout the week or weeks as I see students. However, I have noticed that lately I'm skipping through the independent practice more quickly than I would like and often have to keep assessments at the formative level due to time.
As such, I am trying to take some notes from the Readers and Writers Workshop model which seem to have four key components.
In this post, I would like to think aloud about why independent work matters and convince myself to allot more time to this element in my lessons. (Ideally, a music student would be doing this independent work at home but...)
While there are many challenges to making independent work time useful, efficient and productive in the music room, I do think it is worth including in every lesson. This is where the magic of learning happens.
Following up independent work with a sharing opportunity is a fantastic way to bring meaning to this time and it also creates a communal sense of learning.
I think I'm convinced!
Over the years, I have recognized a hurdle that stunts student development in orchestra. I can ask a class, who is a runner or a cheerleader or a mathematician or any other identity driven marker and there will always be students who use those in the checklist of who they are. But for some reason, I can ask the same question about who is a musician and aside from the reticent “well, I’m in orchestra...so by default I’m a musician” most students don’t wear this badge around as openly. I’m not saying they don’t care or it isn’t important, they just don’t quite identify as a musician.
But I don’t understand the inability to tag ourselves with this one. We don’t expect the runners to be leading in the Boston Marathon. We don’t expect the cheerleaders to be able to do backflips off a pyramid three people high. And We don’t expect the math geeks to be solving the world’s great economic questions.
Why is the standard of musician so exclusively available to those of a certain caliber or talent?
One of my goals this year is to help break down that barrier and allow the badge of musician to be worn proudly by more than just the elite members. Don’t get me wrong. It still matters. Not just anyone can walk around and proclaim “I am a musician!” You still have to do the work and you still must have the intention of making music as a key component of your life.
I have to wonder if it’s this idea of identity that gets in the way of students forming healthy practice habits. The same habits that create a musician. In James Clear’s work, (here or here) he discusses the power of the small micro actions that compound over time to create the habits that comprise the identity we aspire to hold.
These micro actions are actually the habits. Meaning, the tiny actions that have become so habituated, routine and rote that hardly a thought is given toward their expression. Thus, they do not get in the way or impede the actions of the sought identity.
For example, someone who wants to write more…(like me)...might say I want to get in the habit of writing. But writing is not a routine or habitual act. It’s actually quite challenging and requires a great deal of focus. The habits around writing would be establishing the practices that create the environment in which one could write. So, the habit might be making your favorite tea, sitting down with that tea and opening your laptop. With those habits in place, the work can begin.
For musician’s, this might be the little actions of getting your instrument out of the case and setting up your stand until you become the kind of person who always sets up your stand and gets your instrument out of the case...like a musician. The first step toward identifying as a musician. Over time, after you have created this routine without needing to think about how, when or where, you can then get into the work of making music.
The two big pieces of this from my perspective are:
I will certainly revisit and expand on these thoughts throughout the years.
I am an educator, musician, parent and maker. I do my best to live with intention and to create learning environments that foster the same. This blog is an effort to share my thinking and learning. It is in no way a cementation of my understanding but a catalyst for unearthing it. These ideas are living and fluid.