Sunday, January 24, 2010

looking for life

I woke up this morning with this phrase going through my head. I am haunted by something Haitian msuician Wyclef Jean said when being interviewed about the earthquake: " Every night, we could hear the people singing. You can hear them chanting and still singing the words of God--it's unexplainable." This is what I remember from the hours of coverage, the telethon, the photographs in the paper, Anderson Cooper's nightly coverage: the Haitian people are singing every night. They don't sing because they are happy; they sing because they can.

Morgan Freeman read an excerpt from the poem below, written by New Orleans poet Kalamu ya Salaam. Listen to the beauty. Listen to the hope. We can see the life, through all of it.

Tomorrow's Toussaints

this is Haiti, a state
slaves snatched from surprised masters,
its high lands, home of this
world's sole successful
slave revolt. Haiti, where
freedom has flowered and flown
fascinating like long necked
flamingoes gracefully feeding
on snails in small pinkish
sunset colored sequestered ponds.
despite the meanness
and meagerness of life
eked out of eroding soil
and from exploited urban toil, there
is still so much beauty here in this
land where the sea sings roaring a shore
and fecund fertile hills lull and roll
quasi human in form
there is beauty here
in the unyielding way
our people,
colored charcoal, and
banana beige, and
shifting subtle shades
of ripe mango, or strongly
brown-black, sweet
as the such from
sun scorched staffs
of sugar cane,
have decided
we shall survive
we will live on
a peasant pauses
clear black eyes
searching far out over the horizon
the hoe motionless, suspended
in the midst
of all this shit and suffering
forced to bend low
still we stop and stand
and dream and believe
we shall be released
we shall be released
for what slaves
have done
slaves can do
and that begets
the beauty
slaves can do

Saturday, January 16, 2010

learning to teach art

I told the kids we could make some clay dragons this year, as part of the unit on Asian Art. The clay project for this unit has been tea cups, but the last time we made them, I felt uninspired and bored by the whole thing. They were just another kind of pinch pot, it seemed, despite my attempts to dress them up with rings on the bottom and kanji on the side. It dawned on me that we should make dragons, because there is no creature, imaginary or otherwise, that inspires a fifth grader more, and they are just magnificent beings--especially Chinese dragons, who are the antithesis of the ugly, stinky bad guy dragons who are a traditional part of so many Western epics. Anyway, I have never made a clay dragon and began to wrestle, in my mind, with how in the hell to teach such a thing. I worried about many things: dragons have a lot of parts, after all, and many of them are skinny and long and complicated and detailed. Not the kind of components that generally lend themselves to an elementary clay project. Things like that fall off and break. I worried about what to do first and how to lay out the steps and how to show them the way. I kicked myself for promising to do something that I really didn't know if I could pull off. I do this a lot and I do it to force myself to do it and to find a way to do it. As usual, the way presented itself and took me out of the role of Sage/Teacher and into the role of learner, where we all belong.
What happened was that I put some clay and tools on the tables and the kids set to work, in teams, to make a dragon and then to present it to the rest of the class. I modeled it loosely after the Quick Fire Challenges on Top Chef: a challenge, a time limit, and then, the presentation. It was great fun for all of us, and the results were astonishing to me. What is important to remember here is that I taught them nothing; my role was to provide the opportunity and perhaps some motivation. I got out of my own way, and out of their way, and watched them go.
The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki says that the best way to control people is to watch them: to give them a nice, big space and then just watch. This seems counterintuitive to us teachers, who instinctively want to run the show and control the environment through implementation of all kinds of behavior and management and teaching strategies. And they can be very effective, to be sure: I have found that I can make a group of children do just about anything. The rub is, of course, that these strategies generally suck all of the creativity, let alone the freedom and joy, out of the classroom and the learning lives of the kids. And, the teachers.
A colleague recently has implemented yet another behavior control system in which children's names are listed on the board and consequences doled out. I remember seeing something like that when I student taught and thinking, do I really want to teach? Is this what it is about?
My experience with the clay dragons is what good teaching has become for me. If I can watch it unfold with the creators, it is nothing but joy.