‘Mr H then introduces the materials with which they are to work. These materials, water and red ink, are significant. Not only does each student get his or her own cup of water, but Mr H comes around to drop the red dye in each person’s cup; personal attention is being provided here.’
(From The Arts and creation of Mind by Elliot Eisner)
A glimse into a classroom.
For the most part writing about education deals in generalisations. Detailed, thick descriptions of classroom transactions like the one above are extremely rare. The truth of what goes on in the name of education in our classrooms remains in large part a mystery, a secret garden.
While I too write about education, mostly music education, in gereralisations, I remain intrigued by what actually goes on inside the classroom, the secret garden, where it is the interactions between teacher, pupil and what is being learnt that reveal the heart of the matter. I love reading and writing detailed, thick accounts of these human transactions just as we do in reading and in writing imaginative literature.
‘The Invisible Man stood up, and sticking his arms akimbo began to pace the study.’
Just one short sentence from H. G. Wells The Invisible Man.
We are there. Of course earlier in the narrative we learn more about the character of the study, the troubled state of mind of the Invisible Man and so on. Wells has ensured that we have imaginatively entered into the world he has created.
Christopher Small liked to ask, ‘what is going on here?’ when observing what he termed ‘musicking’.
A while ago I was pleased to discover Jane Parker’s thick description of a scene from the early years. This is scene 1 below. In her blog Jane goes on to analyse what is thought to be going on here – the theory of instruction that lies behind the teacher’s actions. (See Jane’s Blog http://www.teachwire.net/news/ill-hum-it-you-play-it-music-education-in-early-years)
It prompted me to celebrate five scenes from the music room, each showing a music teacher’s advanced music teaching skill. Each teacher with a well-developed theory of instruction. And inside this there lies something difficult to capture in words – the manner of the transactions, the temper of the exchanges, their playfulness, the feel of the moment by moment narrative, the anticipations engendered and the satisfactions and frustrations experienced, and above all else, children coming to know music. So come with me through the garden gate into the secret garden.
The practitioner sits on a chair facing her preschool children who are gathered on the carpet in front of her. She takes out a puppet called ‘Songstar’ and hums the first phrase of ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ as she moves Songstar’s mouth. The children excitedly shout out, “Songstar wants to sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle!’” She asks the children if they all have their ‘twinkly fingers’ ready. She then sings (on her starting note) “Ready, steady, let’s all sing.”
The children and adults begin singing together, while simultaneously opening and shutting their hands eight times as they quietly sing the words of the first phrase. The song continues, but then the practitioner stops just before the word ‘sky’. She smiles and listens as a few children very quietly sing “sky”.
She joins in again with the rest of the song, but this time stops leading the song at the very end, allowing the children to sing “are”. She then asks the children if they have magic lips like Songstar, and gets them to have a go at miming the first line of the song – only instead of singing, they’ll clap each word so that they’re essentially ‘Clapping the rhythm’. She sings, “Ready, steady, let’s all clap” and leads the children in clapping out the words of the first line, miming the words while at the same time moving the puppet’s hands in a clapping motion.
We gather in a circle. With measured poise and calculated tempo Hannah strikes her drum and we start connecting to the regular 1 2 3 4 pattern, learning to co-ordinate our cries of Hey and Hoe, while together making our first music of the session.
Breaking from the circle we walk the beat. And now a different timbre to perceive while conserving the beat – the sound of wood on wood from the drum’s rim used as the signal to walk backwards. Walking backwards I almost collide with Theo who politely tells me, ‘look over your shoulder’.
Now Hannah asks the children to provide themes from the recent Halloween-tide so that our walking has a distinctive character. In turn we become Spider-Man, vampires, skeletons. For skeletons I lean forward reach out my hands and spread fingers as wide as I can. When the music stops eyes close and Hannah asks us to locate particular children. ‘ Where’s Joshua?’ We point, and yes, how did we know that?
We are getting to know each other.
Back in the circle and a little commotion eased through a call to breathe out and a calming shhhh from Hannah that we all partake in.
They form a circle, and following introductions, the teacher creates a movement-sound sequence figuratively faithful to motives from Mahler’s Symphony No 5 first movement, the ‘Trauermarsch’.
The musical material transmitted is Mahler’s. There are 15 minutes of intensive working where the teacher gives and the pupils give back, where the teacher insists through repetition that all get it. The transaction is already playful and relational. Like catching balls moving fast between all within the circle, the pupils catch melodic fragments as well as rhythmic ones.
‘You really need to get hold of this material, this is very important’, says the teacher.
Now with a voice of enchantment and mystery the teacher reveals Mahler’s use of the song ‘Der Tambourg’sell’, a song about one of Mahler’s ill-fated ‘children’, a drummer boy condemned to execution and his long walk to death, the ‘trauermarsch’.
The pupils want to know what it is that the boy has done that deserves such a fate. However, this is to remain a mystery for the time being. The work proceeds until groups have created their own ‘trauermarschen’ using Mahler’s material.
Ready to go now and Katy, with a lively good humour, sets about transmitting the musical material.
And as the rhythmic texture enlarges, and as we together master the rules of engagement, we seek our own solutions to the skills-challenge equation and find flow and fluency.
In the ongoing interplay between Katy and the group the locus of control is passed back and forth. Yes, there are times of impersonal learning where the acquisition of content and skills dominate but then times of personal learning as each gains control, self-regulates, gains agency, no longer shaped by the teacher, but shaping self.
The highlight of the Samba workshop comes when there are sectional breaks and when the side-drumming quartet fizz with virtuosity. I think we are by now all feeling a bit virtuous.
Now it’s back to reggae which started last week and ‘Three Little Birds’. First, instrumental warm up time, then some rhythmic and pitch calling and copying, including that clave rhythm and of course lots of reggae rhythms and melodic twists. Into sectionals with pupils mostly directing each other in their making and playing, and sometimes teacher directed assisting movement into a self-sustainable groove. Lilian is having a whale of a time on keyboard. There is a powerful rhythmic reggae idiomatic feel to her playing and making, and she is vocalizing at the same time. Amarose on drum kit is quickly into the groove and like others, once in the groove, and as a consequence of repetition, new material is made. Tshian asks me how to play A on her trumpet and we have a short discussion about pitch and embouchure. Perhaps unsurprisingly the keyboard, bass guitar, drum section get well-grooved first and ready to welcome back the rest who with some ease join the music. We have ten minutes of whole class playing with the teacher leading the ensemble round a circuit of possible structural combinations without a break.
Returning to Mr H’s art room:
‘The red dye in the water invites projection. Its fluid quality, much like a clouds, makes it possible to see in the unfolding burst of form images that will receive without difficulty the meanings each student wants to confer upon them.’
Go to the world of social media, to edu-twitter perhaps and see a world of pontificating generalisations about how education should be. But just what are they talking about. We have precisely not the faintest idea. Their gardens remain secret and perhaps barely known to them.
Of course, generalisations are important. They open up and constitute the world of theory making and it is in theoretical propositions that we can find explanations, order and a sense of direction.
However, in the world of education and certainly music education rhetoric knows no bounds. Propositions fly in every direction taking us ever further away from what is actually going on in the classroom.