A few days ago, I visited with students and parents at a local Tulsa Elementary school to speak about music education and our Sistema Tulsa project. I enjoy these opportunities because I can connect and learn from them. I always feel that effective education should be a "from the ground up" or grassroots process if you will—where parents, teachers, and students must all "play" in concert to make it work.
As I shared a dinner in the school cafeteria, I met a mother and daughter who told me that they really enjoyed their school. As the conversation unfolded, I learned that the daughter, a third grader, had a few pieces of constructive criticism to share. She said, I make the Principal’s Honor Roll every time, yet I don’t feel like receive the recognition I deserve.” She believes that the school pays too much attention to behavior management and to her it seemed that doing well in that area carried more weight as far as rewards were concerned. I wonder if the school, or any school for that matter, has a process in place to hear the feelings, attitudes, or aspirations of their students. I know this would not be an easy task given the extraordinary demands teacher face on daily basis, but I learned that even taking a few minutes to hear a concern over a quick dinner can make a big difference to make a student feel included.
This exercise of inclusion can be productive on many levels. First of all, because it recognizes someone’s viewpoint and this can be important in the educational process. When Howard Gardner was in here in Tulsa to lecture on his ideas as part of the Brock International Prize in Education, he explained the concept of “individuation.” He shared that teachers must be conscious of each student’s intellectual profile (I would also add an emotional profile as rendered by the contextual circumstances of their own life). Interestingly enough, individuation is not a new practice. It happens often in the context of personal instruction or tutoring which for the most part only the more economically affluent students can partake in. In urban school districts where poverty might be an issue, all who participate in education cannot shy away from the potential of being as present as we can be in the life of each student. This of course is a parent’s responsibility first but needs to also be balanced among different supporting pillars.
I remember my first piano teacher used to say that it took the participation of the student, the teacher, and the family to reach success. I know that educational leaders often try their best to plan activities where the three can meet and share. The parent teacher conference or the “Rise and Shine” general assembly come to mind. Lately, I witnessed another type of bonding experience—the Music Festival. Around thirteen Elementary schools in Tulsa met to make music together through "Orff" ensembles and choral groups. About 200 students shared the stage with several teachers taking turns at leading the music. The general atmosphere at these events is always one of pride and celebration. It always impresses me to see so many cameras and flashes shining around, as if this were a Garth Brooks concert. But the whole point of the experience goes much farther than the waves that a musical tune can produce or the images that can be captured on a cell phone. This is about the experience of being in the presence of a much more hopeful future. As students sang (and they sang with gusto) you could sense that they felt that they were part of something important. How many times have students left a testing room feeling elated or proud about themselves?
Back to Gardner and his talk, in addition to individuation there was also “pluralization” in learning. This idea has everything to do with finding ways to teach a specific idea from multiple perspectives. There is research to prove that the arts can teach us much more than playing a note in tune or drawing a line with finesse. In fact, there are several experiments around the country having to do with what experts call “expeditionary learning” where mathematics or language can be taught from a musical perspective. I have not fully participated in this but I presume that this would work given I can still remember all 50 states and all the Books of the Bible (since they were taught to me in the form of a song).
Beyond the academic realm, I do think that there are things that only the arts can teach us. The great American jazzman Wynton Marsalis speaks eloquently on this subject. He uses music and swing as a metaphor for inclusion. “Music necessitates listening to and working with others in fulfillment of the requirements of ensemble performance,” he says, “The art of swing is the art of balance, of constant assertion and compromise.” I like the word compromise because it implies trust. And perhaps this is just what we need more of today. We need to find ways to listen better to each other, to recognize that viewpoints which might be foreign to us still matter, and to celebrate our diversity in the broadest sense of the word. I remember the student at the local Elementary school and ponder that this is perhaps why it is so important that we can listen to the most vulnerable of voices because they can teach us how we should lead and how the music should sound.