There are a lot of discussions underway about what school will or should look like when face-to-face sessions resume. Sadly, the images of teachers barking commands from meters away at children in cells bolted to the floor six feet apart are as pedagogically toxic as they are medically perilous.

Ann Wang/Reuters – Lovingly borrowed from https://nationalpost.com/opinion/post-covid-19-classrooms-what-if-keeping-your-distance-becomes-the-new-school-normal

It is amazing how school leaders and districts can always seem to find rainy day money to invest in terrible ideas without a second wasted on considering the consequences of such actions. I realize that you are in a hurry to reopen schools, but are you investing for the future or reacting out of panic?

I remember several years back when virtual reality was being hyped by educator members of the Shiny Object Club flitting from one new scheme to another. Folks desperate to justify whatever they thought VR is would ask, “What do you think about virtual reality in schools?” My answer would always be, “Isn’t that redundant?

Surprisingly to some, the online world may provide greater opportunities for intimacy, collaboration, conversation, and learning-by-doing. It is the mechanical stuff long overvalued by school – reading quietly, answering questions, worksheets, quizzes, tests, studying – that are much better suited for the virtual world.

You know who I rarely, if ever, see featured in the articles, books, podcasts, pronouncements, panel discussions or prognostications of the futurists “helping” schools prepare for the “new normal?” Music, art, or drama teachers. Why must the future be so colorless and dystopian?

The simple truth is that band was the only thing we did not have at home that justified my kids going to school. Schools tend to undervalue the things to which they actually add value.

When pressed to defend investment in art, music, drama programs (a justification only ever sought after for things kids enjoy), the affirmative arguments often evoke the words of Dickensian shopkeepers. Students in art and music classes do better on standardized tests or get into better colleges or crush the lesser kids. Even those with nobler objectives argue that art, music, and drama programs motivate kids to stay in school and give them purpose. While certainly true, those reasons are also in service of the system. How about investing in performing arts programs with qualified teachers within the curricular day because what students experience in those classes are the things that make us human, nurture democracy, and sustain civilization? To quote the late NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath, “What was good, is good.”

This is not small stakes. I write this as fiery protests burn in cities across the United States in the wake of the latest racist police officer killing of an African American. It is a safe bet that kids in the high school jazz band or production of “Fiddler on the Roof” are not out looting a shoe store. They may even vote to support school budgets when they become adults.

Today’s feed

I have been battling for public investments in performing arts education for thirty-eight years (a tale for another article), but today I saw something so deeply moving on Facebook, that its importance motivated this article.

One of the world’s finest vocalists, Kurt Elling, shared a video of a high school choir from Boulder, Colorado performing an adapted version of his arrangement of Paul Simon’s American Tune. Despite their social isolation, a work of high-quality art was produced on iPhones by students who learned to sing together in school. The special poignancy of the performance is heightened by today’s milieu. Even if these young people did not learn to sing in school, this is where they learned to sing songs by Paul Simon like Kurt Elling and to be part of something bigger than themselves. It also happens to sound great.

Excalibur (2019-20) Fairview High School Boulder, CO Janice Vlachos, director

A cursory Google search revealed that Fairview high school does not just have a choir, it is blessed with nine of them! It has at least three orchestras and a jazz band as well. They employ multiple art teachers as well. Their community undoubtedly values the arts as an integral part of the educational experience and invests accordingly while other schools share YouTube videos of how there’s music in math (Look, they’re counting!) or math in art (Can you see the triangles?). What this school choir has created is so much more profound than the viral videos of one kid jamming in their room, no matter how talented that kid happens to be.

The music education professionals in this school community have pulled off something impossibly hard as arts teachers are often called upon to do. The result is everything that justifies the future viability of public education.

This investment in kids learning to do something well together, including the cost of arrangers and editors to produce this video, sends students the message that they are loved and much is expected of them. Doesn’t every student deserve that?


Note: Having the audacity to point out that arts programs are under appreciated or underfunded immediately provokes school librarians and teachers of other subjects to exclaim their deprivation.  The race to be the most aggrieved by so many educators is disempowering and counter-productive. We must unite to create and advocate for a modern liberal arts education for every child.


Official video of Kurt Elling’s recording of American Tune

The following is the post on Kurt Elling’s Facebook page. It tells the backstory of remarkable high school video (above).

EXCALIBUR’s deeply moving performance of American Tune is emblematic of these times under lockdown. These talented Fairview High School Choirs students from Boulder, CO – isolated from each other – sang into their phones and the finished result is amazing!

Choir director JANICE VLACHOS had commissioned KERRY MARSH to arrange KURT ELLING’s version of American Tune for Excalibur to perform this school year.

JANICE VLACHOS reflected, “The lyrics hit so deep on this one and it was a comfort all year long to us knowing that there have been times the world has felt in turmoil and that we’ve been in this place before. The words ‘it’s alright, it’s alright’, have been soothing to all of us. We sang this song multiple times throughout the year and we were planning on singing it at the last concert, and then coronavirus hit.

“We walked out of school on March 12th and never returned. We were heartbroken on so many levels – the global consequences of the virus and in our own small world of not being able to singing together. We were also saddened to realize we didn’t have a great recording of American Tune. So we recorded it on our phones, and Kerry Marsh mastered it for us beautifully. I often find myself thinking of the lyrics as I’m searching for solace during this time.

Arranger KERRY MARSH notes, “I feel that this is one of the most important arrangements I’ve written thus far in my musical career, frankly. Based on the transcendent recorded version by Kurt Elling, and arranged during the most uncertain time in at least my own lifetime, this prescient Paul Simon composition connects with our modern times in a way that a typical ‘chart description’ is not fit to articulate. Its meaning, as it may relate to the current gaping political divide in the U.S. (mirrored in many countries worldwide, certainly) or certainly the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, will be best communicated by each group that performs it.

“These young musicians (and their director) are absolutely amazing. It was humbling to work on this, and [my partner] Julia Dollison and I shed buckets of tears throughout the process. Really proud of what they’ve accomplished with this and everything else, and confident that this currently messed up world is in very capable hands when these folks take charge.

“As a part of the celebration of their releasing this, I’ve just made this chart available at KerryMarsh.com. Kurt Elling’s version (arranged by Christian Elsässer) was an incredible source of inspiration to work from. Paul Simon’s composition has proved timeless…would that it weren’t so, actually. But these students, in their interpretation of his lyric, provide great hope.

Fairview HS Orchestra director DAVID RUTHERFORD adds this behind-the-scenes perspective:

“Your experience is this: For 7 minutes you watch all their beautiful faces, all together, side-by-side, shining at you with all the love of singing they’re known for. Your heart overflows with the beauty of the music piped through your earbuds. And you smile and say, ‘Beautiful!’

“But think about the experience for each student in the creation of the video. Alone, listening to a click track and accompaniment. No blend. No harmony. Multiple takes because of all the silly imperfections one begins to focus on in a myopic environment like that. Am I in tune? Was I early? How is this vowel? Where is this cutoff? The insecurities never end.

“Then each video is sent off to the producer and engineer, who take all 26 videos and painstakingly line up the sound, which takes literally weeks to do in front of a computer screen. After hundreds of hours, finally, all the consonants are together, the imperfections in pitch have been tweaked out, the entrances and the cutoffs are perfect, and the quality of sound from an iPhone microphone has been processed to become nearly studio quality. Finally the video, after another week, presents those beautiful faces artfully for maximum effect when you watch and listen.

“Again for the students, there was no shared experience here. There was no ensemble. Look at each one of those faces and think about it from their perspective as they sing – the space past that black border is tragically empty.

“So how can they sound so good? Because they remember what it was like to sing together, and they recreate that in their minds. This is a song they had sung all year long – I performed it with them on several occasions. They know how it feels to sing it as an ensemble, to blend their voices into one, and oh my goodness do they know how to connect with an audience. So they sang at an iPhone screen, remembering all this, pretending they were together singing for you….

“Excalibur, thank you for this reminder of just how valuable music is to all of us. The tears on my face are real.”


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, pubisher at Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary.

Marvin Minsky & Gary Stager

One great joy of my life has been getting to know and work with so many of my heroes/sheroes. Even greater satisfaction comes from sharing those people with my fellow educators, via books, presentations, and the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute.

Over dinner thirty years ago, one of my mentors, Dan Watt dropped some wisdom on me when he said, “writing is hard.” Writing is hard. I find sitting down to write is even harder. The reward of writing is your work being read by others, especially when readers report thinking differently as a result. Even the “hate mail” I received as a magazine columnist and editor made the agony of writing worthwhile.

While proud of many things I have written, three pieces stand out as enormous honors. Being asked by the science journal of record, Nature, to author the obituary of my friend and mentor, Dr. Seymour Papert, was a difficult challenge and great privilege. Learning later that the great Alan Kay recommended me for the assignment took my breath away. I will remain forever grateful for his confidence in my ability to eulogize our mutual friend in such an august journal.

On two other occasions, I have been invited to contribute to books by my heroes. A few years ago, the prolific progressive author and educator, Herb Kohl, asked me to write a response piece to the great musician, David Amram, for the book, The Muses Go to School: Inspiring Stories About the Importance of Arts in Education. My fellow contributors include Bill T. Jones, Bill Ayers, Whoopi Goldberg, Deborah Meier, Diane Ravitch, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Lisa Delpit, Maxine Greene, and others. Many readers may be unaware of my music studies and the fact that my career began as a public school arts advocate. Sharing anything, let alone a book, with the remarkable Herbert Kohl remains a source of enormous pride. This is an important book that should receive greater attention.

I first met Artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, in the late 1980s. I cannot say that I spent a great deal of time with him over the subsequent decades, but anyone who ever encountered Marvin can testify to the impact that I had on them, perhaps down to the molecular level. The fact that Marvin agreed to spend time leading a fireside chat with any interested educator at the first eight Constructing Modern Knowledge institutes continues to blow my mind. I will forever cherish his wit, wisdom, friendship, and generosity.

Inventive Minds: Marvin Minsky on Education is a brand new book based on essays by Dr. Marvin Minsky, one of the great scientists, inventors, and intellectuals of the past century. Our mutual friend, Dr. Cynthia Solomon, a hugely important figure in her own right, edited a text in which important essays by Minsky were assembled and responded to by an amazing collection of Marvin’s friends. One of Marvin’s proteges, Xiao Xiao, illustrated the book. The contributors to this book include:

  • Co-inventor of the Logo programming language, Cynthia Solomon
  • Father of the personal computer, Alan Kay
  • Legendary computer science professor, author, and pioneer of the Open Courseware movement, Hal Abelson
  • Former Director the MIT Media Laboratory, Walter Bender
  • Artificial intelligence pioneer and MIT professor, Patrick Henry Winston
  • Software engineer, inventor, and executive, Brian Silverman
  • Software engineer, Mike Travers
  • Haptics engineer and scientist, Margaret Minsky
  • Me

I can’t speak for my contribution, but am confident that Inventive Minds will stimulate a great deal of thought and dialogue among you and your colleagues. Buy the book and enjoy some great summer reading!


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

Four collections of recommended books

  1. The Constructivist Consortium has compiled an extensive online book store for creative educators. Be sure to peruse these recommendations!
  2. Wanna be a School Reformer? You Better Do Your Homework! Required reading for school leaders, administrators and policy makers.
  3. Tinkering resources for educators
  4. Overlooked gems, books kids (especially boys) will love

The two best education books of 2011

Tricia Tunstall’s beautiful new book, Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music, tells the story of El Sistema, perhaps the world’s most exciting large-scale (systemic) education project. At a time when presidential candidates call for children to clean toilets as a way of “learning the dignity of work,”, El Sistema, teaches hundreds of thousands of children to achieve their potential as productive citizens by learning to play classical music at a level previously unimagined.

This book is a must-read. It’s incredibly well-written and reminds us of how arts education can change lives. The lessons for all educators, politicians and parents are multitudinous. I sincerely hopes this book reaches a wide audience, it asks much of each of us, but the rewards are extraordinary. It reminds us what it means to be human. You should also get the fantastic DVDs, El Sistema: Music to Change Lives and The Promise of Music to bring music and motion to the ideas in Tunstall’s fantastic new book.

 

Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools by Roger Schank

Dr. Schank is one of the leading experts on artificial intelligence, storytelling, simulation, entrepreneurship and learning. His new book is another fearless volume about what is wrong with education and how it may be “fixed.” Schank is hilarious, provocative and not a person you want to argue with. This important book may help cleanse school leaders of the nonsense spread by Pink, Willingham and Marzano.

From Schank’s web site: “Unfortunately education and teaching rarely means either of these things in today’s world. The premise of my new book is simple. We have all gone to school. We all know that school is organized around academic subjects like math, English, history and science. But how else might school be organized? There is an easy answer to this: organize school around thought processes.”

 

Honorable Mention Book of 2011

Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System Is Failing and What We Can Do About It by Ron Wolk

While I profoundly disagree with some of his conclusions and views on educational technology, veteran academic and founder of Education Week, Ron Wolk does an exceptional job of describing the current educational landscape. The data within the book is invaluable.

 

 

Soon-to-be-released Books I Can Hardly Wait to Read!

 

The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformationby Edwards, Gandini and Foreman is the most comprehensive book on the phenomenal “Reggio Emilia approach” to education.The 3rd volume of this comprehensive anthology will be available any day now. It is a must read and re-read for many years to come.Lella Gandini has made a spectacular contribution to Constructing Modern Knowledge over the past few years. One of the great honors of my life was being invited by legendary educator and author of 40 seminal education books, Herbert Kohl, to make a small contribution to this new book about the importance of the arts in education.Being included in a book with Deborah Meier, Bill T. Jones, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Ayers, Lisa Delpit, Rosie Perez, Phylicia Rashad, Diane Ravitch and Maxine Greene leaves me speechless.I cannot wait for The Muses Go to School:Inspiring Stories About the Importance of Arts in Education to arrive!

Deeply moving & often hilarious book

 

Regardless of your politics or how you feel about his films, Michael Moore’s new book, Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life, is a poignant, witty and exceptionally well written memoir of growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. This book really captures one person’s realization of the American dream. I highly recommend this page-turner for idealistic teens and their parents.

 

 

My Ten Favorite Jazz Recordings of 2011
Unsung Heroes by Brian Lynch Songs of Mirth and Melancholy by Branford Marsalis and Joey Caldarazzo In the Element by Emmet Cohen Roy-alty by Roy Haynes Road Shows volume 2 by Sonny Rollins
This extraordinary new album of modern jazz in tribute to unsung trumpet heroes is by my friend Brian Lynch and earned five stars from Downbeat Magazine. I’ve known Branford for 30 years. This new album is a duet with his longtime pianist, Joey Caldarazzo. The result is quite beautiful. I met young Emmet almost a year ago and we’ve hung out ever since. He recently placed 3rd in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition. His debut recording is quite good and he is going to be a monster in years to come. I heard Roy Haynes for the first time when I was 14 and his music has brought me more joy than perhaps anything else in life. He not only represents the history of American music, but at 86 years old, Mr. Haynes swings harder than any drummer alive. Sonny Rollins may be the world’s greatest living musician and he’s finally enjoying the respect he deserves. He was given a Presidential Arts Medal and Kennedy Center Honor in 2011. This recording includes recent live recordings, including a rare duet with Ornette Coleman.
Forever by Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke & Lenny Whtite
Pinnacle by Freddie Hubbard
The first CD in this 2-CD album is unbelievably exiting and hard swinging. The second disc? Not so much. I saw Freddie Hubbard perform live dozens of times and each note he played was exhilerating. This live recording is available for the first time. Unreleased “bootlegs” by Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter & Tony Williams – what’s not to love?? Here’s my credit card! This young vibraphonist has been called the “Mike Tyson” of the Vibes. Check out his terrific major label debut recording produced by mentor Christian McBride. It’s been a busy year for the hardest working man in jazz. Christian McBride’s big band and all-star duet recording are must-haves.


The weather outside may be frightful, but summer is right around the corner. You deserve to spend four days next July reigniting your creative flame, recharging your battery and learning with world-class educators, artists and inventors.

Join us to celebrate the 5th anniversary of Constructing Modern Knowledge, the world’s premiere project-based learning event in Manchester, New Hampshire – July 9-12, 2012!

Why not replace visions of sugarplums with the opportunity to learn storytelling with award-winning filmmaker Casey Neistat; tinkering with the Editor of Make Magazine, Mark Frauenfelder; project-based learning from one of its originators, Dr. Lilian Katz and explore the ultimate 21st Century toy factory, the MIT Media Laboratory, with Dr. Leah Buechley? Nine year-old faculty member, Super Awesome Sylvia, reminds us of the meaning of education.

Give yourself the learning experience of a lifetime and register today!