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.

I have often wondered why educators are so darn excited about Google. They get “Google Certified,” attend Google conference sessions, mourn when features change or Google loses interest in a platform they LOVE(d). Google loving teachers attend summits that are a cross between an Amway convention and cult meeting. Districts trust their communications and document storage to a company they know harvests their data (and that of their students) just to save a few bucks on an email server. School leaders have never met Mr. Google or any of his designees, but trust them anyway.

Millions upon millions upon millions of dollars are spent annually on teaching seemingly competent adult educators to in the words of President George W. Bush, “use the Google.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Google is a swell thing. You type something into a box and related web pages are displayed – just like the search engines that came before it. Google PhotoScan is a little piece of magic for rescuing and preserving family photos. We trust Google a lot and have become reliant on a faceless corporation who can change the terms of service or kill a platform we rely on at the drop of a hat.

One of my favorite tweets of all time was when I asked, “Which should I care less about, Google Wave or Google Buzz?” It turns out that I hit the exacta when Google quickly took both Wave and Buzz behind the barn and shot them Gangnam Style. I get the sense that Google operates like libertarian toddlers who just finished a jumbo box of Lucky Charms cereal right before their community theatre performance of Lord of the Flies.

Mad at me yet? No? OK. Good. Let’s move on.

The one Google thingy that schools really love is Google Docs. Boy, do they love Google Docs.

I have long wondered why? We have had word processors for thirty-five years. Most computers come with a free one adequate for most school applications and there are certainly better “Office” suites available. Many schools already own them.

So, why oh why the love affair with Google Docs? I offer a few hypotheses.

Here are the Top Three Reasons Why Schools Love Google Docs. [Drum roll please…]

  1. Google is cool. The Googleplex has vegan cafeterias, free dry cleaning, massage chairs, AND Ping-Pong tables. I wish our teacher’s lounge had a Pachinko machine and an assortment of herbal teas. That would make me cool too!
  1. Nuthin’ cheaper than free

and the number one answer why schools love Google Docs is….

  1. Collaboration!!!!!!

Collaboration is nice. Schools like nice. Being collaborative is what nice people do when they want to create nice things.

We have been here before

In the late 1980s, collaboration was all of the rage, but back then it was called cooperative learning. Cooperative learning. A school district sent me to a Robert Slavin Cooperative Learning Boot Camp run by Johns Hopkins University. Like any good boot camp, its intent was to beat us down and build us back up again as champions of cooperative learning. Colleagues were immediately separated so they could not question the dogma or rebel in any way. We learned to “jigsaw” boring and irrelevant curricula.

We were taught to create student teams of four kids; always four kids. The teams should be comprised of a smart kid, a dumb kid, a girl, a boy, a Black kid, a White kid, a skinny kid, a fat kid… Each team should stay together with their desks side-by-side for six weeks, always six weeks. If we did this, spelling test scores would improve.

Of course, during that prehistoric era, Google engineers were not even old enough to disrupt their own Waldorf schools. So, sadly there were no Google Docs to create multiplication flash cards or use all of our vocabulary words in a sentence. The word-processed five-paragraph essay in the cloud would have to wait.

TRIGGER WARNING!

Since 90% of what schools do is Language Arts and 98% of what they do with computers is language arts[1], Google Docs is mostly used for writing, but its secret power is collaborative writing.

I am a professional writer. (Not that you can tell from this essay) I am the author of hundreds of magazine articles, about as many blog posts (yeah, big whoop), a 450,000 word doctoral dissertation, countless academic papers, and co-authored one of the best-selling books about educational technology.

All of this qualifies me to say something heretical. (IMHO)

Writing is not collaborative!

(Please take a deep breath before declaring me a big meanie poo-poo head.)

You may write different parts of something and smush them together. You may peer-edit. You may create an anthology or periodical containing writing by several people, but writing is a solo sport. Writing is the result of one person’s internal processes.

Collaboration is more than simply the division of labor. It should not be taught as an isolated skill or coerced. Sadly, like many seemingly good ideas, schools seek to mechanize collaboration by turning natural process into a set of measurable skills and multi-year course of study, easily assessed. Some children win, while others fail.

Teams are created by teachers drawing Popsicle sticks with kids’ names written on them (until the teacher doesn’t like a random pairing and “fixes” it.) Students sense the capricious nature of this process and waste precious class time working the refs to get assigned teammates they like. Working with people with whom you are compatible is a logical idea frequently squelched by school “collaboration.”

Back in the halcyon days of Cooperative Learning™, a reporter for the long-defunct Electronic Learning Magazine asked Seymour Papert an intentionally softball question, “What do you think of Cooperative Learning?” Papert replied, “I think it is a profoundly bad idea to force children to work together.”

Oooh! Snap!

Collaboration should be natural

Cooperation and collaboration are natural processes. Such skills are useful when the creative process benefits from interdependence. The best collaboration mirrors democracy when individual talents, knowledge, or experiences are contributed to produce something larger than the sum of its parts.
Work with your friends. Work with people you trust. Work with people who have different skills or expertise. If that doesn’t produce the result you desire, you will find others to collaborate with. That is how you learn to collaborate. You may teach it, but the students will not stay taught.

Honestly, I could not care less about whom my students (kids or adults) choose to work with. The only reason to assign group size is scarcity of materials (we have to share). Even in those largely avoidable scenarios, it hardly matters if group size varies a bit. The main consideration is inactivity by some members when a group is too large.

Collaboration is both selfish and selfless. You give of yourself by sharing your talent and expertise, but the collaboration should benefit you as well.

Collaboration should be fluid

One of the great joys of Constructing Modern Knowledge derives from the range of collaboration on display at my annual institute. At the start, participating educators suggest a vast array of project ideas ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Participants identify which project they wish to work on and commence collaboration. If a person loses interest, becomes inspired by another project, or is incompatible with a teammate, they are free to join a different project or start a new one. Some people move effortlessly between multiple project teams; learning even more.

When projects are shared at the end of four days, three to five person teams have created the majority of projects, some may have a dozen or more collaborators, and we often discover delightful projects created by someone who quietly sat in the corner and worked alone.

I have been fortunate to learn a great deal about what I know about learning from some of the world’s best jazz musicians. Those who are expert at what they do, like musicians, artists, and scientists, pursue greatness by working tirelessly on what bugs them. That continuous and indefinite attention to detail makes them incredibly good at articulating how it is that they do what they do. In other words, they are great teachers.

The very fine jazz pianist and educator Peter Martin recently interviewed saxophonist Branford Marsalis and vocalist Kurt Elling about their remarkable collaboration, “Upward Spiral” (recording and tour). Marsalis and Elling are both highly accomplished A-list artists with their own working bands and artistic concepts. Yet, they have decided to spend a couple of years putting “their thing” on hold to create something new, wondrous and collaborative in the best, most natural, sense of the word. The music they create together on stage is transcendent and not to be missed.

During Peter Martin’s podcast, my old friend Branford Marsalis shares his profound concept of collaboration and juxtaposes it against the version so often practiced in schools. There is much to be learned here.

“The whole idea of a collaboration (to me) is that nobody gets to do what is that they do. The modern interpretation of collaboration is I know what you do. You do know what I do. Let’s get a head start and run real fast and collide into one another and whatever spills out over the side is the collaboration.” – Branford Marsalis

True collaboration is great. It’s even better than a free word processor.


Notes:
[1] I pulled those figures out of my bum, but I have been doing so for decades and no one has been able to disprove this completely fabricated assertion.



Gary Stager is the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute for educators July 11-14, 2017, coauthor of Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, and curator of the Seymour Papert archive site, DailyPapert.com.

Register today for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2017!