Friday, November 14, 2008

Day 39 (Round II) "In the trenches" (Dancin' 'til Friday comes around edition)

Workstation for the Celtic Ensemble's video-podcast series on Youtube, "The Wheel of the Year." About the only way I ever learn software is by setting some specific task I want to learn how to accomplish, learning how to accomplish that particular task in that software (forget about all the other options), and only adding to my skillz if/as I need to accomplish a different sort of task in the same package. I know 1 or 2 tasks in about 15 different kinds of software: Photoshop, Frontpage, Excel, Ulead (video), CoolEdit, etc, etc, etc. It's a little like Conan Doyle's Holmes, who "knew what was sufficient for him to accomplish his work, and no more." And, in the modern pedagogical environment, there are so many different tools that go into the box of skills that being a teacher implies that, if I tried to sit down and read through and/or work through all the manuals or "jumpstart" classes for all the software I use, I would literally never get any actual tasks accomplished. I opt for more limited, more focused learning that's more directly task-oriented for my job.

End of the 12th week of classes here. The kids are beyond-fried: as a result of both calendric peculiarities (starting the fall semester very early), the relative lateness of Thanksgiving break this year, the lack of any mid-semester break of any substance, the necessity of the marching-band kids to spend pretty much every waking hour of every weekend supplying music for football games, and, finally, this year, a football team that just keeps winning, they've had almost total stress and almost no rest for literally months. The result in turn is that they are sleep-deprived, getting sick, and melting down right and left all around us. It's so serious that our boss took time in a faculty meeting to say "here's just how much you should be paying attention to warning bells you may be receiving about students' mental or physical well-being."

Now, I know from stress: between my childhood, and my graduate school experience, I figure that literally more than half of my years have been spent in environments that were physically, mentally, or emotionally debilitating (or all three). I have certainly learned to take the indicators--the "warning bells"--very goddamned seriously: we had suicides or attempts thereat literally once or more a year at Indiana. When I see a kid who's either manic or affectless, sleeping not at all or 16 hours a day, unable to concentrate, prone to tears to inappropriate anger, I know what that can mean (I was borderline-depressed or suicidal for a number of years), and I don't ignore it.

Of course, there are other issues--these young people are supposed to be growing up, and we're not supposed to do it for them. Part of what they are supposed to be learning is to handle both the professional and personal balance; to keep track of their own mental, physical, and emotional health; and to make smart and mature choices about those balances. And, if their professors do it for them, it's invasive and inappropriate--even if they like and prefer that their professors do so. You have to know, as a professor, when and how to intervene--and how or how not to: a fine line to walk.

On the other hand, what you can do, pretty much any time and in any circumstance, is to provide opportunities for the student him/herself to either cite--or at least to vent--regarding the problems they're having. There's an old Zen aphorism that says "only offer advice after three requests for it"--which is in itself good advice. But that adage is talking about what you should or shouldn't do as interlocutor--it doesn't say what you should or shouldn't do as listener. What a hell of a lot of these young people need is not advice, but opportunity: not advice as in "here's what you should do," but opportunity as in "here's what you are allowed to think, consider, imagine, hope, dream." Sometimes the best things I can do for a student who's stressed, melting down, or simply at a crossroads is to provide an environment in which it is safe, and encouraged, that s/he imagine new possibilities. That is what being a teacher is about--the opening of new horizons.

And, if you've been teaching a long time, and have watched literally hundreds of students, over several decades, go through the cycle of excitement/initiative/reality/overload/crash/repeat, you can help them cope--if only by providing opportunities for them to vent, verbally or otherwise.

An even higher, more sophisticated, and (I think potentially) more valuable contribution which decades of experience make possible is knowing when they need to vent, even if they don't know themselves. I've blogged before about our "Friday Shout-Out," wherein we recognize that any Friday in the semester, early or late, is likely for the undergrads to be a high-stress, low-attention day. So, on Fridays, rather than flogging them to concentrate despite the stress/attention deficit, I do the class announcements, and then say "OK, can I have a shout-out for Friday?" and they scream like banshees at the tops of their lungs. After the Shout-Out, the stress-release is substantial enough that they're better able to concentrate.

But by the end of the 12th week of the semester, with an unbeaten football team, another out-of-town game looming tomorrow, a bunch of them gone for various music conventions, and the balance of them exhausted and stressed-to-the-max, it's going to take more than a Shout-Out to make 'em cope. They may not know it, but they're so tense, so burnt-out, that even the motivated ones--to say nothing of the mouth-breathing criminals--can barely exert themselves to concentrate.

The wrong thing to do here would be to believe that simply flogging them harder to do the same things (process lecture, listening, engage in discussion) is going to get effective results. They'll just tune out that much more--they're so tired that they just don't care.

So we change it up: today's lecture was on kinesics, and began with this slide:

Now, you put a slide like that up on a Friday for a room full of freshmen who are over-tired (and over-excited) and you can feel the energy go out of the room. But sometimes, you actually do that on purpose: you front-load the one single abstract/textual concept you want them to internalize over the course of the entire lecture, accepting that the energy will go out of the room like a pierced balloon, and assuming that you will have to build all the way back up, over the 50:00 minutes, to the peak of energy at which you want to send them out at the end of class.

So then we have 5:00 minutes discussion about "body-knowledge," and all the kinds of information that musicians internalize based upon non-verbal, gestural, and/or physical models. Today, I said "OK, give me an example of some kind of non-verbal cue in music", and somebody said "conducting," so I said, "OK, how many of you are interested in conducting?" (12 or so hands out of 100 go up), and I said "OK, you 12 all stand up, right where you are." And they stand up, and you say, "OK, as a conductor, how would you show the orchestra how to emphasize the dominant chord before the final cadence, and then, how would you show the audience when they can applaud?" And they all give a kind of half-assed, weenie "hold and then resolve and then cut-off," and you say "nah, nah, nah--come on now: I played under Bernstein [which is the truth, by the way] and that guy knew how to milk the drama...come on, now!" And then the hambones--who you've already identified because it's precisely those same personalities who want to be conductors--get more into it, and give you the "Bugs Bunny as Toscanini" shtick, and the rest of them laugh, and you can feel the energy come back.

Then you show them a video, and say "what does this dancing tell you as a musician about how to play the music?":

And then you show them the next, and say "what does this one tell you?"

And then, "how about this one?"

And at each stage, you elicit responses to the question, "what does this kinesic information tell you as a musician? What can you learn from this?", and they're so familiar and comfortable with garnering data from video information that now they're sitting up and taking notice, and making notes, and nudging and talking to each other. And then you play this one:

And each time, you get them to engage: not just with you (that teacher-student teacher-student teacher-student one-to-one exchange, in a class of 100, gets really old), but with the videos, and with each other, and you can step back and let their energy come flowing back.

And then you tell them, "OK, here's one more example: your TA is going to play a Breton an-dro for you on the tin whistle," and she steps up and plays great (and of course they're gobsmacked, because they're only accustomed to seeing her handing around attendance sheets and running the technology), and they all applaud.

And then you describe the fest-noz (night festivals) in Brittany where these are danced, "fueled by raw oysters and hard cider," and they all laugh.

And then you hit the jackpot, because some kid says, unprompted, "Can you show us how you dance it?", and, thanking your lucky stars for synchronicity, you say "No, I can't."

And they all groan, and deflate.

And you say, "But you can show us how," and they all go "whoooaaaaaaaa.....!"

And then you call them all down on the floor--all 100+ of them--and set them up in four concentric circles, and show them the Breton hand-to-hand (or pinkie-to-pinkie) clasp, and put the tin-whistling TA in the center, and show them the "left-right-left RIGHT left-right-left RIGHT" stepping (dead simple, which is one of the things that makes this a great dance to teach to novices), and before they really know it, you've got all 100 of them dancing in the great concentric wheels, like gears in a piece of cosmic clockwork, that have fueled traditional culture in Brittany for 300 years--and, if you're willing to expand your definition of "traditional culture" to pan-Europe, or pan-Africa, or pan-Asia, for three thousand years--and even though they don't really know just how much they needed it, their heads are up, and their eyes are open, and their whole bodies are involved, and they're breathing to the bottom of their lungs, and laughing, and you can feel the stress, like a black river of tar, flowing out of the room and down the stairs as the air gets a little richer and the vibe gets a lot better.

And then you say, "OK, there is NO homework assignment over the weekend," and they cheer like banshees, and go out of the room laughing and yelling to each other and bouncing on their toes. And a little happier and healthier and stronger than when they walked in.

That's why I'm a teacher. That's why we have been doing precisely that--that very thing: understanding and providing what young people need and what can help them cope, even if they don't know it themselves--for a very long time.
A very long time.

Below the jump: full moon madness on the November South Plains:

1 comment:

gregory.white said...

Absolutely brilliant. As a former student (and participant in TMEA exhibitions) imagining in retrospect, this all makes perfect sense. It is also extremely refreshing to hear how aware the faculty is of student situations, even if the courseload stays the same.

I am totally guilty of loving your facebook stati, and after finding your blog am afraid it may be added to my jumble of daily checked websites. Any medium of learning I can take from you is something worth its weight in gold.