No.2 - Hearing the Birds Sing
the Birds Sing
and Nothing More: And Life Continues
Your Eyes and Listen
Question to Ask
How dare he be discursive in the area of Staff Development? Why the poetry? Why the allusions to other areas? Why all these pointers? He’s not taking responsibility to any answer! Surely, creativity is very linear. And the imagination can be defined! Look at all those films on famous artists. What is this fellow on about? Give us an academic approach please! This must fit onto a PowerPoint presentation!
Hearing the Birds Sing: Engagement
We are trying to find bridges, build bridges and connect with others. We are trying to create experiences that open curiosity. We are trying to open the possibilities for journeys that echo our own. We are watching the growing journeys of a new generation. Paths that lead to doors we cannot even see.
In all this we look for answers or solutions. We hear success stories. We attend conferences. We are offered taxonomies and acronyms. Rarely do we hear a reality.
The fact: the answer to engaging learners is individual, idiosyncratic and contextual. How can it be formalised? There are pointers – respect, positive attitude, creativity and flexibility – yet; any answer lies very much within. It is an active and experimental process suited to the reality of your experiences. Beware of those who peddle solutions.
Like anyone I struggle with engaging students. Just because I work in staff development doesn’t make me an expert teacher. I am just glad to have a large bag of tricks to play with. I worked with a group of ten year olds recently. It was hard. It threw me back into experimenting. It drained me. It raised the many questions that we so often as teachers carry around: am I losing control? Am I being too controlling? What is happening here? What other strategies can I use? That one worked! Something is opening here and maybe we can go with it. Something is happening here and we don’t know what it is. Do you Mr Jones?
Engagement is an overused word in education. This morning I heard it used in a military context. Spare us! What other words are going to be reappropriated by the military – how many words can be used to soften the reality of killing?
There are many articles I can point to in ‘engaging students’ yet I want to get away from any academic leaning. Go to academic sites if you wish. I prefer to talk more creatively, more poetically and more practically. Somehow I have never found my interests compatible with what academia has offered me.
So, I try to engage learners. Currently (2003) I am working with a Disabilities Theatre Group – Hawaii Frog O – here in Hobart and we will be putting on a play mid year. Over the last few weeks I have been trying to engage the members into an understanding of the play. It is based on the life cycle of frogs and we have been learning about the cycle from egg, to tadpole, to froglet, to frog and so on.
The main issue is that a number of the members don’t speak and it is hard to locate their intellectual level. So, the process has been a slow one of combining movement and dance games with the learning. We have drawn frogs and tadpoles. We have created symbols. We dance and warm up. When the music stops, members are asked to stand next to the image that represents a concept – "now find the picture of the eggs and stand next to it". We have learned to put these symbols in order. We have explored the sounds of these symbols – soundscapes. We have moved like them. Overall we have approached intellectual understandings by moving through the senses – and as a group. As a result we have crept up on an understanding. We have let it sink in. We have relished the moments of understanding. Now we are moving into performance with a deeper understanding of what we are doing and why.
For me engagement comes as a physical reality – it is a change in the mood of the room, an excitement in the eyes or the face of a student. It is the willingness to follow through with the learning, to enjoy the process and the journey taken. It is also the process of finding out – what is it that makes this individual or this group spark?
I recently worked with an overly active student. Everything was moving – pencils being sharpened, objects being made – a very tactile lad. The starting point I found was his attentiveness when listening to a story. I praised his listening skills. Maybe, just maybe, he was free to just be, liberated from the process of doing and being judged. The question being – okay he seems to listen really well at times: how can I make this an important part of the process so that I can build his confidence?
Now I will digress to a very memorable experience of working with a dis-engaged student in Britain. He was illiterate, a truant, etc. Labelled – but human, all too human. He had after all – his senses. He was blindfolded and the class watched him guess a range of objects. He was fantastic. Again I remember a fellow with Down Syndrome who was blindfolded and could not be fooled by the changed voices within the room. He guessed every person who approached him. He was able to distil the person behind each masked voice. Maybe, just maybe, we should start with what we all know and what we are good at. A positive and reinforcing experience is always a good place to start.
room is silent, desks initialled and empty,
wait and listen. A private wood framed
bell rings and I stand facing the door.
slowly and gently settles.
So we are trying to find bridges. We are trying to connect with the real person. We are trying to get beyond the cynicism that often forces us back onto traditional methods.
The challenge is to ride this cynicism and to take up approaches that are challenging for oneself and others. It is the courage in encouraging students to ‘hear birds sing’. It is the commitment to carry on with an idea even in our moment of vulnerability, even when students may take a pin and pop the balloon. It is the challenge in throwing the experience back onto the group and saying that sabotage leads nowhere. It is the need to make students even more aware that what they cop in the classroom is as much involved with them, as it is the decision of the teacher. Why do you want to cut this down? Why don’t you want to go with this? If you know so much about what you don’t want then at least help me, help us discover what it is that we want.
And so one battles like I did with a group of senior students in Britain once in a Drama course. It is as if they were reacting to the previous teacher’s exit. A relationship had been built. It had all been cut very short when she took a specialist job. It took months to break through, to build a trust. Eventually we did. Even so I had to put myself on the line a number of times, when e.g. during role-plays, students sabotaged the material. We saw what happened. We saw it break. Slowly, very slowly, we created enough magical moments that students began to see the value in getting beyond the classroom – into the space of imagining. And so, perhaps, we need to find such magic across the curricula. How can we move the learning into a different space so that the feel changes? How can we no longer be confined by walls, by our own expectations, by a cynicism that labels and makes everything we experience quite predictable?
Try to the best of your ability to create the moments where "We listen together and they still do not laugh." It is not for me to tell. It is for us to search and find.
The image. A child within a ruin. Memories of a home destroyed by quake. A still, from an Abbas Kiarostami film "And Life Goes On" – one of the great living filmmakers.
And where is this child from?
Iran. Yes films about the people of Iran – these people who could easily be the people of Iraq. Deeply moving films that show humanity. The truth that these people, despite different religions and language, have the same dreams and hopes as us.
These desert people who wake with the same anxieties as us, who love their families and smile at the small gestures that life has to offer – the laugh of a child or the spirit in a quick jibe – stand within their own houses amongst similar ruins or potential ruins.
And for these people, trapped between regimes and suited decisions, we must at its minimum offer compassion.
Education: building compassion to deepen our understanding of the realities of people.
Walking in their footsteps. Wearing shoes. Imagining sandals. Imagining hot deserts but also lands like ours. Shopping malls, markets, dinners and prayers before bedtime. Summoning these to ward off the menace of ideologies that flatten.
Education that adds new dimensions. Education that refuses to reduce people to caricatures or statistics. This is our weapon. Education that plants the seed and enables the tree to grow and provides a shelter for the child in the photo above.
And so a student moves to the front of the class. What is your name? You are a woman? That is a burka that you are wearing? Tell us, how do you feel at the moment? Is that a crack we hear in your voice? We know we shouldn’t be asking these questions – imagine that we are not here. (Our questions are those of your inner voice). What quiet words do you hear? What will you answer? Why do you draw your burka closer and cover your eyes? What do you see? What do you feel? Let us all speak what we think that you are feeling. We all listen to each other. Phrases state our feelings. Words. Fears. Memories. Let us speak to create your voice and your world.
And you have said that the body was your child’s. He has grown but is no more? What was he like as a child? What memories do you have? Let us hear your voice. We have heard those of other mothers no doubt equally suffering. Let us put a voice to your silence, a face to that nameless unseen corpse, we dread so much to show you. Let us try to understand. Let us move beyond that which limits and that which so increasingly surrounds us.
She is twelve and is sitting at the back of the class. The group is quiet, listening to the words of the desert dweller. We are listening to the phrases of the Iraqi woman. The twelve year old quietly speaks – "Why can we never find our peace?"
Education: stepping beyond the four walls. Collective imagining. Building with imagination. Opening insight. Refusing to walk the same talk.
How can use paintings within learning? Let this picture speak! There are many websites or texts that will show you clear representations of paintings. Why not visit an art gallery?
Let your students look at the picture in depth. Who is in it? What is being said? Who was the painter? Students could recreate the scene physically. I once did this with the Norman Rockwell picture Going and Coming.
Students were assigned positions. Detail was accurate postures and looks. I asked the scene to come to life – what would you be thinking? Let’s hear the conversation. We compared the scenes. Students were then able to write a story of what happened before the journey, during the journey, at the destination and coming home. (By the way, have a look in calendar shops any January for cheaper calendars – many of these have interesting art prints that can be laminated for use with students.)
Explore the scene from multiple perspectives – before, after and what people may be feeling beneath the painting itself. "We have a picture of a renaissance man here. We have learned about his life. What may he really be thinking at the time of this picture being captured?" As paintings take considerable time to be created, explore the relationship that may develop between the painter and those painted. Script it.
Look at the colours. What do they make you feel? What might the objects say if they could speak? Trace the angles and shapes within the painting. Look at the mathematical ratios and formulas – many renaissance paintings conformed to very strict mathematical formulas. Merge art and maths.
Explore the lively works of Bruegel. Here is a text that takes the painting of the blind men by Bruegel and turns it into words.
we’ve got to practice the walking that will be painted, the knocker says.
Especially the stumbling and falling, the different kinds of fall.
The Parable of the Blind, Gert Hoffman, Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd 1988.
Explore how poetry can be developed from paintings.
Barb Olsen is a Drama/Disabilities specialist living and working out of Hobart, Tasmania. I first came across Barb in her outstanding work with Brrrr Theatre Group and ‘Acting Up’ in Ballarat, Victoria. Barb has a unique and deeply human way of working with people with a disability. Her approaches work directly with the spirit and the strength of individuals. Her ideas easily translate into other teaching areas.
You can push and shove all you like, but you’ll get nowhere!
Try ‘leading’ and the results are dramatic.
Structured work is imperative. Give meaning to an action, either by way of movement, vocals or bodily expression, and the actor will comprehend. Be patient! It may take some time for a sense to develop and solidify. Persistence will reward you – and the actor.
Remember – it takes twice the amount of brain power to process a negative command (e.g.) ‘don’t move in that direction’. Train yourself to speak in positive commands, (e.g.) ‘move in this direction’. Do not layer your commands with explanations such as ‘move in this direction because…….’. By the time your actor with an intellectual disability has processed the ‘because….’ They have forgotten the ‘move in this…’! Repetition and rehearsal will allow all possible comprehension of actions to occur. Be totally aware of any physical limitations an actor/dancer may have. These physical limitations should be your only consideration in extending their activities. If you pre-judge a person’s cognitive or conceptual capabilities, you may well be placing a big dampener on their creativity.
Your biggest challenge is in your powers of observation. Be constantly aware of all actors and grasp at any response from an individual as being an ‘offer of creativity’. When the group/individual realises that their contributions will be recognised, their output will increase and develop. Sometimes the smallest of offers can grow into a performance idea.
A good tool in playwriting is to have your group sitting facing you and you starting off the first couple of lines, or even the first chapter, of a story. You then ask for offers of where the story might go from there. Take brief ideas from all actors and write them all down as you go. Develop the storyline from the offers. Ask leading questions only when the story offers do not make sense. Read back the storyline frequently to assist the actors in continuity. One instance of this method that was very rewarding for me as leader and for the actors started with, "One day, the Old Man In The Moon tripped over a crater and fell out into space. He landed with a big bump on………"? The offers flew thick and fast and we developed a half hour play out of them.
As the original ideas have come from the actors, they are able to easily comprehend the overall concept of the story and your battle is half won. Of course, you must make sense of the offers. Some can be very obscure but that is when the fun starts for you! The actors will be delighted when their ideas reappear a week or so later in the form of a story. You can then workshop the story. If there are glaring holes, don’t worry – ask the actors to fill in the holes. They will love the creative process. Don’t dismiss offers. Try to incorporate them. Sometimes the strangest offers become the most exciting. One story I started with was about a Phoenix bird. I asked where the bird might be (expecting somewhere in Australia) but what I got offered was Bangladesh! A Geography lesson to boot.
Explore the minds of your actors and you may experience many Phoenix(es) arising from the depths.
Hear the birds sing. What is that, you can hear a set of traffic lights, a train in the distance and even the sound of a small plane.
Imagine when I once taught in a North Yorkshire school. Rumour had it that RAF jets would shoot in from the moors and centre their sights on the heat of the school chimney. Jets would do figure eights over the school. We just had to wait until it was over. There was no way that one could be heard.
Visualisation is a great tool that can be used in learning. I have played classical pieces to students and then discussed what was visualised. This varied greatly. The students were then able to turn their ideas into creative writing. You can also note ideas on the board and students can construct stories from the many ideas raised.
Let the group close their eyes and visualise a room, the laboratory, walking through the market in Old Hobart. Students relax as you talk them through a location. Mention the objects, the smells, the sounds, and the ambience of the environment. Create a strong picture that you can build off. Take sections or phrases in the novel and build a picture. Simply read a part of the novel while students close their eyes and listen. Talk the students through a house or a building. Take them to another time or place.
I can also recall reading passages to students who had closed their eyes. I asked them to picture the landscape and events. These were compared. This leads to an understanding of varied impressions and the difficulty in bringing novels to the screen. Lord of the Rings is a perfect example of a novel that has spawned a great range of creative design. The design of the covers for Science Fiction novels has similarly been influential.
Another fun way of using visualisation is to get your students to close their eyes and for you to talk the students through a range of experiences – you are lying in your bedroom, imagining yourself slowly awakening, what sounds can you hear? Build this visualisation right up until the students are in the classroom itself. Discuss how they felt. What images were the strongest for them? You can even read visual descriptions of e.g. artworks. What do the students imagine? Then you can reveal the true painting. How does it vary to what was imagined? Visualisation works well because one is dignifying the imagination. Everyone dreams and imagines. No one can be wrong!
Okay, we can’t start talking about Classroom or training room stories without referring to our own mistakes. A teacher recently referred me to a newspaper article she was reading to a Primary school class. The class kept giggling. Why? On the back of the article from the newspaper was a clearly displayed advert – "How to improve your sex life".
I can remember once launching into a lesson with a replacement class. We were about fifteen minutes into the activity when a student hesitantly told me that I was meant to be teaching the class next door.
I once sent a letter to Bungaree Primary School in Victoria and missed putting the ‘n’ in the name.
Spare a thought for a cousin who sent a letter to a German company with the missed ‘t’ – "Furher to our previous letter."
What are the funniest bloopers that you have come across in the classroom or training room? What lovely moments have caused great laughter and a sharing of joy?
Is the text called Classroom Clangers still published in the U.K? Selected and compiled by John G. Muir it documents student mistakes in tests as well as comments such as excuses.
Here are some examples from the above text:
the five continents.
‘Hamlet was a town where the rats invaded.’
‘Columbus circumcised the world with a forty foot clipper. The church was against such things but the king of his country was all for it as it brought them fame and money.’
‘The Pope lives in the Vacuum.’
And here are some examples from my experience:
Put "assist" into a sentence: ‘I went to the hospital to have assist removed.’
assignment: (I presume a big octopus creature)
A fellow is sitting at the front of the classroom. We are taking nursery rhymes and adultifying – listen to Bob Dylan singing "A Froggy Went a Courtin’" on Good as I Been to You. The student at the front of the class is Humpty Dumpty. So you couldn’t be put back together again. How do you feel? Who helped you? Why were you on the wall? It was all very good stuff. One question threw it all: What is the best thing about being an egg? (Oh, Oh) Answer: Getting laid.
The great thing was that this was said in innocence. How humour can arrive. Surely one reason why we teach and train.
Interested in hearing your stories!
Here is a fascinating quote from The Intuitive Practitioner by Terry Atkinson/Guy Claxton (Open University Press, 2000). It explores the role of visualisation and how it can be under-recognised within modern education:
I roamed the countryside searching for the answers to things I did not understand. Why shells existed on the tops of mountains along with the imprints of coral and plant and seaweed usually found in the sea. Why the thunder lasts a longer time than that which causes it and why immediately on its creation the lightning becomes visible to the eye while thunder requires time to travel. How the various circles of water form around the spot which has been struck by a stone and why a bird sustains itself in the air. These questions and other strange phenomena engaged my thought throughout my life.
Leonardo da Vinci
Curiosity: Children are by nature curious. Teachers and parents are quite often faced by children who ask tricky continuous questions. You only have to look at the reader’s comments sections of magazines to read about the curiosity of children. I can recall a story in which a father took his child to work. The child became quite upset and said, infront of others – "Dad says there are lots of clowns at work and I can’t see any."
Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks, Picador 2001:
Speak Dorothy – the Dorothy Heathcote Archive – an excellent site by Dr Sandra Hesten as part of her Ph.D research:
Asking Better Questions: Models, techniques and classroom activities for engaging students in learning. Morgan/Saxton, Pembroke, 1994:
The student hears the song. How can he or she construct a poem or a song built from questions? You must have twenty question marks at least in your song or poem.
Bob Dylan: Who Killed Davey Moore
killed Davey Moore,
I," says the referee,
Copyright © 1964; renewed 1992 Special Rider Music
asking What and Why and When
List these on the board. Teams must adopt a word and pose that question. Teams must look for the answer. Explore the area of study. Look deeply into the motivations of people or characters. Have people in roles as ‘whys and ‘whens’, etc. Interview them. Encourage and reward the use of these questions on a daily basis.
"I Keep Six Honest..." Rudyard Kipling
keep six honest serving-men
From The Elephant's Child
Posing Riddles or Unanswered Questions
Work from proverbs, sayings, words or even what is seen in the movies. Encourage students to create their own funny questions. This can be a very funny activity. Much of the great comedy comes from such word games. The Australian comedian Elliot Goblet has built an entire comedy routine by asking absurd questions in a dry fashion. Perform your questions. Have a question and the absurd answer – the comedy duo.
Why is it considered
necessary to nail down the lid of a coffin?
Looking from Above
The beauty of the land from above. Seeing it all below. People as ants. A new understanding. The horror that this could be a missile sight. The beauty – this could be the sound of the shortened breath of a person new to balloons – the first person at such a height. What did he feel? What did she see?
You may also like to describe the painting the Fall of Icarus by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder. Your students could write poems, you could refer to the legend as well as to famous poems e.g. those in a series by William Carlos Williams.
And so we move across the sky. Where are we going? What are we seeing? We are riding a bucket like Kafka’s imagination. We are Dylan Thomas speaking about his schooling. How is your establishment or your home seen from above? Map it. How do things change from this perspective?
Speak Mr Kafka: Bucket Rider: short story
Now Emmet Speaks:
the man who so delicately recorded the intimacy of his family life. Recently
releasing a book of the earth from above: "Emmet Gowin: Changing
The following site allows you to look at current views of the earth from a choice of satellites: View from Satellite.
So this is what Satellites see?
The tragedy of September 11th has brought to many people the memorial of a memory wall. For the want of a better name this phenomenon arose immediately after the tragedy in which families posted photocopies and notes of loved ones on walls of bus stops, train termini, etc, calling for information on those who had gone missing. These walls became very poignant. They moved from cries of help into memorials as it slowly became apparent that many people had in fact died. The walls remained in the streets of New York as improvised shrines. People visited them, lit candles, placed wreaths, prayed and simply tried to fathom the depth of the disaster by reading the personal stories. In a world dominated by media information the walls were deeply personal – photocopies of family members, descriptions written in marker pens, the stories of lives once lived in the area. Slowly these walls have come down, many too fragile to sustain winter blasts.
Nowadays they have been taken by museums who are consulting curators as to the best means of preserving such a deeply felt yet rushed archive. The walls will increasingly be seen as extraordinary and improvised events that grew out of the tragedy. They will become sociological phenomena not only for their emotion and immediacy but also because their style incorporates many of the relatively recent tools of personal computing – scanned photos and word-processed documents.
In line with this phenomena you may like to get your students to think about how they can utilise such a form in exploring disasters and tragedies that you are studying. This is an opportunity to explore the deeply personal effects of tragedy as with that of September 11th. How could your students represent the eruption of Vesuvius, a famine or an earthquake? Let your students take themselves back in history. Get them to create some sort of memorial to the victims by using modern day computers or textual forms that look old. Research real people or use imagination to create composites of the type of people who may have been affected. Who are the victims? What voices do the survivors have? You may even like to create a shrine. Have people visiting it. Interview them as a television news crew to find out their story. Check the personal accounts of the 1902 Martinique volcanic disaster. See also my Creatively Teaching Science Handbook.
Explore the area of study by looking at it from the back to the front. So the food leaves the body, what happens previously in digestion? Read a poem backwards. How do the meanings compare to its being read forwards?
Watch a part of a film backwards with a VCR. I can remember a group of girls who did a fantastic drama piece on ‘acceptance’. They e.g. showed a girl eating her lunch and not sharing it. The narrator stepped in. "lets watch that again." They ran the scene backwards like that of a VCR – this was very funny. Then they commenced the scene with an alternative scene of sharing.
Take any process and explore it by starting from the other end. How did the puddle get there? The missile leaves the ground to return to the plane. You may know of this classic piece of writing from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five:
You can get your students to write or perform a topic from a backwards perspective. Martin Amis has written a whole book Times Arrow in which the narrative follows events from a backwards perspective.
Pick a segment out of a discussion. Pick a segment from a book or film and see how it connects to the larger body. What subtle connections exist? What motifs or metaphors are there?
Give the student only a small segment of information. Let them discover what comes before and after. This is where you are in a computer program. How do you get out of here? How did you get in here?
What lead the character to this particular place? At what point of the text is this segment? Remove a segment from the text. Get the students to fill in what they think happened in between.
A section is missing from an experiment or a recipe. Find out what it is.
Put two segments together. Do they fit? Are they in the right order? Reveal a segment of time and ask the students to work out where it fits with the rest of that person’s life or how it fits to the larger scheme.
A segment can have a pattern all of its own. A small period in history can reveal a lot. So too can the thoughts of a person on one day within a week.
The segment has been created for some reason: the torn pages from a book, film on a cutting room floor, the torn pages of a manual. Perhaps the material has been burnt. By taking a small segment you have to recreate the whole. There is a small segment of a skeleton or other items found in a tomb. The line will merge between art and science. The archaeologist has to use his or her imagination to put things together and form a sense of the larger picture.
Segments carry their own meaning and this can change when placed within a broader context. Suddenly we can see the segment within a new light. Take for instance the example of Neil Armstrong’s touchdown on the moon: "That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." I have only heard this in isolation. I have always had a picture of the pregnant pause before its saying, the silence and profundity after it. This changes nevertheless when one reads the original transcript. It appears far more technical, and methodical – a media line within the overarching technical difficulty of the task.
You may also like to take excerpts from this speech and ask your students to identify what it is referring to – remove the famous sentence. See what responses students come up with.
Whether it is an excerpt from a famous speech or an excerpt from a text, segments will provide you with many teaching/learning possibilities. Why do we highlight segments? What segments would you highlight in a text or film – compare this to the trailer or reviews. How can a segment change perceptions? Are you, or your students, aware of situations in which the reality of an event or film/text is very different to its promotion? Discuss.
© Copyright In Clued - Ed 2009