Boredom breeds bad-ass music

Boredom breeds bad-ass music

This article out of Harvard looks at the trend of students being increasingly bored as they progress with their schooling, as they get older they are less engaged. It attributes this mainly to how these students are being taught, commenting that there are ways to engage kids with little excuse not to.

We know in the age of inquiry and design thinking that there are meaningful ways to plan out and execute schemes of work to tackle lack of student engagement. Although despite this, and no matter what we do, there are always going to be students that are bored, period. It is nature. It is human. And to be frankly honest, it is good.

Bored youth have changed the way music sounds, changed the way art is created, changed the way we speak, changed social customs, changed how we interact with technology and the world. Boredom propels us forward.

Ok, I better stop here and say I am not advocating a force fed style education. No, I believe in inquiry and engagement, as a performing arts specialist I would be somewhat hypocritical, and a lousy teacher! But what we have to acknowledge is that some students will always be bored if not in your class, somebody else’s.

This monotonous activity called school that they endure provides opportunity for the mind to wander, abstracting thought and making meaningful connections. It will spur them to connect with other like minded individuals. While the students that are engaged will hopefully be being led through processes to find connections and abstract thinking activities as well but the results will be different.

Maybe it is possible to engage all and still provide the rebellious artistic output that characterises certain genres and generations. Although, I find it hard to picture learning environments with 100% captivated attention leading to powerfully music about disenfranchised youth who are misunderstood.

Boredom has its place. Boredom is a breeding ground for creative exploration. It’s is a launching pad for invention, reflection and inquisitiveness – because we look for ways to understand the world through our own eyes, and just entertain ourselves.

“A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow process of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers as though they were cut flowers in a vase.” – Bertrand Russell (philosopher).

Let me reiterate, we should not be lazy and look to bore but we have to recognise that it is human condition. Some youth will always resent systems and authority. I just hope that boredom goes towards a positive outlet and if I can help direct it I will, but maybe I’m just getting in the way?

10 reasons school musicals not only rock but are learning opportunities

10 reasons school musicals not only rock but are learning opportunities

 

Recently I read an article on the value of school musicals… as we were fast approaching opening night of our own, which I was directing. So, here is my take on it.

“We do on stage things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.”
– Tom Stoppard, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

After five months of rehearsals (five months for three performances!) ask any student if they think it was worth it, I’m fairly certain they would tell you ‘yes’. As with all creative endeavors it’s not just the end product but the process of practise and decision making that contains the learning, and if not the adrenalin kick of performing, the enrichment.

There are triumphant moments and loads of challenges which at the end an audience sit and (hopefully) marvel at the spectacle. What is behind the illusion on stage often gets overlooked, or never considered. Real life skills plus a multitude of learning moments are ingrained in rehearsing.

For one, anybody who thinks they can do something the first time for stage and do it right, is wrong. The students heard the word “again” come out my mouth more than any other. Characterisation is a process of empathy and experimentation, a unique mix of yourself and the qualities of the character whose role you have, every interpretation is different. Singing is about practice and refinement, as is learning to be in time with the music and each other while dancing a choreography.

Second, if you get it right once it doesn’t mean it will be right the next time… or the next time.. or the next time but the more you get it right the more consistent it will be. It is to be blunt, damn hard work, although outsiders often see it as just playing around (upcoming post soon about ‘why dance school is harder than medical school’).

Third, it is full of practical skill building. Dancing, singing and acting require coordination, active listening, body awareness, control, expression, spatial awareness, self awareness, confidence, projection, timing and empathy.

When all three are performed together, well it’s communication in a very complex form. Think about it, singing and dancing simultaneously while pretending to be someone else.

Fourth, teamwork/collaboration. The people on stage, have to work with, and trust each other to develop and produce a successful performance but they are still only a small piece of the puzzle. Costume, makeup, set designers, stage hands, light and sound technicians… Nothing looks or sounds good without them. Their process also begins at the same time as rehearsals, decisions in one creative field affect (and inspire) another, therefore clear communication between them is vital. I cannot stress how much I make the performers aware and appreciative of the people that get them to the stage and keep them looking good on it.

Fifth, it builds relationships. It is an extraordinary situation, school leavers with those starting middle school. Everyone is a stakeholder in a common goal. Students connect over similar interests that they only get to share through this unique situation. They build surprising, meaningful bonds.

Sixth, it installs an environment of responsibility. Everybody has a responsibility to know their lines, choreography and harmony. You don’t want to let yourself down, God forbid anybody else. It also gives older students the opportunity to mentor younger, and this often happens without any prompting.

Seventh, dealing with disappointment. Things do not always go right, as is the nature of live performance. Rehearsals are can be left on a low because it didn’t go as anticipated. Audiences do not always like what they see (and are usually happy enough to tell you). Getting back on the horse, being resilient and learning from those experiences is a vital part of the performer’s skill set.

Eighth, improvisation. Built during rehearsals to develop content. This is a demanding undertaking, you put yourself and your ideas totally on the line. It helps to build confidence to deal with things that go wrong in the moment which has a lot to do with being open, listening and being able to respond. Improvisation gets better with practise.

Ninth, inclusion. This one cannot be understated. Along with the tiaras and tantrums of the divas, the school musical picks up many students that sit on the social fringes. These kids are suddenly integral to a project and its success, no matter how much of an oddball their peers may think they are. The realisation that social ineptitude is actually a quirky personality with a wealth of passion.

Tenth, fulfillment and fun. At the end of the day it’s exhausting, has plenty of moments of frustration, numerous challenges and problems to be solved but it is simply fun and fills the proverbial cup to the brim. Very little that I have experienced has that same swelling feeling in the lungs and throat with a compelling urge to dance, topped off with pride and accomplishment when the cast sing the finale in a production that took five months to piece together. This is far from an exhaustive list so here is my plus one:

Eleventh. It explicitly details the creative process.

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Header image by Nela Fletcher – see more here

How to approach feedback

How to approach feedback

“Teachers may claim they give much feedback, but the more appropriate measure is the nature of feedback received (and this is often quite little)” – John Hattie. Feedback, feedforward, instruction, prompting, cueing, guidance, we all know its documented importance in education.

Non-judgemental feedback during the creative process is an excellent tool to implement for students and teachers alike. It takes a bit of re-routing but once in place can be very powerful.

All you have to do is describe what they see or hear, easy right? Well, this is harder to do than one realises but once students have that factual description of what someone else sees, it provides them with a different perspective to their work. It has to be a methodical process, starting with the big picture (the most obvious) and then becoming more refined. And I suggest that one really starts with the words “I see” or “I hear” to frame it for students.

Next, contextualise the work by relating it back to the task. This is also the time where the viewer can start to talk about interpretation of what they saw. Does it match the task? What still needs to be done? What knowledge do you have to help you continue and develop?

The process very quickly draws one to details and makes things explicit that the students had possibly not realised or expected. It gives them new ideas to consider, try out and evaluate. It reveals what is missing. It talks as much about what is not present, as what is.

The thing I love about this is the autonomy it gives the creators and that it increases self-efficacy. It is not a teacher saying “Now you need to think about adding X so that  it fulfills the criteria.” It also avoids you passing a judgement that puts the work on a scale. It provides space for students to reflect and realise what needs to be addressed.

Project Zero have a great system for this as part of their ‘visible thinking’ routines. Called “I see, I think, I wonder” – describe what your see, comment on what it makes you think and then ask what it makes you wonder. It is a gradual progression that brings attention to observation, connects opinion, and finally thinking about possible alternatives or solutions.

Things to watch out for in the initial stage (because people just love to give their opinion when it comes to someone else’s creation), “I liked…”, “I feel like…”, “It was good that…”, etc. Strive to have the description first, there needs to be space between this step and adding opinion to digest and reflect. Get students to share what they have seen, it’s surprising how much can be extracted. Even this, being aware of how much is in front of them can open doors of possibilities.

 

**Header picture by my talened wife Nela Fletcher, for more click here

Important reasons why we should play

Important reasons why we should play

My eldest boy (born in the year of the Chinese rabbit), when comfortable, will search out contact and interaction with anyone …and everyone. We were recently in Colmar, France for the Easter vacation. Travelling with kids it’s their happiness that has to be a priority, more or less. As my wise father’s mantra goes ‘if the kids are happy, I’m happy’.

Part of that happiness was choosing where we booked our accommodation. We have learnt from our mistakes. The place we found in Colmar was a block of small holiday apartments that has an indoor swimming pool, a deal breaker. No matter the weather, we can be in the pool with the kids – kids happy, we’re happy.  On one occasion a few other families were enjoying, what I suspect was the same philosophy as ours. My eldest is five and lucky enough to be growing up bilingual (learning a third in Kindergarten) although all the other children in the swimming pool spoke French, which he doesn’t.

He eventually got himself into a game of catch with a girl probably three years older than himself. After fifteen minutes the ball was no more even a subject and the two of them were simply playing – but with clear communication. They had figured out structures, invented on the spot, about how they could construct rules of play and let the other know what the expectations were.

For a start I just found it cute then I really started to reflect on what they were doing. How open and accommodating to the situation they were, and through play managed to not only enjoy each other’s company but converse. The approach had me amazed at the complexity of the result. AND then to think about how we communicate with others who speak a foreign language. Ok, of course often our needs are for want of specific information – but how willing are we to let ourselves dive into a ritual of play to learn and converse with a foreign language speaker? And what results if one allowed themselves time to engage in that play?

In this case, an attention to body language and need of communication through which a common understanding was built. Playing simple games such as throwing a ball and coordinating jumping into the water simultaneously, they shared a resulting goal orientation and then forms of how to ‘talk to each other’ were established, and built on. In 40 minutes. 5 year olds.

This stretches far beyond barriers of language, leaving time and freedom for children to do what they do best can have incredible results. The various effects include peer-learning, new vocabulary, nuances and uses of language (both verbal and non-verbal), compromising, winning, losing, strategy creating, problem solving, discovery of life passions, stress release …dare the list go on? And on?

The pressures we put on fulfilling a task or ticking off knowledge acquired can adversely affect what we are really trying to achieve, which should be engaging and meaningful, and play can be that vehicle – at any age.

Overwhelmed, time to reflect

Overwhelmed, time to reflect

 

I’m currently directing (my first) school musical ‘Shrek’. We are down to the final rehearsals and there is so much happening in front of me, even when there only one or two people on stage. There are multiple options, choices, directions and outcomes – I get literally overwhelmed by it. Others I know are so quick to jump on a moment and work it out. Mostly,  I need perspective and time to reflect to know the right choice for what I want.

I feel the pressure of watching something, knowing it’s not right and not doing anything about it… Because I need the time to go away and think about it. I find it hard to trust this intuition and not try to ‘look’ like I am doing something about it and actually end up wasting more time.

It is a reminder to acknowledge strengths and weaknesses. Playing to one while working at improving the other, as long as all parties are aware that is how the (my) process works.

4 things dance class is good for

4 things dance class is good for

 

During parent-teacher conferences today I realised something that shouldn’t have really been as such a revelation as it was. A parent asked what style of dance I teach and I started (as always) explaining I don’t teach any particular style but tools with which to create, and design dance. Then, out of my mouth came “I don’t teach dance. I teach creative process through movement.”

And this is what I am trying to do. The students have taught skill sets to develop movement from any starting point through interpretation and then how to to organise it. They are encouraged to try out different possibilities and evaluate them, knowing that there are an infinite number of combinations in any given task. And I’m nowhere perfect in making this happen, it’s my challenge and I am getting better at it.

The parent listened to me and then turned to her son and said “…but there are still valuable things you can take from class like presence, presentation and good body posture.”

Its moments like these where one sees the huge disconnect that can occur between parents, their kids and their education. Without being careful we become those old dogs that cannot learn new tricks by thinking that education cannot change . As a parent and educator I beg you to stay informed about what your child is doing at school, trust the teachers and try to learn from them but importantly question them and try to understand what they are striving to accomplish. Most educators are on the ball and really giving it their all to prepare your child to deal with the world around them, preparing them to tackle it alone once they leave school.

I will endeavour to continue teaching the creative process above and beyond “presence, presentation and good body posture.”

ctl+alt+del

ctl+alt+del

 

So, ctl + alt + del. Reset.

I started blogging to achieve a few things, improve my practice in the classroom, create a professional network and ultimately challenge myself and my own creativity. Unfortunately the demands of the working environment, and especially the industrial noise it manifests, has seen me put it off again and again, and again. It frustrates me. A lot.

The ironic thing is that the more I blog the better my reflection, practice and ultimately creativity will be.  Doing things again and again, and again instead of putting them off is the only way to improve – which is no new revelation.

Reading other teacher’s blogs and their exploits makes me wonder if you have figured out how to create some extra hours in your day, or if you sleep? There are so many things that are important to me, family, creating, work, friends… how do we find time in such a noisy world to focus and be present.

Being present, 100% in the moment is when we notice more details, can give meaningful feedback and reflect effectively. These strategies enhance creative behaviour, I know from experience …they just tend to get lost when the machine is full swing.

So, ctl + alt + del. Reset.

 

The death of creativity and how to avoid it

The death of creativity and how to avoid it

“Mr Fletcher, we’ve finished.”

“No you haven’t, you’ve never finished.”

“Arrrghhhh….”

A fairly typical exchange with students in my class. A task with certain criteria is given; students enthusiastically undertake the challenge and run back five minutes later having checked off the elements that have to be included …only to find that what they have accomplished is an exercise in imagination – not creativity.

There is ALWAYS something else you can try, then compare and evaluate – always.

The fantastic aspect of creative process is the infinite possibilities. Students should gain a ‘mind-set’ of ‘grappling’ with a problem (notice my “hip” education words). By continual exploration and evaluation we reframe problems and look for fresh new perspectives. Solutions that were not obvious emerge, OR we can justify with certainty why solution X was awesome after trying other alternatives.

At some point we have to present, the metaphorical baby has to be birthed but it doesn’t mean that it is finished. As a professional dancer I knew premiere performances were not the dead end of development. When you work with curious, critical choreographers, the piece is reworked in an effort to be better… after opening night. As a creator there is a total shift in how you see your work after it’s shown to an audience, and that is important.

Admittedly within school constraints it can be difficult to finish an assessment and do it again, but this work should be happening formatively during the assessment. Students need to understand the concept of reworking and fleshing out detail, with the understanding that the product they submit is just a moment in time and space …it can always be tweaked and seen from a different perspective.

Creativity only dies, when you stop.

Our inner tardis – discovering inside the box

Our inner tardis – discovering inside the box

Warning: Doctor Who references.

My wife took this photo of our eldest and titled it ‘thinking inside the box.’ Beyond being an entertaining photo it symbolises my pet hate with the cliché ‘thinking outside the box’, especially in education.  It is no more than a habitual statement that gets used as a synonym for creativity. In some of my first lessons as a new teacher I used the expression …and my students voiced their stern dislike and boredom, and let me know just how often it gets used by teachers. The gauntlet was thrown down – why do they have such an issue with it?

After some probing it was clear… for many young people it implies that they need to ‘be someone else’ or ‘find ideas that are not your own’. Not that we as educators who use it don’t have the best intentions – we want to encourage students to find new, novel ideas and solutions. However they could and should emerge from what we already know. Each individual’s skills, experience and interests are already a rich pool of resources. We are all a Doctor Who when we open our metaphorical telephone booth and look at the ‘tardis’ of experience we bring with us. (definition of tardis here)

When we as teachers know what each student brings in their ‘tardis’ it gives us something to work with, rather than telling them to go be ‘creative’ without guidance. Knowing experience, passions, skills and interests gives us a framework to use and a starting point for creative process. Creativity can come from anywhere and be applied everywhere. Students should know how to play with their experience as a resource.

I have started with my senior theatre students. I have asked them to map out not only their skills and interest in theatre but in all areas. What inspires them and drives them? What do they think they are good at? What elicits that intrinsic motivation? Having this as a base is a great platform for me to help them make connections that they (or I) may not have thought of. This enables them to realise that at this point in time they have something to offer which can be molded into creative process, and a product. BOOM! Done. No searching for that crazy mind-blowing illusive idea.

Creativity is process and working through steps… In my context, theatre theory applied to student experience, knowledge and interest equals unique solutions to any given task. This is not only applicable to the Performing Arts, but all subject areas. Geometry principles applied to football; poetry applied to computer game scenarios; scientific process applied to cooking. The list is, of course, inexhaustible.

How can you apply it in your context?

 

Creativity: how to do it, one step at a time

Creativity: how to do it, one step at a time

I recently read an interesting blog post by James Clear about “the scientific art for mastering one thing at a time.” James bases his post on psychological research about not only becoming good at something but the importance of sticking to it. It shouldn’t come as a revelation that mastering something takes practise, right? The hard part is, as James writes (and I can attest to), is finding the time. He goes on to say that research shows that we are more likely to actually do something if we have a plan to do it. For example, I have started putting time aside every Friday to write blog posts like this. I hope to write more when I can but I know on Friday I have time set aside to do it.

So recap, we only get better with practice and that is more likely to happen when it’s planned. James stresses that for this scheme to be successful, one should be focusing on just one thing at a time to master.

Now classrooms seem like a good constant and if you think about it, this is exactly what they are for, we are sharing and teaching so that our students grow, develop and master skills in the same place and regularly. Not rocket science but I think we forget the basics here and are missing a massive opportunity to install all the hip things in education, a growth mindset, creative thinking, innovation, blah blah.

Side note: you may be picking up on some cynicism but rest assured it only strengthens my passion as an educator, not detracts.

The holy relic of students “being creative” in our classes must seem like fantasy to many teachers, but it isn’t or rather shouldn’t be. There are some simple things that can be put into place, in all classes, to elicit creative thinking behaviours; some of these are probably being done anyway, just not explicitly. I have been analysing and evaluating how creative behaviours are being fostered in my classes and these are some of the things I have noticed - and are transferable across the board.

In my dance classes it is vitally important that students grasp a set of choreographic skills in able to fulfil the practical nature of the course. ‘Creative thinking’ is an assessment criterion in the MYP curriculum, I have to approach it prescriptively which is actually surprisingly hard to grasp when you haven’t defined what creativity is, or isn’t. There are many contributing factors in creative thinking behaviours but one of the key elements is ‘reframing’ (@tseelig), taking one object, idea or situation and looking at it through various lenses.

Investigating the multiple possibilities (exploration) that inherently lie in any set of variables is a key skill for creative thinking, and here is the revelation - surprisingly it is not difficult to do when teaching subject skills, regardless of the subject.

In class students must construct dance compositions, they are required to interpret stimuli and produce a response. Essentially all students are capable of this without much guidance but being able to consciously compose it into a dance, requires knowledge of choreographic skills. Therefore all students are equipped with a tool box of skills. It starts with only a few (unison, canon and levels) with which they have to re-choreograph a warm-up routine, then each week the skills are explored again through different tasks, often adding one or two skills (for example; repetition, mirroring, pause). Through the continual exploration of the same skill set they begin to discover the power of (infinite) possibilities that lie within. New skills get added regularly but only when they are used in combination with those previously learnt. These are always written up on a white board and in their process journals for reference. Occasionally I will limit the students with just two skills to work with, which is always met with objection, but has extremely powerful results (another post on constraints to come).
The last piece of the equation is actually assessing the ‘creative thinking’ and it is not just about making

a good piece. It is about the cycle of exploration and evaluation. In my classes there is a saying “you are never finished.” Even if you have something that you are satisfied with you can, and should, try something else in order to compare and evaluate… which is practising the creative behaviour of reframing. There is a given time constraint of course and at some point it has to be ready for presentation but until then, you are working on it. Assessment happens through reflection in a process journal, video evidence of the process and my observations.

This didn’t just magically happen, it took me time to figure out how students could best learn the choreographic tools needed but yet experience the power of their own ability to explore those skills. The point that James Clear made earlier was that it does indeed take time to learn something. I too often get the feeling we write off creative practice when it isn’t ‘imaginative’ or ‘interesting’ straight away or we expect too much without any guidance and reassurance. My challenge to you is to examine where it can be implemented in your classroom and tell the world about it.