Meanderings

Teaching_

Teaching.

Sammish Woods Montessori School 23rd March till April 1st

I am not a teacher and I don't pretend to be one either. I have no teaching qualifications whatsoever. I do have some experience teaching individual guitar lessons but I have never taught a whole class at one time.

When the regular music teacher at the Montessori school went on tour for a few weeks, somehow I was proposed as a candidate to fill in for him. I accepted the challenge though I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I hadn't a clue what the kids knew or what they normally did. So in I went flying totally blind… to… eh… teach them… something… maybe.

The only advice I'd been given was somewhat elusive and cryptic. "They will test you'.

I must say I was a bit apprehensive. There were about 12 kids in the first class. Their ages ranged between 6 and 10 years old. I'd brought along a big bag of percussion instruments to see what would happen.

I introduced each instrument and gave a quick demonstration of its super powers. Then I passed them round till they all had one each. The kids shook them and rattled them as recommended. One kid took a bite out of my spinning wind tube and left lasting teeth prints. Then we sang some songs till just as it was getting a little over-chaotic, it was over. Time had passed fairly quickly but I realized that 45 minutes might be quite demanding to keep 6 to 10 year olds engaged. By the end of the lesson, the natives had become undoubtedly restless.

Next class was for 3 to 6 year olds. There were only about 8 of them. If it came to a fight, I figured I could take them.

"Sounds like a woodpecker", said one authorative kid as they all listened with one ear pressed against the guitar. An unusual conclusion I thought: but there ye go. He could always have added, "Or a Strumming Bird."  This class was only a half hour long. By the time we'd tortured the instruments and sang the songs of their choice, time was up. I'd deliberately omitted the noisier instruments this time.

The 3rd class was 6 to 10 year olds. But a different bunch. This dozen were the rowdiest of all. By the end, they were ganging up on me like the Children of the Corn. Too late I remembered that subtle warning that the kids would test me. They did indeed but I lived to laugh another day.

The last class of the week were a friendly little crew of 3 to 6 year olds. They were so mellow and happy and just wanted to sing and dance. We played the Grand old Duke of York and The wheels on the bus etc. All the hits. It was just like Paddy's Night except everyone was sober. We had a lot of fun.

This class had the least politics of all the classes. Politics? Yes I too was surprised by the political undercurrents already prevalent at this level.

So that was week one. I'd been tossed in the deep end of the kiddies' pool but I was still swimming. I'd learned that keeping kids engaged for the duration was tricky but vital to the success of the class. I'd learned to avoid the noisier percussive instruments as that inevitably led to raised voices. Thirdly I'd learned that the kids were smart and witty and demanded a level of respect. Fourthly, I now knew I better come up with some new ideas quick.

Onward into week two.

 The first class of the new week was with the original 6 to 10 years olds again. At the kids' prompting we played a name game. They all told me their names then I closed my eyes while they all shuffled around and I had to guess who was who. They really enjoyed that. I am notoriously bad at names. They go in one ear and out the other (if they even get that far). Somehow I managed to remember most of their names after 2 games. I don't know if I can still remember them now. Next we sang a few songs.

Even though this was the 6 to 10 year olds class, they got as much satisfaction from the Grand Old Duke of York as the younger class.

After that we played Guess the Sound. I rattled some bear bells attached to a small strap hidden in my mystery bag while they had to guess what it was. Of course they sussed it right away. I set it down on the floor and invited them to try pick it up and put it on their head without it jingling. They all took turns and though none of them managed it, they were totally engrossed for ten very hushed minutes. Disgusted by their own failure they turned their suspicious gaze on me and demanded to see if I could do any better. For a brief moment I had a fleeting vision of a corn field ablaze and a wicker man in flames. It seemed I had no choice but to comply. I managed to raise it a few inches off the ground and they were all holding their breathe in utter silence when I suddenly yelled "Boo" and they all screamed.

Next, they produced a book with a fox song which was their favourite. They sang it for me and I was very impressed. They said they planned to record it. To finish up we sang, Jack and the Beanstalk. Which they all loved and wanted to hear again. This was a relief because I'd written it just the day before based on the story but with more stunts.

This class was the best so far and I felt we were getting to understand one another. The Name Game really helped. It immediately broke down the communication barrier. I learned that teaching familiar faces is far easier that teaching strangers.

The 3 to 6 year old class was a strange one. Right from the start the kids seemed distracted. I went with the flow and left them to their own devices while I sang quietly till the half hour was up. Some drifted back but others had little projects they were working on. Everyone seemed content.

At the next class of 6 to 10 year olds, I basically repeated the same class I did with the other 6 to 10 year olds. One thing I noticed by accident was that when I sat on a low chair when I was with the older kids, it made a big difference for the better in their behavior. When I sat on the floor with them they were rowdier. Interesting.

At one point in this class they had a long discussion about whether or not 2 boys should be removed from the circle due to their disruptive behavior. I was surprised how much back and forth discussion took place over the issue. They took it very seriously. I told them I'd let them debate it like a jury then I'd be judge. They all liked this idea. Well all but the 2 accused. The Children of the Corn were morphing into the Lord of the Flies. And just to show it, I taught them how to dance the Dying Fly. Sentence was delayed. I wouldn't be surprised if the 2 disruptive kids turned out to be the musicians of the class in years to come.

The last class were the happy bunch of 3 to 6 year olds. They too demanded something different but were happy in the end to have some egg shakers and to dance and sing their favourites: The Wheels on the Bus, itsy Bitsy spider, and If You're Happy And You Know It.

My last memory of my 2 weeks is of the 3 to 6 year olds all sitting in a row on the floor, howling like an innocent little pack of wolf cubs as we sang Old Macdonald Had a Farm. It was 2:55pm and their parents had come to take them home.

The biggest thing I learned apart from confirmation that I am not a teacher was that teaching kids can be a lot of fun but hard work. The most advantageous tiny thing that helped us begin to form an understanding was the Name Game. Rather than adopting an attitude that I would never see these kids again so why bother learning names, we played the game and had a good laugh about it.

My two weeks for me were a real positive experience. I have a greater respect than ever for the teachers who do the groundwork introducing children to their very first songs and who teach them to sing and dance from nothing. I also gained an admiration for the many anonymous songwriters who pen these children's songs. As adults, we may laugh but in many ways these little ditties are ingenious.

The kids themselves were amazing. They are bundles of life. Their energy and capacity to learn was overwhelming and non stop. It must be hard graft for teachers who spend their whole week in the company of inquisitive kids. The energy it takes must be well off the caffeine scale. I find it hard enough looking after my own 5 year old all day. And there's only one of him.

Summing it all up, I'd say they taught me more than I taught them. I hope I don't forget their names. I don't know what they learned. Hopefully they didn't regress. The Dying Fly will of course always be useful in any situation.

 

 

Disinterest at best was the biggest encouragement I got as I encountered my first clumsy guitar chords in Scotland. But at least my family never told to shut up. They probably couldn't hear me over the rest of the racket that was going on in our household.

We were a family of ten. There were 3 upstairs rooms. Each had its own record player. Often they were all blaring different songs simultaneously. Down in the living room, my Father would be standing in his string vest by the fire place bellowing out, "There's a Hundred Pipers In A In A." Radios blared, the T.V. yelled. spin dryers shook, rattled and rolled. Dogs barked and folks bashed guitars, pianos and each other. It was a lively place; not that big, yet easy to get lost in.

 Primary school produced some nasty musical negativity from a teacher who will remain anonymous. This individual ridiculed anyone he thought sang out of tune. He never offered any constructive criticism, just regular beatings with his belt. Sometimes he'd take the whole class for singing lessons and have us singing the glories of St Thomas. We dreaded these music lessons. We'd sing like a child choir while he'd come round and listen to each of us individually. If he thought anyone was crap he'd tell them to keep moving their lips but not to sing. Then to rub it in, he'd make the rest of the kids stop in mid song while about 5 of us were forced to mime like drowning fish. We'd mime for our lives because we didn't want to get, "The belt." Everyone had a great laugh except us unlucky mimes. When the lesson was over Mr. Teacher would belt us all anyway. Good times.

So not much luck there on the music front. Next stop was St Lukes High School Barrhead. By now I was aged about 11. Half of the old St Lukes high school was down by Commercial Rd. The other half was about a mile away on the Barrhead Main Street beside the new sports centre. The new Sports centre looked like an enormous red brick. The St Lukes' Annex building next door looked like a grey prison.

Inside the Annex there was an indoor courtyard from which many doors opened onto just like prison cells. Above, was an identical situation with a walkway with a cast iron railing. Each of these rooms held classes. They were high ceilinged and the windows were above head height so if we looked out we saw only grey sky. The walls were coated with green flaking paint that reminded me of Florence Nightingale era hospital wards. As you can imagine, it was a dull and dreary place.

Teachers and pupils went through the motions of an unimaginative education designed to supply the bare necessities for another lethargic Scottish generation already destined for factories, unemployment and real prison. At that time I don't believe there was even an exam at the end of the 4 years.

Punishment was still being meted out by teachers armed with leather straps just like primary school. These belts were curiosities; simply because they were standard equipment: not just a belt off someone's trousers. They were made from a strip of leather about 2 feet long and about a half inch thick. One half was slit like a forked tongue. It was often carried concealed under the shoulder of a coat where it was readily at hand to be whipped out at the merest hint of a mis-spelt word. Undeniably it was a weapon with a premeditated function. I imagine that newly minted teachers must have bought them at the same store they bought their text books and stationary. Was there a seedy room in the back where they tested them out? Did teachers discuss techniques in the staff room? Did they practice every night after school like golfers working on their swing? Were there belting classes at university as part of their teacher training course? This belting nonsense continued up till the very year I left school. Just my luck.

The music class such as it was, was located at the far right hand corner of the inner courtyard. It was conducted by a chain smoking old crone with hawk like features and hair tied up in an ash grey bun. She was thin as a twig and her voice was brittle and harsh as a bad tempered crow. She treated us with open hatred; deeming us worthless twits. She saw her job of teaching us spud heads, the equivalent of banishment to Siberia to tutor a colony of monkeys.

The classroom was sparsely furnished. There was an upright piano, an ash tray, and rows of little writing desks all designed for right handed people (Of which I wasn't one.) Due to her chain-smoking and careless stubbing out of cigarettes, the teacher's half of the class looked like an oncoming storm front creeping over the piano towards us like clouds over crags. This smoke seemed to stick to the nicotine stained walls and climb slowly up to the ceiling where it thickened and brooded throughout the one hour lesson. It was no wonder that half the class became chain smokers too.

 Every Friday as the very last class of the school week, the old bat gave out music books containing big lists of musical terms. Our instructions were simple. "Copy out this book", page after page until the bell rings. There was never any explanation as to what these words meant or what they had to do with music. The book read like an Italian Yellow Pages. It may well have been a pizzeria directory.

The class was held in complete silence except for the occasional rustle of paper and the tiny scratching of pencils. One day someone farted. It broke the silence like a gunshot. We erupted into pitiful pent up laughter. The teacher marched out from behind her piano like a furious trapdoor spider. Usually all we saw of her was the fog of her cigarette smoke and the occasional sad tinkle of some vague jazz tune like a smoldering memory of some lost love that she'd... throttle like a chicken if she ever saw him again…. For now though, she'd have to take it out on us unfortunates. "Who did that" she shrieked at us? There was no reply. She repeated the question and got the same response. Naturally the guilty farter didn't want to get belted. Anyway how could she ever know who it was unless she went round and sniffed everybody's bum? "No one is leaving this class till I know who made that noise." That was a serious ultimatum because all the Neilston people had to catch the four o clock bus home or face a 3 mile hike.

The clock ticked slowly on towards 4pm. With 1 minute to go Tom Daly spoke up. "It was me Miss."

"Step out here now."

Tom was swiftly belted several times then the bell rang and off we went to catch our bus. The odd thing though was that it hadn't been him at all. He'd just confessed because he didn't want to walk home. I don't know who did it. There's a guilty farter out there to this day running free.

She asked us one day if anyone played a musical instrument. I don't know why but I decided to put my hand in the air. "I play some guitar" I said timidly.

"What kind of music?"

"Paul Simon kind of stuff"

"Pah", she spat like she'd swallowed a fly. "Rubbish. That is not music."

I went home later and quietly put the Paul Simon book away. In the future I'd just keep my mouth shut.

There came a day when the smoke that pumped rhythmically from behind her piano barricade stopped rising. It was our first clear day in class and we discovered that the mysterious dark abyss in the far wall that came and went in her smog, was in fact a blackboard. She stepped out and surveyed the class. "You" she snapped, pointing to a boy at the back. "Lorson. Yes you. Come here." Lorson wasn't the brightest bulb in a class already feeding near the bottom of the Brichter scale. He stepped forward, wondering what he'd done wrong. The crone opened her purse and handed him some money. "Go across to the shop and get me 10 Embassy Regal (cigarettes)."

"What if the don't have Regal?"

"Get John Player Special."

"What if the don't have…"

"Then just get anything" she barked exasperated.

Lorson returned a half hour later carrying a brown paper bag. He handed it to the teacher. She opened it suspiciously and gingerly drew out a sausage roll and then a cold mince pie.

"What's this", she yelled.

Lorson looked at her in complete innocence and said, "You said if they didn't have your brand then just get anything."

Well I didn't learn much in that class. It lasted a year. That's about 3650 cigarettes in the crone's measurements. Looking back I have to say that the unaccredited fart was the most musical event in that whole class year.

I wonder what key it was in.

 

Though I continued to potter around with music at home, I never drew any connection between school music and my love of music at home. They were worlds apart. Unrelated entities. School music was cold and cruel while music at home was pleasant and fulfilling; even magical. It was a world of discovery. At home, I was never prompted or forced to play guitar. I just did it. No one said shut up and no one said play louder. No news is good news.

 

Apparently the old St Lukes building was sinking. So a new Super Unsinkable St Lukes was built up at the top of Auchenbach. I must say it was a much nicer environment to learn nothing in.

It was set high above the town of Barrhead like a fortress of education. From the art class we could see the Highlands and the Erskine Bridge (10 miles away) crossing the Clyde. But this school too had its dungeons. Down in the bare unfinished passageways where faucets dripped and dim lights spluttered, were classrooms behind heavy ominous soundproof doors. Here, where no one could hear our screams, we were given further music lessons. But I learned nothing.

We had a new teacher. I tapped some beats on a piano top. That's all I remember. We had lessons for a year. That was the end of my school music career. I spent a further 4 years at that school but never returned to that underworld again in all that time. Nor did I miss it.

In fairness it must be mentioned the new St Lukes education program had been rewritten and updated. There were many new teachers who were actually enthusiastic about their work. The art department was open plan with large windows that let the sunlight pour in. The school now offered finishing exams with an opportunity to take further exams as university qualifications. I think it became a well respected school and I believe it deserved that praise. It rose from the swamp and ascended to the top of the hill.

I was up in the art department one day drawing a skull when a classmate lent me a cassette of a band called Rush. I'd never heard of them. It was a live album called "All the World's a Stage". When I listened to it, I didn't know what to make of it. The melodies were disjointed and the singer had a helium high voice but there was something that attracted me to it. I don't know what it was. The music gave me the sensation that I'd missed something. I listened to it several times back to back and still couldn't put my finger on it. Could it be that it was just plain interesting? Here I was listening to a band I knew nothing about. I had no preconceptions. I was judging this faceless music only on what I was hearing and I found it an enjoyable experience. I realized that this music was not composed to be instantly catchy. This was music written to slowly seep into the senses. It wasn't sweet like pop, it was salt.

After I heard a few more albums, I bought a big thick Rush song book. Their chords were unusual and fresh. This was not a Dylan play-along colouring book; this was, by my standards, complex stuff. For the first time since I'd closed the Paul Simon episode, my guitar playing crept forward. I'd opened a new chapter and soon learned the whole book. I guess I've moved on from most of my heavy rock phase but I can still appreciate those Rush albums and the band's imagination. I believe they're still out their doing it.

My musical education was obviously never going to happen in a classroom but I think the Montessori kids already have a great start. Someone up there is doing a good job. At least the kids don't dread their music lessons. Staring out the window up there at that kids' school reminded me of looking out the art department window back at the new St Lukes. From up there in Auchenbach I could see the huge Clyde Valley and the distant Scottish Highlands. I could also see the discarded shell of the old St Lukes buildings and the music room where we learned more about beatings than beats. Here in Bellingham I gaze out over the San Juan Islands towards the open Pacific. Behind me in the class, I hear children laughing and making a terrible din from rattles and shakers. I know I should go tell them to behave but it's a great sound.