Playing for Keeps

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 16, 2005 10:18 am
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The art form that rose to challenge segregation and pave the way for the civil rights movement opens a window on why our system of education remains immune to progressive and enlightened change. And why something akin to art may the best hope for deep, inspirational reform of our system of education. Dominant social institutions may change only in the face of irrepressible cultural force. Before Jazz, American music held the traditional line. Had Jazz not emerged— had it been marginalized as we’ve seen some art banned altogether in other countries because it is a threat to the status quo—then life in today’s America would be unthinkably poorer.

What Jazz Teaches America’s Schools About Reform

In “Keeping Time,” the powerful documentary film about Milt Hinton, the Mississippi bass player (1910-2000), an insistent, irrepressible beat is felt in one man's passion. Passion for Jazz. Passion for his instrument. The passion in Hinton’s desire to capture the Jazz ‘moment’ in his photography. And, of course, the passion in the telling of Hinton’s biography. Where there is passion, freedom prevails.

Not merely a genre or sound, Jazz is possibly the most permeating, primal force of progressive change and freedom in American culture. Without Jazz there would have been no Jackie Robinson, and without Robinson, Martin Luther King, Jr. is quoted as saying, the great Civil Rights Movement begun in the 50s and played out in the 60s, would never have happened.

Earlier in the century, Jazz primed America’s social consciousness. Jazz changed the nation by bringing faces and races together, both socially and spiritually—in ways that religion, law, and education could not. The meaning and power of Jazz to lift people’s hearts and minds cannot be underestimated. Jazz went deep and rose transcendent, a potent force of American culture that grew its own seeds and then helped America to grow. And therein lies a crucial lesson for American education.

Even though our society has grown, America’s system of education has regressed into Draconian practice and philosophy. Teachers manage their students and deliver the political party line of standardization. They are not encouraged to be clever or artful. Instead, they are harassed, marched, gagged and hamstrung in school systems that have resorted to policies of zero-tolerance and widespread use of suspension in their daily management of children. What is worse is that many teachers and parents accept this condition as normal.

The topography of education is institutional, lifeless, humorless, and mean spirited. Kids are pushed, piled upon, and tested.

While brain research and science point to a more enlightened way to understand and work with the developing young, educators continue the forced march to the teach & test cadence. As parents, we allow the institution of education to deface the lives of our children with shame, ostracism, coercion, drugs, and mind-control.

Education has clung to its one-dimensional personality (lines, flat space, words, sheets of paper, text books, tables of numbers and little spaces that pigeon-hole and define children). School culture has become increasingly an institutional wasteland—there is little else to hold it up. In some crazy way we in all our slickness have imprisoned ourselves. We have imprisoned the most creative and innovative segment of ourselves—our children—in a system of education, run by the least imaginative, that is stunted, stubborn, and mulish. Advocates of progress and enlightenment have embraced technology as the next, new enlightened thing, even as tech's habituating side effects on young minds continue to grow.

Jazz was born at a time when Einstein was envisioning his revolutionary conception of the physical universe. It would behoove people who love education to recall an event in our history that cut away the shackles of normalcy and danced to rhythms revealed in its own pulse. The true legacy of Jazz is what it taught America.

Before Jazz, American music held the traditional line. Had Jazz not emerged—if it had been banned as some art is banned in other countries because art is a threat to the status quo—then America would be significantly poorer. But as the country began to stir in the early 1900s, throwing off its Victorian influence, the Jazz idiom filled the airwaves with the restless sound of irreverence, change and liberation.

The music spoke over and beyond the entrenched racial class lines and provided a spiritual connection for Americans. The seeing and hearing of Jazz—and its sudden tangibility on playable plastic disks for broad consumption—advanced what reactionaries saw as the so-called social ‘disease’ of Jazz.

Not unlike certain sectors of the population in our history, the state of American education persists as a disenfranchised ghetto that has been confined and limited to a low-class existence.

This experiential, assertive thrust of Jazz into a racially stunted society has not yet found a counterpart in an education field that is also kept down. For education to undergo a renaissance, a way to empower individuals in education through something as liberating and as spiritual as Jazz must be found.

Fortunately, that something is hiding in plain sight--in the hearts and minds of children radiating with an inborn, sustainable energy called Play.

Play--and a companion delivery process involving use of symbolic communication called Play Language-- can be viewed as a kind of visual Jazz, complete with individual instruments, improvisation, and personality. In principle, practice, and spirit , Play, the birthright of children, is the equal of Jazz in its power and richness to breach the change-resistant walls of education.

As Jazz evolved, young musicians like Duke Ellington were encouraged by mentors to forge a distinct voice of their own. Louis Armstrong’s unbridled trumpet playing transformed the playing style of established bands because of its sheer power and presence. His playing was a revolutionary, evolutionary force unto itself.

Education is ever constrained and shaped by culture, publishers, academicians, and institutional controllers. It is the lack of a pulse—humor, identity, risk-takers and creative vision—that afflicts the world of education. The idea of musicians, during the rise of Jazz, seeking one another out to learn from, get help and support is what teachers will need to do in order to become free-thinking and self-empowering change agents.

It remains for education to create its own field of play, to forge its own identity and to lay claim to its world and re-shape it. In the early part of the century, Jazz ignited and connected Americans, and provided a spiritual experience that lifted them to a higher ground. It is the mission of the Play Tectonics Movement to demonstrate the universality and the organizing power of Play-Based Learning and what it means for teachers, body and soul, to bring ideas into the hand and play with them, rather than to force-feed them as words on paper, handheld. or laptop.

If the field of education is ever to transform itself authentically, it will not be by the pointed finger of politicians and bureaucrats. It will happen, like jazz, through art, play, and a grass roots emergence that was once—and perhaps will be again—a thoroughly American awakening.


Last edited by papertalker on Sat Aug 24, 2013 3:35 pm; edited 7 times in total
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Joined: 15 Sep 2005
Posts: 5
Location: Las Cruces, New Mexico, USA

PostPosted: Sun Sep 18, 2005 2:13 pm
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Dear Jeff,

I just found Puppetools (or should I say Puppetools found me) a few days ago, but I have been searching for it, unknowingly, for a long, long time. I capriciously volunteered to present a 'workshop on puppets' for a regional reading council's Fall mini-conference. As you might imagine, it would be a make and take workshop with the usual variety of 'puppets-to-go" after a brief synopsis of my personal experiences and successes in 'using puppets' in my work as a Speech & Language Pathologist in assisting children in developing communication skills in the areas of pronunciation, comprehension, expression, stuttering and voice. (These successes are real and relevant, but the context in which I had intended to present them was, at best, naive in regard to the true nature of puppetry in teaching).

As I never present without providing my audience with credible resources for further study/reference I went online to search for reliable tools to substantiate my interest and success in using puppets. Truthfully, my interest in puppetry was first re-sparked two summers ago when I had the opportunity to participate in a language course at the University of Complutense in Madrid Spain, where, in my children's theatre course I was re-introduced to puppetry as a tool for language and social interaction instruction. (By the way, my professor's work with a puppetry troupe in NY was recently awarded the HOLA Award, 2004, for best Musical Comedy) for their rendition of 'Los Titeres de Cachiporro' (The Billy Club Puppets, the same title my fellow teachers and I presented in 2003). I suppose what I'm trying to 'get at' is that my connection to Puppetools in part of one of those serendipitous circles, always my fortune to experience, in which everything beautifully, magically 'connects'. And for this, I need to thank you.

Because of Puppetools, my 'mini-workshop' became an authentic, worthwhile effort and my audience eager recipients of the resources I encountered at your website. I have so much more I'd like to share with this forum about this new conncection I have made, but right now, regarding your essay on Jazz and transformation, I wanted to share that during my mini-workshop, (which, thanks to you again, really became so much more, about education and educators today), it naturally came to me that (obviously?) our culture experienced another transformation, in the form of Jim Henson's "Muppets", that for thirty years has impacted our society. The interjection of this errant thought in the midst of my mini-workshop discussions caused such an obvious moment of realization for my audience! We were all well satisfied with our discussions and plan to meet again to have a 'real' puppet workshop, one that we hope might be 'transformational' for our students and ourselves; the kind that I've found possible through Puppetools. Thank you for your 'rants' which aren't really, just rational thinking in a world where such thought appears to be...radical. Thank you for spurring my thinking and my action, for the 'aha!' in this moment of epiphany.

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PostPosted: Sun Sep 18, 2005 8:53 pm
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Thanks for your kind comments. I am delighted that Puppetools has been able to propel your work forward--it's the kind of effect I'd like to have more of. Glad to hear that your reading workshops went to so well. (I visited Albuquerque and Sante Fe last February for the first time. I love New Mexico.) I am looking forward to working with you, and hope you'll be able to help inspire some of the newcomers here.

At the risk of sounding like a spoil sport, I'm not entirely in agreement with you on the subject of Sesame Street. I know how much joy the Muppets have brought to the world, but they have also done better for themselves as TV reality, promoting passive watching by children, than they have in inspiring teachers to pick up a puppet of their own. The TV model, also a terrific merchandising success, has not, in my estimation, grown itself into the classroom learning culture--certainly not in terms of helping educators grasp how important this medium can be well beyond early childhood education. I share this only to offer a response to your thoughts about Sesame Street and to say that Puppetools, in contrast, has tried to build a model on which teachers, through the use of paper and peer-modeling, could define and refine the medium on their own terms, in their own image. Many teachers I have worked with have commented that they never picked up a puppet because they felt they couldn't compete with the professionalism of the TV puppets, etc. I would be interested in what you think.

In any case, I appreciate your bringing your experience to the Forum, and hope that this is only the beginning.
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