Thursday, April 14, 2011

Teaching Kids Where they Are and Helping them Discover their Greatness

As I tried to muck through the numerous emails I seem to get on a daily basis, I noticed one showed up only as "Chris." I was right in thinking it was one of our superb Americorps members from last summer.

I can't take credit for the fact that Chris is an amazing person with a gift for teaching. Instead, I wanted to post his email as a reminder to myself (and you guys) of the quality of people we get coming through our programs. I know that when Chris left our summer program, he was determined to start something like our program in Commerce, where he attends school.

What excites me about his letter is that Chris is taking on the challenge of helping inspire kids to be great. It's nothing we have in us that we give to them but, instead, something they have inside of themselves that our job, as teachers, is to help them discover and figure out ways to get them to connect the dots and be as great as we see that they are. Chris did (and is still doing) that even though he's an hour away from us now and working with completely different kids...and that makes me smile. The ripple effect continues.

Here is his email:
Hi Ms. Janet,

I just wanted to share a small story with you that you might find interesting. Last semester (and purely by chance/fate) I took on my first autistic piano student. His name is Sam. He's an extremely bright kid, very quick with numbers, and he is storming through his methods books at a rate I've never seen before...typical Asperger's Syndrome. Of course, with his learning proficiency, there is a communicating deficiency, and after talking to his mother, we think music might be the best way to help him with it.

Anyway, in our last lesson, I had him working on Bach's "Prelude in C Major." He was doing well; he had all the notes memorized, all the dynamics memorized, his fingers were curved correctly. His only problem was that some measures were a little disjointed, interrupting the flow of the piece. So, I asked him a question, "How do I know you're playing the right music?"

He pointed at the music laying on the stand, "Because the notes are right there."

So I took the music off the stand, "But you have it memorized. Let's say you're performing for me without music. How do I know you're playing the right notes?"

He stared at me blankly.

I decided a different approach. "How do you know I'm saying the right words to you right now?"

He thought for a few seconds, "Well, because I know what the words mean. We both know English."

I was impressed with his response. I wasn't sure a twelve-year-old would hit so close to the answer, but then I had to remind myself, this is Sam. I continued, "Right! More precisely, it's because I know what I'm trying to say. If I tell you, 'the cat jumped over the blue fox,' what do you think of?"

"Why is the fox blue?"

I smile, "Because he's in our imaginations. So what do you see in your imagination?"

"A cat jumping over a blue fox...what color is the cat?"

"What's your favorite color?"

"How about purple?"

"Okay, so a purple cat jumps over a blue fox. Now what do you see?"

"A purple cat jumping over a blue fox."

And now I know we're back on track together. I continue, "Alright. So how is it that you see that?"

He thinks again, "Well, because you said it."

"Correct! You see it because I see it first, and then I explain it to you, right? That's how you know I'm saying the right words! And it's the same with music..." And we go on to have a discussion about what music is. A brilliant discussion entailing Bach, John Cage, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Eventually we get back to the Prelude, and I challenge him this time to tell me something with the music.

At first he was rather confused. He wasn't sure what I meant. To him, as long as he played the right notes, rhythms, and dynamics, then he was playing the music. So we tried an exercise. I told him to take the first measure and imagine purple. Then I pointed four measures later and told him to imagine green. Then, in between, I told him to turn the purple color into the green color with the music. He didn't quite understand at first, but we worked on it for a few moments, and I broke it down for him, explaining that when I play, I pretend I am painting; each sound has it's own color and I make a picture with those sounds. So he tries again, and those four bars of music were so...true, raw, and moving. They were perfectly connected. I glanced over at his mom, who was just beaming. Sam was communicating; he was showing us his colors.

After the lesson his mom pointed something interesting out. She mentioned that he had learned the alphabet by assigning each letter a color. Seems like we might be on to a connection here.

I hope things at CityWalk are going well!

Take Care,

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