I teach improvisational music and I support peers. For me, everything is about improvisation. My job is to understand where people are, and take their impulses and channel them into a learning experience using my knowledge and ability to make stuff up on the spot.
Last night, I was talking to someone from a support group. He told me that he felt like he was having trouble feeling things. He would touch something with his fingers, but it didn’t seem like it was really there. I asked him if he thought there was a way he could learn to feel things. He said he had this idea that he could have a bunch of things in a bag, and he’d stick his hand in, and see if he could identify them.
I asked him how he could get a bag of things he could do this with. He had the idea that he could collect things while walking around. I used his idea as an opportunity to talk about being present, and how he could practice expanding his awareness of the present by trying to notice things as he walked. I then took him and gave him a mini tour of my garden and talked about the things I noticed. I ended up talking about the grass that grows under a tree where nothing else seems to be able to grow. Not much water gets through the tree to the ground there.
I asked him to pick a piece of grass and just try to notice things about it. I picked another grass stem and started doing it myself. I was expecting him to start at the top, because with this kind of grass, there’s a kind of furry, pussy-willow shape at the top, which is why I let that kind of grass grow there. It’s a lot more specific than other kinds of wild grasses.
Instead, he started feeling the roots he had pulled out, and talking about how they felt kind of undifferentiated to him. He couldn’t really describe them. I asked him to feel the stem part. He told me it was harder and smoother. We then felt a leaf, which surprised me, because it was soft and floppy. I wasn’t expecting that.
I believe there are opportunities to learn how to be present at every place and time. It’s all about noticing things. A lot of people don’t seem to notice things, or the things they notice are not things they necessarily believe. Sometimes they hear things, but they aren’t sure those things are there, so they nervously ask someone else if they hear it, too.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to do an improv workshop. I was expecting maybe ten people to participate, but when I walked in, there were more than twenty-five people there, with more arriving. This made me a bit nervous because it meant I couldn’t follow my plan, which involves a rather time intensive exercise where people take turns making up a song and movement with their name. There’s a lot of repetition, and doing that with twenty-five people would take up a lot more than the time I had. Plus I had to introduce them to the topic and get them out of their chairs and moving around before I could get to that exercise.
I always start by telling my story so they understand how I developed the workshops — how they come from my background in music, but were developed to help me cope with depression. Then I lead a meditation designed to help people relax and feel more comfortable with themselves and what we are doing. Normally, I ask them to focus on a few parts of their body and imagine their breath flowing through those parts.
However, I noticed a few people laughing uncomfortably, so I incorporated that into my meditation. “Notice the laughter. Notice the sound of the fan.” It was actually kind of amazing. The people noticed their own laughter and stopped making sounds, and I felt like they started being more present instead of being uncomfortable about being present.
Then, after we did the toning exercise, someone asked me about the laughter. This reminded me that there are laughter meditations, and that I had just seen a role model of mine, Mike Veny, do this laughter meditation as an ice breaker. He had told me that it really helps to get people out of their chairs to move around. It helps them get past their fears and get involved.
So, never having done this before, I decided to answer the participants question about laughter by mentioning the laughter meditation or laughter yoga, whatever it is called. People hadn’t heard of it, so I just started them with fake laughter. I had them walk around the room, make eye contact, and go “HA HA HA,” in a fake way to each other. Before I knew it, it transformed into real laughter, and the energy in the room completely changed.
For me, that was using whatever was available to me to achieve my goals. I matched an interest of the group with an exercise I knew about to take them from where they are gently to another place. I had had no plan to do that, but the group gave me the idea, and I was paying attention enough to notice the idea and then go with it.
I think that education, at its best, uses what they call “teachable moments” as a way to provide information in a way that is responsive to the students’ curiosity. You’re not really abandoning the lesson plan. You still know the goals you have for your lesson, but you aren’t attached to how you reach that goal. It is far better to take students from where they are to another place, than to try to force them to stand in two lines, like Madeline, and make them walk there in lock step.
That’s because students are much happier to do something if it is their idea. If it satisfies their curiosity. Many teachers, I think, are afraid to improvise. They are more concerned about controlling their students, because they know that when students are quiet and appear attentive, then it looks like the image most people have of education.
In fact, there is a huge difference between the appearance of attentiveness and actual attentiveness. Actual attentiveness is usually a lot more messy. Students are each pursuing their own way along the lesson plan. Perhaps everyone isn’t doing the same thing at the same time. Yet, if you honor their curiosity and respect them the way adult learners are accustomed to, then it becomes much easier to teach them what you want to teach simply by matching their curiosity to your lesson plan.
Children are not so different from adult learners. They also crave respect, but are generally used to not getting it. They’ve been told children don’t know enough to guide themselves, so they have to be guided and regimented if they are to learn anything. This probably feels pretty bad for most children, but they are good at sucking it up and conforming because they know their lives depend on being able to get along.
Some adults know better. Some expect respect. Perhaps that is more difficult for teachers, because it means they can’t write out everything they are going to say, and then say it.
It’s even worse with the kind of teaching I do. I want to give people experiences that they can learn from. I’m not going to tell them what they are going to learn. It’s not that I don’t know what I want them to learn nor how I can teach them. However, I know that they guide their own learning. They will tell me how best to teach them, if only I find a way to listen. So their questions guide me. Their behavior guides me. I just need to notice how people are acting, and then use their energy to guide them towards the lesson. Their behavior tells me how to formulate the experience so they can then evaluate it, and learn what they learn.
Some people say the work is relaxing or fun. Some see a little bit about listening and connecting. Sometimes the most surprising students are those who seem to have the least attention. Once, there was an older man in a workshop, who didn’t talk much, and when he did, he slurred his words and spoke slowly. I figured he was on heavy duty medications.
At the end of the workshop, he said the most amazing thing. He said, “This gives me meaning in my life. Most days, I sit in front of the TV all day and nothing else. Making the music makes me feel like there’s something to look forward to. It’s meaningful.”
In the end, that’s exactly what I want to teach. Accepting yourself as you are, and making your own sounds while listening to others. That’s meaningful. That’s connection. That’s both speaking out and being heard, as well as feeling like you’re part of something larger than yourself. That’s meaningful! That’s the work that makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile while doing what I love to do.