Jazz and Blues in the Classroom

Jazz and Blues both have as their origin African musical traditions as filtered through the experience of African-Americans in the late 1800’s and early 20th century.  Both have become important and distinct musical styles.  Jazz has evolved in many different ways, encompassing Dixieland, Swing, several types of Latin Jazz, and, more recently, Acid Jazz.  Blues is its own style as well and heavily influencing other styles such as jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll.

Defining characteristics

Jazz is quite hard to define.  A working definition would be that it is “characterized by syncopated rhythms, solo and group improvisation, and a variety of harmonic idioms and instrumental techniques.”   For me, its most important characteristic is the improvisation.  This feature sets it apart from most music and creates a unique and powerful relationship between the performers and the audience.  Each performance is unique, created, if you will, based on those particular circumstances of time, space, and intangible chemistry.  The best jazz creates a sense of danger in that no one knows where the music will go.

Blues is easier to quantify.  It is usually characterized by its unique 12-bar chord progression.

Relevant timeframe and where the movement originated

Jazz and Blues both originate amidst the African-American population of the United States.  Blues emerged in the late 19th Century.  Jazz emerged in the early 1900’s.

A few artists of the time and the effect the artists and/or movement has had on society

Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and B.B. King are all legends of Blues.

Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Dizzy Gillespie are a few of the jazz legends.

According to Tom Bacig, jazz had a “profound effect” on the literary world, the fashion world of the 1920’s, the Women’s Liberation Movement, and the status of African Americans.  “For the first time in American history, what was previously considered ‘bottom culture’ rose to the top and became a highly desired commodity in society.”

Why the genre is especially appropriate for incorporation into the elementary school classroom

There are many reasons jazz and blues are especially appropriate to incorporate into elementary school classrooms.  Among these reasons are their tight linkage with African-American history, their important status and uniquely American musical styles, and their intricate and joyous music.

At least one way you might incorporate that music genre into another subject, lesson or activity

Studying jazz is like a master class in music.  It builds on all that came before in innovative and brilliant ways.  To understand jazz is to have better access to many or most other musical styles.  This encourages the teaching of jazz in any music or music appreciation class.

Rather than teaching dry history, each period can be brought to life by accompanying it with the art, music, and dance of the period.  From the Civil War to Reconstruction to WWI to the Roaring 20’s to the Swing Era to the 60’s and beyond, there is music from these styles that give life to common experience of the era.  For example, whether in economics or history, understanding of the Roaring 20’s is not complete without a sense of the (jazz) music of that era.  Without jazz, the Roaring 20’s do not roar.

The intricate beauty and complexity of jazz is salubrious for brains of any age.  I believe in using background music whenever appropriate.  Like baroque and classical in general, I believe students find it simultaneously relaxing and supportive of contemplation.

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Virtual Art Museum, Virtual Art?

I note that navigation, at Google Art project or elsewhere, seems to be a ubiquitous problem. I can say from personal experience that the technology exists to do virtual museum with full free movement through the horizontal space. For the moment it would seem that this would not be a web-based game but rather a download. It would be possible to mod existing engines, like Valve’s Source engine, for free or make one using any of several different 3D engines available for licensing.

Another question is what effect this type of access would have on the world? Pretty clearly it would be good for students and teachers of all ages. This kind of full access from home would simultaneously drop the barriers to art viewing to nearly zero and make this possible across geographic distances that would otherwise restrict access to the elite who can afford the trip. The democratic aspects of this are marvelous.

However, like all free internet stuff, it is not immediately clear whether this is positive for anybody except the consumer. Are visitors more or less likely to visit actual museums in a world of instantaneous virtual access? Do museums require revenues from visitors or are they generally endowed by “patrons” who support any kind of exposure of art? What of books containing artwork? Will people buy expensive coffee table art books when they can download (or “collect”) art online for free – especially since many purchases are in the museum store after an inspirational visit?

Most interesting, what art will emerge from this new virtual world? It stands to reason that virtual museums might well host virtual art – art that doesn’t exist except in virtual space. For sure, most of that art will be terrible and derivative to begin with (Mona Lisa with a goatee). But I have no doubt that, in time, art will emerge that is either or both wonderful and/or a brilliant use of virtual opportunities to make art. A criticism could be made that art made virtually is not “real” and therefore not art. However, these days, for example, most sculptors don’t “make” their art. They make blueprints and construction teams or metal specialists to make the actual art for them. If that is “art,” then, I would argue, so is this (whatever “this” turns out to be).

How’s this for an art project for tech savvy older students: visit a virtual art museum and them create a piece of virtual art. The professional tools to do this are not cheap but they are not expensive in the scope of school budgets (at least in normal years). There are free downloadable tools like Blender and Google Sketchup that might provide a starting point. Younger children can share this experience with results commensurate to their age.

See You in Seven Days…

Constructivist education is about helping the students to construct their own knowledge. We do this is in many ways. We give them group or individual projects, short and long term, which they work to master based on their own skills, class materials, and prior knowledge. We, the teachers, guide them with Socratic Questioning to discover pieces their missing. We monitor their independent work, formally an informally, and choose when to help and when to allow short-term failure.

The arts are as amenable as any discipline to constructivism. If students are “taught” art, as I was, it easily becomes unenrolling dogma or, worse, noise. Art at its core is the artist representing meaning and emotional truths in his or her medium. These need to be received by each student individually, with them finding the emotions truths of the art for themselves. Likewise, to be an artist requires the practice of creating art independently.

These methods and skills need to be practiced and used in the classroom but they cannot be limited to the classroom. In fact, they are well suited to independent, overnight pursuit. Giving a student time alone to ponder, experiment, contemplate, and practice is incredibly valuable.

Being sick this week, I laid in bed and to pass the time I watched TED Talks. One of those talks was given by Evelyn Glennie, famous for being one of the world’s greatest percussionists and almost completely deaf. Here is a story she told that demonstrates the value of independent practice beautifully… and the inauthenticy of drills for good measure:

“I remember my teacher. When I first started, my very first lesson, I was all prepared with sticks, ready to go. And instead of him saying, ‘OK, Evelyn, please. Feet slightly apart, arms at a more-or-less 90-degree angle, sticks in a more-or-less V shape, keep this amount of space here, et cetera. Please keep your back straight, et cetera et cetera et cetera.’ Where I was probably just going to end up absolutely rigid, frozen, and I would not be able to strike the drum, because I was thinking of so many other things. He said, ‘Evelyn, take this drum away for seven days, and I’ll see you next week.’

So, heavens! What was I to do? I no longer required the sticks, I wasn’t allowed to have these sticks. I had to basically look at this particular drum, see how it was made, what these little lugs did, what the snares did. Turned it upside down, experimented with the shell, experimented with the head. Experimented with my body, experimented with jewelry, experimented with all sorts of things. And of course, I returned with all sorts of bruises and things like that — but nevertheless, it was such an unbelievable experience, because then, where on Earth are you going to experience that in a piece of music? Where on Earth are you going to experience that in a study book? So we never, ever dealt with actual study books.”

She continues, “So for example, one of the things that we learn when we are dealing with being a percussion player, as opposed to a musician, is basically straightforward single stroke rolls…. And interestingly, the older I became, when I became a full-time student at a so called ‘music institution,’ all of that went out of the window. We had to study from study books. And constantly, the question, well, why? Why? What is this relating to? I need to play a piece of music. ‘Oh, well, this will help your control!’ Well, how? Why do I need to learn that? I need to relate it to a piece of music. You know. I need to say something”

Independent practice is a crucial part of constructivist education.

Field with Flowers near Arles

I love this painting for both its volatility, even recklessness, and the beauty of the result.  I love it for the fact that it hides these contradictions, leaving them to be discovered with careful viewing and a reading of history.  I love the complexity of the seemingly simple composition.  The flowers, the fields, the trees, the buildings and the sky are each portrayed differently and offer unique rewards for exploration and contemplation.  There seems to be a message too, looking from the flowers to the fields to the town – all under a crude and powerful sky.  Is he thinking about nature versus human settlements or the attractiveness of those human settlements as seen from a distance and from a field of flowers?  What of his violent, crude sky?  Is he thinking of a primal and all seeing God looking down on his pitiful struggles for peace and beauty?  All this is made far more poignant knowing that within the year he would cut part of his ear off, be hospitalized for depression, and flee Arles for Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Within two years he would be dead.

The Elephant in the Museum

I am totally committed to the idea of teaching children meaningful connections to literature, math, history, culture, art, music, dance, athletics, and the rest, and knowing that the “fundamentals” will follow from that. I am totally committed to the idea that the future will require independent, emotionally wise, problem solvers. We are taking time away from the arts to teach long division to students with calculators on their phones. We are taking time away from classes teaching physical fitness to teach students cursive who’ll be keyboarding to communicate.

It is the elephant in the room. Art isn’t something we should teach when time permits. It is the core of a progressive, emotionally mature education. It serves the students incredibly well. It would no doubt be of comfort to our children to know that Mozart lived through the American Revolution and saw the beginning of the French Revolution. Beethoven lived and created through both and the global conflagration that was the Napoleonic Wars. This period saw regular devastation and a see-sawing of German fortunes on a scale unknown today. Understanding how life and art coexist and give meaning to lives in turbulent times is something our children need to know.

Teaching Art

Impressionism is “real” enough to be recognizable by students. Yet it is different enough that it clearly challenges the viewer to think differently, to adopt a different perspective. At least for me, it’s the most approachable type of art. I understand the break they are making with tradition and I am persuaded by the esthetics they create. It is challenging enough to freeze me into contemplation but familiar enough to be comfortable. It is also something students can emulate easily. I have seen amazing versions of Starry Night and Vase with Twelve Sunflowers done by preschoolers at my wife’s school. A room filled with Starry Nights done by 4 year olds is breathtaking.

The area I would move gingerly as a teacher is contemporary art. I cannot help feeling that much of it is a joke at my expense and I remember deep resentment when I was exposed to it in the 70’s. This leads to two thoughts: One, when presenting modern art it is critical to create a cultural context, an understanding of the process of art in all it’s glory, human flaws, economic aspects, and experimentation. Second, and more important, we each (and our students each) need to be allowed to find value where we do. If we don’t, we risk ending up like Mr. Karp in A Chorus Line. We can only encourage students to explore the possibilities of art, not impose our meanings (or even expectations) on them.

Modern Art

I think we can all find ourselves unpersuaded by art if we don’t see the point. I wrote an entire post on my lack of appreciation of a modern art piece appropriately called “Red Plank,” on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. I wrote more, about trying to see art as an artist’s communication. Honestly, I still don’t get Red Plank, try as I might. I am comforted by a quote I read in a recent book on modern art. According to the book, Jerry Saltz from the Village Voice said “85% of new contemporary art is bad.” The problem is, he continues, is while most of the art world agrees with the percentage, they just can’t agree on which is the good 15%.

Notwithstanding this, I think it’s important to try to see the unique perspective in each art piece. I think this is one of the important things art can contribute to a child’s education. It challenges us to see life from different perspectives. Like philosophy, it can make us question and force us to develop the ability to adopt different perspectives. In particular, the impressionists were interested in light and color. That is what they try to capture. They show us a way to see objects that is not the normal way we see them. It reminds us that there are other ways to see things. This is good for adults, and even better for children. The children almost certainly do see things differently, having not yet been training into conformity. Art can be an important link to their unique personality and their ability to sustain and embrace that personality.

Constructivist Assessment

It is well understood that assessment is an important part of education.  What is less agreed upon is what is the appropriate purpose of assessment.  In traditional education, assessment is usually linked to the social sorting purpose of education. Specific standards are created in specific subjects and students are tested and scored according to how well they demonstrate that they meet those standards.  This is philosophically consistent with the teacher-centered traditionalist approach to teaching. However, assessment must change not only its form but also its affect to match the philosophical needs of constructivist education.

Constructivist education is about the students constructing their own knowledge. Progress towards the learning goals needs to be measured generously and in support of each child’s success. This has two specific implications. First, the measures of success need to be changed. Rather than tracking performance as if education was a contest, performance needs to be tracked in terms of the student’s proximity to success. Rather than the traditional “Proficient,” “Advanced,” “Below Basic,” etc., more student centered assessment results should be used. “Not there yet,” “On Target,” and “Above and Beyond” captures the intent of the assessment more clearly. Second, constructivist education believes that every child should succeed and therefore assessment results should support that belief. Constructivist assessments are there to discover what a child has mastered and in what areas further work is needed. That is how the results should be presented and the affect they should carry. Constructivist assessments must always be in support of the child’s learning.

This all has implications for grading. It hardly makes sense to hold an expectation of each child’s success and then rank him or her on a scale of 0 to 100. A teacher standing apart, ranking her students, destroys the emotional foundation of constructivism. Like the assessments themselves, summative results should reflect broad learning outcomes like “Not Quite There,” “On the Mark,” and “Above and Beyond.” Written or verbal assessment should emphasize both the student’s successes and areas where collective effort needs to be made to achieve learning goals. It is critical that the student is seen as the creator of his or her learning and that the teacher is seen to be in complete support of that achievement. Implementing constructivism in a modern classroom is challenging and assessment policy is among the biggest challenges. On the other hand, a classroom in which assessment is fully constructionist will true the entire classroom culture to constructivism and ease that challenge.