Maintaining the ecosystem

photo 2Likely not a conscious choice, the garden at Symonds is an unofficial symbol of nourishment, connection, and being part of something greater in our world.  Tom Julius, Director of the teacher certification program at Antioch New England Graduate School has referred to the ideal educational setting as an elaborate ecosystem.   One main idea being that like an ecosystem, if the system is functional, it is open to positive growth and can withstand various negative external forces.  If one person comes or goes, the ecosystem shifts to accommodate but if there is real trauma such as years of budgetary and administrative stress on the system, then a downward spiral can occur.  This ecosystem begins with administration and teachers being caring, supportive, and respectful of one another.  This occurs parallel to  (and trickling down to)  a respectful classroom environment in which students are given intentional, often orchestrated opportunities to show respect for one another.   Music, Art, Library, and PE are places in which students have opportunities to interact in very different ways than the classroom environment, thus there are  more opportunities to reinforce the core components of a healthy ecosystem.


photo 1It’s October in music and up to this point in the school year we’ve basically been working hard to remind and teach our children how we function in a formal and informal setting with other humans.  We continue to stress (this really never ends) being a whole body listener as the most basic method of  showing respect for one another; adults and children alike.  In the music room we’ve been engaged in more of what could perhaps be described as tweaking the ecosystem  by urg3-two-hand-turns-9e2fc81ad2ing, perhaps even say (rein)FORCING positive interaction through dance, song, and group instrumental work.  All classes have participated in singing, dancing, and other whole-group activities such as games and loose instrumental ensembles. Here are a couple of  specific  examples of some of what we do to inspire positive interactions between one another:

Contra/ Square/ Folk dancing
I am super fortunate to live in the Brattleboro, Vermont area, home of Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, Andy Davis, and Mary Cay Brass.  These four folks are the founders of New England Dancing Masters.  (The featured photo of folks dancing is from their website).  This is a collection of some of the finest team building (mostly) traditional dances and singing games ever known to educators.  Here in Southern Vermont, Western Massachusetts where I tend to perform a lot of this music, and New Hampshire where I teach, these dance traditions are not just presented in the classroom, they are part of the woodwork in local grange halls, churches, libraries, and community centers.  I have been taking these dances into the classroom for the last 14 years.  This:
A) Allows students to practice how to choose and dance with a partner and large group respectfully
B) Helps in the practice of safely moving your body around others, demonstrating self control AND creativity  and
C) Instills confidence, leadership, and community participation.
YES!  Lots of this stuff is dorky, old fashioned, and anti pop-culture and it’s downright fun and gives kids the chance to be at once goofy and respectful in ways they don’t get to practice in a home environment.

School wide songs:
While many music classrooms are cut off from the rest of the school culture, I (and I know many other music teachers) attempt to foster school wide intergenerational unity by making sure that each week, the entire school learns one common song to be sung in the following all-school assembly.  The song can be seasonal, serious, eco, goofy- basically any flavor.  Here’s an example of me singing at assembly last week.  A common song makes kids and staff feel “in it together” and motivates school wide  learning.  The video is taken sans children–for legal and safety reasons we cannot show kids’ faces.


May PoleSchool wide and music room Rituals:
We have many.  These are opportunities for interaction that foster group pride.  Here are a few examples:

-Our Turkey Trot gets the whole school physically active around Thanksgiving, running and walking around the perimeter of the playground and collecting food for the local food bank.
-Our Halloween parade gives kids the opportunity to dress up for an hour and March around the playground showing off their costumes.
-Dancing around the Maypole around May Day (seen in photo). Demonstrating this form of visual art and music in an ancient ritual requires intense listening and cooperating skills.  Students need to pay close attention to each other in order to create beautiful patterns.
– 5th grade traditional English Longsword (Morris) dancing to commemorate the spring.


Makeshift instrument ensembles:
In order to prepare kids for really playing music together in band, strings, chorus, and the classroom, I often have kids beat on drums, improvise, and create “sound carpets” somewhat more freely than perhaps I should at the beginning of the year.  Kids’ interpersonal skills are developed through negotiation over conducting, arrangements and improvisation.  Below is an example of how one group came together to create something above and beyond expectations when given the instructions to set a group of instruments to a Haiku:

Deep in the jungle
Big, grey, fat, elephants live
Snorting and grunting

Social skill development is the most important part of this exercise.  Again, faces are excluded. Watch it until the end- they do something really cool:





I am always working to maintain my classroom ecosystem but I will stress that I am so thankful for and couldn’t do it without our healthy school wide environment.    None of this would be possible without great leadership within our school and a seasoned staff, many of whom have been around and working together for years.  An ecosystem takes thousands of years to develop and can be destroyed in very short period of time.  A school is no different– Symonds didn’t  become like this over night, yet it could be destroyed in an instant.    Warning?


Pete Seeger and kids

So the other night I went Pete Seeger’s house to conduct a taped interview for a coffeehouse show I’m producing in N.Y. on the songs of Woody Guthrie. After school, I drove the three hours with my friend and cameraman Bucky from Brattleboro, VT to Beacon NY.  Having grown up around Pete and the sloop Clearwater, and having many mutual friends, I had been to his house several times before, but never had I had the opportunity to just sit down, talk and play songs for a few hours.  I have had various interactions with him over the years, did concerts with him and recorded on his last CD with the Rivertown Kids, “Tomorrow’s Children”.  Regardless, spending an evening alone with your (and many other people’s) hero is pretty cool.

His house is perched on top of a small mountain overlooking Newburgh Bay on the wide and powerful Hudson River.  True to his usual modus operandi, the first thing he said was, “My memory isn’t what it used to be…”.   Thus, we couldn’t spend much time reminiscing about the many friends we had in common through our common activities over the years.   He is 93 years old– despite that he spent the evening telling stories like he always had.

Before we did the interview I mentioned that I had left some cookies in the car (my mother informed me of his sweet tooth).  He said “Well, you know I’m a cookie-haulic”.  (An hour later I took a look at the package and the 6 choco chunk full sized cookies were gone!). After talking about Woody as I had planned, I asked him some questions on behalf of the kids at Symonds School, the main one being how young people can make peace in the world.  He launched into a story about how he has it made a habit to walk into classrooms and greet kids with “Howdy, cousins”.  The Kids, he said would look at him like he was crazy but he would go on to tell them that we were once foragers and as the result of “progress”, our population would double every certain number of years.  He then would go back to say that during the time of foraging, the few thousand people on the planet were all distantly related cousins and now, especially to children, that concept is simply inconceivable.  However, we ARE all still cousins.  Children need to remember that despite the color of your skin, language, etc, we are all related. Compassion, understanding, unity, and the power to not refer to another human as “evil” is important in your family and in the greater human family.   Just like I say to my kids, “there’s no such thing as a bad kid, just bad choices”.

Of course I gave him a Symonds “Peace Place” cd and told him all about my school, the cd project from the year earlier and our social curriculum.  After shuffling to the drawer, grabbing a new packaged flashlight, fiddling with the batteries and getting his glasses, he looked at the cd and said “That Mr Cate must be a great principal” then went on to say that the only thing that’ll save the world is creativity and the arts. When he took a closer look at the cover of the cd (an aerial photo of 400ish kids and staff standing in the shape of a peace sign) he got up and declared, “gotta get something for you”.  He ran up to his loft, climbing a vertical ladder with books piled everywhere (he’s 93!) and came down with 200 bumper stickers that read “Coexist”– you may have seen it– it’s lettering made up of various spiritual symbols together including the peace sign. Having seen the cd cover he ALSO had to tell me the story of the peace sign and how it was born from the letters N and D of “Nuclear Disarmament”.

Of course the night wouldn’t be complete without a few songs so when he saw that I had my mandolin with me, he suggested we should play.  I was itching to sing a yodeling song I learned from him years ag0– the Sons of the Pioneers’ “Way Out There”.    What fun.

So, I am now left to happily give all my 3rd , 4th and 5th graders each a “coexist” bumper sticker presented by Pete Seeger on the eve of the international day of peace.  I am willingly obliged to carry on a message of peace to the children of Symonds School.  How lucky I am.