Author Archives: Liz

Transition and Distraction

It’s that time of year.  It’s the next to last week of school and everyone is distracted.  Not just the kids, but the teachers too.  In  between classes I’m online, planning my summer travel.  I’m in a slow panic about being ready to teach my summer university courses.  My classroom needs to be organized before I leave for the summer, and with all the piles of random stuff here and there, it looks like a whirlwind hit.  As I look out at my young students, I feel like I’m trying to keep a pot from boiling.

An activity I call “Weird Percussion” comes to the rescue.  I drag out a large box that contains instruments that I’ve collected over the years.  Shekeres are there, along with plastic tubes, tiny tambourines, clusters of kola nut shells, guiros, cabasas, and oddly shaped sound-makers that my sisters brought me back from their vacations. These are instruments that the students haven’t seen before.  Each student takes one and explores them, looking for interesting sounds.  This is not a day to be concerned about playing the instruments correctly.  We are simply looking for a variety of sounds.  The students are encouraged to play them inside out and upside down, with a stick and without, tapping them on their legs and on the floor.

Each child shares three sounds, one at a time around the circle.  Then we create question and answer phrases, using the instrument as our voice.  Even my 2nd graders can grasp the idea of “speaking” through the instrument, and they play expressively.  We add a game of secretly deciding how two partners will play – happy, sad or angry.  The two students play their conversation, and the rest of us guess which emotion they were expressing.

On another day, these same instruments can be used for categorizing and conducting – an activity I first learned from the Orff maestro Susan Kennedy.  Three hula hoops are placed in the middle of the circle and we sort the instruments into those played by hitting, scraping, or shaking.   Each type is placed into one hula hoop.  Some of the instruments could be in two categories and interesting discussions arise as students defend their choice.  Then students reclaim their instrument and gather on the section of the circle that is closest to “their” hula hoop.  Then the conducting begins.  A student steps in and out of a hula hoop to start and stop the sound of that section of instruments.  The students soon discover that they can “play” one, two or three sections at a time, and can create nuances of slow and fast, long and short, sound and silence.

This is a lesson that had a cluster of boys say on the way out, “That was really fun!”  Yeah, it was!

I’m curious to know what other ideas teachers pull out to bring order to the last few weeks.  Please share some ideas if you like.  Happy summer vacation!



Sing for the JOY of it

What is it about singing that lifts our spirits and changes our mood?  A year-long course in Berkeley CA entitled “Awakening Joy” recommends three things to bring joy into your life:  meditation, movement of some kind (walking, dancing, etc.) and singing.  In each monthly session of the course the participants hear lectures, experience guided meditations, listen to live music, and perhaps most importantly, they sing together.  The point is not to create accomplished singers of course, but simply to connect the community in song.

Rick Hanson (neuropsychologist, author of Buddha’s Brain) was a recent guest speaker at the “Awakening Joy” course.  He talked about how our brains are wired for negativity: once burned, twice shy.  Human beings, at least those who survived to share their genes, found that it was better to be anxious about a non-existent tiger in the bushes, than to be care-free and devoured!  Brains developed to be on the alert for danger.  The continuous buzz of anxiety was a survival necessity earlier in our human history, but these days can cause needless stress and suffering.

According to Hanson, it is easy for our brains to record the hard stuff – the insults, or the disappointments.  It is harder for our brains to process and retain the good stuff – one’s own accomplishments, or the generosity of friends.  As he puts it, for the brain it’s “Velcro for the bad, Teflon for the good.”  Hanson recommends pushing back against this biology, and paying attention to the good when it naturally appears.  He suggests giving ourselves 10, 20 or even 30 seconds to fully experience a good moment.  This seems like a ridiculously short time, but it’s harder than you think.  Taking time to really feel the event in the body gives the brain time to absorb and learn.  And as Hanson often says, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”  Because the brain is “plastic,” it can create new neural pathways and learn new ways of dealing with the world.

Sing for the JOY of it!

When we sing, we are creating not just seconds of good feeling, but full minutes!  When we fully give ourselves over to singing, we can experience a realm of connection, non-judgment and beauty.  For many people this is easiest to accomplish in a group.  Our own small voice is blended with the others around us, and there are other voices who are adding harmonies.  We can enjoy the support of the guitar or piano, and we can rest for a moment in the group feeling of contentment and flow.  As the song progresses to the second and third verses, our brains are given the needed time to absorb and integrate the positive feelings.  One can only imagine the wonderful things that this is doing for our brains!

~ Liz

For more about Rick Hanson, click HERE for his website.

Click HERE to see a Hanson video: “Take in the Good.”

Privacy and Comfort

I recently have experienced some dramatic personal events.  I lost two family members in close succession, eight days apart.  Because of these family sorrows I traveled back to my home state of Utah three times over a six week period.  I tried to keep my missed teaching days down to a minimum, but my students have seen substitute teachers a number of times in the last month and a half.

Teaching became a place of refuge for me during this difficult time. It felt great to dive into the needs and stories of my students, and to focus on preparing for upcoming programs.  During the school day I felt competent and in control.  My life had a normal flow.

However, in the middle of one class several weeks ago, a Kindergarten girl raised her hand.  “I’m so sorry about your sister,” she said.  I was taken aback.  My sense of safety was challenged, and I felt uncomfortable at best, violated at worst.  I was surprised that this Kindergarten teacher chose to give details of my situation to her class.  At my school the students are all young, Kindergarten to 2nd grade.  It felt misguided to talk about my family, both because of my sense of privacy, and because of the age of the children.

More recently, when I returned to school after the third trip to Utah, I found a tall pile of letters and hand drawn pictures.  The substitute teacher had apparently asked the students in each class, eight classes of about 22 students each, to write me condolence letters.  Ouch!  I know that she meant well, but the thought of my students discussing my personal grief was the opposite of comforting.  I would have been so much happier if the teachers and substitutes, when asked why Ms. Keefe was absent, had said simply, “She’s visiting her family.”

So the question that has surfaced for me is: what are the boundaries of personal and private at a school?  What are the actions that give comfort and what are those that violate privacy?  It’s good to feel the support of colleagues, but which personal issues of a teacher are legitimate areas of conversation with students?  The death of a family member of course is not the only problematic situation.  Perhaps a teacher is seriously ill, or is going through a divorce.  What should students be told?  What are the boundaries?

~ Liz


The Discomfort of Creativity

I’ve been trying out some new projects with my students.  At a recent workshop I learned some great movement activities, and I’m adapting them to the needs of my classes.  The past few lessons have been a time of slight confusion as some ideas are tried and discarded, and other ideas stick. I have a clear idea of where I’m going, but I still need to work out the in-between steps to create a satisfying experience.

There is a distinct feeling of discomfort during this time because I am venturing into unknown territory and have moments of truly not knowing where I am going. No children are harmed while this is going on, surely, but I often feel awkward, and the lesson might seem disjointed or incomplete.

John Cleese (yes, the Monty Python guy) gave a succinct talk a few years back on the subject of creativity.  To my delight, he actually celebrates this messiness and discomfort as an essential part of the creative process.  He even states that the most creative people are those who can tolerate this confused state the longest.  He suggests that the person who simply grabs at the first solution to a problem, even though it ends the discomfort, will not be the most creative.

During this awkward in-between time, he urges an attitude of light-hearted play, and of non-judgment.  He advises patience.  If you stay open, he says, the answers you need will eventually come.

~ Liz

Click HERE to see the whole speech by John Cleese (about 30 minutes).