Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

What Generates Music (or Friendship or Learning)? #CLTAUC

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What generates music?

Gouged, bound wood,

or wind, or breath,

playing on a tension between

what is bound and what is free —

a child blows on a grass blade, held between two thumbs,

wind blows across the holes in a hollow steel gate,

and blood leaps in response —

a hare alerted in tall grass.

– Moya Cannon, excerpt from Reed-Making, a poem in Hands (gift from Catherine Cronin, March 2nd 2019).

This poem, about reeds – the little mouthpieces used when playing wind instruments like clarinets – really moved me and made me think about friendship, learning and faculty development.

An earlier part of the poem:

the lips of the reed
will come to vibrate in sympathy,
and all things will flow through them —
joy, grief, despair, and again, joy —

This part touched me first. About how when someone plays an instrument well, the reed vibrates as if it feels something, and the sound that comes out affects the player and listeners with this variety of possible feelings- such a simple, tiny thing, the reed.

The quote I started with, which is actually later on in the poem asks this question and it struck me how anyone ever invented these instruments consisting of pieces of wood or metal and opened in them holes, such that breath going through them could could produce the beauty of music.

Those lines of “playing on a tension between… what is bound and what is free” is also incredibly moving for me.

It made me think about meaningful learning moments and friendship moments. Let me focus on the learning moments and reflect on faculty development as well.

A great learning moment is often a combination of several simple things put together in a way that’s *just right* – a look, a smile, a laugh, a word, a pen, a window, a door. You can’t necessarily replicate some of these moments. The same sequence of material taught in one class can evoke emotion in one class and leave another class cold. Some combination of students can make a discussion harmonious while another can make it discordant. Sometimes you know your students well enough you can work with them to create the harmony that will work for the passions and interests in that room…and it will be different each time, but if you break it down, it will be a lot of simple little things put together just so. But that just so need not be orchestrated…it may be discovered, found, or it may evolve spontaneously in the way musicians who know each other well seem (on TV anyway) to be able to make something beautiful together out of…nothing.

I think, as a faculty developer, we spend too much time showing people building blocks of good learning, expecting them to find their way to fitting these building blocks into their existing structures… when perhaps we should be spending more time helping them see the bigger picture of what they might want to build with their students and how the building blocks might fit together (or fail to do so). Teaching and learning are not, in the end, technical things. A good learning moment is not a technical thing. It is not a piece of wood or a hole you breathe through. It’s about getting all these pieces right to produce the kind of music you hope will awaken another person’s passion to feel what you feel in that moment, or to be moved in a certain way. And that’s not a technical thing.

We need to ask ourselves what generates a good learning moment, and think of those tensions between structure and freedom, of ourselves, our learners, our learning environments, that make a learning moment meaningful. And the answer is more complex and contextual than technical distinct steps make it seem. The learning moment is one in the midst of a learning experience, and how they flow together matters.

Tomorrow and Monday, my department is holding its annual Symposium. There’s a student-faculty panel “What’s in a Grade?” On Sunday and a student-faculty partnership workshop I’m doing with Catherine Cronin inshallah – I hope we get to explore these questions then. I’ll come back and reflect later. Stay tuned.

Catherine Cronin and Alec Couros’s keynotes (11am UTC each day) are livestreamed (links here) and we are Virtually Connecting Monday 1330 UTC… Join in! #CLTAUC

One Comment

  1. Showed this to you elsewhere:

    That a thin slice
    of reed, of wood,
    of earth could rest
    against the lips –

    that tension in a
    voiceless mouth,
    ideas off the tip
    of the tongue –

    that this could create
    such music
    remains a mystery
    best left unknown

    Kevin

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