A great improvisation

This fall begins my first year teaching an Advanced Placement course – a college-level course for high school students wishing to place out of typical freshman-level courses at college.  I like how College Board encourages AP Language and Composition teachers to develop their own curricula.

The study of language arts in public schools is generally moving in the opposite direction.  Teachers, of course, now teach to standardized tests.  Innovation and skills both take a back seat to content (i.e., knowledge) since most jurisdictions set unrealistic timelines for the mastery of material.

Less well understood is the teacher’s diminished role in the classroom. Teachers are increasingly told how to teach particular material.  While enforced uniformity might be part of a great means of introducing new teachers to a variety of strategies in a safe and controlled environment that frees up his time to learn skills, it hamstrings more experienced teachers.  Enforced uniformity doesn’t recognize teaching as a profession or as an art.  It’s like trying to inculcate a love of cycling while never losing one’s training wheels.

I thought of this tonight reading Kandinsky on art:

The inner voice of [the artist’s] soul will also tell him which form to use, and where to find it (external or internal “nature”).  Every artist who works according to so-called feeling knows just how suddenly and unexpectedly a form that he himself has conceived can appear distasteful, and how another, correct form substitutes itself “as if on its own initiative” for what has been discarded.  Boecklin used to say that the true work of art must be like a great improvisation, i.e., reflection, construction, previous working out of the composition should be no more than preliminary steps in the direction of that goal, which may appear unexpected even to the artist himself. (On the Spiritual in Art, Chapter 8)

It’s the same for teaching, at least the teaching I want to do.

Good teachers plan, collaborate, learn, work at their skills, reflect, and master subject, scope, and sequence.  If the planning is done for them, they’re not really teaching because they really haven’t entered into the material or its presentation.  If they can’t improvise while planning or teaching, then there’s no live performance.  It’s canned.

When I was a kid, I knew the names of every disk jockey on my favorite stations, and I had my opinions of each one’s strengths and weaknesses.  A good disk jockey could educate his listeners and help them appreciate new trends, he could make a good artist or help to break a bad one, and he could mix material to great effect.  He could enhance a love for music.  Because every station decided on its content, and because many stations gave their best disc jockeys some leeway regarding content (and a lot regarding presentation), new musicians had many possible geographic points in which their music could take root and from which it could spread.   And what directions popular music took from the 1950’s to the 1960’s!

Since then, cost cutting and uniformity have effectively eliminated the disk jockey from radio.  Language arts teachers may be going the way of disk jockeys, and language arts skills may be going the way of popular music.

The worst of it, of course, is the child’s experience in school and his lack of skills once he leaves it.


  1. Wow, thank goodness I retired when I did. There’s no way I could teach a set curriculum and be happy teaching.

    I was proud to revamp the traditional English I, II, III, IV curriculum and find ways to teach students basic skills using materials not traditionally used in schools.

    I loved Shakespeare and, in particular, poetry, but it seemed unrealistic to think that you could sell those to all students.

  2. That’s the fun of it, I think — revamping curriculum with materials no publisher would sell in a pedagogical package. Now that you mention it, I think that’s what I’ll feel the most pride in when I retire.

    Reading your comment, Loren, forces me to admit that very little of my dire outlook is happening around me. Our school — even our entire school system — encourages Language Arts teachers to teach the curriculum in ways they find work best for their styles and students.

  3. “which may appear unexpected even to the artist himself”
    makes me think about Piano Briefs :)

  4. Peter,
    Was just updating my blog and ran across some old comments from you, and felt inspired to come for a visit. Love Kandinsky. Finding him on your blog was like running into two old friends, rather than one. So, much of our life is meant to be that kind of improvisational work of art, whether it’s teaching or something else, but how often we lose that childlike joy of creation.

    By the way, my own research in graduate school has increasingly been leading me towards the intersection of culture and education, which also could be a beautiful sort of dance of interaction between peoples, but instead becomes a barrier that pushes us further apart. More and more I’m seeing that this whole process of learning is something really big and really central to what it means to be human.

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