School--and All That Jazz
Many seasoned educators know that some of our best experiences with students are more like jazz or theater improvisations or soccer scrimmages than what school often becomes in the grip of external pressures: a prefigured, tightly designed set of scripted moves. When I argue this point, my administrative mind admonishes me: improvisation without skill and control is close to chaos. Another asks: a set of scripted and prefigured moves can be beautiful as well, like ballet, or a symphony. All of this is also true, of course. Good schooling must have its scripts and conductors, its cultivated patterns. But why is it harder to sell the notion that it is frequently the element of deliberate improvisation in the classroom that cultivates more resilient scholars and citizens? This is, at heart, a marketing dilemma, and not only for progressive schools.
Our current students, from an early age, already use social media tools as agents of creative improvisation---for good or for ill---to a degree we never could have imagined even five years ago, and schools are only now just learning to lean into this skill.
When we talk about student performance, improvisation is not a synonym for lazy, uncultivated work. Good improv is circumscribed by a powerful set of skills and even a set of rules that lay the groundwork for a creative process.
In primary and secondary schools, improvisation is a way of gathering knowledge and a way of demonstrating and applying that knowledge because skills and knowledge are in a constant state of evolution. We are probably more familiar with improvisation as formative learning, yet it should also be a part of summative performance, which we too often associate with something more closed and fixed (think: standardized testing, unit tests, final drafts, etc.).
The fear of uncertainty follows us all into school. People perceive that the world is more uncertain now. Yet hasn’t it always been uncertain?
It's tempting to revert to the illusion that tight notation provides more certainty. With younger children we mostly accept that learning and play are symbiotic, or even synonymous, as long as children are safe and grounded. But the playful declines in middle school, except in planned blocks of time. What replaces play?
In graduate school in the early 90s, I was influenced by a cultural history text, The Beer Can by the Highway, or Essays on What’s American about America, by John Kouwenhoven, an art and cultural critic. The first edition was written in 1961; its study of high and low art and its ideas, poised on the edge of the cultural and political explosions of that decade, are dated in some ways. But what stayed with me was Kouwenhoven’s implication that America itself was an improvisation (similar to how the poet Walt Whitman also saw this county), a formative process that had never and probably never would consolidate in any fixed way. In other words, we live inside a volatile cultural and political experiment. In a country where the transactional and practical are often litmus tests, this is a joyful and disconcerting notion, this vision of unfinished business! Our current politics is reacting with great upheaval to this uncertainty, yet one might argue that such a tension has always gnawed at us from our very founding.
So, as it turns out, in American schools, we need to prepare students to be supple enough to dance with uncertainty, to have an improvisatory mindset, because democratic citizenship requires such flexibility. We like to talk, in educational circles, about resiliency, but unless we actually have school schedules and calendars that allow for this norm, or parents who understand what it means for their children to practice scholarship as shape-shifting, or train teachers who understand what it means to turn the classroom into an improvisation that narrows the gap between formative and summative learning, then it will be harder to turn out students—producers, not products— who can grasp the enormously complex set of problems facing them. They need to do so with joy, playfulness, compassion, and flexibility. And we educators should think of these qualities as kinds of skills that we can model as well.
Peter Herzberg has had an extensive career as a K though post secondary educator in teaching, leadership, and partnership building, in independent, public, and charter schools as well as community college. In this partnership and consulting work, he specializes in the innovation and design of curriculum, the building of more robust teaching cultures, media literacy, and cultivating student engagement. Prior to becoming Interim Head at Mead, where he served on the Board for many years, he worked in 7 different schools—more recently as the founder of the first all boys charter Elementary School, Boys Prep, in the Bronx, and prior to that Associate Head of the Brearley School in NY and Academic Dean at Greens Farms Academy. He is on the board of the educational nonprofit Change for Kids, was on the National Advisory Board of the News Literacy Project, and works on collective impact projects with DegreesNYC, a college-career readiness project. Peter also taught composition and writing at LaGuardia Community College, part of the City University of NY, before moving to the Interim Head position at Mead. He has an M.A in literature from Middlebury College and an Ed.M from Columbia Teacher’s College as a Klingenstein Fellow.
"The Mead School has unique potential, in its intimate, lab-like structure, to model what PreK-8 progressive schools might do at their best. Mead has always led the way in this regard, but the current cultural climate makes its work once again urgently relevant. This potential, and its faculty’s thoughtful, loving approach to kids, is what makes this work special." - Peter Herzberg