One of the most effective lessons I ever taught came spontaneously as the result of a “teachable moment.”
The year was 2001 and the date was several weeks after 9/11. I was teaching a grade ten music class in a private school and as part of my lesson I was exposing the children to music that they might otherwise never hear.
Some of the details of this lesson are hard to retrieve, like what music I was playing at the time. Let’s just say it was Chicago playing Saturday In The Park. It might more probably been Tower Of Power. I do remember It was a band with horns, of that I am sure. A boy in the class said “that sucks!” I immediately stopped the song and asked a one word question: “Why?”
The boy replied “because it does!” I replied: “I see, and what criteria did you use to make that assessment?”. He said “I don’t like it!” Which I said was a more acceptable statement because it was a personal opinion. I dug deeper. “”Why don’t you like it?” I continued “ it is tuneful, well produced, well recorded, a very listenable piece of music.” I then made the parallel of food, saying: “I don’t particularly like lasagna, do you like it?” He answered in the affirmative as did most of the class. I asked what he thought his response would be if I had said “Lasagna sucks!”? Lights went on around the room as the discussion grew deeper.
We recognized that sweeping statements were poor communication and realized that one needed to have a reason to like or not like something. The boy really had no vocabulary for what I was seeking from him. I was able to give twenty reasons why I did like it and how, with all the great music out there I would not play them something that “sucked!”
I told the kids that it is much easier to say something destructive than it is to very create something. Blank stares.
I went to the closet and picked out a retired hand drum. It had once been half of a set of bongos, but had lost it’s partner and was just one of the useless unusable instruments hanging around a music room. I held the drum up and asked how it was made, and how long it might have taken. We discussed the materials, wood that was grown, harvested, sawed, beveled, shaped, glued, varnished. The skin was a calf that had to be birthed, kept, slaughtered, skinned, cut, tanned, stretched. The skin was held in place by metal pins. The ore needed to be mined, smelted, shaped, plated. There had to be a design for the drum, etc. The point being, making the drum took ideas, effort and time and cost. We agreed on a value of time and a cost.
I then threw the drum on the ground as hard as I could and jumped on it, completely destroying it. The kids looked at me like I was insane. They asked me why I did that. My response was: “It is really easy to destroy something that was hard to create!” I asked them how much thought and energy went into destroying the drum? I saw more lights go on.
I then guesstimated how long it took to build the twin towers which we had watched collapse live the previous month. We talked about all the architects, engineers, tradesmen, etc. Same as the drum. And as it happened there were half a dozen Mohawk children in the class who said their fathers had been away in New York for seven years working on the girders. Mohawk people have a long tradition of being high altitude steel workers. We discussed the human cost of their absence and the long commute to and from Kanawake. We then reflected on how long it took for the buildings to fall and how much skill it took to bring them down.
All the lights went on.
To wrap up the lesson I paraphrased: “It is harder to create something than it is to destroy it” “Be a creator, not a destroyer!”
The kids actually applauded.