Song Series #3: Songs from Childhood

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Which songs do we love in childhood, and why (if a reason can even be found)? Which of these do we remember years later? Almost all children are drawn to songs; songs, from the lullaby to the playground chants, come up every day, even many times a day, in a child’s life. At least partly through songs, children start to learn to speak; even now, I find that songs help me learn languages. Songs give you phrases and melodies that you can take with you everywhere. You can play around with them, changing the words here and there, speeding them up, slowing them down. Songs also open up new experiences; they show you the world in a new way. That is true of the four songs I chose to include here. I heard all of them before the age of eleven.

The first is a lullaby. My mom sang it to me, and I heard it many times in my childhood, from infancy onward. I discovered only now that the text is part of Tennyson’s poem “The Princess.” It is known as “Sweet and Low.”

Sweet and low, sweet and low,
Wind of the western sea,
Low, low, breathe and blow,
Wind of the western sea!
Over the rolling waters go,
Come from the dying moon, and blow,
Blow him again to me;
While my little one, while my pretty one, sleeps.

Sleep and rest, sleep and rest,
Father will come to thee soon;
Rest, rest, on mother’s breast,
Father will come to thee soon;
Father will come to his babe in the nest,
Silver sails all out of the west
Under the silver moon:
Sleep, my little one, sleep, my pretty one, sleep.

I knew as a small child that the song was sad. I think it made me sob once or twice. But I loved imagining the “Silver sails all out of the west / Under the silver moon.” That was my favorite part of the melody too. Here is a recording by Bette Midler.

The second song, “Ah, Lovely Meadows”(an English translation of a Czech folksong), comes with a distinct memory. I was five or six; I know this because we still lived in Amherst. A few girls had come over; they were a year or two older than me. They sang this song, and I was amazed at how they could sing the fast words of the chorus so clearly, so precisely. I wanted to be able to sing fast like that. In retrospect, it wasn’t particularly fast, but it seemed rapid then. The rendition by the Friedell Middle School Choir sounds almost exactly like my memory of the song.

Now I skip from age five to nine. I was in fifth grade, and somehow a classmate and I (I think her name was Susie, though I could be imagining this because of the song) discovered that we could listen to records in the school library (together, with headphones on). That’s what we did. I remember how delighted we were with “Crocodile Rock” (written by Elton John and Ernie Taupin; performed by Elton John). I had never heard a song like that before; I didn’t know they existed. It had just come out that year. All this time, I have had the wrong lyrics in my head in several places. In other places I couldn’t tell what the lyrics were (and it didn’t matter at the time).

When I learned the fourth song (in Holland, at age 10, during a musical event involving the Nederlandse Pijpersgilde, the bamboo flute players’ guild), I was enchanted by the lyrics, which I didn’t fully understand or learn correctly. Somehow, in my mind, “Charlie will come again” turned into “Nature will try again.” Written by Sir Harold Boulton, the “Skye Boat Song” begins:

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing
Onward! the sailors cry
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye

Here is a recording by Alastair McDonald:

Putting this post together, I came to understand how a song can appeal to a child’s–or anyone’s–curiosity. You hear it and want to learn it and learn more about it. You might try to track down the lyrics, or learn the melody, or figure out what it means, or listen to it again and again, but beyond all that, you know that something happened to you when you heard it, and years later you remember those few minutes, even the faces in the room, the colors, the record spinning and shining on the turntable, the glance of glee.

I took the photo at the Tiszavirág Fesztivál last night.

Here are the links to the first and second posts in the song series.

The Biometric Bracelet and the End of Daydreaming

Children won’t be able to get away with daydreaming much longer. If their mind wanders “off task,” a sensor will catch them.

News broke recently that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded $1.4 million in grants to researchers who will experiment with “biometric” bracelets in middle schools around the country. (These bracelets send a small electrical current across the skin and then measure the electrical changes as the wearer responds to stimuli.)  The researchers intend to use them to measure student “engagement” and to determine which parts of a lesson (or reading or other activity) show higher engagement levels than others. Supposedly, through analyzing engagement levels in this manner, the researchers can deliver recommendations for raising engagement overall. The Reuters article explains:

Teachers could, for instance, use the bracelets to monitor student response to a video or a reading, then use that data to spark a lively discussion by zeroing in on the most engaging points, said Rosalind Picard, a computer scientist at MIT and a co-founder of Affectiva, which makes the sensors.

Such use of sensors in educational experiments is by no means new. Researchers at MIT, Arizona State University, and UMass Amherst have been developing “affect-aware tutors”—cartoon characters that respond to the students’ moods. Various sensors (including a mental state camera, posture analysis seat sensor, pressure mouse sensor, and skin conductance bracelet) detect the user’s state of mind; the cartoon character then responds. If a student shows frustration with a math problem, for instance, a cartoon might pop up with an expression of concern and say, “Gee, that was difficult. Would you like to try something easier?” (I discuss this in the eighth chapter of my book.)

Now, something is deeply wrong with all of this—in fact, there’s so much wrong with it that it’s difficult to get it all into a short space. But I’ll give it a try. Many more responses can be found on Diane Ravitch’s blog (for instance, here and here).

First of all, these bracelet sensors are invasive. Students (and people in general) have a right to their own thoughts and thought patterns. Yes, a teacher may demand attention in the classroom, but what goes on inside a student’s head remains his or her own business. Yes, sometimes doctors use sensors to test us, but they do this with our consent, for medical reasons. Privacy is a complex subject; what belongs to each of us alone, and what belongs to society? The answer cannot be determined through science; it is an ethical and philosophical matter. We must use our best judgment and conscience when drawing the line.

Second, engagement in itself is not necessarily a good in the classroom; higher levels do not necessarily mean more learning. Engagement comes in many forms and has complex rhythms. There is fleeting engagement—entertainment—that fades as soon as object moves away. There are behaviors that do not look like engagement but actually are (a student may look off to the side in order to think about something the teacher just said). A student working at home on a difficult problem will have ups and downs of engagement—puzzling over the problem, trying this approach, ending up in a rut, shaking the head, getting up and walking around, sitting down again and trying another approach, and finally figuring it out. All in all, engagement is secondary to what’s actually going on (which we must interpret with full mind).

Boosting engagement could even degrade instruction. Rosalind Picard (mentioned in the quote above) imagines teachers using the bracelets to determine the most “engaging” points of a reading. They can then zero in on these points in class discussion. Have the researchers spoken with teachers and professors of literature? Do they know how literature works? The most engaging points are not necessarily the most important ones. Sometimes subtle details prove essential to the story. Sometimes the ending confuses the reader at first and then suddenly makes sense. When selecting points of a story (or essay or other work) for discussion, one should think about the story itself, not the engagement levels. A “lively” discussion driven by “engagement data” could be supremely shallow.

Finally (for now), these efforts to neasure and boost engagment may rip up the last remnants of daydreaming. Some might say, “so what?” but there’s a lot at stake here. Many of us need to daydream in order to solve problems, try out possibilities, imagine scenarios, puzzle over words, or even just be by ourselves now and then. Much pedagogy discussion assumes that students should always be “on task,” that they should be hard at work toward a specified goal. When I was in school, this wasn’t so; for one thing, there weren’t so many tasks. You came into class to listen to the teacher and take part in discussion. Your mind could drift now and then. Sometimes the teacher would say, “What’s on your mind?” and you could say, “oh, nothing” or else divulge your thoughts.

One of my favorite daydreaming scenes occurs at the end of the first chapter of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White:

The children ran out to the road and climbed into the bus. Fern took no notice of the others in the bus. She just sat and stared out of the window, thinking what a blissful world it was and how lucky she was to have entire charge of a pig. By the time the bus reached school, Fern had named her pet, selecting the most beautiful name she could think of.“Its name is Wilbur,” she whispered to herself.

She was still thinking about the pig when the teacher said, “Fern, what is the capital of Pennsylvania?”

“Wilbur,” replied Fern dreamily. The pupils giggled. Fern blushed.

The researchers and their funders may have forgotten the gentle wisdom of this story. We need to defend such wisdom against all things that push it away. Researcher or salesperson, if you come to my classroom with a biometric bracelet, I will invite you to read Charlotte’s Web with me. Or Seneca’s letter “On the Shortness of Life,” which is about “idle busyness”—that is, empty engagement. Or Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters” (“Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?”). As we read, neither of us will wear a bracelet or make graphs of our engagement levels. That shrill, simplistic science will stay out of the room.