Back before Philip was born, before I ever met his father, in what I now refer to as “my former life,” I taught elementary music. I belonged to an organization called the American Orff-Schulwerk Association (AOSA). This professional organization promoted the use of a process of teaching music inspired by the composer Carl Orff. Schulwerk translates as school work. In the case of this process, proponents like to say that the work of children is to play and through play they learn.
When I was still teaching and a member of AOSA, I anticipated the national conferences each November. The conferences brought together the best clinicians not only from the US but also from the world. The conference was always inspiring and invigorating. Not many professions hold conferences where you can look forward to literally kicking off your shoes for several hours in order to be better at your job. I loved making music and dancing with other Orff enthusiasts. I challenge anyone to identify another conference at which the national anthem will be sung so beautifully as at AOSA’s opening session.
I attended my very first national conference in Phoenix in 1999. Since this was my first conference, I decided to take advantage of some of the international clinicians. I signed up for all the sessions taught by an Australian music educator named Richard Gill. Mr. Gill is now music director of Victorian Opera in Melbourne (follow this link to see Richard Gill’s presentation on music education at TEDxSydney).
He scared the hell out of me.
OK, scared is an exaggeration. Intimidated is a more appropriate word. This imposing gentleman made quite an impression on a second-year teacher. The intensity with which he led his sessions was almost overwhelming. Sure, play is the way children learn, but that was not Mr. Gill’s message. I can still hear his words today:
You must attend.
And every adult in the room that day did attend. His stature, his passion and his message not only affected me as a young teacher, but everyone who was present. In contrast to the folk dancing session that I participated in earlier in which we laughed and swirled around the room, this room was filled with adults all seated very quietly in our chairs and completely focused on Mr. Gill.
I still remember one of the songs he taught that day. Mr. Gill had composed a tune to accompany this nursery rhyme:
Cackle, cackle, Mother Goose,
Have you any feathers loose?
Truly have I, pretty fellow, Half enough to fill a pillow.
Here are quills, take one or two,
And down to make a bed for you.
Why do I find myself humming this tune to this day? I remembered the song not just because it was drilled into me, but because I listened, I watched.
You must attend.
What does that mean? It doesn’t mean just showing up, being in the room. It means to focus one’s attention on the matter, the activity or the issue at hand.
Philip learns some things amazingly quickly. During the play-based assessment portion of his autism screening, he easily caught on to what the facilitator wanted him to do with a toy airplane. Rather than pushing it on the table, she wanted him to fly it through the air and say “Zoom! Zoom!” He didn’t make the sound, but every time she did, Philip flew the plane. At home a few days later, Philip had his own airplane out. I said, “Zoom! Zoom!” and he flew it in circles in the air, smiling.
Philip learns things that I didn’t know I was teaching him. When we walk Roscoe together in the evening, I often stop by the trash can on the way into the house to discard the dog doo. Philip always picks up something on our walks (you can see him clutching something in these pictures) since he loves to hold something in his hand. I taught him that he has to leave the stick/leaf/discarded wrapper/weed/other random object outside. One day, as I put a my bag in the trash, he threw his stick in, too.
Philip notices and remembers details that I assume he would not. One day after playing with his box of toy cars, he was picking them up as I had asked. Among the pile of cars was a car from a different set. When he picked up this particular car, he stopped, looked at it and then set it outside to resume putting away the right cars.
Philip is starting to transfer his skills from the situations that we have rehearsed. I was really excited to realize that he understood how to work the zipper on two different jackets. Then, one night at bath time, I had taken off my outer shirt and set it aside. Not only did Philip pick up his own clothes and put them in the hamper, he put my shirt in there as well.
Philip not only transfer skills, he adapts as needed. Last Monday, when I dropped Philip off at Grandma’s house, he stopped and turned to sit down on the step leading into the house from the garage. He was recalling that, at home, we sit on the step leading from the laundry into the house to take off our shoes. Grandma encouraged Philip not to stop, but to go on into her house. So, on Wednesday, when I dropped him off again, he paused at the step, but decided that it was okay to go in.
What do these anecdotes have to do with Richard Gill?
You must attend.
No matter what, if you aren’t paying attention, you just can’t learn something. That being said, the way that I look or behave when I’m paying attention does not look the same as Philip.
There are times when I know that Philip is not focusing on what I want him to. Sure, he knows how to remove his clothes before his bath and to put them in the hamper. But sometimes his attention wanders and I have to repeat, “Take off your pants” about a gazillion times.
Then there are times when Philip is spinning or jumping on his trampoline or playing with a toy clearly not “attending.” But I’m wrong. He’ll notice if I move a toy he had placed in a particular place or if I bring a different toy into the room or if Daddy gets candy.
My challenge in teaching skills to Philip is knowing when I must tell Philip, “You must attend” and when he is already doing it.