Friday, April 11, 2008

Age- and ability-levelling

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The regional non-competitive music festival is a three-hour round-trip drive away, and the kids from our little program were heavily involved in the string portion this year. The administrators of the festival, in a bid to encourage our participation, were very kind and accommodating from an organizational standpoint. We kept our kids out of the small, specific classes (like "Romantic Solo, under 12" or "Solo, age 6 and under") and instead put them in the general class ("Recital Group: three contrasting selections, Junior level"). And as a result the festival organizers were able put all our kids' performances on one day.

It made for a marathon day. We left home at 7:30 a.m. and didn't get home until almost 11:00 p.m., but it was a price we willingly paid for not having to make three or four trips. There were five families from our program taking part, so we all arrived together with a real sense of it being a festival, a celebration.

There were some glitches with the rehearsals and accompanying which I won't get into here; suffice it to say that there was considerable extra stress added to the solo performances due to these unforeseen circumstances. But the kids all pulled through gloriously. The under 14 Recital group class consisted of 9 students -- entirely our crew -- split into a morning session and an afternoon session, with a few miscellaneous classes scattered around the edges of 'ours'.

It was such fun watching our kids be in the audience. They've known each other for at least five years. They are incredibly supportive of each other. They sat in various combinations, on one or two of the front pews of the church, smiling, applauding, discretely high-fiving each other after performances, letting Fiona slip from lap to lap, hugging, whispering quietly during the interludes. The ages were 5, 8, 9, 11, 11, 12, 13, 13 and 14. The levels from early Book 3 to post-Book 10.

In the middle of the afternoon session the adjudicator did a kind of double-take, realizing that this vast range of students was all part of the same entry class.

"It's kind of unusual," she said during the verbal adjudication of the spunky 8-year-old who had just played a snappy confident Presto movement of the Vivaldi a minor Violin Concerto, "to have a class where 8-year-olds are together with advanced 13-year-olds. This is where you parents and teachers should talk to the organizers of the festival, so that next time there's a class for 8-and-under, and 10-and-under and 12-and-under. That way you [the 8-year-old] can be in with a group of that's your own."

It was one of those moments when I didn't know whether to laugh hysterically and or pick my jaw up off the floor and start a loud rant. The 8-year-old in question was at that very moment crammed into a pew amongst a joyfully friendly group of five smiling friends who were, in every possible way, "a group of her own." These were her friends, role-models, the kids she's a role model to, her fans and supporters and fellow-musicians. "Just look at them!" I wanted to shout. "What 'group of her own' could possibly be better than this?!!"

Thankfully I just sat there smiling and quietly rolling my eyes. My mom, who teaches all these kids, quickly spluttered "but these are her friends!" The adjudicator acknowledged this obvious fact and moved on, likely without really thinking it through and questioning her assumptions. Is there really anything that can be said that will shake people out of their assumptions that the best learning environment is one that consists of people who are more or less exactly your age and more or less exactly your level? It's just such an ingrained part of how we as a society do education. Even when an amazing alternative model is staring us in the face from the smiling second row of seats at a music festival, we fall back on the same unthinking assumptions.

In the evening the Summit Strings, our seven Book 4-10+ students, ages 8-14, played as an ensemble to cap off their contributions to the festival. The performance was stunning. It said everything that I had wanted to say to the adjudicator about the value of combining ages and levels, but it said it in music -- so much better than any words could have.

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