Friday, April 25, 2014

It's String Time!

Today I had another of the many, many wonderful days I've had over the past school year, working as a substitute teacher at many different schools throughout our bird-filled valley. In almost every one of those classrooms, I've been able to incorporate at least a little string game teaching, and in several I've been able to have a few days to develop a real culture within the classroom around learning string tricks. One of the best features of that culture is the smiles, yelps, and generally exuberant responses I get from the kids when I can say, "It's String Time!"

two students show a figure they invented

I usually start the day with a demonstration of Jacob's Ladder, and perhaps another figure or two, depending on the age of the group and the demands of the lesson plan. Ideally I've seen a place or two in the teacher's plan where I can confidently say to the class, "If we get [Assignment X] done quickly, we'll have enough time so I can teach you the Fish Spear." Or – even better – I've had a chance to speak with the teacher and get permission to insert my string work somewhere, drop a worksheet from the list, or even run the whole day as I choose. Today's lesson plan looked packed, but as the day moved on it was clear we'd have two or three good string sessions. The students – second graders – for the most part had little experience with really using their fingers, and several openly whined "I can't" while being taught their finger calisthenics: stretching the fingers out stiff and wide, then bunching them straight up next to each other, then opening the middle (separate ring and little fingers on one side and middle and index fingers on the other {with both hands at the same time!}), and opening and closing those two groups of two fingers like a pair of scissors, then opening the outside (separate little and index fingers and leave the ring and middle fingers side by side in the middle), to make a kind of W shape; and then we go back and forth, back and forth, from one to the other.

It's challenging, but learnable, and a great example of the way the fingers can create the pathway for the mental command structure that later supports choosing to do something that one still can't quite actually do now. The next step in the finger calisthenics is to make a fist, then point at it sideways with the other hand, then switch, so that the pointing hand makes a fist and the fisted hand begins to point. Then do it again, and again, faster and faster, back and forth... Few people can do it right away with any dexterity. Part of the point is to create that dexterity, and also to fail at a task and experience frustration, and then make progress. Barring a neurological impediment, most people can improve with practice.

Both of these finger/hand games were taught to me as a child by my father, as fun and challenging games, of course, but also with the explanation that they are basic neurological tests which he learned in medical school. I've added a few simple flexes and stretches of my own, but they have none of the grace and charm of these more than a century old dexterity probes. They also make great one to three or four minute filler activities when the class is ready but the bell hasn't rung...

This post is a kind of meta-cognitive reflection for myself, about a full year spent teaching, at least two, often three or four days a week, doing the job of substitute as well as I can, an often boring and thankless job, and adding to most of those days a few minutes or a few hours of time pursuing my own agenda: to become a teaching artist who brings the joy of string games to as many people as I can, waiting for those moments when I can call out to the group of kids I'm sharing my day with, "It's String Time!"

I'm starting to collect some resources for the "Common Thread Doctrine," my boast that I can rewrite the entire K-12 Curriculum with ties to string games, at