Monday, March 22, 2021

Embodied Learning

I wasn't exposed to the works of William Shakespeare until I was 17-years-old. I can't even remember what play we had to read. It was probably one of the best known ones like Hamlet or A Midsummer Night's Dream, but I barely understood a word. I blamed the material, of course. It couldn't be me: I was a good reader, something I'd been told since first grade when I was placed in "Reading Group 1" by my teacher Mrs. McCutcheon. This archaic crap might have been a best seller back in the 16th century, but today, in the modern world of 1979, it had clearly lost its relevance. Forcing us to endure it was an example of academic hazing or something.

I wasn't the only one who struggled, so our teacher had the idea of reading parts aloud to us so we could "hear the poetry." Aside from making it feel a bit like we'd been transported back to kindergarten, she was right, it did help. Shakespeare's meaning was more clear and I began to make some of my first approaches toward something like comprehension. As spring approached, our teacher announced the exciting news that we were going to be taking an overnight field trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. There we saw Coriolanus on a replica Elizabethan stage. Even though we had not read the play in advance, I was transported and transformed. The language, once a barrier, in the mouths and bodies of accomplished actors, accompanied by music, set here in a theater with an audience, came to life as I spent the next couple hours immersed in the tragic rise and fall of this supremely gifted and supremely arrogant protagonist. Now I understood, not everything, but enough to know that I would, at one level or another, be learning from this great artist's work for the rest of my life.

It wasn't until our daughter began performing Shakespeare as an eight-years-old that I realized that she had discovered the next level by fully embodying it. This is Shakespeare's art. It is not meant for the page, laid out in black and white, running left-to-right, condensed into 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks. Trying to appreciate Shakespeare by studying his scripts is like experiencing Notre Dame through its blueprints. No, you have to see it. Better, you have to walk up to it, touch its walls, and go inside. Best of all, however, is to worship there, to breath its ancient musk amidst the richly textured gothic detail and the light that shines through those magnificent stained glass windows. In other words, art, like life, is to be fully embodied if it is to be understood.

Too much of what we offer young children in the name of education is the reading of scripts and the studying of blueprints. We make the mistake of believing that this is where to start. In math, we begin with numbers, which are abstractions of concepts that are better learned through the embodiment of playing with shapes, patterns, sequences, and sets. In the early years, most of us have discovered that literacy begins with storytelling, dramatic play, and loving adults reading to us, but we are often too quick to pivot to the A-B-C's which is, like a blueprint, an extremely condensed version of the full experience, which is one that engages all of our senses; that expands rather than contracts.

When I read Shakespeare I struggle. When I read it aloud I begin to understand. When I see it acted, it comes alive. But when I perform it, I come to know it with all of my senses. This is the kind of deep and complete learning toward which we all strive. This, to me, is the strongest argument against forcing formal literacy instruction on young children: it condenses life so much that it renders it barely recognizable. A comma, for instance, reduces and distorts a pregnant moment, a gulp, a hiccup, a stutter, a facial expression, a gesture, or a tear into nothing more than a visual cue for the reader to take a momentary pause of indeterminate length. It has been stripped of most of its meaning. If we really want children to grow up to understand life, to be creative, curious, and engaged, we must begin by allowing them the opportunity to engage with life itself, which means with all their senses. It's only in this way that they come to know it in their bodies so that when they are finally faced with a script, blueprint, letters, or numbers, they know not just how to "read" it, but also how to understand.


For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts the tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. I'm proud to announce that I've assembled what I've learned into a 6-part e-course called Partnering With Parents in which I share my best thinking on how educators can and should make allies of the parents of the children we teach. (Click this link to register and to learn more.Act now to receive early bird pricing!

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