Things I Know 301 of 365: It was one hell of a game of musical chairs

All around the Mulberry Bush,
The monkey chased the weasel.
The monkey stopped to scratch his nose
Pop! goes the weasel.

The requisite announcements had been completed, the student skit designed to encourage students to keep on track in the new trimester had been performed. I was feeling certain community circle was about to wrap up and the students of Codman Academy were about to head to classes.

I was wrong.

The sophomore with the microphone announced it was time for Crew Olympics. The couple hundred assembled high school students took a collective moment before the crowd was peppered with the start of cheers. Our host had another announcement. The game – musical chairs. The competitors – the faculty.

At 9:45 in this school that has had 100% of its graduates accepted to 4-year colleges saw the faculty who helped make that happen walk down the aisles of the meeting hall to represent their crews. Crews are what Codman calls its advisories, and these teachers were out to represent.

The chairs were assembled, Reel to Real’s “I like to move it” blasted from the PA and the teachers started circling the chairs – slowly. Painfully slowly. No one wanted to be out. Some deep pre-schoolian instincts were revived. Plus, they were doing it for the kids.

The first few eliminations were mundane. Expectedly, the more timid of the teachers were the first to go. They had spirit, but realized the dangers of the sport.

Things got interesting when Round 4 signaled the beginning of double eliminations. By that point, those teachers who remained were in it to win. A few went for chairs and found themselves on the floor. As they exited the arena, they were applauded and cheered for. Those who remained high-fived and “good game”-ed as they left.

A few rounds later, there were three. Somewhere, on the other side of the hall, chanting started. To quote the great Neil Diamond, “like a small earthquake.” Before long, little else could be heard other than the blaring of a hundred voices calling for their champion.

In that round, he fell.

Literally, he ended up on the ground.

The two others who remained helped him up and shook his hand.

I looked around.

Somewhere in the course of the 10 minutes of the game, the crowd had taken to its feet. I realized I was leaning in. I’d even picked my favorite in my head.

The music picked up somewhere in the middle of Beyoncé’s “Single ladies.” The competitors – two grown, college-educated men – circled a plastic chair. The students screamed in glee. The music played longer than it had in any other turn. On one down beat, the contestants thought the music stopped and attempted to sit only to be cheered on by the crowd. We would see the game played out.

Greg, one of my classmates from school completing his practicum at Codman, was the first to sit. But, his opponent lunged to lie flat across the seat as Greg was sitting back. The judges swarmed in as the chair and the two men toppled backward.

Seconds later, Greg’s opponent was named the winner and first his crew, then the entire room exploded in applause.

As both men, appropriately dizzy, walked back to their seats, a retraction was made.

Greg had won.

The students were dismissed. Classes began.

The entire episode took 15 minutes of the day. This semester, we’ve studied what Richard Elmore refers to as the Instructional Core – students, teachers, and content. When writing about this concept, Ted Sizer also included how the content was delivered as a fourth aspect.

In this game of musical chairs, the school and its faculty had taught many lessons.

The students had seen their teachers more fully and developed more complex understandings of who they were as people. They saw what sportsmanship could look like. While the teachers good-naturedly ribbed one another during the game, each eliminated player was sent out with a handshake or high five. Those leaving the game did so with smiles on their faces. They’d done what they’d come to do – play.

Though the teachers were representing separate crews, those separations never kept them from enjoying and supporting the whole. If all they’d been thinking of were their crews, the game could never have started.

No one processed any of this with the students. It happened and the day moved on. As it should have. There are times to reflect and their are times for ritual. This game of musical chairs was silly, fun and energizing. And, it was ritual – an act of community to remind members who they are, of what they are a part, and how they play together.

Things I Know 272 of 365: Sketching a school brought clarity of practice

Architecture aims at eternity.

– Christopher Wren

Tonight, in preparation for our next learning task, the class was asked to think about the physical design of a school or learning organization.

What would it look like?

On the heals of drafting our theories of learning and how we might design for difference, this learning tasks makes sense.

It’s also right up the alley of thought I’ve been strolling down recently. Design has been on my brain.

Interestingly, when the professor gave us time to play and told us to see what we could come up with in sketching out what our schools would look like, I had no previous experience to draw from.

I’ve spent the last 8 years re-tooling, rearranging and rethinking classroom design. For the last 6, I’ve been thinking heavily about the systems, structures and pedagogy that work best to the good of the children and adults in schools.

If you asked me what I thought it would look like to see teachers and students interacting in these environments, I’d rattle off words like caring, collaborative, curious, reflective. Then I’d pepper it with examples from my own experiences.

The thing I haven’t done, that I hadn’t done until tonight, is sit down and sketch out what the physical structure of that place might be.

Part of that is likely tied to the fact that those in schools rarely get input into the spaces in which they teach and learn. Often, it’s a rehabilitated building or one that’s been around for decades. To design the physical space is a rarity.

I doodled for a bit tonight, playing with shapes and trying to piece together the structures I’m drawn to and where my students have told me they learn best.

More than anything, I wanted a set of LEGOs. The paper didn’t do what I wanted it to. I needed something bigger and more malleable.

Just before time was called, my group asked me to piece all of our sketches together for a composite final product. You can see it below.

What I said to me team, and what is still true, was that this space is a place I’d both want to teach in and send my kids to.

And that’s just one the first try.

I wonder what would happen if teachers took five minutes to doodle their ideal teaching spaces and then worked to teach as though they were in those spaces. I wonder what would shift. I wonder how interactions and expectations of the students would change.

I wonder what they would sketch with their practice.

Things I Know 81 of 365: Teachers need to play too

Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.

– Joseph Chilton Pearce

We’ve arrived at that part of the school year where The Man can get you down. Usually, The Man is time – time together, time between breaks, time in the house during the bleaker months. This year, The Man has incarnations in the form of budget cuts, layoffs, the neutering of organized labor, and, yes, time.

Between sections of standardized testing today, I sent Chris a message.

“Can Pia lead us in a game at the staff meeting today?”

“Dunno,” was his reply.

I didn’t think about it again until I walked into the library a few minutes before the meeting.

There stood Pia, our health and P.E. teacher and one of my dearest friends, blowing up a beach ball.

“You’ve never looked sexier,” I said as the limp orb hung from her mouth.

We both cracked up.

Chris started the meeting.

There we sat, 30 professionals battling to get kids into college, through testing, to counseling, beyond adolescence. Somewhere in there, we teach and learn. If we have the time and energy after, we cobble together lives with friends and family.

“Before we get started,” Chris said, “Pia has a game for us.”

She broke the library in half with a clear dividing line.

“We’re playing chair volleyball,” she said. “This is the line. If it hits the floor after you touch it, the opposing team gets a point. Beyond the pole is out of bounds. You have to stay in your chair to hit the ball. All body parts are fair game.”

A couple teachers straggled in.

Both sides of the room erupted, “You’re on our team! You’re on our team!”

In our shirts and ties and our skirts and heels, we were 12.

Pia sent the new arrivals to my team.

After the other side protested, she said, “I cheat how I wanna cheat.”

I walked to her and palmed her a dollar.

“Okay, so it’s 1—0 to start,” she said indicating my team was up a point.

And then it began. It was tremendous.

The ball bounced off of people and bookshelves and the ceiling and tables and chairs. We were screaming and yelling and laughing.

Somehow, Pia’s scoring bounced around as often as the ball, and I got the definite feeling, no matter who scored the most points, the game was headed for a tie.

After about 10 minutes, Pia called the game and we clapped and laughed and sounded our barbaric yawps.

Sometimes, in the middle of a class just after lunch, when heads are bobbing and eyes are heavy, I’ll have my class stand and compete to see who can stand on their tiptoes or one foot the longest.

That’s what we did as a faculty today. March is the class after lunch of the school year. Later in the meeting, we talked about differentiation, multiculturalism and school partnerships – the business of school.

For 10 minutes, we took time to play and be people together.

Try it.

Cardboard Boxes for Everyone!

The Gist:

  • Thought and Idea are different things.
  • We encourage both in the classroom.
  • I’m not sure which I privilege more.
  • I’m not sure which I should.

The Whole Story:

Disclaimer: My line of thinking here is protean. Ideally, I’d play with it as a comment somewhere first. As I haven’t run into such a post yet, I’m diving in.

I spent much more time than I thought I would in the last post trying to parse out what I meant or needed from differentiating thought and idea. I think I got there. The final point was where I was headed. And, hey, who doesn’t like finishing writing and finding they’ve called their colleagues hypocrites?

Let me first turn to my own hypocrisy before I start talking practice. I wasn’t playing for a while there. It’s a shame really, because Mrs. Cavitt made a point in kindergarten of stating I play well with others . Right now, my play is commenting. I figure if the minds I admire are bringing their toys to the table, I might as well play. Down the road, we’ll see what ideas spring from it. For now, I’m making time to play.

As for my classroom:

I’d be hard pressed to find a day when I don’t directly ask my students to think. I’d be hard pressed to find a day when I don’t directly ask my students to come up with ideas. I do these things as a matter of habit. I’d imagine any teacher does.

But, do I mean it?

When I ask a student to think, I think I do mean it. I want them looking for patterns, connections, variables, ideas. I want them thinking. The world needs them thinking. When they watch television, I want them thinking. When they’re at the movies, walking down the street, riding the trolley – I want them thinking. I want them to think as often as possible. When I ask it, I mean it.

My aims with ideas are squishier. I ask for ideas. “What ideas do you have?” I’ll ask. Some days, ideas are in season and falling from the sky. Some days, not.

When the ideas don’t come, what do I do? Usually, I talk. Sometimes, it’s a statement. Sometimes, it’s a question. Rarely, is it anything that looks like asking them to play with their thoughts until ideas happen.

What message is this sending? Honestly.

If I’m asking for ideas and they don’t come, shouldn’t I be asking them to play?

“Teaching them to think,” pops up more likely than I’d like in my reading online. Aside from being asininely presumptuous, it sounds dangerous. They know how to think. Sure, maybe some of my students don’t think as deeply or complexly as I’d hope for them, but they’re thinking. I don’t need to teach them to think, I need to give them space to think. I need them to have space to play with thoughts, put them together and make ideas.

I don’t know that I let that happen as much as I’d like. The feeling that they could do that much more if I made sure they had this tool or experience with this line of thinking leads me down the path of profering too much.

I end up the parent whose child has 1 million toys but is sitting playing with the cardboard box in which the last toy arrived.

The project my G11 students are working on now has taken a turn toward play. I’m working on making the necessary adjustments for my G12 kids.

I should be privileging ideas as much as I’m privileging thinking.

Play by any other name would be as fun

NYT Columnist Rob Walker writes about Amar Bhide’s new book The Venturesome Economy, stating:

American consumers have long shown an “exceptional willingness” to buy, for instance, technology products before their utility is clear. Such “venturesome consumers” help spur companies and entrepreneurs to take the risks that lead to innovation because they know there is a market willing to take a roughly analogous risk that the next new thing will turn out to have been worth buying.

Aside from harkening back to Mrs. Hurie’s 11th grade history class, this makes sense on its own, only it’s much simpler than all that. What Bhide refers to as “venturesomeness” is really just play. What do kids do when they don’t have to consider resources or schedules or usefulness? They play. That’s what’s key here. Playing.
An SLA student recently interviewed me about being a member of our community and what, specifically, set the school apart. To my mind, it’s play. The teachers and students at SLA have the freedom to play with their learning and their ideas.
Dress it up however you’d like, but American venturesomeness is truly just play.
Perhaps that explains why, as Walker points out, iFart was one of the top iPhone apps for so long.


Photo Credit: http://flickr.com/photos/marittime/3165130963/