Zachary is a senior this year and while I have tried to keep from writing about him, I find myself in the beginning phases of grieving his impending move from home to college. When I asked him if he was ready he simply said, “No, not really, but it will be great.” Zachary is my possibility person. He sees the world as something that is here for him to embrace and engage in every moment he is alive. He truly does live in the moment. My Dad always referred to him as the one who is always “tinkering” with something. In many ways I think he is a lot like my Dad in that his while his grades in school are not stellar, his ideas and his passion for possibility lies deep. It is rare he says he “can’t” do something.
His latest passion is this song, Let Her Go by Passenger (that I now know by heart as I have heard it a million times a day for about 4 weeks now) and so he has decided to learn this song on the piano. He does not, or should I say he has not ever really played the piano. That is Emma’s instrument. But he you tubed it (yes, I do think that is a verb!) and from watching has begun the process of two handing the keys to this tune. I marvel at his persistence, or in this day in educational jargon, his stamina to keep on keeping up with this endeavor. He has the first part down pretty well, and he won’t quit until he reaches the end. I know this because this is how Zachary learns. There is always some kind of creative process that invites him in and then he is all in.
What happens when we slow down and give each learner the permission to learn about and research whatever it is they are interested in? What happens when there is a structure, but the content is filled in by each individual in the group?
So this year I decided to try out some of what I was preaching on my group of teachers in Dover Middle School. I have been working with this group for years and they have one of the best collective senses of humor I have ever known. The group has come together, I believe, even more so because of the writing we have been doing together every time we meet. I am always surprised at what I learn about one of these dedicated teachers through their writing and I love hearing their voices develop and change with each piece they try. They are always willing to read their writing and give feedback to each other. In our conversations about the Common Core State Standards we also question and wonder about where the idea of freedom comes into play in public education.
And so I walked into the first class and said, “I have no class text, I have no syllabus, all I have is a workshop model and ways to guide and facilitate us through the processes of learning of your choosing. What is it that you want to learn about? What are some of the questions you are wondering about that you feel you don’t have the time to discover? There were wide eyes of excitement looking back at me as the possibilities ran across the faces of some and panic across the others. I quickly realized that one of the first beliefs we needed to look at was that of the “right answer” as some asked me, “What is it that you want?” “What exactly are you looking for and what does it look like?” Immediately I saw that although we talked the good talk of freedom, that we as adults are as entrenched in this kind of thinking as our students, seeking that “right” answer. In the words of Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And so we have spent a great deal of time examining our attitudes, beliefs and biases. Some of the work we have done together I took on the road as I have told this group that they are my research project as I work beside them and experience the same processes they are experiencing.
I recently presented some of this research at NCTE in Boston with colleagues and friends, Louise Wrobleski and Terry Moher. We engaged in a playful study of “Reading the Visuals and Visualizing the Reading” and along the way we rediscovered the power of the visual everywhere we went. Every day we sent each other new ideas, articles, links and images to spark our thinking. It was exhilarating because we were all engaged in thinking about, reading and researching the same thing at the same time and yet we each came at it from completely different angles. It was these differences that gave form and texture to our presentation as we each defended and wrote up just what it was we intended to do with our 20 minutes of fame while at the same time weaving a common thread among us. It was challenging and exciting.
Ultimately my part in the presentation came from the deep seeded belief that if we want our teachers/students to engage their students then they must first experience the process themselves. Classic Don Graves. When our participants sat down there were pictures of faces staring at them from the middle of the table. They were asked to take one that spoke to them and then to add something to the face. Instantly I could feel a shift of energy in the room and so I asked, “How many of you think you can’t draw?” and almost all of the hands went up. And while I told them not to worry, it was evident that it was a challenge for many as everyone tried to add some kind of body to their chosen face. Here are some images I shared with them from my work with my Dover teachers and many mimicked this same behavior by adding what they “thought” was expected of them, a body.
Then I showed them some images from this wonderful blog, busymockingbird.com where a mother collaborates with her four year old daughter and allows her to put “bodies” onto her faces. Here are some of those images.
And after showing these images suddenly the world of possibilities opens up as each person is granted permission to be playful, to think beyond what they “thought” the expectation was in terms of a “right” answer, even though I said there was no right or wrong way to add to their faces. After sharing these as well as images from Terry Moher’s students work I then asked them to turn over their faces and give it another go. And again the energy shifted and people began to envision, talk and even giggle at what might be, based on what they felt confident about drawing and the images took on completely different shapes and forms. After sketching I asked participants to write either about their process or to bring words and life to the images they had created. Or as one Dover teacher Lisa stated on her second go, I looked at this face and as I was trying to think outside of the box, I thought, boxes, yes, I can draw boxes! And this is what she came up with.
These two images above are of particular interest to me. The first was drawn by an elementary teacher, Pam. The second by Ben a middle school teacher. What I found fascinating was that these were their first drawings. What was it about Pam and Ben’s thinking that they got to where others often only got to on the second go? They both talked about how they couldn’t draw bodies, so they looked at the faces and tried to come up with something that fit the face that they could draw, but that was not a body. Essentially Pam and Ben gave themselves permission to add to the faces in any way they felt would work. They allowed themselves to just let go and were not confined by the idea of what was “right”.
Well you only need the light when it’s burning low
Only miss the sun when it starts to snow
Only know you love her when you let her go
Only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low
Only hate the road when you’re missing home
Only know you love her when you let her go
And you let her go.
~ Let Her Go by Passenger
And while these lyrics ring in my head I think about how we all need to let go, if even just a little bit. All of us. I need to let go as a mother and allow my son to make his way in the world, and as teachers we need to let go. Let go of the “one answer society rules” demands of the testing world and open up our hearts and minds to the infinite possibilities that lie within.