Cairns #78 – End of the Long Days, 2014
The West, including our area, is in severe drought. I’m a little terrified at how many of the lower branches in the blue oaks that surround our homestead are now dead, crackly branches, hanging down towards the dry grasses. I look around and see a vast surface area of low-hanging flammable material that would wick a grass fire up into the trees. Two years ago I bought a pole saw to start pruning these branches off. But once I had these branches on the ground, what do I do with them? A common practice is to burn them during the moist winter when fire danger does not exist. But that would put CO2 into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. Wouldn’t it be better to have the wood decay into the ground and sequester carbon there instead? So I piled the branches into mounds to act as cover for birds and other animals.
However, I know from previous experience that it will take 15-20 years for these brush piles to decompose into the ground. Our challenge in California’s Central Valley is that the summers are hot and dry; the winters are moist but cold. The organisms that decompose wood are most effective in warm, moist environments but warm/moist occurs for only a few months (late February into late April). Too cold before, too dry after that. This period is even shorter for woody material that is up in the air. It air-dries quickly so the decomposing organisms have limited time. Since time is limited, the main way I can increase the rate of decomposition is to increase the surface area in contact with that warm, moist ground.
This has led me to a new activity. I walk around the perimeter of our homestead, breaking off the low-lying twigs and branches that easily snap. I let them lie where they fall. But as all these branches accumulate on the ground, I consciously try to step on them in a way that crunches and crumbles the branches and twigs into smaller pieces so that more and more of the dead surface areas scrunch into direct contact with the ground. My hope is that this will dramatically speed up decomposition, come the next winter. It should also dramatically decrease the rate at which a fire would burn through the area because an abundant 3D surface area of dead wood rising seven feet within the oxygenated atmosphere is being transformed into a vast but flat scrunch of surface areas pressed into many square feet of moisture-holding ground. So my hope is that I am both reducing fire danger and increasing carbon sequestration with the same, surface-area-moving activity. In the meantime, it is a fun game to look at the fallen branches around me and judge what step would lead to the maximum crunch underfoot. Each step exercises my sense of balance and flexibility.
I was working on showing how certain characteristics of Chrysalis emerge from our mission statement of encouraging the light within each student to shine brighter. A kind environment is obvious. Less obvious is teaching for understanding (as differentiated from covering a certain amount of material in a certain amount of time)because we light up when we understand something. (The proverbial lightbulb!) We also spend time in nature because our minds/bodies evolved within the natural world and we experience a resonance in those settings that increases our light. But does “teacher-led school” necessarily follow from our mission statement? I was chewing that over for many days. What link, if any, exists between “encouraging the light” and teacher-led schools?
What I came to realize is that one of the most important ways to encourage the light within students is to surround them with role models of adults whose light is shining. Our light shines brighter when we are creative, autonomous people, when we have the freedom to exult in and explore our passions. Teachers need to have freedom so they can model to their students what freedom in the adult world looks like. Top-down schools tend to restrict the freedom of their teachers — dictating what resources they can use, in what order they must teach things, herding them with test scores, imposing impersonal methods on teachers and students alike. This surrounds the young students with adult role models of drones – perhaps so the students will grow up not imagining more than a drone’s life—which might be the actual intent.
What happens if we give a teacher the freedom to be responsive to the unique interactions of his/her students? The following is an ongoing story of what is happening with me this year. (If you are not into teaching, you might want to skip over what is a long, detailed, journaling.)
This year is my last, full-time year at Chrysalis. I will be retiring from administrative duties at the end of the year. I might remain teaching part-time but I view this year as an opportunity to draw on all of my teaching experience to shape the most mindful teaching I am capable of. This focus is falling on my Eighth Grade Class class. I inherited this class more than ten years ago as a Constitution/American History class (our charter requires all 8th graders to pass a Constitution test before graduating) which I’ve evolved into something much more. This is the class that last year created the trip to the California Academy of Sciences that I described in my previous issue of Cairns (#77). The class meets three afternoons a week (Monday, Wednesday, Thursday).
I have my first lesson (Thursday) planned out; at the heart of it is going outside to balance poles. This will be the third year I’ve had the kids balancing poles on the first day. I do it because balancing a pole is such a kinesthetic example of feedback loops, a concept I will use throughout the history portion of the class. But I also do it because the relation between me and this pole in its impossibly upright shimmering dance is a perfect example of the relationship we can have with the world, with each other, with our lives. If our mindful attention can bring an inert pole into an upright dance, what else is possible?
I follow the pole balancing with something new: I try to stand a pole upright on the floor. It always falls down. I then break the class into small groups to fill out a Venn diagram comparing the floor with their hand. We come back together to focus on the fact that the hand is responsive to the pole in a way that the floor is not. I also insert into this first class a public speaking exercise where each student stands up and says a phrase to help them start expanding their self-confidence. The session goes very well. I end the hour with a tried-and-true first writing topic: Who is in control: the pole or me? One difference this year, however, is that I ask students to email me their response by Sunday night, rather than bringing in a written paper on Monday. This way I can come to class on Monday with an anonymous list of their thoughts cut and pasted into one document for us to look over in class.
I come to the Monday meeting with a plan to start outside balancing poles again, followed by a discussion of “who is in control” that is introduced with their merged written comments from their homework. Then I’ve decided to follow that up with something new, creating a Venn diagram comparing our hand with the pole – because, unlike the floor, the pole can respond and move. From there, I will talk about how our hands, eyes, and the pole are an example of a feedback loop, a sequence of cause and effect that loops upon itself. I will then sum up all of the pole balancing with a full, emotionally-engaged description of how this alive, dancing relationship we have with this pole is how we can relate to all of the world and each other. If time remains after that, I will introduce the history strand of the class. This is my plan.
So we start the second class with pole balancing outside. We do the discussion of who is in control, the pole or me. Many of them feel their conclusion sliding back and forth as they realize this is more complex than they first thought. So I decide it would be good to have them go out and balance the poles again. But to help them do that, I describe to them a technique that took me years to become conscious of. Not only do I responsively move my hand side to side in relation to the pole, I also move it up and down. As the pole starts to fall to the side, I drop my hand so the pole does a very low speed, non-rotating free fall upon my hand rather than an accelerating rotation against my hand. During that light drop, my hand curves under the bottom of the pole to bring the pole upright again and then lifts the now-straight pole up again. This up and down is just as important as the back and forth. I send them outside to practice this maneuver.
We come back in and do the Venn diagram of hand and pole. Then I do the talk about feedback loops, using diagrams on the board. And then it is time for my major emotional/intellectual summarization of what our relationship with this class, the world, our lives can be. But the setting doesn’t feel right for the talk. The talk on feedback loops felt too didactic and I worry that if I continue on with the talk, it will be experienced more as a lecture than as this revelation of Great Significance. Going out for pole balancing a second time has moved us closer to the end of the session so I don’t have a lot of time to successfully create a transition. On the other hand, jumping ahead to the next item on the lesson plan (starting the history strand) feels like it would leave the entire pole-balancing momentum of the class stranded as something that faded with a talk about cause and effect looping into feedback. So I decide to postpone the talk of Great Significance and ask the class instead, “Why do you think I’m taking class time to balance poles?”
Student A says “Because Feedback is our friend”, repeating the words to a song the whole school sometimes sings at Tree Assembly. I reply, “True, but what does that mean and how does it apply to this?” He’s not sure though he genuinely thinks about it. Some other kids say something: the one I remember is voiced wonderfully by Student B about dancing with the pole.
And then Student C says, “Because you want to use it to (dramatic pause} ‘Make a Point’.”
She says it in such a good-natured way I can’t help but chuckle.
“That sounds like a wonderful answer and I loved the way you said it and you are right. There is a point I want to make but (dramatic pause right back to her) What’s the Point? What’s the Point I’m trying to make?”
She doesn’t know. Some other kids tried some ideas but time was up and I told them I would tell them The Point next time.
My lesson plan for our third session (Wednesday) is start with pole balancing to create the energy to receive my Talk of Significance and then begin the history strand with examples of how the geography of the Atlantic coast shaped American colonial history. But when we come into class, the kids are asking “What is the point?” I realize that the interaction with Student C has brought energy from the students into this lesson that I am now responding to. And C is not there. She went home sick mid-day. The kids want to know what the Point is but I’m not sure if I should say it if C is not there. The class reluctantly agrees. And she is sick the next day, Thursday (and Student D is out on a dental appointment).
But on Friday, C and D are both back and the kids in math class excitedly tell me that everyone is back so now I can tell them what the point of the pole balancing is. But not everyone is here because this is not the 8th Grade Class class, it’s the Math 3 class. Not all the 8th graders are in it. So we will have to wait until next Monday but that is Labor Day so we will have to wait until next Wednesday. Much groaning. And now we, the class, are dancing. I realize that Student C’s “Point” has become an example of the point; I have been responsive to their input and they are responding to my response and we are now dancing and my mind starts thinking about this class in an entirely new way.
So over the Labor Day weekend, I decide to stretch The Point into a longer strand within the class. Their next writing assignment will be “what do you think The Point is?” I wonder how I could turn the individual kinesthetic experience of balancing the pole into a group kinesthetic activity and come up with a new activity. From baling cord, I made loops for each student. I will start with the students in pairs. They face each other. Instead of holding hands, they hold onto the loops. They then slowly lean backwards, balancing with the center of gravity between them. They can trust one another because they both will fall backwards if either lets go. Then combine pairs into circles of four, then eight, then finally the entire class of 16.
That’s the plan. An unexpected schedule change Tuesday morning has me teaching this class on Tuesday, not Wednesday like I had planned. Kids want to know the Point. They groan when I tell them that I’ve realized that the Point can be understood at a far deeper level than if I just explained it so I want to take some time. I give them the writing assignment (“What do you think the point is?”). We talk. Student E says “I think what you want us to do in this class is think about things. Not just think about them but to go deeper, like really think about something… like the pole or the Point or life or existence or “What’s it all about?”
I excitedly tell them about the activity I want to do with the loops. I ask how many have been on teeter-totters, how many have had the experience of being dropped hard by the other or having dropped the other, and what does that experience feel like. I tell them that to let go with these loops is a violation of trust and that there is no reason for it because if you feel yourself slipping somehow, there is time to give a warning. They do fine balancing in pairs. Then sets of 4. But 8 is hard. Some of the kids aren’t being mindful and the circles slowly veer off. I disappointedly stop the activity. As they are putting the loops back Students C and F are doing a pair loop and C lets F fall. I am shocked, heart-broken. How could she? C is apologizing to F and saying it was an accident but I have a hard time letting it go because it feels now like nobody will be able to trust one another. So I shift to history and for the rest of the week, we work on history. There is no reference to poles or the point. We do have great discussions about history, however. After a discussion about the Declaration of Independence (“governments are instituted among men”), Student G asks when did governments that have men controlling women come into existence and why. And as I give the Constitutional background to the structure of the House and Senate to prepare them for paying attention to the upcoming mid-term elections, Student D asks what do Democrats and Republicans believe. She’s heard the names but she really doesn’t know what they stand for.
The kids’ writing assignments come in Sunday evening and it is clear that they are thinking only in terms of poles. So I decide, while walking, that I will do what I did last year in a similar situation. I, too, will write an essay and share it with them. I won’t stretch out The Point any longer and will instead give enough for them to build upon during the year. And so I write the following essay for them.
So, what is The Point?
The first part of The Point is, as several of you have said or written, about how, if we pay attention to the pole and move in response to it, we can “dance” with it in a way which would otherwise be impossible for the pole. I have you practice balancing the pole because it makes you practice “being mindful.” Mindful is more than thinking. Mindful is shaping our thoughts and actions in order to help the good, the right, the wise grow in the world.
A second part is experiencing how you grow better with practice. The pole provides honest feedback on how you are doing which helps you learn how to balance better. Hopefully none of you got mad at the pole. It was just being itself. But as you learn, the pole grows into your ally, helping you create beauty where it did not exist before.
But many of the parts of The Point lie deeper. A huge part has to do with how you can have the same dancing relationship with many parts of the world if you are mindful about it. This relationship is both active, yet also responsive. You control the pole – but only because you allow the pole to also control you. So it is with the world around you. You can dance with it.
The specific reason I have you balance poles is that we can have the same relationship with this class that you are practicing with the pole. This class is responsive. That’s why I said “Student C’s “Point” is an example of The Point. I did not bring up the word “point”; C did. And when some of you came in the next day asking ‘what the point was’, I realized that C’s phrase had introduced some energy that I could dance with. I responsively tried to dance that energy into greater curiosity and focus within you so that the lessons from pole balancing might take deeper root within you. Like balancing a pole, this kind of give and take between teacher and students can be fun, exhilarating, lifting us all into greater mindfulness where more becomes possible than we could have imagined. At such times, we do the true exploration of “What is possible?”
This class is responsive. You will help shape it. Each year the class explores a different path. Sometimes, magic happens. If you are open to wonder, wonderful things can happen in the same way a pole that lies on the ground can rise into an unpredictable dance. Sometimes things fall flat. It depends on what we all bring to it.
A related part of this point is our relationship with one another. Practice seeing each other as a pole you are balancing. Feedback spirals intertwine us. One of the things I learn from the pole is to watch the top of the pole with a very active attending to every little change, realizing that every little change is communicating how the pole is moving. That is mindfulness. If I look only once a second, the pole will fall. If I look but don’t actively see, the pole will fall. An active fascination and openness to what’s happening with the pole brings into existence the mystery of balance.
You can attend to one another with the same active care. Watch the expressions on one another’s faces. Listen to the tone of voices. We are broadcasting vast quantities of information about our current state. If I am mindful to others, I can tell what the person would like to become and respond to them in a way that helps. We can lift one another up and help each other maintain our balance. I can show in my responses that I am a friend who has no desire to hurt. If I do hurt, it was not my intention. Poles do fall in the process of learning to balance them. I will apologize and try to learn from it so it won’t happen again.
This leads to a paradoxical image. Think of another member of our class as a pole that you are balancing on your hand. However, that person is also thinking of you as a pole balancing on their hand. We are both hand and pole. We are both responsive and creative. The more mindful we are in these relationships, the more exciting the possibilities that open up, both in this class and with our lives.
We had a wonderful discussion after that as the class started considering the possibilities that could lie ahead of us. Then we balanced with loops again. This time they were more mindful of one another. They did good work with loops of four. I choose to not take it further that day; to end the exercise on a strong high point. We will see what grows from this.
The difference between “more wealth” and “more wealth than.”
At my TedX talk last year, I said something like “a wise culture holds its rain as high on the slopes as possible” where it can be absorbed by plants and transpired to fall again as rain so that as much solar energy can be brought into the food web as possible.
This led me to think about the difference between “having more wealth” and “having more wealth than.” The first is an absolute measure; the second is comparative. I’ve played the Hand Game with kids before where they have been so conditioned by winning that they can only think in comparison and not see the system as a whole. If we think of “wealth” as “a way of increasing possibilities for oneself,” then all living things seek more “wealth.” But holding the rain on the slopes so that it powers photosynthesis or transpiration to rise into the sky again as free oxygen, or vapor to fall as rain again, is a way of increasing possibilities for the entire system. One could increase one’s comparative water wealth by paving the slopes so that more of the rain ran off into a concentrated reservoir downstream. One could then have more wealth than otherwise, more wealth than others, but at the expense of the greater system.
From a systems point of view, if one uses one’s wealth to increase the possibilities around one, this creates a rising of possibilities that spreads outward, spilling over borders. Your neighbors benefit from your existence and become your allies. Your work becomes easier. (I like to think that the archetypal example of this is a teacher, especially of children: enhancing and developing the gifts and talents each child brings forth into our culture.) However, if you harvest your surroundings to benefit only yourself, then you slowly make enemies. Your work becomes harder. A wise culture is guided by increasing wealth within the greater ecosystem – not on harvesting at the expense of other regions.
Recently, I’ve been part of interviewing several job candidates. At Chrysalis, applicants come in and talk with three or four of us. We have a wide-ranging conversation for half an hour. And then I participated in a job interview with applicants for a position with our sponsoring agency. This job interview was designed by the Human Resources department of the agency, in compliance, I’m sure, with all sorts of policies and guidelines.
There were six written questions. We took turns reading the next question to the applicant. We could repeat the question but if the applicant asked a clarifying question, we couldn’t answer it. We could take notes on the candidate’s answer; all notes were collected afterwards and included as documentation in the hiring process. Follow up questions were not allowed. Afterwards, we rated the applicant’s answers to each question on a scale of 1 to 5 and added the numbers. I now understood why one candidate Chrysalis had interviewed thanked us for a lovely conversation. She said at other interviews, there was no give or take, just a list of questions. I understand now what she was referring to.
And then I learned from a dear one how individuals who were passionate about dance and fitness and had started their own studios were slowly being put out of business by corporations that were starting fitness centers across the country, that hired part-time instructors at low salary. So often politicians talk about businesses as job creators but there are different kinds of businesses, e. g., sole proprietors and corporations. Sole proprietors take on risk, follow their passions, create something unique, probably do job interviews as a conversation. A wise culture nourishes individual initiative. Tax breaks for corporations undermine sole proprietors. Corporate tax breaks are portrayed as pro-business but it is only one category of business, driven by global concentrations of capital, as opposed to dispersed local ecosystems of capital. A wise culture holds the rain high on the slopes.
For several years, I have been exploring this analogy between the flow of rain and runoff with the flow of money within our culture. Through analogy, I explore the idea that a wise culture should slow the rates of flow, keep flows spread out where they can be absorbed and recycled to fall again, increasing possibilities throughout all the local regions. A wise culture does not allow its wealth to flow downstream into great concentrations. Though I began by arguing from analogy, I am increasingly feeling this is more than mere analogy. That money within a culture and water within a watershed are both expressions of some underlying principle involving flows. Slow the flow of possibilities, spread them out so they soak in to nourish and be recycled, rather than converge them upon a narrow focus. Think of “having more wealth” for the entire system rather than “having more wealth than…”
Footnote: Direction, not Position.
I wrote a chapter for Roaming that is more textbook-y than most of my writings. Therefore, I called it a footnote. I would appreciate feedback from readers as to how it flows, whether it makes sense, and whether it seems important. Your comments will hopefully help me hone that chapter.
Link to the chapter
Solar Power report
Alysia and I had solar panels installed on our roof this year. With tax credits, it appeared to be a far better investment than something like Wall Street and for a worthier cause. For the last few weeks, the panels have been producing 30-35 KW per day which is well above our average usage.
An Acknowledging Thank You
In my book, I wrote about how allies emerge. One wonderful example of this has been the emergence of Robert Holt as an editor over the years of my Cairns. He emailed me ten years ago or so offering his editorial assistance at tightening my writing and clarifying my thinking. He has done that superbly. I have never met Bob; he lives on the other side of our country. On the internet I learn of his distinguished career as a psychologist and professor of psychology, author of many books and articles. He has given me the experience one dreams of: being tutored by a knowledgeable mentor and in that exchange, a relationship of respect and affection develops. Bob is approaching his 97th birthday and has decided it is time for him to stop editing. So it is with sadness but mostly great gratitude that I acknowledge how much he has meant to me. I offered him the opportunity to share any thoughts in Cairns. He sent me this:
“Some years ago, after I had discovered (for myself, that is; I was far from the first to think of it) what I believe to be the highest stage of cognitive development, the capacity for systems thinking, I came across a book by Paul Krafel describing his little experimental observations about the flow of water down a slope. It struck me as the work of someone who was a natural systems thinker, so I was delighted to follow, later, his descriptions of his work as a gifted teacher, not only embodying systems thinking in his work but encouraging its development in students. This was shortly after my personal epiphany, the discovery of general systems theory and the recognition that behind it was a new, basic way of looking at the world and our fundamental questions about it: Everything may be fruitfully regarded as having its place in a hierarchy of nested systems.”