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. That this class is responsive to all of you. You can help shape this class and together, we can dance it into something we can’t even imagine yet. 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 make a big poster for the wall titled “Parts of The Point” upon which I intend to put student-generated comments and snippets that are part of the big idea so that a wall of clues develop.
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. Show them the wall poster. 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.
During this week, I’m thinking about how to proceed following F’s fall.