The Self-Organizing Trip
I’ve been too busy with multiple Chrysalis transitions to be able to write all I intended for this one. So, instead, a fairly straight-forward Chrysalis story, except for another strand I get to interweave at the end.
This eighth grade class is one of the two most wonderful eighth grade classes I’ve had during Chrysalis’s 18 years. The relationships between students, with their teachers, and with one another plus their enthusiasm for learning allows possibilities to emerge beyond my imagining.
The Chrysalis charter requires that eighth-graders, in order to graduate, must pass a test on the Constitution. Years ago, I developed a somewhat conventional class activity where I divided the class into the House and the Senate and they try passing a bill. The main purpose was for them to experience the process by which two groups, each with separate backgrounds and perspectives, had to come together in drafting the exact same language for a bill. The more specific and personal the bill, the more they learned, so over the years, the exercise shifted to writing a bill that involved Chrysalis. These often led me to write long, thoughtful explanations of why I, as president, was vetoing their bill and sending it back to them for further consideration. Usually a class would respond by taking my objections into consideration and crafting a more carefully written bill. Kids learned that it wasn’t easy to transform an idea that seemed appealing on the surface into specific language that acknowledged the actual complexity of the details.
Last year’s eighth grade class (a very good class) asked whether this activity could actually create a “law” that would somehow change the way Chrysalis operated. I replied that if it was something that was upheld by the teachers’ co-op, then I would try to make it happen. They dove into the exercise and out of it, they drafted a proposal for an “open campus” where the eighth graders would be able to go to the neighboring supermarket at lunch time and buy lunch. After an initial veto, they redrafted the bill so that those eighth graders who had parent permission and who had demonstrated responsible behavior in the last several weeks could go over in groups of three or more one day each week. The teachers’ co-op supported the idea and so their “law” went into effect and it worked out great.
Their law was such a great idea that I was afraid that it would pre-empt the exercise; each class thereafter would create the same law and not have to go through the actual work of wrestling with different agendas. Therefore, when I introduced this activity to this year’s class, I prohibited an open-campus bill. Their law would have to be about something different.
I had to miss the first full class they had to work on the assignment but my substitute left a note that they were stuck. When I checked in with them the following class, they said they wanted to create a student council but that they were stuck on how officers should be elected. I shared with them frankly that several times students have wanted to have student councils and when we tried them, the elections were mostly a popularity contest, after which nothing much happened. But my students replied that they wanted to the councils to do things. “Like what?” I asked. Like wash the outside lunch tables. I said you don’t need a council in order to wash the tables. Let’s just go clean them and they did so with gusto and a sense of accomplishment afterwards.
My interest shifted from the bill-writing simulation to something else. Kids are brought up within organization based on large groups with leaders. Does this teach them that before any larger-than-individual action is undertaken, leaders must be chosen? I wanted to experiment with having the kids self-organize without a formal structure. So we started using talking circles to discuss other projects they might want to do.
One thing they wanted to do was raise money and go on an 8th grade trip. And I had to tell them, as I’ve told other classes, that Chrysalis doesn’t do an 8th grade trip. I explained that attempts in the past had always run into problems – usually involving parents. In fact, the previous year, some parents had wanted to create a fancy trip for the kids after graduation. They had made a big fundraising push but not all the kids had wanted to participate in their fundraising so some parents wanted the funds to go to only certain kids and the whole thing fractionated and fell apart. That was one of the reasons the school does not do a class trip.
But the kids asked what if they organized it on their own? I said they could try but it would not be a Chrysalis trip. So they started brainstorming places they would like to go and an amusement park was one of the choices, which is what the parents have always gone for. But the choice they went for was the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. That intrigued me; the new facility was supposed to be world-class and I had never seen it. I put a constraint on them; it was essential that every student who wanted to go would be able to go. That cost would not prevent some from going. They all absolutely agreed with an of-courseness that caught my attention. But I knew that they were too young to realize the actual cost of an overnight trip to San Francisco so I insisted that they work out a budget. That was hard for them but gradually we found the realistic prices of everything and, of course, the cost was too high, especially lodging. (We are 3 ½ – 4 hours one way to the doors of the museum, too far to pull off as a day trip.)
But then one of the students arranged with her relatives, who lived about an hour from the city, to stay the night in their church. Suddenly the price for the trip dropped. I wrote to all the families describing what the kids wanted to try doing and explaining the condition that all students would be able to go, and asking each family if it needed a scholarship to participate. There was a need for a couple of hundred dollars. A parent from last year’s class reported that the couple of hundred dollars they had raised for a class shindig before things fell apart was sitting in the school’s auxiliary fund and perhaps the class could tap into that. So we tapped it as a scholarship fund. Now we were guaranteed that every one could go.
Then another student had grandparents who lived in the same town as the church who offered to host us for dinner and breakfast. The students tried a bake sale. They came running back at the end of it with eyes so wide and excited because they had raised $125 and they could’ve raised more if they had more food. Now there was a strong sense that this trip was going to happen, that they were going to make it a reality. The trip was planned for the Monday and Tuesday following school graduation.
And then two weeks ago, three of the students found out that they had been accepted into a high school program that required them to start practicing that Monday after graduation. Another student learned that she had dress rehearsals for a dance performance the entire week after graduation. And suddenly, the whole trip ran into a wall.
Could we switch to something local? It wouldn’t be ethical to use money donated to travel to the academy to have a fun time locally. If not everyone could go for logistical reasons, what was the ethical way to choose a date upon which some but not all could go? The kids learned the word, ethical.
For a week we were all frustrated and stymied. And then on Friday one of the girls involved in the whole scheduling problem came running up excitedly saying that she would have permission to miss her dance rehearsals the next Thursday and Friday and could we go now, during the school year?
The other teachers were all right with the eighth graders missing classes on Friday. Three parents offered to drive. We organized a last-minute bake sale for that Wednesday. The kids brought an amazing amount of baked goods Wednesday morning. We spent the morning on Wednesday talking about how to lay out the bake sale so that they could generate the “most dollars per minute” (a new concept for them). This time, supply exceeded demand. They still had many plates of unsold cookies. But they had also made another $175. Including donations, they raised $500. There was an absolutely wonderful sense of accomplishment and pride and ethical satisfaction that we were going to pull this off, that the entire eighth grade class was going to go down to San Francisco and see the California Academy of sciences.
So after school on Thursday, May 8th, we drove down to the town where we had dinner and then stayed at the church. The kids, all excited, played hide and seek out in the dark until about 9 o’clock. And then I felt the need for reflection so we had a talking circle. One question I asked was how did organizing this trip make it different from a trip that was given to them by the adults. The students talked about how they had almost given up and yet we still pulled it out off. Near the end I asked the three parent drivers to share some of the thoughts they had while listening to their children talk about this. That led to talk about how this wonderful class had just one month left. They talked about how they had become close to one another and how they really did love one another and how good it all felt. The talking circle came to a nice warm close. Then one of the students asked me what I thought of all of this.
Certain questions, asked in certain ways, create an opportunity for an answer to go deep, so mindfulness is wanted in order to choose and arrange words precisely. I found myself talking about love and how love was being aware of the light in one another and knowing it was beautiful and wanting to help it grow and knowing that the other person also was wanting the same thing for you and that together, love helped us explore what is truly possible with these miracles of lives that we are given.
The next morning, we did it. We had breakfast at the grandparents’ home and drove to San Francisco. We went to the California Academy of Sciences. We saw the planetarium show. We watched penguins get fed. We had lunch. We went to the tropical rain forest exhibit. We gazed at the aquariums. Afterwards we played by the ocean and gathered sand dollars. We walked to a nearby deli where the kids had a great urban experience talking with the store people who served them delightfully. And then we drove home late that night.
Now I get to interweave the other strand into this story.
On April 21 (less than three weeks before the trip), from out of the blue, I received an email from an unknown professor inviting me to be a panelist at the 2015 Tenth International Whitehead Conference titled Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization. The list of attendees and presenters is very impressive but I’m confused by the fact that Whitehead, a dead mathematician, is somehow presented as the seminal foundation of this conference. So I go to Wikipedia to learn more about Whitehead. I learn that he began as a mathematician but then shifted focus to educational pedagogy and then to metaphysics and that his writing on metaphysics was incomprehensible to most of his contemporaries but highly influential. In the section on pedagogy, the Wikipedia article says:
“[H]e cautioned against the teaching of what he called “inert ideas” – ideas that are disconnected scraps of information, with no application to real life or culture. He opined that “education with inert ideas is not only useless: it is, above all things, harmful.”
Rather than teach small parts of a large number of subjects, Whitehead advocated teaching a relatively few important concepts that the student could organically link to many different areas of knowledge, discovering their application in actual life. For Whitehead, education should be the exact opposite of the multidisciplinary, value-free school model – it should be transdisciplinary, and laden with values and general principles that provide students with a bedrock of wisdom and help them to make connections between areas of knowledge that are usually regarded as separate.
In order to make this sort of teaching a reality, however, Whitehead pointed to the need to minimize the importance of (or radically alter) standard examinations for school entrance. Whitehead writes:
“Every school is bound on pain of extinction to train its boys [sic] for a small set of definite examinations. No headmaster has a free hand to develop his general education or his specialist studies in accordance with the opportunities of his school, which are created by its staff, its environment, its class of boys, and its endowments. I suggest that no system of external tests which aims primarily at examining individual scholars can result in anything but educational waste.”
Whitehead argued that curriculum should be developed specifically for its own students by its own staff, (italics added) or else risk total stagnation, interrupted only by occasional movements from one group of inert ideas to another.
“Curriculum should be developed specifically for its own students by its own staff”; that is what this story is about. Last week, I asked the kids to describe some of the things they learned from our deviation from my lesson on government. Here are some of the value-laden lessons (not found in standardized curricula) that can emerge from schooling that is responsive to its students.
Working as a semi-functioning team: We all had to put our differences aside to create a plan that would be doable.
Listening skills: We had to realize when we were screaming over one another and handle it. We handled it by getting a talking eraser.
I think since we were the first class that hasn’t done the bill with the house and senate exactly how you wanted us too, we are pretty dang awesome. I also think from a person who watched her classmates scream over each other with excitement that when people are given the opportunity to speak, that thirteen and fourteen year olds are capable of being some type of organized. Most people see us as either babies or demons. By creating the trip, I think we showed people that we are mature enough to handle situations that would be easier with the help of an adult.
Think for yourself. Each kid needed to help in their own way to complete the job.
Don’t create a bottleneck. If we didn’t split the lines at the bake sale, it would have been very hard to get everyone fed. Because we had two lines the second time, it went a lot better.
Work as hard as you can. If you do your best, it will be better than if you didn’t.
Try to be ready for anything. If you do this, it won’t seem that bad.
Be grateful for what your parents do for you because what they do isn’t easy.
Sometimes things don’t always go as you planned but that doesn’t mean you should give up because if you give up then you definitely won’t be able to accomplish your goal. You can accomplish whatever you set your mind to even if it may seem too hard or too big; just keep trying.
This trip brought all of us closer than I ever thought was possible. Even though we had disagreements along the way this trip brought us A LOT closer.
Perseverance – Even when it became difficult, we kept on going.
Responsibility – We needed to learn to be responsible and fulfill our commitments such as bringing goods for the bake sale.
Time management – We had a short amount of time to get what we needed to get, yet we still managed!
Teamwork – Everyone pitched in and helped! We all did work, not just one or two people.
Money management – We learned how to properly earn money – “run a business”.
Confidence – I think that we all gained confidence from this experience. We didn’t think we could do it but we DID! That is huge!
Self-organization – We did have the help of many people, but I think we truly learned how to self-organize.
If you work hard enough, you will eventually reach your goal. What can seem impossible can seem possible if you work hard enough. Keep trying, even if you’ve lost faith in yourself.
I learned to never give up. I know we already talked about it during the talking circle but I feel like that was one of the biggest things I learned. To never, ever, no matter what, ever give up.
I feel like I learned a lot about friendship on the trip. I learned that friendships can come out of simply being in the same class, or sitting next to them on a 3 hour car trip.
I learned that if you’re playing hide and seek and you hide with another person, when that person is found, the chances of the person who is “it” looking in that area more drops to 5%.
I learned that you can be legally an adult with adult responsibilities, but you don’t, under any circumstances, have to grow up. Not one bit, not ever. Society may try to make you, but you don’t have to.
Not giving up. We were so close to giving up but Violette and a few other people still had hope that we could make it and when we stepped foot in San Francisco, we all achieved our goal of making it.
I learned many things from this trip. I learned that the saying “good things come to those who wait” can actually work sometimes and that if you work hard, your goals will get met. In the time we used to figure out the trip and try to do “student council”, we only planned an amazing trip but it was more of an achievement than I could ask for!
I learned that independence is difficult, wonderful and a very big responsibility. I like being independent so when we are able to just do things how we want to do them, I learned sometimes they almost get done better than if we had help from an adult. When we decided on the trip, it was all our choice, not a given by the teachers. Then we had to work for it and we did it by arranging bake sales and creating donation boxes. Although lots of money we made came from help, even without all of the extra money we got, we still made enough money to go.
Then there was the not giving up thing. Yes, it is good to not give up. If you give up, you stop climbing and start falling. If you give up, you come close to falling. Some people came very close to giving up but the trip meant more than to just forget about it.
I learned how dependent people can be and how there are two groups, independent and dependent. In other words, leaders and followers. There were those of us who took charge and made things happen; then there were others who agreed with what we said and just went along with it. I learned how hard it is when you have a feeling that if you don’t step in and say something, then the structure will collapse.
Violette’s last paragraph leads me back to the questions that originated this trip. As children, do we learn a dependence on leaders because the governance structures modeled to us depend on leaders and “selection of leaders” is modeled as a necessary step before the governance can accomplish anything? Have we abdicated some of our power to a learned sense of “leaders?” What Violette is expressing is that leaders don’t have to be chosen. Leaders emerge from the people who care enough about something to start doing the work. Doing the work precedes the emergence of leaders, not the other way around.