Bring back bike sheds

It doesn’t matter if no-one rides a bike to school anymore, schools need bike sheds. If you are nodding your head while reading this then you are probably are of a generation where the ‘bike sheds’ is code for other things.

Some of the best and worst bits of learning happened at the bike sheds. People tried stuff for the first time, talked about stuff, planned things and some of us actually parked our bikes there. The conversations and activities that took place you hoped you weren’t caught for (although…parking your bike isn’t exactly ‘bad ass’). It was an exciting place where risks were taken.

Some of those risks involved gossiping and talking about others. After emerging from the sheds the unspoken rule was not to speak about it. Eventually the conversation would move on to something or someone else, the outcomes and power of the spoken word dissolved and was replaced with other things. This is in stark contrast to the online generation.

When there is talk about things being ‘worse’ I think what could be happening is an unfamiliarity with the context and the effects on the meaning and intensity of expression via social media and the digital age. You can go back to a conversation, add to it, exaggerate, share, create images add pictures – so the story grows a life of its own. Then of course the audience grows and all within a few minutes! The personal and private has become a public performance for popularity.

Back at the bike sheds, about the only thing written was the odd scratched love note, insults were generic – occasionally personal but were painted over, or obscured by more angsting. Getting ‘caught’ was a real possibility and that awareness was an invisible safety bubble as the fear told you instinctively that ‘if you had to talk about this behind the bike sheds you probably shouldn’t be talking about it.’

I’m hoping riding to school will make a come back for many reasons including the building of sheds. Bring on the next generation of shenanigans!

What to do with the ball – kick it or pass it?

It’s that time of year. The detailed planning and preparation has begun. Research into the competition, ruthless conditioning and contingencies accounted for. You might be forgiven for thinking I was talking about the winter sport season of rugby and netball if you’re from Australia or New Zealand. It is school Ball season or Prom if that term is more familiar. A tradition New Zealand schools have tried to drag into the 21st century with mixed results.

I had a ‘small town’ experience of the ball. It was held in the school hall with a few decorations splashed around, mirror ball, local band, and formal dancing expected. I wonder how many ACC claims from that era reflect broken toes and sprained ankles from attempts at waltzing.

New Zealand is currently in the throws of serious ‘cultural angst’ about our young people and how they are growing up. A lot of this centres around sex and alcohol. Throw in an event that is a virtual ‘dress rehearsal’ for adult relationships and hey presto Cinderella is outa that ball dress at midnight, into the party bus carriage and Prince Charming doesn’t care what shoes she is wearing! Her fairy godmother has also organised an after-ball function so the magic can go on.

What is the Ball? Some call it a ‘right of passage’ into adulthood. I agree but it is a certain representation of adulthood that is ‘righted’ so I’m giving that definition the quintessential Kiwi ‘Yeah…Na…’ and providing an alternative – but you might want to take a deep breath first. I will call it what it is, a socially sanctioned, ritualistic normalising of heterosexuality and clear gender identity, wrapped up in large dose of nostalgia and parental voyeurism…and breath.

That doesn’t sound quite so romantic now does it. I’ll be somewhat unapologetic about that because we really need to ask why we are hanging onto the Ball as a significant and important function schools perform. I think we have drifted along for some time with this one hoping it will morph and evolve naturally with the times. Well that has been about as smooth as a first driving lesson…and other ‘firsts’…enough said.

Lets ‘quick step’ through some of the questions I want to pose so we can stop being side tracked by the well worn dialogue around alcohol use and sex which seem to dominate commentaries in this area.
Who is the ball for? I’m going to suggest that although we proclaim the Ball is for young people, I believe parents are just as invested if not more. Recently, when there have been suggestions of phasing it out, a lot of the outcry and desperate pleas to continue have come from adults, especially parents. It could be that the Ball acts like an anchoring experience, an intergenerational touch stone, that allows parents to join with their children at a time when they start to feel pushed out and excluded. They have something to offer and share in the experience whilst taking their own trip down memory lane.

What is the main difference? I’ll tentatively put this out there and hope it makes sense, but I feel there has been a change in sense of ‘intimacy.’ I’m surprising myself mentioning this, but notions of intimacy have all but evaporated like cheap aftershave. It’s perhaps easier to explain by looking at some of the changes that have taken place. I apologise in advance for mixed metaphor’s and cliché’s.

1: What happens before the Ball – or ‘Pre Ball’ This used to be the realm of the ‘Lions Den’ for young men, where they would arrive to pick up their date. The visual and verbal dressing down given ensured the ‘law of the jungle’ was spelt out and the unspoken was ‘don’t you dare even think about doing anything to my precious daughter.’ You could say it’s like ‘walking down the isle’ as poor anxious boy waited for his date to emerge in her dress, a princess in all her splendour, to be greeted and marked with a corsage.
You might be wondering ‘how is that intimate?’ The ‘couple’ is acknowledged as significant and meaningful, the light is shone on ‘them’ and whether you agree or not, it weaves a story of responsibility and expectation around respect. Intimacy develops through carefully crafted situations that allow for specific interactions and Ball/Prom protocols have certainly delivered on this aspect in times gone by.
Taking a date has become more optional, sometimes partners do not even know each other, but simply ‘match up’ through friends because the underlying ‘couple experience’ is still there. I’ve seen this awkward set up and hope we can move on from the pressure to take a date. Groups of young people sometimes choose to go together which seems to at least on the surface to counter the ‘take a member of the opposite sex’ theme. So we are stuck in a kind of ‘limbo’ (not the dance unfortunately) with a tension in expectations. The interpersonal and social location of the ‘couple’ has enabled the outward rituals to be more important than the connections to people. Teens are ‘tied’ and ‘frocked’ up and sent stepping through the social norms to ensure there is some ongoing familiarity providing reassurance that everything is ‘normal.’

2: At the Ball – Learning to formal dance was something many of us went through. Clumsy and embarrassing as it might have been for many, classical ballroom steps and routines guided young people through physical closeness and being in another’s personal space with permission. Young people could safely hold each other and feel how they felt in the comfort of ‘shared discomfort’ and co-ordinated stumbling around in circles. Why is this important? Navigating physical closeness is like learning to drive in a safe environment before taking to the open road or race track. Without this we are effectively bypassing and devaluing a whole spectrum of intimacy. With formal dancing relegated to ‘uncool’ getting physically close to someone is an ‘all or nothing’ experience.

3: After the Ball – the advent of the ‘don’t talk about The After-ball’ generation signals a shift in the relationship schools have with their community. In effect the intimacy associated with being part of a ‘school event’ is countered by the polarity of the ‘After Ball’. For a start, this has become it’s own event, and an expectation. The clandestine planning and secrecy warrants some scrutiny I feel. You know something isn’t quite right when schools are having the Police in to ‘lecture’ students and letters are going home to parents to discourage organising After Ball’s.

What has stayed the same? Gender expectations and the inevitable pressure to fall into line and play the correct part for the ‘parts that you have.’ When people refer to ‘Tradition’ and even ‘traditional couples’ the weight of heteronormativity becomes explicit. I’m heartened however to see schools grapple with this and adjust accordingly.
But change hasn’t come easy. Some New Zealand schools persisted for a time with requiring ‘declarations of sexual orientation’ if students wanted to bring a same sex partner. Justifications for this range from avoiding gender imbalance to worrying if there was formal dancing then other dates might be poached – oh the horror! Having to ‘out yourself’ by taking a letter home for your parents to sign does nothing to celebrate and embrace diversity. In fact it does the complete opposite. Bi-sexual and intersex students would perhaps have the biggest dilemma. The day someone brings ‘one of each’ gender with androgynous attire will signal an epic shift in genuine acceptance of diversity.

Ultimately I believe ‘dropping the ball’ could help us decide what game we are actually playing and whether the rules really fit for 21st century concepts of identity and diversity. It could be a real game changer.

Colouring outside the lines

There is something profoundly beautiful about children’s art. It is free and unbound by self-consciousness. Art wasn’t something I was encouraged to appreciate or take seriously and a part of me feels robbed at a deeply spiritual level of artistic pursuits. I envy children they are perhaps an insight to how stunted we become as we age. The ‘rules’ and restrictions permeate our awareness shaping our understanding of how things should be so we live ‘within the lines.’

Watch very young children with a colouring in book and they don’t notice the lines. But put an older child beside them and watch things change and the bringing forward the idea of ‘getting it wrong’ and making a mistake and shame. From then on colouring in the lines is the aim. The pictures offered get more and more complex but the aim is the same – to stay within the lines. The spaces get smaller and the detail more precise so the stakes get higher – one small slip or wobble and the perfect picture is ruined.

We can do better raising creative confident young people. There are really clear ‘pictures and lines’ youth are encouraged to see as successful, worthy and desirable and our education system supports this. I salute all those pushing beyond the lines, who are challenging young minds to see more than just two dimensional possibilities. Scribble with them and play alongside them and laugh at failure as it is just a line – it can be erased, moved or ignored.

So I am calling out to all those who have a connection to children and young people. Be prepared to guide and support and even ‘draw on experience’ but if they ‘brush you off’ smile and know you have given them the greatest gift, a blank canvas.

The nature of learning in Nature

I’m weary and sore and absolutely happy after two days in the outdoors with a great group of young people. I am drawn to nature especially water but I’ll take anything over being land locked. So to be given the opportunity to get out of the office and ‘go to the beach for a couple of days’ is a no brainer as my heart is already there and she rules these days.

I’m not sure if I still feel like a teacher in the traditional sense. But one of the few things I know for sure (perhaps) is that teaching about nature and the environment has to be done whilst being part of it. The ultimate class – room is a room without walls, where the elements and responding to these require our attention. What is needed is a reintegration of experiential learning and with schools being driven more and more towards assessment education has become a train on a track that just keeps moving and we watch the world pass by at great speed.

Add the distraction of technology in and we have added another layer of disembodiment of experience. So whilst we were doing things in an amazing place, the constant pulling out of phones to play music, send instagram messages, or just take photos did shock me a little. There was a sense at times of ‘going through the motions’ of the activity at times with the real emphasis being on how this would be communicated with the ‘outside world.’ I also noticed myself being tempted by this and was almost grateful when my phone battery died. If a phone or ipod or any other kind of device is ‘out’ and being used – no matter how innocuously – it seems to bubble wrap the user in another world. Almost like in a dream world where they are there but just out of reach.

All we really need to do is to stop and notice. Yes it is that simple. ‘Stars in their eyes’ shouldn’t just be remembered as a TV programme but the wonderment of sitting or lying under the night sky. World wide webs are also the products of spiders, and it would be great travesty if the only form of ‘tweeting’ any of us appreciated was of the #tag kind.

And while I am on a roll with over using double entendre, ‘surfing’…is best done on waves made of water.

Sign of the times

Schools seem to have been captured by the advertising and marketing bug. The best evidence of this is the proliferation of signs appearing at the gates of schools. They don’t just say welcome, they ‘announce’ things.

Seems in-offensive enough but I saw one today that made me cringe a little – it boldly pronounced that it would be giving ‘survival strategies’ – hardly reassuring for new students. Its one thing to provide support but another to declare to the world that any young person entering your gates might need special skills to navigate such a dangerous environment.

Language constructs experience as well as describing it. Anxiety will take advantage of fear – real or imagined. I understand that this isn’t the intention, but here is the thing – once you have a sign, you have to put things on it! And this is the bit that irks me (love that word ‘irk’).

Schools put some random and tedious things on their flash signs to keep up the appearance of having important stuff going on (isn’t teaching and learning enough???). But I am itching for a school to do something radical and just put one up that says ‘ummmmm just business as usual’ or ‘free education – yeah right’ or ‘practical sex education starts this week … just kidding’ (Monty Python fans might have John Cleese flash into their minds in that cringe making scene from The Meaning Of Life).

I don’t think I’m reading too much into this – its about an awareness of the business model and language infiltrating all aspects of our lives.

But we don’t have to buy it.