learning

Circle of life

Circles are whole and complete. They are geometrically perfect and there are so many magical features to explore if you feel like unlocking your inner maths geek. They also make for a great seating arrangement for working through conflict. Last night I was involved in running a circle conversation with a great group of young women (gender assumption provided by working at a girl’s school) from a hostel. They had asked for one and had participated in one earlier in the year. However this time it was a bit different and it got me thinking about the difficult place of emotions or the places emotions find difficult to be present.

I’ve run plenty of classroom circles where the dynamics had broken down or a specific incident needed addressing. In a learning environment it is fair to say that there are some common hopes and expectations about what works for everyone being able to maximise the opportunities available. There are rules and expectations around participating so that everyone is heard and that the focus is not on individuals but actions, a form of externalising problems that can enable shame to shift into understanding. It gives a form of emotional distance.

But this wasn’t a class. It was a group of 17-19 year olds some of who had been living together for 5 years. I knew a bit going into the meeting and hoped my finely honed skills could keep the process contained however within a few minutes I realised I needed to shift my reference point of containment and what was needing to be held. This was a whanau, the bonds of this group ran deep and so did the hurt and the compassion. The raw emotions and language were rough and at times I felt the urge to stop the process but caught myself in moment of censorship, of trying to sanitise the process for the good of politeness and minimising hurt. Again however had those feelings not been spoken, had the passion, energy and upset not been expressed there would have been an injustice of the utmost kind.

The injustice of silencing emotions and denying people the real effects in the name of ‘managing self’ and having control of our feelings at all times denies a spirit of being and simply cages and penalises people for being upset. Often I sense people want to avoid the difficult emotional part of restorative processes. Sometimes a hearing conversation is needed before healing can begin.

Last night was just that – a hearing conversation. And as we turned out the lights in the library I noticed my t-shirt reflection in the glass. A glowing Kiwi with a laser beam coming out of its eye and a silver fern on my chest. It seemed the match the burning intensity of some of the looks and the unity and genuine sense of togetherness in spite of the conflict and anguish.

Circles also form spirals, springs, and other complex shapes. It was messy and there are probably some people wondering if it was worth it, sphere enough but that isn’t the point (oh so delicate pun to finish).

Sticks and stones and a pile of dirt

Standing on the river bank watching the inky black pool break and run free. I throw a stick in and the child with me throws one in as well. We watch them float down then spin out of the current. A perplexed look crosses her face, a wondering and an opportunity to play and learn – current affairs. We throw more sticks and observe them, describing what is happening nothing more. An urge to up the stakes and race, but what to do when that pesky eddy throws a reverse current into the mix. Stones enter the picture, there are plenty to choose from. But where to throw? How big? More experimentation and my young apprentice catches on quick. Making waves and calmly enjoying the rush of success. Wet feet and cold hands our reward and some hydrology terminology experienced.

Later a mountain of dirt in a field and some tame ducks with a dog who’s instinct to herd everything boarders on OCD. Two of them scramble up negotiating feathered and furry friends. Clumps of soil are picked up and hurled backwards and forwards like snow balls. Shouts and protests make way for tentative rules with animals being completely off limits. The sods are flying and the faces smiling as they quickly weigh up the line between dusting yourself off and mud in your eye. No-one is crying and the ducks seek shelter behind the scrambling legs and flailing arms. The dog is relentless. Friendships blossoming between all creatures. It’s messy and chaotic, perfect.

Gumboots discarded, they just fill up and slow you down another lesson in mass and inertia. Running free and feeling the earth beneath feet. Resting finally in a drain to pick watercress. This is how I remember learning and how I always wanted to teach.

inclusive exclusion

Throwing money at schools to provide more support for students with unique functioning says something about a profound discomfort in schools with any form of diversity beyond culture. When writing about the ‘cost’ of providing support for disabled students the needs of the majority of students who ‘might miss out on teachers time’ are privileged. The threat to the normative learning environment is what is represented when it comes to promoting increased funding and my concern is this moves schools further away from inclusive and more toward exclusive concepts of special needs. One of the reasons I think is a general dis-ease with any form of emotional, social, physical difference. The need to manage diversity by erasing undersirable outward expressions of uniqueness means schools have lost one of their most powerful functions, to provide young people with experiences with others who may ‘be’ un-like them to allow this unsettling to play an role in forging a genuine appreciation of the vast range of humanbeingness. Maybe this has something to do with the insanity behind assessment driven pedagogy, I’m not sure, but the dominant concerns indicate this might be part of the reason.

Another pressure point is the growing parental entitlement creeping into education. I don’t begrudge parents wanting the ‘best for their children’. However neoliberal forces seem to have condensed and concentrated this into a drive to demand that schools remove all barriers to their child achieving their best. It seems as though ‘accessibility’ has been hijacked as an idea to some degree. If litigation or media exposure is threatened, Principals can be backed into a corner to preserve their brand. These are some of the contextual influences skipped over by media in a bid to focus on economies of identity – financial bottom lines and the ever growing business management approach to education and pedagogy.

A concept I find increasingly needed but missing in schools is de-expertising. That is, you can actually ask young people themselves what they need! And be careful to allow for some space to just them to be teenagers, de-pathologising youth in general would be a good start. Getting frustrated, angry, emotional and struggling to communicate feelings is not uncommon for teachers…or young people. Let’s remember that and get back to basics – the 3 r’s – 1: Are assumptions disabling students more than their actual disabilities, 2: Are young people consulted when developing IEP’s? (especially year 11 and beyond but even before this), 3: Are the needs of the many really that different to the needs of the few?

Having said all this however I am acutely aware that parents are covering the costs of teacher aids and shouldn’t be. I’m also grateful for the work RTLB’s and TA’s do, an often invisible and underappreciated part of the fabric of teaching. To the Ministry Of Education, put your money where your mouth is but don’t let it suffocate a wider discussion of inclusion, belonging and feeling valued by everyday practices in schools.

More assessment? What the Hekia?

Moving through the corridors at work over the last week has had the air of a zombie apocalypse. The ashen faces, sunken red eyes with black rings, shuffling feet and monosyllabic answers from senior students indicative of a gradual trend of sucking the life out of young people and teachers with internal assessment. The level of burn out and fatigue for the middle of the year is a worrying trend. Rarely do I hear students talk about what they are learning, or finding interesting or inspiring – they simply don’t have time or space to wonder, think, challenge or explore knowledge. While countries such as Finland who we look to for models of best practice are moving toward less assessment and testing we are moving in the opposite direction thanks to a government determined to make the tail wag the dog. The political spin doctors will convince the public this is about raising achievement and being able to measure this consistently. The so called ‘gap’ at year 9-10 is not really a ‘gap’ it’s just that there is no national tracking at these years, but there are plenty of assessment tools schools use, otherwise we wouldn’t have had improving pass rates for NCEA.

Teaching to the assessment is already happening which is not education but robotic performance where the types of questions asked by students and sanctioned by teachers are centred on what has to be done to get there. Get ready for the Governments next big experiment that will drain more of the life blood out of schools. Hekia does like to go for the jugular after all.

It’s a good thing vampires and zombies are trendy right now as the piles of marking bury my colleagues and crush the spirits of youth.

It’s life gym…

“but not as we know it” if you couldn’t help saying it then you will likely “live long and prosper”. I can’t imagine living inside a giant tin-can in space, although I spent an hour inside a smaller tin-can this week watching kids doing gymnastics. Parking my bike outside after a bit of a squally ride – wind rain cold, a perfect Auckland day I wandered upstairs as parents were barred from the floor to a curious picture of contrasts. Downstairs, a hive of bodies moving and exploring apparatus. Waiting their turn, sharing space, encouraging and supporting each other. All ages mingling and united in their enthusiasm and determination to master skills. Upstairs other children sitting around using apps, isolated from each other, age segregating them as younger children tried to explore the space but were met with annoyed looks and dismissive gestures. A clear sense of territory and personal space emerged. I picked my way through gingerly trying not to break the concentration of those staring into screens to look into the den of activity and caught myself thinking ‘I want to be down there’. Under one roof a simple line had been drawn around play and while the wind howled and the heavens opened, inside all were happy doing their thing.

Riding home in the driving rain passed by tin-cans on wheels I felt the pounding of my heart, the drenching of skin all my senses working together to adapt to the elements. Laughing at the ridiculousness and enjoying the sensation of complete and utter saturation that those in tin-cans will never know. It was life gym and I am glad to know it.

Pools apart

Inside a building two pools side by side separated by glass. But looking is not the same as seeing. There is a sense of separation and a dissolution of barriers. It is a beautiful contradiction hidden to most but the curving corners of my mouth betray the fluid intensity before me and the surge of joy and appreciation at witnessing so many bodies in various states of motion and becoming.

Young bodies expand and explore the depths of movement with eagerness and energy while larger bodies next door also move with purpose and focus. Technique and a desire to improve and become a better swimmer the shared experience. Feedback from coaches refining the co-ordination of limbs in various combinations, careful additions, subtractions correcting strokes of a body with spokes. Goggles on, prosthetics off and time running the same for everyone. Standing in the shallow water those beginning to appreciate and assemble the skills to move through this alien medium peer through to the other side with a mix of awe and respect. No, it is ‘not over their heads’, they know intuitively the work and effort that is perhaps the only thing that might represent a distinction between them. Perhaps from the others side, there is an awareness, a sense of the mirror and recognising the journey taken. The simple act of a smile, a wave crossing time and space to reach through illusions of separation rendering a fluidity of now and exacting a perfect moment of immanence.

Like superheroes without capes casting aside previous limits and rescuing role model images from the clutches of neurotic gendered stereotypes that prevail through more traditional sports. Not a body hair in sight yet no masculinity was in question or of concern to these guys in tight fitting body wear. Women as broad and powerful with their physicality and proudly sporting body art displaying achievements. But none were immune to goggle eyes and cap hair. These finely tuned biological machines and machines within machines, metallic eyes and cybernetic limbs assembled together as aquatic mammals.

A place where butterflies exist without a chrysalis. Although there might just be a hint of caterpillar at times.

[Written after watching the New Zealand Open Swimming Champs from the confines of the learn to swim pool next door – best free sports viewing ever, although it is rather steamy and hot…the air temperature!]

Home Grown

Turning over the garden, turning over thoughts and memories of growing up in a hunter growing family I noticed the accumulation and intersections of meanings unfold. There was also the realisation that there is a purpose for crocs, they are in the garden – socks optional. So while I have been reading and immersing myself in some rich philosophical texts I still feel a need to ground my thinking in familiar activities and metaphors. However it isn’t the growing ideas I want to go with, it is the process of gardening itself, of cultivating, deciding how to plant seeds and the ways this reveals some of the cultural and historical practices of knowledge.

My Dad grew up in the 50’s, hunting and fishing were part of the Man as provider story emerged out of other philosophical discourses about nature (woman) needing to be tamed, dominated, conquered, brought under Mans control. Gardening was a big part of my childhood as was fishing and a bit of hunting and I feel enriched by these experiences. Dad’s garden and style of gardening reflected the values and self sufficiency of an age where industrial production of food was still in it’s infancy. The post–war generation learnt how to take care of themselves, it wasn’t a fashion statement it was born out of a genuine experience of hardship. But my goodness as a kid in the 70’s, it was like a religion with Eion Scarrow being our own green saviour. Yates bibles filled the shelves and anything that got in the way of producing perfect tomatoes, silverbeet, etc was annihilated. Chemical warfare was absolutely legit practice, he was Mr “Spray and walk away”. If things weren’t growing you just put more fertiliser on – more, more, more. Bugs didn’t stand a chance, neither did weeds, neither did birds – nature had no business in nature. Being alongside it and respecting the natural world wasn’t the kind of relationship being modelled at the time (things did change). But we ate well (let’s just side step the chemical bit) – no shortage of greens. And I learned about generosity and sharing. Because there really are only so many grapefruit and tomatoes you can eat juice, freeze, pulp. Looking after your neighbours was part of it and a good way to practice your fishy story telling (probably where I learned the art of hyperbole). People swapped seeds, shared tips and tools and connected over their successes and failures, learning from each other.

Moving through the 80’s – 90’s saw a huge shift economically and as such culturally for the ways we related to food production and what we ‘consumed’ in terms of associating gardening with lifestyle. For me this is where I feel a bit of nostalgic loss for ye old school ‘rip shit and bust’, ‘number 8 wire’, ‘bit of 4 by 2’. DIY grow your own has been reabsorbed as a commodity, a brand. Garden stores are almost like jewellery stores – just going into certain ones gives people a sense of status. Cooking shows dominate our screens, often with ‘fresh home grown’ produce as part of the tag line and ‘looking good’ while doing these activities ensures there are also stylish gumboots to wear. Now it’s not just ‘putting in a garden’ it’s ‘what kind of garden’ with an undertone of assessment of the gardeners ethics or spiritual alignment with the earth – or brand loyalty.

I’m not sure what kind of gardener I am, but I do know the joy and pleasure of eating something you have grown. I don’t mind sharing with the odd snail or white butterfly. I’m unlikely to buy fancy footwear for the garden, isn’t that what old running shoes are for? Dad doesn’t garden so much these days, however the silverbeet self-seeded and is growing wild outside the confines of the neat and tidy cultivated earth, in the hard clay – and it is thriving. Go Nature.

Hot Cross Profits

Scatterings of silver paper litter the floor. Spikes of insulin and piercing squeals signal another cluster of rituals combined with religious significance to put many parents on notice. When the questions start – you’d better be ready with some answers that make sense…and quite frankly…I’m a bit stumped with Easter.

I try my best to respect all points of view and positions of belief, because I don’t think I know or understand enough to take any clear position. So I’d rather see belief in the context of belonging, that I can get. But how on earth do you explain to a 7 year old the crucifixion of Jesus combined with a bunny, eggs and chocolate especially when you are living a life pretty much free of any organised religion?

There is a part of me quietly hoping others will help the next generation unravel the tightly wrapped mythology and modern consumption insanity to expose the sticky complex mess of hysterical and slightly horrifying truths. It is a battle of ‘the profits’ where on the one hand cocoa and sugar industries, exploit third world countries in a form of modern slave labour and cash in on greed. But what to do with that other Profit? It’s a pretty unsavoury story but it has kept the Christianity going for a decent amount of time, I’d say that’s good business management. I could get all hot and cross about it but you won’t get a rise out of me.

Today I realised that trying to talk about it to a child after they’ve eaten a dozen chocolate eggs is just asking for trouble. So when in Rome – rip the foil off some chocolate and don’t let anyone tell you it’s a sin. Next time around I will simply enjoy the marvellous mess of Easter. Kid’s do ask questions and whether fact or fiction or something else entirely, I will do more homework and hope not to get caught with egg on my face.

No I will not be foiled.

Prideathlon

In the half light, music blaring, a sea of flags, rubber and lycra, nervous energy and cameras flashing. Crowds lean against barriers but there are no police and no parade here, just thousands of 7-15 year olds participating in the Weetbix Tryathlon. There was another sort of pride parade happening last night in Ponsonby but this experience of pride was equally worth celebrating. The way these children and young people coped with such a huge occasion, feeling the fear and mixed emotions but managing to get to the start line shouldn’t be underestimated. Not to mention the navigating of three different physical activities and managing to put up with their sleep deprived, stressed and anxious parents who might also be suffering caffeine withdrawal, then they are all legends before even starting the event.

I’d like to suggest that everyone who took part have the curriculum ticked off for the key competencies demonstrated. This was nothing less than experiential learning, schools could do more to recognise and integrate these kinds of activities. There were some unofficial events worthy of note, for example the tree climbing and patience required to cue up for a bounce on a trampoline and also the bravery of those needing to use the port-a-loos. Then there is the ability to negotiate with tetchy adults and create a reasonable argument for the earning of a slushy. I was moved by an amazing display of leadership and natural mentoring from the young volunteers. I watched them channel the energy of tiny bodies into confidence and enthusiasm. This again is something missing from schools due to their segregation by age of such opportunities. They are artificially created from time to time but I wonder about what relationships and power dynamics might shift if this was a more common phenomenon.

One of the things I have enjoyed about multisport and triathlon is the across age level participation, bringing people together with a shared interest and enjoying the diversity this brings. There is nothing like the feeling of crossing the finish line – the distance is irrelevant as the sense of achievement is exactly that – a sense, lived through the body and in ways that transcend overworn success rhetoric that sports apparel companies flog.

Seeing so many bikes lined up in one area was a delight however I have a sense we are still moving in the wrong direction when it comes to physical activity being something integrated as a way of life, such as transport. If the bike goes back in the shed until next year what is the point? Nevertheless it cannot take away from the joy and pleasure I saw on so many faces today.

So many Kodak moments – good grief, now I am really showing my age.

Groan Ups

Adults can’t seem to up their mind about young people. In the five years between 13 and 18 the strange and unusual behaviour that should be under the spotlight are older people. Yet we seem desperate to turn this extraordinary timeframe into a complete cultural and social zone of contention. Without wanting to borrow too much from other rhetoric, it does feel a bit like a war of terror. I suppose my role as a counsellor working in a secondary school gives me more access to the ‘front line’ (again – kind of not keen on the metaphor – hoping not to induce PTSD which is real by the way). I know Nigel Latta has captured the market and I’m not attempting to replicate his ‘stand up psycomedy’ but I reckon I can at least describe my observations.

‘Groan ups’ (GU’s) seem to want a bunch of things from young people (YP) with ever increasing complexity and shifting rules, much like a hyperdimensional maze, where the walls keep moving and paths that appear open close down. To be fair, parents have the best intentions and worry because they care. I’d struggle to identify any person in a parenting role that didn’t absolutely believe that what they wanted for the young person was the best possible future. In my role I’ve been asked to ‘talk to’ teens and ‘tell them what is right’. Those who know me will understand what a conundrum this is both ethically and personally. I also experience YP who feel fully supported and affirmed by the adults in their lives.

There are some patterns to the relationships where YP and GU’s just talk past each other – if they are talking at all. Here is a quick rundown: We want them to talk to ‘us’ not other adults (especially counsellors). When they are open about difficult things some groan ups like to minimise, judge and criticise, or plain ‘freak out’ then wonder why they talk to someone else. It’s important they be unique individuals so long as they aren’t different. We want them to remain innocent yet be aware of world events, have empathy and want to change the world. Know what they want to do focus on that but keep their options open. They are supposed to learn from experience without making mistakes or having awkward moments. We ask them to be mature and take things seriously, and develop their own ideas and opinions – so long as they are the same as ours or at least modelled off our values and beliefs. Be independent and self-reliant but need us to fight their battles for them and stay needing us. The very idea that they will want to develop intimate relationships is perhaps the most difficult to find a clear path through. We acknowledge they will have these feelings but not to act on them because of course adults never act on impulse or go out and ‘hook up’ (while under the influence of socially lubricating substances). It’s important to love someone for their inner qualities groan ups say, but if their sexual organs are the same as yours that is going to be an issue for many (multiply that for those YP who were given the wrong plumbing from birth). It’s ok to take risks and push boundaries but don’t do anything stupid or that you’ll regret (one of my favourites) – sex and alcohol/drugs being hottest risk zones. Whilst they are allowed to be ‘moody’ they cannot be angry or upset or sad or frustrated because they just don’t know what the real world is.

This pattern I have generally termed as N.U.D.E. When GU’s get NUDE they are Not Understanding Diversity Exists. It’s not life threatening but can be managed. For those experiencing a NUDE GU try the following:

• Maintain a sense of humour – including grown up friends of groan ups
• Accept there will possibly be some ‘no-go-zones’
• Take nothing personally but if you need to make a stand – do it in the name of respect, concern or genuine worry for the effect actions might have on a YP
• Remember they will often want the last word in the conversation to slam home their point
• Appeal tentatively to their memories of being that age (depends on the context of course)
• Avoid comparing
• Use familiar social and cultural reference points
• Avoid advice – listen and listen more
• Look for the love and concern in actions – even if they are hard to understand

GU’s often struggle with diversity in all aspects of life. Our general culture is to assume that change ends once you are in your 20’s that you will then be over any ‘phases’ and be ‘who you really are’ like some strange version of metamorphosis…who doesn’t want to be a butterfly.

If we could be more courageous and speak as grown ups about continuing to change, evolve, devolve, grow and decay our identity and sense of being then our chaotic expectations of YP might just take on new meaning as a mirror of our own desperate misunderstanding of complex relationships we have with ourselves and making sense of what it means to be.

Perhaps the ultimate irony is older people trying to reclaim their youth. Mid life metamorphosis/crisis is a Chrysler rather than a chrysalis.