13 December 2010

Comfort and Joy

At a certain point in my childhood I would spend a lot of time sitting on the shoreline rocks at Davenport Park in New Rochelle, looking across the water at the ruins of Fort Slocum. I could have been at school, or I could have been with the others not in school at the Park's car park, or down at Hudson Park, or up at The Mall, or wherever. But sometimes it is better to be alone.

Fort Slocum (now fully demolished) from the Structural Descent Blog
There are a lot of places you go as an adolescent or pre-teen when you need to be away, when you need to work on seeking yourself. I've written "some" about this...

The Drool Room(2007) River Foyle Press

We so rarely acknowledge this need in schools. In fact, we fight daily against this. Our students - especially secondary students, go through the day without any personal space or time. It is an abusive, continually challenging environment which forces students to adopt the worst of self-defense mechanisms - from bullying, to gang membership, to surly disassociation from all those around. It robs students of the psychological space in which to think, to add knowledge to a framework in a personally effective way. Our students end up acting exactly as caged rats - with lizard brains locked in survival mode - they simply fight or please their captors, rather than having time or opportunity for higher learning.

This is why, when I ask people to "re-think learning spaces" I rarely suggest that they think about "schools" at all. Our notion of "school" is a trap. It presupposes a certain concept of spatial and societal organization which interferes profoundly with our expressed desires for education.

The Long Meadow, by Frederick Law Olmsted, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY
I ask instead that we look at parks, and bookstores, street corners and coffee shops. Places where people voluntarily go to learn and commune. Places where people can make themselves comfortable, join groups or not, and let their defenses down.

Outside the Brooklyn Public Library, Main Branch [photo cc: Ira Socol]
Because defenses and discomfort block the possibility of learning. If I'm uncomfortable, fearful, hungry, thirsty, worried about time - those emotions dominate the brain. There is no room for higher order thinking.

JP's coffee, prime hangout, Holland, MI
So, space design, like the "Do Not Disturb" sign, the classroom hiding place, creating a more "ADHD-sensitive" set of school rules, corridor open spaces with comfortable furniture, even increasing "passing times" to allow kids "safe times" and, of course, personal technology devices which allow momentary escapes and personally directed learning, will all allow students to make space and time their own.

Make sure your classroom has various kinds of furniture, various kinds of lighting, various kinds of noise control. Make sure your school offers kids options in terms of space wherever they are. Booths, high tables, benches, in the cafeteria. Carpeted floor areas to hang out on. Umbrella tables outside and in offering a tiny sense of enclosure. Make sure those spaces offer choices - calm, interactive, private, voyeuristic, loud, quiet, and make sure creation tools - from wireless access to drawing spaces are available. We want students to have the option of personal learning time or an environment with contagious creativity.

This means being less paranoid. It means less pretending that somehow your school security systems will see all.  They won't. They don't. Right now they miss the bullying going on by the lockers - hall or gym. They miss the sex acts in the back stairwell too. They miss the casual cruelty of the crowded corridors during your 4 minute time between classes. But your attempts at security do make your students' lives miserable. So just calm down.

Seattle Public Library
"Instructional Tolerance" is a key phrase. It implies accepting that your students are individual humans who will shift between on-task and off-task, between engaged and unengaged, between interested and bored, just as you do. It implies that your students need space just as you do. And "planning time," and - sometimes - they need the right to be alone - physically or just mentally.

When I sat in that park - in a place as comfortable for me as any I have ever known - I was breaking all "the rules," but I was not away from education. There, certain parts of my brain relaxed in important ways, and the world came into a certain kind of focus. I sat on fossil-pocked boulders hacked up and flipped by the movement of great glaciers. Tidal pools with life's beginnings glistened at my feet. The inexorable reach of salt water stretched to the east and west. Airplanes began their descent toward LaGuardia. Wind pulled some boats along while others moved with throbbing motors. A Civil War-era fort marked one horizon, speaking of a time when distances were much greater and, perhaps, war much closer.

All kinds of things I had heard in disconnected trivial segments from "teachers" came together in a place I might both learn, and find questions.

Why couldn't school offer me that?

- Ira Socol


Wm Chamberlain said...

Everything you suggest for the students would also benefit the teachers. It seems that the most "factory" looking business is the school business..

Miss Shuganah said...

Freedom to choose what noise or what music I want. Or blessed silence.

The older I get the more I hate angular spaces. I feel they impose themselves on me. Angles violate my personal space.

Why is the answer to "can we hold class outside" always no? I recall one day when a professor said we could be outside. Of course it was the one day I was wearing a skirt and heels, but I didn't care. Blissful.

Gimme a garden just outside of a cave.

Scratchie said...

Reading this wonderful post brought back memories for me of my teenage years in the Aussie 'bush' (woods), building huts, having wars with my mates, scavenging for stuff, sleeping out, etc etc. It was learning most treasured.
I love reading your musings Ira.


children educational support Mary said...

Thanks for sharing the experience!

BillGx said...

I try to take a class outside at least once a semester. Its mostly for my benefit, but no one complains.

I want to design a classroom with comfy couches and drawing tables. Money is all I lack.

Sometimes I wonder if my resistance to the status quo will eventually be my undoing.

sports equipment said...

When Ellen Goodman and I were in 6th or 7th grade we began to venture out to downdown New Rochelle by ourselves after school. Grant's had these balloons hung up by the luncheonette counter. When you popped the balloon there would be a piece of paper inside the balloon with the price you had to pay for the bananna split. Our thing was to try to get the 1 cent balloon. The balloon's started at a penny and went up to 35 cents. It was very rare that we got the penny balloon. Then it was on to Woolworth's and Mile's shoe store. Parents didn't seem to worry as much about their kids walking around Main Street with their friends back in the day!