25 May 2012

The Multiage Magic

Conor Galvin sent me a link to poem I had almost forgotten, and it started thoughts spinning... (Dr. Galvin on Twitter)
St. Kevin and the Blackbird

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
and Lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.


And since the whole thing's imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in Love's deep river,
'To labour and not to seek reward,' he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river's name.
- Seamus Heaney
"And since the whole thing's imagined anyhow, Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?" Part of the magic of imagination in the education of ourselves as young people lies in our seeing - and in our constantly changing understanding - of the older people around us. We see, we assume, we imagine, we project, we play at, we practice... and then we cycle through all of that again and again. 

This is the natural rhythm of human learning. It includes steady doses of myth, of vocabulary we do not understand, of subject matter we cannot yet fully comprehend. We guess wrong a great deal, and then we test those guesses, find them wanting, and guess again...
"Belfast was impossibly far away. Only Aedan had been there and he talked about how big it was and how the giant cranes towered over the shipyards. "They built the Titanic there," he told us, "I saw where. It was the biggest ship ever but it hit an iceberg and sank and everyone died." This was an amazing story. We argued about when it might have happened. "Long back." "Very long?" "Before the war." "In the war the Germans sank a lot of boats with torpedoes ." We knew this. There were uncles and grandfathers lost on those Royal Merchant Ships, and even American ones. But before? "Maybe 1938 or like that," Aedan said. This seemed possible. An iceberg! Eventually someone would have to ask an adult."
Multiage Titanic 100th Project
Scoil ag An Ghleanna, Baile an Sceilg, County Kerry
At St. Finan's Bay in County Kerry, the Atlantic and hundreds of sheep outside the school windows, young children could offer clues to why the RMS Titanic sank, "it wasn't blessed," "it said "no pope" in one of the mirrors," mythic answers in a place hardy unfamiliar with either shipwrecks or the mythic. Are these answers wrong? They lack the technical certainty of a St. Mocholomog's School (in County Cork, near Bantry) eight-year-old's description of the length of the tear in the hull and the number of compartments flooded, but... who knows what brought that ship and that iceberg together that night 100 years ago? There is nothing wrong with children looking out at their fog-shrouded sea and hearing the old tales and imagining, before they begin to test and evaluate.

We lose so much when we divide students by age... We lose peer mentoring, we lose the aspirations to be "like the big kids," we lose the ability of younger kids to become leaders, and we lose the ability to let kids grow at their own rate. We also lose the shared public space which lies at the heart of community, culture, and democracy.
"Culture, beyond all the definitional difficulties, is based on what we share," Uachtarán na hÉireann Michael D. Higgins writes in his book Renewing the Republic. "It is a process, one that is continually reworked. In addition, because culture is shared, it constitutes the bedrock of the public world  - a public world that is under threat from the demands of a destabilizing, privatizing world, predicated on consumption, and the protection of a life-world often based on a fear of others.  Thus, the shared trust of citizens in the public space is replaced by the insecurity of protecting private possessions."
Multiage Hurling at a Multiage Primary
Dualla NS, Dualla, County Tipperary
In our not too distant past, we grew up in families with many children, in communities with many children, with the older supervising, teaching, supporting, the younger. In the neighborhood of my childhood perhaps 50 kids, in a 12-year-or-so age spread, played together. When I lived in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, I would look down from my third floor window on South Oxford Street, and see the youngest kids playing on the sidewalks, protected from traffic by the parked cars, and watched by the young teenagers - who played in the street, and the older teens who watched from their gathering spots on the stoops of the block.

But now, if I suggest that younger children should learn from and with older children, many parents - especially American parents - re-coil in fear. They expect, well, they expect all kinds of corruption, which is part of our belief in adolescents, and even "almost adolescents," as dangerous aliens.

In schools across Ireland over the past two weeks, from Dublin on south and west, in suburbs and cities, in formal schools, at a CoderDojo, at Bridge21Learning, I saw the values of multiage education at work.
National Film Award Winner created by multiage
St. Mocholomog National School (Cuppabue NS), County Cork

Students built their knowledge in skills at a personalised pace which seemed to differ by subject area. Students mentored each other. Students relied on each other. Students cared for each other. James Gee has long written and spoken of the value of video game multiage groupings in building the expert vocabulary of students and their interests in a wider world - and how those informal groupings triumph over our age-segregated schools.
All ages share together at the CoderDojo in Thurles,
County Tipperary (Limerick Institute of Technology)
When I watched the children I saw over the past two weeks, the great lies of "industrial processing education" were exposed. America's "Common Core" with its age-based parameters. Our "grade-appropriate curricula," our "age-limited content," our notions of "must accomplish "x" in "x" grade." All of these, whether in American, British, Australian, Canadian, Secondary Irish, or any other form, are destructive to children and to learning.

Children are children. Individual human children. Learners are learners, and all are different. They grow best in a diverse ecosystem which allows the greatest level of cross-pollination, not in artificially limited, engineered monocultures created by testing and mandated curricula.

"And since the whole thing's imagined anyhow, Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?" Let "Kevin" imagine. Let us imagine Kevin. Let Kevin find "himself linked into the network of eternal life," of the world, of our world.

- Ira Socol

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