"This day I will dry my wings in the sun like the cormorant, and leave footprints in the sand like the piper, before I too dive back in to the work of living..."
- Facebook post 2/3/2012
And so I began my day. At 7:45 am I went to the beach and watched world wake up.
I am VERY lucky. My husband and my mother have both given me emotional permission to take 1 whole day to just be at the beach in Florida after the ACCT conference. I love people, and I love learning, but I also need to have time to process & reflect. Don't get me wrong. I have checked facebook all day, even responded to some emails, spoke warmly with the hotel clerk, talked to many artisans along the pier, and had a conversation about the weather and dogs with a lady from Maryland resting on a bench. I will never be a social recluse...
But I also just sat and watched and rested. I saw the cormorants posed along the tops of poles and rocks, drying their wings in the rising sun. I watched the gulls frantically gather when they thought someone had a tasty morsel, and then nap on one leg until beach goers unconsciously walked over them to set up chairs. I watched pelicans use their size to bully gulls off the poles, and then sweep their great wings open as they dropped off the pole to the water in search of breakfast. I watched the sandpipers scurry and search through the crashing surf for tasty yummies, fabulously intent, yet multi-tasking; it was as if I could here their minds running at ADHD speeds as they tried to be negotiate the delicate task of finding the critters rolled up by the tide but not let the water catch them. I watched the locals, mostly elderly, take their morning constitutional, occasionally passed by joggers, along the water's edge where the sand is firmer. I watched several older gentlemen deeply involved in treasure hunting with their metal detectors and sand-sifting baskets. I watched as all those people along the beach stopped and directed their attention to the water, and followed their gaze to the pod of dolphins galavanting in the surf between the beach and the poles. I watched the lifeguard come on duty, and set up all his equipment and tidy up the stand area. I watched a large fish (maybe 6-7 inches) with big sweeping wings come very close to my feet, and then realized he was stalking a much smaller fish who was hiding in my shadow. I have never in my whole life seen live fish within arms distance in the water of a beach. I relished the heat of the sun on my skin, the cold the water in my legs, the grit and cool heaviness of the sand on my feet.
And I collected shells. I did so because as I watched all these people on the beach, they were all collecting shells. Even those who were clearly locals or were intent on exercising would stop occasionally and collect shells. The only people I did not see pick up shells were the lifeguard and the metal detector guys. It occurred to me that it might be a good way for me to find something to take home to my children. The thought of my children, of course, made me think about what I could teach from a shell collection, so I wandered around for a while trying to find shells that inspired a teachable moment.
I found many with different vibrant colors and shapes (diversity), and others beached white (solar power discussion). I found some with a pearly sheen and others more like procelian (chemical composition). I found a chunk with barnacles on it, and one large one that had circles where the barnacles used to be (ecosystems & erosion). I found some that had holes or grooves where rolling through the surf had started turning them into sand, and others broken into pieces (erosion).
And then I reached a point where I realized that every single shell had a teachable moment in it. Each one of those shells and shell fragments housed an animal, told the story of a life.
And there were SO MANY of them! So many that even though every body was taking them, the beach was not diminished...
I had a little epiphany... As I looked and looked, and was overwhelmed with the breadth of options that laid on the ground before me, I suddenly realized I couldn't see it anymore. I realized I could not complete my task (finding shells), because I did not know what to look for.
You have to know what you are looking for in order to find it. Without knowing what you are looking for, you will not find it, even if it is in your hands, because you will not have a name for it.
In teaching we call this "setting the objective". That is why the classroom teacher is required to write the objectives on the board each day, and that is why you can't write the lesson until you know what outcome you expect, and that is why you can only assess after you've determined what you have taught. It is about INTENTION - doing things purposefully. That is not just "on purpose" but also "with purpose". It is the difference between wandering and traveling, between industry and productivity...
This resonates with me because challenge course work has such an emphasis on student driven outcomes, or letting the participant define what a "successful" experience is, because very often the outcome of these intense learning experiences is not what we originally intended. Very often there is a process of discovery involved, not just of the challenge and the environment, but of the self. I cannot help facilitate communication skills if the participant does not know that they are communicating, or what they are communicating. It is one thing to describe for them that the challenge activity involves lifting others and moving them safely, it is another to enable them with the tools to ask one another for help, or provide help that is not judgmental. They may feel they are asking clearly, but for another that clarity can come across as "not nicely"... I then need to change the focus of our "outcome" to diversity, before I reach a place where we are communicating and can be physically safe. The power of this work is that the participant has an emotional and galvanizing experience, but we cannot neccesarily predict which aspect of the experience will be pivotal for each particular participant. There are certainly "rules" and theories of group dynamics that shape how we do what we do, creating shared experiences (forming, storming) before establishing rules (norming), and only then testing their mettle (performing). But these play out in very different ways, because we are dealing with humans, and people are diverse.
There is a basic conflict between the way I currently teach and "traditional" classroom teaching (the way I used to teach), specifically in this idea of intent/ purpose. Because of this need to "know what you are looking for", all teaching is considered "outcome specific". The educational profession spends LOTS of time talking about "measurable and observable" outcomes - meaning that what ever I am "grading" has to be something I can actually observe and that I have some way of telling "how much" of it I have. This is where the IEP langauge comes from about "Bob will raise his hand to be called upon instead of blurting out 5 out of 7 times". The idea here is that I can't "give a test" on it if I didn't teach it in the first place, or give a grade based upon some criteria the student knew nothing about. Of course, that sounds incredibly reasonable, but the application leaves a sense of falseness and artificiality. Can't a child demonstrate understanding of math by running a register rather than completing a worksheet? Can't a child demonstrate understanding of language by making a film with dialogue instead of writing an essay? Can't a child demonstrate an understanding of history by reenacting instead of answering 90% of a multiple choice test "correctly"? Doesn't the child demonstrate an understand of the process of life science by taking appropriate care of the guinea pig? How do we find that place where we can let kids learn how their brains work and then demonstrate that understanding (growth) in such a way that we (the adults around them) agree that we "saw" it?
This gap between "measurable outcomes" and meeting neural diversity is at the heart of the experiential education philosophy. In the Autism community, Neurodiversity and Nuerotypical are charged words, indicating those people that are not diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum - with the connotation being that NT people are in some fashion closer to the mathematical center in a statistical analysis of the function of human brains. I do, in some ways, mean this definition, but broader. In my experience, we are each and every one diverse - not only within our selves (our experiences over time and in particular situations), but also from one to another (we each "handle" stresses differently and show evidence that we experience the world in a distinctive manner). Really, I mean "nuerodiversity" without the use of a mathematical analysis, only with the recognition that the body of data points is VAST, with little to no overlap. We are each and every one a separate and unique entity, with some variation of the possible outcomes to be had when nurture is combined with nature. How do we respect that we all have to know what the people around us are talking about (or communicating about) while respecting that each of us is biologically (and, I would argue, divinely) designed to be a singular manifestation of energy? How do we all "get on the same page" when we are in different books? In experiential education, our answer is that the learner (participant) gets to decide what they got out of it. The participant decides that the outcome is in some way measurable to them selves. "Grade" themselves? That is pretty blasphemous in a traditional educational setting. Of course every kid will give themselves an A! The grades would be meaningless if they were given by the student, right?
Many of the workshops I took this week looked at how to cross these differences. 3 of them were specifically titled with verbiage about getting schools and camps to work together, but a large part of the industry is about how to teach more effectively, and how to help academics see us as teaching more effectively. Somehow we must breach this chasm between self-assessment and "objective" assessment, between internal motivation and external motivation, between student driven learning and objective based learning, between "I know I got better" and "you can see that I got better". Many critics of education (myself included) like to point out how articificial the school environment is - that students will not be working with same-aged peers in the workplace, that they will be assessed by performance not written tests. But ultimately, adults in the workplace still need to achieve tasks (outside assessment) while growing their skills (self assessment). We, as a society, and educators, as a profession, need to be opening dialogue on these ideas. I think the simple answer may be "respect diversity - live an let live". The answer maybe that we need all of us, in all our great variability, to make the world as a whole "work".
The second lesson I took from shell collecting today was about history. I returned to the beach in the afternoon (I was trying to be smart and avoid a sunburn, for once). My afternoon excursion was shaped by the fact that a dense fog rolled over the island, obscuring the beach almost completely. The lifeguard tower was invisible from the pier. While I was disappointed by the sun's "disappearance", the limited visibility forced me to look at what was right in front of me. I got to watch a sandpiper almost run into me, and a gull pull a tasty nugget from the surf (I got to see the shell it was in). And I looked again at the shells rolling in the surf. I thought again about the great many little lives that are cummulated in that pile of sand - and then scale overtook me again (funny how that happens at the beach). As I took photos of the shells, I was struck with what you see when you get close versus when you step back. The grains of sand on the beach are not little pieces of rock, they are little pieces of shells. As you look at the sand you see shells in various states of decay. Each life is lived and ended on the bones of its ancestors... History is written in each grain, and the present is too. The sand is shaped by the footprints of the birds, the sandcastles of the children, the depth of the waves. It is as if the past and present are in the same place at the same time...
If past & present can be simultaneous, can the future be too?
My articulation is exhausted for this night. Revelation and insight chase each other around my thoughts. I think I'll solve this one another day...
Hopefully I will reboot again. I called this post "rebooting" because none of these ideas are novel to me, they have crossed my mind before, but sometimes you need to turn the computer off to get all the systems to reengage again. Sometimes you just have to rest and reboot.