Finding Open Space

ES PE 2010 027

One of the most critical concepts that I teach students is that of space.  It starts early in PK and KG by first defining it: “an area in the gym where you are not touching a wall, any equipment or anyone else.”  We usually start activities with “Please go find a space.” To Margaret who heads straight for the nearest wall: “Is that a good space?”  To Bruce and Will who remain essentially attached at the hip: “Boys, can you show me what a good space looks like?”  The concept itself makes sense to kids, although it may cramp their social inclinations on some occasions.

At the upper elementary level we expand the concept of space in order to apply it in game situations. This is where we explore the notion of open space: finding it, recognizing it, using it, and repeating those steps over and over again. Here’s the thing: open space is entirely transitory.  As long as players are moving and changing directions, a space may open and close in seconds.  I can move into what appears to be open space and quickly realize as I arrive it is gone again.  This makes open space a uniquely challenging and interesting concept to convey to students.

A light goes on for many students when we begin playing invasion games such as speedball ( a beanbag form of ultimate frisbee), basketball, hockey and soccer.  If I can help my students get comfortable with the ideas that 1) in order to receive a pass, they first need to find a space away from the ball handler; and 2) the space they claim is only theirs if they keep moving, then I know that the games we play will reflect this. My goal in all this is to equip students with a tool they can use in a variety of game contexts. I like to think of it as one of the big keys to the kingdom (in invasion games, at least); a useful secret that travels well.

While I was mulling over open space and how and why I teach it, some ideas from a very different angle struck me:

What do I do to find and claim open space? 

What do I need to move away from in order to get closer to what I want?

In what areas do I need to keep moving in order to reclaim open space?

So, there it was: teacher, teach yourself.  How many years have I been peddling this tool without recognizing its potency for unlocking some doors in my own kingdom?

It’s no wonder my kids struggle in applying this concept. They may understand it but acting on that understanding requires another cognitive (and emotional) leap.  In my own practice I am finding that creating space for others allows me to recognize and appreciate the very space I inhabit.  My sense of open space can also expand when I give myself the gift of time: for simply being and breathing. When I truly listen to my students’ questions that often start with “what if…” I am sent to a place of infinite possibilities and sometimes that can feel like the best open space of all.

Where are you looking for open space?

And what will you do with it once you’ve found it?

Personal Professional Development

Yesterday I had the pleasure of leading a workshop on Team Building and Reflective Conversations.

Work in progress
Work in progress

It was a rare opportunity to pull together several pieces of my recent thinking on teaching, coaching and group dynamics among other topics into a lively learning experience for some of my colleagues.  In my planning for the event I arrived at some critical insights:

  • I don’t need to have all the answers,
  • I cannot plan others’ experiences, and
  • my job lies more in creating space than in conveying content.

These ideas helped me to let go of some typical teacher/leader/presenter tendencies to

  • above all, appear competent,
  • take up most of the air time,
  • fear the unknowable.

What I learned was that participants sincerely appreciate having a chance to do their job well: participate.  That is, to engage, be active, to give as well as receive, to hear and be heard.  Any time that we dare to stand up and volunteer to share our expertise, it is easy to fall prey to a host of expectations, real and imagined, which assure us that we will be doomed unless we have our hands on the controls at all times. And yet we forget that, in many ways, we are often among friends, or among colleagues or folks who share an interest in our topic.  We are surrounded by rich and remarkable resources in the particpants we have before us.  What would happen if we tapped into those resources more fully?  What could we create if we put more effort into facilitating exchange than in animating our power point?  What if we actively shifted the spotlight from presenter/facilitator to participant-contributor?

My guess is that professional development, particularly in the field of education, would be radically enhanced. If many of us who have been carrying the reform banner in favor of a fundamental shift from teaching to learning would actively practice what we preach, fewer educators would dread PD that may be professional but hardly developmental.  It’s also time to begin personalizing and significantly energizing the learning of our teachers.  And it begins by inviting more of them to take the floor, to share the stage and to be recognized as experts and researchers.  It is sustained by encouraging exchange, raising more questions than answers and accepting an outcome in which people may not know more but perhaps understand better.

Here’s what I love about offering a good workshop: many smiles, a good dose of laughter, genuine connection and a sense of time and attention well spent; another healthy investment in my personal and professional development.

Many thanks to my participants extraordinaire: Renee, Sheryl, Otti and Bonnie!

Knowing not

A recent post in my twitter feed truly gave me pause:

Enough said...
Enough said…

So true, I thought. And I thought about:
My students and all the desires, impulses, hopes and expectations they bring to my classroom…
My colleagues and all that it takes for them to bring it, day after day, with intent, purpose, joy and lots of prep…
My sweet husband, whose days at work remain a kind of mystery even as he describes them to me…
My oldest son, whose identity is unfolding daily, hour by hour…
My youngest son, whose inner life is so richly imaginative and full of wonder and also of many fears…

So much I cannot know. So much to which we remain blind. And yet, to be kind, to show respect, to listen, to be present … These are all choices we can make to bridge the gap of so many unknowns. This is the stuff of connection and humanity. This is what holds us together as strangers, colleagues, friends, family: the capacity to reach out while knowing not.

Special thanks to Elena Aguilar who posted this quote on her Art of Coaching Facebook page.

Tapping into the curse


Try this experiment: Find a partner who will be your “listener.”  Now select an easily recognizable melody in your mind (like “Happy Birthday” or “The Alphabet Song”) and then tap it out (on a table top, for instance) for your partner.  How likely is it that your listening partner will be able to name that tune?  According to a study from the early 90’s, tappers predicted the odds to be about 50-50.  In reality, the listeners were only able to guess the tunes at a rate of 1 in 40, instead of 1 in 2 as the tappers imagined.  What’s going on?

If you’ve ever read Made to Stick (2007) by Chip and Dan Heath, you’ll recognize this story as their introduction to one of the most fascinating concepts I’ve encountered in a number of years: The Curse of Knowledge.  As they explain it, the tappers, who have the melody playing in their heads as they tap it out for the listeners, can no longer imagine the position of the listener who is not party to the same inner soundtrack that is practically carrying the tune through those simple taps.  How could the listener possibly not get this one?  The tappers have fallen prey to the Curse of Knowledge.  “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it.  our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us.” (Made to Stick, p. 20)

Just think about that for a minute. You can’t un-know what you know and it is very challenging to recall and recreate the experience of not having that knowledge.  Gives a new dimension to the notion of “misunderstandings” doesn’t it?  The curse of knowledge: I was just so excited about this idea once I read about it.  It made the daily, hourly, minute-to-minute dilemma of my teaching so clear.  Every day, every lesson – I am in the position of trying to bridge that gap, to undo the curse and connect with my students to reach a common understanding of how to, if-then and why not.  And, of course, my students are also avid “tappers.”  Imagine all the tunes they have stored up which make absolutely no sense to their seemingly nearly deaf and dimwitted elders!  They, too, experience the curse in their own way.

And so we dance. And tap. And listen. And tap some more.  The curse can be broken and it requires thought, sensitivity, clarity and vision. The Heath brothers provide a fascinating tour into methods to beat the curse. The curse of knowledge has proven very sticky in my own toolkit. If “awareness is the first step,” then “tapping” into your personal collection of curses to rediscover and recoup listeners lost, may prove a worthy next step.

It’s you

When was the last time you entered a conversation with the deliberate intent to focus your attention on the interests, needs and desires of your partner?  Usually we are motivated to speech in order to meet our own immediate needs:  to gain someone’s attention or to get something done.  I tell my spouse about my work day because I need to vent.  My son reminds me that he’s due for a play date with his friend this week. My students ask me where we will be having class. 

What happens, however, when we take the opportunity to turn the norm on it’s head.  What if, we entered the conversation wanting to find out not just how our conversation partner is doing and we also took the time to listen fully to his response?  What would happen if, when my son reminds me about wanting to see his friend, that I took the time to acknowledge how important this is to him and perhaps asked him to tell me more about this friend? What if, instead of bowling over my husband with my incredible “news of the day” as soon as he has a chance to sit down, I instead, offer him something to drink and ask him about whatever is on his mind (or maybe just let him choose not to share…)?

I raise these questions because I recently ran across a text I wrote several years ago in which I describe this outlook: “It’s you” or “It’s about you.” The text surprised me with both its clarity and passion.  I offer it here as food for thought from which we can all benefit:

When we have a conversation and my attitude says, “it’s about you,” then my focus, my presence, my eyes even are centered on you and your feelings, thoughts, expressions.  “It’s you” involves putting our own judgments, sentiments and opinions on hold while we address our full attention to the other.  We not only listen, we take in, duplicate, and create space for our partner to express what is most important to him or her.  We not only make eye contact with our partner but show through our eyes, facial expression and body language that we are with him or her, present for whatever he or she needs to communicate. 

When we are sincere in our perspective of “it’s about you,” miracles can happen.  We open the floodgates of possibility by shifting the spotlight from ourselves to our partners.  We can create space for the other to feel valued, appreciated, understood.  We can open ourselves to the love, generosity, and warmth that reside in each of us and in turn offer it to those with whom we come in contact.  We can create a state of inner abundance by recognizing that our capacity to give increases as we assist, support and accompany others on their journeys.

A short fairy tale illustrates this beautifully:

A young prince sought to meet his beloved maiden and knocked on the door of her chamber.  “Who’s there?” asked a female voice from inside.  “It’s me,” the young prince replied.

“In this room there is not enough space for you and me,” came the response and the door remained quite closed.

The young prince went away and traveled for many months.  He contemplated the maiden’s answer and when he believed to have found the better response he returned to her door.  He knocked.

“Who’s there?” came the query from inside.  The prince responded: “It’s you,” and the door was opened and he entered.

Try working with this perspective.  Consider it an avenue on the way to full presence for others, a means to seek the best possible in people and situations.  Be prepared to find out how much more you can be when you focus your precious attention on others.  There is hardly a greater gift we have to offer the people we know and care about.



Powerful Questions, Brave Responses


I’m currently enrolled in a life coaching course and we have been exploring and experimenting with powerful questions. Which questions are powerful? you ask. They are the questions which force you to stop and think. Powerful questions can startle you out of autopilot and make you grab the steering wheel of your random thoughts. You can feel them land. They can catch you off guard and cause you to prick up your ears. They may confound and exhilirate you. Powerful questions tend to find you when you least expect them. They’ve got your number and when they come calling, you’ll be compelled to answer.

What I like about powerful questions is that they are not powerful according to formula. Depending on who you are, what you need and how you function, the power of the question lies in its reception. That makes powerful questions both a gamble and surprise. I like to raise all sorts of questions with my students. Many questions are closed – require a yes or no answer – and yet are often asked in service to a deeper learning: “Was that kind?” ” Were you respectful?” With these queries I often want to draw students’ attention to their behavior and the impact their behavior may be having on others. On the other hand, when time allows, I can create open questions to stimulate a different student response: “What did you do that was kind?” “How were you and your teammates respectful of each other?” In these cases I am encouraging students to dig a little deeper into the topic and give me some specifics from their thinking.

It can be an inspiration when my students respond to a well posed open question. Their answers are often amazingly articulate and plain. They cut to the chase and get to the point. Following a round of challenging team building activities, I asked my 5th graders silently to ask themselves this question: What am I learning? Then I asked them to share their answers with me individually and I noted them on a sheet of paper. Here’s what some of them said:

“We should be safer, be more respectful and cooperate more.”

“We need to have teamwork which is kinda hard, but we learn to problem solve.”

“I need to rely on others.”

“Working with teamwork means that you have to put in effort.”

“If we yell at each other, people get discouraged and feel under pressure and then can’t do their best.”

“It’s basically a trust exercise. You have to trust others…”

“When you work as a team, winning isn’t what matters.”

“I am learning about the word challenge. You have to keep on trying and challenge yourself.”

“Maybe we don’t have to fix it every time, maybe sometimes we should go with the flow.”

“To listen to others more carefully.”

“It was better when more people gave ideas. We had more brains thinking.”

“We shouldn’t scream. We should be more helpful and give support.”

Those are some powerful responses. I felt each of them land. They hit the nail on the head and gave me pause. In my students’ answers I find fuel for my own ongoing inquiry: What am I learning?

Teaching to learn

If you spend any time around children, the pace, variety and magnitude of their learning can be downright dizzying. But it is often only partly (or not at all) related to school learning. Kids watch other kids, watch grown-ups, pay attention to anything, everything and what sometimes appears to be nothing at all. They are learning. Putting two and two together. Figuring. Making guesses. Picking up. Gathering. Witnessing. Taking in. Saving it for later or using it right now. 

I have the privilege of observing these processes on a daily basis, at work and at home. My students surprise, fascinate and at times also exasperate me and I am humbled again and again by their thirst for making meaning. Much of my day seems to proceed in a blur and yet I cherish those moments when time slows down and I can listen to what my students have to tell me. I hear quite a bit about sore muscles, recent scrapes, sudden tummy aches and of course, hurt feelings. What I have found is that few of these ailments require more treatment at that moment than a simple airing followed by an empathic response. When my students feel heard and sufficiently attended to, they are, in a manner, “healed.” (A good game of tag is also helpful.)

My oldest students (4th and 5th graders) are working on team building challenges these days and my greatest challenge as the teacher is to stay out of the way of their learning. I hand over the responsibility to them for attempting and completing the challenge. I invite them to struggle, to endure some frustration, overcome setbacks and practice remaining positive even when progress seems slow. Of course, a part of me wants to speed them along by offering a critical hint and a stray piece of advice. It is hard to watch them stumble, get stuck and fail. And yet, with each new session they get better: they develop patience (a little at least), they begin to strategize before diving in, they stop blaming each other and before long they are celebrating increased success. When they celebrate, they fully own their accomplishments and can articulate what made the difference and why. These are the classes where I talk the least and learn the most: about my students and their capabilities and about the importance of keeping them in the spotlight.

My best work as a “teacher” lies less in the act of teaching as telling and much more in the realm of opening doors and creating space for learning to take place. My students, it turns out, are remarkably patient teachers and for that I am tremendously grateful.