Space And Respect

“Space!”

“Find a space.”

“Is that a good space?”

“Find your own space.”

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I spend a lot of my teaching days talking about space – why we need it, what it looks like when we all have it, or when only a few of us have it. I talk about space and safety, space and movement, space as a strategy element, space as a necessity. I work in a gym where my students and I typically have an abundance of space. It would be so easy for us to spread out.

What I’ve learned, however, from watching kids in gyms for a couple of decades is that space is my priority, not necessarily theirs. My students are drawn into their classmates’ spaces like magnets. Students of all ages show a common need to be in close proximity to their peers in one way or another. On an Awesome Gym Day when kids are free to choose their activities, it is not uncommon to find the vast majority of the class in one half of the gym. Or while it would be possible for everyone to distribute themselves among the rings, ladders, ropes or trapezes, several routinely gather at one particular apparatus and wait in line, sometimes egging each other on.

I ask kids to make groups for stretching, or long jump rope, or some other activity and they huddle up near the white board or by the wall, nearly on top of each other while the middle of the gym remains empty. A circle of movers tends to shrink very quickly. Space evaporates between kids at alarming rates as they end up side by side and giggling.

It’s fascinating to me as an observer. Given a choice, most of my students choose to gather with other students even when each child has a ball, or a rope to jump in. They need to show off for each other – to see and be seen. They need to gab and catch up. They have social agendas that are complex, multifaceted and at times, uncompromising. In the space of the gym, students experience a context for engaging with each other that can accommodate serious volume, speed, and force. Many students feel unleashed when they arrive in the gym.

And coming from even the most inviting classroom, how could they not? An open gym simply begs to be run in and make noise to shake the rafters. But when they run, most still like to be in close proximity to one or two buddies. Their need is social and it tops almost all the other priorities they might have coming to PE on any given day.

I got to read an interview with a design anthropologist who is the first black and black female dean of a design school faculty. Dr. Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall’s approach to design begins with respect. She describes the curiosity that her title invokes in others:

People always say, “Design anthropologist? What do you design?” I say, “I design the conditions of possibility.”

Which reminds me of what I am trying to do in my classroom, however crudely: “design the conditions for possibility.” I want my students to see, imagine, experience all kinds of possibilities in the gym. Even if the constraints of my lesson plans appear to run counter to what they might want at that moment, this does not stop them from creating new possibilities of their own. They are constantly in the process of refashioning the instructions they have been given to best suit their immediate needs, which more often than not tend to be, social.

Part and parcel of my process is remembering to respect my students’ deep and distinct need to be social – not just to chat but to experience belonging, connection, and purpose with others. These are the very big possibilities in the gym. If I’m doing my best work, then opening up the space for belonging, connection and purpose to flourish will be at the core of what’s happening. Sometimes it means that not everyone will be in their own space when I think they should be. Again, Dr. Tunstall:

Beginning with the notion of respect or respectfulness, the debate becomes about how you stand as a designer as opposed to what you’re trying to do as a designer.

How do I stand as a designer of learning in my gym? And to what degree is my stance expressive of respect for my students and our time together? These are questions I can hold onto and explore again and again, every time my students enter the gym as I ask them to “find a space.”

 

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A Programmable Future

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CC pixabay.com

I experienced a rare moment this week. I read a post and quite simply it changed me.

The post helped me see what I was not seeing.

To recognize what I have been avoiding.

To be brave when my fear is the only audible voice I can hear.

The post  I read was  “The Future of Education: Programmed or Programmable “ by Audrey Watters. It is in fact the transcript of a talk she recently gave at Pepperdine University. I encourage you to read the full text to appreciate the strength and wisdom of her arguments.

The first point that got under my skin was this:

Whether it’s in a textbook or in a video-taped lecture, it’s long been the content that matters most in school. The content is central. It’s what you go to school to be exposed to. Content. The student must study it, comprehend it, and demonstrate that in turn for the teacher. That is what we expect an education to do, to be: the acquisition of content which becomes transmogrified into knowledge…

…despite all the potential to do things differently with computers and with the Internet and with ubiquitous digital information, school still puts content in the center. Content, once delivered by or mediated through a teacher or a textbook, now is delivered via various computer technologies.

YES! Content is always at the center, of course.  And what have I been working so hard to cultivate in the learning episodes that I design for others? Experience.  I want my clients, participants, students, athletes to experience something, to feel something and thereby come to know “the thing” and what it may mean for them. Content has been a vehicle but my real desire has always been to generate feelings, emotions, connection – the stuff that makes you feel alive. How very counter-cultural I now understand.

Audrey Watters goes on to talk about shifting away from the content-centered approach of the “programmed web” and towards the more open and co-constructed “programmable web:”

The readable, writable, programmable Web is so significant because, in part, it allows us to break from programmed instruction. That is, we needn’t all simply be on the receiving end of some computer-mediated instruction, some teacher-engineering. We can construct and create and connect for ourselves. And that means that — ideally — we can move beyond the technologies that deliver content more efficiently, more widely. It means too we can rethink “content” and “information” and “knowledge” — what it means to deliver or consume those things, alongside what it makes to build and control those things.

This is about where things started to heat up for me. The next sentence laid my purpose out for me like the Tarot card you knew was coming before you even approached the table:

One of the most powerful things that you can do on the Web is to be a node in a network of learners, and to do so most fully and radically, I dare say, you must own your own domain.

WHAT?

As I read on, two things were happening: my emotions had gotten hold of the stage and were running with it. At the same time, my rational mind tore further into the text looking for something to save me fast.

Authority, expertise, participation, voice — these can be so different on the programmable web; not so with programmed instruction.

The Domain of One’s Own initiative at University of Mary Washington purposefully invokes Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “A woman must have money, and a room of her own, if she is to write fiction.” That is, one needs a space — a safe space that one controls — in order to do be intellectually productive.

Boom!

We have an amazing opportunity here. We need to recognize and reconcile that, for starters, in the content that programmed instruction — as with all instruction — delivers, there is a hidden curriculum nestled in there as well. Education — formal institutions of schooling — are very much about power, prestige, and control. [emphasis mine]

and then this:

Despite all the talk about “leveling the playing field” and disrupting old, powerful institutions, the Web replicates many pre-existing inequalities; it exacerbates others; it creates new ones. I think we have to work much harder to make the Web live up to the rhetoric of freedom and equality. That’s a political effort, not simply a technological one.

That’s when the tears came rolling in. Between the deep desire to be that “node in a network of learners” and the self-unhelpful stance of “I could never do that.” (in this case  to have, run and maintain my own domain.), a larger truth was revealed:  I am at liberty to make use of my own superpowers. I am a learner of outrageous potential. There is no reason to believe that I cannot do what no one expects.  That’s when all the forces, internal and external, technological and philosophical which have  kept the volume of my fears turned all the way up seemed suddenly muted.

I’ve been sitting with this experience for a few days now. I wrote to Audrey almost immediately to say Thank you and at the same time nearly wanting to ask for the antidote.  Because it is a fundamentally scary experience to be exposed to your own potential and grant it some credibility. And when you belong to a marginalized group, that exposure can be all the more astounding and confounding. Empowerment can feel like work because it is not for free. Empowerment always challenges us to imagine, to create, to put into practice what once appeared impossible.