Space And Respect


“Find a space.”

“Is that a good space?”

“Find your own space.”


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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Culture Shock Shock

Sometimes the universe hands you an insight and you just go, “No, seriously, is that what it is?”

That happened to me today. I attended a presentation by a colleague on adjusting to a new culture. Considering the title: “The Honeymoon is Over – Now What?” and my status as a 25-year veteran of this city I was looking forward to enjoying my role in the room as an observer and supporter.  Then he put up this diagram:


And suddenly all of my sadness, frustration, listlessness and second-guessing of the last couple of weeks came into sharp focus. That dip on the graph, the one labeled “withdrawal”? That was me, or better, that’s where I saw myself so clearly, so evidently: In my one year leave from school, in my new role as an independent leadership coach, on my own, self-employed and really wondering if I am on the right track after all. On this curve I could see myself inhabiting that special valley reserved for explorers, travelers, pioneers, tag-alongs – anyone who must leave one thing, place, situation and adapt to a different one – perhaps in another country but, and, or quite possibly in a new field, a new organization, in a different role, on different terms. This was not necessarily what I came for but the universe seemed to know better why I needed to be in the room seeing what I otherwise could not, would not see on my own.

Coping with a significant drop in social contact has been the toughest part of my current transition.  Leaving behind my people-intensive days in a bustling school community to spend the majority of my time at home alone with far fewer face-to-face contacts presents me with a new type of challenge. While I savor and appreciate the time to myself – the quiet, the freedom and creative license – I have now reached a place where I deeply miss the camaraderie of working in a team and teaching lots and lots of kids.  So when I saw this graph, I could give my situation a name: “culture shock shock.” Since I hadn’t ever remotely considered the possibility of culture shock, my shock was doubled.

I haven’t left the country and at the same time I really have left home. My honeymoon of industrious engagement and wild abandon are past. I’m experiencing a phase of withdrawal; of missing what I knew so well. I have grown weary of having to invent and adapt and adjust to so much that is unfamiliar, different, and strange. Culture shock. Being on my own all day on most days was really cool until it became kinda tough. And lonely. And only marginally rewarding. In this phase of culture shock my energies have become sluggish and my persistence a bit rough around the edges. I bet my grit is enjoying a sunny vacation somewhere.

On the other hand, the curve goes on. “Withdrawal” denotes a phase of the process rather than the full extent. I can believe that recovery is up ahead even if I can’t make out its shape just yet. One advantage to slowing down and even grinding to a halt is that once you open your eyes, there’s quite a bit to see. India Arie sings: “When you’re in that valley you can see both sides more clearly.” And that feels like just the reminder I need right now. There’s “Value in the Valley” according to Iyanla Vazant. So while I may not feel particularly productive or of great use to the world at this moment, if I can just stay in this uncomfortable place for a bit – feel it, live it, allow it – I am confident that whatever comes after will belong to me. “It” will become a part of me, of my learning, of my journey – a piece that, down the road and in hindsight, I wouldn’t trade for the world.

And while I am on the topic, what kept this dip from becoming a deeper, darker tailspin: People, people and people. On a walk I called a friend I haven’t spoken to in weeks. Our chat was like manna from heaven. On e-mail and social media I paid closer attention to how I was responding to friends.  I figured that even short messages to say “Thanks, I got it. Will write more soon.” let folks know that I value and appreciate them. When getting out and about, I am learning how to respond more honestly to the query of how I am by saying, “OK. It’s a little tough now and then, but in general, it’s pretty good.”  Which is a great way to capture these precious weeks and months of free range: tough now and then, but in general, pretty good.


I second that emotion…

If you’ve been following this blog for a little while, you may already be aware that Elena Aguilar is one of my personal education heroes. One of reasons I have such tremendous respect for her as a person and for the amazing work that she does is her capacity to help us all see what is needed, where it is missing and how we can go about acting on those insights.  In a recent post on Edutopia she makes a strong case for insuring social emotional learning (SEL) for all members of a school community in order for the whole enterprise to have a shot at meaningful success.

Elena Aguilar’s mission is school transformation, not just school improvement or reform. All schools are awash in change initiatives on various levels of scale and areas of emphasis. The capacity of all community stakeholders to meet these challenges is dramatically enhanced when we pay close attention to the emotional experiences of those involved and address the fears, hopes, ambitions and concerns head on. In advocating for this approach, Elena Aguilar understands that transformation works first with what is, in order to reach the best parts of what’s possible. Activist and Fund-raiser, Lynne Twist quotes Werner Erhard in her book, The Soul of Money</em>: “Transformation does not negate what has gone before; rather, it fulfills it.” (p. 252) Our emotions are always a part of what is. Let us claim them and put them to work towards our collective progress and benefit.

Step 4: Celebrate and Reflect


Although I have been teaching team building to elementary students for many years, my learning in this area just never quits.  So this year when pulling out my favorite group challenges and rounding up the necessary equipment, through conversation with my partner colleague I realized what I felt I was missing in the process: not enough time and attention dedicated to reflection at the end of a challenge.  In response to that need I drew up a plan outlining 4 steps for the team-building process which my colleague and I posted in our teaching areas:

  1. Form a group.
  2. Understand the task.
  3. Solve the challenge. Try and try again.
  4. Celebrate and reflect: Talk about it.

Team Building Blocks

This way it was clear to my students and to me that reflecting on what happened, how it happened, and what we learned from it was as important as solving the challenge itself.  What I also realized was that certain structures and tools needed to be in place to allow the process to run smoothly and to have a sustainable impact.  Successful student reflection requires:

  • Time, especially for listening and for each person to have a voice.
  • Conversation norms  (i.e.,  raising hands, listening to each other, taking turns)
  • Use of open questions starting with what, how, who, when. Use “Why” sparingly or not at all.
  • Paraphrasing or duplication: relating back what someone just said.
  • A reference point or points of how this learning relates to other topics
  • Opportunities to practice reflection in the short term and one on one (i.e., after correcting or redirecting a negative behavior).
  • Varied means and formats of expression (i.e., verbal, written, through art; publicly or privately)

What my colleague and I have found is that the conversations among students have grown increasingly layered over time. Our students can recognize and name behaviors such as blaming and supporting.  They are able to acknowledge each other’s specific contributions to their collective success. They can also identify where they experienced roadblocks and define what got in their way.  They learn to listen to each other. As they have grown accustomed to the types of questions which require them to actively recall, name and interpret their actions, their responses have become increasingly nuanced.  Also, as I experimented with gathering feedback privately from individuals, my ELL students were able to share their thoughts with greater confidence.

Now, as our groups have moved on to other movement topics, the benefit of this approach is paying further dividends. After struggling to make co-ed groups for a game, I stop the class and ask: “What seems to be the trouble?”  The responses often hit the nail on the head without much probing. Or before I release a class to go change, I ask them to tell me on their way out: “two things that made your team successful.”  In both cases, students are able to articulate and safely share their take on a given situation.  While not every child is anxious to speak up, I feel confident that every child is creating their own internal response; a process  we call “thinking.”