Saturday, February 23, 2008

the direction or driving force of a community (reflections on Feb. vacation week camp.)

This past week was Feb. vacation week for Camp Kaleidoscope. (!) We'd never run a spring break camp before, so it was a new experience for me. I had a blast! The week was full of the creative buzz and energy I described last post -- the place was filled with a healthy, tangible vitality.

Running the camp this week came at an interesting point in my own recent thinking about education. I've been recently immersed in conversations about how a school should run for the past few months, as I've been working towards opening the Kaleidoscope School in September. I have been in particular focusing on the language of creating a new kind of school -- one that moves away from defining the Kaleidoscope School merely in opposition to traditional schooling, and instead describes what I see as a healthy and wonderful developmental experience for children, independent of our current ideas of school. I've found in the past weeks that I at times feel lost amidst all of the rhetoric I've been thinking about and discussing -- both from at times feeling unsure of my ideas when I can't find the language to support my intuition, and also from occasionally feeling overwhelmed at the enormity of viewpoints that exist about all the various parts of childrens' lives.

This past camp week was really invigorating for me -- both in the physical sense of being around so much creative energy, but also as confirmation that my intuition for creating an environment for children feels firmly on track. The live energy at camp feels undeniably correct to me. This provides not only a healthy reminder for me to follow my own instincts, but also a goal to base further thinking around. What can we do, in setting up a community or environment, to foster and sustain this kind of energy?

One of the parameters of setting up a children's environment is understanding how much independence to allow a child. Let's look at the example of letting a child eat lunch on their own, when they feel hungry, instead of at a prescribed time. For a while I grappled with the question of how old a child should be -- I've been working with a group of 5 and 6 year olds this past year who seemed unable to manage their own hunger (refusing to eat for the sheer pleasure of refusing and subsequently melting down by 2 pm.) I've also seen 10 year olds at camp be very appreciative of being in charge of when they could eat. The age difference made me wonder if there was a developmental point that kids hit in between there, where this became a managable responsibility.

We could look at letting a child share through a similar lens.When are kids able to share on their own? When they fight over objects, when do you step in to help? How much do you help? How does all of this connect to how old they are?

These sorts of questions have been bouncing around my head for a while. One can make a general argument for letting children be independent -- letting a child experiment in their environment and learn from what happens -- and for providing children with structures to anticipate these problems -- recognizing that a child often does not have the experience needed to propose a sweeping change like daily lunchtime. This sort of thinking, the opposition I'd created between independence and structure, used to frazzle me when I tried to apply it to kids at different ages. Clearly, the amount of independence a child is comfortable with changes as they get older and as they learn. How do you account for this when you decide how to structure an environment?

What has become clear to me is that these questions of freedom and control should not be the central tenet of building a school or other children's environment. What should be at the heart of it, instead, is an understanding of what the purpose is of bringing all of these people (in this case, mostly kids) together into one place. At camp -- and in the future, at the Kaleidoscope School -- the central goal is to engage people creatively, and to foster the learning that comes with doing and making things. This is the driving force of the school. I believe all of these other questions become much clearer in view of this.

It's like having a destination to drive to. The mechanics of taking care of ourselves (like eating lunch) and sharing are all like learning how to drive. They are important, critical components of development, and important skills to master and to be able to do on one's own. Still, knowing how to drive is, of course, meaningless without having a place to drive to. In the same way, being in a place and knowing how to share, knowing how to resolve conflict, and knowing how to take care of yourself are all vital skills, but only come to life when the community and its members have a broader purpose for being together -- when these skills have a context or situation to be applied within.

Let's look at how these ideas played out during this past week of camp. Figuring out how quiet (or loud) and area should be was simple to regulate, given the goal that all people should be able to work on a project when they want to. At camp's first morning meeting, we established a group contract of rules. During this meeting we set up the rule "talk in a normal voice inside, but talk softly if someone asks you to." From there, the guidline for noise was set by how much focus a group of kids needed. If they were working intently, it made sense for things to be quiet around them (and they could request it if needed.) If they were all playing loudly, and no one needed to concentrate, then noise was ok. The level of noise was not determined by a preset rule, but instead by the people in the area and the level of focus they wanted.

Sharing also gained a new context. Was the object being shared a tool -- something that could be borrowed for a minute and given back -- or a toy, to be played with indefinitely? As I reflect on what wasn't being shared at camp well, I actually can't come up with any concrete examples from the week (which certainly does't mean they weren't any.) The scarcest commodity was an expert's time -- I would frequently get 2 or 3 questions within a minute when walking into a room where projects were being built. Often I would offer to work on a child's project if they would help a second child while I was tinkering with their project.

All of these various features -- the mechanics of how to drive -- become clearer with a direction to drive in. I was frequently surprised by how little trouble we had over the week with 20 kids, and more importantly, how quickly most conflicts healed. Part of where my earlier thinking went wrong was getting caught on the idea that I can simply create guidlines for scaling up kids' autonomy based on their age rather than on what the situation dictates. The first step, then, is to think about the situation being created -- in this case, to make clear what the school's driving force or direction is. Given a clear direction, the mechanics of how to operate within the school become much clearer.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Buzzing creativity: yesterday's MIT Museum workshop (moving away from a language of academics to a language of healthy child development)

Yesterday Camp Kaleidoscope had a workshop at the MIT Museum. It went really well -- a lot of people turned out and it all ran quite happily and smoothly.

Initially I had planned to a number of flying projects -- paper airplanes, propeller toys, and gliders made out of wood and file folders. The event had a lot of people (40ish at any one time) and I found that organizing that many activities at once felt too difficult. So we had a set-up for paper airplanes, where Terry (the inventor mentor!) showed kids things like how to attach balloons or rubber bands to their planes, and a set up for gliders, where a bunch of instructions and materials were left out.

We had hot glue guns out, which quickly turned into a creative art station. Families brought in machines to take apart -- a request in my email that I had forgotten I made -- so we quickly scared up some tools and got a take-apart station going. Parts from the take apart station would float over into the hot glue art station and get turned into big, sprawling art projects.

A half-hour into the workshop (which in its entirety was two hours, and families were free to come and go), I realized that I didn't need to be manning any of the stations; everyone looked happily engaged and things were taking care of itself. I spent a while floating around the room, trying to guide families that had just arrived (we didn't have anything up to indicate what was happening where) and also had a few conversations with new families, talking about how camped worked and how this event compared to camp.

I told parents that while camp was a little more structured -- we held meetings in camp to make it clear what was happening where and when -- the vibe you got at camp was the same as the vibe of this workshop. At the essence of both was a bunch of kids happily and energetically making stuff. I found myself constantly referring to the tangible energy in the air -- a sort of creative electricity -- and parents eagerly and quickly agreeing with me that they felt it too.

Later, talking to a friend on the phone, I described it as a "buzzing creativity" and found this phrase very apt. The idea of buzzing -- something you can see or feel constantly -- felt correct to describe the noise and sight of the workshop. There was clearly a lot going on, and you could see it, and you could hear it, and you could feel it. The sensation of it was at a level which to me was exciting, rather than overwhelming (energetic, rather than chaotic. I do imagine that the scene was chaotic for the first few minutes someone came in, until they figured out what was happening where and became part of the energetic creativity themselves.)

The idea of "buzzing creativity" also appeals to me as I've come to look for a language to describe what I want in a creative community of children, independent of the traditional academic and schooling language. I met with Bakhtiar Mikhak a few weeks ago, and he made the point that in creating the Kaleidoscope School (working name for now), it's important to define oneself not in opposition to schooling, but rather in terms of what experiences will be provided and how they will impact a child's development. He also said that it's very easy to slip back into describing things in terms of school or not school, academic or not, rather than simply discussing what you hope to do for a child. I found his points quite sound and have taken them as guides in my own thinking about how to describe and frame the school.

Buzzing creativity seems like a good goal to me in a creative community. There is a clarity to it: lots of people (in this case children) are making things, they are engaged, happy, and the whole of it feels good.