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.


Chris said...

Excellent post, yo.

The idea that keeping one's eye on what is real, what is actually necessary and observable guides one to deeper and useful understanding has been of great use to me, recently. It is the primary method by which we can walk the thin path between hopelessly complicated abstraction and the impossibility of dealing with all information.

If that makes sense.

I am so excited for you to start a school - you have no idea.

Rianne said...

Keep up the good work.

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