Friday, June 10, 2016

Germinating The Seeds Of "We"

We've just completed the first week of our summer program. It's a fairly laid-back, multi-age, half-day, outdoor affair, attended mostly by families who are currently enrolled during the regular school year or who are alumni, although some of our sessions include a large number of newcomers as well. And even though it's a "summer camp," we still operate as a cooperative, which means I still get a healthy contingent of parent-teachers with whom to work. 

Superficially, what we do isn't so much different than what we do throughout our school year -- play -- but I've found that the nature of two-week sessions involving an ever-changing cast of children fundamentally changes my role. Or rather, it means that I'm pretty much always in "first weeks of school" mode. Even kids who have been coming to Woodland Park for years take awhile to warm up. Some of the kids already know one another, some of the parents do, but this is definitely not the same community that the children left only a week ago. There are older and younger kids, familiar faces perhaps, but not necessarily friends. We never go indoors except for the bathrooms and sinks. The schedule is different.

Adult organized games like "What Time is it Mr. Fox?" and "Red Light, Green Light" are rare occurrences during the regular school year, but I find them a useful tool for bringing a group of children together as they begin to feel things out.

Parents often remark on being surprised that their child who has been coming to our school for years is suddenly clingy, but I'm not. Yes, the "stuff" (sand pit, water pump, workbench, garden, swings, etc.) is the same, and the teacher is the same, but the different people make it a different place.

I've always had a teaching style that in many ways reflects my more youthful experiences as a baseball coach. I find myself often more focused on "the team" than the individuals, which is, I think, somewhat anathema to the focus of most of our schools, which tends to be mostly on individual accomplishment (test scores, grades, etc.). For me, we as a collective, as a unit, as a team, as a community is always at the forefront of what I do, even during the regular school year, but especially during these summer sessions. Of course, I have the luxury to do this because of our cooperative model, with plenty of adults around to support the children with their individual needs and challenges, which leaves me to put more of my energies into community-building.

During the first couple days this week, most of the kids, even the seasoned vets, were doing a lot of milling around, playing alone or in pairs, and the play I observed was mostly superficial, with a tendency to bounce from one thing to the next without getting to much depth and with little connection with one another. Whenever I sat down, be it in the sandpit boat, on the swings, or just in a pile of wood chips, kids gathered around me. I didn't call them, but they came anyway, looking I guess for an anchor or a touchstone or something, so I told stories, sang songs, or made art, leaving spaces for them to join in, to interrupt, to make suggestions. I think of it as a way to start our conversation, the one that would, given enough time and space, grow into what we call "our community." 

On Monday and Tuesday, despite the arguably more exciting lures of our playground, there were times when a dozen kids or more would choose to join these impromptu circles. My goal then is to gradually let the children take it over, usually by growing increasingly quiet, then by inching my body away to another spot. The larger group typically disperses, but there are always a few kids who stay behind to keep the game, whatever it is, going.

We've been coming together since Monday, but it wasn't until yesterday, Thursday, that we finally had a day that felt like Woodland Park. Sure there are still some kids figuring out how they fit in, but there were larger teams of them playing together, digging trenches in which to flow water, inventing "let's pretend" games, and making plans together for the coming minutes, hours, and days. By the end of next week, we'll have the beginnings of a real community, one that doesn't really need me, but then they will scatter to the wind and we will restart the process of germinating the seeds of we once again.

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