Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Discovering the Power of Their Voices

by Shawna Lee, Clearwater staff member

When I was seven years old, I was a chatty person--so chatty, in fact, that my 2nd-grade teacher told me over and over again to stop whispering to my friends in class. My chattiness was such a problem that she pointed it out on all four of my report cards that year. When I was 10 years old, I helpfully corrected my 5th-grade teacher when she said something that was contrary to information I had heard from my dad just days before. Apoplectic, she told me in no uncertain terms that my father was not the teacher.
Johnna (7), Zoe (8) and Krista (18) spend a lot of time making art together
I learned powerful lessons from both of those experiences. First, that it was imperative to figure out what teachers did and didn't want to hear and behave accordingly; second, that my thoughts and experience of the world were neither welcome nor important.

Johnna with her LEGO sculpture of a Minecraft creature
A stark contrast to my schooling experiences and one of the many things I love about The Clearwater School's community of students and staff is that every day we talk about and listen to each other's thoughts, opinions, experiences, crazy ideas, knowledge, rants and stories. Student voices are no less powerful and important than adult voices.

Ceilidh and Kallisti hanging out
Hundreds of times each day students of every age state their opinions in collective and individual matters, tell someone to stop being annoying or unsafe and are usually obeyed, eat and go outside whenever they feel like it, hang out with people they choose, initiate activities and projects, decide how to spend their time, and constantly define together and individually what it means to be responsible. In short, because they alone are in charge of their lives and their learning, they find out quickly that using their voices is essential to achieving whatever is important to them.

Samuel and Jaime
This sampling of photos and anecdotes illustrate the ownership and relaxation Clearwater students experience at school, and how they develop the power of their voices.
  • A 13-year-old, who's been at Clearwater since he was small, runs for the position of School Meeting Chair because he wants to more actively contribute to Clearwater as a whole. Although he's never held a high-profile leadership position before, we've all known him for years and have personal experience of his calmness, intelligence and interpersonal skills. He  is elected and competently runs the meetings, continuing to gain experience wrangling agendas and discussions that include 40+ people.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Learning not to bust

By Bryan

A game that's been making the rounds at school for the past week is Chinese Poker. I play a lot of card games with students at school, but I came to this one a little bit late. Gregory was the first student to teach me.

Each player is dealt thirteen cards, all face-up (five cards to start with, then eight more one at a time) with which to make three poker hands (two of five cards and one of three). Once you have put a card into one of the hands, it cannot move. Each of your hands competes against the corresponding hand of your opponent, so it's possible to win once, twice, or three times per round. But the hands have to be stacked with the highest-scoring hand at bottom and the lowest one on top; otherwise, you bust, and lose points instead. While Gregory was teaching me, I lost.

As with most games, the rules sound more complicated than the play actually turns out to be. In fact, playing the game is fairly simple, but the strategy of the game takes a little practice to learn; you are looking at all the cards out on the table and you have to figure the odds fairly quickly of getting the cards you want. The day after I learned it, I joined a game that had been ongoing for most of the day with a rotating cast of players. I stayed for a couple of hours until I gave up. I had busted every round but one.

Fortunately, Gabriel, who had been playing most of the game, took me under his tutelage. "No one at that table was playing sanely except Maddy and me," he told me. "Everyone was being way too aggressive." Since he and Maddy were the second- and first-place winners, respectively, I figured he was right; besides, he plays so many games and thinks about strategy so much, he probably was seeing things about the play I hadn't even considered. He and I sat down to practice. He patiently walked me through the game-play and coached me as I tried to reign in my flailing strategy. The first round went pretty slowly, but by the end of our 45-minute lesson I hadn't busted once.

As I thought about it later, I realized that I can remember only once been taught a game by a student during the ten-plus years I worked in a public school. They were always playing -- computer games, board games, make-believe games, playground games -- but although I looked over their shoulders regularly and joined in often enough, I never really undertook to learn from them. As far as I know, it never occurred to them that they could teach me, either; but then, I didn't ask; and my guess is they didn't think they had permission to offer. I can't help but wonder what I might have done to make it clear they could have. 

This question just doesn't arise at Clearwater, and it's not because of anything I do. From Clearwater students, I have learned Magic the Gathering, Line Ball, and quite a number of computer games (not always very well). Admittedly, I live with one of these students, but I don't think that's the main difference.

I'm looking forward to the next game of Chinese Poker. I think I stand a good chance of not coming in last.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Lily - Composer & Lyricist

by Shawna Lee, staff member

Lily, who is almost 13 and has been attending The Clearwater School since she was five years old, has been passionate about music for a long time. (Her other great passion is chickens!) Her dad, Matt (a staff member at Clearwater), is a musician and songwriter. For a few years she was an enthusiastic part of the Clearwater Singers, the small choir at school, but her interest in group singing has waned and this year she decided not to be part of the choir.

Now, Lily is working on solo singing and composing songs. She has written musical phrases before, but this year she began writing songs in earnest. "The tune often comes first," says Lily, although with her latest song, "the tune and words came together." She often works out emotions she's feeling in her lyrics. She played around with a tune for months, but the song with the working title, "When I Walk" really came together in the late summer when she felt sad and frustrated, missing her dad who was on a week-long trip.

Lily is working with Matt to make "When I Walk" and another song, "Whispers", better. Just this week she decided to change a line in the verse of "Whispers" to make it more original and more compatible with the guitar accompaniment. "It's a lot better now." She often seeks me out to get my feedback on her latest tune or modification. I love seeing her passion, process and creative joy, as well as her commitment to reworking her songs to make them better and better.

Singer-songwriter and Grammy winner Taylor Swift is a major inspiration for Lily right now. Lily knows Swift's songs backwards and forwards and she's learned a lot about what she likes and how to construct songs from her exhaustive listening. For instance, Lily likes Swift's use of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus song structure. For a while, "bridges made me feel stuck," Lily said. "But I kept trying out different things until I figured them out." She likes bridges because "they make songs longer and more interesting. I don't like short songs."

There are samples of three of Lily's songs on the video in this post. The first one, Lily abandoned because she just didn't like how it was working. The second one is about her love of rain and the third is "When I Walk". Her next goal is to finish and polish five songs and make an album--something she plans to do in the next few months. I know I'm looking forward to hearing the early incarnations of her next songs and watching what she does with them.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Hide & Seek

By Bryan

As I was leaving campus early one afternoon, I passed by a six-year-old student standing still, facing away from the school, eyes closed, counting aloud to a hundred. The unmistakeable sign of a game of hide-&-seek. Clearwater is an excellent campus for hide-&-seek, with more likely hiding-spots than you can possibly use in a day. The game combines so much: it's a back-and-forth between individuation and group-identification. It resonates with so many stories of hairs-breadth escape, cunning and skill. While playing hide-&-seek, you can imagine yourself as a anyone on a long list of characters; Robin Hood, Katniss, James Bond, Bilbo Baggins.... It seems a safe bet that the game taps into ancient tracking and hunting instincts. And it's a game that is discouraged, or even not allowed, at a number of schools. 

I worked for ten years at an after-school program that did not allow hide-&-seek. The rationale was straightforward: If your friends can't see you, the teacher can't see you; and you have to be somewhere where the teacher can see you. I repeated these words many, many times over a decade, whether inside or out, to kindergarteners and ten-year-olds. The requirement for constant supervision trumped this most venerable of kids' games. 

Whenever I explained this, I could not help but feel that I was saying something else. Not: I want you to be safe, but: Stay where I can see you. And week after week, year after year, this rule along with many others that all entailed never, ever letting a child be by him or herself except in the bathroom, drilled a message home: You are not trusted. 

This isn't the message my co-workers were trying to send. While I do think that there is a widespread reluctance among mainstream educators (and society at large) to think of children as capable of responsible decisions, my coworkers were mostly motivated by sincere concern for safety, compounded by deep anxiety about worst-case-scenario legal liability. Worst-case-scenarios about hide-&-seek are not hard to find: kids who go missing for hours and hours, kids who get trapped in the refrigerator or some other ingenious and fatal hiding spot. You hear these stories and a part of you can't help but feel the itch to rule out every danger factor, however small. I know these students, and I know they know the school rules, and I trust them to be reasonable and safe, but of course I can imagine a freak accident. Part of my trust of them is that I know that they can too. But it's easy, and good, to see that that isn't what's preoccupying them as they scan the buildings and bushes for the perfect cover. 

A fine mist was starting to come down as I walked away from campus, the voice of the student behind fading, still counting towards Ready Or Not. Two and a half hours later I walked back. The rain had begun in earnest by then, not a downpour, but constant. As I walked up, I heard another voice over the sound of rain, saying, Eighty-two, eighty-three, eighty-four.... There was another student standing in the same place, oblivious to his wet hair and damp clothes. Off behind him I caught a glimpse of a couple of other darting bodies slipping into concealment. 

About five minutes later, the round was over and all three of them were standing by the fence. I came up. "You guys were playing hide-&-seek when I left," I said. "You been playing this whole time?" 

"Oh, yeah," they said. "It's fun." That was all I needed to know.