It’s December 2018, and I’m in the staff breakroom of a public high school in North Seattle, shoveling salad into my face while teachers offer me sage advice. It being my first day of shadowing here, I am simultaneously overdressed and underwhelming: big blazer, cheap slacks, Doc Martens, wild hair. I am asked repeatedly if I’m a student, and then when I say I’m shadowing high school teachers, I’m asked if I am “sure” about high school.
One teacher’s voice becomes a chorus of voices telling me I ought to teach middle school; I’m apparently not supposed to teach youth who are taller than me, which seriously cuts into the available pool of students. I read too ambiguously, too ‘young’ (queer? tattooed? is it the piercings?). I’m also too friendly – “you’ve got to be a hardass with these kids, or else they won’t respect you,” one humanities teacher says, her delivery flat, the phrase dull from repetition. “They don’t want to be here; you’ve got to really make them focus.”
I squirm a little at the implication that it’s the teacher’s job to ‘get’ a student to care, and if they can’t do that, they’ve got to cow that student into working. Marvelous. It also interests me to see boredom cast as a character flaw and as disrespectful toward an authority figure. (More on that later, I’m sure.)
Perhaps I’m naïve, but I like to think my respect for my teachers didn’t hinge on their ability to control my attention or on how effectively they wielded their authority. I did have some hard-ass teachers, but they had skills that I wanted and were just as dedicated to my growth as they were critical of my work. If we’re being honest, I think my problem with teachers fell toward the other end of the scale; I venerated a few of them, seeking their approval and friendship over that of my peers. Either way, power differentials and authority are a heady aspect of teaching; it’s grim advice to be told I am at a disadvantage because I love learning and genuinely enjoy partnering with youth.
I get to sit in on multiple class sessions that day, joining breakaway discussion groups in an ethnic studies course (in which I have my bachelor’s). I find a mix of bored students, engaged students, frustrated students, and sleeping students. I’ll admit that a part of me is disappointed; here we are, engaging with a topic I have immersed myself in for eight years whether in a classroom or not – something I value, conversations I love having – and maybe four of the twenty students are showing any interest.
Is it a case of the perpetual Mondays? The learning environment itself? The social dynamics happening between students? Is it the teacher? The book we’re working from? What’s getting in the way of learning here?
These questions echo in the all-staff meeting. It’s afternoon, edging into evening, and the high school staff and faculty are quickly wilting. We go through the vice principal’s Power Point on how to liven up one’s lesson plans and “make learning fun.” He’s easily six feet tall, older, and regularly towering over teachers as he makes his rounds. We’re all weary. About half the faculty are having side-conversations or on their phones. I’m pretty sure the irony of the situation misses no one; however, no clean and quick answer presents itself to the problem of teachers finding themselves on the receiving end of the same dynamic they have with their students. No obvious work-around presents itself, and the VP’s assertion that inserting pop culture references, cartoons, and music into class sessions falls miserably flat. When he asks for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the presentation and its level of fun and usefulness, virtually everyone holds their hands horizontal. A room full of “meh.”
This is immediately followed by a brief presentation on youth suicide prevention and the role of counseling staff. Not a single phone is out. All murmuring stops. A few staff are asking questions about trans youth data, demographic breakdowns of youth suicide attempts, family of origin problems, tools for building stronger relationships with students. It’s like a barometric shift has taken place. I privately wonder which will be remembered by the faculty: the information on entertaining students, or the information that’s necessary for supporting students’ mental health.
It’s January, 2019. I’m shoveling salad into my face in the kitchen area at Clearwater, two days into my three-month internship here. A student sits opposite me, absently transporting dumplings into his mouth while we stare down into my phone. Ten minutes earlier, he’d quizzed me on classical music, humming the opening bars of Mozart and Liszt, Haydn and Tchaikovsky while I guessed which was which. We settled on a shared interest in Tchaikovsky and are now knee-deep in a YouTube hole, watching history powerpoints on the Russian Revolution of 1918; he’s gathering information in relation to a piece he’s composing about said revolution. He sings the opening bars of his opera. I ask if he speaks Russian, and he says quietly, “Not yet.” I nod. “Me, neither.”
I have a meeting with my student mentor in five minutes and have to leave before the video finishes. We agree to touch base on it early next week; whether “it” means Russian history, language, or music composition, I’m not sure. It’ll depend on what he’s interested in at that point. I make a note in my notebook to bring my Tchaikovsky sheet music and my music theory workbook from home. I trot over to The House, a warm and somewhat noisy gathering space with kids on every couch, and dodge a rogue band of little ones running through. My mentor’s ready for me with questions about how I’m settling in and feedback on my stay thus far.
Here’s how I’m settling in: I’m having a ball. I’m roughly fifty pages into my compositional notebook. It’s packed with scribbles on pedagogy, self-directed learning, circle work, and the myriad interests of students who want to collaborate with me. I’m in over my head, in an entirely refreshing and occasionally uncomfortable way.
Initial reactions aside, I’m trying to disable my perceptive limitations and assumptions so as to absorb as much of the raw data of the environment as possible. So, the raw data:
In three days, I’ve gotten multiple school tours by people of multiple ages. I’ve sat in on two judiciary committee meetings where I saw students discussing their own and others’ behavior with a heartening level of compassion and clarity. I’ve joined in on a School Meeting, where students and staff discussed and voted on rules, norms, events, and elections. I’ve joined the Communist Club, and will need to read the first chapter of the Communist Manifesto by next week’s meeting, as well as gather materials on coloniality and (anti-)capitalism in Puerto Rico. I’ve been invited to join the Feminist Agenda Club, as well as the Movie Club; next week, we’re watching the 1938 classic “You Can’t Take It With You.” I’ve been asked to teach one student piano and to have music time with three others. I’ve sat in on a mandatory school meeting, where all students in attendance heard the case of three students’ altercation and collectively debated and decided on the best course of action to support all students involved and to maintain Clearwater’s rules on safety and respect. Of the 91 students at Clearwater, I believe I’ve met 43 and have collaboration plans with nine. I’m, in a word, stoked.
Three days of near-constant flux, near-constant conversations with students and staff. It’s simultaneously the busiest physical space I’ve learned in and the least pressurized. And, just as in the high school environment, I’ve seen students move between boredom, engagement, frustration, and enjoyment.
A note about boredom –
I’ve actually seen and heard a lot about boredom so far this week; it seems that, like in the public school, boredom is an understood and predictable phenomenon in this learning space. Here, though, it doesn’t seem to be a negative obstacle, and certainly not a character flaw – no interventions are lodged at it, by staff or other students. A student sitting still isn’t pushed to “go do something” as though the goal of being at school is to keep busy for eight hours; because they aren’t assigned homework, the projects and clubs and creative pursuits they undertake are intrinsically motivated, and boredom seems to be a naturalized phase in the processes of self-motivation and critical engagement.
There’s no ‘jazzing up the lesson plan’ with a cartoon reference or a ten-second clip of a hip hop song to get their attention; there aren’t lesson plans in the first place, because the students are teaching themselves and each other. It’s fascinating. It’s like everyday nonacademic life in that sense: all of us get bored, and all of us search to find those things that intrigue us and spur growth in us. Unlike everyday nonacademic life, there are resources aplenty here. There is always something to do, and someone to do it with, be they staff or student.
Contrary to how this initial blog entry is set up, I won’t spend too much time comparing Clearwater to other schools. My intent is to keep this a Clearwater-specific vein of inquiry and to center the experiences and voices of students in my growing understanding of ‘how learning happens here.’ I’m hopeful that doing so will be more fruitful than a theory-forward breakdown of my paradigm shift. It might become a blog on boredom and learning, a long string of interviews with Clearwater students and alumni, or a timeline of the projects students have included me in. Likely all four. So far, one student wants to help edit, and another wants to take the photos, so I imagine the options are only going to increase as I grow in partnership with students.
Alongside the blog and as my research continues, I’ll be writing about education theory, alternative education models, Sudbury school praxis, and Clearwater’s background. Whether these posts are relegated to a separate vein or simply join the body of offline work for Clearwater’s use is yet to be seen.
It’s exciting. Feels a bit like free-fall: to step into a learning space with a goal that is subject to change, open-ended collaborative opportunities popping up in every direction. I wonder, for a student like me (with my fifty pages of rigorous notes) – without the carrot, without the stick, am I – are we - freer to learn?
Thank you for reading. Until next week,