Check-in and Change-up

note: this is part of an ongoing series that I’m writing about the meetings we have at ALC. Check back for more, and I’ll link to them here when they’re written.

Intentions for the Meeting

Check-in and Change-up are the two culture-setting meetings at ALC, and one of the cornerstones of the model. By culture-setting, I mean they are the place where we talk explicitly about what kind of school culture we currently have and how that fits into the vision of the school culture that we want. Check-in and Change-up hold space for us as a community to come together and discuss about what’s working and not working for us, problem-solve how to get everyone’s needs met, and make sure that we’re providing maximum support with minimum interference.

At ALC, we don’t have rules but we do have Agreements, so-called because you agree to them as a condition of being a part of this community. Each child signs a formal Student Agreement at the beginning of each school year, which consists of 6 fundamental, non-negotiable parts: Respect yourself and  others, respect shared materials, participate in meetings, share your learning, clean up after yourself, and respect community agreements.

Check-in and Change-up are the vehicle and structure for forming community agreements, which are intended to clarify and hash out the details on the deliberately abstract Student Agreements. Every year I’ve been at ALC-NYC, we’ve made agreements about food messes and clean-up jobs and not cursing at others and telling an adult before you leave the space; often we’ve discussed hoarding shared materials, caring for friends with nut allergies, and how to make our other meetings go more smoothly. Community agreements are powerful because they are formed by the kids who show up in collaboration with the adults who hold the space. If you don’t agree, you have the power to change them – through these meetings.

I’m referring to Check-in and Change-up together (and sometimes interchangeably) because at ALC-NYC they are inextricably linked, though they are technically two separate meetings. I’ll go into more detail in a moment, but as an overview: Check-in is a mandatory, all-school meeting where we go over the Awarenesses from the week and create an agenda. Then, we adjourn Check-in and anyone who wants to can leave. After, we immediately start Change-up, where those who have opted in stay to work down the agenda in an informal conversational setting, creating new community agreements, tweaking the ones we already have, or coming up with alternative, creative, artistic solutions in response to the awarenesses we discussed in Check-in.

So: they’re distinct but intertwined meetings, with an open and iterative structure, intended to support community members in collaborating to create a school culture that nourishes our mutual sense of safety, dignity, and belonging.

Let’s get into the details.

When It Happens

At ALC-NYC, we do Check-in/Change-up every Friday morning, immediately following morning Spawn. They day is less important than the frequency and consistency: since we have school 5 days a week, once a week feels like a reasonable amount of time to check in on how everyone is doing. I like the rhythm of ending the week in collective reflection and starting next week with something new. Lots of ALCs do it differently – you’ll be able to feel out how frequently your community needs to change things up.

Tools We Use

For this meeting we use something called a Community Mastery Board (or CMB) which is simply a whiteboard divided into several columns: Awareness, Testing, Practicing, Mastered, and Archive.

A whiteboard divided into 5 columns labeled "Awarenesses" "testing" "practicing" "mastered" and "archive". There are colorful post-it notes in the last three columns. The board is labeled with a sign that says "community mastery board"
The Community Mastery Board we use at ALC-NYC, complete with end-of-year post-it agreements. Click to zoom.

Unsurprisingly, we use post-it notes to interact with this tool. We also use a second whiteboard for creating the agenda and taking notes on it.

change-up notes from 2/15/19. They include a reminder of a new practicing agreement (No devices in all-school meetings), a reminder of an old agreement an ALF wanted to draw attention to (Graffiti only on bathroom stalls + only chill things [no swears/porn]), a request to bring back an agreement from last school year (which we opted not to), a reminder to take care of shared materials, and some notes about taking care of our school hamster… Notes from Check-in are in black and notes from Change-up are in blue.

How It Usually Goes at ALC-NYC

Throughout the week, any community member can add an Awareness to the CMB. Awarenesses are observations, things that we notice that are or are not working for us. Sometimes they arise out of conflict: one kid gets mad at another because they’re hoarding Lego and puts up the awareness “hoarding legos isn’t cool.” Sometimes they’re clarifying something we’re already doing: the awareness “people are graffiti-ing on the bathroom stalls.” Sometimes they’re a question for the community: “can we get a hamster?”

Friday, the whole school crowds into the Red Room and starts Check-in. The facilitator (sometimes an ALF, sometimes a kid) pulls a sticky off the CMB and reads it aloud, asks if the writer of the sticky would like to speak more about their awareness, and hands the sticky to the scribe, who puts it on the whiteboard and adds some notes to create the Change-up agenda. Sometimes discussion breaks out about one awareness or another, and the facilitator reminds the group that if you’d like to talk more about this you can come to Change-up, then redirects attention back to the next awareness. When all the awarenesses have been read, we adjourn Check-in and then immediately begin Change-up.

We split the meetings a few years ago because the school had grown to the point where it was more of a drain to get everyone to participate in Change-up than it was productive and supportive to the health of the community. It’s worth noting that the majority of students leave at this point – those who stay are a self-selecting group that we informally refer to as culture-keepers. These are the people who are showing that they’re invested in creating and maintaining a healthy culture at the school. I try and talk less than the kids do because I’ve learned that if I don’t fill the vacuum, they often surprise me with their brilliance. It’s hard to trust kids and it’s also fundamental.

At Change-up we work back down the agenda (using a different color marker to make notes) and decide for each item – was this just an announcement? Should we make a new agreement? Should we do something else (like write a rap about food messes, or create a sign to clarify microwave use, or convene a culture committee to talk to the people involved) instead?

If we decide to make a new agreement, then we try and collaborate together on something everyone in the room is willing to try out for a week. We call this Testing, and all of our new agreements go through this phase. We don’t vote on new agreements. Instead we talk about wording and usage and enforceability until the folks in the room are satisfied that we can try it for a week and see how it goes.

The next week, we’ll announce the testing agreement at Set-the-week on Monday morning so the whole community knows, and then let it flow. The following Friday, we’ll ask in Check-in how everyone felt about it – thumbs up if we should keep it, thumbs down to rework it. If we get a clear yes, we’ll add the agreement to Practicing, where it will live with the other agreements we’re actively practicing as a community (and maybe one day all the way to Mastered, which is where we put agreements that we’re practicing without even having to think about!). If there’s ambivalence, we’ll add the testing agreement back to the Change-up agenda to talk about again.

a yellow post-it note that reads "we're not doing and good job of cleaning up cook noob -Chuck"
an awareness…
two post-it notes, one yellow and one blue, that read "Cook Noob: if you commit to cook noob, you also commit to CLEAN. Announcement half hour before cook noob so people can prep lunches. People can be asked to leave if they're disruptive."
…that led to a new agreement!

The iterative nature of creating agreements is intentional and fundamental. In practical terms, it streamlines the meetings because it eliminates the need to speculate on every “what-if” situation when creating an agreement – if we add a new testing agreement, and something unforeseen comes up while we’re testing it, then we can easily adjust and test something else. More abstractly, it’s aligned with our philosophical roots: “learning happens in cycles of intention, action, reflection, and sharing.” The meeting often feels both focused and informal, and our notes reflect it – they’re messy, full of doodles, written in shorthand and inside jokes. Change-up is a powerful weekly that reminds us we are in community with each other, and trying to care for one another as best we can.

Once we finish going through all the agenda items, we adjourn Change-up and we’re done (for this week)!

Final Notes

I’m often asked what the difference is between ALCs and Sudbury/democratic free schools, and the way we go about creating community agreements is certainly one of the primary differences. My understanding is that at those other schools, rule-making is often done by a body (like a Judiciary Committee) that requires mandatory service from all the students on a rotating basis, rules are voted into effect by a majority, and rules created in that setting carry over from school-year to school-year. All of this is also intended to give kids a chance to practice the democratic process.

At ALC, Check-in is attended by everyone in the school and done quickly, while only the students who care to attend Change-up to brainstorm solutions – as I often remind kids, decisions are made by those who show up. We don’t vote. Instead, we look for solutions that will satisfy everyone in the room enough to cross the threshold are you willing to try this for a week and see how it goes? They’re deliberately nonherirarchical – in Change-up particularly, we don’t raise our hands to be called on by a presiding officer but speak informally with one another. There is a facilitator to keep everyone focused, but that facilitator doesn’t have to be an adult. The agenda is created out of our shared intentions for the week, which are added to a whiteboard that everyone has access to at all times in the space. The process is iterative, the agreements fluid. At the end of the year, we clear out all of the agreements that we’ve created, trusting that if the need arises, we’ll re-create them next year (or iterate something better, or find a way to support each other informally so we don’t need to create a formal agreement, or…).

Sometimes people asks me how this could possibly work and I offer this analogy: you’re going out to dinner with your friends, and trying to decide which restaurant to go to. I’m gluten free, so we can’t eat Italian, but you’re vegan, so no sushi, and another friend doesn’t want to travel far because they’re exhausted and we need a place that’s wheelchair accessible and… we account for all those things. We choose an accessible taco place that’s nearby our tired friends’ house where I can have corn tortillas and you can have soy tacos and everyone gets to eat together, which is the thing we really wanted. Check-in and Change-up are tools for making explicit what happens implicitly in that decision-making process. They’re tools for taking care of each other.

Which leads me to my final note: probably your Check-in and Change-up won’t look like the one I’ve just described and that’s great. How frequently you meet, where, which tools you use, the specific language about agreements and awarenesses, the timing of the meeting, who facilitates it, how you take notes – all of these things (and more!) are changeable. It is only ever my intention to tell you what we practice because it works for us, and to invite you to change up what needs changing up so that these meetings work for you too.

The End of Year 3

The whole time I’ve been ALFing, there’s been something about the end of year 3. An aura, or a promise: threes are magical. When I was uncertain, blindsided by a question for the first time, moving through a situation I had never encountered, traversing the part of the map labeled here be dragons, I felt that promise – things would loosen. I would find ease, after year three. I would be able to keep the tops spinning. I held hands with that promise, I believed in my future-ALF self.  Now I am that future-ALF; today is the last Writing Time of the school year. Tomorrow is the last climbing trip. Friday is the last Check-In and Change-Up. Next week is the final week – the time for picnics and park trips and the Rockaways. The roses on my block are blooming. I am tender. This cycle is closing.

This post is an aggregate of what I’ve learned this yearcycle – an incomplete and earnest attempt to get better at sharing my learning. I’ve learned a lot about myself in the first three years of ALFing, a lot about the ways that I learned to relate to and disassociate from my body to survive schooling. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I started this year by spending my birthday writing a long, hard post about what I want, the question at the cornerstone of SDE. It was scary to post – prior to publishing it, I was not out on the internet as a trans person, and I didn’t know I was ready to occupy a public space so vulnerably. Sitting here, on the other side of the year, I’m grateful for my day-of-birth courage (I’m 27, which is three nines…). In three years, the most profound lesson I’ve learned is that the things my body wants are valid, even if those things are hard. A lot of the rest is just variations on this theme. (See the two featured posts below for my years 1 and 2 ramblings on it.)

Since then, I’ve been on 25 field trips, made an obscene amount of slime, practiced 3 instruments, learned to crochet hyperbolic corals, played an exuberance of tag, learned a ton about anatomy and physiology, played many writing games, fed my body lots of fruits and veggies, read the entire Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus series (among many other awesome books), discovered the delightful puzzle game Baba Is You, shared my love of Steven Universe with the school, and spent more time outside playing at the park than ever before in my life. My facilitation comes more easily now that I’ve discovered the embodiment of it. It’s not always smooth and I don’t have all the answers – but I’m much more comfortable with unknown unknowns than my three-years-ago self ever believed I was capable of.

Abby just handed me a letter from my September self (one of our favorite traditions here at ALC-NYC), and in it I said “I intend to share my writing in the world – my works and my art – because I am inspired by these humans and the work I’m privileged to do with them – their chaos and humor and joy.” The thing I’m proudest of this year is achieving that goal: I’ve published 22 blog posts this year! They’re all listed below – the long and the short alike. Thinking about my next-three-years self, I’m looking forward to the ones I haven’t written yet, and I hope that they’ll help other facilitators who are finding their way through this strange journey, practicing and deschooling and collaborating and playing. Happy end of year three, and I’ll see you in the future.

9.22 Where Have You Been? 

10.02 What Are You Up To? 

10.03 Quiet Morning Writing Time 

10.14 This Week: Rose, Bud, Thorn 

10.19 Another Cycle, Another Practice Reflection 

10.26 On Rest 

11.16 Practicing Cycles and What We’ve Been Up To 

11.30 Your Bones Are Wet 

12.21 Last Blog at the End of the Universe 

1.18 What Is Writing Time? 

1.18 Share Your Learning 

1.18 What Are You Up To Now? 

2.01 On Kindness and the Soft Animal of My Body 

2.15 Describe Your Relationship to Work 

2.12 On Facilitating In Your Joy

3.22 Mercury Retrograde: A Review 

3.27 An Unabridged Free Write

4.05 Gratitude for Gratitudes 

4.12 Pre-Break Focused Blog Brilliance 

5.17 Post-SotA Reentry Feels

5.31 Tag! Tag! Tag!

Tag! Tag! Tag!

This is a list of tag games that I like! We play a lot of tag, and these varieties keep it interesting. The descriptions under each are as close to word-for-word how I explain them to new players. [Notes in brackets are my reflections on the game conditions.] We often play many rounds of tag in a row. All of these games can (should!) be modified to meet the needs of the players. The ideal tag game is really intense and leaves everyone breathless, bone tired, and full of endorphins.

Banana Slug Tag

Everyone is It. If I tag you, you are frozen until I get tagged. When you are frozen, you must t-pose until I am tagged so that other players know you’re frozen. If we tag each other at the same time, or if there is any dispute, then we play rock-paper-scissors and the loser is frozen. You win by freezing all the other players. Go!

[This is a hard game to win! It’s best played in a space where it’s easy to see all the other players – open fields, small playgrounds, a gym. The minimum number of players is 4, but the more players you have the more fun it is.]
Hide and Seek Tag

One person is It, everyone else hides. Once you get tagged by the person who is It, you also become It. You don’t have to stay in your hiding spot – you can move around as much as you want. The last person tagged gets to choose who is It for the next round.

[You can play with 3 or more people, but this is also much more fun with more humans. Obviously, you’ll want to play this game somewhere players will have lots of places to hide…]
Toilet Tag

One person is It. When you get tagged, you are frozen and you have to kneel down on one knee (now you are a toilet). To unfreeze you, an free player must run over, sit on your knee, and “flush” one of your arms. You win by turning everyone into a toilet.

[This game works in a lot of different settings! Be careful of your knees, grownups…]
Hug Tag

One person is It and everyone else is running – to avoid getting tagged, players can hug for up to 5 seconds (they should count down from 5 out loud). If you are hugging, then you are safe and cannot be tagged. If It tags you, then you are It.

[This is an infinite tag, and great to play with a group who is practicing trust-building with each other…]
Shark Tag

There are two bases, on two different sides of the room or field or playground. One person is the Shark – they’re It. They stand in the center. Everyone else starts on the base on one side, and must all run over to the other base. If you get tagged on the way across, you also become a Shark. Last player standing wins.

[We play endless varieties of this one. Sometimes, the Shark has to tag the other players by throwing a gator ball at them. Sometimes, we add other bases, or institute a time limit on how long you can linger on base. I like playing this game in a place where there are a lot of obstacles, like a playground. I also played this in a pool as a kid…]
Blob Tag

Two people hold hands and they are the Blob. They are It, and if they tag you then you will hold one of their hands and also join the Blob. The last player standing wins.

[This is best played in a smaller space with fewer obstacles, which makes it progressively easier for the Blob to trap free players.]
Monster and Sausage Tag

One person is the Monster – they are It and they are chasing a Sausage. Everyone else lays on the ground in groups of 2 – they are a Sausage Pack. The Monster chases the Sausage until the Sausage lays down a joins a Sausage Pack. Then the Monster becomes a Sausage, and the person on the other side of the pack gets up and becomes the Monster.

The really important part about this tag is the screaming. The Sausage must sound adequately terrified (no one wants to get eaten by a Monster!!)  and the Monster must sound appropriately terrifying (or else what kind of Monster are they??). If the Monster tags the Sausage, the roles are reversed.

[Monster and Sausage tag is an infinite tag, and best played somewhere you don’t mind laying down on the ground. Obviously, don’t play this game somewhere where you will subject people to your screaming who did not consent to it. Also, this game is hilarious. Play when you need a good belly laugh.]

Pre-Break Focused Blog Brilliance

I was working on this blog post but then we were retelling jokes and redrawing old drawings and talking about your flesh seashells aka your ears and old timey music and queerbaiting and the Titanic and who belongs at Pride and how testosterone humans grow later in life and your address and your identity and get on my level and cat sounds and being a person who shares the world with others and 11 hours of sleep tiredness and the perfect sleep method and taking out the dog and pay-per-google and and and… it’s the day before break and (surprise surprise) focused blogging is not-so-focused today.

I am writing a very nice coherent blog post about tracking my trackers and I will post it here soon but I am putting down the struggle now; my three-years-in facilitator self has learned a lot about going with the flow instead of fighting the momentum. I’m grateful for the ways that the cycle of the year makes space for work and play, makes eddys of silly time and productive labors, of movement and rest. Happy break!

An Unabridged Free Write

Wow we’re silly today. I usually feel a rush to get started in writing time but today I feel really spacy and all over the place and you know what that’s fine that’s what we’re doing I’m not wordsing great but I’m wordsing and that’s what counts. It’s Wednesday and it feels like this week has been endless and that’s probably because I didn’t give myself any introvert space this weekend. I’m not mad about having plans – I went to painting class and saw my family and hung out at Chuck’s birthday party and met some cool humans – but then suddenly it was Monday and I had school and it’s a visiting week and on Monday nights I do the ALF call and then I went to bed and had some really intense dreams and woke up and it was Tuesday and it’s still a visiting week and with all the people in the space we had almost 40 people here! And then after I took saylor and zoe home on the subway and then my roommate locked herself out and our train was delayed and so I was texting everyone to meet me at the climbing gym and then everyone did and I felt weird about having my life spheres all colliding – introducing Saylor to my friend Mimi and then giving my roommate my keys and pointing out Zoe to her (she’s heard many tiny Scorpio stories). And then I went climbing and that was awesome because I did so good and I finished a V3 I’ve been working on for WEEKS and it felt so good and then I also almost finished another V3 and then I went out to dinner with my friends Mimi and Lou and Yael and that was wonderful because it’s a safe queer bubble I get to be in every week that feels so good but also it’s a late night and I didn’t get home until after 10 and Arielle (that’s my roommate) had to let me in cause she had my keys and it’s her last week at work and so we talked about that and so I didn’t get to bed until after my bedtime which was fine but then I had more intense dreams (Neptune and Mercury are dancing around each other all week, which might account for it – they’re not bad they’re just out of reach and I wake up thinking and it’s loud in my head)

I’m anxious that I embarrassed Saylor yesterday when I introduced her to Mimi and that I’m just repeating myself about volume stuff and nothing is moving and I have plans tonight and tomorrow and Friday and Saturday and I had to tell a friend who I’ve been having a hard time connecting with that no, we can’t hang out Sunday and I didn’t say that it’s because I desperately need time to myself alone with no plans, even though that’s true, because I feel guilty about needing that even though that’s being mean to myself. I want to absolve myself of that guilt but it’s hard when our culture is like GO GO GO especially in new york where everyone has plans all the time and that’s not my preference but I’m doing the best I can to exist in capitalism and take care of my mental health and my vibrating nervous system and

[that’s the point at which the timer ran out – for instructions on how to do a free write, check out Beth’s blog post here and mine here. What follows is an addendum.]

Some days (especially when I haven’t had introvert time to soothe my body and listen for what I really need in what can feel like an endless monologue of brain-chatter-anxiety) I feel really overwhelmed by it all. I have a diagnosed anxiety disorder – when I say I feel anxious I mean it clinically. I am doing a lot of work to try and move through the world in ways that ease it – from therapy, to journaling, to learning to meditate. On the other hand, I feel an intense impulse to edit the self that I present to the world – to appear at ease and in control, to not ask for space or time that I need, to put the [perceived] needs of others before my self. I’m posting this as-is to counteract some of that editing, to put out into the world some of my self as I experience them. Thanks for witnessing <3

Describe Your Relationship to Work

I’m currently working on an application to go be facilitated at School of the Alternative, which is a really cool-sounding self directed program for adults. I’m feeling really inspired by one of the application questions, and wanted to share my thinking about it.

Describe your relationship to work.

I think of my [professional] work [at school with the kids] in cyclical relationship with my personal [self-care-and-growth] work. I’m learning to listen for the invitations and prompts they offer me; I’ve discovered children have an uncanny ability to ask me flat-out the questions I didn’t know I was avoiding: “How do you practice magic?” or “What does it mean to release something?” or “Do you consider yourself to be a cisgender person?” These aren’t hypothetical; they’re all real questions, asked of me by real kids. Learning to recognize these questions as invitations, not challenges to my authority is one kind of work; the work of discovering the answers is another.

I’ve been thinking about how being alive means that my meat is generating and consuming electric and kinetic and potential energy all the time. I’ve been thinking about how, in the spiral of time, I’m the same person I was as a child and how I will never be that person again. I’ve been thinking about how the universe is both infinite and expanding; the thing that is, by definition, the largest possible thing, is still getting bigger.

Some days I am tired, or my mental illness is loud, or my need for rest is urgent; learning to respond to those feelings with patience and kindness is also work. Sometimes work feels like the right verb and sometimes it feels deeply insufficient; regardless, it’s the language that feels good right now. The work is the work of being curious and present in pleasure and pain, of being embodied and creative and stretching my limits, reaching, growing, unfurling. In physics, work is a transfer of energy; it’s when a force causes a displacement in an object. That means the opposite of work is not play, it’s stasis. To work is to live.

On Facilitating in Your Joy

Looking back through this blog, I see myself working through a lot of hard feelings around facilitation; while that’s a big part of this work, it’s definitely not all of it. I want this blog to be an accurate reflection of my life in ALC-land, struggles and joys alike, and so today I intend to course-correct a bit.

I can feel it in my body when I’m facilitating in my joy; I feel the bubbling right below my solar plexus. I’m facilitating in my joy when we’re barefoot in the gym first thing Monday morning and the sun is streaming in through the windows and we’re playing a game of tag where everyone is it and we’re shrieking and chasing and rock-paper-scissoring and throwing the same hand sign over and over.

I’m facilitating in my joy upside down on the floor in Gratitudes, laughing helplessly with a teenager, laughing so hard we can’t even look at each other, because someone surprised us my elaborating on an inside joke and our faces are so red and every time one of us makes a little sigh and tries to stop we make eye contact and set off laughing again.

I’m facilitating in my joy in the library, curled up on the denim couch, reading a kid a book, or in the red room on a rainy day watching one of my favorite movies (Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or Howl’s Moving Castle) and I get to see a strange, fantastical world that I love as if for the first time, again.

I’m facilitating in my joy when I share a surprising fact (oooh how I love surprising facts) and a kid’s face lights up and they say really??? I’m facilitating in my joy when these roles are reversed.

I’m facilitating in my joy at the park, any park, and the sun is shining.

I’m facilitating in my joy when riffing on existential questions, or the nature of time, or surprised on the subway by an unexpectedly deep “this or that” from a kid I didn’t know was contemplating the metaphysical.

I’m facilitating in my joy when there’s paint between my toes.

I’m facilitating in my joy sitting deliberately out of sight, doing something with my hands to make myself invisible (crochet, or sketching) and listening to kids play with each other; co-create worlds with their Lego or tend the hamster in age-mixed clusters or…

I’m facilitating in my joy making up a dance outside the deli, or down the hallway, or after the big collective feast of Dancegiving with the music all the way up.

Playing in language facilitates my joy.

I’m facilitating in my joy on the subway, at the museum, on the rock climbing wall, in a bookstore or public library or exploring the zine collection, on the ferry, at the beach, under the Brooklyn Bridge, overlooking the East River, moving from island to island of this strange wondrous city and getting to taste and touch and see it all for the first time: the dumplings in Chinatown, the silver dome of the park at Union Square, the belly of the Great Blue Whale at my favorite childhood museum.

Facilitating in your joy is the goal, right? I’ve been thinking about it since I listened to the 2019 Panel on SDE and Racial Equity out of Heartwood ALC last week – which you can find and listen to here. (It’ll blow your mind.)

Of course not all of the facilitating I do comes from that place of joy; I’m still working through the shit from a childhood that wasn’t self-directed, where joy was not the goal. And that’s important work, no doubt. But joy is the work, too, joy is the medicine, joy is co-creating movement towards the world I want to live in. Thanks for witnessing <3

On Kindness, and the Soft Animal of My Body

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” -Mary Oliver

I’m trying to be kind. It’s difficult, because the word is tied up in the abstracted character-building of my childhood. Around the atrium of my intermediate school there were a series of child-shaped cutouts, each emblazoned with different value: respect, responsibility, kindness. I stood below them for the unveiling – one each month, as we passed through the first year of the school. The building was new, the star-shaped entrance hall vaulted with red-framed skylights and walled in postmodern grey brick. A group of us were selected (though I don’t remember how, or for what reason) to be the Character Ambassadors; we would gather in the center of the hall as a janitor climbed the ladder and hung the silhouettes and we went through the motions of ceremony. I remember feeling self conscious about my hair, my body, my new glasses. I don’t remember what was said about the characters.

When I think about being kind, the part of me that stood through that ceremony and tried, after, to fit in with the childscorn of cool that was budding in the girls’ room and the cafeteria, that young, confused part of me crystalized under those cutouts and in the gossipstreams after, still scoffs. What’s the point of kind?

Here’s what I really learned in that year as Character Ambassador: how to shrink my self to fit into the crowd. That it was fine to be honored but not too honored. Okay be special as long as I did not make my self a target with my specialness; if the crowd realized I wasn’t part of it they would eat me on the bus in the girls’ room on the line for lunch. Even with my careful observation and the one act of brutality with which I shrunk myself, even when I thought I understood the rules of how to be among and invisible, I felt myself a failure. Instead of kindness, I learned too much about the power of those who fit in over those who transgress. Instead of kindness, I learned to marshall my intellect to focus my body on performing my role correctly. Instead of kindness, I learned conformity.

Almost two decades later, the characters are still hanging there. The laminated poster paper has faded under the sky light – kindness is no longer true blue but stormy grey.

I haven’t thought about being 10 in a long time. I’ve thought abstractly about my childself over the course of the last few years, ALFing and deschooling, sure. But thinking about the child I was at 10 years old, standing in the atrium of C.V. Starr Intermediate School feels shockingly concrete – the kid whose flute was perpetually at the wrong parent’s house, who loved the quiet of art class and the intimacy of music lessons, the newly-bespeckled one whose mind drifted while we read aloud in class because I’d already read the whole page, whole chapter, whole novel and I was just counting the minutes until we were done with this interminable readaloud exercise. 10 is first time in my life I can begin to remember feeling wrong in my body, the beginning of a self consciousness that did not originate with me but that I wrapped around my own bones nonetheless. The lessons in the atrium stuck, but not the ones that were intended to.

This is the point at which I feel compelled to tell you that I am an anxious, depressed trans person living in chronic pain; that those are clinical (and therefore somehow validated?) identities. Five years ago, I fell down a flight of stairs and injured my spine. Three years ago, I developed crippling eczema that makes the skin on my hands flake off and break open. One year ago, I realized with a shock that I am not a cisgender woman. I am talking to you about kindness not out of virtuousness, but selfishness; I don’t want to live in pain any more. All the years of punishing myself have come to a head and my body has said no more. It will not tolerate my bruising, fixated intellectualism any more; it will not let me push aside my discomfort in order to fit in. This is the limit of tolerance: nearly two decades of making myself less, for fear of being too much.

As the brilliant Sonia Renee Taylor reminds us in The Body Is Not An Apology, “You, my dear, have a body. And should you desire to remain on this spinning rock hurtling through space, you will need a body to do it.” This isn’t about the state of my soul, though winter does bring, for me, an existential dimension to all these musings. This is about the soft animal of my body, and what it means to be kind to it.

Some days I am angry at the choices I made based on the lessons of the atrium, angry that I live in this pain. I am trying to honor my anger, to exorcise it. Some days I mourn the sense of safety, dignity, and belonging that that I don’t feel. I am trying to honor my grief, to exorcise it. I am trying to be kind. To value my flesh enough to feed it well, to smooth salve over the places I’ve cracked open, to sleep and stretch and wrap my self in soft, heavy blankets and feel the sensuousness of their weight and texture here, in this body, now.

Share Your Learning

I have a confession: when I talk about the fourth Agile root, I often forget about sharing. “Growth happens in cycles of intention, action, reflection and sharing.” I’ve always had the hardest time with sharing, which I know is part of my deschooling. This year, I’m committed to examining that – and doing it publicly, as a meta-process.

I was thinking about it yesterday at ice skating, when I was watching Saylor and Savannah teach strangers to skate. Saylor has been skating for a few years now, but one of the first things she said when she got on the ice yesterday was “I forgot how to do this.” And Savannah skated for the first time ever just last month. She went from not being able to make it around the rink without falling down a dozen times, to holding hands with a stranger and encouraging them to lean on her, to keep going, to try what she’s doing. And as I watched them I was thinking, “well that’s definitely sharing.”

I’m sharing this today because I’m realizing there’s lots of different levels of sharing – and the more high-stakes it feels, the more I struggle with the gifts of my schooling: procrastination and perfectionism. I just paused my writing to have a chat with Timo about the difficulty of teaching someone a skill (like writing or, in his case, programming) that requires the person to generate work from their own ideas before you can practice the skill. We talked about “blank page syndrome” and I’m realizing that, while I’ve got a bunch of tricks for tricking my brain out of blank page paralysis, (check out this post on Writing Time for some of them) I don’t often use them with work that I’m planning to share. My reflection practices are robust in writing, but my sharing is sparse. Usually, when conceiving writing I’m going to share here or elsewhere, I get stuck in the planning phase because I’m carrying that blank page around in my head and beating myself up over it before I’ve even begun.

I’m sharing this today because I’m trying to lower the stakes in 2019: to bring my reflection and sharing closer together, to publish shorter blog posts, to remember that sharing doesn’t have to be formal and that no one is judging me. Each of us get hung up on different stages of growth and this is it for me; I am excited to grow even as I am apprehensive of being vulnerable. There is no such thing as perfect work. There is only us, growing together.

What Is Writing Time?

Writing Time is a space that I hold. Writing Time is an hour a week (Wednesday mornings at 10 AM) where I am committed to writing. The most important part about Writing Time is that it’s low-stakes; this is an open invitation to my self and members of my community to engage with our writing.

If no one else shows up, I use an hour for my own writing; I draft these blog posts, or work on my zine, or tend emails, or finally get back to those slack messages I’ve been meaning to return (this post was inspired by an exchange I had with Dawn Leonard at an ALC in Florida – she asked me what writing time looks like and I wrote back to her one morning in December when the kids were all busy working without me. Thanks Dawn!). I relate to my role as a facilitator as both a model and a support – I think there’s something really important about showing up for your own offering, ready to write, and willing to do it alone if no kids show up. I love this time, and managed to capture some of the sweet feeling in this post.

When kids join me (which is more often than not) I have a couple of tricks up my sleeve. The first is a 10-minute free write, which is a practice that I learned from my poetry mentor Scott Hightower. These are the rules: I’m going to set a timer for 10 minutes. We will all write for the whole time – if you run out of things to say, write the word “the” until your next thought comes to you. I don’t care about your spelling, I don’t care about your grammar. Write about whatever you want. I prefer to write by hand, but you can type if that’s more comfortable. At the end of 10 minutes, the timer will go off and then we will all read what we wrote. Ready? Here we go. (Here’s any awesome blog post by Beth about free write, written during free write).

Another tool I love is the prompt box. It’s an old cigar box filled with little slips of paper that I’ve rolled up (there’s something enticing about this magical wrapper). They’re mostly story starts, like “I heard a crash from upstairs.” If a kid is stuck, or looking for something to free write about, or coming to writing time and unsure how to get started, I’ll suggest they pull something from the box. I also just leave it around for curious humans to find – you never know when someone needs a few words to kickstart the story in their head.

Sometimes Writing Time looks like a kid coming and pulling a prompt from the jar and the two of us writing a story together – her dictating to me because I type faster. Sometimes it looks like playing a collaborative word game – we really like one where we sit in a circle and go around telling a story one word at a time. Sometimes we make a recording of that storytelling circle and listen back to what we’ve told together, or transcribe that recording. Sometimes kids come with their own projects or intentions – I’ve got a teenager who’s practicing writing essays – and I support them in doing that. I deliberately keep it open; I really like to start with the question “What are you working on?”

In the end, most of the support that I offer is encouraging kids to be prolific, to start in a non-judgemental place and stay curious about what is taking shape under their hands. Having ideas about what you want to write is exciting, but ideas aren’t workable until they’re words on the page and you can play in them. And it’s hard to make time for that! So I hold writing time, and we make that time together.