Today the school is really empty because a lot of people are at the Climate Strike (which is really exciting). My brain is not fully online this afternoon, though I’m not 100% sure why. I was saying to Xander earlier I’m still adjusting to a 5-day-a-week talking to humans schedule after a very introverted summer (true, v relevant). I’m sure there’s other stuff, but that’s at the top of the list.
Stuff that’s happening now: James is writing a blog post that’s just fun facts about Ash. Ash is volunteering the facts he thinks will freak James out the most. Interesting data: Ash owns 15 porcelain clown dolls and his favorite is named Cheeky. Cheeky smells very musty, apparently.
Stuff that happened today: The first edition of The Agile Learner was published by Hugo and Iphy. It is very funny and good and includes a profile of Ryan’s cat and Interesting Data (instead of Fun Facts) and also an exposé about Luca’s lunch. Big stuff.
I went to close park with Xander, Savannah, Sterl and Sebastian and we played shark tag. I tripped over my own feet while trying to be sneaky and Xander laughed at me.
Speaking of Xander, he beat me many times at Pokemon showdown this afternoon and I am feeling very salty about it. I used to be a very sore loser and I’ve gotten a lot more graceful about it over time, but still, it doesn’t feel good to have all your best Pokemon get one-shotted, especially when you’re about to use Crunch, the best ever move.
Lots of singing today, because I’ve had all the songs from the Steven Universe Movie (a v v excellent movie) stuck in my head all week. We’ve been singing the hits all day –
Okay as I’m making this list I want to add all the songs from the movie so… I recommend watching it. I really love Steven Universe and I really love musicals and to watch my two loves combined into this one glorious package is magical.
An interaction from the beginning of blogging time:
James: Every odd number has an “e” in it
Me: Cool. Doesn’t every number have an “e” in it?
James: Uhh no.
Some things from earlier this week: I went to the Met and looked at photos of the moon with Olive, Mason, and Hugo, which was delightful. We walked through Central Park to get there and it was an absolutely beautiful September day, just really joyful all around. Shark tag has returned as Close Park tag of choice. Chemistry started up again this week, as did Anatomy and Physiology (Meet the Gastrointestinal System!). Several Pokemon walks were taken. And lots happened in DnD on Tuesday (I still have to write the recap) including the party’s first fight! Also, many other things happened not noted here or elsewhere (if a kid learns something and no one records it, how will they ever learn math???? a joke, a joke…)
It’s been a Friday! Stay tuned for DnD updates, etc.
This week, we officially started our Dungeons and Dragons campaign and I’m the DM! I am very, very excited about this game not only because it gives me an excuse to talk in funny voices but because I’ve never DMed before. The DM, or DungeonMaster, is in charge of worldbuilding – creating not only the landscapes that players encounter but the people, monsters, and adventures they discover therein. I’ve created a new tag on this blog to document what I can of this first adventure. The following is the intro to the world that I gave all our players as we sat down this past Tuesday to begin our first session…
Welcome to Susstra. This is a watery world, full of salt flats and marshes and evergreen islands dotting clear channels of fast-moving rivers and wide, deep slow sections where cities huddle, monopolizing a bridge or a ferry-crossing. This is a world of rapids and waterfalls, of canals and flood plains. The known continent – this one that we’re all inhabiting – is divided into many lands.
The creatures who inhabit these lands are as different as the waters that divide them. Some – like the halflings of the Shire – keep to themselves. Some – like the humanoids that populate the lowland salt flats – live in mixed communities where humans, half-orcs, dragonborn, teiflings, and all manner of elves live side by side. Lots of countryside is wild, and unclaimed; lots of it is also claimed by various kings, barons, councils, and collections of magic-wielders. Most clusters of people form townships; cities are rare and tend to be clustered around major ports. Generally, whatever local government runs the surrounding countryside with whatever magic, muscle, and manipulation they can manage; travelers generally stick to waterways, which are considered more neutral that highways on land (which tend to be dangerous, swarming with vicious highwaymen).
There are lots of gods in this world and demigods and semigods – lots of beings with power in this part of the universe. Here the streams of knowledge of how to manipulate energy, like the streams and rivers of the continent, are abundant and fractal. Magic is abundant. Wield enough of it, and you can call yourself whatever you want.
But also, be careful who you claim to be descended from, because the gods are present and can be prickly about how you talk about them. People worship freely to a pantheon of water deities like the many waterways of this land: fluid, branching, forever changing, sometimes nourishing, sometimes terrible. Parent gods are highly localized, often the anthropomorphization of rivers, lakes, harbors, waterfalls and other places of water that supports life. Clustered around them are their godly offspring and plentiful mortal children – both walk among mortal creatures. They called upon to bestow favors and, depending on how powerful they are, some can actually grant them. Not everyone cares, but the existence of the grandparents of all deities, the parents of all waters – Ocean, River, and Rain – is hotly debated among scholars, priests, and others interested in the divine.
This city, the city, Siilvan, is no mere sad feudal holding, it’s the greatest metropolis in this hemisphere. For as far as a boat can take you on this watery continent, all the way from ocean to unbroken ocean, this is where people – human, elf, dragonborn, teifling, halfing, dwarf, orc, and every bastardization thereof – came to live and die in hope and squalor. The city is tense and sprawling, crowded and squat, huddled on an archipelago of rocky islands, at the delta of three major rivers, where they flow together into one great channel and out to the open sea.
Some islands are for the rich, who rule the city by proxy through the governers, much spoken of but rarely visited, glimpsed only across the waters. Most islands are filled with the poor, and are filled with short buildings clustered chaotically around open-air marketplaces. The islands are linked by bridge and ferry; the waters between them are fast-moving and swirling with hard-to-predict currents which keep the poor from swimming over to and overwhelming the strongholds of the rich.
Everyone knows the governers are corrupt but most people feel neutral or resigned to them; this system has been in place for generations, becoming more and more corrupt but by slow degrees. Having the governers favor makes your life easier but they prefer to make life hard. You are here tonight because you’ve heard a rumor: someone here is a representative of the governers (or just one of them? a coalition? you’ve all heard different rumors) who is looking to assemble a multiracial team to do a big job, one that could earn you a spot on one of the nicer islands, a cushy life, gold for days, influence over the city, and the life you’ve only imagined. Only one job and then, your wildest dreams fulfilled. Seems almost too good to be true…
First of all, you should know that I love books, always have. Some of my first memories are being in a crib, full of books; I quickly grew to be the kind of kid who had to be told to stop reading and come eat dinner. My mother, a reading teacher, is a book lover herself, and so my growing-up was filled with trips to the public library and the bookstore and her classroom, where I could borrow whatever I wanted from the library she tended. Unsurprisingly, I’ve become the kind of adult who walks down the street reading; in fact, since I finished my schooling 6 years ago and rediscovered reading for pleasure, I’ve read nearly 500 books. I love genre fiction – fantasy and sci-fi novels are my bread and butter (metaphorically, of course, because I don’t eat bread) – but I’ve also been reading graphic novels, memoirs, nonfiction and basically whatever else I can get my hands on for most of my life.
I love reading but I also love the books themselves – the beautiful shapes and colors and art and poeticism of children’s books, the illustrative charts and maps and images in reference guides, the smooth feel of a new paperback, the musty smell of a well-worn hardcover. I love how they make a place feel like home. I love to run my eyes over the titles of books I’ll maybe read, maybe not; I love the promise of ideas.
When I got to ALC-NYC, there were already tons of books here. But they were unruly and overwhelmingly adult; the kind of library you get when well-meaning folks donate the books they no longer want to haul around their life. We had 5 copies of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but not a full set of Harry Potter. There were pockets of places where someone had clearly been poking at it – a few picture books displayed prominently on the back room windowsill, or a stash of Tamora Pierce novels at hand where a teen might find them in the library. I later learned a lot of those books were Abby’s personal books, brought in with specific kids in mind. There were lots of other kids books, but they were all about the space, willy-nilly; there was a library, but who knew what was on the shelves.
About a month into my first year ALFing, we had a staff work day; no kids in the space, just me, Ryan, and Abby, coming in to do what felt necessary for us. I gravitated towards the Library. Do you think it’s okay, I asked, if I move some of these books? I was a new baby facilitator, still deep in my ask-permission conditioning. I knew what I wanted, but I hadn’t yet given myself permission to act on my desires without first receiving outside approval.
Of course you can move the books, Abby and Ryan told me. Do what you want.
It wasn’t that straightforward, of course – I asked many times and received many variations on that answer. I asked about putting books out of sight so I could make others more visible, and about getting rid of old, outdated texts with harmful contents, and trusting my intuition about which books to feature. I don’t remember exactly what I asked my co-facilitators, three years ago now, but I do remember the feeling: is this real? Am I allowed? Am I taking up too much space? I’m grateful for their clarity and support: this is your real job. You are allowed to shape your role with your desires. The space you occupy is valuable to us, and to this community.
Offhandedly, a few months later, Abby told me that she’d listed me as the librarian on one of our mandated government forms; just like that, I realized I already was. It was my first medium-is-the-message experience in self-directed education and it was a powerful one.
I’ve rearranged the Library many times since then; I’ve come to understand the way it has aliveness and needs to be tended, like a garden. I’ve learned a lot about making a welcoming space, when to offer books and when to strew them in discoverable places, how to listen for what texts we need this season. Being Librarian means I get to be guide and guard and gardener; serving as librarian is part of facilitating in my joy. I became ALC-NYCs librarian by noticing my desire and giving myself permission to act on it, just as any good self-directed learner does.
Well, turns out three years of practice does make a difference. Earlier this week everyone in spawn was all talking at once, and the 8-year-old facilitator was completely distracted with his lego, and no one had written anything on the board, and I could hear kids from the other spawns already out in the hall, finished with their meetings when we hadn’t even started, and I wasn’t worried about it. Past Mel would have felt pressured to do something, but I didn’t. I resisted the urge to take control, to make the meeting more “efficient,” and I was able to tolerate the discomfort (less than it once was, after the practice of many chaotic spawns) because I really do trust the kids now. A big part of it is noticing where my schoolishness wants to eat that trust and actively choosing to reject the impulses of ordering, controlling, and making things smooth; another is recognizing the assumption that order, control, or smoothness are the primary goals of the meeting, rather than authentic presence, reflection, and relationship-building. Time is weird, but sometime in the last three cycles I’ve begun giving myself permission to relax in noticing the ways that it is circular. Things are how they are right now, so notice them. Be present in that noticing. Spawn is chaotic and that slows things down but we are here: a teen is trying to help the 8-year-old decide how to set the gameshifting board, a kid who has been practicing is sounding really good playing piano, everyone’s body posture is relaxed and sleepy this morning. This is only the second day of school. There’s plenty of time.
After a summer of littles, I’m particularly grateful to be back in a self-directed space with pre-teens and teens; I was reflecting on this after I spent a lot of yesterday talking to @timotree and @muffinsthecutest. We started with which language-learning apps we like (estamos practicando espanol!) and then, organically, moved through conversations about gender, patricarchy, the origins of hegemony, conspiracy theories, what money is, individual actors vs organizations, climate change, theories and schemas for manifesting cultural shifts, brains and bodies and networks and emergent strategy and so much more; a pretty comprehensive list of some of my favorite subjects to swirl my brain around. There are lots of kinds of self-directed spaces, and lots of kinds of play, but this particular kind – where we float on a conversational tide of our interests – is one that I love, and am grateful for the intellectual challenge of.
More first week highlights: ramping up a really big D&D game thanks to Xander’s enthusiasm and organization, lots of humans playing the piano, reconnecting over our fandoms, listening to culture keepers discuss culture hacking, a smooth(er) cleanup time than the end of last year, sharing books, listening to Sebastian’s evil laugh echoing down the hall, the return of geoguessr, wikitrails, and coup, the invention of a new currency, age-mixed roblox, naming the new projector, and listening to Timo and Iphy explain active voice to Hugo (happening right now!). Exciting things to come: field trips, park trips, the return of volunteer-led offerings like Acro and cook noob, art projects, anatomy and physiology, and a pokemon showdown tournament (that I might stand a chance in – we’ll see!). First things first: the D&D crew got $150 from finance club today to go to the Strand and Forbidden Planet on Monday to get supplies! Yay for a new year!
Honestly, I can’t believe the summer’s over. I’m writing this on Labor Day; tomorrow, I meet up with the other ALFs to do some last-minute school prep and the day after, we start! While I’m sure it’s cliched of me to say that this summer has flown by, it’s also true – it’s felt like time outside of time. I stayed in the city for the whole summer for the first time in my adult life, and it was a surreal experience. I moved back to the neighborhood in Brooklyn where I lived as a tiny human and spent most of July reflecting on what home is, what it means to be from somewhere, what it means to belong to a place. I also worked this summer at Play:ground NYC, where I learned loads about risky play, boundary setting, and how important it is to care for your body with adequate food and hydration and rest (especially when you’re working outside in the hundred degree weather!); as a bonus, I got to ride the ferry there and back as a part of my three-island commute.
But time does exist and our rock continues to hurtle through the void through its cycle; today is for intention setting, more than reflection and sharing. (With an eye towards more, bigger reflection and sharing to come – I’ve got some bubbling projects that I’m excited about!) So here it is, a list of my intentions for this, my 4th (!!!) year at ALC-NYC.
Feed and water my physical body as though the quality of my facilitation depends on it (it does!). Eat whole fruits and vegetables, drink the clean, free water that comes out of the taps, don’t skip meals, prepare the majority of the food I eat myself from whole ingredients.
Go on weekly field trips! I’ve started a list of free things to do in NYC (should I post it on this blog?) and want to prioritize trips that are financially accessible to all. I particularly want to (re)visit the museums I love most dearly: the Met, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Brooklyn Museum.
Go outside! Play tag. Learn to identify trees. Become familiar with the birds in our neighborhood. Explore Central Park beyond our northern corner. Practice handstands. Swing. Hang upside down. Be in the sunshine and the weather.
Write write write! I have a zine project with a clear goal that I intend to publish by the end of 2019. Also, I’d like to publish more blog posts than I did last year – particularly of the short-reflective, and long-resource flavors.
Make art! I intend to do inktober again, and I’m thinking about NatNoWriMo. I intend to carve and print lino blocks, to make watercolors, to draw in ink and pencil. I intend to make unplanned art messes and crochet corals and splatter paint and play piano and sing and dance and and and…
Learn more Spanish! My baby Spanish is sad… but it doesn’t have to be. I intend to practice daily with duolingo, podcasts, translating books, listening to pop music, and friends…
DM a DnD game! I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons before, but I’ve never been the Dungeonmaster. Last year, I played a Pathfinders game that was fun for a while and then petered out – then, over the summer, one of those players asked me if we could bring it back! This time, I’ll be making the world and running the monsters and I’m so excited about it…
Learn about the body! I’m looking forward to continuing to learn about anatomy and physiology with the crew from last year, and I’m also hoping to do some more exploring of ways to support my body and others’ as we navigate challenges. We’re all just meat robots running on electricity and will be for as long as we’re alive; it feels like an important thing to learn about how that works!
I have a tendency to set really lofty intentions and this isn’t really an exception; but I have noticed that writing down my intentions helps me keep them, and that most of these are things I was already doing as I facilitated in my joy last year. Here’s to another year of adventures!
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 andothers, 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.
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.
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.
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)!
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 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.
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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]
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.]
A couple months ago I posted about School of the Alternative – a self-directed art camp for grownups that I applied to go play at. This week, I went and came back again. I’m still processing, and there’s a post that I’m dreaming up about slime and soma and distributed networks and non-hierarchical education for all (or maybe a book I’m writing, or a notpoem, or a big ole’ installation…) but I’m not ready to write it today. Today I’m writing about reentry. It’s been hard, and I see three reasons for it.
One is that I’m simply tired – I ran my body to the ground because I wanted to get the most [waking hours] out of the 6 days that I was playing with the brilliant humans who came together at SotA. Your human body is made of meatstuff and it needs sleep and water and good food and regular schedules to feel good. Fine. I live with these choices.
The second is that I feel a real loss of the intimacy of the community of SotA – the shared vocabulary that mushroomed up among us after days of Clump and slime and sharing and falling and late nights and early mornings and workshares and meals and being present with one another and our bodies. I miss my friends and the liminal space we created staying up until 2 in the morning making stickers, or walking through the woods in the pouring rain to go scream into the void. I’m unbelievably grateful to have had the opportunity to be there, to make obscene amounts of slime, to commune with other weirdos, to yell about my soma, to hold and be held by the brilliant, creative, generative artists who are collaborating there and carrying on the legacy of Black Mountain College. The depth of my grief is a testament to how powerful the spacemaking at SotA is. I’m grateful for this grief.
The third reason that re-entry has been hard is that, for as much as ALC-land is aligned in principal with SotA, there is a massive difference between being an adult communitying with other adults, and being an adult who is responsible for the safety of children. This is the bit I’m working out here, today.
Part of my intention behind going to SotA was to experience being facilitated, to be a participant in a space that I was not actively coherence holding. A coherence holder, as I’m using it, is the person who makes the thing happen – who makes sure everyone’s dietary restrictions are accounted for and there is enough to eat, or that the right doors are unlocked, or the tape and scissors are where we need them, or the schedule is hung up, or the translation work is done, or everyone on the email chain is clear which piece of the puzzle they’re holding. In the abstract, as an adult coherence holder for this ALC space, it’s my responsibility to make sure that ALC-NYC is as physically, mentally, and emotionally safe as possible, so that the childpeople of this community are free to play, explore, learn, create, choose, heal, and thrive. It’s a job I don’t take lightly.
I’ve noticed, upon reentry, that we aren’t our usual May selves this year. Usually by this point, the school culture is so strong that safe-space-making is held between the ALFs and the kids easily, lightly. When I think about May, I remember the feelings of twice-a-week field trips and playing with visitors and going to the park every day and finishing all the last-minute magic that comes up. I’m acutely aware, this week, just how much energy I’m expending reminding people not to bring their chase game into the quiet room, or that pushing someone is breaking our “respect yourself and others” agreement, or that you should only have to say “stop rule” once. I’m expending energy on volume management and clean-up logistics. I’m repeating myself. At other points in the year, this is par for the course – in May, it’s frustrating.
The primary difference between this space and any other where I might be working with kids is the amount of agency they have – the degree to which they are empowered to collaborate in our culture. I’m curious how we found ourselves, this May, expecting the adults to hold cleanup, and conflict resolution, and community care. I do this work because I believe in science fiction – I believe that children are brilliant people who have the ability to generate visionary worlds. Looking at the last four (ahh!) weeks of school, I’m wondering how we can aid and abet our best selves, the ones who actively care for one another, rather than do the minimum of harm. I’m thinking about how care is pleasure, and dreaming of ways to share these thoughts that are careful not to use my power-over to impose these beliefs on children.
Not all of these last two days has been frustrating, and I don’t want to overemphasize the parts that have been hard. Some of these frustrations will always be a part of this work – I’ve never been to a self-directed space for kids that isn’t constantly talking about how to make cleanup go more smoothly. The nature of this work [with children] is that children are constantly changing – they ramble through chaos which crashes back through them as they change and that’s growing. The place of difficulty is also the wellspring of magic.
In the last two days I’ve collaborated with children in playing at least 6 varieties of tag in two parks in the rain and the beautiful spring sunshine, singing the Steven Universe theme song really, really loudly, watching ants crawl on our hands, making art messes, hugging a tree, hanging upside down, learning how blood clots, punning around, and discussing the healing power of visionary fiction. I’m dreaming of ways to spend the last weeks of school putting my attention on collaborations like these (what you put your attention on grows!).
I’m deeply grateful to my #SuperALFTeam for making space for me to leave and come back again. I’m grateful to School of the Alternative, for making space for me to come play with their magic. I’m grateful to all the past-three-years Mels who did the work of holding contradiction so I could write this post. I’m grateful for slime, and flocking, and Emergent Strategy, and the lessons of distributed networks that are clamoring all around me. And I’m grateful we’re not done yet.
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!