Club House Democracy
'Tactics means doing what you can with what you have.'
The Journal and What's Missing
I started by gathering together papers and scribbles and agendas and class meeting minutes from several years of teaching. Then I began a web page, putting up this information and adding comments and self-interviews. It came to nothing for lack of time. Finally, I began the Journal, which was to be a running report combined with thoughts and explanations. The idea being that at the end I would sit down and make sense of it. The problem with reading the Journal in this form is that it isn't finished, and probably won't ever be. The broad outlines of Club House Democracy begin to emerge, but a lot remains to be said.
The Journal Begins
I have several years of experimenting with meetings and self-management at my school to look back on. It has twisted and turned in shape as I have become more experienced, and as the kids have, year after year, taken up previous classes, ideas and run with some of what went before and then added new things.
Last week, for instance, we introduced the idea of a 'strong warning' which I stole from my Summerhill visit last July. I didn't intend this, but a situation came up that seemed to fit such a meeting proposal, so I told the kids about how Summerhill used the idea, and they immediately adopted it. I imagine it will remain as an option for some time to come.
I'm not sure where to begin. The whole business at my school changed drastically with the retirement of older teachers and the arrival of young people who were interested in what I was doing. This year, for the first time, there is the prospect of students starting the process of what we call 'Club House Democracy' at 8 years of age and moving through five years of teachers who are committed to the same ideals of sharing power with children. [In the USA grade 1 means 6 - 7 year-olds, so the children in grade 4 are aged 9 - 10.] Last year the grade 4 and 5 teachers, Ben and Nora, began adopting my basic methods with considerable success. However, another teacher, in her first year, took my grade 6 kids into grade 7 and it didn't work out that well. She was sharing responsibilities with a very undemocratic teacher (a tyrant), and the class I passed on to them soon fell apart, often reverting to either out of control or passive-aggressive behavior, depending on whom they were with. This year is turning out quite differently: the tyrant has left, I am seeing my last year's class at least once a day, and they are ardently pursuing class government and management – with the encouragement of that new teacher, who is going to be very good indeed.
So I have moved up and am starting the year with grade 8 instead of grade 6. We have initiated grade 7 and 8 meetings and activities to help make it all seem like one unified place. There is a concerted effort to get all five classes on the top floor feeling that they have common democratic foundations by mixing up teachers and activities and meetings as often as possible.
The question mark is going to be the grade 6 class, who had the Club House Democracy concept introduced to them in grade 5. They have ended up with two teachers, neither of whom know anything about what we are doing. We have promoted our ideas, given them workshop benches and tools and supplies, encouraged them to start meetings and so on, but they are a bit older and more experienced than the three young teachers in grades 4, 5, and 7, and so are more conservative – and a bit afraid to bust things loose (after all, democracy ain't in the curriculum).
Last week, however, one of the teachers took me up on an offer to help with meetings and to help with getting the workshop going. The kids here are not the issue – they can run a meeting and administrate a workshop – it is the teachers (who are willing, but hesitant and inexperienced).
So this sets the scene ... Ben had his very first meeting with the grade 4's last week. We chatted beforehand and then he went in and basically said to them, 'Listen, I'd like to share my authority with you. I'd like you to make rules and solve some problems yourself. Would you like to share the authority or do you want me to make all of the decisions?' He took a vote and of course 100% voted to share. He then proceeded to chair a first meeting, which, to his astonishment, ran to recess - at which time an 8-year-old raised his hand and made a motion to adjourn and then continue after the break.
Maureen, the grade 7 teacher, needed a supply on Friday, and in the past that class has done nothing but torture supplies. In grade 5 they were quite traumatized. They had two teachers as a result of contract stuff, and the one they saw the most hated them (really). When she wasn't predicting that they would all end up in jail she was away so much that the supplies – short and long term – must have been there at least a third of the time. So when they got to me in grade 6 I promised them I wouldn't not be there unless deathly ill, and I managed to keep my promise. Even on days when I was due time off I would give it to others and teach them instead – in order to prove to the children that I did care about them.
The supply teacher who arrived to teach the new grade 7's was a guy who looked about eighteen. We all stared at one another with 'eyes of demise'. We thought – Oh well. However, Maureen was there for the first hour and had time to let the kids run the start of the day. She also explained how the students are involved in class decisions and a bit about our philosophy. The fellow, attending teachers' college, had of course never heard about the type of program we were running but was very much taken by it. The kids knew he had made the effort to come in early to see them do things, and when Maureen left he was able to get into that space. The result, to our general surprise, was a decent day for all.
The 'Mess Up The Class' Game
Ben is trying to get the grade 4's to loosen up a bit (they had quite an old-fashioned teacher last year), and at the same time he wants to get them to be disciplined in certain areas.
Last week, after their second Class Meeting he came to me and said: 'Gotta find a way to get them to vote against a motion. They always pass everything.'
I said, 'Make a proposal to cancel Phys. Ed. and another to double math and see what happens.'
Anyway, Brad and I play 'mess up the class' games, where I come into his room and change things around, or take things that are his while the students are there, or if he leaves (on purpose), I come in and ask the kids why they are working if the teacher is gone, and challenge them to stop, or get them to leave the room with me and hide, etc. He, on the other hand, tells them I am going to try such things and asks them not to let me interfere.
We were doing this in the area where the grade 4's enter – they have two flights of stairs and a long hallway to walk down. This is hard for little kids, who see an empty space and want to run into it. It is also an area of bureaucratic surveillance. So we try and get the kids to relax and be invisible. Anyway, as they were coming in I smiled at Daisy, who is a bundle of natural energy – it bursts out of her body. I yelled, 'Let's dance, Daisy!' and ran over and put my arms out. She grabbed my hands and we proceeded to sing in nonsense and dance in circles in the middle of the hall.
Suddenly, though, she looked around and went, 'Oh no,' and ran back in line. I tried various ways of disrupting the rest, grabbing at sleeves, standing in front of them, growling and so on. They kept on going.
This is only a useful exercise if it is properly followed up. If Brad doesn't explain the concept of 'context' to the students then it is quite wrong. Daisy must be told that the dancing was great, that her desire to play was wonderful and so on, and then she must be told that the only reason that she is to ignore me is because of the time and place.
The Town Within The School
In a state school life is very complex. The 'town' is upon you. The kids are in the soup, in the fish tank of the town. Just as Summerhill has rules covering the behavior of community members while out in the town, we try to develop rules for the 'town' within the school. Which is tricky, because the town here isn't a place. It is a time and situation. The kids are clever though. They catch on quickly.
As a counter balance it is important that outrageous behaviour is encouraged. The kids and I steal stuff from other teachers, kidnap other students, invade other classrooms – singing and shouting until everything is disrupted into a laughing celebration. I throw mock tantrums. I walk on desks as I teach. We toss boxes of paper clips in the air and so on.
Near the end of last year the kids were having a dance. I stay out of dances and let students run and control them by themselves. I remain in the room for 'legal' reasons. At one point all of the children were dancing to a rap number and Alan jumped up on the outside ring of tables and pretended to sing. Then a few other boys got up behind him and became his group. Linda, a bit concerned, looked my way. I just smiled. Before long the whole class was up and dancing on tables, in a completely safe way. When the song came to an end they all cheered and jumped carefully down.
A little while later, Maureen climbed up onto a table and started to scream. Immediately several other kids told her to get down. She stopped, and did so.
We try to deconstruct some of the mythology of teacher control and power. With the 6's I always I play 'mean teacher', which children love. I tell them that teachers like nothing better than to have kids fear them. I pretend to be working at the blackboard and then a student dares to cough. I turn about with a glare and they all scream in terror, and then laugh hysterically.
Another favorite is 'Here comes the teacher'. I stand at the door and say, 'What a fantastic class. It is such a relief to be able to trust you all to keep on working and not go crazy while I leave to run off these papers.' Then I leave and they all scream and bang as loud as they can. One student is posted at the door. After a couple of minutes I nod and that student says, 'Here comes the teacher.' By the time I enter they are busy pretending to work away. I then say, 'Wow. I can't believe it. You people are the best.' Kids will ask to play these games many times over.
It is important to do rather dumb things. Last week as the children were coming up the stairs I sat down on a step, leaned against the wall, closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. The students knew what I was up to and so they filed by, some whispering, 'Shh. He's asleep,' or 'Don't wake him.' Some giggled. Finally, one boy in grade 5 poked me on the shoulder. I sleepily opened my eyes and he said, 'I think you better get to class.' 'Oh... oh gee, thanks,' I answered, stood slowly up, stretched, and continued on my way.
The purpose of these and other antics is to continually shake up phony good behavior, to make the students understand the reason for freely chosen self-discipline that will be to their advantage, and to debunk some of the teacher clichés and learning situations found in the state school. Playing games that break through the false walls between the common humanity of teacher and student energizes and excites children.
As I said, it is a bit complex, and does have to be done properly because in many ways we walk a very thin line between guerrilla teaching and reinforcing the status quo.
A Democratic Space
The foundation of Club House Democracy is in the physical environment, although I did begin using democratic meetings from my alternative school days before I had this completely figured but. Kids need room to do stuff. Without it, there is no place, no Club House. With no Club House there is nothing to govern. With nothing to govern there is no need for democracy. There is just some kind of mini insurance company office with a grouchy boss.
About the third year of teaching regular classes I had decided that it was necessary to blow up the classroom. I started by getting rid of the big metal desks that I had in grade 6 and trading them for some middle-sized but really old and run down wooden ones. After measuring the areas of both types and multiplying by 32 I discovered that I could gain a ton of area by using the old ones. Then I messed about with configurations until I could get the desks into as small a space as possible. When the children came into the room that year I explained why I had done this, and said that if the tight space became a nuisance they could pass a motion to change it. They didn't.
I teach in an old school, with large rooms and very high ceilings and great wide hallways. My next challenge was to find a way to get rid of the coat area in my classroom, so I could use it for a work space. I had control of the computer lab across the hall because I was the site manager. I used this role, and the rapport that I had established with our old principal, to get him to let my class put their coats in the computer lab's back coat area. Presto, we had workshop space.
I had desks on one side of the room, and to the left I had a lounge with a rug and chairs (this later became a drama area when we built a stage). At the back we put workbenches. We had an area for junk and wood storage, and tables for crafts. There was also a sink and counter and cupboards. That was our art area. At the front there was a class library. Here and there we put chess sets (we eventually got 15 chess sets – grade 6's are often chess mad). I also used a variety of partitions to give the illusion of many separate areas, and to give the space some visual interest.
So we had a Club House. And this place had to have rules and committees to run it, and meetings had to be held for this – and to discuss problems that arose from having a 'living' space. The democracy, therefore, had some reason for existing. As I had hoped, the place became theirs. And because it was theirs the students took strict ownership over it and what went on there, including, quite quickly, more direct self-control over their own learning.
Perspective and Influence – How To Go Democratic
Politics comes into this, and experience. It is necessary to get to a free school or an alternative school, and to read about them – I ran one for eight years. Without that perspective I would not at times know what to bend, how far to push. You need to see kids in a free environment to know what they are capable of.
And I decided to stay in one place, one with the right architecture, because if you stay in one place while all around you – teachers, principals – come and go, you end up – not with power, but with a whole lot of influence. You also have to know how to deconstruct the personalities of a wide range of administrative types. Know how to gain their friendship, know how to deliver the goods they want, so that they trust you. Then they will leave you alone and let you experiment. Leave you alone to be yourself.
Last year one of the younger teachers said to me in a joking way, 'Yes, well, you can do that because you're Leonard.' What that means is what I just talked about – influence, not power. Giving in when giving in will give you back what is much more important, creative freedom to free children.
Club House Areas
Kids need to do things, to hammer and saw and create. It siphons off bound-up energy, it lets non-academic thinkers gain pride and self esteem. It fosters meditative focus on freely chosen action, which is the lynchpin of learning. It allows kids at school to come closer to the state of play. Which is essential. Club House Democracy is playful. When we set up the stage at the side of the classroom there was another creative explosion, equal to the one caused by the workshop and art areas. It is, I feel now, an absolutely essential part of a Club House.
How are these areas used? Well non-academically as much as possible. In other words you give students supplies, get the supplies they want, and leave them alone unless they ask for help. You can also adapt the areas to curricula. Last year in a Space unit we built Mars Stations, which was a way of taking three weeks and letting kids bring in and dismantle stereos, vacuum cleaners, tape decks and so on and then reassemble them in a cornucopia of constructions with glue guns and hammer and nails. They spent hours at this and the results were amazing.
The school I am at now knows that I visit Summerhill, and I have given younger teachers information about Neill. At a meeting of the Junior/Intermediate classes that I lead I have spoken of Homer Lane and Neill. The principal knows about this, but I don't go out of my way to discuss it with her.
We can be up front about our influences because the system we are using works in an inner city school, known throughout the city for its unruly children.. It worked for me first, and so for several years I was simply asked to civilize the most outrageous groups. Then last year it worked for Nora and Ben.
When I first decided to start democratic meetings and kids sharing in teacher authority I had to come up with some rationale and some terms that wouldn't worry administrators. I figured I had to stay clear of saying free, and alternative, and Summerhill. What I did was to co-opt new ideas in corporate management, figuring that it would fit right into the business rhetoric. So I read books like Business Without Bosses which has references to a variety of international corporations, and books like 'Self-Directed Work Teams', and 'Delegating For Results'. I used the phrase ''student self-management'' – which was a hit! It, is now, of course, more sophisticated and called Club House Democracy.
Last Year's Deal
Club House Democracy, then, had been a success with grade 4, 5 and 6 classes. In January of last year, the principal sent me a little note that said, 'Would you be interested in teaching grade 8 next year?'
These students, as you may remember, would be the class I had taught in grade 6. I thought about it and then went to see her. I was able to say what I said because of politics. I had cemented a very trusting relationship with her. So I said, 'Well, it would be interesting, but the grade 8 curriculum is crap. In Junior you get to let them do and play. In grade 7 and 8 it becomes overly academic and a lot of the kids are not ready. A lot of the ones who aren't ready become frustrated and hostile and end up in the local gangs. It also makes kids who are good in areas other than academics feel like failures. Then they are supposed to choose an academic or vocational high school – well, they choose vocational not because they feel smart about that kind of thing but because they feel stupid about academics, which is absolutely idiotic. So, except for math and English, I would want freedom to play and bend the curricula, and I would need tools and a workshop and a stage. In fact I would want to keep my old room.
She said she agreed with me. I continued: 'And the other problem is size. All the classrooms from grade 1 to 8 are the same size but the kids get bigger and bigger, so that in grade eight all you see is a sea of people crammed into large desks with no space to do anything at all. I'd like to move the computer lab into the basement and use the room as a multi-use space that would be managed by the grade 8's for building, art, science, drama and so on.'
She agreed to that too. So I said yes, I would take the 8's. In addition, I get to see the 7's (my last year's grade 6 class) at least once a day. And we moved the 4's upstairs. Nora and Ben and I are on the same floor, with Maureen and the two new grade 6 teachers. The bonus is that the grade 8 class is very small, so that I didn't have to change the basic layout of my room at all.
But how would the 8's respond to Club House Democracy now that they were two years older? I was determined to fashion a kid environment. To let them play. To let them have a chance to drop phony sophistication.
Last year too many of the 8's were deep into street gangs and drug taking and some into drug dealing, and the 7 and 8's were into threats and persecution. It was one nasty scene. The good kids were left impotent and despondent. Their teacher was a huge man who ran the classroom like a police state. Nora and Ben and Maureen and I were determined to turn that around. In preparation, and with the help of the principal, we 'graduated' a few kids to early high school programs, refused to take others who were on alternate school forms, and prepared a top floor for Club House Democracy.
Making A Start
At the beginning of the school year the grade 8 group was familiar with the Club House Democracy structure, from their year in grade 6. They knew about class meetings, taking ownership of their own classroom as a social and learning environment, and about the sharing of authority. There was an easiness with the lay of the land. However, there wasn't much social cohesion. In grade 7 the class had been ripped apart by feuds and connections with outside gangs and threats and intimidation outside of the classroom that bordered on the illegal. This was not helped by last year's grade 8 class, many of whom were, for lack of a better word, criminal apprentices connected to drugs and drug dealing and with gangs that were in the high schools.
There were, then, hard feelings and cliques. The group had shattered into singles and pairs and threesomes. This was not a positive situation for Club House Democracy, where the majority must care about the community. Add this to a stale year of learning and it was no surprise to find that the children's sense of adventure, their desire to act out of their own creative energies, was pretty much blocked. I could tell the first day. They were grumbling but all set to open textbooks, and to do old fashioned classroom assignments. In fact they appeared – well, catatonic. I was alarmed how one year had turned an absolutely vibrant group into ... sheep.
So I decided to scrap regular learning. I wasn't about to give them what they thought they wanted – which was to have their time filled up with directives from above, and then follow a variety of passive or aggressive theatre scripts with the teacher-authority-figure.
There were, of course, some students who volunteered for positions of action/authority, and the class went ahead and approved a variety of committees almost out of rote memory. But most of what they voluntarily voted to do wasn't acted upon. There were hardly any rowdy days or situations. The days were calm and easy going, but dysfunctional nonetheless.
Those who chose to be on committees or lead meetings were 'younger' in outlook, more Junior students than anything, who were enjoying improving self-esteem by taking those positions. Needless to say there were many times when the class didn't pay a great deal of attention to them.
On the second day of school I introduced an art lesson with many choices and options. The results were dreadful. The next day I took the artwork, and held it up; 'I gotta tell ya – and you know I like you all – but this stuff ...'
'... is no good,' volunteered one of the kids.
'Well, yeah, actually it's worse than that.'
They laughed. Then I pointed to some of the banners they had designed in grade 6, which were still hanging from our high ceiling. 'Now, look at this, and this – and that one – those are really good. They show some care and enthusiasm,' and so on. Then, one by one, I held the new stuff up again and we all went Blech.
Then, with good humor, I told them that in my personal opinion they were, well, they were – apathetic – catatonic (not catatomic, which were atomic cats, I pointed out) – and I said that they seemed to be waiting for the teacher to organize their lives. I said I wasn't going to do that. I then said that we were going to put on a conceptual art show and that we would start the next day and they could either take part or find other things for themselves to do. I didn't care what except they had to leave others alone. My feeling was that the kids would either benefit from the group action on the art, or with being presented with empty time that they had to fill.
The Meditation-Learning Loop
I balanced all of this with very short and specific academic lessons, during which I told them about the brain and how it 'turns on' when a person is interested and turns off when not. I told them that one of the difficult things about a classroom was that most of what they do they don't want to do. I discussed the meditation-learning loop – how concentration on an action loops back when they are involved, and allows them to 'zone' into an action with superior results. We talked about the concentration they experience when skateboarding or doing other chosen activities. I said that all activities that allow them to concentrate in this way provide practice for better learning.
I said that if they could teach themselves to find whatever they could to hang on to, of a positive nature, during learning in the artificial environment of a classroom, then they would do better. And I said that if they could make this trick work for them, could activate the meditation loop when they needed to, then I wouldn't have to give them as much regular work. I told them that one reason that teachers give so many repetitive assignments is that they know students don't care and don't try, so that the results are not good. Teachers think the only way to get kids to improve is to repeat and repeat. I said that if they did their best I could give them, say, five writing assignments instead of ten. Then we could do neat stuff with the extra time.
This is hard to write about ... because it looks like lectures but actually it was all delicately slipped in over many days at appropriate times; quickly, and most often light-heartedly. And the kids like it, because it's about giving them power, and they know it.
Introducing the Art Show Idea
The Art Show was to be a vehicle for several things. I have the extra room this year and I have convinced the principal that it should be a multi-use studio managed by the grade 8's. My hope was that the 8's could imagine whatever they wanted to do and do it, and that they would naturally end up interacting as older and wiser community members with the younger kids along the top floor. I also hoped it would help the non-academic students gain self-esteem, since I was sure that there would be a strong physical/practical component to all of this.
I had visited the Tate Modern and Hayward Galleries in London during the summer and was delighted with the large sculptures, the conceptual and industrial art. I thought that it would be a neat thing for kids to do.
So I introduced these ideas to the class. I showed them pictures from the galleries. I described the art, especially art that could be experienced by participation. I threw out a few ideas. I outlined a plan for a show.
I was concerned about pushing all of them at this but I also knew that they needed a concrete example of how the room could be used, and then I figured they would take it from there.
Five weeks in, this does seem to be the case. At the last class meeting they decided that they wanted to build a haunted house for Halloween and after that hold a Play Festival for the top floor. They have already circulated a letter to the other classes asking the class meetings to vote on whether or not they want to participate. So, with the Art Show decided upon, I simply gave them time, many periods, many hours, and each day I would throw out ideas and ask if anyone would like to follow up on them. I would also start a piece of art and ask if anyone wanted to continue it. We produced conceptual art through a combination of individual work, collaborative work, and sometimes with students acting as my assistants, all of which seemed appropriate since they had no real experience with these modern art forms.
After A Month
The 7 and 8's went to Queenston Heights for the day last week. It is a huge park and no one was there. We hiked. They clambered around on the little-kid climbing equipment. They played capture the flag in the woods with Maureen. We had hot dogs and hamburgers. They played tennis and hide and seek. Jim, the special ed. teacher that I had asked to help out, said, 'I can't believe them. How well behaved they were on the bus, and at the park.'
Later he came to me again at the school and said, 'It's just happy up here. All the kids are smiling. The older ones are mixing with the younger ones. It's like a totally different place.' That was after one month.
As well as preparing for our Art Show we have also done math, media studies, spelling, geography and science in a stripped down way and all, as much as possible, with student input. I emphasized that there were certain things they simply had to do if they weren't going to be blindsided by high school.
They asked, 'Why?' and I said; 'Well, look, some of it makes sense, yeah? The other stuff is like this ... Let's pretend that in high school, the kids have to hop on one leg from classroom to classroom. Well, it's pretty stupid, but if we didn't spend a little time hopping about this year you'd fall over next year.' They laughed, but got the point.
Spelling was interesting. The spelling book has a lot of language in it, and can be of some use in that area. On the other hand there is no way that a good third of the class could spell a lot of the list words.
So I told them we weren't going to do tests, just the work. And I explained that I thought that it would be useful; and showed them why I thought that. Then I made a motion to do two spelling units and then evaluate. This was passed. At the end of the second unit I gave them a survey:
1. Did you find anything useful... if so, what?
2. If you want to do spelling, do you want to choose the exercises you think would be best for you, or do you want me to choose?
3. Do you want spelling tests?
Most kids said yes to number one, and most said they wanted to choose their own exercises but 90% voted against tests. This was intriguing, so when I reported back what they had decided I said that since so many thought spelling was of some use, why the anti-test vote?
Their answers: 'I know the words before we even do the lesson.' 'By the time I'm finished the unit I know the words so what's the point?' 'I can't spell most of them and studying a list never did help. If it did, then how come after nine years of school spelling tests I still can't spell?' 'It's generally a waste of a period when we could be doing something a lot more interesting.'
I didn't say what I thought – that for most kids it was a genuine phobia from when they were little. At that point their self-esteem had been challenged by the slavish adherence to a weekly test. For many it was a first memory of being turned into a number out of twenty, of being compared unfavorably to others, of not being officially good. Even when I proposed that we do the test just for fun, for their own information, it was soundly voted down. And you know, they really had covered the Above Average, the Average and the Below: the Above, 'Why bother?', the Average, 'I learn most of it by working the exercises,' and the Below, 'I ain't gonna learn 'em anyway.'
Building an Art Show
As the Art Show work progressed we had a lucky accident. One of the parents knew of a cabinet-maker's shop that had tons of scrap wood. She started to bring in boxes of it, all shapes, all sizes. Suddenly there was a flurry of car and truck making by the boys. A number of students also began a large abstract sculpture. They said 'We're going to make it taller than Rob.' When it collapsed we decided to call the art show Not Taller Than Rob, in its honor. All of these objects were put together, generally, with the use of glue guns and small nails.
There were a few students who wanted to read, or play chess, or do homework. Every day we kept inventing new projects:
- Fish Tank Lasagna – a fish tank turned into a see-through lasagna. wood for pasta, chess pieces, rulers, marbles, pipe insulation etc. for fillings. Shaved plastic for a cheese topping.
- A large black and white striped board with striped black and white disks nailed all over it, that could spin and change the overall pattern.
- A board painted black covered with science goggles, white eyeballs of cardboard in the glasses.
- A large black rectangular box edged with wood and covered deeply in popsicle sticks. A stepladder was at the end, with fake binoculars, to look down at this landscape. Pictures of trees flattened after a volcano, and later a Siberian meteor, were taped onto the ladder.
- Nate and Audrey glue-gunned a chess set onto a chess board, placed this into a large plastic container, and then over several days submerged the game in multi-coloured layers of jello.
The Meaning of Art
The kids had great fun discovering that their ideas and perceptions could be changed by the art. They also discovered that humans often want to have everything have an obvious meaning, or they can become frustrated.
One piece for the show was a large black rectangle covered with two sizes of wooden wheels. It just looked cool. When a teacher came in and asked what it was one student said, 'Wheels on a board.' The teacher said, 'Oh.'
Then a second student said, 'Or the Milky Way.'
The kids were amused that the teacher preferred this. It gave the piece a 'reason'.
I brought in a ton of wire and copper pipe and pipe insulation and anything else I thought would be fun. I would hold it up in the morning and ask, 'Anyone want this?' Or sometimes I would think of a funny idea and ask who might want to do it.
One day I was walking home from school and I saw a crew threading plastic piping through an underground sewer. I said, 'That' s neat stuff. It'd be good for my art class.' The young fellow smiled and cut me a whole section. The next day John drilled holes through it, threaded cut up black foam insulation through the holes, and made a centipede.
Another day I brought in a bag of black plastic pull-ties and the kids ended up pulling them tightly around a long piece of wood, with the ends sticking out. Then they stuck a white Styrofoam ball on the end of each.
'What's that?' I asked.
When the boys had finished with their cars and trucks they got a board, edged it with wood, and ran out to the back lot to get a bucket of sand. They made a sand hill and arranged the vehicles over the tap.
Melanie wanted too make a maze from small wooden blocks. So we got an old drama wing and she made four mazes on it, and we hoisted it up and bent it at the hinge. She painted the edges of the wood black and white, hung a bell at the end of each maze, made a stick with a wheel an the end and began to blindfold people and ask them to figure out the mazes.
The kids would sometimes all be at the art, or sometimes they would lose interest and an be doing something else. One day, during a run in the proceedings, the boys started to cover another series of strange looking vehicles with pipe insulation and then drive them off the worktable. This gained momentum over a couple of days until I was running out of insulation. Cars totally covered in rubbery insulation would be dropped and bounced and collided with others and off the walls and so on. Needless to say we had to make some rules. Finally, Nate said, 'Let's make a video of the demolition and put it in the show.'
'Brilliant!' shouts I. And so we all went down in the gym. The car-makers got up on the stage. Sharon worked the camera and the rest of us pretended we were an audience, cheering and chanting on cue. The cars flew off the stage at an increasing angle until all but one had shattered. Bill, the winner, pretended to run from autograph hunters and then was interviewed by Carol. We all rushed upstairs to watch the video. It is, as planned, part of the show. At the base of the TV and VCR stand we have spread the car debris.
One final description, because it has turned out to be a hit with our audiences: We got four desks and hung strips of foam insulation from the underneath, so it looked like spaghetti. We put the desks together and covered them over with green and red sheets and piled more insulation over all of this – so we had a tunnel – and we pointed this object toward a corner set of shelves. On the bottom shelf we put a red spot shining up, and also a small board to protect kids from touching it. And in front of all that we put a huge pile of candy.
At the entrance to the tunnel a sign read, 'CRAWL SLOWLY TO CANDY.' When you looked through from this end you saw the black forest of insulation – and at the end a glowing red. Behind the candy we put a sign that said, 'DON'T TOUCH THE CANDY.'
The 8's have been bowled over by the moral dilemma they have accidentally set up for visitors. Thursday's grade 5 students were beside themselves.
'Can we take a candy?' they asked.
We would answer, 'That's up to you. If you want to steal a candy or not.'
They pestered me as the authority figure. 'Give us permission to steal a candy!'
I said, 'Nope. You have to decide.'
'What will happen to us?'
'Well, I have no idea.'
Finally one of them took a candy and came back beaming, eating it. None of us said or did anything. Soon they were all going through time after time and taking candies and jumping and leaping about with a crazy glee. Karen, probably my most brilliant student, was beside herself with laughter at how the piece she had helped set up was having such a strong effect on our gallery visitors.
I wanted to tell you a lot about all of this to let you understand that the four weeks up to the opening of the show were very complex indeed; that the show was a very important experience; that, luckily, it had worked in the way I had hoped. I won't go into the setting up of the gallery, advertising, making a catalogue, taking photographs, staffing the gallery, deciding on changes as we found out how people moved and reacted in the space and so on.
As all of this was happening the students began to interact more intensely, to work and socialize in a variety of groupings. On down days, when they needed a break, they began sitting around in the lounge area talking and laughing or playing cards. One afternoon that's all they did. We just laughed and socialized because that's what they needed to do. On other days there were anti-social actions that had to be resolved, or students became bored and didn't know what to do, or they took up totally different activities for a few days. For instance, one day Nate built a powered boat and sailed it across the sink.
It was all an intense, involving, and community-shaping experience. As the weeks have passed the apathy has begun to fade, and students have also started to take up a variety of individual projects. Oh ... before Nate had perfected the boat he came running out of the class at noon and confronted four teachers.
'Hey teachers, check this out!' he yelled. He held the boat from a long wire and turned on the motor. The boat floated up in the air and began to fly around in the hall. Everyone laughed – and remembered how anti-social and unhappy he had been last year. In our class he has been given the freedom to explore his mechanical nature. His father cannot read. His whole family is poor with language.
I am determined that when he chooses a vocational high school it will because he is happy about his considerable mechanical talents and not because he is an academic failure. He is working very hard at all the academic work I have given him, and I can see his determination to do better steeling inside of him. Next week when he goes to lessons in the shop class at the local high school he has decided to take a bundle of wood. He wants the teacher to use a table saw to cut the ends flush. He plans to build a replica house, with wiring, plumbing and so on.
It is possible to free children to be themselves. I urge you to do it. Yes, the underpinnings are boring, but our 'games and our 'clubhouse' make the kids feel like it's their own place. It also gives them a structured say in things, rather than me whimsically being a 'nice' or 'empathetic' guy. The attempt is to give them a quasi-democratic 'bill of rights' through the evolved classroom structures. If nothing else it helps keep me in line, reminds me to adhere to the rules we all make together.