The Silent Teacher and the last day before showtime

Today was a first: I taught the entire day, and hardly ever spoke. This came at the end of a week of illness, and I'd been afraid it was coming for a while. I made a tag for myself that said "I've Lost My Voice" and hung it on a lanyard. Then I made a second tag that said "This Is Not A Metaphor" and put it in my pocket. 

It was a beautiful day. I started both classes with fifteen minutes of silent reading (I heard kids walk into the classroom and shout "Yes!" unironically. Giving kids time in class to silently read books of their own choosing is the one gift I would like to bestow on every new teacher. A room full of people engrossed in books feels like a sacred space. It's beautiful. It's also really easy to scan around and note who seems to be picking a new book at random every day, and who is making no progress through their book of choice, and schedule some time to give that kid the support they need. 

My first slide explained that I couldn't talk, and asked the kids for their help, and they were awesome. I got their attention by clapping twice and snapping twice in rhythm, which kids started picking up on and following, then I pointed to kids to read the next slides. I realized how often I add little asides when I'm explaining something and how unnecessary these are. There's nothing like communicating solely through pre-prepared slides and a mini-whiteboard to make you think about your words! Then we watched a spoken word piece about being an introvert (by Kevin Yang - it's very good). Then I had everyone come into the circle. I silently lifted my arms and inhaled, and dropped them slowly while exhaling, for five breaths (I'd done this yesterday, so kids knew what to do). Then rolled out my neck, and then put up a slide that said explained we were playing "Secret Leader". I quickly chose a detective and a leader, and we played. 

At this point, in the first group I put up a slide explaining they should rehearse until we did a run through, and they dispersed immediately (reasonably). 

For the second group, I explained in advance (on my whiteboard) that there were a few slides, and I would signal when we were done. 

Here are some photos (from today and yesterday) of what we've been doing (all taken by a phenomenal student photographer):

These two guys took the poems they wrote about each other based on dialogical interviews in week 1, and combined them into a single spoken-word piece. They've made this their rehearsal spot. 

 This is one of our two web designers. They're in different pods, and I've never seen them speak to each other, but they're collaborating on a site where visitors can see all our poems and self-portraits, searching either by the author of the poem, or the person the poem is about. It's still a work in progress at the time of writing, but you can see it here.

This group has written a piece enumerating the "rules" of being a girl at ages 5, 11, and right now. Lying on the floor is part of the choreography.

This is a rehearsal for a tightly-structured piece about the "tribes" of Mexico and the USA - a theme they chose. I love this photo for two reasons: first of all, they strategically write their script on whiteboards so when they perform, they seem to have them memorized - as if they've had cue cards. This is really smart, but I'm making sure they are memorizing their lines since they won't have whiteboards in the performance space! Also, I love how this picture captures one of the many odd things about high school - where else would part of a theatre company come back to rehearsals after lunch in sports uniforms?

These two are figuring out which photos are missing, as they create a slideshow of self-portraits, with live musical accompaniment. They tested this today. The group is split regarding the music. Yann Tiersen's "Comptine D'un Autre Éte" turned out to make the slideshow look a bit like, in one student's words, "a memorial". The other option we tried was Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'", but the pianist only knows the first four chords, so while he did a lot with those four chords, it did feel a little too repetitive. We'll be leaving that decision until the day of the performance.

Here are students composing a song for the performance - if the song isn't ready, the back-up option (for reasons I don't fully grasp) is Cake's "The Distance". 

Group building a popsicle-stick house the outer layer of which will be popsicle sticks used for the popsicle stick poems we wrote using the prompts "Home looks like/Home smells like/Home sounds like/Home feels like/Home tastes like" (credit to Zoe Randall for realizing the only sensible thing to do was build a house). I'm a little concerned that they built all the walls without using glue (I haven't asked, but I'm confident the reason for that is that "it's cool"), but it's quite a feat of engineering. 

These guys are rehearsing "the unspoken rules of the bathroom". Did you know that if all urinals but one are occupied, it's known as "checkmate"? 

This is notable because it demonstrates an ongoing issue - a strong preference for planning and arguing, rather than getting work on its feet. It's really scary to get up and try something, but if you do it, it normally takes 30 seconds to determine whether it's worth pursuing! Where as you can argue it for HOURS.

Finally, these four photos come from devising our opening. The text comes directly from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (liberally modified by us - sorry Alexie). I begin by welcoming everyone, and then I say that I’m going to read the portion of the text that inspired the project. I begin “I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe.” But then, before I can continue, a student stands on her chair to say the next line: “But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants.” Then, different students stand up on their chairs around the space, saying the next lines in the sequence. I start the final line - “And that’s when I realized…” and the entire team finishes in unison: “that I was going to be OK”. 

If I were doing this again,I wouldn’t have taken volunteers to read on the spot, with 56 kids all in the same (big, noisy) room. And this may have been a big contributing factor in my current voicelessness. But when we did the scene, it was electrifying.

Can you tell I’m excited for the performance on Monday?

Taking Habla to class Day 2

Games we played:

Wave of Clapping - started by doing "the wave", and then changed it to clapping. People volunteered to start it. Worked well, sense of achievement

Name and gesture - following Tim B's lead, I'm having six people do their name and a gesture, with the whole group repeating it, then having one other person do all six names and gestures.

Holding up arm and being quiet - an attention-getter rather than a game, but I've started occasionally timing it and telling the group how quickly we got quiet. 

I had students walk across the circle while I counted down from 10 - this is a good way to quickly shuffle a group, I discovered. 

Thoughts and questions

On the value, or lack thereof, of critique structures

This is an ongoing personal issue for me - I find that I design structures that I believe will lead to more valuable critique, and then don't feel like I have the wherewithal to enforce those structures once everyone starts working. Suddenly everyone is doing their own thing, and whatever I put up on the board and read out is (as far as I can tell) being ignored.

For the record, I provided sentence structures in order to help kids to give specific and valuable critique to each other. Here's what they were: 

“I love how you make __ sound when you say __”

“Why do you make __ sound when you say __?”

“Could you try doing __ when you say __?”

My sense is that nobody was using these - it would have been interesting to do an exit card in which I asked about whether students used them, and (if so) whether they were helpful or (if not) why not. 

Now, partly this is the condition of working with the full team, as we were doing today - with 56 kids in groups of four, all at different points in their rehearsals and all with incrementally different levels of investment in the work at hand, even if everyone's trying to do a great job and being strategic about what they do, not everyone needs the same thing in order to improve their work. Now, one issue here is that when a group has the freedom to decide what they need most (which, in my experience, is something students really value - and something I personally have always really valued), they have the freedom to make a bad choice about what they need most. By this I don't mean that they can choose to slack off, which is a different issue, but that they may eschew a strategy that would be beneficial for them in favor of one that is less beneficial. There is an opportunity for learning to take place here (evaluating the results of the strategy they chose against other possible strategies, and deciding to make a different choice in the future) but in my experience, within an hour of working on a project in a group, there are too many variables and moments of small choices to be able to parse out where things went wrong, or, even more complicated, where things went less optimally than they could have. 

The other issue, which is much easier to remedy than the first, is that I was giving students brief instructions and sending them off to carry them out (or not) independently. One of the thing Ron Berger makes very clear in the brilliant "critique" chapter of Leaders of their own Learning is that effective critique requires a lot of heavily teacher-directed critique.

Thoughts and questions about our first performance

We performed our Mango Street vignettes today. A few thoughts:

  • I want to work explicitly on volume and expression in speaking (fortunately I got some good looking books about this at the National Theatre). 
  • Hearing entire groups speaking lines together was generally very effective. It makes me interested in "scoring" more readings for different combinations of voices reading specific words and lines simultaneously, so it isn't just "one voice" or "all voices"
  • The sounds that students made with physical objects tended to the literal (imitating sounds from the world, rather than creating something musical based on evoking feelings) but their choices of who read which lines tended to be more musical, less informed by "boys should read lines by boys" thinking. 
  • There were moments when people were laughing to cover discomfort. This is likely to happen a lot this year. I want to figure out a good way into delving into why this laughter happens, and what it tells us about what is worthwhile to explore, and how to get deeper into it?

And a few questions:

  • What's the most powerful way to pick up Mango Street from here, and what do we want kids to get from reading it (or re-reading it?)
  • How will kids feel like they're getting better and better at things they want to get better and better at, and how will they feel like they're being "pushed"?
    • "pushed" feels like a verb that takes us into an unhelpful metaphor, in which the teacher is a driver of progress against the student's will, but I'm having trouble thinking of a better one. 
  • What could we have done to increase personal investment in each vignette? To make students feel more like the words they are saying MATTER and connect to (or meaningfully contrast with) their own experience of their world?
  • How can students feel like they're taking part in a project that is a big deal?

Finally, some more photos:

Taking Habla to my class: Day 1

No promises on how long I'll be able to maintain this for...

You can see our plan for today here, and the slides we made here. It was based on my first day at Habla, which you can read about here.

This post isn't going to make a lot of sense without looking at the plan, but here it goes:

Periods 1-2

My "prep" period is first period, and my teaching partner, Yoli's  (teaches Spanish) is second period, which meant that today, we could start the day by teaching each class together, but with 29 kids in the room together rather than 56. We started with circle games. Walking across the circle while a teacher counted down from 10 was functional, but, done with kids rather than adults, was missing the element of fun. I added "rubber chicken" to raise the energy (it was all I could think of on the fly). 

I then tried "jumping at the same time with no leader". This was fascinating - the first group just couldn't do it at all. With a new group, the risk of jumping so profoundly outweighed the risk of not jumping, that very few students were willing to try it at all. I dropped it when we worked with the second group. Something to try later in the year, maybe. 

With the first group, we then did "blind walking across the circle", which was chaotic, and not especially gentle. Talking explicitly about gentleness would be a good addition next time we do this. This is difficult, awkward territory for teenagers, especially for a lot of young men. 

The second group eventually decided to assign a helper to every person walking blind. This was (as you'd expect) very successful. What was missing even then was silence, which is not  a huge priority (especially on the first day of school) but which would be nice to have. One issue I noted, which has resonance in other aspects of school, is that a pair would walk across the circle, get into their spot on the other side, congratulate each other on a job well done and start talking - while other people were still moving through the space. 

Yoli introduced "jumping and high-fiving" in pairs, slapping as many high-fives as possible while airborne (with both hands, so I guess they were high-tens). This was the most successful warm-up game we did. Really raised the energy, and made me realize all the games I was leading were a bit austere and severe. 

This left me with a few questions: the one that's really occupying me right now is this: how do I stay on the right side of the line between routines feeling ingrained, and feeling stale?

Period 3

We had the group together for the first time. We started the period with a deep listening exercise - kids got quiet for this (for the most part), listened intently, and talked about what they heard. 

Then we tried doing the vocal improvisations (like what Dario did). I hadn't wanted to do this in the full group (we were planning to do it during periods 1 and 2 but there wasn't time), and it didn't work, for a number of reasons: 

  1. There were about 27 performers, and I just couldn't get around them fast enough.
  2. Most people didn't have and extensive rhythmic vocabulary (at least in this context), so everyone was generally hammering out quarter notes together.
  3. Making vocal sounds is a big risk in a large group of people, so most people were going for clapping and stomping, which stops being interesting very quickly, unless you're really tight with it.

I got five volunteers who performed for the whole group, and it worked much more smoothly in a group of five. Then we split everyone into fives, and up until lunch, they worked on crafting beats together. 

I didn't call them "beats". If I had, the exercise would have probably been stronger. When one group performed their beat for me, I freestyled a short rhyme over it. Then we had another group perform for everyone (in fact, the original group of volunteers, who'd got very into developing their beat). Their beat was solid and complex, but when I heard it I realized that they were really putting themselves on the line and might ultimately regret it, so in front of everyone, I did another freestyle over their beat - which I hope lent it credibility rather than overshadowing it. 

Periods 4-6

This was after advisory and lunch. We launched Write Club - I realized my enthusiasm for the concept waned a little since last year, so I need to figure out how I feel about it. One kid rather brilliantly noted that the first rule of Write Club (which I was making them write, as I always have) was "Write what you care about", and asked "so should we write what we care about, or write this?"

I dug up the Fight Club and "Robot Club" (from Spaced) clips I showed last year, which I hadn't planned to show, when I realized that the way I was presenting Write Club didn't have any mystique, and it really needs mystique at the start. 

Then we wrote Hopes and Fears, and I introduced Human Atom in order to shuffle people up and make groups of four to share hopes and fears. There were too many people for the atom to work very well, but it was easy to identify issues with it, and I think we'll be able to fine-tune it in individual classes. 

After this, we introduced the day's big task: to arrange a chapter from The House on Mango Street to read together as a group of four - first arranged as a "clear reading", and then with sounds made by objects found around the classroom.

This was so awesome: we divided kids into groups randomly, which I imagined being a problem, but wasn't. They were attentive to the text as they read, and (after Yoli and I modeled it) seemed to understand how to divide the text for reading without any further help. 

After they'd worked on the "clear reading", Yoli and I performed our chapter again, this time with her reading and me providing sound accompaniment. Then the groups went to town on sound effects.

At a certain point, most groups decided they were "done" and people started milling about and hanging around.

I paused the full group (I'd done some "getting quiet" practice - this will be good to keep doing all week). Then I said "A lot of groups are telling me they're done. What if I told you that you're going to perform for the entire ninth grade in a few minutes?" Someone immediately shouted "WHAAAAAT?!" "You're not," I said, "but you all sounded a lot less "done" when I said that just now." 

The groups paired up with other groups and performed their pieces for each other. I encouraged everyone to focus on giving specific feedback about things they liked. This will be something to continue to develop.

It was cool to see so much attentive close-reading. I'm excited to see and hear the performances tomorrow!

Here are some photos from devising the readings:

Real Talk about the back-to-school "Honeymoon Period"

I just got home from my first day of school, and it was a delight. "Well", a chorus of teachers will reply, "of course it was. You're in the honeymoon period. Just wait a week or so, and you'll find out what the year is REALLY going to be like." 

Ah yes, the "honeymoon period" - the few halcyon days when it seems like the sailing will be smooth all year, when students are on their best behavior, and intra-class resentments and dubious work habits have been temporarily put in check. 

Until this year, I've accepted the premise of the "honeymoon period" without examining it, but today, I've got some stuff to say:

1. Nobody should ever use the phrase "honeymoon period" when talking to a first-year teacher

Imagine this scene: It's 3:35 in the afternoon on a Monday in late August. For the first time in your life, you've spent your day teaching entire classes worth of children (or teenagers), and miraculously, everyone has made it through unscathed. The students paid attention (at least sometimes) when you spoke. The visions you'd dreamed up at home actually came to life in your classroom. And, to a greater degree than you ever thought possible, people accepted the idea that you are a figure with authority. 

You stagger into the staff room, and one of your colleagues asks "How did it go?" 

"It actually went really great!" you reply, punch-drunk and slurring your words slightly. 

"Yeah", your colleague replies. "Isn't the honeymoon period great?"

"Honeymoon period?" You ask.

"Yeah, you know, when the kids are all trying to impress you, before they decide they don't really need to listen to you."

And just like that, you discover that you weren't working magic after all.

Never say "honeymoon period" to a first year teacher. It's unconscionable. Don't tell any first year teachers about this blog post either. 

2. The first hour of teaching has nothing to do with any kind of "honeymoon period"

This just be me, but from my first day as a teacher to this very morning, I have never had a strong first hour of the year. It's a matter of rhythm. Everything I've planned was designed based on a memory of students from two months ago, rather than a response to what students are looking for. If there isn't a name for this, there should be. I suggest "awkward first hour" as a working title.

3. The "honeymoon period" isn't all about students

Here's a formulation I came up with while I was driving home today: the "honeymoon period" ends at the point when the teacher and the students are all too tired to continue to present the selves they want to be. 

This feels to me like what it's all about. We all have aspirational versions of ourselves, freed from our accumulated bad habits, and we come back to school inhabiting those versions. But after a few days, we fall into our old habits. Students who were attempting unspoken truces with long-time rivals fall back into a rhythm of mutual injury and resentment. Equally importantly, teachers who came in with a sense of benign understanding for students' least productive manifestations of anxiety find ourselves falling back into a sense of resentment of students who "would definitely get so much out of this if they'd just give it a try". 

I've never heard anyone talk about the "honeymoon period" as if it applied to teacher behaviors as well as student behaviors. If we're going to keep using that term, I think we should.

Just don't tell any teachers about it until their second year in the job. 


A "Table of Contents" for the Habla Teacher Institute

I've come to realize that I'm too confused by the chronology of my #Habla blog posts for them to be useful, so I'm sure that's true for anyone else trying to use them as well!

So I've created a little "table of contents" of what we did each day:

Saturday (Part 1, Part 2)

“The Sound of Light”

Circle games (jumping, trust walking)

Listening meditation

Group vocal improvisation

Going outside and listening

Using found objects to recreate a soundscape (in a group)

3-2-1 reflection

Reading “Light is Like Water”

Building Conversation Protocol

Back to “soundscape” groups: create a “clear reading” of an assigned passage from “Light is Like Water”

Watch/listen to model of “reading with sounds” by Kurt & Dario

In Soundscape Groups: revise our reading, add sounds.

Perform readings for the group

“The Faun on the Bus”

Excerpt from Living to Tell the Tale and brief lecture on magical realism from Marimar

In groups of 6: “I could tell you about” [maybe good to take notes on this…]

In pairs: “I want to hear about…”, “I can imagine…”

Back in the FULL group: “Can you imagine…”


Circle game: Your name & something people can’t tell by looking at you

Human knot

Walking through the space

Roofs and shelter

Framing images

People/places/objects/memories that frame my life

Free write

Sharing “golden lines”

“How we are framed” performance

Skewers & Styrofoam Balls

Tuesday (Part 1, Part 2)

Reflection: Connect, Extend, Challenge

Workshop 1: Framing a photo and Editing a Story

Workshop 2: Working with 100 Years of Solitude

Reading fragments of a text in a circle

Group reads the who’ll passage out loud, together

Choose a line from the text and frame it with a sharpie

Discuss with a partner using “See Think Wonder”

Write “wondering” in a different color on the paper, and give to a curator.


Read a passage that creates a “portrait” of a character (choose one from the cordel)

Find someone who read the same passage and do a walk-stop-talk-walk

Frame a line, write a question next to it

As a full group, make a list of techniques the author uses to make portraits of characters

Quick game: sound and gesture

Workshop 3: Creating masks based on the things and people that frame us



  • 3 applications
  • 2 questions
  • 1 metaphor or analogy

Workshop 1: Taking self-portrait photographs

Workshop 2: Collaborative Mind Map

Workshop 3: Labelling our world (Like in Macondo)


Opening reflection:

  • What makes you say “wow”?
  • What do you wonder about?

Game: trading walks

Kata takes us through the week so far, and how each day built on the last


  • the “memory machine”
  • Looking at our self-portrait and engaging all our senses
  • Telling a story based on what we’ve been writing

Human atom

Human sculptures



Warm-up: passing the invisible object

The facilitators share how they designed this year’s institute

Group reflection based on photos taken during the week

Reflecting about potential applications for what we’ve done.

Final rehearsals


Closing the loop with a final reflection

The Forgotten #Habla Game: Trading Walks

I can't believe I forgot to write this game down, and I now can't remember when we played it, but it was good. 

Players line up facing each other (it's good if it's not 100% clear who your "partner" will be). 

Start at either end of the two lines. The two "end" people each choose a walk, and walk towards each other. When their paths cross, each person takes the other person's walk, and finishes walking to the other line doing their walk. Go down the lines until everyone has changed places. 

My inner Principal Snyder

On Sunday, I had an idea for a way that students in my class could write reflectively. To be honest, I don't remember the details of the idea (the new school year is approaching fast, and I've been having lots of ideas about stuff like this). However, I vividly remember the thoughts that came next. Almost immediately, I thought "what's going to make a kid keep up with doing this, if it doesn't immediately strike them as useful? How will I be able to make sure it's getting done? If I'm not able to keep track of it, or even to keep doing it, after I start, will it make all my expectations seem less stable and more prone to being abandoned?" 

Now, this litany of doubts often follows the arrival of a new teaching idea in my head. All the doubts and concerns are reasonable, but they aren't particularly useful at that moment. Until Sunday, however, I hadn't given them must thought. 

But on Sunday I was thinking about school during a "restorative yoga" class - which is an hour of lying down in various positions and listening to extremely gentle music. And in this context, I realized that when my new idea got all these questions fired at it, my neck and shoulders actually tensed up. It didn't feel conducive either to developing new ideas, or indeed having a healthy back. 

So I thought about the voice, and realized I could picture it - it looked like Principal Snyder, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I think this is partly because Snyder thinks of teenagers entirely as potential threats to order, who will take any opportunity to game the system. And it's partly because he's constantly tense, and has a notably annoying voice. So I'm trying to take note when my Principal Snyder voice kicks in, and not let it take over my thinking. 

I'll finish this with two lines, this one from Snyder's first episode:

Kids today need discipline. That's an unpopular word these days - discipline. I know Principal Flutie would have said, "Kids need understanding. Kids are human beings." That's the kind of wooly-headed liberal thinking that leads to being eaten. 

And this exchange with school librarian Rupert Giles:

Snyder: The first day back. It always gets me. One day the campus is completely bare. Empty. The next, there are children everywhere. Like locusts. Crawling around, mindlessly bent on feeding and mating. Destroying everything in sight in their relentless, pointless desire to exist.
Giles: Have you ever considered, given your abhorrence of children, school's principal was not, perhaps, your true vocation?
Snyder: Somebody's got to keep an eye on them. 

Friday: Performance and Reflection

You can read Arnie Aprill's write-up of today (with lots of photos) here.

Had I been in charge of Friday, I would have devoted the entire day to preparing for our performance, mostly with unstructured work time and a couple of structured critiques, focused on smoothing out the rough edges. This was not their approach. Instead, we started the day with a discussion of how the week was designed, and why they made the choices they did. Here are the nitty-gritty details (to the extent that I remember them):

Kurt started us off with a brief introduction, and Marimar told us about lunch. Marimar always gave what amounted to mini-lecture about lunch: what we'd be eating, who made it, and how they were connected to the school. During this talk, Kurt said one thing that really blew my mind:

Back when I was working with the Coalition of Essential Schools, we found that "presentations of learning" got pretty boring and repetitive, so we started doing "performances of learning" instead. That's what we're doing today.

I'm not quoting this in order to dismiss Presentations of Learning, but I have personally found that the ones I have facilitated too often become repetitive. The notion of giving a performance, rather than a "presentation", resonates with me. 

Warm-up: passing the invisible object

We all stood in a circle for this. The first person started with an invisible "ball", shaped it into a recognizable object, and passed it to their neighbor, who took it as it was handed to them, then shaped it into something new and passed it along - all silently - until it made its way all the way around the circle.

How the Habla Team designed this year's institute...

This is taken from my notes from the explanation that the team gave, which are frankly a little sketchy. They used the principles of backwards design, beginning with what they wanted us to learn and then coming up with the workshops that would take us in the direction of those goals, but the specific starting point for the Institute when they started planning it last year was 100 Years of Solitude itself, because Gabriel Garcia Marquez had just died. They were also interested in "framing" as a concept, and the Institute was born from those two things. 

The question of "Learning Objectives"

The team wrote down "learning objectives" for each day, but decided not to share them with the teachers, because they didn't feel like they did justice to the potential range of things that could emerge from the institute, so they didn't share them with us. 

The photo-based reflection

I am DEFINITELY using this with my class. Kurt went through a slide show of photos taken during the week, and as a group we suggested "meanings" that we saw in the photos. Partway through, Kurt said "these are SO much richer than our learning objectives!"

I don't know if anyone wrote down what was being said (I certainly didn't) but I hope someone wrote down at least a few. This was a magnificent way to reflect on the week. 

The "applications" reflection

On another of our sheets of paper, we wrote potential applications for what we've done this week in our classrooms. Here's what I wrote:

The last rehearsals

As a big group, we rehearsed a sequence in which each of us said the "I am framed by" sentence that we'd performed in our groups on Tuesday. I didn't feel that invested in my little phrase, and I never got that excited by this sequence, since it took a long time, and it didn't feel to me like in most cases our sentences were the most resonant things we'd come up with during the week. Also, by necessity this was the only component of the entire week that was fully directed by the team, which felt uncomfortable given the facilitative approach and emphasis on "distributed leadership" during the rest of the week. 

Then we got back into our small groups, and I relaxed again. I loved working in our group of five. We added my lion mask to the final vignette and choreographed it (which we hadn't yet done), then ran through it all a couple of times. Then it was lunchtime.

After the fact, Kurt showed us the five-layer structure that had been designed for devising our pieces:

  1. Writing
  2. Three human sculptures: beginning, middle, end.
  3. Narration and movement
  4. Masks and props
  5. Music

The performance

We were playing music in the performance, and nobody had rehearsed at all - either with each other, or with the groups. This made me really uncomfortable, since I was conscious of how precise our group had been about the words we used, and about creating minimal distraction onstage, and music performed by people who had never seen our performance could potentially seriously shift the balance. But in the event, it was wonderful, and there was a melody that started to build over the final vignette that was beautiful, and added enormously to the piece (I want to say it was a violin melody from Marji, but it may also have been guitar. I was engaged with remembering what I'd written at the time!). 

Also, before the performance the musicians went outside to jam a bit, and just release some tension (so we DID actually play together once before the show), and ended up jamming with Arnoldo improvising lyrics, as the rest of the group came pouring out the door into the yard, because they were coming out for a group photo. It was a magical moment. 

Then, when we all got together for a group photo (we were instructed to be on multiple levels, ("like those old magazine ads for the Sopranos" in Kurt's words). Someone started singing "Lean on Me", I picked it up on sax, and we ended up doing a full-group "Lean on Me" singalong during the group photo. Spirits were high.

I spent the show itself tense up until our piece, curiously emotionally disengaged as I performed it (which didn't really surprise me - performance is weird), and shocked when people laughed during our piece. I hadn't had a sense of humor about any of it (either the piece itself, or the stories I was relating), so I hadn't been aware it would have that effect. I loved the other pieces, though - they were extraordinary (I have no idea how our piece looked, since I was in front narrating and didn't want to turn around and watch what my fellow performers were doing. There are entire sequences of movements in the third vignette that I've never seen.

Here's a photo from the finale of the performance (I took it from Marji's Facebook post, not sure who took it):

The final "closing the loop" reflection

After the performance, we all came back to our circle in the air conditioned room for a final shared reflection. What we were doing was a lot like HTH's "Connections", but it was slightly less ritualized (I mean, EVERYTHING is less ritualized than the opening of Connections), there was no "only speak once" policy, and we had a choice of prompts for our reflections, which were designed to keep them to one sentence. Here were the prompts:
  • I used to think _________, but now I think _________.
  • I used to think _________, but now I wonder _________.
  • I used to think _________, and I still think _________.

I wasn't crazy about these prompts, for two reasons:

  1. They put you in a position of eithertestifying to your personal transformation, or declaring the week to be a failure (because if you still think what you did before, what was the point of the week?)
  2. They don't give you a means of indicating what the agent of this change was, which means that the implied end of each sentence is "because of Habla", (as opposed to "because of X workshop", or "because of Y group I was in", or "because of a late-night conversation I had with Z")

I talked to the team about my misgivings afterwards, and I know none of these were intended (I also don't know whether other people felt this way). They were actually designed as a means of avoiding extended testimonials, both in order to keep the final reflection from feeling too evangelical and to make sure that there was time for everyone to speak. I believe this is a structure from Project Zero, and it's still one I might use myself, but I think I'd use it following a single Socratic Seminar (which is low-stakes enough that you could say "I haven't changed my mind" without feeling like a jerk). 

I also (and this is very much a personal thing) feel a general aversion to talking at length about how great a shared experience was, no matter how great it was. This kind of thing makes me think of an exchange in Hemingway's short story, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber", in which the wealthy Macomber talks to his laconic guide, Wilson, after Macomber has finally had success in killing some animals:

"Do you have that feeling of happiness about what's going to happen?" Macomber asked, still exploring his new wealth.

"You're not supposed to mention it," Wilson said, looking in the other's face. "Much more fashionable to say you're scared. Mind you, you'll be scared too, plenty of times."

But you have a feeling of happiness about action to come?"

"Yes," said Wilson. "There's that. Doesn't do to talk too much about all this. Talk the whole thing away. No pleasure in anything if you mouth it up too much.

There is a great deal not to love about this particular story, and I don't know whether Wilson's make on "talking the whole thing away" holds up to scrutiny or not, but I've definitely felt both Macomber's impulse to talk and Wilson's reticence about it. 

Anyway, I've now spent many more words on one of the few things about the week I was uncomfortable with than about any of the things that I found mind-blowing and transformative (since one doesn't speak of such things, obviously) so I'm going to move on. 

The party

This is definitely a part of Habla. At 7:30, prepaid taxis came downtown to pick us up and take us to Marimar and Kurt's house for a party "that will never end". There was food, there was another jam session, there was dancing, and there was lots of conversation. I stayed until about 1 AM, disregarding the fact that I would be catching a taxi to the airport at 5:30. 

The fact that the week ends literally at our hosts' home, with dancing, music, and delicious food, is the perfect way to end a magical week. 

Thursday - Living the possible: the story outside the frame

You can read Arnie Aprill's write-up of today (with lots of photos) here.

Opening Reflection:

Think back on yesterday...

  1. what makes you say "wow"?
  2. what do you wonder about?

The Week so Far

Kata showed us a helpful slide that laid out what we'd done every day. It was shown as a cycle, with Day 4 pointing back to Day 1 (in other words, indicating that we will be returning to the themes of Day 1 today).

Day 1 - Navigating by Light

  • I could you a tell a story about...
  • I can imagine...
  • Can you imagine...?

Day 2 - What frames our lives

Day 3 - Framing photos/Framing Macondo

  • Finding stories in photos
  • Looking at the portraits in 100 Years of Solitude

Day 4 - Portraits and Memory

And so today (Day 5) we are back to navigating by light.

Our first writing exercise - the memory machine

This is also based on yesterday's reading about insomnia and forgetting in Macondo. One character proposes building a "memory machine", that you could quickly review in order to relearn all your important memories. So we made a list of the memories that we would put in our own "memory machine." In order to do this, we looked back at "what frames us" (from Monday), but I found myself going in different directions (which was especially satisfying, since I'd felt like my memory was failing me a bit when we did this on Monday). 

My memory machine entries feel too personal to post on here, but (strictly for my own reference, they're on pages 46-47 of my notebook.

I'm pretty sure we talked about what we wrote with a partner, but I wouldn't put money on it. 

Our second writing exercise - looking at our self-portrait and engaging all our senses

We now listed sensory images evoked by our self-portraits. Here's what I wrote:

We definitely talked about this with a partner, and in talking, I realized that "climbing a tree" works well for me as an analogy for writing. I started thinking about this because I thought about how as you climb, your vision narrows to "my possible routes" - everything becomes either something that you can reach (and will support your weight) or something that can't. Also, it's hard, as you go up, to work out how you're going to get back down. My partner (I'm 90% sure it was Rob) also pointed out that when you're climbing a tree, your perspective on what you can see around you changes with every step. I didn't end up pursuing this idea in my writing, but I really like it. 

Third writing exercise: telling a story

At this point, we used what we'd just written as a jumping-off point for writing a story from our lives (or someone else's life). This drew on everything we've done this week. I called mine "Climbers", and wrote a series of vignettes about climbing. This was inspired by the fact that I knew I wanted my self-portrait to be in a tree, but I didn't know why that felt important until I started writing about it. But once I started writing about climbing, things got very intense very quickly. I was writing about being an older brother, being a son, recovering from heart surgery, and being an uncle. Earlier in the week, Jessica told me "something will break open inside you this week", and I thought "Naaaaaaaah, I don't think so." Turns out she was right. 

We got a "beginning-middle-end" graphic organizer. I completely ignored mine, but there should be a copy of the graphic organizer on Arnie's website

Human Atom and Human Sculptures

After we wrote our first drafts, we wrote an image from our story down onto a notecard and gave it to Kurt. Then we went into the gallery space, and started walking between an outside wall and the center of the room, so that we were naturally all moving in different directions. He had us move with more urgency, and then stand back to back with somebody (calling "stand back to back" very quickly). 

[procedural note: what I hadn't understood about this technique until I did it, is that because you can stand back-to-back so quickly, and because the desire not to get left out is very high, there really isn't time to seek out a particular person to stand back-to-back with - or at least, that's how it felt for us. But I think that this at least has the potential to be a partner-selecting method that makes finding ANY partner feel more important than finding a specific partner, which is a bit of a classroom holy grail, for me anyway].

Once we were back to back with someone, Kurt read a phrase from one of the notecards, and we had a few seconds to (silently) create a human sculpture (just the two of us) that embodied the phrase he read out. For one of the images, he also had us get into threes. 

Preparing for our final performance

We counted off in order to be in groups of five to prepare our final performance for Friday. By extraordinary coincidence, all the HTHCV people ended up in the same group, so I swiftly traded out with another group and joined them instead. Each of us read our stories out loud. Kurt told us that given time constraints, we couldn't "collage" our stories - we needed to choose one story and develop it. The group chose my series of vignettes, so I chose three vignettes out of my five to be the basis for our piece.

Human Sculptures revisited

After we'd had some time to choose a text for our performance piece, we all got back together as one big group in the gallery space to create human sculptures again - this time for the "beginning" image, "middle" image, and "end" image. At this point I wished I'd actually used that beginning-middle-end graphic organizer, and we weren't able to come up with any shapes that felt very generative. We were actually generally pretty behind at this point in the process. 

More rehearsal time

For the rest of the day, we just rehearsed. I've got one photo from the process, which shows the group striking poses to embody the feeling of being a frustrated two-year-old:

Kurt had advised us to pursue the goal of "distributed leadership" (harking back to the jumping exercise at the beginning of Saturday). It was a useful reminder, because the urge to take control and enact a vision was pretty intense (for me, anyway). 

What was really surprising to me was that I found it pretty much impossible to get through the vignettes I'd written without my voice starting to break into sobs. There is one moment I remember in particular: Kata was "playing" my then five-year-old brother in the first vignette, swinging off the branch of a tree, and falling on her arm and breaking it. She had found a position that put her arm at an alarming angle, and, in telling the story, I turned around to look back at her. It was a shock to turn around and see her - even though the representation was nothing like how I remembered the event, it took me right back to that moment. The group could tell how much I was affected. Of course, this was no guarantee that the audience would be similarly affected, but it still energized the group. 

I went home that night, rewrote each vignette by hand in the Cafe Creme (just down the street from our hacienda, and fantastic), and then typed them up. 

Thursday night: La Palabra at Tapanco Centro Cultural

Alejo invited us all to a special performance of La Palabra, put on by the theatre company he's a part of. The show was to open the next night, so this was basically an open dress rehearsal. The performance takes up the whole cultural center, with different performances in each room. All of them are riffs on Samuel Beckett's short plays, except for Laurel and Hardy and the boxes of light, which is inspired by a scene from a Paul Auster Novel.