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.