The gift of awkwardness

This morning, it occurred to me that whenever somebody in our group gets confused, or misinterprets instructions, or gets tense, or resists what's going on, they are giving a gift to the rest of the group - because those responses will be the ones that are most prevalent among our students when we do this work with them. And whenever I get confused or tense, or misinterpret instructions, I'm giving a gift to my colleagues.

Habla Teacher Institute: Monday

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

The bats were still flying over the pool when we went outside at 6:30 to do a workout this morning. 

We spent most of today in a workshop led by Patricia Sobral, Professor of Portuguese at Brown University. 

We began by going around the circle saying our name, and "something people can't tell by looking at you." This time, I finally remembered to write down everybody's name in the location where they were sitting on my paper, which was exceptionally helpful. 

Then, Patricia took us out of the air conditioning and into the gallery, and had us get in a circle and hold hands. It was human knot time. 

For the first knot, everybody was told to go underneath somebody's arm. Once we were all entangled, we were told to ask anybody who was know near us "Where are you from?" 

Once we unravelled ourselves, she had us let go of one person's hand, then take the hand of somebody else across the circle, thereby re-knotting. Now, we asked people near us "who are you from?"

For the final knot, we held hands around the circle as we had at the start, but this time we were instructed to go under two different sets of arms in order to tangle ourselves up. This time, we asked people around us "What are you from?" 

Once we'd untangled ourselves, we quickly debriefed about what we'd noticed about the experience. This was very unstructured, and people volunteered to speak, as generally happens at Habla. I'd definitely give time to pair-share if I were doing this with students. 

After the knot, we walked through the space, initially without interacting with anybody, then "greeting people with our eyes" as we passed them. After a bit, Patricia said "You're late - you slept through your alarm and you know no matter what you're going to be late" - we sped up, hunched our shoulders, the whole atmosphere of the space changed as we charged through it. Then she said "You're walking along the beach, you don't have anywhere you need to be, it's sunny, you're taking a long stroll, life couldn't be better." People slowed, stretched, swiveled, and sighed contentedly as they walked. Then she said "It's 3 AM, you're walking home alone from a party, and you probably shouldn't have taken this route. You can hear footsteps behind you, you're willing yourself not to turn around. Then you can't help yourself, you turn around, but all you see is a silhouette." We sped up, taking tight, clenched, steps. Then she said "You're going to a party. It doesn't matter when you get there, it's a Mexican or Brazilian party, it starts when you get there, and it never ends. You're with your friends, you're so excited about tonight." 

This went straight into a game in which when she told us to freeze, two people made roof with their hands together, and one person stood between them. The people making the roof said words to the effect of "My roof is made of ______" (for example, 'compassion' - the idea is that should be what you use to shelter others), while the person "under" the roof said "I am sheltered by _____". 

After a few rounds of this, we debriefed. I found it much easier to be a roof than to seek shelter - partly this can be explained by how I tend to interact with others, and my general unwillingness to be "looked after", but it was also a question of math: more people are needed to shelter than to seek shelter. Also, choosing to seek shelter means you risk not finding any.

Patricia then handed out "viewfinders" (a piece of black construction paper with a rectangle cut out of the middle). We used these to frame a shot somewhere in the room, and then to share our shot with another person. I found it immensely satisfying to look at the space through my viewfinder, zooming in and out by moving it closer to or further away from my face. 

At this point, we went back into the air conditioned room - it was time to write. On a "fresh page" of our notebooks (Patricia was very specific about this) we made a list in response to a prompt. Then we talked to the person next to us about what we'd written, then on another fresh page we responded to another prompt, then discussed it with the OTHER person next to us, then another prompt, then found someone new to discuss it with, then the same for  a fourth prompt. Here are the four prompts:

  1. Who are the people who frame your life?
  2. What are the places that frame your life?
  3. What are the objects that frame your life?
  4. What are the memories that frame your life?

We drew a square on a new sheet of paper, writing one item from each list on the inside of each side of the square (our "frame"). 

Then we had two more prompts (again, we wrote, then shared with somebody new):

  1. How do other people frame you?
  2. What would you like to have in your frame that is not in your frame yet?

After this, we wrote down and shared "two wows and two wonders" about the morning, then went for lunch.

After lunch we added a "way other people frame us" below our square, and "something we'd like  in our frame" below our square, on the paper we'd already started. 

We shared our square with yet another new person, taking much more time for this discussion than we had for any others. 

At this point, we wrote. We were given twenty minutes to write freely about what we had put in (and out) of our frame, writing about all six items, with the goal of finding one strong line about each. 

We walked around the room sharing our "golden lines" with other people, with Patricia telling us which line we should share (based on the order of the prompts). We were told not to respond or give any feedback, in fact to give no more acknowledgement than a nod. I liked this a lot - it was fast and clean, and meant that we all got to hear lots of different takes on how to respond. 

Now it was time to devise a performance: Patricia counted us off, one through six. I ended up in group 5 (consisting of six people), which mean we were performing our lines for "How do other people frame you?" We read our own lines aloud, then wrote them down on strips of paper and went around the group with each member rearranging them and reading them all aloud together (this particular "thinking routine" was our own strategy, not something prescribed by Patricia). As we were doing this, Patricia came around and told us to keep gestures minimal for our performance, but to try to memorize our line and be ready to perform. We went out to the gallery space, and all the groups performed their pieces, then (of course) we debriefed. 

And if you're curious, here's the line I performed: "I figure out what I want to say by talking."

It was getting near the end of the day at this point, when I remembered we had a second workshop, this one led by arts educator Cynthia. She gave each of us a packet containing eight styrofoam balls of various sizes, and ten bamboo skewers. We were to create a freestanding structure, which we would then combine with another, then our pair would connect it to another pair's, then our four to another four, and then we would connect all of them together, creating a sculptural metaphor for community. Here are some photos from that process:

Saturday at Habla [Part 2]: Workshops about "the sound of light" and "the faun on the bus"

I'm writing this on Sunday. We went to Uxmal, and it was incredible. Here are some photos:

I just took my evening dip in the pool, and while I was floating on my back, bats were flying all over the patio, coming within a foot of my face. It was really cool, until it was too unsettling (about 45 seconds). Once I stood up in the water, they dispersed. I tried floating again to coax them back, but I'd broken the spell.

Now back to yesterday's workshop, "The Sound of Light"

After we finished the “building conversations” thinking routine, we returned to the air conditioned room and re-formed the groups in which we had composed our soundscapes. W were all given a passage from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s story “Light is Like Water”. Our initial assignment was develop a “clear reading” of the passage - this, Kurt explained, meant presenting the reading “straight” so that it was comprehensible to the audience. So, dividing up the lines between readers was within our scope - movement, singing lines, and other fancy stuff was not. Before we went off to prepare our script, Kurt reminded us to seek “distributed leadership” (I think that’s what he called it anyway), reminding us of the “jumping at the same time” exercise at the beginning of the workshop, where on the best jumps everyone thought someone else was the leader. 

Our group went outside and, in the shade, divided up the text. In the time we had (only about ten minutes) our reading went from the plan “everyone just read one sentence and this thing will run itself” to “OK she reads the first paragraph, these three sentences are split in two, everyone reads a different section of the final sentence, and we’ll all say the final three words in unison.” Had we been given another ten minutes, we probably would have been subdividing specific words between readers. When you distribute leadership in a group of people who don’t know each other well, nobody wants to say no, so complexity increases exponentially as idea heaps on top of idea. It reminds me of what the Innovation Unit used to say about public services’ tendency to get bloated: nobody wants to decommission anything, so innovations and new institutions pile on top of each other.

We came back in with our “clear reading”, happy with it, intimately familiar with the text, but not wildly attached to our arrangement (well, I wasn’t - I can’t speak for the rest of our group). Kurt now revealed that this was only a “first draft”, and we wouldn’t be performing it. Instead, we would be choosing from the same collection of found objects that we’d used to make our soundscape based on the “text” of the noises we heard outside, and performing the reading with sounds. To model this, Kurt and Dario performed the opening of 100 Year of Solitude together, with Kurt reading and Dario playing percussion. Before we rushed to get objects and compose our piece, Dario discouraged literalism. “Don’t just make a ringing noise if a phone rings in the text,” he said. “That’s sound effects - and that’s not what this is about.” This was a surprising redirection to me, since I’d felt like that was exactly what our previous soundscape had been about (thought, in fairness, when we’d composed that I’d ended up blowing over the lip of a beer bottle on the theory that it would sound like a mechanical drone - it sounded nothing like a mechanical drone, especially since I can’t circular breathe (a didgeridoo would have been perfect) but we kept it in our piece anyway). 

So we went back outside. By this point our papers were covered in contradictory marks as we re-conceived the piece with me starting it in the voice of a 1940s newsreader with one group member hitting knives against a cardboard box to mimic the typewriter keys (or is it a telegraph) that we somehow all associated with 1940s newsreaders (kind of literal, I know…). Then as soon as we reached a bit talking about light, another voice took over reading, slowing down and opening up. The piece was initially totally improvisational, but a couple group members (rightly) pushed us all to tighten up our plan. We ended up with every word clear and accounted for, with, as one member noted approvingly, “lots of open space in the sound effects.” At this point, we were disciplined and comfortable enough as a group to start our “drafts” with lots of instruments going, and remove elements as we refined. This was in absolute contrast to the “clear reading”, in which ideas had piled on top of each other with none being rejected, except by the default rejection of neglect. Looking back on it, in less than an hour we’d matured enormously as a group. 

Each small group performed their passage for the entire group, each performance was wonderful and utterly distinct. A fabulous workshop.  

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

Then I walked around the city...

After the "Sound of Light" workshop, we had a few free hours before the "official" opening of the institute in the evening. I went out to lunch with some of my fellow-instituters, and then walked back to our hacienda, stopping by the Dante bookstore on the way to buy a book of local maps, then to Cafe Latte to buy ground coffee (it was shut, but the owner let me in anyway, and ground me a delicious blend of beans that stood us in good stead all week).

Here are photos from my walk:

The last one grabbed me because it looked so much like I imagine Macondo, the setting of 100 Years of Solitude (it's available for rent, too, if you're ready to do some serious fixing-up).

Workshop 2 (and the official opening of the Teacher Institute): The Faun on the Bus

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

This workshop was facilitated by Kata and Marimar. It began with an excerpt from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Living to Tell the Tale, in which he describes seeing a faun get onto his bus, ride for a few stops, then disembark at a park, thank the driver, and disappear into the trees. Garcia Marquez says that he made the choice as a writer that this had been his experience - he remembered seeing the faun - and therefore, it would be dishonest to claim that it hadn’t happened. 

Marimar then gave a brief lecture about Garcia Marquez and magical realism, that began with her grandmother’s claim that she has seen chupacabras in her backyard on two separate occasions, and her grandfather’s story of stealing cows from farmers by carrying them on his back.She compared these stories to Garcia Marquez’s memory of the faun. This took her to the observation that in Garcia Marquez’s writing “there are hardly ever any portals.” She contrasted this with Anglo-American fantasy: Harry Potter must travel to Hogwarts by passing through Platform 9 3/4, Alice falls down a rabbit hole, the Pevensey children pass through a wardrobe into Narnia, Coraline discovers a passageway to the parallel home and her sinister “Other Mother”. But in Garcia Marquez’s writing, the mundane and the magical coexist on the same plane of existence (incidentally, as I recall, David Foster Wallace makes the same observation about David Lynch, who you could argue is America’s foremost magical realist filmmaker). Miramar concluded by saying “I don’t like using the terms ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ because they make a portal.”

Then we left the air conditioned room to the gallery space, formed partners, found two other pairs, and in our groups of six, prepared to tell one-sentence introductions to extraordinary stories from our own lives (and those of our friends and family), beginning with the words “I could tell you about…” 

We led into this with excerpts from the picture book Gabito (based on elements from Living to Tell the Tale). The excerpts were read by volunteers (or possibly the “voluntold”)from among the participants (however much choice they’d had in the matter, they seemed to have been briefed on reading slightly in advance of the workshop itself).

 The first excerpt described the extraordinary parrot in the house where “Gabito” grew up who once predicted the arrival of a runaway bull in the kitchen. We were then prompted to think of a story than involved animals. This was rapid-fire, and I found it incredibly stressful, because I felt an inner pressure to think of stories from my past, and my family’s rich well of stories. I both identify (in a casual way) as a storyteller, and worry about forgetting things, so I felt a sense of failure when I was doing this (on the other hand, I thought everyone else in my group of six did wonderfully). 

Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken my notebook out into the gallery with me and I was absorbed in trying to think of my own stories, so the story “teasers” I heard instantly grabbed me, but didn’t stick with me. If I were doing this exercise, I would have people bring notebooks with them, encourage them to take notes on each others’ stories (possibly drawing a circle first, labelling it with people’s names, and then writing a constellation o keywords around each name), and, critically, give a bit of time to think and write (just listing, no more) before going around the circle. 

We then separated back into our original pairs (I was working with Nick) and used the second phrase, “I want to hear about…” in order to hear the full story behind one of the “I could tell you about” sentences we’d said in our group of six. Nick and I both admitted we had virtually no memory either of what we’d heard, or what we ourselves had said. But we jogged each others memory. He told me the story of the trout that created the milky way, and I told him the story of when my father was nearly shot for carrying a flute. 

Then, we told each other’s story (or rather, that’s what I did, but I don’t think that was precisely what we were supposed to do. The phrase for this portion was “I can imagine.” I retold Nick’s story with embellishment, which meant I didn’t even reach the point where he got to Montana, which was basically where the story started. What I think I was SUPPOSED to do was to riff on the images I’d heard, adding detail to particular scenes (I can imagine the three fishermen on a pitch black river, under a pitch black sky; I can imagine an inexperienced, twitchy cop drawing his gun when everyone else’s gun is still in it’s holster). I think this would have worked a lot better than what I did, and I think it’s what Marimar and Kata intended.

At this point was the final phrase: “Can you imagine?” For this one, we all came up with a single-sentence “Can you imagine” phrase, behind which our story lived. Here are the phrases I brainstormed:

  • Can you imagine a flute that can defeat a wild dog?
  • Can you imagine a son ready to turn his back on the very privilege that had been denied his father?
  • Can you imagine a beach made out of scuttling shrimp? [totally different story, incidentally, I was just riffing]
  • Can you imagine a flute that was suppressed by the police?

At the end of the workshop, we went around the room, with each of us reading our sentence to the group. I went with my last sentence. After this, there was a concert of music from the Yucatán, by a band that included one of the members of the Habla staff, with free tapas and drinks, and dancing. 

Jason, Tere and I caught a taxi back later than Marisol, Jesús, and Julieta, and went to Rosas y Xocolate, where there was a jazz trio playing on the roof. I sat in on “Corcovado” on sax, and after that, had a chat with the drummer, an Argentinian named Mauricio who told me that he’d be playing a breakfast gig the next morning with a Cuban pianist and a trumpet player. We went to hear them, and they were awesome.  

Here are some photos Jason took of me playing with the band on the roof:


Saturday at Habla [Part 1]: Workshops about "the sound of light" and "navigating the light"

OK, now there's a LOT to write about, and it's 12:37 PM (I just got back from Rosas y Xocolate's rooftop bar, where I briefly sat in with a jazz trio, so the evening got late).

The day started at Rosas y Xocolate too, because it's just down the street from us and they did a great breakfast (I had poached eggs and fried bananas with curry sauce). 

After breakfast, we caught a cab to Habla.

Workshop 1: The Sound of Light (11:00-2:00) (led by Dario and Kurt)

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

We started by going into the gallery space and standing in a circle. 

Everybody walked to a different spot in the circle (silently) while Kurt counted to ten, then again while he counted to seven. Between place, changing, Kurt asked us to check the circle and make sure that it was maintaining its shape and not flattening out on particular sides. 

Next (still in a circle) Kurt had us all jump "as high as you can" at the same time, without speaking to each other. He told us to be still for a little bit before we jumped. After the jump, he asked everyone to point to "who started it". Ideally, we would all be pointing in different directions. We jumped a few times - sometimes there was one clear leader (though they didn't necessarily realize they had instigate the jump), other times we really were pointing all over the place. When it worked really well, everyone was beginning to tense up to jump, and one person's tension went infinitesimally towards a crouch, which triggered several others to crouch more, and then we all went. 

Then it was "bumper cars". We counted off by twos (still in a circle). "Twos" shut their eyes and  crossed their arms in front of them, elbows jutting out protectively from the chest. Their task was to walk across the circle, eyes shut, to a different spot. Ones kept their eyes open. Their job was to gently shift the Twos so that they didn't crash into each other, and so that they ended up in the perimeter of the circle, facing the center, at a different spot. Nobody was assigned a partner, we were all expected to look after everyone. After doing this, Kurt asked people what they were feeling, and got some responses.

This led to us pairing off with someone new, again with one person shutting their eyes. The other person led them around the room by  pushing gently at the center of the back (between the shoulder blades), or touching either shoulder blade. Somewhat counterintuitively (to my mind, anyway), when Kurt and Dario modeled this, touching the left shoulder meant that the "led" person shifted their shoulder back into the hand, thereby turning left (I would've thought the hand on the left shoulder was a "push" onto that shoulder, so it would actually make you turn right). Finally, if you took your hands off the person entirely, they needed to stop. We no longer had a goal for our journey, we were just encouraged to explore the space. Once both partners had been led, we did it again - this time with the freedom to lead however we wanted, within reason - by the hand, by the elbow, by both hands, so the leading took on an element of dance. In the final variation, we led our partner for a while, then indicated in some way that we were leaving, and left them standing alone, for someone else to pick up and lead. Kurt described the loneliness of an elderly architect who had been "left" for a long time when they did the workshop at Brown ten years ago, and reminded us to make sure everyone was looked after, and no-one was left. 

In retrospect, this feels like the point when the "warm-up" ended, and the workshop-specific work began, but that wasn't clear at the time. In any case, we returned to the circle and people talked about how they felt and what they noticed, both when being led and when leading. After that, we sat wherever we wanted and Dario led what I'd call a "listening meditation", listening first to our breath, then what was near to us, then to the entire room, then to everything outside, then back to the room, to what was near us, and to our breath. My mind was crammed with thoughts (among others, wondering how I was going to keep track of all the exercises we'd done and reflect on them) and I didn't feel like I ever really started listening. 

After chatting to a partner about our listening (or lack thereof), we returned to a circle, counted off by twos again, and the twos sat in a smaller concentric circle, while the ones stayed further out. Everyone shut their eyes, and the twos created an improvised sound piece by making whatever sound we wanted when Kurt tapped us once on the head, changing the sound when he tapped us once again, and then going silent when he tapped us twice. After that "conducted" piece, we did it again - this time with no "conducting". We were told to provide some silence, then start our piece. We could make any noise we wanted, change it at will, and stop it when the time seemed right. All the pieces we improvised were magical. 

At this point, we returned to the air-conditioned but acoustically problematic room, made groups of four or five (self-selected), then went outside to listen. Kurt told us when to start and when to stop listening, and gave us time to jot down what we heard in our notebooks. This was our first "text", (Kurt's word). In our groups, we used a collection of objects to recreate the soundscape we had just heard. We performed out composition for two other groups, who also performed theirs for us. 

Before we composed our piece, Kurt reminded us of the "jumping at the same time" game, and encouraged us to seek distributed leadership in our team. When we were composing our piece, I was reminded of the painful aspect of collaboration - especially with strangers - as I would see an idea begin to flower and then die of neglect in the general tumult of ideas, variously directed enthusiasms, and the critical work of projecting goodwill to the people we'll be spending the next week working with. The withering of neglected ideas is an inevitable byproduct of collaboration, but I always find it hard. I also find that I (increasingly consciously) decide where collaborations fit on a continuum of priority, between "make something really good" and "have a positive experience in a group". This act of triage has helped me to relax a lot in collaborations, and be a less obnoxious group member, because I'm able to tell myself things like "Hey, in this context we do not need to produce the platonic ideal of a pipe-cleaner animal circus," and relax into having a good time. And the work always ends up being good, and better for me having relinquished my role as self-appointed arbiter of quality. Although I also nearly always feel a sense of "why didn't I think to do that" competitiveness when I see the work that other groups produced.

What I'm trying to say is that I have developed a relaxed attitude to group work through force of will, which I suppose means I don't have a relaxed attitude to group work. 

The other interesting thing I was reminded about, working in the group, is that groups are nearly always composed of some people who prefer to carefully map out what they want to do before they do it, and people who want to do it and then figure out what they liked and didn't like about it. I tend to want to do whatever we're planning to do (my general attitude is that it's never to early for a first draft) and then discuss what we did. Lots of people, I've noticed, really don't want to "do the thing until they have a clear sense of what they want to do. I haven't heard this difference of approach acknowledged in groups before. I'd like to bring it up.

After that, we did our first "serious" reflection, a 3-2-1

Here's what I wrote:

Three thoughts

  1. I want to make sure I remember these games
  2. The games were purposeless, and as such, depended on our goodwill
  3. There are some very dominant voices in the group - I'm curious to see how this dynamic develops over the week.

Two questions:

  1. What additional steps would Kurt and Dario have included in the warm-ups if we weren't as receptive, mutually trusting, and/or as skilled at these kinds of physical games?
  2. How far will goodwill and expectations get me with teenagers, weighed against their (justifiable) fear of losing face? What if we do something like the improvised soundscapes, and the first time we do it it isn't magical? If that happens, why would students want to give it a second try?

One analogy:

  1. The process that we went through - of making yourself vulnerable, disconnecting from speech (and thereby rationality), and putting blind trust into other people - is the same process that indoctrinates people into cults. 

After a short break, our next text was Gabriel Garcia Marquez's short story, "Light is Like Water", from Strange Pilgrims. I read it in Spanish. I'm going to try to read everything in Spanish. It's a novel experience to read something that takes me our entire allotted time to read, and that I then only partially understood. It had a remarkably minimal impact on my ability to take part in the conversation, which took place in a trio and followed the "building conversation" protocol in which each of us spoke for a minute, with each minute building on what was said in the previous minute, then for three minutes we spoke together (with the only direction being that we not merely rehash what was said in the first three minutes). Full disclosure: after the discussion, I skimmed the English version of the short story. 

I should mention that the 3-2-1 and “building conversations” protocols, which I described in the previous post, come from Harvard’s Project Zero.

I should also mention that Kurt uses the term “thinking routines” instead of “protocols”. I’m going to try it. 

OK, it's 1:30. I will continue this tomorrow...

Blogging the Habla Teacher Institute - Day 1: The Arrival

I'm only writing this post in order to start off on the right foot - there isn't much to tell. After meeting at Marisol's house at 6:45 AM to cross the border to Tijuana International Airport together,  we finally arrived at our hacienda in Merida at 10:15 at night. Even accounting for the two hours we lost between time zones, it was a long trip - most of it spent in Mexico City's airport on a layover.

But we're here! As promised, it's hot and humid (even at 10:15 at night). On the taxi ride in we saw lots of people out in the streets - I guess this is the nicest time to be out and about. The bathroom sink had a bug trapped in it, with an antenna-span of well over six inches. When I tried to capture it and take it outside, it escaped down the drainpipe. 

What else to tell? We've got a small but perfectly formed pool in the back, and I just took a dip. It's refreshing. Also, whoever is next door to us was playing pretty out-there jazz on their stereo. 

Tomorrow we'll be at our first pre-institute workshop, doing vocal improvisations. I'm nervous, I'm excited, and I'm wishing I'd spent more time reconstituting my Spanish before we flew here!