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Archive for the ‘gift culture’ Category

hand-appleHere are some thoughts I’ve had for awhile about the nature of schools and learning.

The book The Gift by Lewis Hyde has had a deep impact on my life and work. In it, Hyde proposes that artists have a hard time making a living because their work is based in one kind of economy, but they live in another. Hyde posits that the mainstream culture is a commodity culture but artists live in a gift-giving culture.

Bear with me while I try to explain what he says.  In a commodity culture, goods and services are exchanged tit for tat – I give you money, or some expression of value, and you give me some good or service in return. Then we’re even and the transaction is done. See ya later.

In a gift-giving culture (and Hyde gives examples of a number of traditional cultures that use gift-giving, like the potlatch of Northwest natives) the gift is given freely without expectation of immediate reciprocity – he says the gift “goes around the corner”, out of sight. Since the transaction isn’t complete, the relationship stays – a gift-giving culture builds a web of interdependence. In a way, wealth is expressed not by what you have, but by how much you give away. Hyde says artists, by the nature of their work, are gift-givers. Musicians can’t help but play, dancers dance, artists paint and writers write. If they hoard, waiting for proper monetary compensation, they dry up and the gift stops. They offer these things up, believing that something will come back. Art builds community.

But therein lies the rub for the artist. It’s hard for them to get a fair commodity value for their art, since these works arrive to them as gifts and are passed on as such, whether they’re paid in money or not.

Okay, that’s a short and fumbling explanation of Hyde’s book – if you want more, I highly recommend it, though I will add that for all its brilliance, to my mind, the second half is kind of a slog.

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to schools, and it explains a lot about the current (and perhaps chronic) fight over whether schools are succeeding or failing. When I look at the schools I work in, I see, overarching everything, a gift-giving culture. Almost everything is offered without expecting immediate return. Children give assignments to teachers, and offer to read out loud to their classmates. Nurses hand out band-aids. Teachers bring in their own books to the classroom and parents bring in snacks. Children share their French fries. Teachers fill in for their co-workers at recess, or as lunch monitors. Children bring in small gifts for their teachers. Cupcakes appear in the teacher’s lounge. In all of these exchanges, and thousands more, there is no tit for tat, no final accounting, no exchange of any currency (okay, French fries)– they are done to make the culture go, and with each of these simple gifts, the web of connection grows. For all the math that’s taught, it’s amazing how little is measured in a school. And this ignores the greatest gift-giving of all – the one that truly goes around the corner – the teacher gives the gift of teaching and knowledge without ever seeing the final result. Only years later, a grown person may realize the gift they were given, and have no way to pay it back except to offer something similar to someone else.

That return on investment is a hard one to measure.

Even though we don’t name it, all of us understand intuitively that the school is a gift-giving culture. That’s why when a teacher demands a raise, or decides only to work as much as they are actually required (“work to order”), or walks out on strike, many people are incensed. How dare that teacher insert filthy money into this situation? We feel that the unspoken rules of an unnamed gift-giving culture have been broken. By and large, teachers are loath to make waves. Most teachers, in my experience, are nurturers and accomodators – it takes a lot to get them to speak up about being treated fairly. In this, they’re like artists, or nurses – their work offers gifts that can’t quite be monetized. They really would rather teach.

I especially see this paradox playing out in high-stakes testing and the ongoing push to measure educational achievement. We have witnessed the emergence of the quantifiers, the bean counters, as the major arbiters in whether an education is valid. Calibrating things, measuring their value, giving merit pay based on test scores, counting the number of minutes of instruction time and doing away with activities not easily measured (um, for instance, like a storyteller’s visit or a class party), are done in the belief that this will be more educationally effective.

Except schools don’t work like that, and neither do humans. When we leave no room for these “valueless” activities, these expressions that have no immediate return, or we insist on finding a way to measure them, we’re destroying the fabric of the culture. While we need to reach agreement on what things are important to teach, and find ways to see how a child is growing, when the measurements drive the activity of the school, the culture is damaged and you get a lot of sullen people who are going to think twice about giving without return. Not just teachers, but kids and staff.

I think some people who institute this stuff have good intentions. But they’re wrong. No matter how you cut it, a school isn’t a profit-making corporation offering goods and services in exchange for equal financial value. It’s a bad model.

A test score that punishes isn’t a gift at all.

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recycling binSome food for thought.

Maybe you’re like me and spend part of your time beating yourself up over things you should be doing.

Like not returning bottles for their deposits.

Rather than redeem them at the store down the street, I chuck them into the recycling bin. Every time I do this I scold myself. Why don’t I return them for the deposit? I don’t know.

Well, actually, I do know. I am a bad person. I am slothful, and indolent. And lazy. And lack willpower and am morally deficient. To get the money back, I would actually  have to put them in a box, put them in a car and take them to the redemption center. Imagine the energy it takes to do that. I am overwhelmed.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling like a useless individual and total spendthrift who wastes money and time and everything else, my mind comes to rest on my failure to take in bottles to get all those nickels back.

I could have retired by now. Millions of dollars wasted by not returning bottles.  While they are being recycled, I am not being financially responsible.  If there’s one thing that shows my moral failings, it’s my financial irresponsility. I’m sure none of you ever feel like that.

But now, I am content in my sloth and indolence. Sometimes there is nothing like dragging your feet when you’re supposed to be responsible, efficient and frugal. Sometimes it takes while for the purpose of an action to reveal itself.

About a month ago, I dragged out the recycling to the curb. There was a big container of bottles to be recycled (and I don’t want to discuss why there were so many and what had been in them…). I stood there looking at them thinking “You’re a lazy idiot. You should take them in and get the money for them.”

But it was late. And I was lazy. I chose guilt over action.

Something woke me early in the morning – it was still dark, around 5:45. I heard a noise outside. There were bottles and cans clinking and rattling out by the street. An alcoholic opossum? Or dog? A coyote? A squirrel? All these things were possible.

I got up from bed, quietly opened the door onto the porch and looked out onto the street. A car was pulled up by my driveway, its headlights illuminating my recycling bin. Someone was sifting through my recycling. They were stealing my bottles! In a weird, irrational response, I at first felt like I was being violated. Someone was taking my stuff! That stuff was worth something! I should yell at him to stop!

Then I saw the irony in that. By dragging it out to the curb, I had kind of declared what it was worth to me.

I watched the guy get in the car and drive down to my neighbor’s driveway, where he did the same thing. Bottles clinking, him pawing through the recycling bin, earning a nickel with each bottle he found. I got back in bed and lay there staring at the ceiling thinking about it. Then I fell asleep for another hour and forgot about it.

Until the next Wednesday morning, when I was again awakened by the sound of clinking bottles.

And last week, too.  Always the same time, around 5:45, give or take five minutes.

So now I am thinking about the diligence and need of someone driving down my street collecting the bottles for deposit at 5:45 in the morning. I am thinking what a small thing it is, and what it means.

I hope he makes a million dollars. Or buys some food.  Or get whatever it is he needs. It is a small offering, but one I now happily make every Tuesday night when I drag out the recycling bins. My lacksidaisical approach to frugality is someone else’s boon. I can live with that.

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I’m back from the National Storytelling Festival. For all the confusing issues surrounding the festival and the International Storytelling Center (more on that in some future post), it was an amazing experience for a performer. Those of us who get to tell stories there end up feeling a great gratitude.

In the last session, I recited a poem I had just written. The response was really positive and people asked me how to find it. I just wrote it. But here it is:

Nothing for granted

Let us take nothing for granted
Not the water coming out of the faucet
Nor the smell of bread
Nor the call of the lone crow overhead
Late in the afternoon

Do not take for granted the shoestring that does its job every day without complaint
Nor the way the fingernail clipper responds when asked by squeezing thumb and forefinger
Do not take dark roast for granted
nor the smell of its brewing
Nor chocolate
(Especially chocolate)
Nor the rain predicted with certainty by Eyewitness news
Do not take for granted the leaf, pasted upon the windshield
Its puckered body yellow
Its spidery veins green
Which even the wipers cannot remove

Especially, do not take the venality of those in power for granted
Nor the callousness of those intent upon teaching a lesson to someone else
while not learning it themselves
Instead, be taken aback
And don’t take your indignity for granted either
Indignant at the insensitivity of the privileged
Mistaking their position for their worth
Do not take the hunger of the poor for granted
Nor the drum’s tattoo that summons the dogs of war
Do not assume inevitability
For at this moment things are still evitable
And we do not know what there will be an outbreak of

So, embrace surprise

For it is in our surprise and what comes of it that we embody the possibility of something else
In our surprise we remind the world of what it might be

The trick is to take the moment
Out of the cardboard box
Or picture frame
Or digital byte
Or philosophical system
Or the story we have put it in
The equating of this for that
The alchemy of life into metaphor
When in fact nothing equates with anything exactly
For it is this space between where we think something fits
And what the fitting leaves out
That life breathes

Refuse boredom

Do not let the continuing
Recombination of genetic material
Blind you to the beauty of its expression

In not taking things for granted
We will appear a little daft
Apparently obtuse and dull-witted
As if we are only realizing something
Everyone else has known since the day before the first day of middle school
(The last day to learn something before you were pilloried for your ignorance)

When we do not take things for granted
People will be embarrassed for us
And for themselves

Let us be masters of the obvious
Of what everyone knows but seems to have forgotten
Because they do not name it
And in not naming it, lose it

Let us be known for saying
“The sun came up this morning”
“The stars are coming out”
“The leaves are turning colors”
“The firetruck is red”
“Someone emptied the dishwasher”
“This food tastes good”
“This system is unjust”
“Things will change”
“You are my friend”

Let us be masters of the repeated appreciation
Let us be the masters of the redundancy of affection
Giving more gifts than necessary
Over and over
In the knowledge that the slippage in the universe requires
Us to give more than we think we should have to give
Let us be masters of appearing foolish
Masters of the obvious insight
Masters of the wisdom everyone already holds
Masters of what is known
Only to be found again and again
And delighted in each time at its discovery

copyright 2011 by Bill Harley and Round River Productions

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For want of a light bulb, the lesson was lost.....

I’ve been thinking about janitors.

Maybe because I’m waiting to hear from a publisher about a book of mine. It’s a picture book a kid and his interaction with the school janitor (er, custodian – more on that in a second). The kid is afraid of Mr. Rumkowsky, but he has to find his hat, and Mr. Rumkowsky (the janitor – custodian) might have it.

Remember your janitor?

It’s a tongue in cheek joke, but it’s often said that the two people who run any school are the secretary and the janitor. They may not teach, but, in addition, hopefully, to the principal, they are the ones who have an overall view of what is going on in the school.

I know from my work as a visiting artist that if the janitor doesn’t feel like helping, I’m going to have a tough job. Where are the chairs? Can you sweep the floor? – someone spilled their cheese curls. The door is sticking. The radiator in Room 17 isn’t working. The food delivery truck can’t get to the loading dock because someone parked there. Any one of those things will mess up a school schedule, and thereby the learning process in a place that has to manipulate four hundred souls for eight hours.

Janitors are key. Actually – custodians. The folks who do all that necessary, often invisible, work would rather we call them custodians. One of them pointed out to me, “Janitors just clean, I take care of things. Don’t call me a janitor. I’m a custodian.”

And custodian is a nice thought – some one who has custody of a place. Someone who cares for it. Every school needs that.

Which is why I scratched my head when a friend of mine, a school librarian in a local elementary school, told me that they have no custodian. In a penny-wise, pound-foolish move, the system decided to out-source the “custodial services”. Now the hired service comes early in the morning, at lunch time, and late in the afternoon and does their work (exactly as contracted) and has no interaction with the rest of the school staff.

There is, I guess, still a little room where the supplies are kept. Children throw up during the school day, and waiting until 5 pm might be a little much. Remember? The smell makes everyone else throw up. There must be a place to get wood chips.

But if one little thing goes wrong, uh oh.

Life is about things going wrong. Like they say, “Man plans, the universe laughs”.

Like my friend’s overhead projector. The light bulb burnt out. It didn’t work and she needed it. There was no custodian to ask. She looked around the school. No one knew where the replacement bulbs were or how to fix it. Someone in the office told her if she needed a new overhead projector, she could send in a purchase order. Easier to get a new projector than a new bulb?

Her husband came to rescue. He looked at the make of the projector, Googled the company, got the diagram of the projector and ordered the $2 bulb, then replaced it himself.

I guess the spouses of school staff count as community. But it would be nice if the school system paid for that kind of thing.

Jeesh.

I’ve talked in earlier posts about schools being gift-giving communities, not businesses. It seems to me that a custodian, or caretaker, is an important part of that. At the school I work at regularly, the Paul Cuffee School, the custodian Henry greets all the kids in the morning. I’m pretty sure it’s not in his job description.

I’m also thinking that the contract custodial service companies have no interest in their employees talking to six year olds.

Oh for Pete’s sake.

Stories about custodians? I’d love to hear them. You can call them janitors, but don’t forget how important they are.

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In storytelling workshops with teachers, I regularly ask them to tell a story about a teacher that had an influence on them. This leads to a discussion about what makes a good teacher, and opens up the door for them to talk about their work in a narrative way. It also emphasizes a notion I mentioned in an earlier blog – the “structure” of teaching is not a political one, but rather an unbroken line through centuries of teachers who influenced people who then became teachers themselves.

What comes out of those teacher stories in the exercise is always interesting. It is usually a story about some kindness offered, or some revealing act on the part of the teacher – something that shows them as a person.

I was doing this exercise last month for a school district in California. When we got back together I asked, “How many of your memories with those teachers had to do with the curriculum?” I looked around. No one spoke, no one raised their hand.

Finally, one of the older teachers said, “It never has anything to do with the curriculum.”

Everyone in the room nodded.

I’ve heard this response before and it makes my point in the workshop that it’s the culture of a classroom or a school that really encourages learning to take place. A kindness given to a student, or a story told, gives them courage to take a chance on learning something, knowing they’ll be supported. It may even encourage them to become a teacher. (Aaagh! Not that!) Without that culture, the best curriculum in the world is going to have problems. Some kids will learn under almost any conditions, but many others, especially ones at risk, are never going to get anywhere without those moments of kindness.

I have in my mind a thought about this. “Love is in between.” It’s not the part you notice, or the time curriculum developers think about. But kindness or openness really acts like mortar in a brick building. You have all these bricks you’re using to construct the building, but something needs to hold them together. We don’t notice the mortar, we notice the bricks. But it’s the mortar, the binding agent, in between the bricks that helps the bricks do their job.

Okay enough metaphor. You get my point, I hope. The kindness, the stories, and the building of community seem like small things, and they certainly are in a formal evaluation of what was learned.

But no mortar, no building.

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One of my favorite books is The Gift by Lewis Hyde. In it, Hyde proposes that artists (and let’s use that term broadly) are forever going to be at odds with our culture because they live in a different kind of culture and economy. Hyde writes that today’s society is a commodity culture: I give you money, you give me something back, and we’re even – the relationship is complete.

Hyde says that artists really live in a gift-giving culture – someone gives a gift without worrying about being repaid. The gift he says “goes around the corner”. The belief of the participant in a gift-giving culture is that things will even out – they act on that faith. And their giving is a symbol of their health and wealth. When you give a gift it’s not immediately compensated – it would be crass to do so. If someone brought you a bottle of wine because they know you like red wine, you wouldn’t give them ten bucks so you’d be even. You let it be a gift.

When the gift is given, a relationship is established. It’s that web of relationships that marks a gift-giving culture. If all artists were worried about is whether they’d be compensated fairly, they’d never create anything, or they’d never let their art go out into the world. Most art isn’t compensated. And then they would dry up and stop creating. That does happen to artists who become bitter about the difficulties of being an artist.

Hyde’s book is an affirmation for those people who can’t help but create, even if their work isn’t compensated or appreciated.

But I’ve been thinking that the concept of a gift-giving culture also makes sense in a learning community – whether it’s a public school, or a university, or a night class, or a guitar lesson.

There’s a structure of finance, and numbers, and measuring in many learning environments (school budgets, testing, grade point average, blah blah blah), but the deeper structure is the relationships established. Teachers, wanting their students to learn, don’t measure their hours, or make a mark on some ledger every time they do something to make sure they get paid back. (That’s why “work to rule” in contract disagreements seem so distasteful to us – we inherently know that teachers aren’t just selling widgets and feel they shouldn’t care about money.) Students are eager to please the teacher- and for many of them, there’s no idea of the money behind education – what they see is the people offering their time and care.

The good learning places I go to are filled with evidence of their being gift-giving cultures. Children bring in cupcakes and teacher presents. They happily wipe the blackboards or write get-well cards to sick teachers or other students. Math teachers show up at piano recitals; English teachers give books from their own libraries to interested students. All teachers buy supplies for which they aren’t repaid. These are all gifts, given freely, without thought of compensation. There is no way we can untangle the web of relationships that form in a learning environment.

And so, teachers and learners are up against the same problems as artists – when someone wants to start measuring everything, there’s bound to be confusion. Teachers have to make a living, and so have to live some kind of divided life – most won’t make what they “deserve” because they’re participating in a gift-giving culture. And when the bean counters succeed in presenting themselves as the arbiters of good educational practice, the gift giving suffers.(Wow, that was a long way to get to the question of testing, but….)

Schools make a lot more sense to me when I look at them as gift-giving cultures, not as some model of corporations with hierarchical structure.

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