This morning I am thinking about space. I am thinking about space and proximity and power. Last week I returned from a Down Island Trip, a three day road trip around Eleuthera supported by the Histories Department looking at tourism and development. I was one of the four staff members that accompanied K1, the very first of S11’s students to embark on the epic voyage of 8-Day Kayak. They returned from their 8-Days and in a matter of less than a day, were back in their Island School uniforms being shuttled around in vans and Harknessing on command. This transition back from kayak to land proved difficult for some, inspired frustration and even resentment from others. Tension grew between students and faculty. On our last night, in a circle, under the stars, camping in a grassy field adjacent to Preacher’s Cave, students gave voice to their frustration. K1 felt like 8-Day Kayak gave them the opportunity to practice real authentic student leadership. They felt total ownership over their kayak trip: planning all logistics for the day, preparing all their own meals, bed times and wake-up times, etc. Students were given license to make decisions and to either succeed or fail, while learning either way. Students left kayak empowered to lead. They hopped in the vans on day one of our Down Island Trip, expecting to run the show. Except, the thing was, they may have been able to paddle a kayak for eight days, but they couldn’t drive a van. Their power was limited. Down Island Trips are a very planned thing. The Histories department has been running Down Island Trips for years. They know where to go on Eleuthera. They know what is important to see. They know which cites will elicit compelling insights into tourism. They know at what points on the trip it is important to sit down and process learning together. They know where to get their essential questions answered. They know where to go to get a good doughnut. By the last night, students were fed up with the things we knew about Down Island. In that grassy meadow under the pressure of the piercing stars, students told us that they felt restricted by our presence. Eventually, we made peace and came to an understanding. We circumvented mutiny. We slept deeply that night, having come to a shared appreciation for our situation, one that allowed us to start over fresh the next morning.
But, I continue to think about this experience. I have brought it up in various contexts, trying to understand the nature of leadership at The Island School. Yesterday I mentioned it in a faculty meeting and received the following response from Rob, one of K1’s Kayak leaders:
“Physical space is important for students to have a sense of independence and leadership. Nadine and I did very little differently from other kayak trips except for the several meals that we cooked out of sight and earshot from the student area. We got a lot of feedback about how much we let the students take control of the trip. We actually didn't. We just weren't physically with them at moments when it wasn't important for us to be. That gave the students the sense that we trusted them and respected their ability to make their own decisions.”
This morning I am thinking about space. I am reminded of a line that has stuck with me from The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. She cites a West African proverb: “The beginning of wisdom is to get you a roof.” We need a space in which to do the things we need to do. I am thinking how I feel when I write and what I need to write well. I am reminded of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I am thinking of the incredible empowerment and freedom that comes from physical space.
Our Island School students are packed into dorms like teenage sardines, sometimes with beds that stack two high. They travel around like schools of fish; they probably even look like schools of fish underwater in Marine Ecology class. If you have ever seen anIslandSchoolweekly schedule, you will understand the restrictive shape of time here. Three times a week, they get two and a half hours a day to leave the physical proximity of campus. They sign out of their fishbowl and out into an aquarium. Space expands, larger now. But like fishies in a tank, still, there is always someone watching.
On 8-Day Kayak, students return to the ocean. They break down the glass and spill out into space. It is wide open out there. Think of how that physical space must feel after having every minute scheduled for you for two months, after eating and learning and living alongside forty-eight students, alongside even more staff, every day, all day, for months.
I am thinking about space this morning, about that thing Rob said: “Physical space is important for students to have a sense of independence and leadership.” So, in order to be leaders they must have the space to lead. As faculty, we must get out of their way. Or, more ideally, help them on their way, walking alongside them, sometimes behind them—out of eye and ear shot. Most importantly, we must, at the very least, not always walk in front of them. If we want them to lead, we must get behind them.
I have spent many days since my Down Island Trip thinking about one question: What am I doing here? In my last blog post I talked about sometimes looking around astounded and curious, wondering to my self: What am I doing here? This kind of question is different. Recently, I have been thinking about it like this: What am I doing here? What is my function? What is my role at a school where students are taught to take ownership and lead? Maxey will talk all day about putting schools to work, about breaking down the walls (talk about space…) about eliminating the lines between teacher and student, making all of us learners, together. So, what am I doing here? What is my worth in this equation?
Our Island School mission is Leadership Effecting Change. Leadership is a skill they cultivate, through practice, experience, and opportunity: from Aldis’ emotive speeches to boy’s dorm demanding that action be taken to liberate themselves from the tyranny of dirt and dorm funk, from the first time that Ellie announced our cistern level at dinner circle—nervous and afraid of speaking in front of the whole community, from the time that Nic E. saw a student injured and in need of help and followed his instincts, riding his bike like the wind back to campus to get faculty help, from the day Eliza courageously led us all through a ceremonial celebration of loved ones long passed, from the very first time ever Lizzy camped (on 3 day kayak), to the humble quiet leadership that Arbin demonstrates every time he supports the wellbeing of others, to every time any individual sits in a Harkness style discussion and thinks about how her or his voice will impact others, to the many countless other opportunities that students face every day, students here are learning how to lead each other, to lead themselves, to take ownership over their actions.
There are things that I do here because only faculty is allowed to, like email parents, bake cakes and drive vans. There are other things I do here that I am skillful at, like create lesson plans that engage students in objectives, design morning exercises that push our students to new physical heights and levels of accomplishment, and give academic and life advice grounded in wisdom and experience (okay, so I may only be twenty-seven, but that’s at least ten more years of living than most of my students, so I will claim a little wisdom, or at least a little more than your average sixteen year old…)
But, the more that I sit here and think about it, I became skillful at these things (and more) by actually doing these things, many times: successes, failures, triumphs, defeats, we acquire skills by doing. I acquired these skills because of the people who trusted me to try, because of the people who gave me the space to do.
So, what am I doing here?
Well, at the moment, I am thinking about space.
I am thinking about how to give Island School students the space to lead.