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  • Writer's pictureLiz Gardner

"Consider Everything an Experiment..."

Perhaps you've seen it, somewhere on the web, or framed in a classroom: celebrated author and teacher Sister Corita Kent's legendary manifesto, outlining 10 Rules for Students, Teachers, and Life. Created in 1967 as part of a class she was teaching, Kent's rules were later appropriated by the art department at her alma-mater, the Immaculate Heart College in LA, and again by John Cage, who appears in the tenth rule: "We're breaking all of the rules even our own rules and how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities. John Cage." They are still majestically wonderful for the here and now, and embody so much of what the FlipSwitch method embraces.

I first stumbled across this awesome compilation of "rules" for students several years ago, and was reminded of it just this week during a conversation with one of my students, who was lamenting the fact that her science teacher simply wasn't bringing it to class most days — not her whole self or her best self or any semblance of either. She knew her teacher was capable of much better, so was mystified. As a result, the classroom dynamic had suffered greatly; most of the students had checked out. My student was understandably frustrated. She wants to be able to more fully engage in class — with the material, her teacher, her classmates, and most particularly, with the learning process — but was feeling both shut down and shut out by the dynamic of disengagement, and had been unable to find her footing in the class. What to do, what to do.

So much of a student's ability to bring their full, best self to class every day depends on having a teacher who shows up every day with enthusiasm and presence, and infects the class with the same good stuff, so that they, in turn, can feel invited to share their own often equally contagious processes of inquiry and discovery. Teachers, however, are human; we never know what might be happening in their personal lives that might be creeping into the classroom, or what the greater context is. This is true with everyone we pass on the street on any given day. The only thing we can control is how we respond. Most situations in life require us to observe, listen, learn, find our place by recalibrating, again and again — this is our work, on us. Rule 7: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It's the people who do all the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.

Students, then, also need to bring it — the willingness to take chances, share their thoughts and ideas, ask questions, risk being wrong and making mistakes, listen to others — and make the flip switch whenever necessary (and it will be necessary), unlearning and relearning at every turn, from everyone around them, and building on each other's ideas in an ongoing exchange of thoughtful inquiry, dialogue, and discovery. If a class (or board meeting, ha) is too teacher-directed (even if done well), students can miss out on rich opportunities to share in the responsibility and experience the full benefits of more student-generated and led discussions. Ownership breeds investment. Investment ensures authentic engagement. Authentic engagement leads to a richer, more internal-rewards-driven learning experience and growth of the best kind. If a teacher seems to be, for whatever reasons, simply not there, especially within a framework, culture, and expectation of a teacher-directed dynamic, students can easily feel dispirited and unable to find their entry points for engagement.

So what can a student do? I shared with my student Sister Corita Kent's manifesto — and in particular, Rule 2, in the context of Rule 3, which address the "general duties of both the student and the teacher." We talked about how she might "pull everything out of her teacher...and her fellow classmates" when it felt like her teacher wasn't working to "pull everything out of her students." Had she made the effort to connect with her teacher outside of class? Had she tried to talk with her teacher about the things she's most interested in and excited by that are related to the course? Had she looked for opportunities to offer some feedback? We brainstormed a bit, and thought about how she might try talking with her teacher about an upcoming event at the school that had an obvious and historical tie-in to the course, to see if she might engage her teacher with her own enthusiasm and ideas for the event. Might she be able to jump start her teacher's passion somehow? Could she also go off-map, and texturize her classroom experience by seeking out other avenues for self-study, for experiential learning on campus, in the community, over the summer? Rule 4: Consider Everything an Experiment.

I was reminded of times in my own kids' lives when they've felt at a loss in certain situations, academic and otherwise, and have had to dig a little deeper and think about it differently in order to find a way through while still honoring their desire to learn and grow and make it all worthwhile. As a fifth grader, my son played on a local AAU basketball team that was made up of an assortment of kids from the sparsely-populated rural area (more cows than people) we live in; the kids were all sizes and abilities, but united by a passion for the game. During a weekend tournament against a series of teams from Long Island — featuring all six-foot-tall sharp-shooters — the coach quickly realized they were way over-matched, and circled up the boys to tell them to try to push aside whatever dread or intimidation they might have been feeling, and instead, focus on just one thing that would elevate their game: passing. If they could let go of any expectation of winning, they could free themselves up to focus on learning an elemental skill that would ultimately improve their game. My son's team got creamed points-wise, but were triumphant in the way they stayed mentally tough and worked tenaciously to stay calm and centered throughout the games so they could simply work on their passing skills. They emerged a stronger team. Rule 6: Nothing's a Mistake. There's no Win and no Fail. There's Only Make.

In the same way a student might need to temper their love of talking in a discussion-based class in order to cultivate their own listening skills while creating more space for others to step in, students can find opportunities for growth and learning in every classroom setting. For all of us, every time someone or something falls short of our expectations, it's an opportunity to think about how we might do things differently — to make our adjustments, do the flip switch, the shift and pivot, and start looking at things through a different lens. What might you focus on instead? Passing? Listening? Sharing your own enthusiasm? Going off map? Rule 10: We're Breaking all of the Rules. Even our own Rules. And how do we do that? By Leaving Plenty of Room for X Quantities. (John Cage)

When we attach ourselves to an expectation of how things are supposed to be — and when it fails to meet that outcome — we can count on being disappointed, on struggling, on feeling stuck. We can easily lose our ability to stay present, build awareness, and be on the lookout for those X quantities — the variables in this uncertain world that make life interesting. Comparing the class to another class or your teacher to another teacher you've experienced, or to a class down the hall that seems like it has it going on, or to whatever you've imagined in your mind can leave you longing for something else, rather than making the most of what you have. Opening yourself to what is — and letting go of what is not, and what lies beyond your control — enables you to refocus on what you can do to shape your own experience, and to what might be. Making this mental shift allows a student to see the possibilities, and then work to take advantage of those possibilities inherent in every situation. And it's a process you have to trust. Leaning into the playful experimentation of finding, inhabiting, and trusting the light coming in from between the cracks, and then into the more systematic step by step of trying new ways of making it work for you, can engender all sorts of good things. Rule 1: Find a Place you Trust and then Try Trusting it for a While.

When expectations are dashed, it's an opportunity to tune in a little closer and listen. What do you need? What's missing? How can you get it? Pay attention to how tightly you might be holding on to an expectation that something needs to be just so. Practice loosening your grip. Redirect your gaze into your self. What would you do differently? What would help you find your footing? Many times, students become more aware of what drives their learning process. What makes you come alive — and conversely, leaves you feeling flat? Where do you find your joy in the learning process? It has been said that ignorance is the awareness that there is more to know, and that we can delight in our ignorance — and in the magic of the surprise discovery — because it leads to the process of inquiry and discovery and the wonderful, magical, mystical journey in between — which invariably results in more not knowing, ha. Dashed expectations in the classroom — or anywhere — present an opportunity to learn a little bit more about yourself. Pay attention to what classroom dynamic feels best for you, and consider how you take responsibility for contributing to that dynamic — or not — especially when the teacher seems disengaged. Release the idea of an outcome or entitlement and better understand how you yourself might enrich your classroom experience and stoke your own curiosity, through self-study, going off map, and making things happen for yourself.

Not every class offers lessons that are immediately visible; some seed later growth, lessons to be harvested gradually and over time.

It just may be that students need to learn that what's most important is what they pull out of themselves in situations like this — how they actively give shape to their own experiences, finding opportunities hidden in the folds of a dynamic that at first glance may feel like an unsurmountable stumbling block, but that provides the chance to learn something enduring and essential about themselves. And this, in turn, can lead to being able to find a more comfortable, confident footing wherever they go. Rule 9: Be Happy Whenever you can Manage it. Enjoy Yourself. It's Lighter than you Think.

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