If rocking chairs could speak, I bet they would have a lot to say. When selecting a title for Once Upon a Rocking Chair, I was drawn to the idea of using a rocking chair as the play’s central image.
As per the themes in the play, it is a symbol associated with motherhood and aging. A simple chair witnesses the quiet time between parent and child, the thoughtful times as we grow older, the beautiful times on a summer’s day, and the wild times on a summer’s night. All across the world rocking chairs are centrally placed on porches, in living rooms, baby’s rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, senior’s homes, and kindergarten classes.
The rocking chair is not only an important piece of furniture, it is a rich metaphor. A rocking chair is meant to be rocked. Our lives are meant to be lived. A rocking chair can be in perpetual motion. We too can be the driving force rocking our lives forward.
“The place was a wilderness of autumn gold and purple and violet blue and flaming scarlet on every side were sheaves of late lilies standing together–lilies which were white or white and ruby…Late roses climbed and hung and clustered and the sunshine deepening the hue of the yellowing trees made one feel that one stood in an empowered temple of gold.” The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett.
When I was I was sixteen I went to England for the first time, staying with different host families a few hours outside of London. I remember the gardens. Even a small yard was filled with rows of diverse colour, separated by narrow, meandering walking paths. It was such a contrast to the concrete and brick and asphalt dominating the front of the homes. I had never been in gardens that transported me beyond time and place before. The gardens offered magic and peace and escape–a refuge calming my fear of being away from home without my parents for the first time. This was when I learned that gardens were special.
As a child I loved the book “The Secret Garden” by Francis Hodgson Burnett. Mary Lennox is faced with big challenges: the death of her parents and everyone she knows and the move to a new country to live with an estranged, grieving uncle. The loss in her life is profound but through finding a secret garden, nurturing it to grow again, Mary gains a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging. As she tends to the garden, she becomes stronger and happier, healing herself and those around her.
Over the past few months, I’ve been rehearsing “The Secret Garden: The Musical” by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon with Northumberland Players. Coming back to this story I realize that although the story is about a child, the lessons about healing are most important for adults.
” “Perhaps it has been buried for ten years,” she said in an almost whisper. “Perhaps it is the key to the garden!” The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Norman and Simon have done an exquisite job of adapting this story for stage with a captivating score and multi-layered script. The music is stunning and complex. Listening to the Broadway soundtrack from beginning to end is a moving experience in itself, at times so powerful I want to weep. This is a musical that invites audiences to reflect on their lives, to face the ghosts of their pasts, and to do the work of healing. In many ways this is a musical for introverts.
This is not a musical with tap-dancing and kick-lines. It’s a love song, an extensive ballad about facing the storm, then finding life after loss. How can you heal when the love of your life has died? How can you have the strength to love your child when grief overcomes you? How can you support others who are gripped by despair?
After the death of her family, Mary goes to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven. The Craven family is overcome by grief for many years after Lily (Archie’s wife) died. Archibald, his brother, and his son, Colin, become like the wilted plants in a forgotten garden. They are desperate for healing but unable to do so alone.
Mary is brave and curious and independent. Her wild spirit leads her to meet Martha and Dickon and Ben. She listens to the robin. She opens the door to the unknown. She begins the work of restoring life to a neglected place. She teaches us about healing…
Healing is about being brave during the nightmares, listening to the whispers calling you to take action, taking a risk by stepping outside, giving yourself permission to feel the sun on your face, connecting with the people you meet, redefining a purpose for your life, focusing on something meaningful, giving to others what you most need for yourself, and honouring those you’ve lost by sharing your memories of them with others.
The garden is a powerful metaphor.
“Six months before Mistress Mary would not have seen the world was waking up, but now she missed nothing.” The Secret Garden, Francis Hodgson Burnett.
In the spring of 2006, “The Secret Garden” was the last high school musical I directed. We used a student version with simpler music than the Broadway one, but the basic story was the same. I selected this play to delight the student audiences, for the simplicity of the story and its message. Ten years have passed and I am immersed in this story again. I missed so much. The story is just waking up for me now.
I bet Francis Hodgson Burnett knew we needed a child to teach adults about resiliency. Today resiliency has become a buzz word in education and parenting. We want to know how to help our children cope better with difficulty and bounce back from hurt. In a time when anxiety and depression seem to be on the rise, I wonder if we should look to the lessons of the garden.
“When her mind gradually filled itself with robins, and moorland cottages crowded with children, with queer crabbed old gardeners and common little Yorkshire housemaids, with springtime and secret gardens coming alive day by day, and also with a moor boy and his ‘creatures,’ there was no room left for disagreeable thoughts which affected her liver and her digestion and made her yellow and tired.” The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett.
At work a student learning need often points to a teacher learning need. If our children need to be more resilient then we need to learn more about it. How do we cope with difficulty? If we are more resilient, then our children will be too.
To a child, ten years is a lifetime. To us it passes in a blink. Ten years ago I was thirty. The areas of my life that I have tended to have slowly grown and developed: my home, my job, my relationships with those closest to me, my creative projects, and my sense of inner peace and contentment. The areas of my life that I have neglected continue to be difficult, stagnant, and haunting. Some days when I’m afraid I feel the walls rising up, the large door moving into place, the key turning in the lock.
The Secret Garden gently invites me to visit the areas of my life that need nurturing. It reminds me that even in the most impossible examples of hurt that healing is possible, that it’s worthwhile to open the door, to slowly tend to the weeds and rot of disappointment and loss to make a space to plant some new seeds.
This is a musical for poets and thinkers and dreamers too. In the show, I am in the chorus. We are called “Dreamers.” I love this. We are spirits reflecting Mary’s fears and hopes. This show has a rich subtext inviting audiences to dig beneath the plot–but you will need to do some work.
A few years ago I saw this version of the musical staged at a theatre outside of Toronto. I thought I knew everything I needed to know about this story. I left the theatre feeling entertained by the staging and music, but I missed a great opportunity. I didn’t make connections. I didn’t listen to the whispers.
Being a cast member in this show has given me the space to think deeply about its themes. Maybe I wasn’t ready for these lessons before. Maybe I hoped that someone like Mary Lennox would literally pop into my life and show me the way, do all the hard work for me. Maybe I needed to become part of the story to truly understand: we all need healing.
Then I think about the things I’ve learned about community healing and peace building. The garden metaphor extends beyond my life to our lives–to how we can begin the work of healing from losses in our towns and countries and even the world. There are so many big scary things going on in the world right now that I feel I don’t have the capacity to face: terrorism, gun violence, water shortages, corruption, war, poverty. So when I hear of a world tragedy I grieve quietly for a couple days, then I put up the walls and the door and lock it all up–but other people are out there tending to this difficult stuff, working each day to do what they can…
We will always have pain and loss in our lives. We would be naive to think difficulty is for other people. I want to be more like Mary. I want to find the keys, open the doors, tend to the gardens of my life, my town, my world. If we listen to the whispers in the subtext of The Secret Garden we will hear the characters asking us to examine our lives and to look for where we can tend some earth, starting small with just a bit.
Children will certainly be entertained by the story and characters in The Secret Garden, but adults can be changed by it. So I invite you to join us next month as the doors open on this beautiful show at The Capitol Theatre in Port Hope. Allow yourself to think deeply. Ask the story to remind you of the truths you saw as a child. Listen closely to the whispers.
Mary Lennox offers just one story. Each character on the stage has a story too. And perhaps you will see yourself not in Mary Lennox, but in Archibald Craven or Lily or Colin or Dickon or Martha or the Dreamers.
Despite the heavy themes, The Secret Garden is an uplifting, hopeful, optimistic musical. It takes us to the saddest parts in our hearts but shows us a path back out into the light and into the world.
” “Now,” he said at the end of the story, “it need not be a secret anymore.”” The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Learning is a process with two key phases: action and reflection.
We have an experience, we reflect on the experience, we expand our understanding by making new connections, and then we act, trying something new with the learning. Teachers describe this as instruction and assessment. Instruction is the action, the doing, the experience. Assessment is reflecting on the impact of the learning on the self or the student.
The current model for learning design in schools is to begin a new lesson with a Minds On task, something to trigger prior knowledge or spark curiosity. Then we move to the Action part of the lesson, the things the students are doing to learn the new skill or explore new knowledge. The students own the learning, the teacher facilitates the process. Finally, there is Consolidation, a chance to reflect on the learning, to see where it fits in the students’ understanding of other things, and to decide on next steps.
We can all engage in action and reflection whether we are learning formally through a course or teaching ourselves how to bake.
- Self: When I am learning something new, how do I build reflection into the process?
- Teacher: How do I balance instruction and assessment?
- Leader: How do I share my learning process with staff and students?
Learning feels like a rollercoaster.
When we learn our energy is affected. Learning is change. Sometimes we feel excited and positively energized by learning and sometimes we feel frustrated and negatively bogged down by learning. It’s normal to feel a combination of both when we are learning something new. In fact, the best learning happens when we feel a combination of familiarity and disorientation, clarity and confusion.
I always know I’m learning when I get angry. Typically I’m not an angry person so when I feel my emotions shifting I know I’m being pushed out of my comfort zone to a more vulnerable place. The challenge and conflict can overwhelm me. I wonder how an hour ago I felt so confident and how now I feel like an absolute mess. But inevitably when I stick with it a path out of the pit emerges and I climb out of the darkness into the light a new woman.
- Self: How can I sustain my focus during the difficult parts of learning, when I’m in the pit surrounded by darkness?
- Teacher: How can I teach my students perseverance?
- Leader: How can I leverage motivation and purpose to inspire staff to accept the learning challenge and better cope with the stresses that come with change?
Learning looks like a carnival.
Learning sparks intrigue, curiosity, and delight, offering many choices and modes of experience. Carnivals invite us to enjoy them on our terms, spending our time (and money) where we want whether we spend hours at the dunk tank or the ring toss or equal amounts of time at each feature. They support individual experiences and collective experiences.
When we really look at learning there are many things going on at once. Individuals make choices constantly about what they will embrace and what they will resist. We learn for ourselves and our own gain, but we also learn in relation to the energy of the group surrounding us.
I’ve been in workshops where the collective vibe was resistance and there was low engagement. Was learning happening? Were we going to take these ideas back to our schools to implement in our classes? Probably not.
Then I’ve been in workshops where the collective vibe was encouraging and there was high engagement. It made me want to take more risks, plunge into new layers of thinking, and make connections between the experience in the room and my classroom.
Learning is most impactful when there is a high level of engagement, collective enthusiasm, and individual choice.
- Self: What motivates me to learn something new?
- Teacher: What does a high level of engagement look like in the classroom?
- Leader: How can we mobilize our school communities to generate more collective enthusiasm?
Learning tastes like my cooking.
If I learn slowly with careful preparation and attention to detail the rewards are far greater than when I learn quickly. Fast learning is about as good for us as fast food. It fills an immediate need but it doesn’t provide the value of a healthy, home cooked meal. In today’s world we need both types of learning to suit different needs. Fast learning is figuring out how to use social media to find and connect to friends. Slow learning is figuring out how to sustain lasting friendships.
Fast learning is reading the latest news about global learning. Slow learning is reflecting on how global warming affects my life and what I need to do to have a lighter footprint.
The Information Age has overwhelmed us with constant, ubiquitous fast learning. It’s such a blessing to have access to knowledge on anything at the press of the button. But as individuals, teachers, and leaders we need to persist in the pursuit of slow learning, of reading to understand, of thinking critically about the information and its implications to our lives.
My cooking is as good as the time I spend doing it. Meals that take hours to prepare are far more nourishing and memorable than meals that took minutes to toss together. When we feel tired and sick, we often look to our diet, making changes to invite more energy. Let’s apply that idea to our learning. When we feel stuck and we are not seeing progress in our work and our lives and our projects, then let’s look to our learning. Slow learning is about the process, the journey, the intentional steps toward a goal. Begin with the end in mind and work backwards. Create a learning plan, like a recipe, that shows a singular focus, a sequence of steps, and a desired result.
- Self: What does my current learning diet mostly consist of, fast learning or slow learning?
- Teacher: How can I create conditions in my classroom to nurture slow learning?
- Leader: How can I model slow learning for staff in the pursuit of my individual learning goals and our school learning goals?
Learning moves like a spiral.
Learning is continuous, expanding, and moving. Each time we learn we open up more opportunities for learning something else. Lessons repeat over time, bringing us deeper into our understanding. The learning spiral moves through our days from birth to death, affecting our choices and values and relationships.
From the earliest humans, we’ve collectively learned about technology, each century evolving into more refined methods of efficiency and effectiveness. As a species we reflect on what went wrong in previous generations to try and make better decisions in this one. The same lessons repeat year after year, decade after decade; they always have and always will. Learning is the soul of evolution and learning is our gateway to personal and collective change. Learning is natural.
Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote about 10,000 hours of practice making an expert: slow learning over time with action and reflection. Our school curriculums are designed to support this idea. Last year our school focused on strategies for multiplication. Every class from Kindergarten to Grade 8 did a multiplication task, modified to grade level, about the number of muffins the baker made. It was amazing to see the continuum of learning spread out in front of us in the student work. As the students got older, their strategies for problem solving were more sophisticated. Even though they may have solved a similar problem seven years prior, Grade 8 students now solved the problem in a different way that accommodated more complexities. And these students will continue to learn about approaches to problem solving (whether in math or life) beyond the walls of our school.
- Self: How have I learned about problem solving over the course of my life? What do I still need to learn?
- Teacher: How can I use metaphor as a way to support my students in reflecting on their learning in a meaningful way?
- Leader: What problems need solving in my school? In education generally? What is my first step toward finding solutions?
It’s time. I’m ready. I want to take the lid off learning. My learning. And I want to do it so that you might feel brave enough to take the lid off your learning too. Are you in? Shall we do it together?
I feel a big shift happening in education where the culture is saying it’s okay for school leaders to share our thinking, to connect with each other using technology, to bravely publish via social media and blogs. There is an amazing conversation happening online among educators around the world.
This week I’m attending a fabulous conference, the Technology-Enabled Learning and Leading Institute 2015 for Principals and Vice Principals. The room radiates promise for the future of education. Now it’s about action. Change doesn’t start tomorrow. It needs to start today. What am I going to do about it? What role do I want to play?
It’s time to expand my blog to encompass my professional realm with more intention.
How can we actively engage in learning?
I spent a lot of time this summer reflecting on my next steps as a learner. My goals are to start the intentional journey to becoming a “learning engineer,” to be more daring, to learn from influential teachers, and to let my inner geek have free range to binge learn.
Three Problems I Want to Solve (with your help!!)
- Fast learning vs. slow learning: How do we move from fast learning to slow learning? How can we narrow our focus and learn more deeply? How can we move past the resistance to critical thinking? How can we turn down the easy solutions and sometimes choose the more arduous thinking path?
- Time to be awesome: Learning leads to awesome, and learning is awesome. How do we find time to understand learning and development? How do we track transformation? How can we move our interest in things to a commitment to understanding things better?
- Abstract vs. concrete: How do we explore process and practice at the same time without overcomplicating things? How do we leverage motivation, engagement, and empowerment? What are the best ways to integrate personal and professional learning? Do Zen learning practices exist and where can we find them?
So what is this blog about?
For years I had trouble synthesizing what my “Sunshine in a Jar” blog was about but now I see it clearly. It’s about learning. It has always been about learning.
When we take the lid off the jar, we open ourselves up to change. It symbolizes freedom. We can let things out or put things in. It’s up to the keeper of the jar. I’ve always seen “sunshine in a jar” as being a metaphor for our inner landscape. So what does the inner landscape of our learning look like? When we take the lid off and look inside, what do we see?
Learning goes beyond schools and the workplace. So often we compartmentalize our personal and professional learning but I truly believe that is too restrictive. I am a whole person and all my learning impacts everything I do, regardless of where the learning happens and its initial purpose. Learning is organic, living, moving, and too powerful to be contained in separate jars or separate selves. Learning is potentially in everything, everywhere, and all the time when we pay attention. We are what we learn and what we learn is part of all of us, our whole selves as individuals and collectively as humans.
I hope you’ll join me as I write about my learning at home and at school. Learning is about relationship and connection–it’s about us. Let’s take the lid off our learning and share our observations and insights!