Home » ALC NYC – Wednesday 3/9/16

ALC NYC – Wednesday 3/9/16

This week I offered Juggling for the first time.  I also offered to hold a COI around responses to cleaning up - 'Philosophy of Clean Up Time'.  The Juggling was various degrees of successful, whereas (as I sort of expected) there was no real interest from the kids in talking about cleaning up, haha.  Ryan was curious and Abby is interested in reading Marie Condo's book (when I'm done with it).  The Juggling turned out to be a great experience for me as it relates to facilitating learning in an ALC.

Last week I decided that, since I am spending each Wednesday at the ALC, I should write a post specifically about that day.  What were my intentions? My hopes? My offerings? What surprised me?

I’ve not formulated a very systematic plan for how I will record these thoughts, but the idea of writing about the day ‘helped’ me to set bigger ambitions for that time.  The scare quotes are there because I generally feel that putting too many expectations on what you think will happen at a given day at an ALC is bound to be met with some level of disappointment.  That’s because unlike most learning environments, there is a premium placed on serendipity amongst the community.  Also, Wednesdays are the day of the week reserved for field trips, so this conflicts with my role of enabling those trips to be possible: most people opt out of the field trips because they have other plans.

This week was a perfect example of me enabling these trips: Abby was set to go to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum and Ryan was taking a group to Steep Rock Bouldering.  I knew this in advance, but I also knew that Douglas, Oliver and Saylor had expressed interest in the juggling.  It turned out that nobody wanted to go all the way to Brooklyn and so Abby settled for a trip to Central Park to enjoy the spring sunshine.  This still meant that I was holding for the space for a couple of hours as the only Adult in the space.  Six of the kids stuck around, but as I said, they already had plans, even if that meant ‘play-time!’.

Juggling V.1.1

There was a lot of action at the start of the day, I checked in with those who had expressed interest in juggling and then decided I’d just start juggling for fun, for myself.
I was hearing a lot of apprehension from the kids about ‘commitments’ to my lessons.  I’d requested that it be conveyed (at the Monday Set the Week meeting) that I was expecting multiple week commitments from people but that I promised that they could juggle 3 balls within 5 weeks.  I’m not sure if it could be called FOMO at this age, because the kids in question were all quite young.  Are they even aware of what that commitment means? (Rousseau would say of course not).

Practice Makes Perfect

Even though I knew this in advance, I had decided that perhaps teaching something like Juggling, which is a physical skill, could be developmentally appropriate for most of the kids (ages 7-18).  I had in mind the method for teaching this skill, having experienced it myself, which was really just a breaking down of the parts and the steps.  Interestingly I had taught myself this skill entirely from a book and self-determination.  Having experienced the process I knew that I could explain and relate to my students frustrations and self-doubts, yet it is interesting that I had chosen to teach something i had learned through self direction.  Was I challenging myself to show the value of a teacher? Was I testing the limits of what would work in the current ALC culture?

These thoughts and others were in my mind when I decided to just play.  I stood in the entryway hall and just started juggling.  Almost immediately Saylor (7) came over and asked if she could try.  I told her sure, would she like to learn? “I could teach you“.  She was immediately interested and so I started to show her how it was done.  I broke it down to 2 balls first.  She tried and I should her how she was passing the second ball to her other hand and not actually throwing it.  This moved into the next step which was to show that both balls are thrown and that once you can master this (which of course seems much more manageable to the learner) you have most of what you need to then juggle the third ball.

Timo (12?) joined in at this point.  So the three of us experimented with one ball each.  Abby took some photos.  I showed that the trick is to throw the second ball when the first one reaches its peak height.  We practiced by shouting Ah! when we threw one ball.  This way we weren’t worrying about catching or throwing a second yet.  At this point it also became obvious that how we throw the ball and how mindful we are about that will determine the quality of the throw.

I showed that I could close my eyes and throw the ball and have it land in my hand.  This is the level of consistency we are aiming for in the first week.  We started practicing this for a couple of minutes, when a number of the older kids came roaring into the space (they were getting ready for a park trip).  It became really frustrating and even comical to try and do anything while they were breaking up the energy of our space.  The focus fractured and Timo decided in silence to leave.  Saylor was already rolling around on the floor.  This did not feel like a good way to end a ‘lesson’.

I decided that I needed to go to a quiet place and to do what I always do when I need to refocus.  I juggled.  I usually juggle for 5-10 minutes on my own to focus after a long study session these days and so I wanted to clear my frustrations.  I was feeling/thinking: “nobody is going to continue to practice juggling, why did you bother” and “thinking I could teach things here was a foolish thought” and “you set yourself up for failure by not starting in a focused space” and “why do I feel like my ego as a teacher is inflamed, when I believe in self-directed learning?“.  Hundreds of variations on that theme.  I had felt especially excited when Timo had joined because I feel that my relationship with him is limited by an awareness that he does not value or is not aware of my skills and interests.  I had judged that my esteem in his eyes had increased, until it fell apart. Haha.  All of these thoughts reallyneeded to be let go of so I could get back to enjoying my day.

Jiana (6) came running up to me while I was juggling and wanted to climb on my back.  Tho it stopped me from properly clearing my mind, running around, tickling and laughing with her really lifted my spirits: the same end.  Pretty soon I was deep in the children’s play again and forgot all about my ‘teacher-ly’ worries.

Brain Surgeon Play with Sterling

Had a great time kidding around with Sterling.  Eli had left behind his glasses and Sterling was trying them on when I told him that he looked smart.  Actually, because he was wearing a white jacket I told him he looked like a scientist with protective eyewear.  He responded by dressing up into the role of a “brain doctor”.  The boy loves to model for the camera.  Also posted this here.

Having refreshed my energies (I took a nap when Abby got back) and enjoyed most of the day in spontaneous play with others, I wanted to check in again with Douglas (10?) about juggling.  He was still playing a game with a whole group of people centered around his computer.  I watched for  while but then piped up that I wondered if he would have any time that day for juggling.  I’d checked in with him earlier and so this was just a reminder.

I feel like holding other people to their word, or calling them on it, is as much an obligation sometimes as those who give their word in the first place.  I find it silly, but I get a little sheepish when I’m reminding kids of things they said they would do.  Mostly because I don’t want to make people feel bad or guilty, children especially so, children who are also my friends even more especially.  As it turned out, he thought that he still had time, so we decided to start a juggling lesson, but then he didn’t.

Juggling V1.2

Great news! Eli and Hannah, through serendipity, were looking for something to do and then realized I wanted to give a lesson in juggling.  They’d overheard Douglas and I and they both came forward enthusiastically asking me to teach them.

Hearing those words was so strange in this context.  It almost sounded like a challenge, a jeer.  “Teach us! Go on!” (where “bet you can’t!” seemed like the underlying message).  Looking at them again, I realized this was all in my head and they genuinely wanted to learn.  Not everyone has internalized a level of distaste for being taught (actually, most haven’t).

So I went through the first lesson again, improving on my instruction from the first time – we started in the quiet room away from the rowdier activities.  Both Hannah and Eli are older than my first two students, being in their early teens.  Perhaps my methods and explanations were more sensible to them as well because I could see them reasoning through the steps as I pointed them out.  They were clearly acknowledging the insights I was offering for the breakdown of each of the steps.  Also they had more patience for practicing the steps with me.

Originally I’d wanted to record my student’s progress over time, and so this time (V1.2) seeing how eager they were to just TRY and juggle three balls, I filmed them in SLO-MO to document their progress.

Here’s Eli:

Eli is a dancer, he has amazing bodily awareness and a love of body learning.  He has never tried to juggle before.  You can see in his first throw that he has under thrown the angle and then over-compensated with his second, which quickly ends with him all over the place.  After watching this in play-back he had a new appreciation of how important it is to practice the single ball throwing.

Here’s Hannah:

Hannah has tried juggling before.  She said she almost got to juggling three balls once and that she really wanted to reach that goal.  Actually this is the second video of her that I took.  It demonstrates that she needs to continue throwing two balls. The first throw is actually pretty good.  Her second throw is too far forward which leads her forward before she even makes the third throw.  She should practice throwing two, to get her left arm as accurate as her right arm.  Then continue practicing two with the third ball in her hand (but not throwing it yet).  Once her accuracy for the first two throws is improved her next step is to just try to get the first three throws happening.

For both of them, it is ideal that they practice with a wall just a little bit in front of them.  This will reduce the tendencies to throw the balls forward and if they do, they will still be able to make the catch.

Overall, teaching juggling a second time was hugely rewarding.  It wasn’t because they made more or less progress.  Certainly I do not claim to be the reason for Eli and Hannah’s performances, they had varying levels of ability to start with and these two in particular were playing in an area of strength.  Repeating my lesson had various benefits for the second group of course, I’d improved on the conditions of the learning environment/experience I was providing for them.  More than that, though, was the sense that their enthusiasm and joy in the play was sure to continue after I was gone.  I don’t need to worry about giving homework.

I discussed as a goal that if they master the 3 ball juggling we can explore doing group juggling exercises, which I have never really done myself.  I’m excited mostly by the idea that I might be able to bring some other players into my own games and areas of interest.  This was a happy reminder about the negative feelings that I had felt from the first experience: that they were totally misplaced.

It’s hard to be clear about what worked and what didn’t.  I had wanted to lock in a time to teach a lesson but this turned out to be totally ad-hoc.  This seemed to work in the sense that those that had genuine interest showed up whereas others who had said they were interested (Oliver, 6) did not.  Douglas is an example of how there is obviously a middle ground: a time commitment might be better and even possible, now that many people have experienced the lesson.  It’s important, i think, to preserve the ad-hoc and playful connection to the material though.  I will have failed if people think that they can only learn when I am teaching a lesson, just as much as it is wrong to think that lessons are not effective.

I’m really looking forward to playing with them all again next week, I wonder if we can move on to other areas of focus then.  Maybe they will have practiced in the meantime (or not).  As long as there is joy in it, I will continue to teach.


  1. Lisa says:

    Just exploring the site and came upon your post…which included my daughter (Hannah). I wanted to let you know that she came home and practiced for a few days ( genuine interest without homework -:) ). This trailed off, but this gave her/me so much joy and she did make progress. I am so glad you did this — and maybe the right moment to do it again will come back around. I expect Hannah would join again. Very interesting post.

    • Hey Lisa,
      good news on the juggling front: I made a friend at Teachers College who is a PRO juggler! Josh does all sorts of juggling – balls, clubs, hoops. He is also a huge math nerd because to invent your own patterns requires a lot of math thinking for rhythms etc. juggling = music math and dance!

    • Yes yes,

      Marie Condo is very special. Passed it on to Abby, who I am sure didn’t need to read it as much as I did. It is good to know what we’ve all suspected: there is a zen experience that can be found in tidying up. The biggest lesson from that wasn’t just the value of doing the tidying, but actually how much clearer minded we are when the little stressors like unwashed dishes aren’t nagging at us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *