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designing for tension

designing for tension

“The most frustrating, agonizing part of creative work, and the one we grapple with every day in practice, is our encounter with the gap between what we feel and what we can express.”

-Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play

In my own experience as a writer, I know there is a gap between what I feel and think and what I can actually articulate on paper. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to get the words out the way I want them, to have the ideas that make so much sense in my mind and in my conversations with colleagues come out the way I hope they will when I put them on paper. To express myself in a way that others will understand means I have to grapple with this tension.

In Story Workshop, we are inviting children to play with materials to find and then craft their own stories. We are inviting them to engage in a creative act, which means the classroom will be a place where they encounter this tension. Stephen Nachmanovitch isn’t talking specifically about Story Workshop, but he could be. He understands that anytime we invite human beings to create, there are tensions that cannot be avoided. In fact, there’s an inherent tension between playing with materials and writing that Story Workshop is designed to explore.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had multiple opportunities to talk with parents and colleagues about Story Workshop and the questions I hear are all about exploring those tensions in different ways.

A colleague in our Developing Your Story Workshop online course wrote to me with a question about what she was observing in her classroom. She shared,

I find that [the students] absolutely LOVE creating the stories, they include lots of detail, but when it comes to writing their story, they leave out much of the wonderful details included in their play or might write a completely different story. Am I confusing the purpose of Story Workshop—is it more about oral storytelling than written storytelling?

I hear her asking about the tension between the improvisational and spontaneous richness of play and the demands of writing. And my answer is, no, she’s not confusing the purpose of Story Workshop, which is intended to nurture strong writers. However, the ways I might respond to the students depends on a lot of things.  

An Opal School parent recently asked,

How do you decide when to focus on the play with materials and when to focus on the writing?

I hear him wondering about the role of the teacher and the tension in making decisions about supporting habits of mind we hope to nurture through play and supporting the skills and craft of writing. How I decide what to focus on is based in listening and the relationships I have with children, as well as the values and goals and expectations for students at my school. And how I decide in the moment? Well, it also depends.

One of my colleagues at Opal School recently shared:

I’ve observed many times how playing with materials supports children to find new ideas for their stories, but I’m still wondering about how I can support children to use materials as thinking tools during the writing process.

I hear her asking about the tension between playing with materials to find ideas and playing with materials to nurture and grow ideas the children have already begun to write. I also hear her asking about her own role and wondering how she will know when the materials are supporting the writing process and when she should just have them write.  Again, how I might support and respond to a question like this about materials, writing, and the role of the teacher, depends.

I’m well aware that the answer “it depends” can feel unsatisfactory, especially if you are the asker of the question hoping for a more concrete answer or a solution to a problem. I’ve felt that feeling many times before. But here’s the thing about Story Workshop: It is designed not to erase these tensions, but to explore them. These tensions are there, as a part of our work in the classroom each day, on purpose. There is power in the tension. And I think it is the uncertainty of the tension which made the original question that started Story Workshop (What is the relationship between literacy and the arts?) so compelling. Our role as teachers is not to find an answer to these questions. Our role is not to respond with certainty, but to grapple with them, to live and work and play right in the middle of these tensions alongside the children. Because that’s the only place where learning happens.

Writing is an act of self-expression. To me it is necessary that school be a place where each individual gets ample opportunities to express themselves, to create and write about ideas and issues that matter to them, and to share those expressions of themselves with others. This cannot happen without the inherent challenge and struggle that comes with putting your thoughts and ideas out for the world to see.

Again, Nachmanovitch reminds us,

“There is a gigantic difference between the projects we imagine doing or plan to do and the ones we actually do…Everyone knows this, yet we are inevitably taken aback by the effort and patience needed in the realization. A person may have great creative proclivities, glorious inspirations, and exalted feelings, but there is no creativity unless creations actually come into existence.”

School can be a place where creations actually come into existence – but not without tension. My hope is to keep exploring those tensions. Let’s not shy away from them or think we must be doing something wrong when they arise. Instead, let’s find the joy that comes from living within the uncertainty. Let’s find the pleasure of mucking our way through the effort and patience needed to find just the right word or phrase that brings the ideas we care most about into existence—for us and the children we work with.

Let’s design for tension.

Readers, what are you doing to design for tension in your classroom?