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Flashes of Spontaneity

Posted on: May 5th, 2011 by Stephen Hurley  2 Comments »

On June 3, 2003, Bill Wasik gathered 100 strangers in four separate Manhattan bars and gave them some specific instructions: they were to proceed to the 9th floor of Macey’s department store, gather around an expensive rug and, when approached by sales staff, declare that they all lived together outside of the city and were looking for a “love rug”.

On May 1, 2011, a dozen New Yorkers received emails that instructed them to meet an umbrella-carrying woman at the corner of 8th Avenue of 14th Street for what was described as a “clandestine dining experience”. Although each of the email recipients had paid $100 per ticket for an experience, they knew nothing of what was about to happen. At about 1:15 p.m., the dozen guests descended into the subway system, filed into the second car of the waiting L-Train and found themselves in a type of mobile bistro, complete with finely appointed tables, glove-clad maitre-d’s and a luxurious lunch of caviar, foie gras and filet mignon.

In the eight years between the Macey’s gathering and this week’s L-train feast, there have been increasing numbers of this type of choreographed spontaneity. Facilitated by the ubiquity of social media and its ability to help mobilize large numbers of people in a relatively short period of time, flash mobs and “surprise” performance pieces have become an entertaining part of the Youtube culture.

Flash mobs and their various non-conformist cousins catch us off guard and cause us to stand up and take notice (and pictures). They break into the normal routine of our day, tickle our imaginations and leave us somehow refreshed. Even if we’re removed from the original experience and are watching it online, the experience still causes us to smile and want to share the link!

The traditional school is—has always been—a place of disciplined structure and predictability. In fact, it is the routine of school that is one of its most familiar and recognizable markers. Without the timetables, bells and simultaneous movements of bodies throughout school buildings, we would run the risk of not really knowing where we were. Spontaneity and surprise are not things normally associated with schools, but I’m learning about the importance of both in the lives of teachers and students.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about an unexpected and perfectly delightful Kindergarten Flash Mob that still has me smiling every time I pass this class in the hall.

A couple of days ago, our gymnasium was closed to regular activities and I was forced to take the grade two class I was covering outside for phys-ed. The squeals of delights with which students greeted the news was nothing compared to the exuberance with which they exploded onto the park adjacent to the school. It was like, for that brief 40 minute period, they were once again allowed to be a kid! After a winter of “walk-and-talk-no-basketballs-or-soccer balls-allowed recesses”,  they were once again allowed to play in an unbridled, imaginative way. For a few brief moments, the spontaneity of the situation allowed them to reclaim some of their “kid-ness”!

“This is the best day of my life”, exclaimed 7 year-old Martin as he reached out to shake my hand.

“I’ve never been on a swing before”, was Ella’s explanation. “I was afraid at first, but I’m not afraid anymore.” (Swinging is not in the curriculum!)

There are plenty of things that happen in our schools which interrupt the “normal” flow of our day: a mid-morning announcement, an unexpected visitor, a phone call sent through during a lesson. These are often seen as irritants in that they get us off track and can disturb the rhythm of  our classroom.

But I’m thinking that there are times when being open to the spontaneous can lead us to appreciate things in a different way. In my experience, spontaneity is linked with a sense of delight—delight that is the result of being forced off the beaten track and into territory which is new and, sometimes, uncharted. In moments of spontaneity, the traditional power and authority relationships often change, barriers are lowered, and we somehow experience each other and the world as a little bit fresher and a little more different.

I don’t know if there is any research to support the notion of a neurological difference between the human brain in routine and one in a state of spontaneous surprise, but it may be worth exploring further.

Along with investigations into the importance of engagement, I’m thinking that there is value in honouring and supporting those moments where our students are set free from the routine of this place we call school…no strings attached…just because.

I wouldn’t want to institutionalize spontaneity, or even have an entry in my dayplans labelled Spontaneous Moment, but I am thinking that we need to find ways of ensuring that unexpected moments are allowed break into our routines on a more regular basis.

Take a look at some of the flash mob videos on Youtube. Although each is planned and choreographed differently, the reactions of the audiences are almost always the same: shock and disbelief that someone has dared to interrupt their routine, but a sincere gratitude for the delightful experience.

I have much more thinking to do about this, but I’ll leave it here for now and ask about your experience of surprise in your own teaching life. What stories of spontaneity do you have to share? Do you have any strategies for creating the space for the unexpected?

I continue to ponder…



2 Responses to “Flashes of Spontaneity”

  1. David Wees says:

    I have a possible psychological reason why we should allow for some spontaneity deviation from the routine within our schools.

    It is my belief that we perceive the current passage of time by measuring how often we engage with some new and interesting piece of information. The more interesting stuff is going on, the faster time seems to pass. When we are bored, by contrast, time seems to take forever to pass, largely because our brains are not taking a lot of what we are exploring in.

    However, when we look back on our lives, we remember the periods of time when lots of new things were happening as taking longer, and the more set we get into our routines, the more boring our lives, the faster our life seems to have gone, because we simply don’t have as many events in our past to judge the passage of time on. This is why young children feel like everything is forever away, because everything is new, they experience the passage of time at a slower rate (in retrospect, rather than in the moment) than do adults, who are creatures of routine.

    The relevance of this to your story is that moments of spontaneity inject both a positive fun experience into our lives which our brains soak up and enjoy, and also slow down our lives overall as we have another fun, and out of the ordinary experience upon which to reflect, and record the passage of our lives.

    • Isn’t that interesting? I would have thought that the opposite would be true. That is, the more routine our lives, the slower things to go. The more enjoyable the experience, the fast things seem to go. You’ve turned my thinking upside down here, which means I need to do more thinking! Thanks David.

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