My castle experience ended much as it had begun – a 5 hour bus trip in which I sat quietly watching the countryside and distinctive architecture of the buildings flash past. On the return journey I reflected on what I’d just experienced and knew that I’d be mulling over it for some time to come.
Here is some of the Polish countryside that flashed past as we made our way back to Berlin.
It was an early night for me, then a trip into Berlin the next morning. I headed to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, to learn more about the wall that divided a city overnight. I admit to not knowing a lot about it before my trip to the museum – but it’s so full of stories, artefacts, information, and photographs that I now know a whole lot more.
Filled with information, I wandered outside, into the light rain, and watched as people lined up to have their photo taken at Checkpoint Charlie. I then made my way to one of the last remaining remnants of the Berlin Wall … it was much more confronting than I had imagined it would be.
For those of you who, like me, don’t know much of the history …
The Berlin Wall was a guarded concrete barrier that divided Berlin from 1961 to 1989. It encircled West Berlin, separating it from East German territory. Construction of the wall was commenced by the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) on 13 August 1961. The Wall cut off West Berlin from surrounding East Germany, including East Berlin. It included guard towers placed along large concrete walls, accompanied by a wide area (later known as the “death strip”) that contained anti-vehicle trenches, beds of nails and other defenses. (Wikipedia)
I discovered that the hotel in which I was staying had been part of East Berlin and that’s why the stop and go figures on the traffic lights were so distinctive. You can read more about their development here.
From Berlin I made my way to Leipzig for an overnight stay. I was there less than 24 hours – it was really just a stopping off point for my trip to Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
In the limited time I had, I managed to climb to the top of the tallest building in Leipzig – the Panorama Tower. When I say ‘climb’, I mean I took the lift and then walked up two flights of stairs to get to the very top. I was surprised to find that the ‘top’ was outside!
Back on solid ground and not having to worry about the little kids sitting on the edge of the building, I wondered past the Opera House, through Market Square, past the old Town Hall – the foundation stone was laid in 1556 – and had a look around the farmers market. It was a lovely evening, but once the rain started I ducked into a jazz bar for dinner.
The lift in my hotel was interesting, although the sound of running water wasn’t something I really wanted to hear after a long afternoon/evening of wandering around the city!
A good night’s sleep, and then series of train trips – from Leipzig to Nuremberg (Nurnberg), then to Ansbach, then to Steinach bei Rothenburg ob der Tauber and from there to my final destination in Germany: Rothenburg ob der Tauber. I had learnt to take screen shots of the trains and walking directions from my first experience in Berlin and it’s interesting going through my phone now and reminding myself of my journey. Each train was smaller but all were clean and comfortable.
I had found Rothenburg by doing a Google search for old cities in Germany. I’m so pleased I did. I’ll write about it in my next post, but here’s just a taste of the city and its surrounds.
The day has finally arrived. I’m off to the castle. It’s a little bit exciting and a whole lot scary.
Tim asks ‘are you excited?’
‘I actually don’t know if I can do this’
‘Of course you can’, he said. ‘You’ve got this’.
I head downstairs for breakfast and try to identify other conference participants. WhatsApp is pinging away – people still arriving, COVID tests to organise, where is Starbucks at Berlin airport, who’s in the hotel restaurant for breakfast, anyone want to go for a walk before we catch the bus?
I don’t respond to any of them, even though I was having breakfast in the hotel restaurant at the time and then heading out for a walk before the long bus trip. I am full of anxiety.
One of the things that amazes me about being in Europe is that you can be on a bus driving through Germany and next minute you’re in Poland. No flashy signs, no big announcements … just a whole different country. There are bigger signs saying ‘Welcome to New South Wales’ than there are announcing ‘You’re now in Poland’. The language changed on the town names and that was the only indication I had that we weren’t in Germany anymore.
After a five hour bus ride we arrive at the castle.
We arrived around 5pm, were shown to our (shared) rooms and told to meet in the Knights’ Hall in ten minutes. My roomies (Kim and Claudia) and I chose beds, found a space for our bags, checked out the (huge) bathroom and headed back downstairs.
Claus, one of the conference directors, addressed us and said some pretty important things:
‘I gotta go’ – if anything became too much, we just had to say those three words and leave the session. No explanations, no judgement, no feeling bad about leaving.
‘Love of missing out’ – it’s much more usual to talk about a fear of missing out (more commonly known as FOMO), but in this instance there was so much going on we couldn’t do it all. We were encouraged to be comfortable knowing we would miss some things.
‘It is now 6:14. In 9 minutes you will be back here wearing shoes suited for outside and something to keep you warm […] It is now 6:42, and we are precisely on time’. Things would happen at precisely the right time.
There were elements of ceremony and ritual built into each experience. On that first evening when we had something warm on and shoes suited to the outside, we went through the courtyard, past one of the spirits who told us to be silent, through another door that felt more like a portal, to stand silently in a semi-circle in the forest, just outside the castle walls. It was a powerful moment – standing silently with a group of stangers, listening to the beat of a drum, the darkness closing in around us.
The power of shared moments, combined with ritual and ceremony, continued across the next four days.
This ‘conference’, on experience design – attended by folk singers, magicians, escape room designers, CEOs, marketers, immersive theatre directors, actors, artists, experience designers, economists, food scenographers, lawyers, visual artists, academics, composers – was unlike anything I’d been to before. This one walked the talk. We didn’t learn ‘about’ experience design – we ‘experienced’ experience design.
We had the castle complex to ourselves, which meant we could go anywhere – from the torture chamber to the tower – and were free to explore the passages behind any number of bookshelves in the dining room and the library. We wore black robes (much like academic gowns), were sorted into houses according to the colour of the ribbon on our lanyard (no sorting hat!) and had house captains who were our ‘go-to’ people. I was in the purple house; Divine and Katya were my house captains. Spirits slipped amongst us whispering clues to puzzles or reminded us that there was fire twirling in the courtyard later that evening, or an event happening in the tavern. A team of chefs, fermenters and foragers had spent a month in the castle before our arrival sourcing and creating ingredients for all our meals. No meat products and no alcohol were allowed. Photographers, videographers, and visual artists roamed the castle capturing the experience in a variety of ways. Teams of others laid down clues to puzzles, treasure maps, potions, wisdom cards to be collected, reminders to check in with others, reflective tasks to complete. It was immersive, challenging, at times confronting, and I loved every minute of it.
The library was designated as a silent place to eat – no eye contact, no talking. On the third night it was also designated cutlery free. Acelyna made it look so elegant but with what was on the menu that night (noodles) I wasn’t about to try it. Eating in the dining room, on the other hand, was social and over the four days was the place for many rich and diverse conversations.
Each morning I’d get up early, trying not to wake my roommates, grab my camera and wander around the castle. The mornings were cool and crisp and it was a lovely way to start the day. I often felt like I had the whole place to myself.
If you get the opportunity to spend a week in a castle in Poland, I can highly recommend it.
I planned but I didn’t prepare. And that had consequences for later.
I’d arrived in Berlin on Saturday afternoon, and on Sunday morning it was time for the Marathon.
The Berlin Marathon is a big event. Huge. So big that the accommodation reserved for us was about an hour out of the city by train, all other city accommodation having been snapped up months earlier. Much of the public transport was disrupted on Sunday morning, especially closer to the centre of the city and even the hop on-hop off bus wasn’t running. Ironic really.
I was leaving by train the following weekend and wanted to make sure I knew how to get to the Berlin Hauptbanhoff without the issues I’d faced the previous day. So I thought I’d have a practice run. On Sunday morning. While the marathon was on and public transport was disrupted.
No tram for me today – train all the way. The train station was a mere 500m from the hotel, it was a crisp, clear morning and a walk in the fresh air would help blow away some of the remaining jet lag. One train from Spindlersfeld Station to Schoneweide (2 stops – the bonus being how lovely that word is to say), and then another train (10 stops) to the main station. Easy.
I bought my ticket, marvelled at the lack of ticket barriers, and enjoyed the train ride(s). I saw runners on the marathon route as the train drew closer to the main station and so once there and familiarised with the route and the station, I followed the noise, over the Spree River, through the Spreebogenpark, to Otto-von-Bismarck-Allee. Crowds of people lined the street, cheering on the runners. They had all kinds of noise-makers – one woman was banging two saucepan lids together – and they weren’t afraid to use them. I walked in the same direction as the runners and soon came across the 7km mark.
I kept walking, not at all sure where I was going or what I was doing, but it seemed like the right thing to do. I came across the 8km mark. I was a bit like Forrest Gump at this stage, although with less facial hair, and just kept walking.
Near the 9km mark there was a man standing on the side of the street holding a punching bag out in front of him. On the punching bag was a photo of Vladimir Putin and an invitation to punch it. Many runners used a little bit of their precious energy to give it a good wallop.
Over the past year, various members of the family have been involved in a weekly photography challenge. We catch up on Sunday evenings to chat about the photos and how our week has been. 7:30 on Sunday evening in Australia translated to 10:30 on Sunday morning in Berlin, so as 10:30 approached I searched for a cafe. I found one – the Röststätte, on Ackerstraße – which just so happened to be on the other side of the road.
Yes, that meant crossing the road. Yes, crossing the road down which hundreds of runners were running. Crossing in front of them. Cutting through them to reach the other side. I had seen a number of people step nimbly across the road, not getting in anyone’s way, so knew it could be done. I started out confidently, timing my not-so-nimble steps with what I thought was a gap in the group of runners. It turned out not to be a gap, and so I got half way across the road and stopped. They ran around me like I was a boulder in a stream. One man kindly told me I was going the wrong way, but I could tell already that a marathon wasn’t for me (sorry Jen).
I eventually made it across – hoping I hadn’t cut time off someone’s personal best in doing so – and found a quiet corner in the cafe.
After our catch up, I kept walking until I came across the U Rosenthaler Platz (an underground train station). I slowly made my way down the steps to the platform, got off at Brandenburger Tor, made my way slowly up the steps to the street, and headed towards The Brandenburg Gate – which was very close to the finish line.
When Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline played over the loudspeakers the whole crowd, including many runners, joined in. It lifted their spirits in a way that few other songs did and seemed to give many an extra boost of energy as they drew close to the finish line.
By the time I got back to the hotel later that afternoon, my right knee, which is problematic at the best of times, my feet and my calves all let me know, quite forcefully, that I had overdone it.
I walked over 12kms that Sunday – nothing like a marathon, but it was a distance I had not adequately prepared for.
I had also, I realised with a big dose of ‘I can’t do this’, not adequately prepared for the reality of meeting a group of strangers, travelling by bus with them to a different country, and then spending 5 days with them at a conference. WhatsApp messages had started coming through earlier in the day – of people’s arrival times in Berlin, invitations to meet up for a walk/drinks/dinner, information on COVID testing centres. Dinner was arranged for 7pm for those staying at the hotel, and in a fit of bravery (of course you can do it Sharon!) I headed for the meeting place in the lobby.
As I headed towards the group Inoticed they were all men. At that point my bravery jumped ship and I veered off into the hotel restaurant to have dinner on my own.
What had I done? Why had I said yes to this when I so easily could have ignored that particular email? Two years ago I’d been all for stepping out of my comfort zone, but now, right at this minute when I was on the cusp of stepping out, I wasn’t so sure. In fact I was positively sure that stepping out was something I definitely could not do.
It wasn’t only the knee, calf and foot pain that kept me awake that night.
I’m heading for what I hope will be an extraordinary experience, with people from around the world and from a range of different fields.
I’m ready to do something that challenges me … to be brave!
I might even blog about it.
I did not blog about it.
It’s now a month later. I’m home, my bags are unpacked, my washing is drying, and the fridge is heavy with new magnets. The plane touched down at 10:50 last night, we were home by 12:14, I was asleep by 1:43 and awake at 7:04 this morning. It’s now after 5 in the afternoon and I can feel the drowsiness washing over me. To stave it off for a few more hours I decide to write.
I was systematic and thorough in my planning, choosing wisely when buying new tops, underwear, shoes; planning which countries/cities/towns to visit, where to stay, and how to get from one place to another. I chose the seats for each flight carefully with attention to where the toilets were and where young babies were more likely to be (close to one, avoiding the other). I did a practice pack two days before to ensure my backpack did not go beyond the 7kg limit (my suitcase was never going to get anywhere near the 30kg limit). I packed slowly, methodically, over a number of days. I didn’t make decisions based on rush or the ‘oh my goodness I’m going in an hour, have I packed …?’ panic.
6:30 Friday 23 September
Time to go. Only one, slightly anxious ‘I-have-to-repack-my-bag’ moment, an hour or so beforehand. The bags stood ready. Little anxiety, less fuss, no stress. It felt easy to pick up the bags, load them into the car, and head out.
It was a theme that continued through the drive to the airport. Calm, no stress … smooth.
Smooth trip to the airport.
Smooth passage through check-in, bag drop, security and passport control, boarding.
I was in the back row, no one in the middle seat next to me so I could stretch out a bit. The 13 hour flight didn’t even feel that long.
Doha – smooth transition: off one plane (6am local time), time for a cuppa, onto the next (much shorter) flight.
Berlin. I’d been travelling for over 24 hours by this stage. It had been amazingly smooth. Not that anything major happened at this point, but things began to feel slightly less smooth.
There was a long, long wait for the luggage to arrive – time I spent wisely, hooked up to the airport WiFi, planning how to get to the hotel by train. Once my bag had arrived, I headed for the train station, remembering to buy a ticket at the top of the stairs. I clunked my bag down the stairs to the platform, boarded the train when it arrived, went to hook up to the train’s WiFi only to discover the train didn’t have WiFi.
I remembered that the first step in the journey was to get off at the Terminal 5 station. I imagined that the Terminal 5 station would be somehow connected to the airport and so would have an airport-style station.
I blithely got off the train and found myself here:
It looked to me like a Soviet railway station that had been abandoned 50 years before.
I remembered that I had to catch another train, but I couldn’t remember which one/where to … and searching the map I – eventually – found, wasn’t a whole heap of help to me.
When the next train arrived, I got on. The map had mentioned something about Adlershof and so when we arrived there, I got off, clunked my bag down the stairs and wondered ‘what now?’.
I crossed the road, seeking out some free WiFi but there was none to be found. A toilet would have also come in handy, but I couldn’t see one of them either.
I had no idea where I was, no idea where I was going, and even less idea about how to get there.
I suddenly remembered International Roaming. I turned it on, went back to Google maps and put in the name of the hotel. The recommended route was the 61 or 63 tram, but I couldn’t see a tram stop – or tram tracks even – anywhere.
When I asked Google for directions from my location to the tram stop, it told me to cross the road to the station and keep walking. When I was halfway through the tunnel (shown in the image above), it told me I had reached my destination. I didn’t feel – in any of my bones – that I had in fact reached any destination.
I took a punt and walked to the end of the tunnel – to what had appeared as a wasteland – and lo and behold there were tram tracks and a tram stop. Within moments a 63 tram arrived and I got on. It turned out, to my great relief, that I was not only on the correct tram, but that I was also going in the correct direction.
It was now 3pm local time – I’d given up counting how many hours into my trip I was – and I was getting a little more than just a little weary. I checked in, walked miles down the corridor to my room, had a shower, a rest, a chat with Tim, booked a COVID test for the next day, then decided to get out and about and explore the local area. The local area happened to be the old city of Kopenick.
There I came across a COVID testing centre that was offering far cheaper COVID tests, a 10-miunute turn-around time, and was available right then and there.
And so I had my first ever COVID test – standing at the window of a shipping container otherwise known as a Corona Testzentrum. Luckily my grasp of German was strong enough to know what that meant.
In my wondering I came across the local fire department family day and so popped my head in – bouncy castle, bbq, DJ, lots of kids – and continued on my way.
Dinner at the Rathaus … and then it was time for bed. Luckily I was within walking distance of the hotel otherwise I might have had to find a park bench for a quick nap.
It has to be said that the last few years haven’t been easy. In early 2020 I wrote a post – A (brave) new year – thinking that after the year we’d had in 2019 and the bushfires of that summer, I was going to turn a corner … I was determined it was going to be my year.
The universe had other plans.
As you know, 2020 was not a good year and 2021 wasn’t any better. Along with the pandemic, we were also hit with Tim’s cancer diagnosis, and then my redundancy.
Putting them into the same sentence does not mean they’re of equal weight or significance, but it’s safe to say we’re still coming to terms with both situations. Luckily, we haven’t had to personally deal with COVID, which really just means we’ve remained relatively isolated.
I’m quite proud to say that I haven’t ever had a COVID test. Getting close to three years into a pandemic and no need for a test.
Well, that’s about to change.
I’m heading to Germany – flying out tonight as it happens – to attend a conference, and one of the requirements is that all participants have a COVID test before attending. I figure it’s a small price to pay and am determined not to let it put me off! I wonder if the fear of COVID should be stronger and that I should remain in relative isolation?
Too late … my bags are packed, my passport has been found, and I’m ready to go. Two weeks in Europe and then two weeks in the UK … yep, I’ll be away for a whole month.
My sister recently spent a month in the UK visiting her daughter and grand-daughter and was so concerned about the lost luggage situation at the time that she decided to take only carry-on luggage. Yes, only 7kgs worth of gear for a month.
I’m not doing that! I’ve packed my bag so it’s almost at the limit. Deb went in summer and apparantly autumn is coming in fast in Europe. I’ve been told to expect chilly weather … and so a bigger bag is required.
I’m heading for what I hope will be an extraordinary experience, with people from around the world and from a range of different fields. I’m used to attending conferences where most attendees work in some form of educational field. But this is going to be different.
I’m ready to do something that challenges me … to be brave!
In April 2021, which seems like years ago, I went to Tumut in NSW. My youngest son and his two children were visiting my mother and as I hadn’t seen them for over a year, I thought I’d make the five hour drive north.
I thought I’d be back in Tumut within a month – Mum’s birthday is in June and I thought I’d at least go up to sing her a tuneless but enthusiastic happy birthday.
Alas, it was not to be. 2021, in case your memory doesn’t stretch back that far, was in a time we still considered to be ‘during the pandemic’. In 2022, with COVID deaths higher than they’ve been since the start of the pandemic – a seeming-decade ago in 2020 – we are considered to be living in ‘post-COVID’ times.
2021 was not a good year. We still had active COVID mitigation strategies in place – lockdown being one of them. I can’t remember all the lockdowns, but lockdown was one reason I couldn’t return to Tumut. There were, of course, others.
As we are now living in ‘post-pandemic’ times, travel is unrestricted. I had planned to head to Tasmania in late April, a place I hadn’t visited since early January 2021, but a car crash put paid to that plan. No one was hurt in said crash, apart from the car, but it meant no Tassie trip for me just yet 😦
While Tim has finished his treatment, been jabbed with the COVID vaccine for the 4th time, and had his flu shot, he is still not sufficiently recovered to travel long distances. I, however, felt it was safe for me to leave the state.
Yes, dear reader, I got out.
Mothers Day was as good a time as any for me to head five and a half hours north to see my mother. And my sister and brother, and uncle, and niece, and great neice and nephews.
I stayed in Tumba with my sister because Tumba is a town where things happen. The Snowy Valleys Sculpture Trail is one of those happening things.
Saturday morning was cold. Icily cold. The thermometer inched towards 8C during the day, and then, having hit it, rapidly fell to near zero. You can imagine how cold it was as we headed out the door around 10am, rugged up beautifully. Deb made sure her gloves matched her beanie, channelling the spirit of our grandmother, who used to do the same in the 1950s and 60s (but never with a beanie). Nan would have been very proud of her.
Our first stop was at Forage (rhymes with porridge) for a hot chocolate and a wander around the market.
Mum arrived, the hood of her coat giving the impression she was off to the Arctic, and we wandered down to the creek which was looking decidedly autumnal, to engage with the sculptures.
Mum ditched Deb and I to have lunch with some of Deb’s friends, so I attended a workshop facilitated by Japanese sculptor Keizo Ushio who uses the mobius strip extensively in his sculptures. We made mobius strips with paper and then attempted to carve a bagel – I’d love to see how he does it using stone. You can see Keizo’s sculpture at Tooma if you’re in the area (we didn’t get down there, but I’m very keen to see it).
Sculptor Phil Spelman then led a tour of the Tumba sculptures and we learnt a lot along the way.
Together we are strong is a work gifted by the Denmark-based Denmark, New Zealand and Australian Friendship Society.
Jennifer Cochrane works with cubes. They fascinate her. Picture a cube rolling and you’ll see the movement and energy in this work.
Marcus Tatton is a New Zealander living in Tasmania, where chimneys dot the landscape. When a house burns down, they are generally the only thing that remain standing. This has inspired Marcus’s work.
I think this is one of my favourites. This is a piece of granite which is second only to diamonds in terms of its hardness. Takahiro Hirato, a Japanese sculptor, has hand carved and polished this arrowhead. It’s a truly gorgeous piece. The arrowhead sits on a basalt plinth.
This work by Phil Spelman certainly generated lots of discussion. It’s an abstract work with as many interpretations as people on the tour with us. Some see an ant, others see a bike, I see someone praying … that’s the beauty of abstract work. It doesn’t have to have just one meaning.
There are other sculptures in the area and I’m hoping to get to see them all eventually.
Off to Tumut on Sunday afternoon for a fabulous Mothers Day lunch with my brother and his family. There was so much food they came back for dinner. I must add they they provided all the food … Mum and I just had to turn up!
Later in the afternoon I caught the end of this beautiful sunset.
Monday morning and a quick visit from some kangaroos before I headed home.
It was great to catch up with family again after such a terrible year … let’s hope I can get back there within the next one.
My youngest daughter rang last week with a confession.
‘Mum, I’m addicted to plastic.’
I knew how she felt. I’d been feeling somewhat the same.
I thought about this confession and my own (very similar) feelings and decided that I would reframe it with a more positive spin. I’m not known for putting a positive spin on anything, so bear with me as I struggle to articulate my reframing.
When Tim, my husband, was diagnosed with cancer in July last year, I took over kitchen duties. When we’d moved in, eight years before, we tended to dump things in cupboards and drawers, and over the intervening years we’d not done a great deal to move things around. It meant the cupboards that might more usefully be used for food and kitchen-related storage, instead stored boxes of CDs, VHS tapes, jigsaw puzzles, framed photos, x-rays, and the like.
I took over kitchen duties and thus kitchen organisation. It started my affair with plastic – specifically, Tupperware. One of my daughters-in-law had hosted an online Tupperware party some months before and I’d bought some modular mates to store basic baking needs (caster sugar, cocoa, icing sugar, brown sugar, etc). In my reorganisation I put them in the drawer where the saucepans used to be. My eldest daughter hosted an online Tupperware party some time later, and I bought bigger modular mates for plain and SR flour (regular and gluten free) and cleaned out the DVDs to create space for them. I got a buzz each time I opened the drawer or the cupboard and saw the containers so neatly labelled and organised.
More recently my eldest daughter decided to become an Independent Tupperware consultant and in the spirit of supporting her business, I quite quickly built up my collection of Tupperware. A few weeks ago, my youngest daughter took the same step. Two daughters, two businesses to support. The outcome is that not only are my kitchen cupboards beautifully organised, so too is my fridge and now my freezer.
The satisfaction this brings me could be put down to any number of things (shallowness, not enough else going on in my life) but my positive reframing led me to see it in a different light.
We are into the third year of a global pandemic. This has meant I’ve had limited opportunities to see my family – I haven’t been to Tasmania since January 2021, so it’s been over a year since I’ve seen four of my children and the vast majority of my grandchildren. I haven’t seen my other son, his wife and their children (who live in Qld) in 11 months. I saw them last when we were all able to visit my mother in southern NSW, and so that was the last time I saw Mum, my sister and my brother.
Tim was diagnosed with cancer in July last year. The day before he was to have surgery, we went into a ‘five-day’ lockdown that extended well beyond five days. It meant I wasn’t able to visit him for the whole time he was in hospital apart from a quick visit on day 10. He had a number of complications and so his stay in hospital (the first he’d ever had) went well beyond the 3-4 days we were expecting. Tim started a six-month course of chemo in August and again he had to go through that on his own as I wasn’t allowed to accompany him to any of his treatments.
Not long after Tim started chemo, I was officially informed that my position at the university was to be made redundant. My last day was November 19, 2021.
There’s a lot we have no control over:
COVID isn’t over (no matter how much everyone wants it to be)
At roughly the same time, floods devastated northern NSW and SE Queensland.
And mosquitoes brought a form of encephalitis to piggeries in the border region of NSW-Victoria. Some people have now been infected and some of them have been hospitalised.
The other thing that’s been on my mind, in terms of ‘things I have no control over’ is turning 60. Today, as it happens. My sister, Debbie, told me on Saturday that 60 is the new 30 (twice), but that didn’t make me feel much better, I have to admit. It’s not that I’d prefer the alternative, it’s just that 60 sounds so old! I know, when I think about it, that it isn’t old – it just sounds it. Deb wrote about this in a recent blog post – and also added some great photos of us from over the years.
After talking to her over the weekend, and after a (very lovely) surprise virtual birthday party on Sunday night, I’m starting to feel better about it. Well, it’s not like I have any control over it. I’m 60 whether I like the idea of it or not.
While I have no control over wars, the pandemic, cancer diagnoses and treatments, being made redundant, or turning 60, I do have control over my kitchen.
I realised, in my reframing, that I’m not addicted to plastic; rather, I’m addicted to an organised kitchen. A little space over which I have control.
And, I have to admit, it feels good.
In Deb’s blog post, she included a clip of Missy Higgin’s singing Total Control (from her latest album). It took me back to the days of Countdown and so I dug out the The Motels’ version, from 1980.
I was attending a conference on teaching and learning in higher education earlier in the month. I was only half listening because I was on my way out of the academy – one week away from my final day after my position was made redundant.
I am a dinosaur, an academic who clings to the idea that universities are places of learning. I don’t just mean the formal curriculum, but universities, no matter whether you’re a student or a researcher or an administrator or a teacher or a learning designer, are places that, to me, in my old-fashioned way of thinking, are places for exploring ideas … and to me, exploring ideas is learning.
Ideas can be extended upon, challenged, engaged with, debated, thought about, written about, performed, reflected on, explained, discussed, acted upon, reinforced, extended, justified. They can be tested – literally/actually/physically as well as intellectually. Ideas aren’t, in my old-fashioned way of thinking, things that are only ‘academic’ or ‘theoretical’ or ‘cerebral’ or ‘abstract’ – words often used perjoratively. They can be made concrete and real and are always worth our time and attention.
Exploring ideas can be tough – intellectually and emotionally.
It can be tough intellectually as it requires knowledge and thought and the capacity to see from a multitude of perspectives. It requires us to seek out more information, to analyse and synthesise, to create new ideas from existing ones. It requires the development of our capacity to explain the idea, to communicate it in ways that have meaning for others (verbally, spatially, graphically, amongst others).
It requires us to sit in ambiguity, to not know.
And the not knowing and the ambiguity can lead us to feelings of vulnerability, and that’s tough emotionally.
It’s tough emotionally, particularly when you’re in an environment in which your knowledge and your ideas are being tested or assessed. In which you feel that *you’re* being tested or assessed. Judged. Do you know enough? Do you know the right things? Can you communicate what you know in a way that aligns with the rubric? Can you justify your ideas and the outcomes/consequences/recommendations that result from those ideas?
I learnt in the higher ed conference I attended earlier in the month that ‘justify’ is a “triggering word for students”. That “while it’s a word academics like to use, students don’t like it”.
The academic, a unit chair in an allied health course, said that she’s changed the triggering word to ‘explain’ or ‘describe’. “It’s a change that’s been well-accepted by students”.
Students no longer have to justify the recommendations they make in relation to a client’s treatment, they just have to explain and describe them.
What are we doing in higher ed? Are we so concerned with student satisfaction that we infantalise them to the degree that rather than supporting them through the challenging aspects of their course, we instead remove any challenge?
I watched my six-year old granddaughter trying to do a headstand recently. She placed her hands carefully, ensured her head created the third point of the triangle, switched on her core, and pushed her feet off the floor. Something in her technique was wrong, and she did not manage to do a headstand. She tried again. And again. And again.
She cried in frustration because she could not do a headstand ‘properly’. Despite her tears, she kept practicing. I didn’t watch the whole session as I was on FaceTime but her mother told me later that she tried for three hours and cried each time she couldn’t do it. Finally, she was successful.
Learning is hard. I was once told I wasn’t allowed to say that to students as it’s a negative message. To me, it’s also a truth. Coming out of our comfort zone to sit in a space of not knowing, of being unsure, of reaching for understanding and not quite getting there (yet) is challenging.
It puts us in a place of vulnerability and that’s uncomfortable. But if we don’t move from our place of comfort, then we don’t grow or develop. We don’t learn.
Learning is hard. The teachers’ role is not to make it less hard, but to support students through the challenges.
We infantalise students when we remove the challenge rather than helping them overcome it.
There’s a conference happening as I type. It’s a conference on teaching and learning in higher education … and a student’s comments bring to mind a snippet of everyday life I heard about many years ago.
Annie lives in a small country town. She is married, has three children under the age of 7, and does not work outside the home. The eldest child catches the bus to and from school.
The family has one car and as Annie’s husband works in the bigger town 30 minutes away, and there is no public transport (apart from the school bus), he drives most days. That leaves Annie without a car. There are no shops or parks within walking distance and the hills and narrow roads make taking a four-year old and a baby for a walk a challenge.
The four-year old has discovered she likes mangoes. The enchantment with mangoes extends beyond the mango-growing season, which she does not understand. She wants a mango. She lets Annie know she wants a mango. She lets the neighbours and the sheep in the front paddock know she wants a mango.
No amount of explaining that mangoes are not available will convince the child that she cannot have a mango. She argues that they could go to the shop to buy one. But even if there was a shop that sold mangoes, they don’t have the car that day and the shop isn’t within walking distance. This is something that is beyond her comprehension. She thinks of herself and not of the wider system of which she, and mangoes, are a part.
Annie takes some frozen mango from the freezer, but the child is adamant it isn’t real mango and so does not want it. She takes it outside to feed to the sheep in the front paddock.
I am reminded of this snippet of everyday life while listening to the conference presenter – a student who wants to attend classes on campus when “I feel like it” and to attend classes online when “I’m not able to attend in person”. She doesn’t want to have to tell her tutor when she’ll attend on-campus and when she’ll attend online or when she won’t attend at all.
The other adults in the conference agree that that’s a reasonable position to take. No one mentions the wider systems of which the student is a part but which are outside of her immediate attention.
Ignore, for now, the administrative processes and the technological systems at play here. Let’s focus on the student experience.
Louise is a student at a university in a major city in Australia. In Week 3 she decides to attend the weekly 2-hour tutorial on campus. The tutorials are recorded so that students who cannot attend synchronously can have access to the material covered and the questions and provocations explored in the tutorial.
They’re also live-streamed so that students who cannot attend on campus can attend synchronously from a place of their choosing (home, work, the train, a holiday house at the beach, a cafe, a hospital room …). The university is known for providing opportunities for students to learn at any time, from anywhere, and at any place.
Louise arrives to find the teacher and three other students in the classroom. The official enrolment for the tutorial is 25. The tutor has connected to the live-streaming software allowing all enrolled students who attend synchronously to interact if they choose. Those who attend synchronously online have indicated that they like to feel part of the class, even if they’re not there physically.
The tutor has planned an interactive session where students have opportunities to actively engage with the ideas being discussed and hear others’ views. She has planned for students to work in small groups and in that way learn with and from each other. They will share their ideas, take a variety of stakeholder perspectives, formulate solutions to problems they’ve identified and justify which of those possible solutions they would recommend if they were working in a professional setting.
Nine students have joined the live-stream. They don’t have their cameras on and so show up as black boxes or initials on the screen. The two cohorts do not interact with each other, as those online keep their microphones off and while they talk when put into breakout rooms, they don’t interact with the four students in the physical room.
Louise finds the experience unsatisfying, personally, socially and intellectually. She had wanted to be part of a dynamic group of learners all seeking to explore this highly interesting and relevant area of the course. She wanted to share her ideas and was keen to hear others’ ideas. She had questions of a technical nature of the tutor but her voice sounded too loud in the near-empty room and so she kept quiet. Those who attended via the live stream interacted with each other but not with those in the physical room, and while those in the physical room contributed to the discussion and shared their ideas, the lack of a diversity of views, ideas, solutions and recommendations left her feeling flat.
The following week Louise finds she cannot attend the tutorial and listens to the recording. She finds the experience unsatisfying. She does not have the opportunity to share or discuss her ideas and is not able to hear others’ conversations as the recording cuts out when the students engage in small group conversations.
In Week 5, Louise attends via the live-stream. There are two other students attending in this mode, and two students in the physical classroom. When it comes time to join the breakout room, Louise logs off. It is an unsatisfying experience all round.
At the end of semester, she completes the unit evaluation and scores the tutor poorly. She did not have a good experience and wants the university, and her tutor, to know.
The situation is complex. Louise wants to be free to choose but is unaware, when making her choice, of some of the outcomes of that choice. She wants the choice to study when and where she wants and the capacity to make that decision on a weekly basis, unaware that choice has consequences for her experience.
There is nothing like a room full of students talking, discussing, playing around with ideas and of coming to better understand the skills and abilities they’ll need to be better financial advisers, or engaging and compassionate teachers, or architects who can play with shape and form and functionality. The feel in that room – whether it’s a virtual or physical room – can be energising and motivating.
When teachers create space for students to engage intellectually and socially and professionally, learning is enriched and empowering.
But those enriching and empowering learning experiences can’t happen in the absence of learners. Deciding not to attend has consequences that go beyond the individual.
I fear we’re headed towards an impoverished system of higher education that caters to an individualisation which sees decisions made on what individuals want (more flexibility to do things my way) without thinking about the wider consequences for learning and social and profesional interaction.
Flexibility has enormous benefits to students. It provides many with the only way of studying as they juggle the many other aspects of their lives. It is crucial for students to have options for when and how they study.
But, is there ever a point when we have to accept that just because we want a mango now, it doesn’t necessarily mean we can have one?
Is unbounded flexibility possible? And if it is, will it lead to the desired outcomes?
One final question, though perhaps for another time: Whatever happened to asynchronous learning?
I was one of those kids at school who teachers didn’t like very much. I’m not sure what it was, but I never endeared myself to my teachers.
Some of them hit me, some of them kicked me, some of them made me stand behind the classroom door, or sit under their desk, or leave the room. I can’t remember many of them being terribly nice to me.
I was a middling student who probably had a smarter mouth than brain and said more than I should have. I was clever, but not clever enough to keep my mouth shut or stop my eyes from rolling.
Being a middling student meant I didn’t have the educational needs some students had. I wasn’t gifted and so didn’t get any attention for being particularly good at anything; and I didn’t need remedial attention because I wasn’t really bad at anything. I didn’t have much potential for anything outstanding and so didn’t need encouragement or prompting … and let’s face it, if I was ‘prompted’ I would probably have said something that saw me sent behind the door or under a desk in no time flat.
I come from a family of middling students. None of us excelled academically. We did alright, but our place was firmly in the middle. We weren’t duxes, we didn’t win presitgious academic awards, we didn’t have ATAR scores in the 90s.
I was awarded a merit certificate in primary school one year.
It was for ‘uniform’. I felt it should have been awarded to my mother.
I don’t remember ever having positive relationships with my teachers though, although there was one female teacher in Grade 5 who was lovely.
When you have a good relationship with your students, they are more likely to feel positive about class and about school in general. They are also more willing to have a go at hard work, to risk making mistakes, and to ask for help when they need it” (Killian).
Holding high standards without providing a warm environment is merely harsh. A warm environment without high standards lacks backbone. But if you can create a combination of high standards with a warm and supportive environment it will benefit all students, not just the high achievers.
I wrote some time ago about punitive education and some of the lessons we learn from school and from the teachers who inhabit it/control it.
What might students learn from teachers who care about them (and let them know they care) and who have high expectations of them?