The Space Between Stories

Ace Ladder Aug 14 - 2

Gary Larson – Far Side Gallery 1984

Hi all,

Note: This began as a note to the folks at Modern Learners explaining my lack of presence on our video calls during the past several weeks. It grew! It became a reflection of some big picture issues that I’ve connected to some fascinating experiences I’ve been able to enjoy during the past two month. I’ve included the first paragraph in this piece because I’ll still be sharing it with them.

I wanted to check in and affirm that I haven’t dropped out of the group. Over the course of the past several months, I’ve had the good fortune to be engaged in a number of thought provoking events, not the least of which has been my interactions with the Modern Learners Community. In addition to ongoing reflections connected with the readings, conversations and exchanges that you have made available, the universe appears to have offered me a number of additional challenging and thought provoking experiences.

The first of these was a weekend “gathering” of approximately 200 people who came together to spend time with Charles Eisenstein whose writings and reflection struck a very responsive chord in me. His descriptions of the death of an old story and of our current time as an “Age of Separation” have become a kind of introduction to a body of thinking that has been poking at the edges of my mind for some time.

Charles speaks of the interconnectedness of things and our need for the recognition of this reality. His description of our age as a time of separation from individuals, separation from our institutions, and separation from our planet gave voice to concerns that simmered within me without a name or framework. It has also awakened me to see the increasing number of articles which, although sometimes using different vocabulary, seek to call attention to society of increasing fragmentation, tribalism, and isolation.

Charles speaks of the need to consider a different approach to the change process… an approach which moves away from the exhortation to adopt specific changes to the work of creating spaces where change can occur… not specifically the changes that I would “suggest” but those which come from the hearts of those freed by the opportunity. This spoke powerfully to me as I could easily recall a list as long as my arm of change initiatives which someone thought would be good, which were more or less mandated, and which faded quickly when replaced by the next “good” initiative.

But Charles wasn’t done with me. He offered a path to interconnectedness. He offered the path of empathy. The path of asking, in the face of opposition, “What must it be like to be that other person?” What has their life been like/what is their life like that has brought them to resist what I find so right?

He is best known for his book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible and for his appearance on Oprah after his publication in 2016 of an essay entitled “The Election: Of Hate, Grief, and a New Story”. His most recent work, Climate, A New Story, is now available.

Not too long (less than a month) after my experience with Charles, I ventured once again to the Hudson Valley for another program… this one a retreat facilitated by Jon Kabat-Zinn and his son, Will. This was a 5-day program in Mindfulness entitled, “The Way to Awareness”.  Kabat-Zinn  is widely recognized as a world leader in the development of mindfulness practices. This was a gift from my wife (which I suspected might have been a thinly veiled suggestion about my somewhat intense focus on fixing the nation’s schools). This program, too, had attracted about 200 or so participants who all seemed to have much clearer senses of purpose for attending than I.

When asked to reflect on our/my purpose for attending I reflected on the impact of a little book given to me by my good friend, Tom Welch. The book written by Clark Aldrich is entitled, Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About School and Rediscover Education. In it Aldrich posits that there are really only three types of learning that are critical for our children: learning to learn, learning to do, and learning to be. In visiting, assessing and supporting schools throughout the country for more than 10 years I saw that the third “learning” (learning to be) was largely absent or, at best, only unintentionally developed. I realized that part of my rationale for attending was to see whether or not mindfulness had a place as a way of helping our kids learn how “to be”. As I reflected on this during the next meditation session, I realized that I, too, was struggling with how to be…how to be in a world in which elected leaders seem determined to reject all of the values that I had grown up taking for granted.

Perhaps the most lasting impact of the retreat, though, was the realization that here, just like at “the gathering” with Charles Eisenstein, was a group of people searching for a response to the end of a story. Whether it was Charles offering a vision of a world of interconnectedness… interconnectedness with people and the living world around us… or Kabat-Zinn offering a practice of increased awareness of our actions and their impact, there was a powerful sense of “not aloneness”. It is this “not aloneness” that may be the greatest gift of the Modern Learners Community and others whose work seeks to dismantle separateness and offer connectedness as a better way.

Finally, and from deep in left field, I discovered via Medium, Umair Haque. Haque is listed among the world’s foremost keynote speakers, has written extensively for the Harvard Business Review and has authored a number of books. His primary field of focus has been economics, society, and human development. His essays, both current and archived, are published through Eudaimonia and Co.  His book, Betterness, Economics for Humans, suggests that much like education, we are struggling to unlearn a paradigm that no longer serves us.

And here is the intersection. In describing the business paradigm, Haque unintentionally offers a description of the education paradigm that continues to govern (and limit) the possible. He writes:

“So little have the components of this paradigm changed over the decades, that most of us see them not just external fixtures of the landscape, but as the landscape.”

Assume for a moment that Eisenstein’s concepts of ending stories, an age of separation, interconnectedness, empathy, and the creation of space for change are right-headed. That Kabat-Zinn’s connection of mindfulness practices and the power of collective consciousness leads to increasing awareness of our thoughts and motivations. And that Haque’s thinking about moving beyond outdated (and counterproductive) paradigms is right on. How does the intersection of these thoughts from the world beyond the walls of the school impact what we do for kids?

The old story of education is dead. The old formula of work hard, do well in school, get good grades, score high on the SAT’s/ACT’s, get into a good college, graduate and get a good paying job ensuring a secure future may work for the sons and daughters of the wealthy, but for the majority of working class Americans, it’s dead! We are in a time between stories. We are in a time of writing new stories.

Your Turn…

While it may be beyond our pay grade to write new stories for the economy, for health care, for tax reform, etc., it is we as educators, whether we are school leaders or classroom teachers or district administrators, to create the emotional spaces in our buildings, classrooms, and districts where new stories of learning can be written. Taking a page from Jon Kabat-Zinn, how aware are you of your thoughts about creating safe spaces for change, for new stories? Of your own role in creating such spaces?

Be well.

8 thoughts on “The Space Between Stories

  1. Thanks for this, Rich. You are exploring ways to unlearn and to seek spaces. Here I find myself trapped in more mundane considerations…. Like how to remain friends with my neighbor, the head of Cuyahoga Community College Metro Campus, a man who has just been appointed by the Governor to serve on the oversight board that will seize power from East Cleveland’s elected school board. This is maybe the poorest community in the state of Ohio. So… this is a state takeover situation for an “F” school district. The appointed head of the takeover commission—a guy who has led the NAACP and who pastors a church and who, for a while, became CEo of a charter school that later closed—does not know a thing about running a school district. And the sad story goes on and on. I wonder if you would be interested in the book I profiled in my blog on Friday. It is a Chicago story—about the long implications of the massive 50-school closures in 2013—and it is a critique of technocratic, top-down portfolio school reform. Maybe I am especially interested because I have had many personal experiences with Chicago over the years. I actually stopped everything this week to read the book . We had a sale catalogue from the U. of Chicago Press, and Bill noticed this book on sale—a book really just hot off the press in the past month. It interests me for a number of reasons. When I taught for two years in DeKalb (an hour and a half west of Chicago) from 1971-1973, the students I worked with at Northern Illinois University were enrolled through something called the CHANCE program. It was an early affirmative college program. I had students from Cabrini Green and Robert Taylor Homes, and I’d spend time in Chicago on weekends, as DeKalb was not really exciting. I also visited UCC churches there off and on as part of my work. At one South Side church, the residents were mostly retired Black professionals who were very concerned about the demolition happening at the time of the Robert Taylor Homes—and the massive displacement of thousands of poor people. The demolition of the high rise housing projects is something Bill and I have watched and discussed along with the gentrification that continues south along State Street. When the projects came down, supposedly mixed-income housing increased, but there weren’t enough low-income units built—in Chicago or anyplace else. So what happened is what happened a couple of decades earlier with urban renewal—displacement of the poor. Also I once argued (at a Grinnell College reunion weekend) heatedly with Penny Bender Sebring—director for a while of the U of Chicago Consortium on School Research. She and I argued about the school closures, and this author makes me believe I was in the right—even though I was felt sort of intimidated by Penny (a member of Grinnell’s Board of Trustees at the time) during our conversation as she has an extremely authoritative tone. She kept on defending the school closures because the schools were said to be “underutilized.” I kept telling her there were racial implications because 80 percent of the children and families affected were African American. The Consortium has subsequently done research on the impact of the closure of 50 schools all at once, and has documented prevalence of community mourning—-the subject of this particular book—though this author is not connected with the Consortium. This author is a U of Chicago sociologist and a very powerful writer. Also maybe I’m interested because when I chaired the National Council of Churches public education committee, the most extraordinary member was Dr. Phedonia Johnson, representing the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and a retired Chicago school administrator. Phedonia took us on a tour of the most amazing public school I’ve ever visited. I wrote about it for a collection of education stories one time . Phedonia was an incredibly wise old woman, who was very concerned about the current “portfolio school reform” in Chicago. And one other detail. Dr. Manford Byrd, Jr., a former Chicago School Superintendent—much discredited I know—was on our United Church of Christ Public Education Task Force. He was the loveliest man. Very punctilious. He was quiet and he paid careful attention; his comments were extremely well considered. Once when we visited a school on the Gila River Indian Reservation south of Phoenix, Arizona, he commented: “This is the most unjust situation I have ever observed. This fine school goes through eighth grade, but the students do not have an assigned high school. Their teachers are trying to take them to visit high schools all over Maricopa County, and they could enroll in any of them. But there is no transportation provided.” And back to this new book. The CEO in Chicago who executed the 2013 school closures was Barbara Byrd Bennett, who was previously school CEO in Cleveland (also part of the Center on Reinventing Public Educaiton’s Portfolio School network). She was later arrested in Chicago for taking bribes in what is known as the SUPES scandal and she is now in jail. I guess there is one additional connection for me: This all began with Paul Vallas and Arne Duncan and Renaissance 2010, right? And it became institutionalized nationally in Race to the Top. Anyhow, maybe my interest in this book is because I know Chicago, but surely what this author writes about Chicago is also relevant to Newark and Camden and Trenton. To make what I know is a very shallow connection to your profound post: I think the story of Portfolio School Reform is now dead and, even though we don’t realize it, we are between stories. Actually I think a lot of the Arne Duncan technocratic nonsense is dying. But it sure is being kept on life support beyond the time when it is humane. Take care…


    • Jan….this is easily the longest snd most heart-wrenching comment I’ve ever received. I want to reread it several times and then I’ll share some thoughts/reactions. It’s a good day for that today…rainy, windy…perfect for reflection. Be well


  2. Rich, just a quick observation from the corporate world (global banking, in my case). I was in London a decade or so ago at a gathering of senior corporate bankers from around the world. Workout groups were asked to define key elements of an effective team. While participants debated the optimal structure of a corporate team, I commented that since every bank’s organizational chart looked similar, the key to effective teamwork was the space between the boxes on an org chart. That is, the manner in which people formed informal alliances with others who possessed skills necessary to achieve a task drove results, regardless of the formal organizational structure. As further evidence, I shared my observations that smaller organizations are usually more decisive and effective than large ones. Participants agreed. As Dave Matthews says in one of my favorite songs: “The Space Between what’s wrong and right is where you’ll find me hiding, waiting for you.”


  3. Rich, are you back home?

    I wrote a long response to your comment which I lost before I got it posted so here’s a second try. I think I actually referenced two different kind of spaces in this piece without distinguishing between them. The first of these, references the creation of space where change can occur. I’ve come to see this as what’s been called a circle of safety or trust…A kind of place where risk-taking can live and prosper. I saw this in contrast to the notion that leaders identify needed change and either mandate or guide the change process to accomplish the change they wish to see. When seen organizationally I think you’ve identified another kind of space which exists between the boxes in an organizational chart. It might be interesting to develop a description of the climate that exists between those boxes to see how closely it resembles what I have in mind as the place were changed can occur.

    The second kind of space that I was referencing was the space that Charles Eisenstein refers to as the space between stories. This is a part of his assertion that we are living in the dying time of an old story and are in what he calls and age of separation. I really resonate with his description and the notion that we are living between stories.

    I find the writings of Umair Haque interesting because (a) they intersect with Eisenstein’s observations and (b) because he approaches his thinking from the perspective of economic systems and his work in finance.

    This and your China experiences will make good “fish” discussion. Be well. Talk soon


  4. “We are in a time between stories. We are in a time of writing new stories.” Is one of my most favorite lines in a blog post, ever. 🙂 Thanks for reflecting so honestly for us, Rich. I will take your references shared here and explore more deeply. We are truly thankful that you are part of our community! We’ve missed your presence but know you are out there, changing the world and influencing others’ thinking as you do ours!


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