I’ve gotten a reputation for redesigning AC4D via blog posts. It’s a testament to the school’s openness and our relationship to the school as inaugural class that I’ve been able to channel my critical reflections into something proactive and creative. And I’ve realized that everything that the school has put forth this first year has been a stake in the ground—this is how we do things— and that without that initial catalyst, no reflection/improvement/differing opinions can be had in the first place. And I’ve grown a lot doing this kind of thinking and reflecting, and I hope none of it comes off as too critical because it’s all done with #ac4dlove and with the future in mind. Anyway, to end the year with more of the same, some of us felt that our graduation dinner was anti-climactic and missing something, and upon reflection I remembered and learned and wanted to share the following.
One of my undergrad communications professors told us that ceremonies served as punctuation marks in our lives. The graduations, birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and funerals mark the passing of time and let us pause to reflect and celebrate. I initially was going to write about the ceremonies of years past and how they were awkward yet necessary because they allowed us to step out of normal time by doing this weird pomp and circumstance routine. And only by participating in it were you able to feel the feelings you needed to feel in order to blah blah blah.
But then I realized that’s not what we needed more of this past week. Making the receiving of graduation certificates more staged or more formal wouldn’t have helped bring closure to this AC4D inaugural experience. What we needed more of was the reflection that ceremonies sometimes let us experience. What we needed more of was group reflection time—an AC4D members-only powwow instead of individual POWs.
Learning from Owl’s Nest
I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in the first Owl’s Nest: a weekend retreat for women who used the creative arts to engage community. Because the two creators of the Owl’s Nest were women as well as professional community facilitators, they did an exceptional job of structuring our introduction to and our exit from the Nest.
Though I do not remember the specifics of our first day activities, one thing I do remember is that we covered ground rules and did some games and activities before we had to introduce ourselves and give our spiels about our backgrounds. When you jump into introductions right away before having a chance to work with or even just hang out with people, the names and facts don’t stick because there’s no context. How much more impactful would it be to be introduced to your AC4D classmates after a day of working with them in a design bootcamp than it is to sit through an hour’s worth of intros only to forget everything and relearn people’s names over lunch.
Even more powerful and more impactful was the way Owl’s Nest closed out our weekend work together as a group. First we had group reflection time: We did a Poster Dialogue activity where large sheets of paper were posted around the wall, a couple sheets for each of the following questions:
- What was most important to you over the weekend?
- What did you enjoy most?
- What are you taking away?
People could write their own answers, read other’s answers, and comment on what others had written. Following this, the retreat leaders led us through processing the posters by holding a group conversation by reading aloud what we had written, asking questions, and letting people voice follow-up thoughts with the whole group. I could definitely see this being useful as a way to process and reflect on a period of collaborative worktime including design workshops, the last day of an individual class, or pre-graduation. And easily adaptable to whiteboards or post-its.
The other activity that brought Owl’s Nest to a fulfilling closure was a community closing activity focused on appreciation. We were about 30 people. We sat in a circle, and we took turns, each appreciating what someone else in the circle had brought to our experience together. Each person shared one thing about another person, and when it was your turn, you had to choose someone who had not yet been appreciated. Everyone in the circle got one moment to be honored by the group and one opportunity to share a story about someone else in the group. It may sound cheesy, but it’s incredibly powerful, period.
Three other variations on this activity came from my time as an after-school teacher.
- You can pass a ball of yarn from one person to another as each person thanks another. At the end, the facilitator walks around the circle and cuts the strings each person is holding and weaves a story: despite the fact that we may have to leave the group now, we will always hold a piece of our time together with us into the future (symbolized by the length of yarn we’re left with).
- On large sheets of paper one per person (possibly with respectively traced silhouettes if you’re working with small children), each person writes his/her name. Then the group walks around and writes good things or appreciations or thanks about others. These can be written directly onto the paper, or onto post-it’s or cut-out shapes that are then attached to the person.
- As a Badgerdog summer camp writing instructor, we had to introduce each of our students at the closing community reading before they came up on stage to read their work aloud. Each instructor did it in a different way, but most took the time to appreciate and say something uniquely observed about each student. It’s necessary to sometimes very publicly acknowledge and honor the specialness of individuals at the milestones in their lives, because it’s usually the most amazing people who are the most humble and sometimes the most insecure of us all.
At the Owl’s Nest, in between and after our closing activities, we also completed individual written evaluations, packed and cleaned, said goodbyes. Many of us also went to Trudy’s afterward for drinks and food where other ‘outsiders’ joined our group. But because we had already reflected and closed our weekend retreat together, everything else fell easily into place.
Now, in hindsight, I think AC4D students and faculty should have just gone out for drinks together before our graduation dinner—members only, no guests allowed—to shoot the bull, reflect on the year, and say all of the things we needed to say, out loud and to the group, as uncomfortable or as squirmy as they may make us feel: all the “thank you’s” and “can you believe that” and “so proud’s” and “omg’s” and “I’m so glad to know you” and “this was fucking amazing, holy fucking shit…”
Because holy fucking shit, Mr. Kolko and Mr. Petro, a year ago none of this existed! And look what you created! And how the fuck did you manage to bring together such an incredible and inspiring and amazing group of people? And kudos on a damn good first year.
And thank you.