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Eighth Graders Think At the Edge

By Mary Jeanne Larrabee
Philosophy Professor at De Paul University

Listen to some of the responses to a Thinking at the Edge (TAE) Workshop I gave recently: "To have experienced it is pretty cool!" "It makes you think beyond your usual thinking patterns." "I'm looking at everything in a different way." Would you be surprised to hear they came from eighth graders? These are descriptions from the first group of grade-schoolers to be taught TAE--and it works!

The idea for teaching this program came after my first TAE workshop in 2001, when I prepared a project for a DePaul University Humanities Center fellowship.  In fall 2002 I approached the eighth grade teacher for the Gifted Program at the Alexander Graham Bell School, Chicago; I knew the school and the teacher because our sons had attended Bell. In my proposal I described TAE as a set of creativity tools. I negotiated six one-hour sessions to be held every 1 ½ to 3 weeks. Eight one-and-a-half hour workshops would be better.  In each workshop I provided different color worksheets, ( "Check back on the pink sheet when you wrote about your comfortable place"). With one hour workshops, I could only use partnering in a limited way.  I needed to teach some Focusing in order to begin TAE, so I went to the Focusing Institute website and looked at the Children's Corner for materials.

In workshop 1 the goal was: "Finding a fuzzy edge, a bodily-felt sense," by checking what's going on "inside" and seeing what it has to say.  I used body awareness or felt sense exercises to give the students quick experiences of contrasting bodily responses: raising shoulders, clenching fists, remembering lunch, following the breath down, imagining biting into a lemon, checking all over inside. I explained that their experiences give them access to a fuzzy place inside, a bodily-felt sense--'sense' because it connects both to sensation and to meaning. Because it carries meaning, it can tell a story. This fuzzy edge is one place they will find their creative edge.

After locating "a comfortable place" inside, I asked students to think of one of their own ideas, asking inside for something they wanted to work on which felt special  --that gave them the "YEAH" or "HA" feeling in the tummy. I told them to see if there was a puzzled place inside, to see if they could formulate the puzzle in a question form, and --from that comfortable quiet place they found earlier--ask if there is the beginning of an answer that they would like to be their answer. I also asked them if they had ever sensed that they had something to say, but the "public" words just didn't quite say everything they wanted them to say. I explained that the beginning steps of TAE would help them use words and fresh phrases to say what they wanted to say.

In workshop 2 I began with a brief history of Focusing and TAE.  I clarified getting a handle and letting the edge tell more.  I also introduced "clearing a space."  I asked them to bring into the cleared space their TAE ideas and ask how all that was in their bodies, if it was OK now to focus on the TAE work. In each of the subsequent workshops I would begin with these steps: checking in on the fuzzy edge, clearing a space and sitting a moment with it, and then asking how it is to begin our TAE work.

We completed Step One by "finding an instance," again having them check the fuzzy edge. I mentioned Step Two, the illogical sentence, but did not spend much time on this, just asking if anyone had found one (a couple read theirs). I covered Step 3 in more detail, talking a little about public meanings and their benefits and limitations and having them check in on their fuzzy edge to see whether the dictionary definition of their three words said what they wanted their words to mean. I had them work on Step 4 in partners. I explained that Step 4 gave them a chance to define the words in their own way, possibly by changing the word or phrase to mark their own meaning. I introduced Step 5 and asked them to work on it at home.

In workshop 3 I had two worksheets, a white one for writing the key points from previous work and finishing Step 4 with a revised main sentence and a bright orange one for the work for Steps 6 and 7.  I explained how to "revise" their main sentence from Step 1 by putting in all of their six words/phrases and fiddling around with the words until the sentence made sense, especially to the fuzzy edge. I explained to the students that we had been working on developing a vocabulary for our topic area in Steps 1 to 5, but now we would be looking for other material to help out our theories, by asking our TAE fuzzy edge/felt sense for events, happenings in our lives, instances, examples or facets that come from or are connected to our TAE felt sense. Student were not to worry if the examples seemed "weird"--that was OK and might actually give something for the nonlogical sentence of Step 2.  They did this work in partners (given the brevity of my workshops I tended to have students work in partners on one task per workshop).

In workshop 4 I had the students write the most important parts from their four instances from Step 6 on a purple worksheet. Then on a pink worksheet, they wrote the details, patterns, or structure, as Step 7 requests. I also introduced Step 8, crossing the facets, explaining that some wildly weird and cool stuff could come from this step, so to try it with at least one pair of facets. Finally, I introduced Step 9, free writing, which they worked on in the last five minutes of the workshop and were asked to continue at home, for at least 20 minutes.

In workshop 5 we moved through Steps 10 and 11, working alone on the first and in partners on the second. I asked the students to go over all their worksheets from the beginning, checking in with the felt sense to find the alive words/phrases, writing a list on the worksheet, and asking for the three most important ones, which they were to label A, B, and C.  I asked them to hold their terms in a quiet cleared space and to see if the illogical sentence from Step 2 was somewhere in the middle of A-B-C. Or, if they had not found an illogical sentence before, perhaps they could see something we could call an "illogical crux" coming out of the juxtaposition of A-B-C, without having to put it in a sentence, but with the fuzzy edge just agreeing it's like that--hah!  I explained that an illogical crux might feel like the three terms bump up against each other in some ways, don't quite fit snugly, but that out of that might come some interesting developments, as though the illogical crux were a little motor for the theory. We then moved to the next part of Step 10, checking how these terms logically linked to each other. For Step 11, the students worked in partners. I explained that in Step 11 we are more demanding, insisting that two terms must be connected.

In workshop 6 I introduced step 12, explaining that they now had all the material they needed to form the nucleus of their theory, from which more and more ideas would flow. Students worked in pairs, writing sentences for "A = B" and "A = C" and moving on to generate new sentences for the theory, doing the same with "B = C' and then with the term D, etc.

I had a seventh meeting during which students selected part of their theory or TAE experience to share at a program with family, friends, and faculty.  I went around and gave positive feedback to specific bits on their worksheets.

CONCLUSION: TAE can be taught to eighth graders with success. Many of them get to the felt sense quite readily. Here are some of their descriptions of the "fuzzy edge": It's a "big black bubble type thing . . and little smokes wafting out that you can catch, something there feels original, coming out of my innermost being." You "go blank and stop thinking and find something . . . like waking up--this is where your mind's supposed to start thinking." "A place inside . . . [where you can] just be yourself and release whatever thoughts and be what you are." Something "right in my very geographic center."

Many were excited to be "allowed" to find their own ideas. "The best part--being able to express yourself, thinking outside of what I would normally think about--it led me to find myself." TAE was "unlike anything I've done before." TAE "expanded my mind; I was really lucky to take this class." TAE is usually presented to adults who have some "area of expertise" within which they can express their unique thinking. Yet eighth graders have "experiental expertise"--living in a family, having friends or pets, pursuing hobbies and special interests--that they can express if given a chance to work outside the "boxes" of their lives and schooling. Here are a few examples: One student's three terms were self, realization and balance; her three statements from steps 10/11 were: "Self could not exist without realization; to be yourself you must balance trust with change; you must realize you're not a self before you can balance." Other students wrote: "The crux of temporal identity is to clear the cobwebs of time and create a visionary future" and "Secrets hide and uncover words, but are eventually sought and uncovered."  Teaching TAE to these eighth graders was a real eye-opener, even for a philosopher who has discussed Plato with sixth graders. My suggestion: if you are comfortable with TAE (even some of it) and you can sense a connection between that and some children you are familiar with, try TAE: you'll probably be surprised too.