Planting, Watching, and Building, III

Another thing that’s been spinning around in my head for the past several days is the importance of dirt (maybe a nicer term would be creative mess) when you’re planting, watching, and building things.  When I’m in my typical environment, I don’t usually think about dirt or mess – dust accumulates slowly, but if I don’t pay close attention, I don’t see it.  And there’s always a degree of dirt and mess in places like my face-to-face teaching world, especially when teenagers are around.  But, again, we get used to the everyday dirt and mess.  It’s easy to convince ourselves of a couple of different things: either the dirt just isn’t there, or that’s just the way things are supposed to be.  And, besides, it’s probably somebody else’s job to clean the whole thing up.

But dirt doesn’t go away when you ignore it!  And overall, dirt is a very good thing.  Without it, there would be no plants, no food, no animals, no us.   And without getting our hands dirty literally or metaphorically, there would be no change and no growth.

I thought a lot about literal and metaphorical dirt and mess when I was visiting my new friends at 4.0 Schools and at OSBG. For one thing, the literal Louisiana dirt is very different from the sandy soil where I live and the red clay where I grew up.  For another, New Orleans itself, like all big cities, is a fascinating mixture of clean and dirty.  I’m sure you don’t notice the dirt that much when you live there, and you notice it less when you’re driving on a familiar route at high speed.  But for me, a short-term visitor who had made a deliberate decision to walk as much as possible, it was necessary to go slowly, pay attention, and notice the dirt.

There were different kinds of dirt, and different kinds of messes, too.  In the touristy parts of town, there were the kinds of dirt and mess that you would expect … and there were a lot of people working to get that dirt out of sight.  On my Sunday walk, there was the rich dirt of the Garden District and the temporary, but necessary mess that goes along with all sorts of construction projects.  At OSBG, there was a productive kind of dirt – the kind that yields a rich, bountiful harvest of vegetables for the community.  And in the spotlessly clean offices of 4.0, there was deep, rich intellectual topsoil where all kinds of ideas could take root … and where it was OK to make a temporary mess on the way to building something great.

I thought more about dirt and mess during #edchat last night on Twitter, where the topic was the effects of blogging (and reading blogs) on one’s growth as an educator.  A lot of participants were talking about how hard it is for them to hit the Publish button, or even to start writing at all.  I can understand that!  I’ve certainly been there!  But then I realized something:

A whole lot of the 20th-century industrial paradigm was about getting away from dirt!  We built factories (inherently dirty) in their own special parts of town.  We built whole industries around keeping things clean – from appliances to cleaning products to house-cleaning services and dry cleaners.  And I’m grateful for all of them!

But along the way, I think a lot of people got the idea that creative dirt and mess are either bad, or at the very least intended for other people.  The folks on Twitter who were worried about publishing were often saying they were afraid their posts would be a mess – and they were also afraid they’d be judged for making a mess or being imperfect.  And a desire for antiseptic perfection can easily lead to paralysis: it’s easy to be so scared of making a mess that you end up doing nothing.

On the other hand, huge messes (like the ones that have poisoned the dead bayous and cypress swamps I saw) are a real problem, too.

So what do you think?  How can we find the right balance of dirt and mess when we plant and build new things?

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Published in: on August 15, 2012 at 12:41 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. To me learning is about figuring it out on your own. And that is without a doubt going to be messy. It’s one thing to receive instruction (not really learning–just listening really) it’s another thing to get out there and take what you heard and apply it. Ex. I can sit in a class on skiing for 8 hours a week and get down the concepts of skiing, but that doesn’t mean I get them or understand how to ski. It’s not until I strap on the boots and go down the hill that I learn how to ski. Sure I try to apply what I heard in class but the learning takes places as I fall, lose my balance, turn, shift my weight, etc…The nature of inquiry is fraught with missteps and getting dirty, it’s also how we learn to stay clean. Each misstep teaches a new lesson to us that we can’t learn from sitting in class. We have to experience it by playing in the dirt. P.S. this comment is part of my blog post I am currently working on. Time to get dirty.


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