Saturday, February 12, 2011

Musical Chairs

In the party game of musical chairs, the room is set up with a row of chairs containing one chair fewer than the number of participants. Music plays, and when the music stops, everyone must try to find a seat. The "leftover" person is sent out of the game, another chair is removed, and the music begins again. It ends when there is just one chair and two contestants, with one competitor winning the seat--and therefore the game.

I have always liked the cooperative version of the game in which the chairs are set up the same way, say 9 chairs for 10 players. When the music stops, the ten participants must fit themselves into the nine chairs. Lap sitting is allowed, as well as squeezing two people onto one chair. It becomes more challenging as more and more chairs are removed, but there are still 10 participants. In the end all are laughing as they try to see how many people they can squeeze or stack onto a few chairs.

Well, I have thought of musical chairs on more than one occasion here at MEF. Each set of students has an assigned classroom in which to meet for classes and group work. In general, classrooms are equipped with large wooden tables and various kinds of chairs. It's sometimes the tables, but more often the chairs that are the challenge. They seem to migrate from time to time. Sometimes I would arrive at the classroom, only to discover that it was beautifully set up with white cloths on the tables and a full complement of padded chairs. Then I knew that it was intended to be used by a workshop, and my students and I would be using a substitute room. Other times, the chairs would be an odd assortment of plastic chairs, wooden chairs, and chairs with padded seats. If there were too few chairs for the number of participants, students would go into an empty classroom and borrow chairs. They didn't always remember to return them, which was one of the causes of chair migration. And, of course, the underlying problem is scarcity of resources.

Chair migration was a more notable problem in classrooms on the far side of campus. We were never troubled by having our room appropriated for a workshop, perhaps because these rooms were so poorly equipped. We had tables, but if we had chairs, they were usually the old chapel chairs--wooden and poorly constructed, so that some had rough patches that caught your clothes, others were unstable. And all were uncomfortable. There were usually a few nicer chairs, and the first arrivals moved them to their favorite spots around the tables. Some days we would find half as many chairs as students, and we would go on scouting parties to round up enough from various other rooms. Several times I mentioned this problem to someone in administration, but nothing changed.

When the semester started, I tried once again to advocate for enough suitable chairs for this classroom. Although help was promised, nothing happened that week, until Friday. On that morning, there was a festive ceremony in the chapel. It was set up with rows and rows of padded chairs. Later in the day, I saw many of those chairs being placed in the empty room next to my classroom. My students and I then gathered up our broken wooden chairs, placed them in the storage area, and replaced them with the simplest of the padded chairs. Success!

Monday, we were comfortable and happy. Tuesday we discovered two of our tables and several chairs missing, but I knew where they were. A previously empty room across the hall was scheduled for large classes, and I had seen workers moving tables and chairs into it and suspected that they didn't have enough without some of ours. We took back one table and enough chairs for our needs, but we returned the chairs at the end of our class so they would have enough. It seemed like a good plan, just move chairs back and forth as needed, and all would go well. It worked the rest of the week.

The following Monday, we entered our classroom to find that the table we had reclaimed had been removed again, as had all the padded chairs. We had the old wooden chapel chairs back. The particular class that morning was Community Based Intervention Strategies, and the students decided to put what they were learning into practice and try to resolve the chair problem. One student suggested demonstrating, but after discussion the class decided to go through proper channels, and to present their concern in writing as well as by requesting a meeting to discuss the issue. We drafted a respectful and constructive, but clear and critical memo. I agreed to print it the next day and deliver it to the office.

Just after I left the memo with administration the next day, I went to teach again in that classroom--only to find no chairs at all and yet another of our tables missing! I crossed the hall to take some chairs out of the large classroom, and found it padlocked. Now what were we going to do? The students hadn't arrived yet. I scribbled a note of complaint to the head of social work and went to find him at his nearby office. He wasn't there. As the students arrived they sat on the tables and we discussed our options. The storeroom was empty, the other classroom locked. One student went out and found the social work head. We gave him my hand-written note, and the students, still sitting on the tables, vented their frustration and their sense of being second class citizens. He agreed to try to help.

The next day, we had the full set of tables and the correct number of padded chairs in our classroom. So far, it has stayed that way. Was it the memo? The involvement of the social work head? Or just the persistence of raising the complaint enough times that it finally got through to the right person? We don't know, but the students feel more empowered as a result of their part in the intervention.

Let's hope we have seen the end of musical chairs, at least in the classroom!

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