COMMUNITY CONVERSATIONS Time and Space: Pochahontas, Snowflakes, Apple Cider, and a Bunny Rabbit with Big Ears

Today, Father’s Day, walking in a local park with my daughter.

“No, we haven’t got time. You can have ten minutes in the park and we need to go!”

A little boy stood before us, looking into one of the animal enclosures, having spotted a rabbit. One of those rabbits with extra large ears. He wanted his mother to share the experience with him. Mother’s response left him crestfallen. To be fair, mother was pushing a pram and had another little charge at the end of her arm.

Monday, beginning of this week gone. I took Highway 250 in West Virginia into the Allegheny Mountains. The car radio fades to static. Glancing illegally at my mobile phone I noted the signal had disappeared. I was in the National Radio Quiet Zone – 13,000 square miles of radio silence, just a few hundred miles from Washington DC. No Wi-Fi; no mobile phones; no radio signals.

I was not actually on Highway 250, I was driving, with full radio signal, absolutely not glancing illegally at my mobile phone, catching episode one of The Quiet Zone. Fascinated by it, I decided that I would listen to the whole series (five x 12 minute episodes) on iPlayer, come the end of the week. I did so, yesterday.

Pochahontas County is home to the Robert C Byrd Telescope at the National Radio Astronomy facility, Green Bank, West Virginia. The telescope is the largest fully steerable telescope in the world. It took six months to erect the crane that was used to place the telescope on site back in 1958. The Green Bank Telescope gathers radio waves from deepest space. It can detect radio waves emitted milliseconds after the Big Bang.

Taller than the Statue of Liberty, the Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest moving land object. It has the sensitivity equivalent to a billionth of a billionth of a millionth of a watt… the energy given off by a single snowflake hitting the ground. Anything man-made would overwhelm that signal. Hence the legal requirement, for a radio frequency free zone.

Essentially, here, “on the edge of society”, affording the ability to listen in to moments after the creation of the universe, means the local population have sacrificed their connection to the outside world. Well, not exactly… there is broadband internet facility in the homes of residents, they just cannot take it with them, when on the move.

But, get this… we are told by residents interviewed through the course of the program that if you go to watch your child take part in, for example, a soccer (football) game, every parent is watching the game, and interacting with one another. That is, they do not have their heads down, consulting their mobile device, fearful of missing something or someone not present.

What delicious irony… as the Green Bank Telescope, towering above the soccer field, works on connecting us back to the beginning of time, we cannot connect, in the moment, to those other than those present in time and space.

The event in the park this morning, along with thinking triggered by listening to The Quiet Zone prompted me to return to the transcript of an interview / conversation I enjoyed with the relational theorist Dr Scott Eacott, last weekend.

Scott suggests that school communities (in the broadest sense of the term) are a coherent whole and that every school has its own trajectory. That trajectory shapes the way in which we engage with spatio-temporal conditions. The ways we engage actually generate those conditions. While saying that every school is unique we rarely put into action attempts to see what different groups want and expect out of schooling. The challenge is that there needs to be a way to recognize and acknowledge the many different perspectives that may come forward and doing the work (collectively) that translates it into some form of concrete outcomes. To achieve this, Scott says, we need to take the time to tease out what the community at XYZ look like. What are their distinctive features. All activities should contribute to this work.

Our conversation greatly challenged my thinking. Scott did, for example, problematise my partitioning of ‘schools’, ‘families’, and ‘community’, suggesting this was based on an orthodox social systems configuration of the social world. The implications there for my work? I really do not know either, yet! Scott directed me to take a look at Cecil Miskel’s work on organisational behaviour. Another road I must travel down.

It is not my intention here to expand on Scott’s thinking. I will, though, say that he was greatly encouraging of the approach I am developing, and our conversation continues. Scott’s advocacy of a relational approach sits with the intention to disrupt the orthodoxy he talks about. What Scott did impress upon me is that the act of engaging in reflection is shaping how we understand and in turn shaping what is happening. This relationship is ongoing.

My mission is to understand how a relational approach to family-school-community partnership be best applied to achieve concrete and desirable outcomes for all. For the process itself to be educative, and for the outcomes to be of educational benefit to students.

Returning to Pocahontas County… the program presenter in conversation with a local inn-keeper:

“With each day, as well, the quietness becomes quite loud. You hear such detail that is normally just masked by modern life.”

“Yeah, absolutely. It’s quite nice, it’s quite calming. It’s quite rooting, it roots you back into the earth.”

And the words of a young woman who left the area to attend university but then returned, settled, and married a local man. Returning was like stepping back in time, she said. She had not realised just how much she had missed the lifestyle. “Making apple cider, going over to each other’s houses and having movie nights. Making maple syrup. The lost arts.”

Now, I am not suggesting that we create ‘Radio Quiet Zones’ around our school communities. I am suggesting we give thought to those interfering factors that impact relationships in our school communities. I am saying that if we are still offering a snatched ten minutes at the park for parents every term then the child will miss the rabbit. ‘Community engagement’, ‘parental engagement’, ‘parental involvement’, ‘community cohesion’, is a far far bigger, deeper, and extravagantly more important issue.

If we are to challenge the questionable orthodoxy that Scott Eacott, for one, takes issue with, then perhaps we might do well to work on instilling a quietness that frees us up to hear such detail that is normally masked by modern school life. Moving towards the place articulated by the inn-keeper in Pocahontas County, “It’s quite rooting, it roots you back into the earth”. For us, placing our schools with and within our communities.

For me, this begins with Community Conversations. I work with schools across the UK in making this happen. I consider my practice to be one of coaching in nature, for I seek to empower all community members as we take the journey together, recognising the uniqueness of each and every school community; appreciating time and space. It does not take six months to erect the framework, as it did the crane that placed the Green Bank Telescope. But the parallels between the two sounding boards are striking. Noise is collected in a deeply comprehensive way, in an interference free, safe environment. Every single falling snowflake counts and is recognised. Everybody is watching the game. The diet is home-made.

I welcome a no commitment first conversation with anyone interested in discussing how this works; face-to-face (wherever you are located) or by phone / Skype.

Please feel free to email me at

I share more on my work here.

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