Archives for posts with tag: learning

While I’ve been following the current ebola outbreak for quite a while now (my job requires me to visit the CDC website on an almost daily basis, so it’s constantly in my face), it’s only recently that I’ve seen Americans without ties to west or central Africa becoming actively afraid of the disease. And where fear goes, exploitation follows. Scammers are selling all kinds of products to “protect your family against ebola,” from essential oils to magical water to expensive dietary supplements. Never mind that the best way to avoid contracting ebola is to avoid coming into contact with the bodily fluids of someone who has ebola—not terribly difficult to manage here in the US.

But people quite naturally want to do something when horror strikes. As such, here’s my list of suggestions of things you can do, as an average person outside of an area where ebola is endemic, to help the situation.

1. Support science education of children, youth, and adults.

If we as a people do not understand science, we will not produce scientists. We will not be able to develop cures and methods of prevention. We will be easy prey for scams. We will not know where to donate money or time or energy in order to be of service. Supporting science education might mean tutoring a neighborhood youth. It might mean pitching in for science supplies for a local cash-strapped teacher. It might mean organizing a workshop at your local library, or calling your state legislators. It might even mean logging on to Khan Academy and educating yourself. Choose the path that makes the most sense for you.

2. Demonstrate and teach compassion.

Nothing gets better when nobody cares. (And caring is different from fear.) Does picking up litter in your neighborhood on your daily walk really have any effect on something like ebola halfway across the world? Not directly. But in a world where editorials make sarcastic cracks at those who dedicate their lives to curing disease and alleviating suffering, any attempt to eliminate cynicism is a step that brings us closer to being able to act in unity with our fellow human beings.

Vickery Meadow neighborhood cleanup

3. If it’s not about you, remember that.

If you live anywhere near a decently-sized city, there are people in your area who are affected by this crisis. You have neighbors or coworkers who are from central and west Africa, who have family there, who are worried sick in ways that probably don’t apply to you. A visit, some baked goods, a word of understanding can go a long way. Listen. Listen well, and do it more than you speak. Share the burden of those who are suffering, rather than adding a burden of your own.

4. Live in a learning mode.

Medicine is a tricky practice. It involves some science, some art, and a sizable chunk of engineering all thrown together. It requires a process of study, action, and reflection that doesn’t always run perfectly on an individual level, much less on a global scale. But when we allow ourselves to internalize this learning cycle, we stop being defensive about past mistakes, and instead upgrade our knowledge and habits without shame. While most of us aren’t going to develop a cure for ebola, we can bring to a halt the spread of misinformation, even misinformation we ourselves had a hand in promoting. We can encourage habits of creative thought and concerted action that might lead to a new scientific breakthrough, or just a better experience for the families on our street.

I know that these aren’t the kinds of advice most people are looking for. They don’t particularly alleviate fear. They aren’t direct. They aren’t immediate. They’re not simple. And they’re definitely not glamorous. But when we finally conquer this outbreak, there will be another crisis to capture our attention. Perhaps another virus. Or a war. Or a hurricane. Or a messenger from outer space—who knows? We can’t possibly hope to preemptively develop exactly what is needed to handle every possible contingency. But in all of these cases, there is a shared truth: that the best preparation is a community of people who strive towards acquiring and applying knowledge for the betterment of all.

If you want to make a difference, start there.


 “You keep saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

-The Princess Bride

Coherence does not mean the same thing as balance. To balance two or more aspects of your life, they must be separate, but given equal or appropriate weight. To live a coherent life is to understand how your work, your health, your service, your family, support each other, and are one. A coherent community does not attempt to separate the needs of children, youth, adults, families, and institutions. A coherent thought does not need to be diagrammed, balance sought between nouns and verbs. If balance is a pie chart, coherence is the combined ingredients in a strawberry-rhubarb pie. There is a difference.

Sustainable does not mean the same thing as easy. Lowering your standards might seem like a great way to ensure that a program or habit can carry on for years, but without the thrill that comes from meaningful challenge and the chance to create true change, is it really so feasible? Daily flossing is easy, but many people skip it even so. Try to see the sustaining power in exhilaration, inspiring greatness of spirit rather than smallness of action. There is a difference.

Empowered does not mean the same thing as independent. Just because someone cannot take on all the responsibility for a task without help does not mean that they cannot begin by taking some. Just because someone has all the skills to act without support from others doesn’t mean that they should. Abandonment is not a condition of power. There is a difference.

walking the path

A few reflections on walking a path of service, a theme that ran through the 10 day intensive youth training campaign I helped facilitate over the last two weeks.

It’s a path, not a road. It is built by the people who walk it. It is being built by you, now, for as long as you walk it, until you stand still. And even then it is shaped by your stillness, your feet sinking into the mud and leaving the imprint of where you stopped to catch your breath and look forward and behind.

But it’s still a path. It’s not only for you. Hiding the way so that you can show how singularly unique you are does not make you a pioneer, it makes you an egotist. The one less travelled by may very well be the better choice, but it is because of the challenge of the journey and the gorgeous views from the top of the mountain, not simply by virtue of being less walked.

Some walk at different paces. Smile and accommodate them. Step to the side for the quick ones, excuse yourself to the slow ones. Touch hands and walk alongside someone for a while, then separate when your legs beg you to stretch them out and give them a really good run.

It’s not criminal to step off the path, but it will certainly expend more energy and slow you down. Sometimes that’s okay. Sometimes it’s not. How important is the direction you’re headed?

When in doubt, move forward. Quit assembling maps and equipment and go. Leave your shoes if you can’t find them. There is someone else on the path who will help you if you need it. But they’re not waiting for you. Walk out and let your feet find a place they can move as they were meant to, with joy, one in front of the other.

You’re not the first person to set out on a life of service. But your service matters just the same.

photo credit: Skinnyde via photopin cc

It’s funny, when you ask an expert, “What science fiction should I read?” you get straight answers back. Maybe a list with lots of “if you’re more into dystopia than I’d try these three” kinds of qualifiers, but an answer, at least.

When you ask an expert, “What should I listen to in order to get a feel for big band music?” you get answers. Enthusiastic ones, with suggestions cross-referenced by song, band, and year.

When you ask an expert, “What should I do in order to be educated in my field, to the same degree that others are regularly educated in theirs?” you get a few answers. Science! Math! But you get more talk about why people don’t want to be educated, why you should lobby for a school to provide you with an education, why you should raise money to hire some people to educate you, why it’s not financially helpful to be educated, why teachers won’t find it financially feasible to educate you, why you need accreditation to be educated, why other people should be educated first.

Folks who teach know what educated people read. They know what educated people practice. They know what educated people do to prove they know what they know. It’s in their syllabi. It’s their job. But for some reason, they don’t hand you a syllabus. They talk around you while you try and explain, “I wasn’t asking for your bureaucracy, I was asking for your advice. What should I read? What should I listen to? What should I do?” They’re wonderful people, friendly, intelligent, and polite. But the answers I crave aren’t forthcoming. I’m left with the same general list of subjects I had before the conversation.

I feel like I could save a lot of time, knowing what they know I should know. I could move forward with new things with more confidence. I could build a better plan. They seem to think I can’t learn it without their help. Or that, in the absence of outside validation, it won’t matter if I do. I don’t know, maybe it’s true. I’m glad they want a meaningful education for everyone, and someday they might get it. But in the meantime, I’m left here where I started, selfishly wanting it for me.


I’ve got a chemistry test in a week. I wrote it for myself. I’ve been at this, all on my own, for years. And it seems like that’s the way it’s going to stay for a while.

letter k

Ever get one of those writing or thinking prompts that goes something like, “What would you have done differently in middle school if you’d known then what you know now?” There’s nobody I know who wouldn’t have lived those years of their lives with some drastic changes.

That’s the power of knowledge.

To make a change, you have to know your reality. You have to know what you want. You have to know how to get there (or at least know how to experiment until you do). And you have to know enough about yourself to figure how to put all of this together.

That’s a tall order for a 13-year-old. Or an adult. But it’s true, anyhow.

That much I know.

photo credit: chrisinplymouth via photopin cc

letter f

Every one of us has a family, whether we like it or not.

Engaging families can be a difficult task for an animator of junior youth groups. On the one hand are the overcommitted, overscheduled families. They can be so busy with softball games and viola lessons and the PTA that the idea of taking an interest in even one more of their child’s activities can seem exhausting. They’ll often show up when a group first begins to make sure it’s legit, but then be happy for a couple of hours of solitude each week, during which they can leave their child with you and run a few errands, or sit down with a book for a change.

At the other extreme are disengaged parents. Due to stress or a heavy workload or simply disinterest, they don’t take any particular interest in their children’s extracurricular activities. Unless you go out of your way to get to know these families, you might never meet them at all.

Of course, there are other reasons why family engagement can be tricky, like language barriers or lack of mobility. But these seem to be much more easily overcome.

Two things I’ve learned about family engagement:

  1. Every parent loves to hear good things about their child. Of course, it’s important that the praise be true. That’s why it’s so important to take notes and keep track of the progress you see. 
  2. Degree of engagement is less important than consistency of engagement. The parent that can commit to having one conversation over dinner about the group’s topic every week ends up doing more good for the group than the parent that organizes an entire service project once.

Just like their children, most parents are happy to be listened to. Start there. Work forward. And don’t give up.

photo credit: chrisinplymouth via photopin cc

  1. While my joints are falling apart at an alarming rate, I’m almost never sick. That’s pretty rad.
  2. I kind of hate online classes. I’ve tried to like them, and they’re awfully convenient. But I’ve taken two this year, and I just don’t get any pleasure out of them at all.
  3. I can make money off of my writing.
  4. It doesn’t matter that I’m not teaching professionally anymore, I’m still churning out a constant supply of ideas for classroom activities. If I don’t teach for long enough, I go mad.
  5. I don’t actually hate doing dishes. I hate doing whatever chore seems like it will get undone the most quickly as soon as I’ve finished.
  6. I need routine. I think I knew this already, but I had to relearn it this year.
  7. I love hanging out with my mom.
  8. Sometimes, one of the best things you can do for your marriage is learn to appreciate football.
  9. It is possible to appreciate football, it just takes some effort and caffeine.
  10. There are actually bars where people don’t look down on you for ordering a club soda with lime.
  11. Librarians are very forgiving.
  12. How to lay out a newsletter, sort of.
  13. How to collaborate on written projects.
  14. How to grow a vegetable garden in which the vast majority of the plants do not die (until you eat them).
  15. How to write a grant proposal.
  16. How to play the ukulele.
  17. How to make fabulous snickerdoodles.
  18. How to play Hokm.
  19. How to drive a manual transmission.
  20. The beach is beautiful when it’s raining.
  21. People are often very free with their knowledge if you simply ask.

Every teacher, tutor, facilitator, coach, knows this secret:

The material doesn’t change much from course to course, year to year. But each time you go through it with a different group of people, it’s like hearing it for the first time.

Today I got to go through a few sections in the course Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth with a friend. I’ve trained a couple dozen animators on two different continents since 2007 when I first became an animator myself. I’m pretty convinced by the evidence that it’s always a unique experience.

This time I had just one participant, a Chinese friend studying here at a local university. His insights were different from mine, different from the artsy teenagers, Malawian schoolteachers, Cleveland grandparents, or suburban soccer moms I’ve worked with before. I loved his thoughts on selfless service to others as a political slogan versus a habit of the heart. He drew connections between the development of modern physics and moral standards of conduct that had never occurred to me. He made me laugh at the idiocy of the English language. (“Execute the plan? I thought execute means …”)

It’s not that hard to isolate yourself from difference, if you put your mind to it, but you’ll end up isolated from your own best self as well. You can read twenty new books in a bubble, but you’ll never have the experience of reading the same book twenty totally different ways because each time it was with a person whose experience is totally different.

The second thing about this teacher’s secret: it isn’t secret. The importance of being open to the world is clear if we’re willing to accept it.

You don’t have to see it to believe it. But it must be believed to be seen.


Working with the Empowered Souls junior youth group today, I discovered that we were officially halfway through the workbook Breezes of Confirmation. 

The reading is pretty simple for them. Okay let’s be honest, they find the reading babyish and boring. But we have good conversations about it, so we keep going. So I mentioned that we were halfway through, and explained that there are other books in the series that we’ll move on to that are more challenging, and cover different topics.

“… and there’s one about science and religion, and there’s even one about math.”


“Is it like, easy math or cool math? ‘Cause I’m in algebra now.”

“I didn’t know there was a math book! I love math!”

I was surrounded by seventh grade girls begging me to let them do math.

What could I say? Of course we’ll do the math book next. Anything for you, my amazing girls.

Jef and I developed this chart to help junior youth group animators and their supporters reflect on their stages of growth and the path forward. I thought I would share so that other communities could us it too!

Cluster Junior Youth Group Development Chart

It looks at the various stages in the growth of a junior youth group: an idea, a new group, a group that has been in existence for 1 year, a group that has been in existence for two years, a group that is transitioning into a study circle, and a group that is now engaged in animator training. (Yes, these latter two are study circles, and the first might involve a children’s class, but the focus here is on growing the junior youth spiritual empowerment program.)

A given cluster might have groups in some or all of these stages, so there’s a place to track this.

Each stage of growth has unique needs and challenges that are learned about through experience. Animators can share these challenges and note them, as a group, in the challenges section.

Growing through these challenges requires certain actions to be taken. What are they?

And taking these actions requires certain skills of the animators. What are they?

For example, a challenge of boredom/repetitiveness at Year 1 might be addressed by engaging in service projects of increasing complexity (beyond very simple actions initially taken by a group, such as picking up litter). This plan of action might require the animator to have the ability to:

  • consult effectively with the junior youth
  • connect and partner with other groups, businesses, or institutions in the community
  • organize multiple aspects of projects simultaneously
  • ensure legality and safety

A junior youth group that’s transitioning to a study circle might encounter a challenge of attrition. A special period of home visits to youth and their families might be an appropriate action. Helpful skills include the ability to:

  • contact families to arrange a visit
  • speak well and logically
  • clearly and succinctly explain the institute process
  • observe conventions of courtesy as a visitor
  • assist youth to define their own paths of service
  • place junior youth groups in the wider context of community-building

Obviously, these aren’t the only skills needed for these particular stages of development. They might not even BE challenges with any given group in any given cluster. But they’re examples

Once we’ve identified the skills, we can get to the meat of the matter: how can we help our current animators develop these skills? And how can we ensure that our junior youth begin to develop these skills now, so that they will be prepared to animate when they are ready?

Anyhow, here’s the file again:

(Yes, it’s an Excel file, but not as ugly as most Excel files! It was designed to be printed out for participants to write on, while the coordinator can type notes directly into the file, if desired.)

Cluster Junior Youth Group Development Chart

I hope it’s helpful for others!