Archives for posts with tag: service

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“Scaffolding” is something professional teachers talk a lot about. It’s a simple concept: just like the temporary structure used by builders to provide structure to a wall until it is complete and able to stand on its own, scaffolding in education means the kinds of supports that teachers temporarily put in place to help a child learn a new skill that would otherwise be just out of their range. Rather than letting a child become frustrated with their inability to accomplish something, the teacher provides just enough assistance to get them the rest of the way there. Once the child has done it with help, they are both better prepared and more motivated to learn to do it on their own.

But scaffolding isn’t just for children. If we’re all in a learning mode, then any of us can benefit from this kind of support, even those who are ostensibly teachers.

The nice thing (okay, one of the many nice things) about the Ruhi Institute’s curriculum for children’s classes is that the program grows with the teacher. New teachers start working with a group of 5- and 6-year-olds (or, just as likely in a neighborhood with no children’s class program yet, 5- to 11-year-olds) on the Grade 1 materials. The curriculum is simple at that age: short prayers, repetitive songs, one-sentence quotations, stories that are one to three paragraphs, games with just a couple rules, and basic coloring sheets. Not only is all of this well within the ability of most 5-year-old children, it’s also well within the ability of a new teacher. In Grade 1, everything from what song to sing to what examples to use in illustrating vocabulary words is provided. And tools for tracking basic information like attendance and lessons learned by each child are printed right there in the same book that holds all of these self-contained lessons. Easy breezy, lemon squeezy.

In Grade 2, the children are a little older. They’ve had a bit more experience with the process. Instead of coloring, they’re drawing their own images. Instead of rule-oriented games, they’re working on guideline-oriented theater activities. And instead of each lesson being laid out for a beginning teacher, beginning lesson planning skills come into play, like choosing appropriate songs from a collection that they compile over time.

Grade 3 brings in more academic skills for children, and more extensive planning and organization for teachers. Stories are selected and adapted from historical sources, for example, and dramatic exercises are developed with less guidance from the materials. New skills, like asking questions to check for comprehension, are fully covered in the text so that teachers can learn how to add this component to their classes without worrying yet over the quality of the questions themselves.

I’ve not taught Grade 4, 5, or 6 yet, but it presumably builds both the complexity of the class and the skill of the teacher in a similar way.

Why is this scaffolding of service so robust in the children’s class program? Well, it’s the most highly developed branch course from the main sequence of courses. Many people will study the Grade 1 materials as they climb their way up the trunk of the main sequence of courses of the Ruhi Institute. Teaching children is such a core piece of the community building process that it’s the third book in the sequence. So even people who want to focus on animating junior youth or tutoring older youth and adults will learn the basics of teaching a children’s class, well enough to explain the curriculum to a curious parent or substitute teach as needed. But the real learning comes from those who decide to actually dedicate themselves to the act of teaching. And it’s these folks who will go on to study and teach Grade 2, Grade 3, and so on. It’s a specific branch of learning for those who are devoted to it, but it’s not necessarily meant for everyone.

Right now, there are many branch courses that are offered in different regions or localities as the need emerges. The second book of the main sequence, Arising to Serve, helps people learn to visit friends and share information about the Baha’i teachings with them. In some places, a branch course has emerged, helping those dedicated to home visits learn to share complex information like health and sanitation guidelines. I was lucky enough to be able to study a branch course for raising up academic schoolteachers when I lived in a country where this was an important area of service. But the children’s class program is the only globally-implemented branch course of the Ruhi Institute at the moment, and it has had years to be grown, developed, and refined. The materials themselves have changed quite a lot since I first studied them, and this is a direct result of feedback from teachers around the world.

I don’t know what the next steps are for the development of the Ruhi Institute, aside from the fact that both the main sequence and dedicated branches will continue to grow into a comprehensive and wide-ranging system of distance education spanning the globe. But I am grateful to be able to have faith in the fact that, however our service evolves, we will always find ways to accompany one another, every step of the way.

 

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You know what I didn’t expect to be such a huge part of my service as a coordinator?

Email.

I send a lot of emails.

Emails asking questions. Emails inviting people to various spaces, trainings, and gatherings. Emails sharing information. Emails clarifying the information that was already shared. Reminder emails. Encouraging emails.

I love meeting in person. I love visiting people, and talking on the phone.

But wow, is email ever useful.

It’s not a revolutionary new thing. It’s not fancy, and it’s not spiritually enriching or personally engrossing. It’s really not an exciting topic that makes everyone want to read your blog post. But it can be helpful if done right, and I feel like it’s something I’ve learned a lot about. So here it is: what I know about writing excellent emails.

Make your subject line obvious. If you’re writing marketing emails, you might want to be coy and try to make people curious enough to open the email and see what you’re selling. That kind of hidden agenda doesn’t work if you’re trying to build a culture of honesty and open consultation. If it’s about a prayer gathering on December 5, call it “December 5 Prayer Gathering,” perhaps with a “You’re invited!” as well. It’s not the best place for creativity.

If you’re asking for something, ask in the first paragraph, and repeat it towards the end. Things I often need to ask for are for people to register for an event, to fill out a survey, to attend a gathering, to respond to the email, to write a summary, or to gather and share some kind of data. If there’s a link that needs to be followed, make sure it’s repeated as well.

If something is important, make it stand out. I like to use bold type for dates and calls to action. Larger font size can be used sparingly as well. ALL CAPS DEFINITELY STANDS OUT BUT COMES ACROSS WITH A RUDE UNDERTONE THAT I’M NOT NORMALLY COMFORTABLE WITH IN EMAILS WHERE I CAN’T CLARIFY THAT I’M BEING FACETIOUS IN MY AGGRESSION. It’s easier to avoid.

Context is important, but it goes in the middle. The why of your request is important. Someone’s motivation for acting on your request is just as important as whether they do it, so give it some thought. But it’s incredibly frustrating to receive a pile of context before understanding what it’s supposed to be in relation to. Your high school English teacher was right when she said you needed an introduction with a thesis statement, a body, and a conclusion. If you find yourself becoming long-winded, write an outline. Most confusing communication could be vastly improved if people just took the time to outline their points in advance. (And I say this as someone who has coached a lot of people on their writing.)

Bullet points are your friend. On the other hand, that same English teacher probably also demanded full paragraphs with grammatically correct sentences. If you can say something in bullet points instead, it will probably be all of the following:

  • Easier to read.
  • More compelling.
  • Better organized.
  • Easier to write.

(See what I mean?)

And when you’re using bullet points, it’s generally understood that a subject and verb are not required.

Quote the guidance when you can, but do it briefly. It’s an email, not a deepening, but it’s always helpful to draw on the language we’ve been given. Look at how the Universal House of Justice quotes the Writings for excellent examples of how to quote beautifully in the middle of an explanation.

Always be encouraging. Always end on a positive note. Never miss an opportunity to share your appreciation and love. Even if you’re just shooting off a quick question about whether you need to print agendas for a meeting, a “Thanks for all your help!” can go such a long way. Accompaniment doesn’t stop just because you’re not meeting face to face.

Don’t abuse “reply all.” If it’s not necessary to bother everyone with your response to a chain, don’t. Make sure that you’re only writing to the people you really want to hear from you.

Bonus: If you’re offering an invitation and you have the time, people always respond better to beautiful images. Can it feel silly to design an invitation with photos of happy people engaged in a meaningful conversation when all the information is available in the body of the email? Yes. Do people respond more positively to beautiful images anyway? Absolutely. Just like a vase of flowers can make a gathering feel festive, a thoughtfully designed image makes an email feel important. If you’ve got even a little bit of skill (or can bumble your way around Canva), it can create a little oasis of beauty in someone’s inbox.

And that’s what I’ve got.

There’s nothing amazing here that hasn’t already been said by others, but if you’re looking to brush up on your online communication, this is a solid place to start. I hope it’s useful to somebody!

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A group of friends was discussing how a program grows in communities at varying stages of development, and the term “organic growth” came up and needed some clarifying.

In the beginning, growth is often a bit of a mess. Somebody tries something. Somebody else tries something else. Something catches on. Something else doesn’t. Maybe people talk to each other about what they’re doing, and maybe not. Patches of activity sputter to life and die out again. Conversations happen, or they don’t. Peopleusually individuals, but sometimes small groupsdo what they can, in whatever ways seem to open.

There’s not a problem with these initial messy efforts. It’s a beautiful mess, after all, seeing growth where there wasn’t any before. And it makes little sense to compare a community at this stage and feel terrible, comparing with more advanced communities that have all kinds of structures in place: teams focused on specific lines of action, coordinators for educational programs, committees thinking about quarterly cycles of activity, annual calendars, budgets, resources … all these things develop with effort and experience and time.

But sometimes, in an effort to avoid comparisons and feel better about where we are, we say things like “Well, we’re growing organically right now.” And that’s not necessarily accurate.

Organic growth, of course, isn’t the same thing as frenetic growth. It doesn’t mean the same thing as “without structure” or “without a plan.” Anyone who has ever gardened or taken regular walks in the woods has seen organic growth in action. A plant will absolutely adapt to the local environment as it sprouts and grows, taking advantage of light, moisture, space, and support wherever they may be found. But there is still a structure and an order to this growth. Stems grow before buds. Leaves appear at particular intervals in relation to one another regardless of the circumstances. Roots go down, stems up. Every individual is different, and yet they all follow a comprehensive plan. There is a framework for organic growth.

Why does this matter? Because if we conflate organic growth with frenetic growth, the opposite of organic becomes systematic. When it comes time to grow beyond one or two or five little hubs of activity we’re unable to step forward, because the next steps are what we have viewed as the antithesis of our strengths. We cling to freneticism in the name of naturalness, not understanding that growing into structure over time is also natural.

“Systematic,” in turn, doesn’t mean “rigid,” “hierarchical,” “forced,” or even “complex.”

“Systematic” can mean taking notes after your children’s class, so that a substitute can help fill in when you’re sick.

“Systematic” can mean you and a group of friends get together over dinner once a month to talk about what you’ve been doing and reflect on what you’ve learned.

“Systematic” can mean choosing your next steps on purpose, having looked at the needs and resources around you, rather than responding in the moment to real or perceived emergencies, or panicking about growing in all ways at all times regardless of your ability to address each area of growth effectively.

Sometimes, in learning to grow from beautiful mess to systematic growth, we forget the emergent and adaptive quality that is also at the heart of an organic approach.

We appoint someone to coordinate an activity when there is nothing yet to coordinate.

We push a particular line of action without stopping to consider whether there is a foundation that can be built upon.

We cut off an area of strength in order to adhere to an unhelpful conception of “balance.”

We insist on a single approach, rather than providing a framework and seeing what emerges.

If complacence keeps us stuck in the stage of beautiful messes, it’s impatience that drives us to the other extreme. Organic growth requires a calm sense of urgency that’s not particularly encouraged in today’s society. It’s something I struggle with on a personal level myself, often mentally swinging between “everything must happen now, and here is the exact method for achieving it” and “forget this, I’m just going to do what’s pleasant and convenient regardless of the need.” It’s consultation with others that helps keep me a little more focused and level. (Thanks, y’all.)

Organic growth is about creating an environment that challenges and encourages it. We weed, we water, we provide trellises or light or heat … and the plant grows. We know what roses or tomatoes or oak trees need, but the circumstances are always a bit different on the ground. Perhaps the soil here is more acidic, or the drainage is poor. This valley is prone to floods in May, this particular plant is prone to blight.

But the only way we learn these things about our local conditions is to get out there and start a garden. And if we’ve only read books about gardening n the past, it’s probably going to be a mess at first. Mud and tears and fits and starts.

It will be amazing when the whole world has gained so much experience that we can all move smoothly into true organic growth from the start. Until then, we’ll keep working through the stage of beautiful messes and into something appropriate and new, doing our best to help our gardens grow.

 

Let me tell you a story.

I started playing the cello in elementary school orchestra. I was lucky to go to school in a district that took the arts very seriously (more so than the sciences even, somewhat to the detriment of STEM-inclined students like my sister), and so orchestra was an option beginning in fourth grade. Every year my teacher would recommend I take private lessons, but dance and gymnastics were more important to me at that point, so there was never time for one more thing. Still, I had a decent theoretical and intuitive understanding of music thanks to my pianist father, so I did fine.

In middle school, I started developing joint pain. Gymnastics fell victim first, followed by ballet. I managed to keep up enough for theater, but by my junior year I wasn’t even engaged in that the same way. So at 16, I started private cello lessons.

My teacher, who had his pick of brilliant students, agreed to take me on because I was “interesting.” I could read music fluently, in multiple clefs. I could handle complex rhythms. I was keeping up with the other members of my high school orchestra. And as long as I did, my technique had never been dealt with. I was going to have to start over.

From scratch.

My first lesson, I wasn’t allowed to play a single note. After bow-hold exercises, I held the bow in my right hand, with both hands resting on my knees. I picked them up, and placed them correctly on the instrument, drawing two wide loops in the air. I put them back on my knees. I put them back on the cello. I put them back on my knees.

The next lesson I played open strings.

The lesson after that I played four-note scales. Then eight notes.

Then I finally had music placed in front of me. Suzuki Book 1. The first song? “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

I started to cry, just looking at it. I had been playing the cello for seven years. It was so humiliating. My friends were playing Bach, and here I was, playing baby music. My teacher, bless him, didn’t seem phased by this. He explained that we’d move through relatively quickly, but that my technique needed to be addressed at a foundational level before we moved on to more complex things. And that it would require hard work and practice, and a huge dose of humility, but never humiliation. There was nothing to be ashamed of in striving to be better, no matter what it looked like to someone on the outside.

I stayed after school every day and practiced by myself. Twinkle Twinkle. French Folk Song. The Song of the Wind. The Happy Farmer. Minuet in C. My orchestra teacher commented that it was so nice to hear the old songs again. I did move quickly, practicing every day. And I improved.

The next year, I found myself a section leader. My teacher moved to another country. But I’ve never forgotten the lesson in humility he taught me when he watched me cry to see a book of children’s songs.

Now.

I serve as a tutor of study circles, which are intended to raise capacity in individuals and communities to serve their communities. Each of the courses these study circles goes through includes three related units of study, and at least one practice. Both of these elements is essential for capacity to be built, and neither is particularly effective without the other.

The thing is, we all live in communities. We think we must know how to live together. After all, haven’t we been doing it as individuals for twenty, thirty, seventy years? Haven’t our families been doing it for thousands? Who doesn’t know how to be a community, anyway? A hermit, maybe. Certainly not us.

But the truth is that, while we’ve often been getting by, our technique is, frankly, terrible. And we need to start learning at the beginning.

From scratch.

This is why people who feel at the height of their influence struggle with the Ruhi sequence of courses. Book 1, called Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, includes three units, two of which have a practice component. The first is to read the Writings, carefully and with intent, every morning and evening. The second is to visit two Baha’is and study a prayer with them. Not even to pray, but to study the prayer itself, the same way the first unit teaches us to study on our own.

I have literally had people refuse to study with me, insisting that it is a waste of their time. As though looking at a few words together with fresh eyes were somehow a demeaning task when they were capable of so much more.

I’ve had people agonize over whether visiting someone in their home, even invited, were an appropriate avenue of service. Whether it was patronizing to study a prayer with someone else. Whether there was any use in it. Whether they shouldn’t just skip it and get on to the real acts of service, the exciting ones for books down the line.

But of course, if you can’t study fifty words with a friend, you can’t facilitate the study of hundreds in a group. If you can’t will yourself to talk about spiritual reality, you won’t be able to teach an entire class of children to pray. If you aren’t willing to visit a friend in their home, you will never work up the courage to build bonds of friendship with someone previously regarded as a stranger.

You won’t build community in your neighborhood.

You won’t build unity in your world.

It takes so much humility to understand that how we’ve learned to be in the world may have helped us cope, but it’s on some level fundamentally broken. That we need to re-learn something as basic as friendship, or neighborliness, or meaningful conversation.

It’s a real struggle to overcome the sense that we’re meant for something better than this, that we’re not children, after all, that we already have so much capacity already if people could just see it …

But if we can set it aside and practice the basics until we’ve really mastered them, the resulting music is so much stronger. And I know because I’m still here, trying my best, playing away.

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Reflection gatherings are one of the most useful tools I know of on this path of service I’m on, but I didn’t always realize it. Even now, I’m pretty sure that I only have a tenuous grasp on what they are and have the potential to be. Since this isn’t something that everyone has a lot of experience with, I thought I would share what I know about organizing reflection gatherings that are meaningful and successful.

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What is the purpose of a reflection gatherings?

Reflection gatherings are intended to elevate, clarify, and unify a group’s vision of their service. They provide a space to think about the progress and challenges that they have experienced in the recent past, understand what has been learned, see next steps, and plan ahead for the future. They also provide context for what individuals have been experiencing and learning, both through study and through consultation with others.

First thing to consider: who should attend a reflection gathering?

There are many different types of reflection gatherings, all of which draw on a different subset of people. Perhaps the best known example is the cluster reflection, where all those participating in the community-building process from a particular geographic area (in the US, this is usually either several neighboring counties or a metropolitan area) gather along with those who are new to the process but would like to learn more about how to become engaged. This could include: tutors, animators, children’s class teachers, hosts of devotional gatherings, study circle participants and junior youth, local institutions such as assemblies, committees, and those serving in appointed roles … and more. Some participants might even live outside of the cluster, but travel to serve within it, especially in early stages of development. The main factor is their geographic focus.

But this isn’t the only kind of reflection gathering. Next week I’ll be hosting a children’s class teacher reflection for my state. Participants include anyone teaching, assisting with, or learning to teach Grade 1, 2, or 3 of the children’s class program of the training institute anywhere in the state of Indiana. Sometimes folks from neighboring states also join, and that’s not a problem, as we’ve never run out of room. This is a short gathering, only three hours or so.

Last week was a gathering for people all over our three-state region who are focused on learning about engaging youth and young adults in the main sequence of courses. While all of the participants were tutors, they had different roles in this particular learning process. Some mainly tutor those study circles, some primarily focus on visiting the families of youth, especially those who are younger and are still under the care of their parents. Some are animators who are working on helping to accompany other youth on this particular path of service. But all are committed to continuing the conversation in their own communities and widening the circle of people who are engaged in this area of learning. This gathering was just over two days long.

So you can really have a reflection gathering at any level. People who serve one particular neighborhood can benefit from a reflection gathering. People who are currently tutoring Book 10 of the sequence of courses. People who have started a new junior youth group within the last three months.

Second thing to consider: what questions are being asked?

Sometimes this is actually the first thing. In that case, the people coming are whoever is thinking about these questions. Having particular questions at the center of the gathering gives it purpose aside from just a recitation of recent events.

In the case of our group focused on youth in study circles, we have several questions that we started with at our gathering in August:

  • What is the nature of a conversation that attracts young people to join a Book 1 study circle?
  • What are ways and spaces in which study circles can be formed?
  • How can we accompany participants in Book 1 immediately into the field of action?
  • How can a cadre of tutors support one another in action and learning?

In November, we saw that we needed to focus more tightly (for now) on the first two questions, with an added question of how animators can also serve a role in inspiring youth to become engaged.

The point here is to show that the questions a gathering is focused on should be:

  • Few in number
  • Specific
  • Focused on immediate needs and steps
  • Answerable through action and reflection on action

A question like “How can we have lots of new study circles?” would be too broad. A question like “How can every cluster in our region have 50-100 new participants in study circles in the next three months?” while somewhat more specific, doesn’t make sense where most clusters in the region have yet to learn how to engage 10 new participants in study circles in a three month cycle. “How many study circles have taken place in our region over the last year?” is specific and easily answerable, but is rooted in study rather than action and reflection.

You can see how choosing the right questions can easily make a gathering fruitful and productive, or create confusion, boredom, or despair.

Third thing to consider: do you have something on which to reflect?

There is nothing sadder than a reflection gathering where, asked about their experiences, there is nothing to share, because nobody has been engaged in the process in question. More commonly is the situation where everyone has something to reflect on as an individual, but the experiences are so scattershot and unrelated to each other that there is not enough experience with any one particular thing to answer any questions about it.

In this case, it can sometimes help to include an experiential portion of the gathering, just so that everyone has something pertinent to talk about. For example, if a children’s class teacher gathering is focused on learning about how to effectively describe the nature of the program to parents in order to elicit their support for and reinforcement of the qualities being taught, part of the gathering could involve all the participants going out to visit with the parents of children in a local class and speak with them about the program.

Yes, this takes a fair bit of organizing. The organizer needs to consult with the teachers of the class, reach out to the families, organize times for them to be visited, assemble information and addresses for each family, put together pairs or teams, arrange transportation for those who need it, and then also help to coordinate the collection of information and the organizing of follow-up.

But it’s so much more effective than having a theoretical chat with a group of teachers about how they might go about talking with parents, should the opportunity arise.

Fourth thing to consider: where are you strong?

If you have a lot of things you could reflect on and are not sure where to focus, focus on your strengths. Where was there the most growth? It might feel a little backwards (I know my first instinct is always to shore up my weaknesses before anything else), but strength builds on strength. If your group is fantastic at starting new junior youth groups, it’s natural to build on that strength and focus on how to expand groups so that they have a sustainable number of participants over time. Those new and strengthening groups might very well inspire more adults to become engaged in study circles.

On the other hand, to ignore those small new groups in favor of throwing all your effort behind bringing new adults into the process means that the groups continue to form, meet for a while, and die out within a few months. The animators, without support, eventually become disheartened. The adults, seeing no long-term value to the community, fail to become engaged. Parents, having noticed that activities don’t last over the long term, don’t trust the teachers of children’s classes to stick around.

Yes, I’m making all this up. But there’s a real inertia involved in both growth and stagnation. Focus on what’s already moving and then move on from there.

Fifth thing to consider: stop considering, and start doing.

If you’re not having reflection gatherings because you’re not sure you could do them perfectly, just try something. Truly, some of the one’s I’ve put together over the years have been a mess, but they’ve always been a net positive experience. I’ll almost certainly look back over all this advice in a year and be so embarrassed by my lack of understanding.

That’s one of the side effects of blogging, I suppose. We put things out there whether we’re feeling totally prepared or not. Coordinating is a lot like that too, whether you’re serving in a formal role or just as one tutor in a group of friends who wants to help make things a little more organized. Maybe your first gathering is just about learning what you want to learn about, and that’s totally legitimate. As long as you’re focused on learning through service and moving forward, you’re doing it right.

 

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I wrote a bit about accompanying others in their path of service earlier this month. I thought I’d share some about the other side.

On Monday, I met with a friend whose service is broader than mine, both in geographic spread and in scope. We had a few hours for coffee and conversation, and it was very natural to chat about the process that she and I are both concerned with at different levels.

Me: “I’ve been thinking about what Garth [another friend] was saying in our call last month about also having personal goals for my own learning, in addition to what learning the clusters need to do. Did you have any thoughts about what I should be focusing on?”

Friend: “Well, what do you think?”

Me, internally: “Dang, I should have expected she was going to turn that one around instead of answering it. She’s too good at this.”

Me: “I guess raising up coordinators is the huge thing right now. And also creating more collaborative spaces for reflection.”

Friend: “Well, when you think about it, those are really the same goal, because those spaces are the mechanism by which people can begin to think about the institute on a different level.”

Me, internally: “How the heck did I not notice that before?” 

Me: “That makes a lot of sense.”

We went on to share what we’ve both been learning about how creating gatherings focused around specific questions leads to growth. I would share my own learning and struggles, and she would add some things that were being learned in areas where they had a little more experience with the process. She reminded me not to fall into the trap of thinking I had to do everything myself, and instead help other people arise to the challenge.

Me: “Yeah, but I still don’t even know how to do it.”

Friend: “That’s really this old way of thinking, this idea that we have to know how to do something ourselves before we can teach others how to do it. But really, if we’re serious about this idea of all of us learning together as collaborators, it’s not like that at all. It’s very different from what we’re used to, but it’s also very powerful.”

Me, internally: [sounds of brain exploding and then re-assembling itself into a new configuration]

Also me, internally: “Huh, I just got schooled on one of the most fundamental concepts of the institute process, but I’m so excited to understand this better that I’m not even embarrassed about that.”

And even though it’s clear that she’s the one accompanying me on this path of service, this conversation doesn’t feel like a series of decrees from on high. Because what I lack in skill and broad understanding at this point, I make up for in knowledge of the circumstances here in my own little sub-region. I know who the tutors are, which folks are forming teams, where there have been communication mishaps, who are the families that are really engaged, all those little details that my friend doesn’t knowcan’t know, really, from her own experience as she focuses on a good-sized chunk of North America. The same way a teacher I’m working with might know about the lives of every one of the children she teaches.

She helps to guide and educate me, yes. But she’s not my supervisor, she’s my friend.

I’m so grateful to have a number of friends who are accompanying me on this journey. David, who helps me get a regional perspective on stuff. Yaquelin, my TFF (True Friend Forever!) who answers my desperate calls asking about … just about everything. Adwoa, who helps me be a better tutor. Haig, who reminds me that maybe I need to chill out a bit and take a walk in the woods for the sake of my health and well-being. (You can tell which the physician is, can’t you?)

Most of these people have no relation to me, in an official capacity. There’s not a flow chart indicating who is allowed to learn from whom. There’s a framework to our service, sure. But then there’s friendship. Both are necessary in order for there to be progress. Neither is sufficient without the other.

Accompaniment isn’t something that I feel I’ve grasped entirely. There are still lots of unhelpful and outdated attitudes in myself that haven’t been rooted out yet. But I have faith that I’ll improve over time; after all, I’ve got lots of friends to help me on my way.

 

 

I read a fantastic book about octopus intelligence last year. In The Soul of the Octopus, (which is a great read, by the way), the author describes an octopus’ nervous system as extremely decentralized. Not feeling obligated to keep all their thinking surrounded by bone, a good portion of their cognitive activity actually goes on in their limbs. They essentially have nine brains. This means that two of their arms could be figuring out what you’re made of, two could be getting ready to scoot in the opposite direction, and one could be sneaking into your pocket for something to eat, all at once. And the octopus has no trouble concentrating on all of these tasks simultaneously, because each arm is basically doing its own thing.

When I first became a coordinator and realized what it entailed, my first thought was, I really wish I were an octopus. Nine brains would come in really handy, most days.

Help!

So I started looking around me. I know I’m not the only person in the world who is responsible for keeping track of many different people engaged in learning about many different processes in many different spaces. There are corporations with millions of employees out there, government agencies that track billions of dollars, scientists who examine complex ecosystems for tiny changes over time. So I knew I could figure this out.

And I tried a lot of different things. I worked different systems with my Google calendar. I tried Evernote, and pursued the Getting Things Done method doggedly for two months. I gave Asana a go. And they were all great, but all left me with two major issues:

  1. There were too many things in too many different places. The categories were supposed to be helpful, but they ended up making things too complicated.
  2. In the end, I don’t want to stare at my phone all day. I do better with paper, but all the planners I saw ran into problem #1 again with the overly rigid structure.

That’s when I discovered bullet journaling.

So yes, this is a post about my organizational methods as a coordinator. Not because I think the whole universe should find my daily schedule fascinating, but because I really wish I could have read a blog post just like this a year ago. To the future coordinators out there, welcome. We have a lot to chat about.

What ISN’T bullet journaling?

A lot of what you see online when you search for “bullet journal” or “bujo” isn’t necessarily bullet journaling. Whimsical calligraphy. Thematic monthly spreads. Sparkles and washi tape. All that is extra stuff that artsy people like to put in their journals because they’re artsy. Don’t worry about that for now, you can always bust out the crayons later if you feel so moved.

What is bullet journaling?

At its heart, bullet journaling is a system for rapid logging. Think about all the stuff you might want to write down during the day: Important meetings, tasks to be done, notes from phone calls, interesting ideas, information to look up when you have more time, topics to discuss with others. Instead of having a planner for events, a pad for to-dos, a diary for thoughts and reflections, and a random sticky note for that odd thought you had while in the middle of lunch, you put it all in one place.

In chronological order.

Totally jumbled together.

(I know, this sounds ridiculous. Stay with me.)

But it’s called bullet journaling, because each different type of information has a different bullet point next to it, indicating what it is. And you keep a key. There’s a traditional set to get you started, but most people end up changing and customizing them based on their own needs after a while. Here’s mine:

Key

Yes, the “delegated” indicator should be closer to the top of the list. That’s life!

What does this look like on a daily basis?

 

 

Daily Log

You might be thinking it looks like a bit of a mess. It’s not perfectly printed in cute, even boxes. My Saturday takes up half a page, while my Sunday is quite short. The page starts on Friday. My handwriting is nothing more than adequate. There are smudges, and earlier logs are bleeding through.

But I can see at a glance when Feast was, and that I needed to plan a reflection, make a phone call, and roast a bunch of vegetables. I tracked what books I finished reading, pondered my sister’s birthday gift (I got her earrings that were little silver rhinoceroses, she loved them), and noted a meaningful hashtag. I also apparently missed doing laundry. Oops.

Now, there are other parts to bullet journaling that make it feasible as an organizational method. I’m not going to get into the Future Log or monthly logs, but the Bullet Journal website has great explanations for all this. The best part is, you don’t need any fancy equipment. You can do it with a 99 cent composition notebook and a free ballpoint pen you got from an insurance agent.

It’s a framework, within which there is the flexibility to adapt to individual conditions and needs and for creative expression as desired. Sound familiar?

Bonus stuff.

The other great thing about bullet journaling is that, since I’m carrying it everywhere and referencing it regularly, it’s also a great place for me to keep track of other things.

I have a habit tracker, where I make sure I remember to do things like floss, take at least 8,000 steps, and say my obligatory prayer.

I track the books that I’ve read in a month, because I like seeing them in one place.

I have a page for story ideas, and another page for things I’m thankful for.

I keep my skills of accompaniment close at hand, since I reference them all the time:

Accompaniment

I also keep a list of the capacities I’m hoping to develop at the cluster level, handily color-coordinated (more on that in another post):

Capacities.jpg

And sometimes, when I’m working on memorizing something and have a little extra space, I’ll even bust out my nearly-nonexistent artistic skills and try to pretty things up.

Path of Service

It’s not exactly Pinteresting, but my journal has saved me so much stress and anxiety. And that’s totally beautiful, in its own way.

LON_8431

“All effort and exertion put forth by man from the fullness of his heart is worship, if it is prompted by the highest motives and the will to do service to humanity.

-‘Abdu’l-Baha

I’m not the best at prayer.

It comes most easily through song, but it’s difficult out in the world, humming under my breath, half of the mind remembering common courtesy and the other half on God.

In words, prayer takes me a long time. I’m sluggish to wake up, spiritually, and the first half hour just feels like practice. After thirty minutes of prayer, I finally start to feel like I’m praying. Sometimes. Sometimes I just feel tired, or thirsty, or anxious, or all three.

(I’m very good at anxious. It’s a bit of a specialty of mine)

Sometimes, when I begin to fall into the beauty of prayer, that’s just when people around me are wrapping up. It’s hard.

Sometimes I think and I speak and I listen and I wonder, where all the love is that I’m supposed to feel? The deep, abiding spiritual joy? I think of the words of Baha’u’llah I memorized so many years ago:

“And He hath risen up in faithfulness at the place of sacrifice, looking toward Thy pleasure, O Ordainer of the worlds.” 

And I tell God, “It seems I’m all out of love today. But you can have my service, if you want it.”

Then I get up and send another email. I call the people I need to call. I walk out of my home and visit the families that are expecting me, and sometimes those that aren’t.

I do the dishes. I fold the laundry.

And sometimes, as I serve, I feel a twinge of something; maybe it’s a bit of love. For my family, my neighbors, the people who rely on me, the people on whom I rely.

It’s easier to pray for them than for myself. That’s true in both deeds and words.

So I walk a path of service.

And with each step, I pray.

Whenever an illumined assembly of the friends of God is gathered, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, although bodily absent, is yet present in spirit and in soul. I am always a traveller to America and am assuredly associating with spiritual and illumined friends. Distance is annihilated and prevents not the close and intimate association of two souls that are closely attached in heart even though they may be in two different countries. I am therefore thy close companion, attuned and in harmony with thy soul.

I think about these sentiments of ‘Abdu’l-Baha whenever I’m able to gather with distant friends in service. And it’s an especially good reminder when I miss them after they’re gone. Sure, ‘Abdu’l-Baha was writing to a group that looked like this:

Temple Committee-1

rather than one that looks like this:

selfie

but really, what’s the difference between the two, except for the fact that in the 21st century we can take the photos for ourselves? The spirit is the same, and no doubt ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s presence is too.

Friendship is so often one of those things that is built accidentally when you’re all working together to build something else. Isn’t it funny how some of the most precious things in life are formed when we’re looking the other way?

My friends, thank you so much for visiting me this weekend! “I am therefore thy close companion” until we meet again.

PS: That radiant soul on the left? That’s Fita, who makes art and builds habits over at Unrestrained. Go give her some love. 

I do know folks who consider themselves spiritual, but are averse to the idea of “organized religion.” I joke that if they only knew our communities from the inside, they’d often discover “disorganized religion” to be a more accurate descriptor. What can I say? We’re learning.

And on one level, I get it. I don’t want gatekeepers interceding between me and my Creator. But I also feel like it’s a misunderstanding of the purpose of individual faith.

What is the purpose of faith? Is it to feel good? Or is it a response to one’s own purpose, leading to a specific kind of life lived? No doubt it’s a complex topic, but I think most people can agree that one of the purposes of spiritual or religious belief is to impact our behavior. Hypocrisy may be rampant, but that doesn’t mean it’s the intended effect.

And behavior of course matters because it in turn affects others. All religions and philosophies have guidelines for how we interact with others, from “Thou shalt not kill” all the way on down the line.

You can not belong to any faith community and serve others as a pure, individual soul. But it’s such a small thing.

Two friends with unity of vision can accomplish so much more, through mutual encouragement and support. Four friends. Six friends. Eight.

Now think about fifty friends. Three hundred. Twenty thousand. Five million. A billion people. If you could somehow find a way to build unity without enforcing uniformity, to create a space for different skills and abilities, to work towards a common goal, what would that look like?

I’m in this photo, along with a few hundred friends.

Now add to this the joy and confirmation of serving your purpose as a human being on this earth. The way a pencil is meant to draw or a candle is to give light.

I wouldn’t want to be one isolated soul making my way alone in service to my Creator when there is the chance of truly coming together and creating a better world. Is it messy? Yes. Is it sometimes frustrating? Absolutely, a hundred times over.

But I wouldn’t want it any other way.