Archives for posts with tag: study circle

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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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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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For the last six months or so, I’ve been serving as a regional coordinator for the Regional Training Institute for the Midwestern States. Over the next month I’m going to be reflecting a lot on that, so I thought I would share some basics of what that means.

Training Institute

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The Ruhi Institute was founded in the 1970s by a group of friends in Colombia who wanted to promote the spiritual and material development of their communities. Over decades, they refined their methods and materials through a repeated process of service, reflection, and planning, and it gradually spread to other communities. In 1996, the global Baha’i community was asked to develop training institutes worldwide, and in 2005 the curriculum developed by the Ruhi Institute was chosen to be the main sequence of courses around the globe.

At the heart of this program is the study circle, a group of friends who gather regularly to pray, study, and serve with the guidance of a more experienced friend who serves as their “tutor.” These three elements of devotion, learning, and action are inseparable, and each element reinforces the others.

Regional

Some countries are big and some are small. I don’t have to tell you that the United States is pretty large, both in area and in population. In cases where a National Training Institute would get unwieldy, Regional Training Institutes are formed. The regions sometimes change, depending on the needs of the community, but tend to become smaller as experience grows.

(If this seems counter-intuitive, think about organizing a process in your home when only three people in your town have any experience with it. It makes more sense to start with those three people helping others at the city level, then—as nuclei of experience emerge in various parts of town—at the neighborhood level, and finally in individual homes.)

Midwestern States

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The region where I currently live encompasses Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. Why we’re called the Midwestern states when people are more likely to think of Iowa than Ohio when they hear “Midwest” is a mystery. Our neighbors to the west are the Heartland Region, which is much prettier, but nobody consulted me on the matter. We aren’t the biggest region, nor do we have the most experience, but we’re certainly one of the most loving, which matters a lot to me.

(Yes, I’m biased.)

Coordinator

As a regional coordinator, I have a sub-region (or “cluster grouping,” but that’s a vocabulary lesson for another day) that I focus on. In my case, the boundaries are easy: the state of Indiana. It’s my job to accompany—that is, assist, encourage, and provide resources for—those friends who are engaging in the three different educational programs of the training institute: children’s classes, junior youth groups, and study circles. In some areas with more experience, I work with coordinators who serve at the local level. In most, I work directly with the tutors, animators, and teachers. I handle some administrative tasks like ordering materials, gathering and making sense of data, organizing meetings and trainings, and editing our newsletter. But a lot of what I do is relationship building, sharing insights from experience, and listening. Lots of listening.

So that’s my current path of service.

Whenever I’ve taken on a new role in the past, whether in my faith community, my work, or in various organizations I’ve been a part of, I’ve always wished I could get into somebody’s head who had done it before. Not so I could copy their every move, but so that I could gain some understanding and insight into the process. So that’s what I plan to do here, particularly over the next month. Feel free to join me in all my messy learnings as I go.

I love how the more I work in the community, the more it becomes a process of mutual sharing. Sharing a song with the youth in a study circle is so much lovelier when they teach me one in return. A gift of my time visiting a neighbor in her home is quite literally sweetened by the tea she serves me. A word in English traded for a word in Spanish, or in Nepali, or maybe just a loving smile.

It sounds so selfish, I know. We’re taught that we should give selflessly, without regard for reward. But I can’t help the feeling that what I’m experiencing isn’t something as petty as tit-for-tat, it’s an emerging environment of equality. We’re just neighbors. Collaborators. Friends. There are no martyrs here.

So I know a prayer in Sanskrit now. I’ve learned to make chatpate from a group of middle school girls and to make origami flowers from a talented boy who used to curse at me in the street. I hoard a collection of construction paper cards that say “I love u Mis Cat” and “Thank you for being a awesome friend.” I’ve been invited to saints’ days and birthdays and dinners and festivals. And I’ve come to understand, most people love the opportunity to share what they have. Knowledge. Art. Stories. Passion. Faith. It brings people joy the same way it does for me. Silly not to have known it all along, eh? But I’m so much richer for having discovered it now.

Celebrating Holi with the some fabulous youth.

Celebrating Holi with the some fabulous youth.

Our teaching team met at Katrina’s house today for a potluck lunch and planning session.  I love our periodic gatherings because

  • we always accomplish a lot of really useful consultation, and
  • I get to try out concocting dishes like peanut-coconut-mint-cilantro-chiles-lime-cucumber-and-carrot cold pasta salad, which people end up saying nice things about, even when it’s the tiniest bit too al dente.

Yum.  (With respect to both.)

Anyhow, this three month cycle, our group of intrepid community builders is going to do something we’ve never done before!

We’re going to focus our efforts on …

grown-ups!

Our class for children is smallish, but getting stronger and more consistent.  Our junior youth group is really developing a sense of identity and is ready to take study and service to the next level.  If more kids join, we’ll be thrilled to have them, but it’s not essential right now.  We’ve got the big and little siblings in a fabulous microcosm of learning and action, of being and doing.  Now it’s time to do the same for their parents and caretakers.

The interest is there.  The logistics are being arranged.  And this will bring a level of coherence to our efforts that we’ve never reached before, strengthening communities by empowering entire families.

I can’t wait.