Archives for posts with tag: study


“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.



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.

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 i

It’s rare to see the quality of ingenuity encouraged in school. Generally speaking, who, when, and where get answered, while, “How might you?” is left behind as too messy to grade. It’s one of the most difficult qualities to foster in people who’ve so far been encouraged to dedicate their lives to arriving at the correct answer, not a new one.

When I lived in Malawi, I was talking with a group of secondary school girls who were complaining about a teacher. They told me, “He puts things on the test that he never teaches us in class.” This seemed like simple poor pedagogy to me, until they continued, “He says we’re supposed to think for ourselves. We shouldn’t have to think for ourselves until college or something.”

While it’s rare to find an American student so forthright about their expectations, the attitude itself is common.

But practice makes perfect, right? There’s always hope.

If you run into a problem while working with young people, enlist their help. Work through it out loud. Brainstorm. Be creative first, then be logical. Between those two attitudes, you can get pretty far.

I’m not a very clever innovator or problem-solver, by nature. But that’s why I have my junior youth to help me. We’ll get there together. As for the exactly how, that remains to be seen.

photo credit: Leo Reynolds via photopin cc

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.


So, Baha’i Publishing found out I’m a blogger, and sent me a copy of Abdu’l-Baha in America, by Robert Stockman. Of course, I’m not obligated to say nice things about it, but it’s definitely pertinent to what’s going on in the Baha’i community at the moment, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts.

I’m not in a big Baha’i history phase right now. When I was living in Malawi, I went through about a year when I read the biographies of as many of the Hands of the Cause as I could get my hands on, but lately not so much. I’m significantly more likely to pick up a timely analysis of what’s happening in the world now, or activities that I’m engaged in: community development, or the environment, or education, say. But with the centenary of Abdu’l-Baha’s visit on my mind, I sat down to read Abdu’l-Baha in America anyway. I’m glad I did.

I was given The Promulgation of Universal Peace (a collection of Abdu’l-Baha’s public talks in the United States and Canada) as a graduation gift when I was 18, and started reading it straight through. I stopped about halfway through, because I found the themes to be repetitive. Abdu’l-Baha in America gave me the context I needed to appreciate this work. Each talk was given to a specific group of people, with a specific purpose. Where an everyday reader sees similarities between talks, a historian notices the differences between them. I’d never go through the trouble of tracking the development of an idea over a series of months, but Stockman has done it for me. It brings these old talks to life.

And it also connects these talks to my current experience. Abdu’l-Baha is an example of how to manage things I struggle with on a regular basis, like how to balance outreach into the community with the consolidation of those efforts, or building a sense of unity in a diverse neighborhood. Justice and equality for all races, sexes, and classes are emphasized with a degree of love and tact that I can only dream of developing, without shying away from the truth. If Abdu’l-Baha could praise Muhammad in churches and Jesus in synagogues while still maintaining an atmosphere of union and love, I can certainly find a way to share those truths I hold dear in any social space!

As always, Abdu’l-Baha’s life is the embodiment of the Covenent, one of the most unique features of the Baha’i Faith. The lack of sectarian divisions and strife didn’t just magically occur; it took work, endless work on the part of Abdu’l-Baha. It’s amazing to read about his efforts to create this foundation of unity to bring us the community that we have today.

To those readers who are not involved in or familiar with the Baha’i community, this is a book for the history buffs among you. It is a fascinating insight into a brief moment in American history, when religious ideas of all sorts spread and flourished. It looks at this period through a unique lens: the travels of one individual from Persia through the cities of North America. It is not, however, a story book. Those in search of a narrative would best be served by other choices.

In the Baha’i community, I highly recommend it as a complement to the study of Ruhi Book 8, for those who are involved  in planning observances in honor of Abdu’l-Baha’s visit, and to anyone wishing to understand the development of the Baha’i Faith in America. Local Spiritual Assemblies and Auxiliary Board Members and their assistants would also be well-served by the example of unity in our midst.

All in all,Abdu’l-Baha in America was readable, well-referenced, and gave me insights into my own work. I couldn’t have asked for more.

I know how awesome teens can be. But so often, it seems like they don’t know. Sure, some of them get positive messages from their parents or teachers: “You can be president! You can be an astronaut! You can be anything you want when you grow up!”

But not so much about what they can do right now.

This isn’t about self-esteem. There are plenty of resources out there telling kids that they’re cute enough, smart enough, cool enough, whatever. I know that spending your whole day feeling ugly is a problem, but I’m not sure thinking about how pretty you are is the solution. Feel noble because you act noble. I don’t think most people need an ego boost. I think they need an example.

And, while it’s important, it’s not enough for me to be that example. Why? I’m an adult. I can be an astronaut. I can be president. (Not really. I’m physically unsuited for the one and underage for the other. But still.) 12-year-olds don’t have raging doubts about what a 28-year-old can accomplish.

So I’ve taken to collecting news articles about young people. Mostly middle school students, but some younger and some older. They’re not just articles about youth who, wonder of wonders, aren’t killing each other or vandalizing their neighborhoods, or even those who win spelling bees or Citizen of the Month awards. These are kids who are looking for cancer cures, creating systems to protect victims of abuse, starting businesses, and acting as stewards of the planet. Little things and big things, but things that have an impact outside of their classrooms and their families.

It’s so easy to let youth live down to our expectations. Why not invite them to live their dreams for the future, instead?

A few examples to get you inspired:

If you run into any good articles or videos like this, be sure to send them my way. I’m always looking for more!

Today I helped a group of people who are training to be animators of junior youth groups. We talked about how to discuss spiritual concepts in practical ways, particularly confusing concepts like free will, the nature of good and evil, and what it means to be a human being. We especially focused on ways that drawing out clarity of these sorts of issues can help empower young people, allowing them to learn from their mistakes, forgive themselves and others, and make positive choices.

These sorts of discussions can mean the difference between a young person believing “I’m just an angry person,” or “I have a strong sense of justice,” although the signs might be the same.

We were about halfway through the section we were studying when the doorbell rang. It was a man named John. Nasim, whose home we were in, had met him in a park three years ago, but hadn’t seen him in two years. John’s mother and six-year-old son were with him, and we stopped our training to invite them in, say some prayers, drink some tea, and talk.

Yes, we’re eager to start a junior youth group in Lakewood. But why? So we can have the sort of community where people of any age feel comfortable visiting one another and have conversations that really matter. So do I feel bad that we didn’t even get through one section of our workbook? Nope. Some days you go looking for community. And some days, community comes looking for you.


I am … halting, at best.

I have never studied Spanish.

I wish I had. If I stay in the US after I graduate this summer, I fully intend to. Moving to New Mexico brought me to the realization that being a citizen of this country and not knowing the Spanish language ought to be considered scandalous, if not exactly criminal. Free passes to those who have already struggled to learn English as their second, third, or fourth language. The worst glares go to those who, like myself, barely have a grasp of the tongue we were born into.

I have picked up a bit just in living, though. My former roommate was quite fluent, as were at least half of my coworkers, at one point. I can listen in on a conversation with small children and understand what is going on. I can read out loud in Spanish, sing songs, and recite prayers.

I never speak, though. I’m too shy. Too perfectionist. Too embarrassed. Too ashamed.

Except for ten days in 2007, when I traveled to the only place I have used my Spanish openly and unafraid.

Nope, not Mexico.


Of course, Israel. Why not?

The entire trip was a surreal experiment in selfhood. From the time I hit New Jersey, people started walking up to me and speaking Hebrew. I’m only half Jewish, and I don’t think I particularly look the part. I was dressed pretty conservatively for an American, it’s true, but you’d think El Al security would be better at picking up on these things. With my Hebrew vocabulary consisting of “Lo Ivrit!” and enough grasp of the alphabet to pick out which train I wanted to be on, I made my way to Haifa, the center of the Baha’i world, and to the Port Inn: my home at the bottom of Mount Carmel.

I was sharing a dorm room with eight other women: a Norwegian backpacking across the Holy Land, an extended family from Seychelles, and three sisters from El Salvador. It was with these three–Sarah, Laura, and Fatima–and with Luis, a guy my age from Venezuela, that I fell in. We were all young, and in a strange country without our parents. Rachel, who ran the Inn, took us under her wing and made sure we ate a good breakfast each morning. These were my siblings, and we quickly became inseparable.

Luis, Laura, David, Fatima, myself, and Sarah

And so while all of my official pilgrim visits were with English speakers, all of my unofficial explorations were with Spanish-speaking ones. And in this crazy mess of people trying to communicate in English, in French, in Persian, in Spanish, in whatever seemed to get the point across, I found myself speaking. Words, mostly. Courtesy phrases. But speaking aloud. I was still shy. I still listened more than I spoke, and sometimes accidentally answered in French (also surprising, since my French is worse than my Spanish, for all I studied it in school) but I could participate in conversation.

One day this group went out to explore a few of the sites not visited formally in our group tours. An Iranian man told stories in Persian, and another man translated them into Spanish. I understood at least half of what was said. A couple of hours later, the Persian gentleman asked me, in English, where I was from. “New Mexico, in the United States,” I said.

“Why didn’t you tell me? I could have told you the stories in English. We all thought you were from Spain!”

Apparently, I look Spanish as well as Israeli.

A photo was snapped, and it became official. I went down in scrapbooks forever as part of the Spanish and Latino group.

Making history.

I left for this trip as someone who was known to be terrible at languages. I returned as a person who could speak a language I’ve never studied, in the right environment.

Because speaking is like dancing. It’s a performance. It can be nerve-wracking. It can be humiliating. But it will never be beautiful until you let yourself believe that everyone around you is your loving family, and allow your fear to drop away.

I’ve never done it since, but at least I know it can be done.

“La Tierra es un solo país y la humanidad sus ciudadanos.”

I know I’ll find my crazy family again someday, somewhere. And the words we speak will be beautiful, whatever they are.


I was six when I was told by a teacher that I wasn’t allowed to use negative numbers in class, because we weren’t studying them yet.

I was nine when I brought home my first bad progress report ever: failing grades in math and science.

I was 13 when my pre-algebra teacher told my parents, “Katie just isn’t a math kind of person.”

I was 14 when I was kicked out of the honors math track in school.

I was 16 when I was kicked out of the not-honors-but-still-probably-going-to-college math track, and failed both biology and chemistry.

I was 17 when I failed physics, partially because I hadn’t ever taken trig.

I was 18 when I scored a 1410 on my SATs anyway. I had to learn most of the math on my own.

I was 19 when my highest grade my first semester of college was in astronomy.

I was 20 when I took symbolic logic, and ended up becoming a tutor for the class.

I was 21 when I dropped out of college and moved to New Mexico, disillusioned by the social sciences specifically and academia in general.

I was 22 when I found a textbook for homeschoolers and worked until I understood fractions at last.

I was 23 when I took statistics and blew the curve completely out of the water.

I was 24 when I gave away nearly all my belongings and moved to Malawi and “studied” what it means to be a citizen of the world.

I was 26 when I started massage therapy school and started acing the heck out of my anatomy courses.

I was 27 when I started developing study advice for other students taking these same classes.

I’ll be 28 soon, and the people around me keep asking me why I don’t have a degree or a career in science. I never know what to say.