The Monday Evening Book Group had reached a particularly complex and important part of our current book, the part where Mark Nepo explores (among other things) the images of responding to a sage as a sieve, a strainer, a funnel, or a sponge. Those images weren’t the hard part for us; it was what comes right after them, when he deals at length with our responses to the unspeakable and, eventually, with the importance of a community in which you can understand things together.
But it took all of us to see the connection with community. All of us had to work together so we could understand together. And in that moment of insight, and in the hard work that led up to it, I realize I was part of a joyful learning community at its best. “Oh!” said B, “he’s talking about finding your tribe.” And B told us about her tribe, friends for decades … and then F told us about hers, and I talked about mine, and E talked about hers, and D talked about his, and in the process we gained a deeper understanding that we never could have reached by ourselves.
Somehow or other, we’re building something like that in the daily work of the Latin Family at District Q and District Y, too. And letting go of always, embracing some risk and the possibility of failure, has been an important part of that journey.
“I wonder,” I asked myself, “if we can create a story together yet” as the intermediate group in District Y. “And I wonder what will happen if we use Blackboard Collaborate’s web tour feature to display the Google Document as we work on it.” Yes, we were ready (or almost ready) to make the story together; no, a web tour didn’t work very well. It slowed things to a crawl … but we carried on together in the Google Document, and in the end we had the beginnings of an interesting new story about Ferox and Medusa.
I apologized for the technological issues but applauded their persistence and their willingness to experiment. That’s important when you’re building a joyful learning community and taking it to a deeper level.
At the beginning of Book Group on Monday, we weren’t feeling very persistent or very willing to experiment. Several of us had travel plans this week, and that meant another member (who can’t drive for a few months) wasn’t able to be with us, either. The reading had been difficult, and all of us had struggled in the same general section. The temptation to give up, or at least to save it for next week, was strong.
But then we started … and then we started talking about the part we had understood, especially those four images of responding to the words of a sage. I realized, with some surprise, that each of those images had governed not just my responses to the wisdom of others, but also my own work as a teacher, at different times over the past twenty-two years. In the beginning, like most new teachers, I wanted to be a sieve. I wanted to remove the “coarse or difficult” parts of the learning to make things smooth and palatable for my students, to create a “perfect” learning environment for them. That didn’t last long; my early students weren’t as naive or sheltered as I’d expected, and the work of a sieve is exhausting. I went on to my strainer phase, where I attempted to channel most things to my students, just keeping back the dregs that wouldn’t nourish them … and that was a long, happy period, but I’d mark its end with that memorable day when E and his friends told me textbooks were “flat and dead.”
Textbooks, after all, are about straining the learning at best, sieving it (if that’s a word) at worst. But how could I serve as a funnel of learning, I wondered?
I found out with my early experiments with the Tres Columnae Project. No more strained learning; we would try to explore the fullness of the Latin language, the full experience 0f Romans of different genders, ages, and social classes of Romans in different parts of their Empire. We’d use “real” sources of information, and we wouldn’t confine ourselves to the order in which textbooks always presented grammatical or cultural concepts. It worked … but as Nepo points out, the work of the funnel is exhausting. You take in more than you can distribute, and if you aren’t careful, you wear yourself out.
Is that why I was so tired and frustrated for the past year or two? Had I reached the limits of my capacity as funnel?
To be a sponge, Nepo says, is to be “porous and cleansing,” to give and receive gently, naturally, and easily. Perhaps that’s what leadership of a joyful learning community looks and feels like! Perhaps that’s how you build meaningful things together and understand things together: by letting go of the need to control the flow, by being equally willing to receive as to give.
I want to explore that metaphor of the sponge more fully. It speaks to me, but in an unfamiliar accent … or maybe in forms so old, so familiar, that I’ve half-forgotten how to understand. “Besides,” F said last night, “I don’t think you’re ever just one of those four things. I think you’re always a combination, and one predominates, but it changes and cycles over time.”
That’s some profound wisdom I need to explore more fully, too.
As we work on our Minor Assessment products this week, the Latin Family and I will need to take on different roles at different times. Sometimes we’ll need a sieve; sometimes a strainer; sometimes a funnel; sometimes a sieve; sometimes some other tool or some combination. I wonder what other new insights and discoveries await us in our shared work!