Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Living School

Today was the wrap-up for a three-day facilitation training (Weekend V in the Mid-Atlantic States). Nine students facilitated 10 hours of meetings for the School of Living in the context of their Board's quarterly gathering. The class did seven hours of committee meetings, leading up to a three-hour Board meeting that served as a finale. In addition to getting our work in, it was fun getting more familiar with and assisting a venerable nonprofit dedicated to social change and sustainability.

Inspired by the writing and thinking of Ralph Borsodi, the School of Living (SoL) has been around since 1934
as "an educational organization dedicated to learning and teaching the philosophy, practices and principles of living that are self-empowering for individuals within the general aim of establishing decentralized, ecologically-sound, self-governed and humane communities. All its resources, but most specifically the land it holds in trust, are held in responsible stewardship for present and future generations." It holds property in trust in PA, MD, and VA—most of which have intentional communities sited on them.

When an organization is 77 years old, it means they have gone through a generational transition more than once. Thus, when we spent time in the final hour discussing the phenomenon of burnout and too few attempting to do too much, it not only had a familiar ring (who do you know who cannot relate to this issue on a personal level?), you knew that the organization had been in this conversation before. And yet, here they still were. Impressive.

• • •
The facilitation training is comprised of eight three-day weekends, spaced approximately three months apart. This pacing works in two ways: a) it's not easy for busy people to carve out three-day weekends more frequently that once every quarter; and b) the time between is fertile, allowing for percolation and digestion of the nutrient-rich weekends—when students have chances to apply what they've been learning they find out more precisely what they've integrated and where they need more practice.

There are two things that are special about this facilitation training and it occurred to me how these features are concordant with a school that is focused on living, or at least live learning. First, the teaching is rooted in community and the eight weekends are constructed with the purposeful idea of the class itself bonding as a community. That is, we expressly immerse ourselves—students and instructors together—into a milieu of intensity and complexity, where we are striving to get better and better at understanding accurately what is going on both around us and within us, for the purpose of being able to deliver energy, ideas, and focus that facilitate connection and problem solving.

I am convinced that the learning proceeds more deeply and enthusiastically when the class becomes a living organism, that holds and nurtures each individual on his or her journey of discovery and accomplishment.

Second, the pedagogical orientation is slanted heavily toward teaching the moment—where the bulk of each weekend is preparing for, delivering, and debriefing live meetings for the host group. On the one hand there isn't much preparation that the trainers can do for each weekend; on the other, we need to be "on" all the time, because we never know what will happen. We try to teach students how to sensitively and thoroughly prepare for a meeting, and then be willing to scrap the plan in light of developing dynamics as the meeting unfolds.

While there's no doubt that the trainers' experience comes into play (we acquire pattern recognition that's enormously helpful in quickly diagnosing what's happening and what responses or approaches are most apt to be beneficial—or at least benign), we're all in it together and the relationship of our careful preparations to the reality can be wildly divergent. Good facilitation often requires the ability to off road, and teaching moments pop up in the most unexpected places. This is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. However you slice it though, it's education that's based on being alive.
• • •
Midway through the weekend, one SoL Board member came up to me during a break and asked for more information about the training. I explained how it was two-year program, and she was impressed with the dedication that took. When I further related that I had completed the course four times already and was midway through three others, she paused and looked at me with a confused expression and delicately inquired, "Is it so difficult to learn that you have to take the course that many times?"

After a pause to figure out what was going on, I replied, "I'm the trainer."

"Oh," she said, "I'd wondered why you were sitting in the back of the room and interrupting so much."

Sigh. Even when you've been thoroughly diligent about filling the trough with water, there's no guarantee that all of the horses will drink.

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