This is one in a series of memos I am writing about what I am seeing/thinking about learning episodes. The process involves taking field notes, photographs and then trying to write fast enough to remember.
In 2017, as a member of the Science for Monks western faculty, I co-taught with Tanya Baker from the National Writing Project in Dharamsala, India near the Himalayas. This year, I am co-teaching writing with Jessie Early at Dzongkar Choede Monastery, located in a Tibetan Settlement near Hansur in southern India. The vast majority of the cohort – 28 monks and nuns – are meeting for a third year in a row to learn about science and science leadership; the class includes four new participants. Our faculty has changed, too. I am looking forward to learning from my co-teacher, Jessie, and the two science educators, Eric Muller and Modesto Tamez, each with deep experience teaching teachers how to incorporate activity-based science investigations.
So, the “same cohort” of students, translators, and faculty members, is different. And more than that, even if we were the same people in the same place, we are different. What we feel, think, and see is different. So, just as you might in any class, it is important to build and re-build a classroom learning community. Informal speaking and writing do much more than “break the ice.” To re-launch this classroom learning community, one at a time we quickly introduced ourselves by name, monastery (or university), and by one strange encounter with food. Within 15 minutes, we heard about someone’s first terrible taste of fish and about a former vegetarian who ate chicken by accident and liked it. One monk shared a story not about food, but instead, of smoking a first and last cigarette with a friend. After smoking and upon entering home, his mother immediately smelled the smoke; she cried as she beat him. I shared a first encounter eating cow tongue at my grandmother’s house; I did not explain how the texture and idea of eating taste buds has repulsed me ever since. I wasn’t sure that would translate.
After introductions were complete, Bryce, the leader of the Science for Monks program stood up and said, ‘Pay attention to how the room feels now that everyone has shared. The room feels different than it did ten minutes ago. We want to pay attention to how we create a climate for learning’
Next, for nearly two hours, Jessie led our first “writing into the day.” This involved listing, mapping, and then writing about personally meaningful places that “feel like home.” At the Hudson Valley Writing Project, we regularly do writing like this called the “neighbourhood map.”
Jessie began by sharing a quick list from her own life: “Grandmother’s kitchen when I little; A library where I read; The beach I visit; Hiking trail where I go on long walks; My garden.” She asked the monks to make their own lists and then to select one which they’d put on a map as she soon modelled.
Next, Jessie drew a quick map, an outline of the United States. She identified and named her home state of Arizona and placed a dot for Tempe, her home. She then drew a cutout and continued to draw – a stick figure house and a special place there: her garden where she grows vegetables and has a favourite bird feeder.
Like Jessie, the monks and nuns made lists of special places, drew their own maps, cut out maps, and closer-in detailed maps with drawings and labels (see figure at right). Each person shared these figures in pairs before writing short pieces about one place.
I loved learning about the students’ special places. One person zeroed in on the Kiwi fruit and tree beside a grandparent’s house (above). Here are some other special places: a backyard well, a cat caring for her kittens, a dusty intersection where elephants walking, a 2-kilometer foot path around the lake, and different points at monasteries and nunneries.
In addition to the eventually each person added a post-it note to a larger map of India, Tibet and Nepal. The [re-]launch of this community involved quick ‘food’ introductions and a mapping sequence that invited all members of the cohort – student, teacher, and translator – to reassert their presence. When we are present and accounted for, when we have used our voices in a room, when we have named ourselves, when we have geo-located one of our stories on a collective map, we are here. Even if our being current “be-ing” is temporary or impermanent (as the monks would quickly remind me), for the short while we are together, writing offers a way be in a collective moment, to be in learning.