Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Conditions of Mentoring: Drawing on Our Scars to Guide Youth

Only during the most recent moments of our history as a social animal have we emerged from a tribal lifestyle. If you could trace a direct line of your ancestors down through your mother's mother's mother all the way back to the first fire-makers who created warmth with sticks, 99% of those ancestors would be hunter-gatherers who lived in nomadic tribes. Agriculture and sedentary living is a very recent adaptation along this ancestral timeline stretching back to the first fire-makers. Movies like Avatar are popular not because we romanticize tribal peoples, but because just yesterday we came from tribes. In spite of New Age myths about drum circles and sweat lodges, contemporary natives do not have a monopoly on the ways of the ancients. Such wisdom is coursing through the veins of every living human, only waiting to be brought to life again.

Mentoring our youth is a powerful mechanism to awaken this kind of intuitive knowledge in adults. Mentoring is not just an ancient practice, but a necessary ingredient in young people's healthy transition to adulthood. Embracing the role of elder is deeply embedded in our bones. In the absence of authentic elders, many youth look to their peers for guidance and initiatory ordeals at the age of transition. Unfortunately, adolescents have never been qualified to lead one another into adulthood. There is no such thing as an authentic peer elder. Youth, however savvy and street-smart they may be, lack the seasoning, context, and sense-making which only age can give to one's life experience. But understandably, when youth look at many adults in our world, they don't see elders. Rather, they see aged adolescents who are neither savvy nor street-smart. The infantilism and tantrums of the adult world hide the inherent capacity for wise eldership that lays dormant, and youth know better than to apprentice themselves to that kind of hogwash.

When an early adolescent is in a close relationship with a caring adult mentor, many seemingly mundane activities can be framed by the elder as challenges. I have looked many a 12-year-old in the eye in my 6th-grade classroom, and, speaking one-to-one in serious and solemn tones, guided them to buckle down on a difficult writing assignment, persuaded them to speak truthfully to a friend about a problem, or, with intensity and passion, compelled them to see aspects of themselves which were less-than-admirable. In fact, this attention and awareness to the more subtle needs of children consumes the bulk of my work as a teacher. I am very willing to stop everything and sit in a circle with my class, or put someone in charge while I meet face-to-face with a student. I follow-up these meetings consistently, sometimes daily or hourly, and the students understand they are being watched, protected, guided, and believed in by me. When a challenge has been met, an obstacle confronted, or a fear overcome, I acknowledge this to the students directly, sometimes with just a smile or a nod. Other times I may write the student a note or put my hand on their shoulder. I allow my appreciation to be visible, and I communicate my recognition of their achievement. In this kind of mentoring, I trust my instincts. I push as far as a student seems ready to go, then I step back for a time. I return, inquire, and either push again or step back again. I watch and reflect. I may say, "Misha, when you speak like that to another student, I am so surprised. That is not who you are in my eyes. So now you will have to figure out how you are going to solve this serious problem you've created. Tomorrow morning, before you take your seat, come to me and tell me what you've decided. Do you understand what I expect of you?" When the child has met my challenge, I demonstrate to them that I have elevated my view of that child. I quite literally think more highly of them, and I see to it that this new respect shows.

The early adolescent is fed by this kind of intense interaction. This relationship of mentor-mentee, of elder-initiate requires a great deal of concern and attention by me. It is not peripheral to my role as teacher, but central. I can see that children mature in this kind of relationship. They feel their own growth and they become more focused and centered in everything else they do. Study habits change, personal accountability improves, maturity emerges. The impetus is rarely an academic challenge. It is usually a personal or interpersonal one. Just as infants look for the limits of physical space, and young children push emotional boundaries, adolescents are trying to locate and test the moral and ethical boundaries of self and culture. They need the guidance of mature elders to navigate this challenging path and to make sense of it all.

Holding high expectations for personal growth and then insisting that the necessary work be done is a powerful antidote for a culture awash in superficiality. In my 49 years I have traveled and studied a good deal. I have worked many jobs. My past experiences play an important part in giving me the force, power, and credibility of a mentor or elder. I have volunteered. I have fought passionately for things I believed in. I have worked to alleviate suffering. I have seen death and misery, hardship and pain in my work and travels. Among the experiences that have framed me include work in an emergency shelter for runaway youth outside of Boston, human rights work in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship, health education in a squatter settlement of dump recyclers in peri-urban Mexico, travels in Nicaragua after the fall of Somoza filming a documentary about the impact of the U.S.-funded contra war on civilians, travels in the Amazon jungle among indigenous Shipibo Indians, and seven years as a public school teacher in an area where gang violence had impacted the families of many of my students. These life experiences are present in me not just as memories but as guiding lessons. They inform my choices and actions, especially as a teacher. When I talk seriously with students, when I propose personal challenges to them, I realize that every ounce of me and my past comes into play in these interactions. I do no flinch, but rather bear down with the intensity of my years and my experiences. This is the power of an elder. I am a man with wounds and scars, conviction and intensity. I believe that for my students, our relationship gives them something both mysterious and ancient. They take me seriously because I take them seriously. This is life or death for me. When a student is careless in his dealings, when he does not believe in himself, when he flaunts naivety, when he harms another, I see the world before me. I see every petty dictator, every hungry child, every selfish corporation, every random gang killing, every inch of injustice. I see the rampant greed and selfishness of our world taking hold of this child. I know that I cannot simply shake them into a sober accounting of self, but rather must look them in the eye through the trust we have built, gaze at them with the intensity of my years and the lessons of my life, and speak from my heart. I can ask them to push themselves, to do this for us, for our world. I don't need to talk about my life, I just have to own the power of my years. They want to be their best selves. I live on this conviction. And I have been successful in this way among the students I worked with.

"Everyone grows older, not everyone grows elder. Elder is not a person, it’s a condition of the soul. Elders can tolerate other people’s wounds, because they’ve extracted sanity from their own wounds, from their failures, their pain, their successes, their attempts." -Michael Meade

No adult living on this earth has escaped scars and wounds. It is part of the path of living. Some of us have a better go at making sense of them, integrating their lessons. To effectively mentor young people, to carry enough weight of purpose and conviction to rouse them out of apathy and menial discord, to compel them to a deeper seeking of meaning and to a building of personal ethics in a world of strife, we must embrace the ancient role of elder. There is probably no greater gift we can give our youth, nor ourselves. When our own confusions become our strengths, and we can then awaken some considerate reflection and growth in our youth, the cycle of purpose is fulfilled. We all benefit from this arrangement, cast as fate by watchful ancestors.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Web 2.0 Has Infiltrated Culture: Teachers Must Be Literate Guides

My school has sent me to a special two-week training in Sacramento. I am learning about Waldorf education at Rudolf Steiner College. Nearly everything I am studying jibes beautifully with what I believe kids need. Steiner’s developmental models are brilliant, intuitive, and spiritual. I will be a better, more conscious teacher because of this training. That being said, I am concerned that some Waldorf advocates demonstrate a certain inflexibility about change and growth.

Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, presented a very complex set of theories that informed his approach to teaching. His writings around Anthoposophy, a kind of metaphysics which he invented, are very complex. I usually consider myself a pretty competent student, but I have struggled miserably through everything of his I’ve read. Even my father-in-law, a historian who is currently translating Freud from German, couldn’t figure out much of Steiner’s philosophical writings. For some Waldorf advocates, it is probably easier to just accept certain ideas of Steiner’s at face value, because the many practical applications to Waldorf education make such good intuitive sense. Indeed, I would like accept at face value what I can’t piece together about Steiner’s deeper theories because so much of what does make sense, makes such good sense. However, the risk in this approach is the loss of a self-critical eye. Within the Waldorf world, I believe such default acceptance of ideas has led to a certain inflexibility, or rigidity of methodology and content.

In particular, it seems to me that many of the Waldorf scholars and trainers are conspicuously neo-Luddite in their views. They eschew technology and media, a position which emerges from a beautiful set of values and goals around the development of the child’s imaginative capacities, but which I am convinced puts them deeply at odds with the thrust of the 21st Century world and culture. Granted, that thrust is not always a good thing, perhaps more often than not it is problematic. Indeed, some offspring of information technology have the destructive potential of a tsunami, but we ignore such waves at our great peril.

As teachers, we are working with children who will not enter the world eschewing technology –not if they want to be a part of the world, conscious in the world, active in the world, alive in the world, and relevant to the world. The implications of technology have penetrated that deeply into our social fabric. And there can be no selective mutism when discussing the Information Revolution’s role in education. I see that many adults who live in the world today with very little connection to technology become quite disenfranchised. School teachers in general -whether Waldorf trained or not- are usually less technologically literate than their students. Still, teachers have the unique gifts of adult perspective and discernment, and are able to spot trends and identify issues that the children can't see. We teachers have a huge responsibility to speak the language of technology, which is increasingly dominating the language of youth. As I tried to bring this up during one of our class presentations here at Steiner College, I realized that my Waldorf trainers themselves did not really speak the language of technology sufficiently to examine the deeper issues and to discuss what is actually at stake for children when we don’t serve as articulate and informed advisors around issues of technology. I’m not referring to the debate about whether we teach kids how to surf the net. I’m talking about how to exist as an awake person in a world where unconscious, junk-food communication can often rule the day. To teach about healthy eating, we have to study nutrition and physiology. We can’t simply ignore the issue of food, or tell our students, “don’t eat what everyone else is eating because it’s bad stuff.” We have to know what is out there, how it might be abusive to our systems, or how it might heal us. Much of technology is a miracle, a gift. But unless we know the finer details, we teachers can’t disaggregate the gifts from the curses, nor be of service to our students as they navigate this information world. The Waldorf trainers don’t seem literate in the current issues regarding such things as social media, trending, the Long Tail, bookmarking sites, mashups, first adopters, Wikis, social software, aggregators, RSS readers, etc. Without this language, they can’t really have a substantive conversation about why we teachers might have to know this stuff. If we don’t really understand what the technology is, we simply can’t discuss what children need to know about that world, and what aspects of that knowledge requires a teacher’s direction and guidance. It doesn’t work to dismiss it all, to avoid it all. My Waldorf trainers seem to think of 'media' as limited to television, movies, advertising, computers, or the ‘internet.’ Clearly, these are the visible products of technology but they don't point to the more subtle 'software' of the Information Revolution which is actually reprogramming the human social animal from the inside out. What I’m talking about is, at a minimum, developing a working knowledge of Web 2.0, which Wiktionary defines as, “the second generation of the World Wide Web, especially the movement away from static webpages to dynamic and shareable content and social networking.”

When the internet first arrived, it mainly facilitated quick communication (email) and rapid access to information (websites). Web 2.0, which is a term to frame the 'new web,' concerns not just how information is presented and accessed, but more importantly how users can now interface with both content and with other users.

These new ways of connecting through social networking are changing the very fabric of human communication, interpersonal interaction, and culture itself. We are in the midst of a revolution in social connectedness, in the nature of human communication, in the structure of interpersonal relations. Web 2.0 is especially powerful because it is subtle and invisible, like the software code that runs a complex machine. It effects our lives when we're logged on and when we're logged off. It has captured our imagination, hijacked much of our waking thought, and has now infiltrated the organic processes that generate culture and propel cultural change.

The implications and impacts of Web 2.0 have accompanied the dawning of this 21st century, a time when humanity is in the midst of achieving new levels of consciousness and awareness. For several decades now, human cultures have witnessed the upending of inequitable social systems and a flowering of deeper human values. We are at what Joanna Macy and David Korten have called The Great Turning, a time of immensely positive changes in human development. And these changes couldn’t come a moment too soon, because the very sustainability of our planetary ecosystems, our living biosphere is now at stake. So in the midst of this vast change in human consciousness, we see that technology has not only come along for the ride, but it appears to be an active partner in this process of cultural evolution.

Although the information revolution is shaking many things up, the implications will be largely invisible to people who are not paying attention. Teachers must be lucid, informed, articulate, and thoughtful in how they guide students through this world. We teachers, as older ‘digital immigrants’ who were not born with this language swirling around us, must attempt to learn the intricacies of the digital world as it is emerging or we will certainly fail to provide adequate direction and guidance to our students. What is happening in Web 2.0 may be more impactful on human beings than all the previous media combined. “Media” no longer refers simply to a set of images that bounce against our consciousness, seek to manipulate our buying habits, or sabotage our imaginative capacities. The new social media are uprooting traditional and ancient forms of interpersonal communication and human interaction. Web 2.0 is restructuring culture from the inside out. Where this revolution facilitates The Great Turning, the awakening of human consciousness, we must support it, direct it, and retool where necessary. But where Web 2.0 undermines human decency, disrupts fair discourse, or erodes healthy relations, we must remain vigilant, savvy, ever watchful, and willing to intervene. To safely guide and appropriately encourage our students, to be of service to them in this emerging world, we must be functionally literate (if not fluent) in the more subtle aspects of Web 2.0. This is our clear responsibility as teachers, and our mandate as mentors of 21st century youth.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Becoming Mentors to Youth -The Call of Ancestors

The earth is in great upheaval, great awakening. There has never been a time like this. Are we willing to speak to our adolescents about what is vital to a healthy life and a sustainable earth? Can we reach out to them? Do we consider that our obligation? Are we beholden to the call from an ancient source, one that is raw with the passions and expectations of impatient ancestors? We are mentors, elders, and a knowing, watchful core of guardian ancestors awaits our awakening to this rightful approach to the young.

I know that environmental stewardship must become part of the collective consciousness, not the unconscious where it mostly lives. Ecopsychologists argue that our alienation from nature, from wild nature, our distance from things of this earth, our prolonged time away from where we were born and grew up in the evolutionary ancestral map of time, this unexpected vacation from our homeland of the naked mother has been the source of our willing disregard for the growing, living, breathing earth.

Our youth do not cross the threshold to an adult life with guidance beyond what they muster from friends, peers, and the occasional thoughtful teacher or parents. They are not swept up with an energy equal to theirs, an energy brewed and stoked by watchful elders, timed to send the youth across boundaries of fear and childhood dreams, into a magical world of adult mystery and power. The stumble about, emerging as if from some awful misshapen chrysalis. They come to an adult body half-child, half-adolescent, part-man-woman, part-child. Michael Meade (1993) wrote,

“in many tribal cultures, it was said that if boys were not initiated into manhood, if they were not shaped by the skills and love of elders, then they would destroy the culture. If the fires that innately burn inside youths are not intentionally and lovingly added to the hearth of community, they will burn down the structures of culture, just to feel the warmth”

Assuming we adults could find adequate, if not mighty ways to initiate our youth into adulthood, if we could set the stage for a healthy maturation, it would most certainly demand that our youth plunge deep into the work of the soul. It would require a descent into wild physical nature, to uncover one’s own wild inner nature. A rite of passage worthy of its salt sends a child into the wilderness to birth the adult, to discover the first semblance of the elder-to-be. Wild nature is rugged, it is dangerous, but it is where we came from and in some odd twist, it welcomes us back with an embrace that must be felt to be understood. We must be reborn through a nature-based vision quest at the onset of adolescence. It must be conceptualized and supervised by same-gender elders. These elders must have found some sanity for themselves out of the insanity that post-industrial growth society has delivered to us all. This is a vertical relationship. This is mentoring. This is elder-initiate community building. This is a change that is much needed.

In this process of initiation, not only is a healthier adulthood assured, but the ecological unconscious, the steward of the earth is born once again in the initiate.