As someone with a mixed ancestry of Irish, Scottish Manx and Ojibway, I sometimes like to think of an Open Space meeting that might have all 128 of my seventh generation genetic ancestors in the room. It would be crazy! Imagine them in a room looking at each other,perplexed, wondering what they could possibly have in common.
And then imagine inviting them to create something together. And imagine that at some point someone suggest that this incredibly eclectic group of people create a child in seven generations. A child that would carry all of their hopes for Ireland, for Scotland for Nishnawbe-aki, for the Manx. And then I rememeber that I am the outcome of that Open Space meeting that never happened, matured exactly seven generations.
Once in a while I look around a room full of 120 or so people and I think to myself, imagine if what we created as a result of this meeting was a human being emerging in 250 years that would be the child of all of us. And suppose we decided that we would put our trust and faith in that child?
How could we support that? Are we capable of seeing our connections and actions as resulting in something that profound?
I have been watching my five year old son learn to read.
My son lives in a family of autodidacts. Almost everything we know and do in this family arises from self-teaching. We unschool out kids and have been largely influenced by the work of John Holt, Joseph Chilton Pearce and John Taylor Gatto in this matter.
When we were deciding which educational path to pursue with our kids, we discovered Holt’s writings. But the choice to unschool is one thing…having the rubber hit the road is another, and the true test of our commitment would come around reading writing and arithmatic. If there is anxiety that is shared by parents who unschool or homeschool, it is on these fronts.
We very much use the principles of Open Space when creating the learning environment for our family. That includes “When it starts is the right time” which is not a principle widely applied to children’s learning. IN fact much of the anxiety that infects the education system in the western world would probably be alleviated if more people made use of this principle.
The fact is that kids learn to do things at a wide variety of times, despite the myth that they should be developing along some pre-determined time line. My daughter for example, who is eight now, has an incredible auditory memory and an incredibly subtle sense of narrative structure and story. She has been listening to audio books for probably 5 years now, and I daresay that she has been exposed to more literature in her short life than most of us have. She has consumed literally hundreds of books, plays and novels, and she can recount plot details, pieces of dialogue, characters (including being able to predict what a character might do out side of the context of a story). In the process she has learned a lot about sociology and psychology not to mention geography, history and ethics.
But she came late to reading. In fact it has only really been this year that she has been reading more but she still gets more story out of her ears than her eyes.
My son on the other hand is the opposite. He hasn’t really cared much for audio books, but for the last year he has been intently handling Tintin books and he’s been read to, and just in the last few weeks, it appears that he can now read some pretty sophisticated stuff by himself. He hasn’t been taught to read. He has just sat with the materials, watched the practice and let it seep in. He wanted to know what Tintin and Captain Haddock were saying to one another, and now he knows.
Holt talked about these things. He talks in this interview about his philosophy to reading:
"I think the teaching of reading is mostly what prevents reading. Different children learn different ways. I think reading aloud is fun, but I would never read aloud to a kid so that the kid would learn to read. You read aloud because it’s fun and companionable. You hold a child, sitting next to you or on your lap, reading this story that you’re having fun with, and if it isn’t a cozy, happy, warm, friendly, loving experience, then you shouldn’t do it. It isn’t going to do any good.
I think children are attracted toward the adult world. It’s nice to have children’s books, but far too many of them have too much in the way of pictures. When children see books, as they do in the family where the adults read, with pages and pages and pages of print, it becomes pretty clear that if you’re going to find out what’s in those books, you’re going to have to read from that print. I don’t think there’s any way to make reading interesting to children in a family in which it isn’t interesting to adults."
Holt is describing creating a learning environment where emergent learning can take place. My experience this year with my kids has shown me that there is nothing mechanical about learning to read. Instead, kids are best served if they are immersed in an environment where they can “couple with the field.” Simply handling books in an environment where all of us read was enough to get my boy reading. In Holt’s book “Learning All the Time” he tells the story of a school in the Netherlands where reading is taught by having kids sit with adults and simply read. When the kids get stumped by a word, they ask and the adult gives them the answer. What works is not some pre-packaged curriculum, some extrinsic rewards mechanism or compulsion and threats. It’s the creation of a supportive and caring environment where the kids can explore the skill for themselves and get the support they need when the need it.
So this is what my kids continue to teach me. Create a caring and supportinve environment, live by the principle that whenever it starst is the right time, and watch as learning happens.
Jack on productive waiting:
Waiting is a fact of life. We wait in line, on hold, for people to get back to us, for traffic lights to change, for parking spaces to open up, for solutions to appear, for consensus to be built, for projects to move forward.
What is unproductive waiting … and what is productive waiting?
Two pieces, for me.
First, there is the kind of waiting when our minds are not united with the task at hand, and second there is the kind of waiting when we are fully engaged.
On the first one, the waiting in lines, on hold and so on, we can choose to be mindful about that waiting or use that waiting to do something else. I think the question then starts to come apart, for there can be no such thing as productive or unproductive waiting. Only waiting in which we are present and waiting in which we are not.
For people wanting to meditate, but who find that they don’t have enough time in the day to do so, these periods of waiting can be true gifts. They can be like mindfulness bells, ringing us into awareness. When we are asked to wait or “forced” to wait, we can simply direct our attention to being mindfully present and practice awareness.
The second kind of waiting is the one that really fascinates me. This is waiting when we are fully engaged in the present. The most powerful experience I have ever had of this was when my children were born. Being with my partner through two long labours was a very interesting kind of waiting. Time starts to do funny things - it gets shifty and stretchy, and your awareness of it detaches and solely rests on the emergent moment. A child will soon be born, and the best you can do is to be fully alive to that possiblility. Distraction serves no purpose. In fact, with our second child, my partner commented that at one point it felt as if she was living in a ghost world. As we walked around with her living through this long and low grade labour (40 hours!) she noted that none of people we were walking past had any idea of what was going on between us and within her. She felt in the world but not at all a part of it - like a ghost. But she was deeply within the moment.
This is a deep presencing. It is waiting for something to emerge, something life changing, possibly life threatening, and yet with no way to know how it will all unfold. Radical trust into the moment, radical readiness to accept what will come.
When Otto Scharmer writes about presencing, I think this is what he is talking about. We can practice for these kinds of moments by embracing the first kind of waiting, which gives us the capacity to appreciate the second kind on those rare occasions in our life when we are gifted that experience.
Thinking about the practice of holding, the most well known of the Practices of Open Space. Many writers have written about what it means to hold space in group work, but few have elucidated some of the traps inherent in this practice as Pema Chodron. In this excerpt from her recent teachings on shenpa she gets at some of the hooks that traps us in space closing:“Here is an everyday example of shenpa. Somebody says a mean word to you and then something in you tightens� that’s the shenpa. Then it starts to spiral into low self-esteem, or blaming them, or anger at them, denigrating yourself. And maybe if you have strong addictions, you just go right for your addiction to cover over the bad feeling that arose when that person said that mean word to you. This is a mean word that gets you, hooks you. Another mean word may not affect you but we’re talking about where it touches that sore place� that’s a shenpa. Someone criticizes you�they criticize your work, they criticize your appearance, they criticize your child� and, shenpa: almost co-arising.
At Gampo Abbey it’s a small community. We’re thirty monks and nuns there. You have a pretty intimate relationship there, living in community. People were finding that in the dining room, someone would come and sit down next to them and they could feel the shenpa just because this person sat down next to them, because they had some kind of thing going about this person. Then they feel this closing down and they’re hooked.
If you catch it at that level, it’s very workable. And you have the possibility, you have this enormous curiosity about sitting still right there at the table with this urge to do the habitual thing, to strengthen the habituation, you can feel it, and it’s never new. It always has a familiar taste in the mouth. It has a familiar smell. When you begin to get the hang of it, you feel like this has been happening forever.
Generally speaking, however, we don’t catch it at that level of just open space closing down. You’re open-hearted, open-minded, and then… erkk. Right along with the hooked quality, or the tension, or the shutting down, whatever… I experience it, at the most subtle level, as a sort of tensing. Then you can feel yourself sort of withdrawing and actually not wanting to be in that place."