Teaching as a cross-cultural, and life-changing, vocation

August 16 10:10 pm

Today’s entry is an in-depth recounting of the three-hour training I led this morning. But before I get into that, I want to share an understanding that I have been given by my time here so far. When I arrived, I was quickly struck by how different—and, frankly, run-down—so much of the physical structures and infrastructure are here. So many people live in what we in the US would consider shacks, and even the nicer structures are often much more bedraggled looking than we would expect. The room that we did our training in today had a leaky roof and walls and windows that we would just not accept as acceptable for a place to do a training. Yet—and this is what I felt right from my first day—the human-made structures are the least important of what is here. And, in fact, I understand now in a deeper way that the human-made physical structures are never what is really important, no matter where you are. That room we used this morning was just an empty shell when we arrived, but after just a few minutes of our working there together, it became warm and inviting. The main intersection of the village of Bankondji is just a few small structures around dirt road, but it’s the downtown heart-center of the village. Just as a house can only become a home when people live in it—no matter how beautiful the structure—so any space is transformed by the true presence of a group of people gathering. This is why pictures of many places in Africa so often look pitiful to our eyes—you can’t see what’s really there. You can only see the shell. And people here seem to understand this in a fundamental way. There is incredible, breath-taking natural beauty everywhere. There is wonderful food. There are people gathering together to work and play and laugh. That’s what’s really going on. That’s the truth—invisible to the camera, but immediately evident in experience.

Today was our first “serious” day of training with the teachers, and I was a bit nervous. I was planning to share the All Kinds of Minds framework with our wonderful group—Patric, Durand, Thierry, and Lydie, and I was having concern that I hadn’t brought enough hands-on activities to help them understand the framework. During my own training at Barrie, we did several hands-on, partner activities in which we needed to teach each other certain tasks and then had the chance to reflect on what was easy for us and what was difficult… which helped us to then understand more deeply the strengths and weaknesses we have, and helped us deconstruct tasks that we ourselves give to students. However, I don’t have access here to a printer or a copier, and I didn’t have a lot of time, so I couldn’t make this happen. Especially since I would have had to translate any of the materials I used into French. I was nervous, too, because I have never actually given this training before but rather, I’ve only received it—and it’s been several years. Finally I just had to trust (as we teachers all must do when once again we realize that our lesson really should have this or that in it, but we are out of time). I had to trust that what I really needed was already in me, and that I would be able to access the right words at the right time. I also had to trust that I was the right person to give this training to this people, in this place, at this time.

And, indeed, the training was an absolute success— filled with the joys of connection, learning, shared purpose, equality, growth, and inspiration. My plan was, as it turns out, well thought out and highly appropriate—and I did have the words and the instincts I needed in each moment. We were able to build on the sense of community we had created together yesterday, and I was struck by the trust that was already there in the room when everyone sat down.

After a brief hello/how are you/what’s new (exactly the same protocol as I always use in my classes — comment ça va? quoi de neuf?… and it was great to see that it works in a perfectly natural way with a group of Francophones!), we started with a question for journaling. I gave them ten minutes and asked them to write about a moment of learning in which they had experienced opening/inspiration. I instructed them to go into as much detail as possible… and I told them that if they’d written everything they could think of about that experience before time was called, that they should go ahead and write about something else so that they’d be writing the whole time.

(The students we in the tutoring program will begin each tutoring session with this same practice of journaling for ten minutes; I’ve designed the training to mirror in many ways what the students will be doing, so that the teachers themselves have had every experience that we are asking them to facilitate with the students. )

Here’s how the question looked in French:

Raconte un moment d’apprentissage où tu as eu une expérience d’épanouissement.

Tâche de le raconter dans le plus de détail possible.

  • Quand est-ce que c’était?
  • Qui était là?
    • Etais-tu seul(e) ou avec d’autres personnes?
  • Où étais-tu?
    • dehors? à l’intérieur?
  • Quelle était l’ambiance?
    • souviens-tu des odeurs, de la température, etc.?

I did the exercise as well, since I thought I couldn’t well be teaching them that it’s important to put yourself in the place of the student or expecting them to believe that we really are a community of equals if I myself am not willing to engage in the exercises I am asking them to do. Once we’d finished journaling, we divided up into groups of two to tell our stories to each other—not read them out loud, but tell them. Everyone had a story, and there was a spirit of warmth and delight in the group. I then asked each partner to tell the group the story of his/her partner. The partner corrected where needed, providing us all with the chance to go deeper into the stories.

Then I asked everyone to reflect for about 30 seconds or so, in silence (they could write if they wanted), about these two questions:

Why was this moment important?


Why do you think you still remember it?

We then “popcorned” short answers to the questions and I wrote them down on the white board. Answers were things like: a sense of meaning, belonging, understanding, love for something, sense of vision for the future, etc. As to why people remembered— we found that the sense of community and connection and sense of being seen/understood were common to all the experiences.

Finally, I asked everyone to take a moment to think about a moment where they’d had the opposite experience—where they’d been in a learning situation where they had not felt successful. These stories we did not share out loud, but we “popcorned” the emotions that went with them. Frustration, disappointment, discouragement, incomprehension, despair, and isolation were what we said.

From there, after giving them a very brief introduction to All Kinds of Minds, I asked them to look at the five basic beliefs of All Kinds of Minds, which I had translated for them and placed in their packets.

And from there, we moved on the Framework for Learning (which you can find at www.allkindsofminds.org/learning-framework) and to the Learning Soup (an explanation of the eight neurodevelopmental constructs in a highly user-friendly template— each construct is one of the ingredients of the soup). (For those who don’t know, or who don’t quite remember, the eight constructs are: attention, memory, temporal sequential ordering, spatial ordering, neuromotor functions, social cognition, and higher order cognition.) I gave them time to read and digest the first and to read with a partner for the second. Then we came back together to discuss what we had been struck by (ce qui nous a frappé), and any questions anyone had.

Friends, I was absolutely bowled over by the response. This group GOT it immediately—and way faster than I remember people “getting” it at Barrie, where this kind of thinking about education is much less radical. One of the participants said immediately that what she’d been particularly struck by was how the Learning Soup is for everyone. No one is left out. Someone else talked about how he could see in reading over the constructs what his own strengths and weaknesses are, and that it helped him understand why he’d actually never liked school, because most school tasks are centered on the very constructs where he is the least strong. Yet, now that he is an adult and is working on things that are in his areas of strength, he finds that he can actually accomplish tasks in his areas of weakness, because he is so interested in the work. I went right up to him and gave him a kiss (la bise) — as this was exactly the next step I had hoped to bring them to.

I won’t give you the blow-by-blow rundown of the rest of our time together today — as I imagine you’ve read enough and I definitely need to go to bed — but after that, we were all on the same page. Things I heard people say—these aren’t direct quotes, as they are translated and certainly adapted by my memory, but they retain the essential:

  • After hearing [someone’s] story [of a negative learning moment], I now understand why my students sometimes have such trouble.
  • Seeing these constructs helps me understand myself.
  • Reading about these constructs makes me realize that I need to take this all in for myself so that I can give this to the students.
  • I wonder how I can actually apply this in a class with 80 students.
  • I’m so grateful to have my work as a teacher valorized and understood, and I’m so glad to have a new approach that can help me actually do the work I am so passionate about.

Our last activity of the day, before we concluded with a round of appreciations, was to write in the journal how we think the negative experience we’d thought of before could have been different had we ourselves and/or our teachers brought this knowledge to the situation and had been able to utilize these constructs to understand what was going on. That’s what we will start with tomorrow.


2 thoughts on “Teaching as a cross-cultural, and life-changing, vocation”

  1. Hi Anna, I loved reading this post. Your description of what the camera misses was profound. It is true that buildings are just structures, but it is the life, and what goes on within the building that gives it meaning and value and those are just the things the camera can’t capture. I was in the Congo and felt a similar feeling, but couldn’t express it. So thank you. I’m also intrigued by interplay and allkindsofminds. The training you are doing sounds wonderful! Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences!


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