Community Final Paper

 

Over the course of this class, many unexpected learning opportunities have arisen. Many of these learning opportunities surrounded the theme of community, including themes of organizations and specific community structures that I have written about in previous papers.  But the one experience that stands out to me as most significant and beneficial is only tangentially about community. This was the experience of starting class “over” halfway through the semester. And this experience is what I would like to unpack in this paper, particularly the aspects of facilitation, group dynamics, and program cycles.

Before I dive into the “meat” of the paper, I want to be sure to highlight my appreciation of your willingness to consider the fact that the class might need to be facilitated differently and not take it as a personal attack when we, as students, did not approach you or the class content in the way you had hoped. The reason I feel confident in writing this final paper on the topic is largely because of the way you handled the whole experience (and much of what the paper discusses), and I want to thank you for making the process such a great learning opportunity for me. Not only did I have the chance to address issues I was seeing in my learning environment, but your way of accepting me and encouraging me has made me more willing to take similar steps in the future.  I definitely feel that, as a result of my experiences in this class, I am more able to be in control of my learning.

Now for the meat.

The experience of “re-starting” class was jarring. It had me questioning the role of facilitator, what it means to be a quality facilitator, as well as how I function within the role as it is commonly understood. My typical thinking regarding my effectiveness as a facilitator is based on how “successfully” my ideas and ways of moving through the class seem to function. I regard success within the scope of how engaged students appear, how much feedback I receive, how many students can answer the “right” answers, etc. In this course, your greatest success as a facilitator (at least as a perceive it) was in recognizing that these typical standards just didn’t accurately measure how effective the class was. We were answering the questions. We were reading the texts. We were completing the assignments. But something wasn’t right, and we were not learning to build communities in the way you intended. Fortunately, you were able to set aside the typical understanding of how to be a successful facilitator and approach the class from a completely new perspective.

This new perspective involved handing the reins back over to us, and asking us to analyze ourselves. You asked us to think about group dynamics. You asked us to think about the assignments and the readings and the general expectations. You asked us to change the syllabus. In essence, you asked us to redo much of the work you had done as a professor to prepare for the course. You had prepared, and the preparations just didn’t fit the needs. So you did what few people would be willing to do; you set aside your ego and you asked us to recreate the class.

Interacting with this process, I realized I would never have been able to make this choice. Not then. As valid, necessary, and helpful as it was for you to release your construct of facilitator into our hands (at least for this particular group), I know I would have seen this step as a personal failure. I would have continued the class in an ineffective manner, rather than be forced to confront the possibility of personal failure as a facilitator. I am by no means saying you failed as a facilitator; quite the opposite. But my personal perception, had I been in your shoes, would have been that I had. But by asking us to think deeply about the course, and make decisions about the course that intimately affected the outcome, you actually fulfilled your role as facilitator completely. A facilitator’s job is to aid in learning, and these new requirements did just that.

After the class “re-start”, the entire tone of the course shifted.  It may not have reached the same place other courses have in the past, but the attitude of at least most students changed and we all took greater ownership over the rhythm and feel of the class. Students stepped up and planned classes. We chose readings that we felt were most relevant, many people reading them multiple times before even deciding whether to use them. We planned class outings and games, intentionally focusing on the course content and how we could best learn it. And we all engaged in the topics in a way that was missed in the first half of the course.

This transformation only happened because you took the idea of facilitator and flipped it on its head. Instead of following the typical set of rules and expectations, you went back to the very basic role of facilitator; someone who helps make the learning happen. You looked at the traditional way of facilitating, and saw that it wasn’t working. And it seems that you very intentionally decided that the best way to help us learn was to put the control completely in our hands. And it worked.

It worked because of the particular dynamics of our group. Group dynamics are an aspect of facilitation and teaching that has become particularly interesting to me since starting my work at Camp St. Croix. Each week, I have at least two sets of groups. Often, though they are the same ages, the groups interact with each other and with myself in completely different ways. Now, I spend the first few hours of interaction trying to hone in on the dynamics of the particular group I am with and how to best facilitate their learning. I often get it at least a little bit wrong. But before this course, I barely even noticed group dynamics. I made a great deal of assumptions about how I should interact with each group based on very few pieces of information, and I have come to realize how much my classes suffered because of this neglect.

Our community class is a great example of how important group dynamics really can be in any education setting.With our Community class, the group dynamics were incredibly strange. I still do not feel that I have a handle on how to engage various members of the classroom, or even what makes smaller groups within it “tick”. Two separate cohorts share the space, though not always connecting on the content or in discussion. It’s almost as though the groups make a mental note about who is “safe” to discuss something with and who is safe to interrupt or add insight to based on the cohort. The class overall seems very disconnected, very opposite in many ways, and so hard to pin down. Especially difficult is the fact that, when I bring up this difference, other individuals in the class reject the idea and tell me they think I’m reading it wrong. I have been told that the group dynamic is really not that strange, and that everyone connects just fine. But I sit in the class and feel differently. That feeling was especially strong in the first half of the class.

Such frustration.

The strangeness of these particular group dynamics brought the need to address them to my attention. Our community class is not a class where everyone feels completely comfortable with everyone else. Nor is it a place where every individual feels entirely free to share ideas or contemplations with the whole group. It simply isn’t. And maybe that’s okay. Even if it isn’t, that is the reality of the group; learning strategies for the course needed to adjust accordingly.

Until this class, I had only marginally considered group dynamics in preparing and running my classes. If a group was particularly antsy or loud, quiet or shy, I would adapt. I would maybe throw out a team building game that required a great deal of physical touch. I might break up my lecture parts into two minute chunks as we walked. I might pick groups instead of letting them choose their own partners. But the dynamics of this class has had me paying closer attention to how the entire group functions each time I work with one. I now pay attention to individuals and how they connect with the rest of the group. I try to notice how parents engage and how they influence the students. And I try to figure out what that means for my teaching style. Do I have a student who seems to learn really well through physical touch? Do I have two students who just don’t seem to get along? Does my group feel comfortable with each other? Do they need time to interact without me? Time with me leading some interactions? Hot cocoa and laughs together to loosen things up? Do they need time alone, separate from each other, to really let content sink in? These, along with dozens of other questions, are questions I am now learning to be invaluable to my abilities as a teacher.

Our class also has me considering the cycles particular programs go through. You stated a couple times in our group setting that this course has looked fairly the same for many years, and that students have responded well to the format.  But then our class came along, and the format was shot to pieces. We, for some unknown reason, had a problem with almost every component of the class. We didn’t like the discussion format. We didn’t like the readings. We didn’t like that everyone was encouraged to talk. We didn’t like the way the handouts were utilized. We basically hated everything. And the class necessarily transformed into something quite different, based on these emotions.

I have had somewhat similar experiences with various youth programs throughout the years. A program works in a particular way for many years, until all of a sudden it doesn’t work at all. Something changes, and the program stops working. Sometimes the change is clear, sometimes it is entirely unfathomable. But the change happens and the program becomes ineffective. And then a few years later the new format, the one that took such work to move towards, has also become ineffective.  Often,  the program reverts to the former style in hopes of a revitalization (which does sometimes happen) and the program swings back and forth between styles as people and groups change their wants and needs.

Understanding the program cycle helps to make these instances easier to understand and deal with. A program may be valuable, and useful, but it will not look the same for every group of people. That is where program cycles come in. Understanding that the nature of a program must change as groups change, and that programs are unlikely to be effective as time marches on, is a hard piece of reality to take in. Similar to the concept of failure as a facilitator when your plan doesn’t work, being forced to adapt a program with the changing cycle feels like a loss.

Creating a program that is effective feels like such a win, such a leap forward, that we want to keep pushing the program as long as possible. It was our success.  And we do not want that success to end. Because of this desire, it is often not until years after the program has become stale that we even recognize the need for that program to adapt. By that time, resurrecting the program in a new way that speaks to its position in the program cycle can be all but impossible. And so the program often dies altogether.

And this is one of the many reasons it is so difficult to get an accurate picture of how program cycles function. While I believe they are a natural and vital part of any organization, it is difficult to find good examples of healthy program cycles.  I believe our class is an example of one, or at least a semi-healthy one. The course seems to have been effective for many years, and when it stopped being effective, it transformed quickly. Instead of waiting through several semesters of less-than-effective classes to reevaluate the program and the structure, you quickly evaluated it and began the process of adaptation.

And the course may look more similar to the adapted version than the original version in the next semester. Or you may find that the next group requires the program to swing back the other direction. In any case, the cycle will continue and the class will likely move through stages where certain formats are more effective than others in the process of teaching about community. A good facilitator will do what he or she can to be aware of this program cycle and adjust the program as quickly as possible when it appears to be cycling towards a time of ineffectiveness.

Through writing about the experience of changing our class, I have really come to understand just how beneficial the process was to my learning. While I did learn a great deal about communities, I learned even more about a few more hidden components of great teaching. Group dynamics, program cycles, and the requirements of good facilitation are just the three highlights that came to mind. These three aspects, especially the pieces I learned about through the experience of reframing the class, are aspects of education that are infrequently discussed or taught on. This Community course, because of the changes that happened midway through the semester, will not be a course easily forgotten; it has been an experience that is already serving me well in my work with communities and their youth.

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