Learning by Going #7: Experiment? Failure? Risk and Learning….

In my last Learning by Going Post I talked about being an experiential learner.  I think I made it sound serendipitous and easy…but the reality is often messy. Sometimes learning is learning what not to do again.

So in this post I want to share one of the messy days.

I developed a lot of the approach to poetry sessions that I’ve been offering through Writing Home at Ebenezer housing for older adults in Minneapolis. When I started there Pat Samples was the Lifelong Learning Co-ordinator there and she was a great mentor. After I had earned her trust, she was really wonderful about letting me try new things.

Trust is so important in this work.Earned trust ….from participants and before  that from site partners, activity directors, lifelong learning coordinators. Whatever the title, it is right and appropriate that before anybody lets you loose to “experiment” with a creative activity, you need to earn people’s trust. We’re dealing with people’s lives here. And part of the power of poetry is that it can go pretty deep pretty fast into people’s lives— into their pain, into their stories.

So Pat did not immediately let me loose…but once that trust was developed she just let me do whatever I proposed. Things didn’t always go according to plan and I made some pretty significant mistakes along the way. But I think she always respected that I was leaning into the edge of the possible of how much depth and fun and good writing you could bring to —-or out of—-a group.

So sometimes it gets messy: like the time I brought in a poem about water and change and had the bright idea of bringing in jars of ice I’d frozen in mason jars in my freezer to class a hot summer day.

The poem, New Water by Sharon Chmielarz was in no way mistake. I used it for the first class in an eight-week series about revision and creative process. The poem sets that up that idea of seeing things in a new way—re-visioning—in a lovely way.

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Ice may, or may not, be the poet’s creative friend….

But it might have been a mistake to bring in the ice, especially traveling on the bus. Also I had no way of knowing that one of the group participants was going to bring in a lovely summer desert full of whipped yogurt and honey  and bright berries. Since the only serving spoon we could find was much larger than the cups we were spooning it into, some shipped goo and smashed berries got on the table, on the poems, and on one or two writers.

And then there was the ice. I’d envisioned setting out the jars of ice, gradually melting, as tangible examples of transformation and change…an invitation to writing about change and to the transformative possibilities of revision.

The reality was less lofty. On the hour-long train and bus ride, even in their little cooler, the little jars of ice started to sweat and drip and one of them cracked in my bag.

So with the combination of sticky dessert and wet pools from the sweating jars, it was a bit of a messy day, but no one got hurt and we had fun and some great poems came out of it, including a fabulous haiku about the three phases of water.

Since that day I’ve re-used that poem, New Water, but not the ice jars….but at the end of the day, I believe both creativity and learning depend, at least in part on risk.

Big thanks to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, the Saint Anthony Park Community Foundation, and the Trillium Family Foundation for funding to make this project possible.

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