Tuesday, May 29, 2012


As a teacher, I feel my role is always one of facilitation.  I cannot force anyone to learn, but I can definitely facilitate the process.

In the past couple of months, however, I've really had to rethink what facilitation is and how it works.

The modern definition of facilitate, from Dictionary.com, is

  1. to make easier or less difficult; help forward (an action, a process, etc.): Careful planning facilitates any kind of work.  
  2. to assist the progress of (a person).
Have you ever noticed that facilitating some groups is easier than facilitating others?  I have recently been working with students of all ages:  preschool, elementary, high school, and primarily retirees.  In the past as well, I often worked with very disparate groups: usually business people, graduate students, and elementary school students.  Each time I've noticed that even if we're covering the same ideas, the facilitation is wildly different.  I don't have to spend any time at all getting my little ones to laugh and have a good time, but getting some business people to perform a complete audit would be easier than getting them to smile.  Similarly, getting mature (read "over 18") to slow down is no problem, but getting a group under twelve to pause is barely possible.

But this last month or so, I have really been blessed to note how facilitating my retirees is actually more allowing them to facilitate me, which is when I realized that all of "my" best lessons have essentially followed this pattern. 

Put simply, I am an expert on the subject matter primarily--that is why I'm the teacher.  I am not, per se, an expert on the other aspects of life.  But my students are.  Often I facilitate best when I allow my students to shine, when I allow my students to exercise their own expertise while they are mastering their subject matter.  My facilitation is to find ways to make the subject matter applicable to them--to help them see how it fits into what they're doing and where they're going.  Sometimes that's not always possible entirely, but the fact that I have allowed them to demonstrate their prowess for me opens them to hearing what I have to say--and to trying out what I'm introducing.
Sometimes this hands-off facilitation feels a little like flying by the seat of my pants, but in reality it is planned in such a way that allows flexibility.  It anticipates expertise and then, with a small amount of thinking on one's feet, it matches one area of expertise with another.

Below is an example of facilitation when expertise matches content across three very disparate age groups:

For example, I may want to teach the rhythm of language.  If I have elementary students, I need to think for a minute about what their areas of expertise are and how the rhythm of language fits into it.  I remember the chants on the playground, common forms of teasing, and games/chants to pick who should start.  I prepare in my mind similar English games, and, if I know their songs well enough, match natural English words to some of their own rhythms.  When my young students come in, I ask them to demonstrate their games.  I let them go on for awhile.  I play with them.  Then I choose to teach them an easy English version.  I let them play with it.  I let them feel it out.  I invite them to change the words--all the while playing because they are experts at play--until they have felt a real connection and usefulness with this material.

What about rhythm of language for business people?  I have often had business people stage an argument on a topic of their choosing--first in their own language--and have other people pay attention to how each person interrupts, states their point, sympathizes, etc.  They note the natural rhythm.  Then we come up with some stock phrases for working into an argument ("But," "I don't think," I disagree," "I see, but...," "Don't you think...,"  "Oh," "No!"), and allow them to do it again, half in English and half in their home language.  Finally, we work on some actual content and do the whole argument in English.  They are sustained by the topic that they picked as well as by paying attention to the rules of interrupting and the rhythm of trading comments--an esteem issue that they are experts at navigating.

Finally, for my older group, well, we're not studying ESL, but rhythm of language has a lot to do with the writing that they're studying.  How do I make it relevant?  They're grandparents (not just generally, but most of the ones who would benefit from this lesson are literally writing for their grandchildren).  They are experts in lullabies and telling scary stories--both prime examples of rhythm of language.  We tune into this (ask for examples), remember this (allow them to share), let them spend time working with it (allow them to rewrite words or weave the and then transferring it to the paper).  When we get to the rewriting, I want to eventually turn them away from the typical topics of lullabies and focus them on an aspect of their lives.  Again, they are experts on babies, children, and grandchildren as well as accomplished lullaby-singers and campfire storytellers.  It's just a matter of harnessing this expertise and providing another outlet for it.

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