On education: cultivating our understanding

I’ve spent several days digging to the bottom of my motivation to write about education and its importance in our approach to cultivating wellness via understanding in our lives. My motivation seems to be running circles around a few memories on which I typically land when considering my own circuitous route as a student, mother, and teacher. I remember the great care shown by my reading resource teacher, Miss Fern, as she encouraged my fluency progress and the powerful imprint her kindness and belief left in my young life. I think of my Middle Ages literature professor’s method of teaching in spirals, always coming back around to touch upon a theme, gathering momentum in his lesson and how so many of life’s lessons are taught that way. I also remember what my son’s revolutionary homeschool coordinator, Resa Steindel Brown, shared with me during his time in the program – kids (and people in general) want to learn and they’ll learn when they’re ready (often, in creative ways!). And I think of the many books that have been given to me and those I’ve given away because they have something important to teach. But why does it matter? So what? What’s the deal with so much seeking?

Because, as countless texts will tell you (and perhaps others will object), we’re here to learn and to learn from as many sources as possible. The desire to learn is embedded in our biology and, I believe, sown into our spirit. We are inherently curious creatures. Like writing or practicing any art, to learn is to understand and in the understanding, we find some peace within ourselves, for our neighbors, and the world around us. As American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey expressed, “education is not the preparation for life. Education is life itself.”

I asked a few friends and mentors, whose work I deeply admire and appreciate, to chime in on this topic. Reading their responses to my questions left me following similar threads throughout their personal narratives in education: listening, deep study, sharing, curiosity, connection, and stillness (or awareness). Perhaps this isn’t the type of education we received during most of our traditional school years. Maybe, though, it’s the education we’ve cultivated from our own curious wanderings and from those gifted teachers who’ve crossed our paths at the right time.

Many thanks to Dr. Ferial Pearson, Rachel Liester, Lucy Adkins, Becky Breed, Mary Beth Winner, Jennifer Joy, and Philip Kenney, for their humanity, example, curiosity, and generous spirit.


Dr. Ferial Pearson, author of Secret Kindness Agents, educator, humanitarian, Omaha, Nebraska

As an educator of educators, what has been your greatest challenge, your greatest joy, and your greatest lesson learned?

My greatest challenge is really in staying hopeful at a time when there is so much hate, vitriol, and bigotry everywhere. It’s hard to focus on the good stuff, and to remember that there are so many awesome people doing phenomenal SKAFRONTthings out there.

My greatest joy is being with young people, particularly my own children, but really all young people. They give me hope and renew my faith in humanity whenever I am feeling down.

Everyone I meet, no matter their age or background, has something to teach me, whether I enjoy the lesson or not. So, I must listen with the intent to understand them, and to try to figure out what it is that I am supposed to learn from them. The biggest and most wonderful things that I have done in my life have happened because I listened to someone else.


Rachel Liester, founder of Red Road Herbs Retreat and Learning Center, NE Master Naturalist, ethnobotanist, photographer, writer and educator, Stanton, Nebraska

In your years of experience learning about herbs and prairie botanicals, what have you been surprised to learn? How has this shaped your path?

As I continually learn about herbs and teach about their benefits, my goal is to inspire rachelfeeling the connection we have to the healing touch of the natural world. The more I learn about plants, trees and mushrooms, the more I’m surprised at how much knowledge about nature we are losing with each generation, to the point of adding words like “nature deprivation” to our vocabulary and losing many of the words once used to describe nature. It’s shocking to realize there are children who don’t know the names of flowers, have never spent time relaxing in the shade of a tree nor eaten something straight from the earth. That fact has made me focus more on educating children and bringing back the language of nature. I think it’s important to introduce the plants by their official names (a proper introduction) as well as their folk names. The Latin and Greek words chosen for their scientific names often have clues as to their benefits and, if you will, their personality. I believe that once you know plants by their name, they become friends, familiar acquaintances. Establishing that relationship inspires stewardship of plants and their community. I also believe that teaching children to care for plants like friends protects the health and future of both.


Lucy Adkins and Becky Breed, co-authors of Writing in Community: Say Goodbye to Writer’s Block and Transform Your Life, Lincoln, Nebraska

How have years spent producing work in a generative writing workshop helped shape your craft and refine your unique voices?

Lucy Adkins, author and poet

There is a wonderful kind of energy in a generative writing group, an exhilaration, a vitality, the realization that something sublime is writing in communitygoing on. I’ve seen the magic of the group light up a room, light up the individuals within, each member writing as they did not think themselves capable, growing better and better each time the group meets.

As leader of the group, my writing abilities have developed along with each of the members, but besides that, I believe, I’ve had an additional side benefit. Each time we meet, my responsibility is to come with a writing exercise, one I create myself. To do this, I’ve read and read and read and read—perhaps several thousands of poems, looking for ways an individual writer can find her way into a piece of writing. I never know what I’m looking for. It might be a particular subject or phrase which provides a spark, perhaps the framework of a poem which may lead to the sound of pens and pencils racing across the page. In the process, I’ve acquainted myself with many of the new voices in literature, and have done closer readings of poetry than ever before. The teacher becomes the one who learns, and I did and I do—studying and working to emulate the masters, looking at structure, phrasing, and strategies for beginning and ending poems; and as a result, I’ve done some of my best writing.

Becky Breed, educator, essayist, and poet

Writing together inspires creativity. Being part of a generative writing group connects us to a diverse community of writers who helps you re-imagine life and lets you tap into the lived experiences and unique voices of members. A generative group offers support and encouragement for the hard task of writing, and, in the process, the importance of deeply listening and learning new ways to shape our craft are cultivated. Through the positive and varied interactions of the group, we develop the courage and confidence to become visible to ourselves and others through the sharing of our stories. Writing keeps a promise to ourselves by giving form and voice to what’s percolating inside and animates us by pointing us forward. With the help of a generative writing circle, we realize we can become better writers and be propelled to a new and exciting place by our very own words.


Mary Beth Winner, yoga teacher, Omaha, Nebraska

What is something you learned as a yoga student that opened up your understanding of the practice, and how do you continue to grow in your practice as a teacher?

I’m always a student. Maybe that’s the answer to both of your questions! After 19 years IMG_9846on the mat, I continue to grow in my practice by trying to maintain a beginner’s mind – by being open to explore and evolve, not only as a yoga teacher, but as a human. This curiosity is fed by taking workshops and classes from other teachers, by listening to podcasts, and reading from a variety of texts- not just the ancient texts like the Yoga Sutras or Bhagavad Gita, but poetry, meditations, prose, and instructional books. But the single most helpful ingredient to growth is daily meditation and coming home to the mat for my practice. When I allow myself to soften into stillness, my mind opens and ideas flow effortlessly. Slowing down and coming to stillness is really the only way for inspiration to arise.


Jennifer Joy, educator, poet, and artist, Elkhorn, Nebraska

As a poet, educator, and student of some fine poets and writers, what is a fundamental truth about our own education that we may take for granted? What do you want us to see or deeply understand?

The thing I most value about writing in all forms, and the thing I try to instill in my Jjoy2students, is about writing’s ability to connect us through time and over seemingly infinite distances. In an obvious way, expressive language has been the chronicle of the human story and allows us to know and learn from each other without limits. But less obvious, I think, is the fact that powerful writing has shaped our collective consciousness and this is the way writing unites us – not just in the truth of historical archiving, but in the lines of poetry and songs that we are born to, in the characters who’ve become the archetypes for our own narratives, in the shared stories we all use to make meaning. And education is an important part of that cultural exchange. Those who have the privilege of education have more exposure to a greater breadth of those gifts that come from studying the writing of others, and the opportunities to make writing of our own.


Philip Kenney, psychotherapist, poet, artist, and author of The Writer’s Crucible: Meditations on Emotion, Being, Portland, Oregon

You’ve spent your life immersed in the study of the human mind and soul. What has been the greatest lesson you have learned?

The lessons seem too many to count. Over the years I have devoted to the practice ofperf6.140x9.210.indd
psychotherapy, meditation, writing and raising children, I have realized, not once, but again and again, that I can trust in myself. What I mean by trust in myself has to do with the silence of the inner self. There was a time when silence, and its beloved, space, were a great threat. I experienced silence as emptiness and space as dangerous. But what I have found is that I extend into that deep silence, I am that deep space. When I am quiet, silence speaks to me in words that are unbidden. And when I am still, space is a welcoming presence. I have learned, although I often turn my back on what I know, that I belong to silence: that I am held, refreshed and enlivened by it as the brain is by sleep. On a clear day I can see that I come from, dwell in, and one day will return to that silence that is the source of life, art and love. It is this belonging that I am coming to trust and believe to be the greatest lesson of all.


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