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Leader Guidelines (Exploring Our Values Through Poetry)

Take a moment to think of the great teachers you have had. They probably shared some important characteristics. They gave and received respect; they had unbridled excitement about their subject (sometimes bordering on outright glee); they loved teaching; and they loved their students.

Now, think again of those same wonderful teachers. It is likely that they had very different ways about them: personalities, backgrounds, lifestyles, hairstyles, and, of course, teaching styles. Yet they were all effective; they all made their mark. How could this be?

The answer is simple: There are many, many ways to be an effective teacher.

Just as we all have different learning styles, we also have different teaching styles.

It bears repeating: there are many, many ways to be an effective teacher. And you must find your way, usually by taking risks and making mistakes alongside those with whom you are learning.

To help give you a jumpstart, here are some things that good teachers learn and know:

Work backwards.

Before you start, ask yourself what you hope participants will get from this workshop. What would you like them to be thinking as they leave the workshop, and as they think back on it in the months and years to come? How do you want them to feel when they leave? What do you wish they would take with them, and keep with them?

Know your objective.

This is similar to the "Work Backwards" credo, but it involves establishing goals that are more specific, and less general, in each workshop. Suggested Objectives/Goals are provided, but you may want to tweak them, or adjust them significantly, to serve your group. Keep in mind that each of these workshops is driven by its objective, so changing the objective might call for other changes in the design. Either way, it is important to be clear about the objective(s) of the workshop, because it is what drives the activities and makes meaning of the experience.

Take the pulse of the group early and often.

Do everything you can to be sure participants are clear, engaged, and taking ownership of their work together. Check in with them explicitly with simple questions like:

  • How is this workshop—and how are these workshops in general—going for you?
  • Is everybody okay?
  • Are we together on this?
  • How is this pace (or this location, or this sequence) working for people?

Without being too intrusive (that is the tricky part), keep scanning participants in both their large and small groups, checking for "life signs"—body language, visual engagement, laughter, eye contact, and the like. Be sure to maintain focus and direction all the while. Be especially vigilant for anybody who seems excluded or lost. Here it is important to know the participants. Lastly, if something is clearly not working, don't be afraid to change course and to take time out together to think about how to do so.

Embrace the pregnant pause.

In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light... .

— Mahatma Gandhi

We live in a culture that discourages us from sitting still or sitting in silence, so it is no surprise that pauses in conversation make many of us nervous. But if you are met with long pauses while facilitating a discussion, try to resist the natural impulse to fill them in. Let the silence hang in the air before rushing in with an answer, a follow-up question, or a redirection. Count to ten if you need to. Silence usually means people are thinking. Encourage silence, also, as a way to let the poems resonate.

Love your subject.

While there are suggested poems that inspire each workshop, the bottom line is that you should choose those poems that you love to work with. Many poems in the anthology (in addition to the suggested ones) would serve several themes well.

Seek out the quiet ones.

Remember that quiet people are no more lacking in profundity than frequent talkers are full of it. Try to draw out quieter members of the group by asking gentle questions in their direction, by using their names, and by keeping the environment welcoming to multiple points of view. Try not to be discouraged if some folks do not engage verbally for a few workshops, or at all. While traditional school and workshop settings tend to recognize and reward learners who are verbal and auditory, many people have a learning style that does not fit that model. With these learners, try hands-on, visual, musical, and kinetic activities. Try to remember and honor that learners, like teachers and group leaders, come in all sorts of styles.

Encourage ambivalence.

One of the sure-fire ways to determine that someone is truly thinking and learning is to notice that they are willing to change their mind. "I don't know" is a great ally in the learning process. It is an invitation—to the learner, the learning community, and the group leader.

Do not be afraid to model.

As adult leaders and advisors working with smart, creative, and capable youth, we might feel hesitant about doing too much leading. While that is probably a good impulse overall, there are times when it is necessary to give examples and model for the group. This might involve things like walking through a given activity, providing an interior monologue that walks through the making sense of a poem, role-playing respectful discussion and sharing, or even (gulp) showing that it is okay to take a risk and fall flat on your face. When facilitating discussions, it is the leader's job to let them unfold while pointing out common threads as well as seeming contradictions. And, if at any point the afore-mentioned "pregnant pause" seems so big that it is about to give birth or is accompanied by blank stares, it is okay to provide examples and suggestions to jump-start the group. Just remember to get off center stage as soon as things get rolling!

Share the floor, and make sure others do too.

Boisterous discussion is great. Disagreement and discomfort can be our allies. Passionate engagement makes for lively and effective workshops. The trick is to encourage invigorating discussion while insisting that everyone (not just the naturally outgoing) be heard. It is a leader's responsibility to reign in participants who are veering too much into "huh?"-land, or are getting too hotheaded. It is also important to nip "cross-talk"—prolonged dialogue between two individuals—in the bud.

Sequence and pacing: Setting up for the "A-ha!" moment.

These workshops have been sequenced intentionally, with one workshop building out of and flowing into another. A well-planned sequence of workshops encourages participants to reflect on past experiences and ways of thinking, to make connections, and to build inquiry upon inquiry, insight upon insight.

Even though the sequence of these workshops and the activities within them have been planned carefully, you are probably the best one to decide which order makes the best sense for you, your setting, your context, and your group. Read all of the workshops through a couple of times before you decide which order will be the most seamless and will generate the most "A-ha!" moments from your group. Consider such factors as how well participants know each other and you, how much time you have to devote to each workshop, which workshop(s) you love best, and which workshop(s) makes sense to do first, last, or not at all.

Pacing is a little easier, but just as important as sequencing. In a nutshell: Take breaks, and be flexible enough to stay longer on an activity or to cut it short. Read faces and body language. Enlist an on-the-ball volunteer with a watch to be timekeeper for discussions and activities.

Be an exhibitionist: Show off your group's work!

The best way to make the process of writing authentic is to get it out there—by publishing it, performing it, collecting it, and presenting it. This is what "real" writers do; make presentation at least available to the group. Workshops 11-13 guide the development of plans for a Poetry Slam and/or a choral reading. Present these plans to your group early on for buy-in. Anticipating a culminating experience to showcase their work together can infuse the group with a deep sense of purpose and the electrical charge that comes with sharing what we are proud of.

Consider these other ideas, or devise your own strategies for going public:

  • Dedicate a workshop meeting (or two) to performing and/or publishing poetry. Better yet, take over an entire Sunday service for performing poems and related creations.
  • Design a ceremony using the group's poems—a coming of age, a memorial, a protest, a welcoming... .

For publishing opportunities, consider these:

  • Create a whole-group anthology (again, either inter- or intra-group) that documents the group's work together.
  • Create individual anthologies as part of your group's work together. They may include all of their works, some of them, or a collection of their favorites penned by themselves, their colleagues, and other poets.
  • Make your own books for your anthologies. Invite a local artist to work with participants to design their own one-of-a-kind books. Use leaves, twigs, beautiful paper, found objects, and/or collage-and-copy.
  • Publish a unique "zine" that represents poems and other creations from the workshops.
  • Take over an area—a wall, a bulletin board, or a door—in your church and designate it as the poetry board. Rotate poems and lyrics monthly, or arrange them thematically; assemble poems that relate to specific Sunday service themes.
  • Submit poems to local papers, national magazines, and the like.

The possibilities are endless!

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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