Smaller groups, shared learning at seasonal Bahá’í schools

Walter Wagner (center) facilitates a discussion at the Texas Baháí School in September 2014, which emphasized small-group learning on the subject of building community. Photo by Alek Ian Timmons

Office of Education and Schools 

Seizing inspiration from last year’s youth conferences and encouraged by the National Spiritual Assembly, seasonal Bahá’í schools across the country opted to use collective learning to address community building this year.

Though the titles varied, each school’s theme included words that described their hopes to foster the capacity to raise unique and distinctive Bahá’í communities. Some themes were “Community Building” (Texas), “Transforming Spiritual Ideals” (Green Lake in Wisconsin), “Building a Divine Civilization” (Southern Flame in Florida), “Extending Bonds of Love” (Shenandoah in Virginia) and “Community Development” (William Sears in Minnesota), to name a few. Collaboration with Auxiliary Board members was key in initiating the new process of learning.

At each location, presentation-style formats were de-emphasized in favor of “lightly facilitated” small-group breakout sessions. The schools sought and trained people to guide group conversations.

For the Texas Bahá’í School in September, explains committee member Cherie Wagner, “We looked for individuals who were selfless, had the ability to listen and engage others, had past experience in facilitation — preferably at the youth conference — were flexible, positive, with a sense of adventure, a willing collaborator.”

Leah Roberts notes regarding Florida’s Southern Flame school in July, “The idea was that you wouldn’t really know who the facilitator was if you walked in the room.”

This format had never been tried before at the Texas school, says Aniela Costello, who served as a facilitator. “We gave participants hints ahead of time that we would be doing things a little differently — that it would be very dynamic!” she says, admitting there was some apprehension about how the attendees might react to the personal work required.

The Southern Flame committee also anticipated resistance, but “there was none! People appreciated it and there was a lot of kudos and praise,” Roberts reports.

Using the Texas school as an example for a closer look at the small-group model, Costello explains, “This year we had groups of 20 all studying the same materials (Reflection, Nurturing Capacity, and Accompaniment). Words of Bahá’u’lláh were used as a basis for the groups to grasp why a different way of learning was being adopted: ‘The purpose of justice is the appearance of unity among men.’”

Committee members wanted to create a space conducive to different forms of learning, recognizing that some people process information by talking about it while others are deep listeners, requiring encouragement to speak. This meant some participants needed to practice discipline by not speaking and learn to be more comfortable with silence, while others needed to be drawn into the conversation.

“All souls need to share what the Holy Spirit is saying to them,” Costello says. “Relationship building requires that hearts come to know each other in a trusting environment. Our whole focus was to create spaces, [according to] the concepts from the Universal House of Justice, and learn how to apply these to our lives through core activities.”

Results exceeded what many imagined.

Wagner notes that after the 2013 Texas session, she didn’t notice any significant follow-up conversation — even with major speakers and 600 in attendance. “This year, there were many conversations at cluster gatherings, Feasts, unit convention — people talking about what they learned in groups!”

Roberts echoes this, reporting a lot of Facebook chatter following the Florida sessions; attendees were sharing what they learned with their communities and starting various core activities.

Poignantly, Costello tells of meeting a woman in Dallas who reported that her husband came home from the Texas school session full of enthusiasm saying, “We can do this!” Though always devoted to the Faith, he had been having difficulty finding his place in the current Plans. His experience at the Texas school helped him to understand that there are “six billion ways to do a devotional” and to identify his personal niche. A lover of Persian poetry, he planned to invite friends with the same love to enjoy the words of Bahá’u’lláh alongside those of Rúmí and Ḥáfiz. Said his wife, “We are doing this; we are hosting a devotional. Our first!”

Eve Loudenback of the Shenandoah Bahá’í School committee remarks that following their August session, “A gentleman came up to me and said, ‘When we came 30 years ago there would be a speaker, up on a pedestal, the rest of us below in adulation. This year, everyone is on the same plane, everyone able to participate — this is grass roots!’”

Committee members expect future sessions to use similar formats. Says Roberts, “It would be like going backwards not to continue with this new mode of learning.”

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