Learning and teaching

A large parchment map laid out on a table held down by an open book, set of old-fashioned keys, and an envelope and quill

The search for knowledge (image from canva.com)

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we teach and how we learn the past month or two. They’re things a lot of people have had some great experiences with, and some lousy experiences with. They’re also things where the ways we learn in school or college or other formal learning experiences often isn’t a good fit for the kind of learning we do as Pagans.

Why am I think about it even more right now? Well, in my case, it’s the combo of having had two interesting (and very different) recent learning experiences, plus I’m prepping a workshop on researching Pagan stuff for early June.

(It’s in Cambridge, MA on June 2nd, 2017: more info over here if you’re interested. I’ve taught a lot of the pieces separately before, but I’m very excited about the chance to put it all together, and to also have AV equipment so we can do some sample searches and look at things at the same time. I also have plans to turn it into an online class so I’m prepping with that in mind.)

As a librarian, I’ve done lots of different kinds of learning and lots of kinds of teaching. I do lots of one on one helping someone learn how to do something, and lots of one-off sessions with a class to show them how to find resources or get started on a project, or just demonstrate that friendly librarians exist, and we’d love to help. I’ve done a handful of longer teaching projects at different times professionally. Plus, of course, the teaching I did regularly when I was in Minnesota as part of my tradition’s teaching circle, and teaching a few of my own students about religious witchcraft.

Two things this spring have me thinking about how to teach this workshop. I was the student in both of them.

The (fairly) traditional model: 

One of them was a pretty traditional learning model, except for the part where it was online.

At the end of April, I finished the CopyrightX class. It’s offered through Harvard Law School as an (application required) free online course. If you get in, you are part of a section of 20-25 people from around the world, covering much of the same material as Harvard Law’s intro copyright class does. (Same professor, same lectures, they have slightly more reading, and cover more case studies.)

I’ve tried online courses before, but found (like a lot of people) that they were frustrating: discussion sections were too overwhelming, or it was hard to figure out what to talk about with a horde of strangers.

This one worked a lot better and it was well-designed and well-taught. The lectures were broken down well, they provided transcripts as well as captioning (great for notes and review), and the expected interaction with the section was the weekly online conference call session, and our teaching fellow ran it well and was quick to drop things that turned out not to work for us and do more of the ones that did.

On the other hand, it was the first time I’d done a structured course like that since I finished my Master’s in Library and Information Science ten years ago, and I’d forgotten how tiring it can be! I spent at least as much time on “I really need to watch a segment of lecture” as I did actually watching. (Complicated by the fact work produced a couple of mentally challenging projects this spring, so I’d often get home and not be in a fit state to focus on detailed legal material.)

I won’t know how I did on the final for a few weeks yet, but I got what I wanted out of the course. (Which was how it all fit together, and to check that I knew about as much about copyright as I thought I did.) I also got a lot of cool stories and examples I can use when I’m explaining copyright to other people, which comes up in my job a fair bit.

I’ve always been Good At School, so this kind of learning wasn’t a big challenge for me in that sense. It took planning, the content took a lot of thought and effort, but I knew what I was doing, and how the learning style worked for me, and what I needed to do to make it work out okay.

The thing is, a lot of people I know, that isn’t the case.

Some of them had horrible experiences in school, so stuff that feels like that is an immediate turnoff or feels overwhelming from the start. Some of them struggle with anything that feels like a graded outcome. Some have things in their lives or their bodies that make this kind of learning setting extra complicated, or sometimes just plain not possible for that kind of goal. I’ve had a bunch of chronic health things happen since I was doing my Master’s degree, and that’s changed how I need to approach some kinds of learning methods.

That’s where the other learning experience comes in.

Making it a conversation:

At Paganicon, this year, I went to a workshop by Heather Roan Robbins and Teri Parsley Starnes called Dance with Uranus, wrestle with Jupiter: An experiential approach to the astro transits of 2017.

They’ve been doing an astrological overview of the year to come for a number of years at Paganicon. It’s one of the workshops I try to go to if I possibly can: I always learn a lot. This year, though, was extra interesting, because they were trying a new method of teaching it.

They started with a bit of initial conversation (did you know Pluto is where it was a year before the Boston Tea Party?) and then they drew our attention to a central altar, which had radiating lines for all twelve signs marked on the floor with tape.

They each took on the identity of specific planets (two at a time) and framed what was going on as a conversation. They used large pieces of paper with the symbol for the planet and coloured scarves to help indicate which planet they were, and used the names frequently.

They did this for various combinations of the slower-moving planets in combination. Each conversation was a few minutes, and included some information for people fairly new to astrology, some specifics of what was going on right now and in the coming months, and some ideas to incorporate something into your spiritual practice.

A couple of times, they invited people to get up and move around the circle, asking specific questions and pausing to talk to someone else if you wished (and they wished: they set up how to decline very clearly too.) Questions included things like “What is awakening in you?” and “What principle guides you?” and “How have you been holding your power?”

My notes for it are sort of chaotic (because I was so involved in the moment) but I came out of it with a much better understanding of the relationships between the planets, what opposition or trines or whatever felt like, in terms of emotional language (and especially the push-pull tension of opposition)

They ended with a little bit of simple ritual: talking about the energies we’d been discussing and offering up some related things. Little slips of flash paper and a candle for Jupiter’s expansions, stirring things up in a bowl of water for things being brought up from the depths.

I was at that workshop with a friend, and after, we both agreed it was one of the best things we’d been to ever, in terms of what we were taking away from it, and how the information felt a lot more anchored.

So, since that, I’ve been thinking about “How do I do more of that, then!”

This post is already rather long, so come back next post (sometime in the first half of June) for more about what this means in practice, what I chose to do in the workshop, and how it went.

About the Author

Jenett is a librarian and priestess in a small initiatory religious witchcraft tradition fascinated by the intersection of how we find information and how we can use it to make our lives (and other people's lives) better. She lives in the Boston metropolitan area with a cat and a fair number of books. Along with other online projects, she maintains a site, Seeking, with introductory material about religious witchcraft, research, and other useful tools, and offers research consulting on esoteric and eclectic topics through her business Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom.

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