The Courage to Use Technology: Experiments in Circles of Trust
by Circle of Trust® Facilitator Chris Love
“I’m very far from a ‘techie,’” asserts founding Circle of Trust facilitator Sally Hare, PhD, from her home in Surfside Beach, SC. Despite professional credentials as president of Still Learning, Inc., distinguished professor emerita and founding director of the Center for Education and Community at Carolina Coastal University, Sally says technology’s lure is for her very personal: it suits her life as an introvert. “It fits who I am. From the fourth grade, I’ve always had pen pals, so this is the adult form of that for me.”
Sally is convinced that technology is critical to engaging more people in Circles of Trust. She also believes that Circle of Trust facilitators bring an unusual intimacy to high-tech connections. Sally’s earliest experiments were with her 1996-1998 Courage to Teach® retreat series, using technology to deepen participants’ retreat learning, offer access to graduate credit and support efforts to apply Circle of Trust concepts in the classroom.
Sally’s asynchronous email course offered teachers across four different time zones the opportunity to do the work on their own schedules. She was amazed at the depth of the conversations and connections – and the depth of students’ reading and learning, far beyond the requirement for graduate credit.
In the late 90’s, Sally offered a graduate course called The Courage to Teach at Coastal Carolina University. She created an on-line version of the course to reach teachers in rural communities who couldn’t come to campus. To simulate a retreat atmosphere, Sally added unique touches to her assignments. Students who were about to read “The Woodcarver,” for example, were instructed to “get a comfy chair and place an object of beauty before them.” Sally remembers one student email in particular that reveals how immediate the participant-facilitator connection can be even in a distance learning experience. It read, “Dear Sally: I am standing in my kitchen cooking supper, and I just couldn’t not tell you how exciting I am finding the Woodcarver. Now I have to go before I burn the chicken!”
Online Courage to Teach and Courage to Lead Graduate Courses
At Dominican University in San Rafael, California, Circle of Trust facilitator Margaret Golden, EdD teaches an online Courage to Lead graduate course based on The Courage to Teach.
Margaret, an Associate Professor of Education and Chair of Dominican’s Single Subject Teaching Credential Program, can welcome up to 10 students into a virtual classroom. She posts handouts, assignments and poetry on a virtual “whiteboard.” Students in turn post comments and even pictures during the real-time sessions. Students may post journal entries on a virtual “black board” for online discussion between classes.
While Margaret is always on camera to hold the space for the real-time part of the course, students may participate off-camera. “They can be on their own couch with a cup of coffee and their feet up … We give people permission to create their own space,” she explains.
Before students go into breakout groups, Margaret emphasizes to them that “who I am as a teacher and how I bring that into a leadership position with whatever I am doing” is central to the course, and listening to others is “the whole point” of this leadership work.
To deepen the experience and offer students the opportunity to experience a face-to-face Circle of Trust retreat experience before participating online, Margaret says she and the director of the Education Masters Program, a veteran of two Circle of Trust retreat series, are now looking at how they might modify the masters program to begin and end with retreats and schedule her online course along with other offerings that would occur between the two retreat experiences.
Trust Via Videoconference
From a federal facility in the Washington, D.C. area, Dr. Judy Brown and her leadership program students, at four different locations – some in remote sites as far away as Asia – lean into an intimate conversation before large TV screens equipped with cameras. Judy says that when a federal agency asked that she convert her leadership program offerings into a distance learning mode to meet the needs of staff posted overseas, she resisted.
“[But] what I have learned is how possible it is to be in real conversation across space. You get a comfortable chair and sit down, pose an open question, and listen, and before you know it you’re in conversation.”
Judy is a founding Circle of Trust facilitator and a Senior Fellow at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. “The level of intimacy … is just stunning and lovely,” says Judy, amazed at the stories she hears from participants who truly live across cultures. Judy leads them through other retreat-based activities, including small-group conversations.
“The breakthrough for me is that we can really create intimate conversations doing it. Even among strangers. We can hand each other things across this back fence that’s 1000 miles wide.”
Across a somewhat shorter back fence, David Henderson, EdD, uses videoconference technology to conduct classes with his Principalship Program graduate students participating from sites throughout Oklahoma. David, Assistant Professor of Education in the Educational Administration Program at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, allots 95 minutes of his four-hour distance classes to Circle of Trust work.
David also mentions students’ long distance response to the classic piece, “The Woodcarver” to assess the possibilities of distance learning Circles of Trust. "When I do ‘The Woodcarver,’ that's when I really get blown away by the context of this work. I read it to them … and ask them to please share a word or phrase that's powerful for them. And you hear words coming from all over the state,” he says. “It’s just like a retreat but 100 miles apart. It’s really quite powerful.”
Lower Tech: The Conference Call
Sometimes limited resources dictate that distance work be conducted from a somewhat lower rung of the high tech ladder. In my own work in Montana, I typically face such resource restrictions and yet want to extend the retreat experience for participants who are often far apart, isolated and unable to finance participation in a retreat series. Happily, I recently discovered the benefits of the creative conference call.
We are now beginning a second series of five virtual book groups based on Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness, conducted via conference call for clergy who participated in introductory Circle of Trust retreats in 2009. The purpose of the virtual book groups is to offer pastors a low-cost way to re-connect “in retreat,” to deepen the spiritual work they began face-to-face and to enrich communication among widely-scattered colleagues.
We all (8 maximum) connect for a check-in, reading and briefly unpacking a passage from the book and providing journal prompts. We all hang up to journal for 20 minutes and then call back one of several small group numbers. Participants take ten minutes each to share what they wish from journaling and practice asking one another honest, open questions. Then we all reconvene as a large group.
Participants agree the calls work surprisingly well to create the sense of being in retreat. Many attribute the trust experienced on the phone to the sense of trust created in the introductory retreats. As those in the first series of calls urged me to tell future prospective participants, “Give this a try. This is not your average conference call.”
Thankfully, my new callers in a new series also find that the telephone calls are surprisingly spiritual. As one put it, ”There’s a kind of wonderful irony here [about using the telephone this way] that this little bane of our existence that monitors our every move … could actually become a way of retreat.”