Stone Soup 2014 – Ward Mailliard

Ward Mailliard: We have a tradition, ‘Stone Soup.’ Stone Soup has turned out to be one of the more interesting stories because it has morphed over the years. I think we are ten years into Stone Soup at this point. And I had this wild notion. I was thinking. You know, the science fiction books that are like, there is book 6,7, and 8 and so on. And then they do the prequel. I was thinking what is the prequel to “Stone Soup.” Why was there was a famine? And what was that all about? Why were people starving? For those of you who don’t know, the story starts out there was a village and the people were starving in the village. And I thought what was the prequel. What happened?

So if we are using education as the metaphor. What has happened in education and what are we starving for in education? What is the famine for education? What is it that we are yearning for in education that’s not present, and why is that, and who created it and so on? So, the prequel needs to be written. I think that there is a lot of material there. So in Stone Soup while this village is starving, a shaman comes, I was also thinking it could be a ‘sha-woman’ too.(laughter) So, I figured to go gender neutral it would be a ‘sha-person’ showed up, and one of the prerequisites to learning is to welcome the stranger. The stranger is what is not present that needs to come into the community for the community to transform itself. And so, this stranger shows up in the community noticing that everybody is starving, and comes into the center of the village and says, “I know how we can feed everybody.”

So the first element in the transformation has to be that the village has to be curious. So I think, one of the three things that, perhaps, is the cause of the famine is the lack of curiosity, a lack of curiosity about who our students are that we are attempting to bring into the learning field with the assumption that we know something that they need to know without knowing them. So I have a question if we don’t see them, how do they show up? If there is not curiosity on the part of the teacher, how can the students be present in the room if we are not curious about who they are. Otherwise it is a one size fits all and that we are colonizing students with some ideas about that we think they should know.

So the people were curious. “Who is this weird person that says they know how to fix this situation? ” So the shaman says, “I have a magic stone.” You would notice, you have a stone in a book, more about the book later but everybody has a stone. So everybody here in the spirit of Chautauqua is the shaman or the ‘sha-woman’ or the ‘sha-person’. So you showed up with a gift. And so as the story goes, “Get a big pot and this stone will make soup. You just need water, a pot and fire and so, in the honor of Angeles, the fire is the creative fire that requires no wood. So the creative fire is what we are going to use to heat up the pot. All we need is the pot and the water and we place the stone in the pot. So another element of that is that showing up in the community, being welcome by the community and bringing your gift when you are not sure even if it will even be received by the community.

stone soup 1

So there is vulnerability there and maybe, part of the famine is that we have forgotten our vulnerability. We have forgotten as teachers how to be vulnerable because one of the things that I have been learning is that the more we are our authentic selves, the more vulnerable we are in the classroom, the more trust we build with our students: to admit when we our wrong, to admit when we don’t know, to be curious, to be able to hold dissent when it shows up. When somebody has got a different idea than you have and I am blessed at Mount Madonna with students who will show up even in their dissent, and how do you hold that because while we say we want our students to speak truth to power. Wait till they do it and see how comfortable you feel. (laughter) That becomes a recurring theme in the classroom. So, putting the stone into the pot and everybody sit down and we are going to make soup. So there is another element, I think that maybe lacking, which is patience in the classroom. And we have gotten into this maniacal metric of measuring everything assuming that somehow the measurement is actually going to improve things. So we keep taking the cake out of the oven to see if it has risen. How does that work? Well maybe you need to let it cook a while. You have got to be patient.

I learned a wonderful thing from Samdhong Rinpoche years ago. We went to interview him and we asked him about education and he said, “Well the Buddhists say three things about the teacher. Three things that the teacher needs to do. First, is to remove the fear in the student.” And I thought what an interesting thing to start with. Without safety and without trust there can’t be learning. Second, is to communicate knowledge. Ok we got that one. Third is not to give up until the student learnt. So, we sit down and the pot is boiling and the stone is doing whatever the stone does and the shaman says. “You know what makes the soup good is if somebody had a carrot.” And one of the villagers says, “I have a couple of carrots under the house. I put them under the house because they were no good by themselves and I was saving them. I will go get them.” And so they come and bring back a couple of carrots and they drop them in and as the story goes on and the shaman says well you know what would really be good would be if somebody had a potato, So somebody says, “Yes, I have a potato. I was saving the potato because it was no good all by itself” And so the potato goes into the pot, as do the leeks, turnips. By the time everybody has brought the gift that they were holding in exile and put it into the pot, there is this magic soup that was sufficient to feed the village and it fed the village for a long, long time.

So, the other part about the educational experience is how do we bring gifts forward. How do we see the gift that we are supposed to be nourishing in the student as teachers and how do we authentically call our students forth as they are with their gifts and so maybe in the story itself is the prequel of what was missing that needed to be added in order to end the famine. And this question about what is the gift that I am holding in abeyance because I am afraid that it won’t be received if I bring it. And I don’t think it relegates to students. I think this relegates to all of us as students whether we are teaching or imagine that we are students is, “what is the gift that I can bring forth that I held in abeyance because I wasn’t sure that it would be received.” Or “what were the gifts that I withhold?” How did I not show up authentically as myself because the context of the classroom was not safe for me to do that? I think everybody possibly, has story about that. So, authenticity, curiosity and vulnerability.

Perhaps, that was what, part of what was absent that was creating the context in which the village was starving. The picture is not entirely bleak because there are teachers and every teacher, I believe, deeply cares about what they do. And all learning is contextual and there is a narrative about learning that sweeps across the land and in fact around the world. And the “subversive orthodoxy “that exists in the classroom, I think is millions of teachers around the world who are existing within the orthodoxy of the existing narrative about school and a yet, as teachers are engaged in a kind of subversion of bringing humanity into that context. So it is a grey. It is not black or white. It is a grey.

stone soup 2

The opening ritual that we have which is a ritual designed for the ‘ritually impaired’ is a very safe ritual. You have your stone and there are some markers around the circle, which we can share, that will write on the stone. I was thinking that we have two things that I would be really curious about to know about each and every person in the room. One is this initial story of what is the invitation that I have been waiting for, that I haven’t received to bring forth the gift that I have held in abeyance. So it is about that inner fire of what I could do if I knew I could not fail. What gift would I bring forward? On one side of the stone, a word or a phrase or whatever you can fit on the stone. On the other side of the stone, is ‘What is the question or challenge that I am carrying about my relationship with education?’ So if you are a teacher, you may have a question, I do not know if I can fit mine on the stone but I am going to try. So what is the question that your bringing with you into the room and it can relate to learning or not or any essential question that you are bringing with you or a word that will signify that. We can write hieroglyphically. On one side of the stone, what is the gift that if I knew I could not fail or if I was invited to bring, I would bring that I have held in abeyance? And the other side is what’s the question or challenge that I am bringing with me today. Because when the shaman came into the village, the shaman did not bring an answer. The shaman brought a question that invited questions. The vulnerability of taking a risk that it would be the collective that would end the famine rather than the heroic leader. Because without the participation of the whole village, the famine could not end. So what I believe that we are gathered here today to do is to be the village that is required, the community that is required to explore the questions. To find whatever our next step in the engagement is. And the power is always in the questions, not in the answers. And as we go into smaller groups, the emphasis is always going to be on listening, with curiosity. Would you all be willing to engage into that? Oh! When you are done writing on your stone; this is the risky part of the ritual, you have to get up and place it in there, in the circle and if you can’t do that just put it in your pocket and we will get it from you later. And I wonder if we can have music to ease us along the road. Ah! Wonderful.