Cana Academy Highlights: The Experienced Mountain Climber (by Betsy Brown)

Note: The following blog entry comes to us from our colleague and friend, Betsy K. Brown, who teaches and chairs the humanities program at Cicero Preparatory Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona. A graduate of Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in Creative Writing program, with a focus on creative nonfiction, Betsy loves to share the goodness of words and stories with young people amid the beauty of the American Southwest. 

On July 27-29, Andrew and Jeannette Zwerneman and Mary Frances Loughran of the Cana Academy coached the humanities teachers at my school through Zoom. We participated in six seminars on texts ranging from Plato’s Crito to Seamus Heaney’s sonnet series, “Clearances.”  

As many teachers begin to lead seminars again in the next few weeks, both on Zoom and in person, I have been reflecting on some of the specific advice the Master Teachers gave on how to be, in their words, “experienced mountain climbers.” 

Last year I camped with a group of experienced backpackers in the Grand Canyon. We covered nearly 30 miles in four days. We camped by the Colorado River, explored slot canyons, and scrambled over huge boulders, all while wearing over 30 pounds on each of our backs. Without my experienced friends, I probably never would have been able to go on that adventure. However, the trip would have been just as impossible had I not been trained to hike well on my own. 

Like beginning backpackers, young interlocutors need guidance, but they also must be willing to climb with their own two feet. A seminar leader therefore must be a guide. This role requires discernment—guides must know when to step in and point out a better trail, and when to sit back and let a student wander a bit. Guides must be both firm and encouraging when the trail gets steep and rocky. In the words of Jeannette Zwerneman, we must find “the proper balance between authority and freedom.” 

The only way to accomplish this is to get to know your students. “Buttress everything with love,” says Andrew Zwerneman. He stressed the importance of continuing to coach reticent students after class during times of online learning. Jeannette reminded us to be frank and kind, to simply talk to your class or to an individual student about why discussing can be difficult and what goals we can set. 

Above all, practice patience. I remember when I first began hiking. I was always in the back of the line, secretly wishing I was still at home on my couch. But now the uphill work has become joyful. As we continue to exhort our young interlocutors, they, too, can find the joy, notice the view, and count down the days until the next hike. 

Perhaps Marilyn Robinson said it best in her novel, Home“She [the teacher] was helping them assume their humanity. People have always made poetry, she told them. Trust that it will matter to you.” 

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