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third things

(or, who wants to start a book club?)

a digression into learning models

as a teacher, i've had occasions, both beautifully fluid and rich and horrendous-train-wrecky-unsuccessful, to sit in the driver's seat of dialog. in an ideal learning setting, i'm not pouring wisdom into empty vessel minds from a podium--I'm not the dangerously short piece of chalk tap-tap-tap-SQUEEEEL-tapping on blank slate intellects. i've had my fair share of professors who DID do this: the chaucer teacher who started speaking at 8:01 and stopped at 8:49, mocking the terrified students who bothered to speak up. the shakespeare "scholar" who droned for 50 minutes with closed eyes, making the class feel like we were an afterthought--spies watching in secret. old school colonial education at its finest.

i'm much more a fan of what's called the "adult learning model" of education. it functions in a "three passes" approach and on a couple of very important suppositions that work to break old hierarchical modes of learning into more egalitarian, dialogic encounters with information. first, it requires the active choice of a learner to engage--essentially, it requires consent, the kind that's expressed when someone chooses to enroll in a program or a class, thus differentiating it (in one of many ways) from modern american K-12 learning. then, it requires that students, out of a desire to learn or to more deeply understand, encounter relevant material on their own first. this can be through reading, answering questions in learning guides, or completing activities before a class begins. this pre-work then facilitates the actual work of the class--not encountering material for the first time or being "taught" it, but, in a facilitated group setting, having the opportunity to take the information many steps deeper via group discussion and facilitation by a leader. now, pass one and two are complete.

the third pass at course material comes in the form of studying for a test or completing some sort of culminating project, both of which (though deeply flawed) are ideally informed by both the student's self-motivated first encounter with the basic material AND the facilitator's structured group re-encounter and deeper analysis. if this type of learning were a meal (because I love a good metaphor), students first read the recipe and source/gather/prep ingredients on their own, the facilitator then helps each of them with the project of making it into dinner (and each meal will be a bit different and should suit each student's tastes), and then the final project is to be able to enjoy the finished food, think about how it tastes, feels, and smells, tweak the recipes accordingly, and then be able to teach cooking to others.

this model isn't perfectly egalitarian, but it comes pretty dang close. in terms of power dynamic, the student is ultimately "in charge" because without their buy-in and supportive feedback, the class couldn't continue to exist. the instructor, whose salary depends on student engagement, holds the other half of the power in that their expectations have to be met and they are ultimately in charge of assessing the sufficiency of the work done in class. this part of the relationship can be a challenging push/pull for certain.

an easier push/pull, when this kind of learning goes well, is in the delineation of the role of teacher-versus-student. in an adult learning model, the student buy-in means that i, as the instructor, learn and grow from them just as much as they (hopefully) do from me. i rack up recipes for new versions of my meal and thus become a better and more well-rounded cook. from me, they understand the essence of cooking more deeply and can thus instruct others more clearly on choice of ingredients.

the birth of dialog through third things

focusing for now on the middle bit of this didactic trio, on discussion, on the facilitated meal-making, i want to share something that's been helpful to me both in personal and professional life: really thoughtful and intentional use of and engagement with what poet donald hall calls the "third thing". third things are connection points and conversation starters, and they can be invisibly ubiquitous (like the prep you're asked to do for a day of class, or a meal that you share with another person), or they can be obvious and intentionally presented as third things ("hey, everyone read this poem, and then we're going to talk about it"). essentially, third things stir up inspiration for conversation between two or more people.

but before i get more deeply into that, a little bit about why we need them...

imagine that i asked a room full of people, apropos of nothing, "how and why should we care for one another as humans?" in a classroom, there would be crickets (and on zoom, 30 boxes of thousand-yard stares) as everyone cast about in their minds for an anchor point, for a reference, for context for why their teacher was asking and how they might best engage. some would be hoping that others speak up so they don't have to. as an instructor, i might be pacing through the silence, wallowing my realization of having done a bad job as a guide.

(how about you, reader? what comes up for you with such a broad and container-less, map-less question?)

now imagine that i asked a class (or you) to read the poem "shoulders" by arab-american poet and humanitarian naomi shihab nye (you there, please go do it. it's short).

and then i asked the class (or you):

  • what image sticks out most in your mind from this poem?

  • how were your other senses engaged?

  • what emotions did you feel while reading it?

  • how do you think nye sees and understands the idea of care?

  • what do YOU care for in the way this man cares for this child?

  • how might we as a society translate this micro-expression of care into the macro scale, the larger relationships between each of us?

  • what do you think is at stake in our choice to care or not to care?

game. changed.

when you use a third thing, there's an anchor. there's a point of reference. there's something that stirs everyone up and makes them see things and feel things and think things and then connect to each other on the basis of a shared experience of the thing. on a personal level, those things aren't being poured into you or taught to you--they're your own genuine and personal reaction to an outside stimulus. third things are mind-expanders. the magic that's created is purely you, but it's you with inspiration. and better yet, for the sake of creation of dialog, it's a group of simultaneously inspired people who will have varied, concordant, discordant, and relational thoughts all in response to a common stimulus. from this, meaningful conversation is born.

it is, like so much of the deeper magic of life, simultaneously so profound yet so incredibly obvious and ordinary, and we are its sources.

(and for students, this is why teachers beg you to please do your reading before class. no third thing and the conversation falls flat or drifts anchorless.)


question: what meaningful third things are at work in your life? where do you build opportunities for dialog over a

  • a show that you watch with a loved one?

  • a book that you read to a child?

  • meals that you make for your family and enjoy together?

  • a sport that you play with friends?

  • a class that you're taking with other students?

  • hardships that you overcome with people for whom you care?

you're thing one. they're thing two. what opportunities are you creating or noticing to connect with each other over a third thing? they can be as tiny as funny memes or as big as structured discussion circles. in a time where physical connection has never been so difficult and emotional connection so potentially fraught, what are you doing that's working for you? what could you do that you aren't doing? what relationships would you like to build, and how can you find an anchor for doing so?

are there third things in your life that are NOT feeding you that you need to get rid of?

an invitation: purposefully and thoughtfully cultivate dialog and relationship around a third thing.

my specific secondary invitation: i'm a teacher who finds herself without students for the first time in a decade and a half, and i deeply miss the richness and magic that happens in a group when people come together to go deeper with third-thing material. i'm thinking of facilitating a virtual year-long book club welcoming to all women and femmes to read sharon blackie's if women rose rooted. it wouldn't start until the summer, and i'd only do it if i could find 8-10 folks who wanted to jump on board.

what say you? if you're tentatively interested, email me at to say so, and i'll add you to the mental list. the only concretes i have so far: free besides cost of the book, weekday evenings once a month, zoom platform, all are welcome who welcome all, and we'd craft community guidelines together for holding and growing an inclusive brave space for conversation.

i hope you'll join me and see what magic our teacher/student brains can make together over a third thing. i'll give you the ingredients list and the recipe, and we'll make soup together.

be well, keep growing, keep going.

abby hall luca

the hearth chaplain

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