Back to School

September 1, 2011

The rumble of yellow school buses, crisp new backpacks, and the familiar ring of school bells  – the signs are everywhere – it’s back to schoolThis time of year marks carefree days of summer coming to an end and a new school year beginning. For those of us who welcomed this time of year with eager anticipation (that would be me), fall inspires the eternal student in us.

That voice urges, “Learn something new! Go back to school.”

If that’s what you’re hearing, I say, “Listen.” All you need to flourish is Beginner’s Mind …and maybe some newly sharpened no. 2 pencils.

Learning from a Beginner’s Mind or “I Am Not Smarter Than a Third Grader!”

The course was called, Art of Storytelling: Exploring stories and story types from various oral and written traditions – spinning tales and weaving hope. I was thrilled that this course was in my Master’s program line-up. I’d been enthusiastically reading, watching and listening to stories my whole life, and now I was going to immerse myself in learning the art of telling them.

Easy enough, I thought.

That’s until I stood in front of a group of wide-eyed third graders who were excitedly awaiting my storytelling performance about a clever monkey and two greedy jungle cats who can’t decide how to fairly divide a piece of cheese.

Preparing for my young audience, I had memorized the simple tale, created distinct, wild voices and given the characters great props, gestures and facial expressions to make the story come alive. I practiced in the mirror countless times.

I felt sure that my storytelling would bring this group of third graders to their feet.

I managed to deliver the first few sentences replete with arm gestures and animal noises. The kids were delighted. They laughed and started repeating some of the rhythmic language (a very good sign). And then I froze. I looked at the kids and they looked at me.

Silence.

Then a little boy offered, “What happens next? All you have to do is tell us what happens next.”

First, Beginner’s Mind says:
Do what’s next – don’t look too far ahead – take one step at a time.

I followed his lead and told them what happened next – for a few more sentences, a few more gestures, and a few more animal noises. And then I froze again. By this time the kids were invested in the story. “It’s okay,” one of the kids said in a reassuring tone. Another added, “Yeah, it’s okay. Don’t feel bad, you’re new at this.” More kids chimed in, “Start over… try again… I really like the monkey noises you make…. and the jungle cat noises… they’re really good too.”

Second, Beginner’s Mind says:
Fall down seven times, get up eight – celebrate falling down, as well as getting up.

I started over – from the beginning – several times. As I made my way through the antics of the clever monkey and greedy jungle cats, the kids coached me. They suggested ways for me to improve my delivery and even suggested story line adaptations. I listened and followed their imaginative minds and intuitive interjections.

Third, Beginner’s Mind says:
Let go of having to know.

As the kids were clapping, the critical voices in my head told me what I should have done when I froze, how I should have prepared differently, and what I should do next time. But the kids’ reactions changed my mind. While they drank their juice and ate their cheese and crackers snack, they recounted their favorite parts of the story with glee. As I observed these third graders, I started to shed all of the shoulds that were cluttering my mind. I began to fully appreciate the moment and experience the joy that filled the classroom.

Finally, Beginner’s Mind says:
Shake off shoulds and live in the present moment.

Weeks later, I received a packet of colorful handmade notes from the kids. They melted my heart.

  • That story was cool. Thank you Miss Lisa. I hope you come again soon. The story was funny. When are you coming back? If you come back do something funny again please!
  • A happy poem. Roses are red, violets are blue, you tell good stories and I like them too. Thank you! Love, Logan
  • To Mrs. Lisa, cheese to meet you. Love your friend, Austin

Little did they know what they modeled for me in that classroom: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” ~Zen Master Shunryo Suzuki

I don’t know that my storytelling skills have improved since that auspicious day in 2006, but the way I approach learning definitely has. Thanks to some very smart third graders, I know the significance and joy of practicing Beginner’s Mind when I set out on a new learning journey.

Try it in your back to school adventures this fall, and let me know how it goes! I’d love to know…

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