Monday, December 2, 2013

Hand in Hand: Scouting, Online Instruction Making Each Other Better

I sat in the Deacons Quorum room, waiting.

The young man giving the lesson quietly slipped out a borrowed tablet, got it ready to play some videos. Two other young men sat in chairs near the window. Sat is a loose word for Deacons; one sat conventionally, feet on the floor, the other sat with his legs pulled up onto the chair, knees tucked under his chin. He had something in his lap – LEGO figures – he was showing to the other boy.
Two other boys leaned their chairs against the wall. One of them realized with both the president and the first counselor gone, he, as second counselor, was in charge. He called the group to order.
I am their Scoutmaster, but in the fuzzy leadership links in the LDS Church between the Aaronic Priesthood and the Boy Scouts of America, my role at church is uncertain. Tuesdays are my days to shine and campouts and merit badge pow-wows are my territory; Sundays belong to the deacons quorum adviser. Who was not present.
The lesson commenced. The boy giving the lesson resembles my own: intelligent, obsessive, smug in his abilities and eager to challenge his cohorts to read a long list of scriptures, to guess the identity of the general authority speaking – Jeffrey R. Holland – and to repeat several times with joke that we look under our beds for devils and demons, while devils and demons look under their bed for Jeffrey R. Holland.
The boys by the window weren’t listening. The LEGO figures were more compelling.
The boy who took charge appeared to be asleep.
The other boy challenged everything the young man teaching said, finally blurting “Why does everything have to be a competition?” throwing the boy teaching off his game. He tried to recover by bringing up the Elder Holland joke again.A bishopric member poked his head into the classroom, looked at me. “You alone here?”
“Apparently so,” I replied.
He took a seat. As it was Fast Sunday, he wanted to make sure the fast offering routes were assigned. They were not. One boy lamented he wanted to sing with the choir after church and thus couldn’t do fast offerings. Another said since he’d volunteered to help pass the sacrament at a retirement community that afternoon, his obligation to fast offering collection was nullified. Three other boys just stared at the brown leather envelopes in the counselor’s hand.
Eventually, they decided amongst themselves that they could do two of the five routes. The leader went to find conscripts from the teachers and priests quorums for the other three. The lesson recommenced. With the Elder Holland joke.
These are my scouts, I thought. On Tuesdays, they’re noisier. There are others there who don’t regularly come to church who add their own individual elements of chaos and decorum, often at the same moment.
As I watched them, Wood Badge training kicked in. This kid challenging the teacher isn’t one who comes to scouts regularly. But when he does, I thought, our Scout team will go from norming to storming again – the team dynamic they’ve figured out (the norming, everything’s working normally) in his absence due to football practice will be upset and they’ll have to learn how to work as a team all over again (the storming, as in thunder and lightning) as he comes in, not knowing where to fit in, not knowing how the team has worked before, and with the team not knowing what to do as he attempts to fit in and his attempts are interpreted as disruptions.
I sat there with them, terrified.
Not because of anything that happened in the classroom. This wasn’t my first experience with this knot of Deacons on a Sunday. The boys always teach the lessons. That one kid always brings LEGOs and those two always sit by the window, distracted. The second counselor almost always looks like he’s asleep. And if the kid questioning everything isn’t there, another kid who does the same thing is.
But because I’d seen it all before. Somewhere. Deja-vu.
The Scoutmaster Handbook tells us this: “A new Scoutmaster is likely to approach his troop with self-confidence. He anticipates that his enthusiasm will excite his young charges to get the most they can out of Scouting.”
I can do self-confidence and enthusiasm. As can just about anyone any bishopric would call as Scoutmaster, providing he meets the basic requirements: He appears to be breathing, is likely to pass a background check, has not been openly heard swearing,  and is also on the bishopric radar after the ward paid for his Wood Badge training.
But the Scoutmaster handbook goes on to say, in the same breath and with that same self-confidence and enthusiasm: “Learning about the characteristics of boys, how to motivate them, how to deal with their behavior, and how to help them with their problems will give the Scoutmaster the insights necessary to enjoy working with his Scouts.”
Oh woof. This is something respiration and a mild financial obligation can’t cover.
Wood Badge taught me enough to know that “learning about the characteristics of boys” goes much beyond pigeonholing them into categories: Smug, self-confident yet awkward in social situations; At ease in social situations but prone to sweating and stumbling when called upon to pronounce words with more than three syllables; Distracted LEGO aficionado; Thrall of the LEGO aficionado; Avoider of responsibility unless it’s easy; and the inevitable Scout Camp Slob. Wood badge taught me that learning the boys’ characteristics meant finding ways for them to learn, to accomplish, to lead, despite the challenges they face from broken homes, aversion to schoolwork, or fixation with Danish toys.
Wood Badge taught me it’s okay to let the boys lead and to let them make mistakes; the Scoutmaster Handbook cautions me against “falling into the trap of controlling the Scouts’ experiences and doing everything for them.” Wood Badge taught me it’s better for boys to try and fail and then try again than never to bother trying because “the Scoutmaster did it for me.”
Wood Badge taught me that old saw from Lord Baden-Powell himself: “Scouting is a game with a purpose: the game is a fun and exciting program, and the purpose is to become better adults.”
To become better adults.
Funny, I’ve heard something like that before.
Part of Brigham Young University-Idaho’s mission statement reads “Prepare students for lifelong learning, for employment, and for their roles as citizens and parents.”
Different words. But the same thing.
All this time I’ve been concentrating on how the training I got at Wood Badge could help me be a better online instructor at BYU-Idaho. Part of me now sees this as a two-way street, as there are elements of our online teacher training and the experience of teaching diverse groups of online students will help make me a better Scouter.
As I sat in that Deacons Quorum room, I thought not of Scouting, but of my students at BYU-Idaho. What am I doing in class to, as the Scoutmaster Handbook advises, to make my classroom a safe place? To think ahead? To recognize students as individuals? And then conversely: What am I doing with my Scouts to encourage them to live gospel principles, to provide a quality education for Scouts of diverse interests and abilities, and to maintain a wholesome academic, cultural, social, and spiritual environment?
Should my goal be to squeeze my scouts through the eight hours of community-based service they need for their Citizenship in the Community merit badge, or to show them that there are community-based organizations who need service from every person, including Scouts and Scout leaders, so those organizations can concentrate on serving the public?
Should I sign my Scouts off on the Personal Fitness merit badge because they‘ve stumbled through three months’ worth of push-ups and mile walks and bookwork, or because through example they’re seeing how fitness now will pay dividends well into the future that for them may as well be a million years from now?
One hand can learn from the other. My role as an online instructor at Brigham Young University-Idaho has as much to learn from Wood Badge as my role as Scoutmaster has to learn from my teaching online English students.
So I took two of those Deacons – my Scouts – on their fast offering route, forgetting that when I arrived at church, my first thought was: My son is home sick; I don’t have to do fast offerings today either. We talked about the wind, the cold, the coming snow that might make our camping trip the coming weekend a bit more interesting. I reminded myself that one of those boys was in charge of planning our upcoming court of honor as he works on his Communication merit badge; I’d better follow up on that on Tuesday, lest the court of honor go unplanned and his experience fulfilling those merit badge requirements goes unfulfilled.
I also noted the need to plan ahead for my Foundations English students. They’re starting work on their group projects, with some of them already expressing anxiety over the mistake-makings of their peers. As I remind them I’m not a fan of group work myself, I also mention, casually – about half of what I do in my full-time job as a technical writer involves working with groups. Work doesn’t have to be pleasant to be necessary.
A game with a purpose.
Preparing students for lifelong learning.
One hand complementing the other.

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