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  • Writer's pictureRon Lapitan

Joyful Education

Updated: Aug 14, 2021

There's a young adults book, The Wings of Fire, which is about a prophecy that the war in the fictional world will end and give way to peace, and the characters go through pain and heartache to make it come true. Goes to show that even when you know something is promised in the future, it still takes passionate people to exert themselves and strive for it. (Sounds like Bahá'ís.) And a webcomic, "Omniscient Reader," about a webnovel which is seemingly unimportant because only one person reads it, which suddenly becomes very important because it becomes reality, and knowing the ending is what allows you to save the world. And a person who thinks themselves unimportant who suddenly becomes very important, because he's the only one who read it. These are things you've read because they were recommended to you in the groupchat for the grouping of teens you're supervising as one of the facilitators of the Young Writer's Initiative; where the teens also post inspiring quotes, questions about assignments, and words of affirmation to one another.

It's a month-long program your friends started where Bahá'í teens and their friends from around the world learn to express themselves through different literary mediums. This summer, the theme is "The Covenant," in honor of the 1 Year Plan, so the youth are learning the meaning of this complex concept, then learning to teach others about it by writing articles, drawing comics, and drafting theatre scripts. The program has a level of sophistication which feels like actual school, with a schedule of assignments that you and your friends write together with professionals in these industries, with deadlines, and a platform where the youth submit their work and receive revisions and feedback.

Ever read instructions for homework which you would describe as "beautiful"? That's how you'd describe YWE's assignments. Week 1 was for articles, which turned the conversation about doing research into a conversation about "investigation of truth." One of their assignments taught them a Hidden Words: "The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice... By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others," then asked them why it is important to learn about things for oneself before accepting others' opinions, then asked them how they would be mindful of this in their research process. It's the spiritual education we crave in classrooms without having that name for it. The part that asks you in every assignment, "What kind of world do you want to live in?" That teaches you nothing unless it affects your sense of yourself. That in words you once heard does not stop protests, but instead produces the kind of people who protest (or in the case of the Bahá'í dream, produces the kind of women and men who spend their lives building the new world which will replace the old one whose faults people protest against.)

The assignments are also rigorous. For example, the youth had to do an interview as part of writing their articles. The kind of rigor people think youth wouldn't arise to unless incentivized by grades. We don't have grades, only feedback. Our youth not only do the work but also ask a lot of questions, and they aren't the grade-interested ones ("Which parts of this will be on the test?") One of your group's girls asks you how to write a compelling intro, so you have a conversation with her about hooks. A boy in your group asks you how he can relate a topic like "superheroes" to the Faith, so you have a long conversation with him which leads eventually to an article about how 'Abdu'l-Bahá was a superhero, Whose superpower was to transform ideals into actions. Then your girl whom your talked with about hooks asks you how to overcome one's fear of sharing her writing with others, so you have a conversation about courage. Questions which are interested in learning for its own sake; excellence for the sake of excellence.

It is a culture which also shows that spiritual education can exist together with an environment which embraces diversity, makes space for people to exist as their full selves. One of the teens identifies herself as an atheist during group discussions, invited by her Bahá'í school-friend, whom the facilitators encourage to bring her full self to her writing about the Faith while giving feedback.

Sunday at the end of each week is when we meet for the youth to share what they created. None of the youth want to share at first, and there is an awkward pause. But once one steps up, others follow; and each person who reads their work captivates us with the beauty of their voice; makes the room applaud and smile from ear to ear. It is joyful education.

There is also a professional for each week who gives a guest lecture on Tuesday to share some insights into the craft, then joins again on Sunday to give them positive feedback, and praise them for what they created. This week, it was a journalist for, a blog which is among the top reasons people in the US learn about the Faith and join the community. To a girl in Cambodia who writes about her feelings of isolation being the only Bahá'í at her school, she praises the personal nature of her work which elevates an experience other than the American one, something missing both in media at large and in the Bahá'í community. To your girl who dreaded reading her work out loud, who interviewed her grandmother and wrote a history of her life of service to the Cause, she praises her use of focused questions which drew out thoughtful descriptions of her grandmother's experience, praises the value of her work as a piece of history in our young Faith, and praises her reading voice (we all agree in the comments she should run a podcast.) To the atheist (her friend who invited her claps ecstatically when she volunteers to read), she praises her clear explanation of the Faith which Bahá'ís could learn from, and we all agree it should replace the current explanation of the Bahá'í Faith on Wikipedia.

Getting to know the voices of these youth, in these presentations, in the questions they ask, and in the assignments we've been reading throughout the week and sending back with feedback, how thoroughly the passion for excellence for its own sake, and the dream of a better world permeates them, makes you excited for the Bahá'í world; to have radiant youth like these to be its writers, its artists, its playwrights. Reminds you why the words "new world" are used to describe the dream of this Faith. Because the quality of minds it rears make up a "new people," who create glimpses of a new culture simply by coming together and exercising those minds. It's the kind of thing that makes you think to yourself, "The dream works!" That gives you a pride to be among the children of this Cause which you're not sure a lot of young people have.

Afterwards, one of the girls in your team asks you how much time they have for the final assignment of this week, to peer-review the articles of a couple others in your team and write feedback. She says the articles are all so beautiful that she wants to read them all, from all the teams, and write a positive review for each one. See what I mean by joyful education?

"Consider the wonderful effect of spiritual education and training. By it the fisherman Peter was transformed into the greatest of teachers." - 'Abdu'l-Bahá

(Image: Wings of Fire, the book one of your brilliant groupmates recommended)

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