This is not an easy story to tell. It will also be the longest post I have written so far, so brace yourselves, a lot is coming your way. You can also read it in more takes, so relax.
“Special Effects” is the title of a training course concept that we have developed back in 2013. We wanted to realise a training for trainers who are involved in non formal learning – adding our own little magic twist, the “special effects” of the title.
And we did! Actually we did it three times. The first, pilot edition, was in Italy, March 2014. Then it followed Czech Republic, December 2014. And then Portugal, May 2015. The team was originally composed by 4 trainers: me, Katrin Luth from Austria, Honza Latal from Czech Republic and Bara Blahova, also from the Czech Rep. Then Katrin had to go on to her fantastic life adventure of becoming a mother (hurray!), and so the team shrinked to the dynamic trio that we are today.
So what are the “Special Effects“?
It’s difficult to say. I guess we leave the meaning open on purpose. On one hand we want to show that training (and education, and communication in general) is hard work. It requires preparation, background work, study, constant self improvement. So if you rely only on the “special effects” such as smoke and mirrors, you will maybe impress somebody on the short term, but fail to deliver a memorable and enriching learning experience. So in this sense, the special effects are nothing “special”: preparation, research, discipline, homework.
On the other hand though, we want to transmit the message that if you want to really reach people, a “special touch” can and should be delivered. Ours is in fact the connection with spirituality and nature. Not only outdoors: there is a lot of Nature that can be discovered looking inwards, not outwards. So we make sure to include a lot of work on Ceremonies, Rites of Passage, authentic communication like “The Way of The Council“, meditation, a good balance between body, mind and spiritual work.
We understand it’s not an approach that can work with everybody. We make sure our approach is gentle and inclusive, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously, all the time. Some people come from very different backgrounds just to try something different and be challenged. That’s a very healthy attitude. Some others, come looking for spiritual enlightenment – and may be disappointed, since at the end what we do is a training for trainers and we start quite from the basics!
And since I am committed to quoting Star Wars at least three times in this post, this is the first one.
Which really summarised our thoughts on the matter: “A special effect is a tool, a means of telling a story. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing”. Way to go, George!
So our journey starts from here: Italy, March 2014.
We had the honour to host the first, experimental edition of the course in our residential centre in Sermugnano, a tiny medieval village in the middle of Italy. I co-founded the Cooperativa Sociale Muovimente together with 3 other partners in 2007, to develop our own educational and social projects. Somehow, we still manage to do it – and in the process we get to take in our management the former youth hostel (and former-former elementary school, before… the town run out of kids). Muovimente was hosting the training course, which was realised with the support of the Erasmus+ programme. By the way, we will all be almost jobless if the European Union dissolves… the mistakes we are making in managing the Greek crisis are gigantic (I am writing in July 1st, 2015) and I really hope we won’t have to regret these days, in the future.
But back to our story. Sermugnano looks like this, just out of a fairy tale:
and this is how our residential centre looks like
and this. It’s a great place to have seminars and we put a lot of work into it, it feels like a family member by now.
So the week started! We had so many ideas to squeeze into one programme, that a wall could barely fit them all.
The programme was actually quite experimental and we made a lot of changes along the way. A strong element of the methodology was however “Service and Care”, that we use in almost all our activities. It means that everyday activities start with a solid 30 to 45 minutes of group work, in which everybody is committed to do something for the group. It could be from taking care of the rooms, cleaning the working spaces, working in the garden… or actually preparing the food. Ah yes, there is also a slot for free time!
For some reason, the time in the kitchen ended up to be many people’s favourite. Ah, and the guy in the white and blue checkered shirt is my dad! He works with us now, and he is the backbone of our kitchen staff. So everytime I work there, it really tastes like home. Literally!
People couldn’t take the food off their minds for quite some time, after the experience.
The programme had many interesting moments. In the team we struggled a bit to find the right balance of strings to touch. We had everything, from the most classic getting to know each other games
to an introduction to the Way of the Council, held ever so gracefully by Katrin.
We made sure to cover all the basic of training, so we worked from theory of learning to learning styles, elements of programme design, interpersonal communication, teamwork. The group was fantastic, composed by a very diverse range of participants coming from all over Europe and with very different backgrounds, from almost beginners to very experienced people who took more and more responsibilities in the programme.
Ah, and we also enjoyed a very relaxing half-a-free-day with a picnic at the Bolsena lake. It still feels exactly as in this picture:
We had fun building our own idea of how learning works
and then bravely jumped into a big challenge: to actually deliver three hours of non-formal learning activities to the students of a local high school. The attendance was enormous: more than 100 young people enrolled (we asked for less, but we simply couldn’t stop them from coming!). We worked mainly in small groups and the students were wonderful for their enthusiasm, participation and enjoyment. Not only they loved skipping class for one day: they honestly welcomed an opportunity for a different approach to learning.
At the end of the morning, we needed the main courtyard of the school to gather them all for the goodbye (and this picture).
All together, it was a memorable experience for all of us involved. The group feeling was lovely, we had this “Italian spring” feeling all over us, and all in all it was a glorious time to remember.
The feeling of achievement at the end of the week can be summarised by this picture, really, taken against the grey sky in Sermugnano (yes, there are cloudy days in Italy too).
Ah, and – fantastic! As part of some “Service and Care” media service, the whole group participated in our own very special version of Pharrell William’s “Happy”. I know, the song was really everywhere and you heard it so many times that your ears wanted to cry (if they could), but maybe you can make a little effort and watch this one here. Because it’s really… “Special”.
Next, we moved our caravan to Czech Republic (December 2014). Our brave team member Bara Blahova took the initiative to propose an application for grant, it was successful (Bara’s applications always are), and we could host the next edition of the course in the fantastic training ecocentre of Kapralùv Mlyn, near Brno, in Moravia.
The main differences from the first edition were in the team, since we were now three trainers instead of four, and in the space & time. It seems that to be in winter in the Czech Republic is different from being in spring in Italy. How unexpected, uh? We noticed it also had a very clear effect on everybody’s mood, feelings and work.
So the whole experience had a much more wintery, reflective, introvert side to it. We had many moments outside too – and surprisingly we only had snow one day towards the end of the course.
But cold is part of Nature, and winter has a unique magic that is special indeed. We allowed ourselves to completely feel it, as we want to play with all the elements that nature offers, rather than fighting against it.
In general, I would say this winter edition was the “dark one”, as probably I should have expected from the very beginning. Being it the sequel of a very successful experience, this was the only way it could play out. I say it with no judgement at all, it was actually lovely to dive deep into some darker places of the soul and reflect on them in our learning journey. It was our “Special Effects strike back”.
Maybe as a consequence, the group developed even quicker that touchy-feely atmosphere that in the books and application forms goes under the definition of a “positive and judgement-free learning environment”.
Anyway, we got it allright.
Again, we were blessed with a fantastic group of participants. Again, people with very different levels of experience and backgrounds, but so brave, committed, willing to jump into
even the most boring tasks every learning challenge we proposed.
It’s probably worth to mention here that we had received 145 applications for this course (for the Italian edition they were “just” 69). Maybe the word-by-mouth, maybe the time, maybe the place – or maybe the topic! – anyway it felt like we stroke the mother load. So we had the luxury of a really thorough selection of participants – and I am so sorry about the many, many that we had to turn down – and when it happens you can rest assured you will have a strong, strong group. Probably challenging, but hey, we are all in for the same reason, aren’t we?
So we had “Service and Care” again, and it worked beautifully again,
With the media group being particulary inspired into photo report and editing, as shown in some examples here
And they were not afraid to pull their own weight, as well as other’s.
Anyway, the “special effect” of this course was the stronger connection with the nature. We were actually in the middle of a forest, with the closest connection to an inhabited place probably half an hour on foot. It’s a place that called for challenges and reflection, and we were close to the end of the year. The group showed a special interest in the more spiritual activities, and so we dared to dig deeper in them. We had a proper fire ritual at the opening of the course, to evoke in a very strong way the “Separation Phase”.
In several occasions we worked on ceremonies and symbols, like with a strong “Threshold Walk” masterfully facilitated by Honza.
And in general, as I said, the whole setting allowed for more space for reflection and spirituality. Instead of having a workshop day with a local high school, that turned out to be too complicated to organise, we proposed that the group would work on its own. All participants were proposing workshops and activities to each other, divided in small teams according to their interests, styles and objectives. And then, after each session, they would meet for reflection, debriefing , and feedback. It really worked!
It’s worth to mention also that just within walking distance, in the middle of the forest
we could find natural caves. So it felt only natural to exploit this opportunity, inviting participants to explore their darker feelings and fears when entering their “darker places”, of course related to work but also, who knows? In personal life. It was a really intense day for all of us.
I also remember with a special feeling the very powerful closing ritual, when we gathered in the middle of the last night, walked into the forest and to mark the end of the course and the beginning of the new life after it… no, I will not tell what happened next.
But I just remember the wild screams of joy and achievement, and the party night that followed. What an emotion! I think I couldn’t wish for a stronger end of my working year. It was really, really an intense experience that I will remember for a long time.
To complete the programme, we invited two guest trainers to deliver specific sessions. One was Helena Koskova, psychotherapist and member of the Czech national pool of trainers for non formal education, who worked on personal development, finding our strenghts and weaknesses as trainers, and team building following the Pesso Boyden system approach. Very inspiring, and lots of eye-opening moments reflecting on our own nature as trainers.
We also worked with Stefan Schwarc from Do Svéta, who towards the end of the course delivered a
completely crazy very challenging workshop, which included rating people with numerical scores, dancing in tribal costumes and some gladiator fight. Yes, that’s right. The session of experiential learning was aimed to break stereotypes and clichés in the group, and to provoke conflict. And boy, it worked! I remember staying up until past midnight with the group for the debriefing of that day. That was still considered the strongest experience of the week, by many participants.
So to close, Star Wars reference number two. I managed to slip (in the already super-busy agenda) a workshop on “Why is Star Wars so cool?“, encouraged by the above the average number of real nerds that were present in the group. Of course Star Wars was only the frame and we discussed storytelling, the Monomyth and Rites of Passage in education, but it was lovely indeed to be able to pretend I was working, while in reality I was sharing and discussing videos like this
or the first, just released, trailer for Episode Seven. If you don’t know what I am talking about, I seriously doubt you are on the right blog by now, but here is a suggestion for you.
And we finally get to the last chapter (for now!) of this story. May 2015, Portugal.
The thing that I will remember the most from this adventure was
white sangria. I honestly had no idea it could be done! And boy, the answer is “oh yes!“. You need white wine, or even better champagne if you want to do it really extra special. Then some sweet juice, could be grape or pinapple or apple (sources disagree). White sugar, ice, vodka to spice it up. And of course, lots and lots of fresh fruit: apple, lime, orange, strawberries (fantastic), some say peach. I don’t think you can ever make it wrong. It’s fantastic and refreshing and… careful with it, or your summer night will be over before you know it.
Anyway, ah yes, the course. This time the challenge to host us was taken by Inés, who was a participant in the first edition in Italy and got the inspiration to realise it within her organisation in Portugal, Animam Viventem. We were hosted in the area around Sintra, not far from Cabo de Roca which was actually within walking (well, a long walk) distance. Nobody knows where Europe ends in the East, but that is for sure the most-western point on the Continent. Interesting. Of course I am talking from a geographical point of view. Because politically, Europe could be over much, much earlier if we continue to screw things so badly.
We were right on the ocean. Incredibly inspiring location. So, after spring in Italy and winter in the Czech woods, we could experience summer in Portugal. And guess what, it was different, again!
The place offered huge, sometimes unexpected, moments of inspiration to all participants, and the team.
We used the connection with the nature a lot, again of course, and the ocean and the incredible natural scenery offered so many opportunities in terms of learning suggestions and possibilities that really, all we had to do was to be quiet, and listen.
Except when we had to speak of course. Like here.
Again, we decided to open and close the course with a strong ritual connected to nature, to mark the crossing of thresholds. Having the ocean right there – what a better symbol for entering another world? We all come from the water. And we all return to it.
We asked people to “meet the Ocean”, each in their own preferred way. The result was wonderful. And of course this connection was used again and again during the week.
As you can see in this picture, that was actually taken during one of the “peer workshops” organised by participants themselves. The invitation was “Claim your reward from the sea” and people had actually to face the ocean waves to obtain their well deserved inspiration!
The summery feeling was with us all the time. And again, we decided not to fight it. A certain atmosphere of lightness and playfulness was everywhere and it probably made the main element of the course. Again, we were very successful in looking for participants, having received 217 applications for this course. But clearly the facts that 1) we were going to be by the ocean, 2) almost in full summer, and 3) near Lisbon, were completely irrelevant for the applicants. They all wanted to come for us and the programme, yes!
Nevertheless, we enjoyed the attention. It took us one full work day to read and assess them all,
but this time we really screwed up the selection and once again the process resulted in a very motivated and talented group of participants. Gifted, first of all, with a great sense of humour. I hope, by now, or I have lost a lot of friends already.
We also hosted one guest-trainer, since we became fond of that concept (and it gives us trainers the chance to rest a bit during the very intensive programme). This time we opted for Jo Claeys, Dutchman who lives in a very small rural village in Portugal. He proposed to our group one of his authorial workshops, the “Plan B“, a very intensive simulation game that aims to bring about reflections on development, inequalities, social justice, corruption and how we manage the common good. That is, poorly.
The activity didn’t end particularly well and several thousands imaginary citizens of our continent were dead, as result of poor living conditions, overpopulation and (ykes!) starvation. And yet, as Jo said, our performance “gave him hope”. Meaning that our group was not an especially nasty one. Considering that we let some 60,000 of our own people die just out of plain incompetence, mistakes or open greed and corruption, I seriously fear what a “worst ever” group must be like, in what be Jo’s turbulent experience. But oh, well: professional hazards.
Life goes on, and so did we. We performed some more group exercise to practice feedback after the very stressful simulation. The result turned out to be also very stressful,
certainly for me especially for some people.
One element I would point out was the introduction to the “Four Shields of Human Nature“, or Medicine Wheel as it was called by many cultures including some native American nations. It’s a basic and fundamental model that brings together the natural cycles and the life stages we all face, and it’s great to understand where we are in a particular moment of our life, what challenges we are facing, and what others we might want to invite in order for our energies to flow. And it’s so graceful and so full of deep meaning and… each person finds what they need, in it. It’s just another very, very old story and maybe that’s why we love to have it reminded to us every so often.
I remember struggling with this model when I first met it. For me it wasn’t natural as an expansion of my awareness. I could understand it, but I couldn’t quite feel it. It’s been a slower integration process that took quite some time to unfold, and I guess I finally made it my own only last year, in 2014, when I personally took part to my own Vision Fast experience, in the Death Valley in California.
But that’s another story! This time around, let’s just say I loved being the Wise Old Man who shared this amazing piece of wisdom.
In retrospective, I think this third edition was a bit of a mix between the first two. We put a lot of training fundamentals in the programme (including how to work with voice, non verbal and para-verbal communication, presentation skills, feedback…) and we included nature and spirituality as much as we could. The result has been a super full, very intensive learning experience, with probably too many layers to be able to fully grasp on the spot.
And that’s supposed to be. Right now people are in their process of integration, making the most out of what happened in the course, and delivering it all back home. Or at least some part of it. Is it ever possible? Sometimes the true value (expected or not) of a transformative experience comes unexpected, three, six months later, even a year. It happens sometimes that I receive emails from participants of past courses, even one or two years after an experience, and they say: “Hey man, I wanted to thank you for that experience. Something happened to me yesterday that suddenly made a lot of sense”. This is natural, somehow, and we have to keep the door open to whatever unexpected can emerge from the folds of our awareness, memory and even subconscious. That’s part of the beauty of working with the Transcendent (call it as you want: Spirituality, Magic, Nature, Unknown…).
And that is indeed one of the elements that we try to cover in our activities, towards the end of the programme. I wonder if we ever can communicate this. But people are able to do their homework. And in education, you have to trust your participants, that they will do their active part.
The week was very, very intense for everybody.
I really mean everybody.
But we did it! And the feeling of achievement and empowerment on the last night on the beach was another of those moments that are hard to forget. It feels like I have my own crown jewels, made of memories, and from time to time I need to tell those stories to somebody, maybe even myself, to bring them to life. And then, they are as good as real again.
So where will the next edition be? Some people say Slovakia, some say Poland… who knows? Maybe you could be the next one hosting this event! If you are interested, feel free to contact us and we will support you in every possible way. Except money, because we don’t have much of it anyway.
Not over yet! I promised three Star Wars references!
(plus a bonus easter egg that makes them four actually)
To celebrate the release of the second trailer for Episode VII
that is totally mind blowing friggin’ awesome that holds a certain sociologic interest, in Portugal I hosted again a workshop on Star Wars and the Monomyth. It’s kind of my little nerd ritual, something I have to do, a little (positive) virus that I spread around. Because if people grew with Star Wars and learned from it everything there is to know about life, good and evil, relationships, power and politics, learning… we would all be a lot better off. People would not act as arrogant bullies, if they knew they would be compared to some Darth Vader underdeveloped parody. I think the world would be all in all a better place. Want to bet? Well, certainly not worse than it is now. Anyway, it certainly inspires me: let’s be frank, whatever is able to unleash this level of crazy, frenzied enthusiasm (see below) must be a pretty cool thing. We might not understand it fully, but it must be powerful stuff. Right? And what if I could manage to discover its secrets, and include them to my educational activities?
What if people were excited about learning just half, maybe one-third of what these guys feel about a “Galaxy far, far away”? What if learning could actually be one of everybody’s strongest life passions? Oh, but that’s another story. One that I feel I might be telling soon… enough.
Thanks folks, if you managed to read all this! Once again, all feedbacks and comments will be greatly appreciated!