Author Archives: Jennifer K Miles

About Jennifer K Miles

I am an educator, researcher and writer, passionate about storytelling and its power to change perspectives of self. Through undertaking the journey of my own transformative learning, I now work with adults to support them in drawing forth stories of the strength and potential gained in their lives, as they move towards the creation of their stories as yet untold. My three beautiful adult boys are the most precious part of my story, and continue to walk with and support me in undertaking my PhD research about storytelling and the learning of our lives. I write about story and transformative learning ... the circumstances of our lives and the stories remembered; influences on the construction of our self-identities - positive and negative; critiquing the assumptions and limitations we have come to accept about ourselves, our potential, and our place in life; daring to imagine a story untold.

Finding meaning and making sense of the everyday

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I’m into the seventh week of my family’s annual beachside holiday on the beautiful Mornington Peninsula. Every year we come down to immerse ourselves in the soothing, natural delights offered by seaside living. Endless, changing vistas of magnificent skies and calming seas provide soul-healing space for us all.

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Traditionally, in previous years I have luxuriated in a daily early-morning swim in these divine waters to reconnect myself to nature, however this year has found me struggling to relinquish the warmth provided by my bed in favour of the invigorating seas.

I am also here in this peaceful place to bring my PhD thesis to its conclusion. I have managed to set aside a significant time period to achieve this, and have found myself more focused on paying greater attention to the need to sit down and commit to my writing. Even for this though, I have on many occasions curled up on my bed and allowed myself the luxury of immersion in the inner world of my thoughts.

Today is different. As I awoke to the sound of the seas lapping on the shore, I checked my emails to find this commentary from Heather Plett. Just as I did when reading  her article ‘Waking up is hard to do‘ (see also the link within this to ‘Holding space’), in ‘Trauma and Trump’ I found incredibly powerful words that connected deeply and provided me with a sense of profound personal meaning related to my response to Trump, and to others who have behaved towards me in ways that are cruel, dismissive and lacking in emotional intelligence.

Heather speaks, amongst many other things, about the somatic response of trauma and grief we experience and the ways our bodies unconsciously react to deeply disorienting situations.

Her words stirred me intensely, and I suddenly found myself longing to step into the comfort of the sea, to feel her soothing balm on my skin, to luxuriate in her embrace. So while most of my fellow seaside companions were still slumbering, I returned to the sea for my early morning swim.

I have much sense still to make of this, but it has affirmed, most significantly at this point, the emotional and physical connections we have… across our own times and across generations… and the ways in which these past experiences inform our present realities.

In response to the cognitive understanding of my past emotional and physical reactions, my body yearned to reclaim its power, to counter the unconsciously expressed trauma and grief, experienced through an act of reconnecting with healing rituals. It also reminded me that we are always in a state of becoming… we are always learning and unlearning our ways of being in the world.

Heather’s words spoke to me at a very deep level and uncovered personal revelations. Her may not connect with you, but I encourage to have a read to see if her thoughts stir anything for you.

I wish you a magnificent day ahead…

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Who do you want to be when you grow up?

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The new love of my life ... I wonder who she wants to be when she grows up?

The new love of my life … I wonder who she wants to be when she grows up?

What a busy year it’s been. I’ve been relishing life as a first-time grandmother, immersing myself in my university teaching with pre-service teachers, and continuing along the way of developing my PhD thesis.

As a reward to myself for a big year, I recently attended a writing workshop with Heather Plett in Noosa’s Hinterland on the Sunshine Coast, where I spent ten days contemplating writing from an open heart in preparation for writing up my thesis. It caused me to reflect deeply on the purpose of all I’ve been working towards over the last years – the point of my research in both my Masters and my PhD.

Reflections on my learning

Last year I read a post of Heather’s on holding space. I was incredibly touched by her words, by the insights she expressed, and by the sense her words made of so much of my experience. She gave me words for something I had known but not named, and I was affirmed by the power afforded the practice of holding space for others. I held her sense-making words and continued on with researching my PhD – speaking to VET teachers (vocational education and training) about their own experiences of returning to study, and the conditions and learning spaces they identified that were catalysts to transformative change.

fb_img_1477780611931Before April of this year, I had never heard of The Big House. Somehow though, I received notification that Heather Plett was coming to Australia to run two workshops. The Big House’s custodian Georgia Bailey had managed to whisper Heather from Canada to Australia, so I came from Melbourne to sit in circle, to learn more about holding space, to learn more about living with an open heart. My schedule for completing my PhD saw me to planning to write up my thesis in December, and I knew I had to be in Queensland in October to learn how to speak my authentic, academic truth from an open heart. Let me share a few insights attained during that time …

Opportunities for growth

For many years I have been on a path of learning. I left school early, married young and made beautiful babies, and ultimately chose to live separately from my boys’ father after eighteen years. Caring for three young boys required a good return on time invested, so a return to study was needed to lift my qualifications and earning capacity. I commenced tentatively and (with various degrees of success) managed to juggle the demands of work, study and sole parenthood. As I completed each necessary qualification and applied the learning in my vocation, I always found myself presented with new opportunities to explore, new spaces I could enter into and learn to inhabit. New identities I could try on.

When I look back on all the iterations of me along the way, the most constant knowing I have had throughout is that of the power of love. I didn’t call it love at the time … it was not until a few years ago when I was researching for my Master of Education and speaking with adults about their experiences of returning to study, that I was able to name it. Through undertaking a critically reflective essay on my own experiences of learning and stretching, it became so apparent that in all the faces of me – daughter, sister, friend, hairdresser, wife, mother, community services worker, fitness instructor and personal trainer, TAFE and teacher developer – I had unconsciously identified the power of love in supporting (or failing to support) people along their way.

In all vocations I fought for recognition in systems that seemingly took no heed of the individual and their unique strengths. Against typically industry-focused perspectives in education, I pushed for recognition of the need to create safe spaces where people could find themselves, so that they could succeed in learning whatever they chose to do, according to their strengths. That without these safe, nurturing spaces to stretch and grow … and fall over as is always part of true, sustainable learning … ultimate potential could never be reached. Truly fortifying life changes could never occur. I also realised after a time that it wasn’t enough just to affect individual students in my classes – I knew I had to research ways of developing and embedding an open-hearted approach within this industry-focused, standardised education system.

Consequently, my work as an educator and researcher in teacher professional development focuses on identity work as the primary foundation for cultivating potential learner capability. I have supported teaching practitioners across a broad range of professional development programs in universities, TAFE colleges, Adult Community Education, private and not-for profit sectors and have contributed to an International Boys School Coalition (IBSC) research project exploring masterful teaching practices in the education of boys. My current PhD research examines the experiences of vocational teaching practitioners as they unpack their own transformative stories of learning and teaching, and I am passionate about cultivating learning and learners.

My students and I speak a lot about social justice, about how our responsibility as teachers is to cultivate safe spaces where our young people – and adults returning to study – can learn about the world, locate and exercise their voice, and find courage to speak their truth. We speak about contesting our assumptions about life; about how we have the opportunity and responsibility to take action; about waking up to our place in the bigger picture of life. Heather Plett wrote a poem about this journey into the self – Waking up is hard to do (referenced in my last blog post). It is an incredibly powerful reflection on this journey, and I have shared it widely in my learning community. It asks us to consider how we experience new ways of being as we begin to wake up.

Applying the insights gained through my writing retreat

20161104_071430I have realized great gifts through my time at The Big House with Heather, Georgia and the learning companions I have come to know and appreciate with love and deepest gratitude. Previously unnoticed connections in my life, and long held truths have been reinforced and brought to the fore. For example that the spaces I create for people, and that people have created for me, are spaces where we ‘hold space’ for each other as we stretch and grow in understanding … that I am part of a container of magnificent souls who are here for each other in this life. I have also learned … and am beginning to integrate … to have the courage to be me, in all my quirkiness, in all my peculiarity. And to accept and celebrate others in their difference as they try to make sense of this often disorienting life … to accept others in their humanity.

Are we asking the right question?

Today I’ve been reading feeds on Facebook and LinkedIn about investigations, from various sources, into the professional development of teachers, and the education of our young people. It dawns on me that my inquiry into education – building on the inquiry of so many critical pedagogues – is asking a different question to that typically posed in traditional educational approaches.

When our children are growing up and entering the world of learning, we often ask “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And as we move along through life and take up additional personal and professional development, the same question is often presented … “What will you be once you’ve completed this qualification?” This certainly has been my experience, and I’ve always wondered why I felt so stuck in knowing how to reply. I wasn’t doing it to take on a specific title, to be able to tick a certain ‘box’, to become someone else’s notion of who I should be. I wasn’t able to name it at the time, however I’ve come to see that all the personal and professional development I undertook was because of what I intuited the learning would help me ‘become’.

I believe that education is about ‘becoming’. It is an evolving process that calls us to continuously interrogate what we know to be true about ourselves, about the world, and about our place in the world. I don’t believe it is about locating ourselves in a place that we can be squeezed into, I believe it is about locating ourselves. It is about finding the truth of who we are so that we can offer the strengths of ourselves to the world in the most authentic and powerful way.

So I think we’re asking the wrong question. Rather than ‘What am I going to be?’ I believe it must be ‘Who am I going to be?’. If we are to truly steel our society, to build strength and capability in our learning spaces and in the broader landscapes of life, we must create spaces where individuals – children, young people and adults returning to study – can connect with the strengths of their own offering. In all contexts, but particularly when there is an imbalance in power or privilege related to gender, ability, age, educational achievement, race, culture or socioeconomic standing, we need to hold space for people as they rise to the fullness of themselves.

We have one life to make our gifts count, and I believe an open-hearted, truly person-centred approach is the way to achieve the most authentic and beneficial expression of ourselves.

 


 

This article draws on another, submitted by me for publication in The Big House’s blog

 

Waking up

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Last night I watched the movie Pleasantville and was more than pleasantly surprised to find a movie about people living in a monotone world, struggling with the process of waking up (seeing and becoming colour). It took me a while to realise that’s what it was about – it does take me a while to wake up to things sometimes.

pleasantville_covering upThis still from the movie represents a moment when a woman begins to wake up (she is becoming coloured) and is scared of the consequences of being seen to be different by others whose views are considered more ‘acceptable’. Realising she is not yet ready to embrace an openly vibrant life, her beautiful son helps her to ‘cover up’ with makeup, until she is ready to stand up and claim her new perspective on the world.

This got me reflecting on a magnificent piece of writing I was fortunate to find recently. Heather Plett had come to my attention through a thought piece she did a while back on holding space, and her latest piece speaks to me deeply about the experience and ongoing work of my life. I’m fortunate to be in a position to be supporting teachers and pre-service teachers as they undertake undergraduate and post-graduate professional development. We speak a lot about education for social justice – about the ways in which we can cultivate learning spaces for our students that foster transformed perspectives  on oneself and one’s place in life. It’s all about living in an awakened state.

Additionally this week, I received news that one of my academic heroes passed away recently. Patricia Cranton’s work has been a joy and an inspiration to me, focussing as it has on authentic teaching in transformative learning spaces. The notion of providing the right conditions for students to ‘wake up’ is central.

So for whatever way it might speak to you, I am passing this on to you.

In waking up to the exquisite colours that are ours to embrace, we are also wakened to bitter and often dark truths – about the world around us, and about ourselves. But it is part of waking up to life. Darkness is as much a part of life as light and colour. It just is. And once we make friends with the dark spaces in ourselves …

… it is no longer threatening to stand by those
who are also waking up …

 

Waking up is hard to do

Waking up is hard to do.

First, you wake up to your own oppression,
to the ways you’ve been silenced,
to the many little stories you carry about why
your words are worth less than those who
benefit most from the old story.

You wake up to the truth that
your view of yourself wasn’t only constructed by you.
It was shaped for a purpose – to keep you small,
to keep you silent.

Then you wake up to your own anger,
to the fierce determination not to obey,
not to listen to the stories,
not to stay small.

But then, one day later on,
after you’ve learned to speak,
there’s another awakening.
You wake up to the fact that
your frustration taught you to adapt rather than to rise above.
You shape-shifted to be more like them,
to work in their hallways of power,
to survive in a world that didn’t want your voice.
You became one of them to be heard by them.

Then your anger wakes up once again,
and you have a new determination.
This time, you speak with your true voice
whether or not it is heard.
You begin to live in the centre of your true life
whether or not it is acceptable to them.
You risk dismissal and disdain
because you are no longer willing to go back to sleep.

But then, one day later on,
you realize that there is something else going on,
and this will require yet another awakening.
This will require that you look with more clear eyes
and speak with an even more clear voice.

You begin to wake up to other people’s narrative,
other people’s oppression, other people’s silence.
You begin to see that those whose skin
is different from yours,
whose gender and love is different from yours,
are waking up too,
and their waking up is asking you to be uncomfortable.

Their waking up
is asking you to look more clearly and unblinkingly
at your own life.
Then you begin to wake up to your own privilege,
to the ways that you have benefitted from their oppression.
You begin to wake up to the pain in them,
and you begin to hear the cries of the silenced,
“we want to be heard too!”

This waking up is the hardest,
and you want to ignore it,
to resist it, to deny what you now see.
You want to return to your own narrative,
to your own uprising,
because in that you can feel victorious and liberated.
In that, you don’t have to face the truth
that maybe you, even you, are holding the keys
to someone else’s chains.

But finally, you can deny it no longer.
Your awakened eyes see that you are only truly free
if they are free too.

And so you wake up,
and you face the hard truths.
And you feel the hurt
when your micro-aggressions,
and white fragility are pointed out.
And you do the hard work to peer with unwavering eyes
on yourself,
and to see both the shadow and the light,
and the space in between.

And when you are awake,
you begin to see it all,
and you can’t look away.
And finally you see,
that when you are truly awake
and truly honest about your place in the world,
it is no longer threatening to stand by those
who are also waking up.

And your anger burns anew.
And your fierce determination rises up once again.
And this time, your love is big enough,
to hold their hurt along with your own.
And this time, your voice is strong enough,
to speak their truth along with your own.
And this time, your courage is deep enough,
to let them speak a truth that is
different from your own.