Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Venturing Together - An Interview with Bill Rossi (Part 1)

In Venturing Together, Bill Rossi smartly convinces educators, human service providers, and parents, that students’ creative spirit is what drives learning and personal growth. His approach is student-focused and strength-based, guiding facilitating discovery of each student's intrinsic motivation. Although Venturing Together focuses on mentoring through the arts, the principles described easily translate to many subjects and can offer struggling students a robust way to achievement and success (not to mention...happy). After reading the book, Bill graciously granted me an interview that will be done in two parts because there is a lot to say!

You mention working with two students early on in your career who influenced your approach. One student seemed to be a quick and compliant learner, the kind prized in our education system. The other student seemed “spacey”, didn’t work in a way that seemed systematic, and was slow to make connections. The surprise for you was that once the latter student had explored the music in his own way, he played the piece of music with a depth and creativity that far surpassed the quick and compliant student. Can you explain what you think happened in the different learning approaches and the outcome? Why is it good to become comfortable (for the student and the teacher) to not have an answer right away?

I should probably start by saying that my teaching approach partly grew out of my own learning experience, and also evolved over the course of almost two decades of teaching – a sort of personal inquiry. And as I say in the book, an integral component of the approach is that no matter what type of student we’re teaching, the teacher needs to always be in a dynamic state of learning, addressing and responding to the relationship that’s developing. So while many of my students have provided me with insights into some of the more subtle nuances inherent in individual learning processes, I thought these two in examples presented a very useful contrast.

Take the “spacey” student, for example. One of the things I have found is that the way we learn at any given time is dependent upon many factors – not only on the environment, but very much on what we’re learning. Someone can seem to be more random and global, for example, when they have more of an affinity for what they’re doing because that affinity – or natural ability or talent – will absorb them. When we really like something, we interact with it differently and will exhibit a more depthful kind of approach to learning. So there is actually a dynamic between us and the activity … our learning style sets up a particular way of learning something.

Those students provided a clear contrast of two of the overarching learning styles – often defined as linear learning and global/random learning. But I’m very hesitant to use any label here at all, because that limits our exploration and subsequent understanding. There was a relative logic for each student I described, by which I mean that even their inherent and different ways of learning took a different shape because of their relationship to what they were learning. As I said, the learning process is complex and different for each of us and different dynamics can occur between the student and the activity. Those are the subtle things to look for, the things that matter – the other things are much more general and while they can be useful, too much emphasis is placed on them. While it’s true that each of us has a predominant style, most of us also utilize many other ways of learning in different ways at different times, and our unique and dynamic process creates an inner architecture which – if we learn to understand and work with it – can become one of our greatest strengths.

This leads us to the other part of your question as to why it’s a good thing for both student and teacher to be comfortable with not having an answer right away. Here too, the “spacey” student is a good example because in addition to being a nontraditional learner, his natural inclination to music allowed him to hear things in the music in a deeper way. This ability (and his acceptance of the process) allowed the sound to take him to new places to listen and explore. He was more confident in giving in to the music.

So, “not having the answer right away” can mean coming to enjoy the process of exploration, which can result in looking (listening) deeper so as to bring new perspectives, which can lead to understanding the perspectives of others and appreciating more than one answer, one way. Basically, our not having the answer right away creates many more choices to branch out from and explore – makes for very creative ground.

I was surprised at the comparison to slavery in reference to how some students survive (or not) conventional school. The point seemed quite valid as I read further though. Can you elaborate on that comparison?

While the circumstances surrounding 19th century slavery and today’s students are clearly worlds apart, there are inherent qualities in oppression that exist in both, including the lack of individual freedom to be who you are – the oppression of a person’s basic nature. Of course the comparison stops when you get to the question of severity, as very little can compare to the horrific circumstances of slavery.

The other point I was making regarding oppression was that a person can overcome their circumstances through creativity. In really difficult times (such as those which I believe we are experiencing today), creativity can be found by digging deep into yourself to find new forms of expression and ways of dealing with the circumstance. This develops the individual strength that’s needed to really transcend the experience.

This interview will continue in a subsequent posting, but for now, if you would like more information on Venturing Together go to: or

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