I first heard the phrase Via Negativa from the poet David Whyte As he would describe it, Via Negativa is what we must say NO to in life to find the next step that serves our deeper unfolding.
Years ago I was attending a workshop by Gretchen Kinnel (author of Good Going) and she said that humans learn the most from non-examples. This statement piqued my attention and got me thinking. The next day I was interviewing a new teacher for a position in our child care program and as I told her about our philosophy, how we build strong relationships, and value play, she quietly nodded and smiled. But, It wasn't until I gave non-examples and I said, "We don't do worksheets, calendar time or the weather chart," that I saw her eyes widened and she began to ask meaningful questions that led us into a deep conversation about early childhood education.
"Via negativa" is a way of understanding that when we don't know exactly what we want or need, we can usually identify what we don't want.
Sometimes we take the next step in our life by moving away from what we know for sure we must stand against.
Maybe we hold a memory within us of a horrible teacher we had as a child, or a hurtful experience we had in school, and that guides us by the power of "via negative" to create something very different for the children in our charges.
Living a creative life with children requires us to walk in the dark. We have to be brave to take the next step not really knowing where it will lead. When we care for and teach young children, we don't follow a guide book or a how-to-manual. We follow relationship planning rather than lesson planning (Ron Lally). We are making decisions moment by moment and day by day and we live in a state of openness - expecting the challenge, the delight, the surprise, and the unknown to guide us.
The compass we use to navigate a teaching life is made of many things - we have our knowledge of child development to guide us, we have our respect for the culture of childhood to point us in the right direction, and sometimes we lean on "via negativa" too. For example when we are challenged and puzzled by a child's behavior and grappling with the next step, we don't know exactly what to do, but we do know for sure that we must avoid shame and we must step away from the power struggle at all costs (via negativa).
Maybe you feel stuck in your teaching practice and you are not quite sure how to make a more enlivened habitat for children and for yourself. The first step in changing your course might be in stepping away from what feels flat or uninspired. Creativity and engaged learning comes from having an original new direction. You can start working on moving towards that unchartered territory by leaving behind what you believe isn't serving children's best interest anymore.
A few years ago at my school we asked ourselves what purpose "circle time" served. If we really believe young children learn through choices, social interaction, movement and play, what do they get from circle time? I started studying children's faces and body posture and taking an observational measurement of their engagement during circle time. When the teachers read informational instructional books or tried to do whole group lessons or a big language chart experience, I generally saw kids writhing, or looking out the window, or poking their peers, or picking their noses. This was quite a contrast to what I saw when teachers told good stories or let the children be the story tellers. What I saw during storytelling and song was pure joy, intense listening, and fully body participation.
What we decided to do was to step away from viewing circle time as "instruction time" and to re-name it "our gathering". Via Negativa was our guide because first we saw what wasn't working and we stepped away from it.
This also dramatically changed the teaching experience. We subtracted what wasn't working and we named story and song as our primary goal for gathering. Instead of being worried about group management, teachers were free to focus on becoming excellent story tellers, reflecting upon how to guide children into their own storytelling, and working together to curate a beautiful diverse collection of songs for our gathering sing-alongs.
If you've ever had the delight of telling a story you love to tell and seeing 16 children gazing at you with care and hanging on your every word - you can imagine the difference the teachers felt by claiming their identity as expert story tellers, rather than circle time managers.
Sometimes we find our NO before we find our YES. Via negativa can keep us out of the gutter, keep us from repeating negative patterns, and push us towards new frontiers in teaching and caring.