What Makes a Good Life?

Last night I “just happened” to find a link to the Good Life Project video page, and I “just happened” to watch over an hour of Jonathan Fields’ conversation with Alex Hillman and Amy Hoy about “bootstrapping, community, and fun.”  If you aren’t familiar with the Good Life Project, this video will give you a good sense of what they’re about:

They even have an early fall “Summer Camp for Aspiring World-Shakers” that sounds like a lot of fun … and a lot of inspiration.  I don’t think I’ll be going this year, but just reading about the program warms my heart and encourages me to start building something similar, but not identical, with a joyful learning community in These Parts.  It also gets me thinking about what makes a good life, and about how my definition of a good life has changed over the years.  This piece, which a Latin Family member “just happened” to share the other day, probably played a part, too.

At one time, Before Children, the thought of spending a quiet day with The Boy as he recovers from minor surgery … well, let’s just say it wouldn’t have been at the top of my list.  Today, I can’t think of anything better to do.  When circumstances change, perspectives change with them … and that can affect your notion of what a good life is and how you might go about making one.

When I was a newly-minted teacher, I thought I’d be able to make a good life within Schools As They Are.  I certainly wasn’t blind to their faults, or to the ways that they serve young people and families poorly.  But I thought I could make a positive change, at least on the micro-level of individual interactions with particular students and their families … and I hoped that positive change would be contagious.  I also thought the rest of my life could rotate around my professional life and identity, and I thought there’d be enough hours in the day to do everything well.

Reality intervened, of course.  But I still hear from Latin Family members of that era pretty regularly.  They share pictures of their children, news of their families and careers, recipes, sometimes even advice in their areas of expertise.  I’m grateful that they’ve been able to make a good life for themselves, and I’m grateful for that chapter in my own life.  I’m glad we were able to align our needs, to borrow a phrase from Chris Lehmann’s brilliant post … and I’m glad that I didn’t always impose my own needs or claim to speak for them when disagreements and conflicts arose.

To borrow Richard Elmore’s framework from the “Leaders of Learning” edX course, I guess we were making a good life in a hierarchical collective way.  It worked well because we had a general agreement about the purpose and value of our shared work, because preparing for college and going to a good one still represented a ticket to success for most Latin Family members.

And then, slowly but surely, the world changed.  D’s story is probably symbolic, and so is T’s.  Both “just happened” to switch over to Latin from Another Language as seniors; both loved their time in the Latin Family; both are still in touch with me from time to time.  D worked at the Local Bookstore for a while, rising to a management position as she slowly worked her way through a program at the local community college.  T went to a Nearby University for a semester or two, but some “family drama” intervened.  She’s living in a Small Nearby Town, working there, thinking about maybe going to the Nearby Community College for something or other.

If you asked them, both D and T would probably say life is pretty good.  It certainly is for D and her husband; I know because I “just happened” to see them yesterday.  But for D, T, and so many others, the simple process of making a good life turned into a longer, more difficult road than what Ms. X, Mr. Y, and I told them.  “Go to college,” we said or implied, “and you’ll get a nice, safe job in a nice, large company … with benefits and everything.”

The reality?  A totally different world.  Of course, there are still some large organizations where you can make a good life, as B and K and lots of others are doing.  There are still some good colleges that will prepare you well to make a good life, and lots of Latin Family Members are attending them.  But there’s not one simple, guaranteed way to make a good life anymore … not the way there seemed to be when I was young and the world was different.

That makes for a harder world in some ways, but I guess it’s an imperfect, yet excellent world.  It’s the only world available in any case!  And I keep thinking about making a good life with, not for a joyful learning community … and how that works in a world where the simple, guaranteed ways are no longer simple and no longer guaranteed.  How do you make a good life in a world that’s more distributed than hierarchical, a world where the tools designed for limited, slowly-changing knowledge can’t even begin to manage the constant, overwhelming flow of newly-generated information?

How do you avoid the life-equivalent of 20th-century-model failures like this one?

There are so many ways, of course, but a primary one is to build a joyful learning community around the endeavor.  Don’t try to be the hero, and don’t try to do everything yourself.  Look for right times and right opportunities, and move forward joyfully when it’s time … and don’t be afraid of temporary setbacks and failures.  Good advice for me on the brink of Something New, and good advice for all of us as we navigate a new reality.

I wonder what other insights and discoveries await!

Published in: on July 31, 2014 at 7:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

From Vision to Action

“What are the next right steps?” my Wise Friend asked me at the end of our conversation yesterday.  And for the first time in a very long time, I could see them clearly and name them.  The only thing that isn’t clear is when they will happen, and a few details about how are still unclear.  But for the first time in a very long time, we seem to be moving from vision to action.

But to be fair, it hasn’t been all vision for the past few years.  Developing the Tres Columnae Project stories and other material … that took a lot of thinking and clarifying, but it also took a lot of writing and revision.  And once the core stories and characters were in place, as other contributors started producing stories and other “stuff” with and for us, they took action … and i took action in other ways as I suggested edits and improvements.  One of our partner schools “just happened” to ask for a “real” Scope and Sequence document for the core materials, and that work (which I began in earnest yesterday and will be continuing today, after I finish this post) will require action as well as vision.    And what about the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum courses?  They won’t start for a few more weeks, but preparing for them obviously requires action as well as vision.

Can you really separate action from vision anyway?  This Google+ conversation started out with a share of an infographic about “instilling” intrinsic motivation … and a question on my part: Is it really possible to instill intrinsic motivation into somebody?  The infographic lists actions to take in pursuit of a vision, and in the subsequent conversation we clarified our terminology and our vision because the actions involved are important.  Although he wasn’t very happy with the word he chose, Marc wondered about some teachers’ “ability to arouse real passion for new topics in their students,” and I wondered if what we were talking about is really an ability:

If I had the ability to get students passionately interested in a new topic, wouldn’t that mean that 100% of my students would leave me with, say, a passionate interest in the Latin language, or Roman history, or the connections between “us” and “them?”  To be fair, many do … but not 100%.

What I can do, at least once we’ve built a sense of trust and community, is to help students see connections between something they love and something about Latin or the Romans.  And that, in turn, can grow into a more general interest or fascination, and it often does.

I still don’t want to say I have an ability or even an aptitude for helping students discover those connections that spark intrinsic interest.  It’s more like a carefully developed skill … though I suppose it was easier for me to develop it because of a particular pattern of abilities and aptitudes.

Does that make sense?

It did … and one important thing about this conversation is that we weren’t just clarifying for its own sake or, as my friends Ms. X and Mr. Y might have thought, arguing about semantics … or “wasting time on a bunch of stupid terminology that doesn’t mean anything and just confuses people,” as I think One Ms. X said to me one time.  (If it’s the Particular Ms. X I think it was, and if my memory doesn’t deceive me, she didn’t see any conflict between that attitude and her daily practice of requiring students to memorize textbook definitions verbatim, but that’s a story for another day.)    If That Ms. X or anybody else asked, I’d argue that Marc and I weren’t “wasting time” at all with our conversation.  We were seeking clarity so that our actions could be guided by a clear, realistic vision.

It “just happens” that this week’s “Chapter” of the DO School Startup Lab MOOC from iversity is all about moving from vision to action, and specifically about getting the money to make a social venture really happen.  Over and over, the presenters emphasize the importance of being extremely clear … about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, what the best funding sources would be, how specifically to approach them, what to ask for, how to maintain relationships.  Vision without action is a sad, empty dream, but action without vision is a recipe for trouble.  To be effective, to make a real difference in the long term, you need action and vision together.  That’s what I’m trying to achieve as I move forward with all the projects I’ve been describing, and with the one that I still can’t describe in detail.

I have a suspicion that balancing action and vision is easier in a joyful learning community than in a hierarchy, especially the kind of fear-based hierarchy that’s still so common in factory-model schools.  Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y I’ve known has clung to the Same Old Same Old out of fear … fear of what The Powers That Be might say or do, fear of “making a mistake” and “getting yelled at,” fear of a perceived failure that would “make you look bad,” sometimes even fear that the New Thing would actually work, and then you’d feel bad for not having tried it before.  But what about a non-fear-based hierarchy?  Could such an organization be faster and more effective at balancing action and vision than a joyful learning community with all its necessary, but sometimes slow and frustrating disagreements and conversations about both vision and action?

What do you think?  How do you balance action and vision in your daily work?  And how do you move from vision to action when it’s clear that the time is right?

Published in: on July 30, 2014 at 6:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

Moving Upstream … Together?

The Dog and I “just happened” to take a short morning nap after our early morning walk … and while we were sleeping there “just happened” to be a power outage.  Since I had an appointment to talk about Life and Stuff with a wise friend this morning, I was grateful for our gas water heater and for the Nearby Restaurant where I could get coffee and a hot breakfast.

I don’t think The Dog noticed the power outage.  He doesn’t do much that requires electricity.  A quick look at the power company’s online outage map reveals that power has been restored … but I had already planned to spend some time writing at the Local Bookstore this afternoon.  I suspect that The Dog is following his normal early-afternoon nap routine as I write.  He’s a creature of habit, so much so that when his collar “just happened” to slip off this morning, he stood there unmoved, sniffing one of his favorite patches of grass, as I slipped it back on and we continued our morning routine.

The image would be perfect if we’d been near the water.  I could have looked upstream, or perhaps The Dog could have … and we might have seen something ordinary, or something extraordinary, or something that seemed ordinary but wasn’t ordinary at all.  But sadly, The Dog is not a big fan of water.  So we were in the front yard, steps away from the front walk and some of his favorite bushes.  With his collar restored, we took our familiar stroll to the mailbox, he marked his territory, and we came back in for his traditional dog-food breakfast.  No literal stream, no literal looking upstream.  Not even that much movement.

But even when you’re a creature of habit, things can change … and they have.  When The Dog was younger, his habit would have been to run exultantly down the street, looking for Something Or Other as his family gave chase. For a long time, The Dog had a “regular” bowl and a set feeding schedule, but as he’s grown older and better at self-regulation, he’s graduated to an auto-feeder … a change he embraced with joy and without gaining weight.  Given time, energy, and patience, The Dog changed his habits … and with time, energy, and patience, I’ve been changing mine, too.  I’m looking upstream with different eyes, and I’m taking steps in different directions.  And like The Dog, I’m unexpectedly happy with the new changes.

As you can tell, I’m still thinking about that metaphor of looking upstream that inspired yesterday’s post. still thinking about co-design and about what it means for a joyful learning community to look upstream together.  In the metaphor, while the rescuers are busy saving people from the rapids, some of them do more than just look upstream.  When they look, they see more unfortunate souls floating towards the rapids, and then they keep looking but start acting.  They move upstream together to find out why people are falling (or being thrown) into the river … and to put a stop to it if they can.

I went to talk to my wise friend this morning because I, too, need to keep looking but start acting.  But like the rescuers in the metaphor, I won’t be very effective if I look and act alone.  Like them, I have a general sense of the next steps … I need to look up the river (check), see if more desperate people are still floating (check), and start moving … against whatever forces are pushing them or causing them to fall.  And like the rescuers in the metaphor, I’ve found allies and partners in the quest.  My friends at Gifted Homeschoolers Forum, with the two semi-synchronous online courses we’re offering together, will be partnering with me to throw a lifeline (and more!) to some learners and families who refuse to drown themselves in the murky waters of Schools As They Are and Language Learning As It Once Was.  Another exciting opportunity, which I don’t want to talk about in detail just yet, will apparently be bringing the Tres Columnae Project and a joyful learning community form of learning to some other learners and families who had seen no way to continue their voyage of language learning.

And I’m closer and closer to finding the team, place, and time for that joyful learning community approach to an after-school program.

My wise friend told me it’s a calling, even maybe a ministry, to build joyful learning communities with, not for the learners and families I’m focused on.  And the thing about a calling or ministry, she said, is that you discover that the pains and difficulties you encountered on the journey prepared you, in important ways, to do the thing you were called to do.  That’s comforting and inspiring as I keep looking upstream and take the next few steps.  Like the rescuers in the metaphor, I have a general idea of what lies ahead; like them, I’ll certainly discover many things I don’t currently know; and like them, I’ll be a lot more effective as I move forward in community, not alone.

I wonder who else will be joining the team, and I wonder what other insights and discoveries await as we keep looking, but keep moving together!

Published in: on July 29, 2014 at 5:19 pm  Comments (1)  

Looking Upstream Together

I “just happened” to find this link a few days ago; it was a suggested reading for last week in the Coursera course called “How to Change the World.”  I’ve seen the central metaphor before: it involves somebody looking upstream to find out why people are being “thrown in the water,” while others are busy jumping in to save those in imminent peril.  I also “just happened” to find this post by Dan Oestreich about “co-design” as an organizing principle in non-hierarchical organizations.

I was surprised to discover that I’ve never focused on looking upstream in a blog post … or if I focused on it, I didn’t use the word.  It seems I’ve only used the word upstream in one other post … and that was a quote from my friend Debbie, who talked about how “Intrinsic rewards are what keeps one moving forward, even if paddling upstream with no paddles!”

But what about looking upstream together?  What does that look and feel like?

I’m posting this slightly late because I just finished a very relevant Google+ Hangout.  C, it seems, just discovered that he failed two sections of the Great Big Standardized Test that determines promotion from one grade to the next in His Particular State.  C’s family is understandably concerned, and they want him to do better and move along and, eventually, fulfill his long-time dream of joining the military.

Over the years, a lot of Latin Family members have been similar to C … very, very similar.  It only took a few questions for us to discover why C was having problems with the two Particular Subjects.  He’s clearly a global, big-picture thinker, and the Particular Subjects were taught as sequential steps to be memorized.  C wasn’t able to participate live in the Hangout due to some odd technology issues, but he and his family will be watching the recording and sending some further questions.

And when that happens, I’ll be working with, not for C and his family to look upstream together, to find the solution that’s hidden in the problem.  They already know that we’ll be working to combine three elements … three elements that are probably quite familiar to you if you’re a regular reader of this blog.  We’ll be combining

  • journey of discovery about C as a learner (and, quite likely, the rest of his family as learners, too);
  • something C really loves (I now have a list of his favorite things);
  • something C wants to learn about (the specific areas in those Particular Subjects where he struggled the most, based on his detailed score reports which I haven’t seen yet).

And of course, as C combines those three things, he’ll make something meaningful which he’ll probably be able to use to help others in a similar situation.  Apparently there are quite a few families in his situation, even in their Relatively Small and Isolated Town, so we may even be able to build a face-to-face community in which they can help and support each other.

But how does my conversation with C and his family relate to looking upstream together?  I’m sure that C’s teachers kept him focused on the problems, possibly even hyper-focused; I haven’t yet heard about data notebooks or error analysis, but those aren’t uncommon school-based tools, even in Relatively Small and Isolated Towns.  Unfortunately, depending on how you use them, data notebooks can keep you focused on the drowning people in the rapids, the specific current struggles, rather than on looking upstream for root causes of the problems.  And data notebooks can also encourage teachers to do things for, not with “that poor struggling kid” or “that bad, lazy kid.”  Let’s give him more practice with This Objective, we think; after all, that’s where his scores were the lowest.  But what if the problem isn’t with This Objective itself, but with a subsidiary skill or understanding?  More and more practice with the Same Old Same Old probably won’t fix that problem, but it probably will make C (or anybody) bored, angry, and resentful.

But when you look upstream together, it’s a very different feeling.  You’re working with each other, and you’re looking for some very specific things … specific areas of challenge, of course, but also specific strengths and interests.  To borrow Dan Oestreich’s term, you’re co-designing a solution, or a set of solutions … and you’re focusing on root causes rather than just symptoms.

I’m excited to see how things work out with C and his family, but I’m also excited to see what happens as we co-design and look upstream together in the GHF Online classes … and in some other projects I haven’t really discussed here yet.  I wonder what other new insights and discoveries await as we look upstream together today and in the days to come!


Source: Okudatami on Flickr  License: CC-BY-2.0

Published in: on July 28, 2014 at 5:33 pm  Comments (1)  

What’s Your Job?

Around this time last summer, I was deeply torn between staying at The School for another year and moving on to a Next Right Thing that, at that point, was still unclear and undefined.  I “just happened” to get an email about a program that our Local Powers planned to use … and as I look back, that email was the main thing that persuaded me to stay.

It was about this program and this book, which we were all to read during September before an October session with the author … or, as it turned out, with the author’s long-time friend and collaborator.  What struck me then, and still strikes me now, is the way that Perry Good and her colleagues apply Perceptual Control Theory to the relationships among students, teachers, parents, Powers That Be, and others involved in the life of a school.  One key concept is the idea of being clear about my job and your job.

Ms. X and Mr. Y hated that session!  “It was useless and boring,” they said … which, of course, is exactly what Ms. X and Mr. Y say about every training session.  They had no interest in clarifying students’ jobs or their jobs, so the chronic patterns of misunderstanding and miscommunication continued unchanged, and so did the yelling and labeling and the grumbling and groaning.

“But it’s not my job to make those bad lazy kids come to class on time and do their work!” moaned One Ms. X.  “It’s your job to make sure we get good grades,” complained A, B, or C.  “It’s not our job to supervise every single hallway all the time,” said some frustrated, realistic Powers That Be.

But who defines my job and your job?

I thought about that when I read Grant Wiggins’ recent blog post about job descriptions for teachers, and when I joined in a lively Google+ discussion about that post.  If you’re not clear about your job, or how it’s different from or related to my job, it’s hard to avoid confusion and misunderstanding.  But as Wiggins points out, Schools As They Are do a terrible job of defining the job of teacher … or student … or even administrator.

Is that one reason why people are so frustrated?

It’s one thing, of course, if you work in a small, decentralized organization.  Right after I graduated from college, I spent some time working for a small, general-practice law firm.  There were four or five lawyers and two or three of us supporting them … and the job description was quite simple: everybody pitched in to do everything they could.  Richard Elmore would have described the group as mostly distributed individual in its leadership and organization, with a small dose of hierarchical collective since, of course, the four or five lawyers functioned as The Boss when The Boss was needed.

But in a larger organization like a school or school district, hierarchical individual management and structures are the default.  And in an organization like that, it’s really important for the lines of authority to be clear.  “Teachers,” Elmore says, “own content expertise, while administrators own organizational expertise.”  And of course “students are responsible for their learning,” which is measured by grades and standardized test scores.

Or at least that’s how things used to be, “back in the good old days when teachers were revered,” as my friend Ms. X says.  I was doing some filing the other day, and I “just happened” to come across a copy of an Official Observation Form from ten or more years ago.  It was a simple checklist of observable teacher behaviors, and you could either exceed the standard, meet it, or not meet it for each of the ten or fifteen items.  The Relevant Powers could carry a copy on a clipboard, fill it out during an observation session, type up the results, meet with the teacher, and finalize the whole process with relative ease … and everybody knew how the form was used and what Dr. Q would be looking for.

Today’s Official Evaluation Forms are all electronic, which reduces my filing burden … but they’re also vastly more complicated, and they ask administrators to own content expertise and teachers to own organizational expertise in a way that blurs those once-familiar lines.

And the Official Evaluation Form for “school executives” is even longer and more complex.

It’s all in the name of accountability, of course.  When Those Test Scores failed to rise despite the initial High Stakes, Promises, and Threats, folks at the top of the hierarchical individual pyramid naturally assumed that a process improvement must be needed.  Make the tests longer and harder! Make the evaluation instruments more rigorous!  Do something … and expect different results!  But those different results stubbornly fail to happen because the very structure of hierarchical individual organizations makes them produce the same results they were originally designed to produce.  And a hierarchical individual school or district will probably produce something very much like a normal distribution curve of student test scores, with most teacher and school executive evaluations clustered on the high end of “meeting expectations.”  That’s what they’re designed to do, and they do that job well.

Both jobs and job descriptions are more flexible in a joyful learning community, or in any organization that has a distributed form of structure and leadership.  But at the same time, jobs and job descriptions are clearer … because a distributed organization can sit down together, literally or metaphorically, and deal with any role confusions or misunderstandings or problems while they’re small.  “Who can get to the bank today before it closes?” was a common refrain at the Little Law Firm, and someone was always available.  As I work on these new joyful learning communities in both physical and virtual space, as participants build community with, not for each other, it will be important to work together to define my job and your job.

I wonder what other discoveries and insights are waiting!

Published in: on July 25, 2014 at 4:42 pm  Comments (2)  

Co-Working and Co-Learning

If you had asked me a few years ago, I’m not sure I would have been able to tell you what a co-working space was, or how it was different from a makerspace or a hackerspace.  And then, after that fruitless conversation, I might have gone to the Local Bookstore or the Local Coffee Shop (or even the other Local Coffee Shop where I’m sitting and writing this morning) … because I tend to do better work when there are other people around me, even if I’m not necessarily interacting with them.  Add some food or coffee, some half-heard but interesting background music, and the hum of a few quiet conversations, stir in a few interesting things to look at and the occasional conversation with somebody or other, toss in various forms of seating and a WiFi connection, and you get … a co-working space.  Or a co-learning space, for that matter.

Add an interesting mix of high-tech and low-tech tools, and you get a makerspace or a hackerspace.  Add some eager young learners, working separately or together to connect their personal interests with something important for each other or for the larger community around them, and you get the physical environment I intend to create with, not for the right team, in the right place, at the right time.

But when you create things with, not for people, you have to start out with a mostly blank canvas.  It can’t be entirely blank; that’s why we have those core stories, core characters, and a general story arc in the Tres Columnae Project.  But it can’t be so full that there’s no room for you to add; it can’t be like the scores of perfectly decorated classrooms I’ve seen (and a few I’ve made) over the years, the ones where Ms. X or Mr. Y spent so much time, effort, and money that it’s clearly Her Room or His Room.  Physically or virtually, it has to be our room if it’s going to be our space for co-working and co-learning.

Can you see how these threads connect with the GHF online classes I described on Monday and Tuesday?  In each case, my work is to start creating a welcoming space for co-working and co-learning, to make the conditions ripe for a joyful learning community to form.  And when I compare the GHF class schedule with school schedules, I see exciting possibilities for larger-scale community in a co-working and co-learning space that’s open after school hours.  Imagine what might happen if some  co-workers and co-learners in the physical space started interacting with the co-workers and co-learners in the virtual space!  Imagine the possibilities for building joyful community and building meaningful things across geographic and cultural lines!

That’s why I’ve been looking for team and place this summer.  To be fair, I slooked last summer, the summer before, and in seasons other than summer … but even as I looked, I could tell that the time wasn’t right.  “Do you know anybody,” I kept asking, “who’d be interested in something like this?”  And people did, but team, place, and time never quite came together.

Or did they?

The idea wasn’t as solid as it needed to be then, and the time wasn’t ripe.  And maybe I wasn’t looking in quite the right place, either.

“What if we started an after-school program like this,” I asked a Relevant Power or Two, “and deliberately focused on the kids who aren’t involved with Other Activities?  What if we invited the ones who just hang out together Over There after school, and gave them a safe place to hang out and some interesting things to do if they wanted?” That sounded great to those Relevant Powers, but nothing seemed to result from those conversations … nothing but a small cadre of Former Latin Family Members who sometimes asked if they could hang out for a bit in the Latin Family Zone.  Sometimes they even brought food and background music, and sometimes they helped each other with homework or planned projects for Various Organizations they all belonged to.  And the school provided the Wi-Fi.

Wait … did I say nothing came of those conversations?  Quite a lot of co-working and co-learning happened.  There just wasn’t a formal program … but did there need to be one?

In any case, the next step is clear: I want to build a co-working and co-learning space that’s not housed in a school building, not dependent for its existence on Bold New Priorities and Shiny New Visions delivered, from time to time, by Greater Powers That Be to Somewhat Lesser Powers in the kinds of organizations that Richard Elmore describes as Hierarchical Individual in leadership style and organization … the kind I call “factory-model schools” even though, to be fair, many well-run factories these days operate very differently.  In Elmore’s terms, a space for co-working and co-learning is Distributed, not Hierarchical, and a joyful learning community is Collective as well as Individual in structure … and it’s really hard to build a distributed-leadership space in a hierarchical-leadership organization.  Hard doesn’t mean impossible, of course, and over the years the Latin Family has built such spaces … but as hierarchical individual institutions feel their power and influence slipping, they tend to “fix things” by becoming ever more hierarchical.  That translates to less and less space for co-working and co-learning, fewer and fewer learners willing to take the co-working, co-learning risk … at least when those learners are on the inside of those hierarchical individual institutions.

That’s why I’m looking for a space and a place, and that’s why I’ve spent time driving around and talking to people, looking and listening, and seeking out potential team members this summer.  And that’s why I’m excited by the potential synergy between physical and virtual communities, co-workers and co-learners nearby and far away.

I wonder what other new discoveries, insights, and opportunities are waiting!


Source: personal photo

Published in: on July 24, 2014 at 4:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

Fresh and Local in the Future

“Wait,” said the young woman at the cash register, “don’t you usually order an extra packet of sauce?”  Yes, I told her, but I get that for friends who live somewhere else, and I just recently took them a set.  “I try really hard to know my regulars’ orders,¨ she said, and she told me about one set who confuse her by ordering something different each time.

Even in a somewhat standard and standardized place like a chain restaurant, there’s still room for personal connections.  I started going to that particular location because it was convenient, especially on Monday nights before Book Group.  But I continue to go there because I get personal service and they recognize me.  They may not know my name, but they know my order.

At the location closer to my house, the one I ate at for years, that never happened.  So I don’t go as often, even though the food itself is obviously the same.

Even when things are standard and standardized, little variations can make a big difference … and being known and welcomed is really important.

For well over twenty years, I’ve made sure to learn students’ names as quickly as possible at the beginning of a new school year.  Of course I already know the names of returning students … but even in a relatively small school, and even within the smaller environment of The Latin Family or a particular class, it’s not always the case that everybody knows everybody else.  “That girl over there” or “the boy with the glasses” … it’s not terrible to be known that way, just as it isn’t terrible to be the middle-aged guy who orders the extra sauce packet.  It’s definitely better than not being known at all!  But it’s so much better to be known as A, B, C, or Mr. S., especially in a standard and standardized world where being known seems rare, and being valued seems still rarer.

I’m thinking about knowing and being known because I obviously don’t yet know the members of the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum classes, and because I can’t know, until I meet them, how well they know each other.  It’s quite possible that some are old friends (or even old rivals) from prior GHF classes, but it’s equally possible that we’ll discover, on our first day together, that nobody knows anybody.

That’s a new experience for me as a teacher!  Even when I’ve been Mr. Unknown, I’ve known that many of my students will know each other to some degree.  And the last time I was theoretically Mr. Unknown, when I moved from the Big School to the Smaller One over a decade ago, I was actually Mr. Known By Reputation.

The last time I was Mr. Unknown in a (physical or virtual) space where everybody was Mr. or Ms. Unknown, I was a college freshman.  That was a long time ago!  But as I think back on those days (and write this paragraph), I remember I was more excited than apprehensive, even though I’d expected some nerves and even some fear.  It’s good to have a fresh start every so often, and it’s good to find a new place and new experiences when the old ones start to grow stale.

That’s one of many reasons I’m glad not to use 20th-century-style textbooks when I work with Latin learners these days.  I was inspired to start working on Tres Columnae Project by a group of students who told me, both by actions and eventually by words, that they loved the class but hated the textbook.  “Why?” I asked them.  “Because the book is so flat and dead,” said B, rolling her eyes because it should have been so obvious to me.  All textbooks, it turned out, felt stale and prepackaged and flat and dead to B and her friends.  “But we like the other stuff!” they said.

The great thing about collaborative co-creation of learning materials is that they’ll never be stale and prepackaged.  They’ll always be fresh and locally grown because you, the learner, can always make a contribution.  It was a perceptive group of students who made me realize that quite a few stories in this Lectio are actually an anxiety dream.  “Should we make that clear in the storyline?” I asked them.  “Yes,” they said, “because otherwise people will get confused and they’ll think bad things about the parents and the child.”

That’s where this story and this one came from.  And there are others just waiting to be added … and others just waiting to be created, too, by future Tres Columnae Project users.

“What about the future?” someone asked me recently.  “Will there be more advanced GHF classes available?”  Yes, I hope so, I told them … but that obviously depends on demand and interest.  I had an exciting conversation that may lead to other opportunities for more Tres Columnae Project users, too, but I don’t want to say too much about that until everything is official and finalized.

“But what about the far future?  How and when do Tres Columnae learnersstart reading and understanding ‘real’ Latin texts from the Classical period?”  That question deserves a post in itself (a post that you’ll probably see tomorrow), but the short answer is that when you build a joyful learning community around the thoughts, words, actions, feelings, and attitudes of the Romans, it’s not hard to bring in their authentic words.  We start out early with some mottoes and proverbs, and it’s not too long before we can get at least the main idea and some details from something a real Roman wrote for a real Roman audience.

Fresh and local in the future … that’s my favorite thing about this part of our shared journey.  I wonder what other fresh, new insights await us all!


Source: NatalieMaynor on Flickr, CC-BY-2.0 license

Published in: on July 23, 2014 at 3:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

From Stale to Fresh

Oddly enough, after my celebration of fresh, locally sourced food and learning yesterday, I had dinner at a favorite chain restaurant last night.  The food was predictably good, but the service (which is always friendly, but sometimes predictably slow at this busy location right near the Interstate) was unusually speedy and even more friendly than usual.  And this morning, it “just happened” that I had to pick up a quick breakfast on an early errand … and I knew that, if I was very lucky, Miss Belinda would wish me a blessed and wonderful day as she smiled and handed me my order through the drive-through window.

And she did.

Even the most standard and standardized organization can still have pockets of fresh, locally sourced creativity … and even the most fresh, locally sourced organization still conforms to some external standards.  There’s a continuum, not a set of polar opposites, and lots of different factors can move you from one place on that continuum to another.

For example, last night I wanted a reliably good meal, I wanted meat loaf as the entree, I didn’t have the ingredients in the house, and I didn’t want to drive all the way across town during rush hour.  There’s one excellent local restaurant that makes a great meat loaf, but it’s on the other side of town.  There’s a place nearby that often has meat loaf, but the lines tend to be long and there’s something in the air that activates my allergies from time to time.  The grocery store isn’t far away, but meat loaf takes a while to cook.  Under the circumstances, the favorite chain restaurant was the best (and actually the only) available choice.  This morning, given where and when my early errand had to happen, there was only one available place for breakfast.

Sometimes the standard and standardized approach to learning is the only available choice, too.  For a long time, if you wanted to learn a language like Latin, standard and standardized textbooks seemed like the only option … especially if you were an independent adult learner or a homeschooling family.  To be fair, you can learn a lot about Latin, especially about its grammar, its historical development, and the culture and history of people who have spoken it, from a standard and standardized textbook.  Textbooks are great at presenting information about a subject, and so are textbook-like online programs, especially the ones that build in frequent checks for understanding and won’t let you go on until you can answer the question correctly.

But often, after months or years of learning about Latin and the Romans from a textbook, you realize that you don’t actually know the language or the culture the way you hoped you would.  You may be able to analyze and describe the grammatical function of every word in a sentence, and you may even be able to talk about the historical context and the author’s biography.  But can you hear and see those words and understand the author’s message for yourself?

If you can’t, all that knowledge about language, culture, and history will eventually feel stale.  And you (or your favorite young learner, who can recite all those charts perfectly and use all the mnemonic devices beautifully) might just be hoping for something fresh instead.

Can you move from stale to fresh?  I’ve seen it happen with students in my face-to-face classes, especially the ones who had an introductory Latin experience with one of those chart-driven, standard and standardized textbooks.  And I’m looking forward to seeing it happen this fall with participants in a Gifted Homeschoolers Forum online class called “From Parts to Whole: Making Latin Make Sense.”

Here’s the official description:

For learners of all ages who have learned some Latin grammar and vocabulary by a “chart and list” approach, but who want a more meaningful, deeper understanding and experience of the language. We’ll use the same materials as the Introduction to Latin class, but we’ll go at a faster pace—and we’ll discover that Latin and the Romans’ culture and history do make sense. We’ll discover how we and the Romans are profoundly connected to and different from each other.

I’m excited because I don’t know exactly how it all will work!

To be fair, I have a general idea.  Lots of us will know our charts backwards and forwards, and many of us will know our vocabulary, too.  Many will be able to analyze those words at an expert level, and quite a few will make written translations that would receive high grades and gold stars in a standard and standardized class.  But all of that will feel sterile and lifeless … and for many, the thought of really reading and understanding something in Latin, without producing one of those “perfect” written translations, may seem impossible.

And then, as we get to know each other and the Tres Columnae Project characters, we’ll move from stale to fresh and discover that we really can hear, see, and understand this remarkable language.  We’ll find we can say it and write it, too, and we’ll find that the rest of our learning community can hear, see, and understand the things we write and say.  Those charts will take on new life as we use them to edit our work, to make it clearer and more understandable and “more Roman” … more worthy of being shared with the extended joyful learning community of Tres Columnae Project participants.  We’ll explore connections and differences, and we’ll build a joyful learning community as we build meaningful things together … even though, when we start our journey together in September, many of us may not really believe it’s possible.

I’ve seen that happen, been part of the process, many times over the years.  But with this new opportunity, I’ll be moving from stale to fresh too!

I wonder what other insights and discoveries, what other moves from stale to fresh, are waiting in the days to come!


Image Source: Prayltno on Flickr – CC BY 2.0 license

Published in: on July 22, 2014 at 3:43 pm  Comments (1)  

Fresh, Locally Sourced Learning

Last summer, I “just happened” to discover a really remarkable restaurant while I was traveling … and just yesterday, on the way home from a short trip, I “just happened” to discover another one.  They’re very different places, but they share something really important: the food is fresh and local, and there’s a real sense of community when you walk in.

Both in Nashville and in Candor, there were other places to eat … lots and lots of others in Nashville, at least a handful in Candor.  And you know that most of those other places are perfectly adequate, because most of them belong to large chains.  When you eat somewhere like that, you know exactly what you’re going to get … and sometimes that’s important, as John Warner points out in this recent post from Inside Higher Education.

Sometimes a standard and standardized experience is exactly what you want.  When my children were young, picky eaters, when only certain types of chicken nuggets would do, there was a lot to be said for standard and standardized.

Unfortunately, for a whole lot of young learners and their families, standard and standardized experiences are not a good fit … but they’re the main kinds of experiences that standard, standardized schools are designed to provide.

As I finished my delicious Sunday lunch, drove home along some non-standardized back roads, and joined in a great conversation about John Warner’s post, I realized that fresh, locally sourced learning is as important to me as fresh, locally sourced food.  I also realized that fresh and locally sourced is a good description of the learning projects that have ignited my passion and interest over the past few years … and that this would be a good week to put all of them together, side by side, and think about the ways that fresh and locally sourced apply to all of them.

Regular readers are familiar with the idea behind the Tres Columnae Project. It’s  joyful learning community where participants from all over the world learn Latin, and help each other learn, by building meaningful things together: things like stories, characters, practice and review activities, helpful background information … anything you, the subscriber, are curious about and want to learn, share, or contribute.  For classes and schools that use “TC” as their learning materials, it stays fresh because you can (and should) create and share your own stories and other things that extend on the “core” adventures of the “core” characters.  It’s locally sourced because those stories (and other things) were created right there, in the joyful learning community that you participate in.  But unlike the local sourcing at Husk or at Blake’s, this kind of local sourcing can spread around the world by the power of digital technology.

I wouldn’t recommend trying to ship “the best sweet tea in the South” from Blake’s.  It really is excellent, but I don’t think it would travel well.  A story, a video, a set of illustrations?  Those are locally sourced, but they can travel anywhere.  You can keep them a closely-guarded secret if you want, but you can also share them easily … and others can share their locally sourced stories and other content with you.

That’s why I’m excited to be sharing the Tres Columnae way with two different courses offered this fall by Gifted Homeschoolers Forum.  The first is called “Introduction to Latin,” and we describe it this way:

For learners of all ages who do NOT know Latin (or think they’ve forgotten everything). This isn’t your grandmother’s Latin class! Instead of learning vocabulary and grammar in isolation, then hoping to put it all together on a day that may never come, participants are immersed in the lives and adventures of three very different families who live in the small, beautiful, and ultimately doomed city of Herculaneum in the mid-1st century A.D. By following and creating their adventures as part of the Tres Columnae Project you will develop deep knowledge, skill, and understanding of the Latin language, Roman culture, and Roman history, plus you’ll learn Latin grammar and vocabulary in a meaningful, enjoyable class.

When we say that participants are “immersed in the lives and adventures” of those three families, we are absolutely serious about that!  You’ll find some “core” stories … but you’ll also find lots of gaps and cracks in the storyline that are just crying out to be filled.  Take the words, the ideas, the sentence patterns, and the cultural concepts you’re learning, and try filling in one of those gaps!  But realize that the story (or other thing) you create doesn’t have to be “perfect” … certainly not the sterile, unchangeable kind of perfect you find in most school textbooks or some teachers’ “perfect” PowerPoint slides.

One teacher I know “perfected” her PowerPoint slides fifteen years ago … “so why change?”  They still have the same clip art and the same “current events” today that they did in 1999.  That may be “perfect,” but it’s definitely not fresh or locally sourced.

But what our GHF participants will create and share with each other? It will definitely be fresh because they’ll create it together as we go along.  It will be locally sourced because they, the learning community, will create it with and for each other.  And like the food at Husk or at Blake’s, the results will probably be unpredictably excellent … not at all like the identical results you can get at that big chain restaurant down the road.

If fresh and locally sourced learning sounds good to you, I hope you’ll join the adventure … or recommend it to someone who needs to know about it.  And I hope you’ll keep reading this week as we look at some other fresh and locally sourced learning options you may not know about yet.

I wonder what other intriguing discoveries and insights await us all today!

Published in: on July 21, 2014 at 5:24 pm  Comments (2)  

Figuring Things Out

When you’re starting something new, especially something really new, it’s good to have a network of friends who can help you figure things out along the way.  If you’re a regular reader of this blog, and especially if you comment here or on the Google+ threads, I’m grateful and honored to include you in such a network.  Figuring things out, oddly enough, is not a skill you tend to learn or practice very much in factory-model schools.  There, you’re supposed to watch the experts and do what they do … and then you’ve either got it or, well, you don’t.  And if you don’t, there’s a special place to send you for some special services … but everybody knows what that really means.

But what about new, inexperienced teachers?  Don’t they have to figure things out, like novices in any field?  They do, of course, but factory-model schools have an odd, ambiguous relationship with inexperienced teachers … or inexperienced administrators or inexperienced support staff, for that matter.  Built into the system is a longing for The Good Old Days, when there were plenty of candidates and “you could be selective.”  In other words, back in those (mostly imaginary) Good Old Days, you could just replace somebody who wasn’t working out.  And not working out means not proficient … and that can mean not proficient from the very beginning.

It’s scary and traumatic to have to be proficient from the very beginning!  Is that part of the reason why so many young teachers flee in the first few years, why so many others “get burned out” and depart for endeavors that seem less taxing?

The more I think about Richard Elmore’s framework and the hierarchical individual model of learning and leadership, the more I can see how such an approach encourages a belief in immediate effortless proficiency.  “Why don’t you understand?” Ms. X asks in frustration.  “I taught it, so you should have learned it.  We even did a cute little activity!”  Down the hall, a Relevant Power is frustrated because Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y is “having trouble with classroom management.”  But they shouldn’t! After all, they took at least one course about that, and some of them are not new teachers.  Why aren’t they perfect, or at least proficient, by now?

I’ve said and thought all of those things myself … about myself, about students, about “those bad, lazy teachers” down the hall.  I bought into the perfect or proficient mindset, too.

One problem with perfect as a goal is that you can’t achieve it.  Even if today, by some miracle, was almost perfect, there’s still that nagging almost … and things might fall apart completely tomorrow.  If you aim for perfect, you’re bound to be disappointed … and disappointment has a way of turning to frustration and anger, especially if you live and work in an environment where expressing disappointment is frowned on.

Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y says toxic things about students in the Teachers’ Lounge because that’s what you do and say there.  It’s really hard to say something like “I wonder what I could do differently?” or even “I wonder why they were acting so bad and lazy?”

I’ve been oddly tired in the mornings this week.  The Dog and I go out for our morning walk at something like our normal time, but then I’ve been needing to rest, even go back to sleep, for quite a while.  This morning, in the midst of that rest, I had an insight: “It’s like I’m recovering from years of misalignment.”  And that’s how I started thinking about these issues of perfect and proficient … and how exhausting it is, even for Ms. X and Mr. Y with their hierarchical individual viewpoints, to live and work in a world where perfect and proficient are required.

And of course the definition of perfect and proficient can change with the next mandate or directive from Various Powers That Be.  One Ms. X was frustrated that, all of a sudden, failure rates required attention.  That Ms. X prides herself on “being a rigorous teacher,” and in her world view, that means some students (the “bad, lazy ones,” of course) are just going to fail.  All of a sudden, Some Power decided that failure is a problem, and what was Ms. X to do?  Change her ways?  She doesn’t know how, and admitting that would require her to see herself as less than perfect or proficient.  “I never got a bad note before,” said Another Ms. X, actually in tears over feedback about lesson plans she “spent hours and hours on.”

I don’t relish negative feedback; I don’t suppose anybody does.  It feels great when people say you’re perfect or proficient at things.  But when negative feedback arrives, as it eventually will, you can respond in  different ways.  You can get angry or upset, like Ms. X and Ms. X.  You can run away or deny, though that’s not a strategy for long-term success.  You can sink into depression, convinced that you’re “just bad at this” and it won’t ever get any better.  Or you can try to figure things out and find a way forward.

But just because you responded one way yesterday, or for many years, that doesn’t mean you’ll automatically respond that way today or tomorrow.  For all my commitment to growth and figuring things out, I spent a lot of time over the past few years being angry and upset and sinking into depression, and before that, as it was becoming clear that things were changing and my formerly “perfect” approach wasn’t working so well, I did my share of denying, too.

I’m grateful for the chance to figure these things out, and I appreciate all of you for reading and for helping along the way.  I wonder what else we’ll all figure out today and in the days to come!


Published in: on July 18, 2014 at 4:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 40 other followers