The beginning branch of the Latin Family has been working on building physical and virtual Roman houses for their familiae for the past few weeks. It seems that L, who is quietly brilliant, had complained to her parents that this process was still going on … which L’s father told me about during Thursday evening’s parent-teacher conferences. He was quietly amused by her complaint. “I told her something else would probably be happening soon,” he said, and he was delighted to hear about the larger vision of building a virtual Herculaneum (and other parts of the Roman world, too) in which the familiae will interact with each other. We agreed he’d let her know, but wouldn’t spoil the surprise by revealing too much. And then I had a wonderful conversation with C’s mom … quiet, gentle, intelligent C, who was traumatized a few years ago when a teacher in his Favorite, Most Passionate Subject Area treated him badly and labeled him as “bad and lazy,” or worse. Somehow, I said, we’ll find the spark, and C will be fine in the end. So will B, who stepped up boldly to advocate for a return to the Latin Family, but has been struggling with some personal issues and a time of day that’s completely out of sync with his natural rhythms.
I was grateful for the families (more than a dozen in the end!) who took time out of their busy days on a cold, rainy Thursday afternoon to come and talk about how their Latin Family members were doing. More Than One Ms. X had gone home sick, or possibly “sick,” by Thursday afternoon, and a few colleagues were juggling the needs of sick or exhausted children of their own. But we ate together and talked together before the conferences began, and you could feel some joyful community, or at least some indications of it. You could also feel full to bursting with some excellent eastern North Carolina barbecue and “the trimmings.”
As I talked with colleagues that afternoon, with parents in the evening, and with friends along the way, I kept thinking there was a common thread in our conversations. But it wasn’t until I saw Laura’s Google+ share of this Edsurge article that I understood the connection. The article is about how the Long Beach school district designed a truly excellent-sounding professional development system with, not for everyone involved, and then went looking for someone to build the vision. The closing metaphor of “building Disneyland one ride at a time” is a powerful image for how joyful learning communities and other 21st-century-style organizations tend to operate, especially in these transitional times.
You have to start with a vision. Years ago, when the idea for the Tres Columnae Project was first forming, I saw the core stories much as they are today, and I saw community contributions that are steadily becoming a reality. I envisioned a “continuing virtual seminar” with conversations about themes and cultural, mythological, and historical elements in the stories … a thing that I’d love to see happen, but the technology doesn’t seem to be quite ready. And I saw a virtual world where participants might interact with each other and with various characters … a world completely unbuildable with 2008’s technology, but not that difficult to make today with Minecraft and other tools.
The 20th-century factory way was to try to build the vision as an all-or-nothing, self-contained, “perfect” system from the beginning. Of course that never actually happened, but that was the vision that kept many people working quietly, if not contentedly, in their small boxes in large organizations. “Think of what you’d have to do,” we thought, “to strike out on your own! You’d need a building and an organization and a big budget and customers…” and all the trappings of a large, hierarchical organization. Of course everybody knew, at least intellectually, that those large, hierarchical organizations all began with a few people in somebody’s garage and an unrecognizably-different product … but there’s a big gap between intellectual knowledge and what you believe. And what we believed was that successful organizations “have to” be and “always” are large and hierarchical.
But when you actually build a vision, and when you build a joyful learning community around it, you realize that building the vision is both harder and easier than it seems. Harder because you don’t start with a fully-formed “Disneyland,” but with a single, imperfect but excellent “ride.” Easier, though, because you don’t have to start with a perfect, full-formed “Disneyland.” An imperfect but excellent “ride” will work, but you can’t stop with that first version. You have to keep building and sustaining, tinkering and adjusting, and then, all of a sudden, much to your surprise, you look around (as the beginning Latin Family members are doing) and are surprised by all that you have made. “We need to put them all on the same server,” everyone agreed, “so we can build the rest of the city around them.”
On a rainy Friday morning, with another busy day ahead at the end of a long, busy week, I find it both comforting and challenging to realize that building the vision is just that simple … and just that complicated! I wonder what other new discoveries and challenges await in the days to come!