What Seems Most Real?

“What seems most real to you: the label or the actual person?”  That was one question behind the questions some friends of mine and I were talking about in a Google Hangout last night.  Why is it, someone asked, that factory-model schools see the “typical” or “average” student, the one they believe they’re designed to serve, as more real or more important or more worthy than students whose learning needs are different?  Why is there such an emphasis on the norm and deviations from it?

In other words, how can the labels be so airtight  that they seem more real than the people?

I thought of Mark’s image of the basketball and the concrete block.  Eventually, if you keep bouncing that “airtight” basketball on that hard, unyielding concrete long enough, the ball will probably spring a leak.  It’s not really as airtight as it seemed at first.  And in the same way, if someone with an airtight, but untrue story or world view keeps running into a significantly different reality, the reality should eventually overwhelm the airtight fantasy.ts  That’s a painful process, of course … and that’s probably why, when you have (or want) a really airtight world view, you take pains to avoid situations where your views might be challenged.  It’s only natural to want to avoid the pain of changing perspectives.

“Why is it,” D asked during the Hangout, “that schools think partnerships with parents mean that parents should discipline their kids for things that happened at school?”  D wasn’t primarily referring to really bad things a child might do; she was thinking of schools’ tendency to ask parents to take things away from their children because “those bad, lazy kids didn’t do Our Work.”  We’d been talking about a related factory-school issue, the tendency to deprive students of their strengths and interests to “give them more time” for areas of weakness.  I had just told the story of One Ms. X, who firmly believed that “those bad, lazy kids” should be removed from “unimportant elective classes” if they weren’t doing well in Her Subject.  After all, she said, My Subject has a Great Big Important Standardized Test.

The idea of appealing to students’ strengths and interests, of connecting those with Ms. X’s Subject?  That never occurred to her, and if someone suggested it, she’d probably say that she “would need training” and, in any case, she has “not enough time and too much to cover.”  When you think about that response, though, it’s pretty clear that, for Ms. X at least, the ideal “average” or “good” student is more real than the actual learners in her classroom.  In so far as they differ from that ideal, they “need to” change, to conform themselves … or else!

One reason I’m so pleased to be working with, but not for District Q and District Y is that they don’t seem to fall into that trap.  I’d been concerned about A, who’s been doing very well when he’s at school but has had a significant number of absences.  He emailed me yesterday to explain why he hadn’t been able to do The Work … and under the circumstances, he wondered if he could possibly have an extension of time.  I forwarded his email to the Relevant Powers, and in less than a day, there was a positive response.  Those Powers not only know A by name, but they care about him as a person, and they were glad to make the necessary arrangements.  I haven’t heard back from A, but I hope that news brightens his day.

If I were able to tell Ms. X that story, I wonder how she’d respond to it.  Of course Ms. X is a composite of many teachers I’ve known and worked with, so it would be an interesting gathering!  Many A Ms. X might say something about how “unrealistic” such an approach would be in “a big school” or “a big district.”  Others might well think A needed to be “taught a lesson,” or that he “needed to make better choices.” (And not get sick during the school year?)  One Ms. X, years ago, thought a temporarily homeless student “needed to make better choices,” by which she meant that “her work” should take priority over the job that might put a roof over his head again.

Evidently their airtight basketballs of the “average student” hadn’t yet bounced against enough concrete blocks of reality!

One thing I love about joyful learning communities is that, try as you might, you can’t keep your basketball away from the concrete blocks.  Sooner or later, the ball and the block will meet … and if the ball is unrealistic or incomplete, it won’t stay airtight for very long.  As the District Y Latin Family continues to explore patronage (for the beginning group), social class distinctions (for the intermediate group), and beliefs about the dead (for the advanced group), and as we build meaningful things together around what we’ve learned and the connections we’ve made, we may well find that some of our old basketballs are developing a leak or two.  Z, whom I’ve never really liked that much?  How can s/he and I agree about anything?  X, who’s been my friend for all these years?   How can we see things so differently?  That’s the beauty of a diverse learning community, a beauty I want to celebrate because, at least to me, it’s more beautiful and more real than the false uniformity that factory-schools so often celebrate.

I wonder what other discoveries and celebrations await in the days to come!

Published in: on November 13, 2014 at 3:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

Taking A Breath, Changing Perspectives

When I was working from the inside, trying to build joyful learning communities at Former School and the School Before That, there were lots of things I “just knew” about how schools work, what was expected of me, and what to do in this circumstance or that one.  “Don’t bother the Powers That Be” was a big one … because that would “make you look bad” and cause unspecified Bad Things to happen.  “Just close my door,” as More Than One Ms. X said, “and let me teach, because this too shall pass” … that was another general-purpose guideline.  “Stand at the classroom door between classes, because that will Prevent Trouble” … that one was actually stated in writing from Various Powers.  “Don’t let Those Kids go places during Your Class, because that makes you and them look bad” … that was unstated, but powerful.

And of course there were other things I “just knew,” too: large, general-purpose things and small, particular things.  Ms. X and Mr. Y would say those things were good because they “made the day go by a little more smoothly.”  But when my circumstances changed, I found myself taking a breath and changing perspectives.  All of a sudden, the things I “just knew” weren’t true anymore.

At District Q and District Y, I haven’t needed to “bother” the Powers That Be, but when I’ve needed their help, they’ve been quick (and happy) to respond.  The beginning branch of the District Y Latin Family had some difficulties on Monday: it was the beginning of a new marking period and the first day back after a four-day weekend and there was a fire drill.  And Im pretty sure that F, N, and W were already irritated at each other because of something earlier in the day.  They started sniping at each other, and then L and C got involved, and it was clear that they needed an intervention I couldn’t provide without physically being there.

A few emails and a quick phone call later, and the situation had been resolved … not necessarily to the immediate liking of F, N, W, L, and C, but in a way that respected both them and the process and the overall needs of the Latin Family.  But along the way, I found myself battling with an old perspective I had deeply internalized.  “Don’t bother the Powers That Be!” was the loud interior message.  “They’re busy, and they don’t want to be bothered, and Bad Things will happen!  Don’t bother them!”

Where did that message come from, I wondered, and why did it seem so powerful?

All those years ago, when I was a young teacher, there were things that my colleagues “just knew.”  They “just knew” that there was an endless supply of new teachers Out There, and Powers That Be would be more than happy to replace “troublemakers” and “problems.”  They also “just knew” that the Powers That Be were really busy with unspecified Important Stuff.  “Don’t send Those Kids Down There for Little Things” … that was the actual message from the Relevant Powers.  But since Little Things are in the eye of the beholder, Ms. X and Mr. Y had no intention of sending Those Kids Down There if they could help it.  Even if there was a Situation, Ms. X and Mr. Y were pretty sure they’d somehow get blamed for it.  “Why did Those Kids start That Fight?” is a perfectly reasonable question for a school administrator to ask, but Ms. X and Mr. Y heard a hidden message: “Why are you such a Bad Teacher that Those Kids started That Fight?  Why didn’t you Control Those Kids?  Should we be looking in that endless supply of new teachers for somebody better than you?”

I highly doubt that the Relevant Powers intended to send such a message, but that’s the message Ms. X and Mr. Y received loud and clear.  And they, in turn, passed the message and the expectation along to me.  One Ms. X at Former School still believed it quite firmly the last time I talked to her … and that was just a few months ago.

But I really don’t want to blame Ms. X, Mr. Y, or the Relevant Powers in those days.  They were all participating in a complex system, and their views and attitudes were deeply shaped by their own experiences along the way.  I don’t blame myself, either, for unconsciously accepting the perspectives that Ms. X and Mr. Y transmitted to me.  It’s hard not to accept the perspectives of a complex system when you’re fully participating in it.

But I’m grateful, more grateful than I’d realized, for the opportuinty to take a breath and change perspectives.  And I’m grateful to Ms. E and Mr. E at District Y for the help they don’t even realize they gave me.  “Of course we’ll handle it” was the message they sent … and the message I received was, “Wait a minute!  This replace the Bad Teacher who bothers Powers That Be belief … that doesn’t fit with this new reality!”

When you have one of those moments of clarity, much depends on how airtight your old perspectives and stories are.  You can always try to ignore the challenge to your old world view, and you can try to accommodate (or cram) the new challenge into your old understandings.  But if you’re willing to take a breath and change perspectives, you might just end up with a new, different view of the world … and that new, different view might just take you in an unexpected direction.

The power of a joyful learning community, it seems to me, is that your old, formerly airtight perspectives and views are constantly, gently challenged as the community builds meaningful things together … and even when the community struggles.  This morning began with fog, but the fog has cleared … adn that’s not a bad metaphor for how joyful communities change our perspectives.

I wonder what other changes and discoveries await!

Published in: on November 12, 2014 at 3:15 pm  Comments (1)  

The Great War Is Over

K and I have been friends for … goodness, almost 30 years now!  We met in our first-ever college class, a seminar about World War I, and despite the miles that separate us and the vastly different paths we’ve taken, the friendship has endured.  That first Veterans’ Day we all knew each other, K “just happened” to send everyone in the class a flower (a poppy, most likely, if one was available) with a note about the end of the Great War.

All these years later, one of us still wishes the other Happy Armistice Day, usually by Facebook or email, around 11:00 in our time zone.  And the other usually responds, “The Great War is over!”

And then I usually spend some time thinking about relatives, friends, and former students who served in the military … and especially about those who paid the ultimate price, who aren’t here to be celebrated and honored on this day of remembrance.

When I heard from K this morning, moments before I was going to send the traditional message, I sent that traditional response … and as I sent it, I thought about a different, more metaphorical war that’s now over.  It was a war with myself that I fought for the past several years as I tried to build joyful learning communities “on the inside,” in an institution with very different priorities for the use of time and space and a very different definition of learning.  I wouldn’t want to dramatize it as a great war, and I wouldn’t want to compare it with the real wars and the real scars they leave on those who serve in them.  But there was still a struggle, and I’m grateful that it’s over … but if it hadn’t been for the struggle, I’m not sure I would be writing these words today.

One thing about a struggle or conflict is that it tends to pierce the airtight stories and views we otherwise hold dear.  As K, our friends, and I learned all those years ago, most of the airtight stories of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe perished in the trenches of World War I.  Here in America, many equivalent airtight stories had perished five decades earlier on the bloody Civil War battlefields.  Combat veterans I know tell me that combat changed them in ways they can’t begin to describe … and one change they mention, over and over again, is the shattering of simple illusions and straightforward world views they’d held before.

Compared with their lives, mine has been utterly sheltered.  A few setbacks and struggles, of course; some family- and institution-sized conflicts; a few moments of fear; lots of joy; and day after day of peaceful Same Old Same Old.  But even my relatively small conflicts have done a good job of piercing the airtight stories I once accepted without question.  I thought about that as I read Mark’s Google+ comment yesterday:

Individuals are not born to be airtight thinkers. Some develop over time into something as airtight as a basketball but fixed minded in such a way that they resemble a concrete block.

It is institutions and old worn out processes (rituals) these institutions cling to that lead to and perpetuate this airtight thinking.

You can compare large younger companies like Google to other large and older companies that are run much like factory schools to see how this works.

Being under the influence of these old and dying institutions causes fixed mindset thinking. The Rx for this breathing problem is to remove one’s self from the airtight environment.

It’s tempting to cling to those “old worn out processes (rituals)” and the institutions that embody them!  I spent a few painful years trying to cling but change, and while tempting, it was also exhausting.  Along the way, I found myself feeling breathless and hardened, just like the basketball and concrete block in Mark’s amazing metaphor.

And then, all of a sudden, everything changed … or was it really all of a sudden?  And did everything change?  In any case, the opportunity to build the Latin Family at District Q, District Y, and Gifted Homeschoolers Forum came along, and it was time to seize the opportunity.  Did the conflict end?  Or did I just walk away from a conflict in which I no longer cared to participate?  Either way, I could suddenly breathe again, both literally and metaphorically … and places where I’d felt physically and emotionally hardened for years seemed to soften.

That doesn’ t mean that every struggle is over, of course.  The various branches of the Latin Family at District Q and District Y are still human, and they still exist within a (somewhat) factory-model context.  So there are still struggles to build and sustain community, questions of how and when to intervene in conflicts, hard messages to send and receive.  But the struggles don’t seem as overwhelming as they did a year or two ago.  On this day of remembrance, as I pause to remember and be grateful for so many who gave so much, I’m hoping the spirit of joyful community will be a legacy to all of them.  I wonder what new discoveries and insights await us all today!

Published in: on November 11, 2014 at 4:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Trouble With Airtight

Years ago, when B and her friends complained about how “flat and dead” The Textbook was and ultimately inspired the Tres Columnae Project, their complaints helped me understand something important about stories.  I had liked and enjoyed That Textbook because it did have stories and continuing characters … but stories and continuing characters weren’t enough to make The Textbook come alive for B, E, and the others.  “We like making our own stories and our own characters,” they told me … and I know I’ve told that story many times before, but every time I think about it, I see something I haven’t seen before.

What I noticed today was that a living story and living characters must have room to breathe.  But The Textbook was airtight.  You could try to make up stories to fill gaps and cracks between existing stories … but of course you couldn’t publish them anywhere or share them with anyone.  And even if you did, there weren’t many gaps or cracks to fill.

And the trouble with airtight is that, in the absence of air, you can’t breathe … and eventually, if you can’t breathe, you die.  The Textbook, the kind that tries to be a complete learning ecosystem, aims to be airtight … but it fails, and it has to fail, in a world where knowledge isn’t fixed or static.  And other attempts at airtight fail, too, in a rapidly changing world.

But if the trouble with airtight is that it ultimately brings death, the opportunity from airtight is that you can break out of it … and people do it all the time.  B and E’s struggles against airtight led to the Tres Columnae Project; other struggles against airtight have led to enduring friendships.

I’m thinking of another B and another E this morning.  Both are former colleagues of mine; I met them both about twenty years ago, early in our teaching careers.  B had taught for a while, moved to the Big City to do other things, and then come home (and returned to teaching) because he needed to care for an elderly relative.  E had left military service and joined the Troops to Teachers program.  E was as straight-laced and conservative as B was relaxed and liberal … and somehow they formed a friendship that’s endured for decades despite the vast differences in their world views.  Sometimes they argue, sometimes they fight, sometimes they tease each other, sometimes they just agree to disagree … but the friendship endures, and I’m grateful to have both of them as friends of mine.

But why does their friendship endure, and how did they get to be friends in the first place?  If you gave E a generic description of somebody like B, he’d probably slap on a label (something like “crazy old hippie,” perhaps) and never imagine the possibility of becoming friends with Somebody Like That … and B, in turn, given a generic description of someone like E, would respond with equivalent labels and rejection.  But when B and E became friends, the label wasn’t airtight; they were able to see each other as people, to find common ground, to form an unlikely but enduring friendship.  And when I stop for a moment, I can think of several other unlikely sets of friends I know.

That gives me hope on a chilly Fall morning, but it also makes me wonder why friendships like that, friendships that ignore the airtight labels, seem to be so rare.  Are they actually rare, or is it just that we tend to see the public labeling more than the private friendships?  In the wake of bitter, negative political campaigns, where public labeling was omnipresent and extraordinarily expensive, will former rivals be able to form a community the way B and E have done?  And what about the joyful learning communities we’re attempting to build at District Y and District Q?

The stories and labels in the Tres Columnae Project are far from airtight.  There are  gaps and cracks we included deliberately, in the hopes that participants would generate new stories to fill them … and there are other gaps and cracks we never noticed until somebody pointed them out.  As we developed the storyline, we started to notice that formerly bitter rivals began to become allies.  That happens early on, at the end of Lectiō IV, with Medusa the dog and the mouse-family, and it happens later with grown-up Cnaeus Caelius and Lucius Valerius.

Perhaps art imitated life.  As we built and rebuilt these stories, we were also building and rebuilding a joyful learning community … and it was a very diverse community in which formerly bitter rivals did, over time, become allies and even friends.  T would describe himself as extremely conservative, C as extremely liberal … but they’re still friends despite the differences and the hundreds of miles that now separate them.  And both had a lot of influence on the stories and on the community at Former School.

Does a joyful learning community create spaces for labels (and stories) to become less airtight?  Or is it that, as your stories and labels become less airtight, you’re more and more willing to participate in a community where other members aren’t exactly like you?  I’m not sure there’s a simple answer, and I’m really not sure it matters.  “Start anywhere, follow it everywhere,” the folks at Walk Out Walk On say.

And on this chilly Fall morning, I’m grateful for the diversity of the joyful learning communities I’ve belonged to, and I’m grateful for friends who embrace each other (and me!) despite, or even because of, our differences.  I wonder what new insights and discoveries await as we keep poking air holes int he formerly airtight labels and stories that once divided us … and I wonder what remarkable new gaps, cracks, and stories we’ll build together in the days and weeks to come.

Published in: on November 10, 2014 at 2:13 pm  Comments (3)  

Building a Better Story

Years ago, when B and her friends complained that The Textbook was “flat and dead,” we started building a better story together, and the Tres Columnae Project is one result.  But “better” doesn’t mean “perfect,” and it certainly doesn’t mean finished for all time.  Better is a process, not a result; a journey, not a destination.  Mark reminded me about that with a recent Google+ comment:

But what if many and frequent platform changes is a key indicator of an individual or an organization’s progress and required to properly address their mission statement over time?

Mark also asked a really important question:

In your current position progress forward is dependent on multiplying your time. Instead of dealing with this web site chore, what might happen if you forced yourself to look for someone who enjoys and is proficient at this type of work. What if this currently unknown person coincidentally has a son or daughter and looking for an alternative to factory education. Find this person and you would share two things in common. Not to mention how meeting people and working one-to-one with people is something you are good at and have made a career based on this strength or yours.

As I thought about Mark’s question, I realized I’m actually doing two related tasks of building something better.  One of the tasks, the mechanical one of rebuilding the site, can and should be handed over to that currently unknown person as soon as I find him or her … especially when we get to the point of adding the quid novi explanations and some subscriber-only features.  I can do simple web-development work like that, but it’s not my passion … and unlike in the factory-school world, where The Teacher and The Student “have to” do a standardized set of tasks regardless of their skills and interests, there’s no formal or informal requirement of tasks that only I “have to” do.  By clinging to work that’s important, but not central to my particular skills and calling, I’m clinging to an outworn factory-mindset that I need to release.

So if you “just happen” to know (or be) someone interested in some fairly simple website-building work, please let me know.  It’s not the glamorous work of site design; it’s the mechanical process of adding posts, pages, menu items, and things like that.  If you’ve always wanted to learn some Latin, but never really had the chance, or if you know someone who would love to subscribe but can’t, we can talk about work for subscription access, too.

But the task of rebuilding the story is different.  As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve discovered a number of stories that we never published before, and I’ve also found some places where an additional Fabella or Fabula Longa would be helpful.  In some of those places, current Latin Family members can help with the creation … and in some cases, like previewing important new vocabulary, I want them to find a variety of approaches that will work for different kinds of learners.  Some of the “missing” stories need to be co-created, too; I rediscovered the joy of co-creating stories with the Latin Family at Former School last spring, and it’s a joy I’ve been glad to share with the District Y and District Q Latin Family this fall.

The Tres Columnae Project isn’t exactly like an open-source software community, but it has always run on open-source software.  And there are some important similarities between our joyful learning community organizational structure and the ways open-source development communities are structured.  Anyone can access our stories, and anyone (who subscribes) can contribute a story … but that doesn’t necessarily mean the new story will be published as is.  Like an open-source development community, we’ll see if the potential new story is a good fit or not.  Sometimes we make the decision together, and sometimes a smaller group (or a “group of one”) decides.

I was intrigued to discover that the WordPress community has a “buck stops here” approach.  There are countless plug-ins, themes, and extensions, and there’s a vast community of developers creating more of those all the time.  But the core product is more tightly controlled.  Perhaps that’s why WordPress feels like such a good fit for the newest (but not necessarily final) version of the Tres Columnae Project.  Like them, we have a lot of room for freedom in the development of new stories, new characters, and new storylines … but like them, we have tighter control over the core characters and story arc.

Tighter, but not so tight that things feel locked down.  If you look at the current version of Lectio Sexta, for example, you’ll see how community members’ responses to the “cow incident” have reshaped the story over time.  In early versions, it wasn’t clear whether the “cow incident” was reality or dream; the community decided it had to be a dream, and we responded with new stories (and additions to the older stories) that made the distinction between dream and reality much clearer.  “I really like Cnaeus,” J said to me last spring, and that surprised me because, in early versions of the stories, I really didn’t like Cnaeus very much.  But as J explained her reasoning, and as I thought about some stories about grown-up Cnaeus that we haven’t published yet, I understood her point … and I realized that the six main younger-generation characters (Lucius, Caius, Cnaeus, Valeria, Lollia, and Caeliola) are a community that can’t and shouldn’t be separated.  They balance each other, compensate for each other’s weaknesses, and work together in critically important ways, especially after their lives are turned upside down by the eruption of Vesuvius.

As we keep building better stories, it’s important to remember that stories shape communities, but communities also shape their stories as they build a commons together.  Stories unite, but they also divide, and sometimes they do both at once.  I wonder what else we’ll discover as we continue building better stories together.

Published in: on November 7, 2014 at 4:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Stories Unite, Stories Divide

It’s a day with no classes for the Latin Family at both District Q and District Y, the first day of a much-needed four-day weekend for them.  The Dog and I had a leisurely breakfast, and then I continued working on the new, updated Tres Columnae Project site.  If you visit, you’ll find all of the stories you’d expect in Lectiōnēs I – IV, and you’ll also find some new stories that have never been published before.  There’s a Fabella in Lectio Prima that was always there in the draft, but somehow escaped everyone’s notice … and if it hadn’t been for the “site disaster” last week, I never would have realized that.  It introduces some important vocabulary and structures that have confused Latin Family members at times … and now I know why they were confused!  There’s also a new Fabella introducing Ridiculus and his family in Lectio Secunda, a “new” family in Lectio Tertia, and a new Fabella in Lectio IV that introduces Flavius Caeso and his family.

Most of these stories aren’t actually new, but they haven’t been published on the site before.  As I re-read the early Lectiones with new Latin Family members each year, I often find gaps or unexpected difficulties … and the best way to clear those up is usually to make a new story.

These “new” stories, and some others that will “just happen” to appear as we go forward, are stories that unite.  They fill in gaps, or they preview new grammatical forms, or they introduce important new vocabulary in a less-complex way than the “old” stories did.  Stories that unite are important, and I’ve been thinking about them during this election week.  But there are also stories that divide, and I’ve been thinking about them, too.

And sometimes the story that unites and the story that divide are actually the same story.  I realized that today, and that’s one reason I’m writing this post a bit later than usual.

When I was a child, I learned a story that unites.  It was about how, in the United States, we could disagree politically, but we would still respect each other.  It had sections about putting aside your personal wishes and doing what was best for The Country or The Greater Good.  I loved that story, and I sought out stories that confirmed it.  The school library “just happened” to have a whole series of Biographies for Young People; if you’re my age, you might remember the blue-and-yellow covers and the list of subjects ranging from George Washington to Crispus Attucks to Florence Nightingale.  There were more in the same series at the Local Public Library, and I think I might have read all of them.  Almost always, Our Hero became part of a diverse community, saving the day by reconciling those who seemed hopelessly at odds with each other.

Or at least that’s how I remember the books.  It’s been a long time, and a quick Google search didn’t take me to anything I recognized.

But during this deeply divided Election Week, I realized that stories that unite can also be stories that divide.  I have friends on all sides of the political spectrum, so my Facebook feed was filled with a mixture of misery, anger, triumph, and gloating … but it definitely wasn’t filled with the sense of diverse community and reconciliation that those old biographies would have implied.  I’m not sure there ever really was a time when stories that unite ruled the day … but even if there was such a time, stories that unite usually unite “us” in a sharp contrast with “them.”

It strikes me that, in American politics today, there are groups with a very strong story that unites them.  “Take back Our Country,” some say … and obviously, in that story, there’s someone who’s “taken” it from “us” wrongly.  “Tolerate everybody except intolerant people” … that’s another uniting story for some.  I know a lot of people who think facts and figures will win arguments and elections, and I have a feeling that many of them were disappointed this week.  Facts and figures are important, but they’re not as powerful as a story that unites … especially when that story that unites identifies a Common Enemy and a way to defeat them.

I’ll be finalizing grades for the Latin Family this weekend, and I’ll also be continuing to rebuild and enhance the new Tres Columnae Project site.  As I do, I’ll be thinking about stories that unite and stories that divide.  A joyful learning community needs both, but I think a healthy community focuses more on the uniting than the dividing most of the time.  I wonder what other insights, discoveries, and stories await in the days and weeks to come.

Published in: on November 6, 2014 at 9:26 pm  Comments (1)  

Socialstructing a Commons?

Regular Tres Columnae Project site visitors have probably noticed that we’re redirecting you to the “emergency backup” site this week as we rebuild.  This is the fourth platform change in our history, and I hope it will be the last!  We started out with a somewhat obscure wiki platform, migrated to an old version of Drupal for a while, and spent  time with various versions of Joomla … but the latest version started causing errors and issues for us.

Of course, all the time I’d been writing this blog in WordPress, and for quite some time the Corgito Project has run on WordPress, too.  When the new version of the Tres Columnae site comes online, you’ll find it running on WordPress as well.

I hadn’t been expecting to make that change this fall, but now that I’m in the midst of it, I’m glad it happened.  This Computerworld article “just happened” to show up, and I found it oddly helpful … and not just for my decision about which CMS to use.  There are stages in the development of a community when it’s helpful for somebody to take on the “benevolent dictator” role, in a memorable quote for the article.    But there are also times when you need “more of a committee-based approach to decision-making as far as the direction and development … is concerned.”  And sometimes, of course, a formal structure, whether committee or dictator, is exactly the opposite of what you need.

The key is to figure out which approach you need now, and to be open to change as circumstances change.  I’ve been thinking about that as the District Q and District Y Latin Family groups find their rhythm, and as I keep letting go of what “always” worked (or “always” happened) at Former School.  Somehow or other, a joyful learning community ends up socialstructing a commons for itself … but there isn’t a simple recipe you can follow to make that happen.  For the Latin Family, at the beginning, I often need to serve as the “benevolent dictator.”  New members have certain expectations about “school” and “classes” and “school work,” and as we move out of those old expectations, it’s helpful for them when I take on the Strong Leader role.  But as soon as possible, as much as possible, I start putting away my “benevolent dictator” hat … and in the process, what emerges is often something like a “committee-based approach.”  Eventually we become a learning community where roles are more fluid and informal … but even then there are times when the other structures are needed, at least for a little while.

That’s been important for me to discover and rediscover over the past few years.  I can’t impose joyful learning community by force of will, but I also can’t sit passively back and wait for it to form automatically.  Joyful learning communities can probably grow organically in non-hierarchical, non-depersonalized environments … but if you’re trying to build one in a hierarchical, factory-model environment, it takes a lot more effort and guidance than you might realize.

And much depends on the purpose of the community.  For the developers of Drupal and Joomla, the primary purpose is to build something for experts.  They’re not expecting relative amateurs to use their products, especially if those relative amateurs are building something large and important.  With an audience of expert users, many of whom are involved in building the thing they use, a “committee-based approach” makes a lot of sense.  You agree on an overall vision, divide up the work, and make sure all the pieces (mostly) work together at the end of the day.

It’s oddly similar, in some ways, to what you do if you’re building a textbook.  There, too, the primary user is an expert in the field.  Those users may or may not be directly involved in building the thing they use, but their thought processes are similar to those of the builders.

But for the Tres Columnae Project, we’re trying to be experts in some ways, but novices in others.  And that’s a hard pathway to follow sometimes.  Mark described it well in a Google+ comment:

Imagine creating a course like one H&R Block has for tax preparers and using these techniques to increase learning, camaraderie, and collaboration, amongst workers. No doubt these techniques would create better outcomes for H&R Block as a company, their employees, and customers coming in for tax return preparation.

There are key differences between this tax preparation example and what’s going on in schools today. You don’t see individuals in middle school, high school, and in some instances college, able to sign up for courses they are excited about participating. Also typical students are not like tax preparers who would take a course H&R Block might offer where there is an almost instant opportunity to take information and knowledge and begin working towards mastery, and oh yeah, making money as they practice….

LEAN was never about a focus on cutting cost. Instead it was about improving working conditions for workers which would have natural consequences like improving product quality, increasing production speeds, reducing the amount of raw good requirements and so on. Cross training workers, (constant improvement) is one of the most important tenets of LEAN.

This leads back to your comment…
It’s really hard to be an expert and a novice simultaneously!

When you talk to someone who is considered to be an expert in their field, they will likely not accept that expert description. Instead they will tell you how they are constantly learning new things and if they participate in mentoring relationships today, they will be the first to tell you how much they are learning from their mentees who live alongside them in the hyper-changing world we all live in.

And in that hyper-changing worldbuilding and leading a joyful learning community is a complicated balancing act.  I wonder what new forms of balance we’ll find in the days and weeks ahead.

Published in: on November 5, 2014 at 4:09 pm  Comments (1)  

Socialstructing in Action

Now that I’ve learned the word socialstructing, I’m starting to see examples of it everywhere!  Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s course called “How to Humanize Your Online Class,” which “just happened” to show up in my Google+ stream over the weekend, doesn’t use the term socialstructing, at least in the publicly available part of the syllabus.  But the course objectives make it clear that social presence, social bonds, and social rewards are key components of the course … and I wish the whole course were publicly available so that teachers and learners around the world could socialstruct as we learned about socialstructing together.

It occurs to me, though, that it’s hard to learn about socialstructing without doing the process, just as it is (or should be) hard to learn about a language without using the language to understand and to express meaning … or to learn about history, science, or music without using the tools and thought processes of historians, scientists, or musicians.  One of the oddest things about factory-model schooling, when you stop and think about it, is the separation of process from product … a separation that’s also characteristic of factory-model production and economics.  In a pre-industrial world, if you needed something made, you either made it yourself, traded with the maker, or traded with a merchant who traded directly or indirectly with that maker.  No matter how long the chain of trades might have been, everybody understood that there was a maker; without that maker, there wouldn’t have been a product.  In the industrial era, the idea of a maker was temporarily obscured, and so was the web of social connections binding maker and user.  But in this new, post-industrial world, makers are important again … and so are those socialstructed connections that bind makers, users, and others together in community.

“You mean you know him?” my friend’s students asked her in surprise.  They’re at one of the Tres Columnae Project’s partner schools, but they were still surprised that she and I know each other and communicate.  I wonder if they were surprised that there was a “him.”  After all, Your Typical Textbook either has no authors at all or a panel of fifteen or twenty … and how likely is it that Your Teacher, at Your Typical School, actually knows one of those faceless authority figures?  And even if Your Teacher does know a Textbook Author, does that really make a difference?

Industrial production and industrial education are impersonal and even “depersonalized,” to quote Marina Gorbis.  But human beings, by our nature, are persons, and we seek personal connections even in the most impersonal environments.  Years ago, I wondered why Z and some others had “vandalized” The Textbook; it felt like an assault against the learning community we were trying to build together.  I don’t think I asked them why at the time, but now I wonder if they were trying to personalize the impersonal.  I do know that, the more time they spent in the Latin Family, the less likely they were to draw or write in The Textbook, and I assume it’s because the personal connections had grown deeper.

There’s no textbook to “vandalize” for the Latin Family these days; instead, there’s a collection of materials they can contribute to.  But there is a virtual whiteboard, and sometimes people want to put something silly there.  Are they socialstructing at the time, building something meaningful together to deepen our social connections?  Are they just being annoying, perhaps seeking attention they don’t think they can get in other ways?  Each situation is different, but even the annoying and attention-seeking responses are actually a cry for community, aren’t they?  Ms. X and Mr. Y are trapped by “not enough time” and “too much to cover,” and besides “They don’t pay me to be Those Kids’ friend, do They?”

Thinking about the Particular Ms. X or Mr. Y who said that to me a few years ago, I realize that s/he was one of the most isolated and unhappy people I’ve ever known.  And when you’re isolated and unhappy, it’s hard and painful to see others who seem more connected and more satisfied with their lives.  But everyone is different, and the “perfect” amount of connection for you might be overwhelming (or far too little) for me.  Part of socialstructing in any community is to find the mix of together and apart that works best for this community, at this time, in these circumstances.

That’s why I offered an Individual Written Response option for the District Y Major Assessment this week.  It’s a similar text to the one I’ll be using for the Individual Oral Response, but if you prefer to have more time and more resources, you can read the whole text (and use any reference materials you wish) rather than just a single paragraph, and you can take the time you need rather than responding right away.  I thought about the intermediate branch of the Latin Family as I designed this option; they are kind, helpful, and considerate to each other, but they really don’t like working together as much as their counterparts in the beginning or the advanced groups.  It turned out that everybody in that group requested the Individual Written Response yesterday, while everybody in the advanced group wanted the Individual Oral Response.  I’m not sure what to expect with the beginning group today; most will probably want the Individual Oral Response, but some may well choose the Individual Written instead.

joyful learning community makes room for that kind of variety and diversity because a joyful learning community recognizes the value of differences among its members.  An impersonal, depersonalized learning environment really can’t do that; after all, the whole purpose of depersonalizing learning is to make it “the same” or “identical” for everybody.  As we work to build Joyful Learning Communities, it’s important to recognize and honor our deep differences … and to be open to the insights and discoveries they bring us!

Published in: on November 4, 2014 at 3:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

New Word, New World

The first time I read this piece, when a friend “just happened” to share it on Facebook over the weekend, I don’t think I noticed the new word.  I thought it said socialstructured, two familiar words written together … but it didn’t.  It said socialstructed.  And when I finally noticed the word and traced its history to Marina Gorbis’s book and this early review, I suddenly saw the power of both the word and the concept.  For Gorbis, it seems, socialstructing involves “creating a new economy around social connections and social rewards” and “moving away from the dominance of the depersonalized world of institutional production.”  I haven’t read the book yet, but it seems that she addresses everything from learning (as she does in the Fast Company piece where I discovered the term) to organization and governance.  It’s a new word for the new world that seems to be emerging all around us.

In short, I think Gorbis has found a term for the move from factory to community that we keep talking about here.  Clearly I need to get the book and read it soon!

I also “just happened” to rediscover Blake Boles’ book The Art of Self-Directed Learning and its accompanying website this weekend.   Boles makes the point that self-directed doesn’t mean isolated.  As a self-directed learner, you might very well seek out (and excel in) a formal learning environment or class.  But when you do, it’s because you see the value and importance of what you will learn there.  No need for external compulsion from Some Authority Figure.

I think of The Girl for all those years when she did take dance lessons … and of her decision to stop.  And I think of her decision to try out Marching Band this year … and of the joy she’s experienced in her new role as a percussionist, and the ways that she and her friends work together to help each other improve.  I also think of The Boy and the self-directed areas he’s embraced, from Scouting to fencing to gaming with friends.  There’s a lot of socialstructing going on … and now I have a one-word term for it.

How much socialstructing are we doing in the Latin Family at District Y and District Q?  The District Q Latin Family told me early on that they werejoyful learning community, and they’ve proven it over and over again.  The mystery creation process was the highlight of what we’ve done so far, I think, but tomorrow we’ll embarking on a different kind of socialstructing.  If you’re familiar with the Tres Columnae Project storyline, you know that Valerius’ wife Caelia has died before the eruption of Vesuvius; in fact, Valerius initially refuses to leave the house because he wants to die and be buried with his wife.  But the details of her death have never been revealed … except, to a degree, in one story which might or might not belong at the end of Lectio XXIX.  We’ll read that story tomorrow, right before the upcoming long weekend for both District Q and District Y, and we’ll decide whether it’s out of place, whether it’s satisfying, or whether we want to create more stories of Caelia’s illness.  The District Y marking period ends this week, but District Q has a trimester schedule; we’ll have another few weeks until their marking period ends, and as we read the eruption stories (and some excerpts from Pliny’s letters about the eruption), we may be building a set of stories about Caelia’s final illness, too.  I’m sure you can see the socialstructing in action there!

Meanwhile, everyone in the District Y Latin Family will be wrapping up our first marking period with the Major Assessment process.  For the beginners, the process is rather similar to what I “always” did at Former School: there’s an Individual Response where you read some Latin aloud, tell me what you understood, and find some noun and verb forms, and then there’s a Collaborative or Product Response where you review a set of stories (the Ferox, Medusa, Sabina, and Ridiculus sequence from the end of Lectio IV) and make a Character Diagram for one of the major characters.  The process obviously generates Some Numbers For The Gradebook, but it’s also a chance to celebrate together, to see how much more we’re able to read and understand today than we could a few weeks ago.  And we share the products together, so “social connections and social rewards” have their place even in Exam Week.

For the intermediate and advanced District Y Latin Family, there’s an option of a short oral response or a longer written one for the Individual Response.  They’ll be making Collaborative or Product Responses too, Character Diagrams for someone in Lectio XV for the intermediate group and Lectio XXIV for the advanced group.  Socialstructing is going on there, too … and I’ve deliberately responded to their socially-transmitted signals by providing the Written Response option and by limiting the number of stories they have to consult for the Product.  The small classes at District Y probably always felt somewhat like a learning community, but the intermediate and advanced classes had a Particular Routine with their Former Teacher and the Old Textbook.  I’ve tried to be mindful of those existing structures as we try new approaches … and my mindfulness and flexibility are key to the socialstructing.  If I imposed the One Right Way, we really couldn’t be a learning community at all!

And that’s why socialstructing is harder and easier than the factory-model approach with its One Right Way.  It’s harder because you have to find the way together … but it’s easier because the whole community can get involved in wayfinding, and because we end up with something meaningful and deeply personal that we built together.  I wonder what other new insights and discoveries await in the days and weeks to come!

Published in: on November 3, 2014 at 2:49 pm  Comments (1)  

“Build Something That Matters”

That’s the fifth of Douglas Kiang’s “top five secrets” to a deeply engaging learning experience, and it’s obviously the same idea as building something meaningful together.  In some ways it’s the easiest of the five principles to apply, but in other ways it’s the hardest.  It’s easy when you have really built a joyful learning community; in fact, when there’s a joyful learning community in place, it naturally seeks to “build something that matters.”  “Can we create and solve mysteries for each other?” the Latin Family at District Q asked … and when I got that email, I knew that the community had truly formed.  But it’s hard because, if you want to build a joyful learning community, you have to do Kiang’s other four elements:

  1. “Wrap them up in the story,” which inspired my post on Monday;
  2. “Fail early, fail often,” which led to Tuesday’s post;
  3. “Provide multiple paths to success,” which we talked about on Wednesday; and
  4. “Scaffold and recognize progress,” which was our focus in yesterday’s post.

And of course those elements are interdependent … and of course “fail early, fail often” doesn’t just apply to the work that the learners do.  When you’re building a new joyful learning community, the lead learner or teacher or community organizer will experience plenty of failures and partial successes, too.  Sometimes it’s hard to find and frame the story in a way that works well for this particular audience, especially if school has meant Doing That Worksheet or Copying Ms. X’s PowerPoint.  Often it’s hard to normalize failure and struggle if the learners are used to a success- and perfection-driven school culture.  Multiple paths are a challenge for learners who are used to being told the One Right Way; I’m reminded of a story I know I’ve told before, a Ms. X colleague who was furious at her students for “doing Chapter 7 problems the Chapter 6 way” on The Test.

Scaffolding can be a challenge, too.  What does this group (or this person) need today, and how is it different from what they needed yesterday?  Celebrating progress is natural for me, but it can feel strange for a learner who only expects celebrations for absolute “achievement.”

And of course sometimes, when you try to get one element “just right,” you overcompensate and throw the whole structure out of balance.

But it’s not just in my personal life where I see signs of real progress on all five elements.  When K emailed me last night, he said he could feel the difference that the Unknown Vocabulary List process was making in his reading comprehension.  “It’s more like the Old Book,” he said, because the Former Teacher had given students the vocabulary list at the beginning of the chapter.  “Should we do that?” I asked him.  “Do you think that would help?”  I certainly don’t care whether I send the links to the VOCABVLA spreadsheets and documents at the beginning or at the end of a Lectio!  “Yes, that would probably help a lot,” K responded, and so we’ll talk about that in the intermediate and advanced classes today.  We may even bring back an old Latin Family favorite called Vocabulary Images, where you find or create images that help you remember three or four particularly troublesome words.

That’s a great way to “build something that matters,” both for you personally and for the larger Latin Family.  It’s also a great thing to share and publish on the Tres Columnae site … which I deliberately didn’t hyperlink in this post.  After so many issues with Joomla in the past week or so, I took the site down for maintenance … and when I bring it back up, I think it won’t be running on Joomla anymore.  CMS options are much better today than they were in 2011, the last time we had to make a back-end change in the site … and with a short week for District Q and District Y tomorrow, and end-of-quarter exams for District Y, I should have time and energy to build something better, simpler, and more flexible.

“But I can’t!!!” a Former Me might have wailed as recently as a week or two ago.  “The Old Site is old and familiar, and I’ve spent time and energy learning the software and finding those plug-ins.”  But as I think about old and familiar and time and energy spent in the past, those aren’t exactly compelling reasons to avoid a change in the present.  In fact, old and familiar can turn into stifling and constricting … and if you’ve already spent time and energy on something, that doesn’t mean you necessarily have to spend more time and energy on it.  Sunk costs can be upsetting and frustrating, or you can look back on them as time, energy, and money well spent.  But economists are right when they say that sunk costs shouldn’t guide your future investment decisions.  In less than an hour of experimenting, I found a solution that I really liked … and in less than thirty minutes of searching, I think I found plug-ins that will allow the Next Version of Tres Columnae Online to do everything the former site did, but better.  We may even be able to implement some things we’ve only talked and dreamed about before!

That’s the thing about the flexibility that suddenly emerges when you abandon the idea of perfect and embrace excellent for now instead.  That Old Thing worked well in its time, but is it still excellent for now?  If not, we can celebrate the good as we move on to the Next Right Thing, even as we know that it, too, may need to be replaced in time.  On a beautiful fall Friday, that’s an important lesson not just for me, but for everyone involved in building and sustaining joyful learning communities.  I wonder what else we’ll all discover in the days and weeks ahead!


Published in: on October 31, 2014 at 3:17 pm  Leave a Comment