Connected Educator Month and #xplrpln: When Personal Learning Networks Collide

October 25, 2013

None of us expects what is about to happen.

A small group of us are just beginning our latest hour-long online exploration of personal learning networks (PLNs), with Twitter as our means of communication. For those on the west coast of the United States, it’s the Thursday morning version of the Wednesday night session scheduled during this third of five weeks in the Exploring Personal Learning Networks (#xplrpln) course that Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott are currently facilitating under the auspices of the Northwestern University Master’s in Learning & Organizational Change Program. A few of us know each other from the time we spent online together earlier this year in #etmooc, the Educational Technology & Media massive open online course (MOOC) developed by Alec Couros and colleagues. A few more of us have become part of each other’s personal learning networks through our collaborations in this new personal learning network MOOC.

xplrpln_logoAnd then there’s the unexpected visitor: Coline Son Lee, one of my colleagues from the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD). She is a cherished part of my personal learning network but not—yet—part of the PLNs of colleagues in my #xplrpln community of learning. I first become aware of her presence in the chat when she retweets one of my comments. I respond with a tweet to everyone else in the session so they will know who she is and how she found us: “Another sign of personal learning networks in action: @pmtrainer, an ASTD colleague just joined us, meaning my PLN is in action.” Jeff, our session facilitator, seizes the learning moment with his response: “Cool! Welcome! One of the benefits of discussing ‘in the open.’”

Connected_Educator_Month_LogoColine, having stumbled (virtually) into the chat by seeing my comments in her own Twitter feed, steps up to the plate by asking what topic we’re pursuing. Jeff further draws her in—I’m no longer her sole conduit to the chat and to the group—and he provides an in-the-moment example of a connected educator in action by offering a response that includes a link to the page with information about our Week 3 goals and objectives, readings, and activities. At which point we have seen another example of exactly what we are studying: in less than 15 minutes, a piece of my personal learning network has collided with those of other course participants, and the two begin to seamlessly merge to the benefit of everyone involved. And even though Coline is not able to continue on with the discussion for the entire session—she inadvertently omits the tweet chat hashtag that would make her comments visible to the rest of us—the introductions have been made; the players have the seeds for new growth in our personal learning networks; and we all have a visceral understanding of how PLNs work by evolving naturally, serendipitously as well as through our intentional actions, as all of us engage in our roles as connected educators, connected learners, and participants in Connected Educator Month activities and celebrations.

We also see and note that even though this session is primarily relying on synchronous exchanges, there are also asynchronous participants in the sense that we are drawing upon and building upon comments made by colleagues who attended the Wednesday evening session: we have access to the transcript of that earlier session, a few of us paraphrase or include quotes from the earlier session, and there’s even a brief drop in during this Thursday morning session from one of our Wednesday evening colleagues. After the session ends, we’ll continue the discussion via exchanges in our Google+ community, various tweets back and forth, and blog postings that attract responses from other members of our connected leaning community—all helping to reinforce the idea that the more we explore and the more we learn, the more we find to learn and explore.

Gladwell--David_and_GoliathMy PLN and learning experience suddenly begin moving back in time as well as forward. I recall a moment that occurs two days earlier: the moment in which author Malcolm Gladwell suggests during an interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show this week that Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, is the sort of book that raises more questions than it answers—and that’s OK, he adds. I think about the inevitable moments in the days and weeks to come when members of my personal learning networks continue to share resources on the question-raising questions with which we joyfully grappling. And I realize that Exploring Personal Learning Networks is very much the MOOC version of Gladwell’s latest book: we arrive with some basic assumptions; explore those assumptions while listening to other people’s assumptions; find that every potential answer takes us wonderfully deeper into the topic and, as a result raises additional questions; and we all leave with a greater appreciation for the nuances of what we are exploring, having learned experientially how wonderfully complex this and the rest of the world can be if we are not insistent on approaching learning as something to be initiated, completed, checked off a to-do list, then shelved or recalled fondly each time we look at a diploma or certificate of completion as if learning is ever finished.

And doesn’t all of that just leave us with the most inspiring questions, PLNs, communities of learning, and learning experiences of all?

N.B.: This is the sixth in a series of posts inspired by Connected Educator Month and participation in #xplrlrn (the Exploring Personal Learning Networks massive open online course).


Hidden Garden Steps: Seeing the People Behind the Projects

October 25, 2013

While driving from San Francisco to Seattle several years ago, I learned an important lesson: we diminish ourselves, our communities, and the power of the collaborative process by ignoring the people who produce all that surrounds us.

The lesson came during a visit with Licia’s (my wife’s) aunt (Dorothy) and uncle (Woody).  It was as Woody was describing some of the roadwork he had overseen while working for Caltrans (the California Department of Transportation) that I realized how little thought we give to those who, like Woody, literally make our world look and work the way it does. He mentioned one 18-mile stretch as a particularly challenging project; told us how he had worked with colleagues to design a solution that was not only utilitarian but actually, in many ways, aesthetically pleasing; and told us that we would be driving over that extended length of road on our way back to San Francisco. When we reached the beginning of what we now think of as “Uncle Woody’s Road” (with no disrespect intended toward all of Woody’s wonderful collaborators who were important partners in completing the project), we slowed down. Paid attention to what he had described. And afterwards thought about how many other people’s work we failed to acknowledge.

KZ Tile employee working on Steps

KZ Tile employee working on Steps

As a colleague once noted, “everything was designed by someone,” but we take this aspect of the world around us for granted. Which is not the case for those of us involved as organizing committee members on the Hidden Garden Steps project here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District. We’re aware of the more than 500 people—primarily from the San Francisco Bay Area, but also including people from nine states as well as from the United Kingdom and France—who donated more than $200,000 in cash and substantial amounts of volunteer time to support the creation and installation of the 148-step ceramic-tile mosaic created by  project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher and currently being installed by KZ Tile employees on the Hidden Garden Steps site (16th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets). We’re becoming familiar with Kai, Michael, and the others from KZ Tile who are working to complete the installation before the rainy season begins. We know the numerous San Francisco Department of Public Works employees who removed a broken concrete retaining wall and out-of-alignment flight of steps so the mosaic could be correctly and safely installed.

HGS--Erosion_Control--Cementing_Posts[3]--2013-10-10

SF DPW workers pouring concrete for erosion control barriers

We know Hector, Sean, David, Neil, Francisco, and so many others who have dug holes, built terraces, poured and hand-troweled concrete, and shoveled dirt from one side of the hill to the other—and then back again—as massive erosion-control efforts were completed onsite. We know Ray and Bill and Kevin and Nick and so many others who worked from their offices and make onsite visits to move the project along and make it far better than any of us ever envisioned it being. We know Olivia and Alex and Ashley and Katy (now herself a county supervisor), who as legislative aides to members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors did the underappreciated and rarely acknowledged work of connecting us to those within the City and County of San Francisco who needed to be part of transforming the site into something attractive and of value to those in the immediate neighborhood as well as to those from all over the world who come to San Francisco to see those wonders that just seem to spring up on their own.

Steps mosaic workshop

Steps mosaic workshop

Because the project had two major and very ambitious goals—create a second set of ceramic-tile steps and public gardens here in the Inner Sunset District and further strengthen the sense of community that already exists here (we have at least three neighborhood associations, a merchants association, a weekly farmers’ market, several schools, a University of California campus, numerous churches, and a very active café and restaurant scene that provides plenty of third places for us to gather, relax, exchange ideas, and occasionally find ways to make the community even more appealing and cohesive)—we have also come to know many of the neighbors and organizations we didn’t previously know. Nurturing the Hidden Garden Steps as an inclusive project, we drew community members together to participate in the creation of parts of the mosaic, continue to attract volunteers on the second Saturday of each month from 1 – 3 pm to clean up the site, nurture the gardens-in-progress, and do whatever is needed to make this into another fairly unusual third place for community interactions and engagement.

We have been active on the ground—sometimes going door to door to keep neighbors up to date on what we’re doing—as well as online (through our website, newsletter, @GardenSteps Twitter account, Hidden Garden Steps Facebook page (which received its 200th “like” earlier this week), and numerous other social media platforms.

The original steps on Moraga Street

The original steps on Moraga Street

And yet even with all that connectivity and collaboration, we know there will come a time when we will no longer be here. Others will walk up and down those stairs. Work on those gardens. Have conversations which will not include us. Stop long enough to think about the fact that people just like them made the Hidden Garden Steps possible. And then be inspired, as we were by the original set of tiled steps here in the neighborhood, to engage in that level of community-building, collaboration, and transformation themselves.

N.B.: This is the twenty-first in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco.


New Librarianship MOOC: Learning and Community Engagement

July 26, 2013

Members of library staff (and many others involved in training-teaching-learning) need to facilitate conversations and engage in them as well as part of our efforts to nurture and be part of the communities we serve, we are reminded through R. David Lankes’s “Community: The Pressure for Participation” lecture posted online in his “New Librarianship Master Class”—a massive open online course (MOOC) under the auspices of the University of Syracuse School of Information Studies— and in his book The Atlas of New Librarianship.

New_Librarianship_Master_Class_Logo“Participation in a system, however minimal, exerts pressure on that system,” he explains, and that thought reminds us that whether we’re facilitating learning in physical and virtual library settings or in any other environment, we must be actively engaged with our learners if we want to understand and effectively meet their needs.

I suspect that many of us connected with learning efforts in or through libraries understand, viscerally, the importance and the rewards of being integrally involved in our communities; if we’ve read the Urban Library Council’s Making Cities Stronger: Public Library Contributions to Local Economic Development (2007) report or been following Maureen Sullivan’s American Library Association (ALA) presidential initiative “Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities,” we have very strong reminders of how important involvement and activism within a community is. I am not, on the other hand, at all convinced that trainer-teacher-learners across the board have that same sense of how far-reaching our efforts are within the communities we serve; responding to employers’/clients’ needs with our (in the best of situations) finely honed learner-centric endeavors, we don’t often enough take into consideration the importance of evaluating the results of those endeavors where they most matter: among the customers and clients who ultimately benefit from how learners apply what they have absorbed—or suffer from those learners’ inability to successfully apply what has been offered.

Lankes, obviously focusing on the world of librarianship and libraries, continues throughout his course and book to offer guidance, inspiration, and provocative ideas not only for that target audience of library staff, but to anyone involved in training-teaching-learning. He encourages us to think about how we can open up our systems to those who are ultimately affected by our resources, our offerings, and our actions. He reminds us that “people will go where they can have an influence. People will go to where their voice is respected or listened to”—a confirmation that if we want to be effective in facilitating learning, we need to act in ways that demonstrate our willingness to partner with our learners, listen to what they say, and respect what we are hearing from them.

He takes us even further in his discussions of community through his online lecture “Communities: Environments” and sections of The Atlas (pp. 97-101) where he documents efforts by staff at the Free Library of Philadelphia to renovate and expand the main library in ways that serve the community rather than in ways that solely reflect library staff’s perceptions of community needs. Discussions with community members led staff to focus on proposals for an Entrepreneurium that would support community entrepreneurs at their greatest moment of need; a writing center that would provide writers with the salon opportunities and publication opportunities that were most important to them and their community; and a music center that would meet musicians’ needs for performance spaces and newly-written compositions that have been performed. Having that level of exchanges with our learners and those affected by the ways those learners apply what we provide could have magnificent impacts on how we dream about, design, deliver, and evaluate the learning opportunities we offer face to face and online. And the payoff for the communities we serve could be incredible.

In the third of his three lectures on community—“Communities: Assessment”—there is a concluding line that ought to be pasted on our learning walls: the reminder that we are stronger if we avoid fragmentation and seek inclusiveness in our efforts. Rather than think of ourselves in terms of “public librarians” or “academic librarians” or any other sub-category of the larger field of librarianship, he encourages course participants to simply think of ourselves as “librarians.” And the same, I believe, can be said of learning facilitators regardless of the venue(s) in which we work: we should be far less concerned with whether we refer to ourselves as “teachers” or “instructors” or “trainers,” or whether we work primarily in face-to-face or online or synchronous or asynchronous learning situations, and much more concerned with the fact that we are involved in learning—as facilitators and as learners, regardless of whether we work in libraries or in schools or colleges or universities or in other workplace learning and performance (staff training) settings.

The foundation that keeps us productive and essential members of our communities is a dedication to learning—and that’s where we need to maintain the focus that comes from one of Lankes’s final questions in his presentations and writing on community: “What are people talking about? What do they want to learn?”

N.B.: This is the fifth in a series of posts inspired by the New Librarianship MOOC.


Revisiting Our Recent Wicked Past: Malcolm Brown, John Cleese, Creativity, #etmooc, and Light Bulbs

February 28, 2013

If we want to learn at a deeply significant and long-lasting level, we clearly need to keep re-walking familiar paths while remembering, each time we recreate those journeys, to look at them as if we’ve never seen them before this moment.

This becomes more obvious than ever to me earlier today when I have an unexpected opportunity to re-view EDUCAUSE Director Malcolm Brown’s stimulating “Ideas That Matter” presentation from the New Media Consortium Horizon Project Summit on the Future of Education held in Austin, Texas in January 2013. I enjoy the presentation when Brown originally delivers it. I take notes that I reread with fresh eyes a few days later. But it isn’t until I watch the newly-posted video of that discussion of the creative process needed to address wicked problems—those complex and ambiguous problems requiring innovative approaches—that I see how much my perspective on the topic has evolved over the period of a single month.

What makes the viewing of that video transformative is that it places me, in a very visceral way, in two distinct yet interwoven moments and frames of mind. The original moment, environment, and frame of mind is the one created by the act of being part of a summit where all attention is focused on a single, spectacular theme—the future of education. The contemporary moment is the one that is here and now, just one month later, when I continue to be part of a group absolutely transformed by participation in #etmooc, the Educational Technology and Media massive open online course (MOOC) that Alec Couros and others are currently offering through March 2013.

etmoocBrown, like Couros and his associates (his “co-conspirators”), lays the foundations for explorations without establishing a clear vision of the outcome. We know we’re going somewhere, we know it’s going to be a journey well worth taking, and we know we’re going to experience unexpected pleasures along the way, but we have no idea what the destination is until we help create it through our own participation. It’s a learning process, and the most successful learning processes are those that the learners themselves—ourselves—help define, create, and complete. We allow for successes far greater and more significant than we can envision at the beginning of the learning process; we create an expectation and acceptance of the possibility and likelihood of failures along the way; and we create the most wonderfully odd juxtapositions that in and of themselves serve as the sandboxes capable of producing results worth seeking.

Brown, at a key point in his presentation, draws our attention to John Cleese’s lecture on creativity—a spectacularly entertaining and thought-provoking presentation that was originally delivered in 1991, yet continues popping up via online links with great regularity and proving itself to be as timely today as it was more than two decades ago. Being onsite with Brown means that we experience Cleese second-hand; watching the video of Brown’s presentation provides the invitation (consider it a command performance) to take the time to actually relive Cleese’s lecture in the moment, in juxtaposition with what Brown is offering. And we’re all the richer for this opportunity to re-walk both those paths again as frequently as we allow ourselves to be drawn to them, just as we’re able to re-walk some of the paths we’re creating, visiting, and revisiting through the various platforms that #etmooc uses (Blackboard Collaborate presentations; blog postings; live tweet chat sessions; postings in a Google+ community; and a variety of other settings limited only by our own imaginations and the amount of time we have to give to our continuing education efforts in a vibrant community of learning).

But let’s stay with a key point that Brown makes by quoting from Cleese’s earlier yet virtually contemporaneous presentation: creativity “is not a talent; it is a way of operating.” Every time we creatively pull ourselves back into an inspiring learning moment by re-reading our notes, or re-viewing an online presentation, or re-reading a blog posting (and, perhaps, adding to what is already there by posting a new comment that draws the original blogger back to what he or she wrote days/weeks/months/years ago), we keep our learning moments alive, productive, and fertile.

Jumping from Brown to Cleese also takes us deeper into that fabulously Cleesian world where he begins by telling his audience (which, thanks to the video, now includes us in the sort of wonderfully synchronously asynchronous moment that I’m attempting to create with this article) that he can more easily explain humor than he can explain the creative process. Then proceeds to do both by talking about creativity while continually interrupting his own presentation with a seemingly endless string of light bulb jokes. Then finds a way to connect the learning dots by helping us understand how the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated ideas (like creativity and light bulb jokes) can move our minds from a comfortably closed state (that is antithetical to creativity) to one open to unexpected possibilities (which provides a field where seeds of creativity can sprout, grow, and thrive). He makes us laugh repeatedly by reminding us how important these absurd juxtapositions are, and then producing more of them to prove the point. By the time we leave Cleese and Brown, we have strengthened our ability to engage in the process—and even make sense of the sort of juxtapositions I calculatingly create in the headline to this article.

N.B.: This is the fourteenth in a series of posts responding to the assignments and explorations fostered through #etmooc.


NMC Horizon Project Summit 2013 (Future of Education, Day 1): Challenges and Plans for Action

January 22, 2013

You would, based upon onsite discussions throughout the first day of the 2013 New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Project Summit on “The Future of Education” here in Austin, Texas, have been in good company walking away feeling optimistic this evening.

nmc.logo.cmykSummit graphic facilitator David Sibbet (President and Founder of The Grove Consultants International) and NMC Founder/CEO Larry Johnson didn’t waste a minute before establishing that the 100 of us from kindergarten through 12th-grade schools, colleges and universities, libraries and museums, and a handful of other organizations from all over the world, have a clear mandate over the next few days:

  • Identify some worthy challenges that deserve to be solved, and pilot a process that we can use to move an action agenda forward

Our playing field remains the intersection between technology, learning, creativity, and the people at the center of those fields. The common element that continues to draw us together is a passion for exploring the technology that continues to evolve all around us and the trends and challenges we and those we serve are facing. And the approach was a mixture of attentiveness, reflection, humor, and focus on what the metatrends—“a global and overarching force that will affect many multidimensional changes; for example, environmental impacts on business, individuals and countries,” according to an online sustainability dictionary—within education are.

Much of our time this afternoon was spent reviewing the 10 metatrends that were documented through the conversations at the 2012 Horizon Project Advisory Board retreat. There was also extensive conversation around a variety of metatrends that didn’t make that list but may be worth exploring as we identify the worthy challenges and develop the process for developing the proposed action agenda.

It’s worth summarizing some of the metatrends previously identified to set a context for what comes next: the work of the world is increasingly global and collaborative; people expect to work, learn, socialize, and play whenever and wherever they want to—and they can draw from a global mobile network (the Internet) to foster learning; concepts of open content, data, and resources, combined with changing view of ownership and privacy, have an impact of much of what we do; and the Internet is challenging us to rethink learning and education while refining our notion of literacy.

Metatrends that may be included on a revised list by the time the conference ends two days from now were varied and intriguing:

  • The need for good data to be used in learning (learning analytics)
  • The end of credentials as we know them; one summit participant even mused about what would happen if we put expiration dates on academic degrees
  • The growing importance of the maker subculture and how it might reflect a new arts and crafts movement that does not at all eschew the use of technology in creation
  • The continuing expectation that people have that they will be able to learn, work, and play whenever and wherever they want to engage in those activities
  • New business models for learning
  • Redefining literacy
  • The impact of a commitment to openness in disseminating information
  • The end of physical boundaries of work in a world where our work and non-work lives are increasingly intertwined
  • Natural User Interface (NUI)
  • Increasing awareness of the importance of informal learning
  • Commitments to global/collaborative interactions

There was also frank discussion about how “complexity” is a theme that seems to flow through almost every other theme we were exploring—a theme that itself almost seems to serve as a meta-metatrend that helps to make sense of the other disparate themes under discussion.

Our list-in-progress, Johnson reminded us toward the end of the afternoon, is not definitive—nor is it meant to be. It’s a starting point for discussion and action, and the real work will be continued within the overlapping communities we serve, and with the active participation of members of those communities.

“We have 100 people in the room, and I hope we have 100 perspectives,” he said.

And then the immediate future under the nurturing of the New Media Consortium was outlined for all of us:

  • A new NMC K-12 Ambassadors Program is about to unfold through a very quick search to identify 25 top innovative educators from around the world; their mandate will be to provide insight into the world of kindergarten through 12th-grade education and how the NMC can support them. This might eventually lead to similar ambassador programs for museums and libraries worldwide.
  • The existing NMC Horizon EdTech Weekly App for Apple devices is about to be supplemented by a similar app for Android devices.
  • And in a movement I personally have long supported, the NMC community that has developed through the these new annual meetings is going to be supported year-round through establishment of an NMC Commons, “an Enterprise Hive social business community platform to improve member services, support collaboration among colleagues, and enhance the production of the NMC Horizon Report series.”

“This room is going to be the first sub-community on that group,” Johnson assured us.

The formal discussions ended as late afternoon melted into early evening, but the exchanges of ideas continued well into the night as we gathered for a reception that allowed us to engage in small-group discussions.

There still is much to do before we reach the goals that Johnson had outlined earlier in the day. But at least one thing is clear: the future of education may be an incredibly complex topic to explore over a three-day period, but the community that NMC staff is nurturing is one that is more than willing to be active participants in helping shape that future in the most positive of ways.


Training, Technology, and Grand Juries

August 10, 2012

A grand jury’s conclusion that “San Francisco’s City Technology Needs a Culture Shock” inadvertently points toward opportunities for those of us involved in workplace learning and performance (staff training) endeavors regardless of where we are living.

“Déjà Vu All Over Again,” the recently-released City and County of San Francisco Civil Grand Jury report, documents the deplorable state of technology coordination and usage at the local government level. And this clearly is not a new or local issue; those of us who follow tech news have seen numerous examples of how our colleagues in government struggle—or don’t even attempt—to effectively incorporate the use of available technology into the workplace to better serve constituents. Think of the situation that led to the formation of the United States Department of Homeland Security when it was clear that the FBI, CIA, and others were far from up to date in their use of effective communication tools and practices. Or think of the sort of reports that have consistently documented the need for tech upgrades at the national level over the past decade or two. And think of what we see among our own workplace learning and performance colleagues if they still haven’t begun to build upon the practices documented by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner in The New Social Learning, in the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) Social Media Toolkit for ASTD Chapter Leaders, or the other resources that continue to come our way on a regular basis.

While the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury report deals primarily with the situation here in San Francisco at a high-level administrative level (the fact that seven different email systems are in use among City/County departments, for example), it also speaks to anyone involved in training-teaching-learning through its occasional—and, unfortunately, infrequent—references to the need for staff training. The fact is, the report is heavy on identifying and criticizing political leaders and chief information officers throughout the City and County of San Francisco for not working more cohesively and collaboratively to meet the tech challenges that face many of us on a daily basis, but is light on acknowledging the role teacher-trainer-learners might be playing in remedying the problems identified within the report and better preparing managers and employees to use the tech tools at their disposal.

Sparse references to providing training or staffing help desks means that the focus here remains on the acquisition of tech systems while underplaying the importance of assuring that those tasked with using those systems are prepared to fully incorporate them into the work of serving constituents.

And this is where I believe we can all be doing better in being part of the solution. We need to continue carving out the time to be technologically literate. We need to be playing more of a leadership role in our organizations to help determine the learning course of those organizations rather than just working to implement what others have, for better or for worse, determined are our workplace learning and performance priorities. We need to be collaborating even more effectively than we already are through our professional associations, through the onsite and online learning opportunities that we often ignore because we just can’t seem to make the time to take advantage of them. And we need to be positioning ourselves—to the benefit of our organizations and those they serve, not just for self-promotion—in ways that show we should and can be key players in making decisions that help resolve the sort of tech (and learning) deficiencies that are at the center of that grand jury report.

If we continue advocating for creative, cost-effective ways to support our colleagues to meet their learning needs, we provide the foundations for the sort of tech-savvy workforce that, as ASTD so often says, creates a world that works better. If, through our own training-teaching-learning efforts, we provide examples of how this can be accomplished, we become part of the solution. And, if we’re lucky, we help nurture exactly the sort of culture shock that San Francisco and other municipalities so clearly need in a world where change and learning are constant.


Hidden Garden Steps: Growth

November 14, 2011

Who would have thought that Mark Twain’s timeless story of Tom Sawyer convincing others to paint a fence for him would find a parallel in San
Francisco’s Inner Sunset District? And yet, that’s what has been happening among the ever-growing group of dedicated, creative community volunteers collaborating on the Hidden Garden Steps project at 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets.

Those of us who have been involved in monthly clean-ups (second Saturday of each month, from 1 – 3 pm) since April 2011—painting walls and fences marred by graffiti, pulling weeds, sweeping steps, and planting the first small sections of what will eventually be a splendid set of community gardens around a ceramic-tiled stairway—are finding our ranks growing each time we spend a couple of hours on the stairs.

Last Saturday was no exception; a couple of new volunteers who learned about us through our participation in the Inner Sunset Street Fair in October and our latest reception at Crepevine joined us to weed around the succulents, California natives, and other drought-tolerant plants we’ve been putting into the ground as part of our effort to support Nature in the City’s Green Hairstreak (Butterfly) Ecosystem Corridor project. And while all of us were having fun cleaning up and putting a few new plants into the ground—including a small freemontodendron that will eventually be one of the signature elements of the garden near the top of the stairs—more people stopped to chat, offer encouragement, and ask how they could become involved in painting those walls and fences, pulling those weeds, and adding more plants to the garden.

It really is exactly what we all hoped it would be: a community project that thrives on the generosity of other members of our extended community. The initial plantings have been a combination of donations from our colleagues in the Green Hairstreak Butterfly project, neighbors donating cuttings from their own gardens, and nature’s own donations in the form of natives coming up  by themselves—ferns, a poppy that was one of the most colorful volunteers to pop up earlier this year, and a newly spotted lupine that broke ground within the past couple of weeks and will eventually add even more color and draw more wildlife to the site.

We’ve had a spectacular year of successes, including $60,000 in cash support and more than $20,000 in donated and promised services to push us toward our $300,000 goal. A colorful mural has already been painted at the foot of the steps by artist/art and mural instructor Angie Crabtree and a few of her Woodside International School students and alums as an example of how the project will beautify the neighborhood. Substantial tree-trimming was completed free of charge by Tree Shapers, LLC to enhance the views toward and from the stairway. The clean-ups and plantings are already transforming the site in ways that are attracting birds, butterflies, other wildlife—we even had a black-and-orange-winged butterfly rest on the hat of one of our volunteers while we were working last Saturday.

Next steps in preparing to tile the stairway will be to fix an off-center section and adjoining small wall at the top of the steps; colleagues at the City/County of San Francisco Department of Public Works are drawing up plans to complete that work at no charge to the project. Then, under the direction of project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher, the mosaic tile designs will be constructed by volunteers. Under the direction of the artists, professional tile setters will then apply the mosaic risers and grey tread tiles to the steps.

For information about purchasing a tile or becoming involved in the Hidden Garden Steps project, please visit our website at http://hiddengardensteps.org or write to us at hiddengardensteps@gmail.com. You’ll also find us on Facebook and Twitter (@gardensteps).

N.B.: This is the seventh in an ongoing series to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco.


Finding Our Place in the World, Part 2: Place in an Onsite-Online World

November 6, 2011

Many of us, having incorporated online communities into our professional and personal lives, reach the moment when we decide that the idea of place is dead—that geography no longer matters.

But it doesn’t take us long to realize we’re wrong. And reading and thinking about Richard Florida’s Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision in Your Life (2008) drives the point—and us—home. Florida, continuing to focus on the role creativity plays in making communities vital, vibrant social and economic centers, writes clearly and engagingly as he points out how “spiky” the world remains in terms of having peaks of social and economic centers that offer opportunities not to be as readily found in the valleys that exist elsewhere.

“Today’s key economic factors—talent, innovation, and creativity—are not distributed evenly across the global economy,” he reminds us (p. 9). “They concentrate in specific locations” including centers of innovation such as Tokyo, Seoul, New York, and San Francisco (p. 25). There are also mega-regions that continue to thrive, including Boston-NewYork-Washington-Baltimore, Osaka-Nagoya, Frankfurt-Stuttgart, and several others he cites throughout his book.

“More and more people are clustering in urban areas,” he writes (p. 18), and that clustering encourages people “to do more than they otherwise would, such as engage in more creative activities, invent new things, or start new companies—all things that are both personally fulfilling and economically productive…This creates a regenerative cycle: the stimulation unleashes creative energy, which in turn attracts more high-energy people from other places, which results in higher rates of innovation, greater economic prosperity, higher living standards, and more stimulation” (p. 159).

This won’t be news to those familiar with Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language: Towns – Buildings – Construction (1977), The Timeless Way of Building (1979), and just about everything he has written, William Whyte’s City: Rediscovering the Center (1988), Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place (1989), Frans Johansson’s The Medici Effect, or writing colleagues and I have done on the proposed Fourth Place in our lives—the social learning centers that serve as our onsite-online sources of learning opportunities in a world where continual learning is one of the keys to success.

But it does remind us that the geography of place is far from dead—even if it now so clearly co-exists with place as an online construct through the sort of communities and associations I wrote about two days ago to describe my own onsite-online sense of community and professional family through the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD).

As is the case with so many blanket statements we make and eventually have to recant, the role of place in our lives is evolving to accommodate that sense of place that includes onsite as well as online places. Rather than creating either-or distinctions here, we’ll find ourselves on terra firma and in terra virtual if we see place in a blended seamless way. The place we call home. The places we temporarily join when we travel to work. The third and fourth places in our lives—those coffee shops, restaurants, community centers, and social learning centers which so clearly contribute to our onsite-online place in the world. And the online places that facilitate the connections that matter most to us in terms of making us members of a variety of interconnected world-wide communities of learning, interest, and practice. With a renewed appreciation for all that home offers in this still evolving onsite-online world.


Finding Our Place in the World, Part 1: The Strength of Association(s)

November 4, 2011

Traveling extensively, colleagues have suggested, can be a very lonely experience. But I don’t see that at all. In an onsite-online world that offers far more connective tools than any of us will ever be able to adequately explore, we’re never very far from what our varied associations can offer.

While earning an online Master of Library and Information Science degree through the first-rate program offered by the University of North Texas a few years ago and traveling extensively, I thrived on connections with my wonderfully supportive community of learners; all I had to do was log onto our course discussion boards if I wanted to keep up with the latest exchanges of ideas. When I’m on the road now and missing the stimulation of conversation with colleagues who are spread all over the country, I simply make a phone call, send an email, or catch up to those who are online via online chat functions, Skype, Twitter, live (or archived) online discussion sessions, and, as of a few days ago, via Google+.

And as an extended writing-training-consulting project kept me far from home over the past few months, I gained newfound appreciation for what my association with colleagues in the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) means in terms of being part of a tightly knit professional family.

Shortly after arriving onsite in Florida’s Fort Lauderdale/West Palm Beach area from San Francisco in early August, I took the two steps that immediately helped me remain connected with my local and extended community. I obtained my West Palm Beach Public Library card so I could start reading and learning about the local community I was briefly joining, and I asked Florida-based ASTD colleague Jennifer Tomarchio whether there was an active ASTD community there. Jennifer’s response was an invitation to the ASTD South Florida chapter’s upcoming Friday evening social event, and that’s where the fun and extended connections blossomed.

The initial greeting from ASTD members whom I was meeting for the first time was warm and welcoming; I knew I was among peers. But the real value of association in this case became obvious when I looked up and unexpectedly saw two familiar faces: Steve Feinstein and Steve Parkins, whom I had met at national conferences without realizing they were based in South Florida and are currently president and president-elect of the chapter. And it just kept getting better: at the next chapter meeting, I unexpectedly found myself face-to-face with Michael Sabbag, another colleague I absolutely adore from the national association and who, I learned that evening, remains quite active in the South Florida chapter. And when several of us were at ASTD’s Chapter Leaders Conference last month in Arlington (VA) and I was missing my ASTD Mount Diablo colleagues who couldn’t attend the conference this year, my newly established South Florida ASTD family agreed to adopt me (and we tormented the Mount Diablo branch of the family by tweeting the news and a photograph back to them).

I often hear comments about how acquaintances and colleagues can’t afford the cost of joining an association that operates at the level of an ASTD. And although I do, at a visceral level, understand how tightly squeezed the economy has left many of us, I have to agree with my ASTD colleague Ken Steiger, whose response to the comments is “I don’t see how I can afford to not join ASTD.” Whether we pay for our associations, seek them through different means, or, in the best of all worlds, seek them everywhere we can, there’s no denying that if we want to overcome the personal and professional isolation from which so many suffer, we need to take that first step of seeking association. And then becoming active contributors and collaborators within the communities we have joined.

Next: Place in an Onsite-Online World


Community Partnership: How to Raise Money and Build Relationships

October 2, 2011

At a very important yet oft-overlooked level, every member of library staff (and many other organizations) is now a fundraiser in a very competitive environment. That’s because great fundraising comes from the building of great relationships, and all library and nonprofit staff members play a role in nurturing and sustaining positive and mutually beneficial relationships between libraries, nonprofits, and the communities they serve—in good as well as in challenging times.

Fostering effective collaborations is at the heart of the ALA Editions Community Partnership: How to Raise Money and Build Relationships course, which runs online from Monday, October 3 through Sunday, October 30, 2011. But don’t let the fundraising  aspect scare you. We’re as much concerned here with the collaboration-relationship side of the equation as we are with the funding and  in-kind gifts that result from those relationships.

There are wonderful resources to be explored here, including the Urban Libraries Council report Making Cities Stronger: Public Library Contributions to Local Economic Development. It’s as fresh today as it was when it was published in January 2007. We’ll  be using it as an anchor to our explorations and discussions of how partnerships are developed and what some of our most creative colleagues have been doing to serve as active participants within their communities.

We’ll also have access to the complete version of Providing for Knowledge, Growth, and Prosperity: A Benefit Study of the San Francisco Public Library rather than the executive summary that is available on the Internet. Reading and discussing that document in conjunction with the use of other articles, short online videos, and PowerPoint presentations from several sources will help us recognize the benefits we bring to our communities so we can better demonstrate the worth of our organizations to our current and prospective community partners.

And we’ll finish this four-week interactive course with an in-depth look at one of the hottest recent library-business community partnerships—the e-reader project between the Sacramento Public Library and Barnes & Noble.

There will be plenty of other resources to explore, and the collaborations we develop will include the interactions among our learning colleagues from libraries across the country as we use an online bulletin board to share weekly assignment postings, engage in optional weekly office-hour chats, and produce resources we can immediately use in our efforts to create, nurture, and sustain partnerships that benefit our communities.

To register, please visit the ALA Store.

N.B.: This piece was originally written for the ALA Editions blog (http://alaeditions.org/blog) and is reposted here with the permission of our ALA Editions colleagues.


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