Talking When It’s Time to Talk (and Remaining Silent When It’s Not)

March 24, 2014

Facilitating a series of community meetings for the Mendocino County Library system here in Northern California over the past couple of days has reminded me of the importance of talking when it’s time to talk and remaining silent when others are meant to have their moment to be heard.

Willits_Library[1]--2014-03-23Sharing ideas—whether those ideas are complementary or in direct opposition to one another—requires that we commit to levels of civility and respect often abandoned in public settings these days; it also requires that we be cognizant of the fact that we will never have as much time as we would like to express the ideas that we have—and that we willingly sacrifice some of the speaking time to which we feel entitled so that others have an opportunity to also be heard within the limited time available to all of us.

It’s a real pleasure and a source of inspiration to see those interested in helping guide the future of their library system rise to the challenge in ways that will serve the communities here in Mendocino County for months and years to come. And as I think about what library staff and library users will accomplish together because of their commitment to honestly documenting their likes and dislikes, their dreams and their concerns, and the resources and the challenges that will affect their ability to implement those dreams and address those concerns, I’m struck again by how the all-too-brief exchanges completed in a single encounter are simply part of a much larger, longer conversation rooted in what has come before and dependent on what occurs over a much longer period yet to unfold.

The same pleasure comes from recognizing that there’s a time to talk with friends and a time to accept the silences that occur when the myriad challenges in all our lives prevent us from communicating with each other—something that came to mind this morning as a friend apologized, by phone, for having been silent over extended periods during the past few months. Not that she needed to offer any apologies or explanations: I know, from her various postings in social media platforms and through the exquisitely-written blog postings she produces as time allows, that she is serving as caregiver as her mother struggles with pancreatic cancer. I also know that my friend has faced numerous workplace challenges requiring tremendous amounts of attention. So I haven’t been and am not at all surprised that conversations that at times develop and conclude in relatively short periods of time are currently extending over much greater periods.

But what is lovely about all of this as we communicate by phone and email and tweets and Facebook posts and responses to each other’s blogging on issues of importance to us is that the timing is not what matters. It’s the willingness to let those shards of conversation develop and blend together seamlessly in spite of what we might have previously thought of as interruptions. We’ve come to appreciate the idea that bits and pieces of an extended conversation, separated by much longer silences, provide lovely periods of reflection that simply deepen what we already share: commitment to nurturing friendship as meticulously as we tend a garden; a willingness to let conversations develop in their own time frame; and shared membership in a community of support that deepens with each additional exchange we have with each other and then share through the writing we produce privately and publicly. 

It’s what I love about the sharing that occurs with my friends, and it’s what I love as I watch members of the Mendocino County Library community—those who actively use and support the Library system as well as those who don’t yet feel drawn into what it provides—interact. These are signs of healthy, respectful, vibrant communities—the communities that help give life meaning and that provide assurance that we are far from alone in our commitment to building the world of our dreams regardless of the impediments we encounter.


Patricia Post: Fa la la la la, la la la la

March 5, 2014

Although I did not, last Saturday, expect to find myself joining others in singing “Deck the Halls” at a memorial service, I also didn’t expect to be saying good-bye to Patricia Vanderlaan Post so soon—she died of heart failure on January 1, just a few weeks before her 62nd birthday.

Patricia Vanderlaan Post (in pink shirt) at Hidden Garden Steps workshop July 2013

Patricia Vanderlaan Post (in pink shirt) at Hidden Garden Steps workshop July 2013

Patricia—Pat or Patti to those of us who knew her—was one of those wonderful people who are so deeply immersed in our communities that we hardly notice how much they are doing until they are no longer there doing it. Others at that memorial service last weekend recalled how Pat volunteered at her daughter’s school, or opened her home to a student from Kosovo for six years, or was an active member of The Gratitude Center community. We heard about how she “took delight in children of all ages, and worked to promote their welfare and education,” how she “was an ardent supporter of empowerment for women and social justice” and once told her stepdaughter that she would buy her any CDs she wanted—as long as those CDs featured women musicians to augment a CD collection mainly comprised of music by men.

She quickly won my gratitude and admiration when, after joining the Hidden Garden Steps organizing committee to complete that project that placed a second ceramic-tile mosaic staircase and gardens here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District, she offered to do anything that would help move the project toward fruition. She wasn’t looking for anything glamorous; she just wanted to help where help was needed most. When she asked how she could be most useful, I provided an embarrassingly honest answer: we needed someone to sit with me for an hour or two to complete the application for permits needed before installation of the mosaic could take place on City and County of San Francisco property. I knew that if I didn’t have someone to work alongside me, I would continue procrastinating about completing that simple task.

It wasn’t that the paperwork was daunting, and it wasn’t that deadlines were looming before us. The real issue was that other committee members were too immersed in the short-term challenges and deadlines to spend time on preparing permit paperwork for an installation that was still at least 12 to 18 months away; the fact that the application process could take anywhere from six months to a year from submission to approval just wasn’t a compelling issue for most of us to address.

But Pat saw it. She got it. And, most importantly, she immediately set a specific time and day to sit with me so we could complete that fairly simple application and compile all the supporting documentation needed to start the application process. While others saw it as a distraction and as something that had no urgency, Pat and I completed everything in one afternoon, and I submitted the package to our City/County liaison a few days later, in November 2012. And when final approval was finally granted by our County Supervisors in October 2013—nearly a year later, and less than 48 hours before the installation was scheduled to begin—I couldn’t find enough words of praise to offer Pat for the underappreciated role she played in assuring that the mosaic went onto those concrete steps rather than having to sit in storage all winter and spring until we could be assured of having weather good enough to complete the installation process in 2014.

Lower section of Hidden Garden Steps, 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets in San Francisco

Lower section of Hidden Garden Steps, 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets in San Francisco

Those of us involved in the project saw Pat at other times. She was there to help with public workshops that allowed Steps supporters to create small parts of the mosaic under the direction of project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher. She joined others in laying background tile onto some of the Steps risers during those workshops. And my wife and I ran into her and her husband—Marty—a few times while all of us were taking walks along one of the small lakes in Golden Gate Park at dusk; we would stop, chat about the Steps and other things we were all doing, and look forward to the day when we would be celebrating a collaborative community success on the completed Steps themselves.

We never had the chance to have that onsite Steps celebration together. By the time we had our opening ceremony, in December 2013, Pat wasn’t well enough to join us. I did, on the other hand, feel as if the decision to celebrate her life and her spirit by singing “Deck the Halls” at her memorial last weekend made perfect sense after her husband explained that it was her daughter’s choice—in honor of Pat’s habit of singing her children to sleep throughout the year with “Deck the Halls” rather than something more mundane. After all, “mundane” is not a word to be connected to someone who so gracefully, charitably, and diligently worked to make her community a far better place than it would have been without her. 


NMC Horizon Report 2014 (Pt. 2 of 6): Key Trends in Learning and Technology

February 6, 2014

We can easily see, in the newly released (2014) Higher Education Edition of the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Report, a cohesive narrative that helps us understand what we and our learners face not only in academic settings but also in many other training-teaching-learning settings where learning, technology, and creativity intersect.

Horizon_Report--2014-CoverThe newly-expanded “Key Trends” section of this wonderful annual report on  trends, significant challenges, and innovations in educational technology, first and foremost, is itself an example of the spirit of innovation that drives NMC projects (e.g., reports, summits, and a wiki-thon): it provides more in-depth explorations of each trend than have been included in previous Horizon reports, and places each trend within a specific time frame (fast trends, which are driving changes in higher education over the next one to two years; mid-range trends, which are driving changes within a three- to five-year horizon; and long-range trends, which are driving changes in a horizon of five or more years from the date of publication of the report). Again, I suspect that what we’re seeing here has strong parallels in our extended lifelong learning playground.

Report co-principal investigators Larry Johnson and Malcolm Brown, working with lead writer/researcher Samantha Adams Becker, take us from those fast trends (the growing ubiquity of social media and the integration of online, hybrid, and collaborative learning), through the mid-range trends (the rise of data-driven learning and assessment, and the shift from students as consumers to students as creators), and then up to the virtual doorstep of the long-range trends (agile approaches to change and the evolution of online learning) in a way that leaves no doubt as to an overall consistent trend of engaging learners in the learning process through the use of tools that are as useful in learning settings as they are in many other parts of our lives. A key conclusion we might reach: barriers are falling; work and play are intersecting with increasing frequency; and undreamed of possibilities continue to come our way.

nmc.logo.cmykAnyone with any level of involvement in social media understands that the various and ever-growing set of tools available to us (everything from Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to Pinterest, Scoop.it!, Delicious, and many others) provides collaborative learning opportunities not previously available to us. We see, in the 2014 report, the connection between those fast-trend elements of social media and online/hybrid/collaborative learning where social media tools are an integral part of learning. Being aware of data-driven learning and assessment as well as the shift from students as consumers to students as creators draws us further into blended onsite-onsite interactions with social media tools and other resources in ways that are reshaping—at last—how we approach the training-teaching-learning process. (While recently rereading decades-old literature on the state of learning, I was fascinated to see sources from the 1920s calling for a shift from lecture-based learning to learning that had students acquiring knowledge outside the classroom so that classroom time could be used for experiential/collaborative learning opportunities, so it’s wonderful to see relatively new technology supporting that concept through the flipped classroom model that receives attention elsewhere in the 2014 Higher Education Edition of the Horizon Report.)

When we move into the long-range trends, we see agile approaches and the continuing evolution of online learning (massive open online courses—MOOCs—being one of many relatively new innovations that are adding to our learning toolkits and expanding the way we think about and deliver learning opportunities).

The theme of collaboration that is an integral part of so many of these trends takes us down some interesting paths. Libraries, for example, are cited in the report as key partners in the trend toward shifting learners from being consumes to learners becoming creators. Makerspaces and other collaborative spaces are increasingly a part of libraries as learning spaces with support from a variety of sponsors, including the Institute of Museum and Library Services. We also, in the report, see examples of collaborations between learning organizations and business entrepreneurs—relationships where businesses serve as models for an agile approach to learning while connecting learning and learners to the development of critically-important business skills.

It all neatly wraps back into that final long-range trend—the evolution of online learning—in the sense that online learning itself is fostering a level of exploration that makes us question some of the most basic assumptions that have guided training-teaching-learning for centuries: the role of grades in learning, the tension that often exists between traditional instructor-centric teaching and learner-centric learning, and even the increasingly intriguing question of what it means to “complete” a course or other learning experience. (Is completion, for example, defined by a final exam or instructor-defined project, or can and do learners play a role in deciding when then have completed a learning experience, as sometimes happens in the more innovative connectivist MOOCs available to us?)

The report itself offers trainer-teacher-learners a variety of levels of engagement. We can simply read and absorb what is of interest to us; follow any of the numerous links to other articles and resources so we learn more about the trends that are most interesting to us; or start with the report summaries of the trends, follow a few of the links, and then carry those learning experiences into conversations with colleagues face to face and online—which means we’re not only fully engaged in integrating online, hybrid, and collaborative learning into our work and play, but are also helping define the evolution of online learning through our own online learning efforts.

NB: This is part of a series of articles exploring the latest Horizon Report. Next: Key Challenges.


#etmooc: Singing Happy Birthday to a Course

January 22, 2014

It’s not often that I’m invited to attend a birthday party for a course—but then again, it’s not often that I find myself immersed in a learning opportunity that produces the sort of sustainable community of learning that #etmooc has.

etmoocThat wonderful massive open online course (MOOC)—the Educational Technology and Media MOOC that Alec Couros and others offered to great acclaim in early 2013—was something that many of us heard about from colleagues or simply stumbled across during our general online explorations of MOOCs last year. The results (as have been so wonderfully documented in numerous blog postings including one written by #etmooc colleague Christina Hendricks, on the course Google+ community that continues to thrive nearly a year after the course formally ended, and in live tweet chats) inspired course colleagues Rhonda Jessen and Susan  Spellman Cann to organize and facilitate a first-anniversary online gathering of #etmooc alums via Twitter last week.

The results were predictably positive. Some of us who were drawn together through #etmooc and have remained in contact online were there, as were others who have not been as active in the post-#etmooc community—but clearly remain transformed, as teacher-trainer-learners, by what we all experienced. The full Storify transcript of the anniversary session compiled by Jesson and capturing more than 400 tweets from approximately 75 participants in that hour-long session is just the latest example of what a well-organized and wonderfully-facilitated MOOC can inspire—the transcript itself is a learning object that others can use and review if they want to bypass the meaningless exchanges about how few people “complete” a MOOC and look, instead, to see the sort of long-term learning that the best of MOOCs—particularly connectivist MOOCs—produce.

One of the many keys to the success of #etmooc as a learning experience and a sustainable community of learning is that it started as an opportunity to explore educational technology in a way that encouraged learners to become familiar with the material by using the resources being studied. If we wanted to see how blogging could be integrated into learning, we blogged and saw our work collected and made accessible through a blog hub that continues to thrive to this day as a resource with nearly 4,000 posts that would not otherwise exist for anyone interested in teaching-training-learning. If we wanted to see how Twitter could easily be incorporated into the learning process, we used Twitter as a vehicle to further our learning and, furthermore, saw those exchanges reach into other communities of learning. If we wanted to see how live interactive online sessions could draw us together and become archived learning objects, we participated in live online sessions through Blackboard Collaborate or viewed archived versions so compelling that they felt as if they were live rather than taped learning sessions.

xplrpln_logoAnother key to its success is that the learning has never stopped. In setting up the anniversary celebration—in essence, an #etmooc birthday party—Jessen and Cann encouraged all of us to continue documenting our MOOC successes by blogging about what we had learned and accomplished as a result of our participation. I look at the numerous blog postings I wrote and stand in awe of what Couros, his co-conspirators, and my MOOCmates inspired. I look at how participation in #etmooc led to participation in another connectivist MOOC–#xplrpln, the Exploring Personal Learning Networks MOOC that was a direct offshoot (from Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott  at Northwestern University) in fall of 2013. And I continue to hold far more gratitude than I can ever express for the ways these experiences have made me a better trainer-teacher-learner as I continue exploring ways to facilitate learning opportunities that benefit learners and those they serve in a variety of settings not only here in the United States but in other countries.

That’s what draws me to the work I do, and that’s what makes me believe, each time I think about the field of learning and how it connects us to each other, that it’s one of the most rewarding and transformative of endeavors any of us can undertake.

N.B.: This is part of a continuing  series of posts inspired by participation in #etmooc and other MOOCs.


Hidden Garden Steps: A Community Continuing to Evolve

January 15, 2014

The Hidden Garden Steps ceramic-tile mosaic created and completed by project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher is in place here in San Francisco, and an ever-expanding community has quickly claimed the site as its own—just as organizing committee members hoped it would.

The Steps as venue for exercise

The Steps as venue for exercise

New resources connecting that community are appearing online with increasing frequency. We have seen our existing website, Facebook page, and Twitter account (all created and maintained by project volunteers) augmented through individual initiatives by those who are falling in love with the Hidden Garden Steps (on 16th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District): There are already reviews on Yelp, check-ins on Foursquare (including our first official Hidden Garden Steps Foursquare mayor), favorable mentions in the San Francisco Examiner and on Weekend Sherpa, and wonderful articles on Cindy Casey’s “Art and Architecture – San Francisco” blog and Tony Holiday’s San Francisco park trails and public stairways blog.

A two-fold agenda was always at the heart of the four-year effort to transform the overgrown, ill-tended, graffiti-marred 148-step concrete staircase (originally constructed in 1926) into a neighborhood gem: creating a second ceramic-tiled staircase with community gardens to complement the original steps on Moraga Street, between 15th and 16th avenues, and creating an outdoor variation on the indoor Third Place concept promoted by  Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (1989)

The formal opening ceremony on Saturday, December 7, 2013 provided plenty of signs that both goals were being met. Sherry Boschert, a Hidden Garden Steps supporter who remains active in a variety of neighborhood initiatives, worked with Steps organizing committee members to organize and orchestrate a community-based volunteer-driven block party that attracted more than 150 participants. Among those speaking at the event were San Francisco County Supervisor Norman Yee (also serving as acting mayor that day); San Francisco Department of Public Works Community Liaison Jerad Weiner, who remains a conduit of onsite support through the San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program; DPW structural engineer Ray Lui; San Francisco Parks Alliance Executive Director Matt O’Grady, offering support as head of our fiscal agent; and the artists themselves.

Every one of those brief from-the-heart presentations acknowledged the number of partnerships, donors, and community volunteers needed to produce something of that magnitude, and Supervisor Yee’s own presentation captured the spirit of the endeavor—rather than placing himself at the center of the event, he very generously spent time  acknowledging that he was elected to represent the district as the project was nearing completion and that it was the work of his predecessor (former District 7 County Supervisor Sean Elsbernd) and predecessor’s staff that contributed tremendously to the success of the Steps initiative.

Ribbon-cutting at the Opening Ceremony

Ribbon-cutting at the Opening Ceremony

Organizing committee members had one intentionally brief, wonderfully playful moment in the limelight as we were surrounded by many of our project partners to cut a multi-colored crepe-paper-weave ribbon stretched across the foot of the Steps. We then literally and figuratively stepped aside as dozens of people streamed up the Steps to transform the site from a project facilitated by a core group of community volunteers to one claimed by the larger community that supports it.

By late afternoon, the crowds had dispersed. A sense of tranquility was once again palpable on site. And by mid-evening, the Steps were continuing to quickly evolve into a meeting place for friends as well as for neighbors and complete strangers who otherwise might not be seeing, talking, and dreaming with each other. As I was taking a final look down the Steps just before 10 o’clock that evening, I ended up talking with someone who hadn’t realized the Steps were already completed and open to the public. We chatted about how the project had developed, talked about how he wished he had been available to more actively support and be an active participant in the development and implementation of the project, and talked about other neighborhood projects in development—which made me realize that less than 10 hours after the Steps opened, they were already functioning as an outdoors Third Place that draws people together and creates the possibility of additional collaborations.

A recent spur-of-the-moment sweepathon

Those encounters have continued on a daily basis since that initial day. Several organizing committee members and other neighbors all found ourselves engaged in a wonderful impromptu conversation on the Steps on New Year’s Day. Visitors from San Francisco’s East and South Bay areas have repeatedly come to the Steps and brought friends. Those who supported the project through the purchase of individual tiles interwoven into the completed mosaic with personal inscriptions come, photograph, and bring friends to enjoy the beauty of the site and the spectacular views it provides. Project volunteers continue to participate in the monthly two-hour clean-up and gardening sessions held on the second Saturday of each month from 1 – 3 pm (open to any interested new or returning volunteer), and neighbors, without any formal guidance or call to action, simply show up when they see that the Steps need to be swept or in some other way spruced up a bit to keep the site pristine.

HGS--Third_Place_Clean-up--Al--2014-01-05

Steps volunteer Al Magary engaged in clean-up

Most importantly of all, the spirit of community and collaboration that drove the Hidden Garden Steps to completion is already inspiring a neighbor—Al Magary—to see if he can informally organize a group to sweep and take other actions to clean up the long-ignored even larger set of steps one block away (on 15th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets). Anyone interested in joining that budding community of interest can contact Al for more information at 15thAveStepsPark@gmail.com. Who knows? Perhaps a third set of ceramic-tiled steps is on its way.

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


Hidden Garden Steps: Opening-Day Reflections

January 15, 2014

The following is a slightly-edited version of comments delivered during the opening celebration for the Hidden Garden Steps on Saturday, December 7, 2013; the Steps are located on 16th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets, in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District.

We struggle—all of us—so much these days with simple concepts like community, collaboration, cooperation, faith, and love. Hard to define. Even harder to develop. And yet there it is: the Hidden Garden Steps, an example of what community, collaboration, cooperation, faith, and love can produce.

HGS--Opening_Celebration[4]--2013-12-07One of the most beautiful aspects of that spectacular mosaic by Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher is what it documents. Adam Greenfield, president of the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors, said two nights ago that communities coalesce around the stories they create and share. And there it is. Adam’s idea incarnate. A complex, beautiful, and enticing mosaic capturing a from-the-heart piece of our community’s narrative.

The Steps have more than 600 individual names or inscriptions from donors in California and 14 other states (Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington), from Washington, D.C., and from four countries outside of the U.S. (Canada, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom). Aileen and Colette have seamlessly woven them into the overall design—a design that is the latest addition to the narrative of the Inner Sunset District, its residents, some of its former residents, and its visitors. It’s also part of the extended narrative of San Francisco and our connections to communities around the world, across decades and centuries. We—all of us, all of you—are living proof of what happens when people set egos aside and come together to create something of lasting value. Something we will enjoy and know that those here long after we are gone will enjoy as well.

You can’t go more than a few steps up that site without seeing the narrative come to life—for example, when you see Edith Johnson’s name. Edith, who is nearly 100 years old and has lived here longer than many of us have been alive.

You go a little farther and maybe you see the name of someone’s pet that is no longer with us. Or you see your own name, or the names of family members, friends, and neighbors.

And about two-thirds of the way up, where the Steps bend to the left around a larger landing, you see a massive passion flower—another reminder of the passion that drives this project and our community. That passion flower is what we call our “Gratitude Element.” It documents our gratitude for the many organizations and businesses that came together to bring the Steps to life.

For those who grumble about government and government workers, there’s the reminder that our partners in the San Francisco Department of Public Works fell in love with this site as they worked on it with us and made it far better than any of us dreamed it could be. It’s not “DPW” as some bureaucratic entity; it’s DPW made of people like Ray Lui, Kevin Sporer, Bill Pressas, Nick Elsner, and all the staff they sent our way.

For those who forget that there were already many community-based organizations active in our neighborhood, there’s the documentation that they came together under the Hidden Garden Steps banner. The San Francisco Parks Alliance supports us as our fiscal agent. The San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program provides us with tools and other materials to cultivate the gardens. Those gardens initially began to grow from donations from neighbors as well as from volunteers from Nature in the City’s Green Hairstreak butterfly project—which now is a more extended habitat than before because the Hidden Garden Steps site extends it a bit farther north, toward Golden Gate Park. There are our neighborhood associations—SHARP (Sunset Heights Association of Responsible People), the Golden Gate Heights Neighborhood Association, and the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors (ISPN). If you want to see how much ISPN members contribute to the neighborhood, join them—more members of our community—tomorrow on Irving Street between 9th and 10th avenues from 10 am to 6 pm for their final street fair/community gathering of the year, and the community potluck they are hosting next Tuesday evening at St. John of God community center at 5th and Irving.

For those who have little opportunity to interact with our elected officials, think of the people you see here today as well as former District 7 County Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, and those magnificent legislative aides (Alex Volberding and Olivia Scanlon) who so frequently helped connect us to supportive colleagues within City/County government. And Katie Tang, who as a legislative aide to Carmen Chu did all she could to draw positive attention to the Steps—and continues to do so now in her position as a County Supervisor with her fabulously helpful legislative aide Ashley Summers. And going back to Sean Elsbernd: think about how he agreed to use a neighborhood beautification fund to cover more than $7,000 in City/County permits before the project could be brought to completion.

You walk those Steps and you see the names of the members of the project’s core organizing committee—no more and no less visible than the names of others who supported the project. Not set apart, but integrated into the community that we so obviously cherish.

There are local merchants like Majed Fakhouri, who by hosting three events for project organizers and supporters at his Crepevine restaurant on Irving Street, provided a place for us to meet and eat and organize.

There’s Sam and his brothers at the 828 Irving Market, who kept our promotional brochures prominently displayed in the market window for nearly three years as we continued to reach out to the community for financial as well as volunteer support. And there are Chris and Nick at the 22nd and Irving Market who did the same in their part of the neighborhood so no interested neighbor would remain unaware of what we all were proposing to do together.

HGS--Opening_Celebration[2]--2013-12-07

Maya (center), with her mother and a friend

But that’s far from the complete story. The narrative we’re helping extend includes people like Maya, who was born on January 24, 2010—five days before the Hidden Garden Steps project was born as a result of an unplanned meeting in a branch library on the other side of town. Maya is growing up as the Steps are growing up. The mosaic on the Steps is an integral part of her life, and she has a tile that will remind her that she and her parents were here when it all was being built. If we’re lucky enough to keep her here in the neighborhood, she may extend the narrative herself if life leads her to raising her own family in a home not far from the Steps.

One more from the many that could be told: there’s Darren Gee, who as president of the George Washington High School Key Club three years ago brought his Key Club friends back month after month to help pull weeds, paint out graffiti, begin replanting the hill, and revitalize the hill. Because he remembered, in the following words, how menacing the site once felt:

“When I was little, my grandma used to take me up those stairs and I would be dead scared.  The stairs were dirty, dated, and covered with leaves.  I would always be afraid to slip so I’d slowly crawl up them or hold onto my Grandma for dear life.”

So many stories. So many additions to the narrative of our community and connections everywhere. Let’s give credit where credit is due. Please applaud yourselves. All of you. For all you did to make this happen. And remember that in many ways this is neither an ending or a beginning. It’s part of an amazing level of continuity that all of us will help sustain as we continue meeting here on the second Saturday of every month from 1- 3 pm. To sweep. To weed. To plant. To paint out any graffiti placed by those who don’t understand what adds to community as opposed to what detracts from it. But most of all to relish the community we have joined and continue to develop.

Our work together doesn’t have to take place just one time a month. We’re part of a community if we remove litter anytime we find any on the Steps. We’re part of a community if we remove graffiti whenever it appears. We’re part of a community if we come out on our own time and sweep a bit when it is needed. We’re part of a community if we kindly and openly and graciously approach people who may forget that people sleep at night in the buildings next to the Steps and are disturbed by loud conversations or impromptu parties. We’re part of a community if we ask those engaged in any other type of disruptive behavior to join us in making this a warm, welcoming, inclusive area for all who want to be part of our community. It’s up to us to add to that narrative.

We’re all in this together.

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


Conferences, Twitter, and Staying Connected: No Longer Left Behind

October 28, 2013

An oft-repeated and rather poignant joke among some of my colleagues is becoming a thing of the past: those who wish they could but are unable to attend conferences—specifically those sponsored by the American Library Association—have long tried to keep up with onsite participants’ reports via Twitter, using the conference hashtag as well as #ALALeftBehind as points of connect. But more than a few of us are realizing that we can do more than sit by the virtual sidelines and watch everyone else have fun onsite, as I confirmed through a spur-of-the-moment experiment people attending the annual ASTD (American Society for Training & Development) Chapter Leaders Conference in Crystal City, Virginia a few days ago while I stayed home.

ASTD_ALC_2013--Logo

I’ve been on the other side of this left-behind fence many times, as I’ve noted through articles about participating onsite in backchannel conversations; ASTD colleague David Kelly has also written eloquently about Twitter, backchannels, and conferences. Several of us attending the annual ASTD International Conference & Exposition over the past couple of years have, as part of our Chapter Leader Day activities, reached out from the conference via short, live sessions to connect onsite colleagues with left-behind colleagues; we were attempting not only to reach out to and connect with those who stayed home, but to demonstrate how easy it could be for ASTD chapter leaders (or anyone else) to bring their local meetings to a larger audience through active Twitter feeds as well as via free tools including Google Hangouts and Skype. But I hadn’t been part of the #leftbehind gang until changing circumstances this year unexpectedly caused me, for the first time since 2008, to miss a couple of those onsite annual events that mean so much to me in terms of keeping up with my communities of learning and the ASTD colleagues who make up one very important part of my personal learning network (PLN).

The idea of trying to actively participate in the 2013 ASTD Chapter Leaders Conference via Twitter began taking shape when I saw a tweet from an onsite colleague expressing regret that I couldn’t be there for our annual joint presentation on nonprofit basics for chapter leaders. I jokingly responded, via Twitter, that I actually was there and that he had probably simply missed me up to that moment.

xplrpln_logoTransforming an offhand joke into the experiment quickly took shape as I thought about how I’ve been inspired to find new ways to reach out to members of my communities of learning and personal learning networks through 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. Less than 48 hours earlier, in fact, another ASTD colleague who is not in that massive open online course (MOOC) had stumbled into an #xplrpln session via Twitter, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for me to toy with the idea of doing the same thing via Twitter, but with a bit more planning and more deliberate actions designed to foster two-way participation.

It didn’t take long for the experiment to produce wonderful—although somewhat limited—results. Using a Twitter management tool (I defaulted to HootSuite.com, but Twubs.com and Tweetchat.com are among the tools that could have worked just as easily) at the end of the first day of the conference, I skimmed the feed late that evening, retweeted a few of the more interesting items just as I would have done if I had actually been onsite, and added comments, knowing that this had the potential not only to inspire interactions with onsite attendees but also draw in a few of my own followers on Twitter if they either retweeted or responded to those late-night posts.

Connected_Educator_Month_LogoBy the next morning, a couple of onsite colleagues had responded. And a little later, during the second day of that two-day conference, a couple of onsite conference attendees actually retweeted the notes I had retweeted. I continued to participate throughout the day as time allowed. The real pay-off for the experiment came when the exchanges put me in touch with one of the presenters who had seen the retweets and comments. The result, in many ways, was exactly what it would have been if I had been onsite and meeting members of those expanding communities of learning and personal learning networks rather than feeling as if I were part of the left-behind gang. The positive aspects of this are obvious: with a bit more planning and organization, onsite and offsite participants could be interacting at far more significant levels than the limited amount of interaction this experiment nurtured. And the obvious weakness of this plan is that the small number of onsite participants tweeting summaries of sessions made it difficult to participate in more than a few of those sessions at this level. But it was an interesting start—one that offers a lot of promise for any of us who want to nurture our communities of learning and personal learning networks in every way possible. And I certainly felt far less left behind and far more connected as a trainer-teacher-learner than would otherwise have been the case.

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


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.


Time Travel, Personal Learning Networks, and Rhizomatic Growth

October 17, 2013

Let’s engage in some trainer-teacher-learner time travel; let’s revel in a wonderfully and gloriously circular learning moment whose beginning and end have not yet stopped expanding—and won’t if you decide to enter into and further expand this moment as part of a connected educator network.

xplrpln_logoIt starts with a simple realization: that participating in a well-organized connectivist MOOC (massive open online course) or any other effective online learning opportunity not only puts us in real-time (synchronous) contact with those we draw into our personal learning networks, but also allows us to extend and connect online conversations with those that began days, weeks, months, or even years before the one we are currently creating, in venues we are just now discovering. It also can easily extend into days, weeks, months, or years we haven’t yet experienced.

I am, for example, writing this piece on October 17, 2013, and if you end up reading it on the same day, we’re in a fairly obvious and traditionally synchronous moment—the sort of moment we routinely experience face to face. By connecting this piece to others I’ve been reading and reacting to with colleagues in the Exploring Personal Learning Networks (#xplrpln) that Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott are currently facilitating under the auspices of the Northwestern University Master’s in Learning & Organizational Change Program, and by further connecting it to interactions with colleagues via Connected Educator Month, I am in a very rewarding way extending and weaving this moment across weeks and months of conversational threads created by others. They wrote earlier. You and I respond now. They pick up the thread and run with it at some as-yet-undetermined moment. And all of us are in a figuratively synchronous way connected through a conversation and learning opportunity that flows in multiple directions, over multiple platforms, as Pekka Ihanainen (HAAGA-HELIA University of Applied Sciences, Finland) and John Moravec (University of Minnesota, USA) explain in an article they wrote in 2011 and which I explored with a segment of my own personal learning network colleagues in a blog post and other online venues.

etmoocWe see this in play through the Exploring Personal Learning Networks MOOC, where we are exploring and attempting to define personal learning networks by developing our personal learning networks. We are developing (or further developing) personal learning networks by drawing upon newly-created resources as well as resources that can be weeks, months, years, or even a century old. One colleague suggests that Jules Verne, the nineteenth-century novelist-poet-playwright, is part of his personal learning network in the sense that Verne’s work continues to guide him in his never-ending evolution as a learner. I am suggesting that a colleague from another MOOC is part of my #xplrpln personal learning network via a wonderful article she wrote months before the personal leaning networks MOOC was written and in progress; because her article is inspiring so many of us, she feels as if she is an active member even though personal time constraints are keeping her from posting updated material—for and in the moment. And several of us are suggesting that people who are still alive but with whom we have no one-on-one in-the-moment personal contact still are very much a part of our personal learning networks because they influence and affect our learning through the work they are producing or the examples they provide—something I experienced while participating in #etmooc (Educational Technology & Media MOOC) earlier this year.

Connected_Educator_Month_LogoThat creates a wonderfully dynamic and continually evolving personal learning network—or network of networks—along with a tremendously expansive moment that remains open to further expansion through your participation. And the more we engage with #xplrpln course facilitators Merrell and Scott and course colleagues in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, and Australia synchronously and asynchronously, the more we find our own personal learning networks, personal learning environments, affinity spaces, communities of practice, and overall communities of learning overlapping in ways that once again transcend geographic and chronological borders—suggesting that in the world of training-teaching-learning, borders and barriers exist only to be erased (or, at very least, made much more permeable than we often assume they can be).

It’s an obvious extension of the concept of rhizomatic learning—a process of learning that mirrors the spreading of rhizomes so there is no center, just a wonderfully ever-expanding network of learning connections rooted in creation, collaboration, and the building of communities of learning, as I noted after picking up the term from Dave Cormier via #etmooc. The learning rhizomes in our personal learning network now continue to move backward to capture parts of the extended conversation we hadn’t previously noted, and they move forward into the moment you are living and extending in collaboration with the rest of us. Together, we may be on the cusp of even greater collaborations. Learning experiences. And being part of contributing to a world in which connections through time, across time zones, and over geographic boundaries produce possibilities we are only beginning to imagine and bring to fruition.

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


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