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).


Power, Connections, Personal Learning Networks, and In-the-Moment Mobile Learning

October 16, 2013

The sight of flashing numbers on digital timepieces throughout our house yesterday afternoon was obvious evidence of a power outage while I had been away earlier in the day. But it wasn’t particularly distressing. I knew that PG&E, our local utility company, had been doing major work a block away from where I live, so I assumed the outage was over, reset the clocks, then went into our backyard to do a little gardening before joining the Week 2 live online session that would connect me to the training-teaching-learning colleagues I’m meeting through the five-week Exploring Personal Learning Networks (#xplrpln) MOOC (massive open online course) that Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott are currently facilitating under the auspices of the Northwestern University Master’s in Learning & Organizational Change Program.

Connected_Educator_Month_LogoApproximately 15 minutes before the session was scheduled to begin, I was about to step back into the house to log into the Adobe Captivate space where #xplrpln colleagues were to meet, but noticed something strange: the water in our fountain had stopped flowing. Wondering whether it had become clogged, I turned off the pump, turned it back on, then recognized the problem: the power had gone out again.

In an extended in-the-moment response that unexpectedly continues up to the time when I am writing—and you are reading—this piece, I begin considering options to fully participate in that live online session—and think about the importance of back-up plans. My desktop is clearly not an option since it’s reliant on a flow of electricity that is no longer available. My laptop, running on its fully-charged battery? Also not an option: it relies on a wireless router that is no longer functioning because of the power outage.

Then it hits me: my Samsung Galaxy tablet has a fully-charged battery. And 3G connectivity. So I fire it up, follow the link from my email account to the Exploring Personal Learning Networks session, and discover another barrier: I don’t have the free Adobe Connect app on my tablet. Following a link to the Google Play Store—all the time thinking “This isn’t play. This is serious!”—I tap the “install” button in the hope that the download will be quick and that I won’t face a high learning curve to be able to use it.

With moments to spare, the download is completed. I plug in a set of headphones as the PowerPoint slides for the session appear legibly on the seven-inch screen, and am hearing a stream so clear that it feels as if I’m in the same room that session facilitators Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott are occupying—which, in an appropriately visceral and virtual way, I am.

Curious as to whether the full range of interactions available via a desktop or laptop computer exist on the tablet, I struggle with the on-screen keyboard to enter a chat comment letting colleagues know that I may not be fully participating in the session because of the tech challenges. And it goes through, making it visible to them and to me.

xplrpln_logoThey respond audibly and via the chat to say how impressed they are. I respond by telling them how relieved I am that it’s actually working. And we all walk away with another example of the power and increasing ubiquity of m-learning (using mobile devices to augment our learning opportunities and experiences), personal learning networks, and the levels of creativity that adversity inspires.

PLNs--Writing-and_Technology--2013-10-16P.S. – Using a fountain pen to write the first draft of this piece the morning after the session ends, I face another tech challenge: the fountain pen runs out of ink. The fact that I have a back-up fountain pen with me moves me past this final tech challenge, and further confirms the importance of having effective back-up plans in place whenever we step into the wonderful intersection of technology, learning, and collaboration in our well-connected communities of learning.

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


James Paul Gee, the Anti-Education Era, and Personal Learning Networks

October 15, 2013

You won’t find the terms personal learning networks (PLNs) or connected learning anywhere in James Paul Gee’s wonderfully stimulating book The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Though Digital Learning. But his plea for greater collaboration, the use of what he calls “affinity spaces,” and  recognition that the combination of “human + tool” is a winning equation suggests that trainer-teacher-learners (and many others) are on the right track by developing those dynamic combinations of people and resources that help us cope with a world where formal and informal learning never stops.

Gee--Anti-Education_EraGee, in providing a no-nonsense and often critical view of the state of our early twenty-first-century learning landscape throughout his engaging preface to the book, sets the stage for an exploration of our “human + tool” predilections regardless of whether we call our communities of learning “personal learning networks,” “affinity spaces,” “communities of practice,” “personal learning environments,” or any other term I may inadvertently be overlooking. (And yes, there are subtle differences between the way each term is used and what each represents, but they all appear to be products of our drive to associate, collaborate, learn, and create something of meaning and value to ourselves, our onsite and online communities, and those we ultimately serve in our day-to-day work.)

“We live in an era of anti-education,” he writes. “We focus on skill-and-drill, tests and accountability, and higher education as a marker of status (elite colleges) or mere job training (lesser colleges). We have forgotten education as a force for equality in the sense of making everyone count and enabling everyone to fully participate in our society. We have forgotten education as a force for drawing out of each of us our best selves in the service of an intellectually and morally good life and good society” (p. xiv).

We have no shortage of opportunities to pursue what Gee describes and advocates in The Anti-Education Era. The five-week Exploring Personal Learning Networks (#xplrpln) MOOC (massive open online course) that Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott are currently facilitating under the auspices of the Northwestern University Master’s in Learning & Organizational Change Program, for example, is inspiring a newly-organized and quickly evolving community of learning connecting participants from many different countries via explorations of personal learning networks while fostering the creation of one of those networks, affinity spaces (through Google+, Twitter, Adobe Connect, and other online resources), and a community of practice that has the potential to thrive long after the formal coursework ends.

Connected_Educator_Month_LogoWe gain a visceral understanding of and appreciation for this far-from-radical yet still-underutilized manifestation of social learning through participation in Exploring Personal Learning Networks; we’ve also seen it through #etmooc, the Educational Technology & Media MOOC that earlier in 2013 drew many of us together for our first experience in a connectivist MOOC (cMooc); and we’re seeing it through our participation in Connected Educator Month activities.

Gee’s work fits right in with what so many of us are currently pursuing as trainer-teacher-learners: collaborations that help us better acquire the skills and knowledge needed to make positive improvements in the local, national, and global communities that our use of contemporary technology fosters.

“I am now convinced that we cannot improve our society by more talk about schools and school reform, but only by talk about what it means to be smart in the twenty-first century,” he explains in the preface. “I will argue that when we make people count and let them participate, they can be very smart indeed….by education I mean what a twenty-first-century human being ought to learn and know and be able to do in order to make a better life, a better society, and a better world before it is too late. A good deal of this education will not go on in schools and colleges in any case, and even less if schools and colleges do not radically change their paradigms….

“I want to warn that digital tools are no salvation,” he adds, turning to a theme explored effectively in the final sections of the book. “It all depends on how they are used. And key to their good use is that they be subordinated to ways of connecting humans for rich learning and that they serve as tools human learners own and operate and do not simply serve.”

xplrpln_logoAs if addressing the need for personal learning networks, Gee offers what I have only half-jokingly referred to as a PLN manifesto: “People who never confront challenge and frustration, who never acquire new styles of learning, and who never face failure squarely may in the end become impoverished humans. They may become forever stuck with who they are now, never growing and transforming because they never face new experiences that have not been customized to their current needs and desires.” (p. 115). We can’t, I believe, actively create and participate in our personal learning networks without being open to hearing about and reacting to a variety of ideas; expanding our understanding of how we learn and applying that learning to the world around us; and finding ways to effectively collaborate to produce results that further nurture (rather than stifle) community development in the most positive ways imaginable.

Gee, in his consistently intriguing book-length exploration of “how we can all get smarter together,” leads us toward a question that again supports the development and maintenance of affinity spaces and, by extension, personal learning networks: “…what if human minds are not meant to think for themselves by themselves, but, rather, to integrate with tools and other people’s minds to make a mind of minds? After all,” he adds, “a computer operates only when all its circuit boards are integrated together and communicate with each other. What if our minds are actually well made to be ‘plug-and-play’ entities, meant to be plugged into other such entities to make an actual ‘smart device,’ but not well made to operate all alone? What if we are meant to be parts of a networked mind and not a mind alone?” (p. 153)

There is much more to explore in Gee’s work. We can certainly continue those explorations on our own. Or, as the author suggests, we can pursue them together. Using the tools available to us. Including our personal learning networks and the wealth of resources they provide.

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


Acknowledging Connections, Community, and Learning through Connected Educator Month

October 11, 2013

Celebrating Connected Educator Month, for those of us involved in training-teaching-learning, is a bit like celebrating the existence of air: connections pump life into much of what we do, yet we often take them for granted rather than indulging in joyfully inclusive acknowledgement of what they produce.

Connected_Educator_Month_LogoIt’s well worth expressing gratitude, therefore, to our colleagues in the U.S. Department of Education for sponsoring the event that is so wonderfully described in an online video, evident through the online listings of events, and supported by the numerous online resources even though the sponsors themselves are at least temporarily disconnected as a result of the current shutdown of Federal Government operations. It’s also worth noting that the list of participating organizations is quite extensive.

What makes Connected Educator Month personal, furthermore, is the opportunity it provides to reflect on the connections that support and inspire us and those we serve, so here’s a challenge to colleagues near and far: post your own thoughts, in response to this article and Connected Educators Month in general, here on this blog as well as on your own blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and anywhere else that allows us to strengthen the connections that so effectively support us and make us so much better than we would be without them.

Looking at connections within my own learning environment makes me realize how fortunate and wealthy I am in terms of what connections and connectivity provide at every possible level. There is the joy of being part of a vibrant and vital community of learning that I experience each time I participate on one of the online weekly tweet chats organized by colleagues via #lrnchat, as I noted in an article I wrote and posted just days before learning about Connected Educator Month. There is the breadth and scope of resources I find every time I engage with colleagues in the American Society of Training & Development (ASTD) at the local, regional, and national levels, as I’ve so frequently noted on this blog. There are the numerous and invaluable conversations and exchanges with ALA Learning Round Table colleagues over dinners while we have attended conferences together. And there is the ongoing unparalleled learning experience that comes my way each year through participation in the New Media Consortium Horizon Project, which brings together a relatively small group of colleagues from a number of different countries to collaborate within a stimulating online environment and through face to face annual summits to explore developments and trends in technology, education, and creativity.

xplrpln_logoObservations about connectivity become even more circular and seamlessly interwoven when I think about how Connected Educator Month provides an opportunity to celebrate the connections fostered by connectivist MOOCs (massive open online courses)—including connections to others outside of those MOOCs. It’s far from hyperbole to say that participation in #etmooc—the Educational Technology & Media massive open online course developed by Alec Couros and colleagues earlier this year— substantially increased my connectedness to wonderful trainer-teacher-learners around the world. And the #etmooc community of learning that has grown in the months since the formal coursework ended has led to even more connections through an invitation to join the five-week Exploring Personal Learning Networks (#xplrpln) MOOC that Jeff Merrell and Kimberly Scott are facilitating under the auspices of the Northwestern University Master’s in Learning & Organizational Change Program. Not only does #xplrpln provide another venue in which #etmooc participants can work together, but it is, through its exploration of personal learning networks, helping all of us as participants enrich our own.

The multi-directional connectedness doesn’t even stop there; the more I look at each of these groups and opportunities, the more I realize how interconnected the various groups are. Participating in the #lrnchat session last night reminded me that #lrnchat includes members of the ASTD, #etmooc, and #xplrpln communities—and the frequent mention of the Personal Learning Networks course during the chat is leading more members of #lrnchat to join us in exploring what #xplrpln offers and is developing. Looking at the growing list of #xplrpln participants has introduced me to #etmooc participants I hadn’t met while #etmooc coursework was in progress. Looking at the list of colleagues in the Horizon Project in previous years brought the unexpectedly wonderful realization that it included a great colleague from the American Library Association. And diving into the current Horizon Project explorations of developments in personal learning networks obviously connects what I’m doing there and in the MOOC so that the learning opportunities flow both ways between those two communities.

There’s a distinct possibility that connectivism could become another of those buzz words that linger on the edge of our consciousness without ever developing into something tangible—at a human level—if we give it the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame/attention and then move on. Or it could become another element of an ever-increasing set of tools and resources that allow us to transcend geographic, occupational, and time-zone boundaries. In a world where we often bemoan the loss of community, we can just as easily celebrate its expansion. And that’s why Connected Educator Month seems, to me, to be a great opportunity to celebrate. Reflect. And grow.

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


#etmooc and #lrnchat: When Communities of Learning Discuss Community—and Produce Results

September 27, 2013

There was no need this week to read yet another book or article on how to effectively create and nurture great communities. Participating in live online sessions with colleagues in two wonderful communities of learning (#etmooc, using the #etmchat hashtag and a Google+ community for online exchanges, and #lrnchat) provided experiential learning opportunities among those trainer-teacher-learners: participating in discussions to explore what makes our communities attractive or unattractive, and contributing to the conversations in ways that produced immediate results, e.g., a name for a new learning community that is in the early stages of formation in Australia.

#lrnchat_logoThe first of the two communities—#etmooc—is relatively young, having grown out of the Educational Technology & Media massive open online course (MOOC) developed by Alec Couros and colleagues earlier this year, while #lrnchat appears to have been in existence at least since early 2009 and is currently facilitated by David Kelly, Clark Quinn, Cammy Bean, and Jane Bozarth.

While #etmooc draws together a worldwide group of trainer-teacher-learners interested in improving their ability to effectively and engagingly incorporate technology into the learning process, #lrnchat has the somewhat broader goal of serving as a community “for people interested in the topic of learning [and] who use the social messaging service Twitter to learn from one another and discuss how to help other people learn”; those first-rate #lrnchat organizers also routinely post session transcripts that in and of themselves are great learning resources for others involved in training-teaching learning.

Participants and discussion topics sometimes, as was the case this week, overlap in #etmchat and #lrnchat sessions in fortuitous ways. Those of us who joined the #etmchat session on Wednesday and then joined #lrnchat on Thursday were able see these two overlapping yet significantly different communities explore (and, in many ways, celebrate) the elements that have made both communities dynamically successful. (Stats posted this afternoon by #lrnchat colleague Bruno Winck, aka @brunowinck, suggest that the one-hour session produced 642 tweets and 264 retweets from a total of 79 participants.)

What was obviously common to both groups was the presence of strong, dedicated, highly-skilled facilitators who kept the conversations flowing, on topic, and open to the largest possible number of participants. There was also an obvious sense of respect and encouragement offered to newcomers as well as to those with long-term involvement—a willingness to listen as well as to contribute, and a commitment to extending the conversation to others not immediately involved. (Retweeting of comments was fairly common in both groups, indicating a commitment to sharing others’ comments rather than trying to dominate any part of the conversation solely through personal observations). What we continually see in both groups is an invitation to engage and a willingness to listen as well as contribute rather than the tendency to create and foster cliques that exists in less effective and less cohesive communities.

A sense of humor and a fair amount of humility also appears to support the high levels of engagement visible in both groups—those who are most inclined to offer the occasional ironic/sarcastic/snarky comment just as quickly turn those comments back on themselves to draw a laugh and make a point that contributes to the overall advancement of discussion—and learning—that both communities foster.

There also is more than a hint in both communities of creating learning objects through the transcripts and conversational excerpts (e.g., through the use of Storify) generated via these discussions. And that’s where some of the most significant results are produced, for embedded in those transcripts and excerpts are links to other learning resources that many of us may not have previously encountered.

etmoocFollowing those links during or after the conversations continues our own personal learning process and, as was the case with #lrnchat yesterday, actually produce something with the potential to last far longer than any single discussion session. One of those unexpectedly productive moments of community-sharing-in-action yesterday came when, from my desk here in San Francisco, I posted a link to a Wikipedia article about third places—that wonderful concept of the places outside of home and work that serve as “the heart of community” and the third places in our lives, as defined and described 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). A colleague in Melbourne (Helen Blunden), seeing that link, quickly followed it to familiarize herself with the concept, then realized that “Third Place” would serve nicely as the name for a new learning and development community she is currently forming in Melbourne—which means that when members of #3placemelb (Third Place Melbourne) interact online, they’ll be the latest offshoot of a learning tree with roots in Oldenburg’s book first published in 1989; a well-developed trunk that has branches representing a variety of settings, including libraries; and continues to sprout twigs in online virtual communities such as #etmooc and #lrnchat, blended (onsite-online) settings, and that latest growth in Melbourne—all because great communities seem to beget additional great communities through collaboration rather than competition.

N.B.: The #lrnchat sessions currently take place every Thursday from 8:30-9:30 pm EST/5:30-6:30 PST; #etmchat sessions are generally announced on Twitter via the #etmooc hashtag and are also promoted in the #etmooc Google+ community.


Hidden Garden Steps: Growing Into a Name

September 20, 2013

Shakespeare’s famous question “What’s in a name?” in Romeo and Juliet came to mind again last night while I was looking at a photograph documenting the latest upgrades on the Hidden Garden Steps site here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District. And the answer, I realized as I unconsciously connected the existing name “Hidden Garden Steps” to the photograph showing a section of the gardens-in-progress near the top of the site, was “more than we can ever imagine at the moment when we choose (or receive) a name.”

Newly-installed gravel near top of Hidden Garden Steps

Newly-installed gravel near top of Hidden Garden Steps

Parents certainly have an inkling of what they are doing when they select something along the lines of Royal Forest Oakes (a college classmate I hadn’t thought about in years until I began writing this piece) or Sandy Beach (a cherished friend who is probably only half joking when she claims to be one of the few people who would be ecstatic about acquiring a four-syllable Japanese surname through the act of marriage rather than keeping her considerably shorter maiden name). Fundraisers intuitively understand the importance of what we call “naming opportunities” when placing donors’ names on buildings, concert halls, museum galleries, special-interest centers in libraries, or something as unusual as the 148-step ceramic-tile mosaic that project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher are a breath away from completing for installation on the Hidden Garden Steps site on 16th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets.

Naming the Steps was a process that extended over a several-month period. Members of the project organizing committee approached the challenge knowing that the neighbors who inspired our project with their original set of ceramic-tiled steps (also designed and fabricated by Barr and Crutcher, on Moraga Street between 15th and 16th avenues) had already been using the name “The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps” for five years before we asked the artists to work with us on a second set for the neighborhood, and none of us appeared to be particularly enamored of being stuck with the name “The Other 16th Avenue Tiled Steps.”

Starting with the generic “Kirkham-16th Avenue Mosaic Steps” designation as a placeholder, we tossed ideas around for months as we designed and planned for implementation of the fundraising and marketing efforts capable of igniting the enthusiasm and support needed to bring a $300,000 volunteer-driven community-based project to fruition. As the time to create a project website as well as design and print marketing materials approached, we finally engaged in the hour-long exercise that produced the name that stuck.

We started with a timed two-minute period in which everyone tossed out every word or term that came to mind to describe the site—which, at the time, was a pedestrian corridor containing plenty of graffiti, overgrown trees, plants, and weeds that hadn’t been touched in years, and unimaginable amounts of trash that had been left and covered by other trash, leaves, and branches. (Among the most interesting discoveries when we began cleaning the area were a vacuum cleaner, a typewriter, and a golf ball; I’m sure there’s a story there.) Once we had those myriad words in front of us, we eliminated the negative ones from the list; we knew enough to avoid calling the project “Golf-ball and Typewriter Alley” or “The ‘Run for Your Life, There Are Monsters in the Trees’ Steps.”

What did begin to take shape was a set of options that focused on the potential beauty to be carved out of the long-neglected site; the idea that there was something capable of drawing members of our extended community together through creation and maintenance of a new neighborhood focal point; and the obvious project elements of art, ceramic tiles, gardens, and steps. By eliminating the less-descriptive words, the name “Hidden Garden Steps” more or less presented itself as the now-inevitable choice.

Detail of Hidden Garden Steps mosaic

Detail of Hidden Garden Steps mosaic

It didn’t, during those initial moments of discovery, inspire the sense of enthusiasm we were seeking—but then we did a reverse two-minute timed exercise which required only that everyone toss out every image that the name suggested to them. When responses along the lines of “a children’s fairy-tale garden,” “something mysterious that reveals more of itself the more it’s explored,” and “art and gardens and community,” we could feel our mood shifting. The name started to become something that actually helped transform the idea of the Hidden Garden Steps into concrete elements that we wanted to create through a combination of the ceramic-tile mosaic; the gardens that would feature succulents, California natives, and other drought-tolerant plants; and any murals we added to the existing graffiti-tagged walls along the site.

The name, in essence, had already begun to transform the project by making us more aware of what we were potentially in a position to develop.

Our intention has been consistent: to create a cohesive project where the mosaic, the gardens, and the murals were so carefully interwoven and dependent upon each other that it would be impossible to imagine the site without all three of those elements present. And yet the mosaic has been the obvious focus of attention all along—until I saw that photograph last night.

It’s a simple, unremarkable image: a close-up of newly-installed gravel in a narrow space between a drainage gutter and the terraced garden along the top third of the Steps. But as I looked at that gravel, how it complemented the Steps, and how it added to the beauty and called a bit more attention to those still partially-hidden gardens, I realized I was beginning to think of the name in a much more expansive and cohesive way than ever before: it was as if the “hidden garden Steps,” with an emphasis on the steps, had grown into the richer more nuanced possibilities suggested by the capitalized, equally-weighted words “Hidden,” with its implication of something wonderful waiting to be discovered; “Garden,” which contains the living thriving plants reflected within the design of the mosaic itself; and “Steps,” the platform upon which we will walk and from which we will admire that stunningly beautiful mosaic as it reflects a dynamic artistic vision of the life and community that will continue to develop around it in the years and decades before us.

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


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