CLA Conference 2022: Thanks for the Gifts

June 3, 2022

For three hours yesterday, I was shoulder to shoulder with a wonderful group of colleagues facilitating a highly-interactive advocacy workshop for people working with libraries and the communities they serve throughout California. These are people—Crystal Miles from the Sacramento Public Library, Mark Fink from  the Yolo County Library, Deborah Doyle from the Sonoma County Library Commission, and Derek Wolfgram from the Redwood City Public Library—with whom I interact on a regular basis via Zoom. We have—up to that moment yesterday morning when we were onsite for the preconference workshop here in Sacramento on the first day of the California Library Association (CLA) 2022 Annual Conference—been designing and delivering online advocacy training sessions through the CLA Ursula Meyer Advocacy Training Fund program I manage, and we will continue to be nurturing the online series that continues next week with a free two-hour workshop on presentation skills for library advocates.

But this was that wonderful moment when, for the first time since the COVID pandemic radically altered the way we all work, we were shoulder to shoulder in an onsite setting with a group of dynamic learners who were also relishing the opportunity to be off camera and physically (rather than virtually) together. There were plenty of tongue-in-cheek comments about how strange it was to be seeing each other’s faces without having those faces framed by the all-too-familiar Zoom boxes that provide us with (cherished) opportunities to interact online. And there was also the not-unexpected attention we continue to give to safety protocols—including those ubiquitous N95 masks so many of us continue to wear in a dual effort to avoid unintentionally spreading COVID or to contract it from unsuspecting carriers of the virus.

But when all was said and done, an underlying cause for gratitude and celebration was that all of us in that particular room were acknowledging that the gift of gathering offered by CLA was another step toward our collective commitment to creating “a new and better normal” rather than sitting passively while waiting for a chance to return to a (pre-COVID) “normal” that, in many ways, was not all that great for many of our colleagues and, frankly, many of us.

As we explored the basics of advocacy and how it is evolving in a world that, two years ago, was forced to switch quickly and (sometimes) adeptly to a world where online interactions needed to be a seamless part of our interactions and collaborations, we noted and celebrated some of the positive opportunities that have come out of the tremendous tragedies and losses COVID has brought to each of us. We even, at one point, held a brief, lively, tongue-in-cheek debate about the advantages and disadvantages of onsite vs. online advocacy. (Taking the side of arguing for the benefits of online advocacy, I was gleeful when Crystal, assuming the playful role of the judge awarding points to Derek and me as we went back and forth, ultimately and very generously called it a draw and observed that our new and better normal might be one in which we recognize the importance of incorporating onsite and online efforts into our advocacy toolkits.) And as the session came to an end, we were gratified to hear participants—our co-conspirators in learning—note the ways in which their time with us was inspiring them to seek new ways to become even better advocates for libraries and the communities they serve than they already were.

It doesn’t, however, end there. The shoulder-to-shoulder interactions extended into conversations on the conference exhibits-hall floor, moved outdoors as some of us took our lunches into the plaza outside the conference center so we could unmask and enjoy lunch and extended conversations. And, as always happens in these conference settings where friends and colleagues are unexpectedly waiting for us right around the corner, the conversations became richer and deeper as friends stumbled upon long-unseen friends and picked up right where they/we had left off.

Which is exactly what happened toward the end of the lunchtime conversation Crystal and I were having in that plaza on a warm, pleasant Sacramento afternoon. As Crystal and I were discussing another session we might soon be doing together, I felt the (reassuring) embrace, from behind me, of someone whose voice I could hear but couldn’t quite place. Relishing that unexpected embrace and the sound of a somewhat familiar voice I couldn’t immediately place, I just sat there and admitted “I have no idea who is hugging me, and I’m not even inclined to want to turn around and immediately find out who it is because it feels so good.” And when I turned around and saw familiar eyes peering out from above the mask that was covering the rest of that lovely face, it still took me several seconds to realize that the embrace and the voice belonged to one of my favorite up-and-coming librarians—someone I’ve known since the point in her life when she was still a student in a Master of Library Science program and I had an opportunity to introduce her to people who have helped shape her career.

You can see it coming: she joined the conversation for a few minutes before having to race off for an appointment she had previously set—but not before we agreed to reconvene later that afternoon to sit together outdoors over hors d’oeuvres and beverages that carried us through a lovely chunk of unplanned time we both had. And our leisurely conversation that led us from afternoon into the early evening hours before another colleague joined us briefly before each of us stepped away to join other equally lovely interactions and conversations which will, no doubt, continue today when all of us are back onsite for another day of learning, scheming, dreaming, and working with cherished colleagues to collaborate toward shaping the world of our dreams.

So again, CLA, thanks for the gift of regathering our community in ways that continue the work we have managed to do in online settings over the past couple of years—and will continue to do onsite and online for the foreseeable future. And thanks for the opportunity to carry us one step further down a road that is still very much in a state of development as we grow accustomed to, open to, and grateful for a world in which we no longer carry on, with any level of seriousness, silly arguments about whether onsite interactions are inherently better than online interactions, or vice versa. We are, step by step, embracing possibilities and relishing where those opportunities may take us—if we actively, positively are active participants in shaping the results those opportunities provide.


Giving Thanks 2021: ShapingEDU, Saying “Yes,” and Documenting Pandemic Lessons Learned

December 3, 2021

One of the words that leaves me feeling happiest is “yes.” The power of the word “yes” first became obvious to me when I was listening to a (horrible) guest speaker in a graduate-level management class proudly describe the sign hanging over her desk: “What part of no do you not understand?” “Yes” continually exerts a restorative power over me. It encourages me. It tells me that there is a bridge to be crossed successfully. A collaborative effort to be pursued. An acquaintance who is about to become a colleague/partner/collaborator and, with any luck, a friend.

Graphic by Karina Branson/ConverSketch

“Yes” is a word I consistently hear from members of the ShapingEDU community (operating under the auspices of—and with tremendous support and numerous “yeses” from—the members of the University Technology Office at Arizona State University) as part of their collective commitment as “dreamer-doer-drivers” committed to doing whatever they can to help reshape the future of learning in the digital age, One of the most recent (and significant) yeses I heard was from community members participating in the fourth annual ShapingEDU Unconference (July 20-23, 2021) as we were exploring a set of 10 wicked challenges in contemporary learning—with an eye toward framing them within a newly-created structure of five calls to action that would guide our work over the next 12 months.

Graphic by Karina Branson/ConverSketch

At the end of a series of discussions I helped facilitate on the challenge of identifying, documenting, and disseminating stories about how we are rethinking our approach to learning as a result of the teaching-training-learning experiences we and others have had since the pandemic began in early 2020, I posed a simple question to participants in that set of discussions: Are you interested in continuing this discussion after the unconference so we can find ways to implement what we have been talking about here?

The resounding “yes” from several of the participants led us to begin engaging in biweekly one-hour online meetings a few weeks after the conference ended, and those results-oriented conversations are continuing with the involvement of anyone who wants to join us. Our original unconference-session discussions, under the title “365+ Days Later: Post-Pandemic Best Practices,” are continuing under the newly-established, much more playful project name “Are We There Yet? (Capturing the Evolving New Now in Learning).”

Our newly-adopted name covers a lot of ground. It recognizes that we are stepping away from the idea that we are somehow savvy enough to have identified “best practices” when what we are really doing is documenting what seems to be working for now among our brightest, most creative colleagues; the approach here is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It recognizes that we are far from having reached an end-point in our explorations; this really is a situation and a challenge that is continually evolving in the way that all wicked problems continually evolve (which is part of what makes them so wicked). And, most importantly, by asking “are we there yet?”, we are tacitly admitting that we don’t ever completely expect to “get there” in terms of having definitively established a “new now” in learning; the evolving nature of what we face in pandemic-era conditions and beyond suggests that we will be working together for a good long time. And should we ever actually “get there” and recognize that our work in response to this challenge is finished, we probably, in the best traditions of ShapingEDU, will identify a new challenge in teaching-training-learning to pursue together.

There’s much more to this than having established a new name; our biweekly meetings have produced a (still-evolving) planning document that begins with a summary of the steps we plan to take through Are We There Yet?:

  • Each of us will reach out to members of our communities to draw them into this conversation and this project; the potential here is to quickly begin building a global coalition that engages in research through studies, with real-time support in how to respond to challenges.
  • We will draw upon our colleagues and resources at Arizona State University to build this coalition/project.
  • To get the word out that we are seeking collaborators, we will: 
  • Create an introductory video that is posted on the ShapingEDU site to disseminate this story of how we are telling the stories of others
  • Determine where we will house the stories so that they can be shared
  • Look for opportunities (synchronous and asynchronous; online and onsite; through webinars and workshops) to pair stories with lessons learned and facilitate discussions to broadly disseminate what we are observing and documenting; an example of this is initiative created by Are We There Yet? team member Tula Dlamini’s to have members of his community in South Africa come together in ways mirroring how ShapingEDU community members come together during annual unconferences) to explore and document what they are seeing
  • Work at a global level to find ways to integrate the various stories we have with those we find through our efforts.

the earliest activities we are pursuing are creating an online site, before the end of December 2021, for teacher-trainer-learners to submit stories about how they have successfully adapted their work to pandemic conditions; a highly-interactive online workshop to help participants create their stories about pandemic-era learning successes (possibly in January or February 2022); and an online mini-conference (in March or April) to bring teacher-trainer-learners together to find ways to document and share our learning-success stories. We are also working to call attention to first-rate resources, including the recently-published book Learn at Your Own Risk: 9 Strategies for Thriving in a Pandemic and Beyond, by ShapingEDU Storyteller in Residence and Are We There Yet? team member Tom Haymes.

There is plenty to do. There are lots of opportunities to be developed. And all we need now is a “yes” from you indicating your interest in being part of the project—which you can do by contacting those of us listed as team leaders on the project page.

N.B.: This is the eighth in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways and the thirty-second in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences.


Giving Thanks 2021: ShapingEDU and the Art of Gathering During (and After) the Pandemic Era

December 2, 2021

Writing about ShapingEDU and Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering recently as part of this continuing series of blog posts has made me more grateful than ever for the people and communities that serve as a source of support and inspiration to me in much of the work I do. What connects that disparate group of capital-M Muses is that each, without overtly embracing the label, serves as an activist within the communities served—a theme I intend to address more fully in a different post.

When I think about my colleagues and many other people I have met through my involvement in the ShapingEDU project (under the auspices of the University Technology Office at Arizona State University) and their collective commitment as “dreamer-doer-drivers” committed to doing whatever they can to help reshape the future of learning in the digital age, I think with tremendous appreciation about our collective/collaborative approach to gathering—and our willingness to share lessons learned about gathering with others, as was done through the fabulous ShapingED-YOU Toolkit providing guidance on how to successfully produce “focused, collaborative Unconference and Community Camp-style events.” Our meetings, face-to-face, online, and in blended environments (those wonderful intersections where online and onsite colleagues meet using platforms including Zoom), consistently create the sense of a global meeting room that quickly erases the usual constraints of geography and are, in significant ways, one long-extended, often asynchronous conversation designed to produced positive, measurable results.

At the heart of our approach to gathering is a commitment to listen. To learn from each other. To maintain a playful approach to the work we do. To foster a sense of inclusiveness that welcomes newcomers as well as returning community members. And to focus heavily on those we are attempting to serve through our efforts. (Our commitment to reshaping learning, furthermore, includes a commitment to include students and other learners in our planning efforts and our events.) That’s something that is clearly visible through the online gatherings we have had this year—particularly the fourth annual ShapingEDU Unconference which, because of remaining concerns about gathering onsite during the pandemic, was once again completely held online (over a four-day period in July 2021).

Shaping the unconference around the theme of “Reshaping Wicked Problems” allowed and encouraged us to reshape our unconference structure a bit this year. Where previous unconference gatherings centered on an initial set of 10 actions the community was attempting to pursue, the latest unconference identified (though collaborative pre-conference exchanges online) 10 wicked challenges to be explored by unconference participants with an eye toward framing them within a newly-created structure of five calls to action that would guide our work over the next 12 months.

Among the wicked challenges were attempts to find ways to more effectively connect strategies to the tools we use in teaching-training-learning—an ongoing effort spearheaded by ShapingEDU Storyteller in Residence Tom Haymes through the Teaching Toolset project he is developing (and also writing about on the ShapingEDU blog); better engage virtual learners and avoid burnout; and identify, document, and disseminate stories about how we are rethinking our approach to learning as a result of the teaching-training-learning experiences we and others have had since the pandemic began in early 2020—something that has turned into another long-term ShapingEDU project under the newly-adopted name “Are We There Yet? (Capturing the Evolving New Now in Learning).”

A glance at the “living agenda” for the unconference gives you an idea of the approach to and scope of the work we planned to do—and, more importantly, offers you a template you can adapt for your own gatherings. Looking at the archived recordings of some of the sessions on the aforementioned ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel or directly from links within that living agenda will more fully immerse you in what we did—and, possibly, provide you with ideas you can incorporate into your  own action-oriented gatherings. You’ll see the day-long context-setting series of exercises ShapingEDU Innovator in Residence Ruben Puentedura facilitated on the second day of the conference through his use of a Black Swan approach as a framework for our discussions. You’ll see a series of keynote presentations and panel discussions, including an engaging discussion centered on “The Intersection of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Technology” from the third day of the unconference and the tremendously thoughtful and inspiring “Student Panel” discussion that opened the final day of the unconference. An archived recording of the final hour-long unconference report-out session also remains available on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel, along with plenty of other recordings of ShapingEDU unconference sessions, ShapingEDU webinars, and other sessions the community has produced since its formation in early 2018.

If drawing you into this level of immersion in the ShapingEDU community is successful, it will leave me with one more thing for which I will be grateful: I’ll see you there in the community as a contributor to the positive goals we are pursuing.

Next: ShapingEDU, Saying “Yes,” and Documenting Pandemic Lessons Learned

N.B.: This is the seventh in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways and the thirty-first in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences.


Giving Thanks 2021: Stephen Hurley and voicEd Radio

November 27, 2021

As the coronavirus pandemic started shutting things down here in the United States in March 2020, many of us were scrambling to find ways to stay in touch with cherished friends and colleagues. We quickly began exploring ways to innovatively respond to our rapidly-changing training-teaching-learning environments, and we also looked for ways to more advantageously build upon the online relationships we already had in place.­­

Stephen Hurley

One of the unexpected pleasures for me, as the pandemic continued to change the way we all work and play, was re-engaging with Stephen Hurley, whose voicEd Radio programming remains a bright light in terms of innovative online programming directed toward “a community of researchers, educators, students, parents and policy-thinkers committed to a dynamic vision of knowledge mobilization in Canada’s education space” featuring “podcasting and live broadcasting to tackle the big questions facing K-12 and post-secondary education in Canada and beyond.”

Although our paths, before the pandemic changed our world, only crossed occasionally—often through the efforts of our mutual friend/colleague Jonathan Nalder (whose lovely Edunauts podcasts were a staple of voicEd Radio programming for a couple of years)—I always found Stephen to be one of those people with whom conversations easily resumed regardless of how much time passed between each of those exchanges. So when Stephen reached out to me early this year to propose a biweekly half-hour segment that would be recorded in my time zone at 6:30 am Monday mornings, I leapt without hesitation, figuring that a half-hour with Stephen every other week was well worth whatever loss of sleep accompanied that commitment. And I was right!

To this day, I remain grateful that we kept that commitment throughout the first half of 2021 and recorded a dozen of what (at least for us) were some lovely, playful, memorable conversations connected by the theme of “collaborations in learning.” For me, at least, they were far more than ephemeral conversations; they drew upon pre-determined topics ranging from books we were reading and online conferences we were attending to powerful, easily adaptable examples of online collaboration we were seeing, and they often carried over into other work I was doing, including a blog piece on the practice of treating learners as co-conspirators in the learning process.

The first episode in that series focused on my recently-released book, Change the World Using Social Media. As he noted in his summary of the episode, we talked about “the power of social media platforms to create community, nurture a sense of action, if not activism, and what this could mean for our future world.” And, more importantly, we established a practice of trying to create threads from one episode/conversation to the next, often by pulling one comment from the latest episode and creating a thread to a related topic in the next episode.

One of Stephen’s superpowers, for me, is his ability to move seamlessly from the role of interviewer—posing stimulating questions designed to keep a conversation moving forward in engaging, productive ways—to the role of equal partner in a conversation to the role of willingly playing foil to his interviewees in ways that produce playfully serious exchanges filled with ideas that any interested listener can incorporate into their own training-teaching-learning efforts. Another is his willingness to look for connections to previous conversations so that a series of recordings along the lines of what we did together can serve as stand-along podcasts or be heard as an extended multi-episode conversation with nuanced, multiple layers of interactions. Those “superpowers,” combined, have provided me with tremendous examples of approaches and techniques that I have absorbed, sponge-like, into my own work—to the benefit of the learners I serve.

There are numerous moments from those conversations that have stayed with me far longer than the amount of time I put into preparing for them. One that has proved to be transformative was the discussion we had about Priya Parker’s book The Art of Gathering; again, Stephen beautifully summarizes the conversation by describing it as an exploration of how “a gathering begins the moment you send out the invitation” and what that means, along with what impact it could have on the way we plan our virtual and face-to-face events—something I have continued to adapt into my own work with learners and other colleagues throughout the year. Another of those moments involved an exploration of the role of storytelling and an examination of the difference between stories and anecdotes.

As the current year comes to an end, I remain thankful  for all that Stephen has offered me and all the inspiration he has provided. And I hope you’ll support Stephen (and your own learning process) by tuning in to voicEd Radio whenever you can.

Next: Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering

N.B.: This is the third in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping change the world in positive ways, and the thirtieth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences. Next: Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Learning With Champions of Learning

February 24, 2021

Less than 15 minutes into the daylong “Champions of Learning” virtual conference hosted last week by colleagues in the ATD (Association for Talent Development) South Florida Chapter, I was already completely engaged and fully attentive.

This was a group that understood the importance of creating a welcoming tone and ambience at the beginning of any event, regardless of whether it is onsite or online. This was a group that didn’t overlook the small stuff behind any large, successful gathering. And this was a group that was using its commitment to engagement and interaction to be sure that participants would have few, if any, temptations to step away from “the room” before the event had reached its conclusion.

We often hear (and repeat) the idea that “the devil is in the details.” I would suggest that our ATD South Florida Chapter colleagues subscribe to the idea that “the angels are in the details,” and do everything they can to flood our virtual rooms with angels that beckon us to their gatherings. Those angels (volunteers, every one of them), during the weeks and days leading up to the conference, provided an appropriately steady stream of encouraging email messages designed to prepare participants—our co-conspirators in the learning process—for an event that focused on the content rather than the (virtual) setting and the technology needed to make that gathering successful. We were told that there would be a beginning-of-the-day session that included a “platform overview” for anyone wanting to explore the technology we would be using to interact with presenters/session facilitators as well as with each other. We knew the opening session would also give us plenty of time to interact with each other to, as much as possible, create the same levels of positive engagement we experienced at onsite gatherings before the shelter-in-place guidelines we have been following for nearly a year in response to the coronavirus pandemic pushed us completely into online interactions.

The series of pre-event email messages also included separate notes about each of the sessions, including the specific links we would follow to attend any of four breakout workshops and other events scheduled throughout the day; this gave us a chance to add those events and links to our own personal online calendars so, on the day of the event, we wouldn’t have to hunt through our archived email messages to find those direct links. And then, in an act that was possible because of the limited number of sessions, our “angels” resent those links, via email, shortly before each session began so that we could move directly from our email inboxes into the events. Recognizing that this would be an impossible and burdensome approach for organizers of much larger gatherings, I also recognize that this was yet another example of conference organizers thinking proactively of what they could do to make the virtual-conference experience—or any other online learning opportunity operating at a similar scale—as enjoyable and stress-free as possible.

Opting for a morning workshop on “Awesome PowerPoint Tricks for Effective Presentations” (led by BrightCarbon Director Richard Goring) after the conclusion of the opening session/platform review, I was expecting to pick up a few tips on how to up my game in PowerPoint. To say that the nearly two-hour session exceeded expectations would be to unforgivably downplay the breadth and depth of what Goring offered all of us: an overwhelmingly positive and impressive overview of numerous tips and tricks that included demonstrations of what he was describing, and the all-important assurance that we would have plenty of opportunities to return to an archived recording of the session so we could more fully incorporate what he was describing into our own work, e.g., how to mask and highlight elements of an image to more effectively use that image on a slide; how to quickly align disparate elements and images on a slide with one command rather than a series of actions involving every separate element; and locating and using sites (including pexels.com, pixabay.com, and lifeofpix.com) that provide numerous free images we can incorporate into our work.

Elane Biech

For many of us, the anticipated high point of the day was the combination of a celebration of local (South Florida) colleagues’ work as champions of learning—those who, by example, remind the rest of us of what our most innovative colleagues are doing to make learning more engaging and transformative—and a keynote address by Elaine Biech, who has inspired many of us through her numerous books and other work in talent development (aka teaching-training-learning). Again, the chapter angels turned a challenge—having to move what is normally an onsite celebration into the online conference environment—into a “champions of learning” success story by having each nominee for the 2021 Champion of Learning awards provide a short, from-the-heart video describing the project. The result was a celebration within the main celebration—our celebration of how engagingly our colleagues embraced the video-presentation format to describe the successful projects so that we were as inspired by the playfulness of the videos as we were by the actual content.

And then there was Elaine: Warm. Engaging. Inspirational, as always. And right on target with a presentation and interactions with conference participants that reminded us of how to “Develop Your Best Self and Tale Charge of Your Career.” When it comes to your career, she reminded us at one point, don’t be beige; be brilliant. And develop your best self. Which is pretty much where she left us by the end of that session, as we headed into an afternoon of additional learning and interaction centered on the champions of learning among us.

Following Anne Beninghof into her “Caffeinated Virtual Training: How to Keep Your Audience Awake and Learning” session, I again learned as much observing a presenter’s approach to presenting virtually as I did from the rich content offered. It was as if she were somehow reaching cross-country from Florida to where I was sitting (in San Francisco) and knew just when to switch things up—as she did, approximately an hour into the session, by telling all of us to get out of our chairs, move away from our computers for a moment, and simply move around to keep from falling into a complete state of torpor from having been sitting in that country-wide learning space for several hours. That, and her focus on making everyone in the room a co-conspirator in learning, produced another memorably playful session and led us to the final two sessions—one for closing remarks and door prizes, the other a virtual happy hour that left us right where we started several hours earlier that day. Reminded that virtual conferences, when well designed and well executed, are no hindrance to fostering a sense of community and engagement. Reminded that spending time with our colleagues in online environments is, in and of itself, a learning opportunity we cannot afford to miss—particularly in pandemic, social-distancing times. And reminded that, when we observe and promise to build upon the positive experiences we have with our colleagues in online learning environments, we and the learners we serve are the real winners.

–N.B.: This is the twenty-ninth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences. 


ShapingEDU Winter Games: Driving and Intersecting with the Dreamers and Doers

February 1, 2021

There are conferences that start and end on a pre-announced schedule; you step away from work, you attend them, you enjoy them, and then you go back to work. And then there are conferences that feel as if they are already underway long before you arrive onsite or online for the first formally-scheduled event and seem to continue for days, weeks, or even months after the final formally-scheduled session concludes—which pretty much captures what I experienced nearly a month ago (January 5-7, 2021) during the Arizona State University ShapingEDU three-day Winter Games online conference for dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age.

You could, at the beginning of the Day 3 (January 7), already see it happening: through the discussions and plans for action that were forming and through the intersections between participants, you could see Winter Games transforming itself into part of a longer-lasting series of conversations and efforts to foster positive action extending far beyond what was happening. Attendees were engagingly interacting with presenters and panelists including elected officials, nonprofit and for-profit business representatives, educators, and a variety of other people exploring how collaboration across a variety of sectors might lead to short- and long-term positive results to everyone’s benefit.  

Feeling as if I am (a month later and after having participated in yet another virtual conference) still very much participating in Winter Games and looking back on the final day and everything I saw and learned, I’m not at all surprised by what we accomplished. Nor by what we laid the groundwork to accomplish. The discussions during keynote sessions, during smaller, more intimate breakout sessions, and during a final late-afternoon wrap-up gathering were Frans Johansson’s Intersection (explored in his book The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures) coming to life: people from a variety of backgrounds gathering to talk and listen to each other, exchange ideas, and then return to their own communities to disseminate those ideas in world-changing ways.

As Samantha Adams Becker—one of our community leaders—observed that day, a dreamer envisions a better future. A doer makes it happen. And a driver scales it so that the future is more evenly distributed. Which, to me, serves as an acknowledgement of the community’s increasing attention toward placing lifelong learning within the larger context of social change, social justice, and social challenges we are facing and attempting to address through the work we do. It’s a community of educators as activists—where learning is a tool rather than an ultimate goal or achievement.

As always, what we accomplish comes down, at least in part, to the stories we tell. Panelists during the Day Three opening keynote session, “Unlocking the Data to Drive a Smart Region Vision,” told stories about the efforts underway in the greater Phoenix area to foster results-producing collaborations across sectors. Panelists, responding to questions and comments from moderators Brian Dean (co-founder and director of operations for the Institute for Digital Progress) and Dominic Papa (vice-president, Smart State Initiatives as the Arizona Commerce Authority), included Corey Woods, Mayor of Tempe; Elizabeth Wentz, a professor and dean at Arizona State University (ASU); David Cuckow, Head of Digital at BSI; and Patricia Solis, executive director for the Knowledge Exchange for Resilience at ASU.

My own notes from that session—captured in the form of tweets prepared while the session was underway—in no way fully capture the depth and nuances of the conversation, which you can watch and hear in its entirety through the archived recording on the ShapingEDU YouTube Community Channel. But they do offer a gateway to a world of thought well worth exploring. Mayor Woods, for example, talked at one point about how the city of Tempe uses data to determine what services stay open; he also noted that city officials are known for making city-government decision based on data, including data related to diversity and inclusion. Another panelist wryly and repeatedly noted that short questions often reveal the need for long, thoughtful answers influenced by data sets as we attempt to address the challenges we face. Collecting data, the panelists suggested, is one step in better serving citizens (and, we might add by extension, learners); it’s about creating networks to look at data, to ask critical questions, and being able to better meet people’s needs by drawing upon and using the data we collect.

Leaving that session with my head still swimmingly in a wonderfully deep pool of ideas, I next moved onto more familiar ground—at least for me—in a session exploring some of the latest upgrades offered through Zoom. Listening to Zoom representatives talk about everything from incorporating PowerPoint slide decks into virtual backgrounds within Zoom to campus-wide integration of communications (telephone) systems and security systems into Zoom demonstrates, once again, that this is a company and product that is far from being content resting on its already well-deserved laurels. The entire session did what I want any great learning opportunity to do: it made me hungry for an opportunity to explore some of what I was learning was possible, and I have, since leaving that session, been exploring ways to build what I learned into the work I am continuing to do with learners.

The final session of the morning, for me, was an intriguing, intense look into the ever-evolving world of massive open online courses (MOOCs), which have remained of interest to me (and, apparently, others) ever since their brief moment in the spotlight several years ago. Led by Arizona State University Director of Digital Innovation Dale Johnson, the “Global Adaptive Instruction Network: Building a Collaborative MOOC Model” was a stunning look at how MOOCs in theory and in fact continue to evolve in ways that offer learners and learning facilitators intriguing ways to create more personalized, engaging learning opportunities than might otherwise be available.

“MOOCs have really become more like the McDonald’s of Higher Ed…” Johnson noted at the beginning of his session. “A lot of people are served but of some questionable educational value….How do we enhance the MOOC?….We are moving from a mass production world to a mass personalization world….The challenge for us is how do we move, in education, from mass production…to mass personalization?”

As we move to delivering the right lesson to the right student at the right time, he suggests, a collaborative MOOC model offers us interesting and intriguing possibilities. (Those interested in learning more can view the archived recording on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel.)

There is so much more to say about Winter Games. About that fascinating intersection/Intersection at the heart of the event. And about the conversations that are continuing even though nearly a month has passed—including one I had earlier today with Stephen Hurley during a “ShapingEDU and Community” segment of his VoicEd Radio “Hurley in the Morning” program. There is much we can learn about organizing effective online learning opportunities/Intersections along these lines, as we see in the ShapingEDU “ShapingED-YOU Toolkit” available free online. And there is much to be said for innovative, playful communities of learning that operate seamlessly throughout the year face-to-face as well as online.

But the Intersection we have reached at this moment is one where looking back, looking forward, and relishing the present moment bring to mind a line I’ve found in poems and many other pieces of writing I have absorbed over the years: The end is the beginning. And if that remains true for Winter Games, the best is still ahead of us.

–N.B.: 1) This is the twenty-eighth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences, and the third in a series of posts inspired by the ShapingEDU Winter Games.


ShapingEDU Winter Games: Making Sense and Making Music IRL

January 8, 2021

There is no going back; there is only going forward, a panelist suggested during the opening keynote event on Day Two (yesterday) of the Arizona State University ShapingEDU three-day Winter Games conference for dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age. And, like much of what we heard, saw, and experienced yesterday, those words were, before the day was over, provoking entirely different thoughts than what the speaker had intended when he voiced them during a dynamic, thoughtful, and wide-ranging discussion of “The Future of Sports and Entertainment.”

One central element of that panel discussion was a series of reflections on how the shelter-in-place social distancing guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic are continuing to force major adjustments regarding how teams and fans interact, and regarding how technology is providing possibilities, short- and long-term, that weren’t much under consideration before the pandemic began—virtual interactions between players and fans, apps that extend the experiences of the games themselves, and virtual gatherings of fans who are geographically dispersed.

Where the pandemic erected barriers, creativity (and tragedy and necessity) fostered innovation. When it became impossible for fans and teams to be together onsite, many—including panelists Robert Mathews; Collaboration Strategist, AVI Systems; Rick Schantz, Head Coach, Phoenix Rising FC; Mark Feller, VP of Technology, Arizona Cardinals; Salvatore Galatioto, President of Galatioto Sports Partners; and Stephen Rusche, Sr. Director, Smart Communities, COX Communications—immediately began engaging in large-scale rethinking. Followed by innovation. Followed by success stories that are already creating a new normal. And, possibly, to be followed—in the months and years ahead of us—by a long-lasting new-and-better normal. One that combines the best of what we had with the best of what we are developing during the pandemic.

Which pretty much carries us to a theme flowing through much of what the “digital immersive experiences” of the Winter Games has offered: the idea that, in digital-age lifelong learning, we are experiencing massive shifts caused by situations many of us were too comfortable to anticipate or acknowledge, and to which we now are responding—sometimes creatively and sometimes successfully—with innovations that are well worth nurturing and preserving after the need for social distancing becomes less necessary.

A highly-interactive session later that morning—ShapingEDU Storyteller in Residence Tom Haymes’ “Learn at Your Own Risk: A Hackathon for Navigating the Post-Pandemic Slope and Skiing Into the Digital Age of Learning” —took us a significant step farther down that path of designing and exploring a new and better normal. Built on the theme of nine strategies for thriving in a pandemic and beyond (drawn from his newly-released book (Learn at Your Own Risk), the hackathon engaged session participants through interactions within an online collaborative tool to help us see how we could apply those strategies, to the benefit of our learners, within our own teaching environments.

“Systems shape our behavior” and “our behavior shapes systems,” Haymes observed at one point, and those words, like the sports panelist’s remark about looking forward rather than back, seemed unintentionally prescient less than a few hours later…because that’s when many of us, during a scheduled break in the Winter Games conference, became aware of and tried to make sense of the actions of the seditionists who had forced their way through the meager and ineffectual security forces in our nation’s Capitol and had temporarily disrupted our legislature’s attempt to formally count and certify the votes cast through the Electoral College.

It’s impossible to try to capture even a small portion of all the thoughts and emotions we had during that three-hour mid-day break. I am, however, left with the memory of one stunning contrast in terms of reactions I observed. Away from the Winter Games (in the sense that I was talking with my wife and absorbing news reports), I was skimming email messages and came across a notice that, because of what was happening in Washington, DC, a local San Francisco Bay Area bookseller I very much admire was cancelling an online author event that was to be held that evening—a decision with which I have no disagreement because it was the right decision for the community served by that bookseller. In contrast, moments later, I was back online with others in the ShapingEDU community at the scheduled time for the resumption of the Winter Games conference. Because I knew that this was a community that would see, in the act of moving ahead as planned rather than postponing or cancelling our interactions, a reaffirmation of all that is at the core of our community. A commitment to working together. To finding solace and encouragement by remaining together during this latest time of national tragedy. And to thinking about all we had been hearing, seeing, and doing together—looking toward and helping shape the future rather than being frozen by looking back. Considering how systems and behavior are interwoven and equally important elements in our efforts to foster positive change among ourselves, our communities, and those we serve.

In that moment during which divisiveness was on display in all its ugliness in our national capital, we couldn’t miss the irony—nor could we have been any more appreciative—of the fact that the Winter Games session we were about to attend together was centered on the theme of inclusivity. Nor could we have been more appreciative for the realization that we were about to hear about and explore possibilities for healing ourselves through that session, facilitated by Alycia Anderson, on the power of inclusivity. But most stunning of all—in the most positive of ways—was the ease with which one of our community leaders and Winter Games organizers, Samantha Becker, stepped up to the plate to introduce that session. She immediately acknowledged what was happening in the Capitol. How the situation was touching each of us in the most personal and emotional ways possible. And how, through what we do, we continue to light and carry the equivalent of an Olympic-sized torch to light the way toward the bright future to which our community is so strongly committed. It was yet another in an enormously long list of moments in which I’ve been proud to be part of the ShapingEDU community.  Inspired by people like Anderson who join us in an effort to help us broaden our horizons and remember the importance of what we are doing. And (somewhat) hopeful, even in our darkest moments, that we might continue looking forward and improving our systems and our behavior in ways that lift to one step closer to living up to our highest and most cherished ideals.

You would think, after all of that (including the very moving presentation Anderson offered us in that tremendous moment of need), that we would be ready to call it a day. But no. As is a tradition within our nearly four-year-old community of dreamers-doers-drivers, we weren’t quite done with each other yet. So we moved into the final event of the day—a stunningly positive online concert featuring seven tremendously diverse musicians who not only reminded us of the importance of the arts in our lives, but demonstrated, through their adaptability, the innovative way our artists are responding to the challenges and changes caused by the pandemic. The performers very effectively dealt with Zoom-as-a-concert venue from the beginning segment (which featured a series of one-song-per-artist performances in our main virtual concert hall); into a second segment where were able to follow a few individual performers into breakout rooms that served as smaller, more intimate recital halls for short sets; and then back into the main hall for activities that culminated in a final set of one-song-per-artist performances by each musician. And it was through this very effective combination of live music online and the social connections fostered among audience members who communicated through Zoom’s typed-chat function that the session became so much more than it might otherwise have been. A musical event. A chance for the same sort of online interactions many of us have during evening events at onsite conferences. And a chance, using and observing the technology, to be immersed in and simultaneously step back from the environment to see what it was providing.

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“I’ve had the honor of seeing [him] play this IRL,” one colleague observed in a comment via chat near the end of the evening. “And it’s awesome in any format.”

“I love the reference to ‘in real life,’” I immediately responded as if we were chatting across a table in a coffee house where musicians were performing, and I was thinking again of how the pandemic has inspired us to redefine what we see as “in real life.”

Is it only physical, face-to-face interactions, as some continue to assume without considering how our world is rapidly evolving? Or has “in real life” matured to the point where we can see our blending of onsite and online interactions as a magnificent opportunity to interact in almost magical, mystical ways, that have never before been possible in sports, the arts, and lifelong learning?

I look at my three-day in-real-life experiences at the Winter Games—which I’ll continue to describe in my next post, covering Day 3—and at all the small and large transformations the experiences are nurturing within me and other members of the community. And I’m inspired to continue looking forward. Trying to make sense of what I see. Hungry to make music and foster positive change at every possible level. And committed to helping shape a brilliant future in collaboration with these cherished members of our community and anyone one who wants to join us on this journey.

–N.B.: 1) This is the twenty-seventh in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences, and the second in a series of posts inspired by the ShapingEDU Winter Games.


ShapingEDU Winter Games: We Tune Because We Care

January 6, 2021

With my head exploding from a week’s worth of thoughtful, transformative experiences packed into a single day, at least one thing is clear to me: If we were to diligently look for communities that have rapidly evolved and managed to thrive during the current coronavirus pandemic while remaining grounded in their core work and values, we would have to place Arizona State University’s ShapingEDU at or near the summit.

The community opened its first-ever three-day “digital immersive experience” of Winter Games earlier today—an ambitiously innovative set of offerings designed for “an international community of changemakers (educator leaders, smart city experts, students, faculty and technologists) engaged in a breadth of activities designed to surface the best in emerging approaches for shaping the future of smart campuses, cities and education—during and after the pandemic.” And you would have had to have been completely immobilized, beneath an avalanche, to have been left feeling unmoved.

This is a community that, because of its ever-growing membership—more than 4,000 members, most acquired during the past seven months—and its commitment to exploring and adapting to change, was well-positioned at the beginning of the pandemic to shift a mostly-onsite conference into a completely online conference—while that conference was in progress. It’s a community that, a few months later, saw (in the shelter-in-place social distancing guidelines implemented in response to the pandemic) an opportunity to innovate, so came up with and produced a week-long campy virtual summer camp—Learning(Hu)Man—for dreamer-driver-doers committed to shaping the future of learning in the digital age. And it is the community that brought nearly 1,200 of us together today in yet another online convocation that rivals the best of anything I have ever experienced in onsite or online gatherings.

I knew, even before taking advantage of an extended lunch break, that Day 1 of the Winter Games was going to be another transformative experience for me and for the other teacher-trainer-learners who form the core of this community of dreamer-driver-doers. And when the activities resumed mid-afternoon Pacific Time (as opposed to mid-morning “tomorrow” for those colleagues and presenters on the other side of the world—including singer-songwriter Biddy Healey, participating live from Australia), I was even more energized and inspired by the combination of an hour-long social event that continued the Winter Games conversations and the subsequent, more formal, early-evening panel discussion that was conducted in a way that fostered the creation and strengthening of connections. Connections between the panelists and those watching/listening to the panel. Connections between viewers/listeners who contributed to what the panelists offered. And connections between viewers/listeners who used the online chat function to reach out to each other to initiate conversations that will continue long after the formal three-day event ends and have positive impacts of members of the communities we serve. For connections are what ShapingEDU and the Winter Games are all about.

It’s simply that kind of community and that sort of event: the preparation and the follow-up are as important as what transpires during the run of the event itself.

This was a virtual gathering that began the day at the top of the virtual ski slopes and never really stopped so we could catch our breath. The “Opening Ceremony + Olympic Keynote” (“Learning Futures: Designing the Horizon”) brought us together with a trio of engaging, forward-thinking educators from Arizona State University: Dr. Sean Leahy, Director of Technology Initiatives, MaryLou Fulton Teachers College; Dr. Punya Mishra, Associate Dean and Professor, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College; and Jodie Donner, Lead Technology Strategist and Head of IgnitED Labs. The thoughts were so rich, the resources so numerous, that we could (and should) spend several days reviewing notes, following links to the resources cited, and broadening our view of our world by reading and absorbing the reports and texts on websites as diverse as those representing the Future Today Institute, Arizona State University’s Learning Futures Collaboratory and IgnitED Labs (the latter a project that pivoted magnificently from onsite to online environments without giving up its commitment to hands-on learning experiences in pursuit of technology, creativity, and learning), and many others that you can learn about through the archived recording of the session. (The fact that the archived recording was already posted online on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel before the end of the day, and that a lovely, playful 3.5-minute “View from the Chair Life: Tuesday Evening Recap” was among several other videos on that same channel before mid-evening, is yet another sign of how efficiently and effectively this community functions.)

“We are not predicting the future,” Leahy said at one point in a comment capturing a theme running through much of what I saw and heard. “We are designing in a principled manner to build resilient educational systems to address that uncertainty.”

Moving to a different part of the Winter Games slopes for the first of two mid-morning break-out sessions I attended, I was completely taken by what CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking) CEO Keith Krueger and Technology Innovation Design Entrepreneurship Sustainability Coordinator Kim Flintoff provided—both intentionally and unintentionally—provided during their 45-minute Innovating the Future of Learning: Schussing Downhill With Driving K-12 Innovation session. The intentional offering included a wonderful preview of CoSN’s 2021 Driving K-12 Innovation report, which is scheduled for formal release before the end of this month. The report, a summary of which is available online, includes a survey of hurdles (digital equity, scaling & sustaining innovation, and evolution of teaching & learning), accelerators (personalization, social & emotional learning, and learner autonomy), and tech enablers (digital collaboration environments, untether broadband & connectivity, and blended learning tools) to the expansion of the use of technology in K-12 learning environments. The unintentional offering—at least for me—was the reminder, as I absorbed these observations about a part of the learning sector I don’t normally visit, of how much overlap there is between the hurdles, accelerators, and tech enablers in that sector and other sectors with which I am much more familiar in my overall lifelong-learning environment. And, again, it reminds me of the gift ShapingEDU provides by bringing such a diverse group of lifelong learners together for an exchange of ideas that we, in turn, will help disseminate through conversations, presentations, and posts such as the one you are reading—to the benefit of those we serve.

Rejoining the Winter Games for the mid-afternoon “Fireside Chat: State of the Smart Region” social hour brought yet another set of surprises—not the least of which was how smoothly event organizers combined an informal conversation about how The Connective—a consortium of 23 city, town, and county local governments organizations collaboratively creating the nation’s largest and most connected Smart Region—with a live musical performance that was seamlessly interwoven with, rather than being a diversion from, the offerings of the Winter Games. As we made the transition from Smart Regions to what event organizers described as “part entertainment and part exploration of the event’s themes,” singer/songwriter Biddy Healey began a live online performance of solo-acoustic versions of a few of the songs from her recently-released album Salt River Bed (recorded with a nine-member band) and one new song that has not yet been recorded. Her rendition of “Patterns of Your Mind,” a song directed to someone lost to Alzheimer’s, was so hauntingly beautiful and meaningful to anyone who has experienced or is experiencing that loss that it immediately becomes something we want to be singing to our own lost loved ones; and it’s true to the spirit of commitment ShapingEDU community members have to individuals/learners in a world where technology often seems to be given precedence over people/learners. And her rendition of the new song about a stolen river—Australia’s Murray-Darling, where “more than 2 trillion litres of water…has gone missing”—became, in this context, much more than a song about a river; it perfectly captured the challenges we all face in so many of the “rivers” we traverse. And a great call to action for those of us in the ShapingEDU community.

So many wonderful moments. So much to absorb. So much to do. Yet through all of this inspiration, it is, perhaps, one of the most unplanned and, therefore, most unrehearsed moments that stays with me at the end of Day 1 of the Winter Games. That moment when Healey, between songs, stopped long enough to tune her guitar and apologize for its having gone out of tune because of the heat there in Australia. At which point one of the Winter Games participants (Deputy CIO and BI Strategist at Arizona State University John Rome) responded, via the online chat, “We tune because we care.” Which, for me, captures the spirit of how ShapingEDU community members thrive by continually tuning every figurative instrument we encounter and every situation we face: because we care.

–N.B.: 1) This is the twenty-sixth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences, and the first in a series of posts inspired by the ShapingEDU 2021Winter Games.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Dennis Maness

December 6, 2020

It’s been a time of reflection. A time of thinking about how much I miss having meandering conversations with friends over coffee and dessert. And, most recently, thinking of long-time friends including Dennis Maness, who succumbed to cancer just a little over seven weeks ago. There was no opportunity to attend an onsite memorial service; the pandemic and sheltering in place made that impossible. But it hasn’t prevented me from thinking about this latest loss—and all the gains I had from knowing Dennis.

Dennis L. Maness

He and I worked together at the main library here in San Francisco for nearly 15 years—which was just a little over a third of his 41-year career with the library system. We had numerous brief conversations and countless laughs together over the years—the brevity of the conversations initially driven by the fact that they took place within the context and constraints of work interactions that didn’t leave us a lot of time to really kick back and get into long conversations about our overlapping personal interests. That brevity continued after his retirement, when his preferred form of communication always seemed to be short notes and shared links sent back and forth via Facebook. Which is why I have been thinking about Dennis with such great regularity since he passed away.

It almost always happens when I come across a link to an article or a video—generally something with wickedly humorous roots that parallel Dennis’s own wickedly lovely sense of humor. I read (or watch); I laugh; I think to myself, “Dennis would love this. Have to send it to him”; and then I feel a bit crushed to realize I no longer have a way to send it to him other than through recollections of all the lovely laughs we shared over the years.

Gumby in Ireland, by Dennis L. Maness

As is always the case, the very thick veneer of humor was a tough, but not impenetrable, barrier tightly wrapped around the core of a friend of great depth, empathy, and artistry. He was, among many other things, a lifelong photographer with a distinctive, engaging point of view that consistently shows up through the work he posted (and which remains available for viewing on the website he maintained). Glancing at that wonderfully extensive record of his photographs and skimming some of the many categories into which he had broken his work hints of his range of interests and the playful approach that he often took: “Scottish Games & Gatherings,” which included images captured between 2004 and 2017 and remind me of how much he loved all things Scottish; “Hula,” a stunningly beautiful set of photographs taken over a similarly long period of time and reflecting that facet of his interests; “Flamenco”; “Renaissance Faire”; “Portraits”; “San Francisco,” which included his fabulous effort to follow and photograph each of the 29 walks that were included in the latest (at that time) edition of Adah Bakalinsky’s Stairway Walks in San Francisco; and, of course, “the Adventures of Gumby,” which includes subcategories along the lines of “Gumby and the Ladies” (beautiful photographs of women holding Gumby), Gumby in Washington, DC, “On a Road Trip” with Gumby, and Gumby in Ireland. The Gumby pages make me giggle. Bring back memories of the Gumby figure he always had in his office at the library and which obviously accompanied him and his wife (Gloria) during their frequent travels. And make me wonder how Gumby is getting along without Dennis to chronicle his adventures…or whether, in fact, Gumby and Dennis are still, somehow and somewhere, hanging out together and sending photos to Gloria.

He was also what all of my best friends and colleagues are: a combination of friend, colleague, muse, and mentor. During our years at the library, he often asked about the writing I was doing away from work. This was an extended period during which I was immersed in trying to produce and publish works of fiction. He consistently asked how the writing was going as I completed drafts of two novels and was working on a variety of short stories and other novels. He was consistently encouraging in spite of the non-stop series of rejections I was receiving from literary journals, agents, and publishers. And he provided no room for (rare, thankfully) moments of self-pity: he was always there to remind me that I was writing because I had to write, and that stepping away in discouragement would be a surrender I could not afford to accept. (I still have and cherish the multi-panel Grant Snider “All I Need to Write” cartoon he emailed to me in 2014—long after I’d given up the fiction and was focusing more on short nonfiction pieces for a variety of online publications/blogs. “All I Need to Write: a room with a view; no other work to do; a childproof lock; a ticking clock; natural light; a chair that fits just right; new paper and pens; some animal friends; the right phase of the moon; ancient runes; a world of my creation; or internal motivation.” And our personal, shared punchline was that we both had more than a lifetime’s worth of internal motivation to pursue what our hearts told us we had to do.)

There were three cherished encounters with Dennis, after he and I left the San Francisco Public Library system, that very much broke the pattern of talk-laugh-and-run: a half-day photo shoot he did for me when I was in the process of upgrading my website; an exhibition of his work arranged, sponsored by, and held on the premises of the Main Library here in San Francisco; and a breakfast with Dennis and Gloria at a Denny’s restaurant  (of course, fate determined it had to be Denny’s if I were going to have a meal with the friend who consistently, tongue in cheek, referred to himself as “Uncle Denny”).

Photo by Dennis L. Maness

The photo shoot came about as a result of my reaching out to him to find out what he would charge to do a series of shots I could use for the website and other publicity materials as I was making the transition from being a writer-trainer-instructional designer-consultant to being a writer-trainer-presenter in the areas in which I work. He was adamant about not taking money; he just wanted to do it for the pleasure of taking on another challenge with/for a friend. When I kept insisting that I actually had created a budget to do this the right way (e.g., doing it without taking unfair advantage of a very talented friend), he finally, with obvious exasperation, came up with an ultimatum: he would do it for free or he would do it for a million dollars. Not being able to afford the second option, I settled for the first and had one of the most wonderfully inspirational mornings I have ever had. Dennis and Gloria picked me up from my home that morning and took me on what I still think of as one of the most fabulous Magical Mystery Tours imaginable. We went out to areas along Crissy Field (with San Francisco Bay as a backdrop), then went to a lovely area near the Golden Gate Bridge, and finally circled back to my own neighborhood for a less formal set of photos taken on the Hidden Garden Steps ceramic-tile mosaic before having lunch together in the neighborhood. What still remains vividly etched in my memory is the process of watching Dennis think on the spot and find opportunities most of us might never have sought; as we were walking by a combination gift shop/coffee shop along Crissy Field, Dennis, on the spur of the moment, suggested we go inside for a minute. What I saw was tables and shelves full of tchotchkes, bookshelves lined with materials about the San Francisco Bay Area, and that very appealing coffee and sandwich counter. What Dennis saw—and used—was a small window where the soft morning light was streaming into the building. He positioned Gloria behind me with the collapsible circular reflector disc he had brought along; positioned me next to the window so I was bathed in the glow of that incoming natural light; and, standing in front of me, caught images that rival the best of anything I’ve ever seen come out of the controlled environment of a photographer’s studio. That was the brilliance of Dennis: he could see and capture things most of us could not even imagine.

Dennis, with Dennis

Our joint visit (again, with Gloria) to his retrospective “Summer of Love” exhibition held in San Francisco’s Main Library in Summer 2017, was equally playful and inspiring. From the moment we walked past the promotional image in the lobby of the building where he had served the public for decades until the moment we parted ways, he was in his element: talking with friends and colleagues who quickly left their work stations and went running over to greet and embrace him; looking at and talking (all too briefly and modestly) about the work we were viewing; and even staging a photograph that captured the Dennis I knew, admired, and loved: mirroring that image, in which he was leaning out of the Volkswagen Bug he and Gloria had used many years earlier when they relocated to Northern California, he peeked around the edge of the display and gently directed me on how to best capture the image of Dennis peeking around the picture of Dennis peeking out the window of the car. I believe it was a moment that would have inspired a round of applause from all his colleagues if they had been with us when he created and became part of that image.

Our final visit—that breakfast in Denny’s—started out as a result of a typical urban annoyance: someone had broken into my car (an act that produced nothing of material value for the vandal/thief and left me facing the cost of replacing that window). A few calls around the city led me to the decision to drive down to South San Francisco, where a vendor had offered to replace the window at a very reasonable price the morning after the break-in; the only problem was that I’d have to find a way to kill a couple of hours while the work was completed. Spotting the Denny’s restaurant across the street from the vendor’s building in an industrial part of the city, I immediately thought of Dennis—knowing that he and Gloria lived in South San Francisco. Less than 20 minutes after I reached out to him via Facebook, the three of us were sitting together in a booth and catching up on what we had been doing since we had last (physically) been together. And that’s when the punch in the gut came: Dennis told me he had been diagnosed with cancer, was undergoing treatment, and had no idea how much time he had left with us. But, in typical Dennis fashion, he spent more time talking about what he was doing than what he was facing, and he and Gloria did their best to assure me that they were taking advantage of every moment remaining to them—a commitment they clearly kept as he continued taking walks and producing photographs; sharing notes and links via Facebook; and interacting with friends as he always had: as a colleague, a friend, a cherished mentor, and a source of inspiration.

Our Facebook exchanges continued, but at an ever-decreasing rate, so I wasn’t particularly surprised in October of this year when a library colleague sent a note letting me know he had entered hospice. An attempt to reach him via Facebook did not attract a response…until, a couple of weeks after Dennis had left us, a family member saw and responded to the note.

So, Dennis is physically gone. The Facebook account has been removed. But our sporadic email exchanges and that lovely website remain. As does my hope that, somehow, he is seeing this. Being reminded of how much he meant—and continues to mean—to me. And taking the best photographs he has ever taken.

–N.B.: This is the twenty-fifth in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Living With and Through Virtual Concerts

October 30, 2020

Set aside for a moment the claims and fears that pandemic-induced social-distancing is making it impossible for us to engage in some of life’s greatest pleasures. Forget the unfounded claims that live, “face-to-face” performance and other activities (e.g., learning together or collaborating for social change) are hibernating until we can once again safely gather in physical spaces.

Think, instead, of the best experiences we have had when drawn together for live performance.  A curtain rises. A performer or ensemble of performers remains quietly poised, in that tension-filled silence before the music or play or evening of improvisational comedy begins. It is a moment full of possibilities. A harbinger of unexpected, unpredictable surprises—sometimes as much for the performers as for those of us gathered as an audience present at the moment of creation. An invitation—and a mandate—to set everything else aside. For an hour or two. In exchange for an opportunity to be part of an audience carried into a transcendent experience. Through art and artistry.

It is a reminder that when members of communities overcome challenges and creatively seek/find ways to gather for performances (or learning or fostering social change), their communities thrive, regardless of the challenges they face outside of the performance (or learning or collaboration) space.

Three virtual concerts—two by Roy Zimmerman, the other by Canada’s Phoenix Chamber Choir—over the past week again bring home for me, at the most visceral of all possible levels, the power of shared experiences within virtual communities. The online, ticketed events also highlight the inspirational levels of creativity, passion, and adaptability which are helping us reshape—at least temporarily—a world much different than the one in which many of us were living a year ago. And they show how a commitment to being responsive to audience needs and unexpected technical glitches enhance rather than diminish these efforts to create new opportunities in a time of tremendous challenges.

A point to be emphasized here: Zimmerman and members of the Phoenix Chamber Choir are not trying solely to find a substitute for the live face-to-face performances they have been presenting for more than two decades. They are, at significant levels, asking what we can do to keep art, artistry, and community vibrant in a time of social distancing. The results, frankly, are opportunities that I hope will continue to exist long after social-distancing stops governing and limiting what we are able to do within our communities. In the meantime, the creative “face to face” online approach they are taking is providing unique opportunities that are socially, emotionally, and artistically rewarding at many levels.  

Zimmerman’s first online ticketed event, set for October 21, 2020 and then rescheduled for October 23, showed resilience in action—and the results of more than two decades of preparation through recordings and live, onsite performances; the preparation also clearly included the series of shorter, free, online sessions he had been doing regularly on YouTube and Facebook since summer 2020 to further hone his online presence and learn how to deal with, overcome, and, with his signature sense of humor, embrace part of the online performance experience. The October 21 event began as scheduled at 6 pm Pacific Time…and then came to a halt minutes later when messages from several of us let him know that we were unable to access that live performance. His co-writer/wife, Melanie Harby, was monitoring and quickly responding to incoming comments, so the show-that-wasn’t-a-show was halted while the two of them tried—unsuccessfully—to resolve the problems. To their credit (and our benefit), they made the decision to postpone that performance and offer members of their community a few options: receive a refund; join, at no additional charge, a rescheduled show two days later at the same time of day; and/or receive a link to an archived recording of whatever live show emerged if the time for the rescheduled show wasn’t convenient.

Joining the performance that Friday evening, I was able to set aside the temporary disappointment of the postponed performance; enjoy the live, virtual concert as much as I have enjoyed any live, onsite performance I have ever seen; and, thanks to his consummate ability to engage audiences live onsite as well as online, was drawn into those wonderfully playful moments when he encouraged all of us to sing—from our own homes, as if we were all in the same room—the refrains from a couple of his more popular songs that have received tens of thousands of views (and in one case—the original version of “The Liar Tweets Tonight (Vote Him Away)”— nearly 10 million views) online.

There was, for those of us captivated by the spirit of the event, humor on top of humor on top of humor…and engagement: laughing at/with him and at/with ourselves over the idea that we were singing “together” even though none of us could see or hear anyone other than Zimmerman; laughing when he jokingly teased us because he couldn’t hear us, just as he and so many others have teased audiences face to face when sing-alongs initially produced less than rousing responses from reluctant audience members; and even laughing at ourselves for singing “alone together” within physical spaces that were not quite virtually connected in any real sense of the world “connection,” but were offering the sense of connection fostered through comments we made to him and to each other through the live chat window. No, it wasn’t the same as being part of a live, onsite performance. But then again, it wasn’t meant to be. What it actually had become was a best-under-the-circumstances response to a world that seemed hell-bent on keeping us apart while we remained hell-bent on finding ways to be “together” in any way we could be. And by the end of the evening and the follow-up one-hour live virtual performance I attended earlier this evening, I was as happy and as inspired as I have ever been through the experience of being drawn together onsite with others through art and artistry.

The Phoenix “live” event carried similar unexpected tech challenges and, ultimately, the same positive sense of having been drawn together with rather than (socially) distanced from others through art and artistry as the result of the creative, audience-centered, highly-responsive approach taken by members of that Phoenix Chamber Choir family—including seeking solutions for those of us who had difficulties accessing the program. Just as Zimmerman seems to be building upon his experimental short “Live from the Left Coast” sessions on YouTube and Facebook, Phoenix members seem to be building upon—and growing creatively/artistically as a result of experimenting with—the pandemic, shelter-in-place-inspired parodies they have created and posted online this year. These are not stop-gap, let’s kill time until we can perform together again productions; they are invitations to engagement every bit as inspiring, far-reaching, and moving as anything I have ever seen/heard in physical settings for performances.

Their “Gathering Together” concert, the first in their 2020-2021 (virtual) season, featured “music from around the world, sung by singers from around the city [Vancouver]…to reflect this new chapter of choral singing,” they note on their website. It was an engaging example of how to create a virtual live performance that combined, through masterful editing, live performances from choir members; brief introductions to the music and to the performers themselves; and photography that was seamlessly interwoven into parts of the performance. We were drawn further into their/our Phoenix community through those moments when we were reminded that choir members include doctors, paramedics, teachers/music educators, a speech-language pathologist, an arts administrator, a librarian, a student, and a sous chef—all drawn together by their love of singing music from around the world, from a wide range of time periods.

The same playfulness that is evident in their parody videos was evident up front (through the song “Seven Days of the Week (On Mondays I Never Go to Work)” and at the end (through a pandemic,shelter-in-place-inspired parody of “Part of Your World,” from The Little Mermaid). Between those opening and closing segments, there were numerous other moments of tremendous engagement and artistry. Admitting straight up that each of us approaches music and other art forms with our own preferences and expectations firmly in place, I have to say that the inclusion of two songs I have always adored—Maurice Duruflé’s “Ubi Caritas,” with an opening line translated—from Latin to English—by a choir member as “Where charity and love are, there God is,” and the Flower Duet from Léo Delibes’ Lakmé went a long way in further dispelling the notion that online experiences can somehow never match onsite experiences.  Both pieces were performed so lovingly, so tenderly, and so exquisitely that I have to admit I’ve never been more moved by them.

Attending a live performances or other live event, for many of us, produces one of those extended, timeless “moments” and experiences that would seem to be lost to us during the current pandemic, with its shelter-in-place guidelines. But, as those three performances suggest, that experience is far from gone or even dormant. It, too, is simply evolving into another pandemic-inspired opportunity for us to work toward creating a new and better normal. And we can be thankful to our artists for their willingness to invite us along as joyful co-conspirators in that process.

A post-script: in the process of completing and posting this piece on my blog a few hours after attending Zimmerman’s latest Friday evening “Live From the Left Coast” performance, I realized I was unintentionally creating the virtual version of a common post-performance activity—reliving the experience with friends, including some who weren’t present for the initial event. If any of us who attended the performances or manage to experience them through archived recordings engage in follow-up conversations, we will have carried this evolving experiment in pandemic-collaboration-through-virtual-performance a step further…and built upon what our artists are helping to create.

–N.B.: This is the twenty-fourth in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


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