Bob Herbert: Finding Inspiration Through Losing Our Way

January 28, 2015

Those of us involved in training-teaching-learning viscerally understand the power of a good story and the value of a good storyteller. So when New York Times columnist Bob Herbert left the newspaper in 2011 to accept a position with the public policy organization Demos, some of us felt as if one of the great storytellers in American journalism was vanishing—and that our world, consequently, would be a bit less vibrant.

Herbert--Losing_Our_WayHerbert’s writing in the Times was always strong, passionate, inspiring, and laser-sharp in its focus on stories that provided context and gave meaning to the overwhelming flow of reports that inundate us day after day. His final column (“Losing Our Way”), in fact, began with the observation “So here we are pouring shiploads of cash into yet another war, this time in Libya, while simultaneously demolishing school budgets, closing libraries, laying off teachers and police officers, and generally letting the bottom fall out of the quality of life here at home.” Those words provided a searing reminder to that learning, libraries, and involvement in the setting of public policy are integral parts of the overall responsibility each of us has to actively working to create the world we would like to have.

It’s a pleasure, therefore, to find that the storyteller has returned with a book that effectively and engagingly expands the thoughts included in that final New York Times column—Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America—and continues what he has occasionally produced via columns for Demos.

Losing Our Way focuses “most intently on four specific areas: the employment crisis, which was badly underestimated and poorly understood; the need to rebuild and modernize the nation’s infrastructure and the relationship of that vast project to employment; the critical task of revitalizing the public schools in a way that meets the profound educational imperatives of the twenty-first century; and the essential obligation that we have as rational and civilized beings to stop fighting pointless and profoundly debilitating wars,” he tells us in his introductory author’s note (p. 6).

As always, the real strength and value of what Herbert produces is in his attention to the human side of the story—just as so much of what we do in training-teaching-learning benefits from focusing on the human element of our efforts. We don’t, in Losing Our Way, find the typical unengaging diatribe against our failing infrastructure; we follow—and are moved by—the story of Mercedes Gordon, a woman who was driving across the I-35 bridge across the Mississippi River the day the bridge collapsed and sent Gordon and others into a plunge that shattered and took lives. We don’t find ourselves in another exploration of the financial cost of wars; we follow Dan Berschinski from the moment he loses his legs in Afghanistan, through the unexpected story of how he struggles to regain an incredible amount of mobility, and then muse, with Herbert, over the way the honoring of Berschinski for his achievements carries with it the deeper question of why “there seemed to be no collective sense that it was insane to allow the maiming of men like Dan…to continue so may long years after the attacks of September 11, 2001….What was the point?” (p. 169)

And when we move into the realm of learning, via an exploration of what is happening in our public schools, we don’t simply rehash the failed policies that, according to Herbert, have undercut rather than enhanced our educational system; we see how individuals including Jessie Ramey and Kathy Newman, in Pennsylvania, refused to accept billion-dollar cuts to educational programs and, through hard work, created partnerships that drew attention to the human cost of those reductions.

“The United States needs to be reimagined…” Herbert writes at the conclusion of his book. “Ordinary citizens far from the traditional centers of power…profoundly changed American society. Through sustained, thoughtful, and courageous efforts they…shifted the nation onto a better path. A comparable effort by ordinary citizens is needed today if the United States is to regain its great promise of fairness and opportunity for all” (pp. 245, 247).

ALAMW15--LogoAs I sit here in Chicago, about to join colleagues for a variety of discussions at the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting, I think about Herbert’s earlier references to the closing of libraries, about the challenges we face in providing effective learning opportunities, and about his call for reimagining the world around us—and I think I couldn’t be in better company to explore what training-teaching-learning, effective collaborations, and engagement in active communities of learning and communities of practice can produce.


The Boring Patient: Continuing to Learn With R. David Lankes

December 12, 2014

R. David Lankes, A.K.A. author of the recently-released The Boring Patient, is a very dangerous man.

Lankes--Boring_PatientIn everything he does, he casts out his line. Hooks us. Slowly reels us in without at all making us aware of what he’s doing while he is doing it. And then he does what he always does so well: he makes us learn in ways that transform the way we see the world we all inhabit. He is, in other words, the consummate scholar, speaker, writer, teacher, storyteller, library advocate, and so much more. But above all, he’s the sort of character Anne Lamott describes in Bird by Bird, her wonderful book about writing and the creative process: the type of character we would follow anywhere—even to the county dump. Or, in The Boring Patient, to doctors’ offices, hospitals, cancer treatment centers, and, at one point, to Disney World.

Written to share the experiences he had after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the book “is not about cancer. It is about my response to being diagnosed, living with, and being treated for cancer,” he tells us in the first few pages. “That is an important distinction because cancer is not funny. Cancer sucks. Cancer does not teach, cancer does not preach, cancer does not comfort, or inspire, or inform. Cancer kills.”

From beginning to end, this brief (138-page) book is a finely-crafted story that displays humor in deep moments of despair without in any way diminishing the seriousness of Lankes’s situation. He never loses sight of his well-honed ability to teach. He occasionally does (very effectively) preach—as is the case in the first sections of the book, when he addresses poignant yet no-holds-barred letters addressed “Dear Doctors,” “Dear Medical Students,” “Dear Heroic Noble Inspiring Cancer Survivor,” and “Dear Everyone Else” in a way that makes us want to buy multiple copies of the book and send them to every doctor and medical student we know. He invokes his wonderfully wicked sense of humor to recall how he and his wife had to comfort others who were finding it very difficult to deal with the life-threatening situations Lankes so often faced in spite of having been assured that those with Hodgkin’s had an extremely high recovery rate. And he continually finds ways to inspire us to find the reserves of emotional strength he found within himself through the support of his family, friends, and colleagues.

Lankes--Virtual_DaveThe cast of characters is far-reaching and well-drawn. We meet “The Bringer of Doom,” an oncology fellow so lacking in social skills that she coldly tells Lankes and his wife that he has Hodgkin’s, then immediately separates the couple so she can whisk him away for a bone marrow biopsy “as the lab was about to close.” The Bringer resurfaces much later in the book with an equally abrupt report on the state of his health that turns out to be emotionally devastating—and completely inaccurate. There are, on the other side of the spectrum of people we meet, the nurses and doctors who seem to understand that “[b]eing a good doctor means being concerned with my life, not what might end it.” Through brief, poignant passages, we meet his wife (Anne Marie) who becomes “Xena the Patient Advocate”—a reminder that the advocates in our lives are among the most valuable assets and resources we have, as anyone familiar with the American medical system knows before reading even a few pages of The Boring Patient. And we even meet Bambi the pole dancer, who accompanies him through some of the most trying phases of his treatment—but let’s not ruin the punchline here: you’ll have to read the book to learn more about Bambi.

Most impressively and importantly for those of us involved in training-teaching-learning, Lankes never loses sight of the important role he plays for his readers—the role of someone who makes information (i.e., information about what he has experienced) meaningful to those of us receiving it through the book: “Doctor, professor, teacher, librarian all can no longer believe that simply pushing information at someone and if necessary fixing it later is acceptable,” he says both as someone who received plenty of information about cancer and as someone who consistently encourages and inspires us to think about the role of information providers in society. “When I learn, when I am ‘informed,’ it is more than my memory and reason you affect. It is my emotions, my needs, my image of self” (p. 111).

And if we can carry that learner-centric view of what we do as information providers and facilitators of learning, we will have emerged from our journey with this not-so-boring patient the better for having joined him.


Learning Magic in Moments of Improvisation (Learning With Our Learners)

May 9, 2014

It’s far more than sleight of hand, this act of learning alongside our learners. It’s as delightfully magical for the way it occurs at the most unexpected moments as it is for how it rapidly produces small and large shifts in our own training-teaching-learning approach. And the stimulation that accompanies that level of collaboration in the learning process is one of the most consistently rewarding aspects of formal and informal learning opportunities we are likely to encounter, I was reminded again yesterday morning.

Oldenburg--Great_Good_PlaceI didn’t even, when the moment of magical learning began, know I was walking into a classroom; I thought I was actually walking into a neighborhood café—the sort of Ray Oldenburgian third placeThe Great Good Place—where we meet friends, interact, and walk away the better for having set aside the time for exactly that sort of encounter. But that morning quickly and unexpectedly turned into a far deeper and richer learning experience that a friend and I had expected to produce.

It began when I spotted the friend and sat at the restaurant counter to join her for a cup of coffee while she was eating breakfast. Commenting on how nice it had been to see her engaged in journaling as joined her, I inadvertently opened a door to a wonderful conversation about how she wished she had more time to write and how, more importantly, she wished she could find a way to combine her love of writing with work that produced an income.

“Want to play a game?” I asked. “It takes about two minutes and is a great learning exercise I know that helps people find what’s eluding them.”

Not wanting to skew the results or lead her in any specific direction other than helping her identify the sort of work that might combine her varied interests, I didn’t tell her that this simple exercise I had leaned in a creative writing class many years before had served me well in helping learners achieve a variety of goals including creating branding/marketing slogans for their personal businesses; crafting mission statements for their organizations; and even finding a name for a volunteer-driven community-based project that was so perfect that participants were still discovering lovely nuances in the name a couple of years after they shaped it. I also didn’t tell her that I used a two-minute time limit for the exercise because experience showed that most people and groups were winding down after 90 seconds and that two minutes was generally all it took to complete the most important element of what we were doing together.

Hearing her agree to accept the challenge, I told her to use her journal—I have generally used blank pieces of paper when working with individuals and paper on flipcharts or large whiteboards in classroom settings when working with groups—and take no more than two minutes to write down every word—no editing allowed—that came to mind when asked to think about the question “What makes me happy?” (When working on the mission statements, I’ve asked those learning the technique by using it to write down every word that came to mind when they thought about their organization; when working with those crafting marketing slogans, I’ve asked them to write down every word that came to mind when they thought about what concrete results they wanted to help their clients produce; when I worked with colleagues in the volunteer project, I asked them to think of every word that came to mind when they thought about the site on which the project was to be completed.)

Fountain_pens--2013-02-05I knew magic was about to occur when my friend/learner actually began jotting words down into her notebook even before I had a chance to start the timer on her smartphone. And it continued to take shape when I realized that, after 90 seconds, she not only was still writing as quickly as her hand and pen could place ink onto paper (with no slowdown in sight), but was also writing from left to right and top to bottom on the page rather than doing what every other learner had done before—simply throwing words helter-skelter all over a page or flipchart or whiteboard so the words could be grouped thematically later.

As the two-minute mark approached, I recognized I had my own unanticipated moment of leaning to address: stop the exercise as planned or respond to her obvious engagement and complete immersion in what she was doing by ignoring the timer and seeing where additional time would take us. After she finally raised her head five minutes and fifteen seconds into her wonderful stream-of-consciousness flow and asked if her two minutes were up, we both had a good laugh before beginning the process of reviewing what she wrote to see if she could spot meaningful connections between those apparently disjointed words and phrases. And as she read back what she had produced, I felt another moment of leaning magic unfolding: not only had she written down numerous nouns, verbs, and adjectives, but she had actually jotted down words reflecting what she was thinking as she wrote comments along the lines of “oh, this isn’t working” and “oh wait there it is.” Not only had she produced the most richly complex record of a learner’s thoughts I had ever seen in response to this simple exercise, but she had reminded me of something no trainer-teacher-learner can afford to ever forget: set the rules, then break them as soon as they become a hindrance to the learner’s learning process.

When we were finished with the review, she told me how helpful the exercise had been in identifying things she knew innately but hadn’t consciously acknowledged, and confirmed that she had learned enough to strike out on her own by returning to the results, running the same sort of exercise using individual words that resonated strongly with her from round one, and creating the sort of pithy summary of what would most appeal to her so she could try to match that statement with work that would reward her far more than what she currently does. And I, in turned, told her that the simple act of running that exercise with her and watching all that she produced had revitalized and freshened a tool I had long enjoyed—and now magically, unexpectedly, and inspirationally, would use with even more enthusiasm for learners who would never know how much that she as learner-teacher had contributed to their learning process—and a wonderfully adaptable tool to help them on their journey.


Standing With Our Friends (Part 2 of 2): I Watched You Disappear

April 25, 2014

That awful moment has again arrived: a cherished friend within one of the communities of learning that sustains me has lost a loved one.

I_Watched_You_DisappearIt was not an easy passing. My friend’s mother succumbed to pancreatic cancer during Easter weekend after all the usual pain, struggles with a health-care system that just doesn’t seem mature enough to adequately support those who are ill and those who love them, and numerous literal and figurative dark nights that never quite produced an obvious dawn.

But among the most stunning elements of this entire passage was the consistent reminder of what it means to be part of an extended onsite-online blended community in which friends stand with friends.

My friend—a fabulously gifted writer in addition to being an inspiring trainer-teacher-learner—was never at a loss for words, nor was she at any point reticent about sharing the most intimate details about what she, her mother, and others within her inner circle were feeling and experiencing. The moments of rage at health-care providers who seemed remarkably insensitive to basic needs. The moments of gratitude expressed toward health-care providers who were the onsite guardian angels. The emails and phone calls and social media postings. And the sharing of information that might be helpful to others in similar situations. All of these interwoven elements combined to produce one of the most moving invitations to celebrate a life well lived and mourn a loss I can imagine accepting.

The results produced amazing reminders of how interconnected we all remain in spite of all the ridiculous assertions we encounter that tech tools and other changes in our rapidly-changing world are somehow stopping people from communicating with each other at a meaningful level. Each time I read a Facebook post from my friend and then followed the dozens of responses from people I knew and from people I had not previously encountered (but came know through these exchanges), I felt my world broadening a bit and also understood that our ever-extending community was gaining the additional strength it would need to adequately support our friend, her mother and father, and others close to them. Every time I followed a link to read something my friend had read and from which she had taken solace, I found my own emotional connections to her experiences and her impending loss growing.

An afternoon during which she mentioned Anya Krugovoy Silver’s latest collection of poetry—I Watched You Disappear—was one of many turning points. A few lines from the title poem (“That fucking doctor killed you. Killed you./But I keep sending e-mails to your account.”) sent me racing to my local bookstore eager to obtain and devour a copy of what includes some of the most beautifully moving poetry I have read in years. Those lines opened a door to conversations my friend and I might not otherwise have had.

My friend’s post written on the evening of her mother’s departure (“Go rest high on that mountain, sweet Mama—your work here is done but will live on…She looked up at me, took her last breath, and was gone…”) put me right there with them in ways I would have never have expected to experience.

From "Virtual Dave...Real Blog"

From “Virtual Dave…Real Blog”

And a from-the-heart set of reflections (“Stand for Those We Miss and Love”) from one of my friend’s colleagues (R. David Lankes) posted earlier this week included passages so searingly poignant that I feel as if our collaborative endeavors over the past several months should once and for all silence anyone who disparages the gifts provided through effective use of social media tools: “I stand as someone who has fought with cancer and as someone who will remember you. Someone who says your life was important. I stand to remind those who remain that life can be hard. I stand to remind everyone that cancer takes and takes and takes. I stand to remind everyone that no matter how much we are loved, or how much good we seek to do, we all can be taken too soon.”

This evening, as I write these words I have been trying to compose for nearly a week, I find cause to celebrate even while consumed by the sense of loss I keenly feel. I celebrate the members of my various communities of learning who help me understand and appreciative what I have. I celebrate the depth of experience those friends reveal and to which they lead me. And I celebrate the importance of remembering we can never be too busy to take the time required to stand with our friends.


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

March 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nurturing Change: Resistance is Futile/Resistance Is Necessary

March 23, 2014

One of those catch-phrases that sticks with anyone familiar with Star Trek is “resistance is futile,” and I’m among those who jokingly mutter the phrase when facing seemingly insurmountable challenges.

But a conversation this morning with a wonderful colleague who is facing numerous difficult challenges made both of us propose a complementary thesis—“Resistance is necessary.” Because it hints that many of our best and most productive endeavors will be accompanied by tremendous resistance. Because an alternative to resistance is resignation. And because refusing to succumb to despair when we are facing our most daunting professional and personal challenges ultimately carries us through our darkest times.

It’s a fact of life that we all face those dark nights that San Juan de la Cruz captured so beautifully, so poignantly, and so poetically in the sixteenth century—and that if we are willing to work our way completely through that darkness toward whatever light awaits us rather than turning back and remaining without hope, we emerge transformed in ways we could not have previously imagined.

We can’t, however, do that alone—which is why the conversation my friend and I had his morning meant so much to both of us. She’s one of an ever-growing group of people I know who are currently facing extremely challenging and discouraging situations. They are very talented. Very creative. Very well respected by colleagues in their tremendously different industries. They were hired for their commitment to and reputation for inspiring positive changes meant to benefit the people and organizations they serve. They willingly accepted the challenges they face because they believed they would receive the support required to reach the goals they agreed to pursue. And they have found themselves, at various times, pushed to the point of despair—wondering what they “did wrong” rather than asking why some who should be supporting them are, in essence, betraying them and those who might ultimately benefit from the energy, heart, and soul they put into their endeavors.

It’s hard for them to avoid depression and resignation. And it’s hard for those of us who admire them to see what they are experiencing. But just as each of them has reached bleak moments in their darkest nights, they have found or are finding glimmers of light from kind words and expressions of support from family, friends, and colleagues. They hear from the beneficiaries of the efforts they have been making. They are finding hope because members of their communities are reaching out to support them in their individual moments of need, writing to them, and writing about them.

HGS--Gratitude[1]--2013-10-31This provides us with an important reminder after we have passed through our own dark nights: the smallest act of kindness or well-timed expression of understanding verbally or in writing, the willingness to simply listen to a friend or colleague in need, can make a world of difference for that person. And for everyone else that person touches directly or indirectly.

Resistance makes us reexamine what we are attempting to accomplish. It helps us to be sure we are following the best possible path. It helps us eliminate the weakest aspects of our approach. It forces us to ask a very important question: Is what we are doing worth doing? And, ultimately, resistance leads us to better understand, appreciate, and react effectively to the opposition our efforts are creating so all of us can find the common ground that produces positive change.


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).


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