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.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Knives, Lightning, and Awe

October 20, 2020

Sometimes the real gift is hidden deeply within the gift we think we have received—or the tragedy we have experienced.

A case in point: a few years ago, a friend gave me a couple of beautiful, exquisitely crafted knives far sharper and far more beautiful than any I had ever owned. Because I love to cook and because I love working with good-quality tools, I immediately fell in love with those knives and looked for opportunities to use them as often as I could. But the more significant gift, it turns out, was something included with the knives, not the knives themselves: a simple sheet of instructions emphasizing the benefits of sharpening those knives after each use rather than sporadically.

So, like any good trainer-teacher-learner, I adopted that tip and applied it to all the terribly-dull, far-less-efficient knives we own. And, after months of after-each-use sharpening, I had an entire kitchen full of knives that were far more useful—and required far more attention and caution if I wanted to avoid inadvertently slicing something I would rather not have sliced. And I also experience cherished, rekindled memories of this friend—who is no longer with us—every time I use the knives she gave me…and all the others I own. As if her spirit had become embedded within the knives themselves.

The often-unnoticed gift within a gift—and its corollary, the initially unnoticed (potential) tragedy within something that initially is pleasurable—is something that has been on my mind quite frequently this year. We have the gift of opportunity (the opportunity to build a “new and better normal”) mixed in with the terrible tragedy of the losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic and our radically-different environment resulting from the shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to that pandemic. We have the pandemic-inspired opportunity to better explore and use our online resources in response to the sense of social isolation many of us are feeling while continuing to follow modified shelter-in-place guidelines.

And, for those of us who find comfort and inspiration (in challenging times) in the work of writers, musicians, and other artists we admire, we have the gift of finding ourselves able to carve out time to revisit that work—and finding the work of additional writers, musicians, and other artists—because of some of the experiences we are currently having.

Scott Russell Sanders

This becomes completely circular for me through what I continue to see as an ever-expanding “extended pandemic/wildfire moment” that began a couple of months ago during an hours-long bombardment of lightning and thunder here in the San Francisco Bay Area and other parts of California. My initial reaction to the pre-dawn visual and audible bursts was a rekindling of a sense of awe—a rekindling that sent me back to Scott Russell Sanders’ memories (in his book A Private History of Awe) of being a four-year-old and feeling awe at the sight of lightning striking and splitting a beautiful old oak. The lightning filled me with a positive sense of awe; the wildfires that spread rapidly over the subsequent days and weeks grounded me in a sense of loss and grief I hadn’t been astute enough to anticipate initially. And, in the middle of the grief and loss friends and so many others experienced from the wildfires, I found a bit of comfort in re-exploring Sanders’ work and absorbing much more of it than I had ever before taken the time to read.

The result, as I devoured his most recent collection—The Way of Imagination—was to more fully and viscerally immerse myself into the idea of lightning as a metaphor for creativity/creation/acts of creation. As a force that lights our nights. And as a force that carries the potential for and reality of tremendously devastating destruction. Something reminding us of by the double-edged sword of creativity and destruction, opportunity and loss.

Sanders’ richly complex and lyrically stunning body of work and the interviews he has given over a long period of time weave together all of that, and so much more. His appreciation for and love of nature. His commitment to place and community. His dedication to taking principled stands that are rooted in a belief that we should be looking far into the future to be sure what we do lays the most positive foundations for a future we can be proud of helping to create. And his invitation to us, as readers, to share the moments of awe and the moments of tragedy he and those around him have experienced during his own lifetime of writing about life, love, community, and place in ways that inspire us to join him for as much of that journey as we care to take with him.

The gifts are obvious, complex, and ever-expanding. We see the world through the eyes of one of our master storytellers. We feel a bit more connected to him and to the world he describes. We feel inspired by what he reveals and what he unleashes in us. And we feel a bit less isolated, less overwhelmed, than we might have felt without hm.

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


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Virtual Collaborative Learning (and Doing) With ShapingEDU

October 16, 2020

Suzanne Lipsett, a writer I very much admired, insisted at the beginning of Surviving a Writer’s Life that what we do with our experiences—i.e., write about them—is as important as having those experiences in the first place.

Living and then sharing our lived experiences through storytelling is at the heart of the communities I most adore. I see it in my continuing interactions with colleagues in the #etmooc and #lrnchat communities. I consistently look forward to it within the context of the biweekly gatherings of Maurice Coleman’s T is for Training podcast community. It’s what keeps me connected to Jonathan Nalder’s FutureWe community. And it is an idea that resurfaced for me earlier this week—and, of course made me immediately want to write about it—when members of one of those communities (ShapingEDU) released a free online “Toolkit for Producing Collaborative Events to Shape the Future,” the third in a continuing series of online publications that celebrate what we accomplish together by documenting those successes.

Formally (and playfully) titled ASU [Arizona State University] ShapingED-YOU!, the ASU ShapingEDU toolkit follows the pattern employed in the earlier online resources: Stakeholder Inclusion Framework, an online inclusivity and access resource jointly produced with the Penn State CoAction Learning Lab to help those involved in the technology planning process, and a second ShapingEDU/CoAction Learning Lab collaborative resource, Building Effective Communities of Practice, which included contributions from more than 20 co-authors drawn from the ShapingEDU community and working together—often asynchronously—online. The publications, like the community itself, are dynamic examples of the commitment to playfulness and collaboration that runs through and nourishes this community of “dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the Digital Age.”

More importantly, the publications and the ongoing work produced through ShapingEDU are tremendous, positive examples of how some communities entered this social-distancing/sheltering-in-place/pandemic-plagued world creatively and positively and continue to thrive in spite of the tremendous challenges and tragedies we face every day. Thriving because of the commitment to positive action. To creativity. To playfulness. To collaboration. And to looking forward to creating a new and better future without ignoring a far-from-perfect past and present.

A glance at the table of contents for ASU ShapingED-YOU! sets the tenor for what awaits you. The publication begins with an introduction to this “value-led,” “action-oriented,” “community-driven” community’s work, and then focuses on two of the community’s most engaging, productive gatherings: the annual “unconference” which began as a yearly face-to-face working session to dream and drive and do before switching, in the middle of the 2020 unconference, to an online working session/virtual conference, and the newly-established online Learning(Hu)Man weeklong campy summer camp for teacher-trainer-learners exploring concrete possibilities for shaping the future of learning.

And that’s where the entire endeavor becomes tremendously, wonderfully, twistingly “meta” in the sense that the events themselves become examples of how creative blended communities can and are thriving as much because of the challenges they face as because of their commitment to exploring and addressing those challenges. Using both events as case studies, the writers of the toolkit begin with four “top tips”: “Identify your North Stars” in terms of what those guiding stars are for your event; “Foster Interaction” by creating “spaces and mechanisms for community members to connect”—connections are the center of the ShapingEDU universe; “Set Everyone up for Success” by setting expectations and making every possible effort to “empower the community with resources, templates, support systems and clear instructions”; and “Tell Your Story…though focused emails, social media, and multimedia” along with graphic facilitation as “a co-creation tool.”

The case study centered around the unconferences takes us engagingly through the process of setting the stage through interactive exercises before the events even begin: community members submitting questions/suggestions, community members being invited to serve as event participants/designers/facilitators—and much more. The importance of fostering high levels of face-to-face and/or online interactions that are meaningful to participants and conducive to achieving the concrete goals the gatherings are designed to pursue. And the need to end the gatherings with a significant, community-developed catalyzing action (e.g., a communique that serves as a roadmap for continuing collaboration) that offers everyone a clear view of how the event fits into the community’s long-term, results-oriented work.

Moving into the theme of “community camp” as a way to energize changemakers and catalyze action, the Learning(Hu)Man virtual summer camp becomes another inspiring story for any teacher-trainer-learner seeking ways to creatively foster productive, positive learning experiences within the learning communities we serve. The combination of tips, photos, screenshots, and descriptions provides a concise roadmap that can easily be adapted for use by a variety of educator-trainer-learning activists.

And, in the spirt of collaboration and resource-sharing that is at the heart of this publication, it concludes with an invitation to contact ShapingEDU community members for further information and opportunities for collaboration—which is, when you think about it, the greatest gift of all to anyone struggling to survive and thrive in a rapidly-changing topsy-turvy pandemic-driven world.

–N.B.: 1) This is the twenty-second in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences. 2) Paul is serving as one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021), which includes producing articles for the ShapingEDU blog.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Voice, Collaboration, Virtual Choirs, and Rising Up

October 10, 2020

There’s a heartbreakingly beautiful story to be told here—the story of how online interactions involving music, collaboration, the human voice, and activism are creating light and fostering positive action in times of darkness. The story of how online collaborations are drawing us together at a time when “social distances” are overwhelming so many people. And the story of why the arts remain an essential part of the human experience.

The story is rooted in the realization that there is something primally comforting and deeply inspirational about musical collaboration involving the human voice. It flows from the recognition that singing together can be a language of community. Creativity. And hope. Singing together and hearing others sing together in our online/social-distancing/sheltering-in-place/pandemic-plagued world are proving to be ways—for those of us not facing barriers to our access to the Internet and the tools needed to use it effectively—to build or further develop strong social connections rather than succumbing to isolation and social distances. Singing together and/or hearing others sing online are ways of using technology to overcome rather than to create distances, to bring us together in ways that allow us to build upon our shared interests and social needs rather than being dispirited by challenges that appear to be too large to tackle.

My own introduction to the concept of virtual choirs and online performances came a little more than a year ago (in May 2019), in a pre-coronavirus world, when I was lucky enough to see and hear virtual-choir pioneer Eric Whitacre demonstrating and embracing us with the power of global online choral collaborations in a closing keynote session presented during the ATD (Association of Talent Development) annual International Conference & Exposition (in San Diego). Hearing Whitacre describe and demonstrate what was involved in creating and nurturing virtual choirs and producing online performances was world-changing; it was a first-rate example of what we foster when we use technology as a tool and focus on the beauty of our creative spirit in the arts and many other endeavors—including training-teaching-learning, which draws the thousands of ATD members globally together.

Thoughts of virtual choirs and online performances receded into the inner recesses of my mind for several months. Then, in March 2020, we entered the “three-week” (now seven-month) period of sheltering-in-place guidelines put into place here in a six-county coalition within the San Francisco Bay Area and, soon thereafter, in other parts of the United States, in response to the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic on our shores.

It was a recommendation from friend/colleague/co-conspirator in training-teaching-learning Jill Hurst-Wahl that rekindled my interest that month in virtual choirs and what they suggest in terms of online collaborative possibilities for all of us: the recommendation to watch a virtual-choir rendition of “Helplessly Hoping,” performed and recorded by Italy’s Il coro che non c’è (The Choir That Isn’t There). As was the case with seeing and hearing Whitacre’s virtual choir a year earlier, the experience of hearing and seeing the students in Il coro was transformative. Encouraging. Emotionally-engaging. Inspiring. Tremendously moving. And it made me want to hear more. Which led me to the work of Canada’s Phoenix Chamber Choir. The playfully creative online performances of musicians involved in a live virtual “coffee house” concert, complete with audience interactions via a conference backchannel, during the ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man weeklong summer camp in July 2020 for dreamer-doer-drivers working to shape the future of learning in the digital age. The virtual sing-along videos (including two versions of “Vote Him Way (the Liar Tweets Tonight”) created by singer-songwriter-satirist-activist Roy Zimmerman and his co-writer/wife Melanie Harby. And so many more.

But it’s Zimmerman’s work that most effectively shows us how we might use social media and online interactions to create that intersection of music, collaboration, the human voice, and activism. Because he is engaging. Because he is part of that ever-growing group of first-rate artist-activists who are exploring online alternatives and environments in response to the loss of the onsite venues and interactions that were their lifeblood before the coronavirus arrived. Because he is effectively using Facebook and YouTube, through his “Live from the Left Coast” performances, to not only to stay in touch with and further cultivate his audience, but to nurture relationships between those audience members through his use of online chat within those platforms. Because he is among those participating in the new “Trumped By Music” project initiated by a Dutch/American team “that wants to provide a platform for anti-Trump musicians to be seen and heard… We want to provide maximum exposure for this passionate and vocal community! Our aim is to help our featured artists gain exposure for their message, as well as stimulate musicians to send us new content.” And because his work is reaching and inspiring others equally committed to using music in deeply-emotional ways to foster social change—as was the case with Wilmington Academy Explorations teacher Sandy Errante and her husband, Wilmington Symphony Orchestra conductor Steven Errante.

The pre-coronavirus virtual meeting of Zimmerman and the Errantes is centered around Zimmerman’s incredibly moving song “Rise Up” (co-written with Harby). It was inspired by the students who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School [Parkland, Florida] on Valentine’s Day in 2018 and who turned their experience into the March for Our Lives/Vote for Our Lives/Never Again movement that, six weeks later, inspired marches in more than 500 cities around the world. His rendition of the song as a duet with Laura Love was included on his Rize Up CD in 2018. And that’s where the story becomes very interesting, as Sandy Errante explained in a recent email exchange we had:

“My husband and I had heard Roy perform at the Unitarian Church in Wilmington before. We loved his satire, his energy, his passion, his humor and his music. And then…

“One Thursday evening after my rehearsal with the Girls’ Choir of Wilmington, I was on the way home when our local radio station, WHQR, started advertising an upcoming concert at the UU with Roy. The radio announcer, George Sheibner, played a song I had not heard before—Rise Up. As I drove along listening, I was captivated by the lyrics, the music, the harmonies and suspensions, and the message. By the end of the song and the final chorus, I was in tears. I knew the Girls’ Choir had to sing this piece. But how to make that happen? 

“I reached out to my husband, who was on his way to a rehearsal with the Wilmington Youth Orchestra. Steve is an arranger and a composer, and I needed him to know right away that this was something we absolutely HAD to do. He asked me to find a recording of the song. I did. And I hunted down the contact info for Roy, using my contacts at the UU church. Once we had permission from Roy to proceed, we started imagining this song as told from the children’s perspective. We altered the lyrics just a bit [changing it from the point of view of adults addressing the Parkland survivors to the point of view of the students themselves]. Now we had a song that the girls could sing from their hearts. We had a youth orchestra that could accompany. We had a performance in the making.­

“After all was said and done, we concurred, this IS their world and this was their song.”

And it remains our song—our anthem—in this pandemic, shelter-in-place world, through its availability on YouTube (with the girls’ choir) and on the CD. It’s there for them—and for us—as we continue seeking light and inspiration while living through devastatingly tragic times. Times of great division and conflict. Times that are, for many, overwhelming. And, as is often the case in tragic, divisive, conflict-ridden times, times that are also inspiring tremendous levels of creativity and opportunities for collaboration designed to foster positive change—which we nurture through our support and engagement in any and every way we can.

Update: Roy Zimmerman and Melanie Harby have posted a piece about the collaboration that produced their recent “My Vote, My Voice, My Right” video and included links to other virtual collaborations of that particular song: https://www.royzimmerman.com/blog/my-vote-my-voice-my-right.

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


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: “And I Am…”

September 13, 2020

Our most challenging times are generally the times when I am most drawn to the arts for comfort, solace, and inspiration. It is, therefore, no surprise to me that as I continue adapting to and working within shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to a coronavirus pandemic, I am spending inordinate amounts of time lately returning to and exploring, more deeply than ever before, authors I admire and adore—people like Scott Russell Sanders, who over a long period of time, has consistently produced lyrical, thoughtful essays and much more, including his newly-released collection, The Way of Imagination. I was drawn back to Sander’ A Private History of Awe a few weeks ago when intense, hours-long lightning and thunder storms reminded me of the stunning opening of that book, in which Sanders recalls being four years old, standing with his father, and watching lightning shatter a magnificent, stately old oak tree.

My re-immersion into the arts has also brought me into contact with the work of wonderful singer-songwriter-satirists like Roy Zimmerman, who in the most dazzling yet down-to-earth ways mixes humor, biting social satire, and a sense of humanity that runs deeper than any river upon which I have ever rafted. Watching videos that capture his work spanning nearly a couple of decades has given me a strong appreciation for what he does and offers. Seeing some of his latest videos—including new, powerfully poignant collaborations along the lines of what he does in “Driving While Black” with Clovice Lewis, Jr. and the two versions he has recorded of “The Liar Tweets Tonight”—suggests to me that no matter how much recognition he receives for his work, he will always deserve even more. And catching a few of his free online “Live from the Left Coast” concerts over the past few weeks on Facebook and YouTube makes me wonder what rock I have been sleeping under while he has been out there entertainingly, provocatively, and lovingly shining light so effectively where it needs to be shone, how I could have missed, for so long, wonderful songs like “I Approve This Message,” which is as funny, poignant, and moving a song as any “protest” song I have ever heard, with its litany of “I ams” beginning with “I am the doughnut lady, I am the civil engineer, I am the tractor salesman who is a stand-up comic at his own daughter’s wedding…” and becoming more engaging as the song continues.

What has been most rewarding and transformative, however, is spotting the artistry in places where I usually do not seek it, as in letters from friends and colleagues. Those letters, like the one I received via email a couple of days ago from someone who is married to a firefighter in a rural part of Northern California devastated by wildfires, absolutely floor me through their combination of honesty, poignancy, and razer-sharp focus. They remind me of the inner artist each of us carriers and so often fails to take the time to nurture. And they further awaken the storyteller in me who wants to highlight other people’s stories as much as, if not more than, I tend to highlight my own.

With that in mind, I contacted the friend for permission to reprint a lightly-edited version of her story here—edited not because it needed any sort of rewriting, but because she and her husband are incredibly private people who do not, in any way, want to call attention to themselves at a time when so many others need our attention and support. The edits, therefore, remove references by specific name to the people she is describing and to the area in which they are living. But even with those omissions, the piece stands out to me as an example of the “…and I am…” approach Zimmerman adopts in singing about those people we mistakenly think of as “average Americans” when, in reality, they are so much more than the word “average” can ever begin to convey:

“It’s been an absolute life-changing devastation for almost everyone in our lives. And it’s so layered it’s hard to stay focused these days. My husband’s parents lost absolutely everything. He and I and his sister had a lot of belongings there too because we all still had our two “bedrooms” to stay in while visiting and store stuff. Not to mention all their childhood stuff. All the pictures and mementos. Not to mention hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of items and equipment and vehicles. They had been in that house for over 30 years. When the house got surrounded and his parents had left, my husband got there right after and tried to turn the sprinklers on, but the power was out, so the water pump wouldn’t work. My heart aches for him having to watch it all go up. And then he had to watch his aunt and uncle’s house go up. His dad’s sister and husband’s. And then watch all of our friends lose all of their homes. He was working with four of our close friends who are also firefighters, and they all lost their homes too. I believe two lives (an older gentleman who wouldn’t leave his home, and a lady who got trapped) and 150+ houses were lost so far.

“So much has been lost. There are so many displaced families and people. So many people with just the shirts on their backs. And, sadly, many people down there couldn’t afford fire insurance, so that adds a whole other problem to the list of problems. Almost everyone we know with family and friends is completely homeless. So many animals lost, too, which is absolutely heartbreaking. Many died and many are just missing. Thankfully, people from local agencies have gone down, collected, and are housing a lot of displaced animals until they can reunite.

“It’s an absolute chaotic nightmare. But there’s some things to be thankful for as well. My mother and her husband have not lost anything so far. And I’m so happy everyone we know and love is safe and alive. Stuff is just stuff. Lives matter more and cannot be replaced. If that had happened in the middle of the night on that one way in-one way out creek road, in the dark, people confused from sleep, in a fire going 50+ mph, it could have been even worse. When we lose one or two people in town it’s horrific. But to think we could have 20-30+ people missing or dead right now would make it so much worse. And to see everyone help one another and pull together brings hope. We can always rebuild.

“There’s so much hurt right now, I’m trying to just stay focused on my husband. Because he’s my priority, and I know how much family and friends mean to him, and he’s the biggest softie sweetie in the world. He’s being exceptionally hard on himself, feeling like as a firefighter he should have been able to save everything or anything. Feels like he’s failed his whole family and all our friends. But he’s so exhausted he hasn’t had a moment to process or grieve in any way. And everyone grieves differently, so I just have to give him time. He worked for over 40 hours straight before finally getting four hours of sleep. Hopefully, he will get a little more tonight.”

I devour Sanders’ work. I sink into Zimmerman’s music. And I immerse myself into my friend’s powerful description of how the current wildfires are affecting her and the people around her. And because they all are so compelling in their ability to capture essential truths and inspire empathy, Zimmerman’s refrain “…and I am…” makes me more of whom I am than I otherwise would be.

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


T is for Training: Innovator’s Mindset, Instagram, and Trolls

February 14, 2020

Empathetic, problem finder-solver, risk-taker, networked, observant, creator, resilient, reflective: eight characteristics of The Innovator’s Mindset. And eight terms that could easily have been applied to Maurice Coleman during the recording of the latest episode of his long-running, biweekly T is for Training podcast last night.

The podcast—designed for anyone interested or involved in training-teaching-learning in libraries (and a variety of other learning venues)—wasn’t perfect last night. But that’s OK; like the learning that T is for Training so often explores and fosters through playful hour-long discussions among a core group of participants and an occasional guest, the podcast is not meant to be perfect. (If you decide to listen to the latest episode, you can skip the first three minutes and join it at the four-minute mark to dive right into the discussion.) It was, however, a great example of the topics under consideration: the book Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL [Universal Design for Learning]and the Innovator’s Mindset (by George Couros and Katie Novak) and the innovatively engaging Innovate Inside the Box (IITB) Instagram Book Study group is inspired—where Instagram became the platform for the core of the discussions.

With just two of us—Maurice and me—initially participating in the recording, we worked our way through some technical problems we were having with the podcast software during the first few minutes of the recording (resilient!…and grumpy, although that’s not one of the eight characteristics we were exploring). And, after those first few less-than-perfect moments, we began with a quick summary of the content of the book before exploring how the online book study group functioned and produced some interesting learning experiences and results…and the beginning of a potentially dynamic new community of learning.

he risk-taker element of the endeavor is that T is for Training is live and open to anyone who wants to call in—which means we often have some lively discussions, and occasionally find ourselves visited by that awful beast known as a troll. That, as you correctly assumed by reading the title of this post, is what happened about a third of the way through the recording last night. Maurice, always willing to engage in a bit of empathy, gave the troll a couple of (mercifully brief) opportunities to actually rise to the challenge of contributing positively to the conversation. Displayed resilience by bouncing back quickly from each interruption this somewhat persistent troll attempted to create. And ultimately engaged in another session of our favorite podcast pastime—whack a troll. The conversation ultimately continued, successfully, as if nothing had ever happened (problem found, problem solved).

Moving into a discussion of the Instagram book study group, we found ourselves doing far more than simply reviewing what it produced in terms of learning; innovation; products (e.g., the Instagram posts, tweets, and blog pieces) made by the creators who were participating in the group; and reflections. We were (occasionally) reflective, and networking came into it through mentions of T is for Training community members who were not present for the recording but will ultimately be part of that episode when they listen and respond to the content we managed to create. The role of creator, furthermore, is on display because the recording and dissemination of that episode of the podcast is becoming another contribution to the community initiated through the Instagram book study group and continuing on Instagram (and elsewhere) under the general #InnovateInsideTheBox hashtag.

For me, the real punchline here is that T is for Training has just been drawn into yet another rhizomatically-expanding community of learning—one that includes the Instagram Book Study group, the #InnovateInsideTheBox Instagram/Twitter/Facebook collaborations, the blog postings several of us have created in response to what we have encountered in the book as well as in the online conversations, and others yet to be determined. It’s one of the characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset (networked); the best trainer-teacher-learners I have met and with whom I regularly interact; and the T is for Training community itself. And the best news of all is that you’re welcome to join any part of it, at any time, if you want to explore and nurture your own Innovator’s Mindset.

–N.B.: T is for Training generally records every other Thursday evening at 9 pm ET/6 pm PT. More information is available on the podcast website.


Learning, Innovation, and Instagram (#IITB, Pt. 4 of 4): On “Reading” Innovate Inside the Box

February 12, 2020

Sometimes a book can be much more than what rests upon its pages. It can be a catalyst. A meeting place. An invitation to engage in reflective learning. And the center of a community that forms when each of us, through our own reactions and interactions with the book and other readers, end up producing our own individual, highly-personalized versions of that book—which is exactly the sort of multilevel, potentially transformative experience that George Couros and Katie Novak have produced through Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL [Universal Design for Learning]and the Innovator’s Mindset.

The book itself is a paeon to the idea that innovation can be fostered as much by and within the limitations we face as trainer-teacher-learners as by thinking outside the box: “…the system, with its rules and limitations, is never a reason not to innovate. To the contrary, the system or ‘box’ you work within may be the very reason you need to innovate,” Couros writes in the opening pages of the introduction to the book. And, as has happened both times I have read books he has produced, I find myself taking an innovative approach to the act of reading itself: slowing down rather than racing through the text; stopping to follow links to sources (e.g., blog posts, short articles, or videos) he has cited in his text so that they become part of my personal version of the book; reflecting, through blog posts, on the content he (and, in this case, in collaboration with Novak) provides as a way of more deeply and rewardingly absorbing what he offers; and engaging in online interactions with others who are also reading—or have read—the book.

The special “reading” twist this time has been involvement in a three-week book study group using Instagram as the platform for the conversations—an innovation for me because this has been the first time I have engaged with others via Instagram for any reason, and it’s the first time I have, through the creation of a series of book-related posts, explored the potential Instagram offers as a tool for training-teaching-learning—then carried those posts into my Tumblr account as a way of collecting those thoughts into a cohesive, easy-to-follow online record of my own learning. The results, from a learning point of view, have been spectacular for me, and the content of the book has become far more meaningful and useable than it otherwise would have been.

Sample of the Instagram Book Study
group feed, from Picuki.com:
https://www.picuki.com/tag/InnovateInsideTheBox

Starting with the first of three sections—“The Core of Innovative Teaching and Learning”—Couros, as a co-conspirator in our learning process, walks with us through chapters exploring the importance of relationships in learning; learning that is learner-drive and evidence-informed; creating (and engaging in) empowered learning experiences; and being both a master learner and a master educator—recognizing, at all times, that the word “master” does not mean that we are perfect. By inviting us to explore these themes through the Innovate Inside the Box Instagram Book Study group, he and Novak extend the “book” into cyberspace for (and with) all of us in ways that have us creating a record of our own learning and a set of experiences that—because Instagram is obviously, at its core, a visual medium with opportunities to interweave imagery and text—create learning anchors (in this case, the visual reminders we create in the form of posts on Instagram) to make the learning more memorable—and, of course, playful.

The second section fully carries us into chapter-by-chapter explorations of the “characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset”: empathetic, problem finders-solvers, risk-takers, networked, observant, creators, resilient, and reflective. And again, our starting point is through the reading of the textual conversation in which Couros and Novak bounce back and forth with observations about and guidance on how to incorporate those attributes into our own efforts to develop the Innovator’s Mindset for ourselves in ways to benefit those we serve. But, we realize as we reflect upon what we are reading, that is only the beginning. The real innovation comes through application of the work, and that’s where the formation of the community of teacher-trainer-learners within the online, (mostly) asynchronous book study group produces results worth noting. In creating posts about empathy in learning, we reflect upon—and begin to further hone—our own empathy toward our learners. In creating posts about risk-taking, we are inspired to take—and learn from the process of taking—risks by exploring resources and tools that allow us to produce better, more engaging and meaningful posts, on Instagram than we otherwise might have produced. The process of participating in the book study group becomes integral to the process of reading, absorbing, and applying what Couros and Novak offer us. And those of us willing to put the extra time into this level of “reading” the book (encountering the text, reflecting upon it, creating something from it that we can use in other venues, interacting with others as part of that reading-as-creative-process experience, and providing positive, inspirational learning experiences for others as a result) walk away with a reading experience that is every bit as innovative as anything the words upon the pages of the book can offer.

From Paul’s Tumblr account:
https://www.tumblr.com/blog/paulsignorelli

A short, very sweet concluding section suggesting “You Are the Change You Seek” serves as a reminder that “finishing” the book does not mean we are about to place it on a shelf where it becomes covered under an ever-growing shroud of dust, for this is not the kind of book you finish—or that is ever finished with you. As long as we remember what we have gained and apply it to the work we do, we will continue innovating within the box—and far beyond it, too.–N.B.: This is the fourth in a set of reflections inspired by #IITB, the Innovate Inside the Box Instagram Book Study group.


Learning, Innovation, and Instagram (#IITB, Pt. 3 of 4): Building Character(istics)

February 11, 2020

To display the character—and the characteristics—of the Innovator’s Mindset requires us to be observant, be creators, be resilient, and be reflective, George Couros and Katie Novak suggest as they explore the final four of those eight Innovator’s Mindset qualities in their book Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL [Universal Design for Learning]and the Innovator’s Mindset and continue engaging us through participation in their Innovate Inside the Box Instagram Book Study group.

Exploring themes that flow through the entire book, and exploring how Instagram might be incorporated into engaging training-teaching-learning opportunities, has certainly provided me with inspiration to be observant, to be creative (in the sense of creating Instagram posts that can serve as learning moments), to be resilient (each post has required multiple attempts and the use of at least a couple of different tools to produce the images/learning moments I was attempting to produce), and reflective. The results, as you can see from what I posted previously and from the following lightly-edited sets of reflections from each of the most recent Instagram/Tumblr posts I completed while contributing to the discussions on four of the eight Innovator’s Mindset characteristics, display the never-quite-perfect record-of-my-learning-process in ways that will serve as reminders to me—and, possibly, to you—of the value of regularly engaging in learning rather than remaining solely in the instructor/learning facilitator role so many of us pursue.

Comments accompanying the fifth of eight Innovator’s Mindset-post characteristics—this one on the Innovator’s Mindset characteristic observant: Something that has been all around—completely unnoticed, completely unobserved—is called to your attention. You take note of it. You might study it a bit. You absorb it into your verbal, visual, and “attentiveness” (things-I-need-to-notice) vocabulary. And suddenly, it seems as if it is everywhere you look. Which is the point that George Couros and Katie Novak make in Chapter 9 of Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL [Universal Design for Learning] and the Innovator’s Mindset). Being observant is a characteristic that, “in a world full of noise, is more valuable than ever,” Couros writes. Being observant, he continues, involves “the skill of finding nuggets of wisdom and powerful links to information [and] is one that you develop over time.” It’s a skill I’m further cultivating while experimenting with Instagram as a training-teaching-learning skill within the context of the book study group: I observe how my co-conspirators in learning—Couros, Novak, and those who are participating and interacting through their Instagram posts—approach the tool (creatively/innovatively); how some of us react to what Couros and Novak have written in their book and are providing via Instagram; and how we describe what we are doing to adopt the Innovator’s Mindset to create more productive, engaging, meaningful learning opportunities for our leaners and ourselves. “We have to design learning opportunities that leave room for students to observe the world around them, find their passions, and ask their own questions so their learning experiences aren’t cluttered with ‘one-size-fits-all’ resources that pave a path for them,” Novak writes. And, in learning and beginning to apply the lesson she and Couros are providing by not giving “one-size-fits-all” assignments in this book discussion/course, she makes us more observant, more likely to acquire and obtain glimpses of beauty in a world that we otherwise might not so carefully have noticed.

Comments about the sixth characteristic (creators): You see him in an urban park, creating an image from his surroundings. Creating something that matters to him. And, with any luck, something that will be seen by others, and that, to them, will matter, too. Consuming impressions from his surroundings—from his world—he engages in that stimulating moment of personifying the consumer-creator —an essential part of every learner’s experience, Couros and Novak remind us in Chapter 10 of Innovate Inside the Box. “Innovators need to be creators, not just consumers. With that in mind, teachers need to provide numerous opportunities for students to create by providing options and choices for students to collaborate, examine exemplars of creativity, find solutions to problems, use non-traditional forms to consume new information and content, and have the flexibility to put the ideas together to create and express new and better ideas”—which, as always, remains at the heart of what we, as participants in the Innovate Inside the Box Instagram Book Study group, are doing. We read, consuming the content from the book. We reflect, gleaning tips and gaining inspiration from what others post in Instagram. We create our own responses in the form of these images and the accompanying text we attempt to weave into our posts. And, as creator-consumers, we learn.

Comments about the seventh characteristic (resilient): We try to accomplish something, not sure how or whether we will succeed. And when we don’t, we try…and try again…until we get it right—which speaks to the power of resiliency, the seventh of eight characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset explored by Couros and Novak in Innovate Inside the Box. “Innovators need to build resilience as setbacks and failing are expected. ‘Failure’ and ‘failing’ are different. Whereas failure is final, failing happens as part of an ongoing practice of trying and learning,” Novak tells us—a great reminder for me as I prepared this particular post and found myself having to try and try again until the cropping of the photo and the placement of the words were as effective as I could make them with the tools with which I’m working. It’s a lesson my colleagues and I share repeatedly with our co-conspirators in learning by suggesting that “fail to learn” is an often-overlooked foundation of resiliency—and success—in learning.

Comments accompanying my Instagram post on the eighth character trait: “The ability to reflect is crucial for understanding and processing,” Couros reminds us as he and Novak take us through the final characteristic of the Innovator’s Mindset: reflection. “It is also essential to our ability to move forward and create something from what we have learned. … Reflection time is something that should be seen as vital to learning…” The entire experience of participating in the Innovate Inside the Box Instagram Book Study group here on Instagram has been exactly that: a combination of moving forward in my learning about Instagram as a tool for training-teaching-learning; reading (and rereading) and reflecting on each chapter within Innovate Inside the Box; creating something that builds upon what I have already learned; and learning more by sharing it on Instagram, seeing how my co-conspirators in learning respond to it, and responding to the results of their own moving/creating/innovating/learning process. And because we are part of a community of learning, we have the chance to celebrate each step we take in moving toward improving what we do in service to the learners who rely on us for support, inspiration, and collaboration.–N.B.: This is the third in a set of reflections inspired by #IITB, the Innovate Inside the Box Instagram Book Study group. Next: When books are more than books.


Learning, Innovation, and Instagram (#IITB, Pt. 2 of 4): Building a Community of Learning

February 10, 2020

I’m watching—and, more importantly, participating in—the growth of another community of learning—the one fostered by writer-presenter-educator George Couros through the “Innovate Inside the Box [#IITB] Instagram Book Study” group he and his co-author, Katie Novak, are creating around their book Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL [Universal Design for Learning]and the Innovator’s Mindset.

It’s not a surprise at all to me that the community is thriving under their guidance: Couros’s Innovator’s Mindset MOOC (massive open online course) a couple of years ago was a playfully innovative and inspiring opportunity to work with a dynamic group of co-conspirators in learning. And the idea of using Instagram as a platform for learning has obviously been successful in attracting enough people to make this a unique and transformative learning opportunity well worth pursuing. As I mentioned in the first post in this series of reflections inspired by the #IITB book study group, it has been engaging from the moment during which I posted my first offering after opening an Instagram account last week and began interacting with George and the other co-conspirators—an experience that has quickly deepened after just seven days of online, asynchronous interactions. I’m finding kindred spirits—other teacher-trainer-learners with seemingly inexhaustible depths of curiosity. A willingness to experiment with new concepts and tools. And a commitment to creating time and space to interact around an overlapping set of topics that include innovation in learning, incorporating Instagram into learning, and exploring ways to expand our own learning in ways that will benefit those we serve. The experience is multifaceted—an online (mostly asynchronous) book discussion group, functioning in a way that is reminiscent of the best connectivist MOOCs (massive open online courses) I have joined. It has us interacting within the platform (Instagram) through the images, videos, and text we have been posting, and allows for interactions through the comments that we post about our own and others’ offerings and through expanded interactions via posting blog pieces like this one and reading (and responding to) those posted by others.

Most interestingly—and again, not surprisingly—the interactions themselves reflect many of the eight characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset that all of us have been exploring and attempting to (further) develop. Going beyond the suggested basic level of participation—a suggested three postings for each of the three weeks the book discussion is scheduled to continue—because I have wanted to as fully as possible immerse myself in Instagram as a tool for training-teaching-learning, I’ve been creating separate posts that serve to summarize and respond to at least one element of each of the characteristics. The remainder of this blog post pulls lightly-edited text from each of the first four posts I completed while contributing to the discussions on four of the eight Innovator’s Mindset characteristics.

Comments accompanying the first post, on the Innovator’s Mindset characteristic of empathy: This, Couros proposes, “is about helping students seek out problems that are meaningful to them and then finding ways to solve or respond to those issues,” and it hearkens back to earlier passages in the book regarding the importance of asking the right questions to produce concrete, positive learning results. The goal, Novak adds, is “to empower students to become purposeful, motivated, resourceful, strategic learners”—a practice Couros and Novak put into play in the way they are encouraging those of us in the “Innovate inside the Box Instagram Book Study” group to absorb the content of their book, then apply it by producing Instagram posts that carry our learning forward through a process of deciding what each of us wants to know about Instagram and overcoming problems we face in locating and adapting solutions to design problems related to the creation of these posts.

Comments about the second characteristic (problem finders-solvers): This, Couros proposes, “is about helping students seek out problems that are meaningful to them and then finding ways to solve or respond to those issues,” and it hearkens back to earlier passages in the book regarding the importance of asking the right questions to produce concrete, positive learning results. The goal, Novak adds, is “to empower students to become purposeful, motivated, resourceful, strategic learners”—a practice Couros and Novak put into play in the way they are encouraging those of us in the “Innovate inside the Box Instagram Book Study” group to absorb the content of their book, then apply it by producing Instagram posts that carry our learning forward through a process of deciding what each of us wants to know about Instagram and overcoming problems we face in locating and adapting solutions to design problems related to the creation of these posts.

Comments about the third characteristic (risk-taking): Turning to “risk-taking” as one of eight characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset (in “Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL [Universal Design for Learning] and the Innovator’s Mindset”), Couros and Novak are explicit in noting that they are not advocating “doing things that would harm our learners”; they are advocating the act of “moving from a comfortable average in pursuit of an unknown better”—something at the heart of the positive transformations that effective learning fosters. It’s a theme that speaks to me powerfully because I have, at points in my lifelong learning endeavors, caught myself (stupidly) thinking about not taking a course because it might lower my GPA—took me years to realize I no longer cared about grades; I cared about the positive results any great learning experience produces. I also occasionally catch myself—and stop myself from—holding back with questions about or experimental approaches to learning challenges offered in onsite and online courses and workshops; the self-imposed barrier, of course, comes from the fear that my peers/colleagues might somehow think less of me if I ask I a “stupid” question or produce results that are less dazzling than I hoped to produce when completing a learning task. What it comes down to, of course, is modeling for my co-conspirators in learning the very behavior I hope to foster in them: a willingness to try new things, overcome the fears that often accompany the act of taking risks, and live with—and actually embrace—the temporary failures that accompany us as we take the path toward learning what we want and need to learn. We “have to eliminate the barriers that prevent students from taking risks,” Novak counsels, and I would suggest we need to do the same for ourselves if we want to develop and benefit from adopting and nurturing the characteristics of the Innovative Mindset—for our learners and ourselves.

Comments accompanying my Instagram post on the fourth characteristic (networked); Being “networked”—the fourth of the eight characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset (in “Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL [Universal Design for Learning] and the Innovator’s Mindset”)—is “crucial both to innovative teaching and learning as well as to helping students develop an Innovator’s Mindset,” George Couros writes. It’s a characteristic well-fostered in the “Innovate Inside the Box Instagram Book Study” group for which this and my other #InnovateInsideTheBox posts on Instagram [with copies posted to Tumblr] have been prepared: by engaging in an asynchronous book discussion via Instagram, those of us participating with George and his “Inside the Box” co-author, Katie Novak, are meeting and engaging with others in a rapidly-developing network of educators (aka, trainer-teacher-learners] that has the potential to become another long-term community of learning. We work through Instagram; we learn with and from each other; and, if we’re successful, we and the learners we serve will benefit from having nurtured the “networked” and other Innovator’s Mindset characteristics we are developing with each new interaction we help create. As Novak observes, “When we provide students [ourselves included] with authentic opportunities to network and dive their own learning, it’s a hell of a ride.”

–N.B.: This is the second in a set of reflections inspired by #IITB, the Innovate Inside the Box Instagram Book Study group. Next: The four remaining characteristics (observant, creators, resilient, and reflective).


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