Learning(Hu)Man Virtual Summer Camp: Arts & Crafting Learning Experiences

July 22, 2020

If I really were the eight-year-old that I so frequently still feel I am, I would be crafting a letter home from summer camp to my parents right now. Telling them how cool the other kids at the week-long Arizona State University ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man campy virtual summer camp are. How inspiring the Camp Counselors (aka, session facilitators) are. How much I’m enjoying singing the Learning(Hu)Man Theme Song. How much fun I’m having during Day 2, which is “Arts & Crafting Learning Experience Day”—a nice switch from yesterday’s “Flipping Scary Stories Day.” How much I’m learning through hands-on virtual experiences. And how proud I am of having earned two of the four badges I need to earn to return home with an “Education Changemaker Digital Credential.”

But I’m obviously not really eight years old anymore. And one of my parents has been gone for more than three years, so I can’t write home to her. And letter-writing with pen (or pencil) and paper was long ago replaced, for me, by online communication, including love letters in the form of blog posts. So here’s my second daily love letter capturing much of the joy of camping out with dreamer-driver-doers committed to shaping the future of learning in the digital age (while currently following shelter-in-place social distancing guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic) thanks to Camp Director Laura Geringer and the rest of the Arizona State University ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man Camp Team:

Morning comes early around here. We again gathered in the Mess Hall for virtual breakfast via Zoom, at 7:30 a.m., hosted by Day 2 Head Happy Camper (HHC) Allan Novak, who is renowned for his work as an executive producer, director, writer, and editor—in addition to being a first-rate facilitator, as was obvious by the way he engaged us in conversation and activities during the time we had together. HHC Novak fostered a wonderful warm-up conversation that had us learning experientially as he incorporated an innovative online presentation and polling tool—Mentimeter—into the conversation. Watching and participating in that setting made me again realize how quickly and how far we are moving from a world in which we can (mistakenly) assert that it is always impossible to craft conference experiences online that are as engaging as those we create onsite. We have to admit that it takes a lot to design and run an engaging online conference. But then again, it’s far from easy to accomplish the same onsite; you have to work with what you have. When you have a group as comfortable as Learning(Hu)Man participants are with technology, as willing as we are to experiment with a variety of online tools in the moment without being flustered by the occasional failures that come when learning about and using any form of technology, and as well supported as we are by those in charge of the event, magic can and does happen.

The sort of unexpected and wonderfully rewarding hallway and workshop conversations that draw us to onsite conferences are increasingly possible and likely to happen through the use of the chat window in Zoom and the willingness of people like HHC Novak to draw people in visibly and audibly through the videoconferencing capabilities of platforms like Zoom. The all-important act of meeting new people and unexpectedly running into long-term cherished friends and colleagues, chatting with them, and planning on how we will maintain (or continue to maintain) contact after the conference ends has been as common for me here at Learning(Hu)Man as it has been at the best of the onsite conferences I have attended over a very long period of time. In some ways, this part of it really doesn’t take much—just a willingness to leap at opportunities and a commitment to action. Those unexpected initial and recurring encounters are among the highlights of any conference I attend, and Learning(Hu)Man has already provided plenty of them. The idea that “what I most look forward to at conferences is that which I am not expecting to find” remains true in this virtual setting, too.

After enjoying an hour-long “around the flagpole” gathering for a first-rate panel discussion on “The What, Why, and How of Learner-Centered Everything” and still cherishing what I had seen and learned from Novak, I followed him into the first of two morning sessions I attended—his workshop on “Video Post-production: Good, Fast, and Cheap in the 2020s”—and was extremely happy that I did. Using the same facilitation and organizational skills he had displayed in the Mess Hall, he took a highly playful, interactive approach to a session that was built upon the premise that all of us could learn enough about a platform he was introducing to us—WeVideo—to craft a short public service announcement promoting online learning—in less than an hour. The learning here was layered: we did learn enough to produce part of that video announcement online—which Novak apparently finished up after the session ended—and we also learned how to design and facilitate a session like the one he was leading—just by watching him lead ours. To speed up production, he had prepared a template for the script and made it available to us in a shared document online. He then used Mentimeter to help us craft some of the vocabulary we would incorporate into the script. He asked each of us to volunteer to produce very short (several-second) videos we would upload to a shared folder he made available online. And he showed us how to edit all that content into the announcement-in-progress. It was an amazing display of training-teaching-learning in action, and I left that session feeling as if I were one very happy camper.

The day, as days at camp often do, is already becoming a blur. More wonderful learning. More time to take a virtual walk in the woods, reflect on what we were seeing-doing-learning. Time for a quick refresher nap. And, at the end of the day, after additional opportunities to learn and craft and dream, we reconvened in the camp Mess Hall for an evening of game-playing-with-a-purpose.

[Image from Opening Night Session by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]

Joined by Second City star Linda Kash, Novak set the stage for 90 minutes of Zoom-prov—familiar improvisation-based games all conducted via Zoom rather than face-to-face. We started with “Blind Portrait,” a game in which we each had to try to draw the face of someone else we could see in that Zoom gathering—without ever looking away from the screen. Kash played it for all it was worth, cajoling anyone who made the mistake of breaking eye contact with the webcam, and brought it all home by reminding us that as an educational tool, the game reminded everyone that we are all in the same pool and need not be embarrassed by what we produce. A series of equally entertaining challenges all drawing upon the best techniques employed in improv had all of us laughing out loud, collaborating wildly in friendly competitions, and achieving what any evening around the learning campfire is meant to achieve: an opportunity to bask in community, friendship, shared experiences, and the promise of more to come when the sun reappears above the grounds of our virtual summer camp tomorrow.

–N.B.: 1) This is the sixteenth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences, and the second in a series of posts inspired by Learning(Hu)Man. 2) Paul is one of two ShapingEDU Storytellers in Residence, serving from July 2020 – June 2021.


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.


Rework: Collaboration, Creativity, and the Spirit of Wikinomics

July 25, 2010

The commitment to improvisation, collaboration, and sharing that runs through all successful workplace learning and performance efforts is at the heart of Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s recently released book, Rework, a wonderful collection of very short essays about how we need to rework much of what we currently do.

It’s a book very much of its moment as those preferring Web 2.0-style collaborations and those who feel territorial about everything they produce attempt to find common ground. The writers suggest that we avoid the complexities and turf wars which so often hold many of us back from achievements we might otherwise produce if we weren’t trying to do too much, trying to recreate what others are doing rather than pursuing our own vision on behalf of those we serve, and allowing ourselves to “obsess over tools instead of what [we]’re going to do with those tools” (p. 87).

Readers familiar with Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams’ Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, will find themselves on familiar ground here as they encounter Fried and Hansson’s suggestion to “sell your by-products” (pp. 90-91)—a suggestion rooted in the idea that if we find applications for everything we work on rather than focusing only on what we set out to do and leaving untapped resources as waste material, we become more effective at what we do. Trainers, for example, might take parts of something already finished and find a new use for it, as Gwinnett County Public Library Training Manager Jay Turner did by using video clips from a live staff recognition event to create a new half-hour virtual staff day video which more than 90 percent of staff voluntarily watched after he posted it online for them; Turner found another way to rework the material by writing, for other trainers, about the tools he used to produce the piece.

Another familiar aspect of the book is the light and playful approach the writers take—which also carries over to the promotional videos posted on their website for Rework. The simple graphics which are interspersed with the text throughout the book seem to take a page—or many pages—from Dan Roam’s The Back of the Napkin and Unfolding the Napkin, which help trainers and other presenters see that we don’t have to display the artistic skills of Michelangelo or Rafael to be able to reach others. The use of the graphics and the stylistic device of providing short sections on dozens of interrelated themes—most pieces are no longer than a tightly written blog posting and have the same sense of informality—make the book a pleasure to peruse and easy to absorb. Which means it again offers a great model for trainers who are tackling complex topics and trying to find ways to break the complexity into small, digestible chunks.

It is not the content that is revolutionary here. Reminders to improvise (pp. 18-20), produce something tangible rather than engaging in endless discussions about producing something tangible (pp. 33-45), undertake a few achievable projects rather than trying to pursue every possibility and ending up completing none (p. 83), ask what problems we are solving through our undertakings (p. 100), and learn by doing rather than always trying to duplicate what others have accomplished (pp. 134-136) simply take us back to basics we should already know but all too often set aside in a frenzy of trying to respond to all constituents without serving any of them effectively. And if we can relearn and rework some of these lessons, just imagine what the learners we assist will gain.


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