CLA Conference 2022: Thanks for the Gifts

June 3, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Because of a Teacher: Learning With Stories

April 20, 2022

Our greatest teacher-trainer-learners often turn out to be wonderful storytellers. Through their stories, they provide a context for our own learning. They engage us and inspire us. And they transform us. So when innovative teaching, learning, and leadership consultant, speaker, and author George Couros published a collection of stories by teachers—Because of a Teacher: Stories of the Past to Inspire the Future of Education—last year, we just had to know we were in for a treat: a collection of stories by storytellers who incorporate storytelling in their work. It’s as if we were invited to an evening of stories by some of our best peers.

We recognize, as we dive into the opening pages of the book, that we are in for a real treat. And Couros and his co-conspirators in producing this wonderfully engaging evening of learning with the storytellers do not let us down for even a moment. We know, from the title, that we’re going to be hearing teachers talk about the art of teaching; those of us involved in lifelong learning as trainer-teacher-learners recognize that we are with kindred spirits as we spend time with those teachers working in formal academic settings. We also know, if we are familiar with Couros’s “Three Questions on Educators That Inspire” series on his Innovator’s Mindset podcast, that those stories, as Couros himself writes, “have the potential to help improve current practice. And they can inspire current teachers while honoring the educators who once inspired them” (p. 3).

Certain themes flow consistently through the book. The teachers with whom we are spending time acknowledge the support they have received, throughout their careers, from peers, mentors, and administrators. They consistently cite the power of collaboration with their peers and with their learners. They are, themselves, consummate learners who learn from their own mistakes and recognize that the temporary failures we all face are part of our lifelong learning endeavors and actually make us more appealing and accessible to our own learners because, through our actions and admissions, acknowledge that we, too, are human and fallible.

There’s something absolutely universal and appealing about many of the stories, and I found myself appreciating the pleasant, transformative experiences I have been lucky enough to have had as I read these storytellers’ variations on the themes we shared. Steve Bollar, in his “The Art of Relationships” chapter, for example, recalls how his art teacher nurtured his growth by providing a safe space—her classroom—for him to work before the formal beginning of the school day. When he suggested “letting a few of my friends hang out in the morning with me,” the teacher readily agreed so that, “by the end of the school year, there was a sizable group of students hanging out in the art room before the school day began.” Hearing that story produce an effect akin to being struck by a (non-fatal) bolt of lightning, for it vividly brough back memories of the high school history teacher who provided a similarly safe and stimulating meeting place for many of us when we were in school. Furthermore, it brought back memories of how creatively that teacher approached his own efforts to nurture our growth as learners and how it created a lifelong desire for me, in working with my own (adult) learners in a variety of settings, to create those same types of open, welcoming, dynamic learning spaces that produce the results my co-conspirators in learning and I produce whenever we meet face to face or online.

There are numerous gems among the gorgeous stories. Deidre Roemer, for example, reminds us that “the power of a caring teacher can be felt for a lifetime” in her “Inspiration for a Lifetime and Beyond” story (p. 33). “Making students feel welcome in their learning environment is a critical first step for building strong, lasting relationships as an educator,” Mary Hemphill writes in “Teaching Full Circle” (p. 36). “It’s all about relationships,” Tom Murray remembers hearing a cherished mentor say in “Fingerprints of Impact: The Legacy of a Mentor.” “‘If you make that the core of all you do, you’ll have amazing success in your career’” (p. 43).

George Couros

The first third of the book, capturing stories about the teachers who inspired these teachers-as-storytellers, leads us naturally into the second section: stories about administrators who inspired our peers in Because of a Teacher. Couros himself sets a nice tone for that section in his opening story, “When Someone Believes in You.” He recalls feeling as if he had completely destroyed his chances of being hired into an assistant principal position by being drawn into serious arguments during his interview for the position. Discovering not long afterward that he was being offered the job because the principle wanted someone who would disagree with him when disagreement was productive, Couros walked away with a valuable lesson: “Archie [Lillico, the principal who hired Couros as his assistant principal] and I had a ton of disagreements in our time together, and that made us both better at our work. Isn’t that the point of education? Shouldn’t we want to learn new ideas and take actions to best grow in our pursuits?” (p. 56)

Couros, one page later, recalls an earlier interview completely comprised of talking “about the things that made me passionate and the things that excited me. It felt less like an interview and more like a conversation about education with colleagues in a staff room. Looking back on it, I realize that was intentional. The typical interview process doesn’t happen often in our everyday practice, but those conversations do. How we interact in those spaces really matters.”

We read (and hear) these words. We reflect on what they suggest to us. We feel inspired by them and want to immediately work them into our own practices. And by the time we finish reading the book and relishing what the stories suggest to us in terms of possibilities  in our lifelong learning landscapes, we realize we have absorbed what Couros and his colleagues set out to offer us. We are better off then we were before we picked up the book. Because of a teacher.


Fostering Creative Collaborations: CoSN and ShapingEDU

February 25, 2022

Participating in two recent highly-interactive and engaging CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking) online summits woke me up a bit to the latest fruit coming off the tree of creative collaboration between organizations I very much adore.

But what intrigued me as much as the content under review was what came out of watching colleagues from the Arizona State University ShapingEDU community as they put on their CoSN hats and created/facilitated those wonderfully engaging summit experiences. This was far from a dry lecture/presentation of newly-released reports; it was a two-part invitation to explore the content within the context of playing within an engaging learning sandbox that made audience members “co-conspirators” in the learning process—in ways that encouraged all of us to explore and absorb the information from the report so we could and would immediately begin applying what we learned to our own settings. In K-12. In higher education. In workplace learning. And, to be frank, in every imaginable corner of our overall lifelong-learning landscape.

At the center of the summit action, with strong support from and collaboration with several other CoSN members, were Laura Geringer and Karina Branson—longtime ShapingEDU colleagues I very much admire and from whom I draw tremendous inspiration in my own training-teaching-learning efforts. Laura, who as project manager was at the  heart of facilitating the process of producing those reports with Writer/Communications Manager Stephanie King, specializes in helping create tremendously engaging “immersive” experiences online and onsite through ShapingEDU; Karina, as a tremendously respected graphic facilitator, is in many ways the visual face of ShapingEDU through the imagery she produces and which is heavily integrated into much of what I encounter whenever I look at the ShapingEDU website, participate in ShapingEDU onsite and online conferences, and contribute to the ShapingEDU Reshaping Learning blog.  

Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch

And that’s where the across-the-organizations collaboration struck me immediately. Seeing Laura’s engaging approach to facilitating each of the summit sessions and seeing Karina’s create-them-as-they-happen visual renditions of what was happening during each of those sessions, made me feel as if I were a longtime member of the CoSN community rather than a relative newcomer. It was as if, in essential and engaging ways, any separation between CoSN and ShapingEDU melted away. Because the style and approach each brings to the ShapingEDU community was strongly evident in their work with CoSN and felt completely natural.

This is not to say that ShapingEDU had absorbed CoSN or that CoSN was absorbing key elements of what to me is a still-evolving ShapingEDU approach—captured wonderfully in the online publication ShapingED-YOU Toolkit—to onsite, online, and blended gatherings. It was, to be direct, an example of how the right people, collaborating the multiple organizations they serve, respond to each organization’s needs with a consistent and adaptable creative approach that produces magnificent results.

Those results, in this case, were playfully interactive exercises that encouraged summit participants to explore the material highlighted in the first and second summits. Become familiar with each other at a personal level. Begin forming connections that can and probably will extend far beyond the constraints of those brief summit sessions. And look for opportunities to dream, do, and drive together in ways that have the potential to produce positive measurable results for the summit participants and those they serve.

To take this one step further: It’s not at all surprising that the level of collaboration on display within those CoSN sessions and between CoSN and ShapingEDU should be so strong and consistent in its approach. Some members of CoSN and ShapingEDU—particularly among the sometimes overlapping leadership of those communities and the projects they undertake—have a shared lineage connected to the NMC (New Media Consortium), which served as a global learning community for educators in K-12, higher education, community colleges, libraries, and other segments of our lifelong learning environments. The spirit of community that NMC colleagues achieved continues to grow and evolve within CoSN, ShapingEDU, EDUCAUSE, and other communities that have members in common.

What it all means to me at a highly personal level and might be inspiring to you is the reminder that we all have magnificent opportunities to gather—often briefly—at the “intersections” so effectively described by Frans Johansson in his book The Medici Effect. To work together. To then return to our other communities to foster positive change by telling the stories of what we encountered during those intersection gatherings. And to relish the thought that our efforts might have ripples of impacts far beyond what any of us see in the relatively small ponds in which we swim.


Resilience

February 15, 2022

I’m exploring and practicing resilience this afternoon. Which is not a particularly difficult undertaking since I was scheduled to facilitate a conversation on the topic of resilience earlier today.

Preparing for the conversation was, itself, an exercise in resilience. We had originally scheduled the workshop for April 2022. But something happened in the workplace that inspired the client to request that we conduct the session sooner. So we reset it for today, and I gladly re-immersed myself in this extremely familiar topic over the past few days. Thinking about all the conversations I’ve had with Ruben Puentedura and other ShapingEDU colleagues on the topic and its close cousin, antifragility—the ability to experience something extremely challenging and, as a result of having had that experience, emerging stronger than before. Recalling people I have known and adored who displayed that desirable combination of resilience and antifragility. And watching for examples of resilience in what I have been reading over the past few days.

One of the people who came to mind was David Moebs, a cherished friend who succumbed to AIDS more than 20 years ago but who still feels consistently present in my life because of the resilience he displayed in the darkest of times. There was the devastating period during which he had been told he had an incurable, rapidly-progressing degenerative disease connected to AIDS and that he had less than two months to live; as he, my wife, and I were sitting together one evening and watching My Fair Lady on television (he did love his musicals), he suddenly sat upright as a commercial describing the symptoms of diabetes came on and included much of what he was experiencing.

“Oh, thank God,” he cried out in mock exaltation. “I thought I had PML.”

He was, in some ways, lucky and incredibly resilient. PML didn’t take him down at that point; he actually experienced a period of remission, during which he lived his life as fully as he could under all the constraints accompanying PML And when he did finally leave us, he left a gaping hole in our lives—one which has been accompanied by an ongoing sense of awe over how resilient he was in the most difficult of circumstances.

So I suppose it wasn’t particularly surprising that, as I thought of resilience within the life-threatening situation David experienced, that I sat upright myself as I was continuing to read Beppe Sala’s Società: per azioni (Society: For Actions) this morning and came across an extremely moving passage in which this inspiring and resilient politician (mayor of Milan) described having received a diagnosis of cancer and the resilient approach he took to that diagnosis. He recalled how his father had also been diagnosed with cancer years earlier and had surrendered to it rather than fighting it—something he refused to do. He talked about his own personal discoveries/revelations stemming from the diagnosis and his responses to it: “I discover that time is not money, but that money is time. The definitive measure of value is time. More time, more life. The battle against time. Time that flees.” (p. 33) And that beautiful set of passages continues: “It’s not easy to understand what hope might be, the humblest of virtues, a risky virtue because it is often hidden….Hope is the question that permits the response of trust, of a faith.”

All of this flows through me as if it were an electrical current jolting every cell within me, for I realize that is that moment of inspiration. That moment when preparing for a learning opportunity that I’m about to facilitate has come together with everything I need to lead a successful session. There are the opening stories that flow one into another seamlessly. The anticipation of using those stories to create a context for the transformative experience all of us are seeking as co-conspirators in the learning process. The joy of anticipating being with a group of learners I’ve come to know and admire over the past few months. And the pleasure of sharing stories that help us bring some level of understanding and encouragement that will, by the end of that hour, looking at the topic of resilience with widened eyes and some sort of plan for what we will do differently, in the week ahead of us, as a result of our having spent time together.

I set my notes aside. Prepare my workspace for the online session I’m about to facilitate. Pull a few books off my shelf as points for reference for the conversation that is about to begin. Settle in to wait for the first learners to arrive. And nothing happens. It’s just me, my notes, my PowerPoint slide deck, and a clock showing that I’m five minutes away from the scheduled beginning of the session. Which does not actually begin because it turns out that the person organizing the session had intended to reschedule it again, but lost track of the need to notify me.

This was not something that left me angry. (It helped to know that cancellation with little or no notice means I’m paid my facilitator’s fee.) This is not something that was even deeply disappointing. Because I know we will reschedule that conversation. And that the preparation that went into it will serve all of us well when we finally do gather to explore what resilience means to each of us in our work and in our play. Because, we know, we want to be resilient. And we are. Resilient enough, in fact, to recognize that the time I would have dedicated to leading the session could just as easily be used to write a new piece for my blog.


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

December 3, 2021

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

Graphic by Karina Branson/ConverSketch

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

Graphic by Karina Branson/ConverSketch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

December 2, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Giving Thanks 2021: ShapingEDU Promoting Internet Access

November 30, 2021

When a few of us involved as volunteer community leaders in the ShapingEDU project (under the auspices of the University Technology Office at Arizona State University) asked ourselves in May 2020 what we might productively do to support learning during (and beyond) the coronavirus pandemic era, we were among those recognizing that difficulty accessing the Internet for learning as well as for work was a painfully obvious problem affecting people across the United States.

It didn’t take us long to identify a key role we could play in an already-crowded field of colleagues who had been working diligently and creatively to promote universal broadband access throughout the United States for at least a couple of decades: the fact that we were (and are) a rapidly-evolving community (with global reach) committed, overall, to doing whatever we could to help reshape the future of learning in the digital age, and that we work continually face to face and online in extremely collaborative ways, gave us hope that we might be able to serve as a meeting place for others equally dedicated to promoting universal broadband access throughout the United States. With that in mind, we quickly established the “Connecting for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative; agreed to meet for up to an hour once a week with work to be done between meetings to keep things moving; established a pattern of trying to complete at least one concrete action at each meeting to support the goal of establishing universal broadband access throughout our country; and initiated a practice of inviting other broadband-access activists to join us for discussions about who collaboration might produce positive results for those without adequate internet access to effectively engage in work and learning.

As 2021 comes to an end and I continue celebrating an extended “Thanksgiving” weekend by expressing gratitude to the activists I continue to encounter in and through ShapingEDU, I have to admit that I’m deeply grateful for the results we have already produced with these creative, collaborative, results-oriented colleagues. Our first year of work, as I noted in a piece for the ShapingEDU blog earlier this year, produced wonderful results. We, with tremendous assistance from colleagues at Arizona State University and numerous volunteers who have joined our weekly meetings, put together a free four-week self-paced course that remains accessible to anyone wanting to learn more about how to effectively advocate for universal broadband access throughout the United States. We compiled and posted an initial collection of stories from Americans plagued by poor or no access to the Internet and shared it with colleagues at the FCC. We facilitated and participated in online sessions (some initiated through ShapingEDU, others organized as part of online conferences or presentations by other groups promoting broadband access) designed to help others identify ways they would become broadband advocates. We posted interviews with inspirational broadband activists on the ShapingEDU blog. And we continually expanded the reach of the initiative to draw key players into the conversations we were organizing and facilitating.

Moving into the second year of operation (in May 2021), we set even higher goals for ourselves. We want to expand the reach of the course we designed and offer at least one formally-scheduled fully-facilitated version of that course to inspire other broadband activists. We want to establish more concrete partnerships with colleagues and organizations that already are well-established as broadband-access advocates. We want to more effectively serve as resources for conferences and other gatherings where broadband activists congregate, dream, and engage in results-oriented planning and action. And we want to further develop the “Connecting for Work and Learning” community as a meeting place for anyone interested in working toward solutions to the broadband-access challenges so many of us face.

Our most recent meetings—including a follow-up conversation we had today with Lyle Ishida, FCC Chief of the Consumer Affairs and Outreach Division (CAOD) (you can view the recording through this link; you’ll need to use the password “egGg8?8T” to open the archived version of the recording) and discussion we have been having with colleagues at Consumer Reports—are producing magnificent collaborative opportunities. We are gearing up for a potentially transformative set of collaborations. We are sharing resources and gaining the benefit of having access to resources produced by our “co-conspirators” in the planning process. And we continue to look for new partners in our effort to create something as transformative as our predecessors did when they pushed for creation of the U.S. Postal Service more than two centuries ago and the electrification of the country nearly a century ago, we hope you will want to join us, too. For more information about how to become involved in “Connecting for Work and Learning,” please visit our project page at ShapingEDU.

Next: ShapingEDU and the Art of Gathering During (and After) the Pandemic Era

N.B.: This is the sixth in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways.


Giving Thanks 2021: Shola Richards, Community, and Ubuntu (“I Am, Because We Are”)

November 29, 2021

“Community” and “collaboration” have been at the heart of what I have loved and what I have been doing for many years. Combined, they give me myriad reasons to be grateful for the people in my life and for the circumstances in which I find myself. They are, furthermore, essential elements of the training-teaching-learning opportunities I design and facilitate for the “co-conspirators” in learning I serve. They were at the heart of the Hidden Garden Steps project—creation of a ceramic-tiled staircase and adjacent gardens—I helped shepherd to success here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset district with artists Colette Crutcher and Aileen Barr, dozens of volunteers, and hundreds of donors from 2010-2013. And they certainly are keys to any success I see in the social causes I support.

Shola Richards

So when I read Shola Richards’ heartbreakingly beautiful Facebook post (May 20, 2020) about how he “would be scared to death to take…walks [around his own neighborhood] without my girls and my dog” and how, “in the four years living in my house, I have never taken a walk around my neighborhood alone (and probably never will),” he immediately had my attention. Because Shola’s piece struck me as being painfully honest.

“…without them [his daughters] by my side,” he explained, “almost instantly, I morph into a threat in the eyes of some white folks. Instead of being a loving dad to two little girls, unfortunately, all that some people can see is a 6’2” athletically-built black man in a cloth mask who is walking around in a place where he doesn’t belong (even though, I’m still the same guy who just wants to take a walk through his neighborhood). It’s equal parts exhausting and depressing to feel like I can’t walk around outside alone, for fear of being targeted.”

Within the space of several beautifully-written paragraphs, he effectively evokes the experience so many Americans have when community and collaboration are not anywhere near as fully developed as they should be. He also provides a call to positive action, to the spirit of developing communities through maximum amounts of collaboration as much as he provides an indictment of inaction on our part in the face of obvious injustice.

When I come across writing that is this powerful and this honest, I immediately (and gratefully) crave more. So with gratitude for what he had already inspired and anticipation of so much more, I took the actions that made sense to me. I responded to his post and engaged in what continues to be an occasional exchange of notes about what he is doing and how powerfully and positively it motivates me in my own work. I learned more about his work by watching his TED talk on the concept of “Ubuntu” (I am, because we are.) I developed a deeper sense of how he worked as an advocate for greater levels of civility through empathy and collaboration in our workplaces by watching the brief promotional video on his website. I took advantage of an opportunity to join an online session in which he was the keynote presenter. And, ultimately, because what I was really seeking was more of his writing, I devoured his two books, Making Work Work: The Positivity Solution for Any Work Environment and Go Together: How the Concept of Ubuntu Will Change How You Live, Work, and Lead.

Making Work Work is both a manifesto and a paeon to those would are committed to and want to be engaged in fostering greater levels of civility in our workplaces. Published in 2016, the book lays out a roadmap toward workplace civility and offers a very enticing invitation and challenge to become a “Solutionist” dedicated to “keeping it R.E.A.L.”—creating workplaces and a world where Relentless respect, Endless energy, Addressing the ABC’s of Workplace Negativity, and Lasting Leadership combine to address the bullying and meanness that takes us down. Reading Making Work Work a few years after it was initially published and within the highly-polarized context of the final year of the Trump administration made me appreciate it at a level far beyond the focus on workplace bullying; it clearly, without overtly doing so, was laying the groundwork for what he wrote in that Facebook post and what he turned to in Go Together.

While we are still firmly grounded in keeping it R.E.A.L., we find ourselves, in Go Together, more overtly confronting bigotry, hatred, and intolerance. We are challenged to work first upon ourselves—our assumptions, our day-to-day behavior, and what he refers to as our “self-awareness crisis,” which is the situation in which our lack of self-awareness prevents us, as a mentor of his once said, from recognizing that we are “the raindrop responsible for the flood.” Some of the chapter headings hint at the gems we will encounter here: “the unpleasant reality behind good intentions,” “the importance of healing yourself first,” and “kindness is not weakness: the heart of the Ubuntu leader.” But it’s not a book that tears us down or opens wound then left untreated; it’s a book from one wonderful American to any other American horrified by the path so many of us have chosen and looking for an outstretched hand offering a path to stronger communities with greater levels of positive collaboration designed to address some of our greatest challenges.

I’m grateful for all Shola offers. For the heartfelt stories. For the challenges and accompanying support he extends to any of us willing to join him. And for the inspiration he so consistently provides. Looking at his Facebook account this afternoon as I was finishing this piece, I came across a quote he offered: “What we allow is what will continue.” And it makes me think, again, about how important it is that we allow Shola and others as honest and inspirational as he is into our lives. And reciprocate by inviting them into ours. For community. For collaboration. And for our future.

Next: ShapingEDU Promoting Internet Access

N.B.: This is the fifth in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways.


Giving Thanks 2021: Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering

November 28, 2021

When you’re still thinking about, feeling grateful for, and applying lessons learned several months after reading a book, you know the book is a winner—which perfectly describes Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters and how it will transform anyone interested in making each gathering/meeting/training-teaching-learning offering as engaging and memorable as it can be.

Priya Parker; photo by Jeff Allen, from Parker’s website

Described (by its subtitle) as a book on “how we meet and why it matters,” it might not immediately catch the attention of my colleagues in training-teaching-learning—which is a real shame, for in adjusting our thinking so that “lessons,” “workshops,” “courses,” and “panel discussions” are seen through the powerful lens of “gatherings,” we find magnificent ways to liberate ourselves and our learners—what some of us call “co-conspirators in learning”—from the “tedium of learning” and find new ways to turn those lessons/workshops/courses/panel discussions into engaging, transformative gatherings with long-term impact.

The initial chapters of this engagingly-written book focus on social gatherings and the gatherings that occur when, for example, students and senior citizens living together in a retirement community interact over a long period of time. She offers concise reminders that successful gatherings grow out of myriad up-front decisions about the purpose of the gathering, the location in which it will be held, the duration of the gathering, and even the number of people who will be included in the gathering—all of which, of course, are elements considered and decisions made as we design and facilitate effective, memorable, transformative learning opportunities. She reminds us that “…a venue can and should do one further thing: displace people. Displacement is simply about breaking people out of their habits. It is about waking people up from the slumber of their own routines” (p. 62)—again, something that any creative, learner-centric trainer-teacher-learning facilitator knows and considers regardless of whether a gathering is taking place onsite or online.

One of the sections where she tremendously inspires us in our lifelong-learning environments is in her discussion, near the middle of the book (pp. 172-173), on the importance of providing a memorable opening to any gathering:

“Openings are a big missed opportunity in gatherings. They all too often underwhelm us, and they don’t have to. After all, openings lay the track for a gathering….Our brain effectively chooses for us what we will remember later. Studies show that audiences disproportionately remember the first 5 percent, the last 5 percent, and a climactic moment of a talk….And yet we often pay the least attention to how we open and close them, treating these elements as afterthoughts.”

Continuing on this theme (pp. 177-178), she reminds us that we have plenty of adaptable models for providing stimulating, memorable openings for our gatherings—including the formats common today in movies and television programs:

“The cold open is the practice of starting a TV show directly with a scene rather than with opening credits….Your opening needs to be a kind of pleasant shock therapy. It should grab people. And in grabbing them, it should both awe the guests and honor them. It must plant in them the paradoxical feeling of being totally welcomed and deeply grateful to be there.”

And that, for me, is the reason I’m including Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering in this series of “Giving Thanks” essays: I’m grateful that I came across that passage about the cold open and then had an opportunity to discuss and explore it with Stephen Hurley during an episode of our “Collaborations in Learning” conversations for his voicEd Radio program earlier this year; it made me completely change the way I open any learning opportunity I design and facilitate face-to-face or online. Gone are the (occasional) openings I used to offer about what was on the agenda for the session I was about to facilitate; the learners already knew that from the session or course description that had lured them to that particular learning gathering. Gone are the introductory comments designed to provide a brief overview of whatever topic we are going to cover; that, again, is generally covered in the brief descriptions or pre-session work that so often accompanies sessions I facilitate.

What we are left with is the best, most engaging story I can provide—that cold-open approach that grabs a learner’s attention, immediately inspires conversation, makes my co-conspirators want to know more about the people or circumstances at the heart of that story, and makes it clear that we are not going to waste time on turgid, unnecessary scene-setting. We’re here to work, to learn, and, in the best of situations, have some fun along the way through the act of sharing stories and drawing, from those stories, ideas we can immediately adapt in our workplaces or other places where what has been learned is meant to be applied. We are left with learning as storytelling and community-building rather than something that is focused on a lecture and ends with a quiz or formal exam.

There’s plenty more meat on the bones of this book. Parker leads us through an exploration of the value of storytelling. She describes the importance of creating gatherings that are “safe” places as well as places that offer challenges—those places where we are not afraid to take risks (the sort of personal risks obvious to any learner who tries to avoid the pain of “failure” while learning, even though temporary failure is an integral part of the learning process).

And she eventually travels full circle by coming back to a discussion of the combination of supporting vulnerability in our gatherings while fostering storytelling as she quotes Moth founder George Dawes Green (p. 212):

“Story is about a decision that you made. It’s not about what happens to you. And if you hit that and you get your vulnerability and you understand the stakes, and a few other things, people will intuitively find great stories to tell, and as soon as they do, we know them. We know them as human beings. This is no longer my boss’s colleague. This is a real person who had heartbreak. Oh, I know that.”

Parker, nearing the end of her book, reminds us that gatherings need to include appropriate, satisfying conclusions/endings (p. 268): “Part of preparing guests for reentry is helping them find a thread to connect the world of the gathering to the world outside.” And, in a parallel moment of recognition, we recognize that the learning opportunities—the gatherings—we facilitate also need to end with those all-important moment of preparing our learners for reentry into the environments in which they will—with a sense of gratitude for what they have obtained during their time with us—put lessons learned to work. If our gatherings produce those gem-like moments, we are well on our way to success…and a reputation for gatherings worth attending.

Next:  Shola Richards, Community, and Ubuntu (“I Am, Because We Are”)

N.B.: This is the fourth in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways.


Giving Thanks 2021: Stephen Hurley and voicEd Radio

November 27, 2021

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

Stephen Hurley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering

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


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