NMC 2015 Summer Conference: Full Participation & Circling Back to Conversations

June 9, 2015

When a few hundred of your favorite educational-technology colleagues from all over the world gather to explore trends and developments in teaching-training-learning, you certainly don’t want to miss a single minute of it. So you arrive a day or two before formal activities start. Spend inordinate amounts of time engaged in face-to-face conversations in the various hotel lounges and lobbies. Skim the conference Twitter feed (#nmc15 for this one). Pore over the conference program book and website trying to decide how to be in five places at the same time. Reach out via social media to colleagues who couldn’t be onsite so they won’t be left out of the conversations. Grab every available opportunity to join colleagues for breakfast, coffee, lunch, coffee, dessert, coffee, dinner, coffee, dessert and coffee. And just when you believe you’ve covered all your physical and virtual bases, you unexpectedly find delightful additional ways to be so plugged into and help plug others into the overall conference conversation that it feels as if it will never end.

NMC_2015_Summer_Conference--LogoWhat we’re talking about here is a magnificent part of the connected learninglifelong learning process at conferences that becomes exponentially more rewarding with every new effort we make to be part of the conversations that contribute to the growth and innovation fueling first-rate teaching-training-learning efforts, as we’re seeing again this week during the New Media Consortium (NMC) 2015 Summer Conference here in the Washington, D.C. area. Formal conference keynote presentations, breakout sessions within a variety of pathways, and other activities start tomorrow; half-day preconference workshops took place today. Onsite conversations were already underway two days ago as a few of us arrived Sunday evening. And pre-preconference online conversations have been taking place for at least a few weeks. All of which raises an interesting question: given all the resources we have to interact face-to-face as well as virtually and synchronously as well as asynchronously, when can we actually say an intensive onsite-online learning experience begins and ends, and what (if any) geographic boundaries define a conference site?

TwitterTwitter has been an essential part of my conference experience for the past few years. By skimming the feed from a conference hashtag a few times a day (and understanding that it’s far from necessary to read every tweet if I want to gain a sense of what is occurring), I’m able to asynchronously join conversations and “attend” sessions I otherwise would not have time to sample. By live-tweeting sessions and monitoring the feed from those sessions, I’m able to share content with offsite colleagues, occasionally draw them into what is happening onsite, and interact with others in particularly large meeting rooms. And, by commenting on colleagues’ tweets during and after sessions, I’ve found Twitter serving as yet another portal to meeting colleagues I might otherwise not have met—even though we were (or are) in the same room during a conference session.

And that’s where conversations can both meander and circle back upon themselves in the most unexpected ways and at the most unexpected times. I’ve met colleagues face-to-face for the first time by responding to their tweets during a session, and then seeking them out before any of us have a chance to leave a room at the end of a session—which, of course, leads to extensions of the conversations fostered by those facilitating the conference sessions we were attending. I’ve also had the wonderful opportunity to serendipitously pick up the threads of a conversation hours later when small groups of colleagues gather in those aforementioned hotel lounges and lobbies. Conversations occasionally extend over Twitter for several days after a conference formally ends, and can also continue as those of us who blog read and comment upon each other’s posted reflections on those blogs.

Coffee in a local shop

Coffee in a local shop

But today brought a wonderfully new and unexpected variation on the theme. Needing some time away from all those preconference conversations and preconference workshops, I decided to go offsite for the first half of the day to have brunch and visit one of Washington’s magnificent museums. As I was finishing brunch, I couldn’t resist the temptation to engage in what was going to be first of three check-ins to the conference Twitter feed throughout the day. And there it was: a colleague’s wonderful summary of high points from a three-hour workshop—which I was able to skim in less than 10 minutes, with a few additional minutes set aside to retweet a few comments I thought off-site colleagues might appreciate reading. After a couple of hours in the museum and a little more reading time in a local coffee shop, I made the quick cross-town trip back toward the conference hotel via Washington’s subway system, and planned to catch the shuttle that completes a circle between the hotel, the closest subway station, and the airport (which is only a very short distance from the hotel where we are staying) every 30 minutes.

The shuttle arrived as expected. What I hadn’t in any way anticipated was the discovery that the presenter from that morning preconference workshop was sitting across the aisle from me on the shuttle. So as he was heading back to the airport and I was planning on staying on the shuttle to return to the hotel, we had a few minutes to ride that circular route together while discussing his presentation, laugh over the idea that we didn’t have to send follow-up tweets (at least for the moment) to continue our conversation, and that his part of the circle that was taking him to the airport so wonderfully overlapped with part of my own circle back to the onsite conference conversation.

It may be months before we see each other face-to-face again. But already, as I capture this set of reflections late at night, I see the conversation extending further—along with the reach of the “conference site” via a follow-up email message he sent. And if he and I (and others here at the NMC 2015 Summer Conference) carry these extended-learning lessons back to our own learners, who can say when the conference will really end?

Alan Levine, #etmooc, and the cMOOC That Would Not Die

May 29, 2015

We can cut off its head, fill its mouth with garlic, and drive a stake through its body, but we apparently can’t kill a well-designed, engaging, dynamic learning experience and the community of learning it spawns. Nor would we want to.

Graphic by Alan Levine

Graphic by Alan Levine

At least that’s what a cherished colleague, Alan Levine, suggests in “The cMOOC That Would Not Die,” a newly-posted article (with accompanying graphics that puckishly draw upon horror-film imagery) that captures the spirit and reach of #etmooc—the Educational Technology & Media massive open online course he helped shape and facilitate as a course “conspirator” in early 2013.

Inspired by the #etmooc community’s latest learning endeavor—a tweet chat that drew community members together for a lively hour-long discussion about integrating Twitter into learning earlier this week—Levine combines his usual wicked sense of humor and insightful perspective into a set of reflections that should inspire any trainer-teacher-learner.

I’ve been among those writing extensively about the unexpected longevity of #etmooc as a learning experience/community; a model for lifelong learning communities; and an example of how connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) are beginning to serve as a new form of (collaboratively-produced) textbook; in fact, I’ve probably produced enough to kill a small forest of virtual trees, and am far from finished with the topic. But none of that stops me from eagerly reading and learning from Levine’s “cMOOC That Would Not Die” and recognizing it as a manifestation of the very thing it is exploring.

The playfulness with which he tackles his topic reflects the playfulness that was at the heart of the learning process in #etmooc (and, for that matter, almost every significant learning experience I can remember having). That same playfulness is certainly one of the elements that binds members of the #etmooc community together, as anyone reading the slightly-edited transcript of the integrating-Twitter-into-learning session can’t help but notice. The sense of camaraderie is palpable, and when I talk with friends and colleagues about the value of engagement in training-teaching-learning, I often wonder aloud why so many people seem to be reticent about fostering a sense of community in the learning process.

etmooc_blog_hubLevine’s obvious passion for #etmoocers’ continuing levels of engagement—the community had produced tens of thousands of tweets and 4,746 posts from 513 blogs before he wrote his article; his latest contribution pushed it to 4,747 posts—reflects the same passion that continues to draw #etmooc community members together through tweet chats, Google Hangouts, and other online platforms. And, he notes, it’s not about massive numbers of participants; it’s about the quality and openness of the engagement: “I will cherish and take this kind of experience any day over some massive MOOC of tens of thousands of enrollees, 2% or so who stick around, and [whose] corpus remains stockpiled behind a login.”

His reflections further serve as a manifestation how he and other #etmooc community members learn via extended cross-platform asynchronous exchanges that inspire additional collaborations: he blogs; we read; we respond via the sort of linked response I’m producing here; and we extend the conversation via comments on his own blog site as well as via tweets that call attention to his blogged reflections—a process that is continuing to unfold even as I write these words.

As I often note in learning sessions I facilitate, this is a wonderfully messy and engaging approach to learning—one that offers numerous rewards while also inspiring us to learn how to learn through entirely different approaches to learning than we ever expected to encounter. It’s what many of us learned, from Dave Cormier, to refer to and think of as rhizomatic learning—learning that expands as rapidly and expansively as rhizomes do.

etmoocBut when all is said and done, it all comes down to something Levine facetiously asserts at the beginning of his article: “Someone never told the folks who participated in the 2013 Educational Technology and Media MOOC that it was over. They are still at it.” And the perfect riposte comes in a form of a tweet posted by Thomas Okon (@thomasjokon) in March 2013 as the last of the formal #etmooc modules had been completed and people were talking about how sorry they were that the course was “over”: “Over?  Was it over when the Germans… Its not over till we say it is. Im keeping my column in Tweet deck!”

Okon was—and remains—right. We continue to learn together in a variety of settings. To work together (several of us went on to design and facilitate another connectivist MOOC). To write about it individually and as co-writers. And to engage in teaching-training-learning-doing so that the community continues to grow by acquiring new members and inspiring others to produce their own versions of our successes.

#oclmooc and Connected Courses MOOC (#ccourses): When Personal Learning Networks Collide (Again)  

September 30, 2014

Connected learning went over the top again this evening as members of the Open and Connected Learning MOOC (#oclmooc) community of learning engaged in their/our first tweet chat as a group coalescing through a connectivist massive open online course (MOOC).

TweetchatsIt’s difficult to know where to start in describing how the learning connections expanded rapidly and rhizomatically during that one-hour session that was fast-paced and well-facilitated by #oclmooc co-conspirator Verena Roberts. There’s a temptation to talk about the obvious connections to be made between #oclmooc and the equally fabulous Connected Courses MOOC (#ccourses) community of learning since at least a few of us are participating in both and extending conversations between the two MOOC communities. There’s also the temptation to talk about how the #oclmooc session and so much of what we’re doing in #ccourses is making us more aware and appreciative of the importance of personal learning networks in learning—particularly since #ccourses just produced an engaging and inspiring session on “Social Capital and PLNs: Discovering, Building, and Cultivating Networks of Learners,” as I documented in a blog article posted yesterday. There is even a temptation to focus on the fact that what was originally designed to be a MOOC to connect educators in Alberta (Canada) quickly morphed into a MOOC open to—and attracting participation from—trainer-teacher-learners around the world (an obviously brazen and much-appreciated attempt by our Alberta colleagues to make the entire world a protectorate of Alberta and its innovative onsite-online learning community!).

oclmooc_logoBut what was most interesting to me at a personal level was how the open conversation taking place within Twitter drew in colleagues not previously connected through either MOOC. This has happened to me in other MOOCs, as I wrote in an earlier article, and I would be surprised if it hasn’t happened to others engaged in connected-learning environments. What was noteworthy and unexpected this time was how quickly everyone naturally and playfully fell into exchanges that suggest the blossoming of new learning—and, more importantly for explorations and documentation of how connected-learning works, the blossoming of new learning relationships, as Verena quipped when it became obvious that one of my New Mexico-based colleagues from the New Media Consortium had seen one of my tweets and retweeted it to her own followers. Not more than a few minutes passed before a Kansas-based colleague from an entirely different community of learning—the American Library Association Learning Round Table—saw my online admission that I hadn’t yet participated in edcamp activities.

“You, of all people, need to crash an edcamp,” she commanded with mock consternation shared openly with other #oclmooc participants. “Get with it.”

And to emphasize yet another element of these connected-learning rhizomatically-expanding interactions—the idea that our online interactions are not and need not all be conducted synchronously—I later realized, while reviewing a record of the #oclmooc tweet chat, that a North Carolina-based colleague that I know well from yet another first-rate community of learning (#lrnchat) had also responded with an edcamp response directed to two #oclmooc members and one other #lrnchat colleague.

ccourses_logoThe tally of net gains (networked gains?) from the session, then, include a strengthening of the #oclmooc community, which was designed to foster greater communication between teacher-trainer-learners; more cross-pollination between #oclmooc and #ccourses through the tweets and this follow-up blog post; the possible beginning of interactions between various members of my own personal learning network outside of the MOOCs and members of the two connectivist MOOCs—with no need for me to remain anywhere near the center of those interactions; additional interactions between all of us and a group of young connected-learning students we were encouraged to contact through their own group blogging efforts; and the pleasure of encountering new ideas through articles—including Clay Shirky’s essay “Why I Just Asked My Students to Put Away Their Laptops,” and Laura Hilliger’s article “Teach the Web (MOOC)”—mentioned during the live tweet chat. And there clearly is much more to come.

N.B.: This is the eighth in a series of posts documenting learning through #ccourses and #oclmooc.  

ASTD International Conference 2014, Twitter, and Staying Connected: No Longer Left Behind—Again!

May 5, 2014

The news that I made a new friend by participating in the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) 2014 International Conference & Exposition (ICE) today isn’t particularly noteworthy. The fact that I unexpectedly accomplished this with the help of two other people who weren’t physically attending a conference that I, too, am not physically attending does, however, suggest that there is a worthwhile story to tell any trainer-teacher-learner who is interested.

ASTD_ICE_2014We’ve heard quite a bit suggesting that social media tools make us lonely; that it’s time to deliver “A Eulogy for Twitter” as “the beloved social platform enters its twilight”; and that a social network can’t replace a “real” one (as if everyone who uses social media makes this an either-or decision).

What isn’t as often heard or read is the idea that being left behind when we are not able to physically join our friends and colleagues at wonderful professional development gatherings like ASTD ICE, American Library Association (ALA) conferences, and the numerous others that beckon is increasingly less of a problem than it was before social media tools came our way.

As I have continued experimenting with the use of social media tools in workplace and personal settings over the past several years, I’ve become intrigued by the possibilities they offer in terms of not being left behind. With that in mind, I tried a spur-of-the-moment experiment with ASTD colleagues last fall by trying to participate in an ASTD conference I was unable to physically attend. And while the last-minute nature of that experiment limited the number of exchanges I had with those onsite colleagues, I did unexpectedly encounter one sign of success: interacting with onsite participants by responding to tweets rather than just retweeting content for others caused a couple of people to ask if I were actually there. When we see the lines blur so much that offsite participation creates the sense of onsite interaction, I believe we have, in the best of situations, moved beyond the idea that we can’t be there unless we’re there.

The inspiration to retry the experiment with more deliberate planning came after another ASTD colleague, Larry Straining, posted a note on his Facebook account to let others know he was sorry he wouldn’t be physically present this week, but that he was looking forward to seeing tweets from conference attendees.

“If we follow the backchannel a bit and interact as time allows, we might extend the reach of the conference in significant ways and, at the same time, learn even more about how to effectively incorporate social media into our training-teaching-learning process,” I wrote in response—and that’s exactly how it played out today as I followed, responded to, and interacted with onsite colleagues from the comfort of my own home.

TwitterIt didn’t take long for my initial retweets—including brief comments building upon that content—to begin being retweeted under the conference hashtag. And it took less than three hours for a wonderful colleague to pop that magic question: Are you here? Which, of course, inspired the response “yes and no,” depending on how we define “here.”

Those who remain skeptical of the power of online exchanges will immediately raise a number of objections, including the (mistaken) belief that we can only make new conference acquaintances and interact with conference colleagues when we are face-to-face—an idea we disproved when Larry and I, via Facebook exchanges extending his initial thoughts, drew one of his colleagues into the exchange. The colleague—Kent Brooks—asked Larry for permission to quote from Larry’s postings about the value of using a Twitter feed to stay in touch with colleagues at a conference. I dove back into the exchange to ask Kent whether he wanted to try to coordinate blog postings on the topic—at which point Larry formally introduced us to each other, and Kent and I quickly completed the “friend” process on Facebook to move things along. My own tweet (to the conference feed) documenting that we had met through the conference without physically being at the conference was retweeted—as was a follow-up tweet I forwarded to draw attention to Kent’s earlier piece on “10 Reasons to Tweet at a Conference.”

It probably goes without saying that I laughed out loud when I discovered that my retweet of Kent’s piece was itself, retweeted by others—including Melissa Daimler, who serves as head of organizational effectiveness and learning at Twitter and also serves on the ASTD Board of Directors.

Atkinson--BackchannelIt’s worth noting that one very important element making this level of onsite-offsite interaction possible is the existence of a very strong backchannel among the first-rate trainer-teacher-learners who are at the heart of ASTD. The quality of the tweets from ASTD conference attendees is among the strongest I encounter: multiple voices tweeting individual sessions (not just notes about where to meet for drinks or swag) so that it’s possible to gain a sense of what is being discussed onsite; combined with the use of a conference app that is easily accessible and includes schedules, speaker bios, session materials when presenters have made them available so we can view them from a distance, and much more; and observations which in themselves provide magnificent learning moments.

As we began to wind down toward the end of this ever-evolving cross-platform series of exchanges, Kent and I returned to Facebook and Larry’s original post.

“When you state in your [original “No Longer Left Behind”] post, ‘The real pay-off for the experiment came when the exchanges put me in touch with one of the presenters who had seen the retweets and comments. The result, in many ways, was exactly what it would have been if I had been onsite and meeting members of those expanding communities of learning and personal learning networks rather than feeling as if I were part of the left-behind gang,’ I would suggest it was better than a come and go exchange which includes the standard ‘business card trading ritual’ as it allowed you to follow them (on Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. and continue to learn from them beyond the 60 minutes of the session + the 5 minute rush to talk to the presenter immediately following the session,” Kent proposed.

To which I openly admitted: “It would have been true if I hadn’t treated the virtual exchange exactly as one of those business-card exchanges you describe. Just as I do keep and return to business card contacts occasionally as time allows (loud sound of rueful laughter here for missed opportunities), I do occasionally return to that sort of virtually-established contact—but not nearly enough. It would appear that bad habits onsite translate to bad habits online–but I’m continuing to learn, thanks to people like you who inspire me to look for ways to become a better trainer-teacher-learner.”

So, no, Facebook is not making me lonelier. And I’m far from ready to join others in delivering a eulogy for Twitter. And yes, it would be lovely to be there onsite at the conference with others. But if I were there, I wouldn’t have had this latest magnificent experiential learning opportunity to help me further understand, at a visceral level, what amazing tools we currently have at our trainer-teacher-learner fingertips. Each experience brings its own benefits, its own rewards. And having the opportunity to learn with my colleagues remains at the heart of what continues to draw me to these conferences and exchanges.

N.B. — Here’s Kent’s latest contribution to the conversation: Twitter Activity at #ASTD2014 Through Monday May 5 [2014]. Also found backchannel participation from Michelle Ockers on her blog.

Learning Social Media With Our Learners Revisited: Tweetorientations

March 14, 2014

Less than a year ago, Betty Turpin (librarian at the International School of Stuttgart) was completing a four-week online “Social Media Basics” course I had designed and was facilitating for ALA Editions. Now she is introducing me to innovative uses of the social media tools we explored with her course colleagues.

Betty Turpin

Betty Turpin

Twitter is at the center of a story that should be tremendously inspiring and useful to any trainer-teacher-learner. Betty is maintaining a wonderful Twitter feed (look particularly as the series of tweets that began appearing on February 13, 2014) to help prepare students for participation in a dynamic study-abroad program and project designed to produce concrete results: “planning, managing, and implementing an entirely new school library, and assessing a sustainable automation system in a fully-contained setting” while earning full credit for two courses (“Managing Library Automation Projects” and “Seminar in Information Resources and Services for Special Clienteles”), a promotional flyer confirms. Betty’s use of Twitter also made me aware of what she is doing; we used Twitter for an initial interview about her efforts before moving the conversation into email; and I suspect we’ll both continue using Twitter to post updates as she continues orientation-by-Twitter—an idea I suspect many of us will eagerly look to apply into our own training-teaching-learning efforts.

Her summary via email shows us what has developed:

UNT_Logo“The University of North Texas [UNT], your alma mater as well as mine, has a study abroad program for graduate library students. I participated as a student four years ago in Kyiv, Ukraine. Last year I tagged along to a school in Moscow, Russia, for my own professional development. I graduated from UNT in 2012, but as you might imagine, professional development for English-speaking librarians overseas is a bit hard to come by. This year, I am the sponsoring librarian and the students are coming to work for me at my school in Stuttgart, Germany.  I’ve also arranged for the students to start-up a library at a new international school in Karlovy Vary, CZ.  The school will open its doors with its first students in August, 2014. The library and opening day collection will be put into place by UNT’s Dr. [Barbara] Schultz-Jones, Professor Debby Jennings, and their team of 20 graduate librarians.

“Dr. Schultz-Jones has been running this program for ten years, more or less…When the team started getting themselves organized for this year’s trip, I decided to use a social media platform to help pass on some of the information they might either need or want for their trip.”

International_School_of_Stuttgart_LogoTwitter became Betty’s tool of choice because she saw it as a way to build excitement; as a resource that could be easily managed on a day-to-day basis; and as a conduit to concisely provide valuable tidbits orienting the learners to the International School of Stuttgart, the city and its culture, and general library issues they will need to understand before they dive into their project of creating that new school library in the Czech Republic, she explained.

“Students get overwhelmed thinking abt. an overseas visit. Bits of info at a time work better, hence tweets,” she added via Twitter.

The feed she maintains is charmingly effective. It begins with an invitation to engagement (“Welcome, UNT Student Librarians! Pls follow me. We’ll tweet info., photos, and exciting news from Germany until you are HERE! Tchüß!”); continues with introductions to wonderful resources, including the school’s website and to the Visible Thinking site, to prepare them for the work they are about to begin; and includes tweets designed to facilitate online interactions among the learners themselves. Understanding the value of imagery, she is particularly good at incorporating colorful photographs into those tweets, showing everything from playful images of the people the learners will meet at the school to a picture of one of the chairs available to them. This is a level of orientation so far removed from the deadly-dull introductory information dumps so prevalent in student and workplace learning today that it almost begs to have its own training-teaching-learning nomenclature: Tweetorientations, anyone?

And there’s more: her feed, in addition to nurturing a community of learning, also has the potential to easily be organized into a newly-formatted reusable learning object—perhaps part of a larger custom-designed orientation manual or virtual textbook that could include tips and observations from the learners themselves—if she ultimately decides to collect the entire series into a Storify document or a PDF to be accessed by the UNT students or anyone else interested in Stuttgart and the International School.

For now (as Betty notes), she has a very small number of followers on Twitter. But I suspect that will change when our training-teaching-learning colleagues realize how effectively she is using Twitter. And what a great example she is setting for the rest of us.

ALA Midwinter 2014: Life at the Speed of Light

January 24, 2014

Attending the American Library Association (ALA) 2014 Midwinter Meeting here in Philadelphia is helping me viscerally understand the concept of dog years—that belief that a year in a dog’s life is much more compressed than a year of a human’s life.

ALA_Midwinter_2014--LogoArriving a couple of days early so I would have a chance to acclimate to time and climate changes (and make no mistake about it: leaving San Francisco’s unseasonably warm weather for nine-degree Fahrenheit temperatures and snow-covered sidewalks and plazas here is a major change), I spent a little time during that first evening learning to walk on snow and ice without looking as if I were a runner-up contestant on a show combining America’s least-coordinated people with a perverse parody of the Ice Capades (sans ice skates).

Having remastered the art of walking by mid-day Thursday, I immersed myself in one of the relatively new local gems: the Barnes Foundation, with its exquisite collection of Impressionist works, African masks and more contemporary paintings and watercolors. Entering the gallery spaces with little more than a passing awareness of the controversies surrounding the move of the collections from their original site to this newly-created space near the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Rodin Museum, I found curiosity about the controversies being quickly replaced by a sense of awe and wonder by the scope of the collections (more Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Prendergast, Glackens, Demuth, and Pascin paintings than I’ve ever seen in any other permanent collection). And more importantly, I felt a deep sense of appreciation for the learning opportunities that ALA inspires me to pursue each time I travel to a major city to attend and participate in an ALA Midwinter Meeting or Annual Conference.

ALA_2013--Top_TweetsMidwinter-mania really began to set in late Thursday afternoon and evening when I continued a long-standing practice of having dinner with colleagues engaged in training-teaching-learning in libraries and started also monitoring the #alamw14 Twitter hashtag to see how others were faring. Dinner and the conversation with the colleagues reminded me again of why I so deeply value the connections made through ALA and other professional organizations and through the use of Twitter backchannels. The shared meals combined with the use of those backchannels makes it possible to no longer be limited to being in any one place at any given moment—they provide us with countless sets of virtual eyes to gain a far more complete view of what conference interactions produce. And they also set us up for the very fruitful encounters none of us could possibly arrange but which seem to come our way if we’re attentive, flexible in how we approach our conference schedules, and sometimes just plain lucky.

Those unexpected encounters sometimes begin very early in an Annual Conference or Midwinter Meeting cycle: I’ve run into colleagues while waiting to pick up luggage in airports, while checking into hotels, and even once unexpectedly met a conference-bound colleague when the conference-scheduling muses arranged to have both of us ride the same shuttle to reach the San Francisco Airport for our departing flight to a conference. And today was no different: two hours before the first official conference event—the opening of the Exhibits Hall—I was looking for a way to relax after a very stimulating and inspiring daylong committee meeting which involved strategic planning for the group of which I am a member. Knowing that the Networking Uncommons offers a place to decompress, I was beginning to settle into a table when a cherished colleague—ALA Learning Round Table board member Maurice Coleman—spotted me from across the room, walked over to the table, and invited me to join him and some of his LITA (Library and Information Technology Association) colleagues for what turned into an unexpected exploration of how Google Glass works because one of the LITA members had obtained a Google Glass two days earlier, followed by yet another dinner with colleagues deeply immersed in and passionate about the libraries, library users, and library association they serve.

So yes, I feel as if I have lived weeks instead of days between Wednesday and Friday of this week. And yes, I’m already completely exhausted yet equally exhilarated by what attendance at ALA Midwinter 2014 has provided even though most of the formal programming and meeting opportunities are yet to come. Can’t wait to see how many dog years Saturday brings when I rejoin the world Saturday morning.

Hidden Garden Steps: A Community Continuing to Evolve

January 15, 2014

The Hidden Garden Steps ceramic-tile mosaic created and completed by project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher is in place here in San Francisco, and an ever-expanding community has quickly claimed the site as its own—just as organizing committee members hoped it would.

The Steps as venue for exercise

The Steps as venue for exercise

New resources connecting that community are appearing online with increasing frequency. We have seen our existing website, Facebook page, and Twitter account (all created and maintained by project volunteers) augmented through individual initiatives by those who are falling in love with the Hidden Garden Steps (on 16th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District): There are already reviews on Yelp, check-ins on Foursquare (including our first official Hidden Garden Steps Foursquare mayor), favorable mentions in the San Francisco Examiner and on Weekend Sherpa, and wonderful articles on Cindy Casey’s “Art and Architecture – San Francisco” blog and Tony Holiday’s San Francisco park trails and public stairways blog.

A two-fold agenda was always at the heart of the four-year effort to transform the overgrown, ill-tended, graffiti-marred 148-step concrete staircase (originally constructed in 1926) into a neighborhood gem: creating a second ceramic-tiled staircase with community gardens to complement the original steps on Moraga Street, between 15th and 16th avenues, and creating an outdoor variation on the indoor Third Place concept promoted by  Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (1989)

The formal opening ceremony on Saturday, December 7, 2013 provided plenty of signs that both goals were being met. Sherry Boschert, a Hidden Garden Steps supporter who remains active in a variety of neighborhood initiatives, worked with Steps organizing committee members to organize and orchestrate a community-based volunteer-driven block party that attracted more than 150 participants. Among those speaking at the event were San Francisco County Supervisor Norman Yee (also serving as acting mayor that day); San Francisco Department of Public Works Community Liaison Jerad Weiner, who remains a conduit of onsite support through the San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program; DPW structural engineer Ray Lui; San Francisco Parks Alliance Executive Director Matt O’Grady, offering support as head of our fiscal agent; and the artists themselves.

Every one of those brief from-the-heart presentations acknowledged the number of partnerships, donors, and community volunteers needed to produce something of that magnitude, and Supervisor Yee’s own presentation captured the spirit of the endeavor—rather than placing himself at the center of the event, he very generously spent time  acknowledging that he was elected to represent the district as the project was nearing completion and that it was the work of his predecessor (former District 7 County Supervisor Sean Elsbernd) and predecessor’s staff that contributed tremendously to the success of the Steps initiative.

Ribbon-cutting at the Opening Ceremony

Ribbon-cutting at the Opening Ceremony

Organizing committee members had one intentionally brief, wonderfully playful moment in the limelight as we were surrounded by many of our project partners to cut a multi-colored crepe-paper-weave ribbon stretched across the foot of the Steps. We then literally and figuratively stepped aside as dozens of people streamed up the Steps to transform the site from a project facilitated by a core group of community volunteers to one claimed by the larger community that supports it.

By late afternoon, the crowds had dispersed. A sense of tranquility was once again palpable on site. And by mid-evening, the Steps were continuing to quickly evolve into a meeting place for friends as well as for neighbors and complete strangers who otherwise might not be seeing, talking, and dreaming with each other. As I was taking a final look down the Steps just before 10 o’clock that evening, I ended up talking with someone who hadn’t realized the Steps were already completed and open to the public. We chatted about how the project had developed, talked about how he wished he had been available to more actively support and be an active participant in the development and implementation of the project, and talked about other neighborhood projects in development—which made me realize that less than 10 hours after the Steps opened, they were already functioning as an outdoors Third Place that draws people together and creates the possibility of additional collaborations.

A recent spur-of-the-moment sweepathon

Those encounters have continued on a daily basis since that initial day. Several organizing committee members and other neighbors all found ourselves engaged in a wonderful impromptu conversation on the Steps on New Year’s Day. Visitors from San Francisco’s East and South Bay areas have repeatedly come to the Steps and brought friends. Those who supported the project through the purchase of individual tiles interwoven into the completed mosaic with personal inscriptions come, photograph, and bring friends to enjoy the beauty of the site and the spectacular views it provides. Project volunteers continue to participate in the monthly two-hour clean-up and gardening sessions held on the second Saturday of each month from 1 – 3 pm (open to any interested new or returning volunteer), and neighbors, without any formal guidance or call to action, simply show up when they see that the Steps need to be swept or in some other way spruced up a bit to keep the site pristine.


Steps volunteer Al Magary engaged in clean-up

Most importantly of all, the spirit of community and collaboration that drove the Hidden Garden Steps to completion is already inspiring a neighbor—Al Magary—to see if he can informally organize a group to sweep and take other actions to clean up the long-ignored even larger set of steps one block away (on 15th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets). Anyone interested in joining that budding community of interest can contact Al for more information at 15thAveStepsPark@gmail.com. Who knows? Perhaps a third set of ceramic-tiled steps is on its way.

N.B.: This is the twenty-third in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco.


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