Building Self-Sustaining Communities

Sustainable Rays

How do you start a community that is self-sustaining?

Start with a problem. Always start with a problem. Any community that’s been worth its while has started around a problem that was either already directly shared by its members or had the potential to spread to all of its members.

Some communities start with a solution. They rally around an idea that says, “Would it be neat if…” It likely would, and so others rally to the cause. Soon, a bunch of people are collected around this solution, and they realize they need a problem to solve. These are solutions in search of a problem and the issue they raise is that everything looks like it’s ripe for the solution. For further reading, see any example of colonialism from history.

Instead, start with a problem and gather up everyone you possibly can to help you solve that problem. It won’t be difficult. People living in the presence of a problem are usually interested in finding solutions to that problem.

Then, and this is key, imagine the problem is solvable while at the same time acknowledging you have no idea what its solution will look like. If you knew what the solution looked like, it wouldn’t be a problem or you’d be obstinate. (Note: Consider both of these possibilities as being on the table.)

Once you’ve found your problem, you’ve imagined it as solvable, and you’ve eliminated pre-conceived solutions; it’s time for you and your community to get to work. A community dedicated to building a solution to a shared problem will sustain itself.

Here’s what such a self-sustaining community will not do.

It will not always be composed of the same individuals. People get worn out. They become interested in other problems. They discover limits to their curiosity. They move one. That’s okay. People leaving doesn’t mean your problem isn’t worth solving, it means the people who are still there are the right people.

It will not always sustain. Sometimes, people conflate the idea of sustainable with the ideas of eternal or infinite. They aren’t the same thing. While it’s possible that a self-sustaining community might be or become infinite or eternal, I’ve not yet seen such an example. Again, that’s okay. Communities dedicated to existing for the sake of their own existence have shifted away from whatever problem they were trying to solve and have, instead, taken mortality as their problem. Things should end. This makes way for new beginnings.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

121/365 These Boxes Belong Everywhere

One of the best non-running aspects of being a runner is the slower exposure to the communities in which I live. A choice to make a turn in my running route has often brought me into knowing hidden gems of the towns and cities where I live and run.

Such a thing happened today when I stopped to turn around and head back home at a pavilion of a park along my route. There, I saw the box pictured below. A closer look told the box’s story.

book box

book box sign

Something like this should be in every park in every town across the country. What’s more, there should probably be two levels of boxes right on top of one another. The upper box with books for adults and the lower box with books for children.

Imagine an initiative of elementary schools throughout a community to create these boxes for every park they were near, to stock the boxes, rotate the books, and track the history of the project.

Not only would such a project bring literacy to community common spaces, they would act as signposts as well. Signposts alerting the community to the fact that local schools see themselves as part of a larger ecosystem as well as signposts tethering schools to the community and helping students understand a small act of civic engagement.

As soon as I typed this, I also started conceiving concerns around such an initiative. First among them was the defacement of the boxes. This is a reason to move forward with such an idea, not turn away from it. If the boxes are defaced, it presents true challenges of citizenship for the students involved and for the entire community. Raising such issues to the proper public officials again establishes channels of visibility between schools and the community.

These may be difficult problems to navigate, but I’d rather have students rising through our schools who have experience solving these problems than have students who were sheltered from addressing difficult community issues. It’s a question of citizenship.

Thanks, Friends of Martin Acres.

87/365 Get Together

One of the best things we do at SLA is get together. This is partially faculty meetings and the side conversations that take place there. It is in the happy hours and birthday celebrations, but it’s also more than that. Those gatherings are about the faculty. The best moments of getting together are around being a school.

In the schools we need, people get together.

It starts in ninth grade. About a month into the school year, a few dedicated parents of upperclassmen staff a bank of phones in the main office. They are calling other parents – the parents of the newest class of students. They are calling to invite them to the annual Back-to-School night. SLA has a BTS night as every school across Philadelphia does to welcome new students and parents and introduce them to the school, the adults and the building.

SLA’s night is different. While those parents are on the phone, they’re not only offering an invitation, they’re making a request, “Bring something to eat.” SLA’s BTS is also a potluck where each new ninth-grade family is invited to bring a dish, something pivotal to the family if possible. Things are better with food.

Our first year of the tradition, Chris was worried we wouldn’t have enough food. A few hundred people would gather in our cafeteria and all we’d have to offer is a cheese platter.

As families started to arrive that first year, so did the food. Everyone who was hungry ate that night (including the students who’d hung around after extracurriculars).

It’s not just the eating, it’s the cementing of community as well. Parents and students sit with the students’ advisers. These are the teachers in the building responsible for groups of 20 students as their crying shoulders, their advocates, their kicks in the butt for their four years of high school. Parents, students, advisers – they all sit together, share a meal in the din of noise in a high school cafe-gym-atorium and begin the get together that will be these students’ tenure in high school.

While they eat, those teachers who work with ninth-grade students circulate, introduce themselves and answer brief questions about what the upcoming year will hold.

Later in the evening, there are formal talks, people introducing themselves through a microphone, but this is not, nor should it be, about speeches. This is about getting together, talking, listening, and welcoming into a community.

Four years later, with many events and meetings in between them, this gathering finds its bookend. The obvious guess would be graduation. That would be wrong. Graduation ceremonies are for the students and their families. Everyone, dressed in their finest, gathers to recognize what may be the students’ proudest achievement to that point. We get together for graduation because we honor what these students have accomplished and the new journey they are beginning.

No, the bookend comes after graduation. The faculty gather together, walk a few blocks to a local restaurant and, weather permitting, sit under the sky alongside their colleagues who each knew these students for at least a semester, and close the chapter on the work of the last four years.

For teachers, this is as much a get together of grieving as it is of celebration. Many will never know where these students end up or what they do with their learning of the last four years. The teachers have done their job and they are now to prepare for the next class, the next back-to-school night and all the students in between. They share food, drink and memories. Some pass the hastily scribbled cards for students for whom they played a key role in the last few years.

These get togethers are as important to the teachers as they are to the students they will meet in the coming Fall. It is a reminder that they have done what they were charged to do, and that it is more than a job. It is also a reminder that time will march on and that this is not a profession for martyrs, but for practitioners.

Getting together, being together, is important in the life of a school. This is different from meeting or happy hour. It is a kind of formative and summative reflection for a community that plants a mile marker for the organization. “We are here, now, together, and we will acknowledge it and remember where we’ve been.” Without taking the time to get together, no group can go anywhere together.

77/365 Community is Co-Created

“I’m glad you didn’t observe me today,” a teacher comments, “We lost the lesson plan for 20 minutes while we had a whole-class disscussion about what language students thought was appropriate in class conversations.”

That’s a conversation worth observing. More importantly, it’s a conversation well worth having. Such conversations, and other informal, unplanned interactions between and among students and teachers are the only authentic way to forging community within the classroom.

In the schools we need, community is co-created.

Most any thoughtful teacher – novice or expert – will tell you they want their classrooms to be communities and they want their students to see themselves as community members. They have their students sitting in groups. They assign projects where students turn in work with more than one name attached to it. They mistake adacency with community, thinking that being in proixmity of one another is the same thing as community formation.

In staff development, administrators ask teachers to group together vertically, horizontally, by discipline – all in the name of forming professional learning communities. Teachers are asked to talk about the work in their classrooms, discuss students, revise lesson plans. Such a thing, though, does not a community make.

Communities – at least the communities these teachers and administrators are attempting to foster – are not created by fiat. While any number of things could result intended communities looking more like committees, there are a few conditions that are likely to allow or even encourage community formation.

In his book Facilitating Group Learning, George Lakey outlines several tips for living up to the text’s title. Perhaps the most important and oft-forgotten is the creation of space for disagreement or argument in learning spaces. He speaks to the need to understand that people coming from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds are also coming from different approaches to disagreement. When there is safe space for argument, there is safe space for community to be built and for members of that community to come to understand where their voice fits within discussions and what others’ voices sound like at different levels of engagement.

To assist in navigating conflict in the search for common cause is the work begun by Gordon Allport on contact theory (sometimes called the contact hypothesis) which states that contact with groups identified as “other” will reduce bias.

While much work has been done to expand on and examine Allport’s theory in the intervening years, his for components of theory stated the following were necessary for successful communication:

  • equal status between groups
  • common goals
  • intergroup cooperation
  • and authoritative support

It’s easy to see some of these in place in the scenarios described above. It’s also easy to note where schools and classrooms can easily fall down in their efforts to facilitate communication toward community.

Sometimes the work gets too hairy too quickly for those in positions of authority to be able to sit back and recognize that tumult is inherent in the forming of healthy group dynamics. Better described in the work of Bruce Tuckman, groups develop in stages commonly labeled forming, storming, norming and performing.

Classroom and school-level leaders see the first stage of forming happening at a relatively peaceful pace. Once a group enters the storming phase, though, many leaders mistake the train for jumping the rails. In actuality, this is a sign of the uphill trek of individuals figureing out who they are as members of the group. Finding new identities is never easy. If the difficult isn’t seen as natural, many leaders will change course, thinking they’ve made a poor decision. Thus, groups miss the chance of developing their own norms and, more importantly, performing the tasks necessary to reach their common goals.

The classroom teacher who is willing to throw out a lesson plan for twenty minutes of students finding their way to community hasn’t left learning behind, but has made space for a kind of learning often winnowed out of curricula in the pursuit of facts. The skills earned through the creation of community and navigating the experience of working with others are key not only to higher quality academic work, but they are the skills of the advanced citizenship schools should be fostering.

Learning Grounds Ep. 016: Dean Shareski and Creating Online Community

In this episode, Zac talks with Dean Shareski about the difficulties unique to attempting to create a sense of community in online courses compared to face-to-face learning as well as other unique difficulties in community creation in conference presentations.


46/365 Every Kid Needs a Mentor

Mentoring Statistics

In a conversation about changes in social expectations of children in communities, juvenile advocate and community orgnizer Jolon McNeil remembered her own childhood in comparison with the worlds and schools of the children she dedicates her life to helping. “If I had gotten suspended,” McNeil said, “everyong in my family, everyone in my community, and everyone in my church would have kicked my butt.”

Today’s students have it differently, McNeil says, because of a disconnect between schools and communities, that same level of home awareness and community consequences have faded into the past for many.

While it is a tough sell that schoold should or could step in and take the space of the family, community and faith organization, there is something they can do that requires minimal resources and improves the lives of everyone involved.

Every kid needs a mentor.

Mentoring builds social and cultural capital in students, connects them with singular adults whose purpose is to support the student, and ties students to an anchor in the community.

For the community, the benefits are equally plentiful. Mentoring is an investment in the community, not in an economic sense (though that argument can also be made). Instead, mentoring is an investment in growing the kind of citizens, neighbors, and community leaders mentors want to live alongside in the coming years.

To be certain, teachers can be and are mentors to the students they teach. We spend more time with our students than many of them spend with their parents in the later grades. Connecting with students on online platforms like Facebook is a form of mentorship in that I am able to model appropriate behavior, find connection with students who are feeling lost and can’t bring themselves to make contact face-to-face, and step in as an adult when students push too far past what is acceptable conduct in any community – online or off.

Expecting teachers to be full mentors is laying an unliftable weight on their shoulders. The thick connections inherent in a full mentoring relationship require time and personal committment impossible with a roster of 150 students.

Schools can be the conduits and catalysts for mentoring relationships though.

Wanting to match as many of its students with mentors as possible, Phoenix Academy, a magnet high school in Sarasota, FL that recruits only the lowest achieving students in the district, sought to build its capacity to meet its goal by partnering with those already doing the work.

The school contacted the local Big Brothers Big Sisters office and explained their goals. BBBS said they could help. In a matter of weeks, the school welcomed representatives from the organization into the school one evening. Also in attendance were those community members school personnel were able to recruit into mentorship. Throughout the course of the evening, the would-be mentors navigated the school district’s volunteer clearance procedure and received BBBS orientation training and clearance checks en masse.

By the night’s end, Phoenix Academy had scores of new mentors on call to match with its students, Big Brothers Big Sisters made contact with many community members with whom it would not otherwise have likely connected.

Most importantly, in the weeks that followed, Phoenix students were matched with caring adults from the community in whom they could find a friend, advocate, and mentor.

These kinds of partnerships are possible in communities and schools across the country. They need only a school willing to set the goal and make the initial investment in organizing the effort.

We know the benefits of mentoring. We know the benefits of community connections. We know the strength of shared vision and goals.

We need to match kids with mentors.

Learning Grounds Ep. 007: In which Bud Hunt and Zac talk maker spaces, community, and grilled cheese

In this episode, Zac sits down with Bud Hunt for our first-ever pubcast, and the two discuss the need for maker spaces, teacher agency, and the building of the two.


Things I Know 306 of 375: We know who we are by what happens when things go wrong

An apology is the superglue of life.  It can repair just about anything.

– Lynn Johnston

“I just wanted to apologize for what I said up here. This is a space for coming together, and talk like that isn’t what this is about. I’m sorry.”

Then there were applause and shouts of “It’s okay” as the young man walked back to his seat.

From the other side of the auditorium, I watched as those seated around him patted the student on the back.

I’d been there to see the moment he was apologizing for. As part of a student sketch at Codman Academy’s Community Circle, the student had decided to ad lib one of his lines when describing the character played by one of Codman’s teachers. He’d said the character was a “douche.” A visitor to the school, I could still tell the student had gone off book.

Several things were remarkable to me about the episode. The least of these was what the student said.

Put an adolescent student in front of his peers with a microphone and you are asking him to play with power, to experiment with voice and discover where the line of what he can and cannot get away with lies. In the most fitting and least academic terms, he was feelin’ himself, and the school had invited it.

More interesting was the school’s reaction. The collective inhale after the line was uttered told me everyone else in the room recognized we’d left the script behind for a moment. But there was no outburst. No yells of agreement or signs students in the audience agreed with the statement. And that’s the thing, I know those students existed. At some point in time, this teacher had to have made a comment or taken an action that put him on the other side of at least one student’s good graces. If ever there were a moment for that student to give voice to his frustration anonymously, this was it. No one did.

And that’s culture. No one yelled assent because everyone understood the norms of the space. It was the message I attempted to convey when I would respond to student cursing in my classroom with, “We don’t use those words here.”

Whatever their differences, the assembled students knew they did not use those words here.

I should point out there was a space of about 20 minutes between the ad lib and the apology. Other business had been attended to, and I’d almost forgotten what had happened. Somewhere in that 20 minutes, someone had reached out to the student. Someone had removed the act from the moment and worked to process how what had been said fit with the definition of what it means to be a positive member of the community. I have no proof for this, but years of experience working with teenagers tell me I’m probably correct here. Naturally non-reflective, teens need intervention to help process actions and events. Some adult had likely intervened, and it is to their credit.

In many schools, the student would have been pulled from the circle, yelled at, and assigned a punishment with no mention of apology or what it means to be a community member.

That wasn’t what happened. Someone in the audience, I’m guessing the student’s advisor, had the clarity of thought and purpose to ask what they could do in that moment to help the student understand and learn from the verbal gaff. They’d responded as a teacher.

More than anything else, I was impressed by the student. Public speaking is more terrifying to the masses than anything else, and he stood alone in front of his peers to speak. Not only that, what he had to say was an apology. Few teenagers want to stand in front of their entire school. None wants to stand before the assembled masses and say they were wrong. Somewhere within this young man was a strength of character and commitment to community that allowed him to learn the power of saying “I’m sorry.” It did not excuse what he’d said. The words were out there. Saying he was sorry did work to make amends, to show that he valued the space and the people enough to ask for a chance to earn their trust again.

Many schools have Community Circle or some version thereof. Many schools get the circle part of it right. Few schools get right or focus resources on the community part. Codman does. At SLA and Phoenix, I knew we’d gotten it right when I saw how we reacted when someone went wrong. If anything, that’s the measure of a community.

Things I Know 287 of 365: Here’s where I’m from

I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

– George Ella Lyon

As we closed out our final meeting of the small group section attached to one of my courses, we engaged in a conversation on the importance and shape of teacher autobiography. We ended with a writing exercise. I wanted to call Bud, because I knew how happy he’d be.

After brainstorming the sensory details we associated with our individual school journeys. Then, we looked at George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From.”

Our job was to re-imagine Lyon’s work filled with the stories of where we’re from. It was a beautiful task, and I thank my colleague Tracy for giving us space and safety to create and share. We began our time together this semester by sharing the basics – name, home, experience in education, etc. Tracy gave us a space to mark the end of our time together by, again, sharing who we are in a way that honored the intimacy inherent when a class becomes a community.

Here is where I’m from:

I am from tater tots,

from madrigal dinners and holding your breath in the boys bathroom.

I am from painted cinder-block walls.

(Covered in essays and coats of arms to disguise the normalness of it all.)

I am from chalkboards that wanted to be dry erase boards,

the pride of a strong FFA chapter

and knowing we’d be champions in meat judging

if not basketball.

I am from the safety of the choir room,

from Hemingway and yearbook editing.

I’m from the old guard who knew their duty to be sacred.

They’d taught our parents’ parents, and they’d teach us.

I’m from being sick the days we learned to use scissors,

and finding it didn’t matter because the teacher was right-handed.

I’m from scholastic bowl, Alanis Morissette’s debut album,

pizza that looked like it came on a giant saltine,

huddling around a speaker phone to interview a victim of Kent State,

being bumped a grade and then terrified as Mrs. Miller explained how she hated freshmen because they smelled –

making her laugh in spite of herself throughout that entire year.

I am from hallways and classrooms –

built by people who knew –

their hope and ours depended on knowing more than they did.

Things I Know 232 of 365: I met the Car Talk guys

Don’t drive like my brother.

– Tom and Ray Magliozzi

Did I ever tell you the one about the time I met the Car Talk guys?

Monday, I had the chance to speak virtually to the District Technology Leaders of Orange County, CA about what digital spaces and digital learning can and should be. Rather than risk running late for class or getting cut off from my apartment’s super sketchy Internet access, I travelled to campus and reserved a room in the library so I knew I’d be able to hardwire into a network connection. At the appointed time, I spoke for an hour to and with what I was told was a room of about 20 people from around Orange County about the spaces they could imagine online and they affordances of such spaces. It was a learning experience in how to shape a talk around of people I can’t see or physically interact with.

The Car Talk guys were not a part of the talk.

Feeling suitably pleased with the talk, I headed to the Crema Cafe in Harvard Square for a lunch. Normally, I’d head to the commons on campus, but I was feeling pretty good, so I thought I’d splurge.

At Crema, I ran into a few other folks from my program. They were sitting at the bar whilst I was waiting for my grilled cheese, and I struck up a conversation. Three of them needed to head to class (none of them the Car Talk guys), and I took one of their seats next to Meaghan and Eric to catch up on our weekends.

I took off my bag and set it at my feet between the wall of the counter and my chair.

Ten minutes later, as Meaghan and Eric were standing to leave, I heard Meaghan say, “Where’s my bag?”

I looked to where I’d seen Meaghan’s bag when I sat down, “It’s right over…” Nope.

We looked around. I looked from table to table, pointing to the bags at strangers’ feet, “Is that it?” as if we were playing some impromptu game of I Spy.

None of the bags was Meaghan’s.

I looked down at my own bag.

Well, I would have, if it were still there.

My bag, too, was missing.

Again, I surveyed the immediate area of the cafe – this time for my bag.


I stood and walked the length of the building – nothing.

I walked up the stairs to the loft seating – nothing.

In the initial moments, my thinking was that someone we knew had moved our bags and was going to pop up from behind the counter – that rapscallion. And then we’d have a pint of ale and sing sea shanties.

No such luck.

Our bags had been stolen.

We had been robbed.

We caught the attention of one of the women behind the counter and explained what had happened. In an understanding tone, she said they’d had a problem with that before and said she’d go get the phone number of the police.

I called and the voice on the other end said an officer would come to us. After I hung up, I learned Meaghan and Eric had asked if the place was outfitted with security cameras.

“Yes,” said the lady, but not on the space where we were sitting. They were more focused on the front of the cafe, near the entrance.

“Could we see them, just the same? Whoever had taken our bags had to leave somehow.”

We needed to talk to the owner.

Excellent, how could we do that.

The lady pointed to the front of the shop. The owner was showing around a new hire. She’d be with us as soon as she could be.

While we waited for the police officer to arrive, the lady told us they’d had a meeting just that morning where the employees had talked about how their weren’t adequate security camera’s in the place and that they needed more.

This was offered in a tone I suppose was meant to help us feel better.

“See,” she seemed to be saying, “we weren’t ignorant of the possibility that your day would suck a few minutes after you sat down to your iced tea and grilled cheese.”

So kind.

We went outside to wait, away from the noise and frustration of the cafe.

Eventually, an officer arrived to take our report.

While we’d been waiting, I popped my head in to let the lady we’d been speaking with know we were outside when the owner was done.

We never heard from the owner.

At some point, a new lady, a manager, came out to talk to us. It was as she was reiterating the lack of adequate camera coverage and the fact that they’d had a running problem with bags being taken that the police officer showed up.

She stood their for the first part of the conversation, and I’m not sure when she headed back in.

The officer took our details.

We described our bags and their contents. For me, it meant my laptop, iPad, course packs, statistics notes and two books for class were gone.

Meaghan lost her laptop, course packs, a paper due that day, her wallet, cell phone and keys.

The officer, after explaining the process for filing our case and the assignment of a detective, tried to make us feel better.

They’d had several cases of bags being taken, he said. From this place, particularly, he said. They tried to increase their presence, he said.

We thanked him kindly for his time, and he headed off to do more policing.

“Should we go talk to the Car Talk guys,” I asked Meaghan and Eric.

I’d noticed when I walked outside that the voice of one of the men sitting at one of the cafe’s outside tables sounded like a voice on which I’d been brought up.

As soon as the man to whom the voice belonged stood up and said, “Do you want anything, Tommy?” I knew it was the voice of either Click or Clack of the Tappit Brothers. They’re otherwise known as Tom and Ray Magliozzi .

“I guess we might as well,” said Meaghan.

The table had been feet away from us as we talked to the police officer, and they were clearly interested in what was going down.

We exchanged pleasantries and told them the story of what had just happened.

I found myself rushing through the explanation of the events to get to the end. After we’d said our piece, we were met with “That’s terrible,” and “That’s horrible,” and “I’m so sorry.” They were to be the refrain of the next couple days.

I accepted their condolences tersely and said, tripping over my excitement, “Are you the Car Talk guys?”

One said yes, the other said no, and that sealed it.

We told them how important they’d been to us as we were growing up and that we’d been longtime listeners, and they said thanks in their trademark self-depricating fashion.

We didn’t ask for autographs. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

Anything we would have asked them to sign had just been stolen.

We walked away wondering at the weirdness of the universe.

In the day since, I have learned exactly what kind of community I am a part of here.

Our program director, Lola Irele, sent us immediately to the head of Student Affairs, Liz Thurston, when she learned what happened.

Thurston asked us what classes we were in and what had been taken. This morning, I had an e-mail explaining that replacement course packs were waiting in the registrar’s office.

I received an e-mail from one of my professors, asking me if I needed anything and letting me know I had extra time on an upcoming assignment if I needed it.

Thurston e-mailed all of our professors to let them know what happened.

Classmates I met just a few weeks ago started e-mailing offering to help, lend course readings and let us know they were sorry to hear the news.

Charlotte, one of the three who left the cafe just before I sat down, started a chipin campaign for people who were interested in helping to offset the costs of replacing what had been stolen.

All day today, I’ve been getting e-mails letting me know people have been contributing.

I won’t be going back to Crema Cafe. It’s not because that’s where my bag was taken, but because the owner never paused from showing the new employee around the place to see if we were okay.

I will be thankful for the community here at HGSE. People who I’ve spoken to only once or twice have gone out of their way to help out when there was no pressing reason to do anything.

Plus, I got to meet the Car Talk guys.