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.

When Collaboration isn’t the Skill You Need

Google Docs new sharing feature

I’ve enjoyed these of these posts. Aside from that damned tree question, each question you’ve posted on Twitter has been one I’ve met with curiosity and an element of joy unique to the experience. These posts are a kind of writing I’ve not gotten to do for years, and certainly have an audience much different from my day gig.

It is collaboration moving apace with some of the best of what’s possible. Each morning twitter lets me know you’ve posed the day’s question, and I know my question to you has been sent along the string connecting our technological tin cans. From there, I add it to my queue of questions to be answered. For a few, I’ve pulled them into the physical world, explained our setup and asked what other folks would say. Usually when I’ve done this, it’s a combination of wanting to know what others think, and hoping they could help me jumpstart my own thinking when my answer isn’t apparent.

For the more confounding questions you’ve posed, I’ve pulled you aside in online chats to see exactly what you meant. My favorite response you’ve given thus far, by the way, has been, “You know these questions are open to interpretation, right?”

Again, collaboration working at its potential.

Sometimes, though, collaboration isn’t what’s necessary. Sometimes, what’s necessary is a solitary, thoughtful effort that asks a person to turn inward on herself or on a problem to be considered.

Sometimes, collaboration is a bad idea.

I don’t have a list of these situations. I don’t even have a list of attributes to help you determine where collaboration is called for and where it should be avoided. Instead, I have three other big picture concepts that should be the part of all learning experiences – choice, context, and openness.

Choice in collaborating or not comes down to the task for me. If you ask me to draft a piece of writing, my response is likely going to be to pull up a new doc, throw on my headphones, and ignore the world until I’m done. At that point, I’ll show you my first effort. Until then, for me, writing is a collaboration-free task. Ask me to solve a complex statistical problem, though, and it’s all hands on deck. Not only will I want you to collaborate with me, I’ll need it.

Collaboration is right in some contexts, and not in others. If I’m writing a blog post, it’s going to be a solitary task as mentioned above. The editing is going to stay solitary as well. If I’m writing something for larger distribution (say, a book), my editing and revising process is going to draw in as many voices as make sense for the audience of the text. Similarly, if the effort is to be representative of an organization or system beyond me, again, context points to collaboration.

Openness means several things. It has to do with my openness to the ideas of others as I work my way through a problem. Sometimes, I don’t want to hear your ideas, even if they’re better that mine. It also has to do with how open I want to be with my process. Sometimes, writing is ugly. Sometimes building a unit plan means I need to let things sit until the last minute. As it is, I have a project of import for the day gig. I haven’t yet fully collaborated with anyone because the ideas I’m working with are still in my head. I’ve erased the white board of my mind several times over the last few weeks because I need to be the sole owner of the ideas for now. Eventually, collaboration will be called for and I’ll invite others in to the process to pull things apart. For now, though, the work is solitary.

I love collaborating. I love the thrill that comes from building something that reflects the perspectives of many minds. I also have an abiding love for working alone.

From Theory to Practice:

  • When designing tasks for your students, ask if they need to be collaborative, solitary, or either. Sometimes, the social-emotional learning comes from being able to rightly decide whether you want and need to work alone or as part of a team.

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.

In Defense(ish) of Lectures

Lecture Hall

If I’d been smart, I would have started an archive when I started prepping to be a teacher. It would document each of the teaching practices to come en vogue during my career and the approximate date when each became the villain in the stories we tell young teachers about learning and teaching.

The tool/practice with the most checkered past is the lecture.

Everything in my undergraduate preparation was a warning (direct or tacit) against the lecture. Workshops were the state of the art. Like the NCAA organizing a bracketed tournament, we were to match students with each other, have them pass their work around and then comment, defense, revise, edit, repeat. But, no lectures. The students wouldn’t learn from whatever ramblings we threw at their ears we were told.

The cognitive dissonance came as I considered the lectures I enjoyed in other courses I was taking. Pre-eminent scholars in their fields who knew how to craft stories of Hemingway, the history of the English language, remedial chemistry were regularly holding my rapt attention, while I was being told not only were they doing it wrong, but that I wasn’t likely learning form them.

It hurt my brain.

Things only got worse as I entered the classroom and the Internet made it possible to spread, embed, and mobilize lectures. Kahn, TED, and classroom flippers were putting bows on exactly the tools I was told and had come to believe were antithetical to learning. Teachers were spending time recording their lectures and telling students they were worth taking time at home to watch. Universities were making lectures freely available for anyone outside their admissions shield to learn from top professors. And big thinkers were taking to standing on a big red dot to inspire through nothing more than lecture.

Meanwhile, I was refining what it meant to operationalize a constructivist, constructionist pedagogy in an English classroom. I’d started identifying myself as a teacher whose pedagogy was inquiry-driven and project-based. This all stood opposed to the lecuturephilia I was hearing and reading about.

Except it didn’t. Because, even inside my classroom where students were asking questions that drove there creation of myriad projects, I was still lecturing from time to time. When I wanted to introduce the ideas of literary theory and literary analysis to a class of juniors, it was through a lecture that I modeled a close feminist reading of Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance“.

I did it, and I didn’t feel badly about it because it was the right tool for the moment. And, it only lasted a moment. I lectured through a narrative that helped to construct a framework of understanding of literary analysis and then told a story that exemplified putting that framework to use. After that and some discussion, I put the work in the students’ hands. I never again lectured on the topic. Instead, I gave mini practice sessions, prodded students to ask each other (and the internet) for help, and then asked them to do something similar to what I had done with my model text. (They may even have workshopped.)

This is the place of the lecture. With a few exceptions, it’s the place of most every practice, theory, and tool that’ve made their way into popular edu-parlance. As trope-ish as it may be, each of these pieces is a tool in a toolbox of teaching. The key will always be determining when telling a story is the most appropriate tool or letting students write their own stories of experience.

From Theory to Practice:

  • Keep a running list of the tools in your own teacher toolbox along with your own current thinking on the affordances and limitations of each tool.
  • Seek feedback from peers and students on your plans for teaching with a given tool before you put it into practice. Many times students are the best voices to tell you when an exemplifying lecture might be more helpful than throwing them into the deep end and asking them to swim.
  • Watch masters. No matter how good I ever felt about a well-deployed lecture, I could always learn something by walking next door or across the hall to watch a colleague. Oftentimes, my learning was best when watching teachers of another subject area where my expertise was limited.

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.

No, You’re On Grade Level!


Are you doing particle physics at grade level? How about your saxophone playing? Is it on par with your age group? Your ballet? Chemistry? Calculus?

My best guess is your answer to most, if not all, of these question was somewhere between “huh?” and “nope.” That’s to be expected.

Let me take one from my own learning – particle physics. First, look at your thumbnail. Turn it so you’re looking along its ridge. If all of space is what is known about particle physics, then one percent of the width of your thumbnail represents what I know about the subject.

That isn’t to say I know nothing about particle physics. I have certain facts and concepts catalogued in my brain and connected to the rest of the knowledge and experiences I’ve got up there. A secret? I’ve never taken a class on particle physics. Heck, I’ve never even taken a class on physics.

Yet, there’s the knowledge – one thumbnail deep. I learned it because I was curious. Something I’d run up against in the world inspired a question, and I was motivated to learn.

Given all of this, would you say my knowledge of particle physics is on grade level?

My answer would be yes. My ability to speak to the topic is aligned with any intrinsic needs I have to understand it better to accomplish any external goals I might feel. It has nothing to do with my age or how many years I have or have not been in school.

Somehow, though, we let the phrase “on grade level” determine not only the value we place on a child’s learning in a given subject, but the approach we take to helping that child advance his learning in that subject.

Reading is the most frustrating example in this conversation (with math not lagging too far behind). When a measure of a student’s ability to read is not commensurate with his “born on date” (to borrow from Sir Ken), we react as though all brains develop at exactly the same speed and that reading is intrinsically-driven by a person’s genetics. I say this as an English teacher and one who decided to spend four years of college reading and talking about it, there is nothing about reading that is biologically inherent to the human experience.

I learned to read because I was curious, and thank goodness I did. It meant I was dubbed on-level from the beginning and thus allowed free choice in the books I selected inside and outside of school. I knew how to read, and according to my teachers, this meant I was allowed to read.

My classmates who weren’t grade-level curious or weren’t interested in reading early enough were not so lucky. Because they were destined to wonder too late, they were also destined to be forced into (s)lower reading groups. We all knew it. Whether coded by bird species or color, my classmates and I knew that some of us were welcome to pick up whatever book we wanted and others were relegated to only specific shelves.

Walk into most reading classes today and things have gone further south. Students can tell you their reading level by reciting a number to you attached to nothing other than their knowledge that the bigger the number, the more worth they have as a reader. Reading capitalism.

I’ve taught these students when they’ve arrived at middle and high school. “I don’t read,” the tell me early in the school year. When I ask why, they tell me they aren’t good at it. That makes me sad. Delving more deeply into their histories of being schooled into reading, they explain they never liked the books their teachers made them read in earlier grades. Many of them simply didn’t read and figured out how to passably appear as though they had.

This realization is what convinced me of the need to open my classroom to student choice. I didn’t care what students were reading so long as they always were and could show consistent growth in their ability to talk and write about it. Sure, we read some shared texts so I could understand students’ progress at grasping key concepts of the discipline. When it came to grade-level reading, though, all I was working toward was disabusing my students of the idea that reading was something people did so they could reach a certain level for a certain grade.

What I’d like to see, and what holding tightly to the idea of “on grade level” prevents, is not students who see their worth as readers, scientists, mathematicians, or musicians, but who see worth in those activities and are members of communities that foster their curiosity to know and do more.

I Am Sam

I know a whole bunch of stuff, until I don’t. As the title of this space implies, I love learning as much about as many subjects as possible. Smart is good. And still, I find myself in rooms and conversations where I am outpaced by those who showed up to the party long before I did and are much better versed in the ideas and thinking around a certain subject. While I still unintentionally find myself faking a fund of knowledge I’m totally lacking, I’ve gotten better over the years at remaining quiet, reading the room, and asking good questions.

I try to see the whole board. For many reasons – some intentional and some out of my control – I’ve been able to work for people who are not only amazingly good at the work they do, but willing to take the time to help me understand how to see what we are building together in a larger context. From building schools, to serving an entire district, to writing policy for a nation, I’ve had the chance to work with leaders who pause to ask if we are seeing the whole board and have taken the time to help me see it when I’ve needed help focusing.

I sign my name. More importantly, I work as hard as I can to make sure my name is attached to messages taking up for those who don’t have the same privilege I experience on a daily basis and working to make sure that privilege isn’t unique to people who look or grew up like me.

I have unexpected friends. While I interact regularly with a fair number of people with whom I see eye to eye, my days are just as likely to be populated by conversations with people I think are wholly wrong and whom I call friends. While I’m sure I’d be happy if they one day conceded that our conversations had changed their mind on a topic of contention, I also value the argument. Connecting and conversing with people with whom I disagree helps me to remember why I might have started holding a belief in the first place while gaining an understanding of why other people might think or believe differently.

I made a promise to a widow. I’ve never loved a job as much as I loved teaching. Each year brought a new group of individuals into my care, and each day brought a new set of unexpected experiences. I was entrusted with the sustaining the greatest of public goods. I had the good fortune to teach with and at some of the best teachers and schools, respectively. And my informal education on educating was at least as important and informative as my formal one. Then, after agreeing with so many of my colleagues for so long about frustrations with the absence of teacher voice in so many decisions directly impacting our classrooms and students, I left to join that other fray. While I love what I’ve gotten to do since leaving the classroom and the experiences it has afforded me, nothing has been or will ever be as amazing as what I got to do in the classroom.

Staring Because I Cannot Begin to Speak

stare down.

Otherwise not a violent person, I want to punch the three people two tables away.

They are teachers. They have been enjoying happy hour for the last 90 minutes, letting fly with all they are thinking about their schools, their classrooms, and their students.

What they think about learning and teaching is different – dramatically different – from what I think. They have mentioned “those kids”. They have talked about urban education in a way that makes my skin crawl. “A private school without private school prices,” one just said.

These are the moments I can’t turn away from. I stare in a state of vacillating anger, shock, and worry.

I’m not going to walk over and talk to these folks. It’s not that I always hold my tongue (Diana can attest to this). It’s that I don’t think I have it in me to listen as closely as I want to in this moment.

So I stare in the same way you might stare at a Dalí painting, wondering how you both saw the same world and clearly interpreted what you saw differently.

These are the things at which I stare, those that depart so sharply and swiftly from my own experiences and beliefs that I must hold my tongue as I attempt to weave what I am seeing an hearing into a useable framework.

Staring, for me, doesn’t mean I have nothing to say. It means I have more to say inspired more by emotion than thoughtfulness that I’ve got to pause and weave. It doesn’t always work. It won’t likely work today. This other table and I are going to have to agree to disagree at a distance.

Maybe the next time I stare, I’ll have the patience to speak.

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.

A Goodbye for Every Room

On my most frustrating days, it will be this…

For my closest friends…

To those to whom I will always owe and apology…

In the crowded rooms in which I’ve always hoped to be heard…

To my siblings…

To my parents and family…

To my students…
student sign offAnd, inveriably to myself…

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.

The Evil Question

Speak No Evil, See No Evil, Hear No Evil

Evil exists. I can’t speak to the broad evil outlined here, but the narrow definition of evil is real. In attempting to explain, I’m also attempting to avoid the supernatural bird’s nest of thinking that doesn’t serve the conversation.

Evil exists because we need the word. People take actions in the world toward which I would point and say, “That is evil.”

The difference, the frustration come in our willingness to too easily ascribe evil as the cause of most of those actions with which we disagree.

Suggesting that and expecting anyone in America can rise up from poverty given hard work and a firm grasp on their bootstraps is wrong. It is not evil.

Fostering hatred of the poor, the different, the other and advocating they be treated as less than and denied human and civil rights is evil.

Actions which result in the unintended oppression of others, the pain and suffering of your fellow humans are wrong. They deserve fitting consequences for the actor, and they are still wrong, not evil.

Actions made with malice and the intent of silencing, oppressing, and breaking the spirit of others are evil. Even if those actions fail to result in their intended effects, that does not make them any less evil.

Evil does not have to be effective to be evil.

We all carry some piece of it with us. I’ve always imagined that the horror I experience when I see man’s grossest inhumanity toward man is partially driven by my fear of such acts being perpetrated on me or a community to which I belong. Somewhere, splintered off in the dark part of my psyche, my horror is also driven by the possibility that I too could perpetrate such evil.

That is humanity, living with and recognizing the evil we could do to one another and actively working against it – choosing compassion, good, and empathy in both the big and little moments.

I do not know if I believe people are inherently good or inherently evil. It makes more sense, instead, to believe that each person holds within them the potential for unimaginable good or unimaginable evil and to stand back in awe of how good the vast majority of us actively choose to be each day.

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.

A History of a Thing I Lost

Light Reading

Are there books you can read more than once? I’m talking outside of the fervor with which you approached Harold and the Purple Crayon or Dr. Seuss as a child. Are there books that keep bringing you back to their pages for more?

For me, the list is incredibly few. At its top sits The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. I won’t pretend that an 18th Century book by Samuel Johnson first published in serial form fits my go-to profile for favorite books. This one, though, is an example of the right book at the right time.

Rasselas and I first became acquainted during Fall semester of freshman year in college. The prof who taught my required Foundations of Inquiry course was also an 18th Century Brit Lit scholar, and he used a quotation from Rasselas at the top of his syllabus.

Our discussion of that quotation on the first day of class influenced a line of thinking for me that was something like, “College. Okay, yeah. I see how I could like it here.” And, I did.

I found Rasselas on the shelves of the local used book store and devoured it over winter break (a tradition I kept for many years after). The book became my gift of choice when friends faced major life choices and changes. I have no knowledge of whether or not any of them read the book, but handing it to them was an act of saying, “This was a flashlight when I needed it. I hope it can be the same for you.”

While I compulsively searched every used bookstore I encountered for more copies to add to my stock, one version, a small, light green edition stayed on my shelves with my notes in the margins. While not the, this was my first edition. We’d been on the journey together. We’d conversed about the importance of making your choice and being content.

Then, I gave it away. At a moment of realizing someone else needed it more than I did, I handed that edition off, hoping the combination of Johnson’s words and my margin notes might offer more than a clean copy could.

I miss that book. Since handing it over, I’ve not found another edition of Rasselas. We haven’t spent this much time apart since we met in college. Until we meet again, I’m trying my best to remember the lessons we learned together.

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.

The Search (and Price) of Intelligent Algorithms


Sometimes, when I want to know what it’s like not to be me, I’ll jump into incognito mode on Chrome and search for something, anything – just to see what a newborn baby might find on his first search.

If there’s a notable difference, it’s that I’m searching alone. None of the content from my friends (as Google knows them) is present. None of the recommendations take into effect what past me has gone searching for. I’m asking a question of the entire web, not the web as Google curates it for me.

Still, Google lets me search. It doesn’t require I feed its data monster with my specific personal information. I am free to wander the Internet as anonymously as possible for anyone with a static IP address.

When I turn to sites like LinkedIn or Facebook, though, doors are closed. While Google will let me get by only paying with the what of my searching, these sites raise the price – they want to know who.

All of this rests on the idea that computer algorithms are strong in their ability to furnish me with answers. The more they know about the questions I’m asking, the better their ability to anticipate and queue up answers most relevant to me. That’s Me, specifically, not someone like me. Insomuch as is possible for a machine, these lines of code are personalizing the answers for which I’m searching in my learning.

But these algorithms are doing more than that. They are deciding what I don’t see. They are narrowing the Internet I experience. Because search engines and other sites that track my behavior online track what they take to be my habits, the options I see when I go looking for information are the answers I’m anticipated to need or want. And, there’s a trade off. I often find what I’m looking for, but I hardly ever stumble upon something randomly interesting. Imagine traveling the world an avoiding all the places you hadn’t seen or heard about before.

These are the answers algorithms provide.

What’s more, while these lines of code are narrowing the world and people I experience online, they’re failing to help me ask better questions. When I’m led to ask questions online, it’s because of breadcrumbs left by other people on the chance I might want to make a turn. Think of a Wikipedia entry as an example. A well written page includes loads of links to what a computer might read as randomly selected. Even when able to identify parts of speech, it is the human element that decides Prince Adam deserves a link on the entry for Skeletor while leaving Keldor as plain text.

Algorithms suck at curiosity. They don’t anticipate it well, and they rarely engender it in users. Any program that ushers a user through a series of pre-conceived questions is avoiding actual questioning. To keep the travel metaphor going, these experiences are like riding It’s a Small World rather than actually traveling to each of the countries depicted. And, no matter how well such applications anticipate your reaction to a given set of stimuli, whatever is put in front of you next isn’t computer generated, it was programmed by someone who decided where your unknowing should go next.

While the secret soup that makes search engines and other sites pull up the answers to my questions is imperfectly good, I have to remember that it comes at the cost of my information (anonymous or not) and experiencing the world in a way someone like me is “supposed” to see it. This is more limited than I know.

For however good these systems are at finding my answers, they are nowhere near as capable of helping me generate questions as a conversation with a friend or reading a thoughtful editorial. While they are able to learn, they are certainly not curious.

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.