The Talk I Never Gave

Last Tuesday, a friend reached out and asked about giving a TEDx talk at the United Nations International School. It’s been a draining couple of weeks, and I was intrigued but not feeling quite on top of my game. I asked what he wanted me to talk about, ready to say ‘no.’ Agile, he said. The future of education, he said. You’d have to be mad not to, my other friends said. So I got to thinking.

Public speaking has never been a problem for me. I have some trouble with scripts, so never really got into acting, but over the years I’ve read, sung, done Q&A’s, been interviewed, lead trainings and sessions and classes and…it’s really nothing new at this point.

That said, I have my own style of preparing. It always works, but it used to get me into trouble as a kid. My teachers wanted notecards to grade; my parents wanted mirror-rehearsals to time. I wanted to learn the material, think it over, bullet a couple main points, then get up and improvise.

Maybe it was “TED” or “UNIS” or just fatigue, but I got really anxious as soon as I agreed to do this talk. I knew I had all the information and skills I needed, but the old, well-schooled self-doubt took hold anyway. In spite of the best efforts of friends to reassure me, I gave hours to writing an essay, making detailed notes to get all the words exact, and practicing late each of the three nights before the event.

I got to UNIS at 8:30 am on Saturday, chatted with kids and staff, had some coffee. The lights dimmed, and I listened to the well-rehearsed speeches of some 7 to 9 year olds and waited. The girl next to me grinned as a mic was clipped onto my dress. Things went quiet and the background slide changed. I smiled reassuringly at the boy who announced my name. Walked out to the middle of the red square, as directed, and…choked.

My notes looked blurry. The audience waited, their faces kind and blurry, too. I flushed. Stumbled through a sentence or two, trying to coax what I’d prepared back into my mind. And then I took a breath and let go.

Laughed.

Narrated reality to the audience as I tucked my notes into my boot and switched my brain from ‘giving a talk’ to ‘talking to the humans in front of me.’ There weren’t so many of them. They were kids there to present, parents there for their kids, and staff there to run things. I breathed and talked and don’t really remember what I said, but I think it was mostly on-topic. They smiled.

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Maybe the responses I got were sincere; maybe they were just polite. Regardless, I was reminded that–no matter how much progress I make–I’m still de-schooling, and my self-doubt shadow is always most dangerous when I’m fooled into thinking I’ve escaped it.

Next time, I’ll do it my way from the start. This is me writing a note to my future self, for when I need the reminder.

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And just for kicks, here’s the speech that only my mirror got to hear in full:

In 2006 Sir Ken Robinson gave a Ted talk that would go on to become one of the most viewed Ted talks of all time. It was called “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” But he doesn’t start by talking about either creativity or schools. Rather he starts with the question that you’re asking today: the question “What next?” And his answer is that we have no idea. He goes on to explain that this is why everyone has a stake in education. It’s education, he says, that’s meant to take us into this future we can’t grasp. From there he goes on to discuss schooling, as if education and schooling were the same thing. But this is the problem. They’re not. And if they were, he wouldn’t have had much to talk about.

Why? Well. When I say ‘education’ I’m referring to all the experiences that shape your brain and your sense of self. These are the experiences through which you learn what you care about, what your strengths are, how to make choices, and what kind of impact you want to have on the world. This is…very different from schooling. Schooling is what most people think of when they hear ‘education’ but it’s a word with a much narrower definition. Schooling refers to a process designed in the 19th century to prepare young people for the factory jobs that it seemed most of them were headed for. And at the time this made sense, but that’s not the world we’re sharing today. They had printing presses and steam engines; we have WhatsApp, Minecraft, and Uber. And even though we don’t know what the world you’ll graduate into will look like–though I’m rooting for the solar roofs and self-driving cars–we’re pretty sure it’ll look different than the world of today.

Which brings us back to Sir Ken Robinson. Ten years ago, when he gave that talk, he asked that we stretch our definitions. That we have the courage to question the very assumptions about ‘what’s next’ that schools were designed around, so we could create schools which nurture creativity and value a variety of intelligences…the ideas danced and drawn as well as those calculated and spellchecked. He challenged us to stretch schooling until it looks more like education, so it helps young people develop the skills we’ll need to face the unknown.

And that’s the work I do. Currently, I serve as co-director at one of these schools for the future, called the Agile Learning Center. Since we know learning is happening all the time, that really all living is potentially education, we focus on the skills of deciding what to learn, figuring out how to learn it, applying what we learn across contexts, and practicing all this self-direction while building community together. It’s work. It’s fun. It replaces grades and tests with conversations and explorations, so each day brings new surprises for us to adapt to.

Now you probably aren’t in a position to radically redesign your school at the moment, and that’s ok. You still have the power to bring more education into your schooling…and to nurture those skills you need for the future in your out-of-classroom life. Find your art. Feed your creativity. You can learn improvisation games to practice meeting the unknown with confidence. Pay attention to communication styles around you–spoken and unspoken–and how they work. Try to understand those who are different from you.

When your schooling is finished, your education continues. I’m excited to co-create the future with you–that’s the mission, should you choose to accept it–but we’ll have to learn to collaborate and you’ll have to stay curious whether the Scantron values your efforts or not. If you’re in, let’s start practicing now. Thank you.

External Brain

This summer I worked some days at an adventure playground. I was there Saturdays, with two other adults and sometimes volunteers. It was work I really enjoyed, and I have lots of thoughts about it, but the biggest impact it’s had on my ALC-NYC school year life is that it’s where I started keeping a day log.

Because we were so busy during the day, staff didn’t get much check-in time until after we’d closed the site and sent the kids off for the day. We’d spend hours immersed in our work as the activity on the playground ebbed, flowed, and whirled. There were children in tires, children on forts, children with hammers, waivers upon waivers, and adults with questions. I always felt like I’d lived several days between when we opened in the morning and closed in the evening, so it was a relief at the end of the day to have intentional time set aside for reflection and sharing.

Asher, the lead playworker on Saturdays, would pull out a book, and we’d sit together to talk about our days. In the book, he’d log big happenings and observations from the day. I found the practice really helpful; sometimes my brain gets busy with all its ideas, and I lose details from the day that I’d like to remember. Sitting down with a blank page (a pensive, Harry Potter fans…) lets me hold and examine different pieces of the day. As a collaborative practice, it helps me hear what my partners are experiencing. As a personal practice, it helps me check that I’m giving equal notice and attention to multiple things.

The reason I’ve started keeping a daily log book this year at staff check-ins is something that I felt the potential for this summer but didn’t really get to experience with the ever-changing cast of kids at the playground. My external brain of a notebook at school provides all the benefits of my playground log book, with the added bonus of allowing me to look back over days, weeks, and months at individual kids’ development. Two months into the school year, it’s already starting to get interesting to read back and notice how people and dynamics have changed. Not to mention that it’s sometimes helpful during parent conferences, since specific notes let me share stories with much more detail than I otherwise could.

So grateful for transferable tools!

A Day-Trip: Franklin Institute and Bresslergroup Debate

Last Thursday morning, most of the ALC-NYC crew headed towards East Harlem for a day of philosophy, visitors, Japanese, wrestling, music, and more.

Meanwhile, I texted with my co-conspiritors and packed a notebook into my field trip bag.

Learning is natural and happening all the time.

I’m generally a fan of our foundational principles at ALC, but the first one (above) is my favorite. As soon as we stop pretending that learning only happens through schooling, we get to start thinking about the kinds of experiences we want contributing to our education. Which means field trips. In this case, it meant a day trip to Philadelphia with Douglas, Javair, and Geva.

All three were still a bit tired after a long weekend in Boston for MIT Media Lab’s Virtual Reality Hack-a-thon (where they were finalists!), but Javair’s imminent departure made them all determined to pack as much as they could into their last few days collaborating in person. They’d met my friend Nick McGill over Maker Faire weekend, when he was trend-spotting and they (well…Douglas…) were talking game-design. They enjoyed picking his brain, and when I mentioned that the company he works for, Bresslergroup, was holding a debate on the nature of innovation, they made clear that both the content and the company interested them. So off we went.

Having two wonderful co-facilitators this year means I can do things like spend whole school days off-site with two kids and a parent. We got a decently early start, and managed to arrive in Philly just in time to have lunch with Nick. When he went back to work, we walked over to the Franklin Institute to check out their Robot Revolution exhibit. We compared robotic “hands,” played Tic-Tac-Toe, and scrambled a Rubix Cube. I particularly liked the wall-climbing robot that was designed to mimic a lizard. Douglas was more interested in the robotic baby seal, while Geva and Javair competed to catch the eye of a face-tracking Robotis. Then I listened while they discussed the wheels and programming of the soccer bots. I…couldn’t really follow. But I did get to share the pendulum and walk-through heart with them after we left the robots!

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 The doors for the Bresslergroup event opened around 6. We headed over a little early, hoping to get a glimpse of Nick’s workspace. Can’t really write about what we saw, but our tour inspired lots of excitement and questions. Curious to see how long it takes before I’m handed a wishlist for our Makerspace 😉

After our tour, we headed to the lobby for the great debate. Douglas picked front-row seats for us, and I ended up sitting across the aisle from my crew. Watching their faces was as much fun as listening to the debate, but I was eager to hear their thoughts on our journey home…especially since they voted for different sides at the end.

 Innovation: driven by research or technology? Do you invest in seeking to understand your customer base’s wants and needs? Or do you presume they can’t know to ask for a tool they can’t imagine, so you invest in developing new technologies? The question got us talking about the nature of both creativity and of markets. Like a good debate question, it gave us lots to consider as we reflected on the evening.

Douglas voted for Team Research at the end of the evening. He made clear that his vote was not necessarily aligned with his personal opinion; rather, he explained that he heard Team Research make multiple sound arguments to support their side, where he heard Team Tech stick mostly to one argument. He really enjoyed the “quips” and pleasantly competitive banter from both teams, though he mentioned that he’d have preferred moderation that prioritized point-counterpoint discussion over polling of participants for each question.

Javair voted for Team Technology, in large part because he agreed that you have to create a product for people to interact with before you can research [using technology] how they receive it. He really appreciated the dynamic between the teams and the distinct contributions of each individual.

In the end, we agreed with the debaters that Research and Technology are interdependent. Since we play in alternative education, we touched on the evening’s assumption that we value innovation and have the courage to pursue it, one way or another. It’s an assumption that holds true for all of us, but we agreed it’d be interesting to discuss what it takes to get someone to that starting point. And what did we decide is necessary for those interested in innovation? Douglas said that a willingness to compromise and incorporate others’ ideas, without losing your vision, is invaluable in general and particularly helpful when collaborating on new projects. Javair advised that aspiring innovators choose questions and causes they feel passionately about so that they can stay motivated to persevere through challenges. He also cited the creation story of the video-game Prison Architect to support Douglas’ idea that willingness to adapt plans and change direction opens space for surprise successes.

Our verdict on the evening all in all? We arrived back in NYC happily exhausted and plotting our next Philly trip. Hopefully there’ll be more engineering adventures for us soon!

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*I intentionally tried not to mention people’s ages, to avoid inviting assumptions about their knowledge and capabilities. I also left out much of what Geva and I had to say about the debate…mostly because it’s much more fun and interesting focusing on young people’s voices.

Earworms

This one is for @thewitchqueen908 @yapyapwizard @pigcraft8 and everyone who went “HUH?” when I used the word earlier…

We have our own ever-evolving language at ALC-NYC, and much of it is comprised of earworms.

PenPineappleApplePen

MakingBaconPancakes

I’mNeverGonnaDanceAgain,

TheWayIDancedWithYou 

Cuz,BabyYou’reAFirework

It’s a real word. Wikipedia has my back: An earworm, sometimes known as a brainworm, sticky music, or stuck song syndrome, is a catchy piece of music that continually repeats through a person’s mind after it is no longer playing.

Now you have the language to thank me for all the songs I just got stuck in your head…and to ask a friend for a replacement tune to push them out. Here’s some more serious, official info.

Happy humming!

 

 

 

 

 

The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Kanban

“Individuals and interactions over processes and tools…Responding to change over following a plan…”

When I was first looking for information on Agile Software Development, I found these lines and smiled. It makes so much sense: meet people where they are, pay attention to relationships and dynamics, have tools but don’t get attached to them, plan but stay agile.

 

This year has been a year of reflecting and reframing. Are there too many loud, little kids…or have we failed to adjust our space to meet the needs of a different group of humans? Did we struggle this fall because of the unbalanced ratio of new kids to culture keepers…or because we failed to see that we were starting with a mostly new group and needed a strong tone-setting to support them? Are Kanbans outdated as a Spawn Point tool now that we have Trello…or are they actually a tool to meet more advanced needs than we have at the moment?

Oh the Kanban. It’s definitely pretty and impressive to have a wall of individual Kanbans in each Spawn Point. In the office Spawn Point, we were serious about using our Kanbans until after winter break. There had been talk for a while about the relevance of the tool: kids said it was redundant when there was Trello, messy when Post-Its fell, and time-wasting when people updated their boards during meeting. But we also talked about tracking our intentions, creating visualizations of our intentions, and the potential for inspiring each other by sharing what we’re each up to. So the boards stayed…until we came back from break with several new students. Then the obstacle course of chairs and bodies in the office meant getting to our boards took more work than they saved as a tool. We let them fall out of use, and I spent meetings typing students’ intentions/reflections into their Trello boards.

It felt a little odd…Not all kids have their own devices or access to their Trellos, so they would have to seek Ryan or I out to ask if they wanted a reminder of their intentions during the day. Recording only on Trello allowed for light and efficient documentation, but it also created a barrier between the kids and the lists of their intentions…limiting access rather than empowering kids with it.

*Side note about the office spawn: I don’t run meetings…I scribe while the kids take turns facilitating. I also don’t pick facilitators. They do it themselves.*

At some point in the early spring, Trello started lagging. @timotree and @ryanshollenberger solved the problem in the other Spawn Point by pre-loading everyone’s Trello boards; my computer would still lag when I tried to update the boards, so I took to documenting people’s intentions and reflections by hand. Doing so made more work for me, updating their Trellos after, but it allowed me to document without slowing meeting with my perpetually loading computer. @abram had mentioned that I could solve the Trello lag problem by exporting all the old cards on kids’ boards to spreadsheets and then deleting them from the active boards, but after doing one I decided it was too time-consuming to do for everyone while school is in session. It still felt like there was a lighter, more effective solution, but I was resigned to hand-writing, post-meeting Trello updating, and setting aside time over the summer to export/delete/fight-the-lag.

Then two weeks ago, most of the kids left on a trip and I sat alone with my thoughts. I thought about what I wanted to see (kids interacting with their intentions and reflections, with the interaction prioritized over the documentation value) and what the blocks to that seemed to be (flow of the room, lack of interest in the present tool, lack of clarity from a group of mostly new kids about the intentions behind Spawn structure).

Naming that last block sparked a revelation: I’d been operating from a place of wanting to build on what we started last year, but only three of the twelve kids in the room had that foundation. I needed to think of ways to support the three in continuing to grow, but the room and meeting structure needed to be adjusted based on the people in the room. So I back-tracked.

After asking permission in Spawn one morning, I rearranged the room to open space and move the Kanban wall-of-whiteboards to a more accessible place. Then I erased all the Kanbans and just wrote each student’s name up.

When it was meeting time, I stood at the board to take notes instead of sitting with a pen and notepad. The kids were rapt. They coached me on spelling game titles. They looked at each others’ boards for memory triggers. They asked me to cross things out and check things off…It felt really good.

I wondered if I’d be able to convince them to update their own lists by the end of this year. I glanced a the giant office Kanban I had made for school administration tasks and wondered how long it would take before a kid asked to change from having a list to having a Kanban…how long before they would be looking for workflow management rather than just a holding place for their ideas.

Things went very smoothly for a week and a half.

But I had a Philly trip planned. I’d be missing school on Friday, and I’d have most of the office’s practiced culture keepers / facilitators with me. I know the kids can run meeting without me when they’re all together, but for a handful of them to do it together right after a new structure has been introduced? It was going to be a test.

Thursday, I told them that I wanted those of us who would be on the Philly trip to let others practice running the day’s Spawn Point meetings. I suggested people update their own boards before meeting; they instead passed a marker around and tried to each speak while writing when it was their turn. The meeting went ok, but it was longer and messier than it needed to be. When they left, I photographed the boards then wiped them clean for the next day. I hoped they’d manage ok.

Monday, I walk into Spawn in the morning to see the boards all neatly updated. When the alarm goes off to signal that it’s time for morning meeting, I walk into the office to see two kids holding markers. They announce that they’ll be running meeting. I smile, sit, then watch as they take turns scribing and co-facilitating. At the afternoon meeting, @pigcraft8 jumps up to update his own board. @fashionwithpassion helps him with spelling.

By Tuesday, @pigcraft8 and @pigsfly have asked for access to their Trello boards so they can update those themselves, too.

Now it’s Wednesday, that last day of a short week. The kids now totally run the office Spawn Point. They’ve gotten practiced at picking roles, facilitating, and now note-taking. New kids are supported stepping into leadership roles during meetings. And I…am delightfully surprised once again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Post: Jason

I play Mine craft then I went to the deli store then Play some more Mine craft then i was going to cooking after i have some pizza then cake then I was playing Simon and I drew on wood then I clean up.

This week!

It’s very exciting to set up new students with blogs 🙂 Especially when they jump into writing independently, leaving me 10 minutes to write alongside them!

We had three students visiting this week. They jumped right into offerings and games with other kids, which was great to see. I spent a lot of time working on gathering records, preparing and following up after the assembly meeting, spreading the word about the summer training program Ryan and I are running, and trying to be outside.

I had a really great time in the park on Wednesday with @ryanshollenberger @pigcraft8 @agilesaylor @creeperclaws and one of the visitors. I got to climb trees with kids, which has to be one of my all-time favorite activities. I also got to take two nice walks with @serenagermany and @thewitchqueen908, who discovered a new crepe place.

The assembly meeting on Tuesday went really well. I used to be really uncomfortable about running meetings, but it’s gotten easier as I’ve practiced. It’s been really helpful to have Ryan and Tomis to work/play with.

Also this week, I watched part of Cooked, the Michael Pollen documentary that’s on Netflix right now. I also went to Julius’ parents’ art show. I hadn’t looked carefully at their art before, but I really enjoyed it. The diversity of the works at the show was really exciting; this was the first show in the gallery’s new space, and I’m excited to keep going back to see how the shows change.