On “Content Awareness”

I recently used the phrase “content awareness” in a blog post about a standardized testing experience I had:

“… ultimately the exam process is hardly about the content, it’s about the presumed measurement of content awareness (“knowledge” seems too generous here)… Passing the exam is not about knowing the content well or deeply, it’s about seeming to know enough and indicating awareness of what these particular test authors deem relevant, representative, and necessary to practicing in the field.”

A couple of conversations on Twitter in response to this phrasing and to the certification process of which this exam was a part, got me thinking. My primary insight about “content awareness” is that I live from it, by it, with it, all day, every day. “Content awareness” is what allows me to participate in most conversations which interest me, particularly on social media.

Engaging constructively in conversation does not and should not require specialized knowledge or expertise. It does require a healthy dose of self-awareness and humility. (That’s the “knowing when to shut up” part.)

Here’s an example: I follow ed tech coverage, commentary and classroom stories because they reflect an expanding field that is having an increasingly strong impact on teaching, learning and our forever shifting interpretation of what education is and does. My interest extends beyond me and my particular needs as a teacher and learner. Rather, wrapping my head around what the influx of the latest digital technologies means for all of us as learners, consumers, citizens, and communicators has become a far more compelling task. What we do in our schools, homes, businesses and governments are no longer isolated happenings. Our individual and collective choices, both online and off, are often more deeply interdependent and strangely connected in ways we are challenged to envision. All the more so since the arrival of Google, Facebook, Apple and Co.  So I follow education technology threads as a way of keeping track of developments related to my field but also influenced by and with influence over so many other areas of our day-to-day existence.

I am not an IT or tech integration specialist, nor do I need to be. Rather, I have a level of content awareness of ed tech and other fields which allows me to engage in meaningful conversations with others around these topics. The more I read & listen, the higher my content awareness and the more precise and fruitful my questions. In relation to the exam, “content awareness” has a negative framing. I refer to it as less than content knowledge. After the fact, however, I want to rethink that stance. Because, literally, what do I know? And how can I be sure that I know what I know?

I will spare all of us a long trip down a rabbit hole of epistemological soul searching. (I looked it up: epistemology is, in fact, the study of knowledge and how it is constructed.) My point here is that “content awareness” has more to offer than I was originally prepared to admit. serves as my intellectual operating system. There’s the full truth. I am willing to say that there is so much I do not know. And there is a whole lot of which I can become aware.

And in that awareness, I can cultivate and grow interest, seek out practice, and raise useful questions. With my content awareness I can do more than contribute to ambitious cocktail chatter. When I choose to go deeper by reading the book rather than the single blog post, by deciding to teach a concept to others and researching sufficiently to that end – then I put myself on a path to some pieces of knowledge which remain fragmentary; always pieces of a much larger and more complex mosaic.

I would love to stop here and let us all feel a little warmer and fuzzier realizing that we may no longer have to play the expert quite so often. But there’s another level.

My newly revered “content awareness” is also the product of a very privileged educational path. I attended private schools from pre-school through graduation and continued on to a prestigious 4 year college. The amount of teacher attention and deeply personal feedback received in highly positive learning environments means that all the conditions were right for acquiring strong academic and non-academic foundations in which specific knowledge accumulation is readily matched with opportunities to explore areas of interest and encouragement to take learning risks. My “content awareness” goes together with the trappings of educational privilege where the benefit of the doubt is more easily given once I’ve mentioned my alma mater or submitted a writing sample. Rote learning  tends to be what our society requires of those we anticipate will become the employees of the pleasantly “content aware.”

In this parallel reality, “content knowledge” or rather, the lack thereof, becomes the measuring stick for deficits. It becomes an instrument for locating and exposing all manner of lack in the primary players in the system: students and teachers.  Content knowledge is what standardized testing purports to measure and in doing so provides school systems with mountains of data about who and what needs fixing. But the tests, it would seem, begin from assumptions rooted in very middle class “content awareness.” The tests are therefore rigged against the bulk of the students assigned to take them. This is hardly news to those of you who follow the reform wars in K-12 public education. But this line of thinking throws my self-flattering take on “content awareness” into stark relief.

Claiming “content awareness” constitutes privilege, plain and simple. Now that that’s established, how will I use this particular privilege? Being able to “think out loud” here in this space is one avenue. Broadening the conversation among friends, colleagues, newcomers is another. This post, and the meandering thought process it reveals, remind me once again that we are not finished. This much I know.

In Praise of Men Who Matter

For more than a few weeks I have had the intention to write a post about my positive relationships with men. And the difficulty starts right there. I can’t just say “relationships with men” without immediately clarifying that I am not referring to romantic or intimate relationships per se, but to friendships and familial relationships with men. I want to speak about men whom I know well, whom I like and respect and whose presence add value and meaning to my life. I want to write about them because they matter and need to hear from me directly that they matter. And the questions that came up for me in this process tell another story, though: Why does it feel risky to write good things about men? What is the significance of being a strong, independent woman and saying nice things about men?

What got me started on this idea was a series of empowering conversations I had earlier in the year with three very different male friends of mine on three consecutive days. Following each conversation I felt so remarkably grateful for the friendship we share and the way we can go deep on topics of personal importance. Each of these men challenged and encouraged me in these talks. Each of them was open to the feedback I had for them and in each instance I enjoyed being on equal footing. There was no competing for air time; no awkward power differential to overcome. And yet I could recognize some differences to conversations I might have about similar topics with female friends. My male friends offered some approaches I hadn’t considered, they shared their estimations of certain situations from unique perspectives as males and I felt enriched.

The weeks ticked by and still the post was not written. More positive conversations and connections had with other males in different contexts, still no post written. Rather, other posts were written, but not the “nice things I have to say about some men” post. And I began to wonder. Of course, public writing has made more sensitive to a host of social and political undercurrents in current discourse. In my self-selected filter bubble which is decidedly left-leaning, feminist, strongly social justice  and education oriented, men are welcome but need to watch their step, check their privilege and avoid saying the wrong thing in the wrong way or both of those. Women acting in the same forums, of course, face challenges in other dimensions (death and rape threats) which put those male ‘constraints’ (for lack of a better word) absolutely  into perspective. It is fairly uncomplicated and certainly a pleasure to write great things about the women in my life as I have done before. It also striking to acknowledge the ambivalence I feel in doing something similar for men.

And this intersection is where I think we need to go.

Appreciation and acknowledgement of men as allies, as valued members of the same society may seem redundant to some. I mean to let major media tell the story, men get all the gold, glory and the credit or at least most of it. Yes, and. This is not true for all men. As a rule it benefits me greatly to listen to women and men. In order to write this post and be witness both to the struggles women face daily and the good things that I observe among men I know, I have to maintain a mindset of “yes, and” rather than “yes, but”.  Holding the space for both realities, for differing perspectives and experiences is critical to taking this walk. “Yes, and” is the walk I commit myself to every time I press “publish.”

When I was a 13 year old boy-crazy girl growing up in Cleveland, my dream was to be surrounded by good looking guys. Well, as the saying, goes: watch what you wish for because you might receive. Here I am at mid-life and when I celebrate Christmas I am surrounded by good looking guys, only (my husband, my Ex, and 2 sons). The irony.  I love them all and I think each time anew about options for recruiting some female energy into our party next year. The ingredients I consistently seek in promoting my own growth and those around me are balance and diversity. So the value of male voices in the dialogues in which I engage is not lost on me, even if their messages can infuriate me. Sometimes I forget that I, too, have the potential to frustrate and infuriate my dialogue partners, male and female. No one holds a monopoly on this capacity, I’m afraid.

On social media I have had the pleasure of encountering numerous male contributors who regularly expand my horizons and stretch my thinking. I find much in common with them on several themes specifically around education and social justice and I appreciate the many ways in which they have supported and championed my voice in digital spaces. I am so glad they are present and engaging and also willing to wrestle with some of the tough stuff. These are also men who can examine and unpack their various layers of privilege which are unique to each of them. In their company I feel safe, valued and welcomed.

I have a brother who is five years older. Although we have lived on different continents for most our adult lives, what impresses me most about him is his role as the family connector. He is the one who has maintained and strengthened ties with uncles, aunts and cousins across the country on behalf of our family. Every cousin imaginable is only a phone call away for him. I love this about him and my gratitude to him is immeasurable. And I applaud the fact that he is a male taking up what has traditionally been ‘women’s work’ in our family.

In my world, the men I care about and value are several. Who they are, the gifts they bring, the time they take – all of these mean so much to me and certainly to many others. Being male is but one aspect of their identity and each one of them expresses their maleness distinctly, uniquely and vitally. Our mutual capacity to sustain each other in life-affirming ways, friend-to-friend, brother-to-sister, partner-to-partner, requires careful tending to from both sides.

In this spirit, I raise my glass in honor of the great men in my life. You matter. Live long, prosper and please stay in touch.

The Integrity Diet

The calendar I never kept. Lipstick? Really?
The calendar I never kept. Lipstick? Really?

Throughout this year I have spent a fair amount of time wondering about what it is I am actually supposed to be doing. For about 8 more weeks I will still be working, living and learning entirely on my own dime. Time away from the classroom has brought an astounding degree of freedom and plenty of thinking and dreaming space. As this designated phase draws to a close, I am looking for the list of achievements I can hang my hat on; evidence of my productive use of this precious time. I keep asking myself: so where is the evidence? What have you actually done with yourself this year?

A valid question, yet not the ideal. Rather, to ask about what I gained, how I grew and which capacities I strengthened – these are the questions that bring me closer to understanding the value of this time better than lists of what I did and made. And on closer inspection, I see that above all – I changed my diet. I paid closer attention to what I was taking in, how it affected me and this in turn changed what came out. I didn’t realize it while it was happening but now I see that this year had everything to do with my integrity – how I live my life as my whole self and how I express and share that whole self with the outside world. I treated myself to an integrity diet.

I recently shared one of my biggest revelations on Twitter:

I joined social media, specifically Twitter, to “hang out” in a sense but instead got “caught up” as I described in a recent post. The deeper and wider my education-related conversations became, the greater my interest and focus on the very things that school and education, in and of themselves, can hardly fix or solve. In fact, the more I engaged with educators, journalists, activists and academics around these topics, the more keenly aware I became of the potential for school systems and political systems to harm students, exacerbate disparities and claim ignorance about how such circumstances (i.e., school-to-prison pipeline, excessive police brutality against black and brown people, also in schools) could come to pass. Internally, I note a shift in myself from accommodating to critical. While I love the idea of speaking to a broad audience,  it has become more important for me as a person, as a writer and as an educator to speak out and speak up and accept that not everyone will feel included, or comfortable, or agree with what I have to say. I am now willing to run that risk. My ego may take a hit but my integrity finds sustenance.

While I feed my integrity, where does the time go?

It seems to me that I read for hours on end each day: books, articles, blog posts, e-mail. I read and I seek to become wiser, better informed. I read in search of nuance and depth. I read in search of examples of healthy daily coping. I follow my friends’ recommendations. I develop opinions and then read on to have those same opinions challenged. When I find nuance and depth, I am grateful and compelled to share. One think piece that struck me in particular was Why Women Talk Less because the author did not leave well enough alone. Rather, she  examined research and arguments from various angles refusing to sum up her findings in tidy tweetable bullet points. She let the reader grapple along with her as she laid out the complexity and stickiness of the options that women appear to have in choosing to speak out and up. This type of reading is like a good workout. It leaves you a little tired and mentally sweaty but satisfied. And stronger; ready for the next solid think piece to come along and start something. And there goes the time. I read,  feel edified, and wonder where all this reading may be leading me.

Where?

Into the arms of writing, it would seem. The other chunk of time when I am not reading, I am seated at my laptop, pecking my thoughts out onto white screens with hyper-interactive sidebars. I used to write in journals, on paper. I do less of that now and tend to go straight to the screen. Since June 2014 I have published 65 posts on this blog and about a dozen on Medium.  At the outset I was fairly sure that I would be writing about coaching and teaching. But the most passionate pieces are best characterized as responses. Something I read or saw or thought about struck a chord and affected me. Like when a post by Audrey Watters nearly sent me over the edge (in a good and slightly revivalist way). Or when I  needed to dissect the reactions I was seeing on Twitter and elsewhere to a NYT piece on Success Charter Schools. Or most recently when I felt a little out of my depth venturing to take higher education to task but I did it anyway and am glad  that I did. In all of these pieces there was an emotional boiling point which made writing imperative and allowed me to push past the weighty apprehension I typically feel before I click “Publish.” Writing this year has meant jumping over my own shadow. Repeatedly. And with bigger and bigger leaps.

What did I do with myself this year?

I grew and I learned. I have found that my interests extend far beyond where I thought my borders were. In my reading and writing, in fact, I’ve gone abroad. I have ventured into unfamiliar and often uncomfortable territory. I have gained a new appreciation for this wonderful brown skin I am living in.  I have come to better understand and value the ways in which it interacts and intersects with all the other aspects of who I am and how I identify.  I have explored aspects of my otherness while finding commonalities in likely and unlikely places. Opportunities to get down on the ground and truly wrestle with my most stubborn biases and blind spots have been multiple and recurring. I have made many friends and so far, very few enemies. I have come to value questions and responses over supposed answers and solutions. I have found a deeper desire to connect not simply with people but to their ideas and  connect those ideas to other people who may not be seeing the same things.

At the end of this year I have no product to market, no book to pitch, no course of study to offer. What I do have is the well nourished integrity of my intellectual, social and artistic pursuits. Perhaps I have never been as fully myself as I am right now. My integrity has never been in better shape.

The Commencement Address I Never Gave

image via pixabay.com
image via pixabay.com

Dear Graduates,

You are here, I am told, because you made it. You fulfilled the requirements, satisfied the criteria of your studies and now will be rewarded with a diploma. Congratulations!

In the process that has brought you thus far, what have been your greatest lessons? Where has your learning been its deepest and  most rewarding? What are you proud of? To whom are you grateful?

I ask these questions because in my experience, some of the best graduation speakers turn out to be the students themselves. Often they are selected by their peers. When you speak as a student, you can address the graduating class as peers. You know what many have been through because you were there. And now as you sit, organized perhaps alphabetically, or by discipline or a combination of those, you may be sitting next to some people you know well and near others whom you perhaps hardly know. Yet whoever stands up here where I am now may be hard pressed to  recognize you as anything other than a collective, a class of, yes, graduates.

I want to change that. Rather than have me talk to you or about you for 8 or 15 or 30 minutes. I want us to do something different with this time we have been allocated. I want you spend some time talking to each other. I want you to spend five minutes (2:30 for each person) responding to one of the questions I posed at the beginning. Each of you will have 2:30 to respond without interruption. I will signal when the time is up and then ask you to switch places.  I want everyone here to participate, not only the graduates. Speak to the person next to you or behind you and share your responses. Listen without interruption until you hear the signal. Then switch and tell your story.

Find a partner you will speak with and raise your hand to let me know you are ready. We are a lot of folks here, so please hold off with your conversation until the signal, just raise your hand silently to show me that you’ve found a partner.

Looks like just about everybody has a partner. Great!

Here are the questions to which you may respond. Pick one: (Displayed on giant screen)

  • In the process that has brought you thus far, what have been your greatest lessons?
  • Where has your learning been its deepest and  most rewarding?
  • What are you proud of?
  • To whom are you grateful?

First partner, are you ready to tell your story? Okay, begin.  (Full buzz of thousands of conversations unleashed)

(at 2:00) You have about 30 more seconds, partner 1.

(at 2:25) Please finish your sentence. 3, 2, 1.  Thank you!

Partner number 2, are you ready to share your story? Okay, begin. (Even louder, more animated buzz)

(at 2:00) Partner 2, you have about 30 more seconds.

(at 2:25) Please finish your sentence. 3, 2, 1. Thank you!

Continued buzz. Pause.

How did that feel?

Graduates, this is the opportunity that I continue to long for – creating entrances into meaningful conversation. With our neighbors, with our colleagues, with our family members. Even as we dance on this planet, many of us hyper-connected and often more in need of unplugging than of anythings else, meaningful, face to face dialogues which unlock our intellect as easily as our emotions may become scarce yet no less necessary to our thriving. And if you or I intend to make a dent in the world, then we must understand that our significant dialogues need to extend beyond our most trusted circles.

You are leaving this ceremony with a degree in your hand. You know, too, that you have had classmates along the way who are not here with you. Classmates who have not yet made it to where you are. Right there is a space for dialogue which is often overlooked. The dialogue between graduate and drop out. What might you be able to learn from each other, to contribute to each other’s understanding of the world we inhabit, especially when you may each see the world very differently?

As a graduate, you enter adulthood in one form or another. There will be new demands upon your time, money and wits. You likely have friends and family who are in your corner rooting for you.  What kinds of new conversations will you be having with your parents, siblings, grandparents?  How will your freshly won independence express itself when you need to ask others for help?

Thinking about being able to live with yourself, what internal conversations do you need to have before you leave this place and head for the next? Even when you know what to do (get more sleep, exercise regularly, brush and floss daily), what gets in the way from acting on that knowledge sometimes? How do you bridge your own ‘knowing-doing gap’? How do you talk to yourself when you fail? What do you say to yourself to make it alright again?

I raise these questions not to throw you into a philosophical crisis, but as signposts for the conversations I wish more of us would entertain. While dialogue, even with yourself, may not be the solution to the world’s problems, it strikes me as a perfectly fine place to start. Each of us is capable of becoming an effective listener.  We can learn to respect and honor multiple perspectives. Without these capacities, I fear that your education is hollow and of limited use to the world.

Make your education useful: Become an expert on gaps.

Recognize the gaps that exist around you – through gender, race, class, education, health status, to name a few – and dare to stand in those gaps. No need to raise your hand anymore; raise your question. Question what is and perhaps try “what if?” Gather the responses. Investigate  their sources and interrogate their meaning. Research possible ways forward. If your education has equipped you to do as much, we can all be well pleased.

Do not fear the gap; make the gaps you encounter an unending source of creativity.

What questions will you pose to the world?

What is life asking of you?

These are the questions that come up for me as I look at you in your caps and gowns. To me you all look lovely and promising and slightly uncomfortable.

I have often wondered about the purpose of commencement speeches. When they are good, they are often highly marketable after the fact, particularly if they are delivered by uniquely wise and well spoken members of the celebrity class.  Yet what good do they do? What do you gain by listening to someone offer anecdotes, some encouragement and of course, a bit of advice? Speakers at graduations are of course talking to a much wider audience than just the graduates themselves. They are addressing parents and families of the graduates, the faculty and administration of the institution, and perhaps other invited members of prominence.  Of course, you, the graduates, are the focus of these ceremonial activities but rest assured that there is much more going on than folks simply gathering here to say “Congrats!” and to wish you well. We have the pomp and circumstance along with apprehension and nervousness. We have joy and cheering along with tears and departures. A commencement address seems to be there to tide us over until we can get to the main course; to forestall a widespread emotional implosion should all the other parts move too quickly. That said, I have one more quick exercise for all of us before we go.

This exercise has two parts, the calm and the storm. During the calm we are going to go silent for yes, a whole minute. Use this time to breathe and simply be where you are, who you are right at this moment; nothing more, nothing less. Then, when you hear the signal,please stand up and give us a whopping loud cheer of celebration.

Here’s the calm.

(at 58 sec.) Now the STORM. (Very loud cheering from all angles !!!)

Pause.

Congratulations, graduates and Thank you!

On-Stage, Off-Stage

 Pretend for a moment that you’re alone with your thoughts, and that whatever you think or feel in the next few minutes is not designed for social media consumption, interpersonal bonding, or heated debate – that it’s just you thinking through you. (emphasis mine)

If you’re angry, why? No, really? What makes you angry about recent comments, events, interpretations, etc.? There’s no right or wrong answer here – you don’t have to tell me or anyone else. If you feel a bit defensive, or defiant, or sad, or guilty, or even if you’ve been trying not to think about ANY of these seemingly distant riots and uprisings and whatever, ask yourself why. Just for a few minutes.

Let your mind sift a bit. No one will know.

– Blue Cereal Education, To My Confused White Friends

“Let your mind sift a bit. No one will know.”

These words and the idea of being alone with my thoughts and not grooming them for social media consumption – well now, that caught me in a sensitive place. Because, he’s absolutely right. For those of us who show up here daily on the social media channels of our choice – we admittedly have a lot going on. When we have something to say and decide that it is indeed something we need and want to share, we run a risk. In fact, we run a whole host of risks.

We risk being misunderstood and our words misconstrued.

We risk being confronted with our own ignorance, misjudgment, and narrow mindedness.

We risk saying something that may offend or hurt someone else.

We risk being called out for our arrogance and tone deafness.

We risk being too right, too wrong or simply too much.

And yet, if our online experiences are positive enough, it can become quite easy to make our presence a habit, our contributions frequent and our interactions numerous and varied. If those experiences strike us as positive enough through favorites and retweets and follow-up shares, then we feel affirmed in our presence and contributions. We may feel heard, valued and seen. Like our being here is a good thing.

A challenge I face as frequent user of a few social media spaces, however, is being honest with myself outside of those spaces. IRL – in real life, my family members do not toss out stars of approval at my wittiest statements or my forthright requests. There are no retweets of our dinner conversation.  And yet, a surprising portion of my inner dialogue seems to run through a type of  social media filter.  How would I want to blog about that? Is that tweetable? What’s the right tone here?  For lack of a better term, I’ll call it “social media creep” (as in “slowly progressing” not “wierdo”).  These more recent thought filters slide in and make themselves at home in my day-to-day habits.  Their reason for being is rooted in the potential response of the other. These social media thought filters reveal speculations about how I wish to be seen, heard, and recognized in this great big untamed space by others.

I, by myself, entirely alone with my thoughts… I know it happens and it is becoming rare. My thoughts drift into writing and that writing happens with some sense of audience in mind. Before I have gone too far, my thinking may become a text that I choose to publish. Where I used to commit all this stuff to journals, I now have the opportunity to do that AND share those thoughts with the whole dang world immediately.  When Dallas Koehn, alias Blue Cereal Education (@BlueCerealEduc), suggests that we pretend for a few minutes that our thoughts are not designed for social media consumption, he cuts to the core. He calls me and so many others out for staging our being more than actually being our being. When we enter the social media fray, we step on stage and although we may feel like nondescript extras in a scene of the masses, we want to play our parts well and to the best of our ability.  If we’re good, the thinking goes, surely someone will notice us and our performance.

And being noticed, catching someone’s attention – this becomes our new currency of influence and prestige: Follower counts, potential reach. This is how we figure out who’s boss and who’s not (yet).  Social media creep wants me to care about those things. Social media creep beckons me to maximize and optimize my presence. Because being noticed more often by more people – well that must be a reward in and of itself, right?

What does it mean that I have nearly 400 followers on Twitter? Or that some 70 people follow this blog? My hope is that each of those individuals derives some benefit, some usefulness from my occasional contributions. I’m not here to start a movement. I am here to learn. to grow. to stretch. to engage.  Staying alert to what’s happening on stage may prove to be less challenging than recognizing the processes going on behind the scenes – inside ourselves. Our vanity, our egos, desires, and our need to belong have become economic drivers on a whole new scale and we find ourselves vulnerable  in strange and unanticipated ways thanks to the wonders of digital technology.

Given the personal impact of social media creep, the time that I spend alone with my thoughts becomes the best preparation I can imagine for keeping this thing real and human and meaningful, on stage and off.   “Let your mind sift” may need to become my new mantra.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inclusion, Intent and Extraordinary Value

It’s workshop season and I’m pulling my resources together trying to design adult learning experiences that create value for participants. When I am in this phase of mapping, planning, sketching and drafting, a number of competing ideas come up for me. I find myself zooming out, then zooming in; attending to the details while keeping the big picture in mind – these are the intellectual challenges that I love in this work. And this time I see that I have created a special task for myself. The workshop that I want to deliver struggles with the premise of the workshop that was accepted.

Let me explain. The title of my workshop is: “The What, Why and How of Inclusion Activities” and in a nutshell, it is billed as offering participants a framework for when and why to use activities which are designed to foster inclusion in a group setting and of course, practice selected activities as we go.  Sounds reasonable enough. For participants there’s a predictable outcome: ideally they will leave with some specific activities that they can use in their classrooms and offices. In practice the workshop looks something like this:

Participants arrive, we do an activity, I talk, we talk, we do another activity, I talk, we talk, next activity, I talk, we talk …time to wrap up, I talk, we talk, round of applause, participants depart, done.

There are worse models, to be sure. Participant involvement and reflection are central to any plan I create. At the same time, I want to do more. I want to bump up against the boundaries a little. The phrase that keeps coming up is: “mess with.” I want to “mess with” people’s ideas and assumptions about how this process works. It is not particularly hard to select a series of activities which may be useful, practice them a little, create a handout for folks to take home and send people on their merry professional way. In principle, that sums up most of what I have planned. Yet the call for more persists.

Here’s what more might look like:

  • After having participants circulate in the room for a minute or two, stop and ask them to note down: 1.) Their hopes for this workshop  and 2.) Their intentions for participating in the workshop.  The purpose here is to invite participants to make an internal commitment to the time they are about to spend on something. Asking about hopes and intentions alerts participants to their role in co-creating the learning experience they are about to have. That is more.
  • Create space for activities completed in silence. We tend to talk so much, especially in the role of facilitator, that we forget how powerful and revolutionary it can feel to let go of talk for a time. Just because we are not hearing each others’ voices  does not mean that dialogue will disappear. Calling for silence and restricting the use of voice can feel like a huge counter-cultural demand. And yet if we just go ahead and do it, model it, let it be – our results are often stronger for it. That would be more.
  • Create space and time for participants to connect input with pre-existing knowledge and experiences. Again it is so easy to fall into a trap of delivery. We offer a workshop and we should deliver new, interesting stuff to the participants. And yet, what allows any learning to stick is when it finds an anchor, a connection that already exists in the individual. Even if that connection is the realization: “Wow, I’ve never seen that before.” The key is reflection. The learning is not in the activity, it is in the reflection on doing the activity.  In our insufferable quest to squeeze lots of content into skinny little time pockets which should then be applicable, portable and transferable, we often do ourselves and our participants a great disservice.  Deliver less and value the wisdom and expertise of the room. This, too, is more.

While these ideas do not strike me as radical, I can acknowledge them as unconventional. They are not the professional development norm in education circles. And I know that I have to brave experimenting with them. I’d like to “mess with” my participants’ notions of what compelling adult learning can look like and I expect them to teach me in turn. Actively co-creating the learning experience is what I am after and it gets to the heart of what Inclusion Activities are actually about.

Inclusion assumes that every member has a contribution to make to the group’s success.

In Will There Be Donuts? a book that advocates for designing and running real meetings, author David Pearl says:

The question I always ask clients – and have them ask themselves – is how can this meeting create extraordinary value for everyone involved? Not just value but extraordinary value. Not just for me, but for everyone, most particularly the other participants…

When people are queuing up in the corridor for your meetings, camping overnight in sleeping bags for the doors to open, we’ll know that we are creating extraordinary value. And it’s the intention that gets us there.

(David Pearl, Will There Be Donuts, Harper Collins 2012., p. 76)

Applying that mindset of “creating extraordinary value for everyone involved” to my workshop planning, it becomes absolutely clear that the path to more for participants and me starts with clear intentions – internally formulated and explicitly stated. Every participant who walks through the door must be aware that her presence is valued, his voice is essential, that our work is shared.

This mindset also underscores the importance of only employing inclusion activities if inclusion is the genuine intent. When participants are encouraged to behave as if their voice mattered only to be quickly reconfigured back into traditional roles of power distribution (teacher-student, boss-employee), then they will quickly learn to resist such offerings and see them as a form of mockery. So I will make a point of asking participants to consider this intersection of intent and impact before trotting off to simply “try something new” with their unwitting groups.

In this way, the workshop as conceived and the workshop as advertised become one and the same: Art in the making, adult learning experiences eager to take on lives of their own. More than the norm. More about participant growth and connection than about content delivery. More about listening and sharing than about telling and showing. I’m going for more. Wish me luck.

 

 

I want to give a shout out to Elena Aguilar whose excellent post on Edutopia is a foundational reminder for me in this process: “10 Tips for Delivering Awesome Professional Development”: http://t.co/SBluT0jKjD

 

 

 

Learning to Push Back

image via pixabay.com
image via pixabay.com

As a kid, I was the proverbial “good girl,” a rule follower, a goody two-shoes, and I liked it that way. Truth be told, I still like it that way. Not surprisingly I put a lot of stock in correctness and being polite. In high school I avoided debate, opted for tech theater instead. Crafting arguments and counter-arguments has never felt natural or pleasurable for me. Yet, in the course of my academic career, I certainly learned to write convincing prose; to back up assertions with data and evidence.

When I encounter a position with which I do not agree, I mentally prepare my pushback, yet hesitate miserably before I dare to write anything.  My disagreement is usually real, has both an emotional and intellectual anchor, and something in me wants to speak out.  As I hash out my thoughts, I often second-guess my ability to build a coherent and air-tight rebuttal.  I talk myself out of using my voice with conviction. Instead, I wait until someone else – who is braver, more eloquent, given to snark – posts the protest I wish I had written and I piggy back on it with a modest retweet.

I could stop there and say, well, it’s a case of individual choice. Which it is. And it is also indicative of a larger pattern.

Since I have become active on social media, on Twitter in particular, I have learned to pay attention to the dominant narratives and what constructive pushback looks like. To do that I had to find some  models and there are plenty.  And in choosing my models I have been highly selective: I have sought out women of color who comprehend intersectionality;  who understand from the get-go what it means to be more than “just one thing” in society, most often from a marginalized perspective.

For both artful and substantive pushback I turn toTressie McMillan Cottam @tressiemcphd, Melinda D. Anderson @mdawriter, @RafranzDavis, @nicloecallahan, @arissahOh, Shireen Mitchell @digitalsista,  and Nicole Sanchez @nmsanchez. These women regularly point out weak argumentation, demonstrate skillful presentation of evidence, employ sass, snark and nuance at will, and tirelessly remind whoever will listen about the issues which mainstream media typically neglects,  higher ed research may sidestep, and industries would rather gloss over.

Some worthy examples:

Tressie McMillan Cottam points out that while everyone rushes to quote Paul Krugman in his NYT Op-Ed, he’s not the first to make the case that education is not the great equalizer:

Because of course, she has said as much and more so often in her writing about  inequality in higher education with a special emphasis on the for-profit sector.

Or Melinda D. Anderson raises questions about what appears to be white paternalism towards civil rights groups with regards to educating children of color:

On another note, Arissa Oh diplomatically distances herself from the widespread Oscar kerfuffle:

And following an exhausting exchange over the wage gap comments of Patricia Arquette at the Oscars, Nicole Sanchez tweeted  a series of portraits of women of color at the top of their game and in conclusion offered this as a positive reset cue:

The lessons here for me are several:

As I cultivate my own voice of dissent, I need to

  • Pay attention: to the message, the messenger, the power dynamics, who is speaking out and who’s voice is missing.
  • Know my intention first and then think about how I will speak my mind.
  • Be clear about what is at stake and prepare to be heard (and also misunderstood).
  • And if I think my voice doesn’t matter, I must know that someone else who is not in my corner is counting on precisely that.  Here is where I have to give myself the benefit of the doubt, rather than defer to the status-quo.
  • Finally I have to recognize that baby steps count. Each teaspoon of resistance contributes to the next. Pushback can be learned and accommodated without becoming a default stance.

It seemed to take a long time to get this post out. And the more I write and participate in social media, the more I think of that as a good thing. I want to remain wary of knee-jerk reactions and the tendency to pile-on after a celebrity misstep. Role models are important throughout our lifespan and I take great pleasure in seeking out new models in new territory.  These mavens of artful pushback provide me with guidance, inspiration and positive examples of meaningful social media engagement. No doubt, I too, will learn to disagree without becoming disagreeable, to bravely push back rather than holding back.