Monday, January 28, 2013

Fail faster

Wofford students & primary school children on a scavenger hunt during a special outreach event at Hatcher Gardens (Fall '09)

She thought of everything. Balloons bobbed above bilingual signs at the campus entrance. Students manned posts to welcome visitors. The athletics program supplied posters, and soccer team members offered to greet kids after the game.

Unsettled by a reading in Advanced Spanish with Community-Based Learning, my student decided to do something about the high dropout rate among Latinos in our community. Inspired, she seized on a fun way to spark a dream about college: give young children and families positive experiences on campus, and motivate high aspirations. She listened, planned, recruited classmates. She distributed fliers at the site where she volunteered and paid attention to the details of set-up.

Saturday dawned beautiful for the kick-off event. And no one came. Not one child, not one family. Shortly after, she sat in my office, debriefing. What went wrong? We talked through potential gaps. Determined, she went out and listened more. She addressed a trust gap, a transportation gap. Seven years later, the program she founded flourishes, and one Friday each month, fifty first-graders laugh, run, and learn on our campus. An entire elementary school has spent special afternoons with college mentors, and college students have figured out ways to translate a passion for learning into shaving cream experiments and scavenger hunts. At our community partner program, the kids show off Wofford’s Twin Towers, which they’ve carefully constructed from Legos. And my student? She’s finishing a Ph.D. in microbiology, and she “likes” every Facebook status I post about our community work.

Fail faster, they say. The first time I submitted an article for publication, I mailed off two at once. I accidentally swapped the envelopes. I only found out when I got back a kind letter from an editor, a senior scholar in my field, advising me of the mistake. My first time whitewater kayaking, I asked for instructions from the environmental studies colleagues with me. “Easy peas-y, steer for the ‘V’s’,” they said. I hit every rock in the river before I realized … upside-down V’s. My paddling colleagues laughed, knowing I’d inadvertently aimed for every single one I hit.

Every time we risk our comfort to learn, to try something new, we risk failure. You can get hung up on the rocks, or you can keep paddling. My student risked, failed, and excelled. She gave our community a fabulous program and me a favorite story to share with students. Take risks, fail faster, learn. What do your stories tell? How much permission do you give yourself —and others— to fail en route to growth, innovation, success?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Learning and Sharing

A Wofford Spanish major and local elementary school student learning and sharing in our organic lab during an outreach event (Nov 2011)

There my children sit, kneel actually, perched on chairs as kids do, in a conference room, peering over an iPad an adult rests before him on the table.

I look more closely at the cellphone snapshot that my colleague forwarded. Kids, mine; date, very recent; location, campus. I have no memory of this moment. I squint, enlarge the picture. Anxious feeling. iPad owner? An alumnus and college benefactor. Oh, my. I have no memory of this moment because I wasn’t there.

As a faculty member, I have occasional back-to-school nightmares. Mine never involve being asked to teach material I don’t know. As a faculty parent, they involve the sudden appearance of my children on campus at unexpected moments.

I need to know more, and the story I piece together unexpectedly offers insight. Mundane opening: school calendars didn’t overlap, the kids came to the office with me, the sitter picked them up and made her way with them through campus to her car, with a couple of stops along the way. One stop was captured in the picture. Apparently –and here my sleuthing has failed me on details– some space opened for an exchange among my children and the visiting alum. The insight? He saw the encounter as a space in which to share, and my kids told me he taught them about Grand Central Station in New York, showing them images on his iPad. Click, snapshot, moment. His parting lesson to my children: try to learn something new every day.

We had another lesson at home, as they peered at the picture, and this one was about generosity. Not just the generosity that underwrites scholarships, funds buildings, endows professorships. We talked about the generosity of spirit that lets each of us invest in those with whom we interact on purpose and by chance. What matters to you? Is it worth sharing? And when others are sharing, are you willing to listen (am I?), as kids do –with few presuppositions and genuine curiosity–, and let insights shift into focus later, upon reflection?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Does “Awesome” Happen Around You?

Photo courtesy of Esthela Calderón, Nov 2012

Have you ever been around someone who exudes positive energy? Who leaves you feeling enthusiastic about what’s next? Those people build the culture of their communities –digital communities and face-to-face ones, classroom communities, organizational communities. We can all be those people.

I met one such person this past November in New York. “You’re a hero of mine,” I spoke by way of introduction, before our group filed downstairs for events at the Americas Society. “Would you mind if my husband took a photo of us?” Homero Aridjis, past president of PEN International, a leader of the Group of 100, and prolific author, smiled and obliged, then shared stories as we sat together. Over a lifetime of work, his phenomenal capacity to relate, empathize, and act with moral clarity has created spaces —oftentimes, in the realm of environmental advocacy— in which others can be their best selves. Those strengths were in action later that night in the trendy restaurant where our group arrived during the dinner rush. Our animated party of 11 proceeded to a table that wasn’t quite ready, and Homero lugged behind him a suitcase of books that had been on display at the event. Within seconds, he was joking with the waiters —the names and countries of origin of whom he’d already learned— and our party got beer on the house and smiles from people for whom we were clearly making work more difficult. I watched, and it all made sense. Homero is a gifted relater-to-others, a tremendous communicator, and a deeply empathetic person. He speaks of collaborators with admiration and appreciation and of those who’ve blocked his work, matter-of-factly or with humor. He makes “awesome” happen around him by means of high morale, unwavering determination (even in the face of death threats), and endless partnerships that take shape around common purpose.

On the flip side, maybe you’ve had more experiences like those of a colleague at another institution. She does great work with students, and she wants to share campus-wide the processes that have made her high impact programs rewarding for participants. Over the course of our conversation earlier this week, she commented on a micro-managing culture on the part of leaders, and how recent events had left her feeling like she wasn’t trusted in a job she’s done well. My friend can’t change organizational culture overnight, and since leadership matters so much in shaping culture, she might not even be able to change it much campus-wide. What she can do is “build around bright spots,” a concept I love from Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch. If you’re in a negative environment in a classroom, team, or organization, it requires extra energy to “get ahead” of the culture mentally. My friend did that by choosing to see her experiences through a lens of observing and learning; she’s decided to use her expertise to frame great questions about high impact practices, rather than produce a list of guidelines. She’s an activator and a doer, and by directing those strengths toward creating space for others to contribute, she’ll build a better culture in her circle of influence.

How about you? Some of the toughest questions I ask myself each day are these: How am I using my strengths? Am I directing them toward the task at hand and being a leader or contributor that adds value to an activity, even if it’s “just” waiting for a table in a crowded restaurant? How am I “building around the bright spots” to make the culture around me more positive for more people? And how am I making room for others to do so, too?

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Why-How-What of Projects-Based Civic Engagement

Local residents, nonprofit directors, and Wofford students come together at a Family Dinner night at our after-school community partner site (Oct 2012)

What if there were a civic engagement course in our Spanish program that leverages students’ drive for learning-for-the-real-world, capitalizes on my strengths as a professional, and exemplifies the relevance of the liberal arts for the world today? That question has been my design-thinking challenge for a couple of years. This spring, I test a prototype, a new course called Span 311: Leadership and Social Change in the Hispanic World.[i]

How will this course work? It starts by addressing the persistent “why” questions many learners have, myself included. Why should we do this work? In answer, the course gives students a civically oriented target, in this case, the production of a case study or action plan for a local community partner. Those partners all face some challenge involving the local Latino population, which increased by 135% between the 2000-2010 censuses in Spartanburg County. Among questions our community partners are asking: How might we include more Latino voices in decision-making? How might we more effectively share important health information, like air quality alerts? How might we work alongside community members to promote better educational outcomes for kids? Students will work through these design-thinking challenges all term, and the outcome will be publically delivered in an event the students themselves imagine and design.

Having an outcome target makes our course, in part, an example of projects-based learning. When well-executed, projects-based learning can give students a motivation driver by which a course achieves its other purpose: to help students understand the process of learning and acting in ways informed by the discipline(s). An elective in the second-highest declared major at Wofford (12-15 % of graduates earn a Spanish degree), the “Leadership and Social Change” course can aim high in its process-of-learning goals.

On our first day of class, the students and I will think through this huge “how” question: how can we best educate ourselves so that we develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions required of global citizens with a desire to lead positive change? (for a great list, see this “Perspectives” article in Liberal Education) Smaller “how” questions will push us to think about effective process. For students: How do I acquire the proficiency needed to understand relevant sources? How do I find information pertinent to the task at hand? How do I translate information shaped in different languages and cultures to constituencies working in other cultures, from organizational cultures to socio-linguistic ones? How do I align my strengths with those of others on my project team to accomplish a task with a tight timeline? A certified StrengthsQuest educator, our director of Career Services will work with me to help students understand, articulate, and leverage strengths … and integrate the vocational with the academic. With her and others, I’ll also explore my own “how” questions: How do I “leap ahead” of students to ask them the right questions to frame their learning? How do I most effectively imagine and execute my role as professor?

After the “how” come “what” questions. What should we read to learn about social challenges, leadership, different cultural contexts? What analytical tools should we use to process the information we have before us? What do we do with the information? Students, organized in project groups, will sift through big lists of relevant primary, literary texts, as well as studies from the social sciences and popular press. Each week, they’ll select a relevant Spanish-language literary text or film for the topic, as well as ancillary materials they find or select from the list. As a class, at the beginning of the term, we’ll decide “what” we do in our 2 ½ hours together each week. And each week, we’ll reflect on texts, the process of learning, and the means by which the class “products” take shape.

Curious? Want to collaborate? Message me or comment. You’ll jump start the design-thinking for the next challenge: How might we make this course a pilot for leveraging the power of peer networks and expanding conversation way beyond Wofford’s symbolic gates to create opportunities for many more to contribute to community-building efforts?

[i] The ideas I love most connect the brilliance of others to address some challenge before me. Shout out to brilliance footnote here: thanks to Scott Cochran of our Mungo Center for Professional Excellence for the “why-how-what” framework, and Christine Dinkins, for the “how-to-make-this-course-work” coffee sessions that taught me about “leaps ahead” and process-relational philosophy.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Flip. Cartwheel. Dance.

Student and faculty participants signing the high school logo banner
(an earlier version of this blog post appeared on the Wofford Re:Thinking Education website)

“We’re going to flip the classroom!” my colleague declared. The face of her collaborating high school teacher shone with enthusiasm, and the student fellow seated opposite them nodded agreement. I leaned forward to hear details amid the celebratory din of the kickoff dinner for the Arthur Vining Davis High Impact Fellows project. Teams comprised of a teacher, student, and Wofford faculty member sat packed in the Goodall Environmental Studies Center over good food and great conversation, and their energy expanded to the walls, soared to the ceiling, and poured through open doors into the vineyard below.

There are landscapes in higher education in which classrooms flip and colleges do cartwheels, to borrow Duke professor Cathy Davidson’s phrase. Flipped classrooms create room for students to collaborate in projects-based assignments and analytical work during class time because that space has been cleared of data delivery. I love ideas that create spaces for others to thrive ... Look, listen, imagine the architecture, design the space, and then watch what amazing awesomeness happens as you fade from it. Or in my case at the AVD dinner, hover at the edges of awesomeness and celebrate students turning cartwheels. How did it happen?

My co-author and I sized up the terrain: community challenges, like the need for countywide college readiness, highlighted by the 30/40 Challenge, and teachers eager to grow, yet faced with disappearing professional development funds …

We took a measure of our strength: close student-faculty collaborations, powered by the passion of faculty mentors and the drive of students to learn …

And we took off running, the wind at our backs in the form of a generous foundation grant for our project.

Presto! Flip. Cartwheel. Dance. You’ve got not just a project, but a campus doing cartwheels with education. Sixteen Wofford students this year are taking their training in classrooms, their time in labs and libraries, their initiative in contributing to our community, and they’re flipping their college experience to meet a real-world challenge. A summit in April will feature their curricular innovations. The kick-off dinner let them plan, laugh, and pick grapes with their mentors … in a space built by others so that they could thrive.

So, here it is again: Match strengths to challenges. Leverage. Flip. Celebrate … the power of a liberal arts college, powering others.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Transformational Education ... By Design!

Wofford students & children in our community-based learning partner program run a chemistry experiment 
(an earlier version of this post was published in August '12 on the Wofford College Re: Thinking Education blog)

What does it mean to educate with people in mind … student-people, faculty-people, community-people? What does it look like to imagine educational outcomes that are human-centered, that envision whole people with real needs, motivations, and desires … wants, hopes, and fears that are physical, psychological, social, spiritual? The liberal arts college where I teach, Wofford College, has always been about whole people, about individuals thriving in community, and about communities of people tackling challenges together, dusting themselves off after disappointment, celebrating triumphs with zeal.

Recently, while reading IDEO CEO Tim Brown’s book Change by Design, I had a revelation. A liberal arts education is a transformational education, and it transforms by design. In fact, the way we do education at Wofford –at our best … well, that doing epitomizes design thinking, and it transforms us all.

Curious? Design thinking is the rage in innovation studies. Think at Stanford. What on earth is it, though? Simply put: “Design Thinking is a mindset . . . . it’s about being aware of the world around you, believing that you play a role in shaping that world, and taking action toward a more desirable future.”[1] Design thinking opens up spaces, indeed, it has created spaces for ideas like Creative Intelligence (CQ). People bicker over terms, but at Wofford we know what design thinking in education looks like.

Really, you ask. Sure, let me tell you a story about Minna. She landed here at Wofford after a very international childhood. She didn’t like Wofford much at first, but she was open to her context. She threw herself into Bonner Scholars work, and when I started a community-based learning curriculum in Spanish, she convinced me to send students to an after-school program, serving mostly Latino children in Arcadia, where she did her service. She led her peers with contagious enthusiasm. Minna presented her work at a conference. She went abroad and compared the lives of kids here with those of street children in the Dominican Republic. She did a capstone project, and our faculty learned with her as we worked through her research questions. Advanced Spanish with Community-Based Learning, a course she helped shape, won a state service-learning award. The students thrived, both my Wofford students and the kids they mentored in the elementary school district nearby. Out of that space Minna created, my colleagues, my students and I created, we’ve spun off more innovations in learning, outreach, research. And Minna won Wofford’s Currie Spivey award, became trilingual, and found her calling as an advocate for women and immigrants in South Carolina, a leader transforming lives in quiet, dedicated, and determined ways.

Minna’s educational experience at Wofford was a transformational education … by design. Many dedicated educators do design thinking by instinct, not because it’s the rage in Silicon Valley. We build creative intelligence because we know creativity solves problems, and besides, being creative, letting creativity transform us and our community, is enormous fun.

But what if we did “transformational education … by design” more intentionally, in more spaces, in more ways, at Wofford, in liberal arts programs, in higher education everywhere? What if we thought about our CQ (creativity quotient) as a community? What would it look like to think those questions through as a College, as a higher ed community, as citizens in a democracy?

Well, it just might look like Wofford's year of “Re: Thinking Education.” As I see it, “Re: Thinking Education” is a design thinking, CQ-building exercise for Wofford College. We’ll ask ourselves about what we do and why we do it. And as we answer those questions, we’ll transform ourselves into better, more thoughtful, more creative, versions of who we are. And we’ll look at the community of Wofford and the world of higher education, and we’ll ask … How can you be transformed, and what exciting, awesome, creative story will we tell next, together?