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On Offerings

I responded to a question posed to me by @drew via email: 'what made the Sweetwater offering a success?'.  I've taken most of my response to that email, have added a preamble and edits and am posting it here for comment.  [Items were added for this blog post, others were edited or rearranged. Yes, @drew - very different - Ed.]

This past week I’ve been spending a lot of time considering how the Offerings process works and what I would do to improve it.  This has mostly taken the form of conversations with other ALFs, @abbyo @ryanshollenberger @bear (and now @drew via email).

We have an open process whereby anybody can come to the ALC and offer to lead a class, to make an offering.  There are plenty of great examples of how this works well (in ALCnyc there is a regular ‘Go‘ session on Fridays; an acrobalance class on Thursday mornings etc).  These activities are supported by those attending them.  This is why we can say that ‘the curriculum is our passions’.  Nobody is forced to do any of these lessons.

What happens when someone makes an offering that shows promise and real interest but never gets picked up by the students?

One reason that this works very well is that it frees up both the school and the volunteers from red-tape.  You simply come to the school on a Monday, present your offering (‘I want to teach people breakdancing‘), stipulate any requirements/restrictions (‘I can only do this on Tuesdays‘; ‘I need people to commit to coming regularly to make it worthwhile’) and let the students determine their interest and ability to commit to the activity.

My concern is in balancing out the needs and expectations of those who are making offerings with the self-directed Agile Learning experience.  What happens when someone makes an offering that shows promise and real interest but never gets picked up by the students?

While in Everett I responded to this concern directly.  Sweetwater Nannauck, among others, had made offerings to the ALCE which had been posted onto a board that was meant to track these offerings.  After speaking with Sweetwater it became obvious that she was frustrated and disappointed that there was no movement on this.  She was volunteering sacred knowledge, had been invited into the community to do such, and had not heard much since.

I had a real interest in this topic myself, so I decided to explore it further.  I found that a lot of the students were very excited about Sweetwater’s ‘Ghost Stories’ offering and by extension many also interested in the other possibilities.  I held coherence for this: I started moving the project forward with next steps (most of the steps came as prompts from others – thanks to Jeff, Sweetwater, Drew, Tommie).  So in the end it felt like I was doing very little ‘work’, decisions had to be made by others, we needed drivers  to drive us places etc.

What did we do differently?

What we did differently is that this was an offering that a PARENT had essentially urged their kids to follow-up on.  Tommie was sensitive to that and pushed the others to join up for it.  Peer pressure moved the others to join too.  It was a project that the learners could engage with directly and personally.  Everyone had to make their own.  (Compare to geoguessr where many of the participants can be relatively passive – “oooh- Can we put it in Jamaica?” because one person controls the computer at a time).
In short, maybe there was nothing different?

What do I think was successful?

I think that the success of the cedar weaving was that so many people were engaged in an activity that they only had a minimal buy-in for.  Once engaged in the work, the project became something else.  You went to art school – the process is so different to the imagined outcome/goal.  The value was in the doing. Stevie saying he’s ‘terrible at this’ but then being pushed along and finding that he can do it.  Finding that he has friends that will HELP him do it.  Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development idea is that we learn faster when working along side people who have the skills we are lacking.  I think this is because our friends don’t allow us to get too distracted or give up.
  1.  It was one of a bunch of offerings that was more appealing (to the students) than others.  There was still a degree of choice here.  We could have pushed to do Tim’s gardening project first (there was ‘juice’ for that project too).
  2. Sweetwater is a powerful personality.  There is no washiness with her.  People are drawn to listen her by virtue of this strength of presence.  In the ALC/self-directed environment it is too easy to let the teacher role become slippery (‘we are all teachers…’). 
  3. There was a relatively clear outcome with this project.  It had a limited SCOPE.
  4. The finished weaving was something that we had to share with someone else.   [Remember Ethan giving his mom the half finished piece at dinner.  He caught himself giving her something that he wasn’t that proud of.  He finished it the next day, with help.]  
    1. The finished piece had immediate relevance in their personal relationships (Ethan’s mom).
    2. Doing it for others means that we impose higher standards on what we deem acceptable/done.
  5. It was time sensitive and we responded to the awareness of this with action.
  6. It was something that I thought would be fun to do in its own right.  It wasn’t ‘good medicine’ to resolve a gap in knowledge.
  7. Other associated projects shared the same content area.  This was a practical project related to our broader curiosity.  We had gone on an excursion to the Tulalip Museum and had already seen some pretty amazing weavings and had learnt about the importance of cedar.

Room to improve?

Playing the role of teacher requires a whole lot of essential skills in terms of managing groups, giving clear instructions, holding people to their intentions etc.  Shareable value rests in developing all of these skills.  WE are ALL teacher-students and student-teachers.  When we watch others teach us, we are also learning how to teach.  We need to create more opportunities for developing these skills in our learners.
A clearer vision/outcome as part of the offering process.  If Tim is offering permaculture projects – show us what one or two of these options look like.  We cant think creatively about this until we’ve gotten our hands dirty anyway.  If Sweetwater had said we could make ‘something’ with cedar but hadn’t narrowed it down, it never would have happened.
Clearer first steps and expectations from the group.  Sweetwater expected us to get the materials etc, which was actually a GREAT way to get our buy-in for the project.  Without us having gone to the art market to get the cedar, it never would have happened.  It forced us to move to the next step.  Tim could have us record the amount of light in a day on a given area for a project to determine suitability for tree types for example.  We would have to do this BEFORE he returned for the next steps.
How does project based learning translate across to lessons? If you are talking about setting lessons in math or Javascript etc, on a regular basis, where is the friction?
I’m worried that it could be a slippery slope towards a set curriculum from here.  An essential element to finding your passions seems to me to be BOREDOM.  People need to sit with their boredom.  Would I then suggest meditation or long walks in order to hold space for BOREDOM? I’ve thought about this and the idea of doing one thing as a MEANS to an end is where I draw the line.  [Is it? – Ed.]
I think that getting the parents to be in the space, investing in the time with the learners is going to be a huge upgrade.  It also presents some serious opportunities for disagreement.  The ALC needs to be a safe space for the kids to explore their own passions.  If parents are in there TOO much, focusing on what PARENTS think is worth learning about, a lot of the kids interests may not ever bubble up. [Also what happens when nobody wants to come to the parent’s offering? How can we support greater parental involvement without volunteer burn-out?]
As with everything ALC, it really is an ‘art not a science’.  There is not going to be prescriptive answers for these dynamic learning environments.  And this email [now blog post – ed.] is long enough for now.


  1. Drew says:

    Love it, thank you for your insight.

    I feel that in Everett we have spent the past term putting together the structure and practice, now it’s time to bring the beef into the mix.

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