Friday, June 23, 2006

(Part 6) Self Directed Learning: Reflection

Experiential learning is, by far, the most effective method, though under-utilized within the walls of academia.
To explain why I believe educators shy away from it in favor of lectures and worksheets. I will take a psycho-analytical approach:

Many people who choose teaching as a career do so because they are very comfortable with a highly structured environment; the schedules, the bells, and the rules. Experiential learning, especially when self-directed, asks teachers to step outside of a comfort zone and into a situation where they are not always in control of the outcome. That can be very scary for some folks.

I am not a person with control issues, in fact I have a sign in my office with a quote by poet Wistawa Szymborska that says:
"I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order."

I try to give my students as many experiential learning experiences as I can, but I am not always successful with a self-directed approach. Although I am comfortable relinquishing control of an outcome, quite often my students find self-direction very confusing. They like recipes, they like specifics, they like to be told exactly what to do.
It is easier for them.
Creativity requires thinking, it requires work.

My ambitious students will take a self-directed assignment and fly with it. My lazy students will more than likely give up and fail. It is extremely hard for those kids who were never expected to think for themselves, to be expected to make their own decisions.

It is up to me to open the door and give them permission to explore. Some of them will eventually find the courage to step outside, others may need a push, but sadly there will always be those who will flat-out refuse, never leaving an environment that tells them what to think and how to live.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

(Part 5 ) Meet Strangers, Learn Something: Day 2

The Big Green Bus

Tuesday morning I set out early to begin my second day of meeting strangers and learning something.
A brief stop at Max Hayes to rummage through my store room turned up the old box I was looking for. It contained a badgemaker that I wanted to lend to Martha and Evelyn so they could make the lead poisoning awareness buttons that we discussed the day before.

Hopping back in my little Toyota, I made my way to Talkies, a coffee shop near the Westside Market. I bought an orange juice and a bagel, then found a comfortable seat next to the front window and began to write. Another fellow was hunched over a newspaper in the corner of the room, but his body language did not invite conversation. So I finished my letter in silence, and decided that if I was going to actually meet anyone, I needed to find a busier location.

As I began packing up, a big green school bus pulled up in front of the building. Besides the greenness of the vehicle, something else about the bus caught my eye.
Bunk beds in the windows. A bunch of college-aged kids were getting out and gathering in front of the Great Lakes Brewery. On the side of the bus were the words "Change The World".
Well, if this wasn't a "meet strangers, learn something" opportunity delivered right to me, I didn't know one.
So I walked up to the group, introduced myself, and asked,
"So what is your mission?"
One of the young women said,
"We are from Dartmouth College, the bus has been converted to run on vegetable oil, and we are traveling around the country to increase awareness of bio-fuels."
They had stopped in Cleveland to check out the Great Lakes Brewery delivery truck which also has been converted to run on vegetable oil.

Click here to read more about the Big Green Bus tour, and here to read about the Great Lakes Brewery's dedication to sustainability.


It was about 10:00 when I got back in the Celica and headed toward North Collinwood. I had wanted to do a little wandering around the neighborhood, since I am considering the East 185th Street area as a possible location to pilot the Legacy Arts Incubator project.
The neighborhood, also known as "Old World Plaza" is home to an eclectic group of businesses, ranging from sausage shops to biker bars, interspersed with thrift stores, bakeries, and ethnic social clubs.
I walked a few blocks up the street and came across a little import shop with a faded hand painted sign above the door that read 'Patrias'. Another sign written in magic marker on copy paper said "Fresh bread today".
I couldn't resist.
Inside several elderly ladies were conversing in Croatian with the woman behind the counter. I amused myself looking at wine, candy, gifts, baked goods, and deli items, until the little group left. A poppyseed kuchen caught my eye, one of the favorite desserts from my childhood, and I took it to the register. The woman behind the counter was friendly, and asked if I was from the neighborhood. I said no, but I was considering starting a non-profit Arts Incubator on the street. She said, "Oh that's just what this neighborhood needs" and being listing al the people I should be talking to.
"You know," she said "there are an awful lot of empty store fronts to choose from."
"There is one building I am interested in," I replied "The old Europa Travel Agency."
"I own it!" she exclaimed.
We made arrangements to look at it together next week.
Now that is what I call serendipity.


I headed back down the block to the Arabica Coffee house, set up my laptop in the back corner and began to work. After about an hour, I decided to take a lunch break and ordered iced tea and a chicken salad sandwich. While I was eating a tall man walked in from the street, smiled and waved at me. He walked up to my table and greeted me with a kiss on the cheek. I had met David Lynch when he was running for mayor of Cleveland last summer. He had some ideas about the school system that I had taken issue with, and he took the time to listen. Now he is a Republican and I am a lifelong Democrat, but damn...he listened to me. I was impressed.
Now David Lynch cannot qualify as a stranger, but I wanted to include him in my story, since running into him proved to be one more happy coincidence in a series of coincidences that day.
David is now running for state senate, and was meeting with a hopeful supporter at a table across the room, but he stopped by and sat down with me for a few moments before he had to leave for his next meeting. I told him about my proposal, and his face lit right up.
"There is somebody I want you to meet" he said, and took out his pen and wrote down a woman's name and phone number.
"Call her."

Allyson and Becci

David said goodbye, but not before inviting me to a meeting of campaign supporters Sunday evening.
He certainly is relentless.

I picked the phone number up off the table, and tapped the numbers out on my cellphone. The woman who answered was named Allyson. She and another woman, Becci, were buying the old Fitzgerald building a few blocks north on E. 185th and turning it into an arts incubator.
I explained my project, with a little bit of trepidation. These woman are going to see me as their competition, I thought.
I could not have been more wrong.
She invited me to meet with them that evening at the Arabica (of course).

The two women waved at me when I walked in the door at 7:30.
Both of them were about my age, and we all happened to be the mothers of 14 year old boys. Allyson is a legal secretary, and Becci is a metallurgist.
Allyson and Becci totally understood what I was doing, as well as the Open Source economic development model and the concept of cluster creation to drive business success. They invited me to come out and look at the building and consider using the space for some of the initial CLAI pilot workshops. We made an appointment for Tuesday.

Days like this make me wonder if there are truly any real coincidences.

(Part 4) Talk to Strangers, Learn Something: Day 1

"Go out into the community, talk to strangers, meet new people, learn something, keep a record of your activities, and report back on Friday."

When we received our "mission" this Monday, I listened to my classmates discuss with one another what approaches they would take to complete the assignment, and their perceptions of what the professors' intention was.
Some people in the class were focusing on the quantity of people who they could introduce themselves to. I, on the other hand, was transfixed on the phrase "learn something".

Here is my list of the people I met, and what I learned from each of them:


I met Phillip standing on the deck of the Inner Circle, a night club built inside the hulking old abandoned factory in East Cleveland that used to house the legendary Hough Bakery Company. The building is currently owned by LaMont Williams of "Hot Sauce Williams" fame, who uses just a small portion of it to produce and bottle his sauces, and another part of the space for the night club. Thousands and thousands of square feet remain vacant. Phillip was there with a group of people from REAL NEO to look at the site and investigate the possibilities of starting a small business and technology incubator. We trudged through old offices, climbed up dark staircases and picked our way through cavernous storage areas filled with the debris of defunct businesses.
Phillip is a big man with a kind face, and long red hair, pulled back into a pony tail. He looks to be in his thirties, although I am not always the best at guessing a persons age. I asked him if I could interview him for this assignment, and he was happy to stay and chat for a while.
He began by telling me that he was an Army brat, and when he was just 3 years old, had witnessed the assassination of his father, who was working on a classified data encryption project at General Electric.
At the G.E. company picnic, an unknown man called out his fathers name. When Phillips's dad stepped toward him, the stranger pulled out a gun and shot him. Then he disappeared.
We talked about the effect his fathers death had on the choices he made growing up, his work with computers, and his vision of what a potential tech business incubator would look like at this site. Not surprisingly, he had some very real concerns with crime, safety, and security.


I met Evelyn waiting for my friend Martha on the patio of the Arabica coffee house in University Circle. She had a gentle, waif-like beauty with her pale skin, large eyes, dark hair and tiny frame, that reminded me of the actress Winona Ryder.
We were there to talk about strategies that would increase the public's awareness of the lead hazard, how many people have been poisoned by lead, and how many children continue to get lead poisoned.
The statistics were staggering:
Lead remains a top environmental health hazard for US children. More than one in 25 American children have blood lead levels high enough to lower IQ or cause learning disabilities, violent behavior, attention-deficit disorder or hyperactivity.
Young children are at the highest risk for lead poisoning. Children absorb 40-50 percent of the lead that gets into their mouths. Adults only absorb 10 percent. Even small amounts of lead can produce high concentrations in the blood of young children because their bodies are small. Since children's brains are still developing, the effect of lead poisoning can be especially damaging.
We talked about setting up a table at the Ingenuity Festival in July, and creating a design to put on a button that would create public curiosity about the lead crisis.
Evelyn is an art historian who works at Case Western Reserve University, and is the mother of Claus, a busy, happy, little toddler.


Over the past couple of weeks since the school year ended, I have completed the first draft of a white paper for a new project called The Cleveland Legacy Arts Incubator. In brief summary, it is an urban neighborhood revitalization model, easily replicated, that will teach the legacy arts (ethnic artisan trades, crafts, and cooking) in combination with courses in starting a cottage industry, provide co-op retail space, sponsor master craftsmen from overseas for artist residencies, and create an exhibition gallery for fine artisan tradecrafts.
Monday evening I met with Abby Meir of COSE Art at the Cedar Fairmount Starbucks in Cleveland Heights to review the initiative and discuss possible collaboration and strategic next steps. She called me just as I walked into the shop, to tell me she was running a little late, and had just stepped off the rapid. I took a seat by the front window, and it wasn't long before I could see a little gal with a head full of dark bouncy curls hurrying up the hill. She came in the door with a big smile and an apology. I couldn't help but like her immediately.
We talked for more than an hour, and she gave me some very good pointers, as well as list of names of people who I should connect with.

The fist day of my 48 hour mission to "talk to strangers" came to a close, and as I reflected upon my experiences, I had to smile; each conversation had left me richer.

I'm Back (Part 3)

This afternoon, I am once again at the East 185th Street Arabica in Cleveland's North Collinwood neighborhood, sitting with a cup of ice tea and typing away on my lap-top.
I am working on my class assignment which I will be posting later today, but I needed to share the thought I just had with all of you.
Two weeks ago, I would have scoffed, if someone would have suggested I partake in such overt geekiness. I am more inclined to make fun of the solitary techi, light from the flat screen reflecting off his glasses, fingers pecking away at the keyboard.
Now here I am. There is something to be said for this public, yet semi-anonymous, space that is so conducive to getting work done.
In my student days I would escape my distractions by going to the library to study. This is like a much cooler library with soft music, caffeine, food, and instead of a shushing librarian, really pleasant staff.

I am now officially geeked.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

I'm Back (Part 2)

I arrived at Civilization about half an hour early, as I had a letter to write and desperately needed that neurological kick-in-the-ass provided by a large serving of caffeine, straight up. My fix was handed to me in an awkwardly shaped, heavy, coffee cup, more suitable for spooning soup than sipping anything. A wobbly table provided the catalyst for catastrophe, dumping half the cup on my stenographers' notepad. Remembering that my blessings far outweigh my misfortunes, I sopped up the mess with a brown paper napkin, and keeping my smile, asked the girl behind the counter for a to-go cup.

A few minutes later, several members of my class arrived. We all kept an eye on the door, looking for a woman with toe-head blonde hair who matched the photograph we were given on Monday.

She bounded in with a grin, scanning the room for faces who were, in turn, looking for her. My vibrating back pocket kept me from immediately joining the group, but I was able to cut the conversation short, and soon the five of us were involved in a lively discussion about experiential learning, assessment, and our reflections on the assignment to date, which lasted more than an hour and a half.

With smug satisfaction, I listened to Professor Nagy explain John Dewey's philosophy that "all genuine education comes through experience". Deweys' thinking parallels my own teaching methods, which I believe are the antidote to the numbness inflicted upon young minds by lecture overload. It was so good to see a professional development course based upon real life experience and common sense as opposed to traditional pedagogy.
(Sorry 'bout that, friends, I'm starting to slip into edu-speak. Let me take a moment and slap myself....oww!....I'm better now.)

The field experience portion of the class was technically to have taken only two days, but I think I will extend my "talk to strangers" time frame through this evening. You see, I plan on attending the North East Ohio Blogger Meet-up at the Town Fryer, and I know from experience that we can be a pretty strange crowd. So if you are reading this on Wednesday afternoon...introduce yourself tonight at the Fryer, and I will be blogging about you tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

I'm Back!

My dear readers,

Thank you for your patience, and your concern.
I have been flying under the radar for more than a few months, attending to personal issues. Your emails have been heartening; it is good to be missed.

This week I was goaded into writing once again from a very unexpected source.
Here's the story:

Teachers in Ohio are required to take graduate courses in education in order to maintain our license. My license expires in 2007 and I needed six semester hours, so I signed up for a couple of classes at Notre Dame College.

My first class, "Self Directed Learning", was scheduled to begin at 8:30 AM yesterday and last until 4:30, continuing all week. I have taken these all day intensive classes before, and they have been just as exciting as they sound. I walked into the classroom armed with a magazine, prepared to be bored. I waited with about ten other teachers for the professor.

The door opened and the theme to "Mission Impossible filled the room.
A young woman, who was not the professor, wearing a trench coat, dark wig, sunglasses, and carrying a briefcase, entered. She opened the briefcase and took out a tape recorder...Silence.

Damn! Malfunction.
Barely flustered, she took out a letter from the professor and read it out loud. It was our class assignment, which I will summarize (roughly):
Go out into the community, talk to strangers, meet new people, learn something, keep a record of your activities, and report back on Friday. If we wanted to meet the professor, she would be at Civilization in Tremont on Wednesday between 10:00 and 12:00. Friday we will present our experiences to the class in any creative fashion of our own choice.
We then were free to go.

So many choices. So much freedom. Where should I start?
When I have a quandary I call my friends.
Martha is always busy with one community project or another, and her cause du jour is lead abatement. She would be meeting with a young woman in the afternoon to discuss setting up a lead poisoning information table at the Ingenuity Festival, but I could catch up with her before that at the old Hough Bakery Building in East Cleveland where a group of civic entrepreneurs would be gathering to look at the space, in the hopes of cleaning it up and launching a small business incubator. There would certainly be some new people I could talk to at this meeting.

One of the members of the group was my friend, Brewed Fresh Daily's George Nemeth. When I explained the class assignment to him, he responded,
"Blog about it."

Of course!
I am a consumate multi-tasker, always looking for a new way to kill several birds with one stone.
If I took George's suggestion, I could return to the blogosphere, have a unique format for my class presentation, and log my learning experience all simultaneously. Taking the idea one step further, if I did my work at a coffee house with wifi, who knows what new people (or old ones)I will run into, and what serendipitous adventures will be launched.

So this morning I am sitting and typing at the Arabica on East 185th in North Collinwood, and have already met several fascinating people who I will be including in a post later this week, when I will write about all my new acquaintances.