Agile Learning Centers Network Spring 2020 Webinar Series
“Change Up and Culture Shifting”
with Ryan Shollenberger of ALC-NYC
First of all, welcome everybody, and thank you for joining me today. I don’t know if there’s any mothers amongst us, but if there are, Happy Mother’s Day to you. And thanks for taking time to join today.
Hopefully, you’re here for my talk on culture shifting and Change Up. Let’s get into it. OK, next thing [is] a couple of key definitions here. Bear with me if you already know this stuff, and given where most of you are coming from, you probably already will, so we can do this quickly. First two things I have here: Agile. It’s in the name, right? Of course, it’s the ability to change or move quickly and easily. But it also refers to the early 2000s software development innovation with which we share a lot of tools and practices. One of those tools is the Kanban board, which I assume most of you are probably familiar with. It means ‘card signal’ in Japanese. The Community Mastery Board (CMB) is actually a version of a Kanban board, which is why I wanted to make sure you guys had the definition for that. And as you can see here, the intention with the Kanban board is to visualize your workflow, limit your work-in-progress and maximize your efficiency and flow.
OK, just two more quick things here. We’ve got Agile Learning Center (ALC), which is now any member of our ALC network project, but was originally the school that Abby and I facilitate at, and the ALC network, which most of you are part of, is our global network of self directed communities. And of course, we share common philosophies and sometimes tools and practices.
[00:02:12] – Ryan
All right, if you’ve been to Abby’s webinar, then again, bear with me here as we go through the roots: Learning is natural and happening all the time. I’m learning from you right now. Maybe you’re learning from me. Learning doesn’t just happen in a classroom. It’s happening all over the place, always.
People discover their passions through making their own decisions. Their purpose and passions, rather – through making their own decisions. This one is definitely directly related to culture shifting, and we’ll get into that in just a little bit.
People learn more from their culture and environment than from the content they’re taught. We learn from what we experience, so the medium is the message. This one definitely does apply, I didn’t choose to focus on this one as much.
But this last one, we will: We experience growth in cycles through intention, exploration, creation, reflection and sharing.
Moving on, we’re going to focus on this root here: People discover their purpose and passions through making their own choices. There’s a really important part about this one, too, that I want everyone to remember. And that’s our famous slogan that you’ll find on T-shirts and a lot of our swag: Children are people.
So, in the context of culture co-creation, between staff and students, this is important because at ALCs, you know, as a staff, we’re not saying, “OK, here are our rules, here are our policies, and this is what you must follow.” We’re creating these agreements together with each other as staff and with the students. So, in the context of this root here, you know, children feel more connected, feel more a part of an ALC community because they’re not just having the freedom to choose what they do and at what pace they’re doing that, they’re actually joining in the creation of, like, the administration of the school.
[00:04:27] – Abby
The thing I wanted to add is the flip side of the ‘Change Up and trusting kids to make choices’ thing, that I appreciate that we do. Rather than ask the kids to do all of the administration of the school, you know, figuring out “Are we budgeting for two new computers?” or having them do the grant writing or navigate applying for loans and all that kind of stuff, deciding if we’re moving or hiring people or, you know, kicking people out, you know, those decisions that are really heavy and stressful. The kids are invited for sure when they want to do that kind of stuff, but that’s not put on them the way it is sometimes in other free school spaces. Because like, they’re not all trying to have their education lead up to knowing how to run a nonprofit through late stage capitalism. So, like, if that’s the skillset they want to practice, great, they’re welcome. But if they don’t, we’re not going to put that on them, the same way we’re not putting, like, S.A.T. prep on them.
[00:05:42] – Ryan
Awesome. So the other root that I wanted to talk about really quickly, that has context with culture shifting with our Check In and Change Up process, is experiencing growth in cycles through intention, exploration, reflection and sharing. Now, this root, I think, is most often talked about and considered in the context of how kids learn content, how they acquire content at ALCs. But it does also apply to cultural creation. You know, in the Change Up process, which I’ll show you a little more clearly in a second, using the Community Mastery Board as a tool, it helps to achieve this. I’m not going to go too deeply into it now. I just want you to keep this in mind as we start to talk about, or as I start to talk about, rather, the Change Up process here on the next slide. Because it very much is an iterative cycle, something that you do, and then re-examine and then continuously go back to.
[00:06:45] – Ryan
All right. With that said, let’s move on to the actual process here. This image is courtesy of Cottonwood ALC, one of our affiliates in Brooklyn. They work with a little bit younger population than we do, but their process for Check In and Change Up is pretty similar to ours.
One thing before I start to actually talk about the process here that I wanted to make clear is that this process is not about voting, it’s not about majority, it’s not about consensus. And, you know, a question that gets asked a lot is “Why do you use consent based decision making rather than consensus or voting?” And I just wanted to address that first before I went a little deeper into this process.
First of all, consent based decision making does a couple of things. It tends to make the meetings more efficient. There’s no long, arduous meetings. And this is one of the things that my partner and I who started ALC in New York really wanted for our community, because that’s something we had heard was a problem for kids before, that they were spending too much time in meetings. The second thing that’s important about this is consent based decision making works better because the process is light and agile. We’re not creating rules that get written into a book and are there forever and are set in stone. It’s the ability to change things, you know, and not have that be a big deal, it’s a part of why consent based decision making works with this process. And then the last part of this and this part is really important: for it to work well and to work properly, you really need to have trust in your community members, you need to trust each other. And that’ll make more sense here in a second.
[00:08:44] – Ryan
All right, so let me just get into the process here a little bit. If you look at our diagram here, you can see on the left this circle with ‘Awareness’ in it. That’s kind of where the process starts. You start off, you know, with maybe – an awareness, just to be clear, doesn’t have to be a negative thing or something that’s wrong. It’s literally just something that you’re noticing, maybe a pattern. The example that I always use is, you can have an awareness that at the end of the day, in your ALC you’re noticing that food wrappers and food messes are being left out and that, you know, maybe the last facilitator that leaves has to keep cleaning this up. And that’s their awareness. Another example of an awareness could just be “I noticed that the space gets really loud between the hours of noon and two, for whatever reason like activity just gets, like, really crazy at that time and the volume increases.” But it’s really anything, any sort of pattern or any sort of thing that you’re noticing that you want to, like, bring to the attention of the group.
I’m going to skip ahead here for a second, I’ll come back to this image in a second. So don’t worry if you didn’t get to take all that in. So in this process, the reason that I have Check In and Change Up written up here is because originally we started having this process as just one meeting that we called Change Up. And it developed over the years into actually two parts. The first part we call Check In, and that’s where all these awarenesses that are aggregated throughout the week – because this is a process that we run weekly, but in other ALCs and in other contexts, you could do it differently, it could be every month, it could be twice a week, it just depends what you need. In any event, the first part of this process, all the awarenesses are aggregated and we make an agenda. This one here was from last year at our school, and it’s in Abby’s fantastic handwriting. Abby is usually the one that takes notes for us. And, you know, it’s actually important, whoever is facilitating your Check In and Change Up meeting – doesn’t have to be a facilitator, it can be a kid – but being able to kind of encapsulate what the awarenesses are and put a nice, clear note up there, as you can see sometimes with illustrations, is really helpful.
[00:11:16] – Ryan
So this agenda here gets built in the beginning of our meeting from all the awarenesses throughout the week. And at our school, we actually shifted to a policy of, you know, if you don’t have an awareness up on the board before the meeting starts, it doesn’t get built into the agenda. Now, in previous years and when the school was smaller, we had a system where you just sort of, if something came up for you during the meeting, you could bring that up. So that’s totally an option. We just did it sort of in the name of efficiency and, you know, so that people were clear about what they wanted to talk about before actually showing up for the meeting. So let’s see, do I want to say anything else about awareness. Does anyone have any questions about before I move on? Yeah, go ahead.
[00:12:10] – Participant
Can I just be really clear, on the previous side, when you said consent based decision making, that’s what you’re now going through. This is the process to make…this is a process to reach a consent based decision, is it?
[00:12:24] – Ryan
Yes. This whole process, the Check In and Change Up process, it’s done using consent based decision making. I just mentioned that first because I wanted that to be clear. You know, because theoretically you could do a process similar to this and have it be consensus or you could do, you know, majority. I was just trying to explain why the consent based decision making is what we’ve chosen to use here. And those few things that I went through, as, you know, as reasons why, efficiency and trust in your community members and keeping these agreements, as we call them, light and agile, it’s sort of in service of that. So hopefully that clears it up, which is actually good, because I want to go back to this slide anyway and go on to the next part.
So, once this agenda is built, and this is part of the trust in the community that I’m getting to right now, once this agenda is built, we adjourn for a second. We adjourn the first half of the meeting and we actually give people a chance to leave. If kids aren’t interested in what’s on this agenda – so if you don’t care about where graffiti is allowed or if [fives?] is a thing, or let’s see if, oh, man, if you don’t care about the hamster and you know, like how we’re treating the hamster, you’re free to leave the meeting at this point. And what you’re deciding to do if you leave the meeting is, you’re saying, “OK, rest of the community who I trust and know well enough to know that you’ll keep me in mind when you make any decisions”, you’re saying, “I trust you to do that and I will abide by that”. And part of the reason that that works is the light and agile part, the part where it can be changed. And I’ll get to that in just a second.
[00:14:32] – Ryan
But in any event, once the agenda is built, we adjourn. Usually, for us now at our school, there’s this interesting thing that happens during this transition time, where the two students who do our school paper will hand out the school paper and people will kind of mill about and read the paper and joke about things that they’re reading. And we usually take maybe five, sometimes up to ten minutes of a little bit of break between these two parts of the meeting. This has kind of become our ritual, that everyone reads the paper during this time. And, you know, a bunch of kids will leave. Theoretically, all the facilitators don’t even have to stay for the second half. We always do. But if one of us has something really pressing to do, we could say, OK, we trust the group to come up with things and we’re going to go about our day.
So then the Change Up part of the meeting, that’s when we reconvene. Change Up is not compulsory. Kids are there by choice and – I’ll just go back here [to this slide]. So, once this agenda is built, we have all awarenesses, sometimes it’s enough for people just to share those awarenesses with the group. Maybe they just say what was on their mind, say the pattern they saw, and then they feel clear and that’s all they needed. And that’s great.
I would say a lot of the time that’s kind of what ends up happening. And, you know, if your culture is running smoothly and you really don’t have that much that people want to change, that’s what most awarenesses will be. But that said, if people feel like they need something or they need something to change, that’s where this next part of the process comes in. So if you look at the little diagram here, the ‘Sharing experiences’ part, we’ve covered that.
[00:16:12] – Ryan
And then you move on to what at Cottonwood they’re calling a ‘Try it’ idea, what we call that is ‘Testing’. So I’m actually, again, here going to jump ahead and… actually, no I’m not, I’m going to give you a minute before I show you the CMB. But proposing this idea to try it. What that means is, let’s say my awareness that I mentioned before about food mess being left out is an issue. And I feel like I need something to change. So either I could propose or another person could propose: “All right. Well, then during our daily clean up time, every day, once that’s over, then you can only eat food in, like, one area of one room so that we contain the food mess.” That might be a potential ‘Try It’ or Implementation, right. And, you know, for us, since we’re meeting every week for Check In and Change Up, that means that that agreement, we just test it out for a week and see how it works. Maybe it works great. Maybe it’s terrible. Maybe it doesn’t address the problem at all. But the idea is, it’s a short, manageable time period to try something out. And then the next week, you go back and you examine it and you kind of take stock of how it’s worked with the group.
[00:17:31] – Ryan
Now, one second, I’m going to bring my notes up here so I can move us on. At this point, I want to show you the actual Community Mastery Board, because these things are going to make a little more sense here. This particular board is from, I believe, our 2015 ALF (Agile Learning Facilitator) Summer. And it’s super simple. As you can see, it’s just four columns: Awareness, which I’ve already talked about, Implementation, which is just another way of saying ‘Testing’ or ‘Try it’, Practicing and Mastery. I’ll get to those last two in a second. I mentioned Kanban boards earlier. This is a super simple version of a Kanban board, where we’re visualizing our flow here and moving things through. So let me get to the practicing part. Let’s say we implement this idea of eating in only a certain area after clean up. And we come back the next week, check in with everybody and they say, “Yeah, this worked actually relatively well. I noticed there was less food mess out at the end of the day”, and, you know, maybe the final facilitator who leaves the space and locks it up says “Hey, I didn’t have to clean up any food mess this week”.
So if it’s working for everyone and we’re willing to move that along, we’ll put that agreement into Practicing. And now that means that is something that as a community, we’re actively practicing consistently and we want to get better at. And it becomes part of our culture, at least for the time being. Because remember, this stuff can be changed any time. Just because something’s in Practicing doesn’t mean it’s there for the rest of the year necessarily. It doesn’t mean that it’s there, you know, for years going forward. It can still be changed at any time if it’s not working for people. And reviewing these practicing agreements is something that we’ll often do in either the Check In or Change Up part of our meeting as well.
[00:19:24] – Ryan
Just real quickly, I want to talk about this last column, Mastery, because, you know, really the goal is if we’re practicing something long enough that we feel like we’re doing it super well that we can move it into Mastery. And a quick word about Mastery, that doesn’t mean that, like, OK, we’ve mastered it and it worked great and now we’re done with it and we’re not doing it anymore. I sort of like to think about mastery as a really effective program, that it’s doing its job and running in the background of your culture without needing much active thought. It’s kind of like you’ve become so good at it that you’ve incorporated it and you don’t really need to think about it anymore. But it’s still happening effectively. That’s what happens when you move something into Mastery.
[00:20:10] – Ryan
I want to just show you here, this is a picture of our Community Mastery Board, and I believe this is also taken in 2019. This is from a blog of one of our facilitators, Mel. And I’m actually going to give you guys a link right now, in case you’re curious about what our CMB looks like, I’ll put it in the chat for you. I have a digital version on Trello. I see hands – who’s familiar with Trello as a tool? Do you guys use that? OK, cool. It’s a digital Kanban or like, a digital version of a Kanban, and we have — there, the link’s in the chat for you guys now, if you want to check that out. That’s what our Kanban – our Community Mastery Board, rather – currently looks like. Now, it’s a little bit different since we’ve been doing, you know, virtual distance learning for a while now. But you can get an idea. And actually on that link that I just showed you, there’s our meeting and agenda notes in the left hand column. So if you want to look back through some of those, you can get a couple of laughs from the agendas on some of those.
Let me just come back to the speaker notes here. Still can’t get used to this touchpad on my new Mac, I’m always like reaching for the physical button that’s not there, to go back to things. Right. So, you can see on our board, if you look in the middle of the Practicing column there, there’s a little thing that just says ‘Focus’. That’s something we implemented a few years ago for, you know, that agreement that you’re practicing but maybe you’re really not doing well with it or it just seems like, you know, maybe even you’re really close to mastering it, but you can’t quite get over the hump. So you put it in that focus box with the idea that, for this week period or maybe even longer, like a month period, we’re really going to focus on this thing and really try to move it into mastery.
And then just a quick word about that Archive column there, which looks like [it’s] exploding with post-its, that would be all of the agenda items that maybe people just needed to talk about and didn’t need any sort of implementation. So it’s just, you talk about it and then you move it into Archive. Or maybe it’s a practicing agreement that felt like it was no longer serving the community, so rather than continuing to bang our heads against the wall and move that into Mastery, we just released it and put it into Archive.
[00:22:46] – Participant
This is where we… this was from ALF Summer. We had facilitator’s also and it might be even too hard to see the post-its, but I just always love seeing different examples of these. I just thought I’d throw that in there.
[00:23:09] – Abby
Yeah, can I shout out Anthony Galloway from Heartwood ALC, [who] added the Values/Needs column on their CMB, to encourage people to articulate what was under there [when] they’re bringing up awarenesses. And his webinar in two weeks is all about that.
[00:23:31] – Ryan
Yeah, 10 out of 10 would recommend Anthony, just in general. I love the ‘Need coffee’ in Mastery. Abby and I know about that a little bit.
If, you know…we have certain community agreements, right. Outside of the Community Mastery Board, we have a basic student agreement that every student that enrolls in the school signs. And one of those things on there is ‘Respect yourself and others’, which is really vague in a way, right. But that’s intentionally the case so that, you know, if there’s an agreement in the Check In and Change Up process that someone comes up with and it’s clearly not respecting themselves or others or it’s clearly not, rather, in alignment with the student agreement, we can easily point to that and we can say, “Hey, this is something that you agreed to do to be a part of this community. So I think this thing you’re proposing is not in line with that”.
[00:24:35] – slide
Question: How often should we hold these meetings?
[00:24:35] – Ryan
That’s a good question, and as I mentioned earlier, community size and community type are going to determine how often a meeting like this is going to be useful. We’ve played around with different things too. We tried well, would it work better doing it on a Wednesday so that we had the rest of the week to start practicing new agreements? Can I just ask you, do you guys do three consecutive days or how does it work? So I should just say, when we first started, back in 2013, we had a really small community too, we only had six kids, and we didn’t actually have… we didn’t have a scheduled Change Up. That wasn’t a thing we did. Change Up would just happen when someone had an Awareness that felt urgent enough. And it was cool because at that time, there’s only six kids, so we could just be like “Change Up!” [makes triangle symbol with both hands up] and we would just all go to a room and do a meeting. Which is totally a valid way to do it, and I think in a meta-sense, this is one of the things that is special about ALC, in that you don’t have to apply a tool or apply a practice exactly as another ALC does. You apply it in the way that works the best for your community. And if that’s calling a Change Up meeting as you need to, with the people you need to, that’s fine.
You know, I think given that you guys are only meeting three days a week, doing it weekly I would guess doesn’t feel…I don’t want to say that it doesn’t feel necessary. I mean, if it does, it does. But if doing it monthly feels like enough to, like, build up some awarenesses and then address them, cool. The other thing is awarenesses are sometimes time sensitive, like an awareness that comes up today may not be meaningful a month from now. And that’s OK too. It’s fine to release those things. But, you know, I think you have to feel that out based on how often awarenesses are coming up and how urgent they feel for people. And this is part of the CMB as a tool as well. You know, the fact that, like, if I have an awareness on a Tuesday and I know Change Up is not until Friday, I have an outlet for that, I can write a post-it and put it in Awareness and know with certainty that at that meeting it will get talked about. And that if I show up and I still care, that I’ll have a time to like voice my awareness and then to have it addressed potentially if I need it.
[00:26:56] – slide
Question: Why are there so few cards in ‘Mastery’ on your board?
[00:27:01] – Ryan
She said, “I notice that the Mastery column has the least number of sticky notes. What does this imply?” And well, I’ll tell you. What that implies is that it is actually not that easy to master certain things. But the other thing I will say about that is, first of all, if you look at our CMB this year, like if you go to the link and see what’s there, we’ve actually had far less actual implemented agreements to deal with awarenesses. There’s been a lot less need for the process. And some of that just speaks to the fact that, like, we’ve had students that have been around for a really long time and they’ve already sort of gotten agreements in Mastered that aren’t there. And another related thing about this is, what we do at our school is we actually clear the CMB out at the end of each year. So we don’t keep the agreements and hold them over from year to year.
Now, with that said, a lot reappears. For example, if you look in the… I don’t know if it’s in ‘Focus’ or ‘Practicing’, let me just move this out of the way so I can see. Oh, right, it’s in huge letters: Stop Rule. That’s something that we’ve had as part of our culture, not even since the beginning, since before, because it’s a holdover from another school that ours grew out of. That’s something that we take it down, but it always ends up back up there, because it’s a part of our culture that works. Or something like, if you look to the right there, ‘Tell an adult before leaving’, that’s, like, if you’re going to leave the space, maybe if you’re an independent traveler, please tell a facilitator before you leave. That’s the kind of thing that would come up again. But, you know, to master something…and, you know, in my experience, the kids are a lot harder on themselves and on us than we are. I’m always trying to move stuff into Mastery. And then there’s always like, you know, two or three people are like, “Well, but I saw this thing” or like “But I’m not doing this thing, so we can’t master it yet”. So that’s why Mastery tends to be a little bit sparse. But that’s OK.
And an important meta note about this process and about culture shifting in general. This is something I try to remind people and myself, because I forget from time to time, this isn’t just a place to bring up things that are wrong. An awareness can be naming something that you’re doing well as a community. I think from time to time, it’s good to do that. So as a facilitator, if you notice that 90% of the awarenesses are all about problems or things that aren’t working well, maybe pick one or two things that you really notice you are doing well as a community and name that. That may not mean that it makes it into a Practicing…or an Implementation and a Practicing and then a Mastery. But, naming that thing and then even putting it into Archive, that’s still a powerful process – a powerful part of the process, rather.
[00:30:00] – slide
Question: Have you done this with kids who can’t read/write?
[00:30:03] – Ryan
We’ve done this before. I think this was – Abby, was this three years ago? When we did the dual sticky thing?
[00:30:11] – Abby
Three or four?
[00:30:13] – Ryan
Yeah, we had a few pre-literate kids, and, what we did was, we would do a dual sticky, dual post-it system. So we would have the written awareness on one post-it, and then over top of that would be a post-it with a, you know, some sort of image or picture that was suggestive of the agreement, so that it would be a tool to help kids remember. And the other thing I would say is especially if you’re talking about younger kids – and I mentioned Cottonwood earlier, works with younger kids – you know, whether or not they’re checking in with the CMB as a tool all the time, doing the process and having the meeting and having the opportunity for them to voice awarenesses is still important. So even if the CMB feels kind of like most people aren’t really interacting with it, that’s OK. It’s just one tool that’s a part of the process. And that may be more or less important to you and to your community based on the people you’re serving.
[00:31:19] – slide
Question: Do you ever disagree with a decision the kids are leaning towards? What do you do?
[00:31:19] – Ryan
First of all, yes, that does happen and it has happened. Second of all, I’ll say – the thing about trust, trust goes both ways. If you… if you are an effective facilitator – no, let me just strike that. Trust goes both ways. So it’s important that the kids trust each other, it’s important that you trust them and it’s important that they trust you. And if you have a close relationship with a student and you say, “Listen, I think this is a terrible idea” or maybe not even say it that way, if you say, “Listen, I don’t think this is going to get you what you want to get. I see what you’re trying to do. I see what you want to get out of this Implementation. I don’t think this is going to work the way that you do.” You know, if they trust you in that moment, they’ll say, “OK, well, then what do you think?” Or maybe they’re just so sure about it that they’re like, “No, I have to try this Implementation, like, we have to try it”.
And that gets to that second part where you were saying, well, then you can just try it and then it will, you know what I mean, it’ll work itself out and show you that’s not a great Implementation.
[00:32:20] – Ryan
I thought of one example right away when you brought this up. And this wasn’t so much about me personally, but one of our other facilitators, I can remember being like in opposition to what kids wanted to do. So a couple of years ago, there was this thing about cursing in our space and whether or not it should be allowed or not be allowed. And in an age-mixed space, right, where you have teens and then you have some kids as young as like six or seven, it’s a real issue. One of the things that this facilitator or that I’ve heard brought up even by other kids was “Was that a good example to be setting for the younger kids as teenagers? Should we be like walking around swearing? Because, you know, they reflect that stuff”. And this particular facilitator was saying, like, you know…well, in any event, let me just skip to the good part and tell you what the Implementation was.
Eventually, after much discussion and this was a particularly long Change Up, I can remember, we decided to implement no cursing at others. Because the kids worked out that, or everyone rather, worked out together that the part that was really bad about this, or the part that made people feel uncomfortable was the sort of like, the aggression or the directing of the cursing to someone. So the idea was, “OK, you can curse as long as it’s not at someone. And then it opened up this larger discussion of, well, if you’re cursing when you’re on a video game, are you actually cursing at the people, you’re playing against you, if they can’t hear you on the other side? But, yeah, you know, if you want to be an effective facilitator, sometimes you have to let kids… you just have to step back for a second and say, like, OK, I’m going to let you try this thing. And it’s really, like, what you have to do is decide, is this going to present a safety issue? Is trying this implementation like… will someone get hurt? Or is it going to lead to a situation that is potentially dangerous for these children? If the answer is ‘no’, if it’s just that it might be a little awkward or uncomfortable or even push your boundaries a little bit, I would argue that you should try to release that stuff and try to let them work through it.
And it’s likely that if you have a good sense of the situation and you think, well, this isn’t going to work, that that’s going to play out and that they will, through making their own decisions, right, discover that like, “Oh, wow, this was like a, you know, an idea that didn’t get me what I wanted. Like, maybe we should try a different tack here”. Abby, not to put you on the spot, would you have anything you want to add to that? If you don’t, it’s OK.
[00:35:01] – Abby
Yeah, I mean, I immediately think of the kinds of situations where you’ve got… you do trust kids and you recognize the context. And so if I’ve got three, ‘still in the egocentric stage of development’, upper class white boys, being like “This black girl is too loud and everyone says she’s too loud. We don’t want to admit her and you facilitators are being dictators insisting that we do” having a conversation with them that is an invitation to like – is a strong invitation to consider the things that they weren’t considering. So, do they realize, like, the manifestations of white supremacy here, where you’ve got, you know, rich white boys being like “This black girl too loud”? And do they hear themselves assuming that their loudness means everyone is in agreement? And maybe there is something as a facilitator, like, maybe that’s when I start keeping track of who’s talking in meetings, right. And take that pattern and make it visible.
You know, there’s little things to do, I guess. Trying to figure out how to trust the kids and also be responsible about the context we’re all in and be like, “I also trust that you’re, like, not trying to be racist. You just don’t know, because this is the society we’re in. So, like, how do we move together?” Yeah, and it takes some thought and also being willing to, like, not be everyone’s favorite person all the time.
[00:37:02] – Ryan
Which Abby is really good at, I will say, and I’m terrible at, but that’s why you have to have a balanced facilitator team and that’s why I’m really grateful that Abby fills in all my gaps.
I would just remind everyone, that, you know, children are people, too, and so are facilitators. So just remember, you’re part of the community too and consider yourselves. I think your inclination to step back is usually a good one. Giving kids more space and giving them more opportunity to take the lead and take responsibility is a great thing. This is one of the things that, you know, a lot of times when people ask, well, how is ALC different than other self directed learning environments? I always bring up the Sudbury school thing, where in Sudbury schools, their policy is to always step back and to not offer resources or to not suggest things for kids to do until they ask you. But you know, what I’ve learned in the years I’ve been facilitating is that if you really know a kid well or you really know your community well, that of course, it should be fine for you to make suggestions and to say, like, “Hey, I think this would work for you all”. Because really, if you’re working in service of your community, you’re working in service of your student, you’re making those suggestions with their best interests at heart, and you’re doing that as someone who, you know, knows them really well. So I don’t think you should hesitate to do that. But I do think your inclination to give more space and to, like, let kids take more of a lead is the right one as well.
[00:38:52] – slide
Question: We have new computers and I don’t think parents will be cool with the agreements kids make on sharing them. How do you handle computer sharing and parents’ feelings about screens?
[00:38:52] – Ryan
The thing I think about there is screentime, of course, because that’s always a big issue, like, how much time can and should kids spend on screens? The policy at our school is we don’t, as facilitators, enforce any screentime limits. If parents and kids make agreements together as a family about how much time they can spend on screens, that’s fine with us. We’re not going to police it. We will reflect to a kid who has that agreement, like “Hey, you have this agreement with your parents. We’ve noticed you’re not keeping it. Consider the consequences for that”. And at the same time, we’re not going to keep that information from parents. If we see that kids are breaking agreements we know they have with their parents, we will let the parents know and we’ll make it clear to the kids that we’re going to let them know, that we’re not going to keep that information from them. So, you know, it’s managing, right. That’s a whole ‘nother skill that kids learn. You have different sets of expectations in different spaces and with different people, and you have to be conscious of those and conscious of the consequences of those.
But that said, I can speak for myself and speak for how we do things at ALC-NYC in that we try to.. I wouldn’t stay stand up for, but we try to keep…we try to, like, protect their right and ability to make choices for themselves. Again, if we don’t think it’s going to be dangerous or, you know, have really dire consequences for them, we try to let them make their own decisions and work through those things and instead reflect to them what those decisions might do. So I don’t know, I feel like I’m kind of rambling a little bit here. Abby you were on stack anyway, so if you want to you want to add on there, I’ll turn it over to you because you had another thing to say anyway.
[00:40:49] – Abby
I mean, I am, but you are more, in the ‘sharing of the student computers’ world and like the tool they made and how that’s evolved. That might be interesting for people.
[00:41:02] – Ryan
OK, cool. Yeah, that’s what I needed there, got me back on track. So yeah, this was a tool that the kids came up with at our school a couple of years ago or I don’t even know, more than a couple of years ago now. And it’s sort of evolved, but it’s just like a scheduling grid basically. And they decided to use – at one point it was hour at one point it was half hour time blocks, that you could sign up for. And, you know, we’ve got quite a few computers now. We’ve got like seven or something like that in the one room, that kids can sign up for. And so, you know, basically they self manage this. You have your magnet with your name on it and you sign up for the computer you want in the time block you want and you get it for an hour. And if no one else comes to sign up for it after that, you’re welcome to stay on and keep using it. But the idea is, it’s enough time to do a thing you want to do, but then you’re not using that computer all day. And, you know, even though we have a lot we have different computers – like, we have a couple of Macs, and the Macs may be able to run a certain program that the PCs can’t and vice versa. And we have Linux on some that maybe can’t run a program that kids want to use. So, you know, maybe there’s like two or three computers that are really popular and kids want to sign up to do certain things. But that grid has done a pretty good job of managing this over the years. As Abby just said in the chat there, we do have a lot of kids that have their own devices, too. So really at this point, there is not a level of competition for time on the computers that makes the tool even super useful. But, yeah, that’s what we use in that situation.
[00:42:48] – Abby
I would add that the computer sharing, the computer sign-up board has been hilarious as someone from the outside, because you get into these situations where you’ve got two kids who are like, “Oh, well, you can use my sign up to kind of hack the system. Here’s a loophole”. And then they’re bartering and they’re like, you know, doing very complicated things, and I’m sitting over here being like, as long as everyone’s consenting to this. And sometimes they have conflicts and it’s been very dynamic and they definitely have practiced all kinds of interesting skills that they wouldn’t have gotten to if we weren’t kind of holding space for them to do that. We do have a…we tell parents, there’s safe search on the computers. We expect devices coming into the space to have safe search. Also, surprise Internet porn is a thing we will all encounter at some point. So, like, you know, don’t freak out when it happens and we’re going to all practice together being like, “Oh, nope”, and then, you know, closing that window and walking away. So. All the delightful things.
[00:44:02] – slide
Question: Do dynamics between individuals get brought up in Change Up?
[00:44:03] – Ryan
We do have a separate process, we call it Culture Committee at our school, and it’s essentially, you know, our conflict resolution process. Pretty simple. Step one is take a deep breath, try to talk to the person. If you can’t figure it out by having conversations, step two is try to get support from someone else. That doesn’t have to be a facilitator, it can be a fellow student. It can be a facilitator. And that’s still not working, if it’s still an issue, we have a form on our website called the Culture Committee form. You can fill it out. You can write how you’re feeling, what the conflict was, and then we have a group of students who are coherence holders for that group, who have agreed every time this form gets filed that they will schedule a meeting that, you know, not everyone in the school has to come, but if you are part of the conflict, essentially, if you’re a student that’s part of the conflict, you have to show up. And then this group of students and facilitators will show up. And the idea is not that, like, someone’s in trouble and that it’s to mete out punishment. The idea is that there’s something that’s not working for someone. There’s a conflict that exists. And this group’s job is to help everyone feel clear and figure out how this conflict can be resolved and hopefully prevented from reoccurring in the future.
Again, in the beginning, when we only had six kids, calling a Change Up meeting was kind of the same thing as Culture Committee. Those things used to be the same process and then they kind of diverged. Change Up is still a process for addressing cultural patterns, but I think because the Culture Committee process exists, there’s a little bit less, like, “You did this, you did that”. Also, part of the part of the management that we were talking about is when people bring up awarenesses in that first half of the meeting, the idea is it’s just for that person to speak their awareness. There shouldn’t be a ton of discussion happening then. So often kids will try to chime in and be like “But I! And you!”, and we’re like, “If you want to talk about it, stick around and come to Change Up”. Because then you really see, is it enough of an issue for kids to really stick around and want to talk about it, or are they just like “Uh, actually…”, you know, and then just walk out. So, that’s part of that management.
[00:46:27] – Ryan
The other thing I wanted to say about admissions is, when we have a kid do a visiting week at the school, at the end of the week, during the first half of the meeting, during Check In, we’ll have those kids leave the room, usually with Abby, if it’s one or multiple kids, and they will give their impressions of how the week went to Abby. That’s theoretically how it goes. Sometimes they’re just like, “It was all right”. But, you know, the idea is that they’ll give her feedback and then all of us in the room will discuss, “Hey, how do we think this visiting week went for the student or for these students?” And there’s certainly been times where kids have been like, “Well, I saw this kid do this and they were like, yelling” and, you know, sometimes the facilitator… as facilitators we’ll have to manage like, “Oh, you mean like they were calling people names and cursing at them, like we have heard all of you doing for like the entire first half of this year?” And a big part of our “management” when it comes to that is being like, “Hey, all these things you’re complaining about are behaviors that you’ve been doing all week and like showing this visitor that is part of our culture”. So, we always try to remind kids before we do a visiting week, “Hey, what you show kids on a visiting week is what you reflect to them as like, what’s normal here. So if you don’t want to reflect that, like, cursing at each other and like, you know, throwing stuff at each other or just whatever is the way that we do things here, then don’t do that when kids are visiting. Or they’re going to think that’s the normal”. Because, you know, you’re walking into this new culture as a kid, sometimes from a really different school environment or, you know, really like, different looking environment that you’re in every day. And you’re literally just experiencing all this stuff at once. So to answer your question, the personal like “He said, she said, he did, she did” stuff tends to come up in that way the most, because it’s the most conducive to that. But the actual awarenesses don’t really devolve into that as much because of how the process is set up now, I would say.
[00:48:40] – slide
Question: If the meeting isn’t mandatory, how do you make sure students who aren’t there get updated as agreements change?
[00:48:44] – Ryan
Since we do our meeting on a Friday, for anyone who’s not in Change Up, if the awareness feels really urgent, like something that’s immediately going to be necessary for everyone to know about, we’ll usually appoint someone to, like, go around and alert everyone to the new agreement or maybe to alert specific people that it is really going to affect. Otherwise, on Monday, the following Monday morning in the Set the week meeting where we set up our whole schedule for the week, we’ll make an announcement in the beginning. We’ll like say, “Hey, look over here in the Community Mastery Board. We’ve got some new implementations from last week at Change Up, and this is what we’re going to practice now”. And sure, sometimes those might be met by groans or like, “Whaaat!?”. But, you know, it’s easy because we can just say, “Hey, if you don’t like that, put an awareness up there and we’ll talk about it this Friday”.
And, you know, and that’s where the agile and like light change part comes in. That nothing ever feels – or, I shouldn’t say that – but that things tend not to feel like they’re set in stone or like they’re going to be there forever, and that everyone has an opportunity to revisit that stuff and to change that stuff.
[00:49:56] – slide
Question: Do you encourage people to show up for Change Up meetings?
[00:50:01] – Ryan
I encourage it. Part of it’s a bias of mine, because I actually love the Check In and Change Up process. It’s one of my favorite things about how we do things.
So, like, I always go and I always feel like there’s value in it, even if we have a really minimal agenda. But rarely… and I would say, like, never do I really push for kids to come. I’ll remind them certainly. Like if on a Tuesday a kid came to me and was really upset about something or really adamant about an awareness being discussed, and then come Friday, they’re like “Meh” and they walk out after Check In, I might say, “Hey, you were really upset about this on Tuesday. Are you sure you don’t want to stay and talk about this and work something out?”
But again, given the fact that, like, if next week they’re still really upset about it, they can just come back again, then it doesn’t really feel like high leverage or worth my energy to try to force or convince them to do anything. This is a big part of my facilitation style, anyway. I really don’t try to force anybody to do anything. I hate being a police dog. Like, I just really – I have like trauma about that from teaching in public schools. So I, maybe to a fault, avoid that. But that said, I think there’s not many circumstances in which I would say, like, “Hey, you really need to show up to talk about this”. And Culture Committee as a tool is kind of more of that level of escalation, like, “Hey, you’re out of line with these community agreements enough that you have to show up now and be in community with us to figure out why this isn’t working for you”.
[00:51:42] – Ryan
And the other thing I should say about Culture Committee is, it can be used as a kind of urgent Change Up. Even now, with how many kids we have, if there’s a thing that feels so urgent that it can’t wait until Friday, a Culture Committee can be filed and we can meet about that. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be about a personal conflict or something someone or some ones are doing [that is] out of integrity with our agreements. It might just be like, something that just feels urgent and that the whole community has to address and it can’t wait until Friday.
[00:52:17] – slide
Question: For Culture Committee, how do you rotate who attends?
[00:52:17] – Ryan
I mean, the idea is that anyone can show up to a Culture Committee meeting. You could have had no context or involvement in a situation, you could not be one of who I mentioned earlier, coherence holders, one of the kids that has said, “yes, I will come to every one”. You could just show up and you can add whatever input you have, you can make suggestions. You know, it’s open to anyone in the community. But the only people who have said, “yes, I will show up to every culture committee” are the facilitators. And to be clear, it’s not always all of us. Like maybe if it’s not… if we don’t feel like it’s super urgent, maybe like if Abby and one other facilitator goes, maybe I feel like I don’t need to. But those kids who have said, “yes, we will be coherence holders” – and we have another term that we use called ‘culture keeper’ – it’s like, you know, a student who has a deep enough and thorough enough understanding of the culture that they are able to like act almost as a facilitator to some of the other kids, who are maybe newer or younger.
The other thing that we tend to find is that, you know, kids who are at ALCs generally choose to be there. So if you’re choosing to be a part of a community and you care about it, then coming to a Culture Committee is kind of an extension of that. It’s kind of saying… especially for some of the older kids or some of the kids who consider themselves more culture keepers, they’re committed to the health of the community and they’re committed to the school working for everyone. And as Abby just put in the chat, If you didn’t see that, we haven’t had fewer than a third of the school at a culture committee in over a year. And we haven’t really had that many this year.
[00:54:05] – Ryan
I mean, you know, we’ve been off site now for a little while, but even before that, this is the least I can remember us ever having, since having more than 10 kids. Maybe even before that, quite honestly, because it was just easier to call them when there were less kids. So that’s one other thing I’ll say about Culture Committee is that it’s more effective if you don’t use it all the time, because it feels like, you know, a level of escalation. And I don’t mean escalation in a negative way. It just feels like a level of escalation that is like, oh OK, this is serious enough now that we need to discuss this as a community and, you know, we need to figure out how we can support this person who is maybe breaking agreements or we need to figure out how we can problem solve this issue that’s so urgent that it’s come up in the middle of the week that we have to address it now.
I think inviting participation is your best bet there. And if there’s kids who maybe they weren’t involved in the conflict, that weren’t involved in the issue, but you feel like they have some insight to offer, you can tell them that and be like, “Hey, I know that you, you know, and Kid X are on the computers a lot and interact with the sign up board. And maybe this conflict is about that, so I think your input would be really valuable here. Would you mind coming and at least listening and maybe, you know, adding your thoughts?”
I think approaching it that sort of way makes sense. And of course, you know, you have to know the kid or kids you’re asking in that sense, too, like, what do they respond to, you know?
[00:55:40] – Abby
Yeah, I guess also just in terms of expectation setting, we’ve had…I have the log book here, we keep a log book of our culture committees and I brought it home when we closed school. But there is definitely a pattern where they’ll like, you know, at the beginning of the year, remember that culture committee exists. And so, [they’ll] have some conflicts and be like, “Oh, wait, what do I do with this?” And then somebody will remember and call one and then a bunch of other people are like, “Oh, wait, that’s an option?”. And so suddenly you’ll have a flurry, right? You might have like three or four, back to back. And then the excitement and novelty wears off and they get, like, pressure from their peer group to stop, like, pulling people away from their self directed activities. And so then they’ll go back to not calling them for a while. And then, you know, maybe right before winter break or right after that cycle starts again. So just a thing to be aware of.
[00:56:47] – slide
Question: Is Change Up a space where my kid who is needing quiet focused space can bring that up?
[00:56:47] – Ryan
It can be a space… listen, you get creative, because, you know, one thing that we have to deal with in New York is not having a lot of space. So we’ve had all kinds of volume awarenesses over the years. As you can see, Abby’s got those burly noise-canceling headphones, because sometimes she needs to do admin work –
[00:57:04] – Abby
These are the cheap construction ones! And like 20 bucks max.
[00:57:10] – Ryan
They work well, though. You know, we’ve done all kinds of things to deal with that. Yes, we used to have, we still have a quiet room. It’s like the back room of the school. You know, we’ve done an implementation of Focus Hour where for like an hour in the morning, it’s like no loud games or yelling in the space, because that’s when we determined, “OK, we have mostly like more academic-y, focused offerings early in the morning”. It could be, you know, like a thing where maybe you have a spot off site where kids can go. For us it would be a cafe or something around the corner, where there’s reliable Internet and it’s a little bit quieter. So, you know, yeah, it could be a physical space thing, but maybe it’s getting the community to acknowledge, OK, having time where it’s not as loud and hectic is important and in service of taking care of our community members who need that kind of space, then maybe we can set aside this time during the day where we’re going to do that. I think it just depends like what you have available to problem solve. But yes, super relevant and yes, that can and should be expressed as an awareness, I would say.
Really important to think about here is you can use this process outside of a school. You can use it in an organization, you can use it with your family, you can use it in a personal relationship. One of Abby and I’s colleagues years ago came up with this concept that she called relation-shifting. And I thought it was so cool, because it was using the Check In and Change Up process for a personal relationship. And the idea that you can have awarenesses with someone that you’re involved with – doesn’t have to be romantically, but can be – and as a way of improving your communication and improving your, you know, your institution, so to speak. So, you know, you don’t necessarily have to think about this in terms of your ALC project or in terms of SDE (Self Directed Education). You can, that’s totally fine. But I wanted to give you other options as well.
So if you could come up with an example of an awareness in that context and then a possible implementation from it, I just wanted to get a little practice for us at working through this process. And, you know, again, maybe this is something that you guys are already super familiar with, so it will be quick and easy and you could try something outside of your school, say.
You guys were great. Thank you.