Who quits their job in the midst of 11% unemployment? Well, I did - over a year ago. I quit a job I loved at the University of South Alabama working for the Program for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (PETAL).
This is what I wrote at the time:
Last Friday, inspired by the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, I dropped a bomb of my own. I quit my job. I quit a job I loved deeply, and I've never felt better about it. I didn't quit for any of the normal reasons, however. I love my boss, I love my office, my co-workers, the daily work and the responsibility but I quit in order to have a voice in the success of my organization.
Almost from the first week in that technical assistant position my duties had almost immediately moved far beyond the official job description, and despite attempts and promises to upgrade my job and compensation, there was always a reason why nothing ever happens. After the new VP is hired, they said. And then, after proration is lifted...
I was only kidding myself. The only way that there could have been any change was for me to leave. Somewhat like a bad marriage that neither party wants to admit has problems, I was hoping against hope that things would miraculously change, but last Friday on the anniversary of Hiroshima I suddenly thought about the censorship that was imposed after the bombs were dropped, which prevented any open discussion or awareness of the severity and horror of the act and allowed the country to paint a distorted image of those events.
The resulting conflict between truth and myth helped to create the world we live in today, where many in our nation cannot tell fact from fiction, and all too often the public perception dictates whether we can even confront the problems we face squarely or whether we are bound by secrets that cannot even be acknowledged, they are so pervasive in the national discourse.
And my own organization was operating under a similar censorship, but a more pervasive one. The authoritarian hierarchy and bureaucracy of a state university, especially one situated in the deep south, operates in an ancient culture and resists any sort of change. What lunacy to think that I could change the culture from the ground up...
from one of the lowest positions on the organizational chart, I labored under the illusion that I could effect change throughout the organization.
I had to quit to do that. No longer constrained by my position in the organization, I have been "telling it like it is" to whoever will listen. Like the airline flight attendant, it felt exhilirating to slide down the emergency chute.
Now I can address the problems I see from an entirely different vantage point: I am also an alumni of the same university, and my other jobs as teacher and tutor also give me authority to speak to what I see are some disturbing trends. Because I quit, I can say what needs to be said.
I have not worked in a year, but I'm still obsessed with these three things that were my primary issues a year ago:
- The issues of literacy and how to solve them
- The issues of our region of the country and how to tranform them
- The issues of the creative class and how to resolve them
Having a front row seat at PETAL for five years, I have seen education slowly and painfully begin to emerge from its crysalis of old ways of thinking about teaching and learning. The changes have been slow in coming, but in some parts of the world innovative techniques involving technology, visualization and new ways of experiencing the process of learning have taken hold. While the acceptance of these new ways of learning is unpredictable, it seems like a butterfly in a very real way that is going through a metamorphosis.
A butterfly, it was explained to me recently, is unique in that no one can predict which way it will go. Like the butterfly, changes in educational techniques and technology may right now only be visible to those who have been in the more innovative areas where transformations have already occurred. When the new ways of teaching become the norm, which I predict will occur in the next year, there will be no need to help people "see" what is possible. My idea, my urgent concern, my passion for the past year, has been to try to find a way to show visually what is occurring, what is possible, in education in today's digital world.
The seeds of this project began to grow after a recent tour of Barton Academy in Mobile, Alabama. The first public school in the state, having opened in 1836, it is also a beautiful stately and proud building that symbolizes fond memories for thousands of residents of this region and around the world. Barton Academy is vacant, however, and there is an organization dedicated to raising the funds that have been determined necessary to restore the physical building itself. SaveBartonAcademy.org is the website that has been created to inform interested parties and energize that funding.
I want to do something a bit different, however. I want to save Barton as a an idea. Barton Academy has recently housed the Mobile School Board and they have struggled for many years to revitalize education in the region. Mobile County teachers and administrators are working hard to accomplish that in the face of two rounds of proration and a withering economic outlook. I have thought of a visual tool that might help the community come to a different understanding of education by using Barton Acadmy as a symbol of what's possible.
My idea is to create a virtual space that will allow people everywhere and anywhere to tap into the rich resources of Barton and of the region to create a living virtual space called Barton PLACE.
is the PLACE
Project for Learning And Community Engagement
While I realize that Barton PLACE will only be a virtual place for now, I hope that it can be seen as a good place for a public physical community space, a Great Good Place, as Ray Oldenburg speaks of them in his wonderful book of that same name.
Dr. Oldenburg spoke to me from his home in Pensacola a few days ago, and he told me that his book has been selling around the world continually since it was first published in 1989. I told him about a few "great good places " or Third Places as he's also termed them, that I've known. One is Rainbow Books and Cafe in Winston-Salem, NC. Another is Page & Palette in Fairhope. And of course, Serda's, Carpe Diem, Cream and Sugar, and even the local hangouts near the universities around Mobile are such Third Places.
Here's how I envisioned the idea early this morning:
Open up the doors of Barton Academy again, as a temporary site for community engagement and learning - for the community, by the community, as a place where people of all ages can come to share in the rich history of the place - whether that represents Barton history, or the family member that graduated there, or the person who worked for the betterment of schools in the area, or the rich and varied history that still needs to be recorded, assembled, published, shared and celebrated. Barton will become a place where residents and visitors alike can not only expereince, but also create, history in the act of scanning, recording, remembering, sharing, celebrating and uploading to share with the world the diversity of the area, the infinite possiblities of the future, and the idea of community that is at the heart of every place.
While I can easily image that happening, and I can point to many, many ways that it could be done, there's another, more immediate way that I can help this idea come into being, and that is by creating a Virtual Space. (That's actually what I'm doing here, in a sense).
There are all sorts of ways to do that. I'm not about to do it all by myself. (Facebook Virtual Chat is one way) (a timeline like Dipity.com is another way But I can imagine the ways that others can help me make this happen, and I can direct others to resources that I'm aware of that will be able to share in the effort. I have done this before. Many times.
For example, when I returned home to Fairhope I was put on the board of the Marietta Johnson Museum by my former music teacher and mentor, Dorothy "Dot" Cain, and in that capacity I created the first website for the museum. Momma Dot had already built the museum and video taped the living graduates and collected the memorabilia that are housed in the Marietta Johnson museum today. Here's a link to a little bit about that museum.
Because of the work that was done in memory of Marietta Johnson and the school she founded, I easily imagined the many descendants of Barton Academy students being able to participate in the same way and building a lasting memory such as the one that celebrates Marietta Johnson's life. In her day, Mrs. Johnson was world famous for her ideas, many of which are in desperate need of being rediscovered today.
I have another reason for caring about what happens in education in this area, however, and that is that I have a connection to another, very different type of school in Montrose, Alabama. It's called Bayside Academy, and it was founded partly by my mother and some other hardworking, dedicated friends back in the late 60's. My mother is honored each year by a scholarship award, and yet I've never even been to Bayside Academy. I have been disturbed by the facts of history and by the idea that somehow Bayside Academy has played a part in the exodus from Mobile to Baldwin County, rightly or wrongly, and the consequent drain on the city of Mobile and its resources. I aim to restore that balance in the creation of Barton PLACE.
Because Barton Academy is where Mordecai Arnold's mother graduated in 1914. Barton is where my grandmother graduated in 1916. Barton is where three of my father's aunts also graduated and Barton is the symbolic image of the city of Mobile. In Barton Academy we have the whole concept of place. The reason my father came back to this area when he was a young newlywed, having come back from the Navy after WWII and met my mother at Toomer's Corner, he brought her to the place where his memories were so very happy, and for many, many years he worked tirelessly to improve and rejuvenate the place he called home, by working for the Chamber of Commerce, the PTA, St. James Episcopal Church, and many other efforts. When my mother died of cancer in 1968 it was the end of a fairytale life for my family, and I contend that many more good things died in those years. Certainly the world became a more divided place, and yet it does not have to remain so.
Community is the only thing that will heal us. And as a beautiful young woman said in the eulogy for her grandmother yesterday, love is the only one of the three gifts of the spirit that we can share, see, feel and touch. Faith and hope are elusive, internal, spiritual and invisible except when we act in love for our fellow man, for our community, and for the better angels that surround us. A Third Place, whether virtual or physical, is the only place that will do.
The card above is one way I plan to do this. One of the difficulties I've had in the past 20 or more years that I've been trying to drag friends and family (kicking and screaming, mostly) into the digital era is the fact that so many don't have a computer handy and it's been hard to drag one around with me all the time, though I've been known to do so as recently as yesterday.
But having an image like the one above, complete with a QR code such as the one I have on the right side of the card, allows anyone with a smartphone, android phone or iPad/iPhone to scan that code and instantly be taken to the online link (in the above case it's my visualcv). These QR codes have been around for a good while, but most people are just now discovering them. What they will do to bring the world of personal interaction and virtual information together is amazing.
Luckily, there are many smartphones being sold now (and the sales are growing exponentially) and almost anyone younger than 20 has one.
Yesterday I didn't have an internet connection so my laptop was useless. My paper printout of my QR code, just as you see above, however, was all that was needed. Two of the young boys at my friend's family gathering had Smart Phones and they were both able to upload the link and share it with others.
What was impossible to explain in a few words was suddenly instantly obvious - the power of visualization! It was quite amazing to see friends of mine who are so used to hearing the "latest great thing" from me actually look at me and say "That's really cool!" --
It's that kind of engagement that is needed in schools. My experience has been that kids know how to use the smartphones, and the use of these newer tools to get them immediately engaged is half the battle won.
I've been talking to some of the schools that are installing smartboards and assigning iPads to the schools - the problem is that the technology is only the first step - using it effectively in teaching requires that the teachers actually have a chance to use them, try them out, experiment, share good ideas, and learn by trial and error. Digitalliteracy.gov has lots of tutorials, many of them designed for teachers, that can be accessed once the "aha" moment has occurred.
My concept for Barton PLACE is that it will actually be a collaborative effort where I build the virtual structure and enlist schools who can then find students who wish to learn how to upload and link the actual content.
For more on the concepts of Third Places and Urban Sprawl, consider this:
Urban Sprawl is a name that could well define the bay area, and it is that concept vs. the idea of community that interests me. Sprawling Places outlines the concept here:
Place theory outline
- We need to approach today's puzzling places with something more than descriptions of beautiful old classic places to guide us. With eye to today's new kinds of places, we should discuss questions of place starting from the basic social conditions that make an area of space into a place.
- We can distinguish an area, which is a stretch of space, from a place, which is one or more areas that are permeated with social norms or expectations for what "we" do there.
- Other place terms, and their comparisons.
- Places are areas of physical or virtual space permeated by social grammars, which prescribe divisions within the space and govern what is expected or appropriate to do and not to do there.
- Not all striking and harmonious locales are social places.
- We exist within the process of place making and re-making.
Now to create more postcards, for DigitalLiteracy.gov, for this site, for many of the hundreds of organizations and people I know who will help me make this vision a reality.