Learning in a Community of Angels

Prepared for presentation to the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Palouse
November 1, 2009

I want to start by thanking Jayme Jacobson and Eric Wegner for collaborating with me to create this service.

Today I’m going to share a personal reflection that weaves together two stories in my life. One story is the process to charter and open Palouse Prairie School. The other story is from the work I do at WSU, exploring how technology is impacting learning.

There is a place at the end of the program today for your response, but, in keeping with my WSU explorations, the text of my talk is also posted in my blog where you can comment. I’ll get back to why I blog.

The title today comes from a comment made by one of the Charter School Commissioners after Palouse Prairie’s first visit to the Idaho Public Charter School Commission, in April 2007. The Commission had sent us away to work on our facility and budget plans. This Commissioner took me aside at a break and said, “You need an angel.”

Driving back from Boise, I realized that I had failed to ask him what an angel was, and more importantly, how to get one.

I think I know now what he meant by angel, in the sense of a financial angel or venture capitalist. Someone who would sweep in and solve the school’s financial problems. Such a person may yet exist for Palouse Prairie School, but in 2007 I didn’t know how to find an angel and so I needed to solve the school’s problem another way. What I found is a community of angels.

The opposite of a community of angels is the story of the little red hen. Wikipedia summarizes the story as: Hen wants to make some bread and she asks the animals which of them will help sow the seed. At each stage, sowing, harvesting, threshing, grinding and baking the other animals decline to help Hen. In the end Hen does not share the bread with the farm animals.

The story is used to teach the virtues of the work ethic and personal initiative. As you will see, I don’t think Hen lives in a community as I value it.

The virtue I would teach children is that of a participatory gift economy, a community created of gift giving.

Wikipedia again. “A gift economy … is a society where valuable goods and services are regularly given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards (i.e. no formal quid pro quo exists)….[R]ecurring giving serves to circulate and redistribute valuables within the community.”

Another aspect of the Hen story, that I’ve only recently considered, is that Hen knows how to solve her problem. Its a well-defined problem that just requires executing a series of steps.

Despite the three inch manual from the Idaho Department of Education, starting a Charter school is not just executing a series of steps.

Solving the School’s problem brings me to the other thread in this story. Solving a problem is the context for learning.

Teachers know this, which is why they set problems for students. Some problems have answers in the back of the book, other problems are more ill-defined and set in larger contexts. For example, we see university students working on class projects in our community: designing, analyzing, planning.

Expeditionary Learning would call these challenging problems an exploration into an unknown territory, where the challenge of traversing the territory becomes the teacher.

What I have come to appreciate is the role of community in giving gifts needed to help solve ill-defined problems. Some of these gifts are monetary, but importantly, many are not. Some are skills. Some are enthusiasm and joining into the collective doing. Some are gifts of teaching and learning.

I am calling the people who give these gifts the “small angels” who continue to help Palouse Prairie School.

My title today is “Learning in a Community of Angels” because my joy comes from discovering a personal understanding of a community willing to contribute to my learning (our learning) along the road to solving a problem. This goes beyond my previous experience with community, the joy that comes from communal effort toward a common task.  I’ve shared that joy with some of you at a barn raising.

Styer Barn Raising (mid-lift)

I now see Community is a learning resource. The angels (and there are many) are the people who make up the community.

They have gifts to share, if you can learn to frame or re-frame your problem in ways that they can contribute.

Rather than finding a big angel to solve the school’s problem, what I am learning is to value the gifts from small angels.

But working with small angels requires setting up contexts in which gifts can be given. It involves working on your problem in public, telling your story, and then listening for the (sometimes unexpected) gifts. The gifts often come as teaching. It may be the introduction to another person and some hidden talent they have, or an introduction to a idea and its application. The key is to be open, and to accept a variety of help — to participate in what Cathy Davidson calls Collaboration by Difference — and let the community find the answer. We (not I) started Palouse Prairie School, and we, a collaborative community, are learning to make it thrive.

I cited Wikipedia above. Wikipedia is an example of the work of many small angels. Jimmy Wales had the idea of getting an encyclopedia into the hands of every person on earth. To do so, he needed one that was very cheap. He needed volunteer experts to write it. Today Wikipedia has 1.74 billion words in 9.25 million articles in about 250 languages; 25 times the size of Britannica and growing. But size, or arguments about quality, are not my point here, rather, Wikipedia cleverly presents an invitation for small angels, with different purposes, knowledge, and goals, to collaborate toward a grand vision (even if they do not know or share the vision). Wikipedia is a Collaboration by Difference.

Above, I said that I have blogged this sermon. I blog because of what I learned from George Hotz, the teenager who hacked the Apple iPhone. Hotz had a problem that required he defeat the corporate goals of Apple and AT&T to use his iPhone on the Sprint network. He blogged daily his steps in the process. Not in a vain-glorious way, but to elicit help from angels around the world. And the angels came, and commented in his blog, and provided money and other resources. Hotz’s strategy to work in public and learn from a community enabled him to solve his chosen problem.

I welcome your comments today (or in my blog) in the same spirit, as gifts toward our shared learning.

The joy I am sharing with you is one of community. Community created by a gift economy.

Able to learn.  Able to take collective action.

In the opening words for today, by John Seely Brown, “We participate, therefore we are.” I want to encourage your giving, your learning, your collaboration, your making of our community.

Months ago, when I proposed the topic of this talk, I had no thought that it would land in the middle of the UUCP pledge process. But I am happy that it does.

I want to encourage you to join me in your willingness to give, monetary and otherwise, that creates this community of shared religious dialog. I want to encourage your giving that creates this community of Moscow.

I am sharing my joy of experiencing and coming to understand that community is built not of our co-location, but of our gifts to one another.

Gifts of sustenance or succor.

Gifts of cooperation.

Gifts of collective action and gifts of learning.

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