Home » ALC Everett 2015 #Debrief

The Failure of ALC Everett was a Great Success

Failure is a strong word in our society. It feels heavy handed to use such a word to describe what happened in Everett, even though it perfectly describes how we didn’t meet our goal of starting an Agile Learning Center. I am using the word because I want to reclaim it. Failure is not a bad thing and it doesn’t reflect poorly on those who fail. Failure is an essential step to success.

This document chronicles 7 months from September 3rd, 2014 to March 2015 when 7 teens, 4 families, and 1 green Agile Learning Facilitator attempted to start a cooperative Agile Learning Center (ALC) out of a house in Everett Washington.

The format will follow the typical ALC cycle of Intention, Creation, and Reflection.

We will examine the intentions behind how and why the school was created. Then explore what we created by looking at how we played, what tools we used to structure the school, and what activities we did over the 7 months. Finally we will reflect on what went well and what could have been done better.

Throughout this document you will find links to blog posts that go into great detail about some of the topics covered here. Let’s get started!

  You can learn more about Agile Learning Centers on the network website: alc.network

Intentions

Parent’s Intentions

Sterling Family

The Sterlings (Jeff and Lisa) hosted the school and were the impetus for its creation. Read the full text here.

Jeff and I had the intention to create a learning community while at the same time supporting the educational requirements for our boys. Prior to the creation of the Everett ALC, we worked for a year practicing and investigating Agile Learning principles. 

Through our experience we came to understand that the agile process gives a framework to a more systemic need – that of building community. Our future is dependent on compassionate, sustainable, resilient, thriving communities where each person is acknowledged for the unique being that they are. Each person’s gifts are seen as important to the fabric of the community as a whole.
 
To support this idea, at the beginning of each day we held circle in which each participant intentions were acknowledged. We found this practice to be vital. It is important for community members to know what others in the community are interested in and working on. People gain support by asking for the assistance they need and are encouraged to offer their support for others. The cycle continued through the closing of each day, with reflections and ceremony to set goals for the next day.

ALC Everett Tool Box

Offerings

All activities available to students begin as offerings. Each student is given the ability to offer classes/courses/opportunities at ALC Everett. We expect value to be created not only by parents, community members, and facilitators but also by the students.

Set the Week

The Agile Learning environment is based around cycles of setting intentions, play, and reflections. Set the Week is a meeting that determines what goals the group wishes to accomplish throughout the week. Typically these goals require more preparation than daily goals or are time specific, like a field trip.

Morning Meeting

The daily cycle of intention setting starts with the morning meeting. This meeting is one of the few required activities each student agreed to in the ALCE Student Agreement. Our basic structure is Check-ins, Intention setting, Scrum, Set the day, Share intentions

Game Shifting Board

Meetings can be a drag. To limit the “process overhead” and help make the implicit process of the meeting explicit we employed a tool called the Game Shifting Board (GSB).

Personal Kanban

Kanban is a Japanese (看板) word that translates to signboard. At it’s core it is a to-do list that limits its user’s work in progress (WIP). The kanban comes in many shapes and sizes and is created by each student to help them track intentions, set goals, and focus on their passions.

Group Kanban

The group kanban is heavily used by ALC Everett. It’s structure is similar to the personal Kanban but it’s focus is on group projects and tasks. It is functionally a lot like the offerings board in Agile NYC. It takes a central place in the school space and is where we hold our intention setting meetings.

Change Up Meeting

Culture creation is a central focus of Agile Learning Centers. We want to create and hold space that is safe for children to explore their passions. To create intentional culture we employ a weekly Change Up Meetings to build, update, and remix the culture inside the school by use of the Community Mastery Board.

Afternoon Meeting

Within our daily cycle the Afternoon Meeting closes the day. It is where we reflect on the intentions set in the morning meeting. The act of reflection is as important as setting intentions because it allows us to measure our success or failure to achieve what we set out to do so we can adjust our next cycle of intentions.

Blogging

Accomplishment in the 21st century world demands the creation of visible, shareable value as evidence of learning. Without tests or grades it is the blog post that can best visualize learning. In ALC Everett we give students the responsibility to create this evidence of learning through reflective blog posts.

Games

two_boots

At the heart of Agile Learning is a respect for play in it’s many forms. We can practice a great many skills through play. When we started our journey towards building an Agile Learning Center in Everett we had quite a lot of systems to learn from our daily meeting structure, setting goals, and using our tools such as kanban to manage our time. To develop these core skills we used them not only to do so called “serious” projects like developing websites or creative projects, but also to arrange games.

Even the most seemingly un-educational games help practice the process.

Even if a student decided to play video games, they were encouraged to set intentions around the play of that game. This strengthened their understanding of the system which could then be used later to perform other tasks in the future.

Below are some of the games and activities we played over the year.

Egg Drop

Can you drop an egg without breaking it? Welcome to the Egg Drop Challenge! This team game pits players against the unforgiving force of gravity. Use the materials at hand to build a contraption to protect your fragile egg from certain death. How to play Each team gets one egg and a set of limitations … Read more

Geo Guesser

This game is played on a website called geoguessr.com. You are dropped into 5 random locations around the world (or certain areas, if you choose) and have to guess on a map where you are. You are awarded points based on how close you were to the actual location. You will need: A computer with internet … Read more

Two Boots

Two Boots is a disk game (disk is the general term for Frisbee, which is a brand of disk. Much like Kleenex is used to describe tissue paper) that, at the time I learned it, involves 2 boots. It’s very easy to play and can be very fun. You need: At least 2 teams of … Read more

WikiTrails

A meandering walk through the worlds largest library! Wikipeadia is a website rich with information. In this game we take a virtual stroll from page to page. How to play In it’s most simple form Wikitrails is just a walk through Wikipeadia. You start on any page (try a random one) and just click blue … Read more

Role of the Facilitator

kanban_working_crop

The Facilitator

I drove across the country to facilitate ALC Everett. I was fresh out of the Agile Learning Facilitator Summer 2014 program where I was introduced to ALC and the notion that I could–maybe–educate children.

You can read blog posts from me and other ALFs that attended the program.

I was unsure of myself, of the ALC system, and what awaited me. The fact that anything happened at all is testament to the awesome young people I worked with, their families, and the Agile Learning Center network. Although I was in a new place, I still had weekly calls with other ALFs in the ALC network.

For the month of October a fellow ALF, @Abe, came out to play with us. 

You can read his account over at his blog: abram.agilelearningcenters.org

This has been an overwhelming positive experience for me and I hope a first step toward a successful community in Everett.

Below I detail some of the roles and duties that I as facilitator performed.

Our afternoon reflection, check out my dad second to the left!

Community Roles

While most of the day to day tasks for running the school fell to me, the facilitator, many other roles were performed by the students and parents.

Maintaining the space

Every day students would clean the school and keep it in working order. In Everett the school was run out of one family’s house, so they took on the responsibility to keep the lights on and the house paid for.

Managing the school

There are a number of responsibilities to managing a school. There are financial books to be kept, tuition to be collected, and meetings to be scheduled. For reasons that I will explore in the delta section below much of this work was not done in Everett. The necessary roles weren’t made explicit and because of this the school never really formed as an organization.

Vision Holding

Having a person or group who holds the vision of the school is an essential role that only became clear near the end of the Everett experiment. Without a community member who is deeply invested in the project present it became hard to maintain the project. I will go into further details about this in the delta section.

Facilitator Duties

Adult Coordinator

Making sure students, parents, facilitators, and other adults are all coordinated is an important job. Sending reminders, following up with offerings, etc.

Documentarian

Without grades and tests we need to document education to make sure that learning is visible to all interested parties.

Game Facilitator

Playing group games or activities often need someone to set them up and tear them down.

Website Manager

The website is an important tool for sharing information with the community, someone needs to keep it up-to-date.

Reflections

Deltas Δ

The act of reflection brings to the surface what could have been done better, we call these “deltas”. If you are reading this with an intention to start an ALC (or any unschool) these are items you’ll want to look out for and prepare for.

Holding Vision

If I had to point to any one thing that could have been done better it would be identifying a vision holder early. The vision holder is a person (or group of people) who hold the vision for a project. Here are some qualities I feel make a good vision holder:

  • Is a member of the ALC’s community.
  • Is invested in the success of the ALC.
  • Has the time and energy to invest in the ALC.
  • Has a clear vision of what the ALC will become.
  • Is capable of allowing that vision to change and evolve as the ALC grows.

When I came to Everett it was unclear who this person was. As the facilitator I took on much of the responsibilities that a vision holder might have:

  • Coordinating parent meetings.
  • Workshopping vision and mission statements.
  • Building community through events.
  • Growing the community through outreach.

Trying to facilitate the school and taking on these responsibilities meant that I never did a really good job of them. One example was coordination of parent meetings, I had an intention of holding a potluck followed by a parents meeting every other week. Our first parents meeting was an amazing success, we defined tasks, took on responsibilities, and defined milestones. However the next scheduled meeting passed as did deadlines. At the time, these lapses were reasonable, illness, time restrictions, and other priorities got in the way.

It wasn’t until three months later that we came back together for another potluck and meeting. This failure could have been avoided if someone, like a vision holder, had been able to keep on top of our intentions.

Facilitator Support

The fact that I didn’t make enough of an effort to hold meetings and help parents achieve their intentions points to my over-commitment in other areas. Because I was the only facilitator I was unable to perform many of these type of necessary duties.

Having only one Facilitator was a big mistake. Especially a single ALF who was not a member of the community.

My agreement was to stay for a maximum of 10 months and as such I didn’t have much “skin in the game”. Having a second facilitator, especially one who would be staying with the community, would have made a huge difference.

As an ALF I could have made my needs for support more explicit.

If you need help, the first step is to ask for help. I could have done a better job of that. At the time, though, I thought that I could handle it and in some cases, that it would burden others to ask for help.

For the month of October another ALF, Abram, joined me to facilitate ALC Everett. This was probably the most highly productive period of this short experiment. Having someone share the facilitation duties provided much needed time for me to do more administrative activities during the school day. It also provided space for self-care, if I wasn’t feeling well I could rest in bed knowing that Abe was there to run meetings and work with the students.

Even having a part-time facilitator that could come in for the entire day a few times per week would have been a great help.

So in retrospect a vision holder to build and maintain the vision for the school and two facilitators, at least one of whom is a member of the community, to manage the school’s day-to-day is probably a minimum requirement.

Communication

Miscommunication plagued ALC Everett. Part of this delta can be attributed to the agile nature of plans that come out of the Agile Learning process. Field trips and other activities that require some level of parental coordination were often planned by the students who didn’t always remember to tell their parents key pieces of information, as teens are just beginning to learn how to account of all those finer details.

Much of the communication and coordination fell to me as the facilitator. Often times I would find that I was the conduit between students and parents or between the parents themselves.

Some things that would have helped communication include:

  • Holding regular meetings
    • Virtually via phone, Skype, or Google Hangout
  • Sending a “set the week” email to parents
  • Sending a recap of reflective blog posts to parents
    • Encouraging parents to read their children’s blog posts
  • Making time for one-on-one sessions with parents and/or students
  • Having clear communication pipelines

It isn’t that people didn’t want to communicate, I think the main issue was that people didn’t know how to effectively communicate. I don’t know if we as a community ever made clear how each of us preferred to be contacted. Even though we did have a student and parent directory along with a group email list it wasn’t clear to some parents if messages were getting out to everyone. Often people would send messages to the “all parent” email list and no one would respond. Having a simple community agreement to confirm a message was received could have alleviated this.

Working out community agreements about what needed to be communicated to whom and how would have helped a great deal.

Conflict Resolution

It’s often said that developing a conflict resolution process is best done when things are good. We never took steps to adopt a process because there was very little conflict in school. Everyone got along and things ran very smoothly.

Not having a process for resolving conflict was a big mistake.

Late in the school year there was a seemingly small conflict between the father and owner of the house where we were holding school and one of the students. As far as I know it came out of a misunderstanding of house rules and school rules. The lack of resolution around this conflict, among other reasons, led the student to leave the school and contributed to the overall dissollution of ALC Everett.

Partially this conflict arose from a misalignment between the house rules and the school rules developed through the Change Up Meetings.

This issue could have probably been avoided through greater involvement of the home-owners in the Change Up Meetings but ultimately it was the lack of any kind of resolution process that exacerbated what could have been a minor misunderstanding.

Here are a few ideas for conflict resolution processes:

Culture Committee

At the NYC ALC they use a process called Culture Committee. Anyone in the community can make a request for a Culture Committee process to start by filling out an online form. As described on the NYC ALC tools and practices page, Culture Committee:

The Culture Committee meets on a regular basis and will talk through the conflict with the requester in order to come up with an action plan. If necessary, the other party may be brought in to the meeting to facilitate the resolution.

Restorative Justice Circles

The Restorative Justice process focuses on repairing communities instead of enforcing punitive “justice”. It involves inviting affected parties into a process that allows them to share their experience and through mediated discussion come to a resolution.

More information about the process can be found at restorativejustice.org

Giving the Process Time

Learning, adapting, and practicing the ALC tool set while simultaneously building community takes a tremendous amount of time. Although a number of the Everett students and parents were introduced to the tools and practices before starting the school it took time to figure out how we were going to implement the ALC tools and practices.

7 months wasn’t nearly enough time to sow the seeds of a radical new way of educating youth and see those seeds blossom.

After a few months parents got worried about their children and if they were learning what they “needed” to learn. It’s no wonder that these fears surfaced, there are so many pressures out in the world warning us that if kids don’t get the right education they will end up in a very bad position in our society. The fact that most of the students were of high school age and thus only had a few more years to go limited the ability of parents to feel comfortable with experimenting and testing an unfamiliar system.

Were I to do this again I would make clear to parents that this is a process not a product. Students need to learn to use the kanban before they can use their kanban to effectively self-direct their education to the “useful” stuff. The community must learn how to best make offerings before the process can really work well.

A community needs time to fail before it can truly understand what works.