Category Archives: community learning

Serving vs. being

Photo: Duff Axom

I want to begin this post with a question: is there a difference between serving the whole and being the whole? I come to this question after participating in many discussions on the importance of social service, serving one’s community, service learning, and doing one’s part in community. I’ve noticed that these discussions often tend to frame the context as the individual existing as a separate entity from the community, be it neighbourhood, school, workplace, or city. I have begun to wonder what these discussions would be like if we framed the discussion with a different assumption – that we are the community?

Here are three examples that have inspired me to think more deeply about this point of view…

1.     Volunteerism
When volunteering, I have so often heard – or used myself – phrases that explain my actions such as: “contributing to my community”; “serving my community”, “doing my part”; “doing what is right”; “helping those who can use my skills.” While these are all laudable goals, I wonder if I should rephrase my actions as simply ‘being’, or as “I am the whole, therefore I act as part of the whole”. In fact, perhaps this approach completely removes the word ‘volunteer’ and instead just becomes the word ‘existing’ in community.

 2.     Service Learning
A natural outcome of volunteerism in the education world has been ‘service learning’. This is the idea where someone, or a group of people, offers a service to another group. In this process, one group receives a ‘service’, while those offering the service learn from their experience. While there is much that is positive about service learning, I once again wonder if we can reframe this idea. Should we instead think of it as ‘being learning’ or ‘grounded learning’? We are not separate from those to whom we are offering a service. Instead, we exist in our local communities and learn from this existence. In this sense, we are also ‘grounded’ in our local contexts. It is not about learning from books, or being fed information by someone else. Nor is it about structuring a situation of servitude for the sake of a particular educational outcome. Instead, it is the natural learning that takes place as a result of us being fully embedded in our communities and seeing ourselves as such. For youth in particular, this ‘groundedness’ might involve shifting the learning experience so that youth see themselves as part of a continuum of ages within the community. This would make visible the fact that the youth make up the community, rather than existing separately from it and offering a service to it.

3.     The Tragedy of the Commons
This is a concept drawn from economics that seemingly exists in many communities. As an educator, the tragedy of the commons is regularly discussed with reverence, specifically in regards to caring for the school grounds and infrastructure that we share. We often seek to solve the problems such as hoodies or dishes being left around; graffiti on desks or walls; or litter. Solutions are many-fold: letting students know that they are privileged to be a part of such a well-resourced community; teachers role-modelling a sense of respect for the school infrastructure; extrinsic rewards and punishments; asking students to be of service to their community (sometimes as a consequence); and so on. However, the solution that comes closest to true for me is when we instill in students the idea that they are not just a part of the school – that they are indeed the school community. The school is them and they are the school. Much like environmentalists often argue that by understanding ourselves as part of the ecosystem, we naturally become more caring for our planet. From an economist’s perspective, we are always acting in self-interest by caring for it (and ourselves). It is only once we lose touch of this true sense of community that the ‘commons’ suffers.

This is not a new way of thinking, and I am not sure if all of my examples speak to everyone as clearly as they speak to me. Nevertheless, I plan to challenge myself to shift my language away from ideas of servitude, and more toward ways of being. The natural world does not merely surround us – we are a part of it. In the same way, we are also not separate from the social world, but part of the whole. I wonder if anyone else is up for this challenge? It would be wonderful to hear your reflections on this.

Communities on the move

Photo: Carol Mitchell

Laments about being stuck on cars, trains, buses and airplanes are commonplace. It’s easy to complain about being stuck in transit. This post, I want to turn this around and instead look at how commuter experiences can be transformative opportunities for community building.

My childhood experience with this has perhaps been shared by others. As a child, I would sometimes go away to girl guide camp. I would be dropped off in a parking lot on the outskirts of Toronto and, along with a sea of girls dressed in blue, board a bus to ride for about two hours – a lifetime in kid world. I knew no one when I got on the bus. By the time we arrived at our destination, I was best friends with the girl beside me and had laid the groundwork for my broader social network at camp.

School buses and school bus stops are also a place where children and parents come together, interact and learn. Psychologists have been studying ways to make the school bus experience a positive one. After all, much has now been written about the importance of unstructured, social learning time for kids. One option might be to focus on shorter ride times with consolidated age groups. The Head Start program in the United Sates has begun a somewhat formal program to connect in-school learning experiences with learning on school buses.

As children grow into their young adult years, the opportunity for transformation in transit grows. In October, I blogged about the work of Mujahid Sarsur and the Bard Palestinian Youth Initiative. A participant of this program reflects on his experience travelling on a bus after visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum with the program:
“The discussion was so evocative that it did not end when we exited the museum.  Each participant, Palestinian or foreign, was bursting with something to say.  On the bus ride to the Mediterranean, we told the driver to cut the music so that we could better manage our meanings across the linguistic divide.  I personally have never spoken clearer Arabic than I did in the half hour separating Jerusalem from the sea.  For some reason, passion pulls the levers of comprehension and communication in a way that nothing else can. In retrospect, that bus ride back-and-forth may have been the most significant segment of our entire trip.”

A recent blog post about commuters to Chicago’s financial district makes the connection between commuting and community-building among adults. The post discusses the connections that are made ‘10 seconds at a time’: how the bus driver – that the blogger has affectionately named ‘Spiffy’ – has ten-second conversations each day with each commuter. Other commuters listen into these conversations. As this is a regular ride for most of the customers, Spiffy’s short conversations form the basis of a social network – one that allows people to gain insight into one another’s lives outside of their workplace. The blogger even recounts a story of a ‘get well soon’ card that was passed around the bus for a regular rider who had been hospitalized.

Another way that adults are building community while commuting is through the creation of book clubs. Commuter book clubs have been in existence for quite some time, and seem to be increasing in popularity. The Kitsapun Library has launched a book club on the ferry between Bainbridge Island and Seattle.  First Capital Connect in the UK also operates a book club that encourages commuters to read and discuss the same books – this also acts as a means for publishers to promote new materials. Also in the UK, Book Swaps for London have set up areas in train and tube stations that allow passengers to drop off and pick up books for free. On a smaller scale, the Rolling Readers are four women from Georgia who use their commute to read aloud and discuss the content of books.

Anyone out there have stories about connecting with others while in transit?

Beyond skate parks – transforming communities with teens

There is no doubt that the teen years are ones of dramatic change for young people and those around them. It is perhaps for this reason that teens are often seen as awkward accessories to our communities – ones who must to be occupied with skateparks or part-time jobs until they mature. However, the innovative and energetic nature of teenagers is often exactly what needs to be at the centre of our communities.

Photo by Peter Pearson

Columnist Jack Knox recently spoke to this point in an article about Earth Day. He challenged his own assumptions about ‘misspent youth’ by citing the students at Reynolds Secondary School who grow Swiss Chard (who would have thought that teens eat chard!?); run an organic salad bar; and raised $84,000 for cancer. This is just one local example, but the positive potential of teenage energy is more broadly recognized as well. Brain science supports the notion that teens are innovative and creative people with the potential to bring fresh perspectives to building ideal communities. David Suzuki explores this in a fascinating discussion on Surviving the Teenage Brain.

So how do we harness this brainpower of teens in our communities? Here are five ways to get started…

1. Be welcoming and positive
See teens as key players in your neighourhood, community and school. Talk to them about their ideas and ambitions, keeping an open mind. If they do something that seems risky or a little incomprehensible, seek to understand their thinking. As adults, our knowledge of risk and critical thought can limit our thinking. Teenagers allow us to see things in new, entrepreneurial ways.

 2. Include teens in community planning
Community planning processes can benefit immensely from the fresh perspectives and energy that teens have to offer. In turn, this kind of hands-on experience is ideal for the way that teens learn – in social, experiential settings where risk taking is a must. Teens may gain lifelong leadership and planning skills. Acting as partners, teens can be put in the position of using their skills to teach adults, who may be limited by their more cautious thinking. Two resources to check out are the Youthscape Guidebook and Co-Management: A Practical Guide.

3. Connect schools to communities
Connecting schools to communities allows teens the opportunity to step beyond the confined walls of the classroom. It often allows more room to put teens in positions of leadership and to learn in a hands-on manner. It provides experience that may help them find employment. In return, it allows older community members to be inclusive and develop a deeper understanding of this age group of citizens. Explore ways that this can happen through my previous post Breaking out of the Ivory Tower: Schools and Universities building bridges to local communities.

4. Support youth friendly transit
In many settings, youth are limited by their lack of mobility. Concerns over lack of public transit routes, infrequency of public transit, cost or safety concerns may leave them isolated and unable to fully engage in our communities. The website contains the results of a research project that created a set of guidelines for land use planners to help overcome some of these obstacles.

5. Support recreation
Despite the title of this post, skate parks are great. Other contexts for connecting teens with their community include libraries, swimming pools, drop-in centres, community centres, climbing walls, music and dance venues, art studios, sports fields, community gardens, and parks. These spaces provide physical exercise, opportunities for safe risk-taking, and contexts for social learning. The Ontario Partnership for Active and Engaged Youth has recognized the importance of this by introducing the Playworks Youth Friendly Community Awards.

How is your community putting teens in a central role?

Do social services support or erode society?

Photo: David Sky (creative commons)

As someone involved in both community service organizations and my local neighbourhood, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the relationship between these two realms. I recently came across John McKnight’s discussion of the tensions between community services and capacity building. He states that “[paid] service is not care” as it can only be a “freely given commitment from the heart of one person to another”. McKnight argues that within the context of the United States, the extent to which neighbours care for one another has diminished and that citizens have become increasingly reliant on services. This, in turn, has eroded our overall social and personal well-being. These ideas are very similar to those of Robert Putnam.

This point of view left me feeling uncomfortable. While on one hand, I agree with these notions and see capacity building among citizens and neighbours as vital, I can also see a role for community services. In particular, there are three themes related to my personal context that keep coming to mind. As you will see, the comments in this post end more with questions than answers. I invite you to contribute comments that provide examples of positive experiences with community organizations, that generate discussion, or that help us answer some of the questions I pose below.

First, I appreciate the role that community organizations play in my society. There are times when the needs of my neighbours or myself are beyond what I can meet. If community centres, public health care, schools, libraries, social organizations, and so on were to disappear tomorrow, my community would be worse off. The key question is how to best integrate these organizations into the community and vice versa. How can we imagine these organizations not as service providers, but as supporters of community? How can community members feel ownership over these organizations? How do we avoid building this as a ‘service industry’ and instead find ways to decrease competition for turf and funding between community organizations, while still providing financial support to those who work in these contexts?

Second, I work in a profession that I believe is inherently tied to community and to caring. I see this as complementary and connected to what I do as a community volunteer, as a family member, and in my neighbourhood. As an educator, I provide a service. More importantly, this is part of the role I play in society – one that indeed ‘comes from the heart’. Schools have a long and complicated relationship with communities. However, I see their future as one being increasingly tied to community, not in conflict with it. I wonder how we can further enhance this role? I wonder how communities can feel increasing ownership over schools?

Tied to my role as an educator is striking the balance between being engaged in paid employment and taking the time to support my neighbours and family in other ways. I am a parent, living with another parent and two children. Both my partner and myself are engaged in paid employment outside of the home. There are times when we have each backed off from our employment so that we can be more present with our children and serve different roles within our community and neighbourhood. This approach has been incredibly rewarding. However, at times, it has also been frustrating. We both enjoy our employment immensely, and both of us are engaged in work that we see as being vital to community building. Our places of employment have also contributed to a greater sense of community both for our children and ourselves. I have also been aware that backing off from paid employment has been a luxury – one that not everyone can afford. When working outside of the home, we have also relied on services, including childcare. Our relationship to these services was not one of negative value for our community. In fact, our involvement in community organizations and services has been what has often facilitated a deeper connection to other people in our community.

I would like to suggest that the relationship between neighbourhood-based caring and community-based services not be a dichotomous one. Instead, I would like to continue to focus on a discussion of how we can best strike balance. How can we reframe ‘services’ as part of our broader social organization so that they are deeply integrated into our communities? How can we facilitate services that are mutually supported by and support the building of community? How can these exist in partnership with capacity building in our neighbourhood communities?

The power of language

Photo: JoBrad

Many of us live in multilingual communities. This is wonderful in that it provides richness to our neighbourhoods and schools. It can also pose a challenge, as language can act as a barrier to sharing ideas, skills and thoughts with those around us.

In October, I posted about reaching across national borders to build community. I now turn to ways that we can reach across language borders to build community in our neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces. Learning another language is not only a powerful way to help build community, but it also contributes to our personal health. For adults, brain researchers have noted that multilingualism can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. For children, studies have shown that learning a second (or third) language provides them with more flexibility in thinking and problem solving, a greater sensitivity to language, and a better ear for listening in general. For all ages, learning another language can be a powerful way to gain insight into another way of life, culture or perspective.

Here are six different approaches to building community through multilingualism:

1. Take a language course, download a language app or check out a language program from your local library. Many cities host language lessons in cultural centres, community centres, libraries, colleges or schools. A few communities have reached out to provide free lessons to their neighbours. In my home city, the Victoria Native Friendship Centre is always open to those who wish to find out more about Aboriginal language and heritage;  the Turkish-Canadian friendship society offers free language lessons to beginners; VIRCS (Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society) and ICA (InterCultural Association) both offer free English lessons to newcomers. The Canadian government also offers free 5-week French immersion programs to tertiary students and teachers. Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa is an adult Mohawk immersion program that takes place on the Six Nations Grand River Territory in Ontario, Canada. They have published some great ‘before’ and ‘after’ student videos here.

2. The Noun Project is attempting to create a visual dictionary that allows us to share basic information regardless of languages. Anyone can submit an image and the images can be used freely. You can see a written ‘translation’ in one of 25 languages by scrolling over it. Feedback is accepted by those leading the project and images are tweaked or removed if they do not symbolically make sense to users. The images are useful not just for reaching across language ‘borders’ but also by providing information to those who are illiterate.

3. How about starting with a ‘hello’? For a less intensive experience than committing to a course of study, try logging onto a website that teaches you how to greet someone in a language other than your own. You can hear how to say ‘welcome’ in many languages here and how to say ‘hello’ here. Jennifer Runner hosts a page that features greetings in over 2200 languages. Sue Unstead’s Say Hello was one of the best books I purchased for my own kids. There are buttons they can push to hear the word ‘hello’ in ten different languages.

3. Support immersion programs. I am lucky to live in a place where French immersion is an option within almost any school district in the country. In larger cities, programs such as Mandarin immersion also exist. Educational and language researchers have often noted that children benefit not only linguistically, but also in terms of developing their ability to solve problems, see multiple perspectives on an issue and demonstrate flexibility in their thinking. All of this is great training for becoming active community builders!

5. Teach and learn language through  Frontier College. It runs English-language and French-language literacy programs in ‘unconventional classrooms’: places like community centers, shelters, farms and prisons. Volunteers are needed across Canada, and Frontier College provides training and support to enable you to work with children, youth and adults. The labourer-teacher program allows you to work alongside labourers on farms, while teaching English in the evenings – a way to exchange experiences and skills. You can learn more about them here.

6. Ask. Simply ask your neighbour. While it may seem awkward to initially try and communicate with someone who does not speak the same language as you – just go for it! With a little creativity, you will likely be exchanging ideas and information – or at least morning greetings – before you know it.

Anyone out there have a language story or resource to share?

Breathing Life In by Stepping Away

photo: Bernard Bradley

Sometimes the best way to enhance our communities is to step away from them. Much like the modeling exercises described in my last post, this can provide a means through which we can refresh our thoughts, gain perspective and return with renewed vision and purpose.

The business world has long recognized the idea of increasing productivity and creativity by stepping away from what one is doing. Ryan Jacques at thinkpost reflects on this idea by emphasizing the need to create change in our daily and weekly routines. Even little alterations to our day can make us more innovative and ready to deal with bigger changes. Similarly, there has been an explosion of recent stories describing companies that are exploring ideas such as ‘nap pods’ and meditation rooms in their workplaces. Many companies have discovered that these are effective ways for employees to step away and recharge themselves throughout the day. Along the same lines, Stefan Sagmeister speaks to the power of time off on Ted Talks – he closes his design studio for 1 year out of every 7.

Many of these ideas can carry over from the business world into those of place-based communities, schools or our personal lives. I have found a number of ways to shake up my regular routine, allowing me to be more creative and energized.

1. Conferences and institutes
One of my favorite ways to ‘get away’ is by connecting with people and colleagues at institutes and conferences. These experiences are refreshing in multiple ways. Not only do I get to attend inspirational workshops, but I am also reminded that the webs of creativity in our world are large. Everyone I connect with usually has a story to tell, a life path that is interesting or an inspiring nugget of information to share. Last week, I attended a conference where a colleague I had not previously met, passionately shared what she had learned from her morning workshop over lunch. This kind of sharing and connecting is both exciting and motivating. In my interview with him, Peter Block also reflected on the value of conferences and institutes: “Conferences and educational intermissions are places for reflection. Place where thought is valued. Time slows down to a natural speed. Priceless, regardless of content or keynote speakers. Living in another community is also priceless. It opens us to the stranger, which we need to wake up again. It is the antidote to the dulling and life consuming effects of like-mindedness.”

2. Volunteering
I make sure that I am always involved with a committee, board of directors or other form of volunteer work in my community. I select something for which I have skills, but that is not already a part of my work or family life – allowing me to stretch out of my regular ‘comfort zone.’ Often these commitments last 1 to 5 years, meaning that I am able to pass the torch to another community member so that we can all meet new people and take part in new experiences.

3. Meditation, Yoga  & Exercise
I am fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the world that readily lends itself to a walk in the woods, or meditation on the beach. When pressed for time, even just 10 minutes of midday stretching does wonders for recharging my body and brain. There is a great deal of research on this topic. The Mayo Clinic provides a good summary of some of the key benefits of integrating yoga and meditation into your daily routine. These include gaining a new perspective, an increased ability to manage stress, an increased self-awareness, an improved focus on the present and reduced negative emotions.

How do you get away?

Modelling community

Photo: Laura Fulton

Many of us begin planning and building communities from a very young age. The configuration and placement of blocks, train tracks or makeshift forts in the forest represent our early thoughts about built environment, what belongs in a community, and what is important to us as individuals. This is an invaluable process, both as children learning about the world around us, and as adults exploring the nature of community. Here are a few examples of how ‘play cities’ can be useful learning experiences, for people of all ages.

Photo: Laura Fulton

At École John Stubbs Memorial School, grade two teacher Denise Drouin recognizes the importance of this activity. As part of the social studies curriculum, her students have been busily building their own community out of recycled cardboard. The students needed to work together to decide what was important to include in their community, their roles as builders, and how it would all fit together. The end product is quite impressive.

Photo: Laura Fulton

For middle school students, the University of Washington runs a summer camp for students called “Community Architecture: Solving Social and Environmental Issues Through Design.”This takes cardboard city making to the next level – pushing young people to think about both the human and environmental aspects of community building.

Kids aren’t the only ones who can engage in building model communities. By taking a step back from the real world, we can consider the possibilities and challenges of communities in a fun, abstract way. This may inspire us to then enact what we want to see in our communities in real life. The consultancy, ‘Foam’, understands the relevance of adults working together to build miniature communities – they included it as part of their professional development method to encourage leaders to “think with their hands” in a collaborative way – which ultimately leads to better business practice.  This has been so popular that thee toy company LEGO has now taken over and rebranded this program the “LEGO Serious Play” method of team building in work contexts.

Examples of adults learning through toy cities can be found around the world. The Home Sweet Home exhibit that took place this past spring in Vancouver is

Photo: Home Sweet Home Exhibit, by Helen at

a larger scale version of what takes place in Denise Drouin’s grade two class. Cardboardia, a popular event in Moscow and Berlin also gives adults an opportunity to play with the idea of community – hopefully taking lessons learned from the experience back to their real lives.

At any age, the idea of taking a step away from reality and refocusing on working together to build a ‘play’ community can hold tremendous value. It allows anyone to play the part of mayor, urban planner, or active community member. Principals, teachers and students can also come together to  re-imagining their school communities in this hands-on way. The process can refine our ability to work together as a team, while encouraging us to think creatively about what our ideal communities should include and how we can get there. Although I’ve listed a few examples here, I’m interested to find more! Please leave a comment or contact me.

Wild in the city

Many of us are aware of the need to create open spaces for gathering or playing in cities, or on school grounds. My kids love playgrounds, and I love lying on a patch of open green grass. However, neither monkey bars nor picnic blankets on a groomed field match the experience one can have in a wild, diverse forest. In addition to the importance of biodiversity provided by wild ecosystems, researchers are increasingly pointing our attention toward the importance for both adults and children to connect with nature every day, for the sake of their mental and physical health.

Photo: Laura Fulton

One of the best known proponents of this view is Richard Louv, a journalist who made quite an impact with his book, Last Child in the Woods in 2008.  Louv suggested that children can suffer from “nature deficit disorder” and that direct exposure to nature is essential for the physical and emotional health of children and adults. If you are interested in reading beyond Louv on this subject, there’s a wealth of scholarly and more general literature available. The Children and Nature Network provides links to a wealth of recent research on this topic. The writings of David Orr may also be of interest, and the Canadian Journal of Environmental Education is also an excellent resource for further information.

Despite the increasing recognition of the importance of wild spaces to human health, most city parks and school playgrounds I see are dominated by treeless playing fields and government approved playground equipment. This, to me, presents an excellent opportunity for community members – and particularly schools – to take action and get involved.

Here are three ways that people are taking the lead in ensuring that we maintain our connection with the natural environment in urban settings.

  1. Cities and forests
    A good example of a project focused on urban forests is the Cities for Forests led by the World Wildlife Fund (India). The project seeks to raise public awareness about the intrinsic link between forests and human well-being, especially amongst the youth of India. At a more municipal level, the City of Toronto runs an ongoing program of public education around the value of urban forests.  Similarly, the Habitat Acquisition Trust (HAT) in the City of Victoria has worked with the municipality to map urban forests, and inform the public about their value.
  2. Integrating the outdoors into the school day
    HAT has also engaged in a program to create outdoor, nature-based classrooms called Green Spots.  This project represents an increasing trend in public and private educational institutions to encourage learning in outdoor environments. Often, schools will integrate nature based learning as one component of the larger curriculum. For example, students in the public Vancouver School Board have the option of applying to the TREK Program. During this year-long program, students spend 5 months “on-TREK” where they are involved in a combination of outdoor activities, field studies, and classroom-based academics, and 5 months “off-TREK” where they will complete an intensified academic curriculum.   There a number of similar programs in the United States as well, including Tahoma High’s Outdoor Academy and an Outdoor Academy in North Carolina.
  3. Making the outdoors the school day
    The previous examples focus largely on integrating natural spaces with existing school frameworks, and encouraging students to spend only part of their day – or part of their year – outdoors. In contrast, there is another movement to encourage children to spend the majority of their educational time outdoors. In essence, this approach places the entire classroom in the wild: the forest is not out of bounds, but is instead where the heart of daily learning and living takes place. “Nature Kindergarten” and “Forest Preschools” are based on this philosophy. While established in Europe, this educational model is steadily gaining ground in North America. For more information, you should check out the newly launched Nature Kindergarten started by Sooke School District on Vancouver Island.  Another example from British Columbia is the Maple Ridge Environmental School Project, where kindergarten to grade 7 students spend their entire day learning in a local park . Finally, a great general resource is the Forest Schools website from the UK .

As always, this is just the tip of iceberg! Please share more examples of cities and schools putting wild spaces first.

Libraries leading community

Photo: San Jose Public Library

I am very lucky to live in place that is home to a large number of excellent public libraries. Going to the library is a regular family outing in my household. It is a place to get out of the rain, to bump into friends, to gather a new selection of books and to attend the wide array of free programs on offer.  I am very aware of how fortunate we are to have such a wonderful resource not far from our front door! It is for this reason that I am writing this post in praise of the role that libraries play in building community.

Here are six inspiring examples of libraries pushing their boundaries, complementing their traditional roles and being creative in community building:

1. Integrating social services
The Alachua Library located in Florida was created as a partnership that has allowed them to become much more than a place that just lends books. They now also host a community closet, which distributes clothing and food, and act as a home to social services such as assistance with rent subsidies, substance abuse and seniors socials. The Alachua Library received an award for this work from the Institute of Museum and Library Services in 2011.

2. School-library partnerships
The Howard County Library System has created a school-library partnership that they call “A+ Partners in Education”. This arrangement means that every school is assigned an associated branch and liaison person within that branch, every student receives a library card upon registering at school, and librarians provide programming within schools. All very simple ideas, but effective! I can remember running a school field trip to the library when teaching in a grade 5/6 classroom located a block away from the library. Over half of the students in that class did not have a library card before that field trip.

Some communities have experimented with combining public and school libraries into the same facility. There are pros and cons to such a model, as described by the Wisconsin department of public instruction in their useful guide on this topic. In the province of Alberta, 20% of public libraries are housed in schools, and the provincial government has written a useful report on their experiences with this approach.

For those very interested in this topic, Natalie Reif Ziarnik has just released a book examining the relationship between schools and libraries.

3. Hackerspace
The Allen County Public Library is re-imagining itself as a place where community members share much more than books. They have installed  a ‘hackerspace’ or ‘Maker Station’ in their parking lot. The hackerspace is a place where community members can share skills and use machines such as computer controlled power tools and 3-D printers, which can create a plastic object from a computer file! The library director envisions the “Maker Station” as a place where peer to peer learning can occur and where the library can move beyond the “book business” to the “learning business and the exploration business and the expand-your-mind business.” This library has caught the attention of folks such as Make magazine, NPR, and Mind/Shift.

4. Express Library
The Greater Victoria Public Library system – which I’m proud to call my home base – has experimented with the idea of an ‘express library’ attached to a coffee shop, which is located in a developing suburban core. The small library branch only carries recently released books and videos, all displayed in a very browser-friendly manner. Users have access to computers and there is a corner in which kids can settle down and read. After checking out books, one can lounge in the chairs provided, move to the café next door or head out to a nearby park – all of which we regularly do with our family. While this kind of library does not replace a traditional library, it certainly provides a wonderful compliment to an already vibrant system.

5. Human Library
Perhaps it is my own experience living and working in an international school that emphasizes the need to live together to understand one another, that keeps bringing me back to the human library. This is a wonderful way to build community and enhance peer to peer learning in our societies. This concept is growing fast. If one has not yet been organized in your local library, here is a description of how you can get one going.

6. Mobile libraries
There are many examples of great mobile libraries. In Thailand, the Minister of Education has funded boat libraries. The Columbus Metropolitian Library in Ohio has moved the library out of the constraints of its walls and into its community. The staff at this library travel to ‘at risk’ communities to share literacy-building skills aimed at children. In addition to workshops, they also offer mobile book checkout and library card sign-ups. For an entertaining read about mobile libraries, pick up the children’s book My Librarian is a Camel. If you’re looking to start your own mobile library, check out – a site where Australian librarians  share ideas and experiences about running mobile libraries.

Of course, these are just a few of the ways in which libraries help build community around them. For those who are keen to think more deeply about the role that libraries play in building community, check out PPS’s Libraries as Porches, or the Community-Led Libraries Toolkit, the result of an innovative project run by the Greater Vancouver Public Library. What about your library? Do you have an example to share?

My crush on wordle

Okay, I know that Wordle is older than flash mobs but for me, it is as fresh as ever.

My recent infatuation with Wordle is linked to my work in developing programs, curriculum, pedagogical principles, mission statements and so on. With all of this work, the way we communicate content is incredibly important.  Perhaps the most satisfying aspects of developing  these types of documents is that they are usually created with high levels of collaboration and consultation.

However, one of the things that is tricky about collaboration  is that participants often tire of the endless circulation of paperwork, or committee meetings dominated by re-reading past work. It is easy to spend a lot of time catching up on where the group last left off or getting lost in debates over the semantics of a particular sentence or word. Enter Wordle.

While the beautiful ‘word clouds’ created by Wordle need to be taken with a grain of salt, this website allows us to easily step back and take stock of what we have created. It helps to review where we are coming from and where we are going to – what does our current mission, program, curriculum, or other documents emphasize? Is that what we want to emphasize? Consider the following examples:

1. Mission

Perhaps one of the best known examples of a mission statement change was the switch the March of Dimes made in 1958 away from Polio towards birth defects in infants. While both the old and new mission statements are easy to read, the difference between them has particularly strong visual impact when presented in a  ‘word cloud’:

mssion prior to 1958

mission post 1958

2. Curriculum

The Province of Ontario’s Ministry of Education recently updated a number of the curriculum documents for the K-12 school system. One of the clearest shifts in content came with the introduction of the 2007 Grades 1-8 Science and Technology curriculum. These word clouds could help us clearly see a consistent emphasis on students, energy, water, technology, and investigations (‘investigate’). However, we can also see an increased emphasis on environment; a decreased use of the words ‘describe’ and ‘identify’; and an increased use of the the ideas of ‘understanding’ and ‘expectations’. There is also a notable disappearance of the word ‘grade’. If one were involved in the process of rewriting this document, it would be interesting to go back to the development team and ask if this shift in emphasis was, in fact, their intent. If not, perhaps it merits taking a second look at the language used in the curriculum guide.

Ontario Gr 1-8 Science & Technology, 1998

Ontario Gr 1-8 Science & Technology, 2007

3. Comparing programs

I have recently been working with the residential team at Lester B. Pearson United World College (where I am a faculty member) to think about how we approach our residential learning program. To help provide some colourful inspiration to the team, I compared a Wordle using the current description of our residential learning program with that of Michigan State University’s residential learning outcomes. This was a quick and easy way to think about the different aspects of our program that are being emphasized in our external documentation. It also quickly generated some visual stimulation using an institution that seems to share several similar learning goals with us.

Learning through Residential Life, Lester B. Pearson UWC

Residential Learning Outcomes, Michigan State University

Wordle does not allow us to completely evade the elbow grease required to write documents that truly express what is most important to us. It certainly does provide a wonderful form of stimulation and perhaps a light moment at the beginning of what could otherwise be a tedious start to a meeting.