Monday, 5 December 2016

Breaking Ice and Facing the Tough Stuff: Day 1 of Big Ideas Fest 2016

Challenged by my friend, Chris Stengel, I will be sharing my learning at Big Ideas Fest 2016 everyday on my (woefully neglected) blog. Chris has remarkably been blogging EVERY SINGLE DAY for 2522 days in a row. I think I can handle four days in a row.

Lesson 1.1: Do work you love. Create a safe space. Build a community for yourself and others.

One of my favourite phrases of all time is, "Be the person you needed when you were younger." Today, I met some remarkable people living that mantra.

I ate brunch in a Yelp-recommended restaurant, The Red Door. Reviews said that it was not only an incredible gustatory experience, but a unique atmosphere as well. I was worried that eating alone might make me uncomfortable. I was totally wrong. When I arrived, the owner, chef and server, Ahmed welcomed me to an empty restaurant. I was surprised. The reviews described it as incredibly busy, often with a long wait.

Soon, I learned Ahmed's philosophy. The restaurant is HIS place. He expresses himself through the space, the food and his service. It feels like a wonderfully quirky home. Because he sees his customers as guests in his home, he has rules. He told me he had turned everyone else away that morning, but had a good feeling about me. This may seem like a strange business model, but he's run a successful restaurant for seven years with this philosophy. While I enjoyed his incredible, playful food, he welcomed other guests and it was not quite a dinner party, not quite a meal at a restaurant. It was a totally unique experience, where we all quickly felt like longtime friends.

Ahmed has created a remarkable little world that I was thrilled to enter for a long, leisurely Sunday brunch, all alone in an unfamiliar city.


I also met one of the featured speakers for Big Ideas Fest, Lavender Courage, a Twitch streamer. She shares her passions for video games and crafters with her "Courage Warriors" in 25 hours of live streaming on Twitch every week. Like Ahmed, she has created a safe space for herself and a community has formed around her. Also like Ahmed, she has clearly stated rules to welcome people into her "home."

 Tomorrow, she'll be sharing more of her story with Big Ideas Fest on a panel sponsored by Hack Harassment and talk about inclusion and identity in her online work.


Lesson 1.2: Education conferences are SO MUCH BETTER with youth participating

I couldn't believe it last year when I attended a huge education conference as a writer that I was told that students were "not welcome" to attend.

Last month, at the last minute, I brought an 11-year old former student as co-presenter to an education conference. She was the only student I saw as a participant. There were some groups who came to entertain the adult participants.

From minute one of Big Ideas Fest, the many youth in attendance have participated side-by-side with the less youthful participants.

Why do we gather to talk about youth without them present? If we are really "doing everything for the kids," how come we don't create professional development that includes them?

I have had some great conversations already with high school students at Big Ideas Fest. One of the opening activities was led by young men in the Ever Forward Club.

In the evenings, there is a Youth Zone, a cozy room set up with snacks, for youth participants (of all ages, we've been promised).


Lesson 1.3: An icebreaker does not have to be all fun

The opening session for Big Ideas Fest had all of the participants standing and sitting around the perimeter of what I think is a small ballroom (or a hallway leading to a ballroom, I'm still not quite sure). Led by Ashanti Branch and his Ever Forward Club members, we experienced a remarkably emotional process exploring the masks we live in.

Somehow, within the first hour of locking eyes on a room full of strangers, people were authentically sharing their vulnerabilities and empathizing with one another. A sense of community like this takes months to build up in a classroom (as my former students will remember from our "Crying Circles"), and Ashanti has created a set of exercises that fast forwards this.

We experienced, with rawness, that everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Just by looking at someone and the "mask" they project to the world, you miss that is really going on.

I felt extremely grateful for the gift in my hand. Someone's mask and the truths hidden behind it.
We drew, wrote, had a "snowball fight," listened and shared, "You can't tell by looking at me, but..." The ice was shattered. There was laughter and movement, but the incredibly purposeful directions and thoughtful exercises were infinitely more powerful than any opening session or ice breaker I've ever participated in.

Ashanti has led more than 8000 people through this exercise. When he asked us at the beginning to understand that what we started with wouldn't make sense right away, but to trust that it would come together in the end, we did. He told us to trust that he wanted the best results. He got them.


Lesson 1.4: Students need our love.

"If you care more about the subject you are teaching than the subjects you are teaching, you are going to have a disconnect." - Ashanti Branch

"Students need to guide their own learning and be adored by adults." - Bill Ayers

Ashanti started teaching and watched smart kids fail. It is through creating a safe atmosphere and by being a teacher who loves them that he reaches them. He contradicted the conventional advice to teachers where we are told to leave our own problems, emotions, worries and anxieties in the glove box of our cars before entering school. Our students appreciate seeing that we are human and, in fact, it creates a safe space for them to be human, too.

Bill Ayers, education theorist, activist and author, spoke to us about how to move forward and how to help us move our students forward. He said that, "Education is about sorting people into winners and losers. None of you went into teaching thinking, 'I'm gonna sort those little bastards.'" Helping students become the people they never knew they could be is exponentially more important than judging them.

Just a lovely human man, that Bill Ayers.

Lesson 1.5: Don't shy away from the tough stuff.


I'm pleasantly surprised and relieved that people, participants and presenters alike, are not avoiding acknowledging what a dumpster fire 2016 has been. Instead of whining, they are identifying that there is a hard road ahead (read: Trump and his baskets), but that, particularly as educators, we are needed more than ever.

Bill encouraged us to, "Make it [our] business to talk to people [we] don't agree with." "Listen with the possibility of being changed. Speak with the possibility of being heard."

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