Nearly 2 years ago I attended the first ALF Summer at ALC Mosaic in Charlotte, NC. This event marks, in my opinion, the creation of the ALC Network. It was a point when the people and resources came together to support new and emerging ALCs. Now, as we enter our third year, I feel that we are on the precipice of powerful, sustainable growth.
In this post will present a vision for the superstructure of the ALC Network. How the Network, as a group of individuals, relates to the people and places that make up the network. I will cover where we are currently, what work has been done to formalize the structures and ideas that make up the ALC Network, and what is left to do to make my proposed vision a reality.
Unpacking some words
ALF: Agile Learning Facilitator, when used generally it means anyone who is facilitating at an ALC or within the ALC Network. Specifically it means a person who has been officially recognized by other ALFs as a member of the community. Put another way, anyone can facilitate in an Agile Learning environment, but ALFs are “entitled” facilitators.
Holding: Holding is explicit role within a group. A holder is a person whose responsibility it is to “hold” the group together. They are not in charge of the group, but rather in charge of making sure the group is maintained. A project manager by another name without the power dynamic.
Network Holder: This is an Agile Learning Facilitator who has shown up and been recognized as holding the ALC Network. One who supports the ALC Network and the people within it.
Coherence Holder: This term is a bit tricky, it will probably change, but it has two meanings. When used generally a coherence holder is someone holding a project, group, or idea. When used as a proper noun it means a ALF who has been recognized as holding a domain within the ALC Network. This could be an ALC or a working group or something not yet considered.
Vision Holder: In this context a vision holder is a person (or small group of people) who hold a vision for an ALC or learning community. In a young community the vision holder is the foundation that keeps everything together, they are the key to the success of any group (and eventually the source of its undoing, but that’s a story for another time).
Where we are now
As we enter our third year the ALC network has a number of achievements to be proud of. Some of these achievements come in the form of clarity around shared ideas and others are more material. Here is a non-exhaustive list:
Functioning website that allows the ALC Network, individuals, and ALCs to promote themselves as well as share ideas.
A solid brand.
Membership process which has brought over 10 new groups in the ALC Network.
Foundation for a strong network social media presence.
Emerging consensus around ALC Network membranes, or definitions about what is inside and outside of our organization.
Processes, practices, and protocols for dealing with interpersonal conflict (culture committee), collective decision making and organizational culture hacking (change up), and work responsibilities (ALC WORKS!).
Emerging network vision/mission.
Pilot training/presentation process for sharing the ALC idea and planting seeds for new ALCs.
Vision for Network Holders
Currently there is little clarity around what ALC membership in the Network entails and who is responsible for maintaining these relationships between the independent ALCs and the ALC Network. This has fallen to a small group of people who have the interest and time to dedicate to holding the ALC Network.
This small group of “unofficial” network holders has been managing relationships with new groups, creating the processes through which groups pass through membranes within the network and supporting existing groups. It’s been an amazing effort but has lacked a vision which in turn makes it difficult to act in strategic ways.
The core of my vision is quite simple. Network Holders explicitly hold specific ALCs, ALC Startups, and Vision Holders by supporting their integration into the ALC Network.
Network Holders (NH) are responsible for creating and maintaining relationships with Coherence Holders (CH) of ALCs, ALC Startups, or other domains within the network.
This pattern is already present throughout the ALC Network. Coherence Holders (such as the director of an ALC) hold space for Agile Learning Facilitators to facilitate (ALF) allowing ALFs to facilitate students/parents/resource people within that space. Network Holders hold CHs in the same way.
Let’s look at a real world example. ALC Oahu’s CH is @nina, she holds space for ALF @mandy who facilitates relationships between students (like @seamus) and resource people like Alex. Mandy helps Alex and Seamus work together by holding space for them within the larger ALC Oahu structure, which Nina in turn holds. I, as a Network Holder, facilitate the relationship between Nina (ALC Oahu) and the rest of the network by connecting her with fellow CHs and ALCs. This might look like help with website, sharing legal docs from established ALCs, or coming out and doing in-person support.
What this creates is a centralized body of Network Holders who work to maintain a decentralized network of ALCs. The Network Holders can create and quickly share protocol with their ALCs through personal relations. The aim of this configuration would be to leverage the best of both a centralized and decentralized network. With Network Holders supporting the connections between CH and ALCs they would limit the bottleneck of going through a centralized system. ALCs can support each other without requiring NH intervention. All while important information can quickly be shared to the entire network through the centralized NH infrastructure and their personal relationships between the ALCs in their care.
Another real world example of this comes in the form of picture sharing. Our social media always needs pictures of people thriving in ALCs. The Network Holders could come up with a strategy for collecting images (based on conversation with CH) then reach out to their associated ALCs with clear instructions for how to opt-in to add images to a community pool. Right now for something like this to happen our social media people (person) would have to shout out to all the ALCs at once and hope that people would be able to take the time to listen and act. In this scenario I already know where ALC Oahu keeps their photos and would be able to add them myself without having to bother Nina or Mandy at all.
It is important to note that Network Holders wouldn’t want to be a bottleneck or gatekeeper but foster direct peer to peer communication between people within the network.
Harbor Piloting or Guiding New ALCs Into the Network
When ships enter a new harbor often a “pilot” will be dispatched to assist the captain in navigating the waters. Network Holders would serve this role with new Startups, assisting them in connecting to resources and people within the ALC Network. Further, Network Holders would be available to help “Vision Holders”, or people who are interested in starting an ALC, move forward with their dream.
This is already happening to an extent with the recent trainings that @bear has been doing across the US. Under my proposed practice people who are identified as “Vision Holders” (VH) would have a Network Holder to help them create their own ALC.
I see a clear pathway to becoming an ALC that Network Holders will want to foster. The above graphic describes someone moving from having a vision for “something” to becoming a full ALC. Along that path there is support that the ALC Network can provide to assist them. Presentations, print-outs, trainings, membership benefits, and so on can be deployed to help people realize their vision, build a team, create a learning center, and join the ALC Network.
Limit Your WIP
Currently we are spreading our message and creating many vision holders, like throwing seeds into our garden. I feel that by making Network Holder’s relationship explicit with Vision Holders and limiting the number of explicit relationships to a manageable level, in the same way that ALCs keep a healthy ALF to student ratio, we can cultivate these seeds with more care and grow stronger ALCs.
Network Vision Holders
The above vision I’ve outlined leaves out a different kind of Network Holder. Those who work mainly in their own ALC but who hold the vision and ideals of the ALC Network. @nancy, @ryan, and @abby comes to mind here, they are constantly engaged in Network level discussions (even if it’s only listening) on top of their full time jobs running their respective ALCs. There is a great need for this kind of Network Holding that isn’t covered in my description above.
Having people who actually run and work in ALCs be part of the Network Holder inner membrane will be very important and should be maintained.
What we Need to Get There
We are very close to having a clear pathway to the vision I’ve outlined. To achieve this we need to finish a few projects that are still in process.
“To see where we are going we must know where we are.”
The Annual Report, a project started over ALF Weekend Spring 2016, aims to create a document that describes what the ALC Network has achieved over the past year. It should highlight what the team of volunteer unofficial Network Holders (and other ALFs) have been able to achieve over the past year. This document will serve as an exclamation that says what the ALC Network is capable of. This document will provide the incentive to invest in our awesome little experiment.
Currently very little content has been created. There is, however, a detailed outline available via this Trello Board which @rochelle put together. It contains information about writing an Annual Report as well as cards describing the requested content, which is outlined below.
You can support this project in the following ways:
Collect member stories, how has ALC upgraded existing learning centers or provided the foundation needed to start new ones.
Collect powerful stories, images, and testimony from ALCs
Write ups about the following programs
Membership model launch
ALF Summer 2015
Upgrades to the website
ALC Starter Kit + it’s impact
Other content (pictures, images, videos) that highlights the impact the ALC Network has had
I am currently coherence holder of the Annual Report so please contact me, firstname.lastname@example.org
“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there”
If Network Holders are going to act strategically they will need a clear vision to guide them. Network Holders will be able to weigh actions against a shared vision. This shared vision has been in development for over 5 months. I’m pushing forward a Network Vision which compiles the responses from a questionnaire delivered to the community.
Currently a super rough draft of the vision statement exists, which has been compiled from community feedback. Let me know if you would like to work on this, @sara is the coherence holder but also running an ALC, so contact me.
Over the past 2 years consensus has been forming around our Network’s structure. What @art introduced to us as a “boob diagram” for layers of engagement at ALF Weekend Fall 2014 has been guiding our work in developing the ALC Membranes. Currently the process and community ritual for entitling people who show up in our network is at a new level of functionality. Before we can have Network Holders we will need to agree on an explicit process for entitling them.
Initially it might make sense to simply declare that “I am a Network Holder” or “Holder” in front of our group. I feel that it will be better to have a clear process and actually practice the ritual around entitling people so that we can on board people as we grow.
Both these projects need a coherence holder to actually practice and test the peer review system and make the process of entitling people into ALFs, CH, and NH explicit. Then determine a way to record it. As it stands people implicitly hold these titles but we are missing the functional, technical means to perform and record anything explicitly.
The final piece to this vision will be the membership process. Currently the membership process (which I think needs a different name!) works quite well. It only needs more automation (working on it!) and to include a process for a Network Holder becoming an advocate for new members.
This process should be decided by the Network Holders once they (we) are an implicit group.
Putting it all together
This is my proposal for the Network focused work we should do at ALF Summer 2016. By recording our achievements in the Annual Report we can advocate for an investment in ourselves. When we complete and come to agreement on a shared vision we will be able to think and work strategically. Once our membrane process is agreed upon we will be able to entitle each other and maintain a clear path for introducing new people into our ranks. Finally with a few polishing tweaks to our membership process we can realize the explicit formulation of having Network Holders hold all members of the Network. With these elements combined we will have everything we need to consolidate consulting, info, and startups working groups into a single group of Network Holders who execute the Network Vision by supporting ALCs, Startups, and Vision Holders.
Emerging Strategy for ALF Summer
Write the “story” of Agile Learning Centers from the last year (to 18 months) in the form of an Annual Report.
Invest in some structural improvements to our online database of users, ALC and ALC Startup organizations.
Adjust the membership model ($10/student, $95/minimum)
Determine and describe NH’s specific strategy moving forward
Some (or all) NHs taking on a coaching/support role with a handful of ALCs and Startups
Define goals and desired outcomes (specific/concrete as much as possible)
Define any other known, essential roles that people would be taking on to accomplish these outcomes
Formalize Network Holders WG
Determine best options for funding
Create a Pitch Book, or any other materials necessary for appealing for funding
Last fall at ALF Weekend 2014 we participated in a game where we wrote out what we did, what we have “juice” for, what we want to be doing, and what action we are taking to get there. We wrote these down then went around the room and spoke them out to our peers, then everyone would suggest additions. It was a super powerful process an
It’s a year later and prompted by @abbyopost and @ryanshollenberger post I’ve decided to update my ALF Accountability information. If any ALFs out there want to do the same I’ll leave instructions at the bottom of this post.
The following is taken from the Mapping ALF Accountabilities Doc, updates are sub bulleted, additions are italic, while subtractions are strike through. Note: Some of these bullet points were added by me, others were added by my fellow ALFs, that should explain the change in tense.
Overall I see my role in this network to make it easy for people to accomplish what they want to do. Be that existing ALFs or people out in the world who want to create a better future for children. I feel that the more I define and document how we do things the easier it will be for people to engage with our network or create their own complementary networks.
It is through my work helping other people achieve their goals that I am fulfilled. Every time I see someone use a process or tool I’ve developed (or better, helped them develop) I am inspired to do more.
My time in this organization has been a great one, truly an upward spiral
Just like the last time we did this, if you see anything I’ve missed please comment below.
Write your own accountability post!
If you wish to participate please write a blog post with the tag:
Answer the following questions:
What I do: (for the network and in your local ALC community)
Juice: What gives you juice (what about the community or your work powers you up?)
Want: What do you want to do (in an ideal world)
Action: What actions are you taking or will you take to do this
You can see everyone’s post on the network feed site (this is a thing!) under the alfaccountability tag:
What follows is my history of learning, schooling, and education.
See Spot Run
In my early years, I was sent to a Montessori school. Grades were mixed; 1st through 3rd occupied the same classroom. I remember an exercise were we wrote every number from 1 to 1000 in a grid of boxes. My math skills were far beyond that of my public school peers. I was doing very long division by the time I entered 4th grade.
I remember sitting where I wanted and doing things I wanted to do. I describe this time of my life as a little anarchist paradise.
When I was in maybe 3rd grade I remember being called aside to work with one of the teacher assistants. At the little desk were a number of those “easy” books like see spot run. I was told that I had a reading problem, that I couldn’t read like the other children. This, of course, confused me. During our “free reading” time I was reading Goosebumps along with everyone else. I was surely reading those books…see spot run was clearly beneath me…but teacher knew best. I had a reading problem and they would help me.
Even with my reading problem I was sent to the 4th grade. Into a new room, across the hall, where the “big kids” were. And they were big. The 6th graders were practically adults. I had always been older than I was, so it was welcome to be able to share space with older kids. I recall much of my time belonging to me. I remember being gently scolded for spending too much of my time taking apart disposable cameras and shocking myself with the charge meant for the flash bulb.
Something changed in the summer after 4th grade. I had a “processing problem” and it had something to do with my terrible spelling test scores. Though I clearly recall making the 99th percentile in the state sanctioned tests we were forced to take, a few days where “normal” school leaked into our anarchist paradise. I would later learn that my parents were told to get me tested to determine what my processing problem was. Well, they couldn’t afford it, so it was off to public school.
From circles to the grid
I left my childhood home when I was 5. It was probably one of the most traumatic events of my life and it has set the tone for who I am today, a man of little attachment. When I was 10, I was taken from Montessori and dropped into 5th grade public school. Nothing made sense. There was a single room I was relegated to. The chairs, which had tables attached to them, were arranged in a grid all facing forward. A single teacher (I had always had a few…) stood in front of the class. “How could this be learning?” I asked my mom.
I was that smart ass who always questioned what we were doing. I was so far ahead of the rigid curriculum (only faltering in reading and spelling, but that was a processing problem…not my fault!). I would second guess the teacher and act like a total brat. Mr. Woody, my 5th grade teacher, was a first year teacher. The other teachers saddled him with every problem kid along with me, the transfer. My class of misfits. He only lasted one year…the other teachers broke him. Screw over those who are weaker than you. Lesson learned, thanks.
I sure did learn a bunch of curse words on the bus to school.
I’m sure they taught me something else, perhaps math or literature. I don’t really remember. I was reading at a 13th grade level, which was weird, seeing how I had a processing problem and couldn’t spell.
You know what I do remember? My computer. A Compaq. It came with a web camera which I discovered could take single frame stop-motion video. I spent hours making lego animations. God did I love legos.
I was a boy scout, literally. For some reason cub scouts never interested me, so I started out as the lowest rank when I entered scouts. To “rank up” one had to earn specific badges. I enjoyed the badges: making fire, small boat sailing, knot tying. I was soon up for 1st class. I had my first aid badge and swimming and orienteering. Then there was citizenship. I went to camp and signed up to complete my citizenship badge so I could obtain the next rank. Trouble was they wanted me to write a paper about what it meant to be a good citizen. Sounds like homework…I don’t even do homework for school! There was no way I was going to waste my time writing some dumb paper for boy scouts of all places. Scouts was for camping and playing with knives.
I didn’t do homework. School was a roller coster because of this choice. I would make good grades, pass the tests, and get sent to advanced classes. These classes would expect me to do homework! Not the normal homework either, not the stuff I could do on the bus or in home room, they wanted me to spend time at home doing this crap! Home time was when I played video games, not wrote stupid papers. I had a processing problem anyways…it was hard to spell all the words right.
Turns out not doing homework adversely affected my grades. Who knew! So then the roller coster would dip, and I’d find myself back in remedial classes. God these classes were so boring. The upside is that there was no hard homework and I could catch up on sleep or doodle in the margins of every piece of paper that crossed my desk. It was high school by now, and I had a room far away in the basement, which meant I could dedicate much more time to my computer and its video games.
After passing the remedial classes the roller coaster would send me back up to the advanced classes and I would repeat the same pattern of not doing that homework. It cramped my style. Of course my parents tried to discipline me, which was really annoying.
One year I took my report card, scanned it into the computer, and changed my grades using photoshop (a skill I had picked up because I wanted to edit the skins of my video game characters). That worked really well. My parents got to see “good” letters across from the names of subject areas; I got to continue playing video games without being bothered.
By 10th grade I was playing lots of Counter-Strike. This was a community created “MOD” (modification) of the popular Half-Life game. Some kid had made this MOD in his basement for fun and it was picked up by the company behind Half-Life (Valve) and made into a “real” video game. Modding really interested me, and as it turned out, all the tools one needed to modify the video games I loved were available for free to me. So I started building levels for my favorite video game.
I’m told important stuff was happening at school, but to me it just got in the way of me playing with my games, or in this case, the tools used to create my games. I got really involved with this and was even publishing tutorials about it.
All this practice with 3D modeling actually came in handy when I was “ready” to take geometry. School gave me the test appropriate formulas to determine the area of triangles and find the center of polygons. My life revolved around polygons. Every character and element in the virtual worlds where I spent most of my time were made up of triangles stitched together into monsters and terrorists and trees. I would manipulate the points where they met and create my own polygonal creatures. What power I had! The ability to pull from the ether and birth something!
Doodles in the margins
I was told I had to take notes in class. I never really truly understood why, something about studying them for tests, which sounded a lot like homework. Like many requirements of school I found a way around this task. If I doodled in the margins of my notes I could turn a wholly unproductive activity into a creative outlet. To the casual observer I was diligently taking notes when in reality I was creating.
Robots were my prime subject matter. A staple of video games and futuristic fantasy. I would create massive battle scenes with rich narratives that I would explore through the medium of drawing. Before I was taught to focus on the outcome of my art, I found quite a lot of joy in the process, building and fulfilling the story as I drew it. Looking back through the lens of my experience it’s clear that I derived a great deal of pleasure from these activities because I was in control. The story followed my narrative instead of a state mandated one.
The margins of my papers were where I found freedom from a public school system I had questioned from the very beginning of my internment. In this way drawing is closely related to video games. Unlike the media of my parents’ generation, video games granted me agency. The story moved only as far as I moved.
Violence was and still is a central theme of many video games. I, like many other kids, grew up playing out these violent fantasies. I remember an early flight simulator with blocky graphics that took place over California. While the aim of the game was to shoot down Soviet planes (the good violence), I would typically spend my time shooting missiles at the San Francisco skyline until all the blocky buildings were reduced to rubble, except the Transamerica Pyramid, which, to my frustration,would never succumb to my wrath no matter how many high explosives I launched at it.
This pattern of ultra violence was played out in many games. I would ignore the condoned violence of killing the “bad guys” and turn my weapons on the helpless NPC (Non-Player Characters). Even in “peaceful” games like Roller Coster Tycoon (where the objective was to build successful theme parks) I would find myself dropping random guests into water or building roller coasters that were in gross violation of state and federal safety ordinances.
I don’t look back on this sadistic activity with much horror or shame. In a strange way it provided a safe way to explore my relationship to a violent world. I was able to process the violent parts of society that were ever present. Of course I was taught to be this way, the games were programmed to allow for this. Society expected me, as a boy, to be violent. Even as a teen, in the wake of school shootings, when the adults began to rally against video game violence, I saw clearly the hypocrisy of these parents, so concerned with violent fantasy while seemingly ignoring their complacency within a society of violence.
My love of violence and robots merged into a love of war planes. Jet fighters were my speciality. I knew every single make and model. I researched it endlessly. I would spend hours reading about jet fighters then jump into Microsoft Paint and draw massive top down sky battles between my favorite planes, each drawn with great detail.
This passion lead me into other related areas of knowledge. I learned about the physics of flight by looking up animations in a CD-ROM version of Encyclopedia Britannica which came with my Compaq computer. The mechanics of jet engines was a natural topic for exploration. The history of these planes was also something I found myself learning quite a bit about. My father shared this fascination with me. I recall us reading about Skunkworks (a Lockheed alias during the Cold War) together. This was the team of people who developed my all time favorite plane, the SR-71. To this day the SR-71 is the fasted and highest flying plane…It was so awesome.
A funny side effect of this was that I learned quite a bit about the geo-political history around these planes. The SR-71 was a spy plane, but who were we spying on? Why? Russia, the Cold War, Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, proxy wars, communism, World War 2. I already know about WW II: I play Day of Defeat, another MOD turned “real” game from Valve Software.
I would try to find ways to sneak my passions into school work. It wasn’t easy, as most projects were tightly defined and it was often a stretch to get a super sonic jet into an English essay. Though it did exercise my creativity to try, even if sometimes my grades suffered.
Finding a community, finding a voice
Kids on my bus would make fun of me sometimes. I was a chubby teen who wore his grandma’s hand made clothing until the 10th grade, when I finally started wearing “cool” stuff with superfluous straps and buttons. I fought the bullies with a kind of ignorance…It didn’t make sense why they would say mean things and a confused reaction didn’t really “do it” for them, so it stopped.
I, of course, was pretty used to shit talking. I played Counter-Strike (CS) after all. An online shooter which introduced voice communications around the time my voice was just starting to crack, for which I was mercilessly made fun of. I learned to take it just as much as I learned to dish it out, once my voice stopped resembling that of a “little girl”.
Looking back, the CS “scene” was pretty toxic. It was full of machismo, racism, and an enormous amount of sexism. Though there were safe spaces if you knew where to look. Games would be played on dedicated servers; each server had its own community and standards. The independent ownership gave server operators, or admin, the power to create any kind of space they wanted. I would always gravitate toward safe spaces that banned trolls and racists, places that respected the few openly woman gamers, and valued casual play.
Recently I was speaking to a grey haired sociologist who had studied social activists and why they become activists. As a self-identified activist I inquired about the findings, and he said that in many cases it was interaction with a person who wasn’t from to same culture that sparked a life time of activism. I immediately thought about my time online. I spent many hours over many years within these communities where people of all ages, races, and backgrounds came together to kill each other’s online avatars over and over and over again. The game was actually secondary to these communities, and these virtual communities were welcomed refuge from a real world where I was segregated by age and largely unable to influence the culture around me.
Within the online sphere I was able to join “clans” of players, and by showing my responsibility I would be granted admin rights on servers so that I could protect and influence the culture of my server. Again video games granted me something I didn’t have and seemingly couldn’t have in the real world: agency.
Along with having agency, I would be listened to and judged on the content of my contributions rather than the number of times I rode the earth around the sun.
From the outside it would be easy to see me as a kid rotting away in my basement, failing school, and wasting my life playing worthless video games. From my perspective I was part of a community, learning about my passions in spite of school. Plus, I wasn’t running around with my contemporaries drinking and doing drugs.
In 9th grade I elected to take art. I drew, and people celebrated my drawings, so it seemed like the right thing to do. Unfortunately my art teacher was underwhelming and many of my classmates were put in art class because the school simply had to put them somewhere. I didn’t take art classes the next year.
By 11th grade I had a new art teacher who was inspiring and lit up my creativity. Even though she faced the same influx of involuntary students, she made it work. Art was one of the few classes I really enjoyed. By this time in my high school career I had become adept at creating a more pleasurable schedule for myself. My forged notes bought me time away from classes that bored me. I had become proficient at playing hooky and leaving school on my own terms. I had learned that a white kid who walked with intention and held a slip of paper (even if it was blank) could go anywhere. I figured out that one could just photocopy library passes and scribble on the teacher signature line to gain unlimited access to a quite place to read and hang out.
I was also learning quite a bit about computer networks. My friends and I gained administrative access to the local school network and installed video games on every computer on campus. Now we could jump onto any computer and join our fellow students in a few rounds of Half Life: Deathmatch!
After geometry I had basically checked out of all math classes. It may be true that I was required to attend math and was taught math, but I didn’t learn math anymore.
By the last semester of my 11th grade year I was leaving school everyday after lunch with my senior friends who had been given permission from the school to do “off site learning” stuff, which they had—of course—manipulated to basically be free time. I don’t remember how exactly I pulled it off, how the teachers and my parents never put it all together, how no one realized that I was illegally leaving my prison school every day. What I do know is that school was finally bearable.
The final nail, the next lie
What ended my faux high school experience was a trip to New York City over the summer leading into my Senior year. My art teacher had suggested that I attend Pratt’s summer program, a month in NYC where I would pretend to be a college student.
It ruined high school for me. For the first time I was nearly autonomous! The city and the campus dazzled me. I got to do art and was given responsibility to get to class on time and take care of myself. It made clear to me that I was ready to move on.
When I returned to “real” school I only lasted 5 days, most of which I skipped anyways. On Friday, me and some friends had left early to avoid an assembly where we were to be talked down to, preemptively scolded, or hyped up in a half-assed weird jingoistic way. My dad came home early, too, and caught us. We half-heartily made up some excuse why we were home and not at school.
Years before, in 9th grade, I had skipped a day of school only to chicken out and return half-way through the day. Me and four friends all walked back into school at the same time and tried to sign in. We were covered in sweat from the August in Atlanta heat and were fooling no one. The assistant principle and his minions split us and interrogated us until we ratted each other out. I was suspended for one day. My parents struggled to punish me…they had never been very good at the whole punitive justice thing and furthermore they knew—to some extent—my lack of enthusiasm for school.
So it was easy to convince them to let me drop out of high school. My argument was compelling, and I promised to take an online course to finish out the year. Which is to say, I did what I had been taught, I told the adults in my life what they wanted to hear so I could do what I wanted to do. So I pretended to work the online course, which was basically just homework all the time, and my parents really weren’t that into it either. So eventually I stopped.
My intention at this point was to go to art college. For this I needed a high school diploma and SAT score. Luckily I had taken the SAT and got a perfect middle-of-the-road score: 1100/1600. It turned out I could just take the GED, and if I passed I would get a high school diploma and could move on with my life.
I lazily studied—a skill I never have mastered—for the GED for a little while then took the test. Top percentile in all the subjects apart from math, which I did also passed. I remember finishing the test, the last in a long line of standardized tests, and thinking to myself that I could have probably passed this in the 9th grade and never had to deal with high school.
With nothing left to waste my time, I set to work on my art portfolio.
I remember the last time I raised my voice in anger: it was nearly 10 years ago. I was in a candle-lit apartment, the power was out, and we were living there because our house had burnt down (furthering my lack of attachment to things). We were talking about schools and money. My mom was trying to dissuade me from attending Pratt. It was an out-of-state private school which a hefty price tag, I wouldn’t get much financial aid, and we were a bit tight on money, with the house burning down and all.
“I don’t care what it costs, I have to go there,” I foolishly yelled.
Mom was right. I hadn’t realized it yet but my parents were right about a great many things. I, however, was an only child used to getting my way. To my credit, I did make a compromise and choose to go to Pratt’s sister—and far less expensive—school in Utica New York.
Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute
Out of the darkness of the Georgia public education system I emerged in this amazing place. We call it Munson, me and my 90 classmates (down from 1400 high schoolers). It was as if every weird art kid was collected and put in an arc, stranded in the middle of a post-industrial wasteland city. We had not much else to do than make art and go to class.
Munson was only a 2 year school, after that students were automatically accepted to the Pratt Brooklyn campus where I had visited for the month just a year prior.
I learned much in my time at Pratt. One of my first classes, sculpture, immediately thrust me into uncomfortable territory by tasking me with creating an installation piece in the student gallery building. How amazing to be challenged.
The “foundation” year introduced me to many expressions of art that I had not experienced. I did a lot of exploration outside of class and their still rigid requirements. I shot portrait photography of friends after hours and did many collaborative projects. Using my skills of institutional manipulation I was able to get graded on my terms, rather than that of the syllabus. At the end of my freshman year I embarked on one of the most ambitious projects of my life, corpse gold. A large scale Exquisite Corpse (collaborative drawing).
I did the video editing and composed the music for the whole thing, as well as participated in it. To have so much creative freedom was astounding. The time really felt like my own. I was pushed by the institution to create and supported in my exploration. School made sense again.
By my second year I was doing great and feeling great about my choices. I was more independent and coming into myself. All the sophomores lived in a large house together and our RAs (Residential Advisors) were our peers and let us get away with all but the most blatant violations. It was as close as I had ever come to being free and on my own.
Something that struck me in those first two years were the people who weren’t happy with what they were doing. About 10% of my peers were unmotivated or unsure of why they were even at art school. Some were there because they were told that this is what you do, go to college. Others were there because they were told “you will go to college.” Those whose choice was made for them or whose choice was unenthusiastically made had a bad time, dropped out, or worse…they stayed.
No sleep till Brooklyn
Graduation came, I passed, and would soon find that no one would ever know or care. This graduation simply meant that we were automatically accepted to Pratt in Brooklyn, or could transfer to some other school where most of our credits would be honored. Unlike most of my friends, I didn’t go home for summer vacation. Atlanta had nothing to offer me, so in 2007 I moved to Bedstuy into my first apartment.
I now had a lease and rent due. I had a roommate, and I had a revelation. While trying to scrub the dried cereal from a bowl left by my roommate I remembered my dad’s voice:
“Drew, when you eat cereal could you at least rinse it out so it’s not impossible to clean?”
There, standing in my bare apartment with soap up to my elbows the wall of teenage angst and parental distrust came crashing down. Everything they had told me was true. Broccoli was delicious. Getting mad only made a bad situation worse. My attitude was everything. Years of ignored advice came flowing in. They had even foretold this very moment, when I would realize that they were right and were actually pretty smart. What an ass I had been.
It was almost fall. School was about to start.
Living in Brooklyn cost money. Lucky for me I had some sellable skills. I could use photoshop and other such computer-aided design programs. Because I made digital art, I wanted to share it, so I learned to code HTML. Having learned about web design I wanted to dig deeper, so I read a book on code (PHP). This string of self-directed learning had armed me with the tools I needed to make a buck during the worst recession in living memory.
I quickly found a job paying $11 per hour. Suddenly I was an independent—adult like—human.
Then school started. Pratt has an absolutely beautiful campus: there is art everywhere and the feel is very collegiate. There was a big renovation to the campus while I was there, and the walkways were being replaced with bricks. It looked very nice, even if it got in the way a bit.
With the start of school came all my friends who moved into the dorms, a large tower north of Pratt. A mostly vacant lot butted up against the north edge of the dorm. It would soon be cordoned off by temporary construction walling. A new building was to be erected.
Something began to change in me. The classes were interesting, but I found them to be more theory-based than practical. This was surely because I now had a job to contrast them against. I paid Pratt for ideas, someone else paid me for production. I was learning more by doing than by being taught. This haunted me as I went from work to class to my apartment. My mom’s warning about the cost of Pratt and debt echoed in my head, and hadn’t I just realized she was right about everything?
Every day I visited my peers in their dorm. The construction walls had been painted white and a sign read “post no bills”. An empty white wall which nearly almost touched a building stacked with artists. The myth I had created about this place began to unravel. Why was this wall white? How could it be that hundreds of artist armed with every art supply they might ever want—from the school store, of course—walked past this blank canvas every day?
Behind the wall was being built a new administration building. The myth shattered. This was no place of refuge, this was a trap. Two massive capital expenses were underway: the superficial beautification of the campus and the erection of a massive administration building. I had been deceived. Pratt wasn’t interested in creating a space for artists or making art. It was a business, a machine like all the others to maximize profits. It presented an alluring exterior and a promise of a better life outside of high school where you could be a real artist! “This is the way to be a real artist,” sang its siren song. “Look here at our beautiful campus! Just step into our massive administration building and sign up. Years of debt are worth it!”.
The cramped and limited artist studios, the vapid classes with content that could have been read out of a book, and that white wall… the blank canvas begging to be painted. The administration who would support no such activity and the students too afraid to mark the wall for fear of losing their scholarship.
I had to leave this place.
You’ve already paid
Said my advisor. I might as well finish off the semester. The remainder of my time was quite pleasant. I did only what I wanted to do, attended only when it suited me and when I had something to gain. I would never again worry about what marks I got in a class.
The year came to an end. I had chosen to follow the commercial design path at Pratt rather than become a fine artist. For my final piece, however, I would dig into my artist’s heart and pull something shocking out for them to see.
For commercial design, rather than a final review we had “survey” where students would put all their best work on display for all to see and be graded on their display. It was worth 50% of your final grade, so fail survey, fail the semester.
I calculated how much the semester cost me, $21,300 and had a friend cut it into my body.
And that was that, I walked away. I am proud of my departure from both high school and college. Everyone around me said not to quit, don’t throw away your education. Somehow I knew without knowing that my education was mine and was not a product that was given to me but a process I had taken. I didn’t end up like some of my friends, tens of thousands in debt for something that they never wanted and were too afraid to quit.
Quitting, in real life
Soon after I left school I decided to leave my job. Going to work was a drag, the work was getting to be a bore, and I felt that I had the skills to make more money as my own boss. So once more, I left.
I was scared.
I started looking for gigs on craigslist and hustling for clients. It was here that I confronted one of the most heinous lies we tell children. My fear was of my clients. I was inexperienced and young. I was going to be seeking work from business owners, people who had their lives together, who were in control, who knew what they were doing.
This, of course, is the lie. No one really has a handle on what they are doing. Parents don’t know how to raise kids, business people don’t know how to run businesses, and workers don’t know how to work. I hope you understand my meaning… We are all pretty much making it up as we go along. This I did not know, and would not have know for a long time if it wasn’t for my intimate relationship with business people as a contractor.
“Not in front of the children” adults often say. Teachers put on the happy face, trying not to expose their frustration or confusion or anger. Business people hide behind a brand or a logo. People hide behind institutions. Casting a vail over our true selves, our fears and uncertainty. Act like you’ve got it together so the children aren’t afraid. So the children grow into adults and find themselves confused and uncertain surrounded by people who are—seemingly—anything but. What did they do to fail, where did they go wrong?
Perhaps this has been the biggest lesson of my life.
So this is my education, this is what I have been taught. These 15 years of school and what did I learn? How to appease the apparatus so that I could find my own education. How to see the unintelligible truth from the comfortable fiction.
I’m not sure yet, and finally after all these years I feel like I might just be growing comfortable with the uncertainty of it all.
Ultimately what I learned is that there are no tidy book ends to my education, for every day is a class, every experience a lesson, every one person a teacher and pupil.