Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Bridge to Whitby

I like Tom Whitby. A lot.

He is honest, caring, passionate, and thoughtful.

I read his posts, see him at EdCamps, and value his opinion. He made it a point to get to know me at one of the first EdCamps I ever went to. Every time I see him, he asks me how I am and how my children are. I've even drank wine with him at a bar in Washington, D.C. (Ask him about throwing Jolly Ranchers at teachers).

If at the end of my education career people say to me, "I put your career in the same ballpark as Tom Whitby's career," then I did my job well.

However, in Tom's recent post about the parallel universes of the connected and disconnected, there's one concept I think he missed: the cliques that exist within both worlds. It's not as if we're inviting each other in to one another's world. Our worlds aren't colliding on their own, like George Constanza's famous phrase. Our worlds are insular from each other, and even insular to one another who inhabit said worlds.

What do I mean? Within the sit-n-git, one-shot, make and take professional development world, many educators don't talk to one another. They do not connect on a personal level to those they do not know. They sit with whomever they came with, maybe make lighthearted talk with someone else at the table, and leave. There's no follow-up. The end result is all of the people at the table grow at a slower rate comparative to what it could be if they engaged in authentic discussion about pedagogy and practice before, during, and after the conference. It's this lack of dialogue within the traditional disconnected world that slows their growth. But, is it so different compared to how connected educators behave at unconferences?

If you've been to enough unconferences, you start to see a pattern, very similar to those at conventional professional development conferences. Unconference veterans tend to be with only each other. They attend the same sessions, sit together at lunch, and hang out afterwards. How does that help the people who aren’t connected to those connected learners? It's too easy to say that newbies need to be bold: introduce themselves, strike up conversations, be friendly. Not everyone is wired that way. That's like saying children who are bullied should just stand up to the bully and tell him/her to stop. If you've ever been bullied, you know that doesn’t work. Asking people to step up when they’re new (or newer) to an unconference is asking them to move even further out of their comfort zone, putting no onus on veterans.

Now, I’m not making blanket statements. I’ve met some great educators I learn from daily from unconferences. They’ve been to my birthdays, held my kids, and won money in my monthly Texas hold ‘em game. But, not everyone has my experience. And, fences don't get cut down just because someone holds a saw. If we want to knock down the fence that separates the connected from the disconnected, and the cliques within both, we’re going to have to genuinely reflect about whether this applies to us or not. While we don’t have to tell people to be something they’re not, we all do have an opportunity to learn from each other if we take it. Our worlds and the worlds within them don't necessarily have to collide, but we can build a bridge between all of them that intersect so people can freely move between them as they’re comfortable.

We can even name it after the person who makes sure people who are at unconferences don’t feel uncomfortable.

Tom Whitby.