Food & Community: Tilling Organic Learning

Today I get to feature another guest post from my folleague (know what that is? it’s a friend and colleague) Lorrie Ranck (Lorrie first guest-blogged with her post Bumps! a few months back).  Lorrie and I are colleagues because we’ve worked together a lot (formally and informally, and once we even started a grant-writing business together, but after our first grant we decided we didn’t want to be grant writers – that’s a long story and maybe another blog post that we can co-write, if we feel like dredging up that saga). We are also colleagues because we talk the same language: teaching, learning, assessment, social action, student engagement, etc.

Lorrie is a friend because we have a lot in common and enjoy similar things. For example, we are both July babies born in the same year, we both have little toddler boys, we both had bad hair in the 80’s, and we both tinker in the garden, though she is a better tinkerer than I, as you will see:

Summer of Food I

Sitting at the desk absent-mindedly gazing out across the backyard my eyes fall to the rather droopy elephant-ear leaves of the two zucchini plants I nestled into the ground in March. Just beyond those are three plump dark green reticular pumpkins with just a hint of orange slowing wrapping around the squash in an autumn embrace. To the left, strawberry plants (sans berries) still thrive with the suckers sneaking beyond their brick boundaries, tomatillos and jalapeno peppers are making a comeback thanks to some hot days here in Northern California, and the bright, crisp stalks of rainbow chard cheerfully wave at me even after several cuttings.

The sugar snaps never quite made it except for a couple handfuls ready-to-burst-pods quickly plucked by little hands and devoured. However, the green bean teepee might provide for another serving or two yet.

In so many respects, the garden is my sanctuary: respite from the daily grind of the job search, playground for my boy, resting place for my canines, and generally a place of contentment, discovery, and reflection. Not bad for a 12×20 ft plot! I’ve learned, perhaps this summer more than ever, how this little space helped me create community, time and again.

Gardens from past years often produced an abundance of produce beyond what my family could eat or store. While I would offer these to local family and friends, more often, I’d truck these into work every few days and hope there would be willing souls with whom to share. You could bet that if lemons, zucchini, oranges or whatever vegetable was wildly growing at home appeared on a conference room table at work, it was a remnant of my presence.  Sometimes I put out a basket with a sign “FREE ORGANIC PRODUCE” in the hallway. Faculty, staff and students would pause, perhaps consider how they might use whatever was available, and just to be sure, ask me if they could really take something with them. That is how I came to know many of colleagues and how some students first entered my office: those few seconds of connection, of sharing, sometimes extended into broader discussions. As much as I enjoyed sharing in the harvest, the conversations that grew into relationships that grew into community from these organic encounters, well, those were and are invaluable. I can’t help but think of how this relates to building communities of learners. I’m not of the view that knowledge is necessarily the produce we pass forward or, if you are a fan of Freire, the Banking Concept of Education. After all, information is there all the time, it is ripe and ready for the taking. Maybe, though, knowledge is a compilation or weaving together of both individual and community actions:  preparing the space/laying the groundwork, carefully and thoughtfully planting, building of and tending to relationships, sharing of the bounty, and reflecting on both process and product. This, over and over again, each time with new “seeds” or techniques, with others in and outside of our community is why learning is not static but quite organic.

I’m interested to hear stories of your experiences related to food, community and learning. How do those tie together for you? What challenges and/or opportunities have you witnessed, facilitated or engaged in?



Today, PrattleNog features a guest post from Lorrie Ranck. Lorrie and I have been colleagues and friends since 1996, when we both started teaching at a college in the Bay Area that provided each of us several “bumps” in our professional road.  Those bumps were likely responsible, in part, for the formation of our close and enduring friendship, so although some of them were pretty jarring, I am grateful that they occurred.

Today, Lorrie writes about other kinds of bumps. Enjoy!


Recently, at a job interview, I was asked a question about how I, as a senior member of the leadership team, would handle the challenges of the recent restructure of the academic division. Or, put more informally by a faculty member on the committee,  “you know, the bumps in the road.”  While I had anticipated this question, the “bumps in the road” comment triggered a recent experience and a way to illustrate my approach.

One of the things I really enjoy is bicycling with my son:  when he was younger and smaller, he has a nifty seat right up front and we could easily talk with one another during the ride.  The thing is, every bicycle outing is an adventure: new roads, different smells, all kinds of vehicles and people to observe. The world is a dynamic and ever-changing place and he seems to soak it all in. Inevitably, we hit a few bumps along the way.  Most times, unless it is significant, I hardly notice since I am looking out for traffic. What I love, though, is his reaction: he giggles, says “bump!” and sometimes, depending on the size, his eyes widen and he shouts, “yahoo!” Then we laugh together or talk about the different kinds of things that make for bumps: small rocks, potholes, speed bumps, etc.

Thanks to team_tiara for making this image on Wikimedia

To translate this into more practical use for educational leadership, I focused on three areas:

  1. Be attentive. The bumps may not be something you experience directly, they do, though, matter to the individual who brings it forward.
  2. Our response to these “bumps” says a lot about how we interact with the world; it reflects everything from our years of life experience to our disposition to our emotional and physical state at that particular moment and more. I would bet that the older and wiser we become the more critical we are of bumps, challenges and obstacles. We do not like them. In fact, we often do all we can avoid them. Are you the type of person who drives to the side of the speed bump? Perhaps, you are the one who slows down and takes it straight on. Maybe you are one of those folks who don’t even see the bump and just flattened your tire which presents a whole other set of challenges. Just about any way you look at it, over time, we become skeptics and reticent to change because we have seen or experienced it before. So, while every bump is not a  “yahoo!” what would it be like if our first reaction was less critical and more productive? Less avoidance and more slow and deliberate? More proactive, less reactionary?
  3. Follow up. How do we talk with one another about the challenges? In what ways do we give voice to being uncomfortable or our uncertainty about a bump in the road? Is there opportunity for preflection and reflection? What voices are at the table when talking about the bumps in the road?

Just a few questions to ponder during your next bike adventure or institutional change.

Installment #8: What My Toddler Has Taught Me About Adult Learning

In one of my favorite books on teaching — The Courage to Teach — Parker Palmer reminds us of the importance of learning in community:

The growth of any craft depends on shared practice and honest dialogue among the people who do it. We grow by private trial and error, to be sure — but our willingness to try, and fail, as individuals is severely limited when we are not supported by a community that encourages such risks. (1998, p. 144)

Shared practice.

Honest dialogue.

Encouraging risk.


Here is a picture of Mac’s toddler learning community.  (Mac is smack dab in the middle, of course. He clearly values surrounding himself with other learners. Or – he likes to be the center of attention…)

Mac's Learning Community

Mac is reminding me that it often is better to learn with others.  Though Mac is a natural risk taker, I think that having other kids to learn from and with is already key to his development. He and his co-learners may not have “honest dialogue” (yet) in the way that we do as adult learners, but they do have shared practice and they learn from watching each other and supporting each other. Just yesterday Mac’s friend Jack was helping Mac learn how to best hold the shovel so he could get the dirt from the flower bed to the bucket without it spilling. Now THAT’S helpful!

Here is another picture of all of them in active learning mode. Mac is the kid with the dark red shirt on, right side. The kids are learning Itsy Bitsy Spider — Out comes the sun! This particular skill has been transferable to drying his arm pits after bath time, getting arrested for throwing a toy across the room, and semaphore (should he ever need it).

Mac's Learning Community In Action


#1 – Learning Can Happen When We Challenge our Perspectives

#2 – Learning is Developmental

#3 – We Learn by Direct Experience

#4 – We Learn by Observing Others, Even If Others Are Not Experts

#5 – The Importance Of Books In Learning

#6 – Selecting the Right Learning Tools

#7 – Ask For Help

Plagiarism: A Pirate’s Perspective

The Didactic Pirate is a blog written by a friend of mine from grad school who teaches English at a state university in Southern California (I wouldn’t be so vague except I think he wants to keep his identity somewhat obscure). In this hilarious post, he shares a somewhat facetious perspective on how college instructors experience their students’ plagiarism:

The Six Steps of Plagiarism

I say “somewhat facetious” because the reality is, for many of us instructors, we get totally ticked when our students plagiarize. We take it personally because we abhor plagiarism, and many of us have worked hard to prevent it! So when a student does it, we’re ready to declare war.

My own philosophy about plagiarism is based on the “teachable moment.” I do what I can to teach students what it is and how to prevent it, and if they slip up, it’s a teachable moment and I re-teach how and why not to do it. This doesn’t mean there are not consequences; it does mean that I believe that my students can learn from their mistakes. (If there is anything that PLA has taught me, it’s that learning from our mistakes is often the best kind of learning we have available to us!)

[An aside as I see an opportunity for a teachable moment right here: The word “plagiarism” comes from the same root word that means “kidnapping.” When you borrow someone else’s words or ideas and you don’t attribute them to the author, you are, in effect, kidnapping them — taking them as your own. And that’s not ok because it is academically dishonest. Period.]

But if it happens again, I find myself like the teacher in the Bargaining stage that the Pirate describes: totally unwilling to discuss alternatives. I also usually get my feelings hurt. I have invested a lot of my time and effort in teaching why and how not to plagiarize, and my best teaching energies were dismissed and blown off. Why? Who knows – there are often myriad reasons, including deadline pressure, pressure for a good grade, continued ignorance, or, in many cases I believe, arrogance and disrespect for others.

I will say, though, that  there are LOTS of great resources for students who genuinely do respect others’ ideas and who want to make sure they don’t inadvertently plagiarize. Here are  a few:

As for the rest of you who do it on purpose and think you will get away with it, I’m with the Pirate: Walk the plank! Oh – and good luck with those sharks; they’re usually not as interested in teachable moments as I am. In fact, they’ll swallow you up whole.

Art Nails It

art1Hi Everyone. Meet Art.

Art – this is Everyone.

Art is a friend of mine from way back when (we were friends as teenagers — if you must know, we both played various forms of saxophone in the Optimist Youth Band in San Diego — we marched, we jazzed, and we big-banded it until the cows came home).

optimist-band1Optimist Youth Jazz Band, circa 1983 – I am smack dab in the middle on tenor and Art is to my left on bari with his music partially covering his face.

Art and I drifted apart 20+ years ago, but recently became friends again through Facebook.  Turns out we have a lot in common still, including the fact that we both work in higher education, we both write a blog with our students in mind, we both study and practice mentoring-based approaches to teaching and learning and the educational uses of social media, and we both hate eggplant. (Ok, only I hate eggplant, but it seems like he should too.)

Art is now Director of Discovery Advising at Virginia Commonwealth University. Recently he wrote a post in his blog Major Discoveries called “Time is a Man-Made Concept” and I wanted to share some of the key concepts he touched on because he totally nailed some important considerations for adult learners in higher ed (Art started his Bachelor’s degree at 25 and was in no way a “typical” 18-22 year old college undergrad). You can read his whole post to learn more about his situation, but here are some excerpts, with my comments:

1) Art wrote: “Graduate school admissions officers and employers do not confuse efficiency with effectiveness–neither should you.”

I agree. While financial considerations are certainly important for you — saving time can often also mean saving money on tuition and other educational expenses — effectiveness is what really counts. What you learn, and I might add how well you keep learning, versus how long it took you to get your degree, is really what employers and graduate school admissions folks are interested in. That you are earning or have earned a degree is key — not that it might have taken you 20 years to do so. (In fact, we have heard from employers that older students who go back to school can be more attractive employees anyway because you demonstrate persistence, multitasking, and lots of “real-world” experience.)

2) Art wrote: “Even if your road to graduation or your first professional position isn’t a straight line in one direction, you should view any left or right turns along the way as detours that offer you opportunities to gain valuable life experience.”

You all know this already as these detours have, for many of you, defined how you’ve gotten here to begin with. That being said, there will probably continue to be detours now that you are here. And that’s ok . . . just keep in contact with us to help you navigate the roads so that you don’t sacrifice your learning and education because you didn’t have a map.

3) Art wrote: “Could I have returned [to college] sooner?  Yes, had I planned better.  Would my life be any better today?  No idea, I don’t own a crystal ball or believe in second guessing life in that way.”

I agree. No point in worrying about what you didn’t do, when you didn’t do it, or why you didn’t do it then. What’s important is that you are here, now, doing it. Whether you are 35 or 75, “be here now” seems like an important idea to carry forward.

So, these are my reflections on his reflections … I hope you’ve found them helpful.

And Now for a Word from our Sponsors

If you are interested in learning more about social media, Art and I are co-teaching a class this summer for Marylhurst. Here are the details:

Introduction to Social Media Communications: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and More

CCM 366-1E or CCM 006-1E — 1-credit or 1 CEU

8/3 – 8/21, online

In this online workshop, learners will be introduced to social media tools and concepts, focusing on how social media technologies can affect their work, learning, and life. Through hands-on demonstration and use of a variety of social media tools such as blogs, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, RSS, wikis, podcasting, and social bookmarking, participants will learn how these tools are shaping modern communication and how to incorporate them into everyday business, educational, and personal communications. We will also address topics such as digital etiquette, privacy, digital trails, and developing community.