Common Tools and Practices at Agile Learning Centers
This section is a sampling of the tools we’ve found to be useful in making the implicit explicit, adding expediency to the flow of our meetings, and clarifying communication within diverse groups.
These tools are here for you to use when they work and to modify, adapt, or drop entirely when they don’t. It’s been brought to our attention that many of these tools are easy to adapt for groups where people don’t read with the same fluency, but that they depend too much on eyesight for some groups, who then come up with auditory or tactile alternatives that suit them better. Your group’s needs will change as it grows and morphs, so while you won’t want to chase novelty for its own sake and stress your anxious collaborators out unnecessarily, you will want to ready yourself to embrace ongoing experimentation and change. Periodically pause together to consider:
Why are you doing what you’re doing? Is it working? Could it be simpler or better adapted to your needs?
Is your current process satisfying? If not, what would be? What aspect/s can you change to get closer to something both effective and satisfying?
The Gameshifting Board
The Gameshifting board is a tool that makes the implicit social rules of a meeting explicit, both at the onset and throughout. It’s helpful and adaptable for many kinds of settings.
A simple whiteboard or other surface is divided into categories like Start Time, Finished When, Meeting Style, Roles, and Talking Pattern. Each of these categories will have several options that the Game Master (the role of the person who sets the Gameshifting board), group, or session facilitator may choose from, depending on the needs and aims of the people in the room. A marker is placed beside the convention in use, and if we decide to follow a different convention, we can move the marker. For example, maybe we start with our meeting set to be “finished when” all agenda items are completed. Should someone notice that we keep adding new items, have taken an especially long time with an early item, or are struggling to focus as we draw closer to lunchtime, they can bring the group’s attention to this and propose a change. The group could then decide to move the “finished when” marker on the Gameshifting Board to “in 15 minutes, at alarm,” or “after completing agenda items 1-5.” Alternatively, the group could decide not to change their plan for when to finish, agreeing instead that all new agenda topics that emerge will be addressed in a future meeting and that the group will take a 5 minute bio break then resume with refreshed purpose and focus. With the patterns and expectations clear, the group is better set up to intentionally set and adjust them based on their needs.
In addition to supporting the group in mindfully shaping meeting dynamics, having norms and expectations for a session clearly set where they can be referred back to or quickly referenced if one comes into the meeting partway through can alleviate a lot of anxiety, especially for humans who struggle intuiting social cues. A board with open space for additions and alterations invites creativity, especially from young facilitators who may be more interested in experimentation than “getting through” an agenda as quickly as possible. Students learn how groups can rapidly change forms to accomplish different things, and can apply these skills to resolve conflicts and create and explore together.
Lastly, having the board reflecting their choices — and meeting dynamics are choices — back to the group can help them interrupt or avoid replicating patterns they’ve been trained to default into but that don’t serve them. These are patterns like arranging deferentially around a lecturer or boss, problematizing ways of listening that involve doodling or don’t involve eye contact, and allowing the same few voices to dominate the conversation while the same few people always end up with the carework of note-taking and clean-up. There are more, and they’ll differ across contexts, but what’s important here is that the group can only reject and replace them once they see what’s happening. Being able to intentionally change the patterns helps groups practice together for the world they want to create. They can take many forms, meet many kinds of needs, and achieve many kinds of outcomes.
Having a plan posted and clear agreements about how to change it gives people the notice they need to prepare to engage. It can be supportive for those who thrive with steady structure, who need transition time, and those who may need reminders or inspiration at various points in their day. Often we build our agendas collaboratively, harvesting ideas from the group and then building ourselves a plan from those offerings. Sometimes when we have a designated facilitator and goal for a meeting, or when we have an element like delivery of a prepared meal or a guest speaker that’s scheduled for a set time, the facilitator will offer the group a draft agenda, explain which pieces aren’t movable, and invite edits rather than ask the group to build from scratch.
Most likely in a meeting or small workshop setting, the agenda will be fairly straightforward. You’ll want to list what’s happening when, including details on location if there will be multiple sessions happening concurrently. Build in bio breaks for folks to stretch and wiggle. Build in transition time where materials will need to be distributed, cleaned up, or divided among groups about to head into breakouts.
In contexts where you’re planning for more than a few hours, the agenda can easily be morphed into an Offerings Board or Weekly Schedule board. Offerings happening each day are listed in their respective time slot. You may use text, illustrations, or another method. Maybe you’ll find it helpful to pick locations or also list who is hosting each offering along with the offering title. Centers that have recurring offerings often write those offerings into the schedule then use sticky notes or magnets to add more ephemeral offerings into the mix.
Offerings that require firm commitments, transportation, or purchases of a certain amount of materials are often listed on a board separate from the scheduling board. After Set the Week, or the relevant agenda-setting meeting, interested parties can write down their names for these offerings so facilitators and offering hosts can better arrange their logistics.
Kanban is Japanese for “card signal,” and a popular workflow management tool for tracking intentions, ideas, work in progress (WIP) and accomplishments. A basic Kanban is divided into columns which can be called anything, but for this example we’ll use Backlog, Ready, Doing, and Done. Tasks and project steps are noted on “cards,” which are often digital elements on a Trello board or are sticky notes on a physical board.
The “Backlog” holds cards with ideas and possibilities. At the start of things, whether that’s a day at the center or the opening of a meeting, items from the Backlog and from folks’ personal agendas get pulled into the “Ready” column as intentions we line up for ourselves. Though kids moving through games in a day often won’t stop to update their boards, moving cards from “Ready” into “Doing” and then “Done” columns, the option is there for those who find that satisfying. Moving each item’s card as you get to it is most helpful when moving a group through a session together or when team members are working asynchronously and need to track what tasks are in process and which ones are waiting to be tackled or complete. The Kanban offers a quick and easy breakdown of what is getting done and what is getting neglected.
Two guidelines for Kanban use are “visualize (or clarify) your work” and “limit your works in progress.” When we get specific about our work and wants, turning the abstract tangle of dreams and deadlines in our minds into clear, actionable, and bite-sized prompts in front of us, we can spend less energy worried about forgetting and feeling overwhelmed. Pathways become easier to recognize, and this tool, like many workflow tools, can help us to stay focused and to create accountability for ourselves.
If there are items that aren’t seeing any movement on your Kanban, there’s information waiting for you to investigate. What’s the block? It’s important we model and support kids in engaging such “failure” moments with curiosity rather than shame or judgement. If “practice piano for 20 minutes” or “call landlord about renewing lease” makes it onto the board as an intention but moves no farther, explore why. Is your daily agenda overly ambitious? Do you need to pick a time and set yourself an alarm so you don’t get distracted and forget? Are you avoiding the task, either because you no longer care about learning piano or you’re worried your phone call will run long and take the whole day? Once you’ve identified your block, you can set about experimenting with solutions.
Finally, having a “Done!” column sets you up for a satisfying review of all you’ve accomplished, which can be especially heartening if you do the kind of administrative work that takes all day and somehow leaves you with more to do than when you started. Items in the “Done” column can be pulled and organized into a transcript or activity report for a young person at the end of a semester. They can be a reference point for a kid who worries at the end of a day or week about having “done nothing.” (To be clear, we’re fans of taking time to do nothing but be and rest and notice. Sometimes this feeling is kids feeling frustrated about not having accomplished something they wanted to get to or echoing judgements they’ve taken on from their grown-ups about how they’re spending their time.) For groups using Kanbans for big projects or multi-day events, going through the “Done” column together can scaffold a group reflection and help folks prepare to depart feeling satisfied.
Community Mastery Board
A Community Master Board (CMB) is an adapted Kanban used to facilitate the creation of community agreements. ALCs have regular meetings — often called Change Up but sometimes called by other names — for reflecting on how things are going, updating or implementing agreements to facilitate folks getting their needs met as both individuals and community members as consistently as possible, problem solving together, and making sure our norms for interacting with each other and the space are fostering the kind of culture we’re excited to be co-creating (and spending lots of time swimming in!).
The board is divided into columns. Early boards start with a column for gathering “Awareness” notes on problems and challenges, announcements that impact the whole community, requests for group consent to do something like bring a pet to visit, and sharing inspiration to introduce something new, like monthly dance parties. The boards also had a column for “Implementations,” or actions the group decides to test for a cycle in response to a specific Awareness. The next column, which sometimes included gradations, was “Practicing,” for Implementations we decide to keep after our initial test and are currently practicing making community norms. Finally, the “Masterly” column held established norms and agreements that had successfully been incorporated into the culture and addressed the initial awareness.
Upgrades to the board quickly included ALC Heartwood introducing a column for stating the value or need that makes a specific awareness important to the person bringing it up, an “Archive” column for awarenesses that don’t need ongoing responses or attention, and ALC-NYC including a “Focus” box in the “Practicing” column for when the group decided there was a need to…focus on a particular agreement. Instead of moving cards across the board as with a normal Kanban, Awareness cards that don’t get archived or left in place as a group reminder for the next cycle are often left in place or attached to the related Implementation card so we can refer back as we test different responses to it. Sometimes the group will need to test multiple solutions to a problem. Every failure is feedback! And keeping notes handy from week to week or cycle to cycle will keep new iterations grounded while offering a more long-term view for pattern-hunting should you really get stuck.
Two things to keep in mind regarding Community Mastery Boards (CMBs):
Limit your works in progress! Just like a personal workflow, a community workflow can only meaningfully incorporate a limited number of new things at once. Only test as many implementations in a cycle as the group can track, so the reflections on it will be useful and productive. Notice if your Practicing column is filling up without meaningful cultural changes or steps towards Mastery being taken. Slowing down, taking a few steps back, and releasing attachment in favor of trusting the process are all practices that will serve you well as you seek dynamic balance.
Find a way to make sure “mastered” agreements are visible to visitors and new students. Everyone in your ALC may know that you only eat in the food room, because that practice made its way through your CMB months ago and has not come up since, but people entering your space for the first time won’t have a clue. Make sure you give new folks the information they need to operate effectively in your community.
Notice that we’re listing documentation as a tool and not a goal to organize your whole project around. This can be difficult to understand for adults who are concerned about metrics, measurability, quantifying learning, proving “impact” to external institutions, having something to wave at an unsupportive co parent or grandparent to convince them having agency and play isn’t ruining their kid, or who themselves faintly remember learning cool things as a kid and wish they’d kept better notes. Sometimes it’s just that they (we) haven’t deschooled from being taught to value the written above all else and ourselves only as scantron-friendly score-and-certification-assemblege “selves.” Knowledge is more. Learning is more. Life is more, and you are more.
Most times, when you feel the tug to interrupt a game or break your focus on listening so you can document, release that compulsion to turn the moment into a possible artifact and get back into the living of it. Kids are very good teachers for this. Documentation can be delightful and very, very useful! Just remember it’s a tool that should serve, facilitate even, exploring, reflecting on, iterating, and sharing about happenings at your center. Maximum support with minimum interference is the goal.
When is documentation important and helpful? Here are some examples:
To record and seal agreements, especially around topics like payment plans, consent for staff to travel with youth off-site or for them to leave on their own during time you’re responsible for them, release of the project and staff from liability for things like hot glue gun burns in your space that’s kept hazard free but supports experimentation with tools and risky play. Paper, which you can make copies of and digitize later, is usually best for these situations. Digital signatures on webforms and PDFs are increasingly also accepted. Make sure to include a date and to consider if you want witnesses.
To hold and make visible things we decide are important to remember, like our daily intentions, goals for the week, the login for the school wifi, when the movie room is booked, what to feed (and not to feed) the resident hamster, what the steps for cleaning the art room are, or to fill our water bottles before going to the park on a hot day. What works best as a reminder for one person may not work for another! On the walls in your space, you can set up Kanbans, posters, checklists, whiteboard notes, and labels. Digital Kanbans on the Trello app, phone alarms, online calendars, and other work management apps may work better for some folks, especially if they could benefit from a scheduled auditory reminder. Some people keep notebooks or checklists, which can’t be set to interrupt your lunch with a time check and appointment reminder, but work well for people who remember best what they physically write down. Whatever you use, it should work for you and you should keep it decluttered enough to stay useful.
As record and reminder of what got discussed in a meeting, particularly if the meeting is part of a series tackling an ongoing question or project, if people who should be in the know about the conversation weren’t able to be present, if a situation could lead to conflict or legal action where a papertrail documenting your handling of things responsibly and fairly could prove useful, or if you’re discussing a topic like “goals for this year” that you’ll want to circle back to through the coming months. For meeting minutes and keeping track of ongoing conversations or tasks, we mostly use shared Google Docs, have a notetaker keep minutes with a word processor and email the file out after the meeting, or use a shared Trello board formatted like a project Kanban. Where you’re anticipating legal trouble, or just trying to stay ready so you don’t have to scramble to get ready if things go sideways, again, paper, which you can make copies of and digitize later, is usually best for these situations. Digital signatures on webforms and PDFs are increasingly also accepted. Make sure to include a date and to consider if you want witnesses. Emails can also work; sometimes sending a follow up email or a summary to other staff after an in person or phone conversation is a useful move. Labeling and archiving emails is up front work that can save you a lot of time later. Generally you’ll want to remember that your communication records can be subpoenaed. It’ll be stressful if they are, but if you’ve kept them organized and written with this expectation in mind, future you will be spared worrying over finding the relevant files, whether important details are left ambiguous, or if the tone is harsher than you’d like.
For portfolio-building, which has its own value as a reflective process but can also be important for young people applying for various programs, for families to have notes on what their kid is up to so they feel better about their choice of self-directed education and their tuition payments or program fees, and for your project as it broadcasts its story in the hopes more youth will get the chance to attend, governments will allow it to continue to exist, and funders will donate to your perpetually dwindling paint-replacement-fund. The smoothest and lightest way to approach portfolio-building is to use a tool like Trello or SeeSaw to set up an online place for each learner to document their activities, establish a ritual of updating the notes in the tool together at the end of each day, and then just download a .csv or folder of media files to arrange into a portfolio or transcript as needed. Physical folders, notebooks, or envelopes of sticky notes from the “Done” column of a personal Kanban can also work, but you’ll want to reflect with older kids that translating the information from those formats into something digital they can share with a potential internship will be more work than if they kept their records digitally. Taking time to record narrative reflections — as videos, voice recordings, blog posts, or longer-form essays — will also make a portfolio more interesting, both for the learner and for potential audiences. In some cases, staff may want to take time monthly or quarterly to write reflections on what they’re seeing in a learner. Where therapists, social workers, and other professionals are working with the child and family, quarterly notes on the literacy, numeracy, physical, and social-emotional development of the young person may be helpful or even necessary as part of advocating for the learner to receive the services and support they need.
To share and celebrate! Sometimes we reach a goal and forget how hard we had to work to get to that point, but recording the little tasks and milestones along the way gives us tracks to look back on so we can appreciate and celebrate how far we’ve come. Telling the story of our process or figuring out how to teach what we’ve learned requires further deepening our understanding and testing our comfort with the new material. Finally, sharing our learning, accomplishments, and processes can be inspiring and helpful for those around us, allowing us to have a broader positive impact on our community and the world than if we’d hoarded that knowledge by keeping it to ourselves. Many groups share verbally at the end of each day, as well as collectively through newsletters, showcases, and shared photographs. Zine making and posting illustrations or diagrams on the walls in our spaces can be celebratory or reflective sharing. Blogs, videos, audio recordings, and other more public shares are both increasingly popular and increasingly provoking conversations around privacy, the attention economy, surveillance capitalism, data use, algorithmic bias, and more. Some young people want lots of followers who comment on their cat videos; some would prefer not to be known or knowable on the internet. It’s important the adults on site understand enough about the digital world to be able to accompany young people through this discernment process.
In order to keep discussions productive and efficient, we employ hand-signals that serve as visual communication additions to the main conversation. When we speak one-on-one with each other, we rely on non-verbal communication cues that don’t always translate well to a group setting. Hand signals supply the group with instant feedback without interrupting a speaker. Hand signals make non-verbal communication explicit and deliberate by replacing subtle cues with intentional, well-defined ones. They have a long history of use in activist spaces, and people may be eager to contribute signs they learn in other communities that they feel will fill a need (or be enjoyed).
One of our most commonly used hand signals is twinkle fingers, a wiggling of fingers that demonstrates strong resonance with what is being spoken. Many other movement spaces that use hand signals also use this one.
Also useful and widely used, though less used outside of ALC contexts, is the delta Change-up sign. When someone raises their hands with their fingers — usually thumbs and index fingers — forming a triangle, that’s received as a call to pause the conversation and attend to the meta situation. Often it’s a sign that group dynamics need to be shifted and the Gameshifting Board adjusted. Sometimes it’s an awareness that the current process agreements are not being honored. A person can give this hand signal so others can have a chance to wrap up what they’re saying, the group can pause to readjust, and then the queued up speakers — if there are any — can resume working through their turns.
There are a number of other hand-signals created for various needs: Focus Back, Trust the Group, Clarification Question, Slow-Down, Direct Response, etc. Be wary of falling into the conventional school pattern where there’s a “Be Quiet” signal that just the adults use. Know also that older versions of this kit included an “okay” sign to indicate “we hear you // got it,” but as a similar sign became popular with white supremacists in the US, centers have either changed that sign to something more obviously distinct or dropped it altogether. You should feel free to create new signals for shifting and signaling dynamics as needed in your community. Draw them on your Gameshifting board, or another place where they’ll be visible to working groups. We’ve found it can be fun to invite community artists to redraw the Hand Signals in various styles as their interests in different shows, styles, and videogame characters evolve.
Organizing for Results
This is one of those moments when it’s helpful to take a deep breath and remember (1) this is an invitation to practice trustful co-creation instead of ending up trying to guess folks’ needs and carry too much alone, and (2) learning from and adapting from examples that exist means building on decades of hard-won wisdom, which is always preferable to trying to start from scratch. Many of us need to deschool from the idea that others are competition, that collaboration is cheating, and that the “genius” or overworked individual who creates something “totally new” all on their own is the mythic model we should aspire to. Those frames limit what we’re capable of, cutting us off from allies, organizing lineages, and collective care. Reckoning with our interdependence and skilling up accordingly can feel overwhelming or even frightening — (she writes from mid-pandemic NYC having watched an apartment fire across the street spread to impact multiple buildings real quickly) — but for the community you create to be resilient and adaptable enough to navigate all the weather that will come your way, to really achieve long-term sustainability, it’s work you’ll need to do sooner or later.
So what will governance look like for your center? Governance of day-to-day operations within the ALC should, to be an ALC, involve iterative, consent-based, and distributed decision-making that’s led by the youth as much as possible (assuming your center is a youth-centered space). The change-up process, including use of the Community Mastery Board and shared agreements, coupled with a thoughtful conflict resolution process (more on that later) should meet most of your needs there. In many centers, taking the same approach with families, staff, and other community members to address more organizational topics works well. Some communities keep governance as light and informal as possible, with fluid working groups arising as necessary and set times for checking in with everyone a few times a year. Other communities have more elaborate systems informed by their interest in sociocracy, spokes councils, or adhering to legal parameters that let them exist as a nonprofit or cooperative.
However you do it, an Agile Learning Center is a relational and collaborative project, so you’ll need to explore some questions as community-members, likely multiple times as the group and seasons change. How will you communicate, share files, and track progress on different necessary tasks that arise? What agreements do you need to keep that work and your collaboration feeling safe and satisfying as well as productive? Do folks have expertise and energy that would make them suited for specific roles, like ensuring the website gets built or that your legal and financial paperwork is in order? Expect that sometimes this process will be mind-blowingly gorgeous and sometimes it will be grueling, like living an engaged life always is. How will you make sure you regularly check-in on folks’ expectations and concerns, so you’re proactively addressing potential conflicts rather than letting frustration and resentment build? (Getting familiar with the Gottman Institute’s resources on the “4 Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse” and “Relationship Green Flags” resources can be very helpful here.) Similarly, how will you make sure you regularly take time to touch back into your shared sense of purpose, to celebrate accomplishments, and to acknowledge folks for all they do to make your community what it’s becoming? The more you can build care and a felt commitment to move through challenges together into your foundations, the more practiced you’ll be later in situations where the community is dependent on folks having those skills. Share, listen, take notes, and be ready to iterate. You’ve got this!