Building creative culture at work and in the classroom

I’ve been working in distributed, self-organizing teams for a couple of decades and change. I’ve worked in startups, big corporations, and distributed open source teams. For the past twelve years, I have been at Automattic. Over the years, we have iterated fully-distributed work and creative culture into a 500 person company that has managed to survive over a decade, have low turnover, and rate well among freelancers.

The Top Companies WNW Creatives Would Kill to Work for Full-Time — Free Range

One of my driving motivations for helping build one of the first distributed companies was accessibility. I wanted a place to work compatible with my autistic operating system and my anxiety. Distributed work where I can work from the comfort of home and communicate mostly via text suits me well. It suits other neurodivergent and disabled folks too. Distributed work is a good base for building a culture compatible with neurodiversity and the social model of disability.

I’d like to share a peek at our culture using the writing of my co-workers and of journalists. The practices of distributed companies have lessons for classrooms, particularly regarding accessibility and inclusive communication. Bring your own comfort, backchannels, and psychological safety are important notions that benefit teams of adult creatives as well as teams of creative kids. We parents and teachers must recognize that kids need digital skills if they’re going to thrive in a digital world. We can develop those skills in an inclusive way that uses technology not for remediation and assessment, but for collaboration. Communicate, collaborate, iterate, and launch. The best of inclusive hacker culture coupled with the social model is powerful. To fulfill the promise of a public education that is “free, life-changing, and available to everyone”, adopt a hacker mindset of flexible improvisation and passion-based maker learning and a social model mindset of inclusion and acceptance. When we use technology to collaborate in default-to-open cultures, we create serendipity.

How we communicate

How we hire

How we organize

How we include

And how we flow

The business world is changing. It seems I’m riding the wave. High.

Letter to My Representatives on Charlottesville, Bannon, Gorka, and Miller

Thank you for speaking out on the events in Charlottesville. Our country is grappling for its soul. We are rotting from within. Three of our biggest festering wounds are in the White House. Bannon, Gorka, and Miller are open and avowed bigots who feature prominently in the minds and rhetoric of the Nazis and supremacists we see gathered in Charlottesville. We need only look at sites like Storm Front and the Daily Stormer to see what their presence in the White House and their proximity to POTUS means to these hateful groups. Bannon, Gorka, and Miller share vocabulary, mindset, and goals with these groups. These three men do not belong in the White House. Please use your power and influence to see them dismissed and discredited. This is a necessary act of healing as we mourn the loss of a fellow citizen peacefully exercising her rights and duties. She was run down by someone who saw her as less than human. This mentality of dehumanization is bolstered and metastasized from on high. Remove them before more die.

To the family Trumpists

You chose party over country and family. You poisoned yourselves heart, mind, and soul with grievance, supremacy, and the Southern Strategy. You are too scared to climb out of ignorance and see, for the first time truly see, your own family–we generations that succeed you.

Instead, you keep company with the craven and the vile, with the propagandists in your TV, with those who engineered and share your bitter meagerness of soul. You are not really here with us. You are unmoored from principle, adrift in a sad nowhere, hurling condemnations at fiction.

You have brought idiocracy upon us with your willful, malevolent, and petulant ignorance. Scared, sheltered, and coddled, you yearn for a safe space in a stunted past where your mediocrity was enough. You seek to drag us back to that morally impoverished yesterday at the expense of our lives and identities.

Instead of rising with the times, you miseducated yourself with an authoritarian diet of paranoia, conspiracy, grievance, and hate. You are so terrified of everyone and everything, that you stand with white supremacy and authoritarian kleptocracy while your country and family suffer. You are traitors to both.

You are beyond moral rehabilitation and beneath respect. Your minds are immobilized, ambered in fear and hate.

Turn off the TV and interrogate the disposition and direction of your souls.

I will state flatly that the bulk of this country’s white population impresses me, and has so impressed me for a very long time, as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation. They have been white, if I may so put it, too long; they have been married to the lie of white supremacy too long; the effect in their personalities, their lives, their grasp of reality, has been as devastating as the lava which so memorably immobilized the citizens of Pompeii. They are unable to conceive that their version of reality, which they want me to accept, is an insult to my history and a parody of theirs and an intolerable violation of myself.

–James Baldwin

Everything you say is rooted in the narratives of white resentment, grievance, and oppression. This is ahistorical myth-making. You, dear family, are not oppressed and do not understand oppression. You make a mockery of it by claiming it. You are easy marks, useful idiots, and Good Germans allowing yourselves to be manipulated by the politics of resentment. You are wind-up automatons for the Southern Strategy.

I know that this won’t change your mind because nothing changes your mind when it comes to your imagined oppression. Like Archie Bunker, you believe every negative stereotype you encounter, albeit without his occasional moments of empathy and introspection. Those moments make for good TV. You are not good TV. You are distillations of decidedly bad TV.

I’m not speaking to change your mind. I am speaking to let you know we see you. We see who you are. We see what you are, and we reject it.

#ItsOnUs. It’s on those of us with bigots in our families to confront white resentment and the myth of white oppression. It’s on us to dismantle white supremacy. It’s on us to ask family to decide what side they are on. Are they on the side of swastikas and torches? Are they on the side of bigotry and hate? It’s on us to ask and confront.

White supremacy survives because it benefits all white people, even those not carrying torches and invoking Nazi slogans. It’s on us to break the chain.

And don’t feel guilty if you can’t confront your family, especially if you’re marginalized within the family. Some families are abusive and will use their leverage over you. Do want you can while staying safe.


Ben Foss on Dyslexia and Shame

We should be measured by what we can do, not by what we can’t.

Shame cuts off connection and thrives on hiding.

Dyslexia is a particularly powerful form of shame, and it involves a lot of vulnerability.

Vulnerability can be defined as true courage.

Shame is a very lonely moment.

Reading disabilities often match in intensity the level of shame associated with incest.

Dyslexia is a perfect storm of shame.

  1. Arrives at the time you are first being evaluated
  2. Made harsher by lack of explanation. Fail without context.
  3. Reinforced by peers and institutions

“Retard” is a bullet sent at a child when it gets said.

Guilt is feeling bad about something you did, something you can fix. Shame is feeling bad about who you are.

I knew I was going to be on a bad list. There was going to be a good list, and I was going to be on the bad list, maybe alone.

I was proud because I changed the narrative.

Negative scripts: blame, contempt, comparison

The shame of special education.

Dyslexia is like a bad cellphone connection to the page.

Leadership is changing what people think is possible, or changing what they think is appropriate.

Source: Choose strength not shame: Ben Foss at TEDxSonomaCounty – YouTube

Dyslexia is not a disease, it is an identity. An identity is not something one cures; it is the basis of community and is an element of self you aim to understand and embrace. My hope is that you and your child will learn to own dyslexia, to understand it, and ideally, to celebrate it.

This book— and your mission as a parent— is about moving the model for your child from dyslexia as disease to dyslexia as identity, an identity we can all be proud of.

Most schools and reading programs designed for remediation of dyslexia are based on the idea that dyslexia equals brokenness. Their aim is to transform the child into a person who can read without problems. But I’m here to tell you that’s just wrongheaded. I’ve learned that if you make your primary goal teaching your child to read or spell just like every other child, you’re going to decrease your child’s chances of achieving success. It’s like telling a person in a wheelchair that she needs to put in more time to learn how to walk.

I am introducing these terms to address an underlying bias in our schools: that eye reading is the only form of reading. You can help move the needle on this limited assumption by using the terms eye reading, ear reading, and finger reading yourself and explaining them to your child. We need to celebrate children’s love of ideas and quest for knowledge and give them permission to not like standard books at the same time! When we give kids opportunities to gather information and explore ideas in other ways, they will thrive.

Focusing on eye reading overlooks the real goals of education, which are learning, independent thinking, and mastering the ability to make new connections in the world of ideas.

A central theme in this book is that we must question what we are taught is the “normal” way to do things, and instead integrate multiple ways for our children to access information.

If you are a dyslexic person or the parent of a dyslexic child, I recommend that you allow technology to become your new best friend.

The key to my happiness occurred when I stopped trying to change my brain, and started changing the context around me.

One dyslexic friend of mine described his shame as “slow-drip trauma.” He felt unworthy and “not normal” every day. As an adult, he was treated for post-traumatic stress syndrome that was caused by his experiences in school.

Ninety percent of my injuries happened when I was in school and before I was talking about my dyslexia publicly. Hiding who you are can translate into self-harm. When I talk with my peers in the dyslexia movement, a majority of them had a specific plan for suicide when they were teenagers. I regularly meet dyslexic kids who cut themselves or worse when they were young. I am fine today, but the hiding left scars, figurative and literal, for many of us.

My friend Steve Walker, a very successful dyslexic entrepreneur, tells me all the time that you could not pay him enough money to go back to any type of school setting. He even says that he would sooner kill himself than go back to school. Yet in the same breath he will also say that you could not give him enough money to take away his dyslexia, because it is a part of who he is. Many times when I was in school or taking a standardized test, I rejected an accommodation because I was embarrassed and ashamed: I did not want to stand out, or I was frustrated that it would take too much effort to get permission to have my exam read aloud to me.

The majority of teachers and administrators are well-intentioned and look for ways to help your child. However, they often miss the most important point, which is that the goal is not to fix your child— your child is not broken. The goal is, instead, to play to your child’s strengths, support his weaknesses, and give him access to information.

Dyslexia is a genetic, brain-based characteristic that results in difficulty connecting the sounds of spoken language to written words. It can result in errors in reading or spelling as well as in a number of areas not considered major life activities, such as determining right and left. Individuals who are dyslexic can be highly independent and intelligent. Dyslexia is also characterized by a set of strengths that typically come with this profile in one or more of the following areas: verbal, social, narrative, spatial, kinesthetic, visual, mathematical, or musical skills. Overall, it is characterized by an increased ability to perceive broad patterns and a reduced ability to perceive fine detail in systems.

In this definition, dyslexia is characterized as a “disorder,” as opposed to a characteristic. The word disorder suggests that something is “wrong” or that the person is broken. However, disability can be defined only in a particular context, which is to say if there was no such thing as written text, there would be no disability related to reading.

Often people discuss dyslexia in terms of it having been diagnosed, but that word reinforces the notion that dyslexia is a disease, a scourge, an imperfection, and that someday we can find a cure. As I said in the introduction, there will be no cure because there is no disease! Dyslexia is a characteristic, like being male or female, or from a certain state, or a graduate of a certain university. There’s nothing less than perfect inherent in any of those descriptions, is there? You can start changing this practice in your own house today, replacing the phrase “diagnosed with dyslexia” with “identified with dyslexia.”

Source: Foss, Ben (2013-08-27). The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan: A Blueprint for Renewing Your Child’s Confidence and Love of Learning. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

See also,

Classroom UX: Bring Your Own Comfort, Bring Your Own Device, Student-Created Context

Replace the trappings of the compliance classroom with student-created context, BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), and BYOC (Bring/Build Your Own Comfort). Let’s hit thrift stores, buy lumber, apply some hacker ethos, and turn the compliance classroom into something psychologically safe and comfortable to a team of young minds engaged in passion-based maker learning. Inform spaces with neurodiversity and the social model of disability so that they welcome and include all minds and bodies. Provide quiet spaces for high memory state zone work where students can escape sensory overwhelm, slip into flow states, and enjoy a maker’s schedule. Provide social spaces for collaboration and comradery. Create cave, campfire, and watering hole zones. Fill our classrooms with choice, comfort, and assistive technology.

Design for agency. Design for collaboration. Design for intrinsic motivationDesign for real life.

The School User Experience

What do kids see? What do they feel? What do they smell? What do they hear? What is their experience as they move through your school?

How much more effective we might be if our user interface design was intentional, and intentionally designed to support children?

 Have many fewer rules, and ONLY have rules you can successfully defend in a debate with a student.

Eliminate lunch detention and no recess punishments. Those are cruel punishments which demolish your credibility with every child.

Working graffiti is good.

Source: Your School’s UX. What is it? And where to start.

We had been talking about our journey from opening up a few walls to building truly flexible spaces, from offering kids seating and writing choices to a move toward eliminating single-teacher classrooms, but our presentation was, indeed, geared toward building.

“Everybody always has a building project,” I finally said.

Because every school should be changing all the time. And should be changing with a purpose — moving from adult centered teaching spaces to child centered learning spaces — moving from static environments to flexible environments — moving from controlling design to inspiring design.

Every school needs a building project every year, because you don’t need contractors and bulldozers to change a school environment — you just need commitment.

So if you can’t do the expensive stuff — you can still do the effective stuff. So here are four things you can do to change your school’s space.

One: Give your kids the gift of daylight.

Well, in order to maintain healthy attention kids need three things that are often in short supply in schools — fresh air, large muscle movement, and daylight. One of the easiest to fix, in many schools, is daylight.

Two: Get rid of teacher desks.

The teacher’s desk is an ugly remnant of a time when uninvolved teachers led ineffective classes, they really need to vanish.

Three: Keep all of your classroom doors open.

The most obvious way to build transparency and openness into your educational environment is to open classroom doors and create the notion of ‘the commons.’ Opening doors will make your school noisier and more active. It will convert corridors from waste space to instructional space. It will allow kids who need a different kind of space to have it and yet — remain supervised.

Obviously it will do something else. The talk we gave to the architects was titled “Space that forces change — Change that forces space.” Opening doors will make your teachers change what they do. Noisier environments mean that teacher voice must change. You can’t really yell over it, you have to talk under it, and thus move away from mass instruction.

Four: Let kids sit where they want, if they want.

We have this saying, “a kid can’t walk into any classroom, kindergarten through 12th grade, and choose where, how, or if to sit — we aren’t teaching them to make decisions, which means we aren’t teaching them very much at all.”

This is important. The act of controlling seating, like the act of controlling toilet use, or food and drink, is an act which shatters the possibility of real trust between teachers and children.

Source: How Will You Redesign Your School Over The Next Six Months?

We cannot build an effective, an empathetic, a working User Experience unless we build a User Interface that kids won’t turn away from. And our schools are User Interfaces. Our schools are the “how” our children interact with education. Every door, wall, room, teacher, rule, chair, desk, window, digital device, book, hall pass are part of the User Interface, and that User Interface defines the User Experience.

 And we cannot begin to understand the User Experience we need until we get fully into the heads of our users. That’s true in web and programming design, its true in retail and restaurant design, and its absolutely true as we design our schools. This understanding can have complex analytical paths – and those are important, and it has a committed caring component – but it also has an essential empathetic underpinning, and maybe you can begin working on that underpinning in a serious way before this next school year begins.

Source: SpeEdChange: Writing for Empathy

The learning flexibility created by our new school-wide, multi-age spaces offers a much wider bandwidth of opportunities and potential experiences to children. We have learned from multiple research sources that natural light is a key ingredient to create environments in which learners thrive. Since the redesign, light pours into halls and learning spaces. A variety of flexible furniture, seating, and informal work areas provide learners and teachers with both choice and comfort options to locate in space differently depending upon the work that is being done. The teachers know from learning research that both spaces for quiet, independent work as well as for small and large groups to gather are critical to address the range of children’s needs, planned learning experiences, and instruction necessary to maximize learning potential across the school.

Source: Thinking Beyond the School Box: Inspired Architecture + Contemporary Learning | A Space for Learning

First we say “Project-Problem-Passion-Based Learning.” This starts with that teacher generated (perhaps choice of) project(s), in an attempt to make the meaningless in a curriculum appear relevant. Then, Problem — still teacher generated — say, “how might we filter water?” or even, “how might we clean water?” with student agency taking a foothold. Then Passion — to us Student Passion, not teacher — as in “What interests you? What could you read/do/write/make?” And suddenly the classroom changes.

Finally, the term we use is “Maker,” and for us that means Student Created Context. The learner knows where she/he wants to go, and we ride along, fitting important skill development and knowledge in where appropriate.

Within all this, “technology” — meaning contemporary information and communications technology — is essential, as are all other kinds of tools. And that technology needs to be open and under student control, or it becomes a limitation instead of a key to the world.

Source: “Personalized Learning” is an expression of teacher and school power, just like “Project-Based…

We are learning that Making to Learn allows the children themselves to create their own engaging context.

Making has a simple role in schools, my friend and colleague Chad Ratliff says, “it is putting content into student-created context.”

Source: SpeEdChange: Getting to Making, Getting to Education which actually Works

It is our responsibility to provide every learner with real learning space choices based on task-based and physical comfort-based needs, which not only allow their cognitive energy to be focused on learning but helps students to develop the contemporary skills needed to alter and use spaces to initiate and accomplish collaborative and individual work. This includes the availability of multiple communication tools and contemporary technologies as well as assisting students in understanding and creating a variety of learning products which demonstrate student choices in curriculum, task, technologies, and media.

No child within the Albemarle County Public Schools should need a label or prescription in order to access the tools of learning or environments they need. Within the constraints of other laws (in particular, copyright) we will offer alternative representations of information, multiple tools, and a variety of instructional strategies to provide access for all learners to acquire lifelong learning competencies and the knowledge and skills specified in curricular standards. We will create classroom cultures that fully embrace differentiation of instruction, student work, and assessment based upon individual learners’ needs and capabilities. We will apply contemporary learning science to create accessible entry points for all students in our learning environments; and which support students in learning how to make technology choices to overcome disabilities and inabilities, and to leverage preferences and capabilities.

Source: Seven Pathways

For more, this collection of links on classroom ux and student-created context is regularly updated.

Student-created Context at Albemarle County Public Schools

Albemarle County Schools (#APCS) has embraced BYOC, student-created context, open technology, toolbelt theory, and universal design for learning. They are leaders and innovators to watch and emulate. Follow superintendent Pam Moran, technology and innovation director Ira Socol, and their fellow Albemarle educators on Twitter — and read their blogs.

Letter to My Representatives on Trumpcare #6

A shared refrain in the persecution of disabled and transgender folks by the Trump administration and the GOP is that our bodies are too expensive to care for. Such zero-sum thinking stirs hate and resentment against us. The ableist and bigoted vocabulary of Trumpism hangs a target on the most vulnerable, including my kids.

Our family is a “special needs”, “special ed” family. The term “special” causes a lot of harm. It is an ableist term that fuels segregation and grievance. I see it used against disabled and transgender people by folks who think something is being taken away from them when disability and transgender rights are recognized. Special is used as a dirty word to suggest someone is being treated as more than equal, when in reality special means segregation, societal exclusion, abuse, and inferior services. We in the disability community see this usage all too often. This piece gathers writing on the subject from neurodiversity and disability self-advocates:

After POTUS tweeted about transgender folks in the military, I noticed a rise in the use of “special” accompanied by appeals to a perverted notion of equality that erases disabled and transgender people, effectively telling us to shut up and die.

Equality is not when everyone gets the same thing. It’s when everyone gets what they need. Disabled and transgender people aren’t trying to take away anyone’s Medicaid, or anything else; the GOP is.

The GOP is encouraging hateful rhetoric that labels disabled and transgender people as “special” and “burdens”. Disabled people hear “burden” a lot. “Burden” rhetoric is one of the ugliest forms of ableism, and POTUS and the GOP are promoting it. This is eugenicist language. For a sense of what this language can do to a population, read up on the history of autistic people during WWII in the book NeuroTribes.

Eugenics kills the neurodiversity that has made modernity possible. When we cull minds, we cull our possibilities. Without autistic, ADHD, dyslexic, and queer minds, we are lesser.

Don’t sell a healthcare bill that most of America doesn’t want by throwing disabled and transgender folks under a bus of ableism and bigotry. Stop coming at “the least of us” with evangelicalism and providentialism that we reject as un-American, anti-democratic, and morally impoverished.