It only seems like magic

MentorshipThe New Year for OpenNews kicked off with an incredible feature on Source about the "Snow Fall" story in the New York Times. It was awesome how Erin Kissane made that story happen in a week that many people (including me) were on vacation. She had it ready to publish on January 1. On top of the kickass story, a great conversation began in the comments. And people just keep commenting. The comments demonstrate so clearly the community that is coalescing around Source and around journalism and code more broadly. My favorite comment came from an educator who talked about ways to use the original story and the Source follow-up in her undergraduate class. It just so perfectly encapsulated what I'm looking forward to with OpenNews for this year: documenting great work, learning together, and supporting this growing community.

And, sometimes, I get to see that community in person, which January offered in abundance. In mid-January, we brought all of the 2013 Knight-Mozilla Fellows for an onboarding event in Boston. It was great to spend time with everyone in person (and get to meet Sonya), and it was inspiring to get to work in the MIT Media Lab and the Boston Globe. Last fall, we knew that we found a group of eight exceptional individuals, but this event in Boston showed how extraordinary they are as a group. And that's really what the event was about, connecting the Fellows with each other before they scatter to three continents for 10 months.

It was neat to watch them brainstorm and work together and see how well people fit together as a team and how much people seemed to genuinely like each other. The whole thing seemed like magic. Which, of course, it wasn't. The success is due in large part to the brilliant planning of Dan Sinker as well as to a large dose of truly reciprocal trust. Several times throughout the onboarding, people asked what are they supposed to do with the Fellowship? What is it supposed to be? Again and again, the answer was that the Fellowship is about doing awesome work, and that the Fellow gets to define what that means to a large degree. That's a tremendous opportunity, one that requires a lot of trust all around. For a lot of people it can be challenging to try to answer such an open edict. I'm interested in learning how to do that better myself this year and how to support our Fellows in that process as well.

At the end of January, we hosted a learning event in Philly, Writing. Making. Sharing. I was super excited about this opportunity to work with Laura Hilliger in Philly and collaborate with Paul Oh and Christina Cantrill from the National Writing Project as well as Hacks/Hackers Philly co-organizer Dana Bauer. Prior to the event, I didn't realize this event would touch on similar themes as the onboarding. Trust and learning to work in an open environment rather than just regurgitate a correct answer are also major topics in education. EduCon brought education innovators to Philly, people who have grappled with these issues for teaching in traditional classrooms, and so we timed the event to take advantage of that energy being in the air.

The idea for the event grew out of discussions about learning and community building. Laura built these awesome hacktivity kits that make it easy to create and share learning curriculum, which 2012 Knight-Mozilla Fellow Nicola Hughes hacked into an HTML for Journalists kit. The kits have great content, but Laura and I talked about how it'd be helpful if there were also a way to share information about how to teach, how to lead a session. This approach is often referred to as "train the trainer." So Laura suggested having an event that tried to do both, train the trainer and teach introductory HTML, and she looped in folks to help organize the event.

The event itself brought out a neat mix of educators, journalists, and developers due to promotion from the Online News Association Philly chapter and a ton of personal invites (they. are. so. effective.). I learned a ton about event facilitation by watching Laura:

  • Don't worry about the "right" answer. Similar to the working open ethos, it was abundantly clear that as a facilitator you have to be flexible and not fixated on what is the perfect way to handle something. It's a lot about reading the room and responding accordingly, which is also a way to model that same behavior to participants: they don't have to be perfect, but should be flexible and open to hacking.
  • Adults like to have fun, too. I was surprised at how engaged adults were with icebreaker activities. Again, it was clear Laura was modeling behavior in opening yourself up to learning by having fun. It probably also helps to have an "enthusiasm ringer" in the room, someone who is highly engaged, but not in way that alienates everyone else (and that's a hard line to walk). Thanks for playing that role, Jesse Bacon.
  • People like to help each other. Especially with an introductory class, I was really nervous about asking people to identify as being newbies or more experienced with HTML, but it ended up working really well. For the first activity, people paired up and worked together without feeling nervous about being less skilled or self conscious about coming across as a know it all.
  • People like to learn from each other. When people were asked to get into new groups for the final activity, they composed groups that were totally mixed, journalists, developers, and educators. It was awesome. And again, it seemed like magic. But it was really the capstone of creating a space where people felt able to share and collaborate, and where people were supported in learning from each other and following their curiosity in getting to know people from other backgrounds.
  • Details matter, but don't freak out, they can be managed. There were some snags. Some issues to roll with. But it was clear that the most important thing was being responsive, not reactive. Acknowledging issues and working through them. Adjusting agenda as necessary, not just pushing the event longer. This was an area where it helped a ton that there was a strong organizing team that could play different roles throughout the event without everything resting on a single person.

We didn't get to do as much direct "train the trainer" instruction as we ambitiously planned for during the event, but participating in the event was a great learning experience of its own. And as the mentor community of the Mozilla Foundation grows this year and OpenNews launches the Learning Avengers, there will certainly be many, many more learning opportunities. I look forward to exploring the possibilities for learning as a community and confidence building tool throughout this year.

And, hey, a big part of sharing learning is documenting it! To that end, I finally wrote this post. And I'm working on some journalism hack day documentation. It's gonna be a year of a lot of writing and learning and collaborating and I can't believe it's already 1/12 over.