This is the sixth salvo in Michael Rutherford’s regular column, Fire for Effect. Take it away Mike…
I thought I would try something slightly different with this installment of FFE, it’s a radical new approach I have decided to call: “Not complaining.” It’s a highly experimental technique for me, and frankly… I’m feeling a little uncertain about the whole approach. Basically, instead of railing on about some great evil, I am going to try to frame my thoughts in the form of a specific and entirely positive recommendation. I know, I know… it sounds pretty bohemian to me as well, but we will see how it works. Failure is often the wage of experimentation… so let’s take a deep breath. Positive. Thinking positive… things. Focusing my chakra. Radiant… stuff… flowing like… glowing and growing radiant… stuff… our minds are merging… now together, even as we are also apart…
Nope, I can’t do it. I can’t be all positive and growthy. Just focus, read, and send counter fire.
Many of us should start a Lego User Group (LUG).
A LUG? Is that like a Lego Club? Why would you call it a LUG? What the hell kind of name is that? Well, the bottom line up front is that: Yep, a LUG is the same as a Lego Club. But there is a reason we call our clubs “user groups” and not simply “Clubs”. Remember in the last FFE I mentioned the long and storied history of the tribes of the AFOL and the TECHY? The term “User Group” is a linguistic artifact of our shared proto-cultures. Check out this definition of “User Group” from PC Magazine:
The language of our brother tribe is with us even today…
LUGs enhance the Lego hobby in a number of ways. LUGs are multifaceted social constructs that can be tailored to enhance Lego as it is used and experienced by any specific demographic, or even multiple demographics. LUGs can be “on-line” or real world, or both. LUGs can be based on a theme, or many themes. LUGs can be socially focused, build focused, display focused… or as is usually the case, LUGs can be based on a blend of several foci. Further, these foci can change with the will of its members! Age, gender, income bracket, geography, culture and language… any variable imaginable that can be a reason NOT TO INCLUDE somebody in a LUG… can just as easily become a reason TO INCLUDE somebody in a LUG. A LUGs function and purpose is totally arbitrary. We control all of that action… and that makes the LUG an excellent “Swiss Army Knife” within the hobby. It’s an infinitely adaptable tool for getting people to experience Lego in myriad mo-bettah ways.
But, many of us don’t take the idea of starting a LUG seriously. We believe it requires vast resources, or great expertise. We believe it’s an unsupportable burden in terms of time. We believe that by starting a LUG, we are exposing ourselves to mockery, scorn, and rejection. We are more likely to wish there was a good LUG in our area than we are likely to start a good LUG in our area. These beliefs are mostly incorrect, and we should discard them (hope you don’t feel judged!).
Further, being in a LUG already is not in and of itself, a reason NOT to start a LUG. Yeah, sure… it might be easer (or even smarter) to combine your LUG agenda with that of a pre-existing LUG… but sometimes, agendas are simply incompatible. I checked The U.N. Charter… and there is NO prohibition against being in more than one LUG at a time!
Finally, remember this: If you start a LUG, and it doesn’t work out well… then you can end it! It’s experimentation man! Just go for it! It’s a good thing to try, and it’s not a difficult thing to shut down. It’s just a LUG, not a nuclear weapons program!
- More people using Lego is better for the hobby.
- Many people will not use or enjoy Lego as much in isolation as they will in groups.
- People who DO excel in solitary Lego operations, will often benefit from LUG membership in ancillary realms (social contact, networking, developing communication skills, service to others).
- LUG membership benefits not only the individual… but also benefits other LUG members (synergy).
- There is no OPTIMAL LUG formula.
- You control the action!
About 6 years ago, I arrived at a juncture in my career where I knew I would be engaged in low intensity work for a whole year. This means I knew that I could realistically expect to work from 08:00AM until about 4:00PM daily, and that I would have most weekends free and clear. In my job, that’s a rare thing. I had most of a basement at my disposal, and 12 months of geographic stability. I decided to do two things. The first was to build a big diorama and take it to the convention in Chicago. The second thing was to start a LUG.
The decision to build a big dio was easy. That’s what I want to be doing all the time! So when there is time… it’s what I start to do. Like a plant bending towards sunlight. But that second thing… the LUG? That idea crept up on me like a cautious predator. Slowly picking its way around obstacles, moving farther and faster with each step, gaining strength and momentum before lunging, and driving me to act. Start a LUG? Are you nuts? I can’t. No experience! No knowledge! A LUG? That’s just crazy talk!
Shortly after our family moved into our new home, a teacher from the local school district approached me and asked if I would be interested in running a “Lego Club” as an afterschool activity each Friday afternoon. I thought it might be cool. I thought she was asking me to assist in a school activity. Like a volunteer assistant. I pictured a room full of boisterous 3rd through 6th grade boys, building airplanes and space ships… talking about violence in its many delightful and entertaining forms. Yeah. Maybe I could do that for a year. Why not?
Then the teacher said there was no Lego Club in place, and no bylaws or regulations about school clubs.
Then she said it had to include boys and girls. (Yeah… that’s only fair. Besides how many girls want to play with Lego after school?)
Then she said it had to include ages K through 6. (What? In ONE club? A kindergartener girl sitting next to a 6th grade boy… and two of them sharing some kind of structured agenda? Happily? Unlikely.)
Then she said the school had no Lego. (Uhhhh… well… we kind of need those for the… Lego Club… don’t we?)
Then she said no teachers would be available to assist. (This just keeps getting better and better)
But… I could have 3 hours every Friday afternoon in the school.
And… a broom closet to store the Lego in… and the door had a working lock!
And… I could structure the activity any way I wanted (Ah… well at least I could control the action!)
And… That was pretty much the deal. Nothing more to add.
I asked her if I was going to be allowed to hang out in the teachers’ lounge, because those forbidden rooms had always fascinated me as a child. She just blinked at me, her immobile half-smile failing to mask her sudden apprehension. Pinhead.
So… being the master of my world… being a highly trained and professional leader… being a world traveler and a paragon of modern masculine authority… I did what any man would do in that situation. I asked my wife for permission. Did I say any man? I meant any HONEST man. (Just stop. If you don’t ask your spouse for permission to do stuff, it’s because you aint married…or you’re simply lying!) And she said OK… and then I asked if she would also help me… and she said OK again! But then I really needed to earn some cool points, so I went and cut the grass or something.
At any rate…we listed the problems we had to solve.
- Lego! The club didn’t have any, and I was damned if I was giving away my own! You know the deal… Lego = Money.
- Age gap. Kindergarteners and 6th graders don’t generally play and learn together. In life they do. On holidays they do. At family events they do… but not in a school Lego Club they don’t! Except of course… now they will… right?
- How many laws can you break on accident in three hours? The School had NOTHING in writing for me. NOTHING. My employer would call this “Un-plan” approach a “non-starter”.
- What the hell were we ever trying to do with this club? I wasn’t interested in providing 3 hours of free babysitting every Friday afternoon! I have naps to take! Chores to ignore! TV shows to binge watch with my kids! Beers to drink! A dio to build for the Chicago convention! Come on folks! Sometimes I’m doing two or three of these things at once!
After listing the challenges, we began to knock them over, one at a time.
First, MISSION. In typical government style thinking… I started with the last item first. MISSION. Mission statements get a bad rap. I get it… we have all learned to HATE mission statements because most of them suck! My employer uses a simple format. It’s tested, proven, and it has only five parts… which is especially good for me because it corresponds with the number of fingers on my left hand! So I can count them off as I go. It’s so convenient! We will look at the MISSION STATEMENT in a second. Suffice it to say, you shouldn’t just make it up. You gotta work up to it.
Get over the years of shitty mission statements we have heard… Get past the STUPID crap about Burger Kings “Mission” to provide you with the best dining experience possible at a price you can afford. Instead, ponder this: If you are not CLEAR on WHAT you’re doing… you will probably fail to DO it.
Form follows function. Remember from the assumptions I listed above, I don’t think there is an optimal LUG formula. You make the LUG fit your needs. What was this clubs function? Kids were supposed to meet for various after school activities for enrichment. Enrichment. Huh. Beyond that… my new favorite school teacher couldn’t tell me anything. For my part, I just wanted to learn about LUGs. For me, the best way to learn is by doing. But again, what is the LUGs function, and… again, form follows function!
So, with ZERO input from the school, I decided any LUG involving kids had to:
- Be safe.
- Be fair.
- Be fun.
- Be consistent.
- Introduce new topics to kids, and then to explore those topics (this is enrichment I guess):
- Civil behavior. Respect and disrespect. Rules of engagement.
- Social organization. Collective and individual systems.
- Decision making and leadership. Participatory and autocratic options.
- Markets/jobs. Income. Trading. Sharing. Saving. Poverty. Wealth.
- Roles. Club offices. Expectations.
- Be transferable to (to the next sucker who said: Yeah… I guess I could do that).
- Be enduring. A good enough idea that it would be continued after my departure.
Not the LUG you are looking for? Well duh! Form follows function right? Unless you were a K through 6th grade kid attending this exact school, it wasn’t crafted for you. It was crafted for little kids! Custom built to fit the needs I was facing. Lots of kids, lots of ages and lots of interests. I needed a format that would keep a room full of sugar fueled high-efficiency CPUs humming for three hours straight! Want to keep kids focused? Challenge them. To me, that meant direct engagement and structure. A bunch of K through 6 kids, fighting over a bucket of bricks while a worn out copy of Dora the Explorer plays on a loop for three hours… aint it.
I wanted the LUG to be educational in focus. In the best of all worlds, it would merely amplify stuff kids are already exposed to in class… but of course in my world (here in the U.S. of A) none of that stuff is taught at K through 6, so I was going to be introducing the concepts. Either way, my LUG was just a vehicle, a means to an end. Increasing the kids building skills and enjoyment of Lego was just an inevitable and excellent side effect of “enrichment.” I went with this format because I figured parents and the school would respond better to that notion: A LUG as a classroom. (Foot note: As it turned out, most parents didn’t give a damn! They just wanted the three hours of babysitting! And the school? They were beyond disinterested… they were oblivious!).
Oh, and I thought I better think of a clever name. Maybe something with the word brick… or school. So I called it: The Brick Schoolhouse. Very abstract, I know.
Oh, and Keith provided a big batch of custom engraved bricks that ONLY club members could have… EVER! That was like… GOLD to these kids. A custom engraved Brick Schoolhouse brick? Aces! Keith was angry that I would not agree to let him put “KeithLUG” on the back, but I couldn’t stomach the use of my amazing visionary LUG, just to feed Keith’s unquenchable burning need for fame and affirmation! So I told him: “You’re a damn good cop Goldman, but you don’t know everything in the world yet!” Later he said: “Mike you were right all along… and I’m sorry for the way I acted.” Then we nodded knowingly to one another, cocked our machine pistols, kicked open the door to the rest of our lives, and went in guns blazing! Anyway… it was something like that…
After the name, and the mission parameters, comes the easy part: MISSION STATEMENT. No! Don’t skip ahead! Damnit to hell… it’s only five Ws… Who, What, When, Where, Why. Five Ws… five fingers (I only need one finger for you Goldman). If I can do this… I’m pretty sure most of you can too! Remember, if you can’t hammer out the 5 Ws in clear simple language… then the odds are, you still don’t know what you’re trying to do! Our MISSION STATEMENT looked like this:
Who: You, The members of the Brick Schoolhouse.
What: Build assigned projects with Lego.
When: From 3:00PM to 6:00PM every Friday
Where: At this school.
Why: To learn about how you are going to run the world when you are in charge! (Code for that “Enrichment” crap).
That’s a lot of thought just for the mission. But the mission is where the whole thing starts. It dictates what is and is not relevant. Every other decision and action in the LUG can be evaluated in terms of how it supports or detracts from the mission. The mission is like magnetic north. Struggle with it. Fight about it. Re-invent it. Take as much time as you need, but in the end…get the MISSION statement right! Later, as your LUG changes, and the LUG members priorities change, you can CHANGE your MISSION STATEMENT… but you should always know (and YOU should always ensure that your fellow LUG members know) what MISSION STATEMENT is guiding your clubs actions at any given moment.
The second challenge my wife and I had to solve: Legos! (don’t tell me it’s “Lego”… I know, and I just don’t care). We had no Legos for the club. First, analysis. I built a tiny one room house on a tiny green base plate, and a tiny car and we added a single “cheap” minifig. We priced the parts on Bricklink and multiplied it by about 20 (an arbitrary guess about the size of the club). Then we added 25% more to pay for “uncharted building”. That brought us to a nice round 400 bucks. Yeah… 400 is a lot in my eyes, but this was the leap of faith moment. The wife and I discussed it, and she authorized a 400 dollar investment, contingent on club members paying a 20 dollar enrollment fee. We thought we would probably lose half of this front money, but the school had no brick and no bucks… so… what else could we do? We also assumed that all Lego purchased for the LUG would become property of the school itself as soon as we brought it to the club. I wasn’t going to get into any “My Lego, and Your Lego” discussions. We discussed it with my favorite teacher, who told us she “wasn’t comfortable asking parents for an enrollment fee” so I said “get bent” and then she said “OK, we’ll go with the enrolment fee”. My wife (a German finance controller for crying out loud) got on Bricklink, and ordered 400 dollars’ worth of brick. Lots of basic color brick, doors, windows, TV antennas, fence pieces, a few trees and bushes… not sexy stuff, basic stuff.
We had a “Parent Night” where the situation was explained to parents. 20 bucks, per kid, in advance, no refunds, and you don’t get any Lego to take home at the end of the semester. At first, many parents balked at the fee, both in concept and in specific amount. None of the other clubs charged anything, so why should we? And 20 bones? For nothing? Except that when we reviewed the numbers: 12 meetings, each for three hours, provides you with 36 hours of educational engagement for your 20 dollars… uh… 55 cents per hour? Boom. We made almost half of our seed money back in the first night. Later we made the rest back, with extra, which we used for subsequent Lego purchases for the school.
So, while we did have to “front” the seed money, we got it back and were spending all overages on more brick for the school within three meetings. It went off almost without a hitch, except… for my favorite teacher. I was late to the first actual meeting of the club, and she told some parents that donating a ziplock baggy of Megabloks and Lincoln Logs would be an acceptable substitute for the 20 bucks… And she cost the club 60 dollars… and she created a double standard… and bread a small group of disgruntled parents who wanted to change out their cash for a bag of crap… and almost crashed the whole funding architecture! But other than that one hiccup, it was literally that easy.
Third, Age Gap of LUG members. Kindergarteners through 6th graders. I was stumped for a long time. This was just going to suck. Kindergarten? Tiny kids? What do they have in common with older kids? What older kid wants to have anything to do with them? Remember, I wasn’t operating in the realm of “stuff that sounds nice”… I had to stay in the realm of “stuff that works well”.
Initially, I thought I would have a “Kiddy Table”. A leper colony. A quarantine zone. All the littlest kids in one, loud, wild table… segregated from the older kids. Not allowed to disrupt the LUGs real focus. But that made me feel evil… evil and weak… and I trust my feelings. No, the path of least resistance was not the path to victory in this case. The school wanted the club to be “integrated.” Besides, relegated to a quarantine table, the little kids would still distract me, and they would always feel bad because little kids ALWAYS want to hang with bigger kids (it’s a rule… they talk about it on Animal Planet). This notion of “integration” is what eventually drove the structure for the entire LUG. Since I had to integrate the club members, I would also integrate the building… in the form of a Lego town. It all grew very clear very suddenly by coming to grips with this particular challenge.
I had access to a classroom with 12 tables. More than enough. Every table would be a team. The name of the team was the name of the street in the Lego town they would build. Every team would have a few of the youngest, a few of the middle, and a few of the oldest kids. Older kids would be “responsible” for protecting, helping, and teaching the little kids, their “neighbors” on the street. No isolated kids. No quarantine zone! And all that stuff about responsibilities and roles grew into a very clear image. Additionally, it was beginning to look like it might be a cool exercise.
Fourth issue? Rules. We had none. So I wrote some up. Very easy stuff. But all numbered, all published. All parents provided with copies before paying enrollment fees. Some highlights included: No pay = No enrollment. No teacher to assist = No club. Parents don’t sign a copy of the rules = No enrollment. All cash (enrollment fees / future Bricklink purchases) will be tracked, and witnessed in writing by TWO parents from the club and the teacher… or I walk. All pretty basic stuff designed to pre-empt conflict. There was some posturing and nay saying, but it was a no-brainer. And that bit about transparency in the money handling, and having a teacher in the room at all times? ZERO NEGOTIATION on those points. Thing is, nobody else wanted to run the club… so in the end, I controlled the action.
Rules for the kids were more fun. On day one, I told a room full of snot nosed squirmy kids who smelled like a bag of Halloween candy: “Congratulations… you are all survivors. Last night a massive storm smashed into your island community, and all traces of civilization were destroyed. The coast guard dropped off these supplies early this morning, (each kid was handed a zip lock baggy of parts)…but they had to leave to help other people on other islands in the area. You are the only people left on the island. We need to rebuild our town, but we only have three hours today. What is the most important thing to build first? And bang… it was off to the races. The conversation was one of the best I have ever had!
Billy shouts out: A prison!
Me: A prison? Really? How’s that man?
Billy: The prisoners probably escaped from the prison last night! So there running all over the place!
Sally: He said we are the only survivors stupid! We’re not prisoners!
Billy: (suddenly serious and glancing left and right): Some of us might be though…
Sally: I don’t want to be a prisoner, and we need to build houses so we can cook dinner! Hungry! Hello!
Mark (this tiny tiny blond kid… one of the youngest): We should look at our Lego people, and see who is dressed like a prison people.
Mathew: If we build a restaurant, we could feed everybody there, plus if it was Golden Corral then yum!
Marry: Oh! Bourbon chicken! My mom says it’s bad for you, but oh my god! It’s soooo good!
Mark (holding up his minifig): I am not a prison guy.
Billy: What about a police station with a helicopter to help with sick people?
Marry: A hospital would be better for that, plus we need a hospital anyway.
Dennis: Mark, none of us are prisoners OK? Do we all get the same parts? It’s not enough for a Golden Corral… what if we…
Billy (Pointing excitedly across the table): He’s a prisoner! He escaped!
John (and I quote here) Oh shit! I am a prisoner! I didn’t do anything! This sucks!
Billy: We have to grab…
Me: Billy, slow down Sheriff Lobo! John, it’s cool. You just found that shirt on the beach… you’re not really a prisoner…here man. Let’s swap out your Lego guy…
I almost pissed myself. It was better than ANY show I have EVER seen on TV. Screw “Lost”. Screw “The Walking Dead. Screw “Game of Thrones”. These kids were moving at a mile a minute, and coming up with wicked arguments and excellent proposals by the bucket! By the end of the first meeting, they had all built tiny houses, except for three girls who combined their bricks to build a “shelter” for the homeless… even though… everybody had enough bricks to build tiny homes for themselves. I couldn’t fault the thinking though. And shit, it was a smarter move than building a prison! Each kids tiny house fit into a gallon sized Zip Lock freezer bag, and went into the broom closet until the next meeting.
Next week, we chose street names, and had “elections” where each street chose a representative for the town council. Later, after the kids had received “Lego Dollars” for attending club meetings, we established rules for buying bricks from “the brick store” which was staffed by my wife. And they made rules for trading bricks with your fellow citizens (to protect the little kids from getting ripped off by the older kids). We elected a dog catcher, a sheriff (thank god it was John and not Billy!) and “A Fire Guy” and a “Trash Guy”. We also agreed to pay extra Lego money to these people because they needed to build “Garbage trucks and stuff” for their jobs. The town “Fire Guy” and the sheriff were emphatic about the need for buildings and equipment, but the “Trash Guy” announced his plan to build a truck that he could back up to the beach and dump everything into the water. That provided material for yet another truly excellent discussion!
They built A hospital, a police station, a fire station, a recycling center, a greenhouse (specifically so they could grow plants for turtles to eat?) and restaurant which would serve Pizza for a week, and then be a Golden Corral the next week. Also, it was made absolutely clear, that it couldn’t STAY a Golden Corral just because Golden Corral serves pizza. They built two signs for the restaurant, and that sign WOULD be changed weekly… and the Sheriff was in charge of storing the sign that was not being used… so… Alright then!
They also made up some laws, and if you broke the laws, you had to take your sig fig apart and put “the prison guy” torso on! There was a closet in the police station where your normal torso was stored while you were incarcerated. Instead of asking for a larger prison when we had more than one offender, the Sheriff unilaterally decided that if somebody else broke a law while you were in prison? You got out early to make room for “the new prisoner!”
The kids violated several of my expectations very early on.
First, the girls built consistently better, and faster than the boys. The girls helped one another and established what I can only describe as a “brick black market” trading parts under the table, and hatching byzantine building schemes. The boys were often more interested in seeing who could fit more Lego into their own nostrils or ears, and on occasion, into the nostrils and ears of their buddies.
The youngest kids were NOT disruptive. They were just glad to be at the table. There houses looked like bloody hell… and when “fixed” by older kids, there houses soon looked like bloody hell again… but they were happy and quiet for three hours a week!
When a disruptive or unpopular kid was given the opportunity to take on a specific task to complete within the town, they usually balked. Not wanting to do anything to help the community. But if you assigned that task, leaving no room for discussion, they would pursue that task with grim determination. When a popular kid was given the same option, they would leap at a job title, but then ignore the task completely.
After about six months, I had to start preparing to move again. We had 34 kids in the club. A sprawling town, lots of friends and a robust culture of shared beliefs and practices. The school was happy, many of the Lego Club members had gone on to join other activities. The school was now crowded on Friday evenings. I had gained a lot of practical experience in designing and running a LUG. I had learned about funding, recruiting, Intra-LUG conflict resolution… all kinds of stuff. And we had built up a considerable Lego inventory for next year’s Lego Club. Only failure? Nobody would volunteer to run it after my departure. Once again, organizational continuity proved to be the Achilles heel! The club closed never to re-open shortly after I left.
So what? You should all run out and start Lego Clubs for kids? No, not at all. The point of the Brick Schoolhouse was not that it is a great universal template. The point is that the LUG concept can be tailored to almost ANY set of requirements… no matter how obtuse they may seem at first. Also, I can see how the LUG might have grown and improved over time. Many LUGs benefit from having a web page or a blog. The notion of running such a page could easily fall into the educational agenda of the Brick Schoolhouse, even though the kid running the web page might not be good with Legos at all! Consider the potential for public display? Children competing to build MOCs, and then self-identifying the best their LUG has to offer, and putting those MOCs on display in support of some theme relevant to OTHER classes in school. Recycling, or robotic technology for example. Think about the possible development of the “election process” in our town, as it relates to civics classes… almost endless potential given more time.
I was grappling with the design of a LUG that was “educational” in nature. But that’s by no means a limit or even trend amongst LUGs. What about LUGs that are designed to promote a real city. Or a LUG that seeks to increase the on-line visibility of it’s members? Or a LUG that… heavy sigh… exists primarily to maintain a roster and fulfill the eligibility requirements for Lego’s LUGBULK program? A LUG that exists to organize and produce massive annual projects at a local annual event?
All legitimate reasons to form a LUG. All radically different in structure. All examples of real life LUGs many of us have encountered. And this short list is not remotely close to comprehensive! There are lots of different LUGs out there… and most of them are run by marginally competent folks. Most of the people who run LUGs are not the BEST people to do so. Rather, (as in my case certainly) they are simply the people who are WILLING to run LUGs.
So, again, I say: Most of us should start a LUG at least once in our AFOL life. It’s a low risk, high pay off gamble. You don’t need a degree in LUG-ology. It doesn’t HAVE to cost any cash. And even if your endeavor is short-lived, I can almost guarantee you will come out of the effort with an enhanced understanding of the Lego hobby, your fellow builders, and indeed… a better understanding of people in general.
That’s this installments pitch. So, how am I wrong? What are the down sides? Why NOT try to start a LUG? You’ve received my volley. If your FDC is up, give me your counter fire.