Fire for Effect: The Brick Schoolhouse, a Proof of Concept.

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.

Thesis:

Many of us should start a Lego User Group (LUG).

Thesis clarification:

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:

User Group Snip.PNG

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!

Assumptions:

  1. More people using Lego is better for the hobby.
  2. Many people will not use or enjoy Lego as much in isolation as they will in groups.
  3. 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).
  4. LUG membership benefits not only the individual… but also benefits other LUG members (synergy).
  5. There is no OPTIMAL LUG formula.
  6. You control the action!

Wandering dissertation:

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.

  1. Lego! The club didn’t have any, and I was damned if I was giving away my own!  You know the deal… Lego = Money.
  2. 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?
  3. 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”.
  4. 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:

  1. Be safe.
  2. Be fair.
  3. Be fun.
  4. Be consistent.
  5. Introduce new topics to kids, and then to explore those topics (this is enrichment I guess):
    1. Civil behavior. Respect and disrespect. Rules of engagement.
    2. Social organization. Collective and individual systems.
    3. Decision making and leadership. Participatory and autocratic options.
    4. Markets/jobs. Income. Trading. Sharing.   Saving.  Poverty.  Wealth.
    5. Roles.  Club offices.  Expectations.
  6. Be transferable to (to the next sucker who said: Yeah… I guess I could do that).
  7. 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.

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