Shifting Education Through Local Community Building

A group of disparate individuals, engaged in passionate discussion, sit leaning in, elbow to elbow, in a darkened bar with drinks in hand.  Many a revolution has started with that same picture right? CTRL-Shift (, for me and for many others, has been just that: A revolution.  Begun by a group of local entrepreneurs and University professors, this social think tank has been a growing and dynamic force in the local progressive education movement. The acronym itself stands for Creative Technology Resource Lab- Shifting Education and the group describes itself as the following;

“We are a professional and social group comprised of K-12 school practitioners, community members, entrepreneurs, & faculty and staff at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. We gather to discuss and celebrate computer science in the K-12 schools as well as support and research school-based implementation of computational thinking.

That description is accurate but falls short of truly describing the efforts and activities of the group, which has regular rich discussion, in person and online, around around a variety of progressive educational and social topics including democratic schooling, inclusion of all students in STEM and STEAM, progressive education, student empowerment, standardized testing, computational thinking, robotics in education, poverty, race, student teaching programming and much more.  It is also a group which uses its collective expertise, energy and passion to help enrich teachers’ professional lives and create more meaningful educational experiences for children.

My first run in with CTRL-Shift came two years ago as our school was looking to remake itself, to provide a different and richer experience for our population of students coming from high poverty backgrounds.  Enter the founding members of CTRL-Shift who agreed to work with us, provide training through leftover funding from a Google grant secured by one of the members (Dr. Lenny Pit, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois).  They also did some serious strategic planning with us and most importantly, welcomed us with open arms.  We became part of a larger community with which we could collaborate.  That is perhaps the most important thing. Whilst fighting for respect, relevance, and to be effective, teachers are often ostracized, compartmentalized and holed away, either by common educational culture or structure, administrative decisions or by their own choice.  They lack community.

In our increasingly connected world, one way teachers create that community is through the development of online professional learning networks.  PLN’s are fantastic and I truly appreciate the community that I am a part of on Twitter and Google+.  I have learned so much from my global friends and met many of them in person at conferences to further develop our professional and personal relationships.  That said, the opportunity to see oneself as an important part of a local learning community outside one’s own classroom, school or district is powerful and transformative.

Often, our experiences in this rich local community leave us with more questions than answers.  How do we continue to support the many initiatives we are involved in?  How large should the group grow so that we can still be effective?  What is it that keeps the community going?  Is it o.k. to have varying levels of commitment and how do we reconcile them? How do we meet the needs of all of the different constituencies and do we really even need to worry about that?  These are just some of the questions we work through every week, and often times we realize we aren’t even asking the right questions in the first place, but we only figure this out because we are asking them as a community.

The chance to interact as equals, where everyone, regardless of background, education or title, is seen as not only having things to contribute, but as an essential partner in an ongoing and dynamic process,  is one that is not afforded to most educators.   A safe, local community with which we can struggle with ideas, form new partnerships and dream big, all while enjoying a cold frosty one, is a space we should all covet, and work to create.