The Results Are In: Edtech Alone Will Not Fix Adulted

Adult educators: consider carefully before investing in more devices and edtech products! 

Do students need tech skills for success? Yes. 

Do they need to perform well on computer-based testing? Yes.

Will edtech products increase student outcomes? That depends.

The Joyce Foundation funded a study to determine if edtech products would make a significant difference in adulted outcomes. Their conclusion? Probably not.

What does this mean for funders, administrators, teachers, and edtech companies?

First of all: Funders, Invest in Educators

Silicon Valley, and your entourage of investors, please consider throwing money at educators over edtech. Seriously, slow down. ROI in the edtech marketplace is siphoning money away from ROI for society.

Investors who look for quick tech money, do so at the expense of what actually works for education.

Second: Edtech Companies

Having participated in this study from the vendor side, I suspected it would confirm that products or devices alone do not improve outcomes. 

This is disheartening for organizations who were hoping the research would give them a leg up on competitors. 

But the truth is that programs need to buy the materials that their teachers and students feel comfortable using.

Although some of my colleagues would beg to differ, I really think what matters in the end is the teacher, not the product. The “best” product is the one you actually use.

Teachers: Learn how to troubleshoot

My look at the preliminary study data suggested a correlation between the digital literacy of the teacher and student usage of technology. My assessment of a TEACHER’S digital literacy seemed to line up with their time-on-task reports. 

However this study did not measure the variable of teacher’s digital literacy. So how did I know?

I used a quick behavioral assessment: If a teacher did not know how to troubleshoot login issues, then they generally did not feel confident implementing edtech products. The students of less confident teachers showed less time on the product, particularly out-of-class time. If the teacher wasn’t comfortable with tech, their students didn’t get to the point of working independently.

While edtech alone isn’t correlated to outcomes, self study DOES increase success rates. But student self-study requires teachers to be able to troubleshoot their students’ use of materials.

Webinars, out-of-state trainers, and vendor technical support can only do so much in those situations. A part-time teacher who encounters any sort of issue with technology in class will just shrug their shoulders and fall back to paper copies or lecture. Same with students who are juggling other responsibilities to make time to study.

Should we expect any different? 

Adulted instructors (in this study or otherwise) are generally not paid for planning time & offered minimal PD. They are rarely, if ever, paid to support students outside of class. So what teachers really need is…

Administrators: Research-based Best Practices

If edtech doesn’t improve the outcomes of adult ed programs, what will? 

Dr Carmine Stewart and Omobola Lana worked together on “A Framework for Program Improvement in Adult Education.” This guide, published by The Literacy of Greater Cleveland, offers a list of research-based best practices for adulted programs.

To download the guide, visit their Publications page and click “Quality Framework.”

Examples for Best Practices include:

  • Managed enrollment
  • A supportive student environment
  • Assessing learners’ progress

This is what I was preaching last week during my Blended Learning course for Virginia Department of Corrections educators. Plus it was my mantra for years as the National Teacher Trainer for Essential Education (GED Academy). 

Edtech is not enough. Teachers and administrators matter.

When people ask me how to set up their adult education program, I always recommended blended learning–a mix of student-led use of technology, and face-to-face instruction. It’s gratifying to see the Joyce Foundation make the same recommendation.

However, this study presents a challenge to administrators working overtime to build, purchase, or implement edtech solutions for adult education. 

News flash: teachers don’t all know how to use this stuff! And more National Trainers is not the sole solution. Once the Expert goes home, to implement research-based best practices, teachers need: 

  • embedded professional development, 
  • on-site technical support, 
  • local professional learning communities, and 
  • regular reviews of data for accountability. 

Adulted teachers are scrappy, creative, passionate… and underpaid. We’ve been doing more with less for decades.

Local administrators can improve outcomes by offering educators planning time, program support, and incentives for implementation… not just more edtech stuff.

That’s what the research suggests, anyway.

I Took the GED® Test…How Can I Get College Credit?

In January 2016, the GED Test changed its scores from pass/fail, to three different levels:

GED Performance Levels
Source: GED Testing Service
  • 175 College Ready + Credit
  • 165 College Ready
  • 145 Pass: High School Equivalency

Find more details in the Quick (Unofficial) 2017 GED® Test Update: Only available until June 30, 2017!

The new GED College Ready Plus Credit is a recommendation for colleges & universities to accept a GED Test Taker’s score to count towards college credit.

What does that mean?

If you do well enough on the GED Test, you can save yourself time & money by starting in higher level classes. Skip Math 101 for a more interesting statistics class, for example. GED Test scores can equal up to 10 college credits…that’s almost one entire semester!

But you can’t skip a class everywhere you apply. GED Test Takers who want to make the most of their high scores may want to look closely at where they apply to college.

To find out if your GED College Ready + Credit Scores are worth $$$:

  1. Start by checking if your nearby college or university is part of the ACE Credit College & University Network. I sorted this list by state so I could easily scan which Ohio institutions are on the list. In some cases, I see two branches of Kent State University, but not the branch nearest me. Hmm…
  2. Next, contact the Admissions department. Ask if they accept College Ready + Credit. Even colleges within the network can determine whether or not to accept certain types of credit.
  3. Even after contacting the Admissions department, they will likely give you the name of the department head, or someone else who will have to approve your application to transfer credit. If the answer is yes, then ask for the forms. If the answer is no…

This is when you change from a prospective student to an advocate.

So for example, maybe Youngstown State University’s English department is okay with giving 1 credit for Reasoning through Language Arts, but the History department has not made a decision about the Social Studies credit. Each department or dean the right to make their own decision (more about the process).

However, in many cases, a department chair may have no clue that the GED College Ready Plus Credit even exists, or what it means.

If they say “no,” or they haven’t heard of it, this is your chance to teach them!

  • If you are a test taker, explain how hard you studied, the skills you learned, and more.
  • If you are a teacher, share the Performance Level Descriptors, and a press release from GED Test Service about the new passing level.

Want more details on cool new tips and tools for GED® Test preparation?

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If I Ran the School: Blended Learning

If you ran a school for at-risk teens or non-traditional adult learners, what would you do?

I’ve been fortunate to work in adult education, where this question gets asked daily. What do you do when 100% of your students have the most barriers to learning, and a bad taste in their mouths?

What works, and what doesn’t?

I would focus on two words:

BlendedLearningCover

Next week, I am facilitating a live course about BLENDED LEARNING for Virginia Department of Corrections educators. 

Want to join us? Sign up for details about how to follow along online!

Tell Me More

Here’s a closer look at common adult education program structures (and why I think blended learning is the best):

Business as Usual: Face-to-face Instruction

No matter your student population, some teachers are all about classic face-to-face group instruction:

  • lecture,
  • textbooks,
  • long videos,
  • and now many students ignoring it all in lieu of cell phones…

Okay, Ferris Bueller is a super exaggeration. I mean, I have seen some really excellent group instruction: engaging, interactive, relevant. But… it’s still face-to-face group instruction.

“What’s wrong with business as usual?” you ask.

Well…if you miss a day, you’re behind. Or you show up, but you don’t understand it, you’re behind. Guess what? Most at-risk students already start BEHIND!

Actually, the truth is that a slim majority of high school students actually pass with business a usual. At least, they graduate.

But I’m not worried about “most students,” and neither are you. We’re worried about the ones who didn’t get it the first time, the ones who fall through the cracks.

What alternative programs do high schools or adult education classes offer for the large minority of students who do not succeed in traditional face-to-face group instruction? How do they stack up against 

Worst Outcomes: Self-Paced Online Learning

A few years back, some members of the educational press were crowing that MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) were going to be The Golden Ticket that was going to FIX education!

As predicted, MOOCs did not fix business as usual… follow up studies showed that only 10% of students who enrolled completed a MOOC.

These outcomes could be improved by adding elements of faciliated coursework. But that required removing the Massive and Open parts of a MOOC. Then it’s just an OC (online course), and stops being entirely self-paced.

The high school where I worked fell into a similar trap as MOOCs. The district offered online learning for students with barriers:

  • teens who had babies,
  • were ill for extended periods, or
  • their behavior was too disruptive.

Most of the at-risk online students didn’t have the discipline to complete their coursework. For the 10% of motivated, self-paced learners, online learning is critical.

But purely online learning needs additional support, not less than traditional teaching. It works well for traveling artists & athletes, not discipline cases.

Moderate Success: Dual Enrollment

With the merger of workforce development and adult basic education through WIOA, career pathways are all the rage.

Dual enrollment combines high school level study with post-secondary credentials.

Technical training, classes at a local college campus, and supervised work-study tend to help students persist in learning, and give them a head start on productive careers.

There are plenty of data backing up the effectiveness of these programs for those who enroll.

Men in ties in a carpentry workshop
Returned soldiers at vocational training in Queensland, 1920

So why aren’t they top on my list?

These approaches are not scalable because enrollment is limited.

And limited enrollment is a good thing! Specialized technical training is not for everyone, especially when we’re preparing people for jobs that won’t exist a decade from now.

On top of that, the students with the most barriers–OUR adult basic education students–are often the least likely to benefit from highly structured programs.

Best Solution: Blended Learning

What can we do? 

How can we consistently improve outcomes for adult education or alternative high school programs?

How do we reach the at-risk adults and teens who lack:

  • the stability for dual enrollment programs,
  • the discipline for self-paced online learning, and
  • the attention span for face-to-face instruction?

We throw in a mix of each with blended learning!

Blended learning combines face-to-face, instructor-led programs with self-paced student use of technology.

Multiple pathways are accessible for students in the same building. Through online learning, students can engage the world… while maintaining the support and continuity of instructor oversight.

WhyShouldWeBlend

Vulnerable students of all ages need genuine human connection to successfully graduate.

But they also need the flexibility and autonomy to make their own choices, and accommodate the messiness of life.

Graduate schools have figured this out: they are expanding their reach by adding flexible, blended learning programs that encourage individual inquiry while developing a community of scholars.

Those at “the top” of their careers share the same barriers as those who are most vulnerable:

  • unpredictable schedules,
  • work and family responsibilities,
  • need for increased support, and
  • an inability to participate in an immersive on-campus experience.

Blended learning meets all those needs, plus it’s scalable. Thus blended learning is the optimal solution to prepare at-risk high-school-level graduates for a 21st century economy.

Graduates will be entering a world that mixes:

  • oversight and autonomy,
  • independence and teamwork, &
  • technology and human connection.

Blended learning prepares students for the “both… and” aspect of our strange new world.

“Blended learning is the optimal solution… for a 21st century economy.”

Next week I look forward to discussing the details of how to implement blended learning in adult education programs. I hope you can join us!

 

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Why Do Rainbows Remind Us of the Dead?

Like grass withers in circles in a field, sometimes we come to a season when it feels like people are dying all around us. In truth, people are dying every day. But in these past couple weeks, I feel the breeze from death’s scythe circling me as people I know are cut down in their prime.

On those days, clouds cover my heart.

Death and rainbows have been a theme of this week. After the spring storms flooding Northeast Ohio, social media is flooded with pictures of refracted light and attributions to the beloved deceased.

What is it about these bright, thin glimpses of color that remind us of our loved ones who have gone before us?

Monday, Memorial Day in the US, was a Rainbow Day. It’s already marked off as a day to barbeque and remember the dead. On top of that Ron Cramer of Jefferson fame had a fatal heart attack while running a 5K, an experience he survived exactly four years ago.

Ron leaning against a stone cross in a graveyard
Ron Cramer

The news added a litany of stories to our extended family gathering, and I just got quiet (which is very out of character!). That evening, our immediate family went cycling, training for a long distance bike ride. Rain was forecast, so we put on our raincoats.

Instead of asking not to bike, our boys wanted to get wet. They laughed about “getting skunked” by the water sprays that soaked their butts. We peddled through a sunshower, when the warmth was on our backs, but heavy drops still peppered our faces.

Then we came out the other side of the storm to a rainbow.

Full_featured_double_rainbow_at_Savonlinna_1000px
Double rainbow by Wikimedia user Lauri Kosonen

A rainbow by itself is just color, a distortion or mirage. We can’t touch it, but it reveals a hidden truth about the spectrum of light that is hidden from our eyes on ordinary days.

I believe it is the experience of a rainbow that reminds us of dying.

It is the experience of peddling hard through a storm, and being rewarded with beauty on the other side. It reminds us how to be grateful for things that can’t last.

The death of a friend reveals something to us that is usually hidden in our workaday world: that the spectrum of life is more than the sum of our works.

Simple drawing of a rainbow

It hints that there is something more, something deeper. There is something in a human life that disappears as soon as we try to touch it or put in in a box, but that stays with us long after the mirage has faded.

I found myself singing:

“Alleluia, the great storm is over,
Lift up your wings and fly.”

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes also put this experience into verse (12:1,5,7):

Remember your creator in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come,
when one is afraid of heights,
and terrors are in the road;
the almond tree blossoms,
the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails;
because all must go to their eternal home,
and the mourners will go about the streets,
and the dust returns to the earth as it was,
and the breath returns to God who gave it.

Grief is a storm that comes in waves. But when mourners gather, we do so to remember the vanity of life with gratitude, and with a hope that at the end, there will be rainbows.

GED® Test Prep Resources

Smiling girl in graduation cap
Graduation Girl by flickr user BdwayDiva1

Thanks for coming! I am Meagen Farrell, author of Teaching Adults: A GED® Test Resource Book avaiTeaching Adults GEDlable from New Readers Press, and previously National Teacher Trainer for GED Academy (among other products offered by Essential Education).

Looking to pass the GED® Test, or to help someone study?

You’ve come to the right place! Below you will find a collection of resources for anyone, anywhere to study for the GED® Test*. In addition, many states offer the HiSET Exam or the TASC Test to earn a High School Equivalency Diploma.

Warning: Many sites are free because of advertisements.  Don’t click on the ads!!!

Other sites give free trials to sell their paid services. Ask yourself: is it worth it to pay for this?

Check out my latest post with updated links:

Top 30 FREE Websites for GED® Test Prep and Workforce Development

Helpful Links

[Note: these links were good as of October 18, 2016. If you find any broken links, please comment or contact me to let me know. If you are a long-term follower, this post serves to archive the content on the previous page “GED Test Prep.”

I am moving on to become Director of Religious Education at a church in Northeast Ohio. Follow my blog for updates, teacher resources, and spiritual reflections.]

*GED® is a registered trademark of the American Council on Education (ACE) and administered exclusively by GED® Testing Service LLC under license. Any content on this website is not endorsed or approved by ACE or GED Testing Service.

My First Classroom: Catechesis of the Good Shepherd

One of the biggest differences between teaching adult basic education and teaching K-12 is the classroom. 

Or lack thereof.

Teaching adult literacy and GED Test Preparation, I taught everything from basic pronunciation to chemical equations. WHERE you explain poetry or fractions… that could be anywhere. Literally half of my time teaching adults had nothing to do with teaching. It was mostly: drive to a community center, set up, coordinate tutor-student pairs for 90 minutes, clean up, drive to another site…repeat at a shelter, in a church basement, or an outreach program. At one point my schedule took me to two sites each day, four days a week, with Friday to do paperwork.

Single floor brick building flanked with trees. Sign for Cassidy Center above glass double doors
Where I teach religious education, full of multi-purpose rooms. Looks a lot like other places I taught adults.

On Monday morning, I would walk into a church multi-purpose room and unlock a metal cabinet. From there I would pull out the supplies I needed to make coffee. Next I would put out the sign-in sheets next to a crate of manila folders documenting student work. Usually our cabinets held shelves of workbooks and I would have to go down the hall to make copies in the office, usually in the middle of “class.” We had a few well-used manipulatives like flashcards, fraction stacks, and colorful bingo chips. But since adults in my programs worked at their own level and pace, we never had large group lectures.

Metal shelves holding miniature chalice, paten, altar cloth, and other materials for children to use.
Instead of cramming everything in one metal cabinet, I can space it out for the children to access.

Imagine: each person deciding where to sit, most of the time head down in focus, or leaning over to talk with a tutor. Everything else about the space changed between each class I taught: round tables, long rectangles, desks against a wall… plastic chairs, folding chairs, pews in a hall… One site we were surrounded by high ceilings and stained glass windows in the back of a church. Another site was a dimly-lit, cinder block basement with moldy carpets.

Teaching adults, even as a teacher trainer traveling from workshop to workshop, I rarely had any control over the lighting, the chairs or tables, the temperature, the decorations on the walls… I learned to just walk into a place and make it my own as best I could. I learned to ignore or adjust to the physical backdrop and focus completely on individual students and the words and numbers in front of them.

Until this year.

Small books, folders eith coloring pages, and baskets labeled things like
Child-sized bookcase with work about the Mystery of the Kingdom of God

As a volunteer catechist (that’s Latin for “teacher”) at my local church, I finally have my own classroom. I teach 3-6 year olds using a Montessori-inspired curriculum called Catechesis (Latin for “teaching”) of the Good Shepherd. My students still work at their own level and pace, but I had no idea how much it would transform my teaching to pay close attention to THE ROOM.

Short bookcases and pre-school sized desks and chairs
The right-sized furniture makes a big difference for little people.

I agree that the physical environment matters for learning, but years in adult basic education trained me how to cope without control over my surroundings. Adult educators, particularly those in highly controlled residential facilities (i.e. Corrections) have to be some of the scrappiest, most resourceful people on the planet. I still have the habit of arriving 15-30 minutes early and staying late for set up and clean up, but now I can do so much more with the 75 minutes when my students are present.

Ten wooden sheep in a sheepfold with a shepherd lying down at the entrance
The Good Shepherd: namesake of this program

Yesterday I spent the whole day cleaning, organizing, purging the room from unwanted leftovers of yesteryear, and materials that are not age appropriate. 

Table covered with red cloth, candles, and prayer cards. Bookshelves with abacus, stamps, Playdoh, and more.
Our prayer corner and practical life works are much more attractive without distracting junk.

As I cleaned, I realized that there are a few things I ignored all year (out of habit) that are now within my power to fix. Take this faded construction paper… before classes resume in September, I’ll replace or cover it. I have time planned in the workshop to replace some of my first-attempt, makeshift materials with painted wood. The apple borders are an unnecessary decoration, and take away from the solemnity of the altar work.

Small wooden chairs and tables making a makeshift altar, lecturn, and tabernacle, with a calendar on corkboard.
I didn’t notice the black background was faded and torn. This sends a message to our students.

Becaise this experience is nee, it’s taking up a lot of mental energy to force myself to pay attention to the physical environment. But that’s one of the gifts of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and the Montessori approach in general. We are asked to slow down and pay attention to the unnamed or subconscious messages we send to children through objects and behavior.

Small, painted people in front of an altar table
Jesus said “I have sheep not from this sheepfold.” I painted these figures to represent [Left to Right]: Ireland, India, Bolivia, Germany, our Pastor Fr Sheridan, Lebanon, Uganda, Japan, USA, Australian Aboriginals.

Catechists have a lot of flexibility in the materials, so the physical materials can be an opportunity to set up students to later absorb some bigger theological concepts. For example, in an age of violent anti-Semitism, I find it critical to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus and His first disciples.

12 Apostles and Jesus gather to celebrate the Passover Seder with four glasses of wine. We don’t know what they were singing on the way to the Mount of Olives, so I taught the kids “dayenu.”
Each Apostle is stamped with his name and a symbol representing his life or death.

I also developed a couple additional presentations that I want to document and share this summer, like the 3 socks of the 3 poor girls saved from slavery by St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. This work fit in nicely with the parables about finding the hidden treasure in the field, and selling everything for the precious pearl.

Legend has it that St Nick threw 3 bags of gold into 3 stockings for poor girls in trouble.

This coming year, I hope to expand on this work in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd by using some of the principles, and even some materials, to teach adults who are new members in the church (RCIA). Adults as well as kids need the space to work with their hands, and reflect on their personal connection with the Good Shepherd.

Index cards, cotton balls, colored pencils, all make sheep
Adults like to color sometimes, too.

What do you enjoy about having a classroom? Or what would you add if you had one?

Daily Reading: Celebrating Our Adoption Day!

This morning, I got to read one of my favorite verses in scripture. The first reading is from Acts 15, when the early Christian communities have gathered in Jerusalem to deal with one of the biggest controversies in the early Church. As you may have figured out by now, I love to study controversy, and am particularly fascinated by peaceful ways to address them. Whenever I see a “success story” of people taking a topic head-on and growing together, I pick it apart.

I love this passage, because it tells us a lot about HOW the Apostles and early community dealt with controversy. Today we start with a debate. But what are they debating? Who is debating? And why?

They are:

  1. In Jerusalem. After Jesus’ death & resurrection, this became the center of activity for those who believed His Good News.
  2. The Apostles and presbyters. Presbyters are the first Christian priests, who are different from the temple priests, or hierus–although some of the temple priests have also joined this “Christian” movement.
  3. Representatives from all the churches. As the Apostles have gone out in the world to proclaim the Way, they all came together to debate and resolve this major conflict. These include what would latter become known as “deacons” and “lay-people,” and sets the precedent for the Ecumenical Councils that we now hold when worldwide controversies need to be addressed. I could say a lot more about this.
  4. Jews. All of the people who had gathered were either raised Jewish or converts to Judaism. Non-Jews were called “Gentiles,” and their status in the growing community is the topic of discussion.

So basically, more and more Gentiles (non-Jews) want to be baptized. Woohoo, right? Isn’t this what Jesus told them would happen? But those Gentiles are hoping they can opt out of full conversion to Judaism, which means being circumcision as adults, strict kosher laws, and other lifestyle obligations.

So we start this text by asking what we should always ask:

Who is “us”?

 

Peter addresses the group by saying that God “made no distinction between us and them, for by faith he purified their hearts.”

“Us” here means Jews, who observe the ritual purity laws, and also believe and proclaim that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, living in the tradition of Moses, and raised from the line of David.

“Them” means everyone else who also has faith in Jesus.

Eventually, the group said “yes,” Gentiles can join the Family. But only after listening to all sides of the argument, to appeals from the prophets, and from lived experience. This process is what fostered agreement, and maintained unity.

The Apostles and presbyters and representatives from all the congregations remained in their Jewish traditions, which they loved and valued. They continued observing the Sabbath and eating kosher. But they decided at this point to allow others a simpler lifestyle, recognizing that the traditions of their ancestors were not the Way of salvation. And the missionary Apostles also would eat with these Gentiles, new to the faith, as a sign of unity.

The underlying issue here was a question of purity. To approach God, one had to be without SIN, which are impurities. All the ritual acts of daily life (washing, eating) combined with the temple duties (circumcision, sacrifice) were designed to purify bodies and hearts to approach a God who is truly pure.

Some Christians interpret this passage as a total negation of everything that came before, as if the Apostles suddenly became Christians and denied any Jewish traditions or rituals. But the text doesn’t support that. Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and James still went on to observe the Jewish holidays, attend the Synagogues and Temples, and follow their own traditions.

But they recognized that these practices are only good in-so-far as they accomplish their purpose of purifying our hearts. There is still a basic foundation of practices that the Ecumenical Councils proclaim as a “Christian lifestyle,” but it’s not as all-encompassing or strict as many would proclaim. One baptism for the forgiveness of sins, weekly worship, annual Confession and Eucharist, and chastity in singleness or marriage… Those are the big ones.

So what about the rest of the trappings? What about stuff like Bible studies, and Youth Groups, and what languages you speak, and the clothes you wear, and the hymns you sing? Do those need to be in conformity as well?

Indeed, in today’s reading, Psalm 96 answers that question:

“Sing to the LORD a new song,

Sing to the LORD all you lands,”

This decision to open up the Christian Way beyond the confines of Judaism is not a denial of Judaism and Jewish traditions. But nor does it elevate some other Tradition in its place. Every new culture and tradition that enters this Family offers a new song of praise. When I read these passages together, which is the purpose of the daily readings, I think they say something more than each passage on its own.

This pivotal moment, the moment of the Gentile adoption into the Jewish-Christian movement, offers non-Jews an opportunity to become part of a larger, global network and community. But it does not require total conformity to one global lifestyle. Beyond the basics, non-Jews have the option of following other cultural traditions, and to even branch out with creativity to “sing a new song.”

This decision challenges me not to grow complacent in my comfort zone. Like the Apostles, I need to be willing to commit to annual traditions and daily spiritual practices that I find life-giving. And I also need the courage to recognize the Holy Spirit at work in others, that my Way and their Way can work together. The true test of our unity is whether we can commit to each other, and support each other on the different task to purify our hearts. Then we will truly become “God’s people.”

Then “us” and “them” becomes just “us.”

The Seed That Falls on Good Soil

Gardening is much more than a hobby for me and my family. It is a lifestyle, a way of making meaning in an unpredictable world.

Gardening requires a commitment to a physical location. It has taught me how to make difficult choices, and forces me to deal with the consequences of those choices, such as when and where to plant or harvest. Growing plants and animals to eat makes plain the interdependent web of life: for me to live, another living being must die. It continues to teach me to be patient and humble with forces outside of my control, and to capitalize on opportunities, particularly the weather.

Ten hens sleep huddled together in the grass
Sleepy hens are sleepy

Friday was one such good weather opportunity for me. The village’s Garden Club held their annual plant sale. The grass at Giddings Park was covered with hanging plants in neon pink, bright orange, sunny yellow, deep reds, and of course ferny greens. Lines of narrow trees stood ready for planting. I grabbed a flat of aromatic dill and basil, and a couple round planters with tall grasses, leafy vines, and some small white flowers.

Friday was a full day without rain, though the sun still wasn’t warm enough for a t-shirt. The thin grey clouds kept rolling past with brief glimpses of pale blue, and the birds were chirping their mating songs.

Earlier last week, we had a freeze, so planting is still a gamble. However, I had a small gap in my schedule: Wednesday I finished my school year contract as a part-time College & Career Advisor at a high school. Friday was an unexpected full day off, and I needed time outside to let the year unwind within me.

Looks like the pears survived the freeze

Gardening gives me time without media noise to allow me to meditate. Because Jesus used so many references to growing an planting, many scripture passages bubble to the surface as my hands get covered in dirt.

Friday I kept thinking about the parable of the seed and the sower. The seed was the Word of God.

  • As I dug stones from the newly tilled section of garden, I thought of the seed that fell on rock and was eaten by birds.
  • The seed that fell on sandy soil grew quickly but whithered in the sun, like our previous sandy yard near Lake Erie in Cleveland.
  • I pulled weeds from around my strawberry plants thinking of the seed that grew among thorns and was choked.
  • But the seed that grew on good soil produced abundantly.

We do not naturally have good soil in Ashtabula County. According to Carl Feather in “History of Ashtabula County,” the areas where we now drive past field after field of corn and soy beans and cows used to be a dense, dark pine forest. Over the past two centuries of farming and lawns, the clay soil that held pines so well now is a giant swamp. Jesus didn’t mention sowing seeds in clay, and neither do most contemporary gardening books. Clay is for pottery, not agriculture.

12 May 2017: Cut & come Zinnia, Howden Pumpkins, Watermelon
Maybe some compost & wood chips will help

So how do we create good soil for the seed to grow abundantly? Is there any hope for a garden full of clay, or sand, or rocks, or weeds? Each type of soil requires a different kind of care to be fruitful.

I think the same is true of humans, especially in stages when we are vulnerable. For example, I didn’t count, nor could I share, how many kids I talked to at the high school who have a legal guardian instead of a custodial parent. This situation became a routine conversation, particularly regarding financial aid (answer: if you’ve had a legal guardian at any point ages 13 or older, you do not need to submit any parental financial information on FAFSA). 

When teens don’t have responsible parents, who is there to weed out the choking influences? Or worse, what happens when parents are the ones mixing the weeds with the wheat?

12 May 2017: ducks, replanted beans, 1 more row carrots, 2 more rows spinach
I had to replant the beans, carrots, and spinach because the first planting did not grow

Many of those kids in tough situations manage to graduate, find jobs, and often go on to trades, college, and careers. In those success cases, someone provides nourishment for that young soil: perhaps grandparents, or a teacher, or a friend’s family.

Other times, a group of friends encourages risky and irresponsible behavior. This can even impact someone from a stable family. Driving under the influence, crime, skipping school, or violent conflict can choke out a promising future.

12 May 2017: Early wonder beets, Colorful beets
Even after tilling and hoeing, I’m battling grass. We’ll see how much can grow here

But what is “success”? So often high schoolers imagine that a promising future means walking across a stage in cap and gown to collect a four-year college degree, having earned an athletic scholarship, and walking immediately into a high-demand career with a large salary. 

But in this parable of the seed and sower, Jesus was not promising a long life, nor an affluent one. The abdundant fruit He speaks about is not treasure on earth, but a place at the heavenly banquet. 

The fruits of the Kingdom of God are rich in qualities such as kindness, forbearance, and righteousness. 

The right “soil” in His parable does not always lead to material prosperity, but it does cultivate holiness. And that’s a different perspective than the one I advised this year as a College and Career Counselor, or even for my twelve years before that in adult literacy. I have enjoyed my jobs over the years because the goal was to help people get out poverty through educational attainment. But what about attaining the fruits of God’s kingdom?

The right “soil” in His parable does not always lead to material prosperity, but it does cultivate holiness.

12 May 2017: basil, lavender, Greek Oregano, Italian Oregano, dill
Sometimes the most desirable harvest has a short season.

“Live long and prosper” is the Vulcan blessing… it is not always the Way of the Gospel. I am trained as a Vulcan: to build skills that lead to productivity in a capitalist economy, which brings families out of poverty. But does that lead to richness of the soul? To healing and spiritual growth? Not always. Sometimes working for the Kingdom can mean choosing service over salary.

My entire career to this point has focused on preparing people for some future event: passing the GED Test, getting a job, going to college, teaching adults. But some people don’t get to the future event. A 13-year-old from the school district recently disappeared. When her body was found, some students organized a vigil at a nearby church. When life is unpredictable, when people never reach “success” on some future event, we reach for the eternal presence that binds together past, present, and future. We come together to remember that the Kingdom of God is not just some future event we are preparing for…it is at hand. God’s heavenly banquet is a Love we can live within every day.

Life has a purpose and promise beyond passing tests, having a job, and contributing to the economy. I know how to plant and nurture a physical seed, how to prepare for economic success, but what about a spiritual seed?

12 May 2017: early girl, Roma, chocolate cherry, Carolina gold, volunteer carrots?
Planting for the Farmer’s Market won’t make me wealthy, but it will cultivate community and good health.

How do I best nurture the seeds of spiritual growth for my current or future students? What role is the most effective approach for me to cultivate this deeper level of meaning, and relationship?

As you may know, while working part-time in the high school, I’ve also been on an entrepreneurial journey to bring some new ideas to life. I’m at a point in my discernment now where too many things are growing at once… I have to thin my plants, and say “no” to some good opportunities in order to let a few fully thrive.

One of the things I am cutting is Mustard Seed Books. I’ve led a few fun workshops, and created cute videos that will still be available online. But I’m not going to be promoting or developing it further at this point.

12 May 2017: bouquet dill, basil
There are too many seedlings here. I will need to thin out a few and choose one to grow.

You may also know that I closed Farrell Ink LLC as a business last year. While I have continued to offer some trainings connected to GED/HiSET/TASC Test Prep, I’m not pursuing new relationships or venues on those topics.

An empty office awaits its next inhabitant. I am moving on.

In entrepreneur-world, they would call this a pivot: from secular adult basic education to religious adult education. I have been working on a new project called Mustard Seed Training to foster adult literacy in religious education programs. 

But what shape should it take? Should I create a new non-profit? Should I start fundraising to hire staff and make content? I’ve decided not to because…

I have been offered and accepted a position as Director of Religious Education at a local Roman Catholic Parish, starting in July.  

This position will also allow me to continue some relationships I developed with youth and staff at the high school. The large and diverse community needs curriculum developed for RCIA and other programs. They currently offer CCD (summer school) in both English and Spanish. Hopefully, this community will prove to be good soil to plant the seedling of Mustard Seed Training. I will continue using this blog and my online course site to post the materials I develop. But the focus of my blog will shift from adult literacy to religious education as new programs develop.

I hope you will stay with me on this journey! If you are a person of faith, I would appreciate your prayers. But if we part ways here, I am grateful for all you’ve brought into my life, and wish you wholeness, hope, and joy today and every day.

Four baby turkeys in grass
May you be a joyful as young turkeys foraging for bugs.

I Will Pay You to Finish My Crowdfunding Course

Last week, I had way too much fun and learned quite a bit at the COABE Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida. Per tradition, I nearly lost my voice singing after hours at both the House of Blues at Disney Springs and Jellyrolls at Disney Boardwalk. However, I managed to preserve my vocal chords long enough to present about Mustard Seed Books and Crowdfunding. 

While the Mustard Seed Books workshop was its usual addictive fun, I was really thrilled with the level of engagement on Crowdfunding. As always, folks wanted to stay afterwards to chat, but two comments in particular stuck with me:

“Can I share your slides with other Directors?”

Yes! But…

I proposed this session because adult literacy is a critically important and underfunded industry. Utilizing crowdfunding platforms could help adult literacy providers–and other non-profit organizations–tap into the projected $90-96 billion (with a B!) crowdfunding market by 2025.
We NEED new sources of funding, and this is a promising avenue.

So please share these ideas widely, but cautiously. Crowdfunding is not as simple as slapping some text on Indiegogo and watching the money roll in. It can bring new energy and donors to your organization, but only if well planned and executed.

I know I usually just share my deck with the world, but in this case…I really need you to KNOW HOW TO DO IT RIGHT! This is too important to get wrong. There’s a high rate of failure on crowdfunding campaigns, and I don’t want to steer you in the wrong direction.

So if you were in my COABE session, go to the Conference App > My Agenda > Crowdfunding and I have posted the link to the slides.

If you were NOT in my COABE session: would you be interested in a facilitated online course? If yes, please comment below and stay posted.

“Since you like to back campaigns, will you be our first donor?”

No! But…

A big part of my talk was that 70% of unsuccessful Kickstarter campaigns receive a whopping $0. So that first dollar is really critical. First you need to convince your own close circle that your project is worthwhile. You need the support of your friends and family to really make your project a success.

However, IF you can get someone in your inner circle to fund your project, plus a few other pointers from my workshop, then…
I would happily be your SECOND donor. 

After years of watching the crowdfunding industry grow, and backing many successful (and a few unsuccessful) projects, I want to help your organization reach your funding goals. I don’t have the cash on hand to provide full grants, but I can help you develop the skills to meet more of your funding needs. Your organization’s time and social capital is too important to waste.

So I really want you to take my course! But more importantly, I want you to finish it and implement the tips for a successful crowdfunding campaign. Since Wednesday, I’ve been asking myself: How can I make sure folks actually PAY ATTENTION to the tips I have to share?

Today I was intrigued by Kevin Kelly’s proposal: I’ll Pay You to Read My Book. He suggests creating software that will pay readers back who complete an eBook.

Here’s my counter-proposal: Would you complete my facilitated, online crowdfunding course if I promise I will be your second funder? Let me know!

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