What Makes St. Louis a Model for Grassroots Community-Building

Opinion | Personal Learning Networks

What Makes St. Louis a Model for Grassroots Community-Building

By Robert Dillon     Oct 28, 2015

What Makes St. Louis a Model for Grassroots Community-Building

Here’s a harsh truth: Without collaboration and synergy between the various groups, foundations, and organizations dedicated to the growth of kids in a city, all parties involved will likely produce diminishing returns.

Knowing this truth has stimulated fruitful conversation in the Saint Louis edtech community over the last six months. In this window, Saint Louis educators have realized that as other cities were building out their spheres of influence, Saint Louis has stalled, continuing to only use its legacy programming playbook.

This conversation, coupled with a new commitment to the hard work of communication and collaboration has brought fresh energy wafting over the educational ecosystem in Saint Louis. This energy wasn’t a miracle. It didn’t rise up out of the ashes or come without the scars of a difficult journey. Let’s look at how Saint Louis became a hotbed of education innovation by taking grassroots energy and charging it forward.

Grassroots Efforts First: EdcampSTL

Four years ago, a group of volunteers gathered to host the area’s first Edcamp. With no sense of event planning, how to find donations, or an ability to truly market the Edcamp concept, this group of volunteers did what was natural and felt right, and generated space for conversation and questions about new practices and innovation in schools, as well as how to support the hard work of teachers in classrooms throughout the community.

And it turned out that the spirit was there--the first EdcampSTL brought 150 educators together on a Saturday to experience a new way to learn and grow. Four years later, EdcampSTL is one of the largest in the world, and it continues to draw new teachers and leaders into the conversation. But more importantly, EdcampSTL was the brushfire that changed professional learning in Saint Louis.

The Movement Spreads: Connected Learning

Sparked by this newfound energy, a small group of EdCamp participants began to see what was possible when energy and resources were put towards supporting networking and learning. They saw how it combated the isolation, loneliness, and disillusionment that many teachers are experiencing from the pressure of the system.

And so, from this vision emerged Connected Learning--the first nonprofit organization that has evolved from an EdCamp organizing group, and it is now hosting, supporting and sponsoring over 15 events each year in Saint Louis with the focus of doing professional learning differently.

Currently, Connected Learning has taken on the role of “harbormaster” for all things edtech in the region. This includes bringing events like Edsurge Summits, Future Ready Schools Summits, and other national events to the region to support the innovative teaching and learning in the region. This role has now extended to bringing together all of the organizations that support learning in the region for greater communication and collaboration.

The nonprofit is also embarking on projects to draw together community leaders for conversations about education through ed-clusters and partnerships. A key example: Connected Learning’s recent event, the Urban Education Design Challenge, brought a diverse group of learners and leaders together to solution make around the needs of urban education in Saint Louis and beyond. Using the design thinking strategies from the d.school at Stanford, participants were involved in rapid cycle ideation and prototyping with deep focus on empathy.

Connected Learning desires that more and more classrooms throughout the state and region can use the tenants of connected learning (smart technology infusion, student-centered learning, elegant learning space design, and dedication to engaging lessons) on a daily basis.

Continuing to Involve the Community

Even with success, many have asked about why Connected Learning has become a force in Saint Louis, and why are so many teachers and leaders flocking to its events and talking about its mission. It appears to be the power of three realities. The first is that the primary organization involved with professional learning in Saint Louis had lost its agility and had become less responsive to the needs of teachers. Couple this with the increase in social media use by educator that allowed folks to realize that a higher quality of professional learning was possible and finally, the fact that a new generation of more technology-savvy educators that were maturing into leaders at this time, and you had the “perfect storm” for change.

But at the end of the day, continuing to harness the power of the community holds true. In fact, Connected Learning now has a volunteer force of over 60 people that actively support events through logistics, donations, and marketing, and is supported by a leadership team of 12 individuals and a board of directors.

Connected Learning is driving a new cohort of learning and innovation in Saint Louis and beyond. It is ironic that it started as a conversation between two people that wanted to shape education, and its mission continues to be the same, starting conversations between individuals that desire a better future for students, teachers, and communities. But Connected Learning has clearly now moved from supporting teachers with tips, tools, and tricks to becoming an organization with a deep desire for social change.

In cities, conversations should revolve more and more around issues of social justice, equity in education, and closing essential gaps around experience, opportunity, and access--and they should start with people on the ground, first and foremost.

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