Yarn bombing by kid guerrilla knitters

Yarn bombing 1Yarn bombing 2Knitting is not just for grandmas. Some children (with the help of a couple of adults) in our street recently did some yarn bombing – using knitting and crocheting as a form of graffiti. They’ve started decorating a small bridge over a drain near our place and have plans to do more.

When one of our neighbours suggested the idea, the kids didn’t really have a clear idea of what was involved but were happy to give it a go. They didn’t really do all that much knitting before their first attempt, but since they did the bridge over the weekend, my daughters have been madly knitting so they can try another project! Other people in the street are also likely to join in.

Decorating everyday objects brings a smile to people’s faces and encourages us to re-look at our environment. There are some great examples of much more ambitious projects at http://www.boredpanda.org/yarn-bombing/

In the hope of encouraging other people to contribute, the kids left a sign inviting other people to finish “dressing” the bridge. We’re looking forward to seeing if anybody takes up the offer – I suspect they will.

Yarn bombing signThe yarn bombing grew out of the connections in the street that have been strengthened by the Kids’ Vegies on the Verge and our local Transition Streets group. It demonstrates that horizontal community engagement (community engagement with neighbours) can be infectious. As people build connections with each other, more possibilities emerge. One of the great things is that, this time, it wasn’t initiated by Cathy. I’m sure it won’t be the last unsuspected thing to sprout from the garden!

Yarn bombing 3If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. What is Kids’ Vegies on the Verge?
  2. What is the Transition Streets Challenge?
  3. Take a street and build a community
  4. Parenting for a better world
  5. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
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Community engagement in turning around schools

Earlier this year, the Grattan Institute released a report “Turning around schools: it can be done” (Jensen & Sonnemann, 2014). It explored how schools can transform from being a “low-performing’ school into a “high-performing” school. I suspected that engaging parents and the local community would be an important component and sure enough it was one of the “five common steps” identified:

  1. Strong leadership that raises expectations. This is widely considered the vital ingredient. School principals lead behavioural and organisational change that breaks away from the status quo. Leaders set new expectations for teaching and learning, then model changes to bring everyone on board.
  2. Effective teaching with teachers learning from each other. Turnaround schools implement teaching practices that dramatically improve learning. Professional collaboration, such as teacher observation or team teaching, helps teachers to develop new or improved approaches and reinforces change through peer feedback. Working together gives in the school.
  3. Development and measurement of effective learning. Data-driven analysis and evaluation often underpin school turnaround, and are critical to monitoring the impact of policy. Data help to explain teaching challenges, and identify learning needs and areas of strength and weakness across the school. Data use often marks a vital change in these schools.
  4. Development of a positive school culture. Turnaround schools create an orderly and disciplined environment. Significant change usually comes early in the turnaround process and seeks to create new norms of behaviour in schools and classrooms. School culture usually needs to improve before other changes can occur.
  5. Engagement of parents and the community. Parents and communities reinforce changes in students’ behaviours and study habits. Schools can harness this impact by involving parents and community members in the change process. Positive role models from the community also help to lift. (p. 6)

Continue reading

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Being a father

Abbots FallsWhen I received a phone call at 6:35 this morning I was greeted with the question “What’s your story?” My response was “I guess I’m like many fathers. I wasn’t particularly interested in kids, and didn’t really mind if I didn’t have any, until my two gorgeous daughters came along. Now I’m completely besotted and have thoroughly loved being a father.”

Aaron Kearny has been doing the Story Box on 1233 (our local ABC radio station) since May 2012 and I was person number 565. Yesterday I was given a box with a phone in it and this morning Aaron rang the phone to discover the story of the person on the other end. I now have to pass the phone on to somebody so that the Story Box can continue.

We had a great chat about being a father. (You can listen to the interview here.) Cathy and I were married for 14 years before we had our first daughter. We had been trying for over six years and it seemed unlikely that we would be able to have any. We had decided that once we hit 40, that would be it and we wouldn’t try any more. Jasmine snuck in with a bit over 7 months to spare!

From the start I wanted to be a really active father. Cathy and I talked about how it was important that I was actively involved and that I didn’t want to “help”. This meant that I had to take responsibility for the kids, but at the same time she had to allow me to do things my way, and to make mistakes. If she was always telling me what to do (which happens all too often with parents) I was helping her rather than taking responsibility. It is a two-way street. I had to show that I would show initiative and put the kids first, and she had to let me have a go. Continue reading

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Kids’ Vegies on the Verge turns 1!

Birthday signThe Kids’ Vegies on the Verge is one year old! Over the weekend around 70 people celebrate its first birthday. (Notice the spelling in the sign above!)

PartyEvery birthday needs a cake, so Cathy helped some of the kids make a garden cake. They had great fun working out how to make corn, peas, tomatoes and other vegies out of lollies. They even made small signs and a hole in the cake (which they filled with lolly “compost”) for the worm farm. I kept telling them that it was a representation not a replica.

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Neighbours provided all sorts of treats for a wonderful afternoon tea. One of the neighbours, who couldn’t make it to the party, left all the ingredients (including baking paper with a circle marked on it) for a beautiful chocolate and cherry cake which another neighbour baked.

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The main activity of the afternoon (besides eating, socialising and playing) was making a scarecrow. Jasmine and Alexa had done some research on how to make one and, with the help of some of the parents (mainly mums), the kids created an impressive scarecrow which now sits proudly in the garden.

??????????The Good Organic Gardening magazine is preparing a story on the garden so the editor/photographer (Diane Norris) came up for the day and joined in the fun.

DianeI’m very proud of what Cathy has done with the garden. As I’ve commented before, the garden flourishes because of Cathy’s care. The kids sometimes work in the garden (e.g., there were three short working bees during the last school holidays) and have a real sense of ownership, but they e often more interested in playing together. Cathy makes sure the garden is maintained, continually looks for ways to involve the kids and welcomes input from other adults.

I continue to be amazed at the difference Kids’ Vegies on the Verge has made to our street.

The following are some more photos from the day.

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. What is Kids’ Vegies on the Verge?
  2. All posts on Kids’ Vegies on the Verge
  3. Take a street and build a community
  4. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  5. What is the Transition Streets Challenge?
  6. Parenting for a better world


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The power of questions

The Unconference 2013In the undergraduate course I teach on community engagement I ask students to have a conversation with two people. I ask them to ask one person about:

  1. What they think is wrong with their community?
  2. What are the major needs of their community?
  3. What could be done to address these needs?
  4. Who should take responsibility for fixing things?

I ask them to ask the other person about:

  1. What they think are the strengths of their community?
  2. A time they felt their community was at its best?
  3. What they value most about their community?
  4. How they think they could help improve their community?

As you can imagine the questions usually generate quite different responses. It is interesting reading what the students say about their experience of having these conversations.  Some would prefer to be asked the negative questions as they help to identify the needs of the community. Some prefer the more positive questions. Often, but not always,  the more positive questions lead to more optimistic, empowering, uplifting conversations. Most think both sets of questions are useful.

The first time I asked students to do it, I was really nervous. My nervousness sky-rocketed when the first two posts basically suggested that the negative questions worked better and were more engaging! As I wanted the exercise to highlight the benefits of looking at the  community strengths (the “half full” glass of asset-based community-driven development), I was worried. Fortunately most students see the benefits of positive questions.

It seems to me that the positive questions are often more empowering. The negative questions seem to encourage people to point the finger at other people and suggest that somebody else should be responsible for fixing things. The positive questions suggest ways forward that are in control of the people involved.

The exercise highlights the importance of how we ask questions. I certainly don’t think we should look at the world through rose-coloured glasses and pretend problems don’t exist. I do think, however, that we need to focus our energy on what are the strengths and assets of our communities, because they indicate a way forward. I don’t find focusing on what is wrong gets us anywhere in the long run. (Perhaps not surprisingly, my favourite quote is “It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness”.)

Focusing on strengths doesn’t mean that we ignore problems and needs; we need to hear, acknowledge and honour the issues and challenges face by communities. I believe, however, that we need to move past the problems and that our main focus should be on the assets and resources that can help create change or achieve goals. Often we know there are lots of problems in a particularly community and coming in with a totally different approach can be quite refreshing and rewarding for community members. They can be quite surprised that somebody is asking what is good about their community.

Where we need to identify needs of a community, I suggest it is important not to stop there (as all too often happens) and to ensure that we also explore the strengths and assets of the community. In exploring the needs of a community how we ask questions can make a big difference. Instead of asking “What do you think is wrong with your community?” we could ask “What are some of the current challenges your community is facing?” Instead of “What are the major needs of your community?” we could try “How do you think your community could be improved?” Instead of “What could be done to address these needs?” we could ask “How could you help improve your community?” Instead of “Who should take responsibility for fixing things?” we could try “Who are some of the some key people and what are some of the resources that could help create change?” Appreciative Inquiry offers a great alternative to exploring needs.

The exercise seems to be one that students enjoy and it can help them gain insights. As Sarah, one of the students, commented:

“I initially thought that the needs questions would elicit more conversation as it is my experience that people are readily available to have a whinge about what’s going on but don’t really mention anything when it going right. While this was true to start with, I found that once all the issues about what is wrong are out there, there’s not usually a whole lot of ideas about how to address them. This is where the strengths questions come in. They help to suggest what the community has available to help address needs and also highlights what is working so that you can improve on and duplicate it. I think both sets of questions need to be addressed when trying for community engagement but there should be more of an emphasis on strengths and assets and how these can be utilised and help.”

If you liked this post you might want to subscribe to the blog (top right-hand corner of the blog),  and you might like to look at:

  1. What is Appreciative Inquiry?
  2. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  3. Ethics and community engagement
  4. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
  5. Asking questions in workshops
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Family and community engagement by schools

Across Australia there is an increasing awareness of the importance of school–community partnerships and engaging families and the local community. I recently presented a workshop for teachers on community engagement as part of a Teachers’ Visit Day at the University of Newcastle. The following is based on this presentation and there are some notes from the day.

We started with quick introductions to the 22 people in the 50 minute workshop. Even though we didn’t have much time, relationships are at the heart of community engagement and so I think it is worth spending a few minutes finding out who is in the room. I asked people their name, school and (if they wanted) why they came to the workshop. This goes a little way towards building connections (e.g., it is easier to have a chat during the lunch break) and sometimes we discover that someone is from a school we want to know about.

Continue reading

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Blogging as an academic

Blogging is becoming a more important part of my life as an academic. I started blogging around August 2010 as a way of sharing interesting resources with students in online subjects I teach on community engagement and community capacity building. Given how I became an academic, I’m also interested in providing material that is relevant to practitioners working with communities.

The following are some of the ways I use blogging as an academic.

1. To collect community engagement resources for students and practitioners

As I come across useful or interesting resources on working with communities, I put them on the blog. I often try to add something that adds value to the original material.  For example, the Collaborative for Building After-School Systems has a video on 10 Ways to build school-community partnerships which I added to my blog with a list of their 10 ideas.  At other times I place an interesting resource in the context of concepts covered in courses I teach. For example, Angela Blanchard has a great TED talk (Building on the strengths of communities) which I placed in the context of asset-based community-driven development.

2. To write original content for students

I am increasingly writing original content for students to introduce concepts (e.g., What is community capacity building?) or to discuss useful strategies (e.g., Making parents feel welcome in schools). Because my teaching is nearly all online, providing material through my blog is a good way to make it easily available.

3. To raise environmental issues and to discuss ways we can contribute to a more sustainable world

We are facing major environmental challenges and need to explore ways of becoming more sustainable. My academic work focuses on community engagement, and I have a particular interest in how community engagement can help create alternatives that are more sustainable. Through my blog I try to encourage readers to think how we can contribute to a more sustainable future as individuals (e.g., Parenting for a better world) and as a community (What is the Transition Streets Challenge?).

4. To reflect on, and document, my work

I continue to be actively involved in the practice of community engagement and the blog is an opportunity to reflect on, and document, this work. In particular, I use it to document my work with Transition Newcastle (e.g., The Transition Streets Challenge: Potential and challenges). I’m also documenting the Kids’ Vegies on the Verge (a vegetable garden started by my partner and our children for kids in our street) which is helping to transform relationships in our street.

5. To help me develop my writing

Like many academics, I find writing challenging and the blog is a way to develop my writing. At times my posts are fairly informal (e.g., Turning off the taps) and at other times they are more formal (e.g., What are vertical and horizontal community engagement?)

6. To make my publications easily available

The blog is a good way to make my publications available to other people (e.g.,Supporting residents of caravan parks and Service-learning at retreats for children with special needs and their families).

7. To develop research ideas and publications

I sometimes use the blog to develop research ideas and publications  (e.g.,  Ethics and community engagement). Writing for the blog forces me to refine my thinking and helps me create material that can be used towards a publication.

8. To reach the audience I want to reach 

Finally, I’m particularly interested in writing for practitioners who often don’t have access to academic publications (if they even wanted to read them). As well as making academic publications available through the blog, I can also write posts specifically aimed at practitioners (e.g., A World Cafe in a school – a step-by-step description).

I’m convinced that blogging can be a useful tool for academics and hope that it will assist  me to develop as an academic while maintaining my focus on the practice of community engagement and community development.

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog),  and you might like to look at:

  1. Becoming an academic
  2. What is…?
  3. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  4. What is the Strengths Perspective?
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Seven principles of asset-based community-driven development (Jim Diers)

This is a short video with Jim Diers (from Neighbor Power) in which he outlines seven principles of asset-based community-driven development (ABCD).

The seven principles are:

  1. Have Fun
  2. Start where people are…
  3. But don’t leave them there (Strive for results)
  4. Don’t sit on your assets (Gifts of the Head, heart and hands)
  5. Lead by stepping back
  6. Celebrate success and recognise caring neighbours
  7. Share stories

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog),  and you might like to look at:

  1. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  2. Angela Blanchard – Building on the strengths of communities
  3. What is Kids’ Vegies on the Verge?
  4. Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!
  5. What is Appreciative Inquiry?
Posted in Community engagement, Strengths-based approaches & ABCD | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

A garden sleepover

Concentrating on their Rainbow Looms

Concentrating on their Rainbow Looms

Our living room was invaded by 9 girls this week for a sleepover with kids from Kids’ Vegies on the Verge. It was noisy, chaotic and fun. It was also all about building community. The girls, ranging in age from 7 to 13, go to five different schools and most of them didn’t know each other 12 months ago. A few of them were friends before meeting through the garden but, despite living within a few hundred metres of each other, they generally didn’t know each other until Cathy, Jasmine and Alexa started the garden.

Through the garden they have become good friends and were very excited by the thought of a mega-sleepover. Some of them arrived in the early afternoon and all of them had arrived by dinner, and for most of the following day we had four or five girls happily playing at our house. What a great way to spend school holidays!

These types of activities are really beneficial for the kids. The age range encourages them to look after each other and to make allowances for the younger one. Rather than just knowing kids from their own school, they get to mix with other kids and make friends outside of school. I’ve read about the days when the Catholic and State school kids didn’t mix – it certainly isn’t the experience in our street since the garden.

I’m sure that the garden and these types of events are significant protectors in terms of child protection. If something happens to any of the kids they now have increased social capital and there are more adults they can turn to in a the time of a crisis.

In doing things like the garden and the sleepover, one of our motivations is to demonstrate alternatives to technologically based entertainment such as TV, iPods and a Wii. The girls had a great time and there was no screen time. They worked on their Rainbow Looms (which is more plastic than ideal), built human pyramids and played various games. They even got some sleep!

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. What is Kids’ Vegies on the Verge?
  2. Parenting for a better world
  3. A Transition Streets water challenge
  4. A school excursion to an Apple Store! Is that OK?
  5. What is social capital?
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Getting to know Graeme Stuart

Engage Newcastle (which shares community engagement stories from across the University of Newcastle) recently did a bit of a profile about me – which was very nice of them. The asked me about my background, my work, blogging, what inspires me, a bit about  Newcastle and various other things.

You can read it at Getting to know Graeme Stuart.

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