Sphere College Project

A New World of Learning



People sometimes ask me where I get my inspiration to pull off a seemingly impossible task—you know, founding a free college for adults 21 and over who are not a good fit for the current model of higher education. When they ask I usually talk about the film Man on Wire. In this film, Philippe Petit decided that he was going to do a tightrope walk between the nearly completed World Trade Towers. This film has long been one of my primary sources of inspiration.

But this recently changed a bit. I took a friend of mine to visit his PO (probation officer). I was in the waiting room for quite some time while they were meeting. At first I was annoyed that I was being forced to watch a video that was playing, and that I wouldn’t be able to block it out of my mind. But the video showed people training job seekers who had been previously incarcerated how to find open positions, fill out their applications—including the question: have you ever been convicted of a crime (hint: the answer is yes), fill out the “If you answered yes” line, conduct themselves and answer questions during interviews, and generally the attitude with which they should approach the job market. They said things like “You’re going to have to fill out 50 applications before you even get an interview. So what are you going to do? Fill out the applications.” It made me think deeply about people going into a job explaining the circumstances around an incident that landed them a 10-year jail sentence, and trying to build the trust required to be hired for a position. Could I overcome the obstacles myself if I were in that situation? They seem almost insurmountable.

So now I look at the throngs of people who, in the current economy, undertake the seemingly impossible task of overcoming prejudice against ex-convicts, going from business to business asking to fill out applications, doing the hard work of filling out the applications honestly, waiting for the phone to ring, and doing their absolute best when they go for an interview in front of someone who is going to ask them about why they went to jail, all in hopes of landing a job and becoming a more highly functioning human being. Raising the funds for a new college in a difficult economy, or tightrope walking between the World Trade Towers seem almost easy in comparison.

I find these job seekers inspirational. I want to do what I can to help.

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Game Theory

A Brief Introduction to Game Theory:

At any given moment each of us has an infinite number of choices of actions we could take. We subconsciously project what we believe are the likely outcomes of each action based on a combination of our knowledge, experience and our innate ability to accurately project. We subconsciously place probabilities on each of these outcomes, and also place values on each of these outcomes representing our desire. This desire is called our ‘utility function’, and varies widely from individual to individual also based on our experience and proclivities.

Board games can be modeled using probability and statistics. Often it is assumed that one player’s win is at the other player’s loss. Such a framework is called a win-lose game, or “zero sum game”. But by reframing we can transform a win-lose game into a win-win game. For example, I could play a game of chess with you, and not care so much whether I win or not, but just enjoy playing the game no matter who wins. (This is good for me because I’m not a very good chess player.) This reframing is effected by a conscious change in my utility function.

It seems to me that humanity today is a bit too entrenched in the win-lose mentality and we would do well to get a bit better at reframing our interactions in life as win-win situations. We all have the freedom of choice to do so.

Don’t forget to spread the word about the Sphere College Short Film Contest! Submissions will be accepted until April 10!

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Film Contest Under Way!

The first annual Sphere College Short Film Contest is officially under way! Entries will be listed on the Film Contest page as they are received. The contest is open for entries through April 10, so there’s time to conceive, execute and upload entries. So far there is only one entry, so there’s plenty of opportunity here for fame and fortune! Winners receive cash prizes and a viewing on the big screen at Sphere College’s First Anniversary Celebration on Tuesday, April 20 at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville. So encourage your filmmaking friends to get working on their entries!

There are so many positive things happening with the college these days it is difficult to recount them all here. And in fact, for many of them it would be premature, but I look forward to letting you know about them as the deals are sealed.

I would also like to take a moment to thank all those who have been responding to the call for support. Contributions are coming in regularly now and they help us in many ways. Here are just a few:

  • defray direct costs of operating a small but growing college
  • demonstrate community support to the students who have been committing energy to their education
  • demonstrate faith in the success of this nonstandard educational model to others who are considering helping out financially, but would be more comfortable if they see others take the lead first

Let me reiterate: if you’re hesitating to contribute because you think your gift may be considered too small, no one will think that. Any amount is greatly appreciated! If 10,000 people give at least $10, we will be able to hire faculty, secure space, hire administrative staff and purchase supplies. We will then be in a position to turn our energies to seeking grants from the many foundations that wish to support innovative adult education programs. So visit the DONATE! page, make a contribution, and encourage other like-minded individuals to do so.

And hey… get out there and enjoy the weather!

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Keeping the Balance

What a fantastic class we had Thursday night! Melissa Miles, Organizer of the Eastern Pennsylvania Permaculture Guild, gave an introduction to permaculture—systems-type thinking applied to eco- and cultural-systems. The positive energy she brought to the group was quite evident in the lively discussion we had about effecting change in our community that is respectful of the individual and incorporates sustainable practices. We are currently working with Melissa to see how we can best integrate her with Sphere College.

So it seems now we’re making excellent progress on the faculty side. And we’re also making progress on the administrative side, with Virginia assisting me in my work, and Sue doing project work on behalf of the College. There’s also a very solid core group of students who have been participating in nearly every class for nearly a year. And to demonstrate how dedicated they are, Dudley Carl opted to attend the Sphere class even though there were two competing lectures in areas of great interest to him; thank you, Dudley! The College would simply not succeed without this kind of student participation.

We have, however, seen a wane in the number of students who attend class meetings. This can be attributed to a variety of factors, but I think they can all be summed up as demonstrating that the College needs to reach a position in which it can support a variety of student learning styles. Weekly classes of two hours each does not provide the range of learning environments we need to provide, and now that we have more faculty members we are ready to expand so that we can add more students. To do so, however, simply takes funding. We must pay the faculty and staff, and acquire space so we can expand the class offerings. The funding will happen in three phases: I) direct contributions II) grants III) alumni support. Right now we need direct contributions to be able to continue.

So keeping the balance now means raising funds. Make no mistake: we’re at a critical point in the history of Sphere College. It’s either going to succeed or fail. So, if you would like to see Sphere College grow and expand, and that offering free, high-quality education is a worthwhile strategy for bringing about positive change to our society, then do the following:

* take a moment to click on the “DONATE!” tab and donate some small amount
* take a moment to encourage others to do so, either via direct email or via some social media like facebook

Keep in mind that the Obama campaign raised around $250M and the McCain campaign raised around $63M in donations below $200 (source: http://www.fec.gov). If you can help us find 10,000 people to donate in the $10-$100 range, then we can really take the College to the next level. Please take action right now!

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Each week the Steering Committee of the College begins our meeting with a quote selected by one of the members. This week the quote, provided by Jonathan Stewart, is this:

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Seems true enough, albeit a bit difficult at times. There are so many possibilities! Sometimes the decisions are made for us, though, and that makes it considerably easier. For example, today is St. Patrick’s Day, and members of the Ursinus College ACM have scheduled an event at Iron Hill Restaurant and Brewery here in Phoenixville. Just print this coupon and join us for dinner between 5pm and 10pm at Iron Hill. 20% of your bill (excluding alcoholic beverages) will go to Sphere College. It’s that easy! Bring friends, meet some people and enjoy yourself while supporting a great cause!

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Just a short one today; meetings, don’tcha know…

I’ve been thinking lately about partnerships between Sphere College and other local organizations. We make this official today as Sphere College is becoming a member of the Phoenixville Area Time Bank. They’ve been very helpful to Sphere College for quite some time. In fact, I met Gail Fletcher, who did our Business Plan, as well as two students who have contributed a great deal to the College so far, Virginia and Jonathan, through the Time Bank. I look forward to being connected with more and more people this way.

Upcoming Sphere College events:

Wednesday, March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, print this coupon and join us for dinner at Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant. 20% of your bill (excluding alcoholic beverages) will go to Sphere College. Please take a moment and pass the word along to your friends. It’s that easy!

Submissions will open for the first Sphere College Short Film Contest beginning 11:59:59 pm (EST) on March 21, and close on April 10. There’s still plenty of time to make and submit a film. It doesn’t have to be a polished product to get high ratings and airplay on YouTube. Let your filmmaker friends and family know about it!

We’re celebrating the first anniversary of the college at the Colonial Theatre on Tuesday, April 20. Winners of the Short Film Contest will be screened, and we will sponsor a feature film, Living in Oblivion. Mark your calendars!

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The Vision

My vision for Sphere College—and in fact, America, and even the world in general—is simple: those in power listen to those who put them there and accomplish the difficult task of finding common ground and implementing win-win situations even when the task seems impossible.

What would this look like in practical terms? Try this:

100 students and 10 faculty members with a diverse knowledge base in the Phoenixville area. Classes on a wide variety of topics in different places around town, providing some rental income and building a strong relationship with area businesses. Students and faculty getting together in small groups to share meals, get to know each other better and discuss topics from their classes, bringing their cost of food down while fostering a people-base learning community. Students and faculty coming together to apply their creativity to design and implement practical ways to develop Phoenixville in a manner that creates truly sustainable, environmentally sound businesses and jobs in a way that is harmonious with and respectful of those who have lived here for decades. These goals being accomplished while enhancing the natural beauty of our area and keeping our hard-earned money here in the borough rather than going into the bank accounts of people who have no emotional investment in our community. Students identifying and pursuing their passions, and becoming involved in community-enhancing projects like community gardens and youth education activities, with the mentorship of faculty members and local community leaders. The College taking on projects that will financially sustain it and help it to grow, and continuing to unfold in a way that pragmatically serves the student population.

I’m quite convinced we can do this when we adhere to the following principles:

* learn how to listen and communicate effectively
* apply the creativity and experience of multiple minds working together
* don’t expect perfection—learn how to detect when a solution is good enough (you can’t please everyone!)

We’ve already been putting these principles into action for, gee, going on eleven months now! And I must keep congratulating the students who form the solid core of the college. These individuals continue to take time out of their busy schedules to attend the classes, and some to participate in the Steering Committee, Fundraising Committee and Advisory Group. They do this even when from their perspective (this must be acknowledged), things may appear to be faltering. Because we do not yet have a full-time project coordinator for the College and the faculty is only now beginning to grow, something they see is that we have not begun offering a variety of classes other than the Self and Other classes we’ve been doing all along. Not seeing significant progress takes a toll on the students. We need more class offerings, more faculty members, a space to call our home, additional students (there’s a waiting list, but I have hesitated to bring them in until we do have a project coordinator since each new student would bring on more tasks), a full-time development director, a support system for students as they encounter their “selves”, and much more.

And yet, a number of students continue to come to the classes. They do this because they share in the vision, they find the classes to be stimulating, they maintain hope in the face of hardship, and they place their trust not only in me, but also in the process if leveraging the best of all of our capabilities for the greater good to take the College in the direction we need to go.

I also try at every turn to convey to them the sense that things are moving us in the right direction. What do I see that is so positive?

* Expanding faculty (we’re currently in discussion with two more potential faculty members)
* Sue Kern, who has begun donating her time as a part-time coordinator
* Continued support of space from Wolfgang Books and Colonial Theatre for classes, and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church for Steering Committee meetings
* Continued participation by a core group of students, and other students who check in on classes from time to time
* Significant increase in donations (thank you, thank you, thank you!)
* Continued support from the Ursinus College ACM in the form of fundraising and book drives; I even heard from an Ursinus professor that Sphere College came up during a discussion in one of their classes!
* Weekly progress by the Steering Committee
* Completion of the current version of the Business Plan
* Support from Sheltering Arms, Inc. in the form of providing the information we need to seek grants even when, like most non-profit organizations, they have many tasks they need to accomplish
* Support from the Phoenixville Community Health Foundation in the form of the funds to support the Sphere College Short Film Contest, and an upcoming program to develop our self-evaluation model
* Support from others in getting the word out about the Sphere College Short Film Contest
* Advisory Group members who contribute their time and expertise to the College
* Indications that nearby communities are already interested in the College expanding in their direction
* Creation of the mission statement by students on the Steering Committee (who now have solid practical experience developing a good mission statement for an organization)
* Development of the College brochure by Sphere College students

No doubt about it: the going is tough. Nobody said starting a college that ushers in a new model of education was going to be easy, but to me the only reasonable course of action is to continually detect what needs the most attention at any point in time and give attention to it. And this is where listening pays off the most.

One thing I’m sure of is that there’s no way the learning culture I’m trying to establish will stabilize if we’re not exemplifying our ideals at the outset. So I’m listening to people like Mel, who made a donation and gave some feedback: she said that it’s difficult to grasp the vision of the College when reading the About page. And I’m listening to Sue, who said that I need to blog more to keep the wider community informed about the College. So I’m listening and responding by writing this blog entry, some of which has been added to the About page. Check it out!

And keep those donations coming! Remember, 10,000 people contributing $10, $25, $100 WILL take the College to the next level, and one you donate you’ll KNOW you helped make it happen!

And please join us for our upcoming events:

Wednesday, March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, print this coupon and join us for dinner at Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant. 20% of your bill (excluding alcoholic beverages) will go to Sphere College. Please take a moment and pass the word along to your friends. It’s that easy!

Submissions will open for the first Sphere College Short Film Contest beginning 11:59:59 pm (EST) on March 21, and close on April 10. There’s still plenty of time to make and submit a film. It doesn’t have to be a polished product to get high ratings and airplay on YouTube. Let your filmmaker friends and family know about it!

We’re celebrating the first anniversary of the college at the Colonial Theatre on Tuesday, April 20. Winners of the Short Film Contest will be screened, and we will sponsor a feature film, Living in Oblivion. Mark your calendars!