• How to help in small towns - community education

    Last week, I taught my first community education class in over ten years, "Facebook for Beginners", to a lovely group of senior citizens who were interested in this website they heard so much about. An hour and a half was all it took to set up an account, adjust privacy settings, learn the essentials, and to ultimately figure out if it was something they’d use. Nothing life changing, but none-the-less, necessary and worthwhile.

    If you care about your community, you should care about education. Young and old, and everyone in between, can benefit from a well-rounded educational system. But it takes good teachers to make it all happen. That’s where you come in. Do you have any skills, hobbies, knowledge, specialties, or general comprehension you could share? I bet you do. So once you motivate yourself to teach a class, here’s the next steps you're gonna want to take.

    Steps to creating a community education class:

    1. Ask good questions - Contact your local C.E. office and ask them about what classes they have requests for that aren’t currently filled or if there is a lack of instructors in current regular courses. Find out what resources they have available if you do teach a class (computers, classroom, copy machine, etc.). Also, be upfront when it comes to compensation, and find out what the going rate is. Don’t under-ask, cover every aspect you’re unsure about. And if you're town doesn't have a community education program, check with some of your neighboring towns.

    2. Know your subject - You don’t have to know everything about your topic, but be sure to know enough to teach it. I highly doubt you’ll cover the entire scope of astronomy in an hour, but if you’re teaching a stargazing class, you need know the basics...and a little more. Look online to see if someone else has taught this subject and use their experiences to help better yours. If the time comes where you’re asked a question you don’t know, simply reply, “I’m not 100% sure of the answer...let me find out and get back to you.” Then get back to that person. 

    3. Specialize the class - Be as specific as possible about what you’re going to cover. It will help you in creating your curriculum and in the drafting of your outline. It will also help weed out people who already know parts of what you’re going to cover and will make them feel better about paying for something they actually want to learn. If your subject has different levels, try offering a variety of classes that appeal to different abilities. (i.e. Computer classes require certain skills before using certain programs. Teach the basic skills class then a specialized program class down the road.)

    4. Keep it simple - It’s better to have extra time for answering questions and practicing skills than it is to cram tons of info into their heads which falls out later when they get home. You’re biggest fear should be waisting the students’ time by not equipping them to use what they learned out in the real world. Outline your lesson(s) and then refine, refine, refine. When it comes down to class time, those main points are the only thing you’re required to cover. Everything else will be a bonus!

    5. Think workshop - I keep referring to community ed classes when I should be calling them workshops. A classroom seems sterile and ridged whereas a workshop is pictured as active and fun. “Getting your hands dirty” should be the motto of every class you teach. People don’t just want instruction, they also want practice and experience. Be sure to let them tinker and make mistakes with whatever you’re doing. Even if you think your topic is boring and as-is, look for ways to interject activities. Your students will be more inclined to recommend you if they find the class fun.

    6. Evaluate and repeat - Most community education programs have forms for both the instructor and the student to fill out. But if they don’t, make up a quick sheet where you can get some honest feedback. If there are comment trends, take note and adjust for next time. And why not ask a friend or mentor to sit in on the session just to give you feedback? It can only help you become better. Also, be sure to teach on a regular basis. You’re doing a very good work by teaching. Keep it up and encourage others to do the same.

    Please share your experiences and strategies with community education below. We can educate each other in the process. Cheers!

  • Small town photography dreamers

    More often than not, I have conversations with people who live in small towns who want to live their dreams but don’t think they can because of their location. One profession always seems to be at the top of the list though -- photography. Here’s a dozen different ideas to start living the dream today!

    1. Connect with local photographers. Almost every town has a photo studio or a person who everyone knows is a photographer. Seek out these individuals for an internship/part-time job or just to pick their brain. Even if you’re not interested in working for that person, it’s always beneficial to let them know of your interest...which leads to #2 in the list.
    2. Network, network, network. Try finding freelance photography artists to collaborate with. Work hard at these relationships as they will lead to great assignments and jobs down the road. And when talking with your network fellows, do your best to be a giver, not always a taker. Learn how to write good comments on blogs, be willing to help out on a project, and connect them with others when appropriate.
    3. Carry your camera everywhere. This is one of the greatest tips of all time for developing your craft. If you Google “carry your camera everywhere”, you’ll find a bunch of great essays giving you ample reason to do this. Also, I had the privilege of being photographed by Reader’s Digest for an upcoming issue and the photographer told me he did this and helped him see the world differently. I have a hunch it will do the same for you.
    4. Volunteer your talent with a charity. I spent 2010 traveling through the 48 contiguous United States doing volunteer/service work and learned a ton about volunteer organizations. One of the many things I learned was the severe need for photographers to give of their talents to charities. Figure out what cause you’re passionate about and then go do some good with your camera.
    5. Take advantage of online education. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take a class or two, or go to college for an art degree, but don’t limit yourself to the traditional means of learning. I have two handfuls of friends who started their own studios without ever setting foot in classroom, they simply were self taught. Surround yourself with successful artists online...there are plenty of them to attach yourself to. iTunes U, TEDtalks, Smashing Magazine, Pixiq, PhotoTuts Plus, eHow, and Digital Photography School are all great places to start.
    6. Set up a Flickr account. Actually, you can use whatever online photo sharing site you feel most comfortable with, just make sure you set one up. Flickr happens to be the largest one on the web, which gives it some advantages over the others: sharing options, copyright settings, and implementation into other websites. (Click here for A Newbie's Guide to Flickr.)
    7. Submit everywhere. You might not get paid for your work now, but you might down the road. The old adage of “you miss 100% of the shots never taken” couldn’t be more true. Submission quick list: yearbook, newspapers, magazines, websites, tv stations, contests, fairs, chamber of commerce, businesses/organizations, etc. All of these forementioned places are constantly looking for good pics, and coming from a small town, you might have the niche they want.
    8. Host an exhibit. If you’ve got enough--great--otherwise pool together some of the local talent. Check with your local library/museum to see if they’d be willing to let you set up shop for a month. Even if it’s not exclusively yours, getting exhibit experience is worth the effort of having a couple of pieces up. You can also consider setting up a smaller exhibit at farmer’s markets or festivals for a very small price.
    9. Partner with local businesses. Head downtown and introduce yourself to a few businesses with storefront windows and ask them if they’d be interested in having your work be featured in their workspace. Dental offices, hospitals, and coffee shops are a great places to check with if they want to display local art.
    10. Become the expert. I’ve always been told that anyone can become an expert if they read three books on the subject...and have a feeling their is a lot of truth to that. Once you know even the basics, go out and teach that to others. Great outlets in your area include community education courses and after school programs. Considering being a photo mentor or coach to someone younger or just starting out.
    11. Create a press pass. The need for photo journalists in your community is probably great. Why not tell the stories of your town by using pictures? Check out this TEDtalk with David Griffin (photo director at National Geographic) about how photography connects us, if you need the inspiration.
    12. Don’t forget fun. Do what makes you happy and be sure to share it with others. If you love taking pictures, spend as much of your energy as possible taking pictures...but don’t ever lose the fun element. If you’re enjoying it, not much else matters.

    Care to add a suggestion? Do so below. Also, I’ve put a couple of helpful links below to motivate you even more to go after your photography dreams...even if you’re in a small town.


  • Front door: what should and shouldn't be there


    Unless you own a business that has an iconic front door (i.e. Gothic church style, submarine portal, barn entry, etc.), you need to be more concerned about what goes on that open, blank canvas, greeting all those who enter, than your probably are. Here’s the basics:

    Business basics. Name, address, phone number, and website address are essential. You don’t have to cover every inch of space, but you do need something letting people know they’re at the right place. Also, if there is a multitude of doors leading into your place, consider directing patrons to a certain door to funnel the experience each customer will have.

    Branding marks. This could be anything from a logo to a tag-line used in all your promotions. Consistency is key and putting something on the door to reinforce your image is always a good idea. You can also set the stage for what customers can expect opening those door by using putting a fun phrase like “entering happiness...”, or something even cooler.

    Hours of operation. Keep this as simple as possible. If you have odd hours which change constantly, I advise not making them the focus of the door, but have a switchable board to gives the day/week’s hours. You can also inform clients to check the website with the most up-to-date times.

    Social media connections. One of the most neglected uses of the front door is displaying your business’ online affiliations through the different social media sites. Simply adding the Facebook “like” button to your front door will drive traffic to your online conversation and can turn into a more dedicated group of followers. Be sure to use location driven sites like Foursuare, Gowalla, or SCVNGR to let people know you reward loyalty. They are simple to set up and can give you the winning edge over other similar businesses in town.

    Awards and affiliations. If your town has a best of award or a super active chamber of commerce, considered finding room on the door. Always remember that it’s what happens inside the business that matters most, not an award or affiliation that will keep people coming back. Get rid of all acclamations that are over a year old unless it’s nationally recognized, purely unique, or sequential.

    Take every advantage of first impressions by having your front door be clean, well-organized, and helpful to the people who keep you in business. Any other suggestions or tips you’ve found to be beneficial in your business or organization connected to the front door?

  • 4 suggestions if the weather is hurting your small business

    I’m sitting at a coffee shop in rural Minnesota, during one of the many snow storms that frequent the area, enjoying the solitude of the moment and drinking half a pot of coffee while I work. I came in around 10:30a and was one of only two people in the entire establishment. The lunch crowd was slim too, with only a handful of tables occupied. Now, at 4:30p, I can safely say that today was a slow day for this usually busy cafe.

    So what can you do if the weather has your customers at bay? Here are a handful of suggestions.

    1. Consider delivery. If the customers can’t come to you, why not go to the customers. Even if the weather is bad, it isn’t always THAT bad, especially in town. Many families would love to order in a five dollar lunch box...not just pizza. And what about a hardware store delivering shovels, salt, and ice scrapers...process the credit card over the phone and take the receipt with you for the person to sign. You may have to invest in a pair of cross-country skis.
    2. Online engagement. Don’t underestimate online relationships. You’re probably sick of cleaning and surfing the web sounds like a welcomed distraction...but why not use that time to build your business by creating a month’s worth of tweets and Facebook posts? Hootsuite and Tweetdeck are popular web apps which allow you to pre-date your statuses and will help you use your under-performing day to create an online conversation that will ultimately lead to in person or online transactions.
    3. Discount deep. I was asked by a restaurant manager what the most expensive thing in his restaurant was...I guessed a bunch of different items but none were the right answer. He replied, “an empty seat”. Before surrendering the day to Mother Nature, why not offer a crazy/brave customer discount to those who made it out. If you do this on a regular basis, you may be pleasantly surprised that the store is packed every time the weather is awful.
    4. Charitable contributions. It’s always a win-win situation when you’re able to partner with a charitable organization in town. So why not use the time to figure out a mutual event or sale that would benefit the community and your business. Anything from having a tip jar for the humane society to hosting a facial hair extravaganza to help foster kids in the area...the possibilities are endless! It’s also well-documented that being identified as a business who gives back motivates people to patron those stores more often. Like I said, “win-win”.

    As a business owner, what do you do when the weather has the customers staying home?

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