Not long ago, my sons and I were part of a transformative experience created by social networking. It was magical and awe-inspiring, a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Now, I’m trying to figure out how best to share the wonder of the experience with my students in Ontario, and to help them find ways to create their own.

Kim McBrien

While pulling a late-night report card writing session, I happened upon a tweet from @indigodragonfly, better known as Kim McBrien, an indie yarn dyer. She was preparing for a live dyeing event at a yarn shop where she would create 4 skeins each of 6 one-time, never-again-to-be-created colours. Kim’s yarns are incredible, and coveted by knitters around the world for their fibre content and unique colourways [Groverkill, Tardis, and Carpe Carp (Seize the Fish) are a few].

Kim had decided to do a fundraiser for the Canadian Breast Cancer Support Fund, in honour of a friend’s recent experience with the disease. She offered her fans the chance to put in a bid, suggest a colour name, tell a story to go with it (if you chose) and give suggestions for what the colour might look like. As well as happening live, and being tweeted, auction bids and stories could be placed on an asynchronous thread on the knitting social networking site, Ravelry. Winning bids would get a skein of “their” yarn, and the rest would be offered up for auction, to raise more money.

Funny, heartbreaking, angry, redemptive stories

Being a rabid knitter, and fascinated by what people might have come up with, I clicked the link. I was amazed at what I found. People had chosen to open up to strangers and share stories – funny, heartbreaking, angry, redemptive – of their journeys with cancer. These creative people had realized that this was the chance to turn their memories of pain into something concrete and beautiful, and to honour either their own journey or memorialize that of someone they loved. And they were willing to pay for the opportunity to have the concrete representation of their story in their hands.

Clare & one of my kidlets

I lost my sister-in-law to breast cancer in January of 2011. She was diagnosed 5 weeks before the birth of her first child, and died 4 ½ years later at the age of 38, having packed a phenomenal amount of living into that time. Inspired by the bravery of others, I decided to share Clare’s story, and based my colourway on one of my favourite memories of her. I placed a bid I thought would hold up, and went to bed.

In the morning, I brought my two boys up to date (they are familiar with their mother’s addiction to fibre, and with Ravelry). They loved some of the stories, particularly the one shared by a breast cancer survivor who had chosen to call her yarn: Yes, they’re fake, the real ones tried to kill me. We checked back in when we could through the day, occasionally tweaking our bid as needed, and ended up solidly in the running for the last 2 dyepots of the day. All bids needed to be in by 2:30, and we had gone as high as our budget would allow, so we nervously waited, watching the Twitter stream as others’ dreams and hopes became gorgeous reality in the dyepot and on the drying rack.

We were astounded by the kindness of strangers

At 2:27, another knitter, with an equally deserving story, outbid us for the last spot. My kids were devastated (and feeling the loss of their Auntie Clare all over again) and offered to donate some of their own savings, but I knew we had gone high enough, and gave notice on-line that we were gracefully bowing out.

I began to pick up the pieces of our day and console my kids when, to our amazement, the owner of the shop where the event was happening decided to donate a last batch of fibre, so Kim could dye one more pot, and the last 3 stories in the running could all be transformed into something tactile and beautiful. It was a remarkable moment, and we were astounded by the kindness of strangers.

Throughout that day, with the naming rights auction, and the auction of the remaining skeins, a community of strangers who were united only by their love of knitting, their presence on social media, and their desire to remember someone they loved, raised close to $1700 for a small independent charity that helps people cope with the financial cost of breast cancer. We changed the world a little for the better by opening up and telling our stories to people we’d never met. In return, we were embraced and comforted.

Kim said that the people on-site that day, particularly those who were not aware of Ravelry, had trouble wrapping their heads around the stories that people were sharing, and the bids they were willing to place to make sure those stories were honoured. The community that was created is still talking to each other. I have heard from other people who got a skein of Decorating the tree with Clare (while listening to Abba), and we are sharing ideas of what we might do as the next step. What does that concrete representation of our story, that beautiful fibre, want to become as a knitted object?

Pulling the idea into my classroom

Kim has already decided she’s going to do this again next year. I’m thinking of ways to pull the idea into a classroom. I could see having students suggest a whole series of colourways for the Hunger Games (one for each district) or for the characters in the Mortal Instruments series. My Grade 7 and 8 boys have rediscovered “The Outsiders” – would Ponyboy’s colourway be Nothing gold can stay? Maybe as a choice in a reading response activity?

Maybe we have Kim come and do an “artists in the school”-type activity, and my students get that amazing, transformative opportunity to see their ideas become real. How do we take the essence of this experience beyond knitting, into music and writing and science? My school has a 100th anniversary coming up next year – how do my students want to make people’s memories concrete? I had lots to think about and reflect on this summer.

This experience was a “game-changer” for me, at least in part because I watched my own kids become completely engaged in this process and take on some of the ownership of the experience. I realized how involved they are with my PLN, because I share things I’m learning with them. None of us have ever met Kim, but we’ve gotten to know her, and know we can ask her questions and call on her knowledge if we need it. That’s what I want to share with my students.

Some questions I have

My biggest wonderings are around how to bring the potential of this transformative social media experience into my classroom. How do I help students realize that while the Internet can be a scary place, it can also be a place of healing? How do I teach them to be open to this kind of experience, while still being aware of how to be safe? Even bigger, how do I help them find their passion, delve into it, and find people, near and far, to share it with?

If I am aiming really high, how do I set them on the path to becoming someone like Kim – an incredibly talented artist who uses social media (Twitter, Ravelry, her own blog) extremely effectively to build a following, communicate with her web-savvy customer base, and inspire those who share her passion? How do I introduce them to this very 21st century idea of independent, principled entrepreneurship?

I’d love to hear your ideas about this experience or similar experiences you might have had, and how they have influenced your teaching.

If you’re interested in reading the stories of the winning colourways (and seeing the incredible colours), they are available to non-Ravelers at this webspace. If you’re a Raveler, check out the IndigoDragonfly group, and find the thread on Naming Rights Auction.

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Lisa Noble

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