Tie And Jeans

Archive for the category “digiwrimo”

Badly Gamified Classroom

So I’ll trumpet the value of teachers crossing the streams of classroom craft and personal interest, but I want to recognize the risks involved.

Success comes form mingling areas of deep content knowledge, exposing and exploiting structural similarities. If you try that with surface level knowledge, you can dig yourself a double-deep pit.  I sure did.

After a few years of teaching I stumbled into the tail end of the Forge-RPG community and the early-mid part of the indy/story game explosion. Although it’s been abandoned by real RPG theorists, the Game/Simulation/Narrative trifold model had a profound effect on my teaching.

Like most new teachers, I was developing my practice in the space between the obvious influence of my (superb!) mentor teachers and my own internalized (often unconscious) experiences as a student. My personal classroom “innovation” had been to phrase and present many of the traditional classroom routines as “health bars” and “super meters.” I was reskinning a process I had found bewildering and arbitrary as a student in language that was more personally palatable.

That some middle school kids wouldn’t immediately grok how bulletin board of homework keys signaled when the next quiz happened didn’t even occur to me. That it actively worked AGAINST my stated goals for how students would learn to play with mathematics was absolutely invisible. Looking back, I had gameified my classroom using nothing but construction paper, but still managed to anticipate all of the nasty, extrinsic motivation problems we’ve seen explored in badge-laden startups over the last few years.

It’s not that classroom activity maps exactly onto RPG theory. Rather, playing Sorcerer / Dogs in the Vineyard / etc showed me that the mechanical structure of an RPG system mattered, and could really shape what kind of game emerged from play. That revelation pushed me to examine my teaching practice again, to see my classroom structures as modest tweaks to a system that expressed radically different goals. I had built house rules that emphasized a version of “winning” math class, while I was trying to present math as a “story” of personal learning and discovery.

The next few years were messy ones. I lost all of my high-concept bulletin boards, lost the routines and structure that had expressed the day by day tempo of the classroom. What started to emerge was the core of my new teaching practice, focused on helping students find new, personal, empowering stories to fuel their learning and discovery.

Andrew Watt is correct when he recognizes that educators are game designers of sorts. (I also appreciate that the story that led to his contributions to Exalted are a classic example of the benefits of farting around online).  Like RPG designerns, our best work happens when we’re honest and clear about our all the paramaters of our creative agenda.

Pencils Down


Thanksgiving break snuck up on me today. Kids don’t return until after the holiday, which means that Friday afternoon felt weird and transitional. When makers ended, kids left the their projects and tools in place and headed off for wilder shores.

That tie has a Drawdio mounted on the reverse, with copper tape on the inside of the neck and high value resistors attached down the inside. The HexBug has been stripped of the stock pub and should get a LiPro battery and arduino brain soon.

After vacation,,,

Game Design and the Utility of Novelty

Last week, I had this kind of “regex moment” at school. A decade of play where I absorbed design principles of Euro board game suddenly seemed like preparation for this school challenge.

 This seems like another data point supporting Brightworks’ “Everything is interesting” motto. In a world of infinite fascination, almost any substantive collection of deep and diverse literacies will yield novel solutions. The deeper someone’s knowledge base, the more T-Shaped the student, the more surprising connections between the different domains of expertise.

Swinging in on the bungee cord doesn’t actually guarantee that you’ll get the regex right on the first try. Since that first conversation, I’ve been wrestling with some specific game design challenges with the project. But now problems are well-defined within one domain, with clear linkages to the goals for the game and constraints from using it in our advisory program.


The basics include a “focus” meter that depletes with completing tasks.  Social and “human” tasks, including food and rest, refill that meter. Completing some school tasks on time can build bonuses for “fixed” school tasks, like science labs or math tests. Skipping tasks, like math HW or history reading, creates penalties for those later assessments that can be cleared by spending time units in Extra Help.

For ease of use, I’m leaning towards coin toss resolution of tasks. For example, a hard test might involve flipping 3 heads. A rested student has a “pool” of 5 coins, plus a bonus +H from completed HW.  That’s a manageable curve.  A non-rested student might only have a pool of 3 coins, and if they’ve skipped the math HW during the week then the test may well be “impossible.”

My goal was a Euro-style $ vs VP split between focus and task completion. Without that, the “game” is simply a pedantic moral lesson.  “Occupy every spare minute with HW until it’s all done.” If we can balance the split, then the game will offer a reasonable simulation of real student challenges. Do I stay up till 2 to finish the history reading? Do I try to do math HW while riding the bus home from my game at 9pm? At what point does relaxing with friends become a rational choice?

The game started as a way to show students how to make good time management decisions. As the prototype takes form, it seems like the lesson for teachers about how quickly “just” 30 of HW minutes per class becomes overwhelming.

Artifact from a good day

Each 5th grade class had a moment today where the only sound was the chuffing of adolescent brains capturing their own absurd/hilarious pigeon visions on Scratch.

It made a horrible photo. Just kids sprawled out laptops. From the back it’s just a vendor ad. From their screen side, all you see is the rough, oddly zoomed Mo Willems inspired art. Nothing caught their perfect half smiles, tweaked just a bit by the challenge of translating their mental movie in a few move and costume blocks.

Makers was great, but similarly unphotogenic. I think that P- walked out with a Drawdio enabled tie. J- left this on the pinball machine, after a period checking coil resistances with the ohmmeter.


There was a small dance party when he found the line on the schematic between the blown 10amp fuse and coil #3, burned out with only 2ohms of resistance.

That moment would have made a good media artifact for the day. I missed it because I was too busy dancing.

Intro to Makers: Communication Challenge

The most important thing I’ve learned in 15 years of teaching is that the calendar lies. November 12th doesn’t look that close to January 15th, but then the alarm goes off and somehow the year reads 2013 and everything falls off the rails. Or maybe I’ve just learned that concrete planning for the next terms is one productive way to deal with my November funk.

In the second semester I’ll have a new batch of 7th grade students entering the Makerspace for the first time.  One of the great scheduling idiosyncrasies of this weird class is we rolled from a spring 7th grade elective into a fall 8th grade class. While there have been some real benefits to that continuity, I’m excited about presenting an explicit Intro to Maker Culture sequence for these new students. I’ve thought at length about design thinking, read pedagogy about project designs that encourage rather than restrict student creativity. I’m a year older, and while that’s not much in fraction terms, this has been my first orbit in a Maker-Teacher mindset.

In the spirit of Gary Stager’s Good Projects and the Maker’s Grimore, here’s the first in a non-sequential run of “opening” projects for spring Makers. The content here steals extensively from the first few chapters of James Glick’s Information– which is a great book and an AMAZING audio book.


Communication challenge

I envision this a a series of running projects, based on the fundamental historic challenge of communicating a message further and faster than a human can run. This is an attempt to motivate a constructivist playground of communication technologies, rather than trying to teach about serial protocols, morse code or semaphore. Ideally this will work like Cardboard Automata for communications protocols, where students start with the most basic materials to accomplish a relatively simple task, and then adapt as the challenge escalates.

The physical locations will drive changes to the technological solutions. For the first round we’ll stand at the end of our academic hallways, with full visibility and just out of auditory range. The next challenge will be between two non-adjacent classrooms, then from non-line of sight sections of the fields, then… who knows. Great solutions that rely on specific properties of one location will struggle in the next.

The structure of the messages will change each time as well, quietly pushing students deeper into information theory. Maybe the first week will just have a list of 5 simple and distinct phrases. One group could do really well by choosing a simple set of 5 gestures as an elementary phrase book. That technique would be difficult to implement for an arbitrary phrase from a 20 word vocabulary and more so for a message that involved arbitrary numeric values.

In each challenge, there will be some third-rail of “WHOOPS!” that designs need to avoid.  During the first week, it will be causing any disturbance to classrooms on that hallway. On others, there might be members of other groups stationed in specific positions as interceptors. Hitting the “WHOOPS!” rail doesn’t invalidate the communication, but it’s a clear way to constrain the design space.

How far could this project go? I honestly have no idea, and that accounts for much of my enthusiasm.  If the initial challenges are kept small, then at the very least it will provide students with a great opportunity to complete a design cycle. As soon as one group succeeds by emulating some historic communication system, be it talking drums or the Clacks, then I think we’ll be off to the races. I’m not looking for them to recreate the entire history of telecommunication in a few weeks, but this seems like it will provide enough concrete experience to being discussion of message density, signal vs noise, and yes serial communication protocols. Which is great, because I have a pile of nerdy ASCII jokes just waiting for an audience.

Educon 2.5 – Gain by Giving Up

Last month,a group of new-found friends from EdCampISVA submitted a conversation proposal to Educon. The ideas flowed directly from our spawling, fractured talks at Fredricksburg Academy, bouncing off our different areas of expertise or dilettantism, reflecting decades of teaching experience.

Watching Melanie set up her Replicator at EdCamp (and print Tim’s head!) brought me back to discussions from MakerFaire with Jaymes about how poorly some of these tools fit into repeating blocks of 45 minutes. We all had stories of how long unstructured time gave rise to great learning. Sometimes grew out of unexpected moments, a boarding school snow day or a rained out soccer game. Some came from deliberatte scheduling decisions, from simple block schedules to leaving a full day every week open for spontaneous creation.

We took a week and spun those threads out into something that looked interesting to us. We had a prompt that we could talk through and hack on for days. When the conversation list was published this afternoon, we were delighted to see it on the list of selected conversations for Educon 2.5 (January 25-27th!  Register now!)

Every teacher worth their salary would love to have a smaller number of students for longer chunks of time. What our conversation suggested, drawn from our experience as classroom teachers and more recently as various flavor of meta-teachers, was that these richer learning experiences were so powerful that they had positive spill-over effects for students in completely different academic areas.

Right now, this is a working hypothesis based on a small collection of anecdotes. Educon, and the remaining months of winter bloggging leading up to it, are our chance to gather more stories and build a repeatable model for creating these learning spaces within academic confines of traditional K-12.

So this is our conversation for Educon. Even if you’re triple booked for our scheduled time, which is guaranteed considering the ridiculous strength of this year’s roster, look for us throughout the weekend.  This is a conversation that needs your voice.

Melanie, Melissa, Jodi, Carey, Andrew

Gain by Giving Up: Beyond Zero Sum Schedules

Behind every scheduling conflict lies the assumption that academic scheduling is a zero-sum game. We reject that notion, and the tug of war mentality that pits science against humanities against arts. Join a group of educators committed to improving personal and academic learning through flexible structures and student choice.

Teachers constantly struggle with time. Behind every scheduling conflict lies the assumption that academic scheduling is a zero-sum game.  We reject that notion. Flexible structure enhances student choice, yet can provide for deep content exploration; both empower students as owners of their learning.

We reject that.

We are classroom teachers, librarians, learning specialists, and teaching coaches, and we’re constantly frustrated by the pre-portioned TV-Dinner approach to scheduling and curriculum. Asserting that the 45 minute period doesn’t help students is nothing new, but it persists as the primary tool schools use to achieve equity for diverse subjects.

Our claim is that longer, less structured periods of cross disciplinary learning and exploration are not only better for student learning and engagement, but they have tangible and observable benefits for all subjects and classes. This is not just that students learn more from these open-ended projects, but that when given the opportunity for this sort of learning they learn and perform better in traditional classes as well.
This conversation will present evidence and anecdotes from our broad experience and from other Educon participants. Our session building a repertoire of repeatable experiments and best practices. If this assertion is correct, that students with access to open learning environments also perform better on traditional modes of assessment, then a compiled source of examples and information will help teachers everywhere make changes in their own environments.

Where Andrew attempts an extended comparison between old injuries and exams for 1:1 schools

A decade ago I smashed up my right hand.  I was 22 and dumb and I skated down a hill that was far beyond my skill level. I was 22 and dumb and I had made the “rational” decision that I could go without medical insurance for a few years. I was 22 and dumb and incredibly lucky that I was able to shuffle skate home with only a smashed wrist and road rash.

A year later, all that remained from that crash was a well-tooled story and some nagging intermittent pain in my wrist and hand. This wasn’t serious, I said, just an annoying reminder that I had been 22 and dumb. If some activity proved painful, I’d  grimace and tell the story again.

Yesterday, something else triggered. What had been a moderate annoyance for over a decade turned into a real limitation. Instead of a long drive sending my fingers into clenched spasms, it was just 30 minutes of typing. I became aware of all the weird desks I type at, aware of the strain when lifting loaded pans, every action that strained my wrist graduated from notable to aggravating overnight.  I became aware of how much DAMAGE I was doing to myself with each of these actions. Suddenly the hassle of changing my behavior didn’t signify. A “grin and bear it” mentality was not only painful right now, but was adding to the cumulative negative effects.

In the middle of that day, I sat with Scott and talked through various models for laptop use in upper school exams. I’m reasonably content with the ways middle school has approached this challenge over the last few years, with increasing emphasis on systems that raise expectations for our teachers and students.  More of the details of both these setups are in his most and my comment at his blog.

There’s not even a real security question here. Students will have access to the data they want in direct proportion to how much they OWN those devices. In a 1:1 school where students have admin rights to their machines, their ownership quotient is pretty high. We considered a whole list of drastic and intrusive actions straight out a Cory Doctorow dystopia while looking for the “easy” way to roll their ownership quotient back for a few days.

There is none. Making personal laptops behave like a locked down computer lab will not happen seamlessly.

What terrible kludge! Now we’re faced with menu of disgusting choices because we’re afraid… of what again? Afraid of second and third order effects. Of what might happen if what could happen, happened.  Not afraid of a widespread cheating epidemic, but of the potential parent response if a student succumbs to the UNBEARABLE temptation of internet access. Not afraid of perfect crib sheets, but afraid that student exam responses will propagate out and contaminate all future locked-down two hour exams.

Through all this, my wrist ached.

Here’s the deal – the computer lab isn’t coming back. The sealed bunker isn’t going to make a surprise resurgence in school architecture. Even if we could wave a magic wand and transform every macbook into an AlphaSmart for exam week, that doesn’t make the world around these students into 1998.

The kludge mentality knows this, but drives us to string the caution tape.  “If we don’t take steps to stop them, then they won’t know we’re serious.” That’s profoundly backwards. If we erect a two foot fence and pretends it’s a gator-infested moat, we look like idiots.  If  schools electrify that playground fence with “zero tolerance” language, they’re unmasked as wardens.  Extravagant lock-down scenarios might incrementally complicate student’s access to information. In the process, they broadcast to the entire community that fear dominates trust in our decision making.

This is the cost of school kludge, a giant knot of complication and cruft wadded around the choices we can’t bear to make.

Honestly, I understand the fear.  Sometimes I lean over the vast well of the future, flick a pebble in and shiver while I wait to hear the drop.

That sucker sure looks dangerous. But it’s also THE WELL, and plans to hide it or board it up are going nowhere.

Our exam planning conversation took an unpleasant turn, but I’m glad we had it. Whatever compromises might be necessary for this semester, they’ll be clearly marked as temporary kludge. I’m sure someone will eventually start a faux-Waldorf movement built around emulating wealthy suburban public schools of the 1990s. For the rest of us, the challenge is to rebuild every aspect of our teaching around the reality of universal, ubiquitous general purpose computing. Let’s get to work on that, and not waste daylight hours trying to summon 1996 for sanctity of exam questions.

After that frustrating meeting, I rebuilt my standing desk. I fired up Dragon and read those obnoxious paragraphs about speech recognition, followed by some old blog posts. I spent hours taking apart things I liked and replacing them with untested solutions.  I’m typing this while standing on a longboard, with an chime every 15 minutes to remind me to stop and stretch my hands. The tableau is frankly embarrassing, and the mental image of this moment sustained my T-Rex typing posture for months.

Being unsure or embarrassed are honest emotions, but they’re bad reasons for  ignoring a problem or boarding up the well. Let’s make honest mistakes early and fall when our bones will still heal. Let’s avoid more years of kludgy decisions designed to avoid third order effects and face the meaningful problems around assessment  evaluation, admissions, content and move forward.

We can do better than Shop Class

I really didn’t like shop class.

Looking back, there’s so much that I could have enjoyed about it, but as a 7th grader in the early 90s I dreaded that room. It was school without reading or writing, my two “good” school skills.  To my adolescent self, wood shop was just a math class where all that mattered was small fraction accuracy and penmanship. All of the hooks and interest that now drive me to Nova-Labs, or into my father’s garage, found no purchase there. I took a semester of cooking and sewing the same year, and in retrospect I feel fortunate for my access to the last gasp of practical education in the California public schools. But even in the moment it was clear that these classes were outside what really “mattered” in school.  Arts were already a world apart from the academic classes, and these were extra filler for those kids who couldn’t sing or draw.  When I arrived at a similar middle school as a teacher in 2004, there was an entire wing of shop rooms sitting dark and idle, with padlocks across the doors.

I shudder when the Maker movement is described as 21st Century Shop Class. I’m sure there’s a positive aim behind the phrase, but to me it speaks of a compartmentalized existence, fighting for minutes and a spot on the “mandatory electives” list. Shop Class suggests that maker culture is something that fits comfortably in 50 minute periods, sliced up by semester. ***

The Maker movement isn’t defined by tools or materials, although its been fueled by rapid expansion and commodification of certain tools. Nova Labs’ schedule  is packed with classes and project groups, but no single program is absolutely essential. ** What makes them a vibrant space is the abundance and diversity of those offerings, and how quickly new ideas migrate from the mailing list to the calendar to an active project.

That’s what Maker Culture has to offer schools, teachers and students. A Maker Space should be the incubator for new fascinations, not just certification program for expensive hardware. I don’t pretend that I know how to marry that flexibility and discovery with design thinking in an adolescent friendly package.  But U know that it’s worlds apart from what I saw in Shop Class


** Yeah, I know.  Art/music/french doesn’t fit well in 50 minute periods either. That’s pretty much my point,.

*** Except safety orientation.  Knowing how to use the table saw is pretty crucial, if you’re going to have a table saw.

Polling Inconclusive

I am knackered.

Around the regular hustle of classes I spent two hours chasing down finicky details of a giant specatle that consumed everyone’s attention but engaged no one’s intelligence. Then I lost another hour devising ways to observe various effects invisible to the human eye, never knowing wether the source device worked or not.

And, you know, I voted. Which is kind of the worst mix of both.

So, good night Tuesday. Here’s hoping I wake up to a world with #AnyoneButBowser.


Makerspace Busywork

My daily challenge in our Makers group is cajoling 8th graders to face complexity honestly.

It took me a few years of teaching to realize that kids would fake “a-ha!” moments for me in class, either to force some confirmation response from me or just to end the conversation. In Makers, these are vocalized as “I know what’s wrong!” and often enacted by a grab for the soldering iron. Because when you’re actively using tools, then you don’t have to acknowledge the problems in your thinking and the flaws in your design. Just do stuff for a while, and then if it doesn’t work, you can shrug it off as a good try.  That mess of wire and PCB is just one of those “productive failures” Mr. Carle seems to love.


Except it’s not. It’s a stall and a con.


To be productive, you need to leave the “whoops!” moment with something new, some confirmation or new bit of knowledge that you lacked at the outset. When kids reach for tools out of frustration, they’re not bringing in a plan or hypothesis to test. They’re killing time, staging a performance for the class or themselves.

I want to temper the frustration and negativity that I hear in my own words but can’t seem to excise in-line. I go through that same process. I have shame/frustration built things. I ruined an Adafruit Game of Life kit one New Years Eve by smashing, and soldering, the DIP socket into place one hole off.  All I learned from that is “don’t solder after midnight on New Years.”

For the last year, I’ve focused much of maker-teacher energy on that moment after the last part is soldered into place and it doesn’t work. Let’s trace the circuit, let’s look for bad joints.  Let’s talk about how power is moving through this circuit.  Let’s look at the range of motion on this joint, let’s go back and compare this to to your original drawing. But I was focusing on the post-mortem out of my own skittishness, afraid that a corral of teacher-rules would just blunt enthusiasm.

But when the driving force behind the initial build isn’t passion or personal enthusiasm, when they’re just looking for *something* to do in the moment, then the post-mortem is too late.  They’ve been disconnected from the project throughout and haven’t paid enough attention in the build to allow for meaningful reflection.

In the weeks after MakerFaire Norfolk, I’ve pushed more on the preamble, pushed students to find a solid place from which to begin. It’s in this process, in what I sometimes fear is still arbitrary “process” requirements, that I’ve clearly seen their unwillingness to face a complex task. The call for “more MintyBoosts!” is never stronger than when the reed-switch falls off the longboard.

Maybe it’s different for other ages or working on different timescales. 50 minutes! You return to vex me yet again!

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