Tie And Jeans

Archive for the category “holistic”

Maximizing School Interviews

This is the tail end of interview season for teachers and schools. Since I have some distance from the process this year, I can see a few things that more obscured when you’re in the thick of it, on either side.

First off, most schools are bad at this. We’re not sure what characteristics make a great teacher, but we know resumes and cover letters mean almost nothing. Which leaves schools either trusting their collective gut (often one particular administrator’s gut) based solely on conversations, or forcing candidates to perform  meaningless game show lessons. Across the board, schools spend a ton of time and energy on the hiring process, and invariably find themselves in a time crunch where they settle for acceptable instead of awesome sauce.

Given that underwhelming reality, candidates assert themselves throughout the process. Be aggressive and use the interview as a window into the reality of a school’s program and culture.  Like the inflated single-purpose resumes, school’s public faces are often bland and interchangeable. Disregard aspirational talk. Listen for how teachers speak to each other.  Ask for 30 minutes to sit in a hallway. Observe an unrelated class. This will likely be your one pass through a building that will dominate your psyche for the next N years. Don’t sit passively on the Disney tour.

Even if you don’t have a ton of mobility during your interview visit, there is information in the structure of interviews. Try out this fake formula with the conversations scheduled during your visit…

(Scheduled Length * Role) / Number of Participants

…then sum up the totals by school role – School admin, division/building/subject leaders, teachers & faculty, students.

The group that gets the most time will be your superiors, and be responsible for assigning you tasks throughout the year.

The next group is will be your nominal peers.

The group with the lowest representation will be the ones you’re supervising. This is often the group that you see 20 of for a mere 40 minutes, either students in a sample class or a cattle call faculty interview during lunch.

If a group doesn’t show up on the list, then your superiors don’t think that your position merits much exposure or contact with them.

That reading might not hold throughout your tenure in the position, but it does approximate the school’s institutional vision for the position. Does it look fun? Soul killing?

Teachers are rightly reluctant to change jobs in the middle of an academic term. Treat every interview as your last chance to happily walk away from a bad fit.


Learning Cycles

Last week, Josh Burker posted a picture of a MakeyMakey “violin” designed and built by one of his elementary students. It’s a great bit of prototyping, using stretched wire and a metal bow to trigger MakeyMakey inputs.

But this student wasn’t satisfied with a single sound per string, and Josh relayed that design challenge out to the #makered community.

(This post is a reflection about learning cycles and MakerEd. If you want to see the prototypes, read this instead.)

On one level, this call hits at the heart of why MakerEd has blossomed along with the growth of global learning communities. With cardboard, write and a $40 toy, an elementary student can move an idea out of her “invention journal” and into the real world. This means she can be simultaneously thrilled at her tangible accomplishment, and frustrated by the numerous limitations and compromises she’s made along the way. To iterate on that first object, she’ll need to incorporate some wholly new ideas into her intellectual framework. To complicate matters for the “just Google it” generation, she also lacks the language to describe or discover those new ideas.

Josh doesn’t have an academic background in electronics. However, he does have extensive experience taking on projects for which he doesn’t have a academic background. Josh knows that being a “life long learner” means also being a “life long beginner,” and has developed toolsets that help him address the common problems of beginning. One of tools is an expansive network of friends, colleagues and mentors.

I have a very poor academic background in electronics. However, I have experience working within a small corner of electronics problems and exposure to the wider field. Even when I can’t provide solutions, I can often help rephrase questions in language that will produce solutions.

This is the way that beginners learn, how they move into a new discipline and become novices, and then amateurs, and so on.

What starts to transform this student’s problem from a brick wall into an opportunity is her teachers’ skills and experience as a learner.

I think of this as a tide of questions flowing out. There’s another important set of skills that govern how the information flows back in.

There is an academic answer to this question. “You need to look at the board’s schematic and build or extend a voltage divider for each input.”

That should clear everything up

That should clear everything up

Depending on length, replies like this range from “look up these terms in the textbook” to “here’s the textbook on these terms.” But in no way to they offer a direct bridge to help the student move forward with their idea. I’ve made this mistake too many times with students, in math and Makers, where I’ve asserted the existence of firewood instead of starting a flame.

Growing up with cooking shows, I know there’s a trap at the other end of the helpfulness spectrum. “Mr. Pepin, I was wondering what I could cook with all these rutabagas?” “Well,I happen to have this tray of roasted rutabagas and porkbelly in the oven now!” Which is great if you’re hungry, but doesn’t actually help the person with a wheelbarrow full of rutabagas. Even providing a recipe can send the incorrect message. “I guess vegetarians can’t eat rutabagas.” When teachers do this in math or CS, we insist that students can learn by dissection, carefully examining this particular solution for tools and techniques that will suggest general principles. But when you’re a beginner, you often lack enough domain specific context to determine which ideas are load-bearing and which are ornamental.

While there’s satisfaction in executing a recipe or assembling a kit, it’s fundamentally different from building and improving your own design.

I don’t think there’s a universally appropriate midpoint between these two extremes. The teacher’s role is to use the information flowing in to craft the best solution for this beginner and this domain. Teachers get better at reading the needs of a learners over time, as well as building up a wider range of domain knowledge. Over time, learners get better at recognizing when they need more support or when the instruction becomes overbearing.

For the three of us dancing around this Scratch dobro, I’m finding the limitations of Twitter, Vine and WordPress to be helpful fences. Even in the rough prototype I built, there’s so many design choices! I keep my work ugly, so that no one can mistake it for a finished product. I know Josh will ask when he has a new batch of questions.

Creating Space for Success

It’s 12:40. There’s maybe 15 minutes left in class. The three closest projects to me are a student laying out measured 2×4’s to cut with a circular saw, another drilling angled holes into some laminated planks for an atatal, and the grisly disassembly DVD changer covers much of the floor. Somewhere outside my cone of vision there are 6 other projects, none of which (thankfully) are using a tool more dangerous than a soldering iron.

I turn around and see two young women, holding an untidy bundle of butcher paper, their project box and a can of spray primer.

One of the weirdest parts of teaching middle school is recognizing the places where your immediate adult presence is a part of the solution and where it’s part (often a large part) of the problem.

Sandy Snively, an incredibly generous and gifted mentor that I did not deserve, believed in the space teachers create by their absence. She taught me all of the best things that ever happened in my math classroom, one of which was to take a long walk, straight out of the classroom, during  tests.

“Is that honor code horse-pockey, or does it mean something?”

Students in her classes created an honor code together in the fall and signed their name to that same pledge on every test. Sandy knew that kids signed other honor codes, in classes where the teacher still prowled through rows of desks during the test, eyes peeled for a forbidden note card or furtive glance. Those honor codes were horse-pocky, and those teachers damaged their students with every circuit.

Adolescents observe their teachers closely to discover the meaning and value of their own actions. Sandy showed me that our students learn how valuable their words and commitments are by how adults respond to them. The prowling teachers told their students that honor codes are just words, a thing you bubble in and forget about, no more binding than a COPPA checkbox. Sandy told students that words matter, that we come together in community with principles above “what can I get away with?” Her faith in her students shone through every time she’d stroll out of the classroom to get a cup of tea, opening a space for their integrity to emerge.

I can see a dark gray mess through the window and hear lower school kids tromping through the halls towards lunch.

“Go. Tape down two feet of paper on all sides of the box, and try to get back in the building before class ends.”

There’s plenty that could go wrong with two 8th graders and a can of spray paint during the middle of the day. But chasing down every possible problem also ensures that I’ll fill up the space that these amazing young people need to discover, make, and thrive on their own.



* Sandy was a salty farm girl to the core, even in her middle school classroom. She never, ever, said horse-pockey.

Video Games in Makers

Apparently I have things to say about video games. This is a course posting to current students in Makers.

I’ve been stewing about the role of video games in Makers for several hours now. I don’t think I’ve been very clear about what my rules are for when video games are an acceptable Makers activity and when they’re not.

This is my attempt to fix that.

Video games can be part of Makers if they represent something that you’re making or have made.

There are lots of ways to make video games.

The obvious, and most ambitious, is to actually MAKE a video game. Write one. Grab art assets. Mod an existing game. Write code. Doing this at ALL is interesting and complicated. Doing this well is a lifetime worth of creative engagement AND involves playing a lot of video games. I heartily support this process in Makers.

You can make STUFF that plays video games. This can involve cosmetic MAKE around the boxes that play video games – from LED mods to full casemods to custom controllers to monstrous franken-system to the pinball machine to MAME cabinets. There are lots of physical things involved in playing video games. Making any of those in class opens the door for a good amount of game playing during “testing”, “research” and “victory laps.”

You can MAKE while just trying to get videogames to work. I recognize that this will sound like “I walked uphill in the snow, both ways” Yorkshiremen griping (look it up), but the core reason the generation who MAKES the games you now play learned most of their computer/programing skills was because the games we wanted to play didn’t work! The frustrated Pooh Bear feeling, of being out of hunny at the bottom of the tree with the beehive, is an incredible motivator. One reason why I like the Raspberry Pi is that you need to DO something to make it into a funtimes-box.

Finally, you can make WITH video games. Combo vids, speed runs (natural or tool-assisted), let’s play, strategy guides… games are craft, art and culture bundled together. Anything you do to contribute back to that cultural landscape is welcome in Makers.

You’ll notice that there’s no space in this list for playing videogames while you’re waiting for a partner to finish a task, or when the soldering iron is being used, or because there’s only 5 minutes left. Games matter. They have a place in Makers when they’re at the heart of what you’re making, not as a stall or dodge.
So what does that look like in class tomorrow?

You could try to get a new game working on the Raspberry Pi. I might suggest this incredible demake of Hexagon for the Commodore 64 emulator –

You could go a step further and fire up the MAME and Atari2600 versions of the 4-player classic Warlords and make a video review that compares them.

Of course, Warlords is meant to be played with paddle controllers.

No one makes paddle controllers anymore, but you can build some.


The last meaningful version of Warlords was made in 1983. Don’t you think the world is ripe for another?

None of this bars the possibility of an occasional MarioKart challenge or BusterBros co-op run. But those moments are rare and, honestly, entirely part of my arbitrary teacher discretion. If you want video games to be a more consistent part of your Makers experience, figure out what you want to make.




Obviously Not a Golfer

How do you walk away from the constant mental churn of a school day?

I find something new to learn.

No, learn is too strong a word. I find a new garden of ideas to walk through, not expecting to replant it or memorize the path. I need to be around new ideas and tools, presented in a way that’s tangible and full of invitation.

Here’s a recent joyous discovery. Start with a simple beep. Through functional programing build up to playing and displaying Canone Alla Quarta. 40 minutes. One text file.

Watching the video is an incredibly journey, and a great break from the day.  When I’m ready to get my hands dirty, start making mistakes and really learning, the source is waiting for me on GitHub.

Spending Out of Pocket

Our Makers program started when I brought personal projects, things that had NOTHING to do with school, into my work environment. Part of what drew kids in from the very beginning was that I, as a teacher, was obviously getting away with something. More than that, it was clear that this mysterious stuff must be something that I cared about, because it didn’t look like any other “teacher stuff” in the building.

Those two responses are tied deeply into how kids view teachers and view school. When we reveal unique parts of a holistic self to students, they notice and respond. This isn’t to say that every kid is going to fall in love with your My Bloody Valentine Pandora station (or any kid!), but any suggestion that your humanity is broader and more complicated than a 6th grade view of teachers has an impact.

I’ve always bought things out of pocket for use in my teaching. My deep procrastination more than covers that habit, but I think I’ve discovered some unexpected value from it over the years. Snap purchases for the classroom, whether a uniquely shaped container of 500 googly eyes, send the complicated message that not only do teachers leave the classroom at some point (5th grade is about the end of the “don’t you sleep under the desk?” mindset), but we carry our students and our classes with us to Home Depot or the swap meet or the beach. Those impulse buys that would NEVER fit on a reimbursement form are a clear signal to kids about how our personality and our teacher identity mesh.

It wouldn’t be the worst use of school money to hand each teacher $100 with this simple instruction. “Buy the awesome things for your kids/space/classroom that you think the school would never understand.”

Essential EdPython – Being Hit On The Head

I did the VAIS presentation today, thanks in large part to the generous loan of a projector from Claire and Michelle, two fantastic #MakerEd pioneers from Highland School. I know how egregious the venue charges for LCD projectors are, but it’s a real mindwarp to walk in to a room and see an honest to god overhead projector set up. I could have made it work if I had the crank-system installed.

After the presentation, a dozen great conversations that were all pressed for time, and four hours in the car, I don’t have a many specific memories from the day.

But I know I used this classic stolen-from-Alfie Kohn bit of EdPython.

Alfie calls this Better Get Used To It, but the phrase I hear in actual use is They’re Going To Need It. I guess the later formulation allows us to absolve ourselves of any guilt. It’s not just that the world (by which we mean school, which we’re in the process of creating and recreating every day) inflicts this horrible thing on young people, and we’re the early messengers. No, if they’re “going to need it” then the implication is that we’ve performed some daring and far reaching reconnaissance, and discovered a surprising hurdle in everyone’s life where this unpleasant and baffling experience will prove invaluable.

We’re very careful to wash out hands of all responsibility in that sentence. It’s college admission boards! It’s the testing companies! It’s our competitor schools! For any rational actor, there would come a point where the costs associated with a certain path became so onerous that alternatives, even less consistent ones, became viable. Never so in schools, where the entire notion of cost and choice evaporate between the actors, and we’re all left bemoaning what students have to do.

Like the Godin quote that Laura linked to yesterday, these arguments deal with avoiding possible consequences that are possibly negative. These are the “if, if” outcomes of which we fear the fear. Third order effects, indeed.

Endless Gallery of Forgotten Toys

Somewhere, a young person does something impressive.

Young people do, build, and make impressive things all the time. What makes this creation special is that, for whatever reason, it manages to pierce the adult bubble of disengagement and draws attention.

In the conversations that ensue, wether in a classroom or on a news program, ad adult will ask this young person “How did you learn to do this?”

There will be “when” and “where” versions as well, but those answers are consistent and unsurprising. After school, late at night, in the garage. On the margins and in the cracks.

Answers to the “how” question are frustrating and incoherent, in the same unsatisfying category as “where do you get your ideas?” Youtube. The google. Books from the library.

If you’re not an educator, I can forgive you for hearing those fumbled responses, filing the kid under “autodidact” and moving on. Both the questioner and the young person are mistakenly focused on the source of this particular impressive thing, rather than the more important “how” of their learning process.

Look back further.

Anywhere, any year, and a young person wants to do something for which they have no direct mentor available. That is, they’re cheeky enough to become fascinated by something in the fast 93% of human experience that’s not addressed in their grade level curriculum map. What do they do? Where do they turn?

In isolation, our only option is to throw ourselves at the cliff face of knowledge, scrabble for a handhold and pull incrementally higher. This is where the myth or misconception of autodidacts fails us, when we imagine that the truly special swoop in like spiderman and bound effortlessly to the summit.


We all careen in wildly, become hopelessly tangled in our own limbs, and smack painfully into the wall. Everyone.

That is learning. There is no montage.

What emerges from that process is an attitude, equally arrogant and egalitarian. If more than one human knows a subject, then instructions exist. If someone else can learn how to do something, then so can I. What we call “the world” is built by people, no smarter than you.

Armed with that attitude and a universe of information, our autodidact Voltron is complete and ready to change the world. This is the point they reflect back on when asked “how” they learned something. Humans are bad at metacognition, and hyper-focused adolescence exponentially more so. When an young person looks back on this moment, she overlooks the long, frustrating hours exploring things that have nothing to do with the subject of her current work. It was those experiences, the painful failure strewn slog of learning how to learn, that provided the mechanism that propelled her to success. Somewhere along the line, she recognized the whole of human knowledge as a personal invitation. The early work where she tested that theory wasn’t impressive, productive or on-task, but it was essential.

Cultivating those experiences is at the heart of what I call #makered. Past the skills or tech or tools or props, I’m convinced that we need to provide a home to the transformative and fanciful passions that may never yield products that impress adults.

Badgermoles, Fanfic and cranky November

I learned about NaNoWriMo from a 7th grade girl in 2001. It was my first year working in edtech, my first year working with kids in any capacity, but by the end of November Fiona was already a fixture in the computer lab. I expected to see her sprawled out in front of an iMac with dozens of loose papers. What made me ask about her novel, and led to hearing the details of her third NaNoWriMo was that, completely out of character, she was using Word.

Up to that point in mid-Novemeber, the majority of her computer time was spent in a web based IRC client, where she schemed, plotted and gossiped her way through an Edwardian-era Potter MUSH (The major rules were “No Dumbledore, No Voldemort, Yes fancy hats.”) Compared to her work running herd over House Slytherin circa 1906, NaNoWriMo represented a slight decline in her strict WPM output. The MUSH not only required long bouts of in-character play, but huge swaths of game-fiction that established landmark events for the community, or dove deep into specific characters and side stories.

The back half of that story, the school half,  is barely worth telling. Not a scrap of her writing from her NaNoWriMo novels or from the Potterverse MUSH ever showed up in English class. She was always the “bright girl” who continually disappointed teachers.

Which is all elaborate backstory for why November makes me prickly about issues of “frivolity” and “seriousness” in student’s reading, writing and learning.  Heaven help anyone who speaks ill of fanfic in my presence. Not you, of course. You’re sensible. But that other English teacher who’s coming over to visit, the one who uses “the canon” without finger quotes. Maybe give him a heads up before I tweak his stupid nose right into Earth–1228

On the way to the car on this blustery morning, Annika squealed that the wind “means the pegasi are flying new weather to us!” I saw a chance for nerd-dad mischief. “Are you sure it’s not the CatBus passing by?” Annika was not phased. “No, Dada. The CatBus taught the pegasi how to move weather, just like the badgermoles taught the earthbenders.”

We use Python libraries to interact with an API that manipulates the substance of a Minecraft world. We use fantasy, history and mythology as a framework for new stories, running in harmony, counterpoint or bracingly out of phase. Even when cupped in the hands of giants, the act of creation is our own.


After 3 years, a summary of Makers

Since 2010, I’ve run a dedicated in-school Makers program for 7th and 8th grade students at Flint Hill School in Northern Virginia. The program started when my spouse exiled my personal electronics hobby from our daughter’s playroom, and that work landed on the large open counter in the middle school library. Students flocked to the spectacle of those projects, mainly Arduinos and modded Xbox controllers, which opened up a door from the familiar to the mysterious inner workings of the manufactured world. They weren’t always sure what I was doing, but since it didn’t look like school they suspected I was getting away with something good. By the next fall, that interest grew into a trial class of 10 7th graders in a disused dance studio, building electronics kits and learning Processing.

Since then, the 7th and 8th graders in our MakerEd program have produced innumerable small electronics projects (lots of MintyBoosts!), worked on Arduino controlled costumes and props for the school play, gutted and partially restored one pinball machine, built a MendelMax 3D printer, built (and flew and crashed) a RC plane, and invented hilarious MakeyMakey powered interfaces for Scratch games.

Every term I present several distinct challenges for the entire class, focusing on essential skills or core parts of a design process, but the bulk of the class experience is driven by student interest. I recognize that some may view this as wasted potential. There certainly are days where certain students make no visible strides towards any larger goal. But in 3 years I’ve seen many seemingly useless days, ones where “testing the carrying capacity of the helicopter” clearly just means “playing with the helicopter,” provide powerful motivation in the days that follow. (“Ahh! The propeller is smashed! Can we print a new one?”)

In that same time, I’ve also run small programs for students in grades K-4, and taught LOGO, Scratch and 3D printing into the 5th grade Information class I team-teach with our middle school Librarian.

The Middle School Makers program is built to provide curious and engaged students the broadest possible canvas on which to explore and invent. Through hands-on challenges and constructive play, students venture into new worlds and discover fascinating new ideas. Throughout the term, student projects emerge from surprising intersections of electronics, aerodynamics, textiles, programming, 3D printing, woodworking, or any other field of human creativity and craft.

Makers is an open workshop, ungraded and minimally structured, designed as a creative oasis for adolescents looking for new outlets for their intellect and creativity.

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