Tie And Jeans

Archive for the category “school culture”

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.


Launching Makers: Students

I spent most of my time at NAIS with a great team of Maker-minded educators, each of whom has great stories about the growth and accomplishments of their program.

When I watched the faces of other teachers and school leaders in those conversations, I could see the analytic processes running very close to the surface. They were listening to these (hopefully) inspiring and entertaining stories, but only because we were too stingy or too dense to simply explain how to launch their own #makered program!

After retelling my story from Flint Hill, and listening to Jaymes, Lindsey and Vinnie retell their origin stories, here’s the Cliff Notes for launching a K12 Makers program.

These are the three resources you absolutely [1] need in order to launch a #makered program:, students, faculty, and space. The precise mixture and composition of those components will dictate the starting boundaries and possibly the focus of your program.

Students are the most difficult component. Not because individual students lack interest, but because of how schools limit their options and constrain their choices.

Most K12 schools wrap all student and teacher activities around a carefully managed framework of classes, breaks, passing periods and coverage. From one viewpoint, a school’s primary resource is student hours, and the whole edifice exists to portion out students and move them smoothly from place to place. In the vast schedules that constitute those systems, very few cells are dedicated to “you know … whatever seems cool.”

Student contact hours are often set up as a zero-sum game, where established players (rightly!) view new programs as immediate opponents that could develop into existential threats. New programs don’t bluff their way through the curriculum and schedule gatekeepers with a gameplan of “just start!”

But while most schools have a carefully managed schedule, almost all of them are held together with some kludge. If you’re looking to launch a Makers program “Monday, not someday” then look for these areas. At Flint Hill we started with middle school study hall, a weird schedule-filling block that didn’t serve an academic purpose beyond “kids go here.” This year, we’ve seen great uptake Makerspace use from middle school students who are dismissed at 3p but have to wait for the 3:50p bus routes. Every school is different, but I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t have some pockets of time where the primary mandate is “have an adult in proximity to kids.” Not only are those times fundamentally unclaimed by the faculty structure, they’re often a real drag for kids as well! Providing a Makerspace alternative to those “holding pen” moments is pure upside for the students and the school.

When you’re looking to launch a K12 Makers program, start with finding a time that students can make. If you can’t find a window for it now, then you’re facing a problem that no capital campaign or architectural design team can solve.

[1] I’m on record as a“just start” absolutist. This list, like any attempt to three-ring binder and package the #makered process, is a compromise from that position. Please imagine that every noun and most adjectives that follow have invisible asterisks, footnotes and disclaimers.

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.




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.

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.

Vision for #MakerEd

Even though it feels like I write about Makers all the time, I’ve been struggling this week to come up with a blurb-y description of our program for internal school purposes. Partly this is my distrust of PR and guidebooks. Partly this is my deeply repressed nervousness that these questions are just prelude to the inevitable, angry, “Why do we pay you to show up?!”

So here’s my first draft. I’m sure I’ll get plenty of feedback from school constituents about wether this fits our style guide or brand image. As my #MakerEd colleagues, does it do a decent job representing our goals and heritage?

The Flint Hill Makers program aims to infuse community with a spirit of inquiry and empowerment through hands on explorations, construction and iterative design.

Our Maker program is an embodiment of Seymour Papert’s pedagogy of constructionism, where students build their understanding through rich interactions with the computational, electrical and physical systems. The course offers creative engineering for middle school students, with exercises designed for adolescents to develop cutting edge skills and phenomenal grit through exploration and play.

Reflective Craft & Pop Magic

I’m really bad with paper.

As a student this was academically lethal. My life was a constant search through 3 ring and spiral binders, trying to match my (primarily visual) impression of where a particular piece of text lived in warrens of perpendicular notes.

As an adult, I structure my life around activities where I can ignore paper entirely, and activities where holding a pen and writing is a cognitive stimulant, but the content of the resulting paper isn’t important.

A side effect of my adult coping systems is that I’ll use the same notebooks for years. Sketches, math problems, conference notes (those are notes passed in a conference, not notes on a speaker) will eat away at the notebook a dozen pages at a time, dumped into the middle of the largest remaining section of blank pages.

This four hole Kukuxumusu notebook has Google Apps Script notes (Fall ’10), 6.002x homework (Spring ’11), and all the contact info for my CMK12 colleagues before they were my most trusted professional cohort.

The notebook is just about cached. When I was looking for empty space this afternoon (sketch for caster-mounts for Makerspace tables) I found this, scrawled in purple ball point.

This is also why I type

Saying “who knows what X will be like in N years” does not absolve us from preparation. No matter what choices you make, when you have to pivot, there will be costs and conflict.
Treating your school like a startup means positioning your organization to pivot quickly and minimize those costs.
Schools, by historical practice and temperament, are slow.How do you prepare for a future you can’t see? How do you prep a school to pivot in an unknown direction?
+Trim and minimize org structure.
+Focus on and respond to student needs.
+Maximize student choice throughout.

The “who knows?!” future is the ultimate rebuttal to “being hit on the head lessons.” What do you imagine the learning experience / classroom environment looks like for the seniors of 2025? What are you changing about the lower & middle school learning experience / classroom environment now to prepare them for that?

I wrote that a few years back as a way to solidify a train of thought, but it has come to define my professional life.  Some of the tone in that piece makes me thing I was trying to shift the structure of a school by arguing with and convincing adults. How appropriate that the next batch of pages is all Constructing Modern Knowledge,where Gary and Sylvia taught/reminded me that the way to change a school is through students first, faculty second, and administrators when it’s too late to argue.

Most of the time, I don’t write to convince others. I write to confer with myself, and set my own unseen/unconscious rudder. Even when a thought stays locked as set of purple squiggles, the experience changes me, changes my mind, and pushes (gently!) on the world. It’s not as dramatic or profane as Grant Morrison’s Pop Magic Sigils or Alan Moore’s Creation Performance, but it’s a power I can feel and track across the last decade.

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