Tie And Jeans

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Why MakerEd ? Faculty PD

I’ve been working on some better standard answer to the big questions about MakerEd, FabLab Learning, Design Thinking or whatever you want to call the weird niche I’ve been exploring for the last few years.

What do MakerEd experiences offer faculty?

Ok, it’s nice to say that kids of 2015 should be familiar with the new century’s broad range of tools to design make build and dream. That means that some classroom somewhere might need to integrate those experiences, but what makes MakerEd valuable for teachers and faculty as a whole? Is there any relevance for a teacher who’s not planning on running MakerEd projects in his classroom?

Honest answer: That depends on what each class/subject/teacher is trying to accomplish in a given lesson/year/cohort… Trying to identify one or two specific ways that the broad universe of FabLab tech will interact with the similarly sized K-12 universe is equivalent to asking what “the world wide web” has to offer for K-12 classes in 2002/1998/”the long long ago.” At whatever interval you choose, the best answers were tangible and hyper specific. A decade later they’ve grown into vast forests that bear little resemblance to their early forms.

Flip answer: Don’t know, don’t care. But those the Maker Culture/Mindset that surrounds these technologies has everything to do with anchoring and modeling the learning process. This is a case where the new-ness brings a tangible benefit. With few exceptions, we’re all beginners here, approaching something that didn’t exist for us a decade ago. For teachers who spend their careers in steadily shrinking boxes of specialization – 4th grade or Algebra or HS History – the opportunity to build new skills and new knowledge outside those boundaries is a tremendous opportunity.

All this tech-stuff and your pitch is “because they can learn something new?”

Don’t dismiss the freedom that comes with novelty. Almost a decade ago, Shelly Wille organized a team building exercise for our K-8 teachers at a culinary academy. Like great MakerEd activities, that experience had potential to reframe discussions about how we (teachers, students, humans) acquire new skills, cope with each other in moments of tension, and respond to sudden setbacks. But along with out aprons, everyone was wearing an identity shaped by a lifetime of experiences with food, kitchens, cooks and cooking. The richness and complexity of those associations anchored my experience in the content, rather than providing a neutral(ish) framework for reflection. When a event triggers long established emotional reactions, it’s almost impossible for individual teachers to both invest in the moment and stay grounded enough for discussion and metacognition.

MakerEd events for faculty should throw everyone into equally unfamiliar territory, and allow each individual to find a productive path in to the heart of the challenge.

Simply, MakerEd experiences should present an open and inviting puzzle, where all faculty can learn something new and powerful, together. That’s something that should be common in a community of life-long learners, but I’ve found conspicuously absent from (my small anecdotal slice of) the culture of faculty meetings and professional development.

One of Gary Stager’s Twitter optimized maxims is that teacher’s can’t prepare 21st century learners unless they’ve learned something in the 21st century. The power of Constructing Modern Knowledge comes from the heat, fission and reflection of 150 educators all striving, pushing and learning at their best pace. We make better decisions about how to teach, how to support learners, when we’re flush with the experience of learning ourselves.

Two Tables – A #Makered Parable

Slightly too long for twitter…

The first table is covered in electronic parts you can’t identify and tools that you’ve never used. There’s no instructions or guidance beyond a Post-It with a one sentence challenge.

This is not teaching.

The next table has an immaculate mis en place. A dozen different parts are taped to index cards, labeled with a name, picture and part number. There’s a small packet of illustrated instructions, calling out the part numbers and tools required for each small step.

This is not discovery.

Makered has to be somewhere in between.

Gif Flashback

from the excellent The Tick vs Arthur’s Bank Account

full episode

Done with Tech Integration

I’ve had technology in my job title since my very first teaching job, and I’m done with it.

Technology Integration made sense to me when tech described a limited resource. How can you make the best use of this thing when you’ve got it?

Under that model, integration had a clear meaning. Fit the Jenga block into the structure as best you can. Carefuly now!

The old integration imagined “technology” as a menu of small discrete tools and resources. My job was to venture into the wilds and bring the best inside the walls of classroom.

3 years into 1:1 at a school, in an age where every person who walks through our doors claims 2 or more IP addresses, those same activities aren’t integration. They’re sloppy defense.

Content apps, flipped classrooms, interactive whiteboards, the whole #edtech miasma; all of it feels artificial and frantic;  a last ditch attempt to funnel the rising tide around a sandcastle.

Look, I’m not trying to bad mouth the castle. We all worked on it for a long time.

But in these last moments, I don’t want to watch Neuschwanstein crumble one tower at a time.

Let’s keep building, making great use of what’s free, cheap and rising.

Let’s build Venice.

On The Bus – Not So Easy After All

I had lots of answers for why our 8th grade Makers group was making the trip to Mini Maker Faire in Norfolk, and none of them involved lifting heavy objects.

Overnight trips are always an extra hassle in middle school, so my answers had to be solid and compelling. I wanted them to encounter the values and personality of Maker culture directly. Since I was one of the voices who told them to distrust what they read on the Internet, I wanted to reopen the possibility that some seemingly impossible things are, in fact, real. I wanted them to have a chance to share all of their work, the successful projects and the frustrating ones, and have other voices confirm the value of both.

Our trip to Mini Maker Faire Norfolk started with a math problem. Fit this pinball machine …

through this door.

If this problem showed up in an 8th grade math textbook it would come from way higher up the Ladder of Abstraction, with labeled diagrams and a dotted hypotenuse. It would also flatten the problem down to two dimensions and remove the complications from seats, arm rests and a curved roof.

Thanks to @calcdave for the problem image!

Most importantly, solving that math problem never involves 8th grade hands and arms supporting 300 pound pinball machine.

Events like MakerFaire are a chance for students trapped in the manufactured and apparatus of schooling to encounter the reality of work. It’s hard to sound the gulf between first whisps of ideas and the solid, tangible creation of something new. Saturday morning, when we were struggling with the surprisingly unique challenge of how to wrangle the machine out, I suspected that this process might prove useful.

We ate lunch outside on the Norfolk Scope plaza on Saturday, enjoying the amazing fall weather and outdoor projects like the Centiwhirl and drive-able hammock. As I recovered from my phyrric victory over @jodikittle on the Centrifury, I overheard two students talking about the contraption. “It looks easy! It’s just a motor, two seats, two buttons with an AND statement.” “Yeah! ; But it is really BIG. ; And I don’t know how to weld.”

That comment gave me some hope that the trip to MakerFaire was doing good work. Navigating the divide between the abstracted math problem and the visceral challenge of moving a pinball machine, along with the other completed loops between idea and execution, had opened the space for some humility. I’d be thrilled to see the ragged edge of 8th grade bravado honed by knowledge that that “simple” and “easy” aren’t the same thing, and that sitting on your duff is a horrible place to make judgments about either term.

Moving heavy things isn’t a learning target for Makers. Sadly, I don’t think I’ve even prepared them for “college level” problems of moving a bookcase and queen boxspring in a Civic. But the challenge was authentic, and their solution required planning, communication, strength, and we really could have “Whooops!”-ed it at any time.

Together, the 8th graders loaded, unloaded and reloaded the body of the pinball machine. Exchausted after MakerFaire and the 4 hour trip home, we left it on on the bus Saturday night. With the help of a few other adults, I tried to move the machine off and back into the Makerspace this morning and wound up with this.

That’s what left of the playfield glass after it shattered against the semi-squishy seats of the bus. Three adults, both stronger and more headstrong, tried to rush the job and wound up deep in Whooops-ville. Score one for the Young Makers.

MakerFaireNYC: Goldieblox

I met Debbie Sterling at MakerFaire last weekend, where she was demoing Goldieblox her fantastic line of engineering/construction toys aimed at young girls.

As Annika’s Dad, I’m excited by the toy and how it connects the engineering skills to the storytelling experience that is so central to all of Annika’s play. What makes it “for girls” isn’t an avalanche of pink, but the narrative that propels these characters to build tools and reach their goals. I have decades of deeply conflicted thoughts about essentialized gender identity (hello Santa Cruz!), but I can say with confidence that my daughter engages with the world primarily through narrative, and she has no interest in building “stuff” without a clear story hook.
At the Faire, Debbie had both her final prototype and several older models on display. One major difference between these two sets triggered my math nerd response.

The older version used standard pegboard with the holes laid out on a rectangular grid, like a geoboard or standard dot paper. Her final model used an offset grid, what I think of as “hexagon” or isometric dot paper. When I asked her about this difference she broke into a huge smile and told a fascinating story about her play testing experience with young children.

The audio shows my distinctly amatuer recording skills, but I’m incredibly grateful to Debbie. I also refer to isometric dot paper as “isomorphic,” becuase I’m a complete goof.

At the end of the book, Goldie makes a star out of the ribbon drive. As any GeoBoard loving math teacher knows knows, you can’t make a clean symmetric star on a rectangular grid.  In playtesting, Debbie learned that this lack of symmetry drives young girls crazy! Debbie found that their negative experience was strong enough to sour them on Goldieblox as a whole, so she redesigned the entire project around an offset grid. The new design yields wonderful, fully symmetric, 5 pointed star shapes. What a wonderful reminder how much aesthetics matter, even in engineering!

I backed Goldieblox earlier this week, and Annika is already asking when the “ribbon dolls” will arrive. By the time she’s 10, my sense is that half of her favorite toys will be Kicstarted projects. I can’t wait to see what happens whenthe generation raised on crowdfunded individual creations realizes that they have access to the same tools.

MakerFaireNYC: Bad Robots

MakerFaire was a great experience, if complex and a bit confounding. As a way of managing my own reflective process, I’m going through my photoroll and pocket detritus.

That lady, with a comically thick Long Island accent, either walked through MakerFaire blinkfolded or has a very stingent definition of what counts as a robot.

I didn’t go to MakerFaire looking to spend money, but I had a chunk of cash set aside in case I found the one true robotics learning platform. I need one that’s cheap, exandable, abstractable, and I need it now.

I saw lots of robots over the weekend, but I spent more money on juice than on robotics kits. Some were simply too big and too awesome for my needs.

Arcbotics’ Hexy is cheap for what it offers. $200 buys a kit 20 servos with support for 12 more on the board, ready to assemble with laser cut acrylic case and a range sensor. It’s freakin’ sweet. But I’m looking for something simple, where movement or steering are never an issue, and where students can easily swap sensors into the platform.

The Hexy has those capabilities, but it’s wrapped in this very fancy toy-like exterior. The price is cheap for what you get, but it also comes with a lot more than what I need for this robotics project. But I almost bought one for the house…

The Central Jersey Robotics Group had some hardcore DIY bots, but entirely from standard breadboards with DC motors hot glued underneath. The board hosted an HBridge and Microcontroller and a ton of expertly folded jumper wire. I was really excited for about 10 minutes while talking to a student. Then I learned that the Microcontoller was a PIC, and that the whole robot building process was part of a kit/curriculum bundle.

I recognize the value in teaching kids to build robots, but that’s not what I’m after. I’m trying to build a science unit around robotics, where students play with sensors and robot behavior at a very high level of abstraction. I want to hand them functional robots with a LOGO-esque syntax and back away.  I do not want anything to do with any flavor of BASIC.

I walked away, knowing that I could never assemble a breadboard as neatly as that 10yo girl.

New Schedules, New Space

We’re closing out our first academic week. In the weird jargon of our rotating calendar, it’s a Friday F-Day, which feels like a double weekend. In another month I’ll settle into the rhythm of a new schedule, scouting out which days are packed so tight that to carry emergency calories on my person, and which have enough open space to heat up the soldering iron. Now I just feel discombobulated, like my shift schedule just changed at Saturn. “Oh, so Tuesday is now my Friday, but I have a bake/soup double on Thursday night.”

This year had two extra bits of schedule shuffle. Our 5th grade INFORMATION class moved form a luxurious 90 minute block into two 45 minute chunks. How much of what we accomplished over the last two years was a result of that big contiguous block of time? In a longer block, students had the freedom to take small breaks when they wanted, shifting their attention away from the day’s project for a few minutes to browse the library or check in with another student. I know we’ll find a good balance, but right now 45 minutes feels like we’ve replaced the most liberating and productive minutes of our class with adult instructions and procedures.

The schedule for Makers didn’t change, but there was a last minute change of venue. We had previously met in a Fine Arts classroom that was largely used as overflow – space for advisories, Mandarin, or drama classes during major theater productions. It should be said, we have a great Arts department that shares one theater for K-12 orchestra, percussion, choral, and drama. Our year is full of productions!


After a few days of stress about that (literally) closing door, I found an incredible open window closet. Our amazing facilities team, in the midst of their most frantic week, spackeled and painted the old “tech support” room. It’s only 6×20, but it has shelving! Shelves are amazing.


Now that our developing program has home for the year, we’re ready to take the next steps in developing from a secret fiefdom into a open and accessible resource for teachers and students.


Cube Reflections and Classroom Isolation

I have a cube!

I thought that tweeting about it would be enough

but then @rdpickle went and actually blogged about her awesome collaboration with Molly. I’m blessed this year to have have a dedicated grown-up desk (first ever!) in the same cube-pod with those two, and their amazing partnership.

I stumbled through my early 20s. In the span of a year, I went from working double shifts in low-rent restaurant kitchens, through corporate tutoring center, computer lab support and finally to teaching a few sections of math in borrowed classrooms. There’s other things to say about the way that wandering route shaped me as an educator, but it certainly cured me of the need for “my own” desk. Having a space that wasn’t filled with fryer grease was luxury enough.

Last year, instead of trying to claim an “extra” space from a classroom (no such thing!), I embraced my nomadic spirit and built a 18x18x40″ rolling cart to serve as home base. For half the year, I planted it squarely in the middle of the 8th grade lounge, and used my Foot Clan training to blend seamlessly into background.

The Tick #3 – Ben Edlund

There can be legitimate concerns about my ninja-inspired teaching support, but it certainly furthered my goal to be where I was needed before the need was obvious. This only happens when I can talk to students and teachers at length about anything but tech and teaching. While this was great for my actual job (my productivity skyrocketed last year just by trimming off the loop between “thought of a problem” and “got around to mailing that tech guy” ), it was even better for my teaching soul. Every conversation about teaching craft and classroom practice sustained me through a dozen fights with the print server.

Now my home-base is smack in the middle of these amazing conversations! I’ve started to sense the massive positive footprint of the collaborative spirit fostered by these spaces.

Even though our middle school seems large to me (6 sections per grade!), the teaching faculty is too small and space too precious to create a dedicated space for teachers to plan, collaborate and dream. Our middle school teachers are already isolated by grade level, schedule and subject. They’re the ones in most desperate need of wider conversation, clarifying questions, dissenting opinions, and inter-disciplinary perspective.

This sounds way to precious to be about a cube-farm. But the message of the cubes is that there’s a crucial aspect of teaching practice that needs the input and cooperation of other teachers. To build an amazing classroom, you need strength and support from outside the classroom as well. Modular office furniture might not be the most powerful way to deliver that message, but it’s a start.

Students can’t be Silent Shareholders

Ira is smart, passionate and articulate. I don’t know how I found SpeEdChange, but I’m certain that my own teaching (not to mention blogging) would be far more shallow without his relentless drive for humane schools and student choice.

Every time Ira posts, I grab a great quote to retweet, but those never fit out under the 140 character tweet limit.

This gem is from his most recent reflection on the UVA drama, hightail the fundamental cost incurred when a formerly public space surrenders all other concerns to efficiency and profit. It’s a broad post, with far more to say than just this little quote, but it grabbed me nonetheless.

If your school or school dis­trict or divi­sion seeks to be some­thing other than an insti­tu­tion of social repro­duc­tion and wealth preser­va­tion, then it must not just say “no” to cor­po­rate inten­tions but also “no” to teach­ers or admin­is­tra­tors say­ing “no” to change in order to pre­serve their own com­fort.

Ira’s point about decision making and conflict within schools is easy to miss, since it hides inside one of those most tempting self-deceptions for educators. All those people who disagree with me, they just want to preserve their own comfort!

The most enduring lesson I learned from John Carlstroem (another amazing educator who seems to exist entirely off the twitter/blog grid) is to “assume good will” when working with fellow educators. If everyone is around the table in order to produce the best outcome for students, then eventually all conflicts are solvable. All arguments can be settled by clearly exploring which options are best for the children in question, or so the theory goes.

When this assumption breaks down, as I’ve seen happen more than once over the last 8 years, is when different sides approach the question of what is best for students from wildly divergent perspectives. Instead of solving a specific problem, these arguments around “what’s best for students” are overwhelmed by doctrinal statements or third hand research citations. All that fruitless fury, all that drama when the primary source is sitting right outside in the hallways!

Ira’s quote reminds me that my claims to be “student centered” need to be backed up with conversations and decision making by actual students, or it’s just another co-opted “21st century” buzzword. When educators argue about what’s best for students, it will often seem like the other side is out to preserve their own comfort. But unless the discussion has empowered student voices at the center, then that charge is equally applicable to all the adults involved.

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