It’s more mess than magic

Hour of Code assembly

I had a very special opportunity on Friday to run an assembly for all middle and upper school students at my school in celebration of Computer Science Education Week. Through the generosity of two people I consider both personal heroes and friends, and with the support of students and adults from all parts of the school, we managed to create a meaningful, memorable experience that we streamed online to share with the world. I invite you to watch the whole thing below or click on the time markers (0:00, 14:41, and 54:13) to skip to particular sections. Here’s what to watch for:

0:00 - We started by playing a game about friends, Friends, and connecting with each other. The activity involved two MaKey MaKeys, five days of game programming by my Computer Science 2 class, seven custom t-shirts designed by student volunteers in the makerspace, and 1,000 ft of wire. The activity culminated in 600+ students and teachers holding hands, smiling, and playing together.

FRIENDS human chains

14:41 – We began a Q&A session with Dr. AnnMarie Thomas and Dr. Eric Rosenbaum. We talked about curiosity, learning, self-expression, and technology. Some points to listen for:

  • Life, learning, and computer science are more mess than magic. (The 1,000 ft of wire strewn through the auditorium made that clear if the messages of the speakers did not.) Patience, curiosity, and a willingness to try again are the most useful tools to keep close by.
  • Few paths are linear, but the right mindset makes sure that the journey is worthwhile.
  • The most powerful learning experiences can happen in surprising places. Your grades are not your worth, and transformative learning can happen at any time.
  • Synesthesia, of senses and perhaps of academic disciplines, can provide us new ways to think and to explore the world around us. Maybe the things we think of as separate things shouldn’t be so separate.
  • The right questions and the right people will take you further than simply the right tools ever will.

Hanging out with AnnMarie

54:13 – I closed with a few themes to frame our thinking on computer science, powerful ideas, and inclusivity.

Watch the whole event below:

Computation as a literacy of its own

Computer Science Education Week begins on December 8th this year. While I have marked the event in small ways in my classes in years past, this year I have been asked to help the whole school celebrate the week by participating in the Hour of Code movement.

I used to have conflicted feelings about hopping on board the Hour of Code bandwagon:

  • Hour of Code is the product of a year-old non-profit organization, Code.org (founded in 2013), which has a tidal wave of public attention and corporate support. Something so new, that’s moving so quickly, hasn’t had much time for critical analysis. I wanted to know what Code.org was all about a little more before putting it in front of students.
  • When one of my intellectual heroes, Bret Victor, cited another one of my intellectual heroes, Seymour Papert, in criticizing the rhetoric of Hour of Code, I paid attention. There was a pedagogy and a purpose to computer science education that seemed to be missing from Code.org and that made me uneasy.
  • An hour of code? What about poetry? What about dance? What about Shakespeare? What about _____? What is it saying to students that programming is privileged in this way?
  • An hour of code? When has meaningful learning ever happened in just one hour of just one week of a year? Isn’t computer science an academic discipline worthy of deep thought?

…but things have changed. I was asked to get on the bandwagon. And it turns out the view is different from up here:

  • Computer Science Education Week, which has been around for a number of years, is officially being produced by Code.org this year. Having these two align, rather than having a brand new Code.org piggyback off of the work of another coalition, makes me feel a little bit better. (I’m still researching more about Code.org and would welcome insights anyone out there is willing to share.)
  • The rhetoric feels a little bit different this year. It strikes me as being angled more toward access and inclusivity.
  • Maybe an hour of code doesn’t preclude an hour of anything else. Maybe a day or a week to celebrate computer science will invite more week-long celebrations of more things that our students should come into contact with — not belittle or jettison them.

And lastly, having the entire school participate in the Hour of Code creates a platform to say some important things. Here are the three things I want students to take away:

First, that computer science offers a powerful lens to view the world. What do I mean by that? Here’s an analogy:
Something transformative can happen in literature classes when students realize that storytelling and symbolism and metaphors are real — that they don’t just exist in books and in classroom conversations. Our very identities are wrapped up in the stories we tell; the metaphors we use shape our experiences. It’s a revelation when you begin to think that when we study books we are studying ourselves and our shared condition. Connections are everywhere; words take on new meaning; you can never un-see connections and significance all around you.
Computation can be similarly transformational when you see the world in terms of big problems that can be decomposed into smaller, more manageable problems, which can be solved one at a time, and as layers of abstraction, some of which we understand and some of which we don’t understand yet.

Second, that computational literacy is a social justice issue. 
We learn from Freire that literacy is more than just encoding and decoding words. And so computational literacy isn’t just functional either: it’s not that all students should be making apps. It’s also political: the people who speak the language can participate; the people who don’t, can’t. Think of it this way:
Everything that you see on a computer has been designed by someone. The placement of each button, the font of each word, the background color of each screen.
Every experience you have on a computer involves a decision made by someone. Where will your information be stored when you create a new account on that site? How much of it will be shared with other people? Will it ever be deleted?
Without computational literacy to make decisions like these for yourself, you will always be subjected to live with the decisions of others. You deserve to have the power to ask the right questions, and when you don’t like the answers you receive, to create new solutions. Anything less is oppressive.

And third, your voice deserves a chance to be heard.
Should all students become professional programmers? No! But all students deserve the opportunity to be heard. The message behind the Hour of Code shouldn’t be that the world needs more programmers; it’s that the world needs more kinds of programmers. People of different backgrounds with different intellectual and professional aspirations. People of different races, cultures, genders, ages, and shoe sizes. There is tremendous power in computer science not only to see the world differently but also to affect the world differently; diverse voices to represent that world need to be part of the conversation.

*This entire post needs a big footnote crediting Yasmin Kafai, my professor and advisor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Her keynote at FabLearn two weeks ago has had me thinking about equity, inclusivity, and diversity in computer science classes, and her larger influence on my thought in only the last few months has already been indelible.

Listening for quiet moments

[Think about it.]
Can you name that one book that you read in high school that changed the way you thought about the world? You probably read a lot of books in high school but for some reason this was the book that really stuck. Can you name it?

For me it was The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. It was the book that helped me to appreciate the world as it came to me, both the yin and the yang, as enriching, equally important complements. It was the book that made me understand how sentimental I am for words and what great power they have over me. It’s one of the few books that I re-read time and again.

Can you name the one album or song that changed your perspective when you were young? Beyond everything you heard on the radio, for some reason this was the album that was pivotal for you.

For me it was Kid A by Radiohead. My brother gave it to me as a birthday present, and although I really wanted to like it and think it was cool, it was mostly just weird at first. (Treefingers, anyone?) So I listened to it over and over, and as I started to appreciate new things about it, something dramatic happened: I discovered album liner notes. And record labels. And then opening acts and side projects. Kid A led me to OK Computer, the 1997 album by Radiohead that was regarded in some circles as the best album of the 1990s, and to Sigur Rós, the Icelandic band making atmospheric, beautiful music who toured with Radiohead in support of Kid A. Sigur Rós led me to Björk, Jóhann Jóhannsson, and múm (all Icelandic artists) and Constellation Records (a Canadian record label that shared a kindred spirit) and each of these bands led to half a dozen others. And of course each of those bands had their own opening acts, side projects, and liner notes too. I went from listening to music to being a fan of music. Seeing these connections was an ah-ha! moment that reshaped my relationship with music, and it continues to be a guiding metaphor in how I try to navigate a sea of new, yet somehow connected, ideas.

[Talk about it.]
What other experiences have changed your perspective: a moment of earthly humility while gazing through a telescope? A childhood insult whose sting took years to wear off? That conversation that allowed you to realize that your parents were actually people too?

I’m curious about the ways that our perspectives are shaped and how so many of these formative experiences exist only as personal, silent memories. How many people have touched me in lasting ways they don’t know? How many things have I said and forgotten, which are now quietly carried on by other people?  Continue reading

The medium is the message

To clarify the expectations for the graduating class of 2014:
One of the Latin students among you is expected to return to FCS some years from now to continue the FCS Latin teacher lineage. Doc taught Magistra. Doc and Magistra taught me. Now Doc, Magistra, and I have taught you. You have a few years to sort out the details; I expect to see one of you back here before we’re all retired and gone away.

As you are figuring out the logistics of who will come back and when, you can start thinking about this one in advance: you’ll need to decide what kind of a teacher you will be during Meeting for Worship. Will you be an eyes-closed teacher or an eyes-open teacher? I’ve tried a number of times to be an eyes-closed teacher — a Ms Novo, a Mr V, or a Mr Gruber — but I’m not. I’ve tried to be the kind of teacher who comes in to Meeting for Worship, sits up straight, closes his eyes, and does work. Those teachers rarely speak, so you rarely know what’s going through their minds… but you know that it’s something important. You can almost see the sweat forming on their brows. Utter concentration on their faces. No slouching, no fidgeting. Something meaningful is happening on the inside, and it’s taking all of their attention.

But when I try to close my eyes in Meeting for Worship, my brain starts to swirl around inside of my skull, the floor under my left foot starts rolling in one direction and the floor under my right foot rolls in another. Before I know it my head starts nodding and I realize, again, that I’m not meant to be an eyes-closed teacher.

But I would like to be an eyes-closed teacher because without saying anything at all, the eyes-closed teachers are sharing a message loud and clear: something important is at work in Meeting for Worship, it’s worthy of your attention, and it’s nothing that eyes can see. Some messages are expressed best without words.

The theme of the end of the school year is transformation. And as I think about that in the context of Meeting for Worship and this year’s graduating seniors, I can’t help but think of all of the messages I have learned from the seniors I have taught; I think about their messages, which are as unvoiced and unmistakable as a teacher closing his eyes, and how these messages have transformed me. The students who have grown along with me, matching me stride for stride in my journey being a teacher. The students who have taught me that this is the job I’m meant to do. The student who puts the “B” in my “BC.”

As much as I was tempted to stand up in their last Meeting for Worship and tell them — convince them — that they have transformed me, I’m sure that that transformational power has been the message behind every Meeting for Worship they’ve attended all along. That’s why we sit in silence. That’s what we’re listening for. Meeting for Worship is built upon the conviction that your truth has the power to make my reality a better place.

And so I didn’t need to stand up to share a message because the medium is the message. Every time I share my silence and my undivided attention with you, I am saying in the most deliberate way I know how: your truth has the power to transform my reality. So, please, I’m ready — stand up and speak. I’ll be listening.

To the seniors who will be graduating tomorrow: go out and speak your truth. Make the world a better place. There’s no one else who can do it quite the way you can.

Then make sure one of you comes back to teach Latin.

Potential energy and kinetic energy

Lisa Kay Solomon gave a talk at my school tonight about “designing meaningful conversations.” (Lisa, an alum, is back in Philadelphia for her high school reunion and recently published a book on the same topic.) She was a phenomenal presenter.  She framed her talk by looking at the lost opportunities of agenda-packed corporate meetings that bludgeon employees with endless PowerPoint presentations and dilute progress into action items that are little more than window dressings. While many of her examples were targeted at a corporate audience, the themes of creative leadership, of designing experiences rather than disseminating information, and of developing a safe environment for discovery all resonated with my approach to working with students.

Lisa, if you’re reading, I was the enthusiastic head-nodder in the fourth row.

But I didn’t realize the relative impact of her talk until I compared notes with two parents in the audience immediately afterwards. Both parents were fired up, ready to take Lisa’s ideas back to their offices and revitalize their next board meeting. They were energized to reexamine the linear rut of “progress” in their corporate culture that may not be progress at all.

And for a moment I was able to pause and take in the joy and the challenge of being a teacher:

Next month I get to hit the reset button.

Summer vacation arrives in exactly 30 days and already I’m thinking ahead to next year. When September rolls around, I get to redefine the culture of my classroom. Full stop. What other jobs allow for such a clean opportunity for iteration? In many ways my students are my colleagues — and when I start fresh every fall I am able to shape a new message and a new set of expectations for our shared workplace.

Then again, my colleagues are kids.

When given the right set of circumstances, kids and their imaginations are great at the kinds of conversations Lisa was describing. I see it all the time. And if you view the teacher as a user experience designer for the classroom, then the challenge of “developing safe environments for discovery” nicely captures what teachers do, day in and day out.

But kids are kids. Innovation with middle and high school students necessarily happens on a different scale from the professional world. Students don’t have degrees or experience (they’re kids!) and they don’t have careers to dedicate to the themes they wish to explore. (Their school day is divided 40-minute chunks and they already have too much homework.) Great ideas are often left in the lofty realm of imagination and never touch the cold asphalt of implementation and creativity. Just this year I saw plenty of meaningful conversations fail to turn into meaningful work.

So can the themes of Lisa’s talk still apply to my classroom? Can meaningful conversations turn into meaningful work by stoking a long-burning need for learning and growth?

Already I see my goals for next year:

  • to turn potential energy into kinetic energy
  • to leverage meaningful conversations into sustained climbs up the learning curve
  • to transform post-it notes and what-if questions into third, fourth, and fifth iterations of a single concept
  • to channel the buoyant force of powerful imagination into the sweaty, soot-covered hustle of creativity

Here’s the one post-it note I think I might keep within arm’s reach next year:

where-the-learning-happens

Grokking it

A few months ago I wrote about a learning trajectory that I have been riding for the last year or so. I ended with a few questions:

How can I help transform moments of formal and informal learning with my students into seedlings of curiosity that they, themselves, can nurture and grow?
How can I help students learn to sip from the internet’s firehose of information in a way that empowers them to have agency as capable, self-directed learners?
How can I develop the patience, intentionality, and resourcefulness in students that will equip them to build bridges to new territories of thought and walk across them at the same time?

Sounds exciting, right? I look forward to investing a lot of my professional future in answering these questions as best I can.

But I see that there is a way to fundamentally misinterpret these questions as a threat instead of an opportunity: if information is cheap does that mean that expertise is cheap too? Can a glut of information actually be a threat to knowing?

Grokking sounds like an ugly word
In some communities, “grokking it” means something along the lines of learning by intuition; “grokking” is not necessarily associated with depth of knowledge or attention to nuance. In his book, Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff provides an example of grokking vs. understanding through the lens of our society’s changing relationship with time itself. In one example, Rushkoff confesses that he “doesn’t know whether to be delighted or horrified” by a high school student who “already saw the world in fractal terms and assumed that being able to fully grasp one moment of Hamlet would mean that he had successfully ‘grokked’ the whole.” Rushkoff sympathizes by considering the student’s context: “Functioning in [our] world does require getting the ‘gist’ of things and moving on, recognizing patterns, and then inferring the rest.” While in this context grokking seems like a useful skill, the example makes it clear that grokking should not be conflated with real understanding.

Is that a lurking threat in our 21st century classrooms? Is a mix of grokking and Googling threatening to replace the value of developing a real depth of understanding?

Continue reading

Symbols on our skin

I went to church tonight and had a symbol of ashes placed on my forehead. But this post is not about church, religiosity, or my own theological perspective. Skip all of that. For the sake of this post, the ashes were just the catalyst for a thought experiment. (Especially if you find all of those philosophical questions hard to ignore in the context of religious symbols — you, in particular, please skip all of that baggage and keep reading.) This post is about choice, how easy it is for symbols to be misinterpreted, and privilege.

All of the context needed for now is to say that Ash Wednesday is a special day on the calendar for me; I marked it by attending the Presbyterian church I attend every Sunday; and at the church service tonight I chose to receive a symbolic smudge of ashes on my forehead. I’ll avoid any discussion of the traditional meaning of these things as well as my personal interpretation of them — all of which would only distract from my message right now. To that end maybe I’ll try phrasing it even more simply: tonight I chose to associate myself with a community of people by wearing a symbol on my skin. That’s pretty sterile, but hopefully it lays the groundwork for where I’m headed.

Here’s the thought experiment I want to focus on: if the service had been at 7:00 AM instead of 7:00 PM, I might not have chosen to receive that symbol.

I wouldn’t want to wear the symbol of ashes on my face throughout the day for fear of dealing with how people might react to it. Here are some of the potential reactions I’ve imagined:  Continue reading