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

From challenge to grad school at 250 W.P.H.

One year ago today I started blogging. I have written 19 posts containing a total of 16,404 words (not counting this post, my 20th). On average each post takes about 3.5 hours to write, proofread, re-write, re-proofread, and re-re-write.

Looking back
As I reflect on the time and effort I have invested in blogging this year, I am drawn to the very first words I wrote here: “Today I was challenged…” 

Thank you to everyone who has challenged me and has set the bar of expectations high for me to reach. Writing about ideas and engaging with each of you online and offline has been a tremendous experience for me to grow and to learn.

I decided to start this blog because I did not want to respond to that initial challenge (to develop an opinion about MOOCs and how they will affect the world of education) only to bury that opinion in the archives of Gmail; and now my ongoing goal of writing every month has only been possible because of the support and engagement of the people who have taken the time to read and discuss these ideas with me. Thank you!

Looking ahead
If each blog post takes me about 3.5 hours or so to write, then on average I write about 250 words per hour. But I am capable of typing somewhere around 100 words per minute. So most of my time writing blog posts is spent not writing anything at all. Most of my time is spent developing ideas and hunting for the right language to capture them. It has been a year of slowly, deliberately exploring ideas that fascinate me.

I have learned a lot through this process, and perhaps one of the most important lessons I have learned is how much I enjoy this process itself. It turns out that I really like spending a quiet Saturday morning questioning, reflecting, and writing. I have learned that taking the time to work through this process is in fact part of how I have fun.

My interest in this work has evolved to a point where now I plan to explore the questions that have filled this blog more formally: I have just been accepted to the Learning Science and Technologies program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education! The LST program focuses on “the intersection of collaboration, creativity, complexity, and computation.” I think I’d like to make this intersection my home address some day.

In one year of blogging I have gone from “Today I was challenged…” to becoming a graduate student. My future will certainly be busy — filled with teaching full-time, studying part-time, and hopefully still blogging sometimes — and I look forward to seeing where these new challenges will lead me in the years ahead.

Sipping from the firehose

Context: Information is cheap and is being generated at a rapidly accelerating rate. This abundance of information, and our constant access to it, is perhaps the most profound way that the internet is changing the world.

My questions: How does that affect my role as a teacher? How does that affect the stance I take with respect to my students, or the stance that my students take with respect to school? How does our new relationship to information affect our relationship to learning?

A story that illustrates my answer: A seedling of an idea has blossomed into an exciting learning trajectory for me over the past year. Retrace my steps with me to see the lessons I have learned.  Continue reading

Inexperience as a virtue

You know you’re a teacher if the following sentence makes you cringe: “I’m not a math person.”

(If that didn’t make you cringe, go ahead and replace math for art, language, humanities, creativity, etc. Okay. Now go back to cringing for a moment.)

The language here is important because there’s a big difference between “Keeping up in math class is hard” and “I’m not a math person.”

The problem with saying “I’m not a math person” isn’t just the sense of defeat in it. As Seymour Papert puts it, the deeper problem is that phrasing like this turns deficiency into identity. With this language, the mindset has officially changed. Growth is no longer a goal. Surrender is part of you. It’s utterly corrosive.

But here’s the surprising part: I’m wondering if the inverse is corrosive too.  Continue reading

Muscle memory

Although I am not teaching any Latin classes this year, I still identify myself as a Latin and Computer Science teacher. And whenever I introduce myself that way, I always get a reaction.

“The old and the new, huh? What an odd mix.”

It’s not necessarily the juxtaposition of modern and ancient that elicits a reaction (maybe it’s science vs. humanities or the vocational gap between the two), but the surprise always seems to be there.

It’s not really that weird

Classics and computer science in fact have a lot in common. The students whom I’ve taught in both classes see it the same way. A few examples:

  • Habits of pattern-matching, algorithmic thinking, debugging are expressed similarly but with different names.
  • Puzzle-masters, problem-solvers, and decoders feel equally at home in these two fields.
  • Simultaneous abstract- and concrete-thinking skills are required in both disciplines.
  • Whether we are interpreting ancient texts for modern English readers or writing code for computers, both are essentially one-way translations.
  • Computer scientists and classicists are both hung up on documentation. Classicists compile a single dictionary for a hundred years; programmers store millions of lines of code with instructions and annotations online.

Here’s the weird part

Before Virgil or Turing entered my world, I was a dancer. I performed, competed, and practiced 20-hours per week in my childhood. When I was 16 I earned the title of National Male Dancer of the Year and High Scoring Soloist. Here’s proof:

Continue reading

The fail whale, reimagined

The goal: To encourage students to take intellectual risks; to live with the vulnerability of not knowing something in order to learn from the people around them.

The reason: STEAM [read: life] is transformed when we come to appreciate the people around us and the diversity of their interests, skills, and experiences. When the vulnerability of learning is no longer terrifying, the opportunities we have to learn from each other come into focus as the precious resources they are.

The following pictures document my thought process in trying to make this goal a reality in my classroom.

v1.0 – Redefine failure

How can we soften the sharp edge of that vulnerability? Here is one way I won’t do it:


I understand the goal of redefining failure, but I worry that this tagline (or the “Fail early. Fail often.” mantra) are sometimes accepted, dumped into classrooms, and not examined. I worry that these taglines are missing the point and instead are at risk of fetishizing failure.*

v2.0 – Poke fun

So maybe we can poke fun at failure instead of celebrate it. Would that de-stigmatize it? What if we can find a playful way to re-create the Twitter fail whale with our misguided attempts and failures?


No, I don’t think that’s good enough. Instead of redefining failure or poking fun at it, I think I would rather make it irrelevant. Continue reading

Creativity, Light, and metaphor

What is creativity? 

Well, I’m not going to answer that. Not with words or any sort of definition, anyway. In a panel discussion this summer with Saeed Arida and Edith Ackermann at the MIT Media Lab, George Stiney pointed out that the very act of pinning creativity down in words limits our understanding of it:

Every time we latch on to a taxonomy, we limit ourselves… As soon as we substitute a word for a thing, we miss a chance for seeing.

- George Stiney at the MIT Media Lab

And it’s not just with creativity, Stiney’s line of thinking was suggesting, but with words in general. Stiney’s work in the realm of understanding creativity has its own language of geometry and shapes to communicate its ideas. He joyfully pushed the conversation into fascinating places and he enjoyed the “dramatically anti-nominalist wave” that the conversation was riding. And as someone who is prone to fixating on words and their definitions sometimes, I enjoyed it too.  Continue reading