Outgrowing the acronym

In a few weeks my colleague, Josh, and I will be presenting “STEAM is not a big enough tent” at the Academic Learning Transformation Festival (ALTfest). We wrote the following post for the National Writing Project’s Digital Is website. It provides a good overview of our upcoming talk at ALTfest.

We started a STEAM program, and three years later, we’ve outgrown the acronym.

It began when a group of upper school students approached a physics teacher about creating an advanced physics group tutorial. The physics teacher recruited a computer science teacher and the tutorial became robotics. The computer science teacher enlisted the support of a media and design teacher and the program became STEAM. By the time September arrived, our students, teachers, and school began a three year trajectory we did not anticipate.

Start with design: The hated classroom chair. We asked students to redesign them. They did. They couldn’t stop. They redesigned the classroom. Then they redesigned the school.

Don’t forget robots: A mission to land a robot from the roof, drive itself across the field, and plant a flag. Fortunately the dead-weight-falling, spear-launching machine didn’t hurt anyone. It also didn’t sustain the landing, drive itself, or plant a flag. We learned a lot.  Continue reading

Mindful making

The following post is the second of two journal entries I am submitting for my grad school class on informal learning. The topic is sustainability. (The topic of the first was inclusivity.) The context is the makerspace at my school and the informal workshops I’ve been running there this year.

As the makerspace becomes increasingly institutionalized in my school, its needs will evolve and mature. Successful growth into the institution of the school will require an ongoing commitment to diversity and a vigilant eye toward its long-term health. In this essay I provide an overview of the makerspace’s sustainability from four different perspectives: staffing, programming, finances, and environmental responsibility. I only glance at the first three issues, which are well-documented by other makerspaces and analogous organizations, so that I can focus on the unique challenges of the fourth.  Continue reading

Learning to sew, sewing to learn

Last week I made a hat. This is the story of that hat, and my reflections on learning through the experience of making it.

Learning to sew:
I wanted to learn how to sew. I had all of the materials (fabric, thread), tools (sewing machine, needles), and teachers (both kids and adults), but I didn’t have the right project. I hate the thought of spending material on something that I don’t expect to last, so I needed the perfect project to provide me context for trying my hand at sewing. I ended up making a birthday hat.  Continue reading

More inclusive project descriptions

The following post is a journal entry I am submitting for my grad school class on informal learning. The topic is inclusivity. The context is the informal workshops I have been running in the makerspace this year. (The second journal entry on the makerspace is on the topic of sustainability.)

I have been thinking about the success of the makerspace workshops I have been facilitating this year in qualitative terms: the energizing effects of having different students and faculty participate in and co-facilitate workshop activities; the community-building effects of offering whole-school invitations (lower, middle, and upper school students, parents, alums, faculty, and staff) to every workshop; the sense of ownership that some students develop by participating in a workshop, which then empowers them to return to the makerspace to work on projects of their own; the collaborative effects and emerging interdisciplinary work among faculty. Thinking in these terms has allowed me to employ a broad definition of success instead of measuring the success of the workshops with simpler metrics, such as workshop attendance numbers. I am confident that the workshops are making a positive impact on the school community by any of these broader measures.

Nevertheless I spend considerable time reimagining my approach to the workshops, hoping to find ways to make them more inclusive and more accessible to a wider group of students and to increase the attendance numbers which sometimes have been weak. I wonder: how many missed connections are falling at the feet of my workshop invitations? How many students might have had an enriching experience in the makerspace but did not take the first step to enter? I have experimented with changing lots of variables about the workshops (time of day, day of week, who facilitates them, how they are publicized) in order to learn what might hold some students back from participating.

While I have learned many lessons, the one I would like to focus on here is the craftsmanship of the projects’ descriptions. A successful workshop description accomplishes three things in less than a sentence: it is attractive to a wide audience, it stimulates sustained engagement with the project, and it suggests multiple points of entry to invite a diverse range of learners. In navigating these challenges, I strive to find synergy between open choices and compelling narratives in pursuit of inclusivity.
Continue reading

Taking notes

When Clay Shirky (journalist, technologist, professor, visionary, author of Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus) wrote a blog post about his decision to ban laptops in his graduate classes, the blogosphere’s dialogue on technology in classrooms took on a new tenor. It became impossible to say that only Luddites believe screens and schools don’t mix. Both sides of the conversation were legitimized.

The next step in the conversation is to examine nuance between the poles of “screens always everywhere!” and “no screens whatsoever!” because the conversation at the edges of the spectrum has been well documented. Here’s the one place I want to zoom in: note-taking.

As far as I can tell, most of the negative pushback around screens and schools centers on note-taking. The act of students taking notes is, for many, what makes school look and feel like school. It’s embedded pretty deeply in our routines and our expectations. In my experience as a student, note-taking serves two purposes:  Continue reading

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:  Continue reading

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:  Continue reading