An epistemology of hugs

This blog post comes with an activity: please stop reading, step away from the screen, and go hug someone.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.


…Did you do it yet? No? I told you I’d wait. Go ahead.


Okay, welcome back. So, what did you learn about that person by giving him or her a hug? That your friendship wasn’t quite as close as you thought? Or that life is short and we ought to express affection for one another more often? Or maybe that you need to buy your friend a new stick of deodorant?

Or maybe this: I think that when you give someone a hug, you learn how tall they really are.

Think of it this way: if I tell you that I am 6’2″, you can do some interesting things with that information:

  • (6 * 12) + 2 = I am 72 inches tall
  • (10 * 12) = basketball hoops are 120 inches off the ground
  • (102 – 72) + (the diameter of a basketball) – (the length of my arm) = how high I would need to jump in order to dunk

Or maybe you could calculate my wingspan and measure how many of me it would take, fingertip to fingertip, to wrap around the world. Or stacked head to toe, how many of me it’d take to reach the moon.

But if you give me a hug, you’ll learn how tall I am in a different way: where your arms reach as we connect, if you need to stand on your toes, or if your head fits above or below my shoulder when we touch. It’s all too easy to dismiss the value of embodied knowledge; how many of you skipped the activity and figured you could piece it together if you just kept reading? You can do lots of things with the knowledge that I am 72″ tall, but you come to know it in a different way when you relate to it more personally.

And that’s the thesis of learning through making. I teach in a makerspace because I want to invite students to interact more intimately with their own developing understanding. I want students to know what it feels like to wrap their arms around an idea.

Not so much a blueprint as a recipe

In my five years of teaching computer science, addressing the gender gap has been my biggest struggle. When I was first hired to teach two high school elective computer science classes, there was a grand total of four students registered. In the years since, the computer science program has grown, reaching all 7th and 8th grade students and now approaching full enrollment in the two high school classes. Yet that first year with 25% female representation was the closest to gender parity the high school electives have ever seen.

The gender gap in computer science is an international and well-documented problem. Last year many major tech companies released demographic information about their workforces and it was confirmed, again, that women and minorities are problematically underrepresented in technical jobs. By releasing this data the companies were taking steps to address the issue, and one key factor in addressing the issue involves examining the companies’ applicant pools. But then a closer look at the demographics of the applicant pools shows that the demographics of graduates with advanced degrees in computer science are just as skewed. And so then we can look at undergraduate programs, and next to high school programs. And there I was, with never more than 2 girls in a high school computer science class at a time, feeling like a contributor to a problem that I had meant all along to address.

Well, it looks as if things will be changing next year: of the 20 students signed up to take the Computer Science 1 elective, 12 of them are female. The class somehow overshot gender parity, and I’m delighted.
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Games to empower

There are essentially three camps among educators who support the idea of integrating video games and learning:

  • those who are playing video games as a means to support student learning (e.g. Minecraft, SimCity Edu, Civilization, augmented reality simulations)
  • those who are creating video games as a means to support student learning (e.g. Scratch, Globaloria, Gamestar Mechanic)
  • those who are applying gameplay structures from video games to real world learning environments (i.e. gamification)

In this post I focus on the third approach, specifically on ways that intentional use of gamification can either empower or disenfranchise its participants.

Games are powerful

The idea of integrating video games into the classroom is exciting for teachers not just because games are fun or because kids seem to be willing to invest incredible amounts of time into them — in fact games model learning in some compelling ways.  Continue reading

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.
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