Teach a man to fish…

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

We’ve all heard that one before, but I have some questions: who is teaching the man? And how? (And, just to be clear, it’s not just men who need to eat and are capable of fishing, right?)

I spent the MLK Day of Service last weekend helping pack 500 bagged lunches for hungry people in Philadelphia. In the metaphor of the proverb, that was a whole lot of fish. (To give credit to the facilitators of the day’s activities, there was as much time spent building bridges between communities and examining privilege and difference as anything else. The sandwiches were a catalyst and a useful byproduct.) But as I thought ahead to the more worthwhile goal of teaching 500 people to fish, I saw that that too comes up short, even metaphorically:  Continue reading

Quakers & makers

I watch the maker movement’s entrance into education from an uncommon vantage point: I teach and run a makerspace at an independent Quaker school. As an independent school we navigate our own path around state-mandated curricula and tests; as teachers at a Quaker school we are politically and ethically engaged educators, steeped in values of community, equality, and deep respect for the individual; and in our makerspace teachers and students share their projects and experiences as case studies for other schools to consider. When students left campus and summertime settled in last year, I realized that my perspective lets me see something pretty surprising: I’ve found that the characteristics that are radical about maker communities and Quaker communities are also the very things that make them similar.  Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

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