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.

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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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

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.  Continue reading