How We Started Quilting (or, How I Got Myself Into the Weeds)

Quilting tangrams Explanation 1: We started quilting because I was bored in my own classroom, and my kids were too.

This particular class is "physical computing," which it's never really been. It's the wrong name for a class that's meant to be an exercise in "Making" and craft and experimentation. We did a bunch of traditional Maker projects earlier in the year - soft circuits, paper circuits, MaKey MaKey - but most of my kids weren't especially into it. So, we started moving into other spaces - knitting, making Mexican wrestling masks, puppets. It was better, but still not as much discomfort as I would have liked. I want my kids to push their thinking on a daily basis in ways that inspire their curiosity. This wasn't happening.

Explanation 2: We started quilting because I don't know how to do it.

So I interrupted everything they were doing - or not doing - about a week ago and announced, after about 24 hours of thinking about this, that we were going to do quilts as our final class project. (We end in December.) Now, prettttty much everything I know about quilting I've learned in the past week. I ordered some books, watched some videos, and figured "I'll use this as an opportunity to model my own learning." I was really inspired by Libs Elliott's Processing Quilts, and had imagined that's what we would base our own work on. But alas:

Explanation 3: I don't know what I'm doing IN A VERY BAD WAY

We're a week in, and I'm feeling now that this may be the worst idea I've ever had since telling my very first class of 7th graders that we were making a music video after planning the entire project during a single 45-minute prep right before the period started. Here are just a few of the problems:

> I did not limit the size of their quilts. I have some students who are insisting on making bed-sized quilts. They have not made quilts before. If I had this to do over again, I would say 12" x 12", and that's it.

> I did not constrain their designs. I have some students who are very attached to the idea of making, oh, I don't know, something that looks like this. Ohhh dear. Next time it's all squares and triangles, my friends.

> I do not know how to explain how much fabric one requires (in yards off a bolt) if one has, say, 36 3" x 3" squares. I can figure this out by myself, but cannot seem to explain it to anyone. One student did manage to figure it out, probably by doing it herself, and I now rely on her to explain it to everyone else.

> I have no budget.

Current status: Frustrated + Terrified + (some fraction)Inspired.

Photos to come.

Whiteboard quilting

Dear #makered folks: Is this crazy?

Musical Fruits / via ITPCamp on Flickr (click for source) I've wanted to teach a physical computing class for the past year or so, but I've been holding off because I feel like I don't know enough to teach it. (I have considerable experience teaching things I don't know much about myself, so this is saying a lot.)  ITP Camp forced me to get my act together in June, and I'm going to be teaching one section of "Electronics"* for nine weeks, mid-September to mid-November. So now I have to plan it. With nine weeks and three hours / week, I'm looking at 27 hours of classes. I'm tentatively thinking about:

One week of simple circuits (paper pop-ups, basic electricity stuff) to get a sense of who's in the class, let the rosters settle down, and make something fun right away; and

Eight classes each on three different projects (see below) that students will rotate through in groups of <10. The logic here is that we have limited supplies/equipment and potentially 28-30 kids, and if we rotate, I can make sure that the 3D printer (assembled over 25+ hours by Fran Fay and myself, see above, which I'm pretty proud of but I'm still not sure if it works) is pretty much being used all the time, rather than very intensively for a few weeks.

> 3D printing / still not sure how to do this, but will figure it out. I'm imagining that we'll do something simple in Sketchup and everyone will be able to print something simple in (or outside of) 8 hours. Naive / impossible?;

> Wearables / we can begin with soft circuits (sewing, lights) and then move to lilypad. I can get ~10 Lilypad simples that can be reused, and I think we'll have time for simple sketches;

> MaKey MaKey / basically because it's awesome, it's simple but there are so many possibilities, and because our music teacher can use them as well. Can I get away with 4 sets for <10 kids?

Big questions: I can only dedicate one course to maker-y things (I also teach feminism and cartography), which means that I'm making a choice to do ~4 projects in a very simple way rather than 1 activity (eg, wearables) more intensively. Bang/bucks. Is this wise or unwise? I thought this was a good idea until I saw it written out here, and now it sounds crazy. Is it reasonable to think that my kids (most of whom will have elected to take the class; most will be HS juniors/seniors) will be able to take themselves through these projects with limited direction from me, because I lack expertise and because there would be 3 simultaneous groups that need facilitation? (Documentation is the key word, I think. I expect to have some materials to get them started.) What supplies must I acquire that I haven't thought of? Should I throw my hands up and do it in the spring instead?

I'd truly appreciate any thoughts / recommendations / (dis/en)couragement you might have - I need your honesty.

*What should I call the class? Mary Moss suggested iSchool Media Lab (after MIT), which I like a lot but I now fear that it would look too much like "Microsoft Office Suite, High School Edition" to most. Thoughts?

From "Why Don't We Offer ..." to Teaching Global Feminism This Year

Watching Kaljah's music video, a feminist remake of Timbaland's Carry Out ft Justin Timberlake. Kelsey, on screen, is the one with her head down. Sometime last fall, a couple of students asked me why we don't offer any classes on women's leadership. First, it's a privilege to teach in a public school where questions like these can be taken seriously and acted on (we also offer classes like Activist Art, HIV/AIDS and Philosophy), and second, why don't we offer any classes on women's leadership?

I'd been aware of Half the Sky for some time, and began to think about that book as a way of grounding a new class in global women's rights and leadership. I've now taught four sections of Global Feminism with about 100 kids since January, and the 8-week course is generally organized like this:

~ 2 weeks: Examine our own understanding of feminism and sexism in the United States; read Audre Lorde, bell hooks and others; what does "global feminism" mean, and how do we think about that in the context of cultural relativism? ~ 3-4 weeks: 1 week on each of three themes (gender-based violence, women's health, and trafficking/prostitution), combined with watching the Half the Sky documentary, discussing the book, and contrasting with case studies in the United States (like the rape case in Steubenville, OH) ~2-3 weeks: Final project, which asks students to respond to the problems/themes in the class in some way (examples include funding a classroom library of feminist books; writing a research paper on gender and toys; launching a girls cross country team in the fall; designing and silk screening a t-shirt line; and creating a feminist music video, among others)

Really amazing, successful things:

  • Student feedback has been quite positive - and if not positive, then very useful. ("It was honestly one of the most serious and life-changing classes that I have ever taken here at the iSchool" ... "I do suggest that we go to trips to learn more, talk to feminist groups and do more activities outside of class."
  • The class was a space to share stories and experiences that are otherwise invisible. Throughout the course, students would talk about moments when they really connected with these (difficult) themes and I realized that there are very few occasions where we can talk about, say, street harassment in the classroom.
  • The final projects truly allowed students to investigate feminism from different perspectives and in different mediums.

Less successful things:

  • The structure of the final project is too flexible and poorly-defined for some students, and that resulted in some projects that lacked specificity or difficulty.
  • Students did 2-3 brief research presentations on a country of their choice to respond to the themes that we were discussing, and I/we saw a lot of value in the presentation itself (design of slides, confidence, etc) but I don't think we got much from the content of the presentations.
  • I think that calling oneself a feminist is also an announcement that one is actively anti-sexist - which means, for example, that I don't think you can call yourself a feminist and also affectionately call your friends "bitches." I know that the same students who were talking about patriarchy might also have been drawing penis graffiti for fun. How do we assimilate our words into our way of being?

So, what's next?

Based on student feedback and my own feeling that there's just way more here than we were able to touch on, I'm going to change this from being a 27-hour "global history elective" to a 60-hour "module" in September 2013. We'll be able to go in greater depth, and will also have time to plan some sort of conference/event for January 2014 that builds on the questions that have come out of the class. I want to do more trips and host speakers, which is something that Morgane and Allison worked on for their final project. I want to possibly do away with the presentations, and instead ask students to read Half the Sky with a friend or family member and document or share the conversations that they have. I want to build on Chanel and Medina's NYC iMakers project (inspired by MAKERS) and have us all do an ethnographic project with women in our lives. I want us to make our way through the new feminism library, built by this year's classes. And .. we'll see!

Hello, ITP camp! / week 1 (On pop-ups + paper circuits, teaching physical computing, and soft circuits)

IMG_4297Thanks to a recommendation from a student's father and a generous fellowship, I'm spending most of my out-of-classroom time in June working on projects at ITP Camp, "a summer camp for adults" that's hosted by NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program. I'm coming here with 8 years of experience in classrooms but very little experience with computing, and I'm hoping to learn a little about a lot of things (including Processing, a programming language often used by artists; Arduino, a controller that can be programmed to interact with the world using sensors; and soft circuits, which are electronic circuits on fabric; and others.) After the first week, I've really been struck by the challenges of working in a space where I know nothing. I've realized that I often situate myself in environments where I'm at least kind of comfortable - ed conferences, ed/design meetups, etc - but this is a situation where I know so little that I almost don't even know what questions to ask. (It's not totally true that I know nothing - I'm coming to this with some interest in electronics and I kind of understand how programming works even if I don't know how to do it. And yet - ) So, here's what the week has looked like in that context:

1) Pop-ups and Paper Circuits (Or: On Teaching Something I'm Still Learning Myself) - Classes at ITP camp are taught by the participants, and one of the obligations of the fellowship is that I teach something. In my fellowship application, I proposed to make a pop-up book that uses paper circuits to explore electricity - and that's the topic of the class that I was scheduled to teach on day 1 of camp. So, knowing nothing about how circuits work, I taught myself using Jie Qi's work and other resources from the MIT Media Lab's High Low Tech Group. The recap of the session on Tuesday, including materials, is here. Lesson: Teaching really is the best way of learning stuff.

2) Teaching Physical Computing - I attended this conversation with Tom Igoe on Wednesday because I want to teach physical computing (the programming of physical objects - like an elevator call button, rather than a mobile app). The conversation was more philosophical than I'd anticipated ("What must students know before they're able to imagine?" "What do I have to offer (as a teacher), and what are the limits to what I have to offer?"), but it was really useful as a way of trying to make sense of my own experience as a "student" who's trying to learn this stuff herself. One of the arguments here was that students do not need to know as much as they think they need to know (about, for example, electronics) - but my sense is that one must have a significant amount of experience to even know what must be known and what can be forgotten. I don't have that experience in this space - I don't know what half of the sessions on the calendar are even about. Lesson: Once we know, it's difficult to remember what it's like to not know.

3) Soft Circuits  - On Thursday, I went to Jen Liu's workshop on soft (wearable) circuits. We spent the first 45 minutes looking at examples and materials, and then we spent the next hour making a working circuit that used snaps as a switch. I left feeling totally inspired and totally frustrated; my snaps weren't working, and I still haven't figured out how to create anything more than a very simple circuit. But, I have new ideas about materials I can use in my pop-up book, and I got to experiment with conductive thread. I'm still frustrated, but making fabric light up is so satisfying!! Lesson: I'm easily frustrated by things that I don't understand, + need to work on that one.

Other things I did: Shop Safety and Kids Day planning with Jaymes Dec.

Other things I missed that I wish I'd been able to do: Workshops on Processing, Wearable Electronics, Makerbot, and Intro to the Soft Lab (including the embroidery machine!)

This week: I'll be working on the book on Monday and Tuesday, but I'm leaving Wednesday for a different camp experience - an outdoor leadership program that's meant to prepare educators to take young people camping.


The High School Field Trip.

The academic "capstone" of the iSchool experience is the Senior Project, which is meant to be grounded in an academic discipline but which can morph into many different things: board games, fundraising campaigns, museum exhibits, original fiction, etc. It begins in the spring, when Juniors take a "Critical Thinking" class in an academic discipline that they choose, and continues through the following fall ("Research and Writing," the outcome is a lit review) and winter (the project itself). So we're going into the third round of Critical Thinking. It's a methods class - eg, historiography - that's meant to introduce students to ways of thinking in English, social studies, math, the arts, science or tech. It's also an incredible opportunity for trips! We were imagining some NYC-based possibilities this afternoon, and came up with these:

Social Studies: Walking tours, the National Archives @ NYC, food tours (something like this?)

Arts: Performances (of music, dance - but where to find them cheaply and not at 10pm?), artist studios, Etsy Labs, Dia:Beacon / Storm King Art Center  (sculpture)

Science: Harlem DNA Lab

Tech: New York Tech Meetup, Hack Manhattan (or any other hackerspace), The Makery (youth-oriented), MakerBot, Eyebeam (art + tech space)

Math: Museum of Math, architecture studios

English: The Moth (a storytelling event), a newsroom (print or broadcast)

Teaching high school cartography.

One of my cartography students asked the other day if our trimester-long class would be offered again, and I said probably not - with the explanation that, unlike with comics or design, I actually don't know much about maps. Love them, have a tattoo of one, spent a college summer with GIS, and have followed (and made) more map art projects than I can remember - but I don't know how to articulate what I actually know about mapmaking with the language that mapmakers or geographers would use. So that's not too good. But it's made the class so much fun!, mostly because the things that students are learning are the things I'm learning as well.

First week, we tried to replicate Kim Dingle's Maps of the U.S. Drawn from Memory by Las Vegas Teenagers as a way of confronting what we do and do not know about this place we live. Then we cut up some classroom maps that I found abandoned in the back of a closet.

Second week, we experimented with projection and scale. I do not really understand projection. We did the "draw the world on an orange and peel it" activity and we watched The West Wing on maps, but we didn't fully resolve how projections are created mathematically. Then, I came up with this idea to redraw the huge map of California I have hanging in our classroom (scale 1in=12mi) at a scale of 1in=24 miles. I did not know how to do this either; the hard-to-see picture at right documents a conversation I had with two friends over dinner (and a placemat) about how we would approach this problem. Of course, the next day they ended up figuring out how to do this fairly well on their own with a ruler, protractor and some string.

Third week, which was short, we started working on the "what's a country?" question, which began because I'm interested in Taiwan and the four-color theorem - which, in opposition to my usual feelings about worksheets and especially worksheets-as-vacation-homework, turned into this. (PDF) We also created paper mache globe bodies, which are going to lead to something related to latitude/longitude and a world geography lesson as we paint them.

Anyway, I found the globe at top at a Goodwill over the weekend. I don't know how old it is, but we're going to work on figuring that out based on which countries are there and which are not. I'm hoping that over the next two months together, we can work on mapping with Google Fusion Tables, do some orienteering or geocaching, make some maps as art, figure out where north is, maybe do some volunteer mapping for disaster preparation/response.

I used to believe more strongly in discipline expertise, and still do - but now wondering about the value in just figuring out the questions (and answers) as we go along. And now, Dana, I'm reconsidering the answer to your question. But if I teach it again, won't it just be another class I think I know some stuff about?

Room 402.

After visiting Stanford's d.School in July, I began thinking about how I could create spaces that were more "public" in my classroom. In the d.School studios, it was clear - without it ever being explicitly explained - that we could move furniture, use supplies, write on walls, etc. The space lent itself to being manipulated, and I never had to ask permission to use the stapler. So, I wanted to try to mimic that sense of freedom in Room 402: [gigya src="" width="600" flashvars="offsite=true&lang=en-us&page_show_url=/photos/25176438@N08/sets/72157627207980348/show/&page_show_back_url=/photos/25176438@N08/sets/72157627207980348/&set_id=72157627207980348&jump_to=" allowFullScreen="true" ]

  • I resurfaced the whiteboard tables (thanks to a donation from IdeaPaint after I wrote to them about my tables not erasing easily enough);
  • Purchased a Antonius cart from Ikea (~$60, including drawers + casters);
  • Set up a supply table at the front with game design stuff (dice, cards, pieces), toys (legos, monsters), and essentials (markers, rulers, pencils);
  • Hung a beautiful map of California (thanks to my dad, a geographer) on a clothesline in front of the green screen (which I'm not using as much this fall, because I'm not teaching film);
  • Created a space for publicizing opportunities + events that are related to what I'm teaching now (design, game design, cartography and anthropology);
  • Picked up some super strong magnets at Home Depot to post maps from An Atlas of Radical Cartography around the room;
  • Adjusted the height of my tables to create higher and lower spaces, and also purchased casters that ended up being the wrong design for the table legs;
  • Painted some cork trivets from Ikea for posting up projects or _______ (?);
  • and have started using the language of "resetting the space" (thanks, d.School) at the end of classes when we need to put it all back together again.

Stanford's summer design workshop for K-12 educators.

*Stanford's design school - the - offers a free workshop in "design thinking" for K-12 educators every summer, and I attended in July 2011. Info about the workshop is here. After the first day of the's summer design workshop, I posted six thoughts to Twitter. I've been meaning to expand on those things, and have spent some time since then thinking about what my experience at Stanford will mean for my classroom practice. Here are those original six tweets from July 13, with a few new ideas about each:

Thoughts about today's k-12 design workshop @stanforddschool: 1) so useful to see designer/educators facilitate #designthinking ... I teach a high school design methods class, and have read the things you're supposed to read about "design thinking," but have never really watched anyone facilitate it (outside of graduate school) or participate in it outside of my own classroom. This experience felt much faster than I'm used to, and that urgency (or low-level panic) lent a feeling of "we're all in this together-ness" that drove rapid idea-generation, prototyping, etc. I'm not sure that it's always best to move so quickly - I often felt overwhelmed, and didn't like that I couldn't think more before doing - but I think I can do a better job of moving "quickness" into my classroom in some way.

2) the environment is inspiring and I love the supply cart .. Will mimic in Room 402 I just went to IKEA yesterday to pick up a cart that's the closest I can get to those images for $50. I'll post a picture of what that actually looks like in my room in the next few days. The's studio space gave me the feeling that nothing had to be the way it was. There might be whiteboards hanging on the wall, but they could very well be .. on the floor! Or the couch could be rolled into the hall, or the foam cubes could be used to build a fort, or those masking tape rolls could be a Sharpie-holder, too. The supplies were accessible (ie, not behind closet doors, as mine were last year), which made me feel trusted and independent - "permission" seemed implicit. And, there were images on the walls to help us "reset" the room before we left it, so at the same time that I felt free to use the space however I wanted, I also developed a sense of respect for it. (My own photos aren't so great; I like the set from Bytemarks on Flickr.)

3) I think the design process (and today's activities) should allow for quiet + independent reflection as well A number of participants (there were probably around 70 of us) expressed that they didn't feel that their voices were heard in their small "studio" groups or during the workshop in general. This was in part a function of a totally overprogrammed schedule; I really needed time to process the experience, alone or quietly, and there was close to zero (formal) opportunity for that. But, that's easily fixed. The more significant problem was that as we plowed ahead with improv games and interviewing and iterating, we never stopped to talk about how "design thinking" is experienced by folks who communicate loudly (or not), or fluently in English (or not), or visually (or not), etc. I often struggle with working in groups, and struggle to facilitate successful group work in my classroom, and these questions about how to navigate interactions between those coming to the design process from different places would have been really important to examine.

4) educators, too, struggle with abandoning the safe/practical/conventional, even if the design process is meant to gener(ate) empathy/creativity What's the value in engaging with the design process if its outcomes are no more radical/successful/empathetic than they would have been otherwise? There's tremendous value in the process alone, but I think we have to respect the results, too. It's not just about the pipe cleaners.

5) so it's really difficult to abandon that, and I'm even more proud of #disastercamp for proposing such innovative designs Details about that project in the post below.

6) finally, looking fwd to prototyping/iterating tomorrow! In the past few weeks, I've totally reconsidered how I'll teach design in sept I will be using a number of the's design activities this year, and thinking about how I can introduce a sense of "quickness" to my classroom. I'm thinking about how to design my classroom to make materials/furniture more accessible. I'm thinking about introducing new design challenges every day/week, rather than doing mini activities that lead up to something larger at the end.

For a complete collection of the materials we used at the workshop, click on "Inspiration" at the upper right; it's a list in progress, but the and IDEO materials are fantastic.


[vimeo w=525&h=350] Disastercamp was a five-day summer class we taught twice in June/July that students to design creative solutions for disaster response. Inspired by the 2011 Imagine Cup Emergency Response and Crowd Sourcing challenge, the course investigated the extent to which natural disasters are ever “natural” and looked to design as a methodology for creative problem-solving. Participants engaged with each step of the design process as they moved toward a final concept that leveraged social media and other tools to improve communication and coordination for disaster relief.

Lesson #3: Classroom collaboration is difficult. Disastercamp was co-facilitated by Francesca Fay (English), Dylan Snowden (formerly with FEMA), Eulani Labay and Francis Carter (Parsons the New School for Design). Everyone brought a valuable perspective to the class, but I found it really challenging to co-coordinate. Who would facilitate when? Would we contradict each other? Does that matter? How could we take advantage of what everyone was bringing to the class without losing coherency? I've invited people who work outside of Room 402 to come to all of the courses I teach - design critics, an entire college class, filmmakers, etc - and I feel strongly that some aspect of that is really important, but I really struggle with how best to develop that relationship. One of the most common frustrations I heard at DML last spring from educators who work with young people in out-of-classroom situations (after-school, etc) was that it's really challenging for them to get involved in K-12 because of district restrictions, not knowing where to find partner teachers, etc. Something I didn't say there, but that became clear with Disastercamp, was that those partnerships are incredibly valuable - but they're really challenging to cultivate on the teacher side as well.

Lesson #2: Sometimes the design process is the best methodology and sometimes it isn't. I was asked the other day (in an interview for the New Visions Digital Teacher Corps, which I wasn't accepted to) about the possibilities for bringing "design thinking" into other subject-area courses. (The same question came up for me earlier this summer when I heard about another teacher using the design process to facilitate essay writing in her English classes.) I'm pretty skeptical about this; I see a significant difference between the learning experiences through which we try to move students toward an understanding that we're certain of (for example, how to find the derivative of a function, or write a letter to the mayor) and ones where the answers are truly unknown to us (what are the possibilities of using social media for disaster response?) If the design process is used to solve problems creatively, I have a hard time imagining how to apply it to situations where we want to point students toward a known answer.

Lesson #1: I don't really know how to formally assess the design process. When students are engaged with finding derivatives and writing letters - activities that, presumably, their teachers know how to do themselves - maybe it's easier to define what an "assessment" might look like because the outcomes are anticipated. But, when thinking creatively - like when trying to find new solutions for disaster response - the outcomes are often unknown. How do you write a rubric for that? We had clear expectations for what students would learn regarding social media and the nature of "natural" disasters, and these understandings were manifest in their solutions - but when we asked them what they learned, they talked about persistence, and being able to justify their design decisions, and having a user in mind. How do you anticipate that? My design rubric is here; I find it useful as a place to begin (it's helped me to overcome a problem I have with not making my expectations clear enough), but I think the most successful "assessment" of the design process happens throughout, with critique and iteration. I'm not yet sure how to capture that.

This Game-Changer Business.

Perhaps it's unwise to slay the gods in the 7th post on a young blog, but there was something about Will Richardson's post the other day about "The End of Books" that struck me as precisely the kind of position that this whole project is intended to shift. He wrote about the ability to sort and share e-book annotations, and concluded with these comments: And I also keep thinking about what changes now? How does my note taking in books change? (Do I start using tags and keywords along with adding my reflections?) Now that I can post my notes and highlights publicly, what copyright ramifications are there? How might others find that useful? And the biggest question, do I buy any more paper books?

Again with the do I buy any more paper books question. Someone, in the comments, suggested that the medium disappears when the content is compelling enough. Well .. maybe not. As the book I created for this project attempts to illustrate, the medium does matter. The kind of books that will likely survive are beautiful and long-lasting, and incorporate design into their narrative. These are not disposable books; these will be books that take advantage of their physical-ness.

I tend to appropriate Craig Mod's take on "Books in the Age of the iPad" when answering the what of print!? question. (I wrote something about this in 2008 as well.) It's like the story about teachers and technology: if a physical book can be replaced by a digital one, perhaps it should be.

You are the unBlackboard.

I presented this project yesterday, at Drexel University's E-Learning 2.0 Conference. For the 50-minute presentation, I lead off with an Ignite-style intro, moved into the PowerPoint book, and then closed with a series of images (no bullets). Those who attended - mostly in higher-ed, it seemed - were mostly enthusiastic about the whole thing. Afterward, someone approached me to ask how she might incorporate technology into her high school math classroom. I suggested that she check out Dan Meyer's blog for its treatment of math as an exploration of problem-solving and question-asking - not typical of the math instruction I often see in middle school classrooms. I start to get into Papert's distinction between math and mathematics, and how "math" instruction often doesn't inspire curiosity about numbers in any kind of way, and she said something about how yes, that's what higher ed is for.

Related: The conference sessions I attended were all about Magical Tools (a handful of websites, or online classes with chat! and forums! and video-uploading!), and not about philosophy at all. I mean, using textbook-publisher content - via CD or otherwise - is deeply problematic to me, and that's a position that's more complex (and with more implications) than URL-harvesting.

I'm beginning to wonder if this project would benefit from a dose of aggression, from a measure of provocation that moves beyond this physical book that simply makes visual what many educators are already thinking. It seems an easy kind of project to agree with (indeed, most who have seen it do), but then these same educators really just want websites. Or, Blackboard by a different name.

Solving for X.

It's sometimes tricky to find the value of that X that inhibits massive change in the schools where we work, the X that drives curriculum in predictable and irrelevant directions, the X that's made some believe that good teaching is about data-driven instruction. That's a slippery little guy, near impossible to solve for. Often, it seems to equal so many things. But. Two things have happened in the past two days to remind me that this interest in the X - that is, the questions about why things aren't Better - is less interesting than the possibilities of Better itself.

Thing one was a visit to Quest to Learn. Kids were deconstructing and repurposing their old stuffed animals as characters for an animation project, designing and playing each other's digital games, and editing stories that involved green-screen dancing and script-writing. There were architecture drawings on vellum in the halls, illustrations on display for a student-designed advertising campaign ("I Heart Geeks", for the Nintendo DS), and a huge time-capsule chest (with flashing lights) that captures and preserves excellent student work.

Thing two was TEDxNYED, an NYC conference that curated a TED-like experience for those interested in education. The content of the talks has been documented in other places (here, here, here), so I'll leave that ... there. Also, the videos will be available on the event website in the next few weeks.

I left both of those places with a very strong feeling that all places should have huge time-capsule chests with flashing lights, that all teachers should have the opportunity to feel as creative and thoughtful as we did listening to those 14 people in that room, and that the Internet can be leveraged to do amazing things in a way that we don't yet understand. The variables that obstruct change are just less interesting than Frankentoys.


There's a split conversation on the Twitter today about the Google Teacher Academy for administrators that's happening in San Antonio. Half of the conversation is tagged with #GTAdmin and sounds like "Inspiring!!!" and half of the conversation is about kool-aid. I'm not in San Antonio today, but the principal of 339 is speaking there (Jason Levy), and I was in the first GTA group from New York in 2007. 1. If Google's getting itself into the education business, what does it know about education? Not so much. As far as I know (which comes from working with them in various ways - case studies, videos, presentations and other things), they still don't have anyone doing education-related things full-time. GTA started as a twenty-percent-time activity, and as far as I know, it still is. It's obviously an exercise in getting more educators to use Google Apps for Ed, and I'm pretty sure that everyone who signs up is aware of this.

2. Then what are people doing at these things, other than getting a personal merit badge? Google partners with CUE and WestEd to put these together, and the day itself involves a lot of "this is how you can use this Google thing in your classroom!" activities. (You can see the agendas here.) I don't think this is a problem because it's up to the participants to figure out how it makes sense for them and how it doesn't. Honestly. There's no trickery involved.

3. This sounds like a full day of corporation adoration. Well. Google isn't magic. But at the three schools where I work, and at many other schools I've heard about or visited, teachers and administrators are using Google stuff to improve schoolwide systems. Google Sites = a really easy to design/maintain school or classroom website. This is great for organization. Google Docs = a really easy way of keeping track of shared lesson resources. Google Forms/Spreadsheets = a really easy way of reporting tech malfunctions or discipline infractions. And, et cetera. These things require human contemplation to design and implement, but Google's stuff is great to use for these purposes. I've seen more than one school improve its instruction, consistency and collaboration because it is using these things. These same schools are not perfect in any kind of way, and neither "technology" nor Google is responsible for their successes or failures. It did take humans, after all.

The merit badge factor is pretty high, and that's a legitimate criticism. The evangelism that comes out of the Google Teacher/Admin group is, I think, a function of a misplaced affection for the tool. But, to state the obvious, people are happy because they're using the tools to do things that they think are good. And, a lot of the time, they are.

Echo chambers.

1: I'm new to the Twitter business. I, too, used to think it was all about pictures of your governor's breakfast. Yeah, it's not. Or, it doesn't have to be. I started participating because I realized, after EduCon 2.2, that the conversation about how technology is used in educational practice is happening online. Educators share resources/best practices amongst members of their professional learning network, which is made up of a collection of people they may or may not have ever met in person. I originally though the idea of the PLN was silly - such a formal name for a bunch of people who just talk to each other on Twitter! - but then I started following these conversations and realized how much there is to learn from people who are doing this.

1.5: But these networks also have the potential to reinforce their own kind of thinking. For example: Will Richardson recently moderated an online conversation with the authors of Rethinking Education in an Era of Technology, which brought together 100 educators in Elluminate. The conversation was kind of interesting, but it began to feel like an echo chamber to me. In general, it seems that the educators who have cultivated personal learning networks for themselves and spend an hour on a Monday night talking about education all believe similar things. Those things sound like school is now only one node in our kids learning (David Jakes) and It's AMAZING to me how FAR BEHIND these people are (with) edtech! (Kevin Jarrett, referring to a tech department that restricts access to technology). I agree with those things too, but it seemed like everyone did.

2: This is funny, because a huge thing happened this weekend that no one in my network seemed to be talking about. The MacArthur Foundation has transformed the landscape of this field with its Digital Media and Learning initiatives and grant-making - so much work has been made possible with MacArthur money that its influence is alarming to me - and it held a conference in La Jolla to discuss "diversifying participation." The program looked fantastic, and the issues being raised on Twitter (#dml2010) were compelling: equity, race, class, access, language, youth media, etc. But this, too, sounded like an echo chamber of a different composition: instead of practicing teachers, it sounded like academics and grad students. Just like the Will Richardson celebrities of the PLN world, Henry Jenkins and Katie Salen and James Paul Gee seem to lead conversation about theory. (To be fair, Salen just opened a public school in New York City - MacArthur-funded, in part.)

3. So this is unfortunate. It's important for teachers to think about digital media in the context that the DML conference proposed, but it's equally important that attendees of the DML conference do not walk away with the impression that they are the only ones who are thinking about the impact of games in the classroom. They're not. One tweet at the end of the conference came from a participant who said both keynotes discuss informal practices w/new media. Why aren't we dragging schooling (kicking & screaming) into the conversation? I mean, that question is predicated on the false assumption that schools don't want to be there or that educators are ignorant of the possibilities. Clearly (see 1.5), they're not. I'm just wondering how theory and practice can converge in a forum that doesn't look like Elluminate or La Jolla.

Creativity, +/- Computers.

I visited a school last week that triggered the Why aren't there any paper-mâché sharks here? question in a serious way. It's a charter school, a K-3 in Brooklyn. No student work on the walls. Teacher-led instruction, for the most part. Classrooms are nearly identical, with noise meters and behavior charts and desks in rows facing front. I had a hard time identifying the math classroom as a math classroom.

So, okay. There are all kinds of justifications for this kind of thing, all of which make my heart hurt. But there seems to be a feeling that creativity is extra, something to be engaged with after the kids know how to multiply their twelves. This is a conviction that the administration of this particular school believes quite strongly (and articulated to me), but it's something I've seen in lots of other places as well. How did the making of things end up becoming a luxury - something to be afforded - rather than a given?

I used to blame pixels for this one. When I read Disrupting Class last fall, I closed it with the impression that technology will soon enable a unique kind of hegemony - one that claims to deliver customized instruction but which actually looks same and modular and boring. (See the School of One as an example of what I was imagining.) This was apparently not the message I was meant to leave with; a recent conversation with Michael Horn, one of the co-authors of the book, made me realize that "disruption" might very well begin with the kids and not with McGraw-Hill.

It's a common accusation that technology has inhibited our kids' creativity in the paper-mâché-sharks kind of way. I hear this quite often. But that school I visited? No technology in the classroom. None. It's a philosophy there that dedicates the kids to worksheets and uses the computer lab to administer weekly assessments instead of other things. This was especially startling because I had visited another elementary school that same day - one that had been named by the Department of Education as a "model technology school" - and its bulletin boards were beautiful and the classrooms felt like places where creative thinking happens.

Two schools do not an argument make, but they're enough to prompt some important questions. What's really keeping our kids from abandoning the worksheets and getting messy? We can't blame that one on the imperative to teach "21st-century skills," because if that was the case, we'd be seeing a lot of really creative digital work. (In general, I'm seeing a lot of PowerPoint book reports.) I think the answer is that this move towards efficiency has dismissed shark-making (of the paper or digital kind) as silly. That's why it's expendable. It's an important distinction to make, because it's not technology that's choked creativity out of our classrooms. In fact, it's sometimes used as a medium of construction. No, it's a feeling that creativity is about googly eyes and popsicle sticks and Microsoft Paint, not learning.

Here's to proving that wrong.