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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

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.

A GCT on GTA.

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.