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!

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?


[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.