Wednesday, April 23, 2014

On the march

My last post was asking for help, and I got a fair amount. Thank you to those who gave suggestions. Perhaps the most important thing anyone engaged in a new venture can do is seek inspiration. When I think about why we should be teaching how to be creative, and that creativity is as much a part of science and engineering as it is in the arts and humanities, I come up with things like this.

What is a 3D printer? It is a device that can create practice models of cancerous organs so that surgeons can practice before they go in to do surgery on a patient. That is not the answer I have been giving to parents and colleagues who are unfamiliar with the technology, but it might be part of my answer now!

It is also a device that can print out a cube whose design you found on the internet.

You have to start somewhere.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Why Legos?

In the course of my reading for becoming a Director of Innovation and Technology, I keep hearing about these Lego building blocks. Maybe there's something to them!

This Op-Ed in the New York Times is a beautifully-written account of how influential Legos can be in a person's development. Enjoy it.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Reading List

I have a new job. It is to create a Makerspace at my school, figure out how it will fit into and reshape curriculum from preK-12, and work closely with teachers on integrating technology into the classroom. This is really a great set of challenges, and I am very excited to get cracking!

There are some hurdles, of course, not least being my relative inexperience in matters STEM: I have spent the last 15 years teaching Modern European History.

With that said, I feel like I have some reading to do. Mostly, what I want to explore is the variety of educational approaches to Making as part of an educational curriculum and in how to teach and work with design thinking. These are new ideas for me, and I want to learn so I'm ready to work on applying them.

So far, here's what my reading list looks like, in no particular order:

  • Invent To Learn, Sylvia Libow Martinez & Gary Stager
  • The Makerspace Workbench, Adam Kemp
  • An Ethic of Excellence, Ron Berger
  • Catch The Wind, Harness The Sun, Michael J. Caduto
  • I Live In The Future & Here's How It Works, Nick Bilton
  • The Makerspace Playbook, MAKE Magazine
  • MAKE Magazine
I just read about Universal Traveler, by Don Koberg, which looks like a useful and fun guide to design thinking.

In any case, I'm interested to hear if anyone has any suggestions for other books that would be worth checking out to help learn more about Making, design thinking, or anything vaguely related to creating new programs in schools.

Thanks for your help!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

What an excellent class looks like

I am co-teaching a 10th grade Humanities course this year, and we are keeping a blog to record what we do and how we feel about it. I have taken my recent entry and copied it here, as it speaks to ideas of giving students ownership of their learning, and what happens when you do that.

On Friday, November 1 (the first of Movember!), I had the pleasure of one of the best class days I have ever had. It needs to be shared.

For their final project on Lord of the Flies, two groups of Sophomores are choosing to participate in a Socratic Seminar. I have never done one of these before, and neither have they, so we are all exploring what this means, and how we want to go about it. What I told them to get started was that this assignment would culminate in having a 45-minute conversation about a question of great interest to them, and they would have to do that in front of the other students in the class.

To start the conversation, we had discussions of what question they would want to have at the center of the Socratic Seminar. I spoke with each group of participants for a full 50 minute period each, and they blew me away. Their questions were deep, challenging, thoughtful, and interesting. Their manner with each other was respectful while remaining questioning of the thinking behind others' suggestions. My job was made very easy, and the class time ended up as an energizing conversation of interesting topics rather than me having to actually serve as the idea generator posing as a participant. Photos of the whiteboard at the end of class follow: (LotF is Lord of the Flies)

The last period of the day was with a mix of the two groups, and our job was to create the basis of a rubric for assessing how well they each do during the Seminar itself. This is a very difficult thing to do, as the heart and soul of this sort of Seminar is that each student should be seeking a deeper understanding of the topic under discussion. How do you put a grade on that? Is that something that we can even meaningfully evaluate?

In any case, I asked them what they thought an excellent Socratic Seminar would look like. Once again, I was quite impressed with their thoughtfulness, their respect for one another, and the high bar they set for themselves. They expressed the need for evidence, the desire for meaningful questions, and their hope that this will be a truly substantive conversation about a truly interesting topic. I am including another picture of the whiteboard after that conversation, and I have been building a rubric using the language here:

All in all, this was one of the best days I have had in the classroom. Students rose above the high bar I had set in my mind, and they impressed me with their curiosity and maturity. I am extremely hopeful for the quality of their Socratic Seminars, which are scheduled to begin on November 18.

I will leave you with a quote from one of the students: “It’s good to use your heart in what you say, but back it up with your brain.”

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Dear Dad

After reading this excellent Dear Mom letter that my wife posted on Facebook, I felt a bit left out. While I know that much of the burden of parenting falls on Moms, I also know that the face of Fatherhood is undergoing a huge shift these days. 

To that end, I edited the original letter slightly to be a Dear Dad letter. I am in NO WAY denigrating the ideas, sentiments, and empowerment of the original. I really like it. I teared up while reading it. It's well-written, funny, and powerful. And it's no less so when re-read from the perspective of a dad. I hope you enjoy it. The things I changed are in blue print, just so we're clear who actually did all the writing.

Becoming SuperMommy wrote her letter as part of the Mom Pledge Blog, which I also encourage you to check out. 

Dear Dad,
I’ve seen you around. I’ve seen you yelling at your kids in public, I’ve seen you ignoring them at the playground, I’ve seen you unshaven and confused about the protocol at preschool drop-off. I’ve seen you begging your children, bribing them, threatening them. I’ve seen you shouting back and forth with your wife, with your dad, with the police officer at the crosswalk.
I've seen you running around with your kids, getting dirty and occasionally swearing audibly when you bang a knee. I've seen you sharing a milkshake with a manic 4-year-old. I've seen you wiping your kids' boogers with your bare palm, and then smearing them on the back of your jeans. I've seen you carry your toddler flopped over the crook of your arm while chasing a runaway ball.
I've also seen you gritting your teeth while your kid screamed at you for making him practice piano, or soccer, or basket weaving or whatever it was. I've seen you close your eyes and breathe slowly after finding a gallon of milk dumped into your trunk. I've seen you muttering profanities into the sink while you desperately scrub crayon off your briefcase. I've seen you pacing in front of the house.
I've seen you at the hospital waiting room. I've seen you at the pharmacy counter. I've seen you looking tired and vulnerable.
I've seen a lot of you, actually.
I see you every single day.
I don't know if you planned to be a parent or not. If you always knew from your earliest years that you wanted to bring children into the world, to raise them, or if fatherhood was thrust upon you unexpectedly. I don't know if it meets your expectations, or if you spent your first days as a dad terrified that you would never feel what you imagined "fatherly love" would feel like for your child. I don't know if you struggled with infertility, or with pregnancy loss, or with a traumatic birth. I don't know if you created your child together with your wife, or created your family by welcoming your child into it.
But I know a lot about you.
I know that you didn't get everything that you wanted. I know that you got a wealth of things you never knew you wanted until they were there in front of you. I know that you don't believe that you're doing your best, that you think you can do better. I know you are doing better than you think.
I know that when you look at your child, your children, you see yourself. And I know that you don't, that you see a stranger who can't understand why the small details of childhood that were so important to you are a bother to this small person who resembles you.
I know that you want to throw a lamp at your teenager's head sometimes. I know you want to toss your 3-year-old out the window once in a while.
I know that some nights, once it's finally quiet, you drink a beer while staring at the wall. I know that sometimes, you don't, because there is other work to do.
I know that some days are so hard that all you want is for them to end, and then at bedtime your children hug you and kiss you and tell you how much they love you and want to be like you, and you wish the day could last forever.
But it never does. The day always ends, and the next day brings new challenges. Fevers, heartbreak, art projects, new friends, new pets, new fights. And every day you do what you need to do.
You take care of things, because that's your job. You go to work, or you take out the garbage, or you climb onto the mower, or strap the baby to your back and pull out the vacuum cleaner.
You drop everything you're doing to end an argument over whose turn it is to use a specifically colored marker, or to kiss a boo-boo, or to have a conversation about what kind of rocketship a giant squid would fly in.
I know that you have tickle fights in blanket forts, and that you have the words to at least eight different picture books memorized. I've heard that you DJ a mean dance party when it's just you and them. That you have no shame about farting or belching in their presence, that you make up goofy songs about peas and potatoes and cheese.
I know that an hour past bedtime, you drop what you're doing and trim the fingernail that your 3-year-old insists is keeping her up. I know that you stop working in the yard because your kids insist you need to join their party. I know you fed your kids PB&J for four days straight when your wife had the flu. I know that you eat your kids’ leftover crusts while they watch "Super Why."
I know you didn't expect most of this. I know you didn't anticipate loving somebody so intensely, or not minding that you can’t go out with your friends, or being so tired, or being the dad you've turned out to be.
You thought you had it figured out. Or you were blind and terrified. You hired the perfect nanny. Or you supported your wife’s decision to quit her job and learn to assemble flat-packed baby furniture. You get confused by the conflict of feeling like nothing has changed since you were free and unfettered by children, and looking back on the choices you made as though an impostor was wearing your skin.
You're not a perfect dad. No matter how you try, no matter what you do. You will never be a perfect dad.
And maybe that haunts you. Or maybe you've made peace with it. Or maybe it was never a problem to begin with.
No matter how much you do, there is always more. No matter how little you do, when the day is over, your children are still loved. They still smile at you, believing you have magical powers to fix almost anything. No matter what happened at work, or at school, or in playgroup, you have still done everything in your power to ensure that the next morning will dawn and your children will be as happy, healthy, and wise as could possibly be hoped.
There's an old Yiddish saying: "There is one perfect child in the world, and every mother has it." Sadly, there is no equivalent saying for fathers, though they share the sentiment.
Unfortunately, there are no perfect parents. Your kids will grow up determined to be different than you. They will grow up certain that they won't make their kids take piano lessons, or they'll be more lenient, or more strict, or have more kids, or have fewer, or have none at all.
No matter how far from perfect you are, you are better than you think.
Someday your kids will be running around like crazy people at synagogue and concuss themselves on a hand rail, and somebody will still walk up to you and tell you what a beautiful family you have. You'll be at the park and your kids will be covered in mud and jam up to the elbows, smearing your car with sugary cement, and an expectant father will stop and smile at you with a happy gleam of his own future in his eye.
No matter how many doubts you might have, you never need doubt this one thing: You are not perfect.
And that's good. Because really, neither is your child. And that means nobody can care for them the way you can, with the wealth of your understanding and your experience. Nobody knows what your child's squall means, or what their jokes mean, or why they are crying better than you do.
And since no father is perfect, chances are you are caught in a two billion way tie for Best Dad in the World.
Congratulations, Best Dad in the World. You're not perfect.
You are as good as anybody can get.
With love,

Friday, April 5, 2013

Scylla and Charybdis

I came across this in a blog entry by Alfie Kohn the other day:

"Finger-wagging adults who exhort students to “do their best” sometimes don’t offer a persuasive reason for why a given task should be done at all, let alone well. And if the rejoinder is that it doesn’t matter if the assignment is just busywork because kids need to develop “good work habits” across the board, well, a reasonable person would wonder who stands to benefit when children are taught to work hard at anything that they’re assigned to do by someone with more power."

This is a great and dangerous idea, as it requires educators to defend the Scylla and Charybdis of "because I said so" and "learn no work harder." We see far too much of that in schools. I hope to replace that kind of thing in my classes (and maybe my own school some day) with "because you want to" and "true learning feels more like play than work."

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Figures of My Childhood

This post is written as part of my homework for the MIT Media Lab's MOOC, "Learning Creative Learning." For this assignment, we were asked to write a response to the essay,"The Gears of My Childhood," by Seymour Papert. It was the foreword to his 1980 book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, which I keep hearing great things about.

When I think back to the prime intellectual and educational influences on my childhood, I come up with two things: reading and painting D&D figurines.

For whatever reason, my parents didn’t have a working TV in our house until I was 10 years old. This meant that my brother and I had to figure out other ways of occupying ourselves in all the odd little intervals during which our peers would have watched a TV show. We had our outlets—my best friend who lived right down the street was from a TV-centric family. I don’t even think they had a dining room table, as it would have been unnecessary for them. They had TV dinner tables. But because of the age difference between my brother and I (six years), we had different ideas about the best way to spend our time. Most often, we both chose reading. Looking back at my 5-10 year-old self, I would probably say that I was a prodigious reader. Thanks to the fact that I had nothing else to do, and parents who were readers themselves, and who didn’t feel the need to tell me what I should be reading, I read widely and curiously. I lost myself in books on a daily basis. I remember existing fully in the worlds that I read, losing hours to be with the Five Children and It, or searching for the Weirdstone of Brisingamen, or wandering with Taran. Being called to dinner five times because I just didn’t hear my mom calling me against the pull of a great story.

I suppose that this taught me a thing or two about imagination, about what it means to be invested in a story. It taught me to not be afraid of books, for sure. I still love books, and easily could spend hours in both libraries and bookstores—my wife and children usually have to drag me out of both places. It taught me that just sitting around reading is a great way to spend my time, and that one can almost always gain something from that pursuit. I also learned how to sit for hours on end reading a book, which came in very, very handy when I was in college and grad school, and still occasionally comes in handy when I have a stack of papers to grade.

When I was eight or so, my brother and his best friend discovered Dungeons and Dragons. As they started to play, they started to collect the little, lead figurines that made imagining one’s placement on a dungeon map more manageable. My brother and I both started to collect the figurines, and along with that came the process of painting their dull, gray skins with more lifelike colors. Because the average height of these armored warriors, mages, trolls, and skeletons was about two inches, this meant manipulating tiny brushes and many different colors of paints, both acrylyc and oil-based. The attention to detail necessary, as well as the planning needed to figure out how you wanted a character to look, gave me an appreciation of really trying to do something well because I wanted it to come out well. My parents didn’t care, though they gave praise when I painted a nice one. My brother was pretty wrapped up in his own painting, but not so much that he wouldn’t point out places I’d messed up. Those tiny, fantastical figures pushed my little fingers’ coordination past their capabilities, but my failures to pant accurately never made me want to quit, and they made the successes stand out like beacons, leading me to more complex and intricate ideas for the next figurine.

So, in short, the lessons I learned from the big influences in my childhood were to sit still, lose yourself in a story, and pay attention to detail. Not bad, in the long run.