Friday, May 18, 2018

Making Converts

For several weeks it felt like spring would never happen. It was cold and dreary. We were having snow days in April and the year kept getting longer. Finally, the sun came out, the air warmed, and it started to feel like the year was winding down. There was prom. Now the seniors are leaving for internship. The exam schedule has been published. And that is either coinciding with or maybe causing a shift in the thinking of a few of my colleagues. This is what I am hearing:

- They need to do project.

- The seniors should do something fun before they go.

- They are checking out; I need a way to hook them back in.

And, then, a couple of them asked: can you explain that makerspace to me again?

Of course! YES! I would love to! And then I put some pipe cleaners in their hand while we talk.

This week I have been working with a Social Studies teacher in two of her classes and with an English teacher colleague in two of her classes - both pairs of classes are a mixture of juniors and seniors.

Today was the project due date for the Social Studies classes and here is how the teacher described what happened:

"We had a board game day today and the class broke into groups to play each of the games. And I did what you said, I told everyone they couldn't play their own game because one test of the effectiveness of the game was whether or not someone could follow the directions and understand how to play without them there to explain it all. And they didn't want to leave their games! They were so proud of them, they wanted to be sure that everyone else really appreciated and understood them." And then she added, "Remember that kid I told you about who still owes me so much work from last quarter? The one who never does any of the assignments? He made the coolest board game! He refused to leave his game. Flat out refused. And I let him stay so he could have that pride in what he had done."

That's when I told her a story about a group of girls in her class who had worked together on their project. They did all of their work in the classroom until the very last project work day. On that day my colleague, their teacher, was out. To get away from the sub, the students decided to work in The Garage (our makerspace). When they arrived they asked me, "what are we supposed to do?" I put pipe cleaners in their hands and replied "Well, what do you need?" They said they needed a spinner and playing pieces. So I asked: "Well, what should the pieces look like or represent?"

You know where this is going... those pipe cleaners were quickly bent into a prototype of the animal shapes they needed. I directed them to our bins of supplies and recyclables and they looked at me with open mouths; "Has this been here all year?!" they asked. I nodded. They grabbed each others arms and exclaimed: "Can we come here during a free and just make stuff?" I told them, "Of, course!" To which they responded: "This makes me so happy!"

I couldn't join their class for project sharing day because my English colleague brought her classes to The Garage for their first full-period making session. This project is the culmination of their study of Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle. Last week, I introduced the project to them with this discussion of unattainable dreams, symbols, and the relationship between artists and their audience.

Less than a minute into class she leaned over and said, "Oh! This is amazing. I am so glad you are getting pictures of this! Should I take some, too?" Here is what was so amazing. Complete and total engagement in selecting the only required element of their project: a piece of glass. The students were sharing and comparing. Discussing the merits of clear vs. translucent glass. Shape and texture were important, too. Then I delivered a 3-minute orientation to the space, listing a variety of materials from pom poms to old "steampunk" hardware and ended with: "If you are thinking about a material you can't find, just ask." That's it. They were off!

Once they had been planning, designing, and experimenting for about 10 minutes, I approached a small
group who were intently debating the best way to attach two parts of a project. I asked what problem they were trying to solve and they showed me and launched into an explanation of the merits of the different solutions they were entertaining. Their English teacher approached and looked over my shoulder, and the students entirely shifted gears. "Don't worry, don't worry!" they said. "It's going to be good. You're gonna like it. There is a good reason for what we are doing. I promise: we are working."

My colleague pulled me away from them and asked, "Did you see that? Did you see what just happened? As soon as I walked over it became all about the grade, about reassuring me they were making something I would like. This is entirely different than when you come to our classroom. Our roles here are totally different. But they are thinking so intently and in such different ways. I mean, look at them! Some of these kids checked out weeks ago and now they are so engaged I can't even talk to them!"

The best observation came next:

"You need to come to one of our department meetings at the very beginning of the year next year and tell everyone about this. And then people like me will back you up. I know you told us about it at a meeting earlier this year, but we didn't get it. But now there are more of us to help people get it."

I will gratefully accept an opportunity to discuss making with them. And, next time, I will bring pipe cleaners!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

What started as a proposal to present at a conference became this blog post

Print tabloid journalism was one-way information distribution. No matter how much the headlines yelled at passersby from the newsstand, they couldn’t yell back. Standing in the grocery checkout line, all you can do is scan the all-caps headlines yelling at you from the pages and passively receive their messages. To dispute the claim that Elvis fathered an alien love child, required that you purchase the journal, write a letter, stuff it in an envelope, find the address in the journal, address and stamp the letter, deliver it to a mailbox… Right. It wasn’t going to happen because it likely wasn't worth it. Digital delivery of and access to information happens at an ever accelerating pace, and we can and do respond, instantly, from anywhere, at any time. The limits of time, place, and access imposed on us by in-real-life civic participation sometimes also serve to temper our contributions to these discussions. So how do we foster productive, thoughtful, effective engagement in digital communities?

Perhaps we could debate the notion that digital citizenship (not the behaviors, but the state of being connected) is a choice. After all, being born (as I was) in the United States by default conferred citizenship status upon me. But digital citizenry required me to make a choice to join a community (actual, multiple communities) and agree to their standards of conduct. Even though I periodically self-impose a digital citizenry hiatus upon myself, I can’t imagine this as a permanent state of being. Whether we distinguish ourselves from our children, our students, or a younger generation as digital immigrants vs. digital natives, joining a digital citizenry is, to some extent and at least at some point, a choice. If we choose to be and to educate digital citizens we must hone a new and complex skill set. We must:
  • Develop graphicacy: the ability to unpack images that blend data, text, and iconography
  • Think like fact-checkers: triangulate the information we consume to verify its origin, purpose, and accuracy
  • Understand our own bias: know when our bias prevents us from critically seeing someone else’s and inclines us to confuse opinion with evidence
  • Empathize: understanding and accepting the hopes, fears, and other motivating factors in another person’s life is essential to building constructive dialogue
  • Employ emotional intelligence: recognize when an emotional response to something is suppressing our ability to speak or write with measure. 

Consider Dylan Marron starting a podcast of phone calls with the people who leave hate comments on his videos. Marron’s conversations help him and his detractors build empathy with one another. Marron invites people who posted rather hateful comments to and about him to discuss their opinions with him. He doesn't seek to convert, only to understand them. In return, they reflexively dial down their vitriol in favor of a reasonable exchange of ideas. Proving that agreeing to disagree can be an acceptable and productive outcome to dialogue.

We could make Dylan Marron's life a little easier (although that might rob him of an incredible podcast) because it is possible to teach our students to engage in effective digital dialogue. Empathy and emotional intelligence, combined with media literacy are the keys to healthy digital citizens and productive digital community interactions. Kristin Mattson writes convincingly and authoritatively about how to foster a networker's mindset and build students' effective digital communication skills through guided practice unpacking digital conversations that scaffolds to the ultimate goal: positive and productive digital agency.

A couple of months ago I was fortunate to work with a group of students at my school piloting the anti-cyberbullying curriculum designed by the Trust and Safety group at Google in partnership with media production company, Harmony Labs. The key to the effectiveness of this curriculum is that all the material is delivered via virtual reality. By immersing themselves in the scenarios they are going to discuss, actually becoming a part of the scene, students are drawn to certain characters in the video they are watching. They are likely also put off by or dislike characters. And they can be guided to watch and follow a certain character as a story unfolds seeing the action as that person sees it. Again, it's all about empathy. All of the videos are accessible on YouTube via the phones students carry in their pockets and the virtual reality experience is made possible with a Google Cardboard. I like the symmetry of using the power of media access provided by their phones to teach them to use their phones (and all they can access via them) to conduct themselves wisely.

This experience with the anti-cyberbullying curriculum reminded me of Anna Deavere Smith's TED performance: Four American Characters. When I was a history teacher I used her talk in my US History classes to show students why primary sources mattered to understanding history. "Look what she is doing," I used to say to my students, "spending so much time with a person that she can become that person. That is what primary sources do for you. If you can wrestle with them and unpack them, they return you to a place a in time to live a moment the way a real person experienced it." After I discovered this 2005 TED talk, I started building living tableaux with my students. I would present them with an iconic historical photograph and let them work in teams to pose one another in order to replicate the action of the photo. Then, they worked together to unpack the image we had reconstructed in order to understand the motivations of the people depicted. We would consider how the image we were examining was distributed, what voice the subjects of the image had in its making and distribution, and what we need to keep in mind as viewers of this snapshot of a moment in time composed by someone else with his/her/their own purpose or agenda. Finally, we compared the historical image to a very current one to illustrate the challenge in applying these skills to media that incites a visceral response and inclines viewers to unsavory, hateful, or otherwise nonconstructive posts. Or inhibits viewers from engaging in dialogue about posts that are hateful, discriminatory, or in some way offensive. (For more on this methodology, see this post.)

That's empathy.What Deavere did, what Marron does, what we must do as educators, is provide our students as many ways as we can, to develop empathy with the subjects of their studies, with the authors of the information they consume; so that they can compose their reactions (whether those reactions are research papers or social media comments and posts) from a place of insight into the motives and experiences of the original author and self-awareness about what their digital relationship with that person is and can be.

So, given that this started as a conference proposal, would you attend this workshop?

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Design Thinking to build a unit with a Science Colleague

It likely comes as no surprise to know that as a library media specialist, my most frequent collaboration is with Social Studies and English teachers. This week I ventured into new territory co-planning a unit with a Chemistry teacher. She contacted me because, as the teacher of AP Chemistry, she will have some found time between the administration of the exam and the end of our school year. She was hoping I could help her plan something meaningful and interesting for her students.

This conversation became a two-fold exercise in applying design thinking! First, I put aside the different ideas that were bouncing around my head, things I thought might interest the students. Instead of offering suggestions (which is what she hoped I would do when she came to me), I started asking her questions. What outcome would make her think the time was well spent? What difficulties did she have this year when teaching the class? Or what difficulty had the students had? As I listened to her share about her year, I gained empathy with her as a teacher, as a teacher of a specific discipline, and as a teacher of a particular high stakes course. That helped me to hear things she was saying, like: “It’s more my Honors Chem students (an entirely different class) who have trouble with some of the concepts of their class, but I don’t have time for a big project with them.”

I asked her, “Do you have enough time to ask them to share what areas or concepts caused them the most difficulty?” She said that she didn’t have to ask, she knew. I pushed again by saying, “Your insight about their struggle is really important, and could you put together a form that asks them to tell you? It would be interesting to see their self-awareness.” She agreed that would be an interesting comparison. Then I asked, “How might we harness the found time in AP to empower the AP students to help the Honors class finish the year strong and prepare for their final exam?” And a project was born!

We started, organically, thinking 10X and growing the idea with “Yes! And…” It went like this:

- “We can start with a survey of the Honors Chem classes…’
- “Yes! And, we can ask each AP student to choose to work on one of the problems identified.”
- “Yes! And, they can interview the students in Honors to understand why that concept was difficult.”
- “Yes! And, the AP students can build new teaching materials for the students to use to practice the concept.”
- “Yes! And, next year those materials can be used again to differentiate for the new class!”

So that was the first layer of design thinking. The cool thing is that the product of that planning session was to put the AP classes through a design thinking exercise as the path to developing their solution to the learning problems of their peers! My colleague asked for reassurance that I would be with her (and her students) throughout the process. She also asked a bunch of “what if” questions. Mostly they were about what if something goes wrong. I asked, what do the AP classes lose if their projects flop? Not much really. What does the Honors class lose? Again, nothing. They don’t gain anything, but very little of their time and energy is invested in the project. They are the beneficiaries if all goes well. I then asked if she would lose anything if all goes awry. She didn’t hesitate to say, not really. She likes her students (and they like her), she considers them eager learners, thoughtful people, and she trusts them. Ultimately, she realized that if this flops, they will be rather forgiving. That is when I felt safe to tell her, it won’t flop. It may evolve differently than we anticipate, and that is OK. Ultimately, everyone stands to gain much more than anyone stands to lose. And then she asked if I could write up the unit plan.

So here is the project outline that the students in AP Chem will follow: 

The exam is over. (Phew!) 

The final lab is complete. (YES!)

Now we have the gifts of found time, sophisticated chemistry expertise, and a cohort of innovative risk-takers. Here is how we will use these gifts to solve problems and keep learning ourselves:

To start, we will survey the grade 10 students in Honors Chem. What we want to know about each student is:
What was the hardest content or skill for you to master this year?
Or, looking ahead to the final exam, what potential questions or problems most concern you?

This is where YOU, the students in AP Chem enter the equation. Each of you will choose one of the issues identified by your 10th grade peers and design a learning module to help them overcome their struggle.

You will use this guiding design question to frame your work:

How might we create learning experiences to help students who struggle with _________ concept?

These are the steps we will follow to design and answer to that question:

User Discovery (Also called stakeholder interviews)
(Anticipated date of completion: June __)
This can be a one-on-one interview with the grade 10 student whose problem you are trying to solve. If multiple students identify the same area of difficulty this can be a focus group. In the event that you can’t coordinate schedules, this can be done via a Form, Doc or Google Hangout. (protocol outlined below)

Ideate: Crazy 8’s
(Anticipated date of completion: June __)
Ms. Whiting will visit the AP classes to guide you through an ideation (think: brainstorming) exercise and then thinking 10X by using the “Yes! And…” protocol. (outlined below)

(Anticipated date of completion: June __)
You, each of the students in both AP classes, will choose your best idea, perhaps partnering with someone solving the same or similar problem, and build a rudimentary prototype of your idea that can be tested with your stakeholder or stakeholder focus group.

(Anticipated date of completion: June __)
Once you have received feedback on your design, you will revise your plan and begin to build your final product.

(Anticipated date of completion: June __)
If all goes according to plan, you will deliver your learning support materials to the Honors classes so that the students in honors can use the materials to study for their final exam.

Rejoice! (never stop rejoicing :)

FYI: Ms. Whiting will be vlogging this exercise to share with the our faculty and beyond.


The best way to learn about your users is to ask questions. Meet the students who identified your problem; if there are multiple people try to talk to all of them. Use this space to develop questions to ask them. It is ideal to go out and talk to the Honors Chem students, but if you can’t, you could also send an email with a few questions, or send out a survey in a Google Form. Don’t forget, you can Google Hangout with them as well.

USER Info: Honors Chem student (who is this person?)
Assumed Problem: What do you, the student in AP think is causing the difficulty?

Interview Notes: What does the student from Honors Chem tell you?

Now consider:
  • WHO are you users?
  • WHAT are their needs?
  • HOW do they behave?
  • WHY do they behave that way?
Who Am I: Did I have this same problem? Am I challenged to understand why my stakeholder struggled?

We will give you a large piece of blank paper -- it won’t be blank for long!

Fold it in half 3X, when you open it up, it will look like this:

You will draw 8 different possible solutions (one in each box); for each box you will have 40 seconds to draw your idea.

There are NO bad ideas!

Think BIG! Imagine if you had access to all the information and resources that you could need.

Following this exercise, we will think 10X by using an exercise called, “Yes! And…” to expand and improve your initial ideas.