”We have to make safe places for students to take creative risks, and trust students in those places.”
I remember taking a risk in 6th grade art, though at the time, I didn’t know I was. Using British English to title my drawing “Colour Tower” made perfect sense to me. I was reading the Chronicles of Narnia at the time, and thought it was cool how the words were spelled differently than I was used to. The word “colour” felt exotic to me – like much more vibrant colors emerged when you spelled it that way.
As soon as my “Colour Tower” was hanging in the hallway at school, the disgusted-sounding taunts began. “Doesn’t Katie know how to spell? That’s stupid.”
I never had a chance to explain myself, and I didn’t want to. I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I stopped spelling the word color with the letter U, and my world became a little less bright. For girls, creative risk-taking in middle school can be wildly terrifying. But, some girls don’t just stop using the letter U to spell new words in middle school – worse things happen. They can stop leaning into their academic talents and using the power of their minds coupled with the power of their hearts. Their true passions can become secretive and hidden. They sometimes stay locked for years, or never get unlocked at all. That’s painful.
I think I was one of these middle school girls, too. How was I ever going to lean into my own talents, when I was obsessed with matching what I saw everyone else doing? It was easier to conform than to try something new and risk feeling embarrassed.1
How can we help more middle school girls feel confident to take creative risks?
We have to make it less unusual for a middle school girl to do something different from her peers, and that starts with us doing something different for our students. We have to make safe places for students to take creative risks, and trust students in those places.
While I don’t believe tools themselves solve the problems we are talking about, trusting students to take creative risks with tools they may never before have used can have a profound impact on their life.
You don’t always need tools to help inspire confidence, but there are some good ones that can help. They are beginner-friendly and cost as little as $15 per kit, but the possibilities are endless. They rely on students’ minds and hearts to bring them to life.
Having said that, I did want to be a spy in 7th grade. For a while I carried around a bag with a 110 film camera, mirrors for looking around corners, and a notebook. Mostly I did this with my best friend in her forest, but once I brought the bag to school. Although no one knew I was a spy. Because, well, that was the point. [↩]
The micro:bit is a tiny programmable computer that makes STEM, computer science, and coding easy and fun. With this one device, students can start taking creative risks in nearly any subject. Check out www.microbit.org for free lesson plans and student project ideas.
Why use MicroBlocks?
MicroBlocks is a small, fast, human friendly programming language specifically designed for tools like the micro:bit. MicroBlocks is perfect for libraries, maker spaces, and anywhere with lots of people and resources coming and going.
Just plug your micro:bit into your computer, open MicroBlocks, and click the gear icon to “update firmware”. That’s it. Double-check to make sure the USB icon has a green circle behind it to show the connection is good. (See it in action below.)
You can do a lot with the buttons, sensors, and display built right into the micro:bit, but you can also do more by adding accessories. The basic:bit is one way to easily add accessories.
Attach your micro:bit to the front of the basic:bit with 5 screws that come with the basic:bit. (See photos below.) Use the same battery pack that came with your micro:bit to power it all. MicroBlocks makes it easy to start programming your basic:bit instantly.
Attach your NeoPixel strip to the basic:bit. The MicroBlocks NeoPixel activity card makes it easy to learn. Because the basic:bit comes with a piezo speaker built in, try using the sound and NeoPixels together. The MicroBlocks sound activity card will help you.
This project was made using the winch and crank build videos at the BirdBrain Technologies Build page. This puppet uses two position servos: one in the eyes and one in the mouth. The MicroBlocks servos activity card makes it easy to get started with servos. Also, this puppet is being powered by the ring:bit instead of the basic:bit. You can make a puppet with a basic:bit, but the extra battery in the ring:bit will help your puppet last longer. However, the ring:bit doesn’t have a piezo speaker built in like the basic:bit does.
Add at least one position servo to bring your puppet to life. Consider using a ring:bit instead of a basic:bit to add more power to your puppet (The ring:bit doesn’t have a piezo speaker built in like the basic:bit does.)
One person’s heart is not more valuable than another.
If there is a way to open hearts with the work that we do, how much better it is to open many than few. And if we can do this in a way that allows for the healing of our own hearts, then we have a mission and purpose to do good in the world.
The tragic shooting in Squirrel Hill reminded us that nothing is more precious than life itself. What matters is the heart of another. And when this is taken away, our lives are changed forever. All that we do must be aimed for healing.
I believe this can be done with the technology we choose in the classroom.
By choosing technology that allows students to create we provide tools for students to open their own hearts and minds, to work with others and to work in the world.
In the space of learning to design, I learn to value myself, to value others, and to make a difference in the world. If I do not learn how to design, I only learn how to consume what others have designed for me and so a power imbalance continues.
How do you teach a person to fish while being sure she doesn’t starve as she learns? You feed her a fish while you teach her, until she can fish for herself.
And even after she can, sometimes you bring her a fish anyway, because it is nice to share. And we show love through our sacrifices, through what we give with a pure heart.
The Zone of Proximal Development is where we meet people. It’s where they are – sometimes giving them fish while they learn, but always keeping our focus on teaching one to fish for herself – and for others.
I believe that through curriculum design and professional development we can feed folks fish, while we teach folks to fish, and make space for them to teach others to do the same.
This requires me to let go of my ego, to put others first, and meet people where they are.
This is a post in two voices that lives in two places. You can read the other version at Bud’s website. In this version, my voice appears in italics and @budtheteacher‘s is in the other.
It’s been a few weeks now since Katie Henry and I met up at reMAKE Education to run two sessions of a workshop that has me more excited than I’ve been about a workshop in a long time. I’ll get to the excitement part – but first, a bit on how this came to be.
It’s actually quite a story. And it starts, not with a conference proposal, but with a business card. No, that’s not true. It begins with a brownie.
I could see them there on the plate in the corner of the kitchen. And they looked pretty good. So I made my way towards them, eager to confirm my observation.
Katie was standing in front of the brownies. A better person would have introduced themselves and then excused themselves to get to dessert. I’m pretty sure I did it the other way around.
As I learned a little more about what Katie does, we exchanged cards and a promise to follow up. That’s a common conversation in my world – and many such don’t lead beyond a couple of links exchanged. But with Katie, I was intrigued.
As I got to know her more, I could tell that while her background is different from mine, we both seem to approach the raw materials of learning and the role of learners in learning experiences in similar ways. She’d say something like “the mindset matters more than the material.” And I’d agree. So much of the “stuff” of learning, the things in the classroom, the library, the makerspace, etc, gets too much front end attention. Mastering the stuff isn’t the goal or the outcome. The raw materials are invitations, ways of starting and seeing, and making thinking visible. I could tell pretty quickly that Katie approaches most learning experiences as invitations.
I dig that.
The day after Bud Hunt ate a brownie before he said hi, I was at the Portland airport to fly home to Pittsburgh. Frustrated with the rude machine at the Southwest terminal, I was surprised to see Bud walking past. Apparently we both had 6AM flights on Southwest, though his was taking him home to Colorado.
Bud saw that the machine was ignoring my request to print boarding passes, though instead of consoling me or getting frustrated alongside me (in an attempt to empathize) or anything else, he said, “It’s Southwest.”
He just stated a fact, “It’s Southwest” in such a way that I suddenly felt compassionate towards the airline I knew and loved.
He didn’t try to teach me anything. Or fix anything. He stated a fact in an understanding, compassionate, and patient way that allowed me to shift my own heart and mind towards my own situation.
This might not seem like a big deal, but when it comes to meeting people where they are, the best teachers know how to say the fewest words and have the biggest impact.
As Parker Palmer writes, “Good teachers join self, subject, and students in the fabric of life because they teach from an integral and undivided self; they manifest in their own lives, and evoke in their students, a “capacity for connectedness.”
Bud does that.
Too many of the folks I come across in my day to day interactions in schools are still far too comfortable with the idea that subjects happen in separate rooms, and that history and science and language arts and whatever the hell ST(R)E(A)M is this week1 are disparate bodies of knowledge that rarely intersect.
That’s not how learning works.
At my core, I’m a writing teacher because I believe that writing, composition, is one of the fundamental ways of learning. And at school, writing across the curriculum is far too often “write about how the thing we just did made you feel.” Which isn’t a bad prompt. But that shouldn’t be the be all and end all writing to learn experience of school. It really shouldn’t at all be the way that writing or composition or creation enters into a learning process – at the end, after all of the “learning” is done.
What if composition were there the whole time? Is that where the learning happens?
As Katie does when she puts pieces together, she invited me into a conversation with some of the folks at the Sonoma County Office of Education. Casey Shea wanted to explore the idea of maker networks in a similar vein to the National Writing Project network, and I’ve explored that a bit. He brought Kelly Matteri along because of her language arts expertise. So I found myself in a conversation with Katie and Casey and Kelly, talking about the intersection of writing and making. And when Kelly mentioned that she really wished that someone would “Ada Lovelace” up the intersection between computing and robotics and writing, well, Katie sprang into action.
The gist of her response was, “I think Bud and I should try to do that.”
Although, the reality is that I already observed Bud to be doing this, just with other tools.
It was a bit of a surprise, because that conversation didn’t really begin with “let’s do a workshop” so much as “let’s share some ideas.” But, as I’m learning, Katie doesn’t mess around when she sees something worth doing. It’s one of many reasons I like working with her. She can see things before other people can.
A good teacher understands student misconceptions and begins to fiddle with experiences that might allow the learner to construct new and more complete knowledge.
An even better teacher understands their own misconceptions and begins to fiddle with experiences that might allow herself to construct new and more complete knowledge.
The best teachers never stop doing either of these things.
I saw working with Bud on this project as a way to fiddle with experiences that would help me to become a better teacher of teachers.
He’s a good teacher.
So there we were, trying to figure out how to build a workshop around writing and robotics that wasn’t something like “Build a robot and then write about how it felt to build a robot.” Because where’s the fun in that?
Isn’t composition there the whole time? It’s where the learning happens.
It didn’t take long for us to center on the intersection of poetry and robotics. Ada Lovelace, after all, lived in the intersection of poetry and computing2. There were fortuitous turns along the way.
I had plans to build the Metaphor Muse, so I was already thinking about poems and machines in some useful ways. And Katie had been working on a project around memories and robots, so there was that, too. Later, I would lean on her expertise with MakeCode to help me get the Muse to behave the way I wanted it to. But at this moment, we were just fiddling with some ideas. We knew that whatever this workshop looked like, it would be, at best, a strong first draft of an experience we hoped would help to create crossover between “separate” domains.3
Robot Memories is a self-directed craft robot building experience for absolute beginners. In about one hour, participants re-create a favorite memory using the Hummingbird Bit compositional tool kit and craft supplies.
In the experience, we ask the Maker to first focus on a favorite memory (or shared memory if working with a partner). Next we introduce tools that might be used to recreate the memory, such as craft supplies, handwriting tools, LEDs, Motors, and the Hummingbird Bit.
We’ve noticed that even in a short period of time (one hour), absolute beginners tend to create more nuanced and intricate robots than if they had a standard 3 or 6 hour introduction. I’ve seen hockey players shooting goals and Grandma rolling out cookie dough while smoking a cigarette.4
Learning about Robot Memories was illustrative – it reminded me that when the learner is the entry point, and not hardware or conventions or writerly things, it’s easier for the learner to remain in control of the experience. When we start from tools, too often, the tools get to drive.5
Good writing is like that. When it starts from exigence rather than compliance, important things happen fast. Learners want to learn the mechanics when they are eager to get a thing made, or to define and express an experience.
When the Metaphor Dice became a thing, we saw another way to center the learner in the experience. Actually, Katie saw that way earlier than I did. As she does. I eventually came around.
The basic structure of the workshop was this:
We began by setting a quick frame of poetry and making as two branches of the same big activity. The root word of poem is the Greek poiesis, which means “to make.” I mean, come on. That’s a good frame.
Then we wrote together. Quickly. The Metaphor Dice game can lead to multiple poems being written in under ten minutes. And working from the way I learned to play the game in a makerspace at #CMK, I realized that we could layer in depth and some revision as we went along, too. So we wrote our way through three quick rounds of poem writing.
Once folks had written some poems, then Katie walked us through the basics of building a robot using the Hummingbird Bit.6 And I mean basics. She showed them how to light up an LED and how to turn a servo. That was it. But that’s not all the hardware can do. It’s barely the beginning of it.7
And then it was on. The challenge driving the time was to take the ideas and memories and experiences of our poems and try to turn them into robots. Or to take the ideas and memories and experiences of our robots and try to turn them into poems.
As Parker Palmer writes, “I teach who I am” – the inner life of a teacher tremendously influences space-making decisions s/he makes in the classroom with students.
To teach teachers in a way that transfers to student-centered space-making decisions in their own classrooms is a matter of the heart. Disrupting preconceived ideas about “writing” and “robotics” in a way that makes space for a teacher’s personal hope to drive personal decision making – and explore their own inner landscape, working from the inside out – makes visible to the individual teacher (learner) an experience that might be possible for their own students.
It’s not about the robots. Or the writing. If it were, you should just build a robot and write about how that made you feel.
It’s about you, your learning, your hopes, your talents, and your growth.8
At the end of the workshop, a high school physical science teacher who “came for the robots,” but became absorbed in writing poems asked, “Does writing usually do this to you?” He wanted his students to experience what he had experienced and through a conversation with Bud, began to realize that even in physical science, there were plenty of words to play with, too.
When I deeply care about the thing I am composing, I tend to want to get the details right. I am more perseverant and precise.9
This is what writing (and robotics) across the curriculum can mean.10
The workshops, as three-hour total experiences, were a bit ambitious. But we started to see what we thought we might see – and will work to develop more thoughtfully the next time we facilitate this particular workshop. The writing and the robots were talking to each other through the writer/composer/maker. Tinkering in one way – with words, ideas, metaphors – led to tinkering another way – attempting to add motion, or a series of actions, etc. And vice versa. These tinkerings can inform each other. With more time, we would have intentionally driven that process a bit. Or so we decided when Katie and I were debriefing at the end of the day.
Have you already been exploring the intersection of writing and robotics? If so, we’d like to learn what you’re up to. Please tell us about it in the comments.
Are you interested in exploring the intersection of writing and robotics in your own classroom? If so, we’d love to share some resources with you. Get in touch.
We’re hoping to find people, partners and a place to try this workshop again, possibly for a longer period of time. Not sure where, but this experience needs to happen again. We are looking forward to more chances to fiddle with the intersection of composition and robotics.
There’s plenty in composition that transcends modality. And composing with servos and circuit boards isn’t that different from tinkering with words. Anything we can do to help students and teachers see that, and experience it, and create spaces for others to do the same, is a big step forward into better learning experiences for everybody.
Composition, after all, is where the learning happens.
Because it sure seems to change depending on where I am and who I’m talking to. [↩]
Or at least the romanticized version of her did. And still does. [↩]
It’s interesting to see how many times the Challenger space shuttle appears in each workshop. [↩]
“Can I do X?” when asked of a tool requires external expertise. “Can I do X?” when asked of a thing someone is creating, well, that requires the creator to answer the question. See the difference? [↩]
That’s some seriously generative hardware. I’ve been enjoying getting to know it better these last couple of months. [↩]
What Katie knows, and modeled in her brief introduction, is that the desire to get an idea into the world is sufficient to move learners from a place of wondering to exploring. Later on in the workshop, we would help folks turn on other elements, and program beyond the very basics she covered. But not because we wanted them to know how – it was because they wanted to know how. [↩]
And that is really hard for some people to own – belief that I matter. When I believe that I matter, I tend to get more involved in my own learning experiences. That’s why increasing student agency in the classroom has everything to do with increasing teacher agency. [↩]
Differentiation usually isn’t a problem in these spaces. But that’s another post. [↩]
Maybe a better way to look at this is composition across the curriculum – it’s where the learning happens. [↩]
Have you ever started a new project with a team when someone declares, “THIS is the low hanging fruit. We should start here because [this thing] is right in our faces”?
I find myself saying it more today than I ever have before.
Low hanging fruit is the stuff that’s ready to pick in the orchard.
Or so I thought until I spent a part of August traveling across the Pacific Northwest for Birdbrain Technologies.
It turns out that there is plenty of low hanging fruit in the world that you should not eat.
When fruit is ripe you can smell its sweetness before you see its brilliant color. With a little tug, it falls into your hand, ready to be eaten.
And that little tug is actually quite important.
Sometimes low hanging fruit comes off the tree with little resistance because it’s overripe. It has been there too long, and it might be rotting inside. This kind of low hanging fruit needs to be thrown into the compost bin – not used for your dinner that night.
Large, district-wide initiatives such as designing a new Maker Bus or STEAM program, implementing a K-12 Computer Science pathway, or strengthening your CTE program can be overwhelming2. When the path is uncertain, but the goals are clear3, your team needs a solid starting place.
Which is why it’s great when someone on the team states, “THIS is the low hanging fruit. We should start here because [this thing] is right in our faces.”
The team instinctively or intuitively recognizes that this “feels right” and moves forward. There is little resistance to plucking this fruit from the tree in the orchard.
Yet, as I have traveled over the last two years working with thousands of teachers across multiple countries to start big projects, I’ve learned that the “little resistance” part can be quite sneaky.
Two enemies of change that thrive in an environment of little resistance are bias and stereotype4.
Clear Goals and a Starting Place
My goals for the work that I do are clear:
I believe that it’s possible to lessen the digital divide and increase GDP5 by integrating creative robotics across your learning community.
I believe that it’s possible to be a departmentalized, standards based public school teacher and integrate creative robotics into your day to day classroom.
I believe that it’s possible to heal traumatized students who live with a belief that they won’t live past the age of 20 by integrating creative robotics into their life.
I believe that it’s possible for 9 year olds to program a sensor on a robot.
In the last two years, I have seen all of this happening6 across the United States and world.
If I come to your school or learning community, I will be ready to move mountains with your team. Yet before we get to the mountain, we have to find a starting place7.
If your team has identified “the low hanging fruit,” I am going to ask, “Why is there little resistance there?”
What your team chooses as low hanging fruit will reveal your team’s bias – which isn’t bad, it’s just that you may accidentally make important decisions that don’t align with your goals8.
Example 1 – Economic Growth
Your team may want to lessen the digital divide and increase GDP by integrating creative robotics across your learning community. You may start your initiative in the gifted program because that’s a good place to win key teachers who will be change agents. You may also get a few good photos of student projects to put into the district news letter.
You may bias towards believing: I need strong teachers to advocate for change; students aren’t being affected while I rally my teachers.
Instead you could bias towards believing: Diverse groups of historically disadvantaged students – girls, students of color, resource poor, rural, and students with exceptionalities – are often not found in gifted programs. When these students see robots in the gifted program they “learn” that robots are for “other kids.” These are the students who most suffer because of the digital divide – excluding them as part of your plan is the exact opposite of your goal.
Your team may set out to help your departmentalized, standards-based teachers to integrate creative robotics into the day to day classroom. You decide to give everyone a free kit before thoroughly training the instructional coaches/staff that would support the teacher with classroom implementation.
You may bias towards believing: If my teachers can just see what [the thing] is, they’ll get it. Then, they’ll ask for it.
Instead you could bias towards believing: Teachers who can “get it” this way are your early adopters/innovators. These folks operate in a fundamentally different way from most of your staff. The teachers who get lost in this method are the ones you should support – and they are best supported when the person from which they ask for help is fully trained first9.
Nothing is worse than a teacher trying something new, asking the person who should know the answers and not getting the answers.
Example 3 – Trauma Informed Care
Your team may set out to heal traumatized students who live with a belief that they won’t live past the age of 20 by integrating creative robotics into their life. You may choose a teacher who is brilliant and has “fun projects for students” but can’t relate to the experiences of the students themselves.
You may bias towards believing: The material matters more than the mindset. The robots are the change-agent.
Instead you could bias towards believing: Trauma-informed care requires a person trained in both the content (robots) AND working with this type of population. Building robots is a way to build relationships – very strong ones – which can lead to increased agency. There are many transferable skills to be gained from integrating creative robotics into trauma informed care programs.
Example 4 – Early Childhood
Your team decides that every 9 year old in the district should have an experience programming a sensor on a robot because they need to be exposed to advanced technologies. You may decide to set up a station in the cafeteria for “Robot Week” so that every student gets to program a sensor on a robot.
You may bias towards believing: The material matters more than the mindset. The robots are the change-agent.
Instead you could bias towards believing: Creating conditions for 9 year olds to make choices for themselves, such as identifying their own reason for needing to program a sensor, will lead to stronger outcomes. The things we do as children strongly influence the work that we set out to do as adults.
So What’s My Bias?
I have a lot of them.
But the big one that came out in this blog post is that I tend to value depth over breadth, such as high touch and deep impact relationships, followed by disseminating key information broadly.
That’s why I need to be a member of a diverse team who can challenge me the next time I declare, “THIS is the low hanging fruit. We should start here because [this thing] is right in our faces.”
When I do this, someone on my team should ask me, “Why is there little resistance there?”
Because what I chose as low hanging fruit will reveal my bias – which may not align with my goals at all.
Choose low hanging fruit (resistance is good).
1) Teams like to start with low hanging fruit because there is little resistance.
2) Two enemies of change live where there is little resistance: bias and stereotype.
3) Everyone is biased.
4) Ask, “Why is there little resistance?” with the low hanging fruit you’ve selected.
5) What your team chooses as low hanging fruit will reveal your team’s implicit bias – which may not align with your goals at all.
6) Choose low hanging fruit (resistance is good).
I don’t fish for BirdBrain Technologies – but I would if they asked me to. [↩]
If you don’t secretly feel terrified when starting a district-wide initiative, either you aren’t asking the right questions, aren’t making a real change, or have lost touch with the people you serve. It’s okay to feel scared. [↩]
Uncertain goals and an uncertain path create chaos. [↩]
If you just thought, “This doesn’t apply to me, I’m not biased” – I’d gently ask you to reconsider that thought. Everyone is biased. It’s part of being human. Figuring out how you’re biased is the task. Fish deal with this, too. They were probably the last to discover water. [↩]
Growing GDP of minority owned businesses by 1% in each region will move more folks out of poverty. [↩]
Regarding increasing GDP, big change starts small. Consider the hidden economy of students under the age of 18 generating income through communication technologies in their own bedrooms. [↩]
If you want to talk for twenty minutes about what creative robotics can mean for your learning community – and the starting places you are considering – please send me a message on twitter: @katiehenrydays I’d love to learn more about your ideas. [↩]