Sunday, September 25, 2016

3D Printing and More: We've come so far...right back to where we started

As you delve into the maker's mindset and its role in 21st-century learning, the key things to consider are, as in the classroom, the learning objectives.  Yes, it is cool to print a helical gear or chain links, but 3D printing in the school environment is just another tool to achieve an end, and in many cases, another beginning.  Our real purpose is creating those memorable experiences that students draw on and inspire them towards more, well beyond the walls of our classroom.

Sylvia Libow Martinez ( @smartinez ), STEM speaker extraordinaire and author of Invent to Learn has said that we provide our students with a sandbox in kindergarten and it functions as an exhibition of problem solving, artistic expression, and collaboration, but we take away the sandbox as our students move into successive grades, never replacing it with age-appropriate platforms, and yet we still expect them to become creative, social, and analytical through a detached and osmotic mechanism that is largely dependent on student initiative

In another vein, we have increased the haptic dissonance of learning, interaction, and socialization to such an extent that many people's virtual lives have replaced their physical lives.  As we digitized our world, we lost one of the primary ways that our brain makes memory--one where sight, sound, taste, touch, smell as well as physical location and the color of person's coat commingle in such a way that synapses connect and a memory is formed.

An MIT study last year ( found that the contextual setting of a memory is integral in the recall of that memory, suggesting that a single-sensory experience lacks lasting significance.  In those most profound moments of personal memory, can you not still recall all those senses?  Note that even in our culture, the discussions of "Where you were when..." are at the heart of our social conscience, from the mindblowing profundity of Apollo 11 to the horrors of 9/11, or my mother's recall of hearing of Pearl Harbor as a nine-year-old.  In all of these instances, memory is grounded to a location when we heard, a position of the sun, the weather, the people who were there, the objects we had in hand, the wafting smells in the air, and on and on.

If the decrease in haptic dissonance results in greater recall, then what might we do in the classroom to ground learning and make it more than just a short-term event?  Does the proliferation of one-to-one devices and increased digital dependence actually work against our goals of fostering capable students who can react to new experiences in a calculated and deliberate fashion?

The promise of realia, tactility, and 3D printing is to put back into the hands of our students, the forms that have been taken away and rendered simply as text or image   The hope is that synapses form and real learning happens once again as the "Do Not Touch" sign is removed from the exhibit, and students can truly investigate a trilobite, printed out ABS plastic, and inquire about its function and form.  

It is not just literature-based arts and crafts--consider the time that, in my case, a U.S. history teacher pulled a flintlock pistol (obviously different days than today) from his drawer, and demonstrated the amount of time it took to load and fire a single shot as we, the Redcoats, advanced on his position atop his desk, also known as Bunker Hill--sight, sound, touch, the lingering odor of burned black powder...and a real understanding of what it took for those men to stand against the most powerful army the world.

That is real learning.

Best day ever in the classroom..well, sort of, and broken up by 21 years

Michelle and Dustin were in my 12th grade English class in 1995, and they fell in love.  Michelle was a witty and creative soul who had overcome spinal cancer in fourth grade--Dustin was never without a smile on his face, and loved to engage in philosophical discussions that were rather loosely connected to our literature. In other words, they were perfect for each other.  

Soon after prom that year, Michelle missed a few days and Dustin told me that she was having some tests done.  The bad news hit our class like a brick to the skull, and our worst fears were realized as her cancer had come back.

At Michelle’s funeral the next year, Dustin and I embraced for minutes.  We cried, as even now I fight back the tears.  That was the last time I saw Dustin until…

Twenty one years later, I brought by six-year-old daughter to ballet and noticed a man looking at me, then glancing quickly away.  After a few minutes it came to me.  “Dustin?”

Bridget McKenzie, Ballet

We both rose, he much bigger now, a paramedic and firefighter, and me bigger as well, but in a different way that I am less proud of.  We embraced again for longer than the dance moms watching would call a comfortable time.  Tears came again.

He said he still journalled every day because of me, that his own kids--one graduating from high school last spring--would read them and writing was a central part of their days as well.  He said he never forgot our discussions and that he told his kids about my class on a regular basis.  

There were many more questions and answers between us, and we spoke about Michelle who he said will always be a part of him.
She’s a part of me as well.

My best day ever grew out of the worst ever.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Robotics and so much more...

I know it should have hit me before, but this is exactly what we should all be doing in the classroom.

One parent told me that it would be like combat, you know,  "interminable boredom punctuated by moments of terror"--well not exactly terror, but a one-minute round of excitement following seven hours of waiting.

My fourth-grade son came home six weeks ago to let us know that he had "made the team."  Not that you know my son, but my wife and I could not imagine that it would be the basketball team, or football, or soccer, or any other sport--it was the robotics team.  My wife has resigned herself, despite a letterman's jacket (are we ready for a gender-neutral term yet?) of her own festooned with patches and pins from her high school exploits, that our son, who taught himself to read at three, learned the periodic table at seven, and lives for Legos and airplanes, might not be on the same athletic track.

We have modified (one of his favorite terms to throw around at his team) our schedules to accommodate our kids--Monday is ballet for our daughter, and Wednesday is robotics practice for our son.

We contemplated getting shirts, horns, and face paint for the first competition, but now realize that the spectators tend to be a bit different than the the Friday-night football-game crowd.

I am the first to admit that I did not know what to expect, but what I found was learning at its best.  The teams have a challenge--this year it is to move and, if possible, stack three-inch plastic cubes that have been set up on a special table.  The teams have spent the past six weeks discussing, planning, testing, and prototyping with their remote-control robots.  At the competition, their robot is placed in the rink and has one minute to perform.

Last Saturday was a practice competition, but 12 schools from my district and five or six other schools from across Southern California, descended upon my son's school, the host for the day, to test their designs under the simulated conditions of the actual competitions that are approaching--next time I am brining an easy chair and a cooler.

The designs were eclectic and creative, but also largely untested and prone to failure.  One team's sweeper arm impacted the rink's wall and sheered off just seconds into the round and another robot faceplanted as a complicated gripping mechanism of motors and gears grabbed the first block, completely upset by a new term, center of gravity.  My son's team arrived to find that their claw had not been put away in the same bin as the rest of the robot, organization is key, and so they had to compete in the first round without it as my son, a team builder, frantically tried to build another.  My son's coach simply asked, "How can you fix it?"

Some of you with a particular instructional bent are experiencing a bit of a twinge right now.  Your own gears are whirring as you see the process begin to take shape--challenge, theorize, discuss, collaborate, plan, create, test, fail, modify, adapt, communicate, critique, check, reflect, refine, solution, compete...and the outcome?  

How many of our classrooms capitalize upon these processes?  How many have 100% engagement and participation?  How many of us ask the questions rather than provide answers?  How often does inquiry drive learning and the best thing the teacher can do is to get out of the way?

My son's team did not fair well in the competition, but I know they will do better next month.  They looked at what other teams did to be successful, but in no way do they simply want to copy them--they want something better.

On the way to school today, my son looked up as the garage door opener cranked up the door.  "Dad, what is that spinning thing and how does it work?," he asked.

"That's a worm gear--it's a screw that drives a slotted shoe along a track as it spins, pulling the door open."

"That gives me an idea."

I am sure that it does.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Death of the Textbook

We are at a crossroads in education in which our choice will be made by us or for us--I for one hope that we rise the occasion and firmly establish our own selections and resources as a reflective exhibition of our professionalism and competency to select texts that intersect exactly with the needs of our students.

I have long been suspicious of textbooks--especially in my subject area of English.  It may have its roots in my first classroom that came with everything except textbooks and so I was forced to scrounge for materials until the books arrived--when they finally did, the exercises in them paled in comparison with what my students had been doing without them.  Unfortunately, self doubt set in and I broke down and did what I was supposed to do--following the guidelines, assigning the questions and activities, and handcuffing my students in the process.  It took a little while, but by my second year of teaching, I had given up on the textbook once and for all and adopted a pragmatic view where the book served as a convenient repository of texts, reducing the drain on my monthly copy allotment.

Last year, while still in the classroom, I assembled my own text and published the partial draft for my students using iBooks Author--granted, I barely scratched the surface of what I could do with the program, but it was a start in taking back my content for my students.  What I sought to do was to implement the very things that I was preaching to my fellow English teachers--keep it engaging, relevant, and move between genres as students explore ideas and themes.  I brought in news and journal articles, many just days old, finagled with the district internet connection to show YouTube videos on our topic, and tasked my students with discovering and creating meaningful content.

Our task is not too great, especially for the scores of teachers I have observed this year who gather resources on a daily basis, bridging the difference between the task and the proficiency level of the students.  The rightful place of textbooks is as a resource--but just one of many.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Digital Natives: Outright Lie or a Stretch?

According to Megan O'Neil,, digital citizenship  is more about responsible citizenship and multi-tech-variancy than it is about the simple assumption that everyone born after 1980 has been steeped in technology to such a degree that they are the supposed "digital natives."

My spidey sense has been going off for years as I have heard others declare the digital native generation, but I never really figured it out until the other day.  How presumptuous it is for people to tout this as truth when every other technological advancement simply led to a variety of tech usage and understanding--how many of us understand the intricate steps necessary to tan leather, let alone print a book, but we all have worn leather shoes and (hopefully) read a printed book.

Consider the following metaphor:  How many of you have owned five or more cars? Ten?  (my hand went down)  Fifteen?  More?

How many of you have changed a flat tire? (I see those hands)  A windshield wiper?  An air filter?  Oil filter?  Spark plug?  Oxygen sensor?  Head gasket?  Piston ring?

You see where this is headed--we have all ridden in a car and yet the inner workings and ability to modify, build, and repair are lost on most people.  Utilization of a technology does not necessitate a real understanding of its workings, or even the ability to use it well for both intended and creative purposes.

While we lost rich cultural traditions and history with the eradication and dissolution of the "natives" of previous centuries, there is no such wealth in these new natives.  The truth of our new natives is that they lack the skills and knowledge that they need to be successful in the new global community--their quirks should not be celebrated and the metaphor does not hold.

My point is that those of us in education stand in a place where we are obligated to assist our students in utilizing technology for significant purposes.  The assumption that the digital natives are responsible to utilize technology for these purposes is erroneous.  We must step in as the mediators between the complexity of the task and the student's ability as we seek to bring them into the new world.