Monthly Archives: June 2014


I spent a good 4 hours or so playing today–first with Lego Wedo and Scratch, and then with the Littlebits Synthesizer kit, and then more with Lego/Scratch.

I needed that.  I got frustrated multiple times, because I am so horrible with spatial thinking, but I had fun.  I had played around with the WeDo before, just building a few of the models that are in the instruction books that come with the kit and then messing around with using Scratch to make them work, but today I wanted to try to create something of my own.  I got hung up in trying to figure out how to create chain reactions from the single motor, so I had to go back to the instructions just to get the concept down, and while I’m still shaky on it, I did make progress, and it felt good.   I also played around a bit more with Scratch and the WeDo sensor, and that was pretty awesome.  This is another one of those moments where I feel like I have dipped my pinky toe into an ocean of possibilities.  I’m grateful for the instruction models because I would be completely lost without them, but I love that moment where I can imagine kicking away the ladder of the model/instructions.  It takes me a while to get there, but it’s a lovely feeling.

I had hoped to build a simple motor today, inspired by the basic electronics class I did this weekend at hack.rva, but I didn’t have the wire I needed (thought I had some at school, but alas, nope), so I’ve pushed that off for a few days until I can get the wire.  My plan in the meantime is to dive further into Scratch, and possibly play with the Arduino module for Littlebits.  I also brought home my Make: Electronics book, which feels far less intimidating after this weekend’s class, along with some supplies for that.

Electronics Workshop at hack.rva

Electronics Workshop at hack.rva

My biggest obstacle lately is that there is so much I want to do, I often don’t know where to start, so I do nothing.  Today was a good day for just getting over myself and diving in to something.  Woot!


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This is inspiring

Again, I know there are questions raised by this, but my gut reaction to this video, having just seen it for the first time, is YES YES YES.  This is what I’m talking about.  As a faculty member, I want to know more about how to support/facilitate this kind of thing.


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My last post talked about trusting kids’ desire to learn.  There is one real obstacle to this that I need to acknowledge: we are so good at training and rewarding them for learning what we want them to learn, they don’t always know how to handle it or know what to do when we take away that control/reinforcement.  I don’t mean they can’t do it, because they absolutely can, but it’s not as simple with a 13-year-old than it is with a 3-year-old.

A number of years ago, I was in a discussion with high school students, and this idea came up:  what if you could design your own assignment for a class, research something you were interested in and create a project that YOU wanted to create.  One student, a senior who was an excellent student and very thoughtful in general, super kid, said something like, “Well, honestly, I’d rather not, because it’s easier to just have the assignment and know what you need to do to get an A.  I have all this other stuff to do and other classes to take, so I’d rather just know what I need to do to get the grade I need.  I know that’s wrong, but that’s the truth.”

I was that kid, so while his response was disheartening, I also got it.  I was a student who wanted to know what would get me the A.  The A was more important to me than the learning.  This didn’t change until I was in graduate school.  I don’t mean that I didn’t enjoy learning before then, or that I didn’t have classes where I was excited about the content.  I took a lot of wonderful classes in undergrad.  But I always, always cared about the grade.  I remember the moment that light bulb went off for me.  I was working on a paper for a lit class in grad school, and I went to see the professor to talk about it.  I had run into some issue with the topic I had picked–I can’t recall the specifics–and the prof basically asked me, point blank, why I was researching that topic.  He asked me what I was interested in researching–not what I could easily find information on, or what would be publishable (my original topic had been chosen because there wasn’t anything out there about it, and I wanted to break new ground), but what I was interested in.  As dumb as it sounds, I hadn’t really thought it mattered what I was interested in.  But I ended up changing topics completely, and writing a decent paper that wasn’t going to break any ground and wasn’t that great of a paper since I had changed relatively late in the semester, but it was MY paper.  I cared about it in a way I hadn’t cared about other papers I’d written.  By the time I was back in grad school for my library degree, I was a different student.  I wrote some strong papers and did some interesting work, because I had learned the important lesson of finding angles that meant something to me.  I was way more likely to take the option of designing my own assignment, or tweaking it, or asking the prof for that option, and it made a huge difference in what I produced.  More importantly, it made a huge difference in how I felt about learning and myself as a learner.  It wasn’t about the grade anymore.

So, going back to the kids, I think it can be done, and I think the energy and desire are there.  But we have a giant obstacle to overcome because some of these kids not only care about getting the A, but they WORRY about it, and some have a lot of pressure to get the good grades.  We have taught them well, to look for those As and 4s (scale of 1 to 4) on their report cards.  I don’t know how you change this.  You don’t change it overnight, I know that.

For now, what gives me great hope is seeing how some of the teachers at my school are incorporating more student choice into projects–both in topic and presentation.  Every time our kids get experience with this, it gets less intimidating for them, and less intimidating for us as teachers.  It’s messy and challenging and unpredictable, but it works.  When I see these kids researching their own questions, and coming up with their own ways of sharing what they learned, it feels like everything that is broken in the world can be fixed.  It is powerful stuff.  Every time we do this, I think it makes a difference.  Trusting the kids doesn’t mean suddenly walking in one day and saying, “Okay, do what you want!  You are the masters of your own learning!”  We have to teach them (unteach them?), or guide them.  They don’t trust themselves yet.  But they can be trusted.

I’m curious to see how, as more and more of our teachers in the lower school and middle school incorporate student-driven inquiry into their classes, the way the kids approach and feel about these projects will change.  I believe that it will become more and more comfortable, and kids will have an easier time diving in.

Assessment is a giant question, and I don’t have the answers to that.  Assessment matters, I know.  I think that is one of my areas where I want to learn/research: how do you work assessment into an inquiry-based educational environment?

Those are my thoughts for today.  🙂

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Trust vs. Naivete

Another #makered chat on Twitter tonight, and once again, my brain is on fire.  Twitter does not lend itself to depth, of course, but it’s a great spark.

What I am thinking about now is a bit too jumbled to articulate completely, so I’m going to grab one piece of it and try to start there: the question of trusting kids to drive their own learning.  It’s easy for me (especially as a librarian; I did teach in the past, so I’m not completely naive about the idea of having a certain set of skills or curriculum that you are expected to teach, but I am admittedly ignorant about a lot of it) to say that kids can be trusted to be curious and proactive and engaged in their own learning if they are given power over choosing what to learn about and set loose to construct their own learning.  I’m not talking about unschooling, but I think there is something to be learned from unschooling–that is more radical than what I am talking about, but it is interesting to me.

Rewind about 10 years ago, to when my own child was 3-4 years old and going to a Reggio Emilia preschool.  I drove 30 min each way to this little school out in the country, which was pretty insane considering there were plenty of good preschools much closer to home, but there was just something about this place.  It wasn’t the space (although it was very inviting) or the teacher (as great as she was).  It was the kids.  I had visited another school that, on the tour, pointed out how the preschool kids were learning their letters and numbers and would be ready for kindergarten.  The students were working quietly on worksheets at their tables.  This was supposed to impress me, but it actually horrified me.  I didn’t want my 3 or 4-year-old doing worksheets quietly at a table!  How is this a good thing?

At White Oak (the Reggio school), the kids were busy, but they were spread all over the room, doing all different things, all kid choice.  There was a hum of activity.  And then something happened that blew me away: a kid asked to share his work with the class, and they all got on the floor around him, and he talked about what he was doing (building something, can’t remember what), and then he got feedback from the other kids about what they liked about his project, and what he could do to make it better.  And then they all went back to what they had been doing.  These were preschool kids!  And it was completely natural for them.  The kid getting feedback was comfortable with the criticism–he didn’t take it personally, and he could say, “Nah, I like it this way because blahblah,” or, “Hey, I’m gonna try that,” and it was all good.  I mean, I can’t speak for how every kid felt every time they presented their work, but it was just so much a part of the process, it wasn’t nearly as loaded as it can be with older kids or adults.  These kids were learning how to: come up with their own ideas for projects; bring those ideas to life; share their work; and incorporate feedback into revisions.   During the year my daughter was there, kids did individual projects and group projects.  The projects were incredible; it has been too long for me to remember many specifics, but I do remember thinking that these kids were doing work that was far beyond what one would expect from preschool kids.  Kids were motivated to learn to read because they wanted to be able to get information faster for whatever they were working on.  Kids learned about measurement because they wanted to make a life-size whale and had to figure out how to do that.

There was an energy in that classroom that I cannot describe; if you have seen it, you know what I mean, but if you haven’t, you probably don’t realize how possible it is.  If you had told me about this class before the year my child was in it, I wouldn’t have understood.  Because it was so different from what I experienced as a kid, and also because it assumes something that I had no idea could be assumed: that kids WANT to learn.  That they are intrinsically motivated to learn.  That they will go so much deeper than you ever thought, even as little kids, when you trust them and trust their curiosity.  The hardest thing for the teachers to do was to not butt in and get in the way.

I know that it’s not radical to say that kids want to learn.  If you have spent any time with a baby or toddler, you realize that they are sponges.  But it seems to me that at some point, we (as a society) start feeding kids education like it is food, and we feel the need to fix their sandwiches for them, when actually they are not only capable of fixing their own sandwiches, they could probably make the bread and grow the veggies and whatever else with far less input/direction from us than we think.  It won’t be the same sandwich that we would feed them, necessarily, but maybe it is more nutritious in the end.

So that is where I am coming from.  I know that K-12 education is not preschool education, and I know it’s more complicated, and I know I am naive.  But I deeply, deeply believe that our kids, every one of them, wants to learn about something, has some questions they want to answer, has some thing that they want to build.  I have faith in that.  My hope for maker education, and for education in general, is that we find more ways to tap into that desire and those questions.  For EVERY child.  Maybe I am naive, but I am not going to stop believing in this, so I might as well work to make it happen, right?

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Work day for SEW for SOS

A bunch of the SEW for SOS kids were in the library today for a work day.  Many pillows were made; much food was eaten; and this librarian’s heart was filled once again.  We shipped boxes of pillows to Operation First Response and NAMI; both organizations that the kids found and reached out to on their own, and with whom they hope to build enduring relationships.  No politics; just kids wanting to help folks.  It’s good that we will be reaching out to try to involve other schools and our own upper school in the fall, because this project is growing faster than I can keep up with.  The kids have made and sent out hundreds of pillows already.  They are working now on a (legitimate, legal) fundraising platform to pay for postage!

I’m grateful to these goofballs who made coming in to school on a summer day fun.

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More thoughts on making

Last night, I participated in my first #makered discussion on Twitter.  (I am new to Twitter.  I fear I am already addicted.  But that’s another story.)  I loved it!  Some things discussed that have been knocking around my brain today while I binge watched Season 3 of The Wire:  diversity in maker education, and maker ed being part of the curriculum/classroom instruction.

I work in an independent school with a very healthy library budget, so what I can say regarding diversity is, right off the bat, limited in a key way.  Just want to acknowledge that right off the bat.  I can’t buy everything the kids want me to buy, but I am able to do a lot, and I have a lot of support from administration.  We were also lucky to get an alumni gift that really helped to buy materials to establish the makerspace this year.  So, when I am talking about diversity within my environment, I am more talking about different kids, with different strengths and different interests, coming into the space and doing different things.

One thing that surprised me a little at the start of things getting busy in the makerspace, which really shouldn’t have but I am just being honest here, was how incredibly sharp some of these kids are with picking up new things, or with coming up with new ideas.  I suppose that, as a librarian, I’ve mostly been exposed to the “book smart” aspect of intelligence: kids who are big readers, or kids who are adept at research, or kids who ask really deep questions.  (And my background is academia, and that has always been my comfort zone.)  The makerspace has revealed to me a whole host of different kinds of intelligence, in a variety of kids.  Some of them fit the “book smart” category, and some don’t.  I’ve always seen that all of them are bright in different ways, and I have loved connecting with the wide range of kids that come to the library.  It’s just that the makerspace has given me an opportunity to really see that brightness up close, to see these kids shine.  It was an early day in having the space when a 5th grade girl essentially taught me the basics of electronic circuitry and was trying (patiently) to get me to see something in my mind, and I was thinking, “oh my god, this child is a GENIUS!”  Because she is smart in exactly all the ways I am not smart!  I am a terrible spatial thinker.  With anything visual/crafty, I have to look at the instructions about a million times, and I’m still likely to have to take it apart and redo after the first time.  This kid could just whip out something that would take me an entire day to even wrap my mind around.

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Genius at work.

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Glue gun + wood + metal = machine.

As the year progressed, I (in my mind) pretty much declared almost every kid who came into the makerspace a genius.  And I am not exaggerating (well, maybe just a little, but only a little) or joking or making light; it really was that the kids who were coming there were tapping into their greatest strengths.  And they were not all the same strengths: one kid completely blew me away with his artistic ability; one with his capacity to come up with ideas for machines; one with her ability to pick up the logic of coding; etc.  It wasn’t like all of them were tech geniuses or something.  Sometimes the kid who is best at coming up with the concept is less equipped to bring it to life, but then another kid is the reverse.  When they come together and help each other, it’s extremely cool.

And another thing that was interesting: kids seemed a bit more willing to step out of their own comfort zones when it was another kid saying, “I know how to do that; I can help you,” than when I was the one offering to help.  If we want to talk about gender diversity, I think this was the biggest help in breaking those barriers; boys helping boys sew; girls helping boys with coding.  I think that was as much the specific group of kids as anything, and there was some teasing that had to be dealt with, but on the whole, I was impressed with how the kids worked through it.

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Making Brushbots.

Now, those kids may or may not shine in the “regular” classroom.  They may or may not be actual geniuses (statistically, it’s unlikely that all of them are! but they are!).  What I do know is that, ideally, the classroom is a place where those areas where they shine are revealed and built upon.  I know that, in my own educational history, there wasn’t much room for that.  This seems to be changing.  So I am all for maker education finding its way into the regular curriculum.  BUT:

I think it’s important that we don’t shove it into one department.

I think it’s important that we don’t take it out of the library; it needs to be everywhere.

I think we need to retain the kid-driven aspect.  The moment you start telling someone that they have to make X, and do it Y way, I worry that it just takes the spirit out of it.  If a kid (and I can relate to this!) wants instructions to follow, by all means, that is great!  I would be nowhere in the world of making things if I couldn’t first follow some very specific instructions; my brain just needs that.  But some kids don’t need that.  And even if you can’t always let them loose to follow their passions, we need to at least always have a place (like the library!) where the materials and the space are available for kids to tinker and play with what they want to tinker/play with.

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And look how happy it makes us!

I guess that’s all for now.  I was a kid who took great comfort in book learning, and the idea of project-based learning and real-life application and so forth makes part of me nervous.  Because I wouldn’t necessarily be good at it!  But that, to me, is what I keep coming back to as a reason that it is important: it would have stretched me.  It stretches me now.  It wouldn’t mean that there was no place for my strengths: making encompasses EVERYTHING in my mind; there is a place for everyone, room for everyone to shine.  Room for everyone to GROW.


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The Meaning of Maggie

meaning-of-maggie_9781452110219_normThe Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern

While my kid was ice skating for 4 hours this afternoon, I fell into a book, and kind of fell in love with hilarious, clever Maggie Mayfield.  I was hanging out in the bookstore, and I think I stunned the people around me a number of times when I chuckled out loud at some turn of phrase or quip.  Maggie is, like all of my favorite characters, quirky as can be, and I think she might very well be the funniest middle grade character I’ve come across.  And in the midst of all the humor is a moving, tough story about a father with multiple sclerosis and a family coming to terms with his serious illness.  I am always most impressed as a reader when an author can make me laugh and cry with the same book, sometimes on the same page; there’s something particularly beautiful to me about that juxtaposition, maybe because that is what life is really like, but it’s so difficult to capture in words.  I also loved the imperfections of all the family members; often, particularly in books for children, the sick character is some kind of saint, or there is some schmaltzy coming together of everyone in the face of adversity, but not here.  These are real people, loving and flawed and afraid.

I have no idea if actual middle grade kids will find Maggie as funny as I did, or the story as moving, and that is the main question I am left with after reading this book:  I adored it, but is it a book that kids will enjoy in the same way?  My gut is that they will enjoy it, possibly just as much, but probably in different ways.  I was too caught up in loving this book to try to put on my Kid Perspective hat, but I worry that this wonderful novel has an audience problem.  I want to beg Megan Jean Sovern to write a YA or adult novel, because I think she would nail it.  Maybe this is a YA or adult novel?  There are loads of references to drinking and drugs (Mom and Dad were hippies, and there is open discussion of their past, and they like their rum and coke in the present), and a teenager making out on a sofa, none of which bothered me because they didn’t feel gratuitous at all; it was just part of who this family was.  But I know some of my 5th and 6th grade students might be uncomfortable with it, and some of them are ones I can think of that would otherwise be crazy for this book (or so I think): those realistic fiction junkies who love a good family tearjerker.  I might be overthinking that, though.  (But I just peeked at the Common Sense Media review, and while CSM says 9+ for age, there’s a parent review that says 13+ because of their child’s confusion/discomfort with the alcohol and sexual content.  So there you go.)

So, in the end, I say ?????  on audience, but I give the book an A.  If anyone else has read the book, please weigh in on your thoughts on audience!

P.S. If you read this book, have some tissues handy, particularly when you read the Acknowledgments, which reveal a bit of the true story behind the novel.

P.P.S.  Isn’t the cover of this book awesome?



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