Here are a few specific examples of how I spent my time considering collaboration and play as professional practice:
- Thanks to the NWP, I took a tour of the MIT Media Lab and learned how to use my webcam with Scratch.
- Alongside Laura Hilliger, I co-facilitated a session on Mozilla’s Webmaker tools, as well as a longer workshop on the same.
- Intrigued by the promise of “paper circuits,” I learned about Chibitronics and using LEDs and other components for notebook storytelling.
- In response to the shuttering of #tech2go at #ncte13, I ran a pop-up hack jam with Andrea Zellner in the hall off the Exhibitors’ Hall and spent a few hours remixing and collaborating online with “secret agents” and “spies” we recruited with the promise of “secret missions” and “top secret” technology.
Again and again, I saw how simple shifts towards play and making in community changed learning from something people were supposed to do at the conference into something people wanted to do and enjoyed doing. Collaboration and play help people claim and make meaning. Being a secret agent of learning means breaking out of receivership and infiltrating networks of seriously fun practice and purpose.
Here are a few of the more serious takeways I got from the work I shared with my NWP and NCTE communities:
- We should move around a lot at the start of sessions. For our Webmaker workshop, Laura devised a game of snailmail-email-webforum-microblog-Papert (along the lines of rock-paper-scissors) that we played out in the hall. It worked great. Lots of laughs and high fives. The game gave us the opportunity to enter the room for a second time as a community with a shared purpose and sense of accomplishment; that’s something we couldn’t quite do as people entered entered the room before the event bringing their own disparate expectations of the event.
- The screen is dead; long live the screen! While I use a projector and whiteboard in my classroom – and while we used a projector and screen in our session – the best part of the work that Laura and I did with our participants was face-to-face and device-to-device, which is sometimes kind of the same thing. Sitting with a few people and showing them a tool as they use it is more responsive and safer than asking audience members to follow a demo or try something they’ve only just seen done on someone else’s screen. Moveover, the new together.js collaborative tool on Thimble (the Webmaker HTML editor), makes it incredibly easy to teach code by working together on code. Think of it as a Google Drive for free, open, and remixable web pages (which makes together.js + Thimble moar awesomer). We should plan sessions and workshops with teams of facilitators or “ringers” to serve as peer mentors for participants. We should use conference space to facilitate the work of teams dedicated to helping educators learn approaches to learning, whether those approaches are mediated by computers or not. Given the variety and depth of participatory learning at #nwpam13, it’s obvious that the NWP is way out ahead of other professional organizations serving in this regard and that it better leverages its relationships with partners like Make to Learn, Mozilla, and the MIT Media Lab. I totally need to reconfigure my room to take advantage of together.js and to encourage more learning in community.
- We should strive for a mix “official” and “unofficial” learning events in our classrooms and conferences. Last year, Andrea and I did a hack jam as an official part of NCTE’s Tech-to-Go program, but this year NCTE shuttered that program to push tech into more mainstream sessions. That gave us the chance to buy some comics from a shop a few blocks from the convention center, to grab some craft supplies from a local drug store, and to set up shop in the shadows of the vendor hall just a few hours before we planned to begin our “officially unofficial” hack jam. We made signs. We sent tweets. We barked in the hall. We became the “spy masters” recruiting folks for a “secret mission” to remix exhibitors’ swag into comics or anything else they imagined. Most people seemed skeptical at first and either amused or standoffish. Then we got our first followers. Then a few friends showed up to play. Then people saw this group of adults working silently and intently on the floor to cut up comic books and promotional fliers, and more and more sat down to join in as it became obvious that the play at hand was leading to meaningful work, learning, reflection, and community. We wound up with about 20 people working out in the open – if we hadn’t been working in the open, we wouldn’t have had so many people in such a short amount of time. Also, the narrative frame that we built together around the event allowed us all to be the heroes of our own story. Again, building shared notions of accomplishment, community, and purpose all helped the event surpass the expectations we held for it. I’m sure we had fewer participants at the official event last year. For professional conferences the size of NCTE, there should be a guerilla committee given a broad charter and wide leeway to create compelling, competing, and unofficial content around the main event. Moreover, from time to time, we should think of our classrooms as student-directed tangent engines.
- The best thing to do with a idea that speaks to everyone is to let it speak; don’t hold on to it; let everyone hold on to it. In other words, free your darlings. At the Media Lab, all we needed to see was a webcam working with Scratch to begin making our own versions of video-mediated games during #twitcastrophe and a Scratch session led by Mitch Resnick at the NWP Annual Meeting. We just needed to see the Paper Circuitry notebook inspired by Jie Qi’s work to start making our own wild illustrations and clever improvisations on using flat LEDs to illustrate ideas and stories in notebooks of our own. We just needed to hear these little bits of feedback here and there to say, “Oh! Of course! That is what we’re going to do!” And while there is, certainly, a huge amount of unpacked privilege in saying “all we needed,” I just want to suggest that when we freely and openly share creative ideas for teaching and learning, that example immediately encourages others to try, remix, and share their ideas, as well.
Above all, I learned once again that play needs to be a part of how we teach and learn. We should’t go to professional events to be quiet together; we should go these places to be raucous together. We should self-organize through play and discover what our next steps should be without undue regard for traditions that no longer serve us or our kids. If we stuck to play as practice, we wouldn’t need to innovate or reninvent the work so often as we do.
With extra special thanks to all my friends – including, of course, those outside the conferences who made sure we had time to meet, break bread, and catch up with one another.