On Net Neutrality in #openschools

'Neutral' by BrokenCities

‘Neutral’ by BrokenCities

Instructional technology is a tricky thing. For example, you could have 1:1 devices, but pick the wrong devices. You could open your network and no one might notice. You could have the right devices – even at a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio – but little or no bandwidth for the apps your teachers and students want to use. You could have the right apps or the wrong apps at the right or wrong time. Really, all the problems we could have with instructional technology mirror all the problems we have with teaching and learning in general: with limited and scarce resources, we want the fewest things that will do the most print-epoch work at the lowest cost, rather than the widest variety of things that could allow the most types of work at debatable costs. This tension binds together everything from picking the right tablet to making relationships between us work in schools. (Arguing for the post-print epoch in schools while we’re here: check.)

However, apart from providing universal access to the Web, the biggest instructional technology problem I see right now is the continued degradation of Net Neutrality. ‘Net Neutrality’ describes an Internet that passes along all bits of information at an equal rate. Without Net Neutrality, regardless of how much bandwidth any particular user has, Internet service providers can ‘throttle’ the speed of delivery to privilege some bits of information over others, effectively slowing down some websites and services while speeding up others.

I don’t mean to suggest that access to the Web is the greatest problem a community can have, or that Net Neutrality is the most pressing problem to solve in the whole world. What I mean is that online delivery of both standardized and more idiosyncratic curriculum, content, and assessment is a thing. Whereas schools, by and large, have no systemic investment in cultural production or in teaching a skillset like design, they do have multi-, multi-million dollar investments in hardware and licenses for content and assessments. So Net Neutrality ought to be a big deal to schools as further loss of Net Neutrality can lead to increased costs, even more limited teaching and learning outcomes, and a move towards a generational and societal misconception of what the Internet and Web can do for people.

I would love to see parent groups, school boards, school administrator organizations, and teacher unions issue frequent statements and maintain active campaigns to protect Net Neutrality. Here are some anxieties underpinning that desire:

First, I worry about Big Education Publishing partnering with Big Service Providers to throttle up access to purchased curriculum and content while throttling down the rest of the Internet. It’s easy to advertise ‘flipped’ instruction and ‘technology enhanced interventions’ that are ’5x as fast’ as competitors’ products when you pay service providers to make that fiber-optically true, regardless of the quality of your code or product.

Second, I worry about de facto censorship. A division could actually claim to have an open network to assuage internal or external stakeholders and simply buy a plan from a service provider that throttles sites and services instead of fire-walling them. The theoretical possibility of teaching with games or helping kids do inquiry-based research on a controversial issue is not the same as being free to do those things.

Third, I worry about the continued standardization of public schooling and the increasing amount of control corporations have over it. Public schooling should be a public good and teach us to engage with one another as thinkers, citizens, and neighbors. We can’t do that when we’re coerced to spend our time engaging with product. The loss of Net Neutrality will further diminish the amount of time, space, and thought for human interactions spared in schools. If we have to spend X amount of time waiting for a Web app to load, or Y, where Y costs a bit more but loads faster and delivers more content, (if we let them) schools will go with Y, even if X is free and open. If we are paying extra for faster delivery of online content, (if we let them) schools will make sure we spend more time with that content than with one another or offline work, whether we’re making stuff or not. Moreover, I can see a scenario in which we finality change the school calendar, not because we’re no longer an agrarian society, but because so many schools pay for preferential Internet service during their testing windows that those windows start to roll as preferential bandwidth fills up and chokes off non-test bandwidth for schools in participating (or not participating) localities. ‘We start in October so we can test in July during our TurboTest window.’ The coup de grace of standardizing education is a perverse modularity that makes it, you know, ‘imperative,’ we all implement the same ‘schooling’ with 100% fidelity because we can’t fall behind the divisions starting and testing two months earlier than we do. Also, we have to pay more for the tests because they have to be changed up frequently between windows. There is no scenario in which the loss of Net Neutrality is good – in the moral sense of the word – for schools.

Finally, I worry what I already worry: very few schools give kids an accurate, democratic idea of what they can do with the Web. Imagine schools in which bandwidth is even more scarce than it is now and in which such bandwidth remains costs more to keep un-throttled. Of course schools are going to buy the services and products that promise dependable, speedy delivery, and publishers will want to be a part of that. Networks are shaky things already. I know that I bounce around between 2 or 3 a day at work in the best configuration we could have right now. Are we really prepared to teach kids that the ‘Net is for doing what you’re told? For paying for access? For testing? Is our mission to schoolify the Internet? There exist entire taxonomies and ecosystems of art and science we don’t offer in public schools even with a ‘neutral’ Internet. Do we think we’ll be able to preserve whatever it is we have now (surviving elective programs and maverick teachers come to mind) if we start paying more for a smaller set of standardized learning objects delivered through a financial partnership between ed publishers and Internet service providers?

The open ‘Net is something we need for individual expression and intellectual freedom, and we should safeguard all three of those things for our children. That means fighting for Net Neutrality in schools so long as we school kids the way we do, so that sometime, someday, in some classroom they see a little bit more than the corner of the Web into which we’re in imminent danger of painting ourselves.

For more on Net Neutrality, visit the EFF or Fight for the Future.

Update: Check out this video explaining Net Neutrality issues from Vi Hart. Thanks to Megan Leppla for sending it my way.

Breaking a tutorial

#teachtheweb: break the tutorial day

Breaking a tutorial

Breaking a tutorial

This week in ‘Coding for the Web’ club, we’ve been learning how to cut and paste HTML, CSS, and .js tutorials from sites like TheCodePlayer into Thimble.

Part of my ‘ask’ to kids is to break the tutorials and then fix them – to play with all the numbers to see what happens to the behavior of the elements on-screen.

I hope that this kind of learning progression doesn’t seem too alien to others learning to code – copying and pasting tutorials and then tearing them apart until I figure out what makes them work continues to be a big part of my learning to code online. Asking kids to ‘break the Internet’ (as we say) seems to me like a low-risk way to turn the tables on ‘getting things right’ and kids’ collective fear of being ‘wrong’ at school. The variety of breaks and glitches we generated today speaks to a wonderful cognitive diversity amongst kids – one that we try to deny and obfuscate inside the system.

What would a ‘break the essay’ day look like? ‘Break the worksheet?’ ‘Break the world problem?’

So many cool things popped up on screen today because they kids looked for ways to sabotage their tutorials. In a way, helping kids shift just a little bit from ‘make it work’ to ‘make it not work’ helped them pay attention to code in new ways. They didn’t copy and paste and insist that they were finished; they hit copy and paste and then looked for familiar words in the code, like color and size and velocity, and then change the values associated with those parts of the code to test out hypotheses of what would happen. Accidentally changing the direction of one particle effect helped each coder intentionally change it thereafter. It felt, I hope, daring, because testing a hypothesis should be daring, not just clinical.

Hacking a pointer effect

Hacking a pointer effect

This is part of the importance of hacking and remix to learning. We need messier learning objects in our schools. They need to be openable and breakable and shareable and reusable. Those objects are out there, and we can learn to make more of them, but we have to find it in ourselves to believe that teaching towards one kind of certain harms us, our profession, and our kids. There is a right and a wrong, I believe, but there are infinite ways to get to either. Surely there exist similar multitudes of pathways to what our kids want and need to learn.

How many of us, myself included, are there still replicating what and how we learned in the past? How many of us, myself included, could use that spark to think again about what we believe is possible? What would it look like if we held a million-kajillion little ‘break our teaching’ days for ourselves?

And how do we harbor and grow those little coding clubs for ourselves and our colleagues to see that all such work is possible?

Our cardboard city

#demcomp: cities made of cardboard and Twine

Our cardboard city

Our cardboard city

This semester I’ve tried to run a ‘makers workshop’ that mixes and matches different ‘quick makes’ with RAFT papers that ask kids to imagine themselves as ‘professionals’ like museum educators and super villains. Typically we spend about 20 minutes a day in our workshop station. Early in the week we make stuff (with Play Doh or cardboard or whatnot); midweek we pre-write, draft and ratiocinate; Fridays we write or type second drafts. It’s an imperfect system – I’d like to spend more time making and to use planning, reflection, and sharing as our main modes of writing (and to use more peer feedback), but sometimes I have to facilitate work elsewhere, so I try to create assignments all of my kids can handle or help one another handle. It’s not an inquiry-based station as much as I’d like it to be; I just feel like my attention is divided differently than it has been in recent years past, so I can’t facilitate class the way I want to yet – I am still learning. With testing season now upon us, ideas for next year abound.

Here’s one that’s a mix of what we’ve done and what we might do in the near (or far?) future.

The ‘Tiny Neighborhood’ project turned out to be a make that struck a chord with several kids. Using 2′x2′ ‘squares’ of cardboard as their foundations, kids built and decorated little cardboard neighborhoods and then invented and wrote news stories happening in their neighborhoods. The next week kids added buildings to their neighborhoods and then wrote press releases about the buildings’ grand openings.

Finally, we hot-glued the neighborhoods together into a little city of wild proportions. I’d like to revisit the entire project with some additional constraints and steps – it’d be cool to decide on a scale together and collaborative plan the city, perhaps before ‘drafting’ its neighborhoods and districts for student beat-reporters. I’d like to set up some stencils and an airbrushing station for detailing the foundations with landscaping and the buildings with textures and windows. And I’d like to take the project online to create an open and virtual version of the city for audiences to explore.

Which brings me (back to) to Twine, ‘an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories.’ I’ve written about Twine before; I like a lot of its features – you can code story nodes to connect to one another in text-adventure style; you can code an inventory for your character; you can export your story into a website and even code the CSS for it inside of a story node. It’s neat.

I think it’s also be neat to ‘write’ the city into virtual existence as a series of interconnected nodes with an internal geography and avenues between tiny neighborhoods puzzled out and coded by kids after the geography of their cardboard city. Different neighborhood nodes to link to news articles, press releases, and other documents that can fit inside the engine – ads for businesses, diary entries, photo essays, screenshots of social media posts from character’s accounts.

It would be fascinating to see how kids self-organize a city and then use what they want to do with it physically and virtually to design and ‘code’ both versions responsively and interdependently. Twine isn’t absolutely necessary to make this idea work (or to add LEDs to the cardboard city! or to model the city online!), but it’s a place to begin creating narrative connections that reinforce the cardboard community building done ‘IRL’ during class.

The same kind of approach could be done with any kind of collaborative world-building platform(imagining a more geography-focused Storium here) and as a civic engagement tool in describing, developing, or planning neighborhoods in students’ cities and towns.

I’m thinking of it all as a kind of nacent World Peace Game if kids’ made the world.

What do you think? How have you combine figurative and literal elements of community building where you teach and learn?

From Code Castles

Print’n’play to #teachtheweb

From Code Castles

From Code Castles

As a proponent of sequencing physical makes before digital ones, I am a big fan of Webmaker’s push to create a robust low-fi teaching kit. The ideas behind the kit encompass all kinds of good questions. How can we teach the Web in places without much access to it? How can we help people prototype teaching kits or badges on paper before stitching together their parts with (or without much) code? How can we build and connect offline understandings of Web literacies with the activities, kits, and makes that new community members want to contribute online?

There are myriad places to be begin teaching Web competencies and open practice, and I think that low-fi access points are crucial invitations to the work of building and writing an open Web and free society. Just as I wouldn’t want school to limit kids’ means of learning and expression, I wouldn’t want any particular tech set-up or false dependency dictating what we can learn about the Web. I wouldn’t only want us to #teachtheweb is places the Web already is.

Since joining the Webmaker team as a contractor, I’ve been helping out with a variety of educational content, including some print’n’play, Mozfest-inspired card games that can be used in low-fi settings to teach basic concepts like parent/child relationships between nested elements of code (think of a sandwich – the ‘parent’ bread wraps around other ‘child’ ingredients) and the differences between global and local variables in scripts (think of books you can check out from a library and books you can’t – both might have the information you need, but only one kind travels with you).

I’d like these cards to travel with everyone interested in the Web, machine logic, and the human decisions that build and remix such things.

Nested elements from Code Castles

Nested elements from Code Castles

I’m working up a teaching kit to help people remix these games and imagine their own card games to #teachtheweb, and I plan to have that ready for this summer’s Maker Party, which I hope you’ll join (along with its kindred connected learning experience, #clmooc, from the National Writing Project).

In the meantime, if you’re so inclined, test these games to pieces and let me know what you think! What bits and pieces of Web Literacy would be useful to tackle in the next game? What low-fi approaches, pedagogies, and projects would you like to bring to the table of learning this summer?

Have fun!


Creative fierce laser edushark



I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet this year. Finding my stride in a new school has taken me a long while – much longer than I anticipated. However, that probably means I needed all this time to re-figure who I am and what I do inside a traditional middle school. In the next few weeks, through a couple of different outlets, I hope to get back to sharing some of the language arts classwork my kids and I have gotten to around making and writing.

In the meantime, I plan to be back, as big time as I can be, advocating coding, making, participating, and writing as the best levers of change for a school system stuck in a weird kind of planned obsolescence tied to test and intervention product cycles and elections.

To wit, I am utterly over-joyed to share the following:

First, I am officially on-board with the #teachtheweb team at the Mozilla Foundation. Contributing around my day-to-day teaching, I’ll be helping to develop teaching kits and the next round of online learning experiences for mentors and learners who want to level-up in teaching the web. I haven’t landed on a title yet, but “Creative Fierce Laser EduShark” sounds pretty good. I am profoundly grateful to the Mozilla Foundation and the Webmaker folks for this incredible opportunity. Not too long ago I couldn’t have imagined contributing like this, or even knowing how to code for the Web. I think the opportunity to do this work is a testament to the way the Mozilla Foundation values, structures, and “ladders” users’ experiences and contributions. I can’t wait to begin. ¡Vámanos!

BETA musings

BETA musings

Second, we are launching a STEM-infused participatory learning academy for 8th graders at my school. I have taken the technology education Praxis II and hope to be a technology teacher by next fall (fingers crossed), helping to lead the Building, Exploring, Tinkering and Applying (BETA) Academy team. Thanks to the unwavering support of district and school administration, we’re going to be able to attempt a number of exciting things, including

  • Double-blocked, interdisciplinary science/tech and language arts/civics classes sharing classroom space between 2 teachers and approximately 40 kids per block.
  • Electives and math classes taken inside the main school so students aren’t leveled or tracked out of the program.
  • Restoring the disused shop as a makerspace for science class and whole-school events/demonstrations.

There are a number of trickle-down and trickle-up changes that will likely result from the creation of the academy, and I think those changes will benefit all students. As they concretize, I’ll share them out, and through one outlet or another, I’ll keep sharing what’s it’s like to plan and implement such a program from inside a traditional, daring public middle school. I’d like to get back to week notes, as well. I am most excited to share our materials list, which, once finalized, represents what I think is a dream set of classroom resources for kids and adults looking to connect inquiry, project-based learning, and (mostly) open, DIY technologies.

It feels awesome to have clear direction and a world of possibilities to look forward heading into testing season. I hope we can connect, #teachtheweb together, and keep moving learning ahead with our kids. Please let me know what you’re up to in the comments below!

The #toyhack gang

The #EduCon 2.6 #toyhack (online & off!)

The #toyhack gang

The #toyhack gang

In just two weeks at this year’s EduCon, I’ll be facilitating a different kind of hack jam session around the #toyhack. A #toyhack is a new toy scavenged from bits and pieces of old ones. It’s an exercise in remix that help us understand and unpack hacking, participatory learning, societal gender norms, and the relationships between consumerism, creativity, and production.

The goal of the #toyhack conversation is to get us talking with one another about how participatory learning feels, how it leads to critical inquiry, and how it can be implemented in the classroom.

We’ll begin by making stuff together in small groups. Once our groups have their #toyhacks in-hand, we’ll make stories together and share them face-to-face and online. After that, we’ll open the floor for a wide-ranging discussion about the possibilities of participatory learning in low-fi and hi-fi environments, and we’ll close with some ideas about where to go next together and in our classrooms, schools, and communities.

I hope you’ll stop by and join in the fun – I’m excited to see how the #toyhack and board game iterations of the EduCon hack jam compare to one another.

If you plan to attend, please invite others and consider bringing toys and crafting tools to share. In particular, we’ll need lots of:

  • Toys.
  • Tools to disassemble and reassemble toys.
  • Hot glue. (Start stockpiling now.)
  • Dreamers.

If you can’t attend the #toyhack at EduCon this year, or if you’re wondering what it’s all about, why not check out. . .

Have fun playing around with learning this year! I hope we run into each other soon.

Have more hackjam questions or ideas? Have you remixed the online #toyhack? Please share your thoughts and work in the comments below!

Coding with LYRA language

Low-fi coding as reading comprehension with “Lift Your Right Arm”

Poem as low-fi program

Poem as low-fi program

After a bit of a spark-draught, we finally hit a lesson today that mixed the right amount of challenge, reading comprehension, and multiple paths to success for nearly every kid in class.

Yesterday we read Peter Cherches’s “Lift Your Right Arm,” a subtle and sinister poem about control and our acclimation to it. We ran through a quick jigsaw activity using Question-Answer Relationships (QAR) to group students one way before having them recombine to summarize their work and answer higher-order questions in a second group made up of a representative from each of the first groups.

We’re getting ready to read some whole-class novels (I know) as a grade, school, and division, and I’ve put together some text sets (can’t give up on choice) with titles like Catherine, Called Birdy, Homeless Bird, and Uglies to help us think and talk about freedom, responsibility, and the times in our lives and communities when it becomes important to challenge the norm. I hoped that “Lift Your Right Arm” would provide an entry point to those readings and conversations and reward multiple readiness of the poem before and after the novel study.

Today, we began thinking of the poem as a set of commands in a program. I want my kids to really consider what makes us different from machines and then to consider what we gain and lose when we choose to act more like machines than the people we are.

I asked the kids to create their own programming languages that could represent everything that happens in the poem. We re-read the poem and brainstormed a list of commands we might need like “raise right arm,” “lower right arm,” “say,” and “switch.” Then, on the whiteboard, I skecthed out kids’ ideas of how we could create visual commands (like stick figures raising their arms), command blocks (like word balloons holding other commands), and textual commands like “rr” for “raise right arm.”

Brainstorming commands

Brainstorming commands

Kids picked their approaches and wrote their languages. In general, I think coding in response to reading is a great comprehension exercise, but I especially like the visual command approach because it also incorporates the pictograph reading comprehension strategy and adds visualization to the task.

Inventing a LYRA language

Inventing a LYRA language

The more of this kind of work we do, the clearer it will become to us that coding belongs in the content-area classroom (for so long as we have to work with content-area classrooms). Coding isn’t an add-on; it’s a comprehension and composition strategy that belongs in our kids’ toolkits alongside every kid-worthy idea we ever picked up from this professional text or that conference workshop. What we’re doing isn’t new, but for us it’s a novel remix of a bunch of stuff we’ve been doing forever in language arts classrooms.

Back to class.

Next, kids translated the poem into their languages and revised their library of commands as they hit spots in the poem they forgot to account for when they invented their languages.

"Lift Your Right Arm" in LYRA

“Lift Your Right Arm” in LYRA

Another LYRA poem

Another LYRA poem

Finally, kids began testing their programs by translating them for other platforms such as Scratch and Lego EV3. I’m especially excited to see what the kids come up with for the EV3 since I’m such a newbie when it comes to robotics.

Poem becomes robot?

Poem becomes robot?

I’ll come back to this activity later and any extensions we run during our novel study. Please chime in below to share how you’re using coding in the classroom, too!

#teachtheweb: Holt, Minecraft, & doing better

'Cuisenaire Rods' by your neighborhood librarian

‘Cuisenaire Rods’ by your neighborhood librarian

John Holt’s How Children Fail remains an ever-present influence on how I view school and evaluate myself as an educator.

In How Children Fail, Holt makes the case that school prevents kids from learning and being as fully as the naturally can because of the way formal learning spaces institutionalize external control through fear and other incentives to please school adults. When I first read the book (a bit after I began work at CPCS and the time we started CoöpCatalyst), it helped me to rethink my role as an educator inside public schools, to relearn teaching by watching kids at play, and to negotiate curricula with kids. As I struggle to do those things inside a large, traditional middle school, I think back to the work Holt and his kids did with Cuisenaire Rods, base-10 math manipulatives that Holt used to illustrate both kids’ risk-aversion and potential successes in learning math.

How Holt and his kids use the Cuisenaire Rods also influences the way I look at games – especially Minecraft. What do our kids do in sandboxes? How do they begin or not begin? What do they make? For whom? With whom?

For me, what my kids do with stuff like those Cuisenaire Rods has become a test of my teaching and work. What do kids do when we put out the cardboard? The Play Doh? The LEDs? When we retreat to the worksheets, the reading logs, the essays?

I feel like I’m inside a struggle to hold teaching and learning as creative acts. That, to me, is the defining struggle of our time in school. I didn’t feel apart from it before, but I am even more keenly aware of it now. I wonder What are my professional Cuisenaire Rods? and Even if I held them in hand, would I be brave enough to do something with them?

To help answer those questions and, hopefully, to be of use to anyone wondering what to do with Cuisenaire Rods, Holt’s work, or the Web, I’ve built a virtual set of two-dimensional, base-10 manipulatives on Webmaker that you can use and remix for free. Building the page is a kind of meditation, reminder, and exhortation for me to do better.

The page is also an invitation to think of the Web as a set of Cuisenaire Rods with which you can learn and build.

While there’s no single answer to the dilemma of remaking education, I am collecting any answers I can find. Please chime in below in the comments or perhaps build some manipulatives of your own to share along with the lessons you have to teach us about learning.

Robot Turtles on the move

Together we are the Turtle Masters of learning

Robot Turtles on the move

Robot Turtles on the move

Just recently, our family’s copy of Robot Turtles arrived in the mail. Robert Turtles bills itself itself as “the board game for little programmers.” Players – or “Turtle Masters” – use cards to program their turtles’ movements turn-by-turn as they quest after “Turtle Gems.” Everyone can reach a gem and win. If a turtle runs into an obstacle, its player might have to play a turn-left or turn-right card instead of a go-forward card. The game’s design makes it easy to learn, but also easy to expand, and the instructions suggest many ways to change the gameplay for players who feel ready for some programmatic and procedural-thinking challenges.

After a super successful Kickstarter campaign, the game shipped. I’ve played it a few times with my daughter, and I have some ideas to share about how the game might fit into a classroom, club, or nerdy family fun night.

Robot Turtles plays off Logo, a “graphic oriented educational programming language” used for computational geometry. In Logo, a tiny turtle draws the lines programmed by users. You can find all sorts of Logo emulators online, my favorite of which is Pencil Code. Until recently, I knew the site better as http://turtlebits.net, but, as my daughter might say, whatevies.

Educators might know Logo best from the work of its inventor, Seymour Papert, who wrote Mindstorms, the preeminent text on helping kids use computers to learn through problem-solving. Here’s a video of Papert debating technology and the future of schooling with Paulo Freire. Laura Hilliger and I recently ran a Webmaker workshop in which we played a game of Evolution with participants in which we used rock-paper-scissors move up a technological pantheon running from snail-mail to e-mail to web-forum to micro-blog to Papert. Papert is a much-beloved figure in education.

Back to Robot Turtles.

The game is fun (players move one another’s turtles according to their masters’ programs and must make accompanying noises). Between the base game and its “unlockable” advanced mechanics, I think it’s a good fit for teaching basic programming concepts to learners of all ages. It’s a delightful game; adults who remember Logo or who can see how the game charmingly incorporates programming will love it.

Moreover, I think Robot Turtles can be one of those levers that helps us pry open the mysterious box of coding and how it relates to all the other things teachers and kids get asked to do in the classroom. The game is one of those focal points around which learners can engage in rich, interdisciplinary learning.

As a “text” of sorts, the game , its instructions, and its inspirations can spark all kinds of question for inquiry. How dod you make a game? What is Kickstarter? Why are there turtles? What is Logo? Who is Papert? How are these cards like a program? Can I play this game without this game? With other stuff? Can I make my own? Can I Skype and play with a kid from across the world? Can I make a “let’s play” video from a board game?

Because the game acknowledges its debt to Logo so well, players can also take their programs from the game and learn to input them using Logo emulators like Pencil Code. While programming, a little more math gets involved as kids learn to define how far forward their turtles move and how to write the commands for left- and right-turns at right angles. I think it would be a powerful and personally meaningful pathway into coding to see your Robot Turtles code take shape on the computer screen, as if the physical cards from the game and digital commands on the screen invoke and evoke one another in our increasingly seamless world.

As with most (all?) games, kids can also story-tell imagined adventures or record play-by-plays or compose summaries to teach others how to play or draft instructions for their own games or for making your own game.

It really is possible to create curricula from inquiry and joy – from any motivating content or discontent, really. Possible, but also difficult.

But that should be our work, regardless, and claiming that work should be amongst the first tasks in our profession’s stack. Finding room between the gears of the daily grind for teaching and learning that speak to the big Us, rather than to the little them that profits so much from our work.

Our approach to teaching has to become one of opportunity both in looking for teachable moments that sustain themselves and in looking for moments that let learners direct and teach themselves. Despite all the rearranging of test scores on the deck of our ship of state, there is, as there has been, a clear split between how we work with the kids we “teach” to problem-solve and the kids we “teach” to comply with our expectations, however biased those expectations are. So long as we participate in and promote a system that offers more problem-solving practice to the most privileged kids, those kids will – with few exceptions – learn to solve the problems facing privilege, rather than the problems privilege causes the rest of the world.

It’s not “#HourOfCode” or “#learntocode,” though those are invitations to the larger project (which is interdisciplinary and humanistic). It’s learn how to teach so that kids can see the choices they have and take advantage of them for themselves and for one another. My decision to protest for inquiry and self-determination should help enshrine your right to inquiry and self-determination. My estimation of what I need to learn should compell me to stand with you in securing the same. Self-determination isn’t something we preserve for ourselves; its something we forge together, a part of what we determine we all need. I don’t know of any school or set of state-adopted standards (but classrooms, sure) that explictly teaches that. It is a discovery we would do well to teach towards, regardless. Those of us who can play Robot Turtles have the fortunate obligation to care for – and stand beside and behind – all our kids as Turtle Masters deserving of the same cards we get to play. It is not for us to lead, but to follow those learning to lead with other voices, towards other, caring, curious, and compelling rooms of learning and being. To follow a better leader – regardless of our own station – is life skill we might model more often and clearly in our work.

We are the Turtle Masters of our own lives and societies. It’s time we stop thinking of ourselves and our kids as robots. It is not always easy to get to the Turtle Gem. It is not always apparent how to do so. Sometimes the best we can do is to take a step at a time, rather than three or a thousand.

But that we can program our Robot Turtles should suggest to us the beginning, not the end, of our agency in shaping ourselves and the world around us.

At the #ncte13 #hackjam shrine

#teachtheweb take-aways from #nwpam13 & #ncte13

At the #ncte13 #hackjam shrine

At the #ncte13 #hackjam shrine

At this year’s annual meeting (#nwpam13) of the National Writing Project (NWP) and NCTE conference (#ncte13), I enjoyed facilitating and participating in a bunch of work around collaborative play. My time at these events in Boston – spent with friends and colleagues from a number of intersecting networks – reinforced my faith in participatory learning and in the power of communities to sustain their members – even over great distance and time.

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.
Winning snailmail-email-webforum-microblog-Papert

Winning snailmail-email-webforum-microblog-Papert

  • 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.
Coding in Thimble with together.js

Coding in Thimble with together.js

  • 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.
Secret agent of N.C.T.E. on a mission to remix learning

Secret agent of N.C.T.E. on a mission to remix learning

  • 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.
Scratch + #twitcastrophe

Scratch + #twitcastrophe

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.