(Robotic) Hands On Learning

“Mr. Paige, come look what I did!”

I’d just stepped into a sixth grade science classroom, prompted by the knowledge that they were in the building phase of a cool project involving robotic hands, and she was the first student who looked up and made eye contact. The class was so busy, so focused, so when this young scientist invited me to check out her work I threaded through the groups of students standing around tables talking, tinkering, and engaging with each other, and hurried to where she was standing.

IMG_5349When I got to the table this student shared with her group I saw pure delight in her eyes. Proudly she explained the intricacies of the mechanical glove she and her peers had been working on. “Biomechanics,” she called it, as she talked about the “anatomy of the hand.” This young scientist explained the project to me, nodding at the open Chromebook on the table and pointing across the room where their teacher was working with another group to test some fingers.

This is a project championed not only by our amazing ACMA science folks, but also by our district’s TOSA team (Teachers on Special Assignment). It’s a nice example of what can happen when educators work together, teachers open their classrooms to new ideas, and everyone puts student engagement first.

At an art school like ACMA it’s not unusual to see students engaged in activities that mean much to them. Potters, poets, and performers spend hours both in class and out creating works that demonstrate their creativity and artistic ability. Musicians, dancers, and painters practice, problem solve, and innovate as part of what they do every day. Filmmakers, theater techs, and graphic designers know all about trying one approach, revising, adapting, and doing something different. In all those artistic fields I see passionate and purposeful students determined to create something amazing …the same qualities I saw in that robotic hand.

Similar too was the pride in that student’s voice when she invited me to come over and see what she and her group had done. That hand, all wires and cardboard, showed the results of that same curiosity and creativity so familiar in art studios and performance spaces across campus.

It’s in these moments of creation that real learning flourishes. As students make, from clay or musical notes, or words, as they build, with movements, code, or even wires and cardboard, they create connections that bring understanding to life. The students who are making maps in history class, building court cases in English, or applying math to real world problems all have a chance to find relevance in what they are learning.

IMG_5354This week’s robotic hand could be next week’s Sphero challenge or next month’s cigar box guitar build. The joy I saw in that student’s eyes, and the focus that filled the whole sixth grade science classroom, could be echoed in choir, or theater, or Spanish class.

At its best education provides students with opportunities to succeed, to create, and to engage. When that best arrives, as it did this week in the form of the robotic hands, the power of learning is profound.

Our challenge as educators is to build our lessons and our schools with the potential to inspire students to want to know more, to work together to understand, and to come up with a product (be it something written, built, or performed) that inspires them to turn to us when we enter the room and say proudly: “Come look what I did!”



It all started with brownies, specifically the question of whether an ACMA counselor, Jill, and I would consider baking brownies for an event and letting students judge them. Sure, we agreed, both always game for a little adventure and unlikely to say “no” when students ask us to play.

IMG_4984Yes, and…

What if we filmed it? We asked. You know, like The Great British Bake Off. Here at ACMA we have a robust film department, and it took all of about five seconds to coax three intrepid filmmakers into shooting the contest on a non-student day.

“The Great Brownie Bake Off” we called it. Good. Clean. Fun.

About the same time, our yearbook staff, a creative collection of students, came up with the idea of promoting their social media presence by inviting a series of ACMA folks to “take over” their Snapchat and Instagram ACMA Yearbook accounts. Wild as it sounds, I got the nod for a day. …the same day as The Great Brownie Bake Off!

As the principal a large part of my job is communication. I once worked with a superintendent who liked to say that the principal was the “chief communication officer” of the school. It’s a role I take seriously, putting a priority on parent coffees, keeping our Facebook page up to date, and even tweeting a bit. But those are (mostly) parent communications. The kids? They live elsewhere online, in ranges (mostly) not conquered by those over thirty. My marvelous yearbook students had given me a one day pass into that online student world, something to be appreciated, even embraced with a spirit of play.

IMG_4983My “takeover” took place on a day when students didn’t have classes, an overcast Friday at the end of the quarter set aside for teachers to grade. The brownies would take part of the day and I’d need to figure out a few other fun posts I could share with the kids about what life was like when they weren’t on campus.

Earlier in the week a student had shown me how to post to both Snapchat and Instagram, and left me with the advice: “We like video.” So, early on Friday morning I started with an announcement of my “takeover” and the hope that today would be fun and end with them buying a yearbook.

IMG_5034I visited classrooms to find teachers grading, sharing pictures of our Spanish teacher at her desk, a senior English teacher and his student teacher grading stacks of essays, and then a clip of an amazing math teacher answering another teacher’s grading question with his fart gun. When in doubt, go for the middle school laugh.

Brownies followed, with a series of posts celebrating the playful contest that started it all, and I realized just how hard it is to capture life on social media at the same time it’s being lived. That our kids do this every day astounds me, and maybe makes me a little nervous too.

IMG_5033When I blog or tweet, or even when we celebrate our school’s story on Facebook or our website, a built in time delay takes the urgency off putting something online. This delay slows us down and gives us the opportunity to think about things like merit and message (and spelling). Instagram and Snapchat, at least in my unskilled thumbs, felt hurried and immediate. This, I thought as I hurried to post between melting chocolate and stirring flour, is my students’ reality.

To live this awareness felt different than reading about it. I’ve done book groups on teens and social media, talked with countless kids about the importance of their digital lives, and engaged in meaningful conversation with teachers, parents, and students about the promise and peril of a phone in every hand, but living the reality of feeling the pressure to post something right now was a healthy thing for me to experience as a principal. I’m not sure I liked it, but I believe it made me a more thoughtful educator.

IMG_5031Returning to school, brownies in hand, I took up my tour of campus once again. Along the way I found lots more grading (sensible on a grading day) as well as an art teacher setting up a student display case, my assistant principal setting out rubber coyotes to scare off the migrating geese, and a science teacher’s youngster discovering joy in a pottery wheel. Even on a “day off” ACMA can’t help but inspire young artists.

I ended with a post about what a principal does when students aren’t on campus, remembering my tutor’s advice that students love video, and recording the opening of the Prologue from Shakespeare’s Henry V.

O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention
My kingdom for a stage …or an Instagram account that kids follow!”

IMG_5032Shakespeare’s Prologue got it right when he trumpeted the value of clear communication and embraced his role as “cipher to this great accompt.” Schools, like history, are collections of stories, and if we don’t embrace the opportunity to tell our own someone else will.

Telling these stories on Twitter or in this blog is comfortable to me. I feel like I know what I’m doing more often than not, and the feedback I get from my audience lets me know when I’m able to communicate something that matters. Snapchat and Instagram are still unfamiliar to me, even though they’re a natural part of the world my students live in. If I really want to connect and communicate with my kids, if I really want to tell the story of my school, our school, then I’m wise not to neglect these in favor of the familiar.

My “takeover” taught me more than just how to use a couple of types of social media (though I still don’t know filters, stories, and a thousand other possibilities about them); it reminded me of the value of seeing the world, even on the online world, of my students from a different point of view. It reinforced the importance of breaking out of my own comfort zone and trying something different, and doing so publicly and with an optimistic mindset.

Will I use Snapchat or Instagram in the future? Truth be told, not as often as I’ll go back to my more established social media venues, but they don’t scare me, and I do see how partnering with students to use these and other tools can help me be a better cipher to this great accompt. As the chief communication officer for my school, that’s as sweet as a good brownie.

“Shopping” with Hawkgirl

My son has a collection of Hawkman comic books from the early 1960s. They’re goofy and grand, filled with morality and primary colors and a Kennedy era feel that DC Comics thought was appropriate for younger readers.

Hawkman smokes a pipe, for example, villains ply their trade “for the thrill of stealing,” and our heroes travel through space to foil evil doers from Earth to Thangar …while wearing giant feathered wings.

Paging through the comics, I was struck by what the writers and illustrators in the early 1960s imagined as futuristic technology. Visiting their technologically advanced planet of Thangar, Hawkman and Hawkgirl (Hawkwoman would have been just too much for those swinging ‘60s comic book creators) have to readjust to a world far more wondrous than the third planet from the sun. The proof of this technological superiority: debit cards, recorded news on a big screen TV, and online “shopping,” so imaginary in 1962 that the word was put in quotation marks.

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Half a century ago these must have felt like big dreams, but today even the images seem quaint. Whither then our 21st century ideas of what the future will bring?

In education, as much as in comic books, comes the question: “What next?”

Just last night my wife and I were talking about our own experiences in school, complete with the clicking whir of film projectors and the tape recorded beeeep that prompted the AV Monitor to turn the knob on the filmstrip projector. (For my younger readers, those were days closer to 1962 than to 2017, in a time when the notion that every student could pull up their own video, educational or not, on a personal device would seem as strange as a half naked man with green pants and enormous wings. Strike that; YouTube would have seemed farther out than Hawkman.)

Today in schools we talk about cell phones and tablets and Chromebooks. We agonize over students being off task, nearly forgetting the days when we tucked comic books in our Trapper Keepers to read during class.

We talk a lot about paradigm shifts and technology changing everything, and I suppose that’s right, though when I walk into a classroom and see a great teacher connecting with students the common denominator is humanity, not technology.

Rather than frame the discussion in terms of “should we block Facebook?” I’d like to take a couple of paragraphs to wonder how we’ll look back on our behavior around technology in another fifty years.

Maybe fifty is too grand; I’ll be in my early 100s then and probably out of the education game. So… in ten years, what will our technology discussion look like in schools? I hope to still be a principal then, and I wonder what I’ll be talking with my students, parents, and staff about.

For perspective, ten years ago the hot topic of the day was this new portable device from Apple.

Ah, the iPhone.

It seems like this changed things a bit. To imagine what technology will look like in another ten years, both the technology we sanction in schools and the technology our students sneak in like comic books in a 1980s junior high, would be a fool’s errand.

To imagine why the students will use the technology, so magical and strange to our contemporary sensibilities, feels, well, possible. They will use the technology to learn.

…and play.

…and distract themselves from school when they get bored.

…and get in trouble.

…and communicate.

…and transport themselves from the classroom to the world beyond.

Just like we do.

I don’t know exactly what conversations I’ll be having with my staff in 2027, or how many on that staff will be cyborgs. Just kidding. I’ll guess that we’ll be talking about how we engage students, how we support them, and what we can do to spark curiosity.

Some will worry aloud about “kids today” and their fascination with the latest technological toy; others will ask themselves how they can harness those same devices to propel learning forward.

Socrates worried about writing, but seemed okay once he got the lads talking about big ideas. John Dewey was skeptical of direct instruction, but dug it when the kids started asking questions. Calculators, clickers, and Franklin Spellers all had their champions and detractors, and education has survived them all somehow, thank you very much. Some might even argue that students today have even greater opportunities to engage with school than they did when Hawkgirl was sitting on a Thangarian divan “shopping” on a TV screen.

Screen Shot 2017-10-02 at 3.11.53 PM

It’s our willingness to take the quotations off the unfamiliar that will allow us to think broadly enough to see that we learn as humans have always learned, in the context of our environment. That the environment changes is neither threatening nor sinister; it is a reality that we do well to accept. Doing so can do more than lower our anxiety about whatever technology will stream into our classrooms. It can help learning soar …like a hawk, of course.

It’s Simple

ComplicatedWhat we do as educators and what we do as parents is support kids.

At our best, when stress, or anxiety, or frustration doesn’t cloud our actions, we approach that even headed wisdom of Atticus Finch, who told his boy: ““There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ’em all away from you. That’s never possible.” I’ve been a dad for a great many years and I seldom come anywhere close to living that kind of perspective.

Even so, it helps us all to reflect on our work with students and ask ourselves the questions that make us the best contributors to these young lives we can be. For me, that means reading books that challenge me, and engaging in conversation with others who care.

In less than a week a group of such kindred spirits will gather for our first San Dieguito Book Club of the year, when we’ll discuss a topic on many minds of parents and teachers of teenagers: technology.

Specifically, our discussion will center around It’s Complicated, a book by danah boyd (no caps, her idea) subtitled “the social lives of networked teens.” For any of us who have been around a teen with a phone, this is ground rich with relevance.

I suppose I should have spotted the irony that when I introduced the book, and the idea of living in an age when folks (not just teenagers) are glued to phones and other electronic devices, at a “Coffee with the Principal” it was a parent who raised her hand halfway through my talk to let parents know that they could get a copy of the book for free by downloading the PDF at http://www.danah.org/books/ItsComplicated.pdf

Point proven.

…and point expanded upon, as we all realized that this parent had not only underscored the idea that we’re all more connected than we’ve ever been, but that sometimes that kind of immediacy and connection is a very good thing. Heck, it just saved parents $10.95.

It’s Complicated takes an equally positive view of the “social lives of networked teens” as it describes the world our students live in, virtually at least, in a way that doesn’t alarm, but does inform.

The book’s eight chapters are formed around questions: “Why do teens seem strange online?” and “Are today’s youth digital natives?” to name two. They’re questions many educators wonder about and parents spend time struggling to find answers to.

As I prepped for Tuesday’s book club, I asked some of my students what they thought the answers were to the author’s eight questions. A sampling looks like this…

“Why do youth share so publicly?”

“We share a lot, but not a lot that is meaningful. That’s kind of the beauty of social media.”

“A lot of the time when adults see us on our phones we’re just communicating with another person, a private message to them, not social media.”

“What makes teens so obsessed with social media?”

“No more than adults. It’s just part of what we do.”

“Is social media amplifying meanness and cruelty?”

“It amplifies the negative and the positive. I go to social media for inspiration and find it.”

“People who are going to be mean or cruel are going to be mean and cruel in person too.”

These are just a few thoughts; I’m hopeful more students will come on Tuesday and be willing to share. As a parent and a principal, I found their points of view honest and thoughtful.

In addition to individual students, I was able to talk with a couple of classes about their relationship with social media, and the result was …reassuring.

Certainly social media plays a part in many of the students lives, often providing information, inspiration, and connections to friends near and far. There are downsides too, and they were quick to identify that seeing some posts made them feel bad about themselves, and that on occasion the anonymity of the internet allowed people to be negative in ways they wouldn’t if their name was attached to comments.

The thoughtful conversations I had with these students inspired me, and reassured me that kids today have more poise than my own generation had when we were in high school.

I look forward to our discussion next week and the possibility of leaving the evening a little more informed and a little more connected to people who are all working toward the same simple goal: helping students.

The San Dieguito Book Club will meet on Tuesday, October 18, from 6:00-8:00 pm in the media center. Students, parents, teachers, and all members of our SDA family are welcome to attend.

“Have a go…”

ComplicatedPart of a healthy school community is the ability (and opportunity) for parents, students, and educators to talk together about the big issues, ideas, challenges, and opportunities that swirl around our shared experience. Whether we’re moms and dads trying to help our kids navigate a world so different from our own growing up, students faced with a thousand choices every day, or teachers, counselors, and administrators dedicated to helping kids learn, we all benefit from time to connect with each other not in reactionary ways, but proactively identifying topics about which real conversation can yield positive results.

With this in mind, over the past two years I’ve had the pleasure of hosting book clubs at school that give all of us a chance to talk. Those opportunities for parents, teachers, and students have been informative, renewing, and fun. As this new school year begins I’m excited to announce that our first San Dieguito Book Club of 2016-2017 will be on October 18th at 6:00 pm when we’ll talk about It’s Complicated by danah boyd (the lowercase, ee cummingsesque choice of spelling her name is hers, and while the former English teacher in me cringes, I’ll honor it).

The risk of choosing to talk about a book, a real live book, about social media is that it will be outdated before it comes to print. It’s Complicated, however, smartly looks not at particular apps or social media platforms, and instead takes as its starting point the teens that use those apps and platforms. Writing with a great empathy and understanding of those adolescents, boyd presents and addresses typical presuppositions about “kids today” and does a nice job of speaking to issues of privacy, safety, and community.

It’s Complicated gives us much to talk about, but less to fear, and I’m looking forward to hearing what parents have to say about their own perceptions of their son’s and daughter’s online activity, what teachers notice about how social media and the rise of handheld technology has changed education, and what students believe about their own behavior online. These conversations are at the heart of our San Diegutio Book Club.

The New York Times book review captures the reason It’s Complicated is a solid choice for our first (of three) book clubs this year when it notices that “Boyd’s book helps us understand our new environment.” The interconnected online world is certainly different than what most of us parents and educators grew up with, and whether we agree with what boyd has to say a little, a lot, or not at all, It’s Complicated provides us with a great starting point for a discussion of the ubiquitous nature of social media in our teens, and our own, lives.

Last spring, when we ready Julie Lythcott-Haims’ How to Raise an Adult, discussion ranged from parsing direct quotations from the book to heartfelt anecdotes from parents, who realized just how much we really aren’t alone.

I knew just how much we parents were connected by shared experience when we got to the point in our discussion about “grabbing the glue gun” during our kids’ elementary school projects. As parents talked about the successes and missteps they’d experienced helping their students gain independence, lots and lots of heads nodded. We’d all come to the book club caring, curious, and a little nervous, and had all of a sudden found ourselves surrounded by kindred spirits.

As we talked about the challenges of parenting, one mom who’d moved to our town from Australia mentioned the trepidation she saw in her kids’ friends and contrasted that to the more bold Australian attitude that looks at uncertainty and thinks: “Let’s have a go!” We have a long way to go before that spirit of adventure is commonplace, but knowing that we are part of a caring community can help.

book clubIn addition to the parents, many teachers joined the discussion. To hear them talk about the importance of students finding their own voices, gaining confidence, and being willing to take risks inspired us all to think a little more about our role in helping kids become adults.

And those kids… some came to the book club as well. Our parent foundation purchased a few copies of the book for our school library and those copies were checked out on the first day. The students who lent their voices to the conversation brought a richness that those of us who have taught English know can be profound.

I’m optimistic that discussion on the issue of social media will be just as rich, and I look forward to hearing perspectives as varied and passionate as we heard last spring.

Over the next few weeks I’ll share some articles about the topic and excerpts from It’s Complicated, and do my best to encourage us all to learn together, talk with each other, and feel comfortable enough in our shared adventure to smile. We’re not alone and one of the best things we can do is take a deep breath, find our community, and have a go.

Rock Star

He raised a finger, smiled mischievously, and told the crowd: “The next three days are going to be awesome.”

kevin…and about that Kevin Fairchild was right.

This June I went to CUE Rock Star Vista, a gathering of (mostly) teachers from around California interested in learning how to expand their use of technology in the service of learning. I knew (or knew of) a few of the folks organizing the event, and I appreciated from the start the exuberance and humor they brought to the week.

I’m a sucker for the beauty of an EdCamp un-conference, and it was a treat to see the presenters and participants bringing some of the same looseness and sense of play to CUE.

As a principal, I was in some ways an oddity in the crowd; just about everyone there taught or was a teacher on special assignment, true rock stars, but to a person everyone I met welcomed me as a peer, and the value I got from the sessions I attended is something I will bring back to my work in the fall.

I find that as an administrator I do best when I approach my work with the mindset of a teacher. I taught for thirteen years, constantly asking myself “is this good for my students?” It’s a question I try to keep front and center in my work outside of the classroom.

I loved that from the first session I attended I was shown tools that could help me right away. Daniel Bennett introduced me to Adobe Spark, and by the end of the first day I’d made a video about construction on campus that I could share with my school community through social media.

construction time.jpg

Day two was just as good, a highlight Natalie Priester’s session on “Growth Mindset Grading.” While I don’t have a classroom of my own, the ideas from that session will inform conversations I have with the amazing teachers at my school.

A highlight each day was a two hour working lunch, the first half dedicated to making meaningful connections and the second half, after a delightful break for ice cream, an opportunity for us to slip into a little EdCamp style fun.

Our organizers set up a link where we could suggest topics, much a the board that begins every EdCamp, and we had an opportunity to gather in classrooms and talk about topics as diverse as Twitter for newbies, digital portfolios, and Breakout EDU.

The final day I sat with a group of thoughtful and fun teachers and talked about using inquiry to drive instruction. With Tara Linney leading our discussion, we spent time learning more about how we might use our students’ sense of wonder to help them learn. I left inspired, particularly around work I can imagine doing with my parent community.

IMG_5316As important as the information I took away from CUE Rock Star Vista was the feeling of renewal that came from being surrounded by passionate educators who care deeply about what they do.

It would be a fib to say that I’m not looking forward to some time off in July, but I can think of no better way to end June than three legitimately awesome days at CUE.

Smart Phone

20-Blade_Runner_AtariThe world imagined by 1982’s Blade Runner does not exist. Beautiful little details, like the neon advertisements for Atari and Pan Am, which added such verisimilitude to the movie proved to be anything but prophetic; Atari went under before the movie was ten years old and Pan Am followed suit in 1991.

Predicting the future is an inexact science, fun in the hands of creative writers, but often good for little more than a retrospective chuckle. HAL in 2001? I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid we can’t (yet) do that.

So without an accurate crystal ball, how should we as educators think about the digital world our students will grow into?

Theirs is already a life enmeshed in technology in ways that make our own childhood (folks like me, anyway, old enough to have taken a typewriter to college*) seem quaint. Mine is the generation who got tangled up in the cord when talking to potential dates on the phone mounted to the kitchen wall.

As technology changed around me, I entertained the truth of that Philip K. Dick quotation:

There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spying on me through my phone’ anymore. Eventually it will be ‘My phone is spying on me.’”

Maybe, though any fears of sentient machines have (so far) proven unfounded.

So too, I think, are some of the fears we educators have of students and technology, particularly social media. Certainly dangers lurk online, as they have lurked at malls and in the places young people have always congregated.

Educating students to become digital citizens (or whatever the most current term might be for navigating a life online) is in many ways an extension to helping them understand how to live in the brick and mortar world we all share no matter what kind of cell phone is in our pocket.

There are lots of resources out there to help educators do this, some better than others, but it seems to me to boil down to a few simple ideas:

Present the best you. The one that doesn’t swear or show off tattoos. The one that doesn’t make that face that says: “Never hire me, trust me with your children, or let me go to your university.”

Don’t share too much. Share the right amount of information to show the world that “best you” that you want to be your introduction, the first impression before you make your first impression.

Think before you talk. If you wouldn’t blurt it out in class or at the dinner table, or if you shouldn’t, then don’t online.

Be nice. Be nice.

Know the rules and follow them. …and know the etiquette too. Learning how to be a positive contributor to an online community isn’t dramatically different than being a positive contributor to your school or in your neighborhood.

Don’t live in fear. Cautious, sure; fearful, no. You look both ways before you cross the street, but you do eventually cross it. Being safe online means being online, and bringing common sense with you just makes sense. Should I say “yes” to this friend request? Would you invite that person to meet your parents in person?

Be smart. Be as smart as you can be. We all make mistakes, and digital goofs can last forever, but thinking twice before posting and keeping the long view of things can help a lot.

Do we need to include digital literacy as part of our school curriculum? I think so. At the same time we need to show students that we believe they can make the right choices. This means showing them how to curate their own digital footprint and not blocking access to the tools they use to create that footprint.

mannySchools use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms to tell their stories, and the best schools do so to great effect. Students should have the opportunity to do the same.

Educating students about technology means showing them how to use it effectively, not shielding them from it at all costs.

Sure, students are on their phones …a lot, but then again, many of you are reading this post from a similar rectangle of plastic and glass. I know this. Your phone told me.

*For any younger readers, a typewriter is a machine that allowed users to print words, letter by letter, by pounding on keys and hoping not to make a mistake. Don’t even get me started on whiteout.