Makerspaces and Opportunities for Learning Literacy

In 2011, a faculty member wanted to bring in a summer school program for some of our gifted and talented students. Called “Camp Invention”, students spent a week taking apart computers and creating new worlds with peers. I had never seen students more engaged in learning than during this experience.

Afterward, something nagged at me: the program was not intentional about incorporating reading and writing into the curriculum. I could understand the rationale. Educators are always trying to stuff literacy into anything students are doing. Yet are these two areas – innovation and literacy – mutually exclusive?

Halverson and Sheridan tease out the complex nature of the maker movement in education (2014). They define it through three lenses: “making as a set of activities, makerspaces as communities of practice, and makers as identities of participation” (501). In literacy, students are (or at least should be) constantly making. For example, consider the verbs we use to describe writing. We craft an essay, develop a narrative, and build an argument. These actions cross the line between the tinkering, creating and iterating that happens in makerspaces and the drafting, revising and publishing that is synonymous with language arts. Halverson and Sheridan also see the possibilities.

“Learning through making reaches across the divide between formal and informal learning, pushing us to think more expansively about where and how learning happens. In this way we can talk about the who, what, and how of learning without getting hung up on the rules and constraints that govern different settings” (498).

A question that frequently comes up in education circles is, “How do we get started with makerspaces?” Teachers usually follow this up with concerns about time, resources and administrative support. Now in my second district, and having visited several more, I can say that makerspaces are unique from school to school. Some buildings house makerspaces in their libraries, while others have a separate, dedicated space. When it is not a building initiative, makerspaces find space in teacher’s classrooms under the guise of “Genius Hour”.

What they all have in common is they are personalized to the needs of the students. The kids direct the learning. In response, the adults often adjust their roles to that of a coach and guide on the side. The observed result is higher levels of student engagement in school, which tends to spill over into the core academic areas. Gershenfeld has found increased engagement to be true, noting how personalization is “a market of one person”. In makerspaces, students might start creating something of their own interest, but a lack of purpose and audience might propel them to start thinking about how they can make an impact in the broader world.

For instance, 6th grade teacher Chris Craft has led his students in South Carolina to print more than 150 prosthetic human hands for people in need using a 3-D printer (Herold, 2016). This work includes video production and online sharing, all critical literacy skills for the 21st century. This example and others similar show how schools can “decentralize enthusiasm” (Gershenfeld, 57) in the goal of creating engagement in learning through doing real work while applying core competencies. Literacy appears to lend itself way to many of these opportunities.

References

Gershenfeld, N. (2012). How to make almost anything: The digital fabrication revolution. Foreign Aff., 91, 43.

Halverson, E. R., & Sheridan, K. (2014). The maker movement in education. Harvard Educational Review, 84(4), 495-504.

Herold, B. (2016). What It Takes to Move From ‘Passive’ to ‘Active’ Tech Use in K-12 Schools. Education Week: Technology Counts, 82(2), 33.

Costs and Benefits of Social Media in Education

On more than one occasion I have misplaced my smart phone. My initial response is panic (“What if someone is trying to get a hold of me?”). After this is general acceptance of my disconnectedness. In these opportunities for solitude my mind tends to wander. I cannot check Twitter, Facebook or a Google+ Community, so I seek different forms of cognitive engagement, such as connecting with my family more and attending to the immediate experiences in front of me. With being disconnected, I also find myself reflecting on my experiences and plans for the future. Yes, I miss having the world’s knowledge and diverse communities at my fingertips. But there is a cost to this access.

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This lead presents a counter to the promise of the Internet facilitating powerful connections among people. There is little doubt that social media and engaging in global and diverse conversations has brought many benefits to society at large, especially for our younger generation studied extensively by Ito and colleagues (2008). Adolescents can feel empowered when they engage in online communities around areas of interest. They can participate at their preferred depth and frequency, either as an observer and/or a contributor. There are no age limits; perceived and actual levels of expertise and curiosity determine the authority that is attributed to a participant.

The opportunities provided through social media are not only couched in learning. There are also social and emotional advantages to these new connections, also pointed out by Ito and fellow researchers.

“These processes make social status and friendship more explicit and public, providing a broader set of contexts for observing these informal forms of social evaluation and peer-based learning. In other words, it makes peer negotiations visible in new ways, and it provides opportunities to observe and learn about social norms from their peers” (18-19).

It is tempting to paint a largely rosy picture of a highly connected world. Yet as I pointed out, there are trade-offs to being “always on”. danah boyd, author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (2014), also finds the benefits that youth reap in “networked publics”, extensions that allows them to “extend the pleasure” (4) of their locally-based friendships. While these online spaces allow for the social interaction that adolescents crave, these digital communities can also create new challenges. For example, students will post something that they believe is temporary, yet can stick around for a long time if the recipient chooses to save it.

“Conversations conducted through social media are far from ephemeral; they endure…Alice’s message doesn’t expire when Bob reads it, and Bob can keep that message for decades” (11).

Also of concern is how Internet-mediated relationships can alter in-person interactions. Social scientist Sherry Turkle found that the mere presence of a smartphone at a dinner table keeps people’s conversations at more surface-level topics (2015). Guest’s attention is “split” between the present dialogue and what might be happening online.

I don’t want to come across as a Luddite when I question the efficacy of learning through social media. My many connections via Facebook, Twitter and blogging have brought formally unattainable knowledge to my work and a richer experience to my world. I just wouldn’t want it to monopolize the life I have in front of me.

References

Boyd, D. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. Yale University Press.

Ito, M., Horst, H., Bittanti, M., Boyd, D., Herr-Stephenson, R., Lange, P. & Robinson, L. (2008). Living and learning with new media. MacArthur Foundation. Chicago, IL.

Turkle, S. (2015). Stop Googling. Let’s talk. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/27/opinion/sunday/stop-googling-lets-talk.html

The Thin Line Between Critical Literacy and New Literacies

This is another reaction I wrote to assigned reading for the graduate course I am taking through the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Technology and School Leadership. Enjoy!

Critical literacy is an instructional approach that “advocates the adoption of ‘critical’ perspectives toward text. Critical literacy encourages readers to actively analyze texts and offers strategies for what proponents describe as uncovering underlying messages” (Wikipedia). This approach asks readers to investigate why the author wrote what they did, what writing tools they used to convey their ideas and why, as well as to investigate underlying messages within the text.

Also important regarding critical literacy is exploring multiple perspectives by reading various texts to understand what concepts a writer left out of a piece and why they might do that. Critical literacy’s roots are founded in social justice. It “requires imagining others’ intentions, adopting multiple perspectives, and imagining social arrangements that don’t yet exist” (Johnston, 73). People from both affluent and non affluent backgrounds benefit from instruction that helps them take another person’s perspective, as well as to have the tools to lift themselves out of poverty.

The question then is, What does critical literacy have to do with new literacies, which “include the traditional literacy that evolved with print culture as well as the newer forms of literacy within mass and digital media” (Jenkins, 19)?

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Quite a bit.

First, both new literacies and critical literacy demand a context within the broader society. Because of its foundations in social justice, critical literacy may ask students to closely read multiple pieces of work on a relevant topic in order to understand how some writers might exclude certain perspectives in order to better persuade an audience. Likewise, with the new literacies everyone can be an author who brings a specific perspective. People’s positions and experiences described on websites and blogs matter as much as the accuracy of the information presented. “We might well find that much of the meaning to be made from the content has to do with who we think the blog writer is: what they are like, how they want to think of themselves, and how they want us to think of them” (Lankshear & Knobel, 4).

Second, students in both instructional approaches are expected to be participants in the learning. Whether a dialogue about what is read and what is written happens online or off, learners should have opportunities to engage in dialogue about information. This includes actively listening to someone else’s point of view without immediately disagreeing, and reconsidering one’s beliefs in light of new information presented. Critical literacy applied in this fashion better prepares students to be college and career ready.

New literacies, with their dynamic capabilities, invites a response from an audience. For example, when someone posts on their blog, this published piece is sometimes the start of a conversation rather than finished work. Within the comments and the sharing via social media, followers and connected educators can engage in a dialogue around the ideas initially shared. The participatory nature of online learning helps ensure that those who post have at least some level of reliable rationale to support their positions.

These similarities beg a follow up question: are the new literacies merely critical literacy adapted for a more connected world? Adages such as “Today’s students require tomorrow’s literacy skills” (Forzani, 2) might still apply. Yet the common threads between critical literacy and new literacies are hard to ignore.

References

Critical literacy. (2016, May 14). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:00, October 25, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Critical_literacy&oldid=720298766

Forzani, E. (2013). Teaching Digital Literacies for the Common Core: What Results From New Assessments Tell Us. Storrs, CT: University of Connecticut.

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Johnston, P. (2012). Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2007). A New Literacies Sampler. New York: Peter Lang.

Innovating Inside the Box

This is a reaction paper I wrote for a course I am taking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Technology and School Leadership”, facilitated by Dr. Richard Halverson. Enjoy!

Government, philanthropists and investors consistently come up with grand ideas and approaches to fixing education. Standards-based reform, new evaluation systems and 1:1 technology initiatives populate the school landscape. Yet there is very little to show for these efforts in terms of improving student outcomes.

One approach heralded by reformists is the charter school movement and offering school choice for families. The original intent of this movement was to free educators from the constraints of local bureaucracy and accountability measures “so schools and teachers can try things” (Kolderie, 10). Unfortunately, when results showed that charter schools were not seeing better results than traditional schools, the accountability pieces were brought back. Many charters now languish in corporate-run organizations with little personal investment from the higher ups. This is compounded with charters having to deal with poorer public perception. 

So what is the solution? Kolderie suggests bringing charters back with their original intent and positioning them as parallel programs. He refers to this as a “split-screen strategy”. “It is time to run both improvement and innovation simultaneously, side by side” (14). The idea is, while traditional public schools can work on continuous improvement, charter schools can serve as research and development arms of education. Eventually, Kolderie predicts, the traditional schools will adopt the strategies of the chartering organizations.

Innovation is critical for the success of American education, and chartering remains the states’ and the nation’s best strategy for innovation—for introducing, quickly, the new approaches to learning now possible. Innovation is chartering’s comparative advantage (30).

I would agree with Kolderie that innovation is critical for American education. Where I diverge philosophically from him is: why do we need charters to innovate?

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As a school administrator going on ten years, I see few roadblocks in offering parallel programs within one school or district. Certainly, there are test scores to worry about, although if innovation is truly happening, we are building on what we are already doing and making it better. For this to work, school leaders need to support these efforts. Permission alone is not enough.

In addition, these efforts to innovate through the use of pedagogical approaches and technologies should not have to be an either/or proposition. For example, could one school offer two learning pathways in their building, with one option the traditional model and the other a more innovative concept? Families, educators and students (yes, students!) can determine which is best for each child. The innovative concept can start small and then grow as demand grows with it.

To conclude, when we take the approach that schools need to be fixed, and we never question the questioners, it builds on a deficit model. I understand the need to upend some outdated practices, especially when modern resources are so readily available for schools. Instead of “How do we improve schools?”, what if we supported schools and allowed them to improve from within? This is a strengths-based approach that taps into the existing knowledge within an organization. “Research and development should focus on what works for whom, when, and in what contexts” (Dede, 22). We have had a high stakes environment for the entire 21st century. It hasn’t worked. A level of autonomy along with the time and resources might prove to be the better strategy for change.

References

Dede, C. (2014). The Role of Digital Technologies in Deeper Learning. Students at the Center: Deeper Learning Research Series. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.

Kolderie, T. (2014). The Split Screen Strategy: Improvement + Innovation. Edina, MN: Beaver’s Pond.

The Tyranny of Time

Although it seems likely that losing track of the clock is not one of the major elements of enjoyment, freedom from the tyranny of time does add to the exhilaration we feel during a state of complete involvement.

  • Mihaly Czikszentmihalyl, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Right now I am keeping many plates spinning. There are multiple writing projects on the docket, a new job to prepare for that includes a move to a new town, and a family that deserves my attention. In addition, I enjoy all of my experiences online with others, learning together. Yet something has to give. Time is not standing still.

That is why I am taking a break from blogging, Facebook, and the 24/7 news cycle in August. It is necessary to pare down our tasks at times to focus on what is essential. Some friends of mine, Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan, are doing the same thing with their blog Perspectives. Well known artists and creatives also take breaks from the Internet. John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, is going on a tech sabbatical. He shared this video as a rationale, titled The Distraction Economy:

If you would rather read about The Distraction Economy, check out this article by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic for The Guardian. I also highly recommend Stop Googling. Let’s Talk. by Sherry Turkle for the New York Times.

When information is bountiful, attention is limited and precious.

– Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

For longer fare on the topic of focus and attention, I wasn’t disappointed by reading Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers and Reclaiming Conversation, also by Turkle.

As I ween down my distractions, I have made a point of learning more about developing routines for my writing. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and The Writer’s Guide to Persistance by Jordan Rosenfeld have been helpful guides. With regard to my role as a principal, The Together Leader by Maia Heyck-Merlin and Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning by Mike Schmoker look promising upon first glance.

Also important is the environment in which I write, work, and live. For instance, we converted our four seasons room into a device-free zone (at least for me and the cats). William Powers would refer to this as a “Walden Zone”, after Thoreau’s famed location:

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As my position picks up in our new location, I won’t be able to work remotely as much. I discovered a cabin with no wireless or television through a community connection for a few temporary stays until we officially move in. I look forward to the solitude, although I will miss my family. Hopefully by shedding some connections in my life in August, I will increase my involvement, effectiveness and enjoyment in the tasks at hand.

 

 

Blogging is Writing & So Much More

For many learners, young and old, there still seems to be a level of mental separation regarding the act of writing online. If we put it down on paper, that’s writing. If we write a post or tweet, that’s blogging. There’s really little difference anymore. What we used to know as writing vaguely resembles what it is today.

Students so often fail to connect their social media engagement and real literacy. Part of that is school’s fault. We educators rarely helps kids see these relationships. But it is also the responsibility of the learner to question what they associate with fun with some of the work asked of them in class. They cannot wait to get out of class so they can…read and write with their friends via smartphone and messenger apps. The irony…

For adults in my generation (X) and beyond, we have our own personal issues with writing vs. blogging. I have heard it all. “I don’t have time.” “I don’t have anything important to share.” “What if no one reads what I write? It will be a waste of time.” “People will think I am a show off.” “I don’t want to risk being misunderstood and offending anyone.”

This surprises me. All educators have something to share. I believe the various concerns listed previously really boil down to one main reason: “I am scared.” It is not unreasonable to feel nervous about putting oneself out there. Even after several years of blogging, I still feel an ounce of worry anytime I select the “publish” button.

But fear is not the primary emotion that should guide people’s lives. Fear can prevent us from making mistakes, and it can also prevent us from learning from experience. Fear can guide our decision making to play it safe, yet without risk how would we ever grow? Fear inhibits our emotions, but at the detriment of letting others know us better as people.

If you elect to avoid blogging, it does not mean that you are any less open to sharing your expertise and ideas with others. Maybe you have a group of educators that meets regularly and collaborates openly about your work. Yet it is unfortunate that others cannot reap the knowledge you have to share. Our world would be a smarter one. Just as important is that your students do not get to see digital citizenship in action. Students emulate what we model as adults, even if they won’t admit it.

So I ask – why not put yourself out there?

 

 

Why I Write

photo-1455390582262-044cdead277aRight now I am reading A Writer’s Guide to Persistence: How to Create a Lasting and Productive Writing Practice by Jordan Rosenfeld. It was given to me by Brenda Power, editor of Choice Literacy and Lead Literacy, of which I am a contributor. On page 14, Rosenfeld encourages the reader to journal about their top five reasons to write. Here is what I came up with:

1. To get my ideas down and out of my head.

I am almost always thinking about education. Unless I put these thoughts down on paper or on my computer, they tend to fester in my mind, never leaving me alone. Writing is a release for me. I can better go about my day once I have placed these ideas elsewhere. I can come back to them another time, especially if I decide to take that writing to the publishing stage.

2. To find out what lies beneath the surface.

I cannot remember where I read it, in a book about writing I am sure, but often when we start a piece we are merely “clearing our throat”. In other words, our initial attempts at prose are often stumbles and steps toward what we are really trying to say. Writing allows me to mine my thoughts and experiences and discover what is under all of the layers of our consciousness. Tom Romano, in his book Write What Matters: For Yourself, For Others, calls it writing “ourselves into insight” (34).

3. To share my questions and findings with others.

I think all educators have an obligation to share what we know and what are wondering. This can be done in a variety of ways. I prefer writing about it. What I share has a permanent place in the world, where others can come back to it, ask questions of their own, and share their experiences that might confirm or contradict what I believe. Everyone becomes smarter in the process.

4. To add value to my profession and my life

When I say “value”, I don’t necessarily mean money (although getting paid to write is a pretty sweet deal). By value, I mean the worth it provides to what I do as an educator. By writing, especially online, I become more of an expert in others’ eyes. I make connections with others pursing similar inquiries, which also adds value for both them and me. In addition, taking a piece of writing from start to finish is a pleasure that has few equals.

5. To bring different parts together to make a meaningful whole

It is impossible to make sense of every piece of information out there, especially in today’s connected world. The best we can do is to take a few different bits of knowledge, connect them together through the craft of writing, and then share our work with others. Writing is the best way I know to synthesize what I read, watch, and hear.

Why do you write? What are the reasons behind your work? Please share in the comments.