Category Archives: artofteaching

Robots robots robots

20140708_081720If you were a 12 year old with a techie bent, and someone offered you the chance to spend 3 weeks of the summer at a camp where you got to build and program robots pretty much all day, what would you say?

If you’re like the 14 students I have at just such a camp, you’d probably say, “Well, all right!” We are now in week two of Introduction to Robotics at a camp run by the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (known colloquially as just CTY). This is my 8th rodeo, and I can tell you from the instructor’s perspective, it’s intense and intensive. We move fast.

I have three of my mantras on the board. The first two are standard. “Hard fun” is my mantra from my hero Seymour Papert, and I guarantee every student will have some of this. I don’t know where the second one came from (“Fail early, fail often”), but it’s a good way to set expectations. Students at this camp are bright (that’s where the “talented” comes in), and are often the top students in their respective classes. They are used to achieving academic success as defined by most schools. They are not used to failing: having their robots fall apart, not do what they wanted them to do, lose a race, or get pushed out of the sumobot ring. But that failure is an important part of the course, and life itself, of course. As Thomas Edison said “I didn’t fail, I just found 10,000 ways it wouldn’t work.”

The third is an acronym. HOLEF stands for “Hands Off Legos, Eyes Front”. It’s my magical word for focusing attention on something everyone needs to hear or see.

How many slaves work for you?

If you haven’t seen the Slavery Footprint site (, you should. I had my 7th graders to this survey, as we started our unit on the causes of the Civil War. Slavery seems like such a distant concept to most of us. This site surveys your consumption of various goods, how big your house is, etc., and then tabulates how many slaves work in the production chain of your stuff. Selected responses from my students follow:

I was very surprised that so many slaves worked for me. To be honest I though that there were no more slaves, I knew there were bad work situations, but I didn’t think there were slaves. Overall I thought that it was very very shocking.

Ahhhhhhh! That’s crazy! I am mad at slave owners!

I was glad that I didn’t have to much technology.  But when I thought about it I felt a little bad about it, but then when I went to school I wanted to be the one with the most slaves.  I feel like that’s how people felt like would you rather impress your friends or be left out and have no slaves!!!

I had 41 slaves working for me. This kind of scared me to know that there were that many slaves for each person in the world. That is a lot of slaves. The product that most effected me having so many slaves was that I had towls and a bedroom. It said that towels were woven by hand.

I had 49 slaves working for me. I thought this was really surprising because in the amendments it’s says that slavery has been abolished but..there’s still slavery.

I was very surprised and upset that 94 slaves worked for me. I didn’t realize how bad slavery was, even now, in 2013.

I think that it is saddening that there is still slavery in the world most of which we didn’t know about. The way to avoid this is hard because they make the things that make life easier.

I was surprised. I was surprised because that is a lot of people that are suffering because we have a couple thing from different places.

I am amazed that there are that many slaves working for me.  Up until yesterday I thought that I had nothing to do with slaves.  Despite hating slavery I technically own 37 slaves.

I had 53 slaves and I thought that was very sad because I don’t like slavery but in fact I’m supporting it. It’s really interesting that buying things from regular stores here is still associated with slavery.


Escaping the Echo Chamber…chamber….chamber…

It just feels like it’s time. I’ve been in edtech for over 15 years now. I applaud the efforts of those who are trying to reform the educational system and make it reflect the modern world. But truthfully, I yearn to do something more than retweet what others are saying. And a lot of what goes around is simply that. I hear very few contrarian voices (maybe Gary Stager is the most prominent exception). There’s an awful lot of preaching to the choir.

So I’m pruning my Twitter feeds,  my RSS feeds, my Zite reading, and concentrating on actual learning projects that are  jazzing me. At this point, I’m looking at the Arduino, the Raspberry Pi, webmaking, and robotics. The common thread is that all of these are about doing something. I’d rather move into Mad Scientist Mode and see what students are coming along for the ride. My experience has been that nothing gains student involvement like passion, and they can inherit some of that passion from other passionate people, like their teachers.

Who’s with me?
echo chamber 7

From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom


Subtitle = “Hopeful Essays for 21st Century Learning”

We ordered this after seeing Prensky last week. I’m very interested in reading this and hope to respond here. Thoughts in process…

I love this paragraph from the introduction: “To the disappointment of some (and the delight of many),  the vision I have is not just about technology in education. In fact, it is not even just a vision of better education. My vision is one of better people, better equipped to face the challenges of the world they will live in — that is, a world far different than yesterday’s or even today’s. Technology has an important place in that vision, because it has an important place in our future. But it does not dominate the vision; rather it supports it. As one of my student panelists put it brilliantly, ‘We see technology as a foundation. It underlies everything we do.’ In the end, I am far more interested in creating important, useful learning and life opportunities for our students than I am in promoting any educational technology.”

The more I teach, and the more I work in ed tech, the more convinced I am that Prensky is correct here. First, that the world has changed. Much of education has not caught up and in fact, seems determined to follow a course based on 19th rather than 21st century realities. Second, what we call “technology” is simply part of life to our students, the way TV is to us. We don’t have deep, meaningful discussions about television qua television. We discuss individual shows, but the medium is transparent. Kind of like the air we breathe. “Technology” is like the air our students breathe, and as long as we fear it, try to manage it, treat it as something “other”, we’re perpetuating the disconnect between our educational systems and the realities our students inhabit.

prensky book

Digital Learning with Marc Prensky

I spent yesterday at a full day conference put on by ADVIS featuring Marc Prensky. I’ve been reading his stuff for years but had never heard him. It was a very thought-provoking day. And I mean that in the best way possible. In fact, it provoked so many thoughts that I will probably be writing about it off and on for a while.

So here’s the first. He said we live in an era of VUCA — Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. End result = Chaos. Then factor in accelerating change, which is more than rapid change. The speed of change isn’t just fast, it’s getting faster.  I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t “get” this. The question for us as educators is, “What now?” How do we prepare our students for their future?

The second point he made that struck me was that, because of modern technology, we now have augmented intelligence, or as he called it, an “extended brain”. We have at our fingertips a world of knowledge, and it’s getting easier and easier to access (thanks, Siri!). So what does this mean for education? He seemed to feel that everything is now up for reconsideration. I’m not so sure. But it is time (past time, really) to start having these conversations as educators.

Dinosaurs still roam the earth…

… though as you can see, they are a lot smaller than they used to be.

This T-Rex was custom-made for me by a student today. She asked me in class what my favorite animal was. “Tyrannosaurus Rex”, of course! She made this T-Rex out of eraser material and then placed him in T-Rex Land.

As I told my students, I’ve been teaching a long time. And every time I think I’ve seen or heard it all, I get surprised. Again.

Thanks, Jenna!

Three things I learned in colonial Williamsburg

Last week, the 7th grade made its annual 3-day trek to Jamestown and colonial Williamsburg. As a 7th grade advisor, I get to go for free. There is the small matter of supervising 24/7, but hey… I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.

Here are the top three things I learned, in no particular order:

1. Our kids are awesome. I actually had a tour guide come up to me and shake my hand, saying “You’ve done a fantastic job with these kids. They are polite, respectful, and engaged”. It was kind of embarrassing, since I know I can’t claim sole credit! But unsolicited compliments like that from people who work every day with school groups is nice.

2. There is such a thing as a sugar high. I saw it in action. Normally normal 7th-graders were transformed before our eyes into crack  sugar addicts, thanks to the candy store in Merchant Square, and the cotton candy machine at the Golden Corral. Yow! Maybe a little bit of sugar in the diet would help lessen the effect of forbidden fruit.

3. Slavery doesn’t get mentioned much. Colonial Williamsburg is sometimes referred to as Colonial Disneyland for Adults, a land where everything is awesome and nothing unpleasant intrudes. I know they are working on correcting this, but I saw very little evidence of that in our tour. My eye-opening moment came a couple of years ago when I learned that the population of Williamsburg in 1774 was about 50% slave. Half the population wasn’t represented much.

Having said that, it’s always a great trip, and the students learned so much that that surely beats reading it out of a book.

Class Constitution #2

We the people of Mr. Irving’s class, in order to form a more perfect History class, establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility to ourselves and Mr. Irving to ordain, and establish this Constitution, the United Students of Mr. Irving’s B Block History class. These are our rules:

Everyone has a right to opinion and a vote

If Mr. Irving becomes destructive of these ends, we may complain to him and ask him to make changes to make our History class more enjoyable for the community at large

You can’t insult people or be annoying to them purposefully

Thou may not speak profanities

Mr. Irving chooses our tables and they must change once a month

Plagiarism and copying is illegal

Mr. Irving has the responsibility to foreshadow tests and put homework on Moodle and hand out study guides before the test

All devices shall be used for educational purposes only.

Every month, around the time when we get to change seats, we will be able to have a meeting to decide what rules need to be altered or changed. (This meeting can take a maximum of 1 class period).

If anyone does not follow these laws, Mr. Irving decides their consequence.

Why I still love teaching

I put the video below for several reasons. First, it’s Ted Greene, an amazing guitarist who is no longer with us. Second, he’s playing one of the loveliest melodies ever written. Third, he’s playing a telecaster (I own three)!

Even though Ted was basically a jazz guitarist, and that’s not my style, I can appreciate his artistry and skill. The truth is I’ll never be able to play a tenth as well as him.

But what really caught my eye was reading about his life here on his website. Even though he was an amazing guitarist, he devoted his life to teaching and sharing his knowledge. He had a stream of students, from rank beginners to accomplished jazzbos visiting him in his apartment. If you watch a video of one of his lessons, you can see the excitement he has in the material itself and the joy of trying to get it across to someone.

Which made me think about my career. And that joy is what keeps me going. I love teaching. All kinds of things. At this stage of my career, many teachers have moved into administration, or become consultants, or just retired. But I still love the classroom. It’s not too glamorous, but I’m happy to have an opportunity to affect lives by sharing my enthusiasm.

And now enjoy Ted Greene: