Play to Learn and Learning2 Play

The future of education is going to be interesting to see. What will be happening inside and outside of classroom walls? Will there be a classroom? Will we have interesting learning spaces both real and virtual?

One thing is certain. It is changing. Not fast enough for some. Too fast for others. The gap between how my parents were taught, I was taught, and my children have been taught is dramatic. But, is education changing in a way that will allow humanity to meet the challenges of the 21st century and beyond? Will we teach and learn in a way that allows and encourages people to solve major systemic problems?

I was thinking about all of these things as I prepared to go to the Learning2 conference for teachers in Warsaw Poland last week. My mind was troubled by world events but my heart was open. What would I find at this conference that I could allow into my heart and that might illuminate my mind?

The first part of the journey was a journey. I flew from Accra, Ghana and sweltering tropical heat into the cool post winter of Warsaw, Poland. No need for AC! How good it feels to wear a pair of jeans and a jacket. Ahh refreshing!

It is kind of silly to have a pre-conference at a conference but that is what Learning2 has. It should probably come up with a different name like Learn2Lab or Ignition or Shazam or something that makes it seem important because it has been the best part of the conference 2 years in a row now. (Learning 2 Africa last year had a fabulous PreCon) I spent the Pre-conference with Mark Shillitoe and Sarah Woods in Maker Your own Learning in an exploratory maker space in the library. They had cobbled together, in the best possible sense, activities that allowed for exploration, creativity, social exchange, and learning. My time was spent productively and unproductively. I had fun stenciling boxes and getting a bit dirty, I made electrical circuits to “Hack” my conference badge with blinky LED’s and small batteries. I goofed off with circuits making strange sounds that sometimes were musical. I socialized and talked to other teachers about their journey, real and cognitive, to this place. Yes!

The next 2 days of the conference were filled with highs and lows that one might expect at any conference. As I continued throughout the conference I was encouraged and comforted by the fact that I was among teachers in my profession who were trying to improve and modify and adjust their teaching in ways that would create more opportunities for students to make sense of the world that they live in.

Side conversations during UnConference sessions were rich times for exchanging ideas and sharing resources. These became almost like tribal gatherings around the fire. A time to honor and hold the work we were doing together for a higher reason other than that is was our job. We were keepers of the flame.

The main session by Elizabeth Perry that I took the most away from was In Play: Tinkering to Learn in the Secondary Classroom. Play. Could play be the best way for students to learn? Could it be that creating and allowing time for play would give students a chance to synthesize and make sense of the work that they were doing in the classroom? The thesis of this session was that yes, it was exactly what allowed people to lay the foundation for learning. Play is good pedagogy. Making sure the content and the pedagogy work together to construct real learning is the artistic and scientific challenge called teaching. Play with a purpose is a way to align it all and make it happen.

I left this session with much to think about. It has been my own sense in the classroom (and outside of it) that the more play comes into the learning the more students learn. The Pre-Con with Mark and Sarah reinforced this for me as well. The more we can create the environment to play the more we have learning that lasts.

As we came to the end of the conference I had a chance to go to a session in the American School of Warsaw design classrooms with Adam Campbell, School Maker Faires and Everything you need to know to host one. Adam the teacher presenting is going to be putting on a School Maker Faire in Warsaw next week. He walked us through his work and experience in Tunis and Warsaw planning and organizing the School Maker Faire. There is a wonderful sense of learning and play in the Maker Faire that showcases the problem solvers who will be able to solve the problems that need solving and an openness to sharing the learning with all comers. Open source learning.

It is a big event to plan but also one that could leverage all of the learning of play and the play of learning that I am now so interested in. The idea has been planted and some care and watering will be required but this might be the event that comes to highlight the thinkers, inventors, tinkerers, and makers in our community in Accra.

Wrapping up the Learning2 Conference in Warsaw I had a great sense of new possibility. I also had a new sense of community. I am headed back to my school and community in Accra where I hope to implement the things I am learning and play! I know also that once I am back it will be a challenge to make changes and make things happen. All of the other responsibilities pile up. Working through them is key.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to be part of the Learning 2 community of learners, teachers, tinkerers, makers, players. They are an inspiration.


A Way Forward

The election is over. It was one that many in the international community here in Accra, Ghana increasingly thought would go to Hillary Clinton. Most people, including my students who come from may different backgrounds, thought there was no way the United States would elect Donald Trump. How could they? Surely, Trump was acting the part of entertainer and not politician. The polls seemed to confirm this viewpoint.

We were all shocked. My students who have just been studying values and thinking about their own values were asking “What do Americans value?” “What are American values?” As there teacher I was left scratching my head. I am not sure anymore what our values are. Maybe values lost this election. Students were pretty sure they had different values than Americans.

The international students in my classroom are from all over the world, Africa, Asia, North and South America, Australia, and Europe. Many of them have spent there young lives as immigrants. They have moved multiple times to different countries before the age of 12. Each time they move they have to find out where they fit in their new community. They are not sure now if they would fit in in the United States. They would all love to go to a college or university in the United States but they would be immigrants of different colors and religions. They paid attention to the election and they heard loud and clear that immigrants are not welcome. Where will they go for College or University?

Students looked to me to explain what happened. How could this have happened? I thought about all of the technical things to say about polls, data, geography, policies etc. but I really had no good answer for them. What I told them was that people did not make their decision based on information. They made an emotional decision. It did not matter who had the most experience, ideas, best policies, or leadership. Base instinct had more to do with the outcome than rational thought. Many intelligent people made a decision with their gut.

I asked my students what they thought should happen now. They all looked at each other and wondered, lost for an answer. I suggested that they do more of what they already do well. International students are quick to make new friends, to reach out to others, to open themselves to others, to welcome a newcomer. Finally, if they want to see a different world with different people in power they are going to have to make sure their voice is heard at the ballot box and elsewhere. They are going to have to get to work.

I am not sure that I was much comfort to my students but they left the room a bit quieter than they had entered. There are so many things I wanted to say but I am struggling to find the right things to say.


Risk Taking and Out of Eden

I am starting my third year teaching in Ghana and I have taught elsewhere.  I have observed that teachers are not inclined to take risks. We spend our time doing what we do best, direct instruction in our topic areas, and we don’t like distractions. The problem is we are often scared to take students to a place that is out of our comfort zone. New content? Scary. New style? Scary. New anything? Scary.

Part of the fear is that we will lose students along the way or they will revolt. Part of it is feeling like we do not have permission to try new things. Part of it is just straight up fear of failure.

My own experience with taking a risk last year had all of these aspects of fear. Would the students join me? Did I have permission from my school to try something different? And, could I succeed at something I did not initially understand.

It was in this frame of mind that I began working with students in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Project Zero initiative Out of Eden Learn. It was a big unknown for me. I decided to go for it. What is the worst that could happen?

Happily things went really well. Students enjoyed documenting everyday activities in Ghana. They made maps of their neighborhoods, interviewed local residents, documented important places in their neighborhoods with photos, and made short videos documenting one aspect of life in Ghana that was interesting to them. Finally, all of their work was shared with other students participating in Out of Eden from all over the world through the OOEL website. Students interacted in a social media environment that encouraged observing and questioning. This was a full and rich experience.

All of the work that they created was authentic, real, and valuable. They contributed to global knowledge and understanding of the world. In recognition, and in honor, of the work that student created some of their work will be shown in the exhibit _uncovering-the-everyday_ at the Harvard Graduate School of Education Gutman Library in October. This is an amazing way to show the human journey students have documented.

It turns out that if teachers are unwilling to take risks and try new things we are short changing our students. We can achieve more and deepen learning for students if we are willing to take a few risks now and then.

Scratch Making it Fly

This week was a good week. Design students submitted their first summative assignments and they went well. It was great to see them demonstrating their new skills. When we began our work in Scratch students found it a bit frustrating. Commands and sequencing of commands were not easy to figure out. Little by little though they have put the basic skills together to program using Scratch. All students have acquired a basic proficiency with this coding environment.

Next week we will come back and evaluate our work together. I look forward to helping students reflect on where they started from and where they are now. Amazing growth!

Think Like a Designer but Play and Explore too!

This week we have had time to play, investigate, poke, prod, and experiment. Students set up accounts on Scratch and then started to look at all of the options. Hey! You can make games with Scratch! Stories! Animations! Cool!

Scratch is a project of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. It is a programming language and an online learning community where students can explore the world of code. They learn to think creatively and systematically. Plus, they can share their work online and join in the community of Scratch-ers all over the world.

I set up “play” time as part of our MYP Design Criterion A investigation of Scratch. I required students to look at each of the different types of products that could be created in Scratch, animations, art, games, music, and stories. They were required to also use the “see inside” button to expose the code. My goal was for them to experience the general environment and ecosystem of Scratch but also make connections with the work that they have already done in Turtle Art. See! If you can do Turtle Art you can do Scratch too!

I had no other requirements but within 10-15 minutes most of the students independently started to create their own games and stories. This was not part of the assignment! What to do when your assignment is open and goes a bit sideways on you? Hmmm… I chose to let things develop and let go of my expectations. The drive to make, create, construct was taking over and I observed that it was a natural extension of play and exploration.

The next class I asked students to write in their process journals about their time playing and exploring in Scratch. Almost all of the students said that it was fun. Even my concrete sequential students who always want step by step instructions said this. The other thing that showed up in their process journals was the expectation and excitement that they were going to get to make a game or story too.

Then I introduced the Design Cycle, Criterion A: Investigate and Analyze. I watched all of their expectation and excitement drain away. My students were willing to follow my task as designed and answer the questions that I assigned them. They dutifully tackled the work and asked me clarifying questions but there was no joy. It was just work to them. As a teacher I almost felt guilty.

At the end of the day I had mixed feelings about my design cycle assignment. I could not help feeling like I had broken a natural process.   I also felt that slowing down the process and making students think like a designer, architect, engineer or other maker had benefits. Down the road will I see the benefits of both approaches?

As a teacher I am trying to find the path where students are creating and making in Design class and being able to understand how to develop and improve their work using information and thinking processes that I structure as a teacher. I have not found the right balance yet.

Students Learn Coding with TurtleArt

The past week has been a fruitful one. Students were engaged in some interesting and fun work that was challenging. It was not clear when students started if they would be successful or enjoy their assigned task which was to learn the basics of coding using Turtle Art. I had a feeling that it was the right way to begin teaching coding but I had some doughts about how receptive students would be to using the program. This is my first year teaching MYP Design. I am trying things I have never tried before with informed and educated risk-taking. So far so good!

The first lesson was a non-lesson. I told students that they had one class to figure out how to write their names using Turtle Art with no input from me other than a little trouble shooting along the way. Constructivism has different forms and teachers approach the constructivist model with varying degrees of support. The risk I took was that I would lose a class period if students could not figure it out and then I would need to deliver a full How To lesson the following period. I was after the early failure. Fail early, fail often, and learn. As it turned out students were mostly successful, at least with some letters of their names. NameCode

This of course was a pleasant surprise but it also set us on a path to do even more complex and complicated designs and patterns.

The following class we started with a reflection on what was learned from the process and experience of figuring out how to write a name with computer graphics coding (Turtle). Some students were excited and they said “I figured it out by myself” and “I made mistakes that were cool”. Other student reactions were mostly positive but some were not. Some students were troubled that I did not show them how to do it and give them directions. Fair enough.

At the end of this reflection I gave students examples of complex patterns from the Turtle Art website that also contained coding. My thought was that they were forced to figure out the basics of Turtle Art without instruction. From this experience they knew how the pieces fit together and how the basic functions worked so they were ready to look at more complex sets of code. I spent some time looking at the specific menus, commands, and functions with the class. I also made my own pattern in front of students to give them an exemplar of what I was looking for. The students who wanted demonstration and instructions started making connections.

The next class I gave students the assignment to Make 3 complex patterns by the end of class. I encouraged students to talk to one another and show each other their work as it developed. I did not allow them to copy or use any code that they did not understand. Again students were more successful than I expected. Students seemed to accelerate their productivity as they became more comfortable with the code.

From this experience I learned that students really can take charge of their own learning when we set them up for success. For many students this is the richest model of learning and they can really flourish. I also know that I need to make sure that I am offering opportunities and challenges to students of all learning styles and dispositions. Overall I am happy with the results below and the process used.LOLOLOL 1Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 9.43.33 AM SPIDERS-Nyla

A Full Week of School

Open House was this week and I really enjoyed it. It was great to reconnect with parents I have known for a few years and meet new ones. The energy was fantastic. Happy! We can begin the real work now.

I am teaching a humanities class that I have taught before but most of my time this year is focused on starting the IB MYP Design program at Lincoln Community School. Together, with one other colleague we are putting in place the pieces of what I hope will be a strong, resilient, and relevant program for learning.

This week we have introduced the basic principles of computer programing. We began by “Coding the Cup Stack”. Students worked with partners. One student was the coder, and the other was the robotic arm. Students wrote code using a few simple rules and arrows and the “robots” followed the pattern. It worked pretty well. It was simple yet different. Of course students could just stack cups but could they identify the coding, or pattern in what they were doing? By the end of class all the students had figured out the patterns and how to adjust their code for different patterns. The best part of this class was that students said “That was fun”. Grasping a concept and having fun is possible!

Students began the next class using a simple program called Turtle Art. This program lets students drag and drop bits of code onto a screen to make different graphical designs and patterns. The students first task was to use the block code to write their names. This was easier said than done. I assisted in getting students started and monitored progress. Students completed the task by the end of class and made many mistakes along the way. The fun part was that students kept some of the code that resulted in mistakes because they liked the design effect. It felt like a successful exercise when students started to say that they understood how the cup coding we had done in the previous class was similar. Making coded patterns was the same. Next class they will get to put those to use to make more complicated images.

There were successes and failures for me this week as a teacher. I felt like all of the learning objectives were met but of course students had all kinds of technical issues once we started working with computers and software.We spent to much time getting things to run properly. I had to split my time between giving students who were ready the learning task and then working with the students who were not ready with their computer that would not open the file etc. I do not like working that way and it is frustrating for the students. In some cases I had to pair students up because we just could not get it to work on a particular machine. Not ideal.

In the end I think we are moving forward in a direction that is appropriate and exciting for our students. They are learning new skills and being exposed to new ways of thinking. It is really exciting to see what is happening.

The First Days

ProfileThe start to the new school year has been filled with good energy. We are all excited! I know most of the returning students and I already have a base of experience with my students and families. The greetings are warm and the anticipation of good things to come is high.

I enjoy teaching, but at the end of the year last year (and every year) I was tired in May. My students were tired. We were all ready for a good long break. The summer could not come soon enough. It was interesting to me that after two weeks of break I was already thinking about my students and my classroom again (a little). By the end of the summer, I was itching to get back into the classroom. There was a clear cycle of rest, rejuvenation, and reset for the new school year.

I gather that my students went through the same process. On the first day I watched the hugs, and giddy laughter, exchange of surprised looks at the new haircuts, clothes, and physical growth. (What do these kids eat during the summer? My… how you have grown!)

The first minutes and hours working with my students was filled with laughter, silliness, and serious expectation, for the school year ahead. We kept it light and fun but they know what to expect in the coming weeks and months. They seem ready.

The goodwill and generosity of spirit at Lincoln Community School is as high this year as I have ever seen it anywhere. I wish our world leaders could see these early days and could watch how the community bonds around our mission to educate these students. I think they would be filled will the same goodwill and generosity of spirit that we are.

It is good to begin a year on a high note filled with hope. I can’t wait to see what we can accomplish this year!



Social Media Epidemic?


I found your post on Twitter to be provocative. It is a loaded question full of bias isn’t it? If you are a social scientist or a journalist it requires some deconstruction.

First, our environment is full of many stimuli and other factors that influence who we are and how we behave. Social media is only one factor, and as such, should not be given more weight than other factors or stimuli. The same is true of books.

Second, Epidemic: a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time. Or, a sudden, widespread occurrence of an undesirable phenomenon. – according to the world wide web.

As an educator and parent I sometimes experience “undesirable phenomenon” in my relationships with my students and my children related to their use of social media however I still do not think the influence of social media is greater or more important than other factors. It annoys me when they leave their bags in the middle of the floor for people to trip over! Truly an epidemic! Someone should teach these kids some basic organization skills! At my current school I could say there is an epidemic of poor writing. Poor writing is an undesirable phenomenon. I spend quite a bit of time trying to “cure” or treat poor writing.

So the question becomes – How do I deal with undesirable phenomenon as a teacher and parent?

The first requirement is to observe. We need to be observant of the environment and culture that we are in. What is it like in the global, regional, and local? We also need to recognize that culture is dynamic and always changing.

Once we have made our observations, as teachers, as schools, as parents we need evaluate our findings. What is happening? Where is it going?

Then, whats the plan? Are we going to embrace these changes or are we going to fight them? Are we going to leverage them to our benefit or stifle them for our benefit?

As a teacher and parent I worry much more about all of the age old concerns about young people. Are they eating, sleeping, getting exercise? Are their families involved in their lives. Do they have the support they need? Are they being kind to one another? Is any of their behavior dangerous (cry for help)?

Now back to the question. Social media is allowing students an ease of communication that past generations never had but would have embraced if they did have it I think. So what we have is increased/enhanced communication. Overall, I think this is a positive for students as it allows them to interact with their peer groups and pursue their interests in a way that was impossible for past generations. Young people are not as isolated.

As a teacher I need to manage class time and student activity that results in learning. For the most part I do a good job with this. Does Skype chat sometimes pop up on my students computers? Yes. I need to manage this. Usually, I just need to ask to student to focus on the work at hand. Thats it. Problem over. Just like any other potential problem.

It is clear to me though that we have clear divides in our schools today. We have teachers who are changing with the times and we have teachers that are not. The ones who are not are having the hardest time managing social media, media in general, computer use, and access to information outside the classroom. I feel bad for them. I am sure technology feels like an illness to them. It feels like an undesirable phenomenon. But, that really is the teachers problem, not the students.

I have always enjoyed the work of Dr. Michael Wesch and find his insight on technology and culture to be informative in understanding what is going on with our changing culture and technology.

Dubbed “the prophet of an education revolution” by the Kansas City Star and “the explainer” by Wired Magazine, Wesch is a recipient of the highly coveted “US Professor of the Year”

I hope I have lent something to the discussion you hoped to have!