Managing the firehose

Here’s a screenshot of my browser right now with annotations. Click to make it bigger:



I get information from lots of places.  Some of the information are cool things I might want to do–like write a paper, apply for a grant, try something in class, etc. Some is stuff I want to write about.  Some is stuff I need or want to send to someone else.  My strategy has been to just leave the tab open.  But then, sometimes Chrome crashes or my computer crashes and bam, all that stuff is gone.

I had been using the handy-dandy “save for later” feature in Feedly and then using IFTTT to save it here as a draft, but that’s not proving very effective.  And there’s no way to tell it why I’m saving it. And if I find something somewhere else, like Facebook or Twitter, I’m struggling to save those appropriately, too.  And I’ve tried to use Evernote effectively.  What I miss is old  It worked so well.  Sigh.  I need to rethink this.  Anyone have ideas?


Thursday and Friday I was at NAIS (the National Association of Independent Schools) conference. This was only my second time at this conference, both times I’ve presented.  I drove with my colleagues about 6 hours there and back.  It was actually great to have them in the car with me.  We talked about everything.  We talked shop, families, politics.  It was great.

The theme of the of the conference was the  Design Revolution, so there were lots of sessions related to change, making, design thinking, all things right up my alley.  I went to two Design Thinking sessions.  I have been hearing about and reading about Design thinking for a while.  I think I first heard about it at educon a few years ago.  Two of my colleagues went to the Design Thinking Institute in California last year, and so I’ve heard a lot about it from them.  I also use a similar approach in many of my classes.  It’s not a new idea really, but applying it to education is new-ish.  It’s a really intriguing approach and the goal of it is to arrive at creative and solid solutions to problems.  I’m looking forward to using this approach in other areas.

The opening general session was by John Maeda, former president of RISD and former MIT Media Lab member.  I saw him at MakerFaire two years ago, and loved his presentation.  This one was also awesome.  It was a version of this talk:

I’m a creative person.  I got into this whole tech thing via creative writing and then web design.  I’m not so great at visual design the way Maeda is, but I think creatively.  And on the tech side, I like solving puzzles and making connections.  So I love the way Maeda connected design and creativity to leadership.  Having been in a few leadership roles, I often struggle with how to lead.  I’m not particularly authoritarian.  I like hearing ideas from others, and this approach didn’t seem to fit with what a traditional leader is supposed to be.  But Maeda is no traditional leader, and he made it clear that creative people can and do make good leaders; they just do it differently.  That was refreshing to hear.  He has a whole book, Creative Leadership, about it, which yes, I’ve purchased and will be reading.  My colleagues and I talked about Maeda’s talk over and over again throughout the conference.  It was a great way to begin.

I also hopped over to Harvard to see an old high school friend whom I haven’t seen in 25 years.  He’s a CS professor, so we got to talk shop and talk about our childhoods.  Bonus.  It was such a fun thing to do, and it was frankly, one of the highlights of the whole trip.  It was just nice to see an old friend, get out of the hotel for a bit, and pick someone’s brain who’s really smart.  I love intelligent conversation.

And I met up with an old friend from another Independent School, which was really fun.  We haven’t seen each other since our college English teaching days when we were both at a higher ed conference. So that was fun to be in our new context and talk about how things were going.  Back when I was first considering making the leap to Independent School teaching from higher ed, she was really helpful in shaping my resume and giving me advice.  It was truly great to catch up.

The presentation I gave, with 4 of my colleagues, toward the end of the conference, had about 100 or so attendees, so very good.  I opened the first 5 minutes and then turned it over to my two department members who do the meat of the work.  I think I’m about to become that person, the mentor/leader, who helps their younger colleagues with their careers and connects their younger colleagues to others.  I’ve been doing that for students for years, but I’m old enough and experienced enough now that I’m starting to be able to do it for colleagues, which, let me tell you, feels really weird.

So, I got inspired by a lot of the conversations, both those related to the conference presentation and just with friends.  I feel like I’m ready to tackle my work again on Monday with new vigor and new ideas.  And that is awesome!!

Why I love conferences

I’m an avid conference goer.  Ever since my first conference presentation almost 25 years ago, I’ve loved attending conferences and learning more about my field.  Conferences are not just about the actual presentations.  They are also about the conversations around those presentations in the hallways, over drinks and dinner, and on car rides home.  I often use conferences as opportunities to see people I haven’t seen in a long time who are attending the conference or who live nearby, which spawns other great conversations.

I find conferences tend to reinvigorate me and recommit me to my work, because they bring me back to why I do what I do in the first place.  Presentations at conferences are often showcase the good things that are happening–in the classroom, at a school, within a field–and so there’s always an inspirational and aspirational aspect to them.  You either think, “Okay, someone else is able to do that, so can I.  Maybe we’ll try it when we get home.” Or you think, “We’re already doing that. Yay us!”

It’s also great to hear from people who have different perspectives. It allows you to see things from a different point of you, which maybe helps you solve a problem that’s gotten really thorny.  But now that you see it differently, you have a way to approach it and maybe solve it.

And if you’re lucky enough to be with colleagues, you get to spend some quality time with them.  You find out about their families, their first jobs, the foods they like and don’t like.  You round out your view of them, which is always a good thing.  And usually, you find out that you work with some amazing people and that you are looking forward to going back to work with them on Monday.

I got all of that out of NAIS this week, and I will write more about the specifics in a later post, but I just wanted to put a plug in for getting out of your bubble, getting some inspiration, and connecting with others for a couple of days.

Y’all still here?

I find it supremely ironic that my last post was about bloggers quitting, and then I disappeared.  Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere!  I think I’m officially overcommitted at the moment. Somehow, I’m keeping it together, but just barely.  We’ve had snow and cold and I got a round of the flu.  I haven’t been sick in years and I was completely knocked flat.  I literally slept for 3 days.  It was awful.  I’m just now starting to catch up, but then I’m off to a conference next week, so I will inevitably fall a bit behind again.  My colleagues and I are still working on our presentation.  Oh, and there’s teaching still! I started a new class second semester.  Thanks to the snow day earlier this week, I’m now significantly ahead of my students.  They will start projects in a couple of weeks, and I plan to work alongside them.

In CS I, I’m trying to cut the apron strings a bit and get the students to do a little troubleshooting on their own.  I’m now requiring them to write their questions on the board, so a list of questions piles up.  Sometimes they figure out the solutions just through the process of phrasing the question.  And often, similar questions will come up, and we’ll pause and I’ll explain something to the whole class.  It’s getting there, but there’s still a little too much reliance on answers from me.  Maybe by the final project!

In addition to teaching, I’m leading a committee through a redesign of the school website.  This has been a huge undertaking, and its nearing its conclusion.  When it’s done, I’ll let you all know.

Let me just say that spring break, and then summer, are going to be a huge relief!

When bloggers quit

So Andrew Sullivan, one of the most prolific and earliest bloggers, is going to hang up his keyboard.  I’ve seen many a blogger leave their blog, sometimes taking refuge in Twitter or Facebook, but Sullivan was a big one, one who made a blogging empire.  He was one of the bloggers us puny bloggers looked up to, aspired to be.

I was not a regular reader, but many of my regular readers were, so I often ended up reading his work.  He stuck with the political realm and as my online life shifted more into a focus on teaching, learning, and sometimes parenting, I didn’t feel the need to keep up.

Still, on a DVD somewhere, I have a clip of Sullivan talking on CNN about blogging, back when the moderator had to actually explain what a blog was.  The point of the conversation, which included Wonkette, now a sometime tv commentator, was that blogging didn’t have word limits the way newspapers and magazines do and that the distance between reader and writer was zero.  Readers were in conversation with writers and vice versa.

This whole new multi-way conversation was what made blogging so awesome.  Finally, we could talk back immediately rather than mailing a letter and waiting weeks to see if they were going to publish it.  The beginning of blogging was a big deal, and Andrew  was part of making it a big deal.  It’s changed the way we interact with information and for some of us, the way we write.

Blogging is still a thing.  There are lots of us still doing it, and just because a few people leave it doesn’t mean it’s dead.  There are still ham radio operators after all.

The Power to Speak

I began my Educon experience Saturday morning with first, a session on feminism and second, a session on race.   Those two conversations became a thread for me throughout the conference.  I kept talking to people about them, and I’m still talking about them today.

As someone who’s been teaching at all-women’s educational institutions for the last 12 years, and as a women, feminism is obviously very important to me.  It’s colored my life since I can remember, but I’m still striving to practice feminism well.  Things change constantly and feminism has evolved to meet the needs of modern women and others who find themselves oppressed by a patriarchal system.

But, damn, it’s hard, and it’s complicated.  One example came when I attended Chris Lehmann‘s session on distributed leadership.  It was a packed room, so I stood in the back, basically directly in Chris’s line of sight.  I found myself among mostly men in my smaller.  There were maybe 10 of us and only 3 of us were women.  But the room as a whole was fairly evening distributed.  Chris’s style is to set the foundation, then ask a question, have us discuss in small groups and then share more broadly.  At some point, Chris pointed out that he’d noticed mostly men were responding to his questions (yes, Chris attended the feminism session).  I then tweeted this:

And during the smaller group conversations that followed, Chris came over and said something like, “We point it out and we keep trying.”  Yes, yes, we do.

Later that evening, Chris and I talked about this again.  Chris made a huge effort to call on more women, even those that didn’t have their hands up.  And I made an effort to say more, and I think some other women did, too.  I explained how hard it was, even for me, someone who enjoys talking and generally isn’t afraid to speak in front of people, to speak out.  I just told him all the crazy things that go through my head, that I have to push out of my head, just to say something.  They include, but are not limited to:

  • If I say something, I’ll be talking too much (whether I’ve spoken at all or not)
  • What I’m thinking is stupid and if I say it out loud, people will be thinking how stupid it is, how stupid *I* am
  • What I have to say isn’t important
  • When I say something, I may pay for it in some way in the form of negative comments now or later
  • Judging, lots of judging

It sucks.  I relayed my conversation with Chris to someone else down the table who had been in both sessions.  He told me that right after Chris pointed out the issue, the guy next to him said, great, no white guys will talk now.  But, actually, this guy told me, the very next person to speak after a woman Chris called on was a white guy and then another white guy–because they don’t wait to be called on.

In the feminism session, we talked a little about how to shut down that dynamic in the classroom, but it’s clear that even among adults, this is a big problem.  Even among, I should say, a group of adults who generally are sensitive to these issues and who want to do the right thing.

What do we do? We sometimes do what Chris did, point it out, try to correct it.  We can’t put it all on women, but women should do their best to speak more.  Making it more normal can help.  And, of course, make the balance of men and women more equal.

And this is kind of the small stuff.  There’s equal pay and rape and all kinds of other things to deal with, but we have to start somewhere.

And if you want to read more about the speaking issue, here are some great articles, one as recent as two weeks ago.  So yeah, we’re still dealing with it.

Study on why women don’t speak up 

Why Women Stay Quiet at Work

Women Don’t talk more than Men 

Is Making Gendered?

I’m at EduCon today, skipping the opening keynote.  The thing I like about EduCon is that it always makes you think.  On the train ride in yesterday, I checked the Twitter stream fro the #educon hashtag and noticed a link to an article called “I Am Not a Maker”.  As a self-proclaimed maker myself, I had to see it.  I was expecting an argument about rejecting tech for say, meditation, walking in the wilderness or something along those lines.  I could handle that. Making isn’t for everyone, though I would argue it doesn’t have to be all about the tech.  Instead, it was an argument about making as a masculine domain, one that was fairly deliberately hiding the behind the scenes work of primarily women.

Of course making rises from our current culture; it’s not separate from it.  So that means it takes with it the racism, sexism, classism and other -isms inherent in our existing culture.  But claiming to be a maker does not mean that you’re advocating for some kind of return to a 1950s masculine-dominated mindset.  Chachra puts it this way:

Describing oneself as a maker—regardless of what one actually or mostly does—is a way of accruing to oneself the gendered, capitalist benefits of being a person who makes products.

I just don’t think that’s true.  First of all, I would say that makers are not interested in making products.  Most makers I know are interested in the process of making and what they learn from it, and empowering themselves not be beholden to the marketplace.  They want to make stuff for themselves that doesn’t exist in the market.  They want to fix the things they have so they don’t have to buy something.  So, I see makers as running counter to capitalism.  Now, I do think making has been somewhat commodified, but I think many makers are uncomfortable with that.

Just prior to the quote above, Chachra says this:

The cultural primacy of making, especially in tech culture—that it is intrinsically superior to not-making, to repair, analysis, and especially caregiving—is informed by the gendered history of who made things, and in particular, who made things that were shared with the world, not merely for hearth and home.

Making is not a rebel movement, scrappy individuals going up against the system. While the shift might be from the corporate to the individual (supported, mind, by a different set of companies selling a different set of things), it mostly re-inscribes familiar values, in slightly different form: that artifacts are important, and people are not.

Now, yes, I do think we should be critical of the world of making and to be thoughtful about how it does or does not reinscribe cultural norms.  And indeed, there are ways that it does, certainly if Make Magazine is your primary insight into this culture.  And, I think it’s important to have a conversation about that.  I teach Computer Science and I’m always having a conversation about the male domination of the field and how it got there and how it affects the tools we use every day.

And maybe because I’m approaching making from the angle of education, I think making is all about the people; it’s about using the maker process to engender a mindset that is resilient, independent, and thoughtful.   And I also don’t devalue caregiving and other “non-making” activities, but as an educator who teaches “making”, making has to happen in my classroom.  It’s just like a math teacher who might value English as a subject, but they’re not going to include much, if any, in their classes.  Education and learning is about having students be a little uncomfortable and try things they wouldn’t.  If my students leave my class and don’t become “makers”, I’m not only okay with that, I fully support it and often suggest careers and fields to my students that fall into the “non-making” category.  But I do hope that being a maker, or if people prefer, participating in the process of making, for a while in my class has some kind of impact.

I understand Chachra’s discomfort with the maker movement as a cultural phenomenon and especially the connections that have been made with Silicon Valley.  What I don’t understand is her complete rejection of it, instead of pushing for change within it.  Her field, engineering, is extremely skewed gender wise and maybe doesn’t have the hype of the maker movement, but certainly has issues, issues similar to CS.  It’soften unfriendly to females, certainly privileges certain kinds of work over others, and yet, she doesn’t reject it and say, I’m not doing that.  If female scientists had said that science was male-dominated and capitalist and unfriendly to women, so I’m not going to do it, we’d have no female scientists.

The maker movement deserves our critical eye, for sure, but it should be changed and not rejected.  Its focus can’t be on what makes white middle aged men happy–robots, cool gadgets, cars–but we need to point out when this is happening and correct it.  Fix it from within, I say.

Productivity goes to 11

We’re in the middle of exams.  Mine was on Friday, then we had the long weekend, which I spent celebrating a friend’s 50th birthday, which is to say no work was done over the weekend.  Because of exams, I have no classes until 12:30, my one middle school class.  So, I have hours of rare free time ahead of me.  Yesterday, I situated myself in the faculty lounge, set a timer, and started grading.  Then I shifted gears to working on the new school website, then back to grading, etc.  I had lunch, went to my class, met with the 1:1 director, met with one of my department members, did some more grading, went home, worked on the web site, ordered pizza, worked on the web site, answered email.  Broke for an hour for dinner.  I did an interview, then ran a Twitter chat (#makered).  And I didn’t feel insane or like I was rushing around trying to get things done.

I think I have to thank UFYH for this.  For all of that, I used the 45/15 method.  45 minutes of work followed by 15 minute breaks.  Knowing that you get to stop and that you have only a small amount of time to work has a couple of benefits.  If the work is drudgery, then you know it has a limit and won’t go on forever.  The limit helped me set goals, like getting a whole section done or getting so many exams graded, which was also nice and probably helped me work more efficiently.  On my breaks, I tried to walk around rather than sit and play games or read since most of my work this week requires being stationary.  Yesterday was admittedly a low step day for me.

At any rate, I’m hoping for super productivity the rest of the week, so I can enjoy the weekend at Educon and be ready to start the semester off next week.  Do you have productivity tips that work for you?  How do you trick yourself into doing work you may not want to do?

Why teaching not coding

Every once in a while someone asks me why I’m not a professional programmer.  I think they wonder why the heck I wouldn’t want to get paid six figures. It’s a long story, of sorts, which makes me have to confess I have no CS degree (which wouldn’t preclude me from being a professional programmer, but always feels weird to say).  I’ve never been a professional programmer.  As I sometimes explain to people, working with technology is how I paid the bills while I pursued my humanities degree.  In all my jobs, I’ve toyed with code, mostly via the command line.  I built one small thing with PHP once before I got the teaching job that I have now.  I honestly don’t know if I’d like being a professional programmer or coder.  I suspect maybe.

But I consider myself a professional teacher.  I’ve been studying and working on my teaching skills as long as I’ve been poking around in a computer (well over 20 years now).  And I get a lot of joy out of teaching.  And, I’ve taught poetry writing, composition, literature, and now computer science, and teaching computer science is by far the most fun.  There is something so cool about watching a student get it for the first time, or make something super cool using code, especially when, as is often the case, they didn’t think they could.  I love finding ways to help students remember and understand complicated ideas.  And I love supporting them as they go beyond the classroom to do even more.  It’s problem solving of a different kind, I guess.

I also like middle and high school teaching way more than college teaching.  These students are so open to learning and discovering new things where many college students have already decided what they’re going to be and that it doesn’t involve you or the thing you’re teaching them.  I may be jaded by the fact that I taught a required course. Those who’ve actually taught CS in college may have a different experience.  I taught a Gender and Technology course once that was a hoot and a half.  I revised that for my high school students, and it was even more fun! Just saying.

So teaching is my thing.  And I do like to code, but given free time, you’re just as likely to find me reading a book about teaching or designing a lesson as you are to find me coding something.  They’re both fun, but the former has more draw for me.


Exams are coming up in just a little over a week.  Before the break, I gave a quiz in CS I over what we’d covered so far, and the range of grades was what you might expect.  A few failed, a few did super well, and a lot were in the middle.  Many of my students are super worried about the exam, based on how they did on the quiz.  What they may or may not know is that whatever they missed on the quiz, they probably understand now.  I went over the quiz in detail, round robin style, having each student  try to answer the question.  We also talked about strategies for eliminating questions and I gave them hints like loops usually reset variables, so if you see a loop without that, it’s probably wrong.

On the one hand, I’m not a fan of tests.  On the other, it is a good way to solidify your recall of certain concepts.  I’m not going to lie.  My test is hard.  It’s on par with the AP Test just in a different language.  I’d say I cover 1/2 to 2/3 of the concepts covered on the AP test and my questions are quite similar.  So a little worry is in order.  However, the bulk of my students’ grades come from the work they do in class: labs and projects.  What I find is that students who are doing well on those, which is most of them, aren’t affected by the exam, even if they do poorly.  Students who struggle on those tend to struggle on the exam and therefore do poorly on the exam.  Which makes sense.  You have to understand the concepts to complete the projects.

I do, however, want to change some of my assessment strategies.  I’ve been reading Specifications Grading, and while it’s geared toward Higher Education, there are some ideas in there that are worth considering and modifying.  My department works on a project-based level, but we do want to make sure we can clearly articulate the skills our students are acquiring, some of which are soft skills like figuring out problems independently and coming up with creative ideas.

I’m going to try a version of this in my Mobile Computing class that starts in a few weeks.  I’ll report here on the process and progress.  I’d love to hear other ideas for assessing longer-term projects and skill mastery.