Maker Mindset

Some of the jewelry and other things that can be printed

Attending STEAMshop at Drexel this weekend got me thinking again about making, what it is, what it means to me.  I’ve long felt that I approach things with a maker mindset.  That is, I look at almost anything as a problem to be solved and as something I could dig in and help solve.  I rarely approach something new and throw up my hands and say, “Nope. Can’t do it.”  The one thing I did do that with, programming, I eventually came around to.

Making in education is closely aligned with things like inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, and mastery based assessments.  It is at odds at times with approaches that are concerned primarily with grades or testing, i.e. summative approaches.   Making can look messy and challenging and way beyond one’s ability for both teacher and student.  There’s a certain amount of loss of control on both sides.  Certainly, even those of us who do this work almost daily face challenges.  One of my colleagues is ready to throw his 3D printer out the window because it’s often unreliable and using it isn’t supporting the kind of pedagogy he’s aiming for.  He’s ready to go old school shop class.

When I used to run the #makered chat on Twitter, we often got questions about what equipment to buy and materials to have.  We would often skirt that conversation because for us making was about mindset not about stuff.  We would often joke that as long as you had glitter, glue, and cardboard, you were all set. #glitterchat  Making for us was about hands-on work, letting students guide the learning, failing and learning from failing, and yet, being driven to succeed.  You don’t need a 3D printer for that kind of work.  But at the 10,000 foot level, 3D printing and laser cutting are both easy to explain and look shiny.

My colleagues and I are thinking through how to impart this mindset to our fellow colleagues, and partly to allow them some time to explore the equipment and possibilities of using making in their own classes.  We’re thinking maker happy hour, but haven’t settled on anything yet.

I also think I need to walk the talk a little more.  I haven’t always approached faculty in the same way I’ve approached students, i.e. letting them drive the conversation or generate ideas, etc.  To get back to that, I think I just need to get my hands dirty a little.  I might make time for my own 3D printing, laser cutting, and cardboard and glitter.

Public Speaking

Laura Blankenship's "Social Software" workshop
Me, speaking, sometime in 2006ish.

Most people are not fans of public speaking.  I have a love-hate relationship with it.  It’s something I’ve loved doing over the last decade or so, but it doesn’t always go well, and once upon a time, I really and truly sucked at it.  It’s one of those things that I wish I could just do, but no, every time, I have to prepare, psych myself up and hope for the best.

I had the opportunity to speak in the last couple of days, and well, it wasn’t my best performance, so that caused me to reflect on my whole relationship with public speaking.

When I was in college, I gave poetry readings, where, of course, I had the poems in front of me.  Later, in grad school, I continued with the poetry reading and later, went to conferences to present papers, but in the humanities, one reads their papers.  Again, I had the text in front of me.  And while I got a few jitters from time to time, once I launched into the paper itself, I was fine.

Shortly after we moved here, I applied for a job where I had to give a talk, and well, there would be no text.  I put something together, and then I practiced it for Mr. Geeky.  And he told me it was awful.  And then I cried.  In my defense, it was late and there was a lot riding on this whole thing.  I worked more on it, and it turned out okay, and I ended up with the job.

In that job, I ended up doing a lot of public speaking, and I got kind of good at it sometimes.  And I’ve done a fair amount lately, informally and formally, but I watch other people speak, and I’m like, “Dang, they are so good.” So this is one of those things that I do that I still don’t feel like I have down, but wish I did.  Nothing to do but keep working at it.

A tweet from me speaking on Monday.

Say yes, then ask for help

Say Yes!

A lot of people are afraid to say yes to opportunities because they sound like a lot of work, or they’re afraid they won’t be able to meet expectations, or they’re not sure what they’ll get out of them.  I’ll admit to swinging from a position where I was one of those people who turned down opportunities out of fear to being one of those people who said yes too much.

I think there’s a middle ground.  While many opportunities that come along seem like individual efforts, there are always ways others around you can help.  Thus, the say yes, then ask for help title.  Even being asked to give a keynote can turn into a group effort.  You need time to prepare, so delegate some tasks to others so that time is freed up.  You need feedback on drafts and trial runs.  Enlist friends and colleagues to help.  There are always ways to make things happen.

As someone who now says yes too much, I’ve learned from doing so what to truly say no to.  Inevitably something you say yes to goes wrong, and you learn from that, and you learn to say no to something similar or get more help or time it better.

I kind of regret not learning to say yes earlier.  I missed some key opportunities by not doing so.  But it’s never too late, and now I know how to get the help I need.  And now I encourage others to do the same, and I’m often the one providing the support that allows them to say yes.

The sum of the whole is greater than its parts

Pixelated BuildingI did some reading yesterday across a lot of different areas as I was conducting some research for a couple of different projects.  I ended up at a research overview of effective teaching practices.  I read all 42 or so pages because this is what I think about all the time, both for my own teaching practices, but also as I’m involved in supporting the teaching practices of others.

Embedded in a passage about teacher evaluation, the phrase, “the sum of the whole is greater than its parts” in relation to evaluation stuck out to me.  It was a discussion about creating rubrics and axes against which to evaluate teachers.  What sometimes happens is that teachers do things on “the list” in a “check the box” kind of way.  (Students do this, too.  It’s human nature to some extent.)  I have witnessed this, and struggled to push people to avoid approaching their work in this way.  I’ve had many a conversation where I’ve either had to assure people they’ve checked off all the boxes or had to convince people that just because they’ve checked off the boxes doesn’t mean they’ve reached teacher nirvana.

I wish I’d had this insight about the whole earlier.  Because it is about how the parts are fitting together.  Checking off the boxes without having them inform each other doesn’t make you better at your job.  I’ll use a simple and common example.  One box is that teachers must participate in professional development regularly.  So, teachers go to workshops and conferences.  If they don’t reflect on and apply what they’ve learned, they’ve checked a box, but they may as well not have because it’s having no impact on their work.

There’s a way in which truly effective teachers connect all the dots.  They operate a little like Neo in The Matrix where they can see how things are connected and move forward accordingly.  It takes time and energy to get to this point.  It also takes being embedded in the school.  You can’t just show up the way one might to work in a factory, do your job without really thinking about it, and then go home.  It’s what makes the job so challenging, but it’s also what makes it so rewarding.  When it’s going well, when you’ve connected all the dots, you make an impact on people.  You can see it working.

How to fully explain this, I don’t know.  But at least I have a metaphor to work with.

Politics is local

Local ds106

Last night I went to my first ever local Democratic party meeting.  I’ve been peripherally involved in local politics for a while, volunteering for things, attending fundraisers, giving some money here and there, but I’ve never dug in to local politics.  The energy was pretty amazing.  It was a meeting to discuss all our local candidates–ward commissioners, school board, county commissioners, judges.

Our township is about 60/40 democrats to republicans, but that’s a recent development.  It used to swing the other way.  It’s really just in the last 5 years or so that we’ve pretty solidly been in the lead.  We went for Hillary across the board, with only one precinct going to Trump by a mere 9 votes.  I’ve volunteered to serve as campaign manager for a friend running for ward commissioner. I’m looking forward to it.  No idea what I’m doing, but I think we’ll manage.  It’s not that different from my day job in many ways.

It was great to see some neighbors I don’t see that often, and I ran into old friends who’ve moved to the area.  This is the kind of face-to-face hard work we need to be doing, and it’s a great way to get to know some people and work together with folks to do something worthwhile. It heartened me to see so many people out in force, and it made me feel less hopeless about the future.

I forgot to eat lunch and other tales of administration

And Oh My, What a Beautiful Cheese Steak LunchWhen I moved from Higher Ed to K-12, I lamented the days when I barely had time to go to the bathroom.  One year, I had a crazy schedule where I had 7 preps.  I was still in building mode.  The very next year, I hired someone, who took on 4 of those preps.  Life got a little better.

I’m down to one class per semester now, but my life is filled with a lot of meetings, both scheduled and impromptu.  And there’s a lot of email to respond to, and a lot of work in between all that.  I mean, I’m currently overseeing curriculum mapping and development, faculty evaluation, creating reports for board meetings, coordinating an external review, and trying to generally stay current on things.

On the way to school yesterday morning, I reread the chapters I’d assigned to my CyberSecurity class.  I finished that when I got to school.  I checked in with our Middle School Director on some things, and then checked in with my colleague who is taking over for me as Department Chair to fill him in on some things.  Randomly, I had to be Mom and deal with some paperwork for my daughter so I stalked her outside her classroom (benefit of being in the same school).  Somewhere in there I ate a bagel and drank coffee.

And then, I went to one scheduled meeting, had an impromptu one just after, then taught class, then had two more scheduled meetings, and then it was 4:00. There was 15 minutes between class and the first meeting of the afternoon, and I had planned to go grab lunch, but I forgot.  During the first afternoon meeting, I ate some skittles and sour patch kids.  There was 15 minutes between the two afternoon meetings, but I used that time to triage email.

There’s no doubt that the number of meetings I’m in has escalated, but many of them are important and we do get things done.  It’s just hard sometimes to make time for necessities and thinking and writing.  Luckily, days like yesterday happen just once every few weeks.  Every day is busy, but not every day is filled with structured time. In fact, today looks blissfully open.  Maybe I’ll get to those 1400 emails in my inbox.

Coding == Blue Collar Work?

LEGO Collectible Minifigures Series 7 : Computer ProgrammerI’ve had this article in an open tab for a while now.  I heard Thompson on the radio last week talking about it, and so I finally got around to reading it.  It’s not wrong and it’s not right, either.   I don’t necessarily want to hear that CS is a blue collar job.  After all, the students I’m teaching CS to go on to big league CS and Engineering programs at some of the most selective schools in the country.   But I’m not training students for blue collar type coding work any more than my math colleagues are preparing their students to be cashiers.  They’re not done learning when they finish with me; they’re building on what they’ve learned with me, same as they’re building in their math and writing skills.

Still, I do think there are coding/programming jobs that don’t need a CS degree to do well.  Highlighting some of those jobs might remove the mystique that CS has garnered for decades, that you have to be some sort of genius (at math, at drinking Mountain Dew and staying up 24 hours straight) in order to be good at it.  And there are jobs out there (I’m ignoring the comments about outsourcing and AI, for now).

The comments are enlightening–at least the first 15 or so–in that they reveal the stereotypes, myths, and insecurities of programmers.  Here they are, in no particular order: no HS (or bootcamp) grad could code (they’re dumb); you need to be good at math (probably calculus); all the jobs are being outsourced anyway; AI will take over all the jobs in 10 years.  There’s a grain of truth in there somewhere, but it’s funny how these tropes get trotted out every time programming jobs come up.  My favorite commentary is a thread I happen to agree with, that the most important skills for programming are logic, problem solving, and abstract and critical thinking.  It’s suggested there are many ways to gain those skills: math, philosophy, and (gasp!) writing*.

I think there’s no way to know if coding is the new blue collar work, but what should be noted is that jobs that require programming and Computer Science skills are varied.  And there’s likely no one path to get to the job you ultimately want.


*yours truly got her logical/critical thinking skills through writing and teaching writing

Teach the students in front of you

Day 110: Student Writing on the BoardThis is not a new concept, and in fact, I dug into my own blog and found a post from 2008 about this very idea.  The idea is simple. Stop hoping that your class was filled with students who are better at whatever you think they should be better at. Stop blaming last year’s teachers or the fact that they’re into sports for their falling behind in your class.

The students sitting in front of you, they’re what you’ve got, and it’s your job to bring your A game and figure out how to get them where you think they should be.  It’s hard.  It might require rethinking the goals of your class.  It certainly will require rethinking how to reach those goals.

Long, long gone are the days of “one-size-fits-all” teaching, and yet, the idea that we should have a class full of homogenous students persists.   First, I want to root out that idea, and second, I want to find ways to help teachers build learning environments that give all students the best opportunity to learn.


Day 47: Light PaintingI’ve been pretty focused over the last couple of weeks, even on the weekends.  The last couple days, though, I deliberately decided to disconnect. No checking in with email.  I even disconnected from the news a bit.  I’ll partially regret this tomorrow, but it was necessary.

I do this fairly regularly.  It often comes at the end of many intense days.  What might be better would be to schedule it instead.  To look ahead and say, there, those days. And I’d love to do something besides escape into TV and video games.  Nature. Books. Time with other people.  It’s an aspiration.

But even if it’s not perfect, it’s still a good thing.

Pick your battles

Spartan King LeonidasFor some reason, this phrase has been echoing around my head today.  My first response was to think, “But there are too many battles; I want to fight them all!”  And then I thought, what’s with the war metaphors? Why does everything have to be a battle? I need a better word, a better frame, a better metaphor.

Change is work, and no doubt, that’s what I try to do every single day.  Change myself, change people around me, change the world. Really.  But it’s not a battle, at least it shouldn’t be.  But what often happens is, people’s reaction to change is to get entrenched, to get defensive.  And see? There’s those war metaphors again.  So a battle ensues anyway, even if that’s not what I wanted.

Change is both a breaking down and a building up.  Change is often about examining existing structures and saying, hmm, these no longer work.  And so, you go about dismantling an old structure, so that you can build something new in its place.  Too often, the dismantling is what we focus on when what we should focus on is the new, the building that will make things better.  There’s a part in that for everyone unless they’re going to cling to the old structure.  They’re fighting a battle while everyone else is creating something new.

That describes how I think of change, as moving forward, building new things to make things better for everyone. I’m having a hard time seeing what’s happening in government right now as being quite the same thing. Certainly, things are changing.  Structures are being dismantled.  But are things being built to replace them?  If so, are they things that make the lives of most people better?

Are there people making the changes they’re making now who truly believe they are making people’s lives better?  I honestly don’t know.  My pessimistic view is that the changes they’re making are about benefitting a small group of people.  Certainly, some of the changes that have happened have hurt people.  My fear is that we might be hurting the whole system, that the change that’s coming literally tears the whole thing down with nothing planned to take its place.

In my personal life, in my work life, I try to work toward change by working with others.  I’m generally open to others’ ideas for change. I don’t tend to react by getting defensive or entrenched.  I assume the best in people.  I work with them to make their ideas better.

In this, in watching change happen at the national level, I’m at a loss for who to work with.  I haven’t seen that anyone has the country’s best interests at heart. And so, I feel embattled.  And so, I think, the battle begins.