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The Maker Space is the new Computer Lab


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The first time I worked in a K12 school was in 2001. Until then I had occupied a post that oversaw technology strategy and support for educational partnerships across the continental United States, Puerto Rico and South Africa. I had no idea what I was in for in 2001 when I started working in a K12 private school. The main reason for me being in that position was to build a solid network and digital services infrastructure the school lacked. And I did.

After tackling designing and installing core networking services, along with wireless network access throughout a 16-acre campus; deploying desktops and laptops purchased directly from a single provider; and outfitting the different buildings with mobile laptop carts, I set my eyes on the educational aspect of my job. It was time to look at use and the value-to-learning of technology.

Something that quickly stood out to me was the number of tasks teachers must tend to, simultaneously. I was an opportunity for improvement where technology could contribute positively to teaching and learning. Nearing the end of my first academic year, computer labs because the focus of my attention.

It made little sense to me that teachers had to stop what they were doing, get kids organized, and bring them into a different room to work with digital tools to create and/or reinforce what was happening in the classroom. Within the second year of my new-found career I started to dismantle computer labs across campus. The upper school was the only place where a computer lab was left standing – albeit fitted with appropriate hardware – for the Computer Science program.

Philosophically, as well, it made little sense that as the world was becoming more and more digital, the adults in the building decided it was best to keep digital tools locked in a separate room. This was a private school with enough funding to consider a different perspective.

Now I think about how “maker spaces” are the new computer lab. Most school administrators I’ve visited in the past 7 years have been quick to point out their new and amazing maker space. Any campus visit I’ve made has included a walk to and through their maker space. It is reminiscent of campus visits in the early 2000’s.

Let’s think about this for a minute. A maker space is where students come to to work with hand tools; to learn about building materials and practices; and to receive specialized guidance in design using mathematical/engineering/architectural concepts they must understand before tackling whatever world problem they have identified that needs solving. And there is the design-thinking design cycle to follow. These things should not be the domain of a specific space but readily available/possible in any classroom. Most early childhood classrooms I’ve visited do not have a time-table for discussion and a separate one for making, and yet another for physical education. Most of these things take place during the day, at intervals the teacher deems necessary, and often in the same classroom and/or learning space. Why is making, then, separated and placed in a special room of its own, and often set separate from the rest of the learning in the timetable?

To remedy this itch, I am trying a new model. I no longer build maker spaces. Rather, I like to think of the entire campus as a maker environment, and of our teachers and learners as a maker community. To support such a community, I’ve focused on equipping our buildings with mobile tools, so they are in or come to the classroom as needed as opposed to the other way around. Hand tools are not heavy or large. 3D printers can be placed in a cabinet on wheels and are wireless/USB accessible for use. Materials can come and go as needed. Most robotics/electronic kits can be collected in “kit” mode and delivered/left in classrooms for students to have ready access. Even laser cutters/etchers are small enough to moved around and used in a well-ventilated space for a period of time.

The key is in the support teachers have when using the various tools often identified as having to live in a maker space. Brave teachers rely on students’ curiosity to figure out how some resources work. Teachers needing more support should have someone to guide them through introduction and use of some resources. Modeling use, providing tutorials, posting guides near equipment, providing full classroom kits to live in the classroom are only some of the practices we are trying out in my latest drive to dismantle the idea that students can only make and construct things in one place on campus and only during the proper time-tabled period.

teach, Work

Teaching should be fun…ny, but it’s not


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Not that I’m comparing the classroom to a sitcom, but it’s hard not to.

Allow me some room to think out loud…

I’ve been in education for 20-years, and over this time I’ve seen a parallel between two of my passions; teaching & moviemaking. The parallel I see is in the audience.

Let’s focus on teaching, and one characteristic of teaching that has become difficult for teachers; student engagement. The challenge is not getting a student engaged, it’s keeping the student engaged. Over my short career, student behavior has changed, and the most challenged teachers are those who cannot adjust to this change. Students have ever-decreasing attention spans, demand instant gratification, and will not sit long enough to hear the whole theory before wanting to get hands on.

The same scenario is playing out in the world of entertainment, and in particular in comedy writing. The reason I am focusing on comedy writing is that it’s easy to compare laughs-per-minute to engagement-re-engagement in a lesson… in my mind at least.

Bear with me…

In comedy film writing there is an element of laughs-per-minute that can be calculated, as done by Andrew Bender of Forbes here. In average, comedy film yields about 1.8 laughs-per-minute, according to Andrew’s unscientific study. In stand-up comedy, the laughs-per-minute yield is higher, coming it at roughly 4, according to Steve Roye. In sitcom writing, the laughs-per-minute yield is much higher, at 6, according to Talib Visram of The Atlantic.

This is where I see the correlation. In the classroom, much like on the small/big screen, the challenge of re-engagement – bringing student attention back to the subject in a focus manner –  is like that of sitcom writing and keeping the audience engaged by making them laugh often. Over time, I’ve experienced shorter attention spans in students, pushing some lesson-planners to producing more active lessons, adding more engaging content, and creating opportunities for hands-on activities. This is happening in the Humanities as much as it is happening in the Sciences. Some teachers have become more creative in their planning and delivery of lessons, otherwise they stand to lose student engagement. In a way, lesson-planning is like sitcom writing.

The reason I am sharing my thoughts on this is because of the insistence of some teachers to keep things as they were 5-years ago, and to play the blame game. Video-games, diet, lack of sleep, boredom, doctors and their ever-ready prescription pad, and many other aspects of a student’s life outside of the classroom gets blamed. Not to say those things don’t impact life in the classroom, because they do. However, the same teachers playing the blame game tend to deliver the same lesson plan year over year without updating their approach.

When walking into a class as an observer, I’m not expecting a show, however-much there is an aspect of performance in a teacher’s work. Regardless of the day a teacher may be having, they have to show up and put their best face forward. Equally, it should be noted that teachers need not be comedians to teach well, but to dismiss the importance of how things have changed over the past few years is to miss a huge opportunity for keeping students eager for more.

Maybe we should count of re-engagement-actions-per-minute during a lesson?

 

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Model your way to productive use


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Recently I heard a senior administrator talk about the perception of students towards tablet as toys. Though I did not like the comment, I could not argue it. All one needs to do to confirm his theory, after all, is to walk into a mall, restaurant, airport, or waiting-room of any type to see kids’ hands on small/large screens either consuming content or engaged in a game.

In thinking of, and being frustrated at, the shortage of research of technology in the classroom, I’ve come to realize that there is one aspect of technology that has been given little attention; modeling behavior. I agree that children see the use of a table/smartphone mostly as an entertainment device, one to consume content rather than to make content. And if we think about it more deeply, maybe we can agree that that perception has been handed to students from adults, pun intended 🙂

I have seen how an inexperienced leader took a hands on approach in encouraging teachers to use tablets in a constructive way by modeling, even though she had little training and experience in what she was doing. She got up to speak to teachers with tablet in hand, and she showed how it was a powerful tool for teaching. Over time, this had an impact on how the device was used by teachers.

As parents/teachers, how adults approach technology is how children approach technology. If we are afraid, are not interested, and only use the most basic and superficial features, children will follow suit. If adults take an interest and use a device for more than watching movies or playing video games, I am confident children will do the same. This is the best teaching tool there is; modeling behavior.

I encourage you to take the time to discover ways to model productive and interesting ways of using technology in the classroom. It would make the argument that “tablets are only toys” change to “children use digital tools as adults model how to use those tools.”

About Life, teach, Work

How great teams are made


I’m often asked about the strategy used for putting great teams together. My teams have always performed well, they have endured under pressure, kept a smile even when sometimes treated in less than professional ways, and do not join in the surrounding gossip. Throughout my career, in different countries and continents, I’ve been fortunate to have been a part of a great team!

How does this happen?

First off, there is no formula. It’s a question of time, and of being patient. For instance, the last team I’ve assembled has taken years to get to where it is now. This is not because there we no suitable candidates. It all came down to the interview process; It was something they said, the way they responded to a question, their outlook on their own future. The interview process consists of 2 parts.

One is to come in for a typical face-to-face interview, usually involving other members of the tech-support team and, if I can pull them away from other meetings, members of the admin team. If they do well in the first part, they are asked to come in for half-a-day trial.

During the trial the team will quiz them on their technical chops, all the while I hang back looking for signs of a personality, how they react to being under pressure and how they react to out-of-the-blue unrelated questions. My team is testing their tech skills, while I am evaluating their question/statement choices. It all comes together after, as a team, we debrief.

At the core of all people who have been in my teams are the following traits:

  • They are personable
  • They are kind
  • They are patient
  • They have a sense of purpose and are passionate about what they do
  • They have a good sense of humor
  • They will go the extra mile for good results
  • They are positive

So, where are the technical chops? That’s secondary. If someone is interested in learning something, they will learn it – they must be forever-students. However, you can’t learn to have a good sense of humor, or to be king, or how to talk to people while they are under pressure. Questions I am more interested in hearing a response to have to do with someone’s outlook, their own past and reasons for doing what they do. I am interested in their story much more than I am interested in their technical know-how.

I read somewhere, a long time ago, an interview being done of a film director as he was making the rounds promoting his latest release. I have a feeling it was about Bruce Lee, but cannot quite remember what the film was, sorry 😦 It was about fighting, and it had a strong protagonist who displayed great martial arts skills. The director was asked what he preferred to start with as he got into his filmmaking process; A good actor or a good fighter. He chose a good actor, because he could always teach a good actor how to fight, but he could not necessarily teach a good fighter how to act. Acting is something less technical and goes deeper than a technical skill one can learn by training. After all, at some point the technical aspect of acting is overtaken by the amount of feeling and self that one puts into a scene.

It’s the same for technical support. Technical ability can only take you so far. When dealing with a stressed-out teacher, in a room full of students and parents, all waiting for a screen to turn on and for sound to come out, you have to know how to deal with the teacher all-the-while making the screen come on and the sound come alive. For as much as you are able to do the technical, dealing with the teacher is something that requires patience, kindness, a bit of humor at times, and cool. If you are showing as much stress as the teacher may be, it will only add to the chaos.

And so it is that I take my time in finding the right person to be part of my team. Once hired, my team members also know that there is more to the position than providing technical support.

Every member of my team has to be part of students’ lives in some form or another. My team members are football coaches, photographers, teachers, mentors, advisors, break/lunch supervisors, and even coding teachers. This is not optional. If we are not willing to step into the lives of children, we should not be working in a school. Sure, we will not take on a full-time teacher load, but schools offer ample opportunity to play a role in learners’ experiences.

 

The hardest part of my job when assembling a team is finding the right members to bring together. As long as do this part well, the rest takes care of itself. Through weekly meetings we keep adjusting our course, ensuring we remember our mission, that we keep to our promises and that we continue to provide the best service possible. I do my best to hang in the background as my team makes things run smooth. I have the best job in the world!