March 25

Communities, connections, and storytelling

My (virtual) colleague Kevin Hodgson alerted me to this #netnarr post by Laura Ritchie, in which Laura asks and seeks to answer the question, “How do we connect with the wider community across the globe?” I was fascinated by Jonathan Worth’s responses to Laura’s questions, as he analyzes online networks and communities.

I was particularly struck by Jonathan’s statement that “everyone’s got a story, you’ve just got to enable them to tell it.” This reminded me of ethnographic research I conducted as part of the 2017 Community Works Institute. We spent one afternoon strolling through the compact Vermont town of Winooski, once home to thriving woolen mills. After the mills closed in the mid-1950s, the town saw an economic decline for two decades. In the 1980s, the mills were converted to commercial and residential spaces, which helped revitalize the town.

The most startling trivia about Winooski is that in 1980 there was serious consideration of covering the town in a geodesic dome to make winters more tolerable for the residents! I doubt I would have ever stumbled across this fascinating information without engaging in this walkabout.

As we sauntered through the town, we observed, remarked upon, and snapped photos of the various architectural styles. We loitered in the community center, seeking to understand the “vibe” and interests of the town. We entered various shops and gathered stories from the shopkeepers. We talked to people on the streets. Some were residents, some were visiting from elsewhere.

One of the questions our facilitator asked after we reconvened was, “How did you reciprocate with the people who answered your questions?” The answer was simple, and a bit of an ah-ha for me, “By listening to their stories.”

The importance of storytelling within communities is summarized in this 2017 Time magazine article. A study that was done among a hunter-gatherer population in the Philippines concluded that “‘[s]torytelling is a costly behavior… requiring an input of time and energy into practice, performance and cognitive processing.’ But the payoff for making such an effort is big: When the investigators looked at family groups within the 18 camps, they found that skilled storytellers had, on average, .53 more living children than other people.”

Everyone’s got a story, you’ve just got to enable them to tell it. ~ Jonathan Worth

We all have stories to tell. One of the best ways we can honor our students and build trust with them is by actively seeking to hear and understand their stories.

Winooski Woolen Mill

July 14

“Primitive Art” – a #CLMOOC 2017 Reflection

We are wrapping up the first formal week of #CLMOOC 2017, where we were optionally (after all, everything in CLMOOC is optional) invited to add an introduction in Flipgrid. Flipgrid is a video-only platform, and my CLMOOC colleagues have used a variety of methods to introduce themselves; some funny, some serious, some silent.

I had the idea to create a video that emulates an old-style flip book, so went searching for a tool to use. I found FlipAnim, which seemed quite straightforward, a web-based app which had a short learning curve. The first (disappointing) thing I discovered is there is no “erase” or “undo” capability. The only way to remove mistakes is by deleting the whole “page.” The second “problem” with this tool is that the drawing is done using one’s computer mouse.

Even though I am left-handed, I have always used a right-handed mouse (maybe for the same reason I still use right-handed scissors – lack of availability when I first started using the tool?). When I was faced with the prospect of applying my atrocious right-handed drawing-with-a-mouse skills, along with the can’t-undo-mistakes reality, I sighed and considered finding a different app.

Then I thought better of it, and simply drew. I accepted that the result would be “primitive” at best. And discovered it was so liberating to play! I was relaxed and reckless as I created my crude facsimile of a girl with wild hair, and as I hand-wrote, er mouse-wrote my “credits.” Yes, the result is primitive, but it was such fun!

This experience ties in with the Twitter chats we had a few days ago, where a number of us acknowledged we feel we aren’t artists, that we are “bad” at art.

Our perception that we are not “artists” usually starts at a young age, oftentimes as the result of a classroom experience. My absolute favorite example of using a positive, iterative process to improve work comes in the form of “Austin’s Butterfly,” from Expeditionary Learning’s Ron Berger. In this process, instead of telling students their work is “bad” or “good,” peers offer “kind, specific and helpful” feedback. If you haven’t watched this video, DO! It provides such a superb example of how first-grader Austin steadily improves his work based on peer feedback, and how closely his final product resembles the photograph he was using as his model.

Confidence in the ability to continuously improve one’s work is a characteristic identified in Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindsets. It is interesting that many of us who participated in the CLMOOC Twitter chats demonstrated a fixed mindset regarding our artistic ability.

As we explored this discomfort and feelings of inadequacy further, we talked about the need to “play” with art, to have fun. Algot Runeman reminded us periodically how we need to treat ourselves more kindly, and to continue practicing. To allow ourselves to “stumble,” and to measure progress over time.

The point about the importance of play is well-argued in Stuart Brown, MD’s book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. As he says, “[p]lay is a state of mind, rather than activity” (p. 60). He further states “the impulse to create art is a result of the play impulse… art and culture are something that the brain actively creates because it benefits us…” (p. 60).

Now, I’m off to color.



July 20

Connected Learning MOOC (#CLMOOC) Make Cycle #5 – “Light”

One of the challenges for this  week’s #CLMOOC make cycle was to add a (made-up) constellation to a group “sky.” The project, initiated by Kevin Hodgson, consisted of two parts; designing and adding the constellation to a map, and writing a myth to explain the constellation. I hemmed and hawed around all week, thinking about how to combine some traditional myth(s) with what CLMOOC is all about – using creativity, imagination, and play as components of learning.

I easily concluded that Raven would be my mythological character. In Norse mythology, Odin has two ravens, Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory). They act as his attendants, and fly around the world, delivering information and gathering other information to report back to Odin. Many Native American tribes depict Raven as a creation and trickster god. This includes the Haida Indians, who are indigenous to southeast Alaska, where I grew up. Among other things, they attribute Raven with creating all the objects we see in the sky.

I also knew I wanted to intertwine the reasons we CLMOOOCers are spending our summer writing, making, and tinkering into my story. When I eventually sat down to actually write, the words came easily. I spent very little time editing, because I liked the result. My muse had spoken.

However, and here I get to the crux of this post. After I had submitted my story for the public to see, I began the harsh self-critique. Maybe I should have put a comma here, or used a different vocabulary word there. I quickly stopped, and asked myself: “Does the story portray what you wanted to say?” (Yes.) “Would changes in mechanics or using synonyms REALLY change the meaning of the story?” (No.)

My tendency to negative self-talk is rooted in a childhood where I was incapable of meeting my mother’s exacting standards. A deep-rooted “I’m not good enough” developed, and decades later still has the power to dis-empower me, if I let it. I am quite sure I am not the only person on this planet that has ingrained saboteurs of this type. Some of our students fall into this category.

My own self-reflection was a strong reminder of how useful structured self-reflection is for students. It gives them a framework for evaluating their own work in a positive, supportive way. Instead of nitpicking the small details (that others may not even notice), how does the whole appear? If the student is not satisfied, based upon an assessment process, it is time for a revision cycle. If overall, the product is pleasing, let the rest go. Perfection does not exist, and if perfection is our goal, we will simply end up in modes of paralysis and procrastination.

My story:

Corvus Cogitandum

In the beginning all children were curious about the world around them. They explored with all their senses, and developed great knowledge and understanding. They were surrounded by supportive adults and older children who encouraged them, and gently guided them. Then, a pseudo-wise man declared, “Ah, I have a better idea. Let us treat all children identically, and seat them in rows, and impart knowledge by droning on for hours.” And, it was so.
Initially, the pseudo-wise man’s plan worked well. Children grew up with a common understanding of events, and dates, and formulas. The identical graduates marched off to their identical jobs in identical places of employment. The sky was dark.
Then, one day, the rebel RAVEN plopped himself in the midst of a chemistry classroom. “What IS this?,” he squawked. “Where is imagination, and creativity, and individuality?” He grabbed the mound of phosphorous resting on the teacher’s desk, exploded through the roof, scattering the material in the sky. Thus began the first light of the stars.
The next day, many people discussed this startling event. Some of them, despite the naysaying tongues, began to nod their heads, and to think more about the light. The illumination created cheeriness and positive energy, and they wondered how to ignite it even further.
So, they gathered the children, and led them to the maker lab. The children began combining all sorts of materials and ideas. Some of these experiments resulted in big explosions, and dust all around. Some fizzled into forgotten-ness. But, one day, a group was inspired to create a great ball of gases. RAVEN carried it high into the sky, and the sun began to illuminate each part of the earth for half of the day.
Some makers were frustrated, as they wanted some form of brightness for those middle-of-the-night hours when their tinkering powers were at their peak. So, they created an object that could reflect the sun. RAVEN carried it to the heavens, and placed it in just the right location. Thus, the moon was born.
More and more people saw the light, both adults and children, and began imagining creations of their own. RAVEN visited these brave, hearty souls and soared into the heavens with their inventions of galaxies, and black holes, and dark energy.
Some of the boldest souls gathered together to participate in #CLMOOC, where all are connected. No idea is too large or too small, and LIGHT abounds.
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July 7

Connected Learning MOOC (#CLMOOC) Make Cycle #3 – “Games”

The #CLMOOC theme this past week was “games.” Board games, electronic apps, word games, photo games… The reflection challenge participants received was: “What did you decide this week about yourself, about games, about learning, and about play?”

I love games. As a child, growing up in a large family, it was common for Monopoly, Risk, Yahtzee, etc. to be dragged out, since there were always other people to play with. We also played a lot of outdoor games – tag, hide-and-seek, softball, fox-and-geese (winter game in the snow – illustrated here).

My children have grown up in a much smaller nuclear family (fewer game-mates) and in a different time. Instead of board or card games, many of today’s children turn to video games, whether online multi-player games, or stand-alone games. I sometimes try to coax them into playing an “old school” game, but am often unsuccessful.

Games serve many interests, “winning” being only one of them. Through game play, young children learn concepts such as taking turns, their colors, and being a gracious loser (that is so hard when you are 4, or 5, or for some, 45!). Older children, when faced with strategy games, chess being a classic example, develop deeper thinking skills, as they have to identify and execute moves that build their advantage.

In the current age, “games” often refer to video games. The debate as to their relative worth for kids’ development is ongoing, and probably will never be definitively agreed upon. Via one of Kevin Hodgson’s posts, I found this MindShift article entitled The Literacy of Gaming: What Kids Learn From Playing. The author states categorically that we adults need to enter the video gaming world. He says “Not learning how to play games would be akin to talking about ‘The Lord of the Flies’ without having learned to read.” He further states we need to connect these games to books, movies, TV and the real world inhabited by our students. Furthermore, when we encourage students to discuss and analyze games with their peers, we help them enlarge their perspective and ideas.

Many of us are aware of Minecraft, an open world sandbox game that has taken the tween world by storm. Over the past couple of years, it has also entered the education world, seen as a tool that helps develop problem-solving and collaboration skills. The education version also provides the teacher with a lot of control over the game play and the worlds the students use. I found this description of a teacher’s experience enlightening.

As I reflect on games in general, I realize my attitude is that games and play are for kids. Games may emulate the adult world, but once we move into the adult world, we need to put games and play away and be “responsible adults.” I think this attitude has been detrimental to my effectiveness as a parent, teacher, person, and has also robbed me of much enjoyment! Although I do need to be a “responsible adult,” it does not follow that I need to put all fun needs aside. informs me that “Playing… is a sure (and fun) way to fuel your imagination, creativity, problem-solving abilities, and improve your mental health.”

My participation in the “game” theme of this week’s #CLMOOC activities also reinforced a  fact that took me many years to understand about myself, which is I love word games! I happily engaged in both the folding story activity Kevin Hodgson sparked, and the #15wordstory inspired by Scott Glass. Both activities required me to use creative thinking, and were a lot of fun! I’m liking learning to play games again.

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