New book – The Art of Digital Fabrication: STEAM Projects for the Makerspace and Art Studio

ADF cover

I’m very proud of the latest publication from Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, The Art of Digital Fabrication: STEAM Projects for the Makerspace and Art Studio by Erin E. Riley. This is an absolutely gorgeous book of projects using 3D printers, laser cutters, vinyl cutters, CNC machines, and other tools found most often in school makerspaces. These are exceptionally inventive, beautiful, and thoughtful projects, brought to life with photos of student work and clear explanations of the steps and stages of how these projects unfold in the classroom, makerspace, or studio.

The book will be available in paperback and hardcover on May 6, 2019, but you can pre-order it now at Amazon and other online retailers. If you pre-order, you can have it in your hands on May 6!

Erin has created a unique book that offers a vision of STEAM that embraces Art as a primary motivation, with design as the guiding vision. Every project offers multiple understandings across all STEAM disciplines. This viewpoint creates avenues for teachers to understand how digital fabrication tools can be an opportunity for students to express themselves and find meaning in the world. It creates pathways for modern mathematics to emerge as concrete manifestations of precision and beauty. And it allows engineering to be fully expressed as the desire of humankind to make ideas become real.

It was a wonderful learning opportunity for me to edit this book. Erin is an amazing teacher, constantly adding and inventing new projects with her students, and then making them better. Her documentation is superb, and her explanations of the choices she makes as a teacher and designer are thoughtful and deeply enriching. And she is an artist, she hand designed every page of this book with loving care and attention to detail.

Erin organized the book by artistic process, rather than by tool. Processes like drawing, patterning, casting, prototyping, making 3D objects, and more are each explored with a variety of tools. This creates a treasure chest of inspiration and a relatable way for art teachers to see digital fabrication as an expansion of artistic vision. It opens a whole new way of thinking when you realize that drawing with a machine is similar to drawing with the hand, with the added benefit of being able to precisely draw with a laser, with a pen attached to a vinyl cutter, with code, light, or even with 3D filament. She also wrote an introduction explaining important concepts in graphic design and software, what students learn from digital fabrication, and making the case for STEAM in modern education.

For the past few months I’ve been carrying a dog-eared, marked-up copy of the work-in-progress proof of this book to various conferences and workshops, showing it to educators. The reaction has been extraordinary—people actually tried to convince me to sell them the unfinished proofs! But now the wait is over, it’s done and we can share it with the world. Check it out, you will not be disapointed.

Available for pre-order at and Barnes & Noble online.

Beautiful full-color photos, directions, and ideas for innovative projects using digital fabrication technology.

Features Inside the Book

  • Over 25 Digital Fabrication Projects with color photographs of steps and student work. All projects offer extension ideas, resources, and connections to STEAM curriculum.
  • The Project Cross-Reference lists projects by digital fabrication tools, supplies, and software. Color coding highlights certain process details in each project chapter.
  • An Art Material and Process Inventory intended to spark creativity and encourage the mixing of materials and processes within digital fabrication.
  • An Overview of the Digital Fabrication Machines commonly found in school labs or makerspaces.
  • Photocopy-friendly Design Guides and Checklists for the main design software programs demonstrated in this book can be given to students as they self-guide through each design program.
  • Maker Powers Classroom Poster
  • Curriculum Connections of digital fabrication experiences with skills and curriculum subjects.
  • Introductory articles supporting STEAM learning, where the Arts is integral to deep understanding of content and student empowerment.

Available for pre-order at and Barnes & Noble online.

For volume sales, PO purchases, or international sales, contact CMK Press. This book is now available from local distributors in the U.S, Australia, and the U.K.

ISTE 2019 Sessions

ISTE 2019 will be June 23-26, 2019 in Philadelphia. Hope to see you there!

Accepted proposals

The case for creativity and design in STEAM

  • Scheduled:
    • Sunday, June 23, 1:30–2:30 pm EDT (Eastern Daylight Time)
    • Building/Room: Available in May

STEAM to the Future: What’s Next in STEAM, Design, and Making 

  • Scheduled:
    • Monday, June 24, 1:30–2:30 pm EDT (Eastern Daylight Time)
    • Building/Room: Available in May

We Have a Makerspace, Now What? Four Directions Forward for Leaders 

  • Scheduled:
    • Wednesday, June 26, 8:30–9:30 am EDT (Eastern Daylight Time)
    • Building/Room: Available in May

Panel Conversations

More Stupid Ideas in EdTech (and why you should totally do them) 

  • Scheduled:
    • Monday, June 24, 10:30–11:30 am EDT (Eastern Daylight Time)
    • Building/Room: Available in May

Waitlisted proposals

.Girls & STEAM: Equity, Inclusion, and Excellence

Declined proposals

What’s a microcontroller and why should I care?

New! Second Edition of Invent to Learn Released

We are excited to announce that a newly revised and expanded edition of Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom has just been released.

It’s been five years since Gary Stager and I published the first edition of Invent to Learn. In that time, schools around the world have embraced making, makerspaces, and more authentic STEM/STEAM experiences for all children. It’s been fun to be a part of this worldwide phenomenon!

The brand new second edition includes a lot of new material reflecting how much has changed in a few short years. There are many new microcontrollers to choose from, and many more that are better for school use. The fabrication chapter has been updated to reflect how the design process has been streamlined by hardware and software progress. There is an entirely new section on laser cutters and CNC machines.

Programming options have expanded as well with software appropriate for students as young as four years old. Finally, there are some fantastic and accessible environments for programming microcontrollers. When we published the first edition, we were positive that a good block-based programming language for Arduino was just around the corner. Although new software environments emerged, they lacked the polish and stability required to make a difference in classrooms. Now things are different.

There is more research about the positive impact of fabrication, robotics, and coding to share. All of the suggested resources have been updated and expanded. The online resources here on are even more extensive.

The additions and updates to the book go beyond mentions of new technology and fixing broken URLs. There are new examples from educators around the world who have embraced making in their classrooms. There is more context provided for the connections between project-based learning and making. We attempt to be clearer about the real reason that making matters—not to build a special room or purchase equipment, but to make schools a better place for ALL students and teachers to learn.

The second edition is now available in paperback, hardcover, and Kindle on the Amazon website and other online retailers. For volume sales, using a PO, or international sales, please contact

Negotiating the future

“IF YOU FOLLOW the ongoing creation of self-driving cars, then you probably know about the classic thought experiment called the Trolley Problem. A trolley is barreling toward five people tied to the tracks ahead. You can switch the trolly to another track—where only one person is tied down. What do you do? Or, more to the point, what does a self-driving car do?

Even the people building the cars aren’t sure. In fact, this conundrum is far more complex than even the pundits realize.” – from Self-Driving Cars Will Teach Themselves to Save Lives—But Also Take Them (by Cade Metz, Wired)

Yes, this is a conundrum – but the real dilemmas that will arise from self-driving cars and other “smart” machines will not be the rare life-or-death ones. They will be the smaller, every day, every millisecond decisions. They will be 99.9999% mundane and hardly noticeable — until they aren’t. Since all these machines will be networked, not only will they make decisions, they will communicate, and therefore negotiate with others.

Imagine an ambulance is making its way through traffic. Drivers know to pull over and make way. Self-driving cars will have to as well. That’s a decision to override normal behavior based on social convention and law. But what if you have a pregnant passenger who has just gone into labor? Should it matter that the ambulance you make way for has a patient with a much less critical condition? Should there be some way to assess priority?

What if the siren is from a police car that carries an officer just impatient to get to lunch? (It happens!) Should these vehicles negotiate for their own rights to move ahead of others? Traffic signals could also be in this negotiation. They could change or stay green a little longer depending on ranked requests from the network of vehicles in the vicinity. Should every car have an emergency setting that allows it the same precedence as an ambulance? Should emergencies have ratings that would create ranked priorities in traffic? These decisions are going to be made, it’s a matter of when, not if. It’s up to us as a society to think about and decide on these issues.

And what about paying for priority? People pay to use express lanes and we don’t consider that unfair. Is it the same social calculus to have a negotiated price that would get you home 5 minutes faster by changing the traffic signals just a bit, or having other self-driving cars that didn’t pay move slightly to the right as you glide by? It would hardly be noticeable if your car decided to change lanes or slow down by 5%. You might assume it was avoiding a jam or taking a better route, when instead your car just lost a negotiation with a better financed machine. But once you give up the wheel and get used to the car deciding these things, will you know?

Would you let your house adjust the temperature to serve the social good of using less energy in a heat wave? Smart thermostats already do that. How much different would it be to bid for the privilege of using the air conditioner when you really really want it? “I’ll pay up to $20 extra to have A/C tonight.” If it’s a zero sum game, that means that some other person won’t get their A/C that night. So — is it a way to raise more money for public utilities or the opening battle in an invisible, machine-negotiated class war?

So back to the trolley problem. Are five people more important than one? Only if people are equal. That’s going to be programmable, a set value in the complex algorithm that controls the trolley (or car, or traffic light, or…). But as machines learn, it would be as obvious to assign more complex and variable values to humans as chess playing machines assign values to the different chess pieces. So the calculation of who to put in danger would be based not on a calculation of five people vs. one person, but how much each of those people are “worth” to the system that’s doing the decision making. Who (or what) will create that valuation? Will it be based on age, net worth, Instagram followers, number of Tony Awards, or what? If one of those trolley-bound people had the means to pay or some other status that gave them extra worth-points in the calculation, who will decide if that’s fair, just, or human?

We shouldn’t leave that to the machines.

If schools really cared about research, students would play chess

It bothers me when I hear about how any new initiative  in schools has to be “research-based.” It’s often a code word for “go on a wild goose chase for some citations, and then we are going to say no anyway.”

If schools really wanted research-based practices that improve student learning, here’s a short list: recess, art, music, and chess. Let’s just talk about chess. It’s a fact that learning and playing chess gives kids skills and habits that help them succeed in school and in life. It’s been proven countless times using all kinds of measures. (See below)

My own introduction to the power of chess in learning began when I worked at Knowledge Adventure, an educational software publisher (then known as Davidson & Associates). I was the producer of a new line of chess products that would range from beginners learning chess to a professional chess engine. The goal was to compete with Chessmaster, then the top selling chess playing software in the world. Knowing very little about chess other than the rules of the game, I was tossed into a fascinating world of rival chess engines and offbeat personalities.

Then I met Maurice Ashley71T-1NCrQ7L.jpg. At the time, Maurice was the first  African-American International Grandmaster and had written a book about teaching chess. He worked with young people in Brooklyn, taking them to national championships. He also “called” chess games for ESPN, using a telestrator like John Madden. I went to New York to meet him and watch him work. I sat on the floor of the TV booth for six hours, fascinated at his mastery of the game and the power of his language. This was no dusty, boring exercise – he brought it alive with words that conjured images of galloping knights, brooding, sneaky bishops, and sweaty game-day warriors grinding out a victory with their sacrifices for the common goal.


The task then was to not simply capture his ideas about teaching chess, but also his personality and make it into a software experience that would reflect the passion and active engagement of Maurice Ashley. The result was “Maurice Ashley Teaches Chess” – probably the favorite software program that I was responsible for. (I can’t believe it’s still for sale!)

Maurice Ashley was recently named to the Chess Hall of Fame and profiled in an NPR series about 50 Great Teachers, Chess For Progress: How A Grandmaster Is Using The Game To Teach Life Skills.

Maurice Ashley’s YouTube channel has other gems – like him beating a trash-talking chess player in Washington Square Park and a TED Talk about working backwards to solve problems.

I’m glad that my friend Maurice is getting some well-deserved attention. He deserves all this and more. He’s directly impacted thousands of young people through his teaching, and even more broadly through his books, software, and media exposure. His message should be widely heard, especially in schools.

But for too many schools, chess (or recess, art, music..)  is not on the agenda while they chase higher test scores using test prep methodology that is not evidence-based. And if the test prep predictably doesn’t work, there is a new trend of “motivating” students to do well with parties and goodies. So bribes (proven to destroy motivation) – good, but chess – there’s no time.

Evidence, you ask? Decades of it – hundreds of studies, piled up the ceiling of the we-don’t-really-care-about-research room.

The biggest indictment of our schools is…

from Scott McLeod at Dangerously Irrelevant:

“The biggest indictment of our schools is not their failure to raise test scores above some politically-determined line of ‘proficiency.’ It’s that – day in and day out – they routinely ignore the fact that our children are bored, disengaged, and disempowered. We’ve known this forever, but we have yet to really care about it in a way that would drive substantive changes in practice. ”

Scott created these charts from the most recent  annual Gallup poll of over 920,000 middle and high school students, and sharing these under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International copyright license. So please share widely! Boring students to death is ridiculous and so unecessary.

No problem with Kohn

Dear Jennifer,

I read your post today called The Problem with Kohn after you tweeted a link to me. Thanks for the shoutout, and your flattering suggestion that I should have been one of the people mentioned by Alfie Kohn in his recent Washington Post article on educational technology featured in Valerie Strauss’s column on education issues. I appreciate that you are sensitive to women being usurped by men as role models, spokespeople, and advocates.

However, I respectfully disagree with the premise of your article, that Kohn is not qualified to speak about educational technology, and that his article is an example of sexist “mansplaining” — insulting and bypassing women advocates/critics of educational technology. * will give Kohn a “boost” of good publicity as a critic/advocate of educational technology, when there are better people to make the case, including those underrepresented in the conversation.

You say “Kohn, a non-expert on technology in schools was treated as an expert in technology in schools.” In contrast, the article exactly reflects his expertise, that technology exacerbates other trends that are wrecking schools. He wrote that technology is being used as a Trojan Horse to facilitate standardized testing (and standardized teaching), and being used in ways to allow big companies like Pearson to sell their “personalized learning” systems that are not  personal or about learning. Schools and parents are being sold this pack of lies as “modern” and providing kids access to computers. Alfie Kohn is correct. This is dangerous, self-serving nonsense.

In addition to being right on this issue, I admire his fearlessness and consistency over the decades. Kohn has stood up not just against conventional wisdom (homework = rigor), but also to giant corporations who stand to lose billions of dollars if their shameless exploitation of children and teachers is impeded. He has stood in the national spotlight for decades against politicians who use fear and junk science to advance agendas that ultimately deprive us of our full rights as citizens.

Kohn is not someone who simply “self-identifies as an expert on parenting and education issues.” He’s likely the world’s most read and cited expert on these issues. You may not agree with it, but his research is impeccable. His books are best-sellers and written in a way that makes difficult issues clear for a general audience. He gives voice to teachers struggling to do what’s right for children. I read his work and pray that I would ever achieve anything near his mastery of the written word.

When a parent or educator reads books like Punished By Rewards (1993)  or The Case Against Standardized Testing (2000), or The Homework Myth (2007), they immediately understand the right thing to do, even if it’s the hard thing to do. Maybe you still give an occasional time out, or don’t opt your kids out of tests, or struggle with completely dropping homework, but for a lot of parents and teachers what he says makes sense and opens your eyes in new ways. They certainly did for me.

Of course he’s not the only one who has been a long-time advocate for real learning. Kohn mentioned my writing partner, Gary Stager, as a critic of educational technology. That’s true, and was true for at least a decade before I ever learned to pronounce the word “pedagogy.”

But it’s not the whole story to simply call Gary a critic.

When I met Gary in 1992, one of the first things he shared was an article of his called “Integrated Learning Systems: The New Slavery.” Please read this article. It touches on educational equity, corporate mendacity, the idiocy of “learning” being about delivering content, teachers being deprofessionalized and devalued, and more. Now remember this is 1992 in the era of the first President Bush – well before our current crop of education reformers, No Child Left Behind, Khan Academy, “ed-trepreneurs”, or Silicon Valley types thinking they can fix education with a weekend hackathon. In the same year that Michelle Rhee graduated college, well before she ever envisioned taping children to their desks, much less “reforming” education, Gary was working in schools teaching programming to kids (and their teachers). And not because the kids might get a job, but because it was their right to have agency over the computer, the most powerful invention of our lifetime.

Honestly, before I met Gary I had never given it ANY thought to the idea the school system was biased towards certain kinds of students, because I WAS that student.  Gary introduced me to a whole new way to think about learning, and also to great thinkers like Seymour Papert. My learning journey began when I started to read people like Alfie Kohn and Seymour Papert, and yes, Gary Stager.

This summer, Gary and I will lead our ninth annual summer institute for educators called Constructing Modern Knowledge. Our first year, Gary convinced Alfie Kohn to be our keynote speaker. Why have Kohn speak at an event about creativity and computing? Because his expertise allows him to see the difference between computers used to do standardized testing and computers used, as Gary often says, “to amplify human potential.” Not only did we invite Kohn to reinforce this important distinction, but also to show him that there were uses of computers that met this high bar, and that there are teachers who are ready, willing, and able to take this back to their schools and make it happen.

The secret agenda was that Kohn would experience the difference, and use his immense communication skills and his national stature to help millions more people see this distinction. Maybe it worked!

The current popularity of the maker movement in education (and our book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom) is a sign that this is truly possible. We can change school, we can make them better places for learning, but only if we stand up to politicians, plutocrats, and corporations who insist that kids simply need to be plugged into learning systems set on stun. We need national figures like Alfie Kohn on our side for this to spread beyond the “educational technology” camp.

Along with Gary, Kohn mentioned three other educators, all of whom have interesting lenses through which they view and critique educational technology.  Emily Talmadge has been doing great work in pulling the covers back to reveal the slimy politics and business practices of the school “reform” movement. She stands on the shoulders of giants like Susan Ohanian, Gerald Bracey, Stephen Krashen, Roger Schank, and many many more who have been writing about these topics for years.

Will Richardson who writes passionately as a teacher and parent, and Larry Cuban as a researcher have both had long careers communicating the nuances of what constitutes good (and bad) learning with technology. These four people represent four interesting and worthy perspectives to recommend to readers of The Washington Post.

So Jennifer, should Valerie Strauss have asked someone else to write that article instead of Alfie Kohn? No! She should ask LOTS of people, men and women — teachers, advocates, researchers, parents, and anyone who can make a compelling case to write about the issue. She has in the past. Her column offers a rare national spotlight on progressive perspectives countering the well-funded education reform advocates. By featuring Alfie Kohn to articulate the harm caused by computerized testing, she’s doing us all a big favor.

Should I have been on Kohn’s list instead of them? I don’t think so. I’m not doing that “woman thing” saying oh shucks, I’m not worthy. I aspire to have the reach and influence someday of any of these people, and if I keep working and writing and talking about these issues, I might earn it.  I think I’m doing a good job and I’m getting better at this.

I do not support a call to ignore Alfie’s credentials or deny him his due national spotlight because he’s a man. And the list of people he mentioned, three men and a woman, are due their respect too.

* I changed this because Jennifer Binis and several people on Twitter pointed out that her article really wasn’t about “mansplaining”, and I see their point. However, I don’t agree with the “boost” argument. Alfie Kohn is a national bestselling author, if anything, the boost goes the other way, Valerie Strauss gets a boost for her column.

Thingmaker – the 3D printer from Mattel – an answer for maker education?

Mattel’s ThingMaker brings 3D printing to iconic ’60s toy

Seen the headlines? 3D printing is coming, faster cheaper, easier to manage… but is it better?

Anyone who is thinking about “making in education” has likely bought (or at least thought about) a 3D printer for their makerspace or classroom. In our book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, fabrication is one of the three “game changer” technologies that have the most potential for schools. But as anyone  who has tried 3D printing knows, it’s not a mature technology by any means, and takes work to integrate it into rich design experiences for young people. At this point in time, most classroom focused 3D printers are too slow and too glitchy to really serve a lot of students doing iterative design. There is no perfect software solution, and software is at the core of the design process. Of course, every day they get cheaper, more reliable, and these problems will decrease.

So the recent announcement by Mattel of a reboot of the 1960’s toy Thingmaker sounds too good to be true. After all, if Mattel believes this is reliable enough to sell at Toys R Us, it must solve all these issues, right?

Is this “the answer”?  It depends what question you ask. Do you like toys? Do you need more plastic stuff? Then the answer is yes. Do you want kids to engage in designing, mathematical thinking, and problem solving? Then the answer is no.

And hey, if my kids were still little I would totally buy this. And play with it myself. It’s a reboot of literally my favorite toy when I was a kid. I still have some of the dragons somewhere.

But – take a close look at what you get.

It’s not going to be an open design in hardware or software. There will be pre-designed parts you can drag and drop to make creatures, robots, etc. Pick Arm A and Body B and in several hours you can print and assemble your own little monster, or other Mattel branded stuff. It’s not going to be “maker” in the sense of “if you can’t open it you don’t own it.” For those people who find that important, this is a mockery, for those who just want to reliably make plastic toys, it’s perfect.

Because from a stability and reliability standpoint, the whole “open” concept is deadly. What if you design something that can’t actually be printed in real life? A learning opportunity, you say? For Mattel, that’s a design that cannot be allowed. Locking down the design process into a drag and drop app makes it reliable. It’s not a BAD app, or a BAD corporate decision, it is what it is.

Once they sterilize the design side, and use proprietary software all the way from design to the hot end, then it’s just a hardware problem that remains. No worries about strange g-code or updates to open source code.

On the hardware side,  Mattel is good at making cheap, reliable hardware. They will require their filament (you can see it in the photo above), so that helps them maintain consistency as well.

So is it a bad thing for schools to consider? No. Depends how much money you have for toys. Will kids like it? Of course. Will some enterprising hacker figure out how to hack into it? Highly likely.

But think of the parallels. Do kids like EZ Bake Ovens? of course. Can you make edible stuff? Yes. Do some people hack them to turn out gourmet meals? No doubt. So would you turn your culinary arts program (if you are lucky enough to have one) over to all EZ Bake Ovens?

Let’s also differentiate between parents getting these for kids, and schools buying them and pretending it’s a STEM initiative. Schools buying these should consider the whole picture of the design cycle, not just the plastic parts that spit out at the end.

My childhood in black and white…

Commitment bias: nowhere to go but wrong

More thoughts on Ahmed and his clock. (Previous post: Ahmed and his clock come to your school, what would happen?)

I think there were other factors at play there, perhaps equally as possible as racism/islamophobia. “Commitment bias” is when a person becomes increasingly committed to a position as they have to explain the reasons publicly. It’s a combination of human nature (in for a penny, in for a pound), peer pressure, and feeling there is no way to back down. Every adult called on the scene became part of the new narrative of “hoax bomb”, which became the only way to move forward instead of standing down.

Now the city and district officials are in this same trap. No way to say, “gee, that was a mistake” without looking weak.

The other is the interplay of the School Resource Officers (SRO) and all the other adults. SROs are meant to bridge between school and police, getting to know students, be a familiar person on the scene. However, it doesn’t always work that way. The bridge can have both positive and negative consequences, sometimes becoming an onramp to the justice system that a kid never recovers from.

In this case, I wonder what the interplay between on and off campus police was. When the outside cops show up, do the SROs feel responsible for defending their turf? Would that play out in protecting a student in trouble and trying to keep him out of trouble or justifying the actions that have already taken place?

Related: Are School Resource Officers Part of the Problem or Solution? (US News and World Report)

Ahmed and his clock come to your school. What would happen?

On Monday in Irving, Texas, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed came to school with a digital clock he had built. He showed his Engineering teacher, who told him not to show it to other teachers. In English class the clock beeped and the teacher asked what it was. He showed her and she confiscated it.

Sometime later that day, Ahmed was called to the principal’s office, where he was questioned by police, arrested, and taken out of school in handcuffs. He was not allowed to call his parents.

They thought it was a bomb: 9th-grader arrested after bringing a home-built clock to school

I’m going to keep this post focused on the part that happened at school and the school’s reaction. You can read the rest — the charges have been dropped but the school suspended him for three days. You probably know about the huge social media reaction towards this story, including being invited to the White House by President Obama.

Personally, I think there is a racial and Islamophobic component to the reaction, most likely compounded by a climate of Muslim-bashing in the city led by the mayor. But even if that were not the case, I think there is much to learn about treating students.

So, what’s the lesson here? How would your school react?
You can’t really fault people for looking at this device and wondering about it. It does look like a “movie bomb” (as one of the police officers called it). Is everyone supposed to be an expert in what a bomb might look like? By the way, the photos make it look like a briefcase-sized device, but it’s actually a pencil case, about 6 inches wide. (You Be the Judge: Does This Look Like a Clock or a Bomb?)

Nobody wants to be the person on the news being asked, “Why didn’t you do anything?” after some disaster happens. “He seemed like such a nice boy” is not going to fly. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings and too many school shootings, people are more aware than ever that bad things can happen when you least expect it.

But the point of everyone being “on alert” for “suspicious activity” is lost when no one really knows what that looks like or what they should do when they see something. It leaves people open to speculating based more on fear and half-truths than on reality. Little brown boys become terrorists and criminals when imaginations run wild and imagine “what if” instead of dealing with the facts (and the child) in front of them.

A couple of initial points:

  • If the Engineering teacher thought that the device was suspicious looking enough to tell Ahmed to not show it to teachers, then he or she probably should have taken it at that point. Of course, hindsight is 20/20.
  • It’s certainly possible that the English teacher thought it was a bomb. However, if you think something is a bomb, do you hold out your hands and say, “give it to me” and put it in your desk drawer?

This, I think, is the point where the “bomb” stopped being important and the criminalizing of Ahmed started. If you have a “bomb” that you are really worried about, you call the police who bring the bomb squad. Irving is a major metropolitan area near the Dallas Fort Worth airport. There are people who know what a bomb looks like, and can deal with real ones.

The fact that this didn’t happen is the crime. The police were used not to ensure the safely of the school and all the occupants, but to simply show up to collect the “criminal”, already tried and convicted by school officials. And worse, they inflamed the situation with groundless speculation on the boy’s intent, concluding in an Alice-in-Wonderland-like fashion, that because Ahmed kept insisting that the clock was just a clock, he must be hiding something, which allowed them to arrest him for a “hoax bomb”.

Social media is mocking the teachers, school officials, and police because they couldn’t tell the difference between a clock and a bomb. I think that’s false – they knew the whole time that it wasn’t a bomb.

If you think you really are dealing with a bomb, you evacuate the school and let professionals deal with it. So obviously, someone made a decision at a very early point that this was not a real bomb. Demurring about that fact is simply a lie to cover up the mishandling of this situation.

But that’s not the real story. The outrage is that they cared so little about the welfare of this student to moderate their reaction with some common sense. They weren’t in a crisis situation, there was no danger to the school or the people inside. There was plenty of time to seek other courses of action and get more information.

Maybe someone who knew the boy should have been called, for example the engineering teacher, and obviously his parents. As Ahmed was led out in handcuffs, he saw his student counselor with a shocked expression – “the one who knows I am a good boy” said Ahmed.

Instead, he was questioned for 90 minutes by four or five police officers and threatened with expulsion by the principal if he didn’t make a written confession. Ahmed was not allowed to call his parents, even though he asked. All this time, the clock was in the same room. Obviously no one thought it was a bomb.

The school, district officials, police, and city officials insist that Ahmed’s name, religion, and race (his family is from Sudan) had nothing to do with his treatment.

However, the suspicion by the world that a climate of hostility towards children of color and/or Muslims exists seems justified by the lack of moderation and clumsy rush to judgment in the school’s and police response.

To this date, there has been no apology to Ahmed, nor has his suspension been rescinded.

In fact, just the opposite has happened. From the district, principal, mayor, and police chief there has been a solid stream of justification.

(from the Washington Post story) Irving Independent School District spokeswoman Lesley Weaver declined to discuss the case, though she confirmed that a MacArthur High School student was arrested on campus.

“We always ask our students and staff to immediately report if they observe any suspicious items and/or suspicious behavior,” she wrote. “If something is out of the ordinary, the information should be reported immediately to a school administrator and/or the police so it can be addressed right away. We will always take necessary precautions to protect our students and keep our school community as safe as possible.”

So here, the district is trying to portray the handling of this incident as necessary to “protect our students” and a matter of safety. This is obviously false, there were never any students in danger (besides Ahmed) – and they knew it.

The school issued a letter to parents and the community which was quickly mocked worldwide. It blames Ahmed and obfuscates the fact that when it counted, they felt it was perfectly fine to NOT protect one particular student. The condescending tone of the “helpful” advice is grating.

“I recommend using this opportunity to talk with your child about the Student Code of Conduct and specifically not bringing items to school that are prohibited. Also, this is a good time to remind your child how important it is to immediately report any suspicious items and/or suspicious behavior they observe to any school employee so we can address it right away. We will always take necessary precautions to protect our students.”

This is silly. It’s obvious that clocks aren’t on the list of prohibited devices. Plus, suggesting to students that reporting suspicious items or behavior will result in increased safety is obviously not true, since they just saw a classmate marched out in handcuffs.

A few days later, the district pulled a classic deflecting move, issuing a statement defending the English teacher – as if that was the problem. “We do stand behind what the teacher did,” [a district spokesperson] said. “We believe she was acting in the best interest for the safety of all 2,800 students at MacArthur High School. She followed the correct procedures.”

I’m sure the teacher who reported it believed that she was doing the right thing. In fact, if this incident had not gone viral, the Engineering teacher might be in danger of punishment since the “suspicious object” went unreported. In zero tolerance land, a teacher using good judgment and reasoning based on actually knowing a student is  in danger.

But everything that happened after the “suspicious object” was reported to school officials is the problem – one that the district and school are not talking about, much less taking responsibility or apologizing for.

Consider that this school has an award-winning STEM program and is one of a tiny percentage of high schools in the U.S. that offer ANY kind of engineering class. This school should have been the best place for a young student interested in electronics to share his passion and talent. What went wrong? What lessons can other schools learn?

So, for your consideration, here are some questions for those of you in schools.

  • How would your current procedures work if Ahmed and his clock  appeared in your school?
  • What are the procedures in place for dealing with a “suspicious object”?
  • What are the definitions of “suspicious object” and “suspicious behavior”?
  • What are the criteria for calling police to arrest or question a student?
  • In this case, there were two school resource officers (SROs) (police who are stationed on campus) who were involved with questioning Ahmed. At some point they were joined by additional officers called to the school. What are your procedures for calling in additional police? Do your SROs operate under different rules than “outside” police officers? How are SROs trained about school policy?
  • Do you know what the law says about whether minors have the right to have parents, guardians, or an attorney present when they are questioned by police, either before or after arrest?
  • What procedures are in place for allowing students to call parents? Is there a trigger for this (i.e., time spent being questioned, seriousness of incident, etc.)? If so, what is it? Is that fair and correct?
  • Is it school policy to ask students to confess or provide written statements under duress?
  • Who is responsible for issuing statements to the press or to social media speaking for the school in response to incidents? Are these statements (including tweets and Facebook posts) checked by anyone before they go out?
  • Does it matter if the incident goes “viral”? What happens to students who get in trouble but don’t get tweets from the President?
  • What statement would you write if you were a district official and this happened at your district?
  • Are there avenues to change course, change minds, or apologize if actions were taken in error? Who is responsible for that?
  • Some have suggested that apologizing to Ahmed or undoing the suspension would open the  district or city to a lawsuit. Do you have a firm legal opinion if this is true or not?
  • Is apologizing to a student seen as weak or an invitation to future troublemakers?
  • What is (or should have been) the principal’s role, both now and at the time of the incident?
  • If you reviewed your records, would a pattern of disproportionate disciplinary action appear towards any group? Do you have data to review? If not, should that be collected?
  • Beyond discipline, do you believe that children of color or of minority religions are treated differently at your school? Are parents treated differently? If so, what are you doing about it?
  • Ahmed says that he’s been called names like “terrorist” at school before. What is your school policy for incidents like this? According to existing policy, is that considered bullying? What measures are in place to deal with  it? Is it acceptable to say, “well, no one reported it”?
  • The Mohamed family says that Ahmed will transfer to another school. Does this close the incident at his current school? What should his current school do, if anything? If Ahmed showed up at your school on Monday ready to enroll, what would you do?

You’ve been handed a perfect case study for your next faculty meeting. And as any crisis manager would advise, the time to think about this is before it happens to you.