It’s been two weeks since the Constructing Modern Knowledge 2008 summer institute in Manchester, NH, and I’m still processing it. CMK08 was an exhilarating learning experience, both as a participant, an observer, and as part of the team making it happen. You don’t often get to have all those experiences at once!
The goal of the conference was to offer a way for educators to spend time being a learner and using technology in deep, rich, constructive ways. A way to “walk the talk” of taking off the teacher hat and exploring what makes learning with technology different. There was no way this could be another session-session-session conference, or even a typical “hands-on” workshop.
So participating in the planning of the event was an eye-opener. How do you create a climate where people feel supported, but will still take risks? What “stuff” do you need? How to structure a day with enough time for working on projects, learning new things, collegial interaction, and sleep. The man in charge, Gary Stager, has had plenty of experience planning these events, but I’ve had almost none. So listening to him talk about how this could work, drawing on 25 years of experience was informative. I learned a lot before the event even started. In the end, each day consisted of a short opening framework from Gary, one guest speaker, and the rest of the time spent working on individual and group projects. Plus evening social events!
OK, we brought a lot of stuff. About 100 books that ranged from academic classics to books that are great for classrooms and students. Here’s the list. Lots of books about the Reggio Emilia philosophy of education – they are all beautiful, with amazing care taken to represent children’s work and discuss it thoughtfully. Two large suitcases of Lego and robotics materials. Lots of articles and how to guides. And then when we got to Manchester, we went to WalMart and Staples for more. We bought bubbles, marshmallows, bubble gum, a whiffle ball and bat, a printer, color pencils, crayons, art supplies, an a bunch of other stuff. What’s it all for? Read on…
Once we got to the hotel to set up, we found 10 more boxes. Several companies had donated constructive, creative software and materials for our participants. Tech4Learning sent full suites of their creativity tools, including a whole Claymation Kit. LCSI sent MicroWorlds EX Robotics and Inspiration sent InspireData. Make magazine sent a case of Make and Craft magazines. Sibelius/M-Audio sent 3 keyboards and music composition software for us to use. By late Sunday night we had everything ready.
In the midst of all this, Gary took several early arrivals on a tour of Boston, his college home town (Berklee School of Music). They went to the MIT Museum and did a guided walking tour of the Freedom Trail. Once back from that, Gary had to rush back to WalMart to buy rice for some mysterious reason – more about that later.
Monday morning started the institute. Everyone started to arrive and settle down, install new software and meeting and greeting. The introductions were amazing. People had come from all over the country, and two from Israel and Khartoum. We had kindergarten to high school teachers, math, science, art, administrators, public and private schools, tech coordinators, district — just about every combination of educators you could imagine. After some opening words, we brainstormed some ideas for projects – dancing clowns, musical sculptures, a video or simulation about the immigrant experience, a boat, a kaleidoscope and more. Then people grouped themselves on a project. My job was to float around and facilitate, connect people with resources, open boxes of stuff, find clay or eyeballs or pipe cleaners or debug programs or whatever.
Some groups took off right away. I spent a lot of time with a group doing a video using the Claymation kit and the Frames animation software. We set up the green screen and brainstormed ideas. Some of the ideas worked, some didn’t, and when we did a test with the software, we had our first AHA moment. Working with our test pictures and the software lead to another, wholly unexpected discovery and that lead to an even better idea. Our story took on a new and different shape before our eyes because we allowed it to and we had time. If we had rigidly stuck to the original plan and schedule, it wouldn’t have happened.
Someone started making turtles out of the clay. Why turtles? Not really sure how that happened. But suddenly they were the stars of the movie. Somebody said, “it’s hard to line the turtles up to the previous frame” and someone pointed to the onion-skinning button, and that knowledge was passed quickly around the table. Then someone else sat down with one of the keyboards and composed a song to go along with the movie. We didn’t have to sit through workshops on music software, frame animation techniques, or turtle carving. The idea of “collaboration through the air” that Gary had talked about that morning had just happened.
But I wasn’t supposed to just help one group! So I walked around and asked people what they were working on. Two or three groups were going strong. But I found some people just “playing” with software. Hmm…. that wasn’t supposed to happen, where were their groups? One of the groups had disbanded, some were sitting at the same table, but not working on the same thing. So, I asked our fearless leader, Gary, what to do – should I try to get people working in groups? No, he says, let people approach things in their own way. Offer them help but let them decide to participate. So although this is against my A-type to-do list mentality, I have to trust him.
A couple of people off in the corner are clearly not working on a project. I ask them what they are doing and they say they are doing lesson plans for fall. I encourage them to join a project and learn about some of these tools, to have the experience of learning. No, they say, this is a good time away from the office for them to work on these plans, but they promise they’ll start working on something later in the afternoon. They look at me and smile, clearly hoping I’ll go away and leave them alone. I do.
Sarah Sutter from Maine put it like this, “I figured someone would lead us through some exercises, show us some plans, maybe discuss how best to implement these new (to me) tools in the classroom, and I’d receive enough information to work with it later. Nope. Gary told us to take off our teacher hats, and he meant it. From what I observed, the quicker one transitioned from teacher to learner, the better things went.“
The Rice Sculpture and the Texas Boys
On Sunday, the two “boys” from Texas went on the tour of the MIT museum where they saw an exhibit of kinetic sculptures. They came back with an idea to recreate the moving rice sculpture in Lego, and even improve it by replacing the hand crank with motors. This was the cause of the late-night WalMart rice run. Be sure to read Paul Wood’s and Scott Floyd’s blog reflections with pictures and videos about their re-creation of this sculpture.
By Monday afternoon, the first version was done – and it was fascinating. It had an organic movement to it that was both creepy and compelling to watch. This was more than a nice piece of engineering, it was beautiful. That was the first piece for me in what turned out to be my big takeaway from the week – the part that esthetics plays in construction of knowledge.
Each day ended with a circle where everyone could wrap up their impressions of the day. Typically I’m leery of anything that smacks of touchy-feely kumbayah theatrics. But it was important to bring the meta-analysis back to the day. People had allowed themselves to take their “teacher hats” off for a time, now it was time to step back and think about the meaning behind what was happening to them as learners and what it meant for how they might change their own management of student learning environments. More than a few people expressed how uncomfortable it felt to be “thrown off the deep end” and told to JUST DO something. But then almost all said that the feeling of moving past that discomfort and frustration was meaningful and necessary. Gary had mentioned watching for this “mouth-up frustration” as a good sign. But what’s the right balance of frustration and hand-holding? Obviously, in this group, there were as many answers as there were personalities. What does this imply for students?
What I learned
I know I’ll have more to say about this, but to wrap up this reflection, here’s some of what I learned from Constructing Modern Knowledge.
- A workshop plan needs a lot of space for people to adjust it to their own needs. Gary expressed this by not having a set agenda, but “appointments” – lunch was noonish, the speakers started only after they visited with the participants and saw the projects that were underway. The work was first priority, not the schedule.
- Some people walk in the door ready to hand their hearts and minds over to you, some have agendas you will never understand.
- Uncertainty and frustration signals growth and learning about to happen. On the teacher side, it’s tempting to step in right at that moment to “fix it” — which is exactly the wrong thing to do (assist, answer questions, yes… do it for them, no)
- Having more than enough “stuff” let people focus on what they wanted to do, not just what they could do. It became inspiration, not a recipe.
- You have to have enough time to let the process work. People are different, but I believe this unconventional experience worked for the vast majority of participants. It also signals the kinds of learning environments that work for kids.
There was so much more to talk about — the guest speakers, so many other very cool projects, the role of esthetics in learning, but this is enough for today!
To close, please enjoy a video by Michael Steinberg, shot, edited and presented at CMK08!