CMK16 Wrap-up: Finding our People

The Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute wrapped up two days ago. I’m back home in Barrie with my family, happy to have had a day to rest and reflect before writing this post.

Thursday afternoon (day 3) we were treated to a panel discussion with Gary Stager, Carla Rinaldi, and Edith Ackermann. It wasn’t easy to draw everyone away form their projects, but it was worth stopping for an hour to spend more time thinking deeply about students and their learning experiences. We were treated to some more beautiful examples of documentation, in particular a series of photos illustrating the iteration that took place when students tried to draw people playing ‘Ring Around the Rosie;’ not a trivial task and rich with evidence of student learning. Documentation, learning as a group, iteration, playfulness, and caring were at the forefront of the discussion. You can read tweets from attendees here.

After a break for dinner, we were all invited to return to our project work. Facilitators made themselves available throughout the evening to help us with our projects. During this late-night work session there were lots of celebrations in the room as different groups achieved success with different parts of their projects. We had to make the difficult decision at this point to give up on our goal of having our Weasley Clock refresh positions of family members based on GPS or Twitter data. With the tools available and the technological limitations (particularly with the Wifi) we had to accept that our clock would need to work manually rather than ‘magically.’ Jim rewired our project using a new breadboard so that everything was neat and tidy and we had potentiometer inputs for each of the Weasley family members. The groups worked together on the final touches for the clock itself with incredible attention to detail. Although we did not achieve our pie-in-the-sky goal we learned about several technologies we could use to achieve a working Weasley clock. The SparkFun ‘Blynk’ board is one I would like to investigate further.

We finished up our project on Friday morning. This slideshow contains a number of images we took to help document our journey. The final version of our Arduino code is available here; we ran it on Arduino IDE and are simply using Codebender to share it with you. (I’m not sure that the NeoPixel library was working on Codebender). I will update this post if we upload a video to Vimeo.

On Friday afternoon we had about 2 hours to share our project and explore the other groups’ projects. The one word I would choose to describe the sharing time is ‘delightful.’ I can’t believe how much the other projects caused me to smile. Here is a small sample of projects:

These readouts are from moisture sensors placed at three different heights in a tower garden:

The lights in this blanket change colour based on time of day to let a child know when it’s time to get out of bed:

This is an interactive ‘etch-a-sketch.’ One person draws while the other person controls the size, shape, opacity, angle of rotation, and colour:

This is a garbage/recycling can that celebrates when people put something inside it:

This tree is an interactive history of The Blues:

You can explore more projects on the CMK Vimeo account. The variety of ideas and technologies was astounding.

At the end of sharing time, we were asked to disassemble our projects. After four days working hard on them, it was amazing to see how quickly they came apart. Although we all had invested a great deal of time and energy in our projects, I think the ease with which we took them apart speaks about the true value of the experience. Our collaboration, conversation, and learning is what we were taking home with us.

The final reflection at CMK was some how wistful and celebratory. Many participants shared that they felt they had found ‘their people.’ This certainly was a case of bringing together like-minded individuals, but although we all share similar educational values we each brought different perspectives and experience to the conference. One difference that was evident throughout the week was the type of schools each of us came from. I met teachers from public schools, exclusive prep schools, private schools focused on learning disabilities, and other unique schools like The Blue School. We cannot ignore the fact that the type of quality of resources available to us and our students’ families are extremely varied. I think CMK helped show that there are a wide range of materials and resources available for teachers who believe in learning through making; not all of them are expensive. Public schools have a role to play in ensuring that we are not increasing the disparity between rich and poor.

At the end of the reflection, when it was time to say goodbye, Gary Stager reminded all of us that we are the only ones standing between our students and ‘the madness.’ I think Gary is referring to a number of things when he says this – standardized testing, prescribed curriculum, defining worth based on grades instead of learning – in the end it does not matter what exactly he means by this. I think that the important thing is that teachers and students trust one another. Students need to trust that we are doing right by them. Teachers need to trust that students will learn and thrive when we create the right conditions.

Thanks to everyone at CMK for your help, patience, rich conversation, smiles, and celebrations. I don’t know if I’ll ever be back, but the experience certainly grounded my thinking and validated my work with students and teachers. It was certainly a conference unlike any other.

Click here for reflections on days 2 and 3 of CMK.

CMK16 Days 2 and 3: Finding our part in the Big Picture

It’s the afternoon of day 3 at the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Yesterday was a whirlwind of learning and inspiration. I’ll do my best to capture some highlights.

After a short work session in the morning, during which our groups were able to meet up and decide on some next steps, we were treated to an inspirational talk given by Carla Rinaldi, president of Reggio Children and of the Reggio Children – Loris Malaguzzi Centre Foundation. It is difficult to use words to capture the depth of insight and emotion that she shared with us, but here is a short collection of tweets from attendees. (I would highly recommend that you read and/or listen to her thinking; here is a video summarizing her thoughts on ‘reclaiming childhood.’)

My background in teaching is as a secondary Science teacher, but every word of Dr. Rinaldi’s talk resonated with both the teacher and the mother in me. Science is all about wonder and discovery, and I have seen in my practice that by secondary school many children have lost their natural curiosity, sense of wonder, and willingness to take reasonable risks. Who can blame them? So often, school is about grades, the ‘right’ answer, and pleasing the teacher. I won’t speak more about that here, but feel free to pause for a mental rant if you wish.

We enjoyed a lovely lunch filled with rich discussion about outdoor learning, and the marriage of technology with real-life, hands-on experiences. We compared reporting requirements from our districts and talked about the value of building relationships based on continual feedback that have students, parents, and teachers working in partnership. Rather than being a mental break, our lunch discussion continued to stretch my brain and my thinking.

Back at the conference, we only had a short 30 minutes to meet and work on our project before it was time to get ready for our trip to Boston. This was SO frustrating! In our reflection, someone pointed out that this is exactly what we often do to our students – we introduce a new topic, get them engaged, then the bell rings and it’s time to switch classes/subjects. Another great a-ha moment. This is the value of placing ourselves in a learning stance this week – we are experiencing all of the joy, frustration, and growth that students do. Teachers should probably put themselves in this position more often.

We boarded buses at 3:30 to head to Boston. We arrived at the MIT Media Lab around 5PM, and had a few minutes to explore before a talk by Mitchel Resnick. He spoke clearly and eloquently about the goals of the Media Lab, and of his Lifelong Kindergarten Group. One thing that struck me during his talk was that he, as Dr. Rinaldi had in the morning, made it abundantly clear that the work he does would not be possible without the work of those who came before. The new technologies and research coming out of the Media Lab are not unique in nature, but rather extensions, reimaginations, or new innovations based on the work of those who championed maker education year – or decades – ago. I was especially touched by the clips of Seymour Papert, whose delight in the work of children is always so evident. We should all be so delighted in our daily work with students.

After a break for cupcakes, we were treated to a presentation by Stephen Wolfram, a well-known mathematician and computer scientist and creator of the Wolfram language. His demonstration of the Wolfram language and tools was fast-paced. One such tool is Wolfram Alpha, a tool designed to answer questions asked in everyday English. You can try it yourself: go to the Wolfram Alpha website and type something like ‘what is the largest mammal’ or ‘what is the population of Toronto’ to get a small idea of the power of this tool. Dr. Wolfram’s demonstration of the Wolfram programming language was spectacular, and I immediately wanted to give it a try myself. I can see the potential here for programming to become more accessible and intuitive. Here is a video demonstration of the language. Buckle up.

By the way, Stephen Wolfram has a custom laptop. Check it out:

Released into the city of Boston, we had dinner at a restaurant in the north end (which will remain nameless, because – inexplicably – they were not open to allowing our party of 6 to split our bill despite the fact that we were all from different states and provinces.) A short walk to meet our bus at Boston Commons and we were soon back in Manchester with visions of code dancing in our heads.

Day 3 began with some success and some challenges for the Weasley group. Our early morning troubleshooting session was successfully resolved after 45 minutes when we restarted our computers. (Yup. Try this first, folks.) The clock construction has gone beautifully today. Many thanks to Michelle, Jon, Jess, Kate, and Jennifer for having the perfect combination of nerdiness, creativity, and persistence to make this clock beautiful. Jim and Kate successfully soldered our 60-LED NeoPixel ring to create a programmable clock face. The programming has required a great deal of troubleshooting due to the fact that each quarter of the circle was actually a slightly different product. Jim has done a great job decoding the LED arguments required to properly address them. Reegan and I are determined that we will be able to control the LEDs using Twitter, rather than using the potentiometers. Time is ticking. We’re hoping for the best.

I can’t say enough about our team. Donuts appeared at some point today (thanks, Jess!) and Michelle and Kate are working away on beautiful take-home souvenirs for all of us. Walking around the facility today, I am continually blown away by the variety and the ingenious nature of the projects people are working on. I hope to document as many as possible tomorrow.

My take-home message for the last 36 hours is that we are all building on the knowledge of others. It is so important to share and discuss the ideas of thought leaders so that we are able to acknowledge their role in making our work possible and build upon their wisdom with our own experience. We can’t stand on the shoulders of giants without consciously remembering that we are doing so.

Click here for Day 1 CMK reflections.
Click here for final reflections.

CMK16 Day One: Putting On Our Learner Hats

Today is the first day of the 2016 Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. This is a four-day conference where educators work collaboratively on creative projects with the mentorship of thought leaders and experts who champion and embody the maker movement. Our first day began with an introduction by Dr. Gary Stager, who encouraged all of us to take off our teacher hats and put on our learner hats. I liked the reference he made to ‘mouth down’ frustration vs. ‘mouth up’ frustration. He did a wonderful job explaining the philosophy of the institute and helped us to understand the huge amount of expertise and experience present with us in the room.

The next part of our morning was an EdCamp-style process of idea generation for potential projects. The variety of ideas was stunning, and I put my name next to quite a few before deciding to join the ‘Weasley Clock Project.’

If you are unfamiliar with the Weasley Family clock, it is a whimsical clock that hangs on the wall at the home of one of the families featured in the Harry Potter series, and has different hands that indicate the current physical location of each of the family members (notice that ‘Mortal Peril’ is one of the potential ‘locations’…):

Shortly after making this decision, I found myself sitting at a round table with fellow educators looking for a place to start. After some introductions we began to talk through our ideas: how could we make the Weasley Clock come to life? We identified two main areas to focus on: collecting GPS information from family members and translating that information into a visual display on our clock. We talked for a while about the pros and cons of different displays: hands vs. lights, modern vs. antique looks, number of ‘regions’ on the clock, number of family members, etc. Google searches told us that this had been done before, and this helped give us hope that our vision was possible. (Check out this lovely example:

We moved on to select our materials and received some useful guidance from faculty member Dr. Ben Leduc-Mills about taking things one step at a time. I think this advice was important because everyone in our group was coming to the project from different starting points. Focusing on something simple to start (like getting a device working properly to control ONE light) was reasonable, and actually proved difficult when the first tool we selected was not able to work on the hotel network. Some frustration and head-scratching ensued, but we were never truly discouraged.


Next? Lunch break!
(Delicious lunch at Dancing Lion Chocolate. How did so many incredible restaurants end up in this town? Our dinner last night at Republic was outstanding. Definitely stop in Manchester if you’re ever traveling through New Hampshire.)

After lunch, we regrouped and spent some time selecting new tools and clearly defining a starting point for our project. At this point, it was time to divide and conquer. We focused on figuring out how to get fewer LEDs to light up – just finding connecting wires long enough to work in our clock project was a challenge. We also looked at ways to provide input to our clock using a potentiometer after a failed attempt at using a button. We worked on materials selection and planning for the design of the final clock. After much frustration with the task of coding the lights and potentiometers, we had a brilliant flash of success with only moments remaining before our end-of-day reflection time. Three and a half hours had flown by. At this point it is hard to envision how things will turn out, but a small taste of coding success is a great motivator.

Aside from the project work, meeting other educators from around the world has been a great learning experience. The huge variety in school philosophies, hometown demographics, and job descriptions has been a fascinating part of our discussions during work and mealtime. Everyone here shares a common interest in the value of making in education, and everyone is committed to taking the best of what they learn back to their schools to improve their students’ experience.

I look forward to tomorrow, and promise to blog more as soon as I get a chance. 🙂


Click here for Day 2/3 Reflections

The Hologram Story

(This post also appears in our SCDSB 194 Days of Learning Blog!)

I work with a phenomenal team of people. We don’t always see a great deal of each other throughout the week as we pop in and out of the office on our way to and from schools across the county. One way we keep in touch is through Twitter. (You can see what our entire team has been tweeting by checking out Pat Miller‘s list here:

Tuesday evening, I saw this tweet:

Turn your Smartphone into a 3D hologram? Let’s just say this: if you want to do an ‘upcycling’ project to create a device that turns iPads and smartphones into hologram viewers, you don’t need to twist any arms in our department. Those of us who were going to be in the office Wednesday morning offered to bring supplies, and we were off and running.

In the morning we got down to business, creating templates for our CD case pieces on millimetre graph paper, carefully cutting out plastic pieces with utility knives, and trying out different types of glue to see what would best hold our device together. In true PIT fashion, we streamed the whole process on Periscope and viewers from all over the world checked in to see what we were making.

In the end? It worked. (It’s really neat; you should try it.) But what happened next was what made this more than just an impromptu craft activity. We tried to improve upon our original design. We built a couple of larger templates. We talked about other materials we could use. We shared our project with nearby colleagues inside and outside the department. We discussed all of the curriculum connections (math, science, art, etc.) that this activity could support. We discussed classroom safety concerns and modifications for different age groups.

Do you think we’d allow our learning to stop there? Of course not! Later that day when we went home we shared the hologram devices with our families and continued to create bigger, better, and different devices. I made one out of an acetate sheet. My husband used my model to create a template for making more, and proceeded to use this as an activity with his math class on Thursday.

All of us shared our learning with our families and let our own children check out the holograms. They were a big hit. Lisa Boate used her dog’s e-collar to build a larger hologram device that she took to a school with her the following day to share with a students. Their reaction sums up the way we all felt about our first glimpse of one of these holograms:

Jamila recognized the power of the hologram activity to inspire. I am grateful to her for running with this inspiration and I know that all the thanks she really needs is to see the ripple effect it created.

Sometimes it is OK to drop everything for the sake of making something beautiful. (As long as you have the appropriate safety equipment, of course!)

Library Evolution

(This post also appears in our SCDSB 194 Days of Learning Blog!)

Today I had the privilege of visiting the library at Baxter Central Public School. Last spring I had corresponded with the librarian, Andrew Morrison, about transforming part of his library into a ‘Makerspace.’ 

Makerspace has become a bit of a buzzword in the last couple of years; many people are curious about them and wondering how they can create one in their school. Our teacher librarians have a key role to play in this venture as we see many ‘learning commons’ being transformed into multi-purpose spaces, and Melissa Jensen has been doing a phenomenal job sharing her expertise with all of our librarians as they consider their changing roles in our schools. The arrival of the green screens in schools last autumn was probably one of the first indications that our libraries were becoming key locations for students to engage in hands-on creation.

After our short exchanges in the spring, I was thrilled to hear that Andrew had decided to dive into the murky waters of Makerspaces head-first this fall. The list of opportunities that students are being offered in the library at Baxter Central is extensive:

  • 2 puppetry / stop motion lego stations with green backdrops
  • Electricity Snap Circuitry station
  • Builder Station (variety of building supplies with principles about structures and design)
  • Junior Coding Station with CanaryMod / Minecraft on four tablets, also serves as GAFE station
  • Junior/Intermediate Coding Station with two Raspberry Pi devices
  • Examination Station with microscopes, magnifying glasses, and various items
  • Inventor’s Booth with materials and guidelines on invention process (taken from
  • Deconstruction station where there are a variety of devices that the students can take apart.  Using a camera, they’ll take pictures as they take items apart to document their findings.

Upon my arrival in the building this afternoon, I announced to the office staff that my destination was the library. I was immediately told that the library was ‘the place to be’ and that it was fast becoming students’ favourite place to spend time. 

When I arrived in the library, it was buzzing with activity. The makerspace area was jam-packed with students working on a variety of projects. Students were disassembling coffee makers and computers, experimenting with a sonic motion sensor, analyzing body organs taken from plastic models, working on plans for inventions, creating green screen stop-motion videos with LEGO minifigures, and observing slides under a microscope. Sound like chaos? It was. The room was electric. Students were engaged, and reluctant to leave their projects when lunch time arrived.


After lunch I had the pleasure of sticking around to observe a grade 2 class experiment with a Roominate set. (You’ll notice it’s branded for girls, but any girl knows that branding shouldn’t be a limitation for creativity…right, LEGO?) With no instructions students built buildings and furniture and figures out how to create circuits including lights, switches and motors. Students shared their newfound knowledge with their peers, saying things like ‘You need to switch the wires so that red goes with red.’ and ‘If you add a button then you can switch the light on and off; let me show you!’ Their enthusiasm was fabulous and it was a delightful way to end my first visit.

Andrew is calling his Makerspace the ‘STEAM Room.’ Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math were all happening in the STEAM room, but, more importantly, the essence of a STEAM program was alive in that room. Students were collaborating, making decisions, performing research, communicating with peers and with a wider audience, asking deep questions about their tasks, and engaged in authentic tasks. All of this with minimal guidance. Baxter Central is proof that, with appropriate provocations, students will create their own learning opportunities that are guaranteed to produce deep understanding of the world around them.

If you’re thinking about STEAMing up your library or classroom, keep your eyes open for our STEAM inquiry. Every SCDSB school will have a chance to participate in this learning opportunity, and we can’t wait to see how it will transform your buildings.

So, what are you going to make this year? Keep your eyes on this blog for more about our SCDSB Makerspace trailblazers!

Makerspace Musings

This past weekend I helped some of my colleagues host a GAFE (Google Apps for Education) conference in Barrie. When jobs were being assigned I leapt at the chance to help run a makerspace for kids, in part because I am intrigued by the multitude of maker stories appearing in blogs and on twitter, in part because I identify as a maker, and in part because I knew that my own kids would love it. We ended up hosting about 15 kids in our space who ranged in age from 6 to 11 years. Button-making, knitting, weaving, robots, Makey-Makey, squishy circuits, LEGO, art-bots and more were on our ‘maker menu.’
We set up our makerspace in the front foyer of the host school (for optimum visibility) and although it was sunny and spacious it was also cavernous and noisy. The best part? On four different occasions a child told me that they were bored. Each time this happened, that same child soon found something to occupy their attention for at least another hour. At the end of the day I practically pried the button maker out of one girl’s hands as she raced to complete her ‘forty-somethingth’ button.

Standing back and taking in the view on Saturday, things in the makerspace appeared to be very organic. Kids were camped out in bean bag chairs or sprawled on the floor; standing at desks or chasing robots up and down the hall; grazing at the snack table or engaged in constructing a marble run. They explored new media with curiosity and the benefit of minimum adult intervention. Here are some images from the day:

There are a number of schools in our board that have expressed a desire to incorporate makerspaces into their learning environments. After my experience on Saturday I have a better idea of what ‘mass making’ entails, but many questions remain:
  • Would it be possible to free up students in a school to explore, unfettered, for an hour (or hours) at a time?
  • How could we arrange these spaces to help kids get the most out of them?
  • What amount of teacher guidance is appropriate in these spaces?
  • How do we manage the continuous generation of mess that comes with creation (and encourage kids to take ownership of this space)?
  • What is the role of curriculum in a makerspace?
  • How would we manage to maintain a continuous supply of consumables without putting a significant dent in school budgets?


I know that established makerspaces have answers to some of these questions and a good deal of advice to offer, but I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to dabble in a makerspace environment and experience the urgency of these questions for myself.

If you have never visited a makerspace, I would highly recommend the experience. As an alternative, take the plunge host a ‘maker day’ at your school to get a feel for the wonder and excitement that it can generate. One of our secondary schools (Stayner Collegaite Institute) recently hosted such a day, and although I was not able to attend it is clear that it has generated ripples of curiosity.




Finally, tech (in the form of ipads and computers) played only a supporting role in our makerspace. We had several iPads that remained untouched for the entire day. This was not what we had anticipated, but it was wonderful to see how much the students thrived from making with their hands and learning from one another. There was a vivid sense of community in the space that all of us embraced.