#edcampswct follow-up


During the last session of yesteday’s #Edcampswct (see edcamp.org about what an Edcamp is), I led a discussion on MakerSpaces and Maker Programs.  I want to summarize what points I made there, and provide links to deeper insights on those subjects; and make a few further points that I don’t think I made in the time allowed, but were on my mind.

Here are the key points, which are further summarized below (@MrPerraultGES took a photo of my notes):

  1. Visual Thinking
  2. 2D makes 3D
  3. Tools Make Tools Make Things
  4. What Hands Make, Mind Knows
  5. Recycle and D.I.Y.
  6. Space Requirements
    1. Tool Storage
    2. Materials Storage
    3. Project Storage
    4. Workspace
    5. Input/Receiving
    6. Archive Process
    7. How-To Library
    8. Repair (and Sharpening)
    9. First Aid
  7. Best Practice vs. Liability
  8. (And to these 7 steps  I’m adding—
    1. Games and Game Playing
    2. Past vs. Future Orientation )


2015 in review

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WordPress makes it possible for me to post their annual report to me to my blog.  If you’re interested in the contents of the report, you can click below and see it.

A couple of important highlights. Thanks to Christina, Robert, Stacey, Lisa, and Topher for being the most frequent commenters. Thanks to Gordon, for being my most frequent source of new readers that aren’t from Facebook, Twitter, etc, and for the continuing visits from the Artofmemory folks.

My own sense of the top ten posts of 2015 is here.


Millennials Challenges


I’ve been thinking about the Millennials — that is, the generation that pretty much came of age and entered the workforce as the Y2K panic was ending.  I was 10 years before that, so I think I belong to the prior generation.  But a friend of mine was sharing an article on Facebook about how spoiled and incompetent they are, and I thought to myself, That doesn’t really ring true to me. (Even Business Insider said something different about it).

When I thought about it, I realized that I could think of four things which might have had a serious and detrimental effect on their growing up and their early education.  I don’t mean to suggest that these things mean that  Millennials are spoiled and incompetent, or to suggest that these are the reasons that Millennials should be called spoiled and incompetent.  I’m simply pointing out that there were four themes or ongoing changes in America at the time that the Millennials were in school, and that maybe, just maybe, these had an effect on them.

I should also say that I haven’t really researched these yet, and this is very much a back-of-the-envelope estimation; I could be off by 4-8 years in my guesswork.

Here they are.

  1. The end of Shop, Home Economics, Drafting, and other technical classes.  Outside of technical high schools, most American schools bought into the idea that ‘everyone must go to college’.  As a result, schools began to shut down their technical classes, sell the drill presses and band saws.  This coincides with a wave of retirements for shop teachers; the guy who taught my shop class retired in 1982… and I think he’d started working at my school the year the school opened, as well, in 1961 or something like that.  Retired, or transferred, and never replaced.  Given what I do these days, that’s a big one — but it also strikes me as a major blow against kids developing practical experience in mathematics.  I learned weights, measures, angles, volume, and more from Home Economics and Shop and Drafting… and I don’t think I’d understand them today without that initial training.  Eliminate these classes, and you’d eliminate that practical, hands-on experience.
  2. The dramatic increase in testing. I remember sitting for two major examinations when I was in junior high school and high school: the SSAT, for admission to a private high school in 10th grade; and the SAT, for admission to a college.  I took that exam in 11th and 12th grade; the SSAT in 9th.  There were also AP examinations in 11th and 12th grade.  On average, tests consume about 20-25 hours of school time, or about three weeks of a school year, plus prep-time and review. I don’t even think I took the SSATs or SATs during the school day; the AP exams were a half-day at most, and they were final exams for college-credited classes (sorta.)
  3. The Rapid Expansion of Cable Television.  As Cable Television came online, and the number of available channels climbed, it came to be that reading, which was the first or second most important leisure activity in the country, became the fifth or sixth; and despite Harry Potter and the Books of the Restricted Section, (who wouldn’t read that one??) and all its actual sequels, the quality of reading material for young people has gone into a steady tailspin.  Come to think of it, the expansion of cable came at the expense of not just bookstores, but also newspapers — who were losing revenue even before the Internet really exploded on-scene in about 1996.  So the Millennials were the first generation to experience massive changes to the reading experience as a major form of entertainment.  And this has presented major challenges to literacy-as-a-skill in the same way that eliminating shop classes was a major challenge to numeracy-as-a-skill.
  4. The Information Firehose. Milennials, it seems to me, were the first generation subject to the Information Firehose.  (A superhighway has always struck me as the wrong metaphor — on a highway you travel fast… but on the Information Superhighway you go nowhere… everything comes at you immediately… rather like a firehose).  The textbook companies made the textbooks for every subject enormous; I had flimsy, 200-page textbooks for most of my classes in high school. I still have the 256-page textbook on the ancient world from 10th grade —jam-packed with diagrams and black-and-white photos on how to tell a krater from an hydria, how to tell a Minoan palace from a Mycenaean fortress, and how a Roman legion was organized.  The text explains in detail how Rome became a Republic, then a Dictatorship, then an Empire… and how it fell.  By contrast, the same era of history in the current textbook my school uses has 12 pages, explains nothing so detailed as what I’ve just explained, and has well over a thousand pages on all cultures and histories.  I’m not saying that we should study Greece and Rome to the exclusion of all other histories… but we need to explore some elements of history in greater depth than current textbooks do, so that students have something other than a 30,000-foot view of the past.

In any case, there’s the four areas in which the Millennials have been subjected to a quite-different regime of learning and education than the generations that went before them.  And I think that these may be signposts, as it were, pointing to what may have gone wrong.  In each case, there’s someone who profits from the new system — testing companies, cable companies, insurance companies and textbook publishing companies — and the results of the changes are subtle and longterm, far too long-term for most principals, superintendents and even some teachers to observe them.

However, the consequences of these changes are long-lasting, and I think that we haven’t seen the end of this particular set of rabbit-holes.

Autumn Maker School: Picture IDs


I’m running a program on my blog from October 2 to December 21: Autumn Maker School. The goal is to make ten useful things this fall, with a fairly broad definition of ‘useful’: So far I’ve made a 1) Volvelle, a 2) disk for braiding friendship bracelets, a 3) computer program to calculate the area and perimeter of a hexagon, and a 4) digital image of the Egyptian deity Khonsu.  Today brings us to number five (5): a student ID card.

My school secured a fairly prestigious invitation to a major institution early this summer, and the time is rapidly approaching for us to take a group of students to go.  A snag arose — every student needs a picture ID.  We’re a middle school, and a small one at that; I know 97% of the students on sight.  We need picture ID cards?

Making one for every kid in the school, and every adult, doesn’t even begin to qualify for minimum orders for most such cards. We need seven, ten at most.

So over the last few days, I made them. Heavy cardstock paper from the Design Lab, our color printer, the photography software on the Macintosh computers in our computer lab, some digital layout software, a big sheet of paper and some cardboard to make the background for the photographs, the kids and adults that needed photo IDs, a laminating machine, and my boss’s signature.  Seven cards, two hours spread over three days.


Making twenty or twenty-five would have been almost as easy — another hour, tops. Making sixty? A hundred seventy-five? Not so easy.  I’ve found the right solution for the scale at which I must work, at which I am working — but scaling up would be challenging.

No picture of this project, of course — there’s no point in providing either pictures of the students at my school on a private blog; or in making it possible for anyone to duplicate the school’s ID cards exactly.

But then, how to prove that it’s done?

Well, provide a procedure, of course:

  • Measure an existing ID — wallet card, driver’s license, etc.
    • Many of them are about 2″ x 3″ in the US, to fit into a wallet slot-pocket
  • Produce a base template that is 2x that size in one direction — so it can be folded over.
  • Use color, text, contrasting elements and fonts/typography to include:
    • a blank space for the student picture
    • a blank space for the student’s name
      • a blank space for the student’s grade
      • and hometown
      • and other data
    • a place for the head of school to sign
    • emergency contact information
    • school contact information
    • school logo
  • Create a photo studio in front of a computer
    • extra lighting
    • background in relatively neutral color
    • photography software & web-cam
  • Take the photos
  • crop and lighten the photos
  • Paste the photos into the template
  • Print the templates/digital cards onto cardstock
  • cut out, score and fold the ID cards
  • laminate the ID cards
  • cut out the cards from the laminate


It was an elegant and interesting process, but it had some challenges, too.  I’m glad it’s over with.

It did lead me into some interesting awarenesses, though.  I was authorized to produce seven cards.  But I produced ten or so, in the process of learning how to make them.  Did I counterfeit them? No, because they were never signed — and I never pretended that they were anything other than experimental.  They were even marked “DRAFT” in large letters, and watermarked as such.  At what point did they become “legal IDs”? Are they legal ID cards before an authority figure looks at them and accepts them as valid?

It’s a complicated set of questions, really.  And in some ways being a magician doesn’t make answering them any easier.  I mean, in a very real way I just created the illusion of an ID card — and then through a combination of competence, confidence, persuasion and usefulness convinced a bunch of people to agree to the proposition that it was My School’s Official ID Card.  

Which, when you come right down to it and think about it carefully, is a bizarre and magical thing to achieve.

Autumn Maker School: Khonsu, Re-membered


This post is part of my Autumn Maker School project. The idea is to make ten useful things.  As Stacey has figured out, my definition of ‘useful’ is pretty broad-based, because I have my work cut out for me in so many different ways.  The more people who become makers, the happier I’ll be.

Khonsu disassembled//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.jsI’m currently teaching my unit on graphic design to my sixth grade students, and they’re having a lot of trouble with the pen tool. The pen tool incorporates both straight lines and Bezier curves in the same system — click to put down a point, click again to make a straight line, click again and again to make more straight lines and eventually a closed shape that can be filled with color, and then click and drag to change straight lines into curves. I am not particularly skilled at this.  I don’t think anyone will ever pay me to be a digital artist. But I wanted my students to understand that if you want to create a complex image, you have to create the individual parts.  In this case, the individual parts were a shirt, and a kilt (in gray), four arms, bicep and wrist bands, anklets, an ankh, pieces of a collar, pieces of a nemyss (the headdress of ancient Egypt, and of the druids), the Moon, and the moon sphere —and the parts of Khonsu’s face. Once I was done assembling it, they said, “Wow, that’s really good!”  But I have to admit, I don’t think the lesson was made clear enough. It was too complex an image for them to grasp — too hard for them to see how a line-drawing of Khonsu transformed into a series of components, each of which had to be drawn separately.  Admittedly, it’s a difficult lesson to understand. But it’s also a difficult lesson for us as teachers to understand.  We’ve all heard the old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”  But it takes a special kind of educator to understand that a quality picture, even one that looks as disassembled as the one on the top, takes as much time to create as a 1000-word essay.  And all I did was try to copy, digitally, an image in a century-old book about the Egyptian gods. Khonshu//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

We live in a society that, at least for the moment, runs on imagery and symbolism nearly as much as it runs on words and mathematics.  And we like to pretend that you have to learn everything about words and mathematics in order to be successful in this world. And that if you’re not good at math or reading/writing, then you’re terrible and your life will be awful.


But I’d like to suggest that there’s an important lesson here.  The students in my sixth grade classes today saw these two images. They saw the complete image, and then they saw it dismembered and pulled apart, and then they saw it re-assembled.  And then they went right back to trying to use the pen tool to draw airplanes with differently-colored parts, and faces with eyebrows and hair and noses, without bothering to try to break those images down into components.   The students SAW the components, saw that this picture was made up of a number of components, SAW that each component was individually drawn, and then chose to use their pen tools as if they were using an actual pen or pencil in a paper notebook.

We have so divorced our children from their drawing skills, from their visual representational skills, that they don’t know how to disassemble their visual cues of the world into their component parts.

Autumn Maker School: Hexagon Program


This post is part of a larger series called the Autumn Maker SchoolThe idea is to make ten things, mostly useful or to self-teach certain skills, and then write about them.  The first post was about a graphic-design project, the Astrological Volvelle. This is the second project.

I am not always very smart when it comes to teaching programming.  I’m going very slowly, and it’s challenging both to me and to the students.  I keep throwing a program up on the projector screen for them to look at, and then I discover that it’s wrong. Argh. It worked fine when I made it the other night, why isn’t it working now?

Mostly it’s that I barely understand what I’m doing, yet.  In three years, I’m going to be amazing.  But first I have to live through these three years of agony.

Here’s the code I wrote tonight.  It is not elegant.

# Hexagon Calculator
# by Andrew B. Watt

#imports arguments from system library
from sys import argv
# turns three arguments into the script name, the side, and the units
script, side, units = argv
# turns the side value into a number from a text string, makes it a variable.
side1 = int(side)

# Reports the values of the three given arguments
print "This script calculates values for hexagons using", script
print "The units are called:", units
print "The side length is:", side

# Brings in the math system more completely
import math
# calculates the perimeter of the hexagon.
perimeter = side1 * 6
# Stores the square root value of 3 to use in the area equation
sqRt = math.sqrt(3)
# calculates the area of the hexagon.
area = 3 * sqRt * (side1 * side1)/2
print "The area of the hexagon is %r square %s." % (area, units)
print "The perimeter of the hexagon is %r %s." % (perimeter, units)

The purpose of the code is to calculate the area and perimeter of a hexagon. Happily, I can report that this code worked successfully.  But it took me a long time to get it right, and ten run-throughs, before it operated properly.

Here’s what it does:  it calculates the perimeter and the area of a hexagon, and feeds it back to you using the unit type you designated at the beginning of the operation.  Including my comments, it takes up twenty-five lines of code.  Not including my comments… It’s twelve lines of code.  I could probably make it 8 lines of code, but I was also learning how to use the import math function, and the argv function.

But better — I now understand how argv works in the python computer language, and I understand how I can access higher mathematical functions in python.  It took me a long time to understand that the name of the file was itself an argument in the command. Now I understand how to use additional variables in order to store a broader range of information, and how to use argv to access the name of the file itself when I write a program.  What I’m going to use that for, or how I’m going to teach the use of that to my students, I don’t know.

Their own efforts are coming along nicely.  We’ve written a short script that generates the caesar cipher codes for their email messages.  It’s not a secure code at all, but it gets them thinking about security and about the difference between secure and insecure channels — which is no bad thing, to my mind.  They wrote short computer programs which calculate the area of a triangle, the area of a circle, and the area of a square or rectangle — and then they built that code into a type of meta-code, which asks the user what sort of polygon they want to solve for, and then uses the data they give it to calculate area, perimeter/circumference, and so on.  We got into if-elif-else constructions on that one.  Now I can have them write a program where they tell the computer what sort of polygons they’re working with, right at the command line, using argv.

But again, I say, I am not fast at learning programming, nor at teaching it.  I’m learning these little bits and pieces, and gradually learning how to string them together to do things.  I’m not yet clear how how being able to tell a computer to do these things, in the right sequences, makes computers do cool things.

Still, I feel that I’m learning the basics.

Computers: a short assignment in programming


I’ve been teaching programming for two years.  I’m really not very good at teaching programming, which is why I haven’t talked about it here very much.  At first, I used JavaScript programming, because there was a great tutorial on Khanacademy.org.  But, I’m increasingly unnerved by larger questions about what school is for — and the way in which Khan Academy and other online tutoring programs are establishing a check-box grading system for everyone.  But also — it’s clear that there’s now a well-established tutorial system for JavaScript which my students have access to, and are using.  And other programming languages are not as well-established or understood in schools.  So I’ve been teaching python, using the tutorials provided by Learnpythonthehardway.org, and inventwithpython.com.  I’ve particularly enjoyed teaching my students to create the code necessary to replicate the effects of the Caesar Cipher, a simple letter-substitution code-system, using Al Swiegart’s book Hacking with Python: Codes and Ciphers, available at InventwithPython.com.

I’ve also been writing short programs, and trying to get kids to reverse engineer the structure of those programs.  This has not been entirely successful, but it’s gradually leading them (and me) into an understanding of best practices for teaching code.

Here’s the program that was our first quiz, today:

# Circle Calculator
 # by Andrew Watt
 radius = input("what's the radius of the circle? ")
 units = input("what units are you using (in double-quotes): ")
 diameter = radius * 2
 area = 3.14 * radius * radius
 circumference = 2 * 3.14 * radius
 print "the radius of the circle is %r %s." % (radius, units)
 print "the diameter of the circle is %r %s." % (diameter, units)
 print "the area of the circle is %r %s squared." % (area, units)
 print "the circumference of the circle is %r %s." % (circumference, units)
Python output

Here’s the  output from running this small python program, shown twice with different variables.

Their objective for the class was to get this program to work, while only having the output from the terminal program, that looked like this, to work from.    It took the whole class, which I wasn’t expecting; they’ve been typing in these commands for days, and seeing the results of the programming they’d done… why wasn’t it working?

Turns out, the answer had a lot to do with how programmers teach programming, i.e., for other programmers who already know a language, vs. how a teacher who’s been teaching other subjects for years teaches programming – that is, me.

My goal of the exercise was to see that they knew how to define variables, use the mathematics functions of python, and use the “print” command to show results to the user.  I also wanted them to be able to run the “input” command.

The results were… not what I wanted.  Nearly everyone got how “input” and “print” worked, and nearly everyone was able to set up the mathematics correctly.  But they couldn’t get the strings to work. Their programs looked like this:

# Circle Calculator
 # by [various students]
radius = input("what's the radius of the circle? ")
 units = input("what units are you using (in double-quotes): ")
 diameter = radius * 2
 area = 3.14 * radius * radius
 circumference = 2 * 3.14 * radius
 print radius
 print diameter
 print area
 print circumference

In other words, their programs would tell you what the results of the calculations were, but wouldn’t show what each printed variable result was.   If you didn’t know that the program was going to print in the order of radius, diameter, area, and circumference, you wouldn’t get a sense of what the results meant.

And this means that I have to do a better job of explaining how replacements work within python code.  This wasn’t something I’d spent a great deal of time thinking about, but clearly I do need to think about it.  A great deal of that challenge, it turned out, hinged on the fact that I’ve had several dozen hours to think about how programs work, and they haven’t.  I’ve learned enough of the language to become competent at making these small quiz-like programs: “can you use this function? How about this one? How about this one?”  But I hadn’t thought that this was something that needed teaching.  And clearly it does.

What did they actually know? What didn’t they know?  The answers were illuminating.

Most of the kids got how the mathematics system worked.  But variables were tricky, and the difference between variables that held strings (“text”) and variables that held numbers was confusing. They’re used to using one of those purposes for variables, not others.

This makes me think about the way that I teach Latin, though. I work kids through the structures of sentences a lot:

Marcus udus est. Claudia sicca est.
Marcus is wet. Claudia is dry.

Claudia dormit.  Marcus scribit.
Claudia is sleeping/Claudia sleeps/Claudia does sleep. Marcus is writing/Marcus writes/Marcus does write.

Marcus ambulat in villa. Claudia currit in horto.
Marcus walks in the house. Claudia is running in the garden.

A lot of what I do in Latin is help kids think about sentences as formulas that allow one to plug in different variables — a noun here, and an adjective there, change to masculine or feminine or neuter as needed.  The first two sentences, Marcus is wet, Claudia is dry, can use any pair of nouns and adjectives.  The next two sentences can use any combination of noun and verb. The next two sentences can use any combination of noun, verb and place-name.

It occurs to me that the more that I can teach my sixth graders this year to think of sentences as equations with strings or variables, the easier time I will have teaching them programming in seventh grade next year.  And that’s enough to spark ambition, really.  I think I can get them over this hurdle.

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