2014 – a year of connection, disconnection, and loss

I believe that I learned more in 2014 than in any year of my life since Kindergarten. A close second would have to have been 2001, during which I lived in New York City, studied composition with the great Ludmila Ulehla, and experienced the terror of ‘9/11’, or 1996, when I graduated from high school and spent my first semester of college studying abroad in Nepal.

The past year was the Chinese Zodiac Year of the Horse, and I, being born in the Year of the Horse, sought to make it a year of work. I set my professional goal for the second half of the 2013-2014 school year to learn and practice as much as possible about Project Based Learning, self directed learning, and self determined learning in order to best facilitate my sixth grade class’ culminating Exhibition. To that end, I participated in the Deeper Learning MOOC and Macromedia University Design Thinking MOOC.


With that learning as inspiration, I have been inquiring into and blogging about PBL, project management, and design thinking in education using the label ‘LX Design‘.


Loss

Unfortunately, tragedy struck in September of 2014 when my father died. It happened unexpectedly just two weeks after my family and I returned home to Japan from a trip to my hometown in California to introduce our two year old son to his grandfather and other family and friends.


It was a devastating way to start a school year, and a bitter way to end what was otherwise a sweet summer.

Connections

Visiting California after being away for four years provided many lessons in perspective through reflecting on familiar sights and experiences from a new point of view. It was also a chance to practice using the Visual Supply Co photo editing and sharing tools. I began sharing my attempts at artistic photography there on my VSCO Grid as well as following the feeds professional and highly skilled photographers.

Of course, people have shared bazillions of vacation photographs via social media, but my goal was to find opportunities to create and share meaningful art through my experiences. Finding moments to express myself as a travel, food, landscape, and artistic photographer, however amateur, was fun and enriched my travels by allowing me to enjoy and reflect more deeply.



During the trip, I entertained on the idea of Connected Living as an application or generalization of Connected Learning. One of my desires as a teacher and learner is to obscure the artificial boundaries that exist between formal and informal learning, ‘school’ and ‘real life’. Such distinctions between digital connection and analog, ‘face to face’ connections should also be blurred.

Sometimes, I am discovering, not shooting a picture to share on Instagram is infinitely more profound than doing so.


Relocating the muse

This New Year marks the tenth year in a row that I have resolved to finish a piece of music. At the conclusion of 2013, it was my string quartet. I have the first several measures of dozens of pieces, but they are all merely sketches in a notebook.

It’s not surprising. In the past ten years I have started a family and a career.

However, this year it is an especially solemn resolution to make in the shadow of my father’s death. One of my planned projects for years has been to publish arrangements of ‘Songs My Father Sang’, of which my jazz big band arrangement of Streets of Laredo is technically the first and regrettably the only.

Indeed, wrestling myself away from my smartphone might be just the signal my muse needs to come around to visit me again. I certainly have support from my connected learning friends and especially Brent Bedford, creator of the International Society for Fugues, who has been doing his best to inspire and motivate me to get out behind the woodshed! I hope he knows how much his efforts are appreciated.


2014 was a year of work. 2015 should be a year of fun. That’s my resolution.



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How to eat sushi (like a snob)

A long time ago, I submitted my How to eat sushi (like a snob) ‘how to’ video to the Making Learning Connected Make Bank, a fantastic cooperative repository of accomplishment and inspiration. According to Terry Elliot’s post, the Make Bank is a Convivial Tool, and I agree whole-heartedly.

https://bartmiller.makes.org/popcorn/246k_

You may also find this article from The Creativity Post interesting: Seven Life Lessons From Making Sushi contains life and learning lessons from one of Japan’s most renowned sushi chefs, Jiro Ono.

If you’re hungry for more cat sushi pictures, please savor this post from Spoon & Tamago: Nekozushi | an absurd combination of cats and sushi.

Maker Club year 1

One year ago, I started a Maker Club at my school as part of our after school program. While maker spaces for older learners generally focus on robotics and digital creation, I believe that an elementary maker experience should start from concrete, physical creation. Most of our materials were donated by families, but we also frequently raid the school art supplies.

Based on my participation in the Learning Creative Learning MOOC in 2013, the initial guiding principles for our Maker Club were Independence and Social Creativity.

Independence

It’s critical that Maker Club have no assignments. The only requirement is to always be ‘making’. Imagining, researching, designing, sharing, and reflecting are all parts of the making process.

Maker Faire often includes digital production, as well as arts and crafts, engineering and construction, cooking, scientific experiments and demonstrations, and the visual and performing arts. There are no artificial limits.

For the first few meetings, there was a refrain of ‘What should I make?’, ‘What do you want to make?’. This dialog is indicative of empowerment. As young makers realize that they are in control of their learning in their maker space, their creativity is ignited.

In a sense, this is what makes a maker space. Of course, maker tools and materials are important, but most important is fostering an environment in which everyone feels safe to experiment and create.

Every maker must be encouraged to try anything, and indeed, ‘makes’ that fail are not failures at all. Failures are courageous learning experiences and opportunities to safely practice a growth mindset.

Social Creativity

Social Creativity is the notion that creativity is a social activity. Innovation by adapting existing ideas, sharing, cooperating, and collaborating respects the idea that creation is an act of communication.

Every week, we update a Maker Club Projects spreadsheet that both serves to document our activities and as an archive to inspire innovation and collaboration.

The framework for assessment in our Maker Club is from The Tinkering Studio’s Design, Make, Play and consists of the the criteria of Engagement, Intentionality, Innovation, and Solidarity. This rubric emphasizes process over product and social interaction over individual achievement. These principles guide me in my role as facilitator in coaching young makers.


Play, passion, projects, peers

The most recent iteration of the Learning Creative Learning MOOC introduced the ‘4 Ps’ of play, passion, projects, and peers. Mitchell Resnick also introduced the Creative Learning Spiral, which became the inquiry model for our Maker Club.


This model is exceptionally effect for maintaining makers’ momentum.


Gallery

Please enjoy these photos of various works in progress. All photos by Bart Miller (CC BY 4.0).

One ambitious maker, inspired by a Maker Faire video, attempted to convert her bicycle into a cupcake. The project proved to be too complex for the scope of our once per week club, but she did manage to complete a ‘cherry on top’ helmet.


A pair of makers surprised me with an impromptu hand puppet show!


One of my favorite makes was this mixed media artwork. I noticed a maker with a large piece of cardboard and a pile of assorted materials.

I asked, ‘What are you making here?’
She replied, ‘I don’t know, I’m just making it.’

That’s precisely the spirit I love to see in a maker space, and is a glowing example of creative learning in action.


A student asked, ‘Is it ok if I practice piano during Maker Club?’

Yes, it is very ok to make music in Maker Club.


Often, younger makers start with a familiar project, like making a greeting card. The exciting thing is the freedom with which they innovate and iterate. Arts and crafts lessons tend to be more structured, which is of course very effective for developing a particular skill. In Maker Club, we emphasize creativity over specific skill development.


One of the older makers inspired some first graders to decorate plastic bottle caps. Learning from each other and innovating each others’ ideas is an element of social creativity that comes alive in a maker space.


The classroom computers have quick links to various digital maker sites such as Scratch, DIY, and The Hour of Code


Yet another exciting development is makers using our club time to create for projects in their ‘regular’ class. Blurring the boundaries between learning in different settings is one of my driving goals as an educator. In the photo above, a maker begins work on a robot ticket booth for a classroom carnival.

If they start building cardboard ‘robots’, it’s not a huge leap to consider adding mechanical joints, gears, or motors!


Our Maker Club achieved a new level of complexity when a new member resolved to build a guitar. I was hoping that they would inquire into how to make it playable, but they were satisfied with it as is.


Making is messy. That’s part of what makes it fun and what makes the learning that happens in a maker space so authentic and deep. I’ve learned the hard way how important it is to have rather strict clean up procedures.


One rather reluctant maker jumped at the chance to dissect a donated broken DVD player. I suggested to use our camera to take ‘macro’ photos of the innards, and the result was an interesting blend of art and technology.

Starting Year 2

Happily, by adhering to the principles of independence and social creativity, a tremendous amount of positive momentum has accumulated.

Some makers have come and gone, choosing other options for their after school program.

But some have caught maker fever. They need Maker Club.

To express the feeling of this new year of Maker Club, please enjoy this poem:

Maker Fever

Fidget through meetings
sneak to prepare materials
anxious to maximize time.

Don’t ask to ‘use this’ or ‘make that’.
Don’t need permission
in our maker space.

Make things at school,
share them at home.

Make things at home,
share them at school.

Make anywhere;
share everywhere.

Quality increases.

Confidence
Time management
Social interactions
Friendship

Constructed understanding reflected in classwork.

Attention to details
Planning
Resilience
Mindset

We are makers.

We can make anything.

All we need is space, time, and stuff.
(stuff is optional)

We are makers.




SAMR v Smart-Board

In October, the dry-erase whiteboard in my classroom was replaced with a Promethean ActivBoard. The children at school aptly described it as a ‘giant iPad’ as they explored the functions of dragging and dropping with their fingers and writing with the provided styluses.

It was a much anticipated change, and now that I’ve had opportunities to integrate it into my approaches to teaching, this is an ideal opportunity to assess how I’ve utilized it according to the SAMR model of technology integration.

Listening to Richard Wells speak about SAMR on the BAM! Radio podcast, Using the Four Step SAMR Model to Update Your Teaching Practice, was particularly helpful as he emphasizes the SAMR model as a tool for changing one’s mindset toward technology in the classroom.

Substitution

Say goodbye to dry-erase dust!
At first, and with no additional training or time to prepare new activities, I used the ActivBoard as a substitute for a low-tech whiteboard. Although being able to use a myriad of colors and line thicknesses provides more expressive functionality, it could still be accomplished with dry-erase markers, albeit without all the grungy dry-erase dust.

Augmentation

Documentation
After using the ActivBoard as an inkless whiteboard, I realized the potential to save work in a variety of digital formats, including as a ‘flipboard’ that could be opened and edited later or simply as a screenshot for archival purposes. Gone are the days of photographing the whiteboard at the conclusion of a discussion!

Visible thinking
This was particularly useful for KWL charts and other digital visible thinking artifacts. The ActivBoard software can import PDFs to be annotated, a feature we have used effectively for interactively reviewing quizzes. Another interesting application is desktop annotation. During an inquiry into visual literacy, we used this to discuss and make notes on the design and layout of our favorite websites.

Engagement
Thus far, the most noticeable augmentation relates to student engagement. The futuristic appearance of the ActivBoard and its similarity to familiar tablet computers has motivated students to participate more actively in discussions and contribute to visual media created in class.

Modification

Virtual tools
Discovering the capabilities of our ActivBoard revealed many useful features. In particular, the Math Tools enable presentations and demonstrations to be completed with virtual versions of the same tools students are using at their desks.

Digital music
One application that was successful occurred in music class. To introduce a Grade 4 inquiry into digital sequencers, we used the ActivBoard to co-create a piece of music to practice the functions and features of the Online Sequencer.

In the past, I generally introduced new applications by first using a digital projector to make a presentation to outline key features, then providing time for independent or small group exploration. The ActivBoard allowed for a bridge activity between teacher presentation and independent practice that is visually, physically, and socially engaging. It also has a good audio system!

Redefinition

Can the ActivBoard redefine learning?
A common thread running through the discourse on ‘modification’, and my primary goal for technology modification, is student agency. Technology provides unprecedented opportunities to personalize learning and empower learners to take ownership of their learning processes.

To use the ActivBoard to achieve the goal of increasing student agency requires a mindset change with which I am still grappling.

After all, it is still a screen mostly suitable to presentation. Perhaps it can be used to redefine ‘presentation’ into an interactive experience, but that would require an in-depth inquiry into tools beyond the ActivBoard itself. Perhaps those are the exact tools students and I should be learning.

Is there a way to connect learning on the other ubiquitous touch screen devices like iPads with the touch screen ActivBoard? A quick inquiry revealed a post, What Can I Do with an iPad in an ActivBoard Classroom? (Part 1), from the Promethean Planet community blog, and Apple Kills the Interactive Whiteboard with iPad 2.

In both posts, hints of the benefits of iPad/ActivBoard compatibility are mentioned. Evidently, however, those ideas have yet to be realized.

Next steps
My own plans focus on using the ActivBoard to redefine ‘presentation’. As an inquiry teacher, curating and presenting thought-provoking media is critical. Thus far, that seems to be the primary strength of the ActivBoard and the most obvious line of inquiry for me to pursue.

Hanami 2014

Viewing the plum, almond, and cherry blossoms in Japan is a social, aesthetic, artistic, and philosophical activity. Hanami (花見) means ‘flower viewing’, and is a highly anticipated and enjoyed activity here.
Photographing the blossoms is a very serene way to enjoy the warming weather.

Of course, the blossoms mark the beginning of Spring. In the post, Plum Blossom, I started this photographic inquiry and began to bid farewell to the Winter. 
April is the beginning of the Japanese school year, as well as the time during which companies typically reorganize and reassign employees. People tend to relocate and renovate their homes at this time, as well. Renewal is carried by the wind along with the pollen and refreshed demeanor of the people.
Spring is a time for noticing. Whether it’s the change of temperature, smell, mood, or indeed, the apparent return to life of the trees.
I was lucky to visit a few parks this year and continue my inquiry into visual literacy through photography.
Needless to say, the cherry blossoms are extremely photogenic. Being virtually impossible to take a ‘bad’ picture of, I challenged myself to capture images with stories, conflict, and emotion.
Exploring the photo editing suite from Visual Supply Company was another way to enhance the drama in the photos. For more of my work, please visit my VSCO Grid or Instagram Profile.
Thankfully, the overriding feeling of the blossoms is joy. My wife, Yuka, a much more accomplished photographer than me, shared her work in the post, Special Spring Gift, including the heartwarming photo below of a fallen cherry blossom our son gave to her.

Visual Literacy Achievements Unlocked!

My final projects for the Visual Literacy COETAIL course are a slide presentation to inform my school community about our first PYP Exhibition and a video to inspire my Grade 6 students as they prepare their Exhibition, a self-directed and collaborative research and service action project.

Inform

As detailed in the post, Exhibition pre-Zen-tation, I struggled to transform my text-heavy, visually dry slides into a more engaging and thought provoking accompaniment to my speech.

The process was mostly subtractive. I deleted nearly all of the text and replaced it with carefully selected Creative Commons licensed images.

One of my most important lessons from this course has been the importance of audience. With that in mind, I shared the second draft of my slides and received very insightful comments, which led to the final version.

Introduction to the Exhibition


I was very happy with the presentation and meeting, and I believe that these slides inspired thoughtful discourse and discussion, rather than simply delivering information. For the latter purpose, I simply shared my notes on Google Drive and embedded them in our class blog for accessibility.

Inspire

In the post, PYP Exhibition: A Rite of Passage, I detail the process of creating an inspirational video for my students and other students preparing their exhibitions.

As with the slide presentation, I sought critique before completing the final cut.

My favorite step was composing the music. In the ‘remix’ spirit, I arranged samples from one of my class’ collective improvisations into an innocent, dreamy loop. By adding a simple string pad and energetic drum tracks, I tried to capture the mood and drama of the Exhibition from meandering innocence, through cognitive dissonance, and into catalyzed momentum.

Prelude to the Exhibition

My most significant understanding from completing this project is that deeper learning needs plenty of time and freedom. Tinkering and iteration are essential to constructionist learning, and I spent many late evenings and early mornings wrestling with the unfamiliar tools I needed to complete my projects.

It’s important to consider that students need time to explore the technological tools we invite them to use in order to achieve their full potential and quality of expression.

Infographics in the classroom

Who doesn’t love a good infographic?
I get my fix from Daily Infographic, but a quick Google search uncovers many more sources.
I’m often surprised how the layout, color palette, and design of a document draw me into a topic. To capitalize on this phenomenon in the classroom, I started building an infographics section on the wall.
The concept is so simple and fun. Just print infographics, laminate them, and affix them to the wall with magnetic tape. Students are welcome to browse during independent reading and inquiry periods. Having them mounted magnetically means they are portable. Occasionally, they become very excited about a particular graphic and share with each other.
Although it has been somewhat labor intensive to build a collection, the result is an engaging range that my sixth grade students find very inviting. Changing the selection always results in some kind of excitement, and learning with them builds visual media fluency and provokes inquiries in a novel way.
With such an emphasis on digital technology, it’s important to remember that people learn in many different ways. Providing a variety of approaches to learning is always the best application of educational technology.
Why not start your own infographics wall?