#nerdcamp and the new educational transcendentalism

In the spirit of melding DIY with do-what-you-can-where-you-are (DWYCWYA?), I ran an mostly impromptu nerd camp for any and all local educators. Call it #popupPD. I scheduled the camp for Wednesday of Spring Break and used my blog and Twitter account to promote it. I made a flier available as a .pdf and set up a sign-up sheet on Google Drive. In less than a week, the event went from inception to reality, and while turn-out was small, we did a lot of learning, and participants included an instructional coach, a school librarian, a couple of classroom teachers, a pre-service teacher, and a school parent. We also used a Google Hangout to talk about our work with two educators joining us from afar. The camp felt like a successful proof-of-concept – especially for a group that didn’t tax the resources we’d gathered around the table. Moreover, in being fun and worthwhile, the day inspired a colleague and I to plan future iterations of the camp. Camp gave us a good day, a good debrief over coffee, and good things to try going forward.

While I brought along my hack jam kit and laid out several of the games I play with kids to build community and observe the way my kids self-organize, we stuck with physical computing today and worked hard to master some new learning (different for each of us) in programming with Scratch, MaKey MaKey, Arduino, and Lilypad Arduino. We made it to Play Doh and processors, but not to cardboard. We got cats to move and lights to blink. Without making any kind of final workshop product, we unpacked the possibilities of new-to-us technologies and left thinking of ways to interconnect making and coding with our kids (and for ourselves as learners).

I put things on the table that my kids had enjoyed playing or using, as well as things I wanted to learn about so I could bring new possibilities back to class. Given that organizational drive and desire to learn, I spent my time embedded at the table and I talked with folks about their own work as I struggled happily with mine. Minimal teaching. Just-in-time direct instruction. Co-learning. I didn’t try to do anything more or less than I do with kids when we practice HOMAGO in figuring out what we want to learn next and negotiate into a work plan or inquiry-based project. I loved it; nerd camp felt to me like a sewing circle with alligator clips.

Here are a few of my nerd camp planning principles:

  • Based on experience, intuition, and what you want to learn, bring together all the materials you have that you think will spark participants’ imaginations, but don’t buy materials special for the day.
  • Invite participants to be mentors to you and one another, as well as learners, and to bring their own new learning materials; allow yourself to be mentored and to listen keenly for new ideas for yourself and your kids.
  • Join participants’ conversations about their learning and answer all the questions you can about how you and your students use the materials, but don’t set an agenda or try to “facilitate” the “event;” be a co-learner and hold on to that role.
  • Invite everyone who wants to unpack play, inquiry, and making for themselves.
  • Apologize every time you ask to drive or troubleshoot someone else’s computer.

And, with thanks to Melissa Techman, here are a few take-aways from our debrief:

  • Camp largely worked; maintain its emergent focus on maker-heavy coding by creating connections and metaphors between the material and digital through physical computing.
  • Invite students to be mentors to the adults.
  • Iterate again quickly at a different time to experiment with ways to increase attendance and participation; keep going and improving.
  • Keep in mind useful progressions (Scratch to MaKey MaKey to Arduino), but help folks begin where they want to begin; let participants, including yourself, choose their own difficulty levels.
  • Adults like learning like this because they feel like they can play like kids; kids like learning like this because they feel like we treat them like adults when given the freedom to learn; we all enjoy personally meaningful learning in a community that supports it.

I hope that a few of these insights inspire you to start a camp or maker space of your own.

With increasing certainty, I think this kind of inquiry-, play-, and maker-driven professional development is essential for helping teachers find a participatory role in students’ learning. When we simply accept pay to deliver content – when we work as mail carriers for Big Curriculum – we aren’t really participating in teaching as civic engagement; we’re modeling civic disengagement – or else modeling academic passivity (to borrow a term) as an acceptable – or even desirable – civic and political action to be replicated by students. We should not pay for professional development that trains us to be passive; we should not offer professional development that is not participatory. We should not teach in away that makes teachers and students seem mechanistic or helpless.

We can do better. The most important political act of our time is making stuff with kids.

There are so many problems to solve in our world – and there is so much fulfillment to be had in learning how to make thing and make things work – that I am certain we educators should be challenging ourselves to learn how to foster harmonious self-reliance and learning-in-community in our classrooms. We should be helping kids to figure out how things work for themselves so that they can help others do the same. We should help future producers remember the people for whom they make and we should help future consumers understand the goods and services they buy with their lives and work.

Our society and its schools push a horrible myth about self-reliance that goes something like this: you gotta get your own. As often as we are told to feel this way, that is not self-reliance. That is avarice and fear swaddled in privilege and status. That is a divisive tactic of cultural replication; that’s a stratagem for self-destruction; that’s a hunger we’ve been programmed to have to keep the gatekeepers ensconced in times of abundance.

Self-reliance is not what we can take; it is what we can stand to give.

Self-reliance is knowing how to go about your life, how to pursue your dreams, and when and how to help others because of an inner confidence born of the competencies we dare to learn and the practical sympathies a strong classroom community lets us all offer one another. It is not driven by a false confidence built on abstractions, by what others think, or even by what we think others think. At its best, rugged individualism doesn’t push others away; it finds a way to help others even when times are tough.

Through the kindness and support of other educators I’ve found ways to voice myself as directly and honestly as I can. I’m still just beginning to try to help all of my students do the same. I like to think that I’ve learned to walk next to my privilege instead of following it, but I don’t think I’ll ever find the strength to overtake it.

In the meantime, as my privilege and I race each other to our mutual end, in the tension between us, I will gratefully accept the gifts offered by others and by my students to make our classroom as ruggedly individual as it can be – cardboard scraps and all – so we can help others do the same and form a community of learners and learning dedicated to transcending the myth of getting our own.

If the new civics asks us to consider our political acts thick or think, symbolic or impactful, I ask us to consider our teaching as passive or participatory, consumptive or productive. Where we situate ourselves and our work with kids on those axes will determine how our society thinks of itself – and whether it thinks of others – for generations to come. If any of us cannot see a way forward from passive consumption, then, quite clearly, it isn’t time to give up; instead it is time to play.