The Uses of Inspiration


Sometimes you just want to hear some straight up excitement about the work you do every day. Jenny Megeira spoke to educators in Surrey Schools a few months back, and she more than delivered. She was extremely well spoken, creative in her presentation, and inspiring. She scraped off the crust that accrues on all of us in the daily routines of deadlines and lessons to prepare, and helped me re-experience, re-see the raw joy of connecting with another person through helping them learn, and learning from them.

Jenny talked about risk, learning, and the danger of too much comfort. She encouraged us to allow our students to take real risks in their learning, risks that might lead to failure, in order that they can really begin to learn. She encouraged us to lighten up as teachers, to allow our inner learner to emerge and have a role in our classrooms and teaching environment. She reminded us that if we want to really innovate, it won’t work if we guide others in taking risks while at the same time we ourselves are sitting back and resting on our accomplishments. We must never allow ourselves to become too comfortable. We must continue to take our own risks, and engage in our own learning. One thing I especially like was that she did not provide us with “six steps to innovating in education”, or give a simple prescription for building success in students. She described the spirit of openness, willingness to learn, and readiness to “let it go” and allow our students freedom to learn, even if that learning is not we ourselves anticipated that it would be. Great stuff! These are words of wisdom that remind me as a leader that I can count on the human impulse to learn, and that I need to try to avoid unintentionally stifling that impulse to learn in my students, and in my colleagues. In fact, I need to give myself, my colleagues, and my students permission to do what is needed in order to learn as much as possible.


I left the presentation feeling encouraged, relaxed, and inspired. I also left with a some some new ways that I can use Google products in my life and in my classroom. These were skillfully woven into the talk, referenced in a natural way, and look like a heck of a lot of fun.

I’ve been to several presentations like this, where there a powerful and inspirational framework is brought to us, and that the inspiration is then directed toward a tool that is paid for by the company (maybe a new way I can use my Apple phone, or a nifty way that I can apply a Google product to my classroom). I certainly have no issue with this – Google is paying the bills for her, and presumably (hopefully) they have a similar ethos of creativity within their organization, and I will be the first to agree the digital tools open up many doors for learning.

But the digital is not the only way to go with this kind of inspiration. There are other doors to open. Those are the doors that lead us outside into the world around us. They into our community, into our natural world (our parks and woodlands), and into our wider world (of adventure, advocacy, active citizenship). We should never forget, in the middle of inspiration, that the choice of risk that we take is our own. We don’t need to always default to digital. Analog is also awesome (and leads to amazing alliteration!). And we need to be careful not to be driven into a new dogmatism, where the electronic becomes everything in education.

Jenny’s advice for us as teachers is also good for us to consider as leaders, as parents, as learners ourselves, and as citizens. The following was my summary of her points:

1. Allow your students (or children, or employees) to take real risks in their learning, risks that might lead to failure.

2. Lighten up as teachers (or parents, or as citizens – allow your inner learner to have a role in our classroom (or your world).

3. Don’t let yourself get comfortable – keep taking your own risks.

And if we do take this advice, let’s follow it where it really leads us.

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Posted in Education, Innovation, Project Based Learning, Risk Taking, Technology

Ron Smid and Analog Thought


My first draft of this post was on paper, written by hand.  I’m not an analog romantic – most of my world is digitally mediated, and I will normally do all of my drafting and rewriting on a computer.  But recently I’ve been reconsidering some of the digital processes that we think of now as “normal”.  Last year’s Douglas Coupland exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery (including his “I miss my pre-internet brain” meme), a recent gift to me of several manual film cameras, and mostly, a long conversation with Ron Smid at his gallery in Whistler this past spring, have all prompted me to reflect on what the medium we use adds to the way we think.

IMG_3935Sitting outside the gallery is a large camera on a wooden tripod.  Made of wood and fabric, it looks antique, like a museum piece, and it seems to recall an earlier age of photography.  Images of Ansel Adams under his camera hood come to mind, or the Bugs Bunny photographers under a black cloth behind the camera.  But this is Ron Smid’s workhorse, his pride, and the tool he uses to create the stunning images in his gallery.

Walking past the camera and stepping into the shop, I am confronted by huge, powerful landscape images: sharp, primal stones in the foreground, with pinsharp bursts of color in the form of beautifully textured lichens and mosses.  The contrast of colour picks out further texture.  At eye level, the large size of the print gives the image a solidity and power that invites you to step into the frame and walk the rocky, dangerous trail to the new vistas along the rugged shore of Brier Island.

I turn away from experiencing this powerful artwork, and begin talking to the man at the gallery’s desk.  It turns out that he is the creator of all the images in the gallery.  As a long time photographer I immediately  fall into conversation with him about his work and process.  I expected him to detail a cutting edge digital process behind his work, but I was surprised, and surprisingly pleased, to learn that his workflow is entirely analog, from the old school 8×10 view camera that he uses to create his images (the one on display outside the shop) to the master printer Michael Wilder who brings his work to life in the darkroom.


We talked for a long time about what is possible with analog photographic technology, and reminisced about past processes that are no longer commonly used.  And the proof really is in the fantastic quality of his images.  He has been able to use film and darkroom printing to create beautiful, powerful images (and while the images on his website are awesome, they give only a taste of the power of the experience of his work in person at the gallery).


I’m not giving up my digital world, and I love the power of it.  Self publishing my thoughts in this blog is just one way it can extend me, as is Skyping or FaceTiming my family in the east, connecting my growing children to their grandparents.  (Even my self indulgent “selfie” with Ron’s camera, below).  But there is more to consider. Its become commonplace to think of technology as “tools”.  “You have to use the right tools for the job” is a phrase I hear in discussions on implementing technology in the classroom, sometimes from tech enthusiasts, sometimes from cynics.  But every tool has a way to be used, its own process.  Different processes engage us in different ways.  and result in different kinds of experiences.  The less recently developed, less “high tech” way of doing or experiencing something might actually be “better”, in the sense that it might produce a more profound experience or understanding.  This is certainly the case with Ron Smid’s work, and it is the case for me as I look to revisit the experiences of writing on paper and photography with film.

What about you?  What do you miss about your “pre-internet” ways of experiencing the world?  Are any of them worth revisiting?


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Posted in Education



In my last post I was looking at the Raspberry Pi with my kids, and their interest was high while we were looking at the physical make-up of the device, but it2015-03-20 09.59.38 dropped when the problems started with the operating system.  Time to switch gears to something more hands on…

The MaKey MaKey is a device that allows you to change how you give commands to your computer.  Connecting it up so that the device allowed control over the space, click and arrow keys intrigued my son immediately, and he quickly set it so that he could move up and down through a Word document by touching coins and keys hooked up to the board.  He wanted to show guests and visitors what he could do as well, and to explain how he completed the circuit with his body by clipping the ground wire to his fingernail.  Connection made! (pun intended)

Time to push to a new stage.  The key connections from the MaKey MaKey are limited, but computers do more than just type.  The MaKey Makey converts any conductive object into a computer key or mouse click, so anything that can be controlled or activated by a computer can be controlled or activated by the MaKey MaKey.    I downloaded a MIDI piano keyboard from VPMK (virtual piano midi keyboard), and adjusted the keyboard map so that the keys on the MaKey MaKey (w,a,s,d,f,g and space) corresponded to middle C and the central musical octave on the piano keyboard.

The question posed by Martinez and Stager throughout “Invent to Learn” is ‘What do you want to make today?’

DSC_0465So I showed my son that he could make music with the MaKey MaKey, and and then asked him that question.  The answer was “Lego”.  He already understood that the device only works with conductive objects, so with a tube of conductive paint, he was on his way.  The results are below.

2015-03-20 13.12.10

Once he had it built, he wanted to play some music.  Here was another problem to solve.  He realized that he had wired the board backwards The Lego “keys” were opposite to the traditional keyboard that he was used to, so that the Lego “key” on the left played the highest note instead of the lowest.  I suggested rewiring it with longer wires so that we could rearrange the keys.  He suggested instead that we remap the keyboard so that the notes are in the same order as the blocks.  So we did, carefully noting the original positions and the changes that we made.  And ready to play!


Of course, once you’ve made something good, others want to get in on the act!  His younger sister was just as intrigued by the musical notes that he had made, and tried out her own version!

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Posted in Education, Project Based Learning, Technology

A Second Helping of Pi


This spring break I’ve been testing out some of the Maker materials advocated by Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager, and supplied by our district.  My kids, ages 8 and 10, are my co-experimenters, and we’re checking out some of the new learning oriented electronics.  The Raspberry Pi is an accessible, open device that (metaphorically) pulls the side panel off the computer tower and exposes the ways that it works.  My kids found that the structure of the Pi made it easy to understand the basics of how a computer, or any electronic device, is set up.

The next step for us is to get it going.  Plugged in, video, keyboard, power on!  And the first error!

The SD card supplied by the district has a bunch of great operating systems (the software that allows human fingers and eyes to give commands to a device that thinks in 1’s and 0’s) for the Pi, but it didn’t work.  The Main screen appeared, with menus and icons, but my keyboard wouldn’t function.  After confirming that the keyboard had power, I decided that the problem was the operating system, and so I created a new boot disk using Raspbian, which worked just fine, and allowed access to the Pi’s command structure.  I also found a lot of cool projects for the Pi (check out the Instructables site), all of which looked really interesting.

As you can see from the last paragraph, at this point I’m doing all the work and the learning, and my kids aren’t.  This is not necessarily a problem, as we’re finding out what we need to do to get it ready to share with other students, and what they need in order to be able to make it work for them. The Raspberry Pi environment  is ready for them to step up and try some basic programming, and with the instructions from Suntime Box, I’ll be able to help them do this.  However, at their age they also need to have a sense  that they can make something concrete with it, and I think we are not yet at that point.

 That day the sun was shining, so we headed out to have some fun.  Before we come back to the Pi, we’re going to try to find a more “hands on” entry point to the world of maker electronics.  Stay tuned!

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Posted in Education, Project Based Learning, Technology

Try some Pi

Continuing from my post last week, in my reading of “Invent to Learn” by Martinez and Stager, I’m intrigued by the intellectual and philosophical framework of the Maker Movement.  As we continue to discover, there are rarely truly new ideas.  Seymour Papert, considered the “Father of Modern Making”, is quoted as saying, “It is 100 years since John Dewey began arguing for the kind of change that would move schools away from authoritarian classrooms with abstract notions to environments in which learning is achieved through experimentation, practice and exposure to the real world.” (Martinez and Stager, p. 20).  The idea of learning through observation and experimentation is not new to Dewey either.  In times of change in education the best ideas from our best thinkers float to the surface again, and we are challenged again to consider how we can implement them.

Dewey’s idea has a lot in common with the current idea of Inquiry based learning.  Inquiry based learning can be challenging concept for us as educators, because we are used to ensuring that our students have demonstrated knowledge and understanding of the “Prescribed Learning Outcomes”.  If we have too much inquiry in our classrooms, are we not running the risk that our students’ explorations, however valuable, will miss the prescribed targets?

Recently on a Professional Development day at Kwantlen Park we had the pleasure of working with Joe Tong, Jess Pelat, Parm Brar and Melaina Dolcetti from Fraser Heights  They provided us with many examples of how inquiry and the provincial curriculum (particularly with the current curriculum redesign) can work together.  They encouraged us to experiment with integrating inquiry one lesson and unit at a time, rather than making wholesale change right away.  


On with my experiments!  My kids have decided that they don’t like being called “guinea pigs” and would prefer to be known as “test subjects 1 and 2”.  Hmm…

So in engaging them in conversation about the Raspberry Pi, I’m using a website called “Suntime Box” that has a set of tutorials on how to use the Pi.  They are broken down by day and week, but each is very short, so we went through the first three days in about half an hour.  The kids were intrigued to discover that the most significant part of the Pi board (the ARM processor) is the smallest, and that the bigger and more interesting looking parts are all there just to help humans interact with it.  That was about it for their attention spans at that point, so we moved on to setting up the trampoline in the back yard and clearing junk out of the garden.  At dinner several hours later, however, they were able to explain all the parts to their mom, with a good basic understanding of how these various pieces all show up in their gaming devices, my phone, and most of the other electronics we use.  



(If you have a Raspberry Pi with the Pi logo on it, you can skip the Suntime Box tutorial on how to download the operating system.  The card comes preloaded with most of the available OS’s already).

Not bad for day 1!

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Posted in Education



I’ve taken my time on engaging the Makerspace movement.  Not personally (I love making, repairing and tinkering with things), but as an educational leader.  We are bringing a lot of change to our schools, and I find myself asking, “Where best do I focus my energy and the energy of the educators I work with?”  Having a space for students to explore their own creativity and just try things out in the physical world sounds like a lot of fun, but how do we connect that with the other developments and learning that we are currently doing as educators?  We’re already doing solid work on Formative Assessment, Communicating Student Learning, Inquiry, and much more.  And while Makerspaces appeal to me on the basis of connecting with technology, will other educators see Makerspaces as something belonging just to the Physics lab or the Tech Ed shops?

 So, how does “Making” integrate with the educational principles that guide our current practice?

At it turns out, I’ll get to dig more into this question.

This spring at Kwantlen Park, as part of our Learning Commons renovation, we received a number of Makerspace resources, including books and materials.  Our Tech Ed teacher is indeed the point person on this project, and he asked me (and several others) to engage with the books and materials, to do some reading and experimenting, and see where and how we think these ideas can be put to work in Kwantlen Park. 

I’ve started reading through “Invent to Learn”, by Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager, expecting to find discussions of the need to produce technically skilled individuals, and propositions relating to STEM topics.  Instead, one of the first quotes is from Piaget, stating that “What is needed at both the university and secondary level are teachers who indeed know their subject but approach it from a constantly interdisciplinary view.” (Piaget, 1976).  Reading ideas from  from Dewey, Maria Montessori and others whose work supported the growth of Constructivist thinking leads me to reflecting that the principles of Making, at least as proposed by Martinez and Stager, have less to do with developing techological skill, and more to do with learning how to learn.

Over the break I’m going to dig in and see if this initial proposition is right.  I’m also going to do some testing of the Maker materials (and yes, the technology is a big part of it) with my own home lab and guinea pigs – my kids.  We’ll start with seeing if they have a taste for Raspberry Pi.

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Posted in Education, Project Based Learning, Technology

When it’s right to be wrong

DSC_7565Do mistakes make us human or foolish? Do they make us learners, or simply wrong? I was recently discussing this with a colleague reflecting on the importance of “getting things right”. Of course, as school administrators there is a logistical “getting it right” that is important, and my colleague was speaking of this. That is, the organizational aspects, such as implementing the events of school startup, timetable scheduling or report card distribution, for example, should be carried out with care, precision and attention to detail so that teachers and students can focus on the learning experience. These events should be ‘gotten right’.

But in a leadership position, while I believe that a leader must carry the vision that the community grows toward, that vision must include adults as learners too. In an undertaking as large, complex and varied as the leadership of a school community, no one can know everything about everything. The leaders of the community must take responsibility for learning as a members of that community. If I am totally focused just on “getting it right”, I will not be able to open up to learning from others.   I must be willing to bring problems of significance to the community and get the perspective and wisdom of the teachers, support workers, students and parents who experience that same challenging reality so that it can be solved together.

In my view, a leader who learns as a member of their school community, who has the strength of character to pursue better learning with its inherent risk of making a mistake, and is willing to share what they find in the process, is walking the path to a more connected community, one that deeply and visibly values learning.

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