Friday, December 26, 2014

Designing Real/Experiential Courses for Students

It's been an amazing first almost half of the year.... I have met and worked with like-minded people, and talked to students who are crying out for a different type of education. After I gave the induction speech at my high school's honor society, several students stopped me in the hall to express their willingness to do something that mattered, but also to say that they just didn't have time. Our teenagers are so stressed and over-programed that they don't have time to seek meaningful experiences on their own time and they aren't being offered in schools.

To meet this need, we (Social Studies teachers Maggie Favretti, Jen Maxwell, Fallon Plunkett and I) designed a course, City 2.0,  which culminates in a semester long challenge which the students choose and solve using  Design Thinking. The course fits into the NY State requirement for Social Studies Public Policy. We knew that the culminating experience would be the self-selected challenge and we worked backwards from there. We asked ourselves what students would need in order to succeed with this challenge. They needed a lot of skills and habits of mind in order to be successful: resilience; the ability to ask questions and to seek help from appropriate sources, to name just a few. They needed to be able to work effectively with a team-in other words they had to able to lead, listen and collaborate-truly collaborate, not just divvy up the work. They also needed to know about the city. They needed to really study it: to break it apart and understand the complexities of its parts.

The Brooklyn Bridge area tile.
We created a series of scaffolded experiences that would allow students to understand by DOING and use Design Thinking. First there was a scavenger hunt that asked them to go places in the city and accomplish some tasks-all without a smart phone! Then they studied a block in depth. Next, they learned about infrastructure in preparation for building a scale model of lower Manhattan. Each group built a separate tile of the area-complete with subway lines and other infrastructure. These tiles will be put together on January 7th and students will participate in a day long challenge: Storm Godzilla. The students are all divided into disaster teams and will react to the situation as it develops. Real world people will be there to oversee the day: FEMA, the Coast Guard and the Office of Emergency Management. The students should be prepared to handle whatever comes there way-IF they have done their homework.
The ground level of one tile.

Students have said thus far that the course is exciting, different and hard. Not hard in that there is too much work or that it is difficult to comprehend, but hard in that you can't "fake it." Our students are so used to doing school, that they complete traditional assignments without truly understanding or embracing them. They go through the motions, knowing that if they do what a teacher wants, they will get a good grade. But they haven't learned anything and they haven't truly owned it. This course has challenged students in a new way. Most love it. A few don't-because they can't fake it.

Battery Park street level.
We need to challenge our students like this before their senior year. These skills and habits of mind need to be part of their schooling from the beginning, not just as a culminating experience. Let's design authentic experiences for them. Let's empower them. Let's help them learn how to use their education to make the world a better place.

Let us know what you come up with and reach out if you need help! And check out ways to design these types of experiences here

Monday, November 3, 2014

Connecting to Like Minded Maker/Educators

Last week, I went to an amazing conference. Amazing because I met like-minded people, networked like crazy, heard and saw new things and came away filled to the brim with excitement. Bottom line: I no longer felt like one of a few people who believed that making and doing are the way to teach students. The conference: the at ASU, brought together the 153 colleges and universities that took the maker pledge. These schools agreed to do one or more of the following:
  • Allowing students that are applying for admission to submit their Maker portfolio
  • Investing in Makerspaces that are accessible to students across the campus, or serving as “anchor tenants” for commercially-operated Makerspaces
  • Supporting education, outreach and service-learning that is relevant to Making, such as encouraging students to serve as mentors for young Makers
  • Supporting research that advances making technologies and facilitates greater access to making experiences such as the development of new tools for desktop manufacturing
  • Expanding access to university shared facilities and scientific instrumentation to Makers
  • Encouraging students to use their senior design projects to experiment with Making and Maker-preneurship
  • Providing scholarships to students based upon excellence in making
  • Participating in regional efforts to create a vibrant Maker ecosystem that involve companies, investors, skilled volunteers, state and local officials, libraries, museums, schools, after-school programs, labor unions, and community-based organizations
Wow! 153 higher ed institutions believe in this. And it's not just STEM schools, Bucknell is one of those schools and they understand how this includes the liberal arts and must be interdisciplinary. So if you are connected to a higher ed institution which is not one of the 153 thought leaders, exert your influence as an alum. If colleges and universities get it, then it makes it easier for high schools to get buy in from parents and students. Parents will see that it's ok for their children to make things, and that they will still get into college. Maker portfolios are here. Let's start creating them!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Do Something-NOW!

The following is the speech I delivered to the Honor Society at their induction of new members this past Wednesday night. It needs no other introduction....

It is truly an honor to be asked to speak to you tonight and I would like to thank Signifer for the invitation. This is an exciting night and you are all to be congratulated on your achievement. You have worked hard; persevered through obstacles; put schoolwork first; and given up some things that would probably have been more fun in order to receive this honor. And while grades do matter, they are only one measurement of your abilities. But I know it is no small accomplishment to get here. Along the way, I am fairly sure you have had weeks where you thought you could not possibly get through all the work you had, or come up against an assignment that was truly difficult for you. And you figured out how to get through those challenges: you reached out to teachers or peers to get help; you dug down deep and stuck with it. You have shown that you have grit and perseverance. These qualities will be ones you call on again and again in your lives when the going get’s tough, and I’d like to mark tonight as an acknowledgement of those qualities. You will need them as you face the challenges and problems of the 21st century.

For the world has changed since I graduated from high school. You all hold more knowledge in your hands-in your smart phones-than is contained in all the textbooks published in my lifetime. The world is at your fingertips and you have the ability to connect with information and people from across the globe. I know that this wealth of information and the speed with which it is available can be overwhelming sometimes. It is easy to get lost in that and loose sight of the bigger picture.  But it is also creates opportunities that were unthinkable in my day.  If you want to know something, you just have to figure out how to ‘Google it.’

But what good is all this knowledge and connectivity if you don’t use it? The concept of Open Source has made information and research available that was previously privileged. It allows for large-scale collaboration across the globe. Crowdfunding gives inventors the chance to actually get their ideas funded and built. Democratizing access to information has changed the way that new products and technology are created and allows innovation to happen at an amazing pace.

You have opportunities all around you. I know you are busy, doing school. You have your eye on the end goal-that college acceptance letter. But do not let that be the sole criteria for how you spend the rest of your time at Scarsdale High School. Take advantage of the people around you. We are all here to help you define your interests and passions and achieve your goals. But don’t aim too low. Have high standards for yourself. Yes, getting into that great college is amazing, but don’t let it be all you strive for. I don’t want you to look back at high school and realize that’s all it was about. Because if you think of this moment in your life as the pinnacle of your achievement, if you take this award and do nothing more than put it on a shelf in your room to collect dust-another knick-knack along with those soccer trophies or swimming ribbons-then this honor has been wasted on you. You are all here because you cared enough to work hard and to value your education, but your intelligence is useless if you now rest on your laurels.

So, I would like to issue you a challenge this evening. From this moment on, I want you to consider it your responsibility to take that grit, that intelligence, and that knowledge and go out into the world and make change. Be curious about the world and its problems; take time to wonder, look for opportunities to make things better. Improve the world.  Don’t wait.  There are problems and needs right now. Take advantage of senior options-do something real. Don’t settle for working at an elementary school because it’s easy. If you need help, come see me and I’m happy to give you some concrete suggestions. There are things that need fixing here or just a few blocks from here. DO SOMETHING NOW!

The future is complex and filled with difficult, multi-disciplinary challenges. If you choose to sit back and let others solve them, then you have failed us-your teachers, your parents and your peers. But if you choose to look around you, identify needs, see problems, and look for solutions, then you will be using your education and your intelligence productively. It won’t be easy and you will fail--a lot. And failure isn’t something with which most of you here are comfortable. But it’s a key ingredient in success. You will be discouraged and feel like quitting sometimes, but I hope you will remember this night and know that we believe in you and your ability to persevere.  You’ve proved it. And I’m hopeful. I know that you will take my challenge seriously. That’s who you are. You are our future. And from where I’m standing right now, the future looks bright. So, remember tonight as a milestone that acknowledges your achievements, but also remember it as the beginning of something special: a mindset that allows you to look around you, examine problems and identify needs. Don’t wait for someone to give you an assignment-I’m pretty sure Steve Jobs wasn’t given an assignment to create the iPhone. Don’t wait until you are in college or worse yet until after college. Use your skills, your resilience and grit to tackle something real NOW and keep trying until you’ve made a difference.

Friday, September 26, 2014

'Wander and Wonder'-Taking Time to Notice

I began all my classes this year with a 'Wander and Wonder.' Students followed me through the school and outside, silent and without phones. Eventually, we all returned to the classroom perhaps ten minutes later. Their instructions were simple: don't talk, look around you-simply notice. Of course, some of them thought I was that crazy art teacher. They thought it was funny or silly. But some of them really enjoyed it. I realized that this week when one of my freshmen asked, "Are we going to do that walking thing again?" "Why," I asked? "Because it was cool," he answered. "We never get time to slow down and look at stuff." Wow, he got it.

Their lives, all of our lives, are so fast-paced and crazy. There is so little time to slow down and look around you. I'm addicted to my cell phone, so I know. I heard a story on NPR that said the average person checks their cell phone 150 times a day. I thought, wow, is that all? I check mine way more than that! There is so much competing for our attention these days that we rarely get to focus on one thing.

I've banned phones from my classroom, except when I give them permission to look something up. It's a habit-multi-tasking. I think our students need time and spaces where they unplug, and my classroom is one of those spaces. I want them to be involved in the process of being creative and that definitely takes time and their full attention. It's also a habit you can build. Creativity doesn't always come like a light bulb. It usually takes struggling and playing with materials and ideas. It takes time and focus. So another 'Wander and Wonder' will definitely happen soon. Perhaps when they are particularly fidgety or unfocused. I think we will do them many times during the year, just to see if it gets easier for my students.
Wander and wondering with a Teacher Class this summer!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Making a Make Shift Makerspace

We measured the garage and I went to Ikea and bought four tables. We cleaned out the back of the garage and then organized the workbenches so that tools were handy but it wasn't cluttered.
We fixed the lighting. The dog helped....

Now we have a place in our garage where we can make things! It's not rocket science, really. It's furniture that is functional in a space where you are free to make a mess; where you can leave things out and not clean up; where tools are nearby and easy to find; where there is stuff that inspires you as you are making things.

Next we looked for some inspiration. First, we went to visit a former student of mine, Giancarlo Paternoster,, who makes beautiful high-end furniture in his basement workshop.

Next, we went to the Brooklyn Museum to see Ai Wei Wei's show, "According to What?"

That's all it takes to make a Makerspace and be inspired.... It's not rocket science after all....

Monday, July 21, 2014

This is What Makers Do

We make. We try something. We learn from the interaction with materials. We try something else.
We are vulnerable because we are curious, but aren't sure what the outcome will be. We fail often. But once in a while, we find something that feels right. The important word here is FEEL. Making is about feeling: sensation. I choose materials and they way I work with them because I love the way the pencil feels as it moves across the paper, or in this case, the way enamel paint interacts with watercolor to create this slightly unpredictable, slippery paint that I can move across acetate with some unexpected results.

When it feels right, I know it. Not in a cerebral way, but, rather, I know it through sensations. My body feels it. It turns out there is a term for this. Harvard’s Project Zero and Agency by Design @AgencybyDesign are studying the cognitive functions of making and use the term embodied cognition to describe this type of learning: “We have much to learn from research in embodied cognition—an area of cognitive science (and philosophy) that explores how cognition is enacted through bodily experiences, and how knowledge emerges through physical engagement with the environment...”

Makers don't just make, we try things. This image is not a finished work-whatever that means. You could call it a "study." I had no idea what would happen if I put these materials together and it occurred somewhat by chance. I saw the spray enamel in the art store and thought, "What if?" Then I tried it. I discovered I liked the way it felt to move the paint across the acetate. Then I decided to try watercolor crayons. I liked that too. I also tried paint markers. Not so good. 

Trial and error. Doing something. Seeing what happens. Remaining open to possibility. Deferring judgment-which shuts down creativity. This is the maker mindset. Knowing that actions have consequences and that we can affect the world around us. 

Make mistakes. Take risks. Be vulnerable. This is what makers do.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Design Thinking and a Real Pitch--to the Board of Education!

Two of my Architecture II students presented tonight to the Board of Education. They showed their furniture designs for the Learning Commons and talked about the research they had done interviewing teachers, students, and administrators. (See previous blog post: They showed the Board members why students need this type of space: the way they work has changed. They talked about the need for space where they could collaborate in groups and eat and work at the same time. They showed their design for a curvilinear booth that was inviting and comfortable. And the Board listened. My students were nervous beforehand. And then they were surprised at how easy it was! 

This was a real-life experience. Solve a real problem and pitch a solution to the people who make decisions. My students were empowered by it. They followed the Design Thinking process: did interviews, defined the problem, talked with experts and then prototyped and got feedback. These are the three proposed solutions from the three teams. 
Counter with cup holders and stool with backpack storage underneath
Circular, modular sofa with high back for noise control. Coffee table with charging ports
Booth with curvilinear table and bench with backpack storage

Friday, June 20, 2014

Making and End of Year Projects

I love the end of the year-with students working non-stop on final projects in architecture charette mode. The energy in my room is electric. Students bring friends by to see their models. Students from different sections of architecture see the work of other students who aren't in their class. They are inspired by others' ideas and then add on to their own work in a last minute rush. It's exciting.

I always ask, "What's so great about making something?" And they are all quick to answer. 'It's something that's yours. No one else made it.' 'It comes from your own ideas, and then it's real and you can hold it.' 'It's something you can look back on later and know that you figured it out. It's proof.' Our students get it... They need teachers and parents to help them do it more.

For their final projects Architecture I students create a model that controls their viewer's path through space. They are given constraints: walls may be no more than six inches high, the site is 20 x 20", etc... But within those restrictions, they create varied and individual work that reflects their personalities. I'm very proud of them and so I am sharing some of the best ones here:

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Design Thinking in the Classroom

Last week my students presented their furniture designs to administrators, architects and expert furniture designers. (See previous post for more info.) They were fabulous. My students were so professional: they definitely know how to do a polished presentation. Their ideas were strong and they were able to defend their decisions with facts and information they had gathered from the interview process.
Giancarlo, furniture maker and engineering student,
 working with my students.

One group proposed a curvilinear booth with benches that could accommodate backpacks. The second group created a countertop that stretched the length of the mezzanine and contained cup holders so that drinks wouldn't spill into laptops or IPads. The high backed stool that went with it also had a place for backpack storage-a hook under the seat. And the last group proposed a circular, modular couch with high backs for noise control. The pieces would be on castors and could be rearranged around a low coffee table that also had a charging station in the middle.

Our guests asked great questions; the kids gave real answers. One of the administrators asked if they could present at the next Board of Ed meeting. Unfortunately, it is the night before the Chemistry Regents and I don't know if my students will be able to be there. Instead of following through on something that matters and in which they have invested a great deal of time and energy, they will be studying for a state test.... Real life experience meets state testing. I guess real-life will lose, as they still need the test scores.

All in all, I am really glad we tried this. We all took a risk-me, as teacher, having them tackle a problem that I didn't have much experience with, them, as students, exploring a real-life situation and providing answers after following the design thinking process. The process guided us. Experts helped us. And my students all agreed it was exciting and fun!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Real World Challenge and Teacher Role

Last Friday, I had a wonderful teaching moment. My architecture II students have taken on a real world design challenge: designing furniture for the proposed learning commons at the high school. Described as a place for classes and students to do group work, work individually, as well as eat, no one, administrators  and architects alike, seem quite sure what type of furniture would best suit this space. So my students set out to interview the future users of the space to see how and where they liked to work.

Giancarlo Paternoster talking to my students.
Last week they also talked to two experts: Jim Whalen of the Whalen Berez Group who provides interiors consulting for schools and libraries, ( and Giancarlo Paternoster, ( a furniture maker/mechanical engineering student at Lehigh University and Scarsdale High School alum. They were riveted.  Jim Whalen talked to them about design and function. They asked great questions and were curious. Giancarlo followed the next day by telling them his story: how he became fascinated with making furniture. He talked about how he'd studied bicycles, learned to weld, and then found wood. He brought images of his work, his inspirations and his notebooks... My students were riveted.

Each expert talked about failure and what it had taught them. They talked about perseverance, problem solving, reaching out to other experts in their field, and about their passion for what they do. I couldn't have scripted it better if I'd tried.

As they struggle with this real-world challenge and get closer and closer to their presentations to administrators and architects, the pressure mounts. For me as well. In truth, I'm nervous. I'm facilitating this experience, but I'm not an expert. They are asking questions I can't answer. The teacher's role is different in this type of challenge. And it is uncomfortable not having the answers. But I trust the design process. And I know that this is the first iteration of this challenge. I will learn from it and so will they.

Check back in as I will blog about the outcomes-their pitches are June 11th.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Push to Be Perfect

"We are all slaves to our GPAs. Naviance is the perfect representation of this; an entire high-school career, everything you have said, done, thought or thought about thinking, saying or doing, is reduced to a pixel on a screen. Who you are becomes a small dot, and you are either above the line or below the line; that...." (Written by one of my students after a conversation about SATs and grades on 4/3/14.)  

We are demoralizing our kids. Seventeen years reduced to a dot on a graph. Either 
above the line, or below it. This push to be perfect; to build their college resumes, is killing them with stress. They can't take risks, because that one low grade might ruin their average... and their chances. How can anyone be good at everything? In the real world, is anyone really perfect? Is everyone you know successful at everything they attempt? Are you? 

As more and more students apply to colleges, the pressure increases to differentiate yourself from other applicants. Students "game the system," by padding their resumes with clubs that don't really function or community service done just for the sake of the resume. I hear students all the time saying things like, "... I'm just doing it so I can put it on my app." Or, "... I don't really like it, but I have to do it for college." I can't blame them. Our society has created this paradigm and they are just navigating their way through it as best they can.

But how sad is it that students dance, sail, play sports and do community service that they don't really care about, just because they "have to" for college? No wonder our kids are strained and disengaged. Add to that the tests and the AP or honors classes they have to take, and we have burned out, stressed and sleep deprived adolescents. 

I talk to my students every day about this. I ask them again and again why they are jumping through these hoops. They know it's not what they want to do or what they care about, but they are trapped by the college pressures. If colleges start looking beyond test scores and grades, then students and parents will feel less pressure to follow this narrow path. If colleges accept that 'outside the box' thinker, or that kid who doesn't necessarily have the best scores or grades, but has proven their talents in some real-world way, then, the focus might begin to shift. There are positive signs: MIT began, earlier this year, to accept Maker portfolios. Some schools, like Bard College and Bates, are part of an increasing number of high-level schools that are test-optional or test-flexible. (The list is on the Fair Test website:  

It's not entirely the fault of colleges. At the other end, middle and high schools must develop students who aren't afraid to take risks, who see potential in the world around them, and who know that they can make a difference. As educators, we must develop our students' creative confidence, revitalize their curiosity and empower them to become active participants in the world. Perhaps if there is pressure from both sides, we can help our students.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Teaching Grit... In a High-Stakes High School

Grit is the new ed buzzword apparently. It's nothing new to those of us who teach the arts. We've known for years that without grit, or perseverance, students cannot answer open-ended questions. In a high stakes high school like the one where I teach, open-ended questions can produce a lot of angst. When students are faced with a problem or question that doesn't have an easy, 'correct' answer or when you pose a problem and don't give them a linear path through the problem, many crumble. 

When I first started at this high school 6 years ago, I began teaching architecture and created the curriculum. One of the projects asks the students to map their journey through school for the day. I tell them they must show me where they entered, what path they took, the rooms they inhabited, how those spaces felt and then how they exited. Our school building is a warren with classrooms on four different floors. Some students get right to work. Others are completely stuck and have no idea how to begin. They ask me how to convey this information-how should they make these drawings? I tell them, to their dismay, that I don't care what format they choose, they just need to get the information across to me in a clear manner. Students have not learned yet what a floor plan looks like. In the six years I have been doing this project, I have had students who are so uncomfortable with not being told how to convey the information that they get really mad at me. 'Why won't you tell me how to do it," they ask? And why don't I just tell them what a floor plan is and ask them to create one? If I tell them, they don't have to figure it out for themselves and then it's just one more thing that someone has taught them that doesn't have relevance to their lives. If they figure it out, they own it and they never forget it as a useful tool to convey information. 

But back to grit. Some students have it, some don't. Can you teach it? Of course you can. Like any other skill, it is learned through practice. The uncomfortable place of open-ended questions without right answers can be overwhelming if you've always been in an environment where there are only right answers. But as far as I can tell, it's the only way to build grit. You have to let students be in that uncomfortable place long enough to have an aha moment and figure things out on their own. The more we give them questions with only one right answer, the more multiple choice tests, fill in the bubble, find the solution tests, quizes, and quizlets, the more stressed they get and the more they believe there is only one correct answer. Grit isn't even part of that equation.