I was honored to join Barbara Bray on episode #89 of her podcast RethinkingLearning. Click here to listen to the the entire episode where Barbara and I take a deep dive into the pedagogy and research behind sparking student curiosity.
This is the third year that I am teaching a course titled "Introduction to Robotics" as part of our regular curriculum at Sonoma Academy. Click here to access our class website.
The goal of the first few weeks is to answer the question "What is Robotics?" Merriam-Webster defines a "Robot" as...
...a machine that resembles a living creature in being capable of moving independently (as by walking or rolling on wheels) and performing complex actions (such as grasping and moving objects).
I have always struggled to help students derive there own definition of what a "Robot" is using standard curricular materials.
The "...moving independently" portion of the definition is not a problem initially, as most systems (Lego Mindstorm, VEX EDR, etc.) feature the ability to autonomously program the robot to perform complex tasks. Not a problem.
However, when relating a definition of the structure of robotic competitions such as those seen in FRC, and VEX I have always struggled.
Each of these competitions features a "telops" phase, where a driver is remote controlling the robot to perform a series of tasks in addition to an "auton" phase, where the robot performs the tasks individually.
Logically explaining to students that remote controlling a system is a branch of robotics is difficult.
If a human is in control, is the machine still performing a series of complex tasks?
How do we rationalize the inclusion of a human controller into the field of Robotics?
This year, I decided to tackle the conceptually challenging topic of rationalizing the role of the "telops" in robotics. Here is what I did for the first two weeks:
Student responses were fascinating. All students understood that in the Arduino Uno controlled autonomous robot, the program written living on the microprocessor provided commands directly to the motor controllers, guiding the robots movements.
The remote controlled robot "program" surfaced different, incredibly intriguing responses such as:
God programmed us to send a signal to the receiver to control the robot.
Evolution programed us to send a signal to the receiver to control the robot.
Education programmed us to send a signal to the receiver to control the robot.
Amazing questions also emerged:
Is it possible to program the Arduino to fight more efficiently than the remote controlled robot?
What happens when the intelligence of the Arduino Uno matches that provide by God, Evolution, etc.?
Is this related to the Technological Singularity? AI?
Although this unit laster longer than I would have liked, the physical motion of removing the transmitter-receiver system, and replacing it with a preprogrammed microprocessor opened up incredible discussion about what it means to be "...moving independently".
I freaking love teaching.
I teach at a school with semester long classes. I love it so much. Yes, the pace can be fast, but the ability to completely reinvent yourself as a teacher every semester, rather than each year is legit.
Literally, I have grown more in the past 3 years as a teacher at my current school than I did in 15 at my previous site. There is something so powerful about embodying the energy of course creation during the winter AND during the summer.
And...as you would expect. Creating new systems each semester (I tend to enjoy the painful process of rebuilding curriculum each year), involves creating a new syllabus.
In preparation for creating my syllabus for my Honors Chemistry course this semester, I read this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education called "How to Create a Syllabus".
The article sent me down a spiral of more articles, videos, and blogs about syllabus creation.
The more I read, the MORE DEEPLY INSECURE I FELT about my own syllabus process. I have always been a total minimalist when it comes to creating syllabus.
Or am I just too lazy to build an complete one?
Either way, here is my Honors Chemistry syllabus for the current semester. Description...Topics...Grades...done and done. I have always prided myself on getting that info on one page! Something simple about the basics...or lazy?
Anyhow, it has always felt good.
Then I read the above article. I mean...man. Am I really supposed to include all of that stuff? I guess so. So the reflection and self critique began. Enter The Imposter...
In other, less self deprecating news, the syllabus research hole I was falling into quickly forced reflection on something deeper, and more meta that simply the content of the syllabus: what the syllabus communicates beyond words. The culture that it embodies.
For me, clarity, simplicity, and my grad school days of obsessing over limiting the extraneous cognitive load of written materials for students, all contribute to my syllabus structure.
I am not lazy. I value brevity, and yes...I have found myself in tricky situations with parents, students, and even counselors over my lack of behavior policy, etc., on my syllabi.
Then I stumbled upon this copy of a syllabus from a Literature course taught by one of my academic heroes, the late David Foster Wallace.
A genius by every account, the above syllabus might be one of the best pieces of writing I have ever seen. On first glance, it couldn't look more different than mine.
Not one, but five pages long, Wallace accounts his pedagogical structure and course expectations in excruciating detail.
Despite the length...when you look closer, Wallace's candor, and honest comments do not create larger sense of structure and clarity around expectations, but rather, paint a picture of the teacher you will and the course.
Serve as a metaphor for what you will experience, rather than how that experience will be measured or quantified.
Highlights from my reading of Wallace's syllabus include the following excerpts:
"The final'll be essay questions, probably."
"No question about literature is stupid."
"Don let any potential light weightish-looking qualities of the text delude you into thinking that this will be a blow-off-type class."
"Don't quote like 40 lines a time."
I encourage you to read the whole thing. Read it again. Then read it a third time. It's beautiful, and at its core, reminds me that teaching is indeed, art. Creation.
My entire class is based on streamlining systems for students, to maximize content acquisition in the context of inquiry. To leave space for thinking in simple, open, structured ways. My syllabus embodies this.
Wallace does the same. He does not leave you with just course rules and expectations. Wallace, reserves the right to change those when he says:
"Instructor reserves right to make changes and additions."
Wallace uses simple language to tell a complex story about his pedagogy...not about his rules and regulations.
I don't say anything in my syllabus.
Wallace says everything. .
Both tell a story.
Yes, in the end, my syllabus is too short. By reflecting on WHY it always is, and why I can't get myself to follow what the "rules" require, has been a deeply powerful exercise in reflective practice.
The casual nature of Wallace's voice, combined with a dry sense of humor and insight reflect who he is as an author and I'm sure, and educator.
I want to learn to take more risks with my syllabus writing.
I want to say the right things, the right way, and leave the right things out.
Wallace reminds us that writing...great writing....is about withholding information, and building connections. In that order.
"Great writers, comedians, and magicians share a lot in common. Both depend on a certain quantity of vital information withheld, but evoked in such a way as to cause an explosion of associated connections within the recipient"
I am "honored" to teach at a school that has taken the time to work WITH students to develop a code of conduct that the student body believes in.
Working together with faculty, students at Sonoma Academy created this Honor Code, over the course of two years, in an attempt to create a sense of student agency over "rules" at school.
Yes, a more hierarchical set of rules does exist at the school for your standard situations, but to be honest, the cultural shift that a student generated Honor Code, not forced upon students, but derived from their collective experience and conversations around what "honor" is, permeates the school.
It's hard to put to words.
Below is a summary of our Honor Code if the above link is difficult to access:
The students take the Honor Code seriously. The simplicity of it resonates with students and teachers.
They made. So they believe in it.
I often find myself leaving in the middle of class to run to the bathroom or grab a cup of coffee, and saying things like "I will be back in 5 minutes, HONOR CODE". They know exactly what I mean.
Switching gears to our FIRST Robotics team which is in full swing, two weeks into build season.
Currently we find ourselves struggling to create a sense of equity and ownership over the various process on the team. Talented individuals, Strong personalities. Etc., etc., etc..
Lucky, FIRST Robots embraces, and actively promotes, a way of thinking about teamwork in the context of Robotics they call "Gracious Professionalism" or "GP". Click here to read more about "GP". According to FIRST, "GP" can be described as:
Gracious Professionalism is part of the ethos of FIRST. It's a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community. With Gracious Professionalism, fierce competition and mutual gain are not separate notions. Gracious professionals learn and compete like crazy, but treat one another with respect and kindness in the process. They avoid treating anyone like losers. No chest thumping tough talk, but no sticky-sweet platitudes either. Knowledge, competition, and empathy are comfortably blended. In the long run, Gracious Professionalism is part of pursuing a meaningful life. One can add to society and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing one has acted with integrity and sensitivity.
With our school's Honor Code in place, team leadership this year decided to translate our Honor Code into a "GP Code", specific to our Robotics team, in the spirit of, and designed according to, the principles and process of developing the school's Honor Code.
Without the our school's Honor Code in place, "GP" would, in all honesty, be a difficult thing to impress upon young 9th-12th grade students.
Our Honor Code's existence provided a framework for student voice, and evidence that something can get created. By them. For us.
Over the past week our team took time away from building our Robot to create a "GP" code specific to US, and aligned with our Honor Code.
We know have a poster hanging, pamphlet's to distribute, and more importantly, a collective ethos to fall back on...together.
School culture is a function of student input and feedback. End of story.
Click here to see a slide show that contains our Robotics's Team "GP Code", along with associated graphics, that, in the spirit of prototyping, is a work in progress. They are also listed below:
Parents will be presented it tomorrow night at a welcome dinner, and, along with team members, will sign off vowing to follow it to the best of their ability.
Suddenly buzzwords are transcended and "GP" is a living thing.
In encourage you to work with any organization your are part of to do the same.
Philosophically, I appreciate the debate over grading in schools. I even agree with parts of Alphie Kohn's case against grading. All that being said, in a few weeks I go back to school. To my classroom. To a vocation I LOVE. To a career that provides for my family. And grades are a reality. They are required. They aren't going away.
Keeping this in mind, it does me no good as an educator to engage in debates around the efficacy of grading. I simply want to serve my students the best I can. And, in some ways, I don't think grades should be terminated. Perhaps it is up to us, as educators, to develop new, and thoughtful "hacks" to our current system.
To maximize the A-F system in our favor. In a way that serves our students. Builds metacognition. Limits apathy. Motivates. etc., etc., etc. I believe this is possible. And, here's the clincher: IT IS MORE POSSIBLE THAN WAKING UP TOMORROW AND GRADES BEING ELIMINATED. SO, IT'S ON ME TO BE BETTER FOR MY STUDENTS.
So...in the spirit of sharing super tangible, grassroots techniques, below is what I'm going to try next semester. Disclaimer: It involves some "old school" moves, such as transitioning to a teacher paper and pen gradebook, but please know, it is all in the spirit of pedagogy. In the spirit of my Ed Tech Mission statement if you will.
This revised system will provide students with the ability to constantly know their "grade" in our class, while simultaneously developing enhanced student awareness of their own performance and build student agency over the grading process.