One seventh grader’s journey includes learning math through Scooby Doo
©2001 Gary S. Stager/Curriculum Administrator Magazine


A version of this was published in the August 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator Magazine

 

At our annual family dinner to celebrate the end of another school year each of our children reflected upon the lessons learned and the obstacles overcome during the previous ten months. Our seventh-grade daughter, who will be referred to by the top-secret code name of Miffy, shared with us a new pedagogical strategy and use of educational technology not yet conceived of  during my school years. What was this innovation? Was it project-based learning, multiage collaboration, constructionism, online publishing, modeling and simulation? No, it was Disney films.

Yup, that’s right. Disney films (and several others too). The following is a partial list of the films shown this year during class time by my daughter’s teachers.

1st period Science 2nd period Math 3rd/4th period Language Arts 6th period Physical Education (rainy days) 7th period Social studies 8th period Band
Mulan
The Lion King
Babe Angels in the Outfield*
Young Frankenstein
Mighty Joe Young Little Giants* Babe
The Nightmare Before Christmas Aladdin The Big Green* Charlotte’s Web Rocky & Bullwinkle
Contact Cinderella The Sandlot* The Lion King II A Touched by an Angel episode dealing with racism & prejudice The Emperor’s New Groove
The Andromeda Strain The Little Mermaid Planet of the Apes Aladdin Remember the Titans Grease
MTV videos Mighty Joe Young The Road to Eldorado Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
VH1 videos The Nightmare Before Christmas Dinosaur Mr. Holland’s Opus
Scooby Doo
The Nightmare Before Christmas
[The list is based on what my daughter could remember at the end of a school year. So, it is likely to be incomplete.]

I know by now that you must be marveling at the interdisciplinary nature of The Nightmare Before Christmas. You may also be wondering why there were no movies shown during fifth period. That’s because they don’t show movies during lunch.

Now I’m as fond of wasting time and goofing-off as the next guy, but Miffy was able to remember watching at least 34 films having no educational value whatsoever in one school year. In case you were thinking that they could be studying film criticism or visual storytelling you should know that they only watched half of most films because the periods are too short. Others were watched over several days.

This remarkable waste of class time occurred in a school where requests for meaningful projects, hands-on experiments, field-trips, drama and other productive learning experiences are abandoned because of an oft-repeated “lack of time.” Sure the standardized tests and top-down curricular pressures wreak havoc with creating a productive context for learning, but we can’t blame this one on Princeton or the President. Somewhere along the line educators determined that the demanding curriculum was elastic enough for the illegal showing of countless commercial films.

My Daughter the Rodeo Clown

Miffy also told me that due to the SAT-9 exams, “Career Day” had been cancelled. I’m not sure which part of that statement is most tragic, so let’s state it in the form of a standardized test question.

Which is most pathetic?

  1. a) Canceling Career Day because of SAT-9 testing
  2. b) Career Day
  3. c) The school’s remedy for having cancelled career day

The ingenious remedy chosen was to spend much of the last week of school watching a series of instructional videos called, “Real Life 101.” While hardly as educational as Mulan, these shows turned out to be far more entertaining. The audience was repeatedly reminded, “you don’t need a college degree for this career, but it wouldn’t hurt! ”

The hosts of the series, Maya, Megan, Zooby and Josh (there always seems to be a Josh) introduced exciting career options for the high-tech interconnected global economy of the 21st century. The career options included the following: Snake handler, projectionist, naval explosive expert, skydive instructor, rafting instructor, diamond cutter, roller coaster technician, exterminator, auctioneer, alligator wrestler and my personal favorite growth industry – rodeo clown!

Actual Career Day worksheet used in the Torrance, CA Unified School District

You can’t make this stuff up! The worksheet that followed the Career Day substitute asked each child to rank these careers in order of preference and write a few sentences explaining their number one choice.

If I wanted my children to watch television, I’d let them stay home. At least at home they could watch something educational like “Behind the Music: The Mamas and the Papas”or learn about Beat poetry from the “Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. ”  At least then they would have a chance to learn something more than the unfortunate lessons being modeled by their schools.


Notes: *My kid explained that all of these films share the same plot about a group of fat kids working hard together to win the big game. Somewhere in there’s a lesson for us all.

About the author

Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He is also the curator of the Seymour Papert archive site, The Daily Papert. Learn more about Gary here.

I often remind teachers that as educators, their role is to educate everyone – children, parents, administrators, colleagues and the guy sitting next to you at the counter in a diner. Educating, like learning, must be 24/7

Every school, teacher, administrator, graduate student or kid I teach gains from the expertise I developed working with every other school, teacher, administrator or kid over the past thirty years. My experiences and the insights gained from those experiences are my most valuable commodity, one I am happy to share.

Much of my work as an educator is spent helping fellow citizens and educators recognize that even in these dark days, things need not be as they seem.  This is accomplished through the sharing of anecdotes, examples of work, case studies, photographs and video of children learning in productive contexts for learning that may seem alien or impossible when compared with a school setting. This willing suspension of disbelief is dependent on compelling the case I can make. People may only choose from alternatives they have experienced or seen. A large part of my work is spent collecting the evidence necessary to change minds or creating compelling models of what is possible in a teacher’s own classroom. If one can change minds, it may be possible to change professional practice.

Recently, I led a short professional development session at a school where I showed two videos from Reggio Emilia, Italy; Utopi Quoti (Everyday Utopias) and I Tiempi Del Tempo (The Times of Time) http://www.learningmaterialswork.com/store/reggio_children_multimedia.html

Teachers at the school were able to watch day-in-the-life videos of the extraordinary inquiry-based learner centered environments of Reggio Emilia’s municipal preschools, ask questions and discuss how what they observed might inform or transform their practice in a K-8 setting half a world away. The generosity of the educators, students and parents of Reggio Emilia make such conversations possible, since their videos share models of teaching and learning that may be foreign to us or invisible otherwise.

I have enjoyed some incredibly exciting experiences as an educator this year that remind me of why I teach and of the power computers can play in the construction of knowledge. This feeling of success is confronted by the sense that members of the edtech/ICT community have no idea what I do. I have low expectations for policy-makers and the media, but the edtech/ICT community should know better, right? They should join me in advocating powerful ideas and classroom revolution. Instead, too many seem more concerned with shopping, composing clever platitudes and congratulating each other via social media. It seems that the longer computers are in schools the fewer ideas there are for using them. When my colleagues whine and complain that change isn’t possible, I know in my soul they are wrong.They too could be classroom badasses, if only I could explain what I do and they believed what kids do with me. This inability to have a wider impact makes me feel like such a failure.

Colleagues and friends like to learn about the work I do in classrooms around the world. Sometimes, I even blog about my experiences. Occasionally, I share materials I created for classroom use. Such sharing requires extra work and rarely captures the enthusiasm, joy, social interactions, interventions, epiphanies, powerful ideas or tacit gestures so critical to powerful learning experiences. Perhaps it is so difficult for others to imagine young children programming computers, learning without coercion or being _____ (mathematicians, scientists, engineers, authors, filmmakers, artists, composers…) because they have never seen it with their own eyes.

If a picture is indeed worth 1,000 words, video may be worth a bazillion.

Trust me
Oh, how I wish you could have seen the 3rd grade class I taught late last week. The kids were programming in Turtle Art, a vision of Logo focused on creating beautiful images resulting from formal mathematical processes. I drew three challenges on the board and then groups of kids, who had used the software a few times before, set off to work collaboratively in figuring out mathematical ways to “teach the turtle” to reproduce the images I shared. I could tell you how the kids demonstrated an understanding of linear measurement, angle, integers, iteration, randomness, optical illusions, naming, procedurality and debugging strategies. However, if video had captured the session, you might have seen the kid who spends half the day getting a drink of water demonstrating impressive mathematical reasoning. You might have seen kids shrieking with joy during a “math” lesson, others high-fiving one another as they conquered each challenge and kids setting more complex challenges for themselves based on their success. You may have also noticed how the classroom teacher joined his students in problem solving – perhaps for the first time, but discovering the role the computer can play in education. Video might have captured how I choreographed the activity with less than a minute of instruction followed by 45 minutes of learner construction.

Alas, there is no such video to share.

I wish you could have seen what happened when I challenged a class of 5th graders to write a computer program in MicroWorlds that would allow the user to enter a fraction and have the computer draw that fraction as slices of a circle. The problem was so challenging that I offered to buy lunch for the first kid or group of kids to write a successful program. The kids worked for days on the one problem.

If I had video, you would have seen students confront variables for the first time by using them. They also employed algebraic reasoning, turtle geometry, angle, radius and speaking mathematically to their collaborators. I wish I could share how I asked the right question at the precise moment required to help a kid understand the problem at hand, how I refused to answer some questions or give too much information and deprive kids of constructing knowledge.

I wish you could have seen how excited the three little girls were when their program performed reliably. I wish you could have seen the non-winners who continued working on their programs regardless of the contest being over. I wish you could have seen the girls showing their program to their teacher and improving it based on aesthetic suggestions. I sure wish I could share a photograph of the 11 year-old female mathematicians arm-in-arm with #1 written on each of their arms held high.

Why should you trust me without evidence? I could post the program they wrote, but it might make as much sense as Swahili to some of you, while others will ask if the students were “gifted.”

My fourth graders are using Pico Crickets as their robotics construction kit. They are currently figuring out ways to bring stuffed animals to life with locomotion, sound, lights and senses. If you could see the class you would immediately appreciate the wide range of expertise and learning styles represented. Some kids have never built anything or played with LEGO while others have lots of experience. There are children very close to programming and reanimating their animal while others are busy building the tallest LEGO tower, giving a stuffed monkey a Mohawk haircut or shaving a teddy bear. Each student is working at their own level in their own way

I wish you could have seen the workshop I whipped together with little notice for seventy high school teachers in an economically challenged region. I wish you could have shared their joy and laughter while engaged in recreating old-time radio broadcasts from the 1930s and 40s. Along the way, they learned to record, edit and enhance digital audio without a bit of instruction. They fanned out in teams across their campus in order to find quiet places to record and discovered a powerful literacy activity they could use with students the next day. They also learned that tech skills could be learned casually in the context of a rich project.

Photography
Many schools have an uneasy relationship with photography, video and student identity. Some schools allow photography without the use of student names or the school identified. Others use initials or pseudonyms to indicate student identities. Some schools have prohibitions on publication of photos online. Some schools have no prohibitions whatsoever. Occasionally, I encounter schools that do not allow photography of any sort.

None of this is new to me. The tension over photography often mirrors fears of the Internet My doctoral research was with incarcerated teenagers and required me to take photographs without student faces being visible. I got pretty good at that, but such carefully designed “shots” makes it impossible to show the life of the classroom.

If schools, parents and teachers would embrace photography and video, school would be better for children. I truly believe that.

Here are but a few arguments for classroom photography.

Documents and tells learning stories
Photography and videography may be used to capture learning stories that make thinking visible to teachers, invite other learners to contribute to another student’s thinking, inspire peers to build upon the knowledge or accomplishments of classmates and preserves the intellectual life of the school.

Communicates with parents
Photography and videography provide an authentic way to demonstrate what students know and do for parents.

Honors student work and accomplishments
The publication or even casual sharing of student project-work via media honors their accomplishments without badges, grades or other coercive gimmicks.  Citizens are most likely to support schools that provide evidence of innovation.

Beautifies the school
Photos and video displays of students actively learning sets a tone for a school and reminds inhabitants of what matters.

Shares exemplary practices with fellow educators
Colleagues may learn what’s possible and new pedagogical practices if they are able to visit other classrooms vicariously. A fancy formal term for this is called “lesson study.”

Avoids hypocrisy
Parents should be educated that putting a student’s photo or poem on the Web will not result in alien abduction. They should also be reminded that advocating for a newspaper photo of their kid kicking a goal is of less value than sharing classroom practice as a means to inspire and improve education in their school and beyond.

Photos are useful
In addition to their educational function as documentation that makes thinking visible for teachers planning learner-centered interventions, photos may be used for public relations and school publications.

It’s nice to share
‘nuff said

Although I am not fully unpacked from a triumphant Constructing Modern Knowledge 2011 in July, I have been working hard over the past two months to assemble a collection of world-class guest speakers for the Fifth Anniversary Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute, July 9-12, 2012 in Manchester, NH.

As you know, Constructing Modern Knowledge is about action, but once a day, participants get to interact with brilliant thinkers whose work crackles with creativity, commitment and expertise. We’ve featured historians, astronomers, mathematicians, education reformers, MIT professors, early childhood experts and artists over the past four years, in addition to the best faculty in the world.

All of the guest speakers for CMK 2012 will be announced in a week or two, but our first confirmed guest speaker is so exciting that I can no longer keep him a surprise!

Extraordinary filmmaker Casey Neistat is coming to CMK 2012!

Casey Neistat is today’s premiere digital storyteller. He is an award-winning film producer, activist, artist and star of the HBO series, The Neistat Brothers, a show in which he and his brother shared “homemade” films about their lives. Watch an interview about their work here.

Casey Neistat was born and raised in Ledyard Connecticut, a farming town turned Foxwoods casino town.  His mother bought a VHS camera from Sears on credit in 1989 and was generous in letting the kids use it.  Casey moved to NYC in 2001 to make movies with his brother Van. The two worked together exclusively from 2001 through the production their self-titled HBO series ‘The Neistat Brothers‘ in 2008.  In 2011 Casey won an Independent Spirit Award for his work as producer on the film ‘Daddy Long Legs’. He currently lives and works in New York City

Casey uses consumer quality cameras, along with clever, remarkably simple and whimsical animation techniques to tell stories that are moving, funny or provoke action. He is a prolific moviemaker who can turn what others might perceive of as mundane everyday moments into great stories shared by tens of thousands, even millions, of viewers. That is why I invited him to be a guest speaker at Constructing Modern Knowledge!

The Neistat Brothers first gained notoriety when they produced iPod’s Dirty Secret, a 2003 viral video that shamed Apple into offering replacement batteries for the iPod. (read the press coverage) Casey’s recent video activisim turned his $50 ticket for riding his bike outside of the bike lane into a hilarious video in which he crashes into all sorts of obstacles found in lanes designated for cyclists. This short video not only warns users about Facebook’s questionable privacy practices, but teaches you how to protect yourself  in an entertaining and informative six minute film.

The Constructing Modern Knowledge web site will be updated over the coming weeks, but you can register today for CMK 2012 by clicking here. Register by December 1st for the insanely great super early-bird discount.


HBO promotional video for The Neistat Brothers


Casey Neistat of HBO’s Neistat Brothers talks technology and filmmaking.


A remarkably poignant story told in the simplest fashion


Everybody wants to be an action hero!


A public service announcement