Tuesday, September 5, 2017

On Slowness: The Sense8 Potentials of Instagram

"There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting…  …A man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down…"

Milan Kundera

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Bridging Across Time

A few weeks ago I met an old friend for dinner.  We walked, and sat, and talked, for hours - slowness - while the New York cityscape around us moved in Baraka-like stop frame frantic pace.  Once upon a time, in this lifetime, she and I wrote ten to twenty page letters to each other, letters that had drafts and multiple revisions, paper and ink carefully picked out, selected stamps licked and meticulously placed.  If you made a mistake you simply wrote the page again.  I never mailed anything until sleeping on it and reading it again the next day - one letter could take a week or longer.  I drafted mini-stories, parts of days, reflections on readings, music, dreams, nightmares...  I was living in Poland at the time so it took two weeks for a letter to arrive, at least six weeks before a response came, and when it did, that night after dinner, I lit a candle, poured a glass of wine, and spent time with this person, no distractions.

She lamented the insane world around us, zombies with cell phones, dopamine addicts.  I argued that our social medias were not inherently stupid, but people use them in idiotic ways, dumbing themselves down, becoming their lowest common denominator of self, but that it didn’t have to be like that.  I teach with technology, document, reflect, iterate with kids in their learning process, and I think all kids should learn to deconstruct their transmedia landscape, it’s part of being literate today.  The fact that we were even having dinner was due to our social networks placing us both in New York.  But she was right, I don’t know any twenty somethings that go home at night and work on drafts of letters, maybe they are too busy swiping left or right on Tinder, “where sadness goes to  

Our “always on” connectivity has us all skimming across rapid-fire emotive responses to images and short bursts of text that are increasingly what is happening now, less the series of events that has led up until now, and rarely a contextualized synthesis of events.  That night I biked back across the Williamsburg Bridge, thoughts suspended between now and a former way of being, on how digital technologies connect and isolate simultaneously, on how a slow exchange of text was more immersive than the encompassing sensory of a thousand swipes.  Racing the downhill slope of the bridge, back toward this Brave New World where all of us are hooked on speed, few of us feeling the drudgery of the climb, the earned euphoria of the descent, I realized that we may not just be the last generation of letter writers, we may be the end of a slow, deep, contemplative form in which two people connect and sense one another.

The Power of Ten and Our Collective Intelligence

Cultures and all the "micro-climates" within, over time, fade, mashup, remix, or get forcibly exterminated.  But what is different here is the rapidity in which cultures, languages, ecosystems, climates are being disrupted.  We were merely two people talking over dinner slowly realizing that in a small wrinkle in time, something disappeared from the world.  Zoom out a few powers of ten, extend the timeline, and there is a world trend of the disappearance of the "original peoples".  Jon Lee Anderson recently reported on the Mashco Piro, an isolated people who have rarely been seen for nearly a century, but are now initiating communication with civilization beyond the Amazon due to contact with drug traffickers, loggers, and epidemic diseases.  He reflects...

“What I felt I saw on this trip was a glimpse of the original world as it’s ending.  People in the urban world, metropolitans, Peruvians, everywhere, are losing primary experiences.  We are no longer having direct contact with the original world.  Where I was, this is still there, the very original world, before all of our history, before Columbus, before Christ, before all of that stuff, how we were when it was just us and nature - it's disappearing.  It will disappear if not in our lifetime, in our children’s lifetime.  It’s going.  The Mashco Piro are coming out of the jungle.  There’s only 100 isolated groups left in the world, 70 of them live in this area of Peru and Brazil.  This is it, this is the end, that is an extraordinary thing.”

The Mashco Piro, like the Nukak migration in 2006, stem partly from drug traffickers invading their ancestral lands and fighting with military or paramilitary groups - because of an attempt to eradicate or control the drug transport lines - because the war on drugs has made the northern routes more costly - because the U.S. does not view drug demand as a problem but instead decided to militarize zones of the world that have been demilitarized since... maybe forever.  The same systems thinking could be applied to lumber cutting, farming, strip mining, etc.  Yet this systems literacy has not evolved with our digital connectivity.  By viewing a satellite time lapse of forest cuttings, my third graders can develop an understanding that the animal species' habitat they are studying is threatened, but that is hardly "knowledge" until they can break it down into actions in their immediate environment such as food waste, material waste, or other consumptive habits.  Ultimately, it won't only depend on an individual's ability to work cooperatively with immediate community to solve problems, but will depend on developing empathy through digital medias, awareness of dispersed knowledge, and development of collective agency.

In my lifetime the world population has doubled.  As a problem solving species capable of collective intelligence on a massive scale, we are often reduced to thinking of immediate gain and survival without the foresight of global repercussions, meaning more blast fishing, deep sea trolling, mountaintop removal mining, slash and burn clear cutting, destruction of mangroves and estuaries, and disappearance of our oldest surviving cultures.  Education, international/interdisciplinary communication, and yes, technological evolution could prevent this imbecilic Trump-train wreck from happening.  The land bridge between Barranquilla and Santa Marta in Colombia instantly killed an entire ecosystem of estuaries and mangroves, but if canals and waterways had been part of the design, then the spawning cradles for fish and the species endemic to the mixture of fresh and salt water would have survived.  I believe the same kind of systems thinking can be applied to the rapid growth of digital technologies and cultural evolution.  If Mayan urban planning preserved green tracts of land, and conductive thread resuscitates a new interest in the studies of ancient weaving technologies, then our social medias can incorporate endangered written and oral traditions as they innovate transmedia forms, and the decoding of the multitude of systemic factors leading to the "original peoples" leaving their homelands could possibly be prevented.

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Homo Sensorium

When Lana and Andy Wachowski with Michael Stranczynski crafted Sense8, they wanted to focus on how technology connects at a distance, but separates those in our immediate proxemics.  Straczynski used his experience with friends living in different parts of the world who would meet online to watch a film together and discuss it.  The Wachowskis wrote half of the chapters, Straczynski the other half, and then they swapped and rewrote each other’s chapters.  In describing the process Straczynski said… 

“Michelangelo said that the way you sculpt a horse is you cut off a large block of marble and you chip away whatever isn’t the horse. We start off with a block of marble, which are all the ideas of where it could go, and I’m a structure nut. I think things have to go, if you have something over here, it has to make sense down the road.”

Their narrative is complex, eight Sensates in eight different locations around the world begin to realize their connectivity, sometimes through an isolated sense, feeling what another feels, sometimes through shared physical space.  Sense8 is LGBTQ eye candy pop, and appreciating it is about engineering around the purpose and making of the series, the world building logistics of filming parts of scenes across incredible distances of time and space, and how this complex creation reflects on our own current digital connectivity.  Straczynski explains, 

“We are all our world-builders and you have to ask every single logical question to create a mythology, the history of it. Our feeling was that we actually all started off as Sensates originally and that [not being a sensate] is like a mutation.”

Photographic Networks

We, the smart-dumb-phone carriers of the world, are stuck in a crossroads, oversaturated with stimulus and choice, not sure whether to swipe left or right, caught in a strobe of inertia.  The real step in human evolution is developing purpose to our connectivity, to not sink into narcissism and individualism, but to explore another's point of view so deeply that you collect bits and pieces of what the other senses and feels.  When Flickr first came out I spent about thirty minutes a night traveling online, feeling a bit like a Sense8 in the space between my own emotive responses to image, often beyond my comprehension, and the contextualization of images into my own mythologies.  Similarly, Instagram serves that function, and because of its immediacy, creates collective digital narrative, often conflicting with mainstream reporting - like in 2014 when CNN looped footage framing tanks and flaming cars in Kiev, but simultaneously searching #Kiev showed young people riding bikes around, smiling for cameras.  

Photographs enable an empathy often not accessible in live time and drastically different than the being there sensation of film.  I wondered what I could learn from access to all these people’s streams of photos.  I found myself following people I didn’t know, and would never meet (or so I thought), and explored whether I could develop empathy for their lives.  Around this same time I was taking on online course from Project Zero called Making Learning Visible, and I gravitated toward people that were narrating a learning trajectory through Instagram - a photographer, a classical guitarist, an artist, a designer, a bass player, a dancer…  My goal was to follow them over time, watch for reflection of progress, goal setting, how community interacts through comments.  But then seeing that the photographer was in New York where I was about to spend a couple of months, I reached out and invited him to a podcast session to talk about his learning process and experience documenting it with social media.

Learning About Learning

Roy Savoy, a street photographer works across the five boroughs.  He agreed to meet me in Washington Square Park for a podcast session.  It took us a while to find each there since I had no idea what he looked like.  There are people with cameras everywhere in the park.  After standing next to people and saying, “Hey Roy,” he finally spotted me.  We took a seat on a bench and recorded the following…

After recording, we went and got coffee and talked for another hour, mainly about his process in learning photography.  I had originally been attracted to Roy’s stream of photos by the quality of the work, invoking what Barthes calls “punctum”, emotive repose, and “studium”, contextualizing images, in this case by juxtaposing them with backdrops, objects, and other figures.  There is also a chronological progression as he sharpens technique while developing style and voice.  Roy explained not just his learning journeys, but outlines a kind of blueprint for self driven learning in the digital age.  By starting from square one, creating community, researching the masters, owning the media, knowing himself as a learner, and hacking his surroundings, he designs his own learning environment.  

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As I reflect on this process, I hope to find clues in how our digital technologies potentially transform us into Sensates, how we can develop a deeper form of slow transmedia communication paralleling letter writing, and what schools can do to include the spectrum of modalities in our media landscapes.


Anand, B. N. (2016). The content trap: a strategists guide to digital change. New York: Random House.

Anderson, J. L. (2017, August 29). An Isolated Tribe Emerges from the Rain Forest. Retrieved September 05, 2017, from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/08/08/an-isolated-tribe-emerges-from-the-rain-forest

Anderson, J. L. (2016, September 30). A Dangerous Encounter with an Isolated Amazon Tribe. Retrieved September 05, 2017, from http://www.wnyc.org/story/dangerous-encounter-isolated-amazon-tribe/

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Barthes, R. (1957). Mythologies. New York: Noonday Press.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

You are What You Do: Maker Empowerment of Voice

SXSWedu is usually a techy, STEAMy conference.  This year, by the powers of ten, we zoomed back away from TPACK, from Shulman’s what and how, to look at the larger system of learning, and to grapple with the framing why’s - what I have inarticulately described before as the narrative of learning, Pink’s “purpose”.  One presentation, which led to a podcast which led to a school visit, was by the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders.  In their journey from becoming a STEAM school, they have gravitated toward a Maker driven philosophy.  Here I’ll unpack conversations, observations, and notes from extended readings to think through the Maker shift, specifically how student voice is awakened by empowerment, sensitivity, and community.


You are What You Do

“... if as a sixth grader you learn how to use power tools, you are going to remember that for the rest of your academic career…”
Anah Wiersema, Vice Principal Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders

Dewey wrote about knowledge as a verb, an action upon one’s environment.  When that action is compounded with tool, the proprioceptive feedback creates a larger self body image, like a superpower.  The traditional identity of student - basically a learn-er, study-er, test-taker, teacher-pleaser transforms into maker, programmer, knit bomber, or turntablist.  This change in intrapersonal identify extends at a grander scale as one’s interpersonal relationship with a passive, consumer oriented world breaks, overturning the illusion that choice is predetermined.  And not to sound too Matrixy, but I think where Anah’s comment logically leads is to creating Makers that view the world as malleable, not just through products and goods, but in social-political-economic systems.

Who gets access to this kind of learning environment, to construct this identity?  This ethical problem of equity of access, and identity construction, is part of the Ann Richards School’s mission looking at the gender, socio-economic, racial challenges of balancing the access to STEM careers.

To put this idea of identify empowerment into perspective, at the Ann Richards School...

“...over 60% of the school’s population are the first in their families to attend college. In the school’s first two years of graduates, 100% have enrolled in college, and are funded by over $8 million in scholarships.” 
Eric Heineman, College Advisor, Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders

If You Build It...

...make sure there is space for students to find problems.  Academic Dean, Kris Waugh, speaks of wanting to create problem finders.  Our traditional concept of school means age groups divided into classes where teachers dictate or facilitate activities.  Ewan McIntosh of NoTosh explains how teachers have always engaged in the messiness of learning, the divergent thinking through the infinite paths a learning trajectory can take.  The teacher has immersed and defined the problem, and students solve it, deprived of the opportunity to develop sensitivities to finding problems on their own, and in the process make the critical aesthetic, affective, ethical connections to their own learning trajectories.  Going back to my inarticulate idea of narrative framing, James Ohler does a better job saying,

"...story is a highly efficient information container. It is far more than that. In an age of information overload we have reached into antiquity and pulled up the story to help us integrate all that information that is coming at us. We have competing kinds of info containers, lists which we don't tend to remember, and story which is integrated and we tend to remember it. We need to bring story into education as a means of learning, and also as a means of personal branding. Students need to learn how to tell their own story at an early age, and understand that they can be in control of their own story. If they are not, other people may control it..."   
Jason Ohler

In a Maker scenario, Papert explains this means learning problems solved through the process of physically constructing what began as an idea in the mind.  The narrative begins with finding and defining that idea, and engaging in an iterative process that may involve space for tinkering.

Art class is often the closest lab-like learning atmosphere akin to heavier maker spaces, and perhaps is one of the best Maker portals schools have. Art slides on a continuum between craft and conceptual problem solving.  Years ago I observed weekly extended Art blocks for second graders by Betty Salive who had applied Reggio Emilia approaches where graphic representation is one of the 100 Languages of Children.  At first glance her sessions were a classroom management nightmare, but as I started paying attention to where there was structure in the class - mini-lessons bridging participatory theater with color choice, campfire gatherings to critique work, joke time for honing oral presentation, and most importantly the products filing into their portfolios - I understood the chaotic intent.  

With her permission I started interviewing students outside the class, recording their reflections on a selected piece of work, then dictated their ideas printed in large fonts to display alongside their pieces for museum exhibition.  They were delving into their most critical problems, and then solving the problem through graphic construction. Their artistic voices were activated through ability, will, and sensitivities to multiple paths across mediums, but also through their access to each other's feedback and thoughts, the adjacent possible in a making lab, and the audience that would view their work.

This is how I see the Maker challenge, creating space within the academic school experience where students grapple, finding and defining the problems around learning, and engage in an iterative process toward their product or solution. For those familiar with writer's workshop labs, this is similar to how Lucy Calkins (research oriented Lessons From a Child, not NCLB adapted Units of Study) moved away from teacher generated writing prompts to students creating their own prompts.  This requires schools to step back from the obsessive pursuit of measuring mono-psychometrics to the idea that individual skills will be honed in the development of tendencies and dispositions, and to a messier learning design with multiple learning objectives at play simultaneously.

Zooming Out (or Nuclear Annihilation and ZPD)

“...Projects transcend the self.”  
Kris Waugh, It’s Not About What You Make, SXSWedu 2017

It took the threat of nuclear annihilation for Paul Baran to develop a decentralized data transfer system, hot-potato routing, where information passes through distributed nodes.  We learn through our tools, and it seems no accident that through our digital interconnectivity and information transfer through packets that we zoom back from individual minds connecting new information to prior knowledge and extend the frame to look at learning as a network, toward a learning design accounting for dispersed teaching and learning.  The real technology at work is as ancient as hunter and gatherer group hunts where the individual against the Mastadon was not an option.  Brittany Harker Martin describes “socially empowered learning” in which the maker disposition develops through an awareness of knowledge within the immediate community and through the network beyond.  The carpenter, muralist, entrepreneur networks through a guild-like web where knowledge moves through dispersed nodes.  

In many ways this is drawing from strengths of pre-industrialized cultures. Edward Hall's proxemics differentiates polychronic and monochronic cultures, shedding light on the difficulties schools face in an industrial time-segmented production cycle where individual measurement is not indicative of what students can accomplish when leveraging the tools in their environment, their Zone of Proximal Development extended through the social network.

Maker DNA

When I became a teacher they taught me to arrange the desks in groups of four facing each other, so I worked from my prior knowledge as a cook-waiter-bartender in New Orleans and thought, “Yeah, four-tops, people need to talk through what they are doing, be it eating or fractions.”  No one ever explained why we needed four-tops, but maybe intuitively I knew that these watering holes were critical for the social construction of knowledge, and I did have the wherewithal in this ESL class of immigrants with vastly diverse language abilities, to group the ones who got it with the ones who were on their way.  But none of the social dynamics within the class were part of the criteria of what judged me as a teacher - keeping paperwork turned in on time, a weekly clipboard check of my wall posters and timing of my predetermined lessons to make sure I was within five minutes of set transitions, and scores on standardized test benchmarks administered five times a year.  Viva Texas. (post Ann Richards, Bush era)

What I didn’t know was that allowing for the social construction to take place I was empowering my students with a critical element in Maker DNA.

“...It is important to note that maker educators do not view peer learning simply as a nicety, something to be tacked onto instruction as an afterthought. It is part of the DNA of maker settings, where it is often necessary—either because students genuinely know things that their teachers do not or because the efficient distribution of skill-instruction requires it, such as when a large class of students needs to learn how to use a drill press and the fastest way to disseminate the information is for students to teach other students.” 
Maker-Centered Learning

I’ve seen this social construction at work throughout teaching in collective inquiry sessions, in symposiums of Junior Great Books, in Socratic Circles, in tech integration, in crowdsourced editing/revising projects, in applying the methods and mindsets of design thinking, in organizing critical events and innovation projects, and in facilitating media lab sprints.  Echoing Kris Waugh, learning IS a project that transcends the self and our role as learning engineers, designers, artisans, atelieristas is to create the environment for this empowerment.


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