When people own their computers

When people own their computers they can control and choose which ideas to engage in and when and why. This idea comes from Seymour Papert’s landmark text Mindstorms, which inspires me on every page! Written in 1980, it came before the proliferation of not only the actual computer devices but the Read/Write Web that we know so well.


Seymour Papert, 1980, Mindstorms
Seymour Papert, 1980, Mindstorms

And it’s the WikiPower that makes owning our own computers transformative in nature. We can make our own servers, our own web hosts, our own software engines, and we can invite others to join in and interact and interface there. We can create our own Internet-connected spaces to work and skip over any commercially-owned content provider or online forum, although we likely won’t completely opt out there because we all have friends and family posting items of interest elsewhere. And truly, unless we are going to generate our own electricity to run our own server farm, we cannot unhitch ourselves from the central brain (and only a few call for that approach).

img_4554_2Seymour Papert called upon us to think WITH computers. To learn WITH computers. Our 2016 privilege to have a vast array of devices available for processing and working at lightning speed is often coupled with a fear that computers will take over. That fear was alive and well many years ago. We continue to make the error of handing over the job of teaching to a computer and pride ourselves on the computer that sits in a corner for a student to learn FROM. The computer takes over because we assigned it the function of taking over the job of instruction.

Further, the software designed for educational usage is often “edutainment” and combines a narrowly defined data set with some gaming or artistic principles that capture attention long enough to deliver the information to the student. This counters the research which demonstrates that students best learn when they experience the material and play with the material in an open and expansive or boundless manner.

STEAMHAMLET encourages students “to bang their heads against the world”™ and innovate new concepts, theories, and mechanisms.

Seymour Papert, you are with us.

Bruce Lee, the 8-bit video game that I still play

Must I tell you who Bruce Lee is? I hope not. But here you go:

Enter The Dragon
Enter The Dragon

The kids born in the 1970s like to brag about their less crowded streets and their knee-high socks and their afternoons spent delivering newspapers or playing with friends because they didn’t have homework like kids born in the 2000s. I’m going to add one more thing to the brag list: Bruce Lee, the video game, the original Atari 8-bit or Commodore 64 release. The 1980s came just at the right time for the 1970s kids because we were old enough to hang out in pizza parlors after school and also get jobs to buy our own games to play at home.

Up, down, left, right, jump, kick. With five keys on the keyboard and twenty levels and two bad guys and lots of challenges and puzzles, it is a perfect game. The sounds are entertaining, the graphics are lovable, and the gameplay experience will draw you closer to trying to actually beat the game.

That's me! Bruce, kicking butt!
That’s me! Bruce, kicking butt!

I have beaten the game multiple times. How many hours of my life have been spent inside of this 8-bit Bruce Lee fantasy is unknown to me at this time, but I have no regrets. This game allowed me to pretend just enough that I was Bruce Lee, and, kids from the 1970s, well, we all wanted to be Bruce Lee. Even those who didn’t admit it, they did too.

Just take a look at this video of all the levels completed by a friendly YouTuber who also shares in the joy of this game:

This is pure 80s happy.

I marvel at how complicated and challenging the new games are, and am very impressed with the graphics, the scale, the gameplay, and all of it, but let me tell you, or let my son tell you, I am really not that good at these newfangled games at all. The Playstation or XBox game controllers alone are too complicated for me with all of those buttons, for more fingers than I have available, and two thumb-controlled joysticks, not hand-controlled, but thumb. However, if you’ll put two quarters into a Pac-Man machine, and let me go first, you’ll be waiting a while before you get to play your first life. And I am likely to earn more points in my first life than you’ll get in all three of yours. But that’s because I’m skilled in what I know, and it isn’t better, but it just is different and so la dee dah (as Annie Hall likes to say).

I love the Bruce Lee 8-bit game so much so that when I first made a website back in 1997, I found a ‘for Windows computers’ version and made it available for download. I had loads of hits on that page, and my nephew swears to this day that I got him through most of his bored days at school with that link.

Sometimes a group of humans comes together to create, in their time, the right mixture of cultural relevance, user excitement, emotional connection, and mental challenge. This happens in art, music, games, and more. I know that feeling well, and I’d venture a guess that we all just keep looking for the next time it will happen, or even better, get busy creating it ourselves with a trusted bunch of inventors, innovators, artists, and thinkers. It’s all we can do, really, once we know what it’s like to have lived through ‘a something’ . . . well, that about wraps up my little tribute to Bruce Lee, the 8-bit video game. I’m sure I’ll be back sometime soon with more on the life I once led.

He was an artist.

You might as well —> download the game <— on a Windows box and get busy. The file is stored on my personal Google Drive; this is not a malicious Rick Roll.

Loud final exams

the eclectic collection


I don’t give tests. Tests as most people know tests, where a student sits in a quiet room and has a private experience with a pen and paper, I don’t do that. I don’t agree that that test is important enough to get recorded in a gradebook and have an impact on a student’s final semester grade, and therefore college admissions. However, I do consistently and naturally test the students, but more for their own and my own understanding of how they or I could innovate to nudge things along in groups or individually.

Formative assessment? Yes. It works. And for the record, I also think it works to give those traditional quiet tests when the results are only used to inform instruction and not recorded in a student’s final grade. I have real trouble making the pursuit of knowledge and an authentic learning process suffer the fate of becoming artificial school experiences. All the talk about the real world or the job market or the preparation for something outside the alleged fake walls of our school makes me insane. We are alive and well and plenty real inside these walls. Most schools create artificial conditions for how we spend our day, so the hours in my classroom are attempts to de-schoolify and get to the work of mind expansion.

Tests can come in many shapes and sizes. I had a great experience when I gave my final exam to the tenth graders.

Here’s my lesson plan: I enter the room early. Setup. Tables folded and stacked. Chairs in rows like movie seating and placed close to floor-to-ceiling white boards. Projector displays document of our mega vocabulary list. Students enter room from trickle to burst and all have chances to select words at random from the list and write them on the board with the purpose of covering the boards like graffiti or tagging or bathroom wall missives. Of course, some playfulness. Always, playfulness. I encourage them to play. I invite and nudge. Invite and nudge. Don’t badger. Students interact in funny ways with each other as the first ten minutes are engulfed with the ‘spelling test’ on the boards.

During this first phase of my final exam, I had my front classroom door open. It opens on to an indoor hallway in a medium-sized building of about nine classrooms. A student from a classroom two doors down politely pauses at my doorway and asks if we wouldn’t be able to be more quiet since her class is having a test. I found it amazing! I told her that we were ALSO having a test. We were just louder than her class.

She smiled. Chuckled a bit. Went back to class as I closed the door. It was friendly. But I also had a realization that I really liked.

I straightened up a bit as the students got themselves settled into the movie theater seating with Huck Finn books and as many screens as possible pointed at either a dictionary website or the Wordy App as I explained the vocabulary final examination. When we were all ready to move on, I began: “As you likely know by now, I don’t do things like normal people do them. I’m an alien. This is a final examination but I don’t give exams or tests. Down the hall, they are having a test and being quiet, but here we are having a test and being loud. But I don’t give tests. This is practice.”

Vocabulary #Constructivism
Vocabulary #Constructivism

This was my revelation at the door: Testing does not work as well as practicing if the goal is to know deeply. Remain playful.

I explained this concept in its simplicity to the students and it didn’t take much convincing for them to agree. It is at the heart of all the complaints about grades and tests that they have voiced since before I was taking those tests myself as a K-12 student.
Stress. Performance. Test. I can see why some researchers would conclude that humans need to learn that skill because, like it or lump it, that system is so entrenched, it ain’t likely goin’ away anytime soon. Fine. I get that.

The part that sticks in my craw is that the test is recorded in a gradebook which then gets computed to determine an A through F letter grade that then gets translated into a number that is then averaged by the number of core academic courses a student takes in a high school career, which then is one’s GPA. No small thing is that GPA. Just a low number to illustrate the point: four years of high school, five classes per semester with tests, five tests per semester per class would make 200 tests to determine the final high school GPA.

What bearing can those 200 quiet occasions have on a messy and honest assessment of a teenager’s capacity to think, read, write, criticize and innovate on one topic let alone dozens upon dozens upon dozens? What truly do these 200 tests show us about these teenagers? That they need more sleep? That they would rather stay up late and avoid studying for tests? That many of the successful testers would also rather not take all this time to study like this but would rather find other methods to absorb and utilize their newly acquired book wisdoms?

This is a real question. I cannot recall human ingenuity ever regarded as a skill/trait that we ought to squelch or ignore. Our classrooms are bursting with opportunities to adjust how we teach high school English.

I’ve already adjusted my response to “what do you do for a living?” as Explorer of English because I really do not think I teach English. If you don’t know English when you are in my class, I will likely refer you to some Seinfeld reruns as homework so you can understand at least that third of what I say. 🙂

During the final examination, one student for whom I imagined the massive mess of words as a comfortable place since she is a wild-monkey-brain-swinging-branch-to-branch processor, reliably took a front row seat, although she was quiet. This part of the examination required students to only discuss the book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and use at least one vocabulary word on the board in what they say. They could speak as long as they liked, as in normal text-based discussion, and just had to properly use the vocabulary words.

I nudged the quiet student in front since I knew this test would be a delight to her brain, which she confirmed with a laugh and a smile. A minute later she snapchatted me. And then again. She started prolifically cranking out Huck Finn comments with funny pictures in the background and properly used vocabulary. The sentences were both typed and finger drawn. It was great raw footage from her brain and were all spot on and had quick-witted humor playfully bouncing about it. It was simply brilliant and impressive.

On the whole, the room was lit up and many funny moments were shared among us all. We cleverly discussed Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and had fun. I know exactly who scored the highest and the lowest and everything in between. I will not be recording these grades anywhere. I simply told the students what I thought of their work when they did it and I privately made some final comments to a handful of students at the end that I wanted to highlight to either push for more or congratulate for a great rise to the challenge.

You might not be surprised who scored the highest. It was my quiet student.

So, quiet is not what is wrong with testing. Testing is what is wrong with testing. Make space for the quiet student to participate in the full classroom practice session or rehearsal. And don’t grade it.

Standards and benchmarks and good teaching and smart intellectual pursuits are still the call of the day. You can very easily see which student is generally understanding, processing, and using the information your class covers. No addition and division of test scores could ever tell you in any better way what your human mind and soul can already glean. If a student does not complete “an assignment” but can demonstrate some gained knowledge, how much value does that carry? Should a teacher be pleased that the student understands the concepts or upset that the student did not complete a required piece of work about the concepts?

During the final exam, one student suggested that the SAT ought to give students the problem and the answer as a test question and ask the student test-taker to explain the solution. I imagine multiple explanations could emerge and that it would be even more exciting and intellectual if the students could all talk to each during the exam, er, practice.