City As School

Thanks to some recent conversations I've had with Monika and Christian, I've been able to hone in on some clarity to describe what we do to new folks.

Students and teachers learn and work in school buildings, confined to what that school building has to offer.  The city has tons to offer, so we believe the city should be our school.  The Disruption Department is the IT Department for the city's learners. 

By the way, if you're in St. Louis, come on over to Sump coffee this Sunday between 6 and 8 to hear (and hopefully vote for) our first public pitch at Sloup.  Pay $10 for a delicious bowl of soup from Sugar Fire Smokehouse and hear some fabulous people share their ideas.  We're trying to buy a CNC Mill for Hack Days.  


Smart people who run startup communities talk a lot about "density.k"  Talented people located in the same space will multiply creativity and outcomes.  This is why co-working spaces are so valuable to startup cultures in cities.  Not only can people collaborate, but they can share access to resources (offices, internet, refridgerators, accountants, legal advice, mentors, etc.).  

Schools are dense, and they're good at sharing resources.  But most are terrible incubators for innovation.  That's why we've been push our iteration of Monika's "City as School" model.  We can bring together innovative, curious, and design-minded teachers and students.  We can place them in  a room or in collaborative spaces online.  We can make sure they have creation and making tools.  Then we can watch the magic happen. 

#Fail often

Last night, we did a small pitch for a CNC mill for our first hackdays in February.  We shared our story with a group of 70 or so artists, designers and entrepreneurs at Sump coffee in St. Louis.  I did my best.  I tried to do by the community. I tried to do the best for our students, who I knew were relying on me to do my best. 

I waited all day long for the results to come in, hopefully declaring us the winning vote getter for the ~700 pot of money.

But we lost. 

And it hurt.

For like 10 seconds. 

Then I moved on to telling our story better. And telling it to more people.  

"The whole city should be our school" I told the group last night. 

And after feeling the consuming energy that comes after failing.  The feeling you get when you want to dust yourself off and kick butt for the next time.  

We're ready to get better.  Andrew and I have been refining our vision for Hack Day since 5PM. 

Our kids need this lesson in order to thrive.

Losing hurts, but regretting not trying hurts deeper. 

Start today.  Start often.  Suck.  Repeat.  


Emergency vs. Urgency (or why no one innovates during a fire)

There's a lot to be said about urgency.  If you’ve stepped into most schools in low-income areas, you immediately recognize it’s going to take some urgent and proactive work to create better outcomes for students.

But urgency is oftentimes conflated with emergency, conditioning us to react to what we see and feel.  If you notice, very few people innovate during a fire.  They just want to get themselves and everyone else out safely.

That’s why it distresses me the course many schools take.  To focus on making industrial schools better is to react to the emergency, which doesn’t leave much room for growth.  If we anchor ourselves to the "problem", we overlook the structural problems (poverty) and learning problems (creation and innovation).  If we spent the next 20 years trying to catch our kids up to their wealthier peers, we're still 40 years behind.  Many students in wealthy schools are already given the permission, access and skills to do creative and authentic work, if not at school than at home or on their own. 

To further the emergency metaphor, the problem is that most people don’t want to escape from a burning building better.  You don’t get points for creativity during an emergency.

We can take urgent action to solve these problems.  We’ve focused on access to the internet and making/tinkering for that very reason. It’s critical because most innovative thinking occurs during “casual” time and “play” time (props to @johntspencer for this convo).  You can’t legislate innovation.  You can’t force innovation.   You can only create the conditions (time, space, skills and resources) and steward innovation.

Let’s take urgent action #stl

#Appy Hour

The Disruption Department is hosting an App-y hour at The Pi Pizzeria, downtown on Washington Ave next Thursday (December 6) @ 6:00 PM. Bring the best sites, apps, gadgets, projects or ideas you've used in the classroom to share with others. Need ideas? Come to learn from some of the most innovative teachers in the St. Louis area. RSVP and join the Meetup group,

The event is free, but if you want to imbibe some of the finest cocktails downtown has to offer (or St. Louis beer, or some damn fine wines), bring a couple extra bucks.

Update on Student Fellowship Program

These past two weeks have been a whirlwind.  We've accepted and processed the first pilot group of students into our Disruption Fellowship program.  I met with the families, outlined the project, and dropped off the laptops and 4G internet cards.  At first blush, most of the students are interested in Software Design, Multimedia Production, Entrepreneurship and Computer Repair/Hardware Engineering.  We expect these interests to change following more exposure to projects at hackdays.  Students will work building skills in coding over the next month leading up to our first hackday on February 1.  

The fellows for 2013 are: 

  • Breshawn - Software Design
  • Deon - Software Design
  • Antonio - Software Design, Multimedia Production
  • Courtney - Entrepreneurship
  • Dion - Computer Repair/Engineering
  • James - Multimedia Production

We'll be posting updates on the project as updates.  If you want to help fund the Fellowship Program, you can go to fundly and give a donation. Any little bit helps!

"Magical" vs. "Hackable"

I meet more and more folks in education that are contemplating swappingout laptops with complete operating systems like linux, max osx or windows in favor of tablets (or most recently the advent of chromebooks).

I get it.  They're cheaper than market alternatives and are extremely portable.

I own an ipad.  I use it to lean back and to read, or maybe interact a bit with people I know online.

But I never use it to create.

This week I've been rolling up my sleeves and learning ruby on rails, met with challenges and frustrations of configuring my system to push commits of source code to github and production deployments to heroku (a neat site that hosts sites for testing purposes).

It's been a mess. But in three days I've learned more about a new topic that I can apply to the creation of new things than I have by consuming on my iPad.

I've been able to think in broader terms, hatching two collaborative projects with student fellows that further tend to the mission of what we do around here, and what we hope to accomplish for the St. Louis region writ large.

The problem is that tablets strike us with awe by their magic, seven sensors that can help track our every movement, providing us with detailed data about our daily lives.  This is cool, but creates an illusionary distance between us and the technology that drives these experiences. Furthermore, we're tied to proprietary systems that no doubt provide elegance to our user experience, but leave much to be desired with regards to how things work.  This is undoubtably better for the market in general, but for many of us (and more importantly those younger than us who don't quite know they are like "us" yet), it poses problems.

Instead, with the more freedom that complete operating systems provide, we can more fully understand the underlying architectures that drive the future. We can tinker with sensors ourselves with arduinos.  We can create dynamic webpages with ruby on rails.  We can even take our computers apart (gasp!) and understand their inner-workings, hacking ourselves to more complete understandings of how computer hardware can be improved.

I'm in favor of more complete systems because, while not being sufficient conditions for creating the next generations of inventors, engineers, and makers, it certainly is necessary to do so.

Stories from a School Makerspace, #1 (The Prototype Process)

This is the first installment in a series of reflections from our pilot makerspace at Grand Center Arts Academy in St. Louis.  The point is to not only document the process so we can improve when we go to full-time programming in August, but also to share the process with others who might want to try catalyzing a Makerspace at their school or community center".)  These thoughts may be random, many times not chronological, but when taken as an opus, provide a good deal of insight into how we've learned about how a makerspace works.

It's been three weeks in GCAA room #505, a whirlwind of learning for all of us.  We're conducting a pilot to determine how we can meet the unique needs of a visual and performing arts school.  While the school has a strong arts curriculum, the school leader was concerned with the lack of hands-on design opportunities for students, as well as interested in the interactions between technology/design thinking/making and the arts.  Together, we decided to facilitate a makerspace every Friday during the school day, with no specific scheduling.  Students would be allowed to wander in during their unstructured, tutoring, or advisory times with the explicit permission of one of their teachers.

During week 1, the room was completely empty at 7:30 AM.  This was a design decision, because we wanted to know how cheaply and sparsely we could furnish a makerspace, while adding consumable materials, tools, and workspace incrementally over time.  We had a hunch that we could address two problems with this, one was that students should exercise creativity not only while designing things, but they should also participate in the actual design of the space.  Additionally, we wanted the purest form to emerge as possible, rather than exposing them directly to tools and resources that might limit their creativity.

I remember a vignette I read about a 5th grade teacher that welcomed his students on the first day of school with a completely bare room.  He declared: "this year we're going to learn about westward expansion.  You will live like pioneers, off your own ingenuity."  His students built their own materials, their own paper, their own desks and chairs.  Every facet of their school experience was based on something they built themselves, not only teaching them about the pioneer experience better than anybook (or even Oregon Trail for that matter), but also about what they could do when given the chance to design.

The second problem was that of validation.  As a (pending) non-profit that operates like an agile startup, it's important that we can account for everything that we do, so that we can constantly reflect on how we're doing, deciding to continue the same strategy or adapt.  We felt that by limiting the variables in the space, we could more accurately learn how students would interact with the incremental layers that were added.

The first group of students came to the room upon encouragement from their Social Studies teacher.  "We're here to design something", the group of three seventh grade girls said proudly.  "But we don't know what to do." I explained to them that the goal was to prototype something useful.  It could be "silly useful" or "socially useful".  I also shared a helpful design thinking framework that many people go through as they prototype.  First, we want to "Discover" a challenge.  I told them of a recent project of mine when I discovered that I was tempted by sweets, which were terrible for my diet.  I "discovered" that I was pretty strong during the day, but later into the night I started craving cookies.  I knew this was bad, because I didn't have the self-control to refrain from eating the cookies.  I recommended they set out to "discover" a challenge that impact them or people they care about.  They walked around, giggled, looked serious, went out into the hallway, came back inside, sat down, got up, and came back to where I was standing about 10 minutes later.  "We think bullying and rumors are a problem.  We want to solve it here at GCAA."  I then told them that the next step would be to "interpret" the challenge, or learn from it, and try to figure out why it happens, when it happens, etc.  They again repeated the earlier process, finding space in the room to go sit and talk.  After a few minutes they came back to me, saying they had no earthly idea why it happened.  So I asked them, "how could you learn more about bullying?".  They said they could google the subject, go to the library, think a bit more, etc.  I asked "what would be the fastest way, and they was that best helped you solve the problem here at GCAA?"  They recommended they go ask students in the hallway.  The mini-ethnographers were on to something.  After coming back, they said they had learned enough to start making something.  They shared most of the students they interviewed mentioned that people we're gossipy or rude because they were upset, or someone had treated them with disrespect. Now that they had a hypothesis to move on, I recommended they start building right away.  We call this proces "ideation", or the "now let's build it" moment.  Start small, get someone to test, and add features once you learn how people use it.  

They decided to go back out and "test" an idea one of them had.  "What if we can make people happier, will they be less rude?"  So they went out and told jokes, and then asked people if they would be less likely to say mean things.  They weren't satisfied.  "What if we listen to people say mean things, so they can get it off their chest?" said another.  So they went out and had people say mean things to them, and then asked afterwards if they would be less likely to say mean things to someone else.  "Not really, I still felt like I was gossiping with you."  One girl then remembered a silly trick an elementary school teacher of hers had created to cut-down on tattling. "She called it the tattle turtle.  If you had something to say that wasn't that important, or was important to you and not the class, you could go tell the tattle turtle.  It helped."  So they decided to create something that wasn't a person, cutting down on the feeling of gossip.  They based their prototype on the "tattle turtle" idea, but also wanted to replace the nasty words with something nicer.  Their final brainstorm was to create a box that anyone could approach, push a button, and say something really mean that they would typically say to someone else.  Then, the box would ceremoniously "erase" their words (by playing a song or producing a noise), and say something complimentary back instead.  Because it was a computer, it wouldn't have emotion or agenda, it's goal would be to cut down on the mean things people say to other people by being strong enough to listen to the mean stuff.  They were ready to build!

But we didn't have any materials!

So this presented a new problem.  Either they had to design something that relied only on people (and thus wasn't scalable: "What if I'm sick? or in class?" and posed the originally stated challenge of still feeling like gossip), or we needed some stuff.  We brainstormed for a bit together, and we felt like cardboard and tape were good, cheap answers.  Each of us was tasked with coming up with some materials.  They asked me to go ask the janitor where boxes were kept, two of them would go pester the art teacher for some tape, and the other would ask their Social Studies teacher for some scissors.  Within a few minutes we reconvened with sufficient materials to get started.  

One girl had picked up some dry-erase markers from another teacher (remember, there was nothing in the room when they came in earlier that morning), and I found some dry-erase boards in the computer teacher's room.  They started to build a box out of cardboard.  I told them that they should "test" as early as possible with real people, even if the design was lacking in all the features they wanted it to have. "But it doesn't have a microphone" one said.  I told them that you might learn it doesn't need a microphone.  Either way, talk to people about how they use it and you'll know for sure.

By the end of the time they spent, they had gone through at least 3 prototypes of the box, tested by real students, and learned tons about how the box would work.  While based on the earlier idea, what the had learned through testing had dramatically improved the design (It was still ugly, but at least they knew how people would use it).  "We have to go to class now," one of the girls said.  

"But can we come back next Friday?"

Disruption Department