Talk This Weekend: “Kids, Learning, and the Maker Movement”

I’m presenting a talk today at Maker Faire Pittsburgh called “Kids, Learning, and the Maker Movement: Four Top Tips for Parents” at noon today and at 10:30 AM tomorrow in the Education Zone. If you’re around, come see me!

If you saw me speak today, welcome to my website! My slides will be available online here later today. Please feel free to look around: check out my older biog posts, see what I’m reading on Goodreads, and link to my work with Common Sense Media on Graphite and with iQ: smartparent at WQED Multimedia. Also, please follow me on Twitter @PMKievlan so we can continue the conversation we started today. Thanks!

Links from today’s talk:


This week’s adventure: NPEA Conference

2015ConfLogoThis week, I’m joining my colleagues from Mission High School’s Athletic Scholars Advancement Program (ASAP) at the National Partnership for Educational Access annual conference. The meeting is in Philadelphia (which is harder to get to from Pittsburgh than you’d expect; I have to fly to Dulles first?!), and I’ll just be there for a couple of days, but it’s a nice chance to get some distance, some perspective, and some inspiration.

My plan is to live-blog my adventures while I’m there. I hope to link to bios and sites about the speakers I’m hearing, and I hope you’ll follow my trip and the conference in general with the hashtag #NPEA2015.

School Visit Debrief: Elizabeth Forward School District

This week, I had the opportunity to visit an amazing, innovative leader in technology in our region: Elizabeth Forward School District. EFSD has received regional and national recognition for its innovations, including inclusion as a member of the League of Innovative Schools and the designation as an Apple Distinguished School. The district hosts free events like this once every couple of months, and visitors like me get a guided tour of the district’s high school, middle school, and one of its elementary schools. There’s a special focus on technology, but there’s also a larger narrative about what it means to transform the culture of a school. I was so grateful for the insights of Superintendent Bart Rocco and Assistant Superintendent Todd Keruskin, and I was inspired by the students, teachers, and administrators I spoke with throughout the visit. I was one of about eighty people who attended the event, but I felt like I got a detailed, personal look inside what makes these schools special.

This visit reminded me of the day I spent with my Schools of the Sacred Heart colleagues visiting San Domenico School and Marin Country Day School a couple of years ago. (Also see here for the best kindergarten classrooms ever.) Just like that day a couple of years ago, I found myself winding down unfamilar country roads and wondering when I’d ever reach my target. At least in Marin, it was clear to me that I could only go so far west; I’d eventually hit an ocean. On this drive, I knew I’d eventually hit West Virginia, but that’s a lot less obvious than the Pacific. In any case, 45 minutes later, in an unassuming, almost-rural community south of Pittsburgh, I found a community where kids and teachers are doing amazing things. Here are some highlights.

  • Warriors are BRAVE. Like any school, Elizabeth Forward High School has lots of school spirit. The residential streets leading to the schools all have banners proclaiming “This is Warrior Country” and school spirit posters and art cover the walls. Additionally, even more posters urge Warriors to be “BRAVE,” as part of the school’s Positive Behavior Interventional Strategy (PBIS). The video above is part of promoting that program. I was struck by how often the PBIS/BRAVE came up organically in conversation: students we heard from in the music production studio talked about it, little ones at the elementary school talked about it (a little less eloquently, but no less powerfully), and middle school students mentioned how it helped them, too. Administrators and teachers all indicated that the technology innovation has only been possible in the context of these larger cultural initiatives. This was music to my ears as a person who believes in the power of social emotional learning, and it reminded me of my experiences at Convent, where the Goals and Criteria of the Religious of the Sacred Heart are deeply imbued in the school’s culture and daily life. Elizabeth Forward is a district that’s embracing technology as a means to an end, and that end is a safer, richer learning environment for their students. The 3D printers, iPads, and gaming and programming classes are doing great things to support kids’ learning at these schools, but the kids are thriving because their school has a supportive, safe culture where those innovations can happen.
  • Community is key. To add to the same point, I was struck by the sense of inclusion and togetherness in these schools. Student-produced and faculty-produced music plays over the loudspeaker at the high school, giving kids a way to showcase their work and building community and admiration among faculty and students. The library is a warm, flexible space where kids work and play, and there’s a cafe where kids can refuel and hang out throughout the day. The cafe is staffed by students in the school’s special education program as part of the social development component of their coursework. It was thrilling to me to see these students — whose schoolwork is often separate from that of their classmates — so centrally included and involved in the life of the school. This says something powerful about the school’s perspective on inclusive education, and it sends a powerful message to all students about who belongs in their community. Everyone belongs in this community, and everyone contributes.
  • Change one room. In his opening remarks, Bart Rocco paraphrased Gregg Behr, Executive Director of the Grable Foundation. Mr. Behr encouraged EF to think not about changing the whole school, but about changing one space and going from there. There’s something powerful and approachable about this perspective: Elizabeth Forward isn’t a wealthy school district; it’s an almost rural community of modest homes almost an hour from the “big city” here in Pittsburgh. But they’ve taken that advice to “change one room” to heart. I saw this in small changes, like the worn but tidy EFHS school auditorium, where the overhead lights screamed 1970s but oddly complemented the brand-new JBL speaker system. I noticed that contrast when I sat down for the opening remarks, and it seemed important: This is a school that seems to be investing in details that matter. The FabLab was the room that perhaps struck me most. This room full of 3D printers used to be the in-school suspension room. Now, it’s an extension of the wood shop and an extended space for building, creation, and design. This seemed symbolic too: instead of giving kids detention, they were being given power tools. As we admired the canoe one student’s been building (follow his progress on Twitter here), I was fascinated by the trust and autonomy these students have. This is a district that’s investing in its students one by one. It’s using cool tools to do it, but the innovation comes from the creativity of leadership, not from the coolness of the toys.
  • Partnerships make an impact. Again, Elizabeth Forward isn’t a wealthy district, so they’ve relied on their own district funds, corporate partnerships, and foundation and nonprofit investment to transform their school. Administrators and teachers have found creative ways to bring together universities and companies and foundations to give EFSD students great opportunities. It can feel a little corporate — the sponsors of certain technology are definitely recognized in posters on campus where their donations and inputs are displayed, like in the Fab Lab and the room where the game design classes meet — but it also feels pretty exciting, too.

I’m far from the first person to write about Elizabeth Forward School District; to get more info, visit their district page, read this entry from eSpark (one of the vendors they’ve worked with) and this missive from the Remake Learning Network. Learn more and get inspired: this is what transformative education looks like here in western Pennsylvania. It can happen here, and it can happen anywhere.

Event Debrief: Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit

The view from my table: Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit.
The view from my table: Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit.

Last Friday, I attended Remake Learning‘s Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit. You can learn more about the event here. Writ large, it was an opportunity for all kinds of educational partners–from schools, nonprofits, and industry–to come together and talk about how to better engineer and support the learning experiences of kids in Pittsburgh. There was a lot of discussion around how all of us who work with kids can better work together and avoid constantly reinventing the wheel. There are great resources in schools and in nonprofits around the city and region; it would be great if we could all work together to offer a rich, rewarding learning environment for every student.

One of the biggest topics of the day was digital badging. You can learn more about digital badges through the MacArthur Foundation’s site here, or through Mozilla’s nonprofit Open Badges site here. In general, to quote the MacArthur site,

Digital badges are an assessment and credentialing mechanism that is housed and managed online. Badges are designed to make visible and validate learning in both formal and informal settings, and hold the potential to help transform where and how learning is valued.

Any organization can issue a badge, and most badges require hours-long, multi-step processes to earn them, a lot like a merit badge for Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts. Most badges fall into one of three categories–badges for knowledge, skills, and dispositions–and they can be displayed or shared however their earners choose.

“Badges help make learning pathways visible,” said the Sprout Fund‘s Matt Hannigan in his remarks. I like this idea. A learning pathway is by definition not a traditional journey through school, so a traditional document of school-based learning–like a diploma–isn’t a sufficient way to document that journey. Instead, badges serve as a set of artifacts that detail knowledge, experiences, and skills that are inherently valuable but perhaps not traditionally rewarded in a school-centered world. This idea came out pointedly with my group’s facilitator, the executive director of a local group that promotes robotics education in local schools. His affection for badges stemmed from the clear connection that badges could have with employers. “If I’m a company that needs a welder, I can look at a kid who has the welding badge, and I can hire him,” he said.

Between my fancy liberal arts degree and my recent San Francisco mailing address, I was a little skeptical about the rampant need for kids with welding chops. Then again, though, I might be wrong, and there’s an important point here about elevating “maker” skills to something laudable, desirable, and relevant. I think it’s a shame that vocational education in schools has such a bad reputation. In my own high school, kids like me–who took AP classes–were vocally discouraged from taking “those kinds of classes” by the guidance counselors. My only interaction with “those kinds of classes” came when “those kinds of kids” made their way into our palatial high school’s theatre and scene shop. As a sophomore, I was lighting head for our competitive one-act play (that’s a much longer story for another day), and I was in charge of bossing around a crew of junior and senior boys who had mostly taken the vocational route through our school and ended up hanging lights for me in advanced technical theatre. Though all of them were older and bigger than my sixteen-year-old self, I was blown away by their expertise, their creativity, and their work ethic. To this day, I know how to set up AV equipment and understand the circuitry of a lighting system because of their patience, expertise, and humor. As it turned out, these boys weren’t the troglodytes I was led to believe they were. These were fellow smart, hard-working kids in my high school who happened to be traveling a parallel path, and I’d vastly underestimated them.

It’s entirely possible that the world needs more people who can weld, and I know that my high school and college diplomas leave no room for privileging or recognizing that skill. I like the idea of a credentialing system that allows for a broader definition of what’s valuable and what achievement looks like.

My main challenge with the day was that I had a hard time reconciling what badges might look like in schools. I searched in vain for the working group table that dealt with the humanities; there wasn’t one. Instead, the working groups all focused on subjects that aren’t usually covered or privileged in schools, like media making and design. I had a great conversation about this with my colleague at The Ellis School, Lisa Abel-Palmieri, who had been part of the STEAM working group’s discussions and who directs the new Learning Innovation Institute. A lot of the event focused much more on how badges and learning pathways could function outside the school day, but there was limited connection to how badges might function, say, in an English class or in a science curriculum. I think that’s the tougher but still interesting case to explore. How might badges function on a college application?, I wondered. How might they help formal and informal learning spaces partner better to support kids? 

As usual, if I had the answer to this million-dollar question, all education problems would be solved and we could all call it a day and go out for ice cream. Clearly I don’t, so clearly we’re not. But I loved this conversation because it was such a provocative, critical discussion to have. Pittsburgh is a perfectly sized city for forging sustainable partnerships among a small but passionate group of people. As I told a friend later that night: the passion and innovation that fueled this event inspired me, thrilled me, and made me hungry to learn and do more. This, I told her, was the day I fell in love with Pittsburgh.


Each March, we send our students on retreat to regroup, refocus, and reconnect. This year, I had the pleasure of attending the sophomores’ retreat, which took us overnight to the Marin Headlands. There were s’mores, there was kickball, there was a sunrise hike. It was good. Here are some photo highlights. Enjoy the weekend!

Did you know you can make s'mores in an industrial oven? You can.
Did you know you can make s’mores in an industrial oven? You can.
photo 2
Even with clouds, this is the loveliest view ever.
photo 3
It’s nice to be half an hour from home and a world away.

Common Sense Media Appy Hour

Greatest thing since sliced bread? Maybe.
Greatest thing since sliced bread? Maybe.

On Monday, I had the opportunity to appear on a webcast for Common Sense Media. The “Appy Hour” series gives educators the chance to talk about great educational apps and websites that they’ve used in their classrooms with great success. I’m a writer and reviewer for Graphite, Common Sense Media’s website for educators, and last year I reviewed an app called Subtext, which I still believe is one of the most spectacular tools out there for reading and annotating text. CSM staff paired me with a teacher from Palatine, Illinois, named Jen Krause, who is an amazing and passionate teacher who uses Subtext to great effect in her classroom.

I’ve never done a webcast like this, and I had an absolute blast. Clearly I talk too fast (as usual), but I was thrilled to have the chance to speak at length about one of the coolest apps I’ve reviewed yet. I’m less passionate about a lot of the apps I’ve reviewed, so it was a pleasure to get to speak at greater length about a tool that I really, truly believe in.

You can read Common Sense Media’s own recap of the Appy Hour on Graphite here. You can also watch the full video below. Enjoy!


Today’s Adventure: Conversations and Connections at Sterne School

Today I was off campus for an event called “Conversations and Connections: Fostering Success for Unique Learners.” I’ve been planning this event for a while with Susie Cain, the Director of Communication at the Sterne School here in San Francisco, who I met at a similar event last spring at her school. After last year’s inspiring conversation, we wondered what other incredible conversations might be had among the “non-parent advocates” like learning specialists, educational therapists, tutors, reading specialists, and special education administrators who support students with LD and ADHD. Today was the first event, where talked about three big topics:

  • What do you wish for your LD students? 
  • How can we (as the “non-parent advocates”) work together better?
  • What can we do better overall in support of these students? 

A bunch of the BAISLD group attended, and it was great to connect with my colleagues Winifred, Beth, Jennifer, Yea, and Erin–all of whom I admire and whose company I enjoy. It was also great to meet people from SF State, Compass, Synergy, Oak Hill, and Cathedral School for Boys; it’s equal parts encouraging and inspiring for me to meet people who are as passionate about this work as I am.

Our next conversation will be in spring 2014, and we’ll focus more on technology, including its strengths, its limitations, and its hazards for students with LD and ADHD.

Anyway, I’ve now had the luxury of heading home from work for three Fridays in a row feeling inspired. I may just have the best job on earth.