Jul 302014

As so often happens in a project, our work in the Reviewing Phase is done for the month. Some projects never make it to this point for a variety of reasons, but many do. Regardless of whether or not you reach the point where you feel you can declare a project “finished”, you have no doubt learned a lot from working on this project. This is actually why games will often grant you experience points, even when you failed. You put forth the effort; you at the very least gained something useful from it.

Really, that’s what the Reviewing Phase is. It’s about gaining experience with the material and the content. That’s why you spend all that time creating, applying what you’ve learned, and analyzing your work so you can make tweaks and pioneer new ways to approach your project. You work with the material and ideas, gaining a deeper understanding of the concepts while developing  and honing your transdisciplinary skills.

But the Reviewing Phase is also about exploring and experimenting, answering the question “What if?” It’s a time for play, for trial and error, for seeing what you can really do with your project materials. It’s a time to try out new techniques, new tools, and just seeing what happens. Maybe you’ll create more than just your current project. But you won’t know unless you approach your project with an open mind.

Whatever else, don’t let a fear of what happens next keep you from saying a project is done. What does happen next? Well, we’ll discuss that in September when we tackle the final phase of the personal learning environment: demonstration. Next month, we’ll be looking at a topic near and dear to my own workload: information and digital asset management. See you then!

Jul 282014

This is going to be a hard phase to discuss in terms of tools, because every craft and trade has the tools that best fit its activities. There are generic organization tools you can use to help keep you on target and keep your materials on hand, but the other phases have really explored those well enough for our purposes. But as far as actually completing your project or learning your skills, the tools are going to vary by what it is you’re trying to accomplish.

What I will advise is that you experiment. Listen to others who practice your craft or skill at all levels. What are they using? How do their choice of tools work for them? Try out those tools. Some will be free; many that aren’t offer trial periods that should give you plenty of time to decide if the tool fits your work style. That’s what you’re looking for: Does this tool support my work style? You don’t want to hottest new tool if it hinders your work. (It can have a steep learning curve if it’s clear it will make your workflow easier to manage down the road.) You want only those tools that genuinely assist in your work.

Of course, you’re going to have tools that you’ve worked with years, perhaps the entire span of your career, and it’s okay to keep relying on those if they’re still working for you. But it’s also helpful to periodically consider new tools, to see what’s out there. Often, new tool development accompanies changes in a craft or trade, so it helps you stay in touch with the evolution of your craft. Running a smaller project through a new tool to test it out also helps you build a mental agility as you look at different ways to apply your skills. (This can also be a great way to measure mastery – Are you able to transfer your body of knowledge to a new tool? It can be pretty eye-opening.)

So, I guess what I really want you to take away from this is: Find tools designed for your craft or trade. Learn how to use them comfortably and competently. But be open minded and try out new tools when you can, both to see what’s available to your creative community and to test your own knowledge agility. You never know when you’re going to find that right tool to tackle a new project, or to simplify a familiar process.

Jul 242014

The other day, we looked at the light and dark sides of competitive play. Today, we do the same for cooperative play. Because it’s “cooperative” in nature, it’s hard to believe that there’s a dark side to it. But as you will see, not only does it have that dark side, but the majority of us have probably experienced it at least once in our youth.

In the previous post, I said that we have become a competitive society, obsessed with rankings and metrics and being the best. Which is true. But at the same time we’re being driven to be the top dog, we’re being compelled to be a more cooperative society. Just look at the obsession with team projects in classrooms and skills competition-based reality shows. While it’s fueled by the understanding that work beyond the classroom is often completed by teams, I think we’re slowly understanding that teams whose members represent different strengths (the craft specialization mindset found in earlier cultures and cultures considered to be more “primitive”) are capable of achieving more and innovating more than a single individual or level teams. Sadly, we haven’t yet wrapped our education system’s mind around the fact that craft specialization is the opposite of docile clones. Such is the way of progress…

In a team where cooperation is practiced, the skill level averages out. So, it benefits the person building the team to seek out those who are as good or better than they are at a skill, something that becomes easier in a culture where craft specialization is practiced. In a society where the education system turns out young people at a theoretically uniform knowledge level, where a false sense of self-esteem has been developed by the participation ribbon, problems arise. Those who think they have the skills necessary to contribute to the team but don’t (or worse, have the skills but think they don’t) will hide behind the rest of the team so their weakness won’t be found out, effectively leaving their share of the workload to their teammates. We see this all the time in class projects, the child unable to contribute because of weaker or nonexistent skills and not wanting to be called out on it. But it becomes clear when other children in the class start doing whatever they can to not be on a team with that child.

When that weak link is the team leader, the results can be disastrous depending on how willing the team is to cover up for the leader. A leader lacking in the skills they need to have but don’t  can lead to a project with no direction or where they’ve spent the entire time taking out their low self-esteem on the team, demoralizing the group until no work is possible.

Okay, so…that’s the dark side. A lack of knowledge, coupled with low self-esteem or Impostor Syndrome. It’s not pretty…or productive.

On the light side, strong teams are made up of people with a range of talents and skill levels (because a team made up of a uniform group of people is really a waste of manpower when you think about it). Someone looking to put together a team for a project can look at what s/he brings to the project, what the skill gaps are, and then find people who fill in those gaps. People with overlapping skill sets can be balanced by being at different levels. A well-constructed team has the benefit of creating opportunities for peer teaching, for those who are knowledgeable in one field to educate their teammates on skills and team-relevant issues related to their field, meaning that once a team parts ways, each member who interacted with other members of the team comes away with a greater understanding of how their work fits in with other disciplines, allowing them to build stronger teams in the future because they know more about what to look for.

I mentioned in the other post that I enjoy watching skill-based competition reality shows because they often do a good job of showing off the strengths and weaknesses of competition. I also enjoy watching team dynamics and performance in these shows. This past spring, I had a blast watching Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge, because the fabricators came from such different backgrounds and experiences and were able to share their knowledge with each other, both in teams and when working separately. There wasn’t a whole lot of voiced concern that someone was training another competitor to beat them; they were simply helping a fellow fabricator out, pulling somebody up to make sure they all turned out the best puppets they could.

Another great show for watching this type of cooperative competition, although it really doesn’t fit the mold of the competition-based reality show, is Heroes of Cosplay (which I think just wrapped up its summer season). I’ll get more into this next time, but the show does a really good job of showing how a group of high-level and up-and-coming cosplayers prepare for the con season. Individual cosplayers may work on their own or with another individual cosplayer, and they’ll bounce ideas off each other or help each other troubleshoot. Teams may work individually or together on their costumes (and skits, depending on the con they’re preparing for). This group of costume designers and fabricators (many of whom are either professional or looking to become professional) aren’t afraid to teach other tips and tricks, and many of them aren’t afraid to experiment and then share the results of their experiments with the other cosplayers. In fact, it’s not unusual for one of these experiments to become common use, and everyone knows where the new technique came from. They want the right designer to get credit.

At its best, cooperative play is a learning opportunity for everyone involved. At its worse, it’s a nightmare for those with low self-esteem, Impostor Syndrome, and anyone who has to work with the afflicted people.

Jul 212014

Do you remember when you were a child, and nearly every single science class started with a couple of weeks of reviewing the Scientific Method? You may not remember the specifics of the Scientific Method any more, but the chances are that if you’re thinking through something, you’re probably implementing the Scientific Method subconsciously because it’s a good routine for running through basic analysis. If you’ve developed any sort of creative habit, you may have developed your own process or routine for seeing a project through from idea to product.

As a result, you probably start any project now with some sort of question. It might be something as simple as, “I wonder what would happen if I made this meal with jasmine rice instead of white rice.” Or it could be something far more complex. What you’re probably noticing is that beyond the classroom, projects often begin with a What if?-style question.

The problem with questions is that there can be many ways to approach them, to answer them. Oh, actually…that’s not a problem. That’s exactly what you want. If you’re lucky, your question is open-ended enough to allow you to play with it, to find different ways to answer it.

Answer your question with your best guess, or with the answer you hope you’ll find is true. Your inner eight-year-old might be telling you that you’re making a hypothesis. And then do things to test that. Do your research. Make your project. And then challenge yourself to find another way, a more efficient way, a more tasty way, a more blue way. Whatever! It’s in that experimentation that you’ll find your real answer…and it’s just plain fun!

Jul 172014

I’ve blogged before about the nature and benefits of competitive and cooperative play, but we all know what I presented were really idealized situations. Within any community of practice, you find both the light and the dark sides of competition and cooperation. We’ll look at both, but we’re going to start with competitive play, because it’s the more obvious of the two.

We have become a very competitive society. We’re obsessed with rankings, with being “the best”, with believing that there is absolutely no one better than us. We will create incredibly obscure domains, just so we can be the best at something. And if we aren’t, it’s because the person we lost to cheated or worked connections or something equally superficial and stupid. We surround ourselves with echo chambers, and shun those who suggest we ourselves are the reason we aren’t the best.

Just for clarification, I’m not talking here about the people who seize on every little opportunity to tear you down and claim they’re being supportive. I’m sure we all have enough of those in our lives. But to those “supportive” voices, I will say this: If you won’t help someone because it risks making them better than you or you feel compelled to sabotage them, it’s a reflection on you. It says you don’t have faith in your own work, and you don’t have faith in yourself. A true practitioner of any craft doesn’t fear competition because s/he sees it as a chance to show off what s/he currently can do, and to learn from the experience.

Anyway, back to our competitive society, which has really kind of become a celebration of mediocrity. For fear that children will get their feelings hurt, we hand out participation awards like lollipops. “You punched out that kid because he got a better score than you. But it’s okay. It’s not your fault that kid is such a  show-off. Here, have a ribbon!” What we’re doing, and have been since at least my childhood, is creating people who don’t take risks, who expect to be applauded for simply existing. They’re unmotivated to do anything, because they’ll get a treat for doing nothing. (Yes, I just compared our society to a bunch of dogs. Which is just unfair, because I like dogs.)

We also have created people who are unable to see not being the best as anything but an attack on their self-worth, rather than provoking the reflection and growth necessary to work harder and do their best. We’ve created a culture of mediocrity, a culture where anyone whose personal delusions aren’t reinforced find it acceptable to turn around and tear down anyone who could potentially outshine them or at the very least, try to drive them out of the competition arena so they’re no longer a threat.

I’ve spent most of my life in one performing art or another, and let me tell you: Those movies and shows you see someone exhibiting typical “mean girl” behavior trying to ruin things for someone else because of their own low self-esteem are not wrong. About a year after I started voice acting, someone convinced me to check out a well-known forum. You could chat with other voice actors, swap tips and tricks, find auditions, create your own projects. Well, the site had been overtaken by a fair number of high school or college-aged fangirls who were convinced they were miles better than their favorite voice actresses, but were tired of getting rejections from smaller producers or being overlooked on YouTube. So, they would create their own project where they would play the character their favorite voice actress played, and then hold auditions to fill the rest of their cast (usually with their own friends). They would then send out rejection letters to those who weren’t cast, often suggesting the person was horrible and should quit voice acting all together, regardless of whether or not it was true. (Strangely, those “well-meaning” rejection letters never came from guys. If anything, when a guy responded it was with an encouraging rejection letter. Something to think about…)

Not all competition situations are filled with girls campaigning to be real-life Plastics. I have become a bit of a reality show junkie. Before you worry too much about my sanity (or what’s left of it), I really enjoy watching shows like Project Runway and American Ninja Warrior. These shows demonstrate elements of healthy competitive behavior within a community of practice. Each participant is there for their own reasons, with their own goals. But they all recognize that they have a shared goal, winning, and that they’re all being put through the same ringer to get there. They’re able to commiserate with each other, encouraging each other to either step up and be good competition or to step off and out of the way. In fact, there are few things more fun than watching Project Runway designers rally around a designer they feel got the short end of the stick, or react to one they feel has been kept over harder working, more talented designers.

Competitive play is an excellent opportunity for those involved in a craft to grow, to share experimental techniques, and to raise the quality of the craft. But it’s also a haven for those with low self-esteem and strong influence to really come in and wreck things, which in turn lowers the quality of the craft.  (Are you noticing a theme with these downsides?)

Jul 162014

This week’s look into the world of my personal projects won’t be nearly as exciting as last week’s, but it’s on my mind at the moment and it does fit in well. We’re going to take a look at my history as a jewelry designer, something I’ve done off and on throughout my life.

When I was a child, I loved to make wearable pieces. Over the course of elementary school, I made friendship pins of all sizes with all kinds of colors and types of bead. I loved playing with bead combinations. In middle school, I shifted over to friendship bracelets. Again, it was all about the color combinations and the patterns I could make with the threads. In high school, I still made friendship bracelets, but I expanded my interests to plastic canvas jewelry and barrettes to go with my wardrobe. (I would honestly wear them. Actually, there are a couple of barrettes I still wear, but I won’t tell if you don’t.)

In college, I was busy with volunteering in museums and dancing with local ballet companies, so my jewelry design went by the wayside. But in grad school, I got involved with live-action roleplaying (LARP), and was fascinated by the chain mail armor. I kept approaching armourers, hoping to learn the skills, but I effectively got blown off. I learned other crafts (including some basic beading techniques), but never found someone willing to teach me how to make chain mail.

Until the day I stumbled across a book on viking knit (which I still can’t do successfully) that just happened to have an entire section dedicated to knitting chains. I got some pliers and some rings and let the book teach me how to create 4-in-1, 6-in-1, the box chain, and the byzantine chain (my favorite knit).

And then my inner twelve-year-old kicked in. I used what I was learning to create jewelry pieces, often starting by making the basic pattern, and then making the next piece with some sort of variation, be it a blending of techniques or adding in beads and other components. I kept picking up more chain styles, eventually learning enough to create my own belly dance belt. (It’s still somewhere in this room, carefully wrapped up in a scarf.) As I learned each new knit, I stumbled through the first few rounds before figuring out an easier way to build that pattern.

I discovered wire jigs and started creating wrapped wire projects, expanding my ability to experiment and play with the materials. I started teaching the occasional class. I created jewelry for arts competitons, and even managed to sell some pieces. Eventually, I got brave enough to open a (long-dead) Etsy shop called JewelryNiche. I sold a few pieces, but other things got in the way and I eventually stopped designing.

I know what you’re thinking: If I stopped designing years ago, why is it on my mind now? Well, I’ve been clearing out my living space, which means going through all of my old crafting materials. Which means coming across all of my old jewelry design materials. I’m not going to lie. Part of me is looking at organizing them by material and offering them through Etsy. Part of me wants to make some kits out of those materials and offer the kits on Etsy. And another part is thinking, I could totally turn these into some jewelry patterns I’ve seen on Pinterest and some old favorites.

Time will tell what I actually decide to do.

All right, so much for Personal Project #2. Because July has an extra week this year, I have to come up with a third personal project to share. And an Etsy shop to plan for and stock. Keep an eye on the sidebar for an announcement.

Jul 142014

This post starts with the question, “Once out of school, who uses the Reviewing Phase?” And the answer is, “Well, anyone engaged in activities with any sort of creative or scientific influence.” More of us are actively engaging in this phase regularly, and we don’t even realize it. We’re just trying things out and making adjustments until we get what we want…or something better.

Writers are very familiar with this, or at least becoming familiar with it all the time. It’s not unusual to hear an author talk about sitting down to write a short story, only to realize that the story is better suited to a novel. It’s only slightly more unusual to hear an author talk about starting a novel, only to realize there’s only enough story for a really awesome short story. Sometimes, writers find that what they thought was a story best suited to text would be better served by a visual format, and some writers working on a story meant for a visual format realize they’d be better off creating a textual narrative instead.

In some cases, the writer doesn’t even need a change of form. Sometimes, it can be something as simple as realizing the story they sat down to write and the story they ended up telling aren’t the same story. A different character ended up as the protagonist. A more interesting antagonist appeared. A planned character never made it to the page because they never fit the direction the story took during writing.

Designers also go through this on a regular basis. The sketch didn’t materialize so well, so the designer makes adjustments to make the actual piece viable. Or, like the writer, the designer sets out with a specific outcome in mind, only to change plans mid-project when a sudden inspiration strikes. (This would also be known as the, “Yeah, but what if I did this instead?” moment.) Cooks will find they don’t have all the ingredients they thought they did, so they’ll improvise a recipe, sometimes changing it for the better. There really isn’t a field where some sort of trial-and-error- experimentation and discovery doesn’t happen.

The truth is, anyone who engages in activities where something is being made, who plays with ideas and materials in their work, who says, “Yes, but…”, who challenges their own thinking as they work is engaging in the Reviewing Phase. It’s how breakthroughs and innovations happen.

Jul 092014

Since we’re talking this month about creating and iterating and experimenting, I thought I’d share some stories out of my own work, starting with what is easily my most successful adventure – Dead Bunny Guides.

Several years ago, I was tutoring a lot of high school students struggling with integrated math (or with the transition back into the separate math threads), and middle school students struggling with the radical change in how math class was presented to them. They were frustrated by not being able to understand what was going on in class, and I was frustrated by what was going on in the curricula these kids were facing.

Being an experienced blogger, I decided to launch one dedicated to explaining math, which I called Dead Bunny Educational after an incident with a writing student I was tutoring at the time. I planned out a series of posts and started writing them. Most of them were fairly easy at first, and the blog was gaining attention from adult learners who had gone back to school as part of a career change. I had hoped to eventually expand the blog into a book.

But the skills became harder to cover in textual explanations, and I started realizing that skills I was trying to explain required students to be comfortable using other skills. It derailed my work for a while as I tried to decide what was missing and how best to address everything and put it all back together. I finally just sat down and wrote out on index cards every single pre-algebra and algebra skill (plus a few geometry skills) I could think of. On each card, I wrote the skill in math symbols, and the skills a student would need to be comfortable with before attempting the skill.

I ended up with 73 cards, and I spread them out across my tiny room. Then, I used those prerequisite skill lists to try to pull the skills into some sort of order that made sense. But I realized I had all of these skills that needed to be conveyed in some way, that weren’t being well served by a blog. About that time, I happened across Beyond Bullet Points, and got quite the crash course in creating presentations. (I didn’t have a whole lot of Power Point experience at the time.)

So I got ambitious and decided I wanted to figure out how to make videos to teach the skills, and Dead Bunny’s Guide to Algebra was born. It took me forever to get the hang out writing a script that could be turned into a storyboard, and then creating the storyboard. I borrowed file management ideas from game writing books I was reading at the time to keep up with everything.  I was learning audio editing software and movie maker software. Using the book as a guide, I taught myself how to create slide shows, narrate them, and then put everything together.

It was slow at first. In the first four years I was working on the videos, I made a total of fifteen videos. If you look at Dead Bunny’s YouTube channel, you’ll notice there are right around 85 videos. In the last two years I was working on the series, I made seventy videos (it does help to get a production routine down), migrated the videos from my channel to their own channel, named Dead Bunny Guides because not all of the skills covered are algebra-specific, got accepted into YouTubeEDU, and learned how to create metadata, a link structure, and playlists for the skills. I’ve even figured out how to add captions. (It’s easier now than it was two years ago.)

So, that’s Personal Project #1. When I finished the last video, I told myself I might think about going back and adding in more geometry and Algebra 2 lessons, but for now, the series is complete.

Jul 072014

It’s kind of weird talking about the Review process in classrooms, because we sort of already have that. Sort of. We have…*drum roll*…class projects! Butt we’re stuck in antiquated notions of what a class project should be, and as a result are just now slowly warming up to projects that better reflect the world our students are growing into. I’m afraid the essay will never go away. There will always be articles and white papers of one sort or another to prepare. But dioramas? Book reports in folders with brads? The occasional Power Point presentation? What we need are projects that provide students opportunities to create, review, and iterate, ultimately leading to some kind of product.

In a way, we’re lucky. Project-based and inquiry-based learning have found an inconsistently applied home across schools and districts, opening the door to more robust opportunities to build systems like makerspaces and the PLE into the normal curriculum and to get students applying the skills and knowledge they’re acquiring while creating products that either resemble real-world products or that do actually contribute to the world beyond the schoolyard.

Which is the point of school, right? We’re guiding children in developing skills that will benefit them once they’re beyond the schoolyard. So, we’re in the perfect position to help them start developing project management skills and cycles that set the tone for their future success when they’re in a position to fully control their projects. That’s the point of project-based and inquiry-based learning – to arm them with the skill sets necessary to carry forward with their work once they’re beyond the guidance of the classroom.

Okay, so while a typical class project fits into our definition of the PLE the way a bell pepper fits in with a fruit salad, it does have an opportunity to take something you’ve learned in class or through research and turn it into…something. But we have to embrace experimentation, iteration, and reflection to really make the project an effective learning tool.

Jul 022014

Before you say it, I know. I beat this idea to death. Pretty hard. A lot. But stick with me. Maybe I’ll get over my broken record sound this time. (Don’t count on it.)

The Reviewing Phase is the part of the PLE that most people want to jump straight to – the part where you start actually working with the material. If you jump right in without doing the preliminary work, you’ll succeed in gaining some of the benefits of this phase. But you’ll also spend a lot of time spinning your wheels and chasing shiny objects. Not the best use of your time, wouldn’t you agree?

One of the concerns, though, is that you limit yourself by working through pre-project processes and materials. But having done the groundwork doesn’t fence in what you can do at this point. If anything, it’s like playing with the same two or three tubs of Play-Doh all the time. You have the materials, and the freedom to experiment with those materials and really get to know them. You can mash them all together (probably not the best idea with Play-Doh, now that I think about it) and see what you can make out of them. Then you can mash them all together again and see what else you can make. You might find a new, more interesting direction that didn’t even occur to you while you were planning.

As you’re playing and creating, there are four questions you should be exploring:

  • How does this fit together and work?
  • Why does this fit together and work?
  • What if?
  • Why not?

You may recognize those last two as the questions of creativity and innovation, which makes sense at this point. We’re making things and challenging ourselves to find the best way to put our research and materials to good use. This is the right time to get practical. This is where creating, editing, and refining take place.

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