Toys, time, and amazing people: a CMK reflection (pt. 1)

The past week has been disorienting.  I touched down in Manchester, NH Monday for the Constructing Modern Knowledge institute.  Perhaps you’re asking, “What is Constructing Modern Knowledge (CMK)?”  It’s only the hands-down best professional thing I’ve done in forever.  More specifically, it’s a place to meet and work with creative and courageous educators in schools, museums, etc.  There is not a lot of moving from session to session at CMK.  There are very few sessions.  CMK is a hands-on carnival of project ideas, messing around, frustration, breakthroughs, and perhaps a finished project by day four.  CMK is about building knowledge by doing something.

Day one started with registration and a welcome/explanation of the CMK process by Gary Stager.  Participants with project ideas called those out.  They were written on easel pad post-its by Sylvia Libow Martinez.

Taken by a CMK participant. Available at Flickr. If you took it, let me know. I'd like to provide proper attribution.

Taken by a CMK participant. Available at Flickr. If you took it, let me know. I’d like to provide proper attribution.

Once project ideas were collected the 100+ participants signed up for the projects that intrigued them the most.  I signed up for the “haunted hotel” (building pranks for the conference area/hotel), the interactive scarf (a scarf that would interact with sound in its environment), and the smart plant (a plant that would serve as an intranet for a classroom or community).  Because the idea reminded me of a PirateBox and the robot hive mind in Robopocalypse, I went with the smart plant.

I found Joe Bacal, the initiator of the smart plant project.  I talked to Joe about LibraryBox and Robopocalypse.  He did not look at me like I was insane.  This was when I knew for certain that my kind of people go to CMK.

I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.

Folks stopped by and asked what we were working on.  Most left to find another project, but a few stayed.  Our group ended up consisting of Joe, Maggie, Linda and Kevin.

We talked about how the plant would be a place for students to record stories or information about what they were learning on a subject.  The plant could be a place for community members to record their narratives (think Storycorps).  It could be a place for students (or community members) to take pictures or record short films.  Information could be emailed to the plant at something like

Essentially, the plant would store audio, video, images, and text centered around a common theme.

It didn’t take long for us to decide that this was kind of over our head.

And then Joe broke up with us after lunch.*

The smart plant ended up to be nothing like a PirateBox or a robot hive mind, or even our first vision and that’s ok.  That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Smart plant sketch, smart plant in the flesh.

The plant was really just a prop in the end.  The project turned out to be a reason to play around with Arduino, which I’ve been wanting to do for over a year now.  We got a chance to dabble in electronics and programming.

Arduino embedded in the plant

We consulted many tutorials from Arduino and Adafruit.  We picked the brains of some of the expert faculty like Eric Rosenbaum and Sylvia.  We picked the brains of some CMK participants who were more advanced than us like Jaymes Dec and Michael Mitchell.  Sometimes the experts and advanced kids didn’t have the answers.  They were just as stumped as Maggie, Kevin, Linda, and me, but between their shared advice, suggestions, and internet forums, we pieced answers together.

That was one of the beautiful parts of CMK.

Another beautiful part of CMK was the time.  At some point after registration, I saw this on the CMK website, “In addition to providing a rich sandbox where educators enjoy the luxury of time to work on personally rewarding projects….”  As the mother of a three-year-old, time to work on personally rewarding projects outside of working to make sure my son doesn’t grow up to be a sociopath doesn’t exist.

No, I exaggerate.  Time to work on personally rewarding projects exists in small chunks of time.  I can start on something in the evening after my son goes to bed, maybe work on it for 2 hours (three if I’m lucky), and maybe pick it up again the next night or the night after.  Because I work from 9-11 pm, the work is done in solitude.  This is no way to work.  It amazes me that our students aren’t coming out of their skin, because it’s how we expect them to work.  How do they dig deep in 45-minute or 90-minute chunks of time?  How do you use your evenings to explore, when time scheduled and there’s homework in every subject?

CMK participants digging deep, both in groups and alone. Photo by Gary Stager (I think).

We started working Monday afternoon and finished up Friday before 1:00.  It was an intense marathon of “hard play.”  For me, there was nothing easy about playing with Arduino.  I’ve looked at the C/C++ programming language before.  I kind-of-sort-of know what this is:

circuit diagram

CC licensed Flickr photo by Windell Oskay







But when it’s in this form, I lose my footing:


CC licensed Flickr photo by Windell Oskay







However, just because the playing wasn’t easy doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun.  It was a challenging puzzle that seemed doable in a team.

This post is almost over.  I promise.

So far I’ve discussed the availability of precious time and “hard play.”  Let me take some space to talk about the people at CMK.  Of course CMK wasn’t the first professional development I’ve done in the 11 years that I’ve been a professional something or other.  However, I do think it’s the first time I’ve made so many connections that will extend beyond the institute/conference/whathaveyou.

I do believe Keledy Kenkel had a lot to do with connecting people.  The signal to socialize went up before the conference even began.

#cmk13afterhours was a result of that Monday night dinner.

Afterhours included dinner, late night tech/education talk, super late night lobby conversations with Brian Silverman, ukulele jams, and just plain hanging out.  We talked about comics, parenting, TV, our schools and basically the things that make us who we are.

Also, I got to meet Tracy Rudzitis (and here), who has been at CMK for four years now.  Here’s a great photo of Tracy, a CMK senior.

Tracy Rudzitis

Photo by Gary Stager (or a CMK participant). Available at:

I miss my CMK13 friends.  I feel closer to some of them than I do to people that I’ve worked with for seven or eight years.  And that has a lot to do with me.  Opening up and reaching out is really something I’ve failed at here at school.  But that’s a topic for another time…

So now what?

I have things to think about.  Things that people said to mull over.  I’m trying to think about how I can share what I learned and saw with students, staff, and faculty here at school.  I want to implement the hard play, collaboration, creativity, and big thinking in the commons when it opens in August.  I want to bring those things to my DIY/Maker senior seminar.  What kind of connections need to be made for this to happen?

I’m excited about the possibilities for the new school year.  I look forward to bringing some new ideas to my colleagues and students.  I know that I have CMK13 alum available as a sounding board.

Here’s to bringing some creativity and courage to the 2013-14 school year and beyond.


* there were no hard feelings

“Focus diminishes serendipity”

I watched Joi Ito’s Keynote address to the OER meeting a few days ago

I made many notes on things that resonated with me.  One thing Ito said that I found especially profound was, “focus diminishes serendipity.”  I’m partial to this philosophy, because I feel like I can now justify the fact that I’m easily distracted with “Well, if the director of the MIT Media Lab lacks focus then it’s just fine for me to investigate this new shiny thing over here.”

An acquaintance of mine once described herself as “mildly interested” in just about everything.  That’s very much my problem.  I think there are common threads in being mildly interested in everything, the philosophy behind the power of pull, and the nature of librarianship.  I’m going to think more on that though.

I’d like to say that my distractability just keeps the doors open for the adjacent possible.  I think that’s partly the case.  But on the other hand, being easily distracted makes it very hard to get things accomplished or dive deep into something.  I’ve had an Arduino kit on my desk for about 6 months now.  Have I opened the box?  Nope.

Maybe the difference between being the director of the MIT Media Lab and me is that Ito doesn’t have to actually do a project.  He really just needs to put the right people together.  Connect the right resources for the person or people with the questions.

Or maybe he doesn’t have a three-year-old who happens to be more fun and cooler than Arduino.

I like to imagine what I could get done with three of four (or more) hours of silence and solitude.  I’m pretty sure that the stillness would lend itself to some unprecedented concentration and productivity on my part.




Why do we make?

I don’t have a definitive answer to that question.  Maybe the answer lies in Shop Class as Soul Craft or some article I could find in JSTOR.  

I’m going to go out on a limb and give the non-committal answer that people make for different reasons:  necessity, compulsion to make something out of nothing, the challenge of the puzzle, curiosity, and maybe even the satisfaction of seeing a successful finished project after hours/days/weeks/months/years of invested time.

I don’t even know what I make these days.  I knitted in the past.  Dabbled in quilt-making.  I spent a summer during my undergrad years in the dorms during summer school.  One of my hall mates had a sock monkey from his youth (this was before Paul Frank, thanks).  I decided then that I had to have one too.  A lot of time was spent making sock monkeys and weird sock creatures for friends and family.

Weird sock creatures

Weird sock creatures

Having a kid has cut into my time to work on fiber/textile projects.  I dread (am intimidated by) home improvement projects.  Yet I find them to be really interesting once I’m immersed.  I spent a day one summer under the house rerouting a water line.  It made for a pretty interesting day once I got past the camel crickets in the crawl space.  What’s the most fascinating to me about these home improvement projects?  It’s a peek into how the guts of a house work.  It’s interesting to see how things are put together.  That’s really something I never cared about until I bought a house.

camel cricket

photo credit: lobstar28 via photopin cc

Lately I’ve been interested in projects that seem doable mainly because I don’t know enough about the topic at hand to feel otherwise.  An example?  Arduino.  Raspberry Pi.  WordPress.  Google searches and Youtube videos bring answers or at least more breadcrumbs.  The internet keeps the trail warm I guess.  At this early point I don’t even care if a finished project results.  It’s just cool to have something to sink my brain into.