My Mom and the Maker Movement

The Maker Movement brings together technology fans and traditional artisans in a shared do-it-yourself, crafting culture that celebrates innovation. Schools across the country are investing in Maker Spaces, where students can invent or build with a diverse range of recycled products, traditional tools, and technology.

It’s new. It’s hip. It’s the best thing going on in education.

And my mom did it in her kindergarten class more than thirty years ago. She called it the Invention Center.

In the 1970s and 80s, there were always paper grocery bags in our kitchen at some stage of being filled with empty paper towel rolls, plastic tops, cans, bubble wrap, milk cartons, and more. We’d help her deliver them to her Invention Center and check out all the kindergarten “inventions” being built there. Occasionally, she’d send a letter home to her class asking for Invention Center donations, and the coffers would fill to overflowing, because 20 families across the DC metro area spent their kindergarten year collecting for it too.

The best though was watching those little kids walk down the carpool line barely able to carry structures bigger than they were to moms whose mouths were open in surprise. “Wow! That’s amazing!”

And the kindergarten “makers” beamed with pride as mom tried to fit it in the back of the car and they explained all the intricacies of what they’d created, how many times it had fallen apart, how they fixed it, and where they wanted to put it in their house.

I don’t know if my mom has heard of the Maker Movement, but I like to think of her as one of its pioneers.



Most Likely to Succeed

Yesterday, I was fortunate to attend a screening of Most Likely to Succeed, hosted by the Colorado Education Initiative (CEI). The film is a thought-provoking documentary about our education system with a look at project-based, student-driven learning at a charter school in San Diego.

After the film, our CEI hosts asked the audience to think about where we stand on a one-to-ten scale for keeping the current teaching model or scaling the High Tech High model across the U.S. public school system.

As a parent, the film hit me emotionally, and my answer is conflicted. But as a human being, I wanted to transport myself to High Tech High and relive ninth grade.

I have a seventh grader. Next fall, we will be looking at high schools, helping him decide where he would be happiest, and then applying to a mix of private, public and parochial. In the back of my mind, I favor schools most like the one I went to. I know that there he will read plenty of Shakespeare, survive Calculus and have a strong grasp of History. All the teachers will know him by name. I will get to know most families.

But will that school – the school of my childhood – inspire him to engage wholeheartedly in learning?

What I do know is that I was happiest at school when I was connecting the dots between classes, working on projects, or deep in debate with my classmates. I remember what I learned in 8th grade Social Studies because I can still see the poster my friends and I created about the 1960s hanging on the classroom wall. I remember getting excited about our ideas, working together, and worrying that our teacher would be mad that we burned a flag. I will never forget our independent Senior Project, when six of us wrote and performed a musical. I still have the script in a ratty green folder.

At High Tech High, the ninth graders are tasked with creating a group engineering project that illustrates their views on why civilizations rise and fall. They built a floor-to-ceiling masterpiece on exhibit for the entire community after working in small groups for months. Imagine what they will remember 30 years from now.

What impressed me was that High Tech High is teaching a love for learning, igniting curiosity and creativity, and empowering students to collaborate and lead. I am not sure that the more traditional approach achieves that for most kids, but I still see it as necessary because it did for me.

On a philosophical level, Most Likely to Succeed asks us if the role of the classroom is to teach our children equations, trivia, maps and stories? Or is it to inspire them to think and give them the tools to pursue the life-long education that makes them want to keep on learning? Can you do that without a strong baseline of knowledge? Does the fact that answers to almost anything are on the Internet change what we have to hold in our brains? Can you take any kid, drop them into High Tech High and watch them take off?

As a former student successfully educated under the old model with dips into project-based and experiential learning, I am tied to that tradition. It is my comfort zone. It is what I expected to pass on to my children. But then, if I could go back to high school, I would go to High Tech High in a heartbeat.






Red Cards

One month into the school year, and our youngest already has a red card and four yellow cards – at least those are the ones to which he has admitted.

The first grade card system of discipline is notorious at his school, and often the focus of dinner conversations across town. Who got a red card today? What did he do? How many did you get when you were in first grade? The girls all got yellow cards! No boys? No boys!

Our oldest son managed to escape without a yellow or red, much to the chagrin of his teacher who believed that a little rebellion or silliness might show he was finally comfortable in his surroundings. In kindergarten, his only wrongdoing was in May, when he got caught eating his M&Ms before his lunch.

Our middle son made it through with only one yellow card awarded in late April for something he still insists “was the girls’ fault” – his logic for keeping his distance four years later.

But our youngest…

On Monday, he climbed into the car after school almost triumphant.

“Good day?” I asked.

“Yep!” he said proudly. “I didn’t get a red or yellow card. Just seven warnings, and they still didn’t change my card!”

“Seven warnings is worse than one yellow card!”

“But one of them wasn’t me. They just thought it was. So it’s really only six!”

First grade victory dance in the end zone.


On Monday, I checked my fourth grader’s homework assignment notebook. His Wednesday column was marked by a single word, “CHILL.”

“Why did you write CHILL here?” I asked.

He looked at it, “I don’t know. I didn’t write that.”

“It’s in your handwriting.” His very sloppy handwriting is quite identifiable.

“But I didn’t write it.”

The school had standardized testing Thursday and Friday, so I thought that maybe “CHILL” meant they had no homework for the rest of the week. Makes sense, right?

“No other tests this week?” I asked just to be sure.


On Wednesday, he climbed into the car clearly mad at me. “It didn’t say CHILL. It said, chapter 11. I had a math test today on chapter 11! If you hadn’t said…”


Not “CHILL”.

A lesson on why good handwriting is important.

Trouble in Kindergarten

Sometimes a kid suffers his fate as the third child. For the first five years of his life, he has to be quick, strong and willing to fight back to survive the force of his big brothers. And it is never his fault, because what mother is going to say that it is okay to beat up on the little guy?

Then the rug is pulled out from under him… kindergarten.

Suddenly, everyone is the same size. Suddenly, he can’t hit back. And when he does, which he does, he doesn’t get away with it.

Early this week, I received an email from the kindergarten teacher asking for some advice on how to stop my son from rapid retaliation. Apparently, even when another child bumps into him by accident, he clocks the kid without assessing the situation.

My kindergartener and I had a long talk.

“There is no hitting, pushing or yelling at other kids.”

“I don’t push.”

We agreed that he would not go to Extended Day (his favorite thing because it means extra playground time) until he gets this under control. And his teacher agreed to send me a daily email letting me know how he did that day, so I can track his behavior and respond accordingly.

Day 1, he got in the car after school and immediately asked, “Did you get the email yet?” He did not hit, push or yell all day. He was very proud.

Day 2, he got in the car after school and said that while he was good, one of the girls punched him in the stomach, and he used his words. The teacher’s email confirmed his story.

Day 3, when I dropped him off at school in the morning, I reminded him that he was still working on the “no hitting” policy. He nodded, grinned, and celebrated, “I know! It’s my last day!”

“No honey, you can’t hit anyone any day, forever.”


Poor guy. Lessons learned in kindergarten are the hardest.

What I Just Read: Draft One

The hardest thing for any writer to learn is that Draft One is very rarely final. My fourth grader is suffering from that lesson today.

I told him to write down what he wanted to say for an oral book presentation he is supposed to give tomorrow. He is an avid reader, and when inspired, he can convince an entire class to read his latest top pick. Apparently, the book he must present tomorrow did not grab his attention.

This is what he wrote:

The book I read was Flora and Ulysses. Ulysses is a squirrel and Flora is a girl. Flora’s mother wants to kill Ulysses because she wants Flora to be normal. Her mother is a romantic novelist. I think killing isn’t romantic. Any questions?

When I told him to think about what he wanted to add for Draft Two, he claimed that no one else ever says more than that for their book reports, like they are the kings of queens of book reports.

“It’s not fair! I am not saying all that stupid stuff you want me to say about if I liked the book or how it compares to her other books or my favorite character, or…”

See, I smiled, he knows all about Draft Two.

On the Bulletin Board

Every year, there are teachers all over the country who put a photo of each child in the class on their bulletin board. Next to that photo is sometimes a sheet where the children have answered questions about themselves.

What do you want to be when you grow up? What is your favorite food? What do you like to do after school? List your pets. What’s your favorite sport? Where is the place you want to visit most?

My least favorite of these questions relates to friends. Who is your favorite person? Who do people see you with most? Who is your closest friend?

Since these are copied forms, I assume they are commonly used in elementary schools as a fun way to get kids to share their story. I know from experience in schools that they get used year after year.

As a parent, I love to see what my boys write down. There are always a few funny surprises. “You like to eat what?”

But as a parent of shy children, who absolutely adore their handful of friends, I hold my breath every time these “autobiographies” go up on the wall.

There are always one or two kids who aren’t named by anyone. There are always kids who list a best friend who failed to acknowledge them.

Now, it wouldn’t hurt so much if it were a private assignment through which the teacher got to learn about her new class. It would still provide parents the opportunity to learn those surprises that make us laugh. “You want to be a what?” “You want to go where?”

But posted on the bulletin board for each child to see every time they walk by? Knowing that feelings will be hurt? “Why didn’t he put me as his favorite person?”

I know lots of people who would say, “that’s life” or “you can’t protect them from everything” or “you are so over-protective!”

But it breaks my heart for all the kids who learn from a school assignment posted on the bulletin board for all to see that they are no one’s best friend.

And they never say a word.

As a parent, I wish life’s lessons were not so hard, and that school were a safer place for sensitive souls.