As a result of our recent experience with “Normal Heights”, AKA Project Shelldrake, many people have asked me how this project came to be and how I came about sharing Robin Sloan’s stories with the seventh grade. Well, let me tell you the story (with several asides) as I remember it.
This story starts with one of my primary forms of professional development. I spend a lot of time online, perhaps too much time, but valuable time nonetheless. There are many that say the web is killing serendipity, but I disagree. For me, the internet has allowed me the equivalent of dropping into the library at any hour of the day, something I could have only dreamed about prior to getting online back in the early 1990s. And now with a judicious use of Delicious, Twitter and Google Reader, which I purposely populate with blogs and feeds from a variety of disciplines, I find that with even less effort than before, I am able to draw inspiration and ideas from fields other than my own, and serendipity is preserved.
There are many ways that I stumble upon the blogs that I follow: a recommendation via friend or email, a magazine article, automated suggestions, the result of a web query, etc. Likewise, there are many reasons why I continue following a blog: entertainment value, looking to stay in the know among peers, quality of content, etc.
I’m not fully certain, but it was probably Jason Kottke’s blog that turned me on to Snarkmarket, a three-man production with Robin Sloan, Matt Thompson, and Tim Carmody as contributors. It might have been one reference or a series of references that made me decode that it was worth following everything posted on Snarkmarket, that the signal-to-noise ratio was high enough to add it to my feed reader. And high it is—rarely is there a post that I’m not interested in reading, although, on occasion, Robin, Matt, and Tim get on such a roll that it is impossible to keep up with the content that they produce and/or point to. Nonetheless, here I am reading after all this while, and it’s not just the content that keeps me coming back—it’s also the community.
George Steinbrenner is paraphrased as saying, “Surround yourself with people smarter than you are.” (Full Steinbrenner quote here.) That’s often reworked to something like “Why it’s smart to be the dumbest person in the room.” I think that’s good advice and that eager learners do try their best to be the dumbest person in the room — not to purposely be ignorant, but to surround themselves with wiser and more knowledgeable people from whom they will learn a lot. The danger here is that those “smarter” people are only more intelligent or knowledgeable, and not wiser, making them pompous or disinterested in people and ideas they see as below them. For me, Snarkmarket is one of those rooms of smarter people who are also wise and willing to engage in ideas based on their own merit, not just the credentials of the source. Anyone with something valuable to say is given a voice in the conversation. Snarkmarket is one of the places on the web that has preserved a cordial and productive tone. They tend their comment garden. They are interesting, because they are also interested.
Our culture, and subsequently our policy makers, too often emphasize the wrong sort of interestingness when talking about good teachers and leaders, looking for educators that are entertainers—producers of edutainment, if you will. In reality, to be truly interesting, it is much more important to be interested, because being interested fosters conversation, and conversation produces understanding, which is the sort of learning that we want to encourage. (For more on the concept of interestingness, see Dan Meyer, Scott Elias, Christer Holger and others collected here and here. I’ve also got a collection of articles tagged with ‘conversation’ and ‘learning’.)
Robin is a master conversationalist. He involves his readers not only after he has produced something, but lately he has also offered to involve them in the process of creation. He has done this in a variety of ways, most recently with his collaboration with the TCS seventh graders and a crew from around the world. Let me get on with the story of how that came to be.
After finding (through Snarkmarket) “Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store”, the first of Robin’s stories to be shared on his website, I started following Robin’s personal blog too. Within a few weeks, he announced his book project on Kickstarter, what would later become Annabel Scheme, and I decided to sponsor the project. Meanwhile, the seventh graders were commenting that “Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store” was one of their favorite stories of the batch that they were reading, so I quickly added “The Wrong Plane” to the list, in part because the writing constraints that produced it were, on their own, worthy of conversation. Eventually “The Writer & the Witch” and “The Dance Party on Jefferson Avenue” would also be added to the list, and Annabel Scheme would be read over the holiday break.
The seventh graders were scheming about how to get Robin to agree to a video conference when he noticed the traffic to his website from La Jolla and the list of stories on the tcsnmy7 blog. That led to an email exchange between students and Robin (initiated by students), which produced a Skype conversation in January, in which Robin shared his experience with and approach to writing and provided some constructive criticism, having read all of the stories written by the seventh grade. At the end of that hour-and-a-half-long chat, we asked him if he had ever been to San Diego, and if he would be interested in visiting us to work on some writing together. He was.
Brainstorming ensued on both ends as we tried to formulate a project that would give the students a better understanding of Robin’s writing process, a chance to tell a story, and possibly incorporate some of the literature that we’d been reading during the schools year, including Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice. We also wanted to show Robin around town. Many great ideas were left on the table (lots of “killing your darlings” discussion in seventh grade), but, thanks to Robin, a final plan emerged that exceeded all of our expectations. I’ll let the intro to “Normal Heights”, the student reflections (See the PS below.), and Robin’s Snarkmarket post “The New Utility Belt” cover most of the details, including the technical aspects, but I do want to share this quote from an email he sent out to those that collaborated on the project:
Honestly, I think that for these 7th graders, this was a workshop less about writing and more about collaboration: collaborating with me, with each other, with their environment, and (most importantly, I think) with you — a big distributed group of allies.
Some of my favorite moments came when we were out & about in San Diego, scouting story locations, and a new file would suddenly appear in the Dropbox folder, courtesy of someone, somewhere, on Silver Team. The kids would lean in around my iPhone and ooh & ahh at the new image. “Is there anything new in the Dropbox?” became a refrain throughout the day — and usually the answer was yes.
New creative work, streaming in from around the world in real-time, tracked on-the-go as we did our part of the storytelling. This is cool stuff.
Anyway, I’m hugely excited about big parallel creative processes like this, and entirely dedicated to making them work better — better both in terms of the experience for you (fun; clear; satisfying) and in terms of the finished product (interesting; coherent; durable). This is still definitely the alpha stage — pre-alpha — and therefore your collaboration couldn’t be more important, influential… and appreciated.
You see, this project encapsulates almost all of what we claim to be at the heart of the NMY program: student-led learning, learning by doing, interdisciplinary studies, depth-over-breadth, collaboration, critical thinking, reflection, responsibility, intrinsic motivation, trust, empowerment, teachers-as-master-learners, and connection to the community—all supported through the appropriate use of digital tools which allow them to share their work and to network with others by demonstrating their interest in the world.
Which leads me back to the idea of interestingness. While Robin is not a teacher in the traditional sense, someone who spends his days in a classroom, he is a master teacher. He finds a way to share “quality time” with each and every student. He models learning and risk-taking. He sparks conversation and creativity. He draws out the interest of others by being interested in what they have to share. His weeknotes (explained here) serve as a real-world example of the reflections that are so integral to the NMY program. He is part of the NMY answer to Will Richardson’s question:
I mean how, right now, are schools helping students be self-directed participants in their own learning who are able to share openly the learning they do and connect with others to pursue that learning even further?
With these collaborative, multimedia projects, developed in real time, Robin is not just inventing “parallel creative processes” and modeling the sort of innovative learning environment that I speak about so often, I think he’s helping redefine interactive fiction. I’ll have to expand on that some other time—as evidenced above, I’m still learning how to “kill my darlings”.
Robin—from me and from everyone else at The Children’s School, thanks for your time, talents, generosity, and conversation.
PS: If you want a student perspective on Project Shelldrake, you should read what they have to say. Start with Tatzo, Anthony, Tati, Charlie, Tobin, Marcelo, and Sydney.
PPS: Go read Robin’s other stories. You can find them all on his website. Not mentioned above are: “The Truth About the East Wind” and “Last Beautiful”. You might also want to check out Ash Cloud Tales, another project that Robin coordinated as he prepared to board his plane out of San Diego—the man never rests! (I suspect that he was inspired to use Tumblr based on what he learned from the NMY crew.) Of course, if you haven’t already read “Normal Heights”, what are you doing digging around my drivel?! Go there now!
PPPS: If you didn’t read Russell Davies’s “How to be interesting” (linked to above), you really ought to do that sometime soon.
PPPPS: I am convinced that services like Kickstarter are the future of funding creativity, and not just the arts. Keep your eye on it.