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Chris O'Brien | @chrisobrienisok

Chris O'Brien | @chrisobrienisok

Chris O'Brien | @chrisobrienisok 


 


Chris O'Brien is a former NYC public school teacher and the founder of Lower Bay Learner's Guild, a small consulting group and think tank comprised of working artists, coders, musicians, retired teachers that help districts, individual schools, and teachers build student-centered makerspaces and integrate project-based learning into their current curriculum.  O'Brien's goal is that his current projects, The Propeller Car Challenge and CivCirca, will make it into the hands and minds of every U.S middle school student and their teachers within the next two years.

Posted by on in Education Leadership

storytelling

Over the last few years I’ve been thinking a lot and often about the story of Me, capital M. I’ve always shied away from letting my life define me and firmly believed that using my personal narrative, or backstory, to help clarify my mission felt too much like the marketing tools used by salespeople to make human connections with their potential customers. This felt icky and insincere, so I kept it off the list of things that I deemed important for my success as an educator. But as Robert Frost’s line about “way leading onto way” became more striking and resonant each time I taught his timeless The Road Not Taken, I started to understand that my story is more important than I once let on. Being able to write it down and make sense out my story has allowed me to clarify not only who I am and want to be, it has been the driving force, an inner voice, that has come to define my mission as a teacher and changemaker.

Sometimes you don’t even need to set out to tell your story, it starts to tell itself for you.  It begins to take form because it’s what you need to hear and understand at that moment. For me, my story started to take form the morning after Hurricane Sandy ruined my home. My mother was getting her first stem-cell replacement and I stood in front of our family’s ruined house thinking about how many people in the history of the world had it worse than we did. I thought about how I would relate my story to my students once I went back to work. There was a Maya Angelou idea I wanted them to understand, something about how you can experience defeat and not be defeated. Over the next months I learned the value of community, family, love, and the true value of the work an educator does as I labored hard to rebuild my house and neighborhood, watched my mom recover successfully from her stem-cell transplant, continued to see my own children grow, and stay focused on helping the students I stood in front of each day.

The hurricane also made me begin to see how systems are often broken; they aren’t human and are built with too many moving parts to work efficiently. On the homefront I saw how government was limited in assisting storm victims. At school I began to believe that what my colleagues and I were made to teach was often at the detriment to the kids we signed up to serve. As my mom’s cancer began to come back, I saw the predicament of hospitals, how they often have their hands tied in assisting the patients the way they set out to heal. In each of these experiences, which now were becoming part of my story, it became clear that there was no one person to blame. At each tier in each system people showed up, worked with what they had, and sighed and accepted that this was the way it is. But for me, at that point in my life, with all of these stories becoming part of mine, I learned that accepting the bureaucratic mediocrity wasn’t enough. I decided at the end of that school year I would take these experiences, the pain and joy and passion of each, and try to do my own thing with what I was learning.

I knew I wanted to remain a teacher, but I wanted to do it on my own terms, in order to help as many children as possible.  My goal was (and still is) to build large-scale projects with students connected to their current curriculum and the real world. Learning that disaster can strike any moment, that systems were broken from the inside, allowed me to take a leap of faith and start developing my own programs. I was shaky on my feet and was lucky enough to work with two schools, visiting their classes to do hands-on builds connected to history and ELA with students. I also began to build makerspaces and run STEM-based writing programs. In the first year of starting Lower Bay Learner’s Guild, parts of my story began to make sense in ways I could have never imagined. The year I worked as a furniture maker in Brooklyn and at a frame shop in Colorado, the college summers spent as a janitor, my time as a web developer and video editor, hours spent in comic book shops, libraries and book shops -- all of me, the bits and pieces of my story, were coming together in order to serve the kids I was working with.

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Posted by on in Education Leadership

Peak Personal Growth

Those of us who actively engage ourselves in the noble and remarkable craft of teaching soon realize that we’re as much a student as the kids we are standing in front of. We set up our classrooms with all learners in mind, we research effective classroom layouts and design, share best practices with our colleagues, and spend nights wondering how to finally --effectively-- integrate an activity that we’ve had growing in our imagination into what we’re teaching. Along this journey we start to see how much we’ve changed-- not only because of the students we serve, but because of the hard work we’ve done in order to help them. The true love and passion we have for our calling results in the insight that our kids have effectively taught us to become a better version of ourselves. We understand that our kids have helped us get closer to who we want to be and we now know our true job is to help each one of them get closer to who they will become.

Stick with me here, I’m not as much of an idealist as I let on.

If you’re a teacher you also know the flipside. The daily stress, the weight of outside sources expecting new demands, mandatory state testing, the sitting through workshops that you’ll never use, the kids in your class you just can’t get through to, and three thousand other things. Literally, three-thousand. On top of this there is the low pay, the persistent frustration you feel when you see people without half the education you have making double the income. There’s distrust from parents who know and love their child and don’t believe you do. You’ve got to deal  with the common cold and more noroviruses than the CDC, the often mundane morning announcements, and field trips that make you anxious, bored, or both. There’s a sea of ancillary worries that pull you from your one true mission. At times it makes you feel-- deep down at a gut level-- like you’ve made a bad, bad, decision. It’s a lot to handle. It’s never too much, but sometimes it feels that way.

Teaching is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of true genius --- the ability to hold two opposing thoughts in your head at the same time --- brought to life. It’s an act that can be one-hundred percent gratifying and simultaneously thankless. Magic moments of complete fulfillment and joy, where students make milestone breakthroughs, can be quickly replaced with the existential-level understanding that there’s plenty more work to do. We can be overwhelmed with concrete knowledge that we get a chance to make permanent positive impressions on kids, and at the same second feel deeply saddened that we won’t always get through to the child who will need it most. Teaching is the narrative of humanity, the ancient and modern lessons that so many have tried to share, sitting in front of you day-to-day.

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Posted by on in Maker Movement / Makerspaces

 makerspaceThoughts and ideas on school makerspaces are ubiquitous in education circles online, at conferences, in print, and anywhere else people who care about  K-12 instruction gather to talk shop. Hashtags have trended around the craze and an entire industry continues to grow solely to sell robots, computers, 3D Printers, digital and analog kits, manuals, and much more to schools eager to hop aboard. There’s lots of shiny and smart stuff out there that sparks the interest of both educators and the kids they work with. All of it is great in its own right, but some of these items and ideas have stronger educational merit in a school than others. While it’s easy to get pulled into the craze of school makerspaces, it is important to plan each space around the students in that specific learning community and with a measurable academic goal in mind. By doing this, you’ll ensure that your school makerspace, along with the Maker Movement, won’t become another foregone trend waiting to be replaced by the next-best-thing.

As someone who helps districts and individual schools plan and build on-site makerspaces, I’ve spent a lot of time talking school leaders out of spending unnecessary amounts of money to furnish their new makerspace. This may seem counter-intuitive and bad for business, but my mission is to prove that project-based learning helps successful and struggling students alike become better readers, writers, and critical thinkers--- not to build expensive sites for the sake of doing so.  Instead of appeasing someone by immediately ordering everything they want, I first ask the teachers and administrators I’m working with something like, what academic or social problem do you want to see solved?  By doing this, I’m teaching them their first lesson in the world of making and design thinking: find a problem and come up with a smart and sustainable solution.

The underlying issues that plague our kids’ academic lives are always similar and the answers I get mirror the problems each of us see day-to-day:  there’s a lack of enthusiasm in core subjects, a dearth of grade-level performance on in-school, district, and state-wide assessments, different learners don’t engage well with the current curriculum being taught, etc. After hearing the team’s answers, we put together a clear goal that we want to see fulfilled in the makerspace in order to solve this problem. The language we use to put our objective together is precise and offers some form of measurability. An example of a clear goal with a measurable outcome would be:  We want disengaged students to become involved and interested in ELA by building projects around the fiction and non-fiction they will be reading during the year. The projects students build will be used end-of-unit assessments and they will be required to use text-evidence in building them. 

Once our goal is clear, we begin to design the room and order parts that will help fulfill our objective. I don’t want you to mistake me here-- this doesn’t mean dull, frugal, drab, boring. In fact, a makerspace with a mission is the best type of makerspace. Knowing what the goal of your space is allows you to properly spend more money on quality items that will meet what you’ve set out to achieve. All  the shiny items you were wishing to get can still be purchased, but now you understand why and how they will be used in order to move you towards your goal. By adopting this mindset, the things you order-- whether it is a farm of 3D printers, tons of circuit kits, a laser cutter-- now have a place and a reason for their belonging in your space. By approaching your build in this way, each tool will serve a purpose and not go underused.

Thinking about your makerspace as a means to reach an academic goal is invaluable for more than a handful of reasons. For starters, we’re ensuring that the space becomes a vital part of the school’s instruction and its mission, not an afterthought that only gets visited during lunchtime. It becomes a safe and fun learning environment that takes on the values and academic principles that are at the heart of the school. The space grows into a place where students do their best thinking, where they realize that the need for academic understanding will allow them to realize the ideas alive in their imagination. It’s a place that allows teachers some autonomy over their instruction, that breathes life back into their craft, and helps them realize why they signed up for their job in the first place. More importantly, by planning your space with academic goals in mind,  the room stick around, immune to trends and marketing plans. It will do the job it was set up for: it will make better students.

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Posted by on in General

Pokemon GO 1

Chances are that even if are off enjoying your summer deep in the wilderness, or on a resort island, at some point this week you’ve heard about or have seen people playing the wildly popular Pokemon GO. After downloading the game, players are asked to voyage out into the real-world( fixing one of the problems that’s frequently associated with our plugged in, sedentary, culture) in order to catch mythic and increasingly alluring creatures known as Pokemon(plural). This week there’s been reports of accidents, robberies, and privacy concerns as a result of the game. But there has also been lots of tales about groups of people meeting, helping one another, learning together. They’ll always be some bad apples and anecdotes when we’re ushering in new ideas and innovations, but I try to keep my eyes on the pros long enough to develop my own opinion about something. After all, if my job is to teach kids to become strong critical thinkers, I should be thinking critically.  Take a second to join me and welcome Pokemon GO into your life in order to connect with your students and enhance your instruction.

Part of my practice as both an educator and lifelong learner is to explore analog and digital fads that youth culture have embraced and love in order to help make the lessons I write and the programs I develop stronger. If I understand what my students love and are passionate about, then I can design lessons, units, and activities around or related to their interests in order to help them become stronger readers, writers and critical thinkers. This may seem intuitive, but it’s alarming how many of us big people balk at change, and only focus on the negative aspects of new innovation. With this in mind, I downloaded the app and went out for a stroll.

Within a few minutes of gameplay I realized Pokemon GO is primed for instruction. The application has something for all types of classroom learners. A map renders in real time, waiting for a social studies teacher to finally get their students to love geography; massive amounts of data is being compiled off in a server somewhere that will allow the tech-specialist to finally explain the internet to her students.  Finally a physical education instructor can build that adventure races they always wanted to by using the game as motivation;  English teachers everywhere should rejoice in knowing that students have suspended reality in order to embark on their own hero’s journey, rife with all five types of literary conflict.  Innovative math teachers looking at the game will reel in excitement with all of the possible lessons that are built directly around the data students are collecting. Seeing all this is a powerful way to help more students succeed. After all, by speaking the same language our students do, we can teach them what we want them to know.

While a few of the fads that take our students and children by storm seem to have little or no educational or cultural value( see: Youtube videos of people consuming cinnamon) spending some time to play around with Pokemon GO will offer certain insights into what education will become and how we can remain ahead of the curve. This is an important position to be in, so that its us, the educators, who have a say in how the game will be used in the classroom years to come. If you’re like me, you are tired of having non-educators develop programs, books, ideas about current trends and telling teachers how to bring them into our classroom. By learning and playing Pokemon GO now, you will become an expert on the game and be able to offer valuable advice and personal knowledge as to how it can be used as an instructional scaffold, not the other way around.

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Posted by on in General

LEARN TO TEACH isn't a declarative or imperative. I'm not slamming your approach or telling you I've got the goods on classroom management, pedagogical mindset, or a million other things you probably have a better handle on than I do.   I'm lucky enough to do the work I do and so are you.  LEARN TO TEACH is my way of reminding myself to keep questioning and learning from the world around me-- to turn exciting and mundane experiences alike into ones that I can find truth and knowledge in, so I can share them with students and turnkey them into project-based programs. Simply put: I LEARN TO TEACH. 

A DAY ON THE LOWER BAY

The Lower Bay is the body of water that runs between New Jersey, Staten Island, and Brooklyn.  Every once in a while I'm lucky enough to go out on a friend's boat and explore the water with a knowledgeable group of fisherman and a legit sea captain. For a lot of people, this is a day to relax, to shut down the brain and take in the sun.  For people like us, those obsessed with finding new ways to turn the content we are expected to teach into something great, a trip on the ocean(or anywhere) can inspire a thousand lessons we can bring back to our classrooms. More importantly it can inform who we are as learners, so that we can better serve our students.  Here are 3 lessons I learned about how to become a better teacher:  

INSIGHT #1:  IT'S OKAY TO NOT KNOW STUFF

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