“Things that were considered worthless are redeemed”

Ira David Socol
Jul 27, 2019 · 7 min read


Mike Mulligan and Steam Shovel dig the basement in just one day
Mike Mulligan and Steam Shovel dig the basement in just one day
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton

I had this difficult moment last week. Working with teachers and administrators on MakerLearning, Pam Moran and I were with a great group of educators in the Mendon-Upton (MA) Regional School District and we were exploring how empathy plus ‘making' adds rocket fuel to both engagement strategies and to deep learning, and we were beginning a Paper Circuits activity.

I think educators typically misunderstand what the Google-inspired ‘Genius Hour' is about. It really isn’t about kids doing anything they want, though I think that kids doing anything they want should have significant time in every school day. The genius hour is about solving problems, and perhaps most specifically, about solving problems for others.

Of course I also think we really need to have a ‘Direct Instruction Hour' within ‘Genius Weeks.’

Massachusetts middle school children making robots
Massachusetts middle school children making robots
Making… the art of engagement

I may have mentioned to the team earlier (or maybe not) a podcast in which I was asked “what accomplishment are you most proud of?” and after fumbling around for a while I thought of it — well, let’s say this of course lies beneath having a great kid — I recalled walking into a middle school classroom two or three years ago and having a kid yell out, “I know you, you’re the man who makes classrooms comfortable.”

And maybe my point was, though I’m pretty intrinsically motivated, my work being recognized by real users means a lot to me.

So Pam announced that instead of just making something, as a group they might hear a bit about me and then use Paper Circuits to create something responding to the work I’d done with them. Though she said, “we talked about this,” in fact we had not. It came to me out of the blue, and so, without the preparation I like to have when speaking about myself, I began to talk — and probably exposed more than I hoped to. But when teachers expressed fascination with a dyslexic who loves ‘reading,’ Pam asked “What’s your favorite book?”

Later she told me she’d expected me to say “Ulysses,” but to me, while I think Ulysses is the best book ever written (at least in English), it is way too difficult to work through to be my favorite. So I stumbled around a bit, mentioned Borderliners, then said, “Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel,” because, that is indeed, my favorite book. Then, because not everyone knew the book I mentioned the author, Virginia Lee Burton, and her work — including another favorite, The Little House. We talked a bit more, and then I said that what I loved about her books was an overall theme that “things that were considered worthless are redeemed.”

Ulysses by James Joyce is the ‘best book’
Ulysses by James Joyce is the ‘best book’
Ulysses by James Joyce, “the best book.”

“Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.” ― James Joyce, Ulysses

Ulysses on YouTube

In Mike Mulligan it is an old steam driven shovel in an age of diesel — internal combustion powered — construction equipment. In The Little House it is an abandoned little home now buried in the heart of a big city. In both they prove of value after all, and those stories meant so much to me as a child, and they still mean so much to me now.

Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel reimagined as the furnace for the library and the janitor
Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel reimagined as the furnace for the library and the janitor
Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel reimagined as the furnace for the library and the janitor

The reaction in the room was dramatic, and of an intensity I, of course, had not expected. But then, well, this is what I’ve been trying to say to educators for at least 25 years.

The Little House lost in the expanding city
The Little House lost in the expanding city
The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton

Every child matters, every child deserves the very best we can do for them, or, in Pam’s phrasing, “all means all,” and “nothing a child does should result in a life sentence.”

Because, very sadly, there are children all over the world who come to see themselves as worthless, and we need to realize that no child ever comes to that conclusion on their own. That conclusion is only reached through the words and actions of adults.

Image for post
Image for post
Seeing the Steam Shovel as worthless

But let me go back to that room and MURSD educators. The reaction to my stories, to my statement was not just intense, it was intensely generous, and I was kind of overwhelmed — and I excused myself, left them to their making, and went and hid in a silent and completely dark school auditorium.

There, I reflected on how this all comes together. After all, storytelling (writing) is MakerWork as well, as long as the student (writer) gets to tell the story they need to tell, in the way they need to tell it, for the audience they need to tell it to.

“Your stories matter,” I’ve told hundreds, or maybe thousands, of kids — special ed kids, at-risk kids, every kind of kid — “and I think you owe it to the world to tell your stories.” And I’ve seen kids tell stories that moved teachers, that moved politicians, that moved parents, that moved peers, that moved communities. And if kids owe the world their stories, we owe kids genuine listening, and genuine empathy when they tell those stories. (We do not owe them corrections of grammar and spelling, though we should always offer editing help from ourselves or their peers.)

And its important to remember that the stories kids need to tell may not be stories we want to hear, may not be stories we are comfortable hearing.

As I said, the reaction in the room was intensely generous, and that is always the reaction great educators give the stories, give the creations, of children.

That generosity washed over me, as it has washed over so many kids when school adults — any adults — truly listen to them, and truly hear them. It is in that flood of generosity, which is really the opening up of their emotional world, that kids who are troubled (and what kids are not? what adolescents are not?) find the real space to trust us — to trust our schools, to trust our world. And nothing good happens in any school unless kids trust the adults, and kids can’t trust the adults unless the adults trust the kids.

Image for post
Image for post

Empathy plus Making must be what education right now is about. We are at both a point of learning crisis and a point of moral crisis. We see today what happens — in the US, in the UK, in Brasil — when empathy is lost — and it is a frightening sight. We see today what happens — in graduates from our schools who do not know how to navigate their world — when the learning in our schools is irrelevant in content and/or delivery.

When there is no empathy…

Let’s be clear, learning anything about the world without empathy ends tragically. That the President of the United States cannot comprehend the needs of any woman, any person of color, any disabled person, any refugee, any child, has made the world a very dangerous place. I don’t know whether Donald Trump can find Iraq, or Guatemala — or even Scotland — on a map, but we all know that he has no idea of what the people of those nations need. Trump’s “it’s about me" personality disorder is evidence of a dramatic failure of the elite education he received.

No empathy and no ability to bring concepts together

I also don’t know if the chairman of JPMorgan/Chase has ever ‘made' anything — but hearing his inability to put two ideas together, I would need to guess that he has not. ‘Making,’ which I define as a student generated project aimed at helping to solve a problem, is how humans put ideas together, and how they demonstrate that their knowledge is more than skin deep.

Making unleashes the imagine and drives the curiosity that lies behind real learning

I do know that kids — and adults — who “make" begin to understand the complexity of the universe impossible to gain from even the very best direct instruction. It doesn’t matter if you are knitting a sweater for someone, writing a play to tell something to your community, or making a paper circuit response to someone you’ve just worked with, the act of making forces us to bring ideas, knowledge, and empathy together.

My note card in Paper Circuitry
My note card in Paper Circuitry
My note card in Paper Circuitry

The response the MURSD team assembled for me touched me very deeply. It was a beautiful thing that I celebrate for its message, its workmanship, the learning behind it, and of course its generous intent.

I think you’ll find those rewards from all your kids if your school truly becomes a place of listening, seeing, and making.

  • Ira Socol

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