Of Robots, Rubik’s Cubes, and Responsibility

On Saturday, March 24, it was my privilege to attend the Long Island Connected Educators’ Summit hosted at W.E. Howitt Middle School, in Farmingdale, New York. Otherwise known as CELI, this event (the fifth annual), is led by Dr. Bill Brennan and a team of dynamic, passionate, and dedicated teachers, administrators, and students from the Farmingdale School District. This team inspires, both professionally and personally. Make some time to visit the Twitter hashtag #CELI18 and you’ll know what I mean. This was a memorable day for us all.
This year, CELI resonated differently for me. Catching up with friends and colleagues greeted one another with handshakes and hugs. Talk turned quickly to what makes us proud and what challenges us. Standing with my cup of coffee, I partook in conversations about “the new job”, how different schools prepare for, respond to, and prevent crises, and how we can better address issues involving equity in education. Amazing, when you think how this was free, on a Saturday, and we were among of hundreds of educators, eager to connect and learn together, while we sipped a second (or third) cup of coffee.
As part of Learning Leadership, this month I’d planned to write about experiences of late that have been nudging me to see school differently, and to challenge myself to help and to support others to see it a differently as well. Before Saturday, these thoughts involved robots, the Rubik’s Cube, and current societal events that are directly impacting our students and school communities.
The quote below, captured beautifully by Bonnie McClelland, has me thinking.
I had the good fortune to be in the room when these words were spoken, and I’ve found myself repeating them even since I first heard them spoken during the opening CELI panel discussion. The dynamic young adolescent who expressed it, spoke it proudly in her opening introduction, where  said her name and she told us, “I love robots!” It was at that moment, she captured everyone’s hearts and everyone’s full attention. It was then that all in the room knew this day would be different. This was only the beginning, our first chance to learn from the wisdom of children, of adolescents, of young adults, and of one another.
The entire day was filled with student voice and educator voice. Thematically, attendees seemed to be reminded that, above all else, we’ve got a lot to learn, but also that we’ve got a lot to be thankful for, because there are others around us who are willing to learn with us, and to teach us. I won’t attempt to share all of that here, but I do feel it important to express gratitude to Bill Brennan and his planning team. Thank you for knowing your impact, sharing your wisdom, and modeling the way schools can and should work…for all learners.
The tweet above from Eric Sheninger recently caught my eye, tying conveniently to my current line of thinking and the themes of CELI. 
First, I started seeing things differently in my own life.
A 13 year-old who I know well has been involved in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) since his start in middle school. You may know an adolescent like this. He’s at-times, a self-assured leader, and in most cases, he’d otherwise prefer to blend into his surroundings. This year, in addition to programming and designing a robot for competition, his team also presented on how to solve a real-world problem: to use what we know about hydrodynamics to research and recommend how to purify contaminated water that comes as a result of natural disasters. Going to his competitions, you wouldn’t know this. There’s a deejay, an emcee, referees on rollerblades, concessions. There’s a noisy, crowded, organized gymnasium, with hundreds of students and dozens of schools, competing with one and rooting for one another.
A visit to the FIRST website clearly shows what matters most: core values of gracious professionalism and “coopertition” (a combination of cooperation and competition). And these values, they shine through.
“FIRST is more than robots. The robots are a vehicle for students to learn important life skills. Kids often come in not knowing what to expect – of the program nor of themselves. They leave, even after the first season, with a vision, with confidence, and with a sense that they can create their own future.” 
– Dean Kamen, FIRST Founder     
With “robotics season” now behind us, I’ve been thinking, how can we make “school”, for students and teachers, more like robotics?
A pre-adolescent I know well has long solved puzzles, played board games, designs and builds anything imaginable. He’s gotten into constructing fidget spinners, watching YouTube videos, and then watching YouTube videos about how to design a better fidget spinner. Along comes the return of the Rubik’s Cube, and he’s moved onto algorithms. The kid teaches himself how to do things and is unafraid of trial and error, designing prototypes, iterations, and of failure. Because he knows, failure is nothing more than a “first attempt in learning”. 
Each of these kids I describe shows signs of being a “systems thinker”. Each is a problem-solver. Both are cooks and bakers, musicians, mad scientists, and when the mood strikes them, athletes. They are tactile learners and kinesthetic learners. They are readers, but more so when they’re able to apply what they read to be meaningfully engaged in learning something new. And, these boys…they’re my sons.
As an educator-dad, I’ve been pleased with my kids’  education since our first Kindergarten experience with our oldest child, over a decade ago. Fortunately, for my kids – like so many other teachers’ kids – they’re good students because they know how school “works”. They’re courteous and respectful. They’re organized and can manage their time. And most importantly, they’re good people, helpful, empathetic, and caring towards others. And, they’re also “typical kids”. When asked what they did at school, the first response is often, “Nothing”. When asked what the best part of the day was, the answer is either, “lunch” or “when the school day was over”. This often reminds me, it’s my job, as the adult to ask better questions, to delve deeper, and to be patient awaiting a response. After all, I have to remain hopeful that, despite what they may tell me. I have to believe that they did something. Right? 
These kids come from a good home, where learning and hard work are valued. They are well-fed, well-clothed, and have opportunities that they’re grateful for being afforded. I’m thankful for them, and am proud of them every day. And at school, they are known and they know they are known. That matters, and it makes all the difference, keeping a balanced message between home and school. 
My intent here is not to brag about my kids. It’s to illustrate that, while these are two kids who I know, I am reminded that there are kids out there who are not quite as fortunate, to be known and to know they are known. Some are dealing with more than anyone should be expected to handle, and they do it with grace, with perseverance, and with hope, that someone will make an effort to know them. 
This brings me back to this weekend in Farmingdale. Attendees (myself included) were welcomed with enthusiasm and enthralled by stories of innovation, there were a number of other important takeaways. Embrace change and celebrate mistakes. Approach a challenge, prepared to accept failure (likely numerous times). Think, “We’re not there YET, but we will get there, together.” This attitude was pervasive among the adults. But possibly more impressive (and adults with a growth mindset are always impressive), were THE KIDS. Having the opportunity to listen to words of encouragement, to learn about robots and makerspaces, and to listen to them close the event by PRAISING the adults is what made this so memorable an experience. Thinking back to the tag line on the FIRST website, serves to remind us all what it’s about: “More than robots.
Upon my return home from CELI, I couldn’t help but watch the #MarchForOurLives coverage across all news channels. This included the six minutes and 20 seconds of solemnity by Emma Gonzales, one of the students who attends Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. As I watched, listened, and waited intently for Ms. Gonzales to teach us. It was then that I realized that all of our students have something to teach us, and we have an obligation to listen. If we allow ourselves, we may just learn something from what they are willing to share with us.
Whether a student with a Rubik’s Cube, with a passion for robots, or some with a life experience that will change the world for the better, we as educators have a responsibility. A responsibility to listen. A responsibility to honestly ask and answer tough questions. And a responsibility to ensure what our students are learning is relevant, so they are equipped with the skills to succeed in the world they’re inheriting. If our students’ are willing to fail, to try again, and to learn, shouldn’t we adults make that same commitment to learning?
Looking for the next opportunity to continue to learn with others across Long Island, New York, and the globe? 
Looking forward to learning together!
26 Days of Learning Leadership