In this COVID economy, my students’ eBooks shine a light

This year too I am so inspired by the work that students in my computer class have produced. Their capstone project is a 24-page eBook, and this year I relaxed the guidelines and let them choose any topic. I wanted to see how they use this moment in time to come up with ideas, rather with no boundaries.

I wanted to see what has been brewing in the minds of young people. I was in for a shock! This semester, I noticed more fiction emerging than all the semesters before, combined. Even the non-fiction was telling. Topics include, “The most tragic events in history,” the solar system, and one on somewhat gruesome events of World War II. But the outpouring of fiction made me have to allow them to go beyond the 24-page requirement.

Here are some of the topics:

The Mind Traveler,” “The Girl Astronaut,” “A Vacation in the Woods,” “The Mystery Letters.” Two books on Softball as a backdrop to drama, two on dance techniques, a romance, one on the harmful technologies affecting young people, and one two on mental illness. There’s more….

My students design the front and back covers using only copyright-free images, they control margins, and on my insistence, ad nauseam, use plenty of white space. Take a look at these, and let me know if what we are seeing an explosion of creativity in 12 and 13 year olds. Perhaps this year with so many ups and downs has rekindled the urge to read, imagine and tell stories. I hope I am right.

It makes being a teacher so rewarding!

Click on the images and they link to actual eBooks.

Cheeseburgers and Socrates – How we engage students during COVID

One of my colleagues at Benjamin Franklin High School, is a pro at the Socratic seminar. The onus, he says, is on us teachers to make sure we aren’t just encouraging idle passengers on their educational journey. There needs to be a ‘method’ to help them interact with the material we teachers present.

That method, says Jason Klicker is the Socratic seminar. Here’s his fascinating example, Klicker-style:

Image, courtesy Jordan Nix, Unsplash.com

“A student wants to know how to make a grilled cheese sandwich. Instead of telling them how to make (or even worse, just making it for them), I ask them if a grilled cheese sandwich is like other sandwiches they know how to make. When they say yes, I ask them what is similar and what is different. Over the course of the discussion, the students learns for themselves how a grilled cheese sandwich is different from a BLT, and knows how to make one. After they think they are ready, I watch them do it, giving them pointers along the way. The sandwich might not taste delicious the first few times they try, but their knowledge allows them to have confidence to try in the future.

“While we don’t discuss grilled cheese in my class, we do ask questions like “what is justice?” or “how do you secure your freedom that you have been given?”. Both are important questions for important times. It’s frustrating for the student at first, as it should be. I’m not giving them the answer, they have to find it for themselves. In the end, They have a deeper understanding of justice or freedom than they could ever get if I just simply lectured at them.”

Most importantly, says Mr. Klicker, “They have taken charge of their own education because they were in the driver’s seat instead of being an idle passenger. They are also much better people for it.”

Despite the disruptions we have had since March this year –indeed because of the having to adapt to COVID — all teachers have had to turn up the creativity thermostat in how we engage young people. Many of my students in the computer lab are remote, or have moved between in-class and online. Using higher order thinking and engagement techniques are di rigueur. Nothing like a 2,500 year old technique to motivate the mind.

Why isn’t encryption used in voting?

One of the long, ridiculous exchanges in the presidential debates last night was on voter fraud, a perpetual conspiracy theory of president Trump. “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen,” he said.

Courtesy, Noah Pederson -Unsplash.com

Whenever I see the word ‘fraud‘ in the same sentence as ‘ballots‘ I wonder why software companies haven’t stepped in to fix this.  With some of the best software companies addressing all kinds of threats, whether it’s banking or homeland security, why has ballot encryption been on the back burner?

It appears that the software solution has been in the make-up room, but has never made a grand appearance on stage. About a decade ago, there was a suggestion that we might have ballots that use invisible ink that ‘code’ a ballot as well.

 “…instead of filling in a bubble next to a candidate’s name, the voter uses a special pen that exposes a code printed inside the bubble in invisible ink. A voter can write down that code, along with the serial number of her ballot, to later verify the results online.” 

Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office

Encryption is all grown up now. There is a product, according to a recent WIRED article, called ‘STAR‘ developed out of an initiative in Travis County, Texas.  Benjamin Wofford’s article traces the path of the development, the ‘secure, transparent, auditable, and reliable encryption solution (hence the STAR acronym) of the software.

To summarize it, STAR converts a person’s vote at the voting machine into a ‘hash code‘ that could be printed out and taken, similar to how we leave a grocery store with a receipt of our transaction.  Voter impersonation with this system is very easily detected. The best part is, votes can go back and check or track if their vote has been cast and counted.

It’s about time. We have turned to encryption for everything from text messages and financial transactions. It’s time we encrypt the vote.

 

Tired of Zoom? Small schools suddenly seem attractive

So what’s the Facebook-fueled fad about ‘pandemic pods‘ all about? As with many fads, it’s something that’s been around for more than a century. Since 1906, to be exact.

And the model? A small house –a casa. Basically a ‘house of children’ or ‘Casa dei Bambini.’ That was, of course, the first successful hands-on school begun by Maria Montessori. If Facebook had been around, someone would have called these nano-schools, or a ‘practical life pods.’ Maria Montessori didn’t need likes. If she had followers, they included poor  and working-class parents with challenged kids. Oh, and there were folks like Alexander Graham Bell, an early promoter of her method when it came the America.

This prolonged pandemic, and the need to isolate ourselves has thrown a large curve ball at us parents, business owners and most importantly, children. Suddenly the large ‘campuses’ with sometimes 3000 students are frightening. The home-school model or the Montessori ‘house’ clearly addresses many of the concerns parents have. Not the masks or no-masks, or 6-foot-rule question. But questions and concerns such as:

  • What’s the alternative to sticking my child in front of an iPad?
  • My child needs to be outdoors as much as academics. More trees than apps!
  • Social media is killing socialization. I need a school that is ‘offline’ for eight hours of the day.

As schools get ready to make the large-school experience more engaging, and personal, more of these models will crop up. Maria Montessori would be pleased. Children need a safe place to learn, exchange ideas and socialize not something akin to an office space, where everyone’s glued to a screen.

Lilamani Dias-Benson – A legacy of creative ‘infection’

On 11th July, we lost one of Sri Lanka’s premier creative spirits, my former boss and old friend Lilamani Dias-Benson.

There are so many facets of Lilamani, it would take a book to document her work and legacy.  But as many people remember her she infused indefatigable creative energy into advertising from the moment she stepped onto the scene. You could say she metaphorically dominated the room she entered, whether it was an uncomfortable client meeting, a photo-shoot, or a ‘plans-board meeting’ as we called it at JWT.  She would not initially say much but with a few words made everyone reconsider what was at stake. With a  few flourishes of a pencil she would coax you out of your comfort zone and revise the pathetic radio script you brought in on deadline.

I grew up as a cub copywriter at JWT when she took over the reigns in 1986, I believe. For whatever reason my art director friend Rhizvie Saldin and I came under her wing, attending high-powered client briefings, and strategic planning sessions that were above our heads at that time. I was just out of college, and had to bone up on ‘T-Plans’ (the Thompson planning document), and layout theory she made us imbibe late into the evenings. She would cite poetry,  refer to advertising legends such as George Lois, and challenge us to “come to the edge”.

That was a favorite poem of hers that she would quote, ad nauseam. It went:

“Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
COME TO THE EDGE!
And they came
And he pushed
And they flew.”

(I am sure many of you in advertising who passed through her doors have heard her on this.)

I remember Lilamani recite this poem at a JWT creative workshop somewhere in Bentota, and then at a client meeting at John Keells.  She pushed, cajoled, inspired, and delighted everyone around her to recognize creativity, whether they approved of the idea or not.  Unilever meetings were bristly, but we came away with brand managers signing of on creative concepts they rejected a few minutes before! As a boss, she defended our work with a passion. (A perfectionist, if she spotted a tiny spelling error or a layout glitch, we would hear it on our way back to the office!) When I left JWT for studies in England, Lilamani invited me to an Unilever meeting in London, making sure the corporates met someone who worked on their brand. I couldn’t figure out why that was necessary, but in hindsight it was her way of giving me wings.

Lilamani was someone who spoke of something that is oddly relevant for our times – the idea of being ‘infectious‘ long before the tired phrase ‘going viral‘ came into vogue. You can hear her expound on it in that hilarious sitcom episode with Nimmi Harasgama (Aunty Netta)

“Infectious is different to infection,” she explains, because “what I do you catch,” especially something nice. And if I am to paraphrase what she was getting at, she was expounding on how creative ideas circulate, inspire, and return in ways you can never control. This is probably what many of her students experienced, and now continue to spread the Lilamani Dias-Benson brand of creativity whatever they touch.

How could we not. We came. She pushed. We flew.

Alone Together – How teachers deal with virtual school

During these days of isolating and distancing ourselves from our colleagues and friends, I have reminded of the title of one of my favorite books, by MIT professor Sherry Turkle. Alone Together.

Granted the book was about technology and robotics, but also on the ‘illusion of intimacy’ as technology was slowly polarizing us. It was a contentious topic whenever I brought it up, having  having once been a cheerleader of social media as encapsulated in my 2013 book, Chat Republic.

Photo by Chris Montgomery, Unsplash.com

But today, we all turn to the very technologies that glue us to screens, to reconnect in very unusual ways. My wife, for one (who usually advocates no screen time or very limited screen time for her young preschool students) took to Zoom. To get a 3 year-old to be in on a ‘conference call’ is a challenge for any teacher, and at odds with Montessori education.  This Monday her learning packets (left outside on Mondays for parents to pick up) included seeds, a bio-degradable pot and and dirt, with instructions they will use in the Zoom class. Montessori involves a lot of sensorial learning and ‘practical life‘ – it was Earth Day yesterday, after all. Yes, we are all learning on the job!

As for me, I have had to come up with creative ways to engage my students – weekly, daily, hourly – to keep them  on track with ongoing projects. We are ‘together’ but by appointment only whether it was via Google Meet, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Webex. I’ve been using Google Forms embedded into a Google spreadsheet. (The first was about how two of Google’s ‘moonshot’ programs are being revamped as tools to assist during the pandemic.). My students are working on a COVID-19 Report, analyzing data (and thereby understanding spreadsheets) formatting the document in real-time with me during our Wednesday Google Meet calls. This requires me to have to generate PDFs and data sets on the fly, when my online explanations fall flat. Just because we all have mics and cameras don’t solve the problem of not being face-to-face.

Online education is a lonely endeavor. You get to sense it after a few weeks of not hearing voices down the hallway, not being in an unplanned meet-up over a paper-jam in the teacher’s lounge, not being asked to fix a colleagues overhead projector, and thereby seeing something on his wall that gives you an idea for next week’s lesson plan, not being at the daily school assembly and hearing something about the volleyball team that makes your heart soar.  Facebook and Instagram (in my book, Fakebook and Instabrag) can only give you so much.

My school is trying to fill the gaps. We still continue with our Benjamin Franklin Semper Sursum awards. Our weekly conference calls are lively and inspiring. I still visit the school parking lot now and then to meet a colleague and purchase free-range eggs from her farm. My wife and I one day took a long walk and made an unannounced home visit to one of her students, at whose home we dropped off some curry leaves. We both call our students’ parents, and keep fine-tuning our teaching methods to suit the moment.

On a separate note, I am also following an online class at the University of Phoenix. Being a student and a teacher at different times of the day is odd. But everything’s out of whack, and this is, to use a tired phrase, our new normal. We will survive!

Could Maker Spaces help with urgent hospital equipment?

When Maker Spaces became popular, the idea was to help average people improvise technology with simple material. Where are the Maker Spaces now?

The good news, is they have taken the challenge, as you can see here.  From face shields to cloth masks, and even automated ventilators. These specs are for a face shield using a 3D printed visor. (From Columbia University librarians.) But I would imagine that off-the-shelf plexi-glass would do. The University of Arizona  Dept of Health Science has a similar project.

Could you help? Why not start with making cloth face masks for the family, and neighbors? The patterns are here as PDF downloads. The Center for Disease Control also has a step-by-step tutorial.

Looking ahead, I hope one of the lessons from Covid-19 and the new normal would include the ability to rapidly mobilize citizens to come to the aid of over stressed hospital systems. While we are all isolating, at least we could keep our hands busy.

Meanwhile, mask brokers and fraudulent middlemen have been trying to capitalize on the lack of preparedness.

Bend the Curve

Do the math,
Bend the Curve,
Keep your distance,
Don’t lose your nerve.

Read a book,
Cover your noses,
Write a letter,
Smell the roses.

Follow your heart,
Not the herd,
Help a stranger,
Spread the word.

Enjoy the pause
It’s not so bad,
Don’t complain,
Or instabrag.

The curve will flatten
Trust in prayer.
Precious times
Like this are rare.

What’s the definition of a pandemic?

To understand pandemics, the one that puts matters in context is the Spanish flu of 1918. It was caused by the H1N1 virus which had an avian origin.

A pandemic is obviously a global outbreak.  It is due to a virus that is “easily and spread from person to person in an efficient and sustained way,” according to The Center for Disease Control. How easily spread? During the Spanish flu, nearly one-third of the world population between 1918 and 1919 was infected by H1N1. (An epidemic, by contrast is not global, but also spreads fast. The 2013 Ebola epidemic in Western Africa which killed about 11,000 people.)

The panic caused by a pandemic is the result of a lack of information, leadership, and a slow response. In the 2009 pandemic (the H1N1 ‘flu), it took 26 weeks for a vaccine to become available. Not too long ago, Bill Gates warned about our need for preparedness for a pandemic. As we get to grips with the gravity of COVID-19 and pandemic we are living in, it’s worth watching his TED Talk on this.

The business model of social media is affirmation, not information!

Disturbing revelation from tech insider, Tristan Harris. More unsettling for anyone who assumes the apps we use are benign. Or that mental health issues have nothing to do with screen addiction.

Please watch this video and share it with someone. 

Tristan Harris is the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. The Center has practical steps to counter the effects – at a policy level, and in our daily lives.  Of course no one wants to hear this. Everyone should.

He believes that in this attention economy the apps and the devices are not just messing with our brains. They are hijacking our behavior and how our society works. How do we get the message out to our children, and the schools? How do we model for them that there is a different way to communicate and interact?

Or is it too late to step back, as Macbeth said of his predicament:

“I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”