John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler.
He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About .

My son came up with a new game called Whiffle Tennis Golf. It's not the most creative name, but it turns out to be addictive. The point of the game is to hit a whiffle ball into various containers strategically placed in different locations in the yard. The rules basically follow golf, but require each competitor to hit the whiffle ball with the tennis racket.

I'm tempted to use this game as a team-building exercise at school. I think it has advantages that other games don't. It's athletic, but not too athletic. It could easily allow for teams (with combined scores) and individuals, meaning strong players in each group wouldn't necessarily lash out at the weaker players. Plus, it would work well with the inclusion of a scavenger hunt that requires problem-solving.

I used to hate the idea of team-building. To me, it felt like a waste of academic time. It didn't help that most of my childhood experiences with team-building games were things like dodge ball, where a team of stronger, cooler kids would build a team by crushing me.

However, I now see a real value in doing team-building exercises. I think there are a few things that have to be true in order to make them work:

  • Mixed-level grouping
  • A combination of academic and physical skills
  • Integration of problem-solving
  • A chance to build trust through cooperation

This is still an area of teaching where I'm outside of my comfort zone. My ideal team-building exercise would be a series of blog posts or a debate. However, I have grown to realize that there are things we can learn about one another by playing together. We learn about how folks handle pressure and disappointment.  We learn about cooperation. We get a chance to read one another's body language. There is something powerful about communities that are build upon problem-solving and fun. It's not a bad way to start off a new year.

I've Grown to Love Team-Building

I've noticed a trend toward educating students on the notion of a permanent digital footprint. Often, this leads to a conversation about personal branding. Do this and don't do that. Craft this image to make yourself look great for an employer. Don't get caught saying or doing anything dumb at sixteen.

These conversations are often tied to a series of events where a kid acted immature online and felt the full wrath of a zero tolerance adult world as a result. That girl holding a drink at a party becomes the future employee that no one wants to hire. That boy that insulted another boy online becomes the workplace bully that nobody wants to hire.

This bothers me for a few reasons.

First, I'm bothered by the message that we are supposed to be putting a brand out to the world instead of acting like ourselves in social spaces. For all the talk of authentic learning, I find it odd that many educators are essentially asking kids to be anything but authentic in digital spaces.

Often this message, crafted in fear, actually backfires. It becomes the "Just Say No" phenomenon. Kids have become desensitized to the fear mongering of adults, because they've seen how rare the worst case scenarios actually are. Suddenly, that post about getting blazed no longer seems like a potential danger.

I'm also bothered that the conversation is almost always about what kids should do to fix their digital footprint rather than asking if maybe adults are overreacting a bit. The digital footprint conversation often sends the message that kids can't mess up, act immature and grow into adulthood. I find it really disturbing given the reality that so many of us did stupid things in our youth.

The conversation almost never veers into the question of whether or not corporations should be allowed to pry into the private life going all the way back to youth. Is that really the kind of power we want to grant corporations? If so, I fear that we're heading into a dangerous place of plutocracy in the social sphere.

I would rather see the conversations include questions like:

  • Who do you want to be online?
  • What ethics guide your interactions? 
  • How will you approach power structures in online spaces? 

photo credit: blakespot via photopin cc

What We're Missing with Digital Footprint

paintings from Micah and me

My daughter is four and a half and already she's decided what she wants to be when she grows up.

"I want to be an artist, ballerina, robot designer."

She's not specific at this point. I'm not sure if she's planning to design robots that do art and ballet or if she wants to be a dancer, an artist and an engineer.

The truth is it doesn't matter. She's four. She has fifteen to twenty years to figure out what she wants to do when she grows up. Still, I think her answer has a general theme. She wants to make things. I'm not surprised. We've spent the summer making things. Just a few hours ago, our kitchen counter was covered with paint and cardboard. We've made home-made pinball machines and cars for stuffed animals (the fictional kind and not the taxidermist kind) and painted papers that we've taped on the wall.

And never once did we ask if it was making us college or career ready.

I contrast this to the articles I read about STEM (or STEAM -- which, at that point, I would abbreviate as MEATS) in primary grades. They are so often written with this serious tone about global competition in math and science. Even the articles about the maker movement seem to push the idea that all of this making comes out of a very utilitarian need to raise the next generation of engineers.

But how about this for a motive? We make stuff because it's fun to do. Whether it's a painting or a story or a semi-functional pinball machine, there's a deeply human joy in making something new.

The Motive for Making