All posts by Brian Cleary

The Language of Young Makers in Action.


We spent the first two weeks of this month bouncing between 4th-grade groups building Rube Goldberg machines and Kindergarten classes crafting balloon-powered cars.  There are striking similarities in these groups, especially for a teacher but the one that struck me the most this month was listening to the language of creation. The words the kids used as they navigated the cycles of success and frustration that is making.

We know words and language matter. We know that the phrases we adopt are a reflection, both intentional and subconsciously, of who we are and want to be. Even to an inarticulate 5-year-old, words have nuance and innuendo, and whether we like it or not the words used within our sphere have an impact on both our actions and our mood.

The language in a kinder class is usually carefully crafted, modeled by experts that know, that to the young ears around them a job has a sense of ownership and work does not. But in a maker setting, the talk is coming from the kids more than the adults. It is not careful or expert.

The language of a 10-year-old is more complex of course, but it is built on the same structure. So, I wondered, what does making sound like across a 5 year span?

Below is a representative sample of what I heard:

“How do you do this?”

We gonna need mas tape?

“Do you wanna start here?

Okay, you do the tape and I get to put on the wheels.

Dude, Dude dude, Test it and see how far off the ramp…

Da wheel won’t turn and I think we gotta make it turn to work.

Hey guys, what if we…

How cum dos guys got blue tape?

You’re not even listening to…

Did you have a way to…

What can we use to…

How come that didn’t work?

What if we make that go faster?

Hey, how did you do that?

Look look the tape is sticking to my eyeball.

The language of maker education is full of questions.  Divergent questions, evaluative questions, reflective questions and certainly rhetorical questions as well. The bulk of the conversations I listened in on, over the last two weeks were dominated by the self-perpetuation of engaged curiosity.

I didn’t think to keep a tally at the time, but I would guess roughly half conversations I heard and more of the questions themselves where simply students thinking out loud. (More of that self-talk in the kinder classes certainly.) As an old classroom teacher, I only knew a student was thinking during class after I read their paper over the weekend. Now, that thinking is heard the chatter of the room. It offers me auditory verification of engagement and agency. It also serves as a reminder that most of the time, for most of us, thinking is integrated with doing.

-I imagine Rodin’s Thinker would have solved his problem by now if he would just get up and do something.2009-04-08

As I was tracking as many conversations as I could in busy classrooms of bustling kids, that continually interrupted my note taking with questions, I kept thinking back to all those quoted stats about how much curiosity and questioning die when children get into school.

I have been teaching too long to doubt the validity of those statistics whatever the numbers are, but I also have little doubt that the data did not come from classes that were busy building stuff.


A Two Week Celebration of Story

The last two weeks have been the Carnevale celebration of two uniquely human attributes working in concert to expand our perception and imagination. A street party celebration of how to share a good story

The Caldecott, The Newbery, The Oscars, The Printz, The Odyssey, and The Geisel, awards and/or nominations all came out in the last couple of weeks. This is the sweet spot in the calendar year when the variety, power, and artistry of story and the diversity, ingenuity, and innovation of making join forces in an epic display of human-ness. Our species can be relied upon to do two things. We tell stories and we make stuff.

These cold and gloomy days of January and February must have been designed specifically for us humans to curl up and share a story.  The 21-century was built to be a petri dish in which we play with the forms and technics that make that sharing those stories more possible and powerful.

Every year I use the list of Oscar nomination animated short to talk to students about inferences and power of imagery in reading, this year’s offerings do not disappoint.

I use the Odyssey winner and nominees to introduce the element of voice, dialogue and the power of the spoken word.

Stories have always been a fundamental part of how we teach not in small part because they are one of the primary ways our brains process information and find meaning, but only in the last century have we had more than one, maybe two forms offered to us. Today I can think of eight different story formats that are readily available to our students.

As powerful and wonderful and just plain fun as the idea of all those story forms is. It is even more powerful, wonderful and fun to know that our students both the access and the tools to copy, enhance or create and share their own story forms.

Some examples of story forms you and your students may want to take advantage of:



  • Create an Audio story—
    • This requires a Chromebook
    • 20180126_133847
  • Create an Audio story with sound effects –
    • This requires a Chromebook And a tab open to
    • 20180126_133931
  • Stop motion –
    • This requires a bunch of time and a Chromebook
    • digicamp2015_stopmotion101_featured
  • Shadow puppets –
    • Stick puppets are for babies unless you put them behind a screen then you get shadow puppets, which are super cool.
    • pink panther shadow puppets (c) andre musta_411x308
  • 5 Picture Stories— Also called 5 frame stories
    • This is great for story sequence lessons
    • freeze-frame-assignment-21



Unstymied by 21st-Century Writing

Sitting in a PLC, the team and I were stuck between complaining and planning for a new writing unit. As recent recipients of one to one Chrome Books the push was on to modernize, personalize, and digitize our lessons. Something the creators of our writing curriculum had not considered.  We were genuinely stymied.

I should start with a couple confessions, as it is fundamental to the story that you understand them from the outset.

  • I am the unapologetically proud owner of a 20th-century mind.
    • I think better with paper and pencil than a tablet and stylus,
    • My thumbs are not built to type on a keyboard the size of my palm.
    • In my heart, I know that real books are made of paper.
    • I am the unapologetically proud teacher of 21st-century learners.
  • My job is to prepare them for tomorrow, for a digital world where paperclips are more of an icon than an actual piece of wire.
    • Writing has pivoted into a craft that often hidden to my old brain.

To un-stymie myself and understand how to give my students the skills they need to thrive in a world where writing is as amorphous as the digital formats on which it appears, I needed to find a way to remodel and update the classic structure of my thinking. So I went to the tenants of evidence-based practices for teaching writing, the research backed work that articulates what kids need to know to write well. In the most basic terms, these are the most commonly agreed upon foundations of what makes good writing instruction.

The practices look and read as though they may have been pinned in the 19th-century. Like classic riffs form Elvis or quotes from F. Scott Fitzgerald, they hold up well but do seem dated.

Then I ventured into the wilds of the World Wide Web to untangle the puzzle before me. One does not really get un-stymied in a web search so much as you become misdirected and mislead by simple answers to complex questions.

The solutions suggested by the internet are more flash than impact.  Clever algorithms that would check student grammar but without context or explanation, Apps that would help students brainstorm or graphically organize their thoughts in pretty ways.

Beyond the flash and dazzle of internet marketing:

  • The power of peer editing a document in Google Docs is a stand-alone game changer. Real-time, and anytime comments, a track-able history of who has written what and the just ability to point students to resources with a quick link has changed classroom group work from a slow methodical drudgery into an active debate.

It turns out what digitization and technology offer young writers is an audience that cares about whatever my students care about.  Good, even great 21st-century writing is hidden all over the web like trees within a vast forest.

YouTube scripts,


Fan fiction,

Blog posts,

Even the comment chains and Facebook posts.

The fundamental difference, if not the only difference between these and the assignment we have used for eons is the audience. Having an audience increases engagement, engagement increase effort and effort increase success.

21st-century writing comes in different forms that need to be explored and individually weighed for their value, but there is an abundance of value there.


My Year of Teaching Dangerously …so far.

I am roughly halfway through what I have taken to calling “my year of teaching dangerously”. teaching dangerouslyGranted teaching is not generally thought of as a dangerous job.  We are more the protective empathetic group. We are not thought of as professional risk- taker, as much as we are professional supporters. Educators are more about tested and proven than we are cutting edgy and experimental. However, this year I have been trying the edgy by having students own the learning and experimenting by letting them make the decisions. Adding to that danger factor, I do not do any of this in my own classroom.

I gave up the structured security of instructional coaching, in a school I knew, with teachers I respected and administrators I admired to try to kick-start a maker-learning program throughout our district.

The path of my quest to enhance the learning in our corner of the world has changed, stumbled, developed, stalled, and sprouted. Over the last 6 months so it feels like a good time to step back and get some perspective.94001

There is a weight to this year of teaching dangerously. When I succeed in building good lessons loaded with student agency both teachers and students get excited by the work being done as well as the possibilities implied. When I flop, it is done openly and honestly with sheepish smiles and input from everyone but not generally with an invitation to return.

  • I have always thought of myself as a learner, but My year of teaching dangerously has turned me into a student again.
  • I spend my school hours swinging like a pendulum between wanting to be given the answer and wanting to find it on my own.
  • I am frequently mired down in uncertainty and doubt.
  • I have had asked more questions since September than I can count.
  • I have had to learn the dull and dry material to make the most of the cool stuff I really want to learn, and I have had moments of inspiration and ones fell flat.
  • I want to be learning about the things that matter to me but I am willing and able to put in the effort to make the connections between what I need and what I want. I want to try ideas out, even if it is just to see how it fails.
  •  hate the deadlines and pressure and justifications that feel arbitrary and shallow, but I admit that, at least to some extent, they have kept me on task and vigilant.

In the last six months, I have done some of the best teaching of my career.1c4c31ef4ebd28cc050b6cb8506c216d

Because of that single fact alone, I would have to say that my year of teaching dangerously is going well. I would like more clarity on the future of this quest, and more feedback from those that make choices. Although I know that most students have anxiety about the future and crave meaningful feedback so perhaps wonderings are a natural consequence being a learner.



Making Adds Meaning to Everything



Two weeks ago, we took down all the Christmas stuff in our house. This weekend I finally finished putting all the bins, bundles and boxes into their respective closets and crawl spaces. As I was hunched over feeling my age it occurred to me that a huge part of our collected Christmas is homemade by family, or kid made at school or handmade and bought while traveling.

It should be noted that this is in no way a mark of quality, especially regarding that second category.

The reason that we puzzle together storage space every year for these personally designed popsicle pine trees and macaroni snowmen is that the simple act of building elicited a sense of ownership and individual connection. The artifact becomes a marker of the maker.IMG_7197

Even on a subconscious level, on topics that are not important or real, the idea that something was crafted with individual intent adds value.  Making is an individual effort that humans admire.

The importance and the power of making are quickly building its way back into prominence in education. It is an integral part of personalization and project-based learning. But more importantly, the impact of maker based learning works because making adds meaning.

Looking beyond the sentimental value, past the inherently personalized learning that making adds to classroom work, there is great research to support these ideas. Harvard’s Project Zero, MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten, and Stanford’s D-School have all dug into the Maker education and are pushing it with real enthusiasm.

If you still need the kind of evidence that only happens in your own classroom just wait a couple weeks.  By then your students will be prepping for Valentine’s day. After the dust settles, look at the pile valentines on your desk.  Which ones hold the most value for you?


Innovative Math in 3 Acts


Last week I had the pleasure of working with an awesome group of fifth graders over at BBC. Their equally awesome teacher had contacted me on the rumor that I had a plan for a class to develop and film their own 3 Act Tasks. In truth, I only had about 5/8 of a plan but as I was also the one that started that rumor, so I was eager to close the deal.

The idea of 3 Act Tasks comes from Dan Meyer a math teacher/guru and blogger out of Oakland. In Three-Act Tasks, students are shown an image or video that depicts an interesting situation. Examples of elementary tasks might include an image of two sisters standing side-by-side, one taller than the other, or a video of candy being poured into a jar. A good task will suggest some mathematical features or relationships that children may wonder about. After viewing the image or video, students are engaged in asking mathematical questions, identifying important information that is needed to answer those questions, constructing mathematical models of the situation, and comparing their models to the real world.

(Dan Meyers collection   Graham Fletchers collection)

The activities are real world, engaging and require deep inquiry.  They are also beautifully simple in structure. Three short video clips, and a couple leading questions. Reasoning that if deep thinking is required for an outcome then equally deep contemplation must be needed for the creation we set up the perimeters with the class.

  • We used “old math,” concepts at least a grade level below their current work.
  • Teams of 4 or 5
  • A cast of hands and arms (No head or face shots in the video.)

The class had already seen several 3 Act Tasks in their daily grind but we watched a couple more with different eyes. This time looking for how they were laid out, trying to figure out what was enough info to raise questions without doing the work for the learners. As this was our first outing we looked for ways to mimic patterns without stealing ideas.

It was tricky keeping the groups centered on a single task. The temptation to create a 3 tasks was a common distraction. The realization that the work required both a problem and an answer was a bit of a disappointment to some.

The results:

For three days a group of 5th-grade students as varied and diverse as any in our district were actively engaged in understanding and explaining real-world math problems. (some of which involve candy)

The class was exposed to a new way of approaching any task by asking themselves not only what math is being asked of them but also the whys and hows of the request.

We all learned about the magic of video editing, and that first attempts are best designed to be explorations not a nominee for best educational short.

We will work on that nomination next time.


Making it in Education


Making it in elementary

It seems as though every couple of years a popular fad from outside academia leaches into the walls of education looking for a permanent home. Most recently, the DIY movement has tried to carve out a niche in the school halls branded as Makerspaces.

There is usually something of value offered in these new approaches and other elements that must be discarded to accommodate the differences between classrooms and the “real world.”

Makerspaces in the real world are a response to our visceral desire to tinker, craft, build, and create. It is of great value to recognize that desire in students and use its motivational power.

Makerspaces in the real world are also unrestricted by agenda or purpose or timelines. Classrooms are not. However, what making and the maker idea offers education is a built-in source of student agency. When the kids make something–anything–there is a sense of ownership inherent in that process.

The distinction that needs to come with that idea for teachers is that writing a narrative essay on a small moment you had over the weekend is not a ‘make’ in the same way that a Bob Ross painting-by-number is not art. On the other hand, asking a student to find a way to deliver a short, true story–and maybe a kid does it in the form of an essay–about their weekend is.

That change means teachers will have to provide options–audio books, graphic novels, video monologues, or blog posts–to the kids and help them work through writing that will necessarily precede the other parts.

That change will also mean the student has to make choices, learn individually, and still meet a clear standard.  

That change does not mean teachers have to master all those options.  It means they get to help their students explore them, try them, and learn from them.



Quit in exactly 300 words


As teachers, we talk a lot about developing grit, and teaching kids to fail, building stamina and rigor. Each of those qualities is important and each of them deserves more than 300 words of deep contemplation and conversation. Yet there is a hidden complexity for teachers that is related to all of those topics.  Quitting.

The truth is sometimes the smart thing to do is quit, and being able to figure out the when and how of quitting becomes more difficult as we get older.

I am not talking about giving up, but rather stopping an action that is unsuccessful and trying something else.

I am thinking of the second grader doing math on her fingers because she knows it works but is flummoxed by the need for more fingers.  It is endearing but, she needs to quit that to move on.

I am thinking of the fifth or sixth grader with friends he doesn’t really like and are not good for him, but, It’s not cool to dump a friend you have had for (enter almost any time frame here.)

I am thinking of the college kid taking classes to become an accountant even though she thinks its “super boring and just chose it to answer the what do you want to be?” question.

If you are over the age of 5 you can think of something you should have quit long before you did; a job, a relationship, or a bad idea you chased too long. If you are like me, you can think of something you should be quitting now.

On the Social-emotional flowchart, quitting is the action right between recognizing a mistake and learning from it.

Quitting can be a brave act. It can be as empowering and healthy a choice as rigor or grit.



In 2018 I resolve: An Essay in 300 words

screen-shot-2013-12-29-at-11-17-51-pmEvery January I am reminded, like clockwork exactly how much of a dork I am. I am a man that makes resolutions. I do every year. I am proud of it and no matter how much grief I get from my kids for it I will continue my customary drive to improve.

My daughter will tell you that my “resolution obsession is rooted in my unnatural love of failure.”

Not true! My love of failure is mostly natural.

My son will quickly volunteer his own insight “Your whole resolution issue is stupid, hokey, and lame, as well as a bit sad.” While he is mostly completely wrong about resolutions it is true that I embody 2 of those four qualities.

I found research in the journal of clinical psych that says that I only have a 14% chance of success, but that is because I turned 50. When I was grouped in the under 50 category and we had a 39% success rate. (Getting old stinks) But the way I think about it is not statistical. I figure I have a chance to be a better person than I was last year. It won’t cost me anything, it won’t hurt me, and even if I only manage to be improved for a couple month I am still better off than I was before.

That research also shows that will be more successful if I make small measurable resolutions, and if I make those resolutions public. So here you go:
• I will write and publish exactly 300 words every week. (this is the first of those essays)
• I will use Twitter to contribute to worthwhile conversations and not as an echo chamber.
• I will continue my streak of “Stupid, hokey lame” traditions in an effort to continue to improve and grow.


The Special Effect of Sound in Kinder Writing


Last week we had the opportunity to work with the kindergarteners at Fishers Landing. While I am not one of those gifted with the native talents of a primary teacher, I have spent enough time with its inhabitants to be comfortable with the habits and fluent with most aspect of their communication.

Kinders are a highly intelligent group; they are strikingly honest, deeply empathetic, and shockingly self-focused. In fact, it is not uncommon to witness all of these behaviors within moments of each other and sometimes simultaneously.

We were working with the students to develop their skills and understanding of story form. To do that we were recording unique variations of The Gingerbread Man story, as told to us by the students, with sound effects of student-chosen characters added in editing. The concept is simple enough. The classes had already read a variety of gingerbread stories and the kids had identified the common elements, such as the gingerbread character meeting three different characters before meeting its untimely end. From there, it doesn’t take much work to convince a five-year-old to create their own story; and for a student of the digital age adding sound effects seems like something that has always been a part of good stories.

All that was left was for them to write their script, or create a storyboard if they liked that idea better. It was nothing complex, or even wholly complete in most cases, just something on paper that kept them on track during the telling, something that showed the order of events.

To watch this writers workshop was to bear witness to 21st-century alchemy. The subtle yet sloppy mixing of graphite, grim and… something strangely sticky yielded pure gold on several levels.

Academically, the students offered strong evidence of understanding story sequence, rhyming, the power of iterations and patterns. They talked about and demonstrated the use of tone, voice, and inflection at levels they won’t be asked to reproduce for another six years.

Socially, the students were excited, engaged, and eager to share. Jimmy, whose face bore evidence of at least one sticky substance, had a four-page story with only a couple letters but plenty of heavily lined images that did not do justice to the epic adventure of a gingerbread ninja that fought off howling wolves, growling bears, and a hissing snake only to be swallowed by an alligator.

Eva’s story didn’t have the illustrative quality or intensity of Jimmy’s, but it was eight pages long and Eva wrote and then read every word, and became quite critical of using the “right cat sound.” Still unsatisfied with my efforts after four attempts, she took pity on me.

“I don’t think you can do it so how ‘bout I just make the sound and say them where I want them.”

We recorded countless riffs and covers of the classic lines “run, run as fast as you can…” some in the sugary sweet voice of a cookie and other laid out like old school rap. The students also felt free to use an animal from well beyond the barnyard standards. The resident realist wanted the sound of joggers chasing a cookie, only to be followed by the next storyteller who needed the sounds of a unicorn, mermaids, and a shooting star.

(Link to just a couple of student audiobooks)

Make no mistake, the product quality was low, the background volume high, and the running time was inconsistent, ranging from 11 seconds to 3 and a half minutes. It took us most of the first class to adjust and configure the lesson into something that was going to work. But it did work.  The audio stories added authentic and real academic discussions between kindergarten students.

It takes a little prep but no more than most new lessons. has a huge collection of royalty free sounds you can download. lets you copy/paste any youtube video into its page and converts it into a ready-to-use mp3 file because, unfortunately, soundbible doesn’t have a unicorn or mermaid sound. Youtube does. A unicorn sounds like a running horse with magical twinkling in the background, in case you were curious.

Audacity is a free sound editing software already on most teachers’ devices. It’s not super user-friendly but easy enough if you stick to the cut and paste to start with.