Resource- Crowdsourcing Invention Literacy at #SXSWedu

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It’s time for the final reflection post from SXSWedu! Here is a link to the first post on sharing mistakes and failing forward, and the second post on the importance of exploring materials. 

Invention Literacy Core Convo

Invention Literacy

If you have never been to a core conversation at SXSWedu, it’s a unique experience in a conference setting where educators sit Socratic seminar style and the presenters ask the audience questions. In this post, I’m including our questions and the audience responses. In the instance where I could decipher who said the quote in the recording, I put the name of the audience member. See full set of questions with embedded resources here. (Since the presentation is made in Adobe Spark, it is best viewed on a computer.)

Ques and Ideas from the Invention Literacy Core Convo

Defining Invention Literacy – How would you define it?

  • “Helping students understand how to create things or bring things into being.” Sam Patterson
  • “The ability to look at existing objects and realize they are brought into being too.”
  • “You have a set of skills that allow you to think about problems differently.”
  • “Tools- That enable students to approach something and being able to create.”
  • “Ideas can be thought of as tools. When should we think about ideas as tools vs truth? ” – Jay Silver

Why is Invention Literacy Important?

  • “What idea can I put out into the world as a stepping stone that is graspable? So that we will have a fabric of independent thinkers that form their own world view? So they can think of beautiful things or work together as humanity?” – Jay Silver
  • “Because it’s fun and it’s engaging.”
  • “To create independence. To create the ability for them (our students) to not rely on just one thing.”
  • “Great chance for learning how to fail and stick-to -it-ive ness” – Leah Mann
  • “To introduce them to uncertainty. And teach students that they can figure out how to do things. You can just think about what’s in front of you and come up with a solution.” – Sam Patterson
  • “How do we keep our students from losing their sense of wonder as they grow older?”- Me
  • “Kids are naturally inquisitive and we need to harness that. Allowing them to make and create, gives them the forum to answer their own questions and not rely on other people. ” – 1st grade teacher
  • “Kids can ask their own questions and find their own answers.” – 1st grade teacher (Develop agency in our students at a YOUNG AGE!)
  • “It’s empowering!”

What is the most important thing on your mind right now about education?

At one point, Jay asked everyone in the room to voice “The most important thing on your mind right now about education?” Then he scanned the room and gave every audience member a chance to voice their thoughts.

  • Critical Thinking*
  • Agency*
  • Empathy*
  • Fostering Creativity*
  • Self Directed Learning*
  • Problem-Solving
  • Following own Interests
  • Joy
  • Relationships
  • Challenging
  • Ownership
  • Empowerment
  • Learning Through Failure
  • Student Voice
  • Equity

*Top Five Most Mentioned

You can’t hear this in the sound recording, but you can watch this vocal chorus about 12:00 in on the video below:

How/ When Should We Introduce this Concept of Invention Literacy?

  • “In some schools, the staff want it to be after school, but how is this equitable for all students?” – Steven Muniz
  • “It should be offered during different times during the school day and embedded in the curriculum because the “one size fits all” method doesn’t work for our students”- Leah Mann
  • “It has to be intentional, but teachers feel like they have to have ‘something come out.’ Instead, teachers have to re-think what they do and that might make some of our teachers uncomfortable. Even so, it should be seen as interwoven into our curriculum. (Other things do not have to go.)”
  • “It is critical that we see it as a key component of the curriculum, but if we only do it after school or as a special, then our kids see it as a nice thing, but not an essential thing. We have to make time for it and our kids need to see it as intentional and part of the critical work that we do. It’s not at the expense of the other things we do, this ties into everything and it’s the connecting piece.”
  • “We put a lot of energy into creating fake problems. Why not use real problems?”

“How Do We Build Fluency for Invention Literacy?”

Invention Literacy Core Convo (8)

  • “Just because you’re learning to write, doesn’t mean you are going to be a writer. You don’t have to be an inventor, but do we need to be able to deconstruct and reconstruct our world?” – Jay Silver
  • “Is literacy actually finding out about what we don’t know?” – Jeff Branson
  • “Is there an invention literature? Can we read it? Can we discuss it? Can we view it? Enjoy it? Can we modify it? Will a culture grow up around inventiveness and the human made world and the definition of what is possible? In that culture, is it cool/ playable to invent?” – Jay Silver (listen to this on the recording about 30 min in.)

What/ Where is Invention Land? What is a feature of Invention Land?

Jay’s question here references Papert’s address to Congress where he ask Congress, “If you have 90% of people coming out of French classes, not really speaking French, do you say, ‘Maybe those people don’t have a mind for French? It’s not our fault.’ But then if you take those kids and you grow them up in France, they’ll all be able to speak French. So in a math class if only 10% of them feel like they are a math person, or is there a place? Like math land? Where we can grow them up to be mathematicians?”

Invention Literacy Core Convo (2)

  • “You’d have to have the mindsets and tools be just as important as the tools for reading, math, etc.”
  • “If we grow these habits of mind when they are young, kids can carry them on to middle school and high school.”
  • “There would need to be a need for it. You learn French in France because you need it to survive. Right now, they need English just to pass a course. There needs to be an authentic need for invention for it to catch on.”
  • “Invention land means there is a time built in, and there is support from admin and leadership where teachers can be inventors too and they get a chance to explore, play, and learn. Because they need to be comfortable with setting up the environment where students can flourish.” -Leah Mann
  • “There is a culture that needs to be passed on. I run workshops the same for teachers as I do for students. They need to experience the fun.” – Jay Silver
  • “In Inventionland students will all say ‘Yes and’ instead of the word ‘but’ so it will allow for the continuation of an idea rather than the stopping of an idea.”
  • “Teachers need to be allowed to play and learn and do these things in Invention Land so they will be inspired to allow students to do these things as well. Teachers have to be learners first.”
  • “The stuff our kids make, does not have to be stuff that they sell. Every kid does not have to grow up to be an inventor, but they can still learn the literacy of invention.” – Me
  • “You need the environment where it is safe to fail even at the upper admin level.”
  • “You have a conversation with materials, and the people around you.” – Jay Silver
  • “There is no magic path to invention. Just like there isn’t a magic path to writing.” – Me

If you’d like, you can actually listen to the whole core convo below: (However, since some participants did not use the microphone, you will not be able to hear them responding and will have a few minutes silence dispersed throughout the recording.)

Slides and Resources from our talk are available here.

The World Needs More Inventors

Another great session that discusses the importance of invention literacy and creative constraints was The World Needs More Inventors, Starting with Kids (Unfortunately I missed the session in person, but thanks to SXSWedu and Soundcloud, I was able to listen to it later. And you can too below!)

Let Kids Learn the Way They Want to Learn – No Judgment

One of the most astounding a-ha moments I had listening to this session was when Emily Pilloton asked, What is the balance between constraints and freedom? Are you giving them a kit, or are you saying go invent something?” (This conversation starts about 35 min in on the recording.)

Danielle Applestone responded: “It depends on if there is judgement involved. Are we judging kids who want to do kits? Or people who need a little more guide rails? Are we measuring results? I oppose judgment. It’s fine for people to say, I’d like to work on this thing, can you help me? Do we give people constraints or total freedom? Sometimes people need constraints because the world is infinite and I can’t picture all the possibilities. So some constraints are good to get started, but if someone is rolling? Just let them roll. The more you can stand back and say, ‘They’ll come to me if they need something.’ That’s more important than following LEGO instructions (but that is also a satisfying exploration in its own way.)”

Liam Nilson: “It’s like the infinite library paradox. If there is an infinite amount of different books to read, how would you decide what to read? Unless you are super invention literate to start with, it’s hard to look at your whole makerspace supply shelf and know where to start. Especially if there is some hidden judgment there….. Sometimes constraints can be interesting too. If you are doing something with a group, and say you want them to make houses of cardboard and you can’t use tape or glue. Then kids will work together to find interesting solutions to get around those constraints. Conversely, if they are going to get an F if they help their friend, then you won’t see them exchange those kinds of ideas.”

Emily Pilloton: “I appreciate when things feel so constrained, you have to wriggle your way out….I give my students this specific set of guidelines, so that inevitably they find ways to try and break those rules…I want to set up conditions where they (my students) are negotiating what rules are breakable and what rules aren’t…. Constraints can actually open the door to immense freedom.” (You should listen to this full anecdote about 40 min in.)

Personally, I appreciate this open and honest conversation about a grey area of making. And I think one of the most important points in this conversation is that we as positive educators should not be passing judgement on others. If a student wants to follow LEGO instructions, let them. If they want to explore materials and never make a final product, let them. To refer back to my last reflection, as Patrick Benfield says, “All making is valid.” That’s why it is important we continue to have these conversations with other educators.

Here are some of my other favorite quotes from this session!

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Project- Light Up Poetry with Chibitronics “Love to Code” Arduino Board


Programming Goodies!

About two months ago, I was honored to get to receive a prototype of a “Love to Code” Arduino board that Jie Qi and Chibitronics are currently working on. (If you don’t know how much I love paper circuits and Chibitronics, then read this post before going any further.)

The first thing I had to try was to hack my own disco paper circuit from our Big Book of Makerspace Projects and get my disco dancing on it’s own!

Computational Tinkering

I LOVE how easy it is to map out a circuit and then clip this “Love to Code” board to the circuitry. I decided to try out an RGB LED and do a little computational tinkering to see how different sets of code would effect the blink.

It was so simple to dream up an idea and map it out with copper tape, that I began to get way too complicated in my design ideas. I had a few failures, so I started chatting with other makers about design ideas and brainstorming more ways to use this new technology. Suddenly I had it, I’d seen lots of black out poetry, but what about using lights to “light up” poetry?  I spoke with Josh Burker about tweaking this fun poetry idea and he made a super cool project with lights and poetry.

See Josh’s light up poem here.

Light Up Poetry

I’ve been dreaming up multiple ideas for what I wanted my own light up poetry to look like, and I kept coming back to one of my favorite poems by e.e. cummings: “l(a” I absolutely adore this poem and how the words themselves look like a leaf falling, so I knew I had to make this poem as if the words were animated and portrayed the loneliness of a leaf as it falls to the ground. I wanted each stanza to light up separately and give the viewer some time to think and experience the words as the falling leaf. Initially, I wanted to have the circuit on the clipboard, then have a sheet with the poem and put a semi-transparent gold paper with leaf drawings on top. I made my circuit, practiced drawing leaves, and tested out the light.  Plus, I decided to incorporate my battery holder from sewing circuit club.


When I started testing out my ideas, I found that the words would barely show through when I layered multiple papers. But I still really still only wanted leaves on the top layer and the words to not be visible until the light shined on them. I kept trying different types of paper and printing the poem darker…. it wasn’t working, but I didn’t want to give up on my idea.

I ended up making the poem into an image, flipping it and printing it so that the words were printed in reverse (or mirror image) on the back side of the paper. I mapped out a new circuit and hot-glued together a cardboard frame so the light would be able to diffuse a bit before lighting up each word on the top paper.


My reversal trick worked, but I still wanted to harness the light from those little LEDs. So I made some foil leaves to aid in reflection, poked holes for the LEDs to shine through, and covered the bottom of the foil with scotch tape to insulate my copper tape traces and prevent short circuits. (And I ended up adding more LEDs to the template above)



The pieces fit together and now the light gives off a magical glow of a hidden leaf under the drawing.
I hacked a simple fade code on my phone to light up each stanza and then light the first and last stanza together so readers would see the word “loneliness.” I’m pretty happy with the result! See below:

I have more ideas about lighting up poetry that I want to try soon, and I hope this tinkering will convince students (or teachers!) to play around with literacy in this way.

Coding and Paper Circuits

One of the things I really love about Arduino (versus something like Raspberry Pi) is the hands on aspect. But all the wires and breadboarding can be confusing when you are totally new to this type of making. I remember when I was hooking up my first Arduino project and I thought I had to match all the wires to the correct numbers on the breadboard so that it would look exactly like the diagram. I had no concept of what I was doing electronic-wise. I knew I had to hook wires from the Arduino to the bread board to the components, but I don’t think I really understood how any of it worked.
And I think that’s why I now prefer sewing circuits. Once I started sewing my circuits and programming and controlling components with e-textile boards like Lilypad, Flora, and Gemma, I actually started to understand how the wiring and coding was controlling the project. 
All of the coding and wiring made so much more sense when I had hands on experience with the components. That’s why I often suggest teaching students paper circuits before sewing circuits, and before programming with Arduino. I think these skills build on one another and students will need a solid foundation to understand how circuits work so they can pull those components off of breadboards and put them into projects.
I’m stoked about Jie’s new board because I think it will make it even easier for you or your students to understand how the microcontroller is working and I think laying out copper tape traces will make your learning visible.