I was privileged to be one of the three keynote speakers and debaters at the Southwest Virginia Leadership Conference, hosted by UVA Wise and the Higher Education Center in Abingdon, Virginia on October 21, 2016.
I was joined by my fellow Seditionist, Dr. L. Robert Furman, and by the Superintendent of Public Instruction for the Commonwealth of Virginia, Dr. Steven R. Staples.
Among our topics, we discussed and traded points on individualization, the troublesome nature (to say the least) of standardized multiple-choice testing, and the rising advent of developmentally-appropriate standards-based practices.
I was tremendously heartened by Dr. Staples’s progressive attitude toward performance-based assessment and both his willingness to entertain and indeed personal passion for using the newly-localized aspects of the Every Student Succeeds Act (the replacement for the tragically ill-conceived and colossally damning No Child Left Behind Act) to empower educators to wrest control of learning back from the standardized testing commercial complex. While, as a state official, he is bound by politics, and I am not, I anticipated a much more adversarial set of positions on the nature of assessment and pedagogy. I’ve rarely been so glad to be disappointed on this!
It’s my fervent hope that this debate continues, and that radical pedagogues like Rob and I can continue to push those in positions of leadership and political power to do the right thing for kids, not only in the Commonwealth of Virginia, but nation-wide.
My deep thanks to the teams at UVA Wise and the Higher Education Center and its consortium for making this event possible.
I speak here about a significant and substantive change in philosophy toward children, a need to shift our perspective. There are innumerable “but what abouts” that can be trotted out at any point in this conversation, but fortunately in blog form, I’m going to finish, and then you can comment and ask questions. I caution you, however, against reading this as something it is not. I am not saying “all school rules are bad.” I will not say “there are no instances in which an adult may need to counsel and guide a child.” I have not said there is no need to understand cause-effect or antecedent-consequent relationships when it comes to words and deeds. But let’s holster all that for a moment, because that isn’t what I’m talking about today. I’m talking about a philosophical distinction between being pro-child and being pro-school. So, we begin as we often do here: With me proclaiming.
I celebrate feral children.
The domestication of kids through institutional machinery is tragic, and those who seek to corral the natural child into cages are my enemies. Wildness is a natural and desirable characteristic of healthfully-developing kids and of the child learner, and we educators have, in my view, a significant responsibility to cultivate and promote that wildness.
Disenthralling children from the formalized, paternalistic, and too-often explicitly patriarchal “niceness” and “cleanliness” of traditional institutionalized schooling is mission-critical the radical pedagogue. It’s one thing to help children grow into kind people, but it’s quite another to force the kind onto our kinder.
Genuine freedom is addictive, and contagious, and the patriarchal system of coercion and possession – those chattel-minded objectifiers of children – is terrified of an epidemic of this freedom, but schools that practice genuine love of children are all about rolling around in the filthy mud of the natural child-state. There will be none of the broad-sweeping “kids must be” or “kids are” statements imposed on the young ones here, but it is an appropriate generality to say that by and large, kids are born to be wild. They must explore, test boundaries, challenge themselves and others, and engage in meaningful discovery as part of their natural development. These essential neurocognitive truths are second nature to real teachers, but remain occult to those who have lost their own children to their machine-allegiances, obscured by institutionalism and adult-oriented systems of comfort and insulation that allow them to disengage from wildness.
The murder of the creative, free, genuine child is more than a result of but is a direct goal of the systematized patriarchal school. I don’t choose this word callously: such dehumanization should absolutely be regarded with horror we instinctively reserve for the most brutal and shocking of crimes. But it happens with tremendous frequency, this eradication of the genuine child, ground to grist with which we’ll cook up “productive members of society,” a baneful and loathesome idea of what it means to be a grown-up. We talk about school, not children. We talk about classes, not children. We talk about delivery of instruction as a commodity not experiencing learning as a living, breathing activity. Defense of the institution over the people within the institution indicates (duh) institutionalized thinking, and if one awakens and pops up like a meerkat and looks around, one will see countless examples of this domesticating, this taming of the natural wild child.
Kids are messy. Complicated. Fascinated and fascinating. Bright and feeling and capable, children are naturally radiant in their untraumatized, unharmed, not-institutionalized states. They self-organize, and play with abandon, and demanding their silence, their stillness, is in so many cases an exercise in psychoemotional brutality. This is not to say there are not situations in which we can compassionately, lovingly instruct situations in which they will gain great social and interpersonal advantage in seeking stillness, but that is a very different matter than demanding obedience and compliance in systems that are not child-appropriate.
There is a marvelous book called Yardsticks by educator and human developmentalist Chip Wood that expertly outlines the typical neurological, psychological, physical child at each age level. Take these observable natural child states, and compare them with the things we ask of kids, the systems we impose upon them:
Four year olds visually focus on faraway things and are naturally clumsy, spilling and colliding, and often hold things with whole closed fists. They run, climb, dance spontaneously, and are unable to sit still for long periods of time. They are developing friend bonds, and are generally friendly, though they often prefer proximity to actual closeness. They are often fearful, and by now are having nightmares as part of their brain development, and so cry. They are extraordinarily talkative, experimenting with language and sound. They deeply need free play and exploration, and enjoy drama and stories, both performing and being performed to.
Eight year olds are tremendously energetic and need physical play. They are awkward, and this is developmentally appropriate. They are able to focus on both near and far objects well. Socialization and humor are part of their developing flexibility and adaptability, and form noticeably larger friend groups than even a year prior. They often gender-separate as they begin to develop an understanding of the gender continuum. Their language experimentation has expanded their vocabulary, and as such, they tend to like to explain things and tell stories, though their memories may not be of expansive capacity, so they have many ideas but often forget things. Their attention span is still significantly limited, as their brains leap from one thing to the next due to exponential neuron development rates, so while they are industrious, they are also impatient.
Twelve year olds need a tremendous amount of sleep as their physical frames grow at such a significant rate, as well as exercise and food intake. They tend to be physically active and experience discomfort as they experience a growth spurt, regardless of gender. Children with uteruses are generally showing signs of puberty, and most have begun menstruating. Accompanying these physical developments, adult-like personality traits begin to emerge even though the child is still a child. They are capable of significant self-awareness, insight, and interpersonal empathy. They are significantly more reasoning and reasonable, as well as more tolerant, than even a year prior. Healthy twelve year olds will shed inhibitions and experiment and risk more overtly, as they develop a sense of being and accompanying confidence. They also care more about their peers’ opinions than those of adults, including their parents, and will often self-initiate tasks and projects. Sarcasm and double entendre are understood by and interesting to these children, and their language experimentation yields slang and peer-specific jargon. They can abstract, and understand antagonistic or opposite perspectives.
Think about these typical profiles of feral children. Think about the things we do to, the things we demand of, kids of these ages. We tell four year olds to sit still and stop crying, despite the fact that they cannot and must not. We tell eight year olds to be quiet and pay attention and stop speaking in nonsense, despite the fact that they should be doing just that. And we tell twelve year olds that they’re just kids and just have to do what they’re told on one hand, despite the fact that they are rapidly developing significant cognitive capacity, and then tell them to grow up and act like adults on the other hand, despite the fact that they’re absolutely still children with complicated neural frameworks and social challenges.
I’m not interested in defense of these positions or rules that enforce them. Blaming or even crediting the institution for teaching failures is a form of erasure: Doing so inappropriately absolves adults – especially educators – of their personal responsibility for doing wrong to children, such as ghettoizing them, testing them homogeneously, misidentifying or misperceiving them, or causing them psychosocial harm by forcing them to comply with developmentally-unreasonable directives. Apologists for “do what I tell you to do” rule-maker mentalities defend themselves and their institutions for complicity in what is tantamount to violence against children.
Is such “adult as master, child as obedient slave” a form of sadism? An artifact of patriarchal, paternalistic chattel mentality? I cannot help but wonder if it is, if there is a predatory aspect to such vicious and insistent ghettoization of children into inappropriate adult-like roles. Ritual orderliness is an obsession of the institutional mind, and belies a deep insecurity toward and terror of lacking control. One must question the psychoemotional fitness to teach of anyone who prefers a system to a child, and I do not believe it is overwrought or foolish to say that demanding children do things they are not intended to do – intended by biology, psychology, neurology, or sociology – and punishing them for not complying with developmentally-inappropriate demands is, indeed, preferring a system to preferring a child.
I don’t much care how uncomfortable indictments like this make people, because radicalism eschews comfortable language when the reality of a situation are best served with naked truth. Educators and parents alike are often lulled into complicity by convenient or traditional language and frameworks that masks the truth. This syntactic exploitation infuriates the child-centered pedagogue, and radicals who uplift and celebrate and demand the liberation of feral children have an obligation – in my view – to call out destructive and developmentally-inappropriate demands placed upon children.
We can teach lovingly. We can play loudly. We can, indeed, be chaotic and embrace that chaos as natural and appropriate, and still kindly, compassionately, and meaningfully help guide our learners of all ages to find their successes, their quiets, their stillnesses, in their own time and in their own way.
I do not here say that all children must be loud and messy and without structure or guidance at all times, but rather say that all children must be more than allowed to be those things, but must be recognized and celebrated as deeply and intrinsically needing those things with a frequency that our institutions do not understand, accept, or permit, and that is a problem we must change with haste.
Yes, we have to keep our kids safe and healthy and ensure they don’t get hurt, but the right way to do that is not to lock them up in small cages.
I celebrate feral children.
I wish to free children.
I wish them to be wild, and for us to love them for it.
NPR’s Kyle Gassiott reported on Friday, August 26, that Alabama recently joined several other states in requiring that students learn cursive writing in public schools.
Here we go again: non-educators interjecting their institutionalized pedagogical conservatism to education where it patently does not belong.
My fellow Seditionist, Dr. L. Robert Furman, and I have railed about this at conferences, keynotes, and on our video channel. I’m glad to see Dr. Thornton point out the fact I constantly come back to in these discussions: cursive writing, like so many other aspects of the traditional school experience, is an artifact of social conservatism imposed upon schools.
Cursive writing is, and ought to be, a thing of the past. If I started suggesting we should all learn how to scribe a clay tablet, or make papyrus, or cut quills, or write Cuneiform “so that the next generation won’t lose access to these important forms of communication” or “so that the next generation will be able to understand and experience literature and historic texts” or “so that the next generation will be able to sign their names,” everyone would rightly brand me bonkers.
But you start talking about a person’s childhood school experiences, and you’ve crossed from my craft and my profession of pedagogy, curricular design, child development, and education policy, and now you’re screwing with a person’s memories and feelings. I understand the nostalgia. I still have my first stuffed animal – his name is Cuddles, by the way – and I’d never give him up to anyone, for anything. I understand driving by your childhood home and pining for a memory even if that house doesn’t represent your best years. I remember the halls of my second elementary school with fondness even though I suffered through miserable teacher experiences many of the years I was there. There’s power in recollection and the mentality of the conservative doesn’t escape me.
But none of that has a place in crafting meaningful policy based on emergent research. None of that has a place in understanding what our children need to fulfill their potential in the future we empower them to craft and in which they will choose how to communicate.
Taken to its logical conclusion, attitudes like “cursive is critical” would have us all writing with quills, no matter how inefficient that was as compared to even a now-antiquated ball-point.
The same logic applies to what I consider the absurdist educational technology position that “touch typing” is a skill we need to explicitly teach in schools. These are all obsessions with method instead of outcome. I write about this in my first book on education, Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children, in contrasting intent versus outcome. I may intend to teach a child to type, but if I only obsess over the method of touch typing and only ever correct finger placement and hand position, I miss the possibility that the student can achieve the goal – typing effectively and efficiently with high accuracy, low error incidence, and maximum speed – by using a method that differs from that being instructed.
Moreoever, let’s take a cue from the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Program, and address one of my favorite topics, authenticity: The goal of quick, accurate typing isn’t typing. The goal is to eradicate barriers between emergent thought and internal concept, and the outside world. The faster and more effectively I can get information from my brain into digital language, the more I can do with both.
By the way, asking me to teach a child to use any particular style of handwriting format while I’m trying desperately to teach that child how to write and how to live and think as a writer, is a massive curricular overhead that saddles me instead of empowers me, as a teacher… and let’s not even get into the absurdity of asking a digital native kid to deal with that while learning the vastly more important skill of writing. If you conflate penmanship and writing, you’re proving my point that education is best left to the professionals.
Be nostalgic. Just be nostalgic over there. We’re busy learning over here.
If touch typing or a specific method of data entry or a particular form of writing – in this case, cursive – requires a significant investment of time and energy to learn and does not achieve a goal in an authentic context like “getting information down quickly so you don’t lose great thoughts,” it’s really missing the mark. Consequently, insisting that all students learn cursive presupposes their modality and skill, and if we’ve learned anything as professional educators, it’s that we ought not conflate one child with another or with some generic “thought” of children in general. Every kid deserves individual attention. If we accept that as a maxim, and I can demonstrate – which I’m happy to do, any time – that cursive writing is a barrier to my fluency, expression, communication, and language, then we must logically assume that cursive isn’t the best thing for every kid.
Let’s stop wasting time on nonsense for the sake of adult nostalgia. Go watch a Bogart film in your Ford Fairlane at the drive-in and leave teaching children to the professional educators. In the immortal words of Sweet Brown, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”
Dr. Thornton, in the NPR report, said “Unbelievably, there were arguments that the fact that American kids couldn’t do cursive made us vulnerable to the Russian menace.” That’s not unbelievable to me. I absolutely believe that knuckleheads who think public school policy is a vehicle for their personal ax-grinding and lamentation about the bygone would conflate their fear of a changing world and discomfort with sociopolitical phenomena with what’s best for kids.
It happens all the time, and we radical pedagogues and revolutionaries have no patience whatsoever for interjection of such distraction and lay-opinion into policycraft.
If you want to write cursive, knock yourself out. I can still write my books, write this very blog post, communicate effectively, and make a real difference in my world in preventing the rise of infiltrating, inappropriate nostalgia without an outdated skill.
I’ll sign my name to that, and no, it isn’t a cursive signature.
As always, my opinions are my own and are in no way representative of any organization or entity, public or private.
My buddy Rob Furman and I are well into Season 2 of The Seditionists, our video blog series tackling emergent and revolutionary issues in public education. It’s been a while since I reposted them here, so for the sake of all of our various audiences, here’s a “catch you up” series of videos to get you current with Season 2 of The Seditionists!
S1E9: Becoming a Future Ready Teacher
S1E10: Video Games
S1E11: Bring Back the Arts
S2E1: Gender-Neutral Bathrooms
S2E2: Your Child Will Not Be a Pro Athlete
S2E3: Teacher Evaluations
S2E4: Student Unions
If you haven’t played Pokémon Go, shut up about it.
I find direct language to be effective in starting this conversation, but honestly I do actually have something intelligent to say on the subject:
And folks, look around: it’s cool.
Pokémon Go is the best of geocaching meets Google Cardboard(-ish) meets virtual field trips, all within an authentic context: kids like the game. I’m forever trying to get people to understand that authentic contexts are not necessarily related to the traditional “gospel of the school-as-church” rhetoric of “productive member of society.“
For me, my gateway to better algebra was EverQuest II, calculating hit points and analyzing the best armor and such. I had some lousy math teachers in high school (family members and some classmates concur) and if I’d had better ones who understood authentic context, someone would have seized upon my visual aptitude and taught me everything through geometry or an applied visual organizational framework. Nobody did that. My strengths and deficits as an individual learner were irrelevant to the stock lesson design. If one was good at math, one could do okay in that class, but if one didn’t learn the way the teacher taught, one was S.O.L. and I’m not referring to the “standards of learning.”
- freedom, and
- screen time.
If you play Pokémon Go, Ingress, or are otherwise engaged in augmented reality, you already know these are absurd or ignorant complaints, but I’ll address them all the same, and do so initially by repeating my original point: If you think these things, you’re not playing the game, and if you’re not playing the game, you’re not going to stop thinking these things. Get out there and do it, for real, or shut up about it.
Firstly, as I outlined initially, the level of prosocial engagement I’m watching between friends and peer groups, strangers and disparate demographics alike is astonishing. I’m hearing teacher after teacher, parent after parent talk about how much more time families are spending together walking outside, how much fun they’re having exploring, how many discoveries they are making in their communities. People are finding, making, and keeping new friends already. There is a profound, immediate, observable benefit at work in augmented reality, as one would expect to find in a meaningful VE / AR experience. It’s also worth noting that I’m hearing the old “video games are bad for kids” bullcrap rearing its ugly head again, so lemme say this for the record: Kutner and Olson in 2008 found that higher rates of playing Mature-rated video games correlated to higher rates of anti-social behavior, but found no evidence of causation, and subsequent studies have repeatedly failed to find any such correlation. Top off the fact that your opponents in PG look like this…
…and I think we can put the whole “video games will rot your brain” nonsense directly to bed where it belongs especially where PG is concerned. Teaching through gaming is rightly on the rise because games have been repeatedly shown to be powerful learning platforms.
Secondly, the idea that kids are “all so entitled” and “just play games all day” and “don’t know the value of work” are profoundly ignorant of the nature of kids and games. Children will invest extraordinary energy and diligence into successful problem solving, critical thinking, pattern recognition, and interaction when playing games like Pokémon Go. The fact that kids have ready access to information is not a form of entitlement; it is the nature of a rapidly-changing world that is producing exponentially more information annually than it did before. (This is a basic feature of ubiquitous if oversimple Moore’s First Law: no one can keep up with the rapid rate of change and expansion facilitated by information technology, as its power essentially doubles ever two years, with intermittent punctuation.) Children are able to gravitate toward the natural human natural state – freedom, which I often term independence, though I fully understand that aloneness and independence are very different creatures – because they are increasingly disenthralled from dogmatic impositions of ideology, limitation of knowledge, and lacking access to methods of expression and exploration, thanks to the increasing availability of technology that allows access to those things. (Thanks in no small part to the effects of Moore’s Second Law: companies are spending more and making more technology cheaper for – and thereby more accessible to – individual users.) It is absolutely true that kids are retreating from forms of autocracy and control, because that’s what humans do. We naturally rebel against what we perceive as unfair or over-strong control, and teenagers are hardwired for this. We must recall that our species, which is some two hundred thousand years old or thereabouts, spent much of its history in a state of early death, meaning high school age kids were not that long ago becoming the founders of their own new family units. Consequently, there is some consensus that teenagers have a biological need to strike out on their own. Facilitating that need through exploration and self-determination is essential to their growth. In fact, Reyna and Farley at Cornell found in 2006 that teenagers have a powerful sense of risk and reward in a way many adults do not, which marries beautifully with the radical pedgaogue’s research-supported passion for trusting children within a scaffolded framework of safety and love.
It’s worth noting that there are some compelling studies that say that the so-called antisocial teenage rebellion meme results from increasing isolation because of adults imposing autocratic restrictions upon children at older and older ages. This flies directly in the face of everything we know about effective Vygotskyan scaffolding.
Thirdly, for the love of all that is green, I’ve had enough of people using the phrase “screen time” like it’s a bad thing. Again, this is right in the “get off my lawn” camp. I expect a cane to be shaken every time I hear it, rapidly followed by descriptions of walking uphill to school, both ways, with no shoes, in the snow, all the way from town with the horseless carriages clattering by. Beyond the fact that even the American Academy of Pediatrics has now officially said, for all intents and purposes, “our bad; screen time isn’t the thing after all,” there’s the absurd oversimplification of lacking variables in the argument: Some of the most important discoveries and creations of our time stem from the consistent use of screen-based technologies, from the discovery of the Higgs Boson to the composition of the smash hit musical Hamilton. The question is not one of “the amount of time” one spends using technology with a screen, but what one does with that time. I understand the concerns about plopping kids in front of inane flashing images instead of engaging with them; I’ve never advocated for that and I never will. But there are incredibly effective, immersive, critical thinking-inducing, problem-solving, creative, expressive, and yes entertaining ways to use technology with children of all ages. Augmented reality is absolutely one of those ways.
Am I advocating for turning your kids loose with PG and never thinking about it again? Of course not. We’re all aware that there are risks in the world, and of course we can teach our kids about those risks. What I am saying is that there is tremendous potential good in Pokémon Go, and what I’m seeing with very, very few exceptions is expression after expression of that potential actualizing in our communities and with our kids. I find it preposterous to build a castle of “NOPE,” especially based on these outmoded lamentation tropes, when one has not taken the time to engage with the technology one’s self.
I can think of a dozen ways to use PG in a classroom right this moment, and if you think I will not use every possible vehicle at my disposal to help any individual child learn, you are out of your mind. That’s my job. I’m a professional educational technologist, an avowed radical pedagogue who is ferociously dedicated to individualized child learning, and a kid’s individual needs and authentic self comes way way way before unsupported objections rooted in an intransigent lack of experience.
Now, if a person is a private citizen and is in the “get off my lawn” camp about PG, AR, VE, or any other such technology, so be it… But the moment one speaks about education, educational policy, or pedagogy, baby: you’re in my world now, and you had best be prepared with a robust counterpoint. Thus far, in all the debates in which I’ve engaged on this subject, absolutely zero of them have been compelling. They almost always return to, “well we’re going to have to agree to disagree, because I think it’s silly and I’m not letting my kid do it.”
That’s not a rationale; that’s a cowardly dodge from facts and the documentable, replicable experiences of thoughtful educational professionals, and no thinking person should accept any justification of pedagogy or educational policycraft that’s rooted in “because I think so.”
Consequently, I repeat: If you haven’t played Pokémon Go, shut up about it. The rest of us are busy trying to ensure that we’re engaging in best practices with the single most important technological advent of 2016 leading up to another school year.
I will not get off your pedagogical lawn.
It’s not your property.
It belongs to the kids, and there’s a Vaporeon in that yard!
(Also, go Team Mystic.)
I’m of the fervent conviction that the greatest peril facing American public education today is pedagogical conservatism, and that conservatism is fostered directly by the tradition of the school institution.
My classroom practices as well as my administrative philosophy are rooted deeply in metapedagogy, as it is with any radical pedagogue. We say that wildness is a desirable characteristic of the learner, and that we must disenthrall ourselves from the formalized, paternal (often patriarchal) niceness and cleanliness of traditional institutionalized schooling. The aware (read: “woke”) reader will recognize that there is nothing nice or clean about the intellectual abbatoir of the modern school, and that it is not only ourselves that we must free but our children, both actively for those already caught in the grinder and proactively for those not yet quashed in their humanity by the autocratic nature of the traditional classroom.
The contemporary school is modeled upon three major social institutions: the prison, the factory, and the church. Destroying these edifices that are imposed like coffer dams around learning is essential to liberating the child mind and, therefore, learning writ large. They are mutually-incompatible with genuine learning, with pedagogy, and with children. The murder of the genuine child is more than a result of but a direct goal of the system.
This may seem a damning indictment, but one need only BEGIN to question the most basic structures of the institution to recognize their fallacy.
Why do we start school in September and end in late June? Why do we begin the school day at 7:30 AM? Why do we use ABCDF grading? Why do we name Valedictorians? Why do aspiring politicians often run for School Board first? Why do we block YouTube? Why do Scantrons exist? Who is Pearson?
If you take any meaningful time at all to truly explore these questions, you will immediately place your hand upon one of the aforementioned coffer dams of institutionalized factory-prison-church schooling, like so much reaching the edge of the holodeck on the starship Enterprise and realizing that the fantasy is false and there’s a powerful illusory machine right in front of us for the touching and, if we choose, the deactivating.
I discuss this issue in my first book on education, “Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children. “
I’ve found myself talking about home automation quite a lot in the last day and a half, so I promised I’d blog about my ecosystem so others can benefit from the trial-and-error I experienced. I got started with home automation a couple of years ago when I got a Wemo Switch as a gift.
The Wemo itself is reliable enough, but controlled through the native Belkin App, can be a little slow. That said, it’s controllable locally through your WiFi network, or over the network from remote locations even via 3G/4G. I wanted to expand the function of my switches, and have a great deal more control. I also really wanted voice automation, and my friend and fellow Four Horseman member Terry Lowry (@TekkieTeacher) introduced me to the Amazon Echo, which is now the heart of my smart home ecosystem.
I say heart, because it isn’t the brains, and has quite a ways to go before it can be. Alexa is a voice-controlled bluetooth speaker (of very good quality, I might add) with an onboard computer that allows it to do some wonderful things. You can ask Alexa the weather, driving times, basic questions from Wikipedia, the works. But it is absolutely nowhere near Google Now insofar as its ability to search and answer simple comprehension and slightly-more-than-regurgitation answers. It’s got a lot of growing up to do. That said, the home automation situation is pretty good, so it commands pretty much everything in my apartment.
First, let’s start with the easy stuff: On and off. For this, I have several WeMo switches as I mentioned above. I have one, for example, connected to my HEPA Air Filter, so “Alexa, air filter on” will start to clean the air immediately. It’s a basic on-off switch. I’ve got two that I’m not using at the moment, but I have that ability. The Echo controls WeMo switches natively, so no other intelligence is required in my ecosystem for this. The Alexa is the “hub” that drives WeMo products.
Let’s move on to more sophisticated: Dimming. I like to adjust light based on the light outside and my mood and the time of day and soforth. For this, we need a more intelligent dimmer, and often times, that means a hub.
The least sophisticated application is my nightstand. I had an Eiko-brand CFL. (I prefer 2700° white light, which is “warm white,” and more closely emulates the golden hue of incandescent lamps, so that’s what I had.) I had this hooked up to a Wemo Switch originally, but I wanted to dim it. For that, I obtained a Lutron Caséta Dimmer, which is explicitly and exclusively for lamp dimming:
The dimmer has two plugs (two-prong), one on either side, so you can plug in two devices, which will be simultaneously dimmed. (They’re not independent.) I also have a home-made LED lighting scheme around the underside of my bed, and along the back of my headboard. (It’s very cool, if I do say so myself.) I built it to be dimmable, so it was ready to go.
Note here: Compact Fluorescent Lamps are not, generally, dimmable. It dimmed, but made a terrible buzz because it wasn’t operating at proper voltage. Consequently, I swapped my CFL for a dimmable LED bulb.
Lutron has its own app, of course, but as you’ve figured out, I don’t want app control: I want my Amazon Echo to control everything. This is where things can get complicated at home. The Lutron dimmer requires a hub, a piece of intelligent technology that sends and receives the actual commands related to any given smart home device. The Echo does not, in and of itself, have the ability to be the hub itself. However, the Echo does talk to a great many hubs. I shopped around for one I thought would talk to everything, and I landed on the Wink Hub.
This device is the “bridge” between the Echo and much of my ecosystem. I actually have it plugged in to the second plug my microwave uses, so it’s hidden away neatly in a cupboard.
Pairing things with the Wink Hub, using the Wink App, is RIDICULOUSLY EASY. They have on-screen illustrations and step-by-step tutorials that even I’m impressed by, and you know me and step-by-step! I want to be told exactly what to do and how to do it! This is a great setup and very user-friendly with terrific support documentation.
A step up from these options is my kitchen lighting situation. I have halogen lamps in a light strip across the ceiling, and I wanted to dim those, too, but they were controlled by an in-wall switch. Have no fear: Lutron Caséta Dimmers come in in-wall flavor, too:
Now, I’ve owned two houses in my life, so I know a thing or two about basic electrical. If you’ve never done this, call a friend. It’s not hard, but you want the comfort and peace of mind to know you’re not going to electrocute yourself or burn your house down. I rent now, and wanted to be very careful that I installed everything perfectly, and up to local code, so do your homework. (And ask me questions if you like!) That said, this was a five-minute piece-of-cake installation, and the pairing was even quicker. BOOM: “Alexa, dim the kitchen to 40%.” “Okay,” she responds, and instantly it’s done.
One more fun thing: I have a “transom wall” between my bedroom and my living room. The top of the wall is open to the ceiling about two feet, and around the corner into the galley kitchen. It’s a really cool architectural feature, and the moment I saw it, I knew: I had to LED light strip the thing.
But I also wanted – wait for it – full color. Oh yes… I have it. I opted for one of the pricier items in my ecosystem, but it’s totes worth it in my book: The Osram Lightify Flex RGBW LED strip.
These are actually four linkable, flexible segments and a long (but not long enough for me) power cord and AC adapter that is controllable by Osram’s pretty decent Lightify App. They adhered perfectly, and I was able to make a 90 degree turn at the corner with only about a half-inch of “slightly sticking-up” strip, as you can’t do hard angles with the strip. But that high up, it’s invisible, so if you’re going around the top of a cabinet or something, rest easy: it’ll work. My issue was hiding the power cord, which I wanted to run down the inside corner of the wall’s corner. I bought an extension cord on Amazon (5-pin for this system, not 4; they’re different) and it all works beautifully.
Because I was so impressed with the Osram Lightify system, I actually got two Lightify LED bulbs as well, and those are in the living room. Now, Osram Lightify has its own hub (which is calls a Bridge) to make all these work, but you don’t need that if you have a Wink Hub, like I do. (I made the mistake of buying the bridge unnecessarily, so that’ll get eBayed at some point.)
Each Osram element is independently-named and individually-controllable. Very impressive. Again, easy as pie to pair with the Wink Hub.
At this point, Alexa is able to respond to commands for each element:
- Kitchen (dimmable halogen fixtures)
- Living Room 1 and Living Room 2, grouped together as Living Room (dimmable LED bulbs)
- Bed and Nightstand, grouped together as Bedroom (dimmable LED bulb and LED strip)
- Main (dimmable, color-changing LED strip that’s so bright at full power it lights up the whole apartment)
- Air Filter (on/off switch powering an otherwise-“dumb” device)
Oh, but we’re so not done yet.
I added door sensors from GoControl, one for the front door, and one for the “barn door” into my bedroom. (I also got a motion sensor but thus far it’s sort of redundant with the front door sensor so I have it deactivated for now.)
These puppies are lightweight, battery-controlled sensors with magnetic switches, so when you open the door, the switch closes, activating the battery and sending the open-or-closed code to the Wink Hub. (Again, these were very easy to pair if you follow the directions. I did not the first time, so I had to un-pair them, which was quite a bit more complicated, but if you’re not impetuous like I can be, you’ll be fine.)
Why add these? For example, if I open the front door after 4:30 PM, my kitchen and living room light up to 100%. If the bedroom door opens between 1 AM and 5 AM, the kitchen dims on to 10% brightness, just enough to make sure I don’t stumble around on the way to the bathroom. If the front door opens when I’m not home, my Android phone is notified instantly. Cool stuff, right? All able to be set up in the Wink App using what it calls “Robots,” or recipes – much like those of IFTTT, which you MUST look into if you do any home automation or have a smart phone of any kind – which give conditional control over most functions.
In addition to IFTTT, which is a must-have for a few things, like I’m about to show you, I also use an app called Yonomi, which creates virtual devices in your home automation ecosystem and allows you to program “routines,” or complex recipes, which can even include other preexisting recipes, to further automate functions. I’ll explain more about this in a second, because my favorite recipe involves this next bit.
I was able to solve one of my all-time pet peeves by adding one more device. All of the control mechanisms we’ve discussed so far operate on wireless (RF frequency) control. But what about your TV? Your Stereo? The Lasko tower fan I have in the corner? These all operate on IR, or infrared, and there has been a notorious gap between RF and IR transmittability for a long time. Until, enter, stage left: The Harmony Hub.
The Harmony is an “IR blaster,” which sends infrared signals bouncing all over your room, allowing those command signals to catch basically anything within even out-of-line-of-sight range. (It also has two wired repeaters you can add to get around tough corners and work within entertainment center cabinetry.)
If you’re not familiar with the Harmony family of products, Logitech has created a remote control product line that issues both direct commands to devices (like pressing the “on” button on your remote), but also series of commands called “activities” (like pressing the “on” button but it sends two different “on” signals, one to your TV, and one to your PlayStation). This same phenomenon works with the Harmony Hub. The programming is pretty straightforward, but works best when you have exact makes and models of your devices, so consider taking a snapshot of the make and model number label from the back of your devices, like your television and stereo receiver and such, before you begin. It’ll save you some crawling around and craning around to the back of your set. This is accomplished through the Harmony App, which will program (and update if necessary) your Hub. Yes, this means you have multiple hubs in your ecosystem, now. In mine, Alexa is a (weak) hub, Wink is the main hub, and Harmony is the IR-specific hub. This is why I say Alexa is the heart: Her voice and ears feel what I want from my commands, and then hands off to the Wink in nearly every case. That’s why I think the Wink Hub is really the brains of my ecosystem. The Harmony Hub only does one thing, so it’s like a specialized region of the brain, and even it needs IFTTT to work properly.
Through IFTTT, I add a recipe that tells Alexa to respond to the trigger word “television” and send the on/off command to my Philips television, through my Harmony Hub. When I say out loud, “Alexa, trigger television,” she will respond, “Sending that to IFTTT,” and my television clicks on. Because I have a Harmony activity programmed in to my Harmony account called “MacBook,” I can also say, “Alexa, trigger MacBook.” She responds, “Sending that to IFTTT,” and my television and stereo receiver all turn on, and set themselves to the proper inputs for my MacBook dock. (I use the Henge dock, which is absolutely genius quality stuff. I recommend and use no other.)
Now for the grand finale. I have a Yonomi routine called “Bedtime.” This routine activates the shutdown procedure for my entire entertainment center through my Harmony Hub, turns off the Living Room and Kitchen and Main lights, and dims on the Nightstand and Bed lights to 40%. So let’s say I’m in the living room, everything is turned on, and I’m tired and want to go to bed. I say, “Alexa, turn on Bedtime.” (Remember Yonomi creates virtual devices, so “turn on” is the proper command to activate a Yonomi routine.)
Alexa says, “Okay,” and all of that happens instantly. No going from light to light to shut them off, no pressing all the right remotes to turn things off, no turning on the bedroom to make sure a light is on then go back to turn off the lights I no longer need… it’s all just done! I can crawl into bed, close my bedroom barn door, and be assured that if I need to pee at 2 AM, I’ll have a little light to help guide me along.
The ecosystem is really working for me. I like being able to say “Alexa, Living Room 50%, please,” and be able to continue typing or watching my movie or adventuring in Second Life without having to stop and get up to turn the dimmers down because the sun has set. I enjoy that if I forget to turn off something, I don’t have to uncurl from bed. I love that if I think of something while I’m snuggled up with my pillows that I need to remember tomorrow, I can call out, “Alexa, remind me to do XYZ tomorrow morning,” and she just does it. The Echo’s “far field voice recognition” has worked flawlessly for me. Without shouting, I can issue commands from the next room and be responded to ideally.
There are a few big things missing for me: I want to be able to control my blinds. I tried the EzWand package, which works great on lightweight blinds, but I have a 96″ x 48″ set of metal blinds in my apartment, and the little motor wasn’t strong enough by far. Consequently, I need to probably replace the entire set of blinds with something else. There are many options, but they’re pricy, so unless somebody wants to let me demo and review them, I’m up a creek for now. That would be huge for me, because I’m forever regretting not closing them after the sun comes up. The other things I’m missing is having Alexa voice-respond as I want her to, confirming various functions or reporting things to me on demand. I’d like upon coming home to add triggering Alexa’s “flash briefing” report, which gives me the news and information of the day. I’d like to have the weather reported to me when I open the barn door in the morning on a weekday. I’d also like (call me silly) a “welcome home” message. I live by myself, and it’d be fun and nice to have a hello from Alexa, or even allow her to have basic conversations.
One thought would be something like:
- “Welcome home, KDR.”
- “Thanks, Alexa.” (She remains awake to accept the voice response to my next exchange.)
- “How was your day?”
- “Not good, Alexa. I’m feeling run down.”
- “I’m sorry. Your Seven-Minute Workout should help. Drink some water and let’s get your endorphins going.”
- “Good idea. Alexa, start my Seven-Minute Workout.”
I mean, it may sound silly, but some basic call-response feedback would be a nice touch to an already powerful system.
That said, the major home-control stuff is really helpful and I’m enjoying the convenience a great deal. I expect in addition to things like my fan and air filter, I’ll be expanding to include thermostat next. Alexa works with the Nest and Honeywell HVAC controllers, and I foresee that being a money-saver in the long term, to adjust my A/C and heat based on where I am, certain conditions, my voice commands, and more.
If you have any questions, hit me up, and I’ll gladly answer!
The end of the school year is always hectic, but I was privileged a few days ago to be entrusted by my colleagues in the Virginia Society of Technology Education as I was elected Chairperson for the coming term of the Board of Directors. I follow Becky Fisher, one of the most accomplished educational technology leaders in the Commonwealth and a great friend, and I aspire to the leadership examples she and her predecessor and another of the most accomplished ed tech leaders and another great friend, Dr. Barb Gruber, set when I first joined the Executive Committee under her leadership. Continuing to work along side Dr. Karen Richardson, the Executive Director, will be a genuine joy and a great reward.
Sadly, no opportunity to work for Virginia will undo the loss our organization, our profession, and our hearts felt this week when we learned of the tragic and sudden passing of our beloved friend Robert Matthew “Matt” Poole, known to my fellow Second Life residents as Cyrus Hush. Matt was a jovial, brilliant, talented teacher leader with a zeal for educational technology and a tremendous heart. Losing him is a great loss for us all, and he will be fondly missed and oft-remembered, as the mounting memorials in both worlds exemplify. I speak for all of us, I am sure, when I extend my sympathy to his family and loved ones, and join arms in embrace with my fellow virtual denizens who cared for him a great deal.
I will aspire in everything I do to work by the examples you set, Matt.
Experienced and highly successful educator Sheri Lederman has prevailed at trial in her suit against the New York State Department of Education, with the presiding judge slamming the system in his remarks. The so-called “Value Added Model” (or “VAM”) is a model championed by John King, now the successor to Arne Duncan as the head of the U.S. Department of Education.
This is a victory for great teachers everywhere – especially in harassed New York, where I first taught – and a setback for the corporatizers and faux-reformers who tout convoluted systems that empower the standardized testing commercial complex instead of focusing on what matters.
Proper teacher evaluation is hard, but it’s not solved by implementing a convoluted mathematical formula. That doesn’t solve anything in and of itself. Mathematics is a phenomenal tool for understanding the world, and I’m not saying a mathematician couldn’t create a meaningful formula, but teacher evaluation, at its heart – as with anything involving teaching and learning – is a craft that requires significant observation and human interaction that is better left to better methods.
Observation, interaction, and narrative are powerful analytical tools, and they seem utterly left behind by most models. You simply CANNOT evaluate a teacher based on standardized test scores. NOT AT ALL. Not a little. Not ever. NOT AT ALL. It is a fallacious standard because the data itself is fallacious: A single integer numeric value does not tell you about a child’s skill mastery, and cannot, therefore, be reliably used for ANY educational decision. This is what the USDOE and every administration in my teaching career – Bush II and Obama, both – have absolutely and totally failed to understand.
Teacher evaluation requires significant analysis of observational, qualitative, and in some cases nonquantifiable data sets, and that means better quality pedagogy, better quality administrative professional development, and ensuring principals and assistant principals are instructional experts first and foremost, then equipping them with the time and resources to spend the vast majority of their times amid the teaching for which they are responsible.
You can’t do that sitting behind your desk on your butt, folks, and that’s where USDOE policies keep pushing people because the standardized testing commercial complex is about production, numbers, and charts, not about teaching, learning, performance, authenticity, and individualized creation and application.