Friday, October 11, 2013

Repurposing the RIWP

Repurpose: To use or convert for use in another format or product. 

At our opening Executive Board meeting at the RIWP on October 7, we began by repurposing a pile of recycled cardboard, pom-poms, popsicle sticks, shoeboxes and packaging. I had spent the night before roaming around my house, collecting scraps from our recycle bin, our basement (the land of empty boxes), and our kitchen (where I found a bag full of wine corks). I hauled all of this "junk" into the RIWP on Monday afternoon, piled it invitingly in the middle of the conference table, then waited for folks to arrive at 4:30pm.

Our Executive Board this year looks quite different! We have welcomed lots of new members to the Board and have said "goodbye" to some long-standing members who needed a break. Two of our new Executive Board members were drawn from our pool of newly-minted Fellows from the Summer Institute, and another five new members from our federally-funded SEED teacher leadership group from 2012-13. With such a new group, it was time for a new beginning.

As sixteen people starting piling in to Alumni House and gathering around the conference table, some initially wondered what the pile of materials was all about while others grabbed their favorite pieces and began making. I had written this message on the easel, to welcome folks as they arrived:

"Welcome! Your first assignment as an Executive Board member of the RIWP this year is to repurpose some of this junk to make yourself a hacked Executive Nameplate. Grab some materials and start repurposing them! We will spend our first 30 minutes together tinkering, making, and creating."

After reassuring the skeptical folks that we were indeed playing with glue sticks, popsicle sticks and sneaker boxes, and after reiterating that our objective was to hack an Executive Nameplate (that is, making it look as un-Executive as it possibly can!), everybody was on their way. The table was soon aflutter with activity, and our meeting space soon looked and sounded like a third grade art room, cardboard detritus scattered everywhere, the joyful sound of people happily building things with their hands.

Repurposing is our new middle name at the RIWP; it's our new way of thinking, our new way of being, our new way of envisioning professional development that feeds our intellect, our creative souls, and our need for community. As the photo above demonstrates, what emerged from this 30 minutes of human energy, creativity, vision and junk were masterpieces, each one individually crafted and made with intention. Artisan nameplates. Made from junk that was going to get thrown out.

Later, as we went around the table and presented our nameplates, and as each person described their making process and their thinking process, what came to light is that each of us had approached that table of junk through the same door, on the same day, in the same room. But, each of us saw something different in the junk. Each of us was able to look at a pile of cardboard and see the raw materials for creation. Then, we were able to gather those materials, some tools and build. For folks who didn't have a vision right away, who looked into the pile of junk and saw junk, what worked for them was to grab some materials and just begin...gluing, piling, cutting, folding. Once their hands began working, they said, a form and an idea began to take shape. Both Dina and Cynthia said that they didn't know what they were making at first, but, as they started building, a creation emerged: a little book nameplate and a pom-pom purse nameplate, each representing something significant about its maker. This, I think, is in itself an important lesson for teachers of writing. Some kids have the idea right away. Others need to tinker first and find their idea while their hands are busy.

So, what was the point of beginning our first board meeting of the year this way, you ask? Our new Executive Board now has a shared experience in repurposing materials and ideas. We can reference this mini-activity as a sort of tether for other (more ambitious) ideas for repurposing systems that do not work for teachers (or students) and that are not effective in promoting fluent readers and writers. This kind of thinking and doing, for teachers, is especially revolutionary, I believe, because it combines the idea of being subversive with transparency. It's a way of saying, "We've come up with a better way to do this, a more affordable way to do this, a more effective way to do this, and we are sharing our idea with you." This, to me, is what happens when you bring subversive teaching into the Writing Project model: we have a community behind us, a body of knowledge and research behind us, and a national network behind us. We make our work public, we share it across boundaries and disciplines, and we encourage and teach others to do the same.

As we move forward this year at the RIWP, we hope to maintain this momentum in our thinking and practice: repurposing old tools and methods, reworking former beliefs, hacking systems that aren't working, renewing ideas that have grown stagnant. We hope you will consider joining us! If you'd like to learn more about Hacking and Repurposing and how they are relevant to teaching and learning and literacy, here are some excellent places to get started:

Ben Chun’s Ignite Talk about Teaching students to be comfortable with trial and error/tinkering:

Chris Lawrence’s Ignite Talk on creating learning networks/builder communities/design hack jams:
A Learning Party!

Jackie Gerstein’s "The Education I Wish I Had: a challenge to educators"

“Move fast and break things:” Hacking as a way to think about problems, from a Facebook design engineer: