A long year + some ideas for the future

It’s been a long year.

While it has not been an easy one, there have been some fantastic things in 2021 that I am grateful for. I have met some wonderful new friends, colleagues, and students, and have enjoyed many laughs with them all.

I am especially thankful for my students. They showed great patience with me and expressed great energy and determination even in the short time we were in the classroom. These students are truly kids of the Covid-era, having now been through successive lockdowns and their associated uncertainties for the last two years. And while it has been a great challenge for them, they have also achieved some tremendous things.

There are many names I wish to celebrate, particularly those who did not receive traditional academic awards at school but have held a quiet strength and achieved many milestones behind the scenes. I will not publish them out of respect for privacy and my professional responsibility, but I am so proud of them. It makes me understand why some teachers stay in the profession for decades - this part of the job is so incredibly rewarding and fun.

I feel for students less fortunate, particularly those in lower decile schools and areas who have been hit particularly hard this year. There is a lot of work being done by fantastic people behind the scenes here, but they have been stretched so thin from this. I want to create and share more resources for other teachers and students in the coming year, something people can grab and use for their contexts.

I am currently working on a tool that will (hopefully) help with online teaching and be designed to last decades. Similar tools and platforms developed by tech companies or government agencies in Aotearoa have mostly come and gone - I want to make something teachers and students can own and use, freely (both in the financial and usability sense), and never be taken offline. I am learning about different technologies/protocols to achieve this, namely IPFS, Urbit, Webtorrent, and Hypercore. If you have any ideas or thoughts about this, please let me know (my contact information can be found on the About page of this site).

Let’s pull back the veil,

T.

See you later 2021

This is just going to be a short post so I don’t overthink it. I would like to follow up another time though and go over the highlights of this year.

I am very glad and thankful that this year is coming to a close. The sun is shining outside and people around me are happy, which is what matters most.

Take care and see you soon.

T.

Mid-year update

Been many months since I had time and space in my mind to be able to write anything.

Since my last post Sophie and I did a big move out of our old place and into a smaller apartment in central Auckland. It was a very stressful experience and, despite our limited posessions, made me realise just how much stuff one accumulates over the course of even a year (the total length we were at our last place).

Work has been rewarding but challenging. I wake up early every morning, at work from 7am usually until about 4pm, sometimes staying as late as 6pm some days. I occassionally will see what people of the Merveilles community will be working on and wonder how they manage to find the time to balance work, life, and their own creative pursuits. It still brings me great joy nevertheless seeing what they get up to, as well as what some of my students manage to make over the school terms.

One aspect of work that I have been enjoying a lot has been helping to set up the school makerspace, Te Wāhi Auaha. Myself and another colleague have been working a few evenings a week (and during the day whenever possible) to set this space up, creating tutorials for students to follow, making partial exemplars to demonstrate the capabilities of different machines and so on. It has been great fun - the space has only just started to take shape and there is still much to be done.

A photograph of Te Wāhi Auaha Makerspace from the outside entrance

It is now the end of term holidays. I intend on using this time to get back into the swing of things creative, as well as get back into my programming practice.

Though the links are subtle,
T.

Touching up on design

Recently I have been working more on my own design work. While I have always had a basic understanding of using design tools such as Inkscape, Figma etc, I have never really had the time to push myself to learn more until now.

Using the Nothing Market moniker, which has been the name that I have traded as for the past year, I have been generating different designs to improve my skills. I am hoping that by doing this it will mean that I am able to teach more to my students, beyond the core requirements of what is expected from them.

An example of a poster I designed recently using Figma

This is what I have done over this past week, producing at least one outcome every single day. Some are more successful than others, but it doesn’t really bother me too much. For me, the most valuable thing from all this has been getting faster and better at the process of using these tools.

Back to making!

A tulip for your thoughts,
T.

Another lockdown

Yesterday evening the government announced a new lockdown for those living in Auckland. We will be in Level 3 for at least the next seven days, during which time I will be teaching remotely yet again.

Slowly as we have more and more situations such as this I am getting used to virtual learning. It is still greatly challenging - especially in the case of teaching kids who have inconsistent internet connections and/or unreliable technology. My own connection at home is flaky, with Google Meets often dropping mid-call or uploads being interrupted.

Despite the fact that we have been doing this for close to a year now, I think that we as educators still have much to learn. The technology hasn’t gotten that much better over this time, and I am still not sure about the strategies many of us are taking to ensure a productive remote learning environment.

I am not sure what the answer is. I don’t know if anyone does. If anything, I think this pandemic continues to show us how ill-prepared many of us are. A vaccine is thankfully around the corner, but what will the next pandemic make of us?

T.

Update

A lot has happened since my last post but I will keep it brief.

I started a new role at a new school here in Auckland. It has been just over two weeks since I began and we unfortunately just went into another Covid lockdown from yesterday, but otherwise things have been going well. My classes are a range of junior and senior, teaching predominantely art with one DVC technology class as well.

Getting back into teaching has been that everything to do with school has taken priority over everything else. I haven’t really had a chance to settle down and work on my own material for a few weeks now. Hopefully I can change this over the coming weeks.

There are a few interesting websites that I have been keeping an eye on and following their material. One is Astral Codex Ten, the new blog of Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex fame. I had only discovered SSC recently over a controversy surrounding the New York Times running a story on the author and doxxing him, leaking his real name (Scott Alexander is his first and middle name) even after asking NYT repeatedly not to do so. He has a long history of blogging and writing about various topics, including mathematics, science, politics and technology. I really enjoy his writing and highly recommend you subscribe to his Substack page.

Through Astral Codex Ten I recently also discovered the work of the Qualia Research Institute, a non-profit that describes itself as “studying consciousness in a consistent, meaningful, and rigorous way.” I have been working through their core research papers which can be found here, and I highly recommend to anyone interested in psychology and philosophy that is centered squarely on the human condition (suffering, love, etc) and the Effective Altruism (EA) movement.

Never date a poet,
T.

Technology I am excited about

Happy new year!

It has been a lovely summer so far here in Auckland. There are some new emerging technologies that I have come across the past few weeks which excite me both as a teacher and researcher.

  • Comma.ai
    Comma.ai is a fully FOSS Level 2 autonomous driving startup based in San Diego, founded by George Hotz (also known as geohot, a hacker and computer scientist whose work I have admired since he first jailbroke the iPhone in 2007). They are now selling a device, the Comma Two, which can be installed on most mainstream Toyotas, Hondas, Hyundais etc to enable full Level 2 autonomous driving. If Tesla and their Autopilot software is iOS, then Comma and their implementation (called “Openpilot”) is Android. The next car I purchase will be one that I know is compatible with Comma, and I look forward to seeing how this software develops this year.

  • DALL E by OpenAI
    This is a recent neural network developed by OpenAI that creates images from text captions, done in completely natural English. For example, typing the text prompt “an armchair in the shape of an avocado” will generate an image of a chair as such. It is an extension of their breakthrough autoregressive language model GPT-3. As a visual art teacher, I have no idea what this potentially means for the creation of art and where the artist stands in a situation like this, but I am still looking forward to embracing this technology and seeing how it can help us develop long-term.

  • Simula
    Simula is a VR window manager that is built on top of the Godot Engine, programmed in Haskell and developed by George Singer. While I don’t currently have a VR headset that I can use to test this, I think that the notion of spatial computing is an exciting one (especially in cases of limited physical space that might inhibit the use of multiple monitors).

Seen,
T.

=> This post is also available on gemini

See ya later Westlake

Since July this year I have been working at Westlake Boys High School as a DVC teacher. I picked up a selection of Junior and Senior classes part way through their projects and tried to find my place in the school as smoothly as possible. Despite entering a new school and all the disruptions that had been caused by multiple Covid-19 lockdowns, I wanted to give everything I could to my students so that they had the best shot for success.

The classes I had were made up of many different boys, each with their own unique backgrounds and skillsets. In some of my Junior classes there was a great disparity between the most technically adept students and the lowest, but I wanted to create lesson plans and projects that would allow all these students multiple ways of approaching their work. The lockdown proved to be the greatest challenge in this regard, as not all students had access to reliable Internet or computer equipment that allowed for working from home.

With one anonymous survey that I ran on a Year 12 class, most boys cited the lockdown as being the greatest obstacle in their learning from this year. They said that the uncertainty around this period, coupled with practical issues such as a lack of space and access to DVC equipment that was stored at school inhibited their ability to succeed as well as they could have. I felt as though these students produced some fantastic work regardless, but that things could have been a lot more different. From a teaching perspective, my biggest concern was the wellbeing of my students, especially those who went completely MIA and could not be accounted for.

As my role at Westlake was a fixed-term contract, my position at the school concluded at the end of this year on Tuesday 8 December. I was able to learn a lot from these past six months and gain some great friendships and connections. The students and staff of the school have been nothing but supportive in my time here, and this made an otherwise tricky year a very positive one.

I begin a new role in January next year. While I will miss the people and culture that I came to love at Westlake, I see this as another chapter in my teaching practice. Thank you Westlake - I will see you again soon.

While this is often overused, I feel as though the following Maori proverb sums up the most important thing in education and schools:

He aha te mea nui o te ao?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata

What is the most important thing in the world?
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.

Perhaps in time,
T.

=> This post is also available on gemini

Remote teaching - one week update

It has been approximately a week since Auckland, New Zealand went back into Level 3 lock-down over the Covid-19 pandemic. Since Thursday last week I have been teaching my students remotely through live conferencing software such as Microsoft Teams in place of physical lessons. This is my first time teaching remotely, and there are a few things that have arised which I didn’t expect.

I (foolishly) assumed that most of my students had some grasp of how to navigate different systems and services. Given that they are young and part of what is considered Generation Z, I thought that nearly all of them would have at least some level of digital literacy (and if not that they knew where to look). However, this stint in remote teaching has highlighted to me just how wrong I was - there is a vast difference in abilities around using computers among my students, right down to the most basic and fundamental functions like copy and paste.

Most of my time online since starting remote teaching has been spent troubleshooting and diagnosing issues raised by students. I was wary that not every student would have a stable Internet connection before I started my teaching programme, so I tried my best in implementing lessons that were both low bandwidth intensive and not reliant on powerful hardware (since not everyone had access to a decent computer - for some a smartphone is their primary computing device). In hindsight, I should have thought even further back and thought of those students who have almost no idea of basic computing concepts, doing everything to stamp out any potential dark patterns so that I don’t need to retrofit fixes later down the line.

One of the primary issues my students have experienced is signing up for accounts on certain services. Since most sign ups are handled via email it requires for the user/student to have some understanding of how this works - the confirmation of verification links, checking in spam for missed messages and so on. Some of these students know how to install and use a VPN on their phone, yet are completely stumped when it comes to using email. Why is this the case?

I think part of the issue is because of the smartphone app paradigm. If every function and service is reduced to an app, it is segmented as a little icon on your screen and often abstracts any logging in or processes to a black box. These dark patterns, a commonplace in everyday apps today, are harmful to the user in that it oversimplifies systems to the point where everything is done automatically. Confronted with a system that doesn’t fall into this paradigm, it is no wonder that the user would find it confusing or bewildering.

If one of my students wishes to use a smartphone app to complete the same work I have no issue with this. I believe this is a level of flexibility I should consider under UDL. In the future, I will consider a Plan A, B, C, and D, because technology is far from perfect. Nothing that I have done so far has gone according to plan, and almost always the reason is down to technology. It is frustrating, but the best thing that I can do is always have a wide spread of options incase things don’t work out.

Small steps…

May doorbell lights find you in the night

T.