Thursday, January 30, 2014

String games for lifelong learning

Ambidexterity, mathetics, and chiral differences: how string games can open a path to self-directed lifelong learning

As my first formal post to the #DLMOOC, I’d like to offer an attempt to integrate a variety of arguments I’ve offered over several decades about why to use string figures in the classroom into a theory of learning development which I’ve not heard articulated in this manner before.
When I first thought to bring string games into the classroom, I was teaching third graders in a bilingual program, and found that I could not effectively teach the computer keyboarding skills which were supposed to be part of the curriculum without first teaching the names of the individual fingers. Most native Spanish speakers, even those who are highly educated, do not know the individual finger names. Close study of the finger names helped students connect with the dexterity development that needed to be done concomitantly, and I always felt that the original objective – to improve keyboarding skills – is almost always achieved with string figure practice.

I've developed a few simple finger games, based on neurological tests my psychiatrist father taught me, which you can see me demonstrating in this clip from a Teachers Teaching Teachers episode I did with Paul Allison and several others last year. I call them “Finger Calisthenics.”

Here’s an enumeration of the learning benefits of string games:

  • 1) ambidexterity [that one is obvious and uncontroversial, except most folks don't realize what a powerful brain booster ambidexterity is...]
  • 2) executive function -- the crucial ability to delay gratification in the interest of some later payoff
  • 3) developing connections across the two hemispheres of the brain, thus enhancing both logical and creative thinking
  • 4) resilience -- being able to experience failure and keep trying
  • 5) sequencing -- being able to manage and remember complex multi-step processes
  • 6) storytelling and writing -- creating new understandings through articulating and expressing one's thoughts in spoken and written words
  • 7) learning and teaching -- in a group setting, some kids always learn a particular figure more quickly than others, so they get immediately thrust into the role of teacher to other students, and gain better understanding of what's involved in teaching and more awareness of their own and others' learning styles

I'm developing a couple of projects that hopefully will become “mini-residencies” at two different school sites, where I plan to work with any interested teachers on identifying string games that fit with their existing curriculum plans, or adding an art/storytelling/writing unit which utilizes them.

Here's a link to my String Games Playlist on YouTube, and there are DIY videos for learning many figures. The fun is one of the main points, but the learning benefits are astounding – James Murphy tells an inspiring story about teaching a blind student trigonometry with string figures, and how in the course of the learning process, the student also acquired a marked increase in his ability to navigate independently, to the point of being able to ride the New York City subway!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Blessed Be the Peacemakers

My colleague Dan wished me a good Martin Luther King Holiday,

 and I replied,

Blessed Be the Peacemakers.

We don't often take the time collectively to celebrate the rebels, the agitators, who supported the troops by trying to bring them home and send then back to real work with the rest of us. I've been a Conscientious Objector to War since I was 10 or 11, I'd guess. I knew that the draft was looming, and that I was not eligible for a religious exemption, and that being ethically opposed to war was not considered legitimate, and I began preparing my CO Packet in junior high school.

I've never struck another person. I hope I never will. My friend Damaru taught me, as Native American Earth Wisdom, never to sweep a child off its feet without permission from the child, out of respect for each person's foot connection to the earth, and the gravity of severing it without warning.

Peacemaker is a much better word than Pacifist. All those -ist words seem to have a stridency, a belligerence, that especially for this topic connotes its opposite. Peace is not passive, it is a greater struggle than war, since it requires that we continue with the other in dialog, rather than battle.

Thanks to all of us who struggle together towards a more peaceful and just planet. The justice part is an even bigger struggle, and I do think it's true that "No justice, no peace." So we're in this for a long haul, a real Maker's Collaboration.

A couple of months ago I finished a piece of sculpture that I had been working on over a period of more than two years. A long and fraught process, and worth all the effort. Many thanks to my teacher Tom Wolver for guidance and inspiration and a whole lot of expertise about so much of the process I knew so little about.

Her name came to me as she cooled from the pit fire, in Spanish, all at once:

El Grito de mi Amante la Madre Tierra

I had just read in our local weekly about the work of Annie Sprinkle and her partner's ecosexual movement, wanting to transform the Mother/supplicant relationship into an egalitarian lover exchange.

Sunday, January 12, 2014


This is a first blog post for the Deeper Learning MOOC (#DLMOOC)
Making the loop for the Karok Three-Pronged Fish Spear
Making the loop for the Karok Three-Pronged Fish Spear

There was a short-lived progressive magazine during my youth called Root and Branch, and the idea that a plant has roughly as much root mass below the ground as it has above ground structure, combine to make these horticultural analogies to learning and brain function fascinate me. The idea that manual activities can stimulate the creation of brain connections, and that increased neural pathways in the brain afford possibilities for unrelated new learnings, amplify my enthusiasm for string figures as a hook for interesting curriculum.

The carnival barker part of my radical hippie youth activism experience wants to have me dress up like an EduBux Pitchman and promise a "comprehensive curriculum, K-12, tying every aspect of the CCSS to a corresponding string game or related learning." And if I got a 6-figure contract to focus on that, I probably could pull it off. But that's not the point.

Technology is being misused whenever there's not a lot of thought and discussion among staff, community, and with students, around the question,

"Who's telling the computer what to do?"

We must all be examining these tools, interrogating them, and using them to express our points of view and share our experiences in the world. Those processes then become secondary to the activities students do, with their hands dug into the stuff of the world, using our multi-communicative ambient tools to share as they learn.