No good project in this world would ever get started without a moment of exuberant optimism. How else would you cross the gap that lies between where you are now and what you want to get done? Optimism is the fuel that gets projects started, but persistence gets them done.
Maps often describe the boundaries between this and that, and us and them. Inspired by personal events in their own lives, Nicky and Mason used this arc to look deeply at the border between the United States and Mexico. They each discovered something unexpected – tunnels dug nine stories deep into the ground, stories of smugglers risking their lives to get people across the border, and more – and developed informed opinions of border policies and politics which they organized and shared with the school. From compelling statistics to re-enacting the interception of a border crossing.
Quinn shared a progress report on the development of his multi-player cooperative role-playing game. Working with multiple experts from the game-design world, he’s been learning the difference between good ideas and good game-play and how one evolves into the other.
Max thought that the hardest part about writing a book would be the writing – turns out it was the editing. Max spoke eloquently about the struggles of a writer – the blank page, the distractions, the self-doubt, the plot problems – and how he worked through them to finish his first novella. We were gripped by the action in the excerpt he read.
From the department of Be Careful What You Wish For, Madison and Zada may have thought that they were “getting away” with something when they proposed the creation of a mythical island as a project for maps, but when the work started and questions started coming up they realized that there might actually be more work in really inventing a culture than just studying one. When every narrative invention leads to a “why,” they wrestled with what history really is.
It seems like a simple question: “will comparing seemingly unrelated kinds of data on a map reveal previously overlooked relationships?” Isaac wanted to build a map of San Francisco that he could use to explore different kinds of data. He set about to draw every street in every neighborhood in San Francisco and mastered the basic drawing capabilities of Adobe Illustrator, one of the more inscrutable tools in the Graphic Designer’s toolbox. Like a monk working on an illuminated manuscript, he transcribed and interpreted the pixels painstakingly into vectors that he could work with. His work-in-progress result may communicate more about his tenacity than his data (some of which he lost when his laptop died). At one point, Isaac pulled up Natasha’s layered transparencies to explain how virtual layers work in Illustrator, much to her delight.
Henry is the first to admit that a climbing wall is a bit of a stretch as a project for maps (aside from the “you know, climbing routes” argument), but there is an audacity to the project that appealed to the whole school. He will be coming back this summer to finish it up, but it is already inspiring to see it rising above the cork floor. Working with Josh and experts from the local climbing gym, he shared with us the process of developing and refining his ideas and plans until he had something that would be fun to climb, feasible to build, and safe to use for years to come, handling the questions with confidence as he hung monkey-like from his structure.
Here at Brightworks, we don’t always look for “done,” which can so easily be a disguised version of “stopped,” choosing instead the more elusive but valuable condition of being good work with deep emotional and intellectual investment.
Science is not a subject, it is a perspective, a philosophy – a framework for understanding the world. Contrary to cultural trivializations, a scientific approach can make the world seem more fabulous and more bewitching – as fantastical as any great fiction.
Noah and I were playing with some seeds from a large maple tree that I spent some time under this weekend. The seeds of this maple were particularly graceful helicopters as they drifted down in the afternoon breeze. I filled a cup and brought them to the school, and it wasn’t until after-care that I remember to bring them out. Noah and I tried launching them from various places around the school until we found the perfect spot upstairs in his band space. After dropping a few, we discovered that some fell slower than others – “they’re better at flying,” said Noah. Much careful observation followed as we slowly emptied the cup, one pair of flying seeds at a time.
Noah evolved a set of useful terms for describing each flight test; “spin-y”, “drop-y”, and “diver.” These terms, unconsciously developed, helped us codify our observations. Perhaps later we will start sorting the seeds into categories using these terms as labels, then we might try to see what characteristics the members of each category has in common, perhaps even going so far as to make a taxonomy of morphologies, published as a field guide to maple seeds, with a beautiful frontispiece and marbled covers. But for today, we were happy to watch them float down, spinning, dropping, or diving as they were wont to do.
There is a unique quality to the sound of Expression; it is quiet industriousness punctuated by exclamations of glee and frustration, it is playful and serious, it is Brighworks as we imagine it to be. That was today.
The best projects challenge us in ways that force us to inventory everything we know and everything we know how to do to find a solution. Every idea that comes up is heralded, championed as “the way!”, clung to desperately as it fails to hold up to scrutiny, and then quickly abandoned or re-imagined – the healthy cycle of innovation.
As I worked with various projects today, I was pleased to hear the mixture of agonized torment and celebratory invention. It is good to have hard problems to chew on, good to wake up in the middle of the night with a new insight. This is why we do it.
Life is complicated sometimes. You make plans, they go awry. You think you are on a path, only to find yourself standing in a field with no idea how you got there. Things happen, and over time, you learn not only how to make the best of the situation, you learn how to make it the best possible situation.
Justine took the helm with the Flying Fish (pinch-hitting for Mackenzie, who is fighting another of our famous viruses). Justine is a writer, so naturally, they started with writing. Her way of talking about words held the kids in so enthralled that the family that was here for an admissions interview asked if “all the kids are so quiet and focused.”
Gever visited the Fish just before lunch to discuss the anatomy of paper airplanes, helping the students identify the important parts of the simple aircraft so that they could talk about the pros and cons of the various designs. Then he showed them how each of their planes could be improved with the application of a bit of careful refolding and sharpening of creases.
We enjoyed a hot lunch together. Debbie and Evan put out a hearty spread of bratwurst from Wisconsin and a sesame-garlic broccoli salad with pear tomatoes (delicious Hetch-Hetchy water on the side). The hot lunches continue to serve as amazing social anchors in our little community.
Many lessons were learned about their steering design, about grade, and about the rolling friction of the tires. Also, Ben did a nice job of calling the testing phase complete after two crashes (no injuries). It takes some self-control to not just find the steepest, tallest, curviest bit of path you can when you have a new go-cart.
Near the end of the day, Gever (who is currently feeling a little bit awkward about talking about himself in the third person) demonstrated a fun way to fly a paper airplane on a moving slope. He folded a very simple tumbling floater and then drove it around the room by pushing air up underneath it with a flat sheet of cardboard.
Brightworks is showing that education can be engaging and compelling, full of wonder and amazing experiences. In the first four months of school we have had more than thirty visiting experts, more than twenty-five excursions to sites around the Bay Area, and four local artists in our artist-in-residence program. Educators around the country and the world are contacting us daily for inspiration to bring back to their own classrooms and communities, and we love sharing what we have learned in order to further the national and international dialogue about educational reform. We are creating a new type of learning experience, and it’s changing how people talk and think about education.
This is a transformative time for us, and you can help. Make a tax-deductible donation this year in order to help Brightworks succeed. We are a very low-overhead organization and every dollar we receive goes directly to helping create life-long learners and world-changers.
Have something to share with our students, or time to volunteer? We love visiting experts, and we can always use a helping hand around the school. Contact Justine to schedule a visit or learn about upcoming projects that you may be able to help out on.
Have a wonderful 2012, and thank you for supporting Brightworks,
– Gever, Ellen, Justine, Josh, Mackenzie, Chane, Anthony
[late edition, Monday update]
According to sources on wordnik, garbology is “the study of a society by analyzing its garbage.” What happens when we look at ourselves by looking at what is in our bins?