Could building houses have made me a better teacher?

I used to build houses. My husband and I spent several years buying and rebuilding homes. We got pretty good at it. I loved the work because I learned so much about building and engineering from start to finish. I learned from structural engineers and builders who helped me turn ideas and drawings into realistic, functional and beautiful buildings.

memories of building

Memories of building projects

I learned to think critically and collaboratively as I worked with skilled people to realize ideas. And I got my hands dirty at every stage; I jack-hammered foundations on a two story beach house, I became pretty handy with a nail gun working along side builders to frame a house, and I even screwed down roofing before storms came through. Getting my hands dirty provided me with new insights and a deeper understanding and appreciate for construction and design. Those insights continue to be of use to me as a teacher and educator.

Two projects I am working on right now are as equally exciting to me as building houses. The first is a collaborative course I have been working on with a Math and English teacher called Data & Rhetoric: Power of persuasion. It is an attempt to design a truly interdisciplinary course that crosses the fields of statistics, english and design. We floated the concept for the course over a year ago; it would be different in structure and execution from a typical high school course. What was conceived though long conversations and real uncertainty about whether the new model would even be allowed to fly is about to start in just over a month. As I compare building houses to creating a new type of course I see some similarities in the process:
  • we had to be able to visualize it,
  • we had to be able to help others understand it (talk, share, show),
  • we had to believe in it even before there was anything to show (class sign ups, curriculum mapped).
The second project is at a different point of conception. Our school’s action plan includes initiating capstone experiences for students. Where to begin? As I think back over the analogy of building houses I feel like we have already begun the work of envisioning capstone experiences by creating and exploring a number of prototypes and programs. During the last two years we have been tweaking our Independent Study model which has provided insights we can draw on. My hunch is that from those insights a new and exciting model for Capstone is already forming.


As we start to sketch out what our Capstone ‘structure’ looks like I imagine different pathways, alternative avenues, and most importantly, flexibility because not one size fits all. Our students have such diverse needs and interests–and some don’t even really know what they are interested in by their senior year–so we need to design something functional and human-centered to meet that diversity. We have our work cut out, but like all creative projects I am invigorated by the possibilities and potential.


I wonder if I will build better houses in the future because of what I am learning about creating new structures and learning experiences for students?


Colleges are experimenting with a variety of ways to scale and democratise learning in higher education. Some really big name schools are involved. The article Heard: MOOCs Growing From Standford to Georgia Tech to MIT to Udacity to Udemy describes the rise of Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs.) A number of high caliber colleges have been experimenting with this model and there have been some surprising repercussions including things like well known professors leaving to join start-up companies who want to connect successful ‘learners’ with prospective employers. Is this model going to test whether ‘college’ is the only pathway to highly desirable careers ?

Coursera is a venture described in the article. Coursera’s aim is to make “the best education in the world freely available to any person who seeks it.”  As of writing this post it offers 198 courses from a stable of 33 colleges and universities world wide. There are just under 1.7 million people currently enrolled in MOOCs through Coursera as stated on their site. You can watch Daphne Koller’s TED Talk, cofounder of Coursera, to hear about what she and her colleagues have been learning from their work.

I started my first MOOC course on Oct 22.

While I’m not new to design or using design processes I value the opportunity to keep learning and expand my knowledge. I jumped at the chance to enroll in this course on design partly because of the topic but also because I am curious about MOOCs. In this Coursera course I have about 5,000 or so other classmates from countries all over the world. This morning I have spent time not just doing my homework but browsing the forum and connecting with people. There are all sorts of activities and extra-curricular connections springing up from Facebook groups, twitter hashtags, and even Video blogs (like this by a student living in Germany who is keen to share how she’s tackling the challenges we are set.) I find myself in an interesting collective, a term described in the book A New Culture of Learning and one I keep thinking about as my experience in a MOOC progresses. It is quite the adventure and its only been two weeks!

Here’s a short reflection about my design first project.



Yearbook work flow

In 2007 we shifted to an in-house production of the yearbook at ASIJ. I found the artificial deadlines that a ‘yearbook company’ imposed frustrated the process and the opportunity for students to gain a ‘real world’ experience of producing a publication. Making the switch resulted in huge benefits; we had more control over the production, and the printing quality improved while reducing the overall costs. Obviously printing companies don’t want everything arriving at the same time. If their main work is yearbooks then they have to collect work periodically to spread out the flow. There have been no regrets with making the shift.

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Making the ‘Type’ video

The rational for making the video was to have a visual resource to compliment other strategies I use to teach students about type. The process of construction was pretty straight forward. I always say to my students ‘begin with the end in mind’ so I started by mapped out on paper the sequence I thought would work (a very basic storyboard). Then, in Adobe Illustrator I created the graphics. Using ‘screen capture software’ I was made each slide in a couple of clicks each. (I use that process quite a bit when creating slides to show only on screen as it is so fast.) Then it was a matter of uploading to Animoto—wow it is awesome to get such a slick result os easily. I thought the first version didn’t quite achieve what I was after so I copied about half the slides again and added them for visual reinforcement. I’m now thinking about creating one on ‘color’.


I am in teaching bliss. I packaged and sent the Yearbook (all 208 pages!!) at the end of last week. It is safely in the hands of our printer in Hong Kong and the students in that class are starting self-directed projects to upload to an ‘online chapter’.

Why am I relaying this? I’ve made it my projects to create some resources that I never get time to play around with. Here’s the first one; an intro video for my Design classes on type categories.