#CMK18 – Building The Metaphor Muse

I’m writing a series of posts about my experiences at CMK. They’re not necessarily in chronological order. They’ll all make better sense together, so check back and read the whole series.

At CMK, Carla Rinaldi shared with us powerful experiences from the Reggio Emilia perspective. There’s much to say about her talk, the feelings it raised, and the reminder that there’s a powerful pull at my heart for how she and her teams facilitate learning, but this isn’t that post. I’m thinking that post will bubble up in and around several other CMK reflections.

In this post, I want to take up the idea she shared around documenting the learning process. It’s a habit I’ve tried to perpetuate, and it seems fair and appropriate that I should try to write a little about the project process we went through at CMK.

On the first morning, participants are asked to brainstorm a list of projects they’d like to make or create while they’re at the Institute. The projects are brainstormed prior to any exposure to the materials they might have access to, and groups are assembled in the room and then head together into the Armory, which is the room in the hotel where all of the materials are gathered. Imagine a makeshift makerspace in a hotel ballroom1.

In this way, the goal of getting a thing made becomes the reason to move into the engagement with and discovery around the various bits, baubles and tools that are available for participants to play with and explore. I was impressed with both the theory and the execution of this as a strategy to get people, both physically and mentally, into the experience2.

In a sense, I cheated a bit3.  I came to CMK with the hardware I wanted to work with, sort of, and the idea of the project I wanted to make. So on that first morning, I pitched the thing I came to make. To my surprise, two other teachers enlisted to help make the writing prompt machine come alive.

I’ve had in my head a project for several months, one inspired by a conversation with a friend. I wanted to build a poetry prompt engine, a mechanical way of helping writers jump into a piece of writing. I envisioned a wheel of fortune, but with words and ideas instead of prizes on the wheel, or, more probably, multiple wheels4.

After I had the initial idea, Taylor Mali released his Kickstarter for his Metaphor Dice product, and I was immediately frustrated5.

Man, I thought. He’s already made the thing. Why do I even need to bother anymore?

But five minutes later, I realized that he only made half of it. And made my work easier. All I had to do to make the thing I wanted to make was to take his dice mechanics and translate them into a machine powered by the hardware I came to explore6

So onward into the project.

I came into the room thinking that what I wanted to do was to use motors or servos to spin wheels that would contain elements of the prompts. What I wasn’t at all sure about was how to build the cabinet the wheels would sit on. A cardboard box was the likeliest candidate for the case, but I didn’t know what it should look like or how it should be styled or designed. An old radio was one design inspiration. A second was Cornflake Especially’s rocking chair factory from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. But actually making either of those things made me crazy uncomfortable. Thankfully, my two new project colleagues took up that piece of the work. Whew. They made fast work of my inability to conceptualize the physical design of the cabinet itself.

From there, it was just a matter of time7. We placed our motors. We made some wheels that used the language of the Metaphor Dice.  We got some help from Katie to code a random run time to the motors so that when we pushed the go button, the wheels would spin randomly and land on a different set of responses at the end. We even got fancy, and connected a second micro:bit via radio so that we could control the machine without reaching our hand into the cabinet.

And we had ourselves a prompt generator. Poetry ensued. You can read more about that in a previous post.

Should you wish to make your own, you can grab the code we used.8  You’ll need two micro:bits and a Hummingbird Bit along with three continuous rotation servos and three LEDs. We used two tri-color and one solid because that’s what we had.  Photos below.

Once you get the initial thing going, there’s plenty more you can do with it. We considered a face of wheels that would help you select a genre, an audience, and a topic (I want to write mom a letter about holidays, etc.) but you probably have two or three ideas of your own.  Cool.

Go get them made.

  1. And how wonderfully appropriate is it that the space was called the Armory? []
  2. I’ve written before about how I think often the project part of a PBL experience is a MacGuffin. It’s not essential to the outcome – but it keeps the story, and the learning, moving forward. []
  3. Well, as much as anyone can cheat at such things. I made a plan for my learning and I stuck with it. Would that more would cheat such as I did. []
  4. More on the why in another post. []
  5. You can read more about my first explorations of Metaphor Dice in a previous post. []
  6. That hardware, in case you were wondering, is the Hummingbird. My daughter has been exploring the potential of the Arduino version of the tool, and it was fascinating to me to watch her quickly get to work with it. I also saw that there was a shield that I could use to connect a micro:bit to it, and that was a tool I’ve wanted to play with for a while, so I obtained a shield and a couple of micro:bits, packed up the Hummingbird, and brought them along. To my delight, there were two prototype Hummingbird Bit kits at CMK, so we built with those, instead.  While the kit doesn’t ship until December, there’re already plenty of tutorials online for making and coding with the thing. Wicked helpful. []
  7. A significant amount, actually, as I got really stuck in a set of assumptions that I’ll tackle in a different post. []
  8. It’s here and here in MakeCode, too, should you prefer. []

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