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The Kids Take Over | Linux Journal

As with Linux, these kids are all about making things—and then making them
better. They’re also up against incumbent top-down systems they will reform
or defeat. Those are the only choices.

It starts here, in the heart of Long Island, a couple dozen exits east of
Queens. I saw it with my own eyes in Mineola’s Public Schools, where kids,
led by a nonprofit called kidOYO (“kid-oh-yo”), are learning to program in
different languages on different devices and operating systems, creating
and re-creating software and hardware, with fun and at speed. Their esteem
in themselves and in the eyes of their peers derives from their actual work
and their helpfulness to others. They are also moving ahead through levels
of productivity and confidence that are sure to create real-world results
and strip the gears of any system meant to contain them. Mineola’s schools
are not one of those systems.

OYO means Own Your Own, and that’s what these kids are learning to do. In
geekier terms, they are rooting their own lives online. They’re doing it by
learning to program in languages that start with Scratch and progress
through Python, Java, C# and beyond. They’re doing it on every hardware and
software platform they can, while staying anchored to Linux, because Linux
is where the roots of personal freedom and agency go deepest. And they’re
doing in all in the spirit of Linus’ book
title: just for fun.

With kidOYO, the heuristics go both ways: kidOYO teaches the kids, and the
kids teach kidOYO. Iteration is constant. What works gets improved, and
what doesn’t gets tossed. The measures of success are how enthused the kids
stay, how much they give and get energy from each other, and how much they
learn and teach. Nowhere are they sorted into bell curves or given
caste-producing labels, such as “gifted” or “challenged”. Nor are they
captive to the old report-card system. When they do take standardized
tests, for example the college AP (advanced placement) ones for computer
science, they tend to
kick ass.

kidOYO is the creation of the
Loffreto family: Devon and Melora, and their son
Zhen, who is now 13. What started as a way to teach computing to Zhen
turned into ways to teach computer science to every kid, everywhere.
kidOYO’s methods resemble how the Linux kernel constantly improves, with
code contributors and maintainers stamping out bugs and iterating toward
ever-expanding completeness, guided by an equal mix of purpose and fun.

""

Figure 1. Melora, Zhen and Devon Loffreto

Before we met, I had assumed, from Devon’s writing style and deep knowledge
of stuff, that he was a gentleman perhaps of my own age, or even older. So
I was surprised to find that he was not only a youngish guy, but also a New York
state high school champion baseball and basketball player who went to
college on a sports scholarship—also that he looked a stunt double for
George Clooney.

I’ve also known for a long time that what kidOYO does is important. But my
mind wasn’t blown by it until I obeyed Devon’s invitation to see their
approach at work. That happened on Groundhog Day in February of this year.
(An album of pictures I took on that visit is available on the Linux Journal Flickr
site here.
Many of the links in this article go to captioned photos in that album.)

Mineola is about as prototypical as a middle-class New York suburban town
can get. It’s a two-square mile village of about 20,000 in the heart of
Nassau County, located between Long Island’s north and south shore and
home to about 1.5 million people. The Mineola Free Union School
District, however, is anything but typical. I’ve never seen a
public—or
any—school system with its feet equally planted in the digital and the
physical worlds, or as determined to help kids master both. For example,
all three schools I visited had created social and hacker spaces, called
Coding Centers, within their libraries. The books and the stacks still
mattered, but so did the ability of kids to research, learn and teach
together using computing and related gear, such as 3D printers and
programmable robots.

Standing in the Coding Center at the Mineola Middle School, surrounded by
kids doing amazing stuff on their Chromebooks, Dr. Michael Nagler
(@naglersnotions), superintendent for the district, gave me the backstory
on how kidOYO got involved:

Three years ago, my wife signed our son up for a coding class these guys
were putting on. So I drive my son out there, and I’m watching
what they’re doing, and I’m impressed. I ask Dev, “Why aren’t you in
schools?” He says, “The schools won’t talk to us.” So I say, “Well, you’re
talking to one now.” We worked to help adapt their platform for schools,
starting with ours. And I mean all of ours. We jumped in the deep end,
starting with the little kids and pushing it up through high school. And
now we’re on this three-year journey, so far, during which everything
changes. Constantly. The little ones get the skills, and they roll up. Now
I have to adjust my next level, and do it waaay faster than I have to with
any other curriculum. Right now, for example, for the AP Computer
Principles course in high school, they’re doing the learning path for Hatch
1 and Hatch 2.

Later, when I asked Melora in an email what Hatch was, she replied, “Hatch
is an app within OYOclass that uses the Scratch programming language. Here
are two projects made in Hatch: one
by 10-year-old kidOYO Student ‘Lucy’ and
one
by me.”

Dr. Nagler continued:

Meanwhile, my sixth graders are already finished
with it. So by the time these sixth and seventh graders get to ninth grade,
my expectation is that every student in the district is taking AP Computer
Principles. That’s going to replace our Exploring Computer Science class.
And then we build in connections. So we’re doing Arduinos here in the
Middle School’s sixth grade, and simultaneously in ninth grade in the high
school. Then, as the younger kids move forward, we’ll change the ninth
grade setup.

Since Maker Faire New York is a great place for kids from everywhere to
show off their maker chops (and where I first met the whole Loffreto
family), I asked Dr. Nagler if they had plans for that.
He responded, “We merge CS and computational thinking with making. We have a whole design
and creative thinking framework tied to our mascot, the mustang. We make
ways for the kids to conceptualize, design, iterate, prototype, test,
refine, go, back, and build things.”

I asked, “How do you deal with the variety of kids who are already on this
path, plus other kids who want to come in and need to catch up, and
eventually have everybody in the school doing AP-level work on computers?

He replied:

A couple ways. First, it’s not an elective. Here in Mineola, every kid
has to do it. They also have to do it in their subject classes. So we tie a
coding project to a curriculum project. Every grade has to do three a year.
We also teach it both independently the OYO way, and in the existing the
formal way, cycling kids through CS classes, for example here in this room.
I think we’re unique in that we don’t want it to be a formal class. I want
CS to be ingrained in everything we do.

I asked, “How do you see this scaling and spreading?” And Dr. Nagler said:

We constantly refine what we do so we can share it in ways that can be
adopted by other districts. I’m a big open-source guy. Sharing is key. So,
for example, I’m taking the kidOYO platform and building an open computer
science curriculum in social space. The beauty of their platform is that it
lets me build OER—Open Educational Resources—using their concept of
learning paths, which we also work on together. Dev also built me a
community that I can share with an organization I belong to called the
League
of Innovative Schools, which is a national organization. We can
crowd-source content there. I built a sample curriculum unit I can push
outside New York to other states. By crowdsourcing we already have a ton of
content on there.

(Later, Melora clarified what’s
happening here: “Dr. Nagler is building a repository of open curriculum of
all subjects currently taught in school. The CS curriculum comes from
kidOYO.”)

""

Figure 2. Dr. Nagler and His Brain

At this point, Devon
joined the conversation. “Tell Doc about MC2.”

“Right. It stands for Mineola Creative Content, and it’s a video production
studio. We do fun learning videos, which are a basis for the learning
pathway here.”

The opening text on the MC2 site
explains,
“This community showcases open educational content and other materials from
the Mineola School District….Our school district is dedicated to the
#GoOpen movement, which supports sharing educational resources.”

“It’s all about #OER—Open Educational Resources—and open
source”,
Dr. Nagler explained. “We use the videos here in the district, and we throw
them out to the world where everybody can use them.”

Look
up “Dr. Nagler” on YouTube, and you’ll find lots of them. He’s the
star, as both a mentor and an animated character. There’s even one video
where he talks with his own disembodied brain, which speaks through his
signature goatee. He explained further:

An important context is that there is no central repository of educational
materials in this country, because they’re all locked up by proprietary
publishers. What we’re doing here is a way to get around that. And I have a
lot of flexibility. I can market MC2 as a school district entity, and not
worry about all the copyright restrictions. It’s all made to share.

I asked him, “What happens after these kids graduate?”

They’re going to change the world. That’s clear. We’re also all dealing
with astronomical change in the technical environment along the way.
Constantly. This makes everything very hard to predict. Look at my 2019
high school graduates. They started Kindergarten in 2006. Even from just
2006 to 2009, the technology advances were astronomical. And then look what
happened in the next ten years. Huge. So if I start planning now for where
Kindergarten kids will come out at the end of the next 12 years, I’m
already lost. But if I trust the process we have in place already, I’ll be
fine. We’re driving it, and the kids are driving it too. It’s a constant
cycle.

I replied, “We also live in a world where giant companies are working to
contain those kids’ agency inside corporate silos. Some of those silos also
spy on everyone constantly. How do you deal with that?”

The common denominator is CS, and the flexibility within it. There’s
freedom in that. I’m not going to force you to master, say, just one
language. I’m going to get you on a platform where you can play with any
and all of them, learn quickly and well, and apply whatever language you
like toward building something. And because we’re merging the making and
the coding, your next question will be, “What will this code do?” The
answer is, computational thinking will always push you toward solving
problems. If you look at the big picture, content already is readily
available to every kid. And content has always been our specialty, as a
school. But with CS, the kids learn to master that content in many ways.
That’s key. Kids need to know and feel they’re on top of things, that they
Own their Own. You can’t lock up that kind of confidence and competence.

I asked, “What about curricular necessities? The mandates that come down from the
federal and state level?”

Dr. Nagler replied, “We’re still a public school, and we do have formalities. For
example, here in New York every kid has to pass the state Regents
Exam. We teach to that, but we also make sure there’s no way a kid
graduates without exposure to computer science.”

My next question to him was “And you trust that’s going to equip them, once
they’re out?”

It’s more than that. Working with kidOYO, we’ve developed something that
not only should be replicated everywhere, but needs to be. Here’s the
important thing: there aren’t enough people who know computer science who
can also teach it. So when you figure out a way to virtually do it, to
scale the knowledge outward for everybody, it’s a big deal. The investment
I make here probably cost me one teacher’s salary. But it scales to the
whole district. In fact it’s the only way to scale up computer science
through schools, because the current credentialing system is too slow, too
top-down, and formal training is too far behind the curve. The kids and
their mentors are moving too fast for that.

Watching the kids, and listening to this, made me wish I could show it all
to John Taylor
Gatto, possibly the most highly regarded (and often awarded)
teacher in the history of New York. Gatto famously quit his job after 25
years in protest against what he listed as called the seven lessons he was
actually paid to teach:

  1. Confusion
  2. Class position
  3. Indifference
  4. Emotional dependency
  5. Intellectual dependency
  6. Provisional self esteem
  7. That you can’t hide

What I saw in both kidOYO’s and Mineola’s approaches were well crafted ways
to fight all of that. Their systems are rigged so every kid progresses and
every kid succeeds.

John Taylor Gatto died last October, but I hope his ghost was listening a
few minutes earlier when Melora explained to me:

We have no lowest common
denominator, because everyone succeeds. There are 12-year olds in this
program that a 7th-grade teacher wouldn’t look twice at in an ordinary
classroom, but in fact are outstanding programmers. And choice is key.
When Dr. Nagler brought this program to his schools, it wasn’t just for a
select few kids. He wanted it to be open to everybody. And everybody has
the ability to choose anything they want. It’s a totally different ecosystem
from what you’ll find anywhere else. And he’s gracious enough to reach out to
other school systems to help them break down their own classroom walls. One
of the things he preaches is that you have to believe. That’s a requirement
of being on the cutting edge. The failing forward principle works for
everybody too. It’s a model that works.

""

Figure 3. Jordan Chaver and Connor Scott, Co-hacking in the Coding Center at Mineola
Middle School

The spirit of helpfulness and failing forward also fosters kids’ confidence
that they can weigh in with solutions of all kinds. To show me how that
works, Devon took me over to a table where Jordan Chaver and Connor Scott,
a sixth-grader and seventh-grader, were working together on something.
Devon said:

These two guys are your app builders. They came with us out to
Stony Brook University for some of our software program there. Jordan
pitched them on building an app on iOS, which he already knew how to do.
But there was not a single mentor in the room who knew what Jordan was
trying to do, because in university CS, they don’t want to work in a closed
environment. So we transitioned the challenge over to the web, because what
we really needed was a web-based app with database functionality. So that’s
what these kids are building here. And there isn’t just one app. There’s a
set of them. There’s one they call Social Emotional. There’s another called
Class Dash.

Then Devon asked the boys to demo Class Dash. Connor pulled up a
Chromebook, angled it toward me and said, “Let’s say you have a research
paper. One that’s big and complicated. And you press Submit. Behind this
you have something kind of like Dropbox, where you can share documents.”

Devon explained, “They’re sharing all their class assignments in a
firewalled white-spaced environment where they don’t have access to their
emails. So this is a simple way of sharing inside that environment.”

Connor continued:

You also have this five-character ID code. Jordan can
type in the code, and he gets the same exact document. So can anyone else
with the code. The idea is to share something with the class in a way that
avoids complications. We’re also in a class play, Once Upon a
Mattress
,
which is based on the Princess and the Pea. I’m the Prince and Jordan is
the Wizard. So Jordan made this schedule for all the performances, where
you can buy tickets, and so on.

On his Chromebook, Jordan showed me his
page with the schedule next to a graphic of the play’s title. He then gave
Connor the five-digit code for access to the schedule, which then came up
on Connor’s Chromebook. (A picture of that is here.)

Connor again: “Right now, I’m adding a way to lock a document. Let’s say
that Jordan is the teacher and he finds a spelling error in my document.
I’ll add a button you can click on to see if anybody has updated the
document.”

Jordan said:

Let me tell you more about Class Dash, which I did for Stony
Brook. It’s a student-teacher companion app. It has multiple uses, but the
one that’s currently available is called Schedule. It covers notes,
teacher, room, and supplies. I play drums, so drumsticks are an example of
supplies. I also have Instant Messaging Teacher. The idea is, if you have a
homework question, instead of emailing the teacher and getting a response
the morning after, the teacher gets a push notification on their phone.

Class Dash will first hit the market in April as an iOS app, because that’s
Jordan’s plan. Other versions will come after that.

Joseph
Malone, also 12, is at the same table, hacking AI algorithms.
Devon said, “Joseph here is spinning up his own virtual machine and
generating algorithms to train his AI to run his scripts. He’s going into
OpenAI, playing with AI algorithms, modifying them, and putting them to
use. It’s neat stuff, and it’s also huge.”

""

Figure 4. Joseph Malone

Melora told me Joseph is also helping out by volunteering a stream of
challenges, solutions and badges for kidOYO courseware. “He does all the
work himself, and makes it open and available to everybody.”

“We’re fully networked here,” Devon added. “No need for back-end support.”
Meaning no external corporate dependencies. kidOYO and its
participants—learners (they aren’t called students), mentors (they
aren’t called teachers), parents, schools—all work together and for
each other, as a “community of communities”.

They’re also not moving at the speed of anybody’s clock or anybody’s
class. Although they’re sure to change the world, that’s not the goal. In
fact, there is no long-term goal. The journey is truly the reward, and the
journey is called the learning path. That’s what matters. It’s not seen, or
built, as a way to plow through the status quo, even though that’s one of
the things it does. Neither Mineola nor kidOYO want to burden kids with
anything other than the need to master their digital worlds and to
advance their mastery constantly.

The Middle School was the second one we visited in Mineola. The first was
Hampton Street School, which is Pre-K to 2nd grade. There we saw clusters
of five- and six-year-old girls
and boys
in the library’s Coding
Center,
hacking away on school-issued tablets using Scratch, which is free (as in
both liberty and cost), open source and runs on anything. They were doing
this both by
themselves and collaboratively.

With kidOYO, all the kids know they are working to expand both their own
skills and those of other kids. There also are rewards along the way, such
as on-screen fireworks and badges. After a bit of working on their own, the
kids’ work is shown on a screen for review by each other and Melora, their
mentor. (The learner/mentor relationship is central to the kidOYO system
and practiced in the Mineola school system as well.) Devon later explained
what was going on: “Melora was reviewing the process of getting challenge
submission feedback from mentors, as well as introducing them to a new app
called Sprite Editor that we recently released for kids to create art they
may want add to their Scratch, Python or Web-based projects. Often it’s
their own video game character art.”

When one
boy failed a particular challenge, he embraced it, knowing that
FAIL means “First Attempt In Learning”. Three
girls came over to help the
boy out. It was interesting to watch how they knew their job wasn’t to jump
in with the right answer, but to help the boy learn what he didn’t know
yet, so he would have the satisfaction of succeeding for himself. This was
far more sophisticated and mature than I normally would expect of
2nd-grade kids. Instead, I would have expected kids that age to show off what
they knew or one-up each other. But that’s not how the kidOYO approach
works.

""

Figure 5. Kids Helping Each Other “Fail Forward”

Have you ever played the red/black
game? It tends to be taught in
self-improvement retreats and workshops to show there’s more to be gained
from cooperation than from competition. My point in bringing it up is that
it’s damned hard to teach adults how to deal with each other in ways that
are as empathetic, helpful and vanity-free as what I saw as normal behavior
among these little kids.

At Hampton Street, Devon spent most of his time working with a 2nd-grader
named William Ponce, who clearly was grooving on what he was doing.
Later, Devon wrote to explain what was going on:

Here is
William Ponce’s portfolio. Every kid has one. You can see
badges he has earned. If you click on one of his “Mastery Badges”, you will
see the “Learning Pathway” that he navigated in earning it, displayed as
evidence in the badge. Clicking on the micro badges will also show you the
badges earned on his way to the mastery badge.

In
this photo, you see William earning his first Mastery Badge. Since we
left that class, you can see he has earned two more already!

""

Figure 6. Devon Loffreto Mentors William Ponce

Our third stop was Mineola High School, which has a Fab
Lab and
manufacturing facility. “We actually source product from them”, Devon told
us on the way over. “For our
store. Coding is the underlying
infrastructure, but it’s applied everywhere.”

The Fab Lab is beyond impressive. It’s as big as a lumber yard and has lots
of machinery, materials and students making stuff. Ken Coy, one of the
five teachers who collaborate to run the lab, explained:

We do it all.
Welding, electronics, coding, Arduino, hand tools, computer tools. We bring
it all together here. We have all the old traditional tools that were
around in wood shop days—drill press, band saw, lathe, tools for
sanding—plus all the new stuff that’s both manual and computer
controlled. Large format printers, laser cutters…

When I asked him about Linux, he brought me over to the shop’s Linux CNC
(Computer Numerical Control) computer, running
Ubuntu and attached to a
Probotix controller and a router
(not a network router, but a powered
woodworking tool that cuts with bits or blades). In the design class space,
Andrew Woolsey (@WoolseyDesigns) showed me a CNC controlled laser cutter
where the students were tracing, carving and printing out parts for art
projects, signs and much more (which occupied students working on adjacent
tables). He also showed me a printer as wide as a piano churning out
student portraits and posters of amazing quality, including ones for the
Mineola Robotics Team (@mineolarobotics), which is
always competitive (or
so it appeared, given the awards and posters hanging on the shop wall).

""

Figure 7. Linux in the Fab Lab

I don’t often see stuff that makes me wish I was 14 again, but
Mineola High School did the job. Walking around the Fab Lab, the library
and the halls, I didn’t see a kid who wasn’t upbeat and engaged, or a
teacher who wasn’t the same.

To me, however, this isn’t just about education. Or learning. It’s about a
sea change in the world, caused by digital technology in general and Linux
in particular. And it’s not a small one. As sea changes go, this one is on the
scale of Snowball
Earth or maybe larger.

Not long ago, I was talking with Joi Ito, who runs the MIT Media Lab, about
historic precedents for what we might call our species’ digital transition:
the one by which we become digital as well as physical animals. Was it as
big as the Industrial Revolution? Movable type? Writing? Speech? Walking on
two feet? Joi said, “I think it’s the biggest thing since oxygenation.”

Oxygenation caused life as we’ve known it since then. What is the digital
transformation causing now?

Marshall McLuhan taught that our tools are extensions of our selves, and
that they shape us after we shape them. He also said every useful new
technology “works us over completely”. That’s what’s happening in our new
digital age, and it’s still just beginning.

At this early stage, it’s easy to take a dystopian view of what becoming
digital does to kids. It is also easy to take a utopian one. Both are
extreme outcomes that surely won’t happen. But what will?

Aristotle said there were four causes: material (what something is made
of), efficient (what makes it happen), final (the purpose) and formal (the
form or design of the result).

These kids’ learning paths are full of material, efficient and final
causes. To them, those are computer programs (material), programming
(efficient) and rewards at every step (final). But the formal cause I saw
behind them, the design of OYO itself, is a great leap forward and outward
in the useful work of individuals and the societies they make.

There will be downsides. One of the ways new technologies work us over,
McLuhan said, is with bad outcomes. We already can see some, such as the social
isolation that comes from staring at glowing rectangles all the time. Every
parent I know laments the degrees to which their children are lost in the
phones and tablets they carry everywhere, and how they can so easily hurt
each other through unkind things said at safe distances in the physical
world and zero distance in the networked one.

But the OYO approach maximizes positive social interaction by making it
constructive for everybody. OYO doesn’t work unless people are good to each
other and good to themselves—and by making stuff constantly and being
creative.

""

Figure 8. Our Future’s in Good Hands

If this approach spreads, and I expect it will (mostly because the old
industrial education system is better off adopting than competing with it),
the hands in which we are leaving the world will be good ones.

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