Scratch ON!

A few weeks ago, Ryan and I had the opportunity to attend and run a workshop at the Scratch conference at the MIT Media Lab in Boston…it was awesome. Educators from across the world participated to deliver workshops, give ignite talks and engage in a massive knowledge exchange about one of the most powerful platforms to engage youth in computational thinking and programming.


We had to get a photo opp with the Scratch cat himself.

Mitch Resnick’s keynote address, a tribute to Seymour Papert touched on 5 of his most powerful ideas from “Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas”. One idea that has resonated with me is Epistemological Pluralism, “accepting the validity of multiple ways of knowing and thinking.” If we can continue to promote Many paths, Many styles (the theme of this year’s Scratch conference) throughout our formal and informal learning institutions, I think we’ll see many more faces at the CS table.

Fundraising, Poverty Porn and Transforming Global Development Practice

Reposted from Tammin Sursok’s blog “Bottle and Heels.”

If you’ve recently watched television past 10:30pm on a Saturday night, then you’ve probably had to endure a two-minute infomercial of “Who’s the Boss” star Alyssa Milano, pleading for donations. The infomercial, littered with images of frail children from across the Global South in tattered dusty clothing, drowned in sappy music, mirrors Sally Struthers 1980’s crusade to emancipate children from poverty through the Christian Children’s Fund. In 2014, published a great comprehensive blogpost on why poverty porn, “media which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause”, disempowers communities from affecting change on their own terms. In spite of the growing criticism of poverty porn and other lowbrow tactics which raise money for nonprofit organizations and NGOs, it’s still effective and may be experiencing a comeback. Even when faced with the scandals of organizations who employ these strategies, like the Red Cross’s failure to build more than six homes in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake, the aid industrial complex continues to thrive. For those of us working in the nonprofit/NGO sector who are truly dedicated to ending global poverty, it’s important to evaluate how our communication strategies for raising funds affects our programs, long-term impact and goals. How have these tactics shaped the way the greater issues at hand are perceived by donors and the public?

The global financial crisis of 2008 had a significant impact on humanitarian and development aid organizations. The steep reduction in funding from government donors has led nonprofit organizations and NGOs to aggressively mobilize fundraising efforts around individual donations and private industry. According to a 2013 report produced by Global Humanitarian Assistance, “the largest amount of private voluntary contributions between 2006 and 2011 came from individual giving: at least US$17 billion was raised from the general public.” Nonprofit organizations and NGOs have been competing for shrinking public resources for a number of years, which has likely contributed to the resurgence of trope-filled media campaigns with the goal of eliciting emotional responses to attract individual donations. The unfortunate reality is that depictions of the poor as incapable victims, only breeds paternalistic attitudes and policy which contribute to the cycle of poverty we have attempted to dismantle for decades. These depictions are also inaccurate and illustrate poverty as a singular experience or event. Nonprofit organizations and NGOs are responsible for providing a truthful and diverse narrative of poverty to the public, rather than distorting it for personal gains. Yes, some of the images we often see on television represent some truth, but we rarely see the other side of the coin. A few months ago I went to a screening of Hubert Sauper’s “We Come As Friends”, held by the New America Foundation. The documentary film followed the paths of multiple stakeholders, all relentless in their pursuit of profiting from the conflict in South Sudan. What was most daunting was the narrow portrayal of the people of South Sudan as helpless, clueless and dependent on the West. Throughout the screening, I continuously wondered why the film hadn’t featured programs like UNESCO’s YouthMobile Initiative and the inspiring young South Sudanese creating mobile applications to address community-based issues like youth unemployment, peace and literacy. My friend Njeri Chumo, founder of the Nairobi Dev School, held several successful workshops in partnership with UNESCO and the University of Juba to provide the youth of South Sudan with a platform to rebuild their country. It’s imperative that nonprofit organizations, NGOs and media makers do a better job of highlighting stories from the Global South which exhibit the self-efficacy, creativity, and resiliency of so-called “beneficiaries.” The more these types of narratives are featured in fundraising and media initiatives, the more public support there will be for humanitarian aid and global development programs which truly empower communities and make an impact.

It’s important for anyone interested in donating their time or energy toward poverty reduction and global development to understand that sustainable development will never be achieved if it doesn’t happen organically and internally. For organizations who want to see their missions come full circle, or those of us in the West who want to support sustainable development goals as allies, one of the most effective ways we can mobilize ourselves is to advocate against policies which contribute to global inequality and poverty. Placing pressure on our elected officials who create policies which propagate poor governance, discriminatory trade deals, structural adjustment programs, climate injustice, corporate dominance, etc., is a great way to be proactive at home. If you still want to make a financial donation to an organization, do your due diligence. Thoroughly investigate an organization’s impact record, annual report, hiring practices (locals versus expats), capacity-building initiatives, mission and philosophy. You can also peruse reviews on watchdog sites like Charity Navigator, GuideStar and Give Well, which provide comprehensive overviews of organizational spending, management and history. Above all, advocate for the voices and causes that equip communities with the skills and platforms to support themselves. At the end of the day, charity is just a sticky and painful band-aid.

Good Narrative, Good Game

This was written with my colleague Sarah Giffin from Global Kids for The National STEM Video Game Challenge. REPOST!

Games-based learning is fun, effective and powerful, but it doesn’t come without its challenges. At Global Kids we run a few different game design programs which address social and global issues. One obstacle we’ve faced across programs is immersing our youth in developing comprehensive narratives to support the mechanics, goals and other elements of their games. There’s a ton to cover with the principles of game design and computational thinking alone, how does the art of narrative storytelling fit into all of this and is it a priority?

Powerful games usually have powerful narratives, which can take players on an unforgettable journey. The graphics of a maze game which depict the gradual degradation of a forest from level to level, the tools a sprite is equipped with to bounce back from attack and how the clock counts down with every life lost are all elements which support pieces of a story. It’s these small details, particularly in social impact games, which can engross players in the issues and a call to action. So the question remains, how do we teach youth to tell good stories that are then represented in games? What does that process look like?

At Global Kids, our most successful learning experiences for our youth have begun with deconstructing popular games and exposing them to the array of people and skills who create them, united by one vision. This includes the writer, artist, engineer, product designer, etc. and how they leverage character development, animation, coding and marketing to produce one comprehensive game. This can help educators reveal how games are embodied narrative, where the authors have worked together to construct a world, a series of experiences, and empathized with the game player to prepare a journey for them. Over the last six months, we’ve redesigned pieces of our curriculum to incorporate more time for creative writing, storyboarding and other exercises focused on developing compelling narratives and the vision that everyone on the team is working toward. To support the development of a common vision, like a literature or film class, we facilitate workshops on the hero’s journey before youth start coding sprites or enemies so that they have a foundation to build on. Once they have a clear understanding of their hero’s journey, youth are prepared to determine what the game character (and therefore the game player) knows, what choices the player has available to them, what abilities they have, and what will motivate and challenge them along their journey to the winning goal. We’ve discovered great tools like Storybird to help youth exercise these underused skills in an interactive, collaborative and fun way to support this framework. Equipping our students with robust storytelling skills ensures that they don’t produce games which are lost in mechanics.

For the all the games-based educators out there, what are your tools/techniques for weaving narrative into the game design process?

MozFest 2015: Cracking the Youth Leadership Code

Most practitioners in the DML field would agree that youth leadership is a critical piece of positive youth development in digital learning contexts. Unfortunately, we’re lacking a robust set of strategies to foster it genuinely and successfully. The annual Mozilla festival at Ravensbourne College in London, a gathering packed with unconventional workshops, inspiring talks and community huddles, was the ideal platform to tackle this challenge with members from the Hive Learning Networks and greater Mozilla community.

Under the Voices of Diverse Leaders Pathway, I had the opportunity to run a workshop on the various modes and models of authentic youth leadership. A wonderfully diverse group of practitioners, researchers, technologists and civic hackers participated. I was especially excited that folks from Hive Chicago and Zac Rudge from the NYC Parks Department joined and supported me during the session. After working through two case studies and a sticky-note exercise, it was easy for us to identify common pitfalls when attempting to foster authentic youth engagement. Reflecting back on many of the youth councils, peer education initiatives, hackathons and youth media campaigns we had all taken part in, these were the universal challenges that quickly bubbled to the surface:

  1. Engaging interested but overcommitted youth.
  2. Staying engaged as an adult, but stepping back to make youth feel empowered to make decisions.
  3. Managing constant participation from youth.
  4. Supporting youth to innovate rather than emulate.
  5. Guiding youth to stay on task.

Brainstorming solutions for these issues proved to be more of a challenge. The successful strategies we identified in our work varied across youth engagement models, but all in all we were able to establish the following:

  1. Set agendas so youth can come prepared.
  2. Rotate youth meeting facilitators.
  3. Give youth the opportunity to experience making and directing in collaborative settings.
  4. Provide materials and prompts so that youth have something to work with and a sense of direction.


Participants brainstorm solutions for common issues around youth engagement.


Since returning from MozFest, I’ve had the chance to reflect on the Young Innovators Squad (fka Hive Youth Meet-Ups), a youth-led program supported by Global Kids, the NYC Parks Department and Hive NYC.

I can attribute our growing momentum to a few lessons I’ve learned over the last few months working with our youth planning committee:

  1. Allow youth to define how informal or formal the engagement will be. Sometimes structure works, but structure can also crush the organic and spontaneous environment youth crave in extracurricular activities. Structured activities can also prevent youth from developing the relationships they want to develop.
  2. Develop relationships with youth as soon as possible, and find ways to quickly leverage their skill sets.
  3. Youth have great, timely ideas, let them lead and take the backseat, but make sure to reiterate that you’re always available as a sounding board and jump in when appropriate.

These approaches and many others will be featured on an open-source wiki that will serve as a community for education practitioners, community leaders, researchers and community-based organizations to crowdsource resources to improve practices around creating authentic youth leadership. Community members are welcome and encouraged to contribute various resources including case studies, youth testimonials, blog posts, academic articles and personal experiences.

There’s more work to be done, but I hope it will provide struggling educators with tools to succeed and a place to share their stories. If you’d like to contribute to the wiki, sign-up here! I’m extremely grateful to Mozilla, Hive NYC and the New York Community Trust for providing me with the opportunity and space to tap into such a wonderful community to build upon our work at Global Kids.

Entrepreneurship is a Learning Process Not an App Contest

Every couple of months, a new mobile app contest pops up, promising young people the resources, mentorship, and network to create a software product that will transform their communities and the world.

Of course this is possible, but not everyone is an entrepreneur, founder, creator…and that’s OKAY. I know I’m not the first to point this out, but the number of well-funded competitions has only magnified.

The overemphasis on software product development, mobile application impact and the need to “scale” is disconcerting, because as we all know, technology will not fix the world’s most pressing issues, but youth with the right skills, opportunities and commitment to civic action can.

Youth may not produce a viable product in a week long competition or hackathon, but they do acquire and enhance invaluable life and employment skills like critical and creative thinking, collaboration, negotiation, storytelling, leadership and relevant technical literacy when they are engaged in the entrepreneurship process over time.

Rather than produce a cornucopia of one-off events, which rarely produce sustainable impact, why not extract and amplify the good “stuff” from these initiatives…the hands-on learning processes?

We Should Focus on Entrepreneurship Education

What if the international development, corporate and business communities pumping out these events advocated for the benefits of entrepreneurship education, instead of pushing all youth to be entrepreneurs or inventors with game-changing profitable products?

In 2012 Time magazine highlighted the importance of entrepreneurship education, and that is not synonymous with scaling countless products or starting your own business. Some youth may become entrepreneurs, but many may continue their education or find gainful employment with a new set of skills, which in the long-term can create meaningful change.

This could translate into better governance, more efficient management practices across various industries or heightened self-efficacy and civic engagement. It’d be a worthwhile endeavor to develop more robust programs at the secondary or even primary education level, which encourage youth to think critically, be creative and work with their peers through project-based learning and entrepreneurial exercises.

Why does anyone have to wait until they’re in their mid or late 20’s and go to an expensive business school to learn these essential life and employment skills? (Which isn’t even guaranteed). They should be accessible to everyone from early childhood.

I’m not discouraging youth to apply to the various competitions and contests out there, but it’s important to recognize that there is no killer app for community transformation. Positive change only comes from committed and engaged community members.