Of Rectangles and Magnets

image of pieces of paper for faculty design

I have drawn a lot of outlines. As a high school English teacher, I often had students use pencils and blank, unlined paper to sketch ideas for storylines or essays. As often as I pressed for the paper version, in these digital times, students would often do the drafts on the computer and use Word or something to outline. Especially if I did not demand a paper version first.

That’s okay. I suppose that some did see the story, the opportunities, the tangents, or the structure more clearly in a brightly lit rectangle. If I were still an English teacher, I would still press for a pencil and paper outline of any piece of writing. Better yet, color pencils with fun doodles illustrating possibilities.

When working with faculty on course content, I try to get them to draw out the parts on paper first. Some do. Some don’t. For some time, I had a bunch of 11 x 17 paper in my office for that purpose. More space to think about what goes where and why. And space is important in course design. It is part of the pace and the scaffolding. Courses live in time and space, so when we wonder about applying the possible activities and orchestration, space should be made visible. And that can happen on a blank piece of paper.

With many faculty, the story we are sketching is something that will live part of its life in Canvas. And whether modules or pages, there is this strange vertical nature to the ordering. So, I sit with faculty and draw rectangles that represent some activity or interaction, some reading or some assessment. Eventually, no matter how hard I try to keep them out of it, they end up like a stack of neatly organized bricks.

I love crafts. I love to make things. So, I made these happy rectangles with some nice color and words on them. I named them a number of the parts that might be created in a course design. When I next worked with a faculty on designing a class, I shared them with him. Instead of drawing the stuff on a big piece of paper, we moved the rectangles around till the story made some sense. He used them. He moved them around like a three-year old with Lego blocks.

He took notes. He took a picture of the story. He left and went back to his office and created the next draft in Canvas.

But something was missing as we moved them around on the table. The messiness, the possibilities, and the connections that make up the paths we take though learning were not visible to me. I needed wavy lines that went nowhere and question marks. I needed adjectives and verbs and happy faces.

Somehow, I imagined that if those colored rectangles could be made magnetic, I might be able to place them on large whiteboards. Like so many refrigerator magnets telling a story, the parts we had made up to describe parts of the story might stick together on something I could draw on.

I bought some sheets of magnets and stuck that stuff to the paper. And It stick to magnetic whiteboards. Soon, we will have a room with really big magnetic whiteboards to we will have lots of room to draw our stories and make the visible to possibilities.  For now, they are on rolling whiteboards.

We have yet to try the magnetic version out live. I hope it works. If not, I’ll have to follow some other path in the storyline and see what happens next.