Connected Learning Professional Learning Teacher Inquiry

Hacking Toys and Sparking Revolutions: #CLMOOC as a catalyst for creative and critical thinking


Jenn Cook of the Rhode Island Writing Project created this resource to document and share the local writing project's participation in #clmooc during their 2013 Summer Institute on Teaching Writing.

I have created this resource as a way to document and share our participation in #clmooc during last summer’s (2013) Rhode Island Writing Project’s Summer Institute on Teaching Writing. The NWP’s Invitational Summer Institute is rooted in a 30+ year tradition of bringing K-12 teachers onto college campuses in the summer to reflect on their writing lives, to bolster their teaching practice, to connect with scholarship, and to research new developments and effective trends in teaching and learning. At our site this past summer, we combined the efforts of our SI with those of #clmooc, and we had a truly transformative experience.

Last spring, I agreed to be the CLMOOC Tech Liaison for our site, knowing that it would force me to “up” my tech game. And, it did. I came into this experience as a tentative tech teacher and user in the writing classroom. Sure, I jumped on Twitter every night after dinner, but what did that have to do with teaching? Bolstered and motivated by the energy of the eager tech folks around me, I experimented and played around and figured out a way to make swimming in the sea of tech tools not so scary anymore. So, I am eager to share with you our transformation in the wake of CLMOOC.

[Interesting aside: One of my favorite parts of CLMOOC was (no secret!) hacking toys and plain old messing around with toys in repurposeful ways. I am a self-identified Toy Hacker who, fittingly, lives in Providence, RI, home to Hasbro Toys, founded by Henry and Helal Hassenfeld in 1923, maker of Mr. Potato Head, the original toy hack created in 1952. So, these Rhode Island hacking roots run deep.]

I have posted samples of work completed last summer during the SI: our maker projects (digital intros, toy hacks, hack jams) and plenty of teacher-made vids (using Voicethread, Sparkol, YouTube). I have also included here a few essential handouts that helped frame our practice in terms of digitial citizenship and hacking/systems thinking. Finally, I have included, in my conclusion, some description and analysis of the impact that CLMOOC and the “magic triumverate” of hacking, connected learning, and making has had on our site in Rhode Island.

Digital Intros and Digital Footprints

Our first assignment at the 2013 SI (our entre into Troy Hicks’ Crafting Digital Writing!):

Create a digital introduction to yourself for us, using Animoto, YouTube, Voicethread or Sparkol.

After viewing one another’s vids and discussing the process of introducing ourselves via digital composition, many of us went back to school and used a similar assignment with our students at the beginning of the term. (Pro Tip: anyone can sign up for Animoto and make free 30-second videos)

We tried out other, simpler forms for digital introductions, borrowing from The Daily Create folks at DS106, another CMOOC that welcomes anyone, any time (like the NWP’s #CLMOOC). I highly recommend finding a way to incorporate DS106 into your daily life! Find tons of cool digital composing and storytelling ideas here:

What we noticed about digitally composing an introduction to ourselves (compared to, say, reading a piece out of our Writer’s Notebook) is that it offered lots more room for individuality and creativity. From the tech tool options the teachers had (Sparkol, Voicethread, YouTube, Vine) to the many forms that the content could take (what should we know about you?), each of the 9 teachers in our Institute approached the same exact assignment from different angles and perspectives. This diversity made the “screening” of these introductions feel like a film festival. We loved it so much we watched them all twice.

Following our initial “makes,” we discussed the ethos of digital citizenship and followed the worn paths made by our digital footprints. A good resource for considering Digital Footprint is George Couros: Also see the handout that I’ve attached to this page, one I used in the Summer Institute to get a conversation started about online presence, social networking, and the extent to which each teacher felt comfortable with these tools and systems.

Hack Jams and Systems Thinking

During Week One of our 2013 SI, we introduced the concepts of hacking and systems thinking through an individual Toy Hack, through making paper journals (our Writer’s Notebooks!) out of recycled trash, and then a group Hack Jam with boardgames. We also watched an Ignite talk about Culture Hacking (above) and read some essays on systems thinking in educational settings (links below). These exercises helped us “get inside” the type of thinking and practice we believe is necessary for teachers to thrive and succeed in classrooms that are becoming increasingly structured and scripted. We wanted to graduate teachers who felt empowered as innovators, tinkerers, makers, and thinkers.

The assignment (below) for the Toy Hack, which got us started, was taken from #clmooc:


“Grab an old toy─maybe something that you played with as a kid, or something from the bottom of your kid’s toy box, or perhaps a something that you rescued from abandon in a thrift shop or a yard sale. Study it, consider what it is, think about what it can be. Gather the things necessary to hack it, remix it, or remediate it─your analogue and/or digital tools. Take it apart, put it back together in a different configuration. Add something. Take something away. Make it sparkle. Make it move. Make it light up. Create a digital story, a fan-fiction mash-up, or film a stop-motion animation.”

Figuring out how to transform a toy you know very well into something else purposeful and useful requires divergent thinking, something grownups get out of practice with, in my humble opinion. So, we knew the concept of hacking wouldn’t take hold as long as it only applied to toys and games. How do we hack school? Like Seb Paquet asks in his Ignite talk: How do we find the cracks? How do we fill those cracks with something new, something original?

Our desire to apply the principle of hacking to ineffective school systems led us to an examination of systems thinking, which, in turn, led us to ecological ways of thinking about schools, and then writing, which led us to ecoliteracy and ecocomposition. This is to say that a lot of good can come from a li’l old Toy Hack.

Systems thinking for teachers:

Intro to Systems Thinking (from 1995!!!):

Intro to Ecoliteracy:

Some more on toy hacking from Chad Sansing:

Hacking frees thinking. Hacking gives you permission to break rules and look for alternatives. Hacking challenges the “way it’s always been.”


As we moved into Weeks Two and Three of the SI, this template for our thinking–hacking, repurposing, considering systems–laid a firm foundation for the questioning of school cultures and practices that would arise in our subsequent writing and discussions and, ultimately, in our action and work back in our classrooms.

Digital Stories and Takeaways

At the conclusion of our 3-week SI in 2013, we asked participants to craft a digital composition that captured how their thinking was changed and how they foresee their new digital and connected learning knowledge impacting practice in the 2013-14 school year.

A Constructivist MOOC’s Impact on our Site

I began participating in CLMOOC in June 2013, and soon, my Summer Institute co-facilitator joined me there. By the time we were ready to begin our Summer Institute in July, we were so engaged in CLMOOC that we decided to incorporate the principles and the assignments into our Institute. There were nine teacher participants and two facilitators, and we took parts of the CLMOOC and mixed them together in a way that made sense to us for a three week Institute: Digital Intros and Tools, Hacking and Repurposing, Systems Thinking and Connected Learning.

We were happy to discover that quite a few of the teachers in the SI had savvy tech skills: a library media specialist, in particular, and a handful of younger teachers who were all over cool apps and embed codes and ways to edit video and link Vines. Everyone got on board the digital express right away, even though a couple teachers were vocal about not having any prior knowledge to put to use. The HIVE effect took hold every day during the SI, though, a busy buzzing table, alive with power cords and screeching delight because “It worked!” and “Come look at this!” We helped each other; it was a digital workshop (see photo above). We were witness to the fact that the digital world brings a whole new kind of wonder into the classroom. It also brings all the secret tech experts out of the woodwork! Who knew?

CLMOOC also brought back to our site the idea of teachers as artists, as creators, designers, players, laughers, makers, builders, thinkers, problemsolvers. It reminded us, like MIT’s famous Lifelong Kindergarten, to see our teaching “in the spirit of the blocks and fingerpaint of kindergarten.” There is just simply not enough play in schooling and formal education, so we seek alternative spaces where learning can interface with laughter and silliness.

Since our Summer 2013 CLMOOC experience, we have had several events at our site that have featured the principles of connected learning. We held our Summer Institute Renewal Meeting, for the first time in over two decades, somewhere besides our college campus. In a city rich with art outlets, we decided to visit the “Locally Made” exhibit at the RISD Museum in Noveber for a full-day fieldtrip excursion. In addition, Digital Composition and Hacking/Tinkering were proposal categories on our Call for Proposals for our annual Spring Conference in March, which this year features 4 digital sessions and 3 sessions on creative hacking/repurposing in the classroom. Finally, we are in the beginning stages of planning a partnership with our local National Parks Service Memorial here in Providence, the Roger Williams Memorial, which feels like an extension of CLMOOC simply because it is rooted in and local community and an urban green space and it is connected to local and national history and story. Additionally, we look forward to our 2014 Summer Institute and more MOOCs from the NWP. I feel a shift at our site. We are looking outward more; CLMOOC helped us reimagine, redefine our community and our resources. It has also infused our site’s culture with something new, exciting, limitless, and malleable.

Karen Fasimpaur, in her excellent post about CLMOOC,, describes it as this: “Wanting to emphasize this effort as a connectivist peer learning experience, they called it a massive open online “collaboration” rather than a “course. Designed for educators, #clmooc was focused on the ideas of creating things and the do-it-yourself ethos of the Maker Movement. It was open to anyone interested in making and creativity and learning, and the entire experience was grounded in Connected Learning principles.” Connect. Collaborate. Create. Make. I can feel how these principles and practices introduced to us by last year’s #clmooc have transformed our site. We were waiting for the right kind of inspiration to come along, and I think this is it.