John Spencer: The Creative Power of Limitations – TEDxPennsburgED

John Spencer leads us into a counter-intuitive discussion about limitations and how they actually promote creativity, instead of stifle it. Filled with research and anecdotes, this talk will challenge your thinking on what makes us most creative.

John Spencer is a Professor at George Fox University, founder of the digital writing platform “WriteAbout”, author of “Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard”, and former middle school teacher. John write about creativity and learning at

Alan Snyder: Reawakening Agency in Students – TEDxPennsburgED

Dr. Alan Snyder shares Lehigh University’s growth of their Mountaintop Program, where students have revived the maker movement while tackling big problems. Student agency comes alive when ownership and creativity are part of the learning process.

Dr. Alan Snyder is Vice President and Associate Provost for Research and Graduate Studies at Lehigh University. Alan has worked to make the university’s research environment and its rich connections with human concerns of value to all students.

Edward Clapp: Creativity as a Participatory Process – TEDxPennsburgED

Dr. Edward Clapp looks at creativity as a participatory process, and how this drives much of what we celebrate in our creative history. Beyond the biography of creative individuals, we should be looking for the biography of creative ideas to understand the need for collaboration and participation.

Edward P. Clapp is a senior research manager and a member of the core research team working on the Agency by Design initiative —an investigation of the promises, practices, and pedagogies of maker-centered learning —at Project Zero, an educational research center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Principal El: Every Kid Deserves Someone Crazy About Them – TEDxPennsburgED

Principal El is an award winning education leader and author of “The Immortality of Influence” and “I Choose to Stay.” As a teacher in inner-city Philadelphia Principal El lead his middle school chess team to multiple international championships. In this talk Principal El shares why every child deserves someone to be crazy about them, and we can be that person!

Beyond Makerspaces: Why We Created an xLab at Our School

I cringe when people ask me, “Are you handy?”

Partly because I don’t consider myself to be the best with tools, but also because it is asking me to judge whether or not I’m capable of fixing, making, or crafting something. Here’s the thing, I didn’t know how to put new shower tiles in and patch up my existing dry wall with cement board when we had a leak last year…but I had a friend help get me started, I watched a few DIY Youtube videos, looked at some articles online, and now I know how to do that (although not too well).

The same thing happens in high schools all the time. The “handy” kids go to shop class, the “artsy” kids go to art class,  the “business” kids go to business classes, the “techy” kids go to web design classes and so on…

It’s got to stop. We can’t continue labeling kids as one thing or another thing. What we know about the future workforce is that creativity, making, and innovating will be at the center of most jobs…and that will require students to be all of the above:

‘Experts predict that 50 per cent of occupations today will no longer exist by 2025 as people will take up more creative professions,’ said Martin Chen, Chief Operating Officer of Genesis.

When we started to look at the research and studies at Upper Perk, one thing kept hitting us again and again: All students need to be given the chance to build (not just make).

The Definition of a Makerspace

Diana Rendina wrote a fantastic article on “Defining Makerspaces” that dives into what actually constitutes a Makerspace, and created this awesome graphic:


While there are many different definitions, most use the term makerspace as a place for making, learning, and collaborating.

That’s why I agree with John Spencer when he said that Theaters are the hidden Makerspaces of schools. And that’s why I agree with Diana, that a Makerspace can be in a library, a classroom, a wood/metal shop, an art room, or even a computer lab.

In my perfect idea of school, every classroom would be considered a makerspace because students would always be making, learning, and collaborating.

In planning for our new Makerspace at Upper Perk two things happened to make us think a little bit bigger. Sure, we wanted students making, working together to solve problems, and learning along the way. We knew the power of a makerspace. Yet, it wasn’t just about the space. We were revising curriculum (you can read about that process here). We took apart our entire K-12 scope of technology education. We wanted to bring in equipment that could literally allow our students to build anything they dreamed of building.

And in the end, we went beyond a makerspace, and built an xLab.

What the Heck is an xLab?

Let’s break down the term “xLab” into two separate pieces.

First, start with the term Lab. The definition of a lab or laboratory is a room or building equipped for scientific experiments, research, creating or teaching. It is derived from early 17th century: medieval Latin laboratorium, from Latin laborare ‘to labor.

And while we can talk about how much “fun” it is to make things and create things, it’s also a lot of hard work. A lot of labor. What you put in to the building, is what you get out of it. That’s the lesson we can learn from some of the greatest inventors and creators throughout history. We also see that most of them worked in some type of lab.

Thomas Edison built and worked in a research lab. Albert Einstein, also worked in a research lab. Nikola Tesla, yep you guessed it, worked in a lab as well. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and Tesla, is also busy building labs for his company.

Now for the “x” part of the xLab name.

The “x” represents not only the unknown, but also the potential and possibilities of the unknown. The “x” means a student can dream as big or as small as they’d like while making, creating, and building. The “x” is opportunity, and one that is not predefined nor judged on standards.

Google’s Solve for X site explains the spirit of “x” in their mission perfectly:

We are a community of scientists, inventors, engineers, artists, thinkers, doers, the young, the wise, men and women from every background across every geography connected by a shared optimism that science and technology can cause radically positive things to happen in the world.

When we took a team of teachers and administrators to Lehigh University’s Mountaintop Program and saw what innovation looked like at the college level, we couldn’t stop talking about the idea of “x” on the way back home.

We had revised our curriculum to allow for a design thinking approach to engineering, robotics, and industrial design. We bought equipment that could transform what our students would be able to make and build (CNC Router, Heat Press, Vinyl Cutter, 3D Printers, Vex Robotics, etc). And we had teachers passionate about giving students an authentic experience each and every day.

The UPxLab came out of many discussions on research, experiences, visits and collaboration across multiple levels, departments, and spaces. And it’s awesome.

This is why I’m helping to run a FREE course this summer on Design Thinking with John Spencer, where I can go into more detail about building the xLab and the process. Click Here to Sign-Up for the FREE Design Thinking Course this Summer.

Building Products to Build a Future

The xLab is still in its infancy. Our programs and course offering are changing and will continue to change. But we know what our purpose is for the xLab.

Students should have real world building opportunities. Making for others can be just as rewarding as making for yourself. Students building benches for the local YMCA and stage design for our TEDxPennsburgED event is a powerful and authentic experience.

Students need to have choice and ownership in what they make and build.

What students learn in other classes will directly impact what they create in the xLab. The same goes for what they build in the xLab will directly impact the type of work they do in other classes. Tying together education and departmental goals is a huge step in multi-disciplinary work that matters.

In the end, it comes down to this: The goal is not to prepare students for something; but to help our students prepare themselves for anything.

Here’s some pictures of the xLab and I can’t wait to keep sharing what ALL of our students are building, making, creating, and doing.

TEDxPennsburgED sign students built and part of our xLab space.
Principal Carpenter watching students design a product on “Inventor” and then cut it using the CNC Router.
Got to have some LOVE in the xLab!
The classroom portion of the xLab space with 3D Printers and Robotics.
The TEDxPennsburgED set design out students at Upper Perk built for the event!

How to Host a TEDx Event at Your School (Like we did at Upper Perk!)

It’s almost here! TEDxPennsburgED is finally happening in one week, and we’ll be broadcasting it live to the world (at Upper Perkiomen High School) on May 7th from 12:30-4:30pm (EST).

The idea and planning began in the summer for this official TEDx event, but as more and more people are asking, “How did you guys get a TEDx event at Upper Perk?”, I wanted to break down our process into five steps (even though it has felt like 500 steps!).

Step 1: Event Type and Initial Brainstorm

The TEDx guidelines allows you to apply for a variety of different types of events.  You can choose between the following:

Standard event

This is the basic event type. It is subject to all of the standard rules, and applies to most events. Learn more

University event

Holding your event for your university? This event type is for those hosted at a college or university, and organized by current university administration staff, faculty or students. Learn more

Youth event

This is a TEDx event organized by, or catered toward, youth and/or kids or school communities. Learn more

Salon event

This is a small weekly or monthly event that keeps a TEDx community engaged between regularly scheduled TEDx events. In order to organize a Salon event, applicants must already have an existing standard license. Learn more

TEDxLive event

TEDxLive is centered around the simulcast of the annual TED Conference. Here, the world becomes TED’s audience. Learn more

TEDxWomen event

A TEDxWomen event is a TEDx event on the topic of women and gender which features the simulcast of TEDWomen. Learn more

Internal event

This is for corporations, organizations, government entities, non-profits or other institutions that want to organize an event under an institutional name. This event type, and the naming exception it grants, is approved only for internal, private, employees-only events. Learn more

TEDx in a Box event

Some communities may not have the resources and infrastructure to organize an event. In these cases, we deliver all the resources needed to organize a TEDx event, packaged in a portable box. Learn more

Library event

This event follows the same format as a standard event, except that it is hosted by librarians at a local library. Learn more

ED event

ED events are TEDx events where educators, students, administrators and others gather to discuss the future of education. Learn more

We ultimately decided on the “ED event” as is demonstrated in our name TEDxPennsburgED. We wanted our community, educators in our district (and surrounding districts), and students to come together to learn from experts around the world.

Next was brainstorming ideas for a date, potential speakers, and learning about the TEDx rules (there is a lot, but all for good reason). Once this was done it was time to apply.

Step 2: Fill out the Official Application

You can apply for a TEDx license here. Reading the rules and understanding the guidelines helps in filling out the application, but I did have to do one revision after filling it out. I choose the TEDx ED license to apply for, but made some mistakes in what the event could be called (we initially wanted to call it TEDxUpperPerk but that was not allowed).

As the curator (person applying for the license) you’ll also have to go into detail about your background, why you want to host a TEDx event, and give some explanation about how you plan to pull it off.

After re-submitting the application…we waited, and waited, until finally receiving the confirmation email that TEDxPennsburgED had been approved!

Then it hit us…uh oh, this is real. What’s next?!

Step 3: Build a Team

The best part about doing a TEDx event at your school or district is how many people are willing to get involved and spend their free time on creating this event! At Upper Perk we sent out a few emails letting everyone know about the event and asking for folks to join the planning committee.

I was blow away by the response. We have over 20 teachers, 9 administrators, and 50 students all playing major roles as part of our TEDxPennsburgED planning committee!

At the first planning meeting we did the following:

  1. Locked down a date and place
  2. Made an initial list of speakers to contact
  3. Decided whether it would be a full or half day event
  4. Came up with a theme for our event (An Innovative Learning Culture)
  5. Talked about the timeline
  6. Discussed what potential roles and sub-committees there would be
  7. Discussed who would be invited as part of our 100 guests

Our team has grown and multiple people have taken on roles that have brought this event together. I can’t begin to say how proud I am of our team and the work they have done so far!

Step 4: Speakers and Audience

One of the most difficult pieces of any TEDx event is inviting the right speakers and actually getting them to accept the invitation. TEDx rules are specific about not paying speakers, and also not allowing any selling from the stage.

Our planning team discussed having a variety of speakers from across the education spectrum, and we were able to create a speaker lineup of a student (a 10th grader at Upper Perk), teacher, principal, professor, college president, associate provost and researcher.

Our student Pooja Girwarr was one of 12 students in our district that applied to speak at the event, and after a few rounds of interviews, I’m so happy to have Pooja represent the student body at Upper Perk and the entire community!

Here are the rest of our speakers for TEDxPennsburgED:

John Spencer

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 11.34.09 AMJohn Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, Arizona. John has written several education books, and the popular young adult novel titled “Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard.” John is also the co-founder of technology writing platform, Write About. John is a national speaker on education, creativity, and the power of story.

Principal El

thomas-elSMALL-06-1Salome Thomas-El is a Principal in Philadelphia. As a teacher a Vaux Middle School Salome led a group of inner city students to 8-international chess champion titles. He has since written the books “I Choose to Stay” and the “Immortality of Influence” while being featured on CNN and as a regular contributor to the Dr. Oz show.

Dr. Edward Clapp

EPCheadsshotDr. Edward Clapp is a Harvard University Professor and Senior Research Manager of Harvard’s “Project Zero”. Edward is a leading voice in the design and maker movement around the world, and is an international speaker, who has also written and produced an off-broadway play. Edward is an international speaker on education and design.

Dr. Karen Stout

KStout_2014 (1)Dr. Karen Stout is the President of Montgomery Community College and the incoming President of the national organization Achieving the Dream. Dr. Stout has led a national movement to raise up community colleges and fight for the achievement of all students at the post-secondary level. Karen is an international speaker on education and leadership.

Pooja Girwarr

POOJAPooja Girwarr is a 10th grade student at Upper Perkiomen High School, and has been in the school district since she was in Kindergarten. She has been involved in various organizations throughout her years of schooling at Upper Perkiomen. On her own time, she strives to fundraise money to support research to find cures for childhood cancer. Pooja is very excited to represent the school with her talk, “Becoming That Little Kid, Again”.

Dr. Alan Snyder

alanDr. Alan Snyder is Vice President and Associate Provost for Research and Graduate Studies at Lehigh University. Alan has worked to make the university’s research environment and its rich connections with human concerns of value to all students.

We discussed as a team what the audience could look like. In the end we settled on 50% of invites sent to folks living and working in the Upper Perk community, and 50% sent out to surrounding districts and areas. We had administrators, teachers, and our area Chamber of Commerce help distribute these invites.

Still, we wanted to make sure that anyone who wanted to watch this event could be able to take part in the live experience. To that end, we worked with UPTV (our HS TV studio) and AVT to pull off a live stream for the event. You can now watch TEDxPennsburgED live on the website on May 7th!!!

Step 5: Details, Details, Details

We are still a few days away from the big event. Our teachers, students, and custodial staff have completely revitalized our Courtyard area for a reception after the event.

Our teachers and students at the HS have been busy building the set for the stage (it’s so awesome). They’ve made the TEDx letters, signs, and so much more.

We have a group of students from our Elementary school showcasing apps and games they’ve made with MIT App Creator and Scratch during the intermission time period, our local Robotics club is putting on a show during intermission, and our MS and HS students are showing the things they are building and making on a daily basis with computers, 3D printers, CNC routers and much more!

Our play director and HS English teacher (she’s fantastic) has taken the lead on fleshing out many of the details and I’m so happy to have people invested into this event like her and the many others that are putting their own time, energy, and experience into making this event one to remember!

I hope you join us on May 7th at 12:30pm EST to watch TEDxPennsburgED live on the website

I’ll be sure to write a follow-up post about this event, but I’d also love to see some other schools and districts apply for a TEDx event at their school or community. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s also been a lot of fun!