Continually Pairing Literary with the Device

“Reflections on Literature Using the Raspberry Pi and Magic Mirrors”

November 17, 2016

So, as I sat down to write this, I spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out where to begin. As many of you know, I’m not much of a “blogger” personally or professionally, but I felt like this would be an opportunity to exercise some recapitulations and provide some insight into my newest undertaking. In some veins, the past three years of incorporating the Raspberry Pi and microcontrollers into my literature classroom have been trying. Many of my projects tend to fall into a complicated category: one that’s asking teachers to not only integrate the highest levels of English curricula but to also integrate far more than a neophyte’s use of “maker technology”. Furthermore, I do use neophyte purposefully; there is an urgency, pull, and call to the current maker movement that is sweeping our halls of education, not only by storm but by lights, servos, jarringly-off-course drones, and robots come alive. I have felt that urgency, histrionically heard that call, and I do know that, while aspects of this journey are trying, interest in blending our student writers, authors, editors, and makers is growing.

To speak to the rest of this three-year journey…well, it’s been awesome: I’ve spurred articles written about our room by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, NJEA magazine, EdSurge, and others; we’ve had Classroom Close-up film us for an episode, catapulting us onto the TV screen; I nerve-wrackingly presented a TEDx Talk on my ideas; had my students raise money to send me to California to become a Raspberry Pi Certified Educator somewhere in-between; and I’ve spent countless hours traveling the Northeast to learn from, meet with, and inspire teachers who have this interest. My students and I have tried projects that have been wildly successful and ones that leave a bit to be desired, but we have learned that the most exciting part about all of this is the trying. To my students’ testament, we’ve created video games based on Dracula, built the telescreen from 1984, coded a King Lear text adventure that looked like the 1980s game, Zork, and remade a Raspberry Pi resource project into a competitive Macbeth game. As we work, we look towards our future projects that are high-reaching: replicating the coffin movements from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, implementing a classroom automation system, using NFC/ NDEF to construct a credit system for our in-class point system, and reusing the NFC cards to randomize our Dungeons and Dragons literary device monsters. Nonetheless, there is now one project in our sights that has consumed all of our attentions: “Reflections on Literature Using the Raspberry Pi and Magic Mirrors”.

So, imagine this scene:

Across the large expanse of bulletin board in the back of my room there are six, evenly spaced mirrors. These mirrors are nestled into wooden frames, which are securely mounted to the board, and are jutting from the wall by about six inches. Behind each of the mirrors and within each of the frameworks lays a monitor connected to a Raspberry Pi, each running a variety of modules from Michael Teeuw’s Magic Mirror set-up. Around these mirrors, the rest of the board is decorated in a myriad of drawings, sentences, words, and graphics that are all visually interconnected through the use of LEDs, paper circuitry, conductive paints or markers, and electroluminescent wires.

And, now that we’ve imagined it, why am I doing it?

To start, I am absolutely stuck on this idea of reflection. For this project, my students have to engage in some hearty research (much to their dismay), taking time to independently read a book of their choice from the AP Literature curriculum and then write an eight to ten page paper upon said book. Now as agonized as they are by this prospect, I always try to weigh the intellectual evenly with the physical. Therein, for most of my classroom activities, I find it advantageous to have them work with both their hands and minds in order to understand a text. Since they’re reflecting on a text, it only seems natural to create a project driven by this aspect of reflection.

In a discussion with the Network Administrator of our district, Joe Emerson, I had explained my prior thoughts: to have an interactive mural display what the students have learned from all of their book choices. He loved it and thought the project had great potential but then added the proverbial cherry with, “I just keep seeing these cool projects where people turn mirrors into a touch screen type device where it will display the weather and calendars and stuff. I'm sure there could be some type of application for this”. Thus, this led me directly to the highly popular project making rounds online. I decided that we could make profiles for every book within each of my classes. Each profile on the magic mirror consists of information revolving around the main character of the book and the events that occur. Fundamentally and luckily, all this takes is the adjustment of some module content.

To flesh this out a bit, here are example ideas for some modules:

Compliments Module: As triggered by morning, afternoon, and evening times, one can have different phrases pop up on the screen. Online, I’ve noticed users’ phrases run the gamut from “Have a good day!” to “You are epically beautiful!”. I figured that students could randomize the contents under each trigger to mirror the thoughts of the characters during either that time within the text or the representation behind that time. As in, I could see students portraying careful, Party-approved messages for Winston Smith in the morning and afternoon, but as the day wanes, his Brotherhood leanings become apparent.

Calendar Module: Since the module will pull the events from a public URL, I imagine that the students could create a current Google calendar populated with real and perceived events from the perspective of their main character. Easily, I could see students populating Jane Eyre’s calendar with items such as “3 – 4PM: Eerie experience in creepy room” or “All Day: Marry Rochester”. Given that location details and notes can be added to the Calendar, it would serve to be a great running timeline for the students themselves as they read the book.

Twitter/ Instagram Module: These would have running feeds of the public profiles, and since it is fairly popular (though overdone) to create a profile for a character, this would be another way to add character voice to the project.

Meanwhile, the students are gathering evidence and ideas from their texts and articles, hopefully creating a harmonious work environment where they create a real-life display that is backed by the brunt of their research. With the magic mirrors in place, the rest of the mural will be dedicated to quotes and analysis. I’m almost imagining a board then covered with lights denoting certain ideas or running threads of concepts and analysis. Ideally, there would be parts of this where they could connect simple circuits to reveal even more information about the text in some way.

As you can see, this project is in its early stages. My classes and I are in large-scale discussions of how to best do this and what they ultimately want to see. Parts of this will certainly evolve, but the core of it will remain true. Accordingly, I’ll plug our donation page if you’ve found yourself taken by our work. Aside from that, I encourage you to share this out, to think about it, to then share those thoughts on it, and to add any helpful comments or ideas for us. I think in some ways it’s easy to forget that our English classes are fraught with makers, ones who are usually constrained to the eight by eleven page, but they are ardent, efficient crafters who, when gifted with the right mediums, glow.