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Changing the World: One App at a Time

For the last few weeks, this TED Talk, in which Daniel Tammet explores how perception impacts learning and understanding, has been rolling around in my head. From the moment I saw it, I knew I needed to add it to my list of “must watch” TED Talks for school librarians, but that didn’t seem like enough.

Not able to shake the feeling that there was more for me to learn, I checked out Tammet’s memoir Born on a Blue Day from the public library and devoured it in an afternoon. While much of the book is a pretty linear recounting of Tammet’s experiences living with high-functioning autism and savant syndrome, there are moments of stunning beauty in which he describes how he sees the world. For example, the section in which Tammet explains his perception of prime numbers - numerical expressions so beautiful, peculiar and constant, that he often turns to them for comfort in the face of an uncertain and frequently cruel world - is incredibly moving. I’ve read that section several times, tearing up with each new passing. Plus, as someone who has spent her entire life avoiding math,  I couldn’t help but think that if Tammet had been my math teacher in elementary school, my life may have taken on a whole different trajectory, but I digress.

What may be most remarkable about Tammet, however, is not his mastery of languages (he learned conversational Icelandic in one week) or his ability to calculate complex math equations without so much as a number two pencil. Rather, what strikes me as really extraordinary about him is his choice to live publicly and share generously the details of this deeply personal journey. In the book, Tammet discusses his need to have a bowl of porridge each morning that weighs precisely 45 grams (he weighs it every time just to make sure) and how changes to his routine make him nervous and agitated –and yet he goes on book tours and speaks to a room full of geniuses at TED. I mean, let’s face it, most of us aren’t that brave or generous, and our brains don’t freak out if our morning corn flakes are underweight. Tammet’s mission is singular: to open us up to the idea that there’s different ways of thinking and knowing things – and that those differences effect how we learn. By sharing how he learns, Tammet hopes we'll think more about how others do.  What’s more, this message is so important to him, he’s willing to experience personal discomfort in order to spread it.

At this point, I’m tempted to ask if we, as educators, consider and appreciate the various ways our learners perceive the world and how that impacts their learning or even if we're as dedicated to our mission as Tammet is to his. However, I’m afraid I know the answer.

Anyway, as fate would have it, just as I’ve been engrossed in all things Tammet, I also stumbled across a photography app called WordFoto. Essentially, this fun little app provides the user with the ability to create, (what can be really lovely), image/text mash-ups: a digital marriage of self selected words and pictures that I just love. My first experiment with the app was one I created using a found image of Tammet and prime numbers. It started off as creative therapy, a way to produce something from all the ideas that were bubbling inside me.  However, the more I found myself referring back to his book to help me make decisions about colors and shadows, etc., the more I started to think about how this process might look in the school setting. Soon, my mind was buzzing with ideas about students using WordFoto to create images for book jackets, thematic displays or as part of the research process.

Then boom! I get this tweet from super-fab elementary school librarian Beth Redford who was not only reading my mind, apparently, but who had taken the idea to the next level with a creative commons licensing component. So cool!

But really, all of this is just the tip of the, proverbial, iceberg.  For awhile now, I’ve thought I understood the benefits of mobile apps in education. Had I been asked, I would have touted their portability, their relatively inexpensive cost, the ease with which they allow schools to access up to date technology and how they help prepare students for using such devices in the real world. But I’ve been missing the boat… at least in part.

What I’m just now realizing is how mobile apps provide us the opportunity to explore and honor the different ways in which students perceive the world, by giving them chances to interact with and change it. Let me give you an example: Whenever we ask students to locate, explore, discover or create [insert concept/product here], and then give them a stack of resources that we’ve either physically collected or curated online, their responses and creations are limited by our imaginations, perceptions and biases. No matter how good our intentions, no matter how many online options we offer, even the most expertly crafted opportunities for inquiry that tether students to a single room, (even if that room is filled with computers), offer a finite number of outcomes. In the end, more than just bringing the world to our students, mobile apps allow us to bring our students to the world – prompting a messy, but important, collision of ideas and perceptions. Even if that “world” is just our own campus, the insertion of our students into it, (along with their individual ways of knowing things), not only creates an infinite number of possible outcomes, but also, (and  more importantly), sparks conversations and interactions that change that world for the next explorer.

I know I must sound like a broken record, but I believe this is an exciting time to be a school librarian. While much of the discussion surrounding our field focuses on reinvention, (and believe me, some of that is needed), I don't think our overall mission has changed that much.  School libraries have always been about connecting our students to the world. Back in the day, we did it only through books and other print materials. Then the internet helped us exponentially expand those connections with just a few clicks. Now mobile apps present us with the challenge of rethinking those connections and the relationship between our students and the world they explore through research and inquiry.  Instead of just bringing the world to our students, these digital marvels allow us the opportunity to bring our students to the world - and as a result, neither will ever be the same.


Even though a link to these can also be found in the comments, I wanted to share these AMAZING shelf labels that my new hero, Eliterate Librarian, made using WordFoto.  They are an incredible addition to her new shelving adventures -sans Dewey that is.  I love these and would steal them, but since she's also licensed them under Creative Commons, there's no need. Bravo, girl!


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