No. 39 • 2021-07-23

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It’s not easy.

A few weeks ago, I asked: After a year of remote learning, what can we take back into the classroom? Here’s another thought on that topic.

As Instructors, we are predisposed to make things appear easy, for a variety of reasons. One is simply as a motivational tactic… we tell students “it’s not hard” (even when it is), to try to avoid early frustration and discouragement. If we make it sound easy, maybe it won’t be as hard for them. But the more common reason is that an experienced teacher has taught the material many times before. As with all things, mastery of the material does make it feel “easy”, even when it’s not. And I think we internalize that feeling and sometimes forget that a topic or concept is not easy at all.

Over the past year, instructors facing teaching online experienced the opposite: the enormous difficulty of creating instructional videos or other digital content. All of us (students and instructors) have access to an incredible amount of high quality learning content on YouTube, and let’s be honest, YouTube is the primary source of learning content for our students. I don’t mean that these videos are misleading, rather that both the amount and the quality reinforces the notion that they are easy to produce. There’s usually a high degree of technical, pedagogical, and video production experience that goes into creating a well-crafted learning video.

It’s also true that it’s never been easier to be a digital content creator. I’m not referring the common reaction to the latest TikTok: “That got a million views? Hmph, anyone could do that!”. But making a good video no longer requires a big studio and lots of expensive equipment… You really can do it with your phone and a laptop. There’s a huge industry of tutorials and how-to videos to show us just how EASY it is to make content: videos, music, apps, etc. So, it’s never been easier, but that doesn’t make it easy. It’s an entirely different skill set from creating a good classroom lecture or in-person activity. And it takes an enormous investment of time and practice to become proficient. Anyone who took on this challenge last year had to learn many new skills.

The forced shift in perspective from the past year could benefit our students (and improve our teaching) as we start preparing for a new academic year, whether in-person (fingers crossed!) or online. Too often, we forget that education is not a simple or automatic process. It’s difficult to teach and learn new material at any level in any circumstance. Lean into your experiences with online and digital content creation to let go of the idea that learning should be easy. It’s not, and sometimes it’s really hard. Instead, let’s embrace the degree of difficulty, emphasizing the challenging but rewarding nature of learning for our students. I believe that’s something truly useful we can take away from the last year. 

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Why Aren’t You Making Math Videos? [3Blue1Brown] If you’re interested in making great learning videos, here are tips from one of the best (Grant Sanderson). He’s also launching a “Summer of Math Exposition” contest for math learning videos (deadline August 22).
  • Butter [VoicePlay, featuring Deejay Young & Cesar De La Rosa] I dare you to sit still through this a cappella cover of BTS’ mega-hit!
  • Helium Life Jacket [VOCES8 with Elsa Bradley & Calie Hough] A beautiful ambient vocal arrangement and performance of this piece, originally by composer Slow Meadow (Matt Kidd), shot in super widescreen.
  • 007 Theme [MayTree] Like many, I’m eagerly awaiting the new Bond film. Here’s another great rendition by this Korean a cappella group.

What I’m creating…

We just posted the latest episode of our new podcast, So, Where Do We Go From Here?, featuring an interview with Philly hip hop artist, educator, and activist Ellect (Steve Tyson, Jr.).

Check out the music video for the single, “Degrees” and his album, Intellectual Property.

Ep. 2: Steve Tyson, Jr. (Ellect)

So Where Do We Go From Here podcast

In this episode, we speak to Philly hip hop artist, educator, and activist Steve Tyson, Jr. (Ellect) about producing an album, music videos, and working on a dissertation within the constraints of the past year.

Ellect (b. Stephen Tyson Jr.) a musician, educator, and activist. He is the founder of JusListen Entertainment LLC, a multimedia arts company that promotes critical thinking and freedom of artistic expression through Hip-Hop culture. As an educator, Ellect has a strong passion for youth development with over 20 years of experience in the field. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at Arcadia University where he is also earning an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership. As a musician, he has earned over 1 million streams across digital service providers and has performed at legendary music venues throughout the northeast USA. In addition, Ellect has written and produced music for “StarTalk Radio” and was featured as a guest on “Sway In The Morning”, where he discussed his passion for hip-hop culture and performed live on-air.

Here’s a link to his latest album, Intellectual Property, available for streaming.

The music video for the single “Degrees” is available on YouTube.

Listen here or subscribe

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No. 5 • 2020-06-03

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“I Still Can’t Breathe” (from 2016, in response to the killing of Eric Garner) is performed by The Chester Children’s Chorus, written and directed by CCC founder (and my inspirational Swarthmore College Chorus director), John Alston.


In a “normal” week, this newsletter is about optimism, highlighting new creations that point towards a better future. But this is not a normal week… Not when black people are murdered by those sworn to protect. Not when our city and many others are burning. Not when more than 100,000 people in our country (largely people of color) have lost their lives to a pandemic, the spread of which was highly preventable.

Standing with those protesting the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Tayler, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, this issue is devoted to justice and equity for black Americans. To those who’ve sent in items, new works and initiatives for the newsletter, thank you, and I’ll return to those in due course. But in this moment, I feel we must focus on the state of our nation.

It is abundantly clear how the media we’re exposed to shapes our perceptions. Everyone was horrified by the video of George Floyd’s murder, and so many have rightly risen up to demand justice for him and so many other lives casually snuffed out by those with privilege and “authority”. We are united in our empathy and outrage.

Now, while broadcast media fixates on looting and property destruction, countless disturbing videos of rampant and unchecked police brutality and vigilantism disseminate mostly through social media:

Widespread recording and livestreaming is having an impact. But it also places greater responsibility on individuals to be our own curators of information, not just passive observers relying on others to make sense of it. My wish is for social media platforms to embrace this challenge, providing better tools for individual curation and organization, though I’m not feeling particularly optimistic about that.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • #BLACKLIVESMATTER [ELLECT] Philadelphia musician and activist ELLECT, aka Stephen Tyson (also adjunct professor and doctoral student at Arcadia University), recorded this song in 2016. 
  • Dear CEOs of Philly Tech [ Philly] Advice from Kiera Smalls, Executive Director of Philly Startup Leaders, to the tech community.
  • A history lesson [Erica Buddington] An epic Twitter thread of the history of racial protest and oppression in the United States. Incredibly detailed with so many incidents I was unaware of.
  • Research-based solutions to stop police violence [Samuel Sinyangwe, co-founder of Campaign Zero] A Twitter thread from 2019 summarizing solutions to stopping police violence backed with evidence.
  • Anti-racism resources for white people [Compiled by Sarah Sophie Flicker, Alyssa Klein] A starting point for becoming better allies in combating racism.
  • “I can’t breathe… again!” [Nick Cannon] A powerful spoken word video from the well known actor, producer, and rapper in reaction to George Floyd’s murder.
  • 7-day online protest [The King Center] A daily livestream from The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (through June 8).

What I’m creating

Racial inequity not only exists, but self-replicates in all fields, particularly in the STEM disciplines of higher education and the tech industry. Here’s my TEDxPhiladelphia talk from last year on how the digital divide is wider than ever.

Photo by Grace Shallow, via Philly