From Fired to Firestarter

Three years ago this week I was fired from one of the best (and worst) jobs I’ve ever had, as an inner city high school computer teacher. In the past ten months I have spent time in ten countries on four continents. This wouldn’t be such a big deal for some of you, but I just got my first passport 11 months ago and had not left the United States since 1991 (back then I traveled by battleship so a passport was not required).

By Kissimmee FL — Own work, Public Domain,

A few months ago, while visiting Amsterdam (for the fourth time!), a new/great friend Joek van Montfort introduced me to another colleague with these words:

This is Derek Breen from America. He is a firestarter.

How did I go from fired to firestarter in three years? The short answer is I (re)discovered instructional design, built/nurtured/exploited my personal learning network (PLN), wrote/designed/published a book for children (and adults) which embodies 3 of my core passions (design/programming/education) and said “Yes!” to (practically) every invitation to teach what I love that trickled (then flooded) in.

In edition to French and German, Dutch, Chinese, Portuguese, Hungarian and Russian are also coming soon.

How did I go from fired to firestarter in three years? The long answer is. . .

I first heard the term instructional design about four years ago. I was working full time at a charter high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, dividing my time between teaching computer classes for older students (sixteen to eighteen years old) and serving as a technology specialist for the entire school (which had students from twelve to eighteen years old). After my first year I asked the head of school if he would consider paying for me to attend one graduate level course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT was just a short walk away from our school and is one of the most respected technology institutes in the world, so I thought it would be a no-brainer. But the head of school said he did not have enough money in his budget to pay for a class. Fortunately, he had hosted several interns from Harvard University the previous year and had been given a waiver which could be used to cover the cost of any course. Far be it from me to argue for MIT over Harvard, especially as Harvard was also located within walking distance — wouldn’t it be great if more students could grow up studying between Harvard and MIT!

While I had my sites set on taking an educational technology course at MIT, there were no such courses available at Harvard which would fit my busy work schedule. The one class which would be easiest for me to integrate into my weekly calendar was called ED103: Introduction to Instructional Design which met just once a week on Saturday mornings. I am tempted to say those Saturday mornings would change my life. . . they did. . . but while the job title of Instructional Designer was new to me, I had actually begun the practice of instructional design almost thirty years before, when I was thirteen years old.

That was not my first job, though. I began delivering newspapers each morning before school when I was eleven years old. My primary motivation was to save enough money to buy my own computer. I am forty six now, I am talking about an eleven year old wanting to buy a computer way back in 1982, two years before the first Apple Macintosh and ten years before you could click hyperlinks to browse the internet. I would not only be the first person in my house with a personal computer, I would be the first one in my entire family, including grandparents, aunts and uncles. I was in sixth grade when I began the paper route at a school where not one computer was available for students to use, so when I began saving I was an eleven year old who had never even TOUCHED a computer before!?!

How I first became aware of computers and what you could do with them remains a bit of a mystery. What I most wanted to do with them was to create my own videogames. My favorites at that time were Space Invaders and Missile Command which I would play over and over again at the bar where my mother was a cocktail waitress. I had no idea how the games were developed, had never seen so much as one line of code, but I intuitively understood I would enjoy constructing them. . . And I still do.

By Evan-Amos — Own work, Public Domain,

It took over a year to save enough money to buy the Commodore 64; it would have surely taken far longer but I got lucky midway through the year when my appendix burst. I spent a week recovering in the hospital after the surgery and it would be several more weeks before I could continue delivering papers. My mother and younger sister filled in for me so I would not lose my route. Gradually the word spread, not only that I had been so ill but also about my goal to save enough for a computer, which I don’t think anybody in my working-class neighborhood owned then. By the time I began delivering papers again my weekly tips had increased substantially. I guess this was my first experience with crowd-funding.

Public Domain,

I spent most of the summer before seventh grade inside, reading hundreds of pages in thick manuals and carefully typing long lines of code as I struggled to learn how to program my new computer in a language called BASIC (which stands for Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). You might think I would have wanted that summer to go on forever, but by the end of August I was growing frustrated with the manuals and was looking forward to starting seventh grade at my new school. For this would be the start of junior high school where there was an entire classroom filled with computers and I was among the students registered to take the school’s first computer science elective. My teacher, Mr. Forge, was one of the best I would ever have, filling many of the gaps left by my home studies, and by the end of the school year I was a bonafide computer whiz kid.

But what does this have to do with instructional design? When did I become an instructional designer? That was at the beginning of my next school year, when I was thirteen years old. Mr. Forge took me aside on the first day of eighth grade and told me he thought I would be bored because it would be several months before he would be covering programming concepts which I hadn’t mastered yet. Then he asked if instead of coming to class I would be interested in going down the hall to the resource room, to work with students with mental disabilities. Back in the mid-eighties such students were educated apart from the so-called normal kids. I was the right guy for the job, despite my young age, because they had the only Commodore 64 in the entire school — we used a more limited computer called the TRS-80 in the computer science classroom. So I began presenting short lessons for the children in the resource lab, drawing on my favorite tips and tricks gathered from computer manuals and from Mr. Forge’s computer science class.

By Blake Patterson, CC BY 2.0,

Now my ultimate goal of instructional design is to honor the educational legacy of my mentor’s (Cynthia Solomon) mentors (Seymour Papert and Marvin Minsky).

The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge. -Seymour Papert

The secret of what anything means to us depends on how we’ve connected it to all the other things we know. That’s why it’s almost always wrong to seek the “real meaning” of anything. A thing with just one meaning has scarcely any meaning at all. -Marvin Minsky

So I aspire to craft learning environments for students of all ages and leave room for me to discover what they bring into it in the hopes what they bring out of it might be (at least slightly) enriched.

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