Talking About Systems: looking for systems in the news (and not)
Email this Post Email this Post

Archive for the ‘Children’s books’ Category

Why Bucky, and why now?

I’ve finished the manuscript for a children’s biography about Buckminster Fuller, and now I wait.  The editors in New York City and beyond are chewing him over, deciding if today’s middle school kids will find “Bucky” — most famous for his geodesic domes –  interesting, compelling, worth their time.

Bucky and his Fly's Eye Dome and Dymaxion Car

I, of course, will talk to anyone and everyone about Bucky (I’ve written about him here).  Somehow I managed to weave him into a conversation with the cashier at the grocery store the other day.  My kids think I’ve lost it.  I now call my dog “Bucky” despite the fact that his name is Rugby.  The walls of my office are plastered with sketches of Bucky inventions:  a fly’s eye dome, a 4D tower delivered by zepplin, rowing needles, a mechanical jellyfish.

So, why am I so hooked?

For me, a twenty-year plus systems educator, one of the most compelling connections is Bucky’s focus on synergy.

Over forty years ago, Bucky popularized the term, reminding audiences around the world that synergy was “… the only word in our language that means behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the separately observed behaviors of any of the system’s separate parts or any sub-assembly of the system’s parts. There is nothing in the chemistry of a toenail that predicts the existence of a human being” (Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, 1969, p. 78). One of the many benefits of understanding and even designing for synergy, is the opportunity to get off that problem solving treadmill, where our “solutions” often only create more problems or make the original problem worse. (See more benefits here).

Looking back at myself as a student forty years ago, my curriculum was for the most part compartmentalized: science was taught in one class, math in another, English in yet another, and never the twain shall meet. Such a fragmented approach reinforced the notion that knowledge was made up of many unrelated parts, leaving me with little opportunity to see recurring patterns of behavior across subjects and disciplines, to look for synergies, or for that matter, to think or talk about “whole systems.”

My teachers were preparing me for a world in which “new technologies” like the computer were just beginning to play a role, and though I didn’t know it at the time, the middle-aged gentleman teaching “computer science” was desperately trying to stay one step ahead of his eager students. With the shock of the gas crisis in the 1970s, came a nascent awareness of the relationship between non-renewable resources and population growth (what we call carrying capacity today).

It was a world that author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman describes as being “characterized by one overarching feature—and that was division. That world was divided-up, chopped-up place, and whether you were a country or a company, your threats and opportunities in the cold war system tended to grow out of who you were divided from. Appropriately, this cold war system was symbolized by a single word—wall, the Berlin Wall.” (Friedman, Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11, 2002, p. 3).

Today, our world has shifted.  We’ve gone from an international system built around division and walls to a system increasingly built around integration and webs, a shift Friedman aptly describes here:

“The globalization system is different. It also has one overarching feature and that is integration. The world has become an increasingly interwoven place, and today whether you are a company or a country, your threats and opportunities increasingly derive from who you are connected to. This globalization system is also characterized by a single word -web, the World Wide Web.” (Friedman, Longitudes and Attitudes, pp. 3–4).

Today’s children are growing up in a world of webs and networks, of increasing interdependence and multiculturalism, of shrinking global borders, and of even more limited natural resources. For students of today, nothing exists in isolation. More and more of the pressing challenges children see in the headlines—global warming, economic breakdowns, food insecurity, institutional malfeasance, biodiversity loss, and escalating conflict—are generated by complex human systems.

Bucky's early sketches of a light-weight aluminum 4D tower, just one of many examples of Bucky's efforts to "do more with less"

Indeed our lives are embedded in systems.

Here’s the wake-up call: Many of us were not explicitly taught skills related to understanding synergy, or for that matter, the behaviors and dynamics of complex systems. That means we tend to see events, parts and fragments when we are in fact, embedded within and surrounded by interconnected systems.  There’s now a lot of research out there, including my own, that deep misconceptions about the dynamics of complex systems persist, even among highly educated adults. Here’s the short version:  when faced with dynamically complex systems—with multiple feedbacks, time delays, nonlinearities, and accumulations—performance is suboptimal, at best.

What to do? Facing a similar question, Buckminster Fuller once said: “If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.”

The good news is, new tools and new frameworks are coming.  Here are just a few examples (send me more if you have them):

Camp SnowballA summer “camp” experience that brings together students, parents, educators, and business and community leaders to build everyone’s capacity around systems thinking, sustainability and leading in the 21st century.

WorldLink:  An innovative media, education and civic engagement organization dedicated to cultivating a generation of “design scientists” who can creatively respond to the most pressing issues of our time. See NOURISH (using public TV and school curriculum to explore food and food systems).

The GeoDome:  Using immersive projection design to understand and have a tangible experience of the planet as a living system.

Quest to Learn: A game-based public school in New York City (brainchild of Katie Salen and team) and in particular it’s “need to know” approach to building twenty-first century skills like systems thinking, creative problem-solving, collaboration, time management and identity formation.

PBS Learning Media:  I’m working with PBS now to integrate systems literacy tools and concepts into digital media for both educators and students.  The pilot will be available in the fall. Exciting!

Student-created simulations of complex systems, game-based learning, portable “learning” domes, repurposed digital media — Bucky, I think, would be delighted by these ways of making invisible connections, visible.

Synergy is just one reason I’ve fallen head over heals for Bucky, that stocky, gentle genius with the owl eyes and coke-bottle glasses.    Read my book about him (when it comes out) and you’ll have fun discovering the other 9 reasons why Bucky is truly a troubadour for our times.

Systems Thinking for Kids: The Kitchen Sink

I pulled together a list of my”systems thinking for kids” work (articles, blogs, interviews, games, teachers guides, etc.) for a possible funder. I thought you all might enjoy browsing through the curated  list:

Learning to Connect the Dots (An article in Solutions, republished in Utne Reader. My best attempt so far at explaining why it makes sense for kids to “think about systems”.  Lots of practical activities at the end.) 

Center for Ecoliteracy: If you cut a cow in half, do you get two cows?(Interview. talking with kids about living systems).   

Huffington Post (Article, ways to help children see beyond the obvious)

Connected Wisdom:  (Good old stories about living systems, along with fun activities in the teachers guide, free training module and more. Just follow the yellow flower icon.) I’m happy to report that we have two NEW Connected Wisdom resources:  A teachers’ guide and an on-line, video-based, training module (both are free).  If you love all things related to LIVING SYSTEMS and STORIES, read the lost endnotes (cut by the publisher!) to Connected Wisdom. 

Highlights Magazine for Children:  (A “systems thinking for kids” view of wolves in Yellowstone.)  

Systems Thinking Playkits:  (Interactive game for kids, 8-88!  Wolf kit too). 

Talking to Teens About Texting:  (Uses a true story about a teen party that spiraled out of control to sneak in a lesson about exponential growth)

PBS — City Farm Game.  (Working with PBS,  we incorporated systems literacy concepts into this on-line game for middle school students.  Try it!)

Little Pickle Press Post (Learning about reinforcing feedback through a true story of sibling rivalry.)

The Farm as Classroom: (Using the farm to “think about systems”.  Written for farmer-educators.)

And the one that started it all:  When a Butterfly Sneezes:  A Guide for Exploring Interconnections in Our World Through Favorite Children’s Stories. (Using pictures books , many of which are likely on your bookshelf, to encourage children to “connect the dots” and other systems thinking habits of mind):  You can order this  book through Leveraged Networks (Contact Rebecca Niles – rebecca@leveragenetworks.com, or Kris Wile kris@leveragenetworks.com).

Although The Systems Thinking Playbook/DVD  (30 experiential activities to build systems thinking habits of mind) wasn’t originally written for children,  I frequently receive notes from educators who use it in their classrooms, so I’ll add it here. (The Creative Learning Exchange has made connections between the Playbook and their Connection to Characteristics of Complex Systems Project.  See www.clexchange.org to learn more).  And some good news:  The System Thinking Playbook is now available as an e-book (and available on Apple, B&N and VOOK as well).

 

Museums + Systems Thinking:  I worked this year with the Mishkat Interactive Center for Atomic and Renewable Energy and the amazing team at KCA London to integrate systems thinking into the Saudi Arabia 2050 traveling exhibit designed to encourage middle school students in Saudi Arabia to rethink energy consumption habits. A fantastic project!  I’ll post pictures when I can.

Digital Media: As part of a collaborative initiative with the University of Indiana, the National Writing Project, the Institute of Play, and Digital Youth Network, I worked with the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media Learning Initiative to produce a series of digital design activities to cultivate systems thinking in middle school students.  The books are done and will be available in early 2014.  I’ll post a link when I get it.  

And finally, I recently started an author’s page on Facebook that gives updates on my  work and occasional inspiration. You can “like” if here (if you like):https://www.facebook.com/lindaboothsweeney 

 

 

The Next Big Thing

Thanks to fellow children’s author, Joyce Ray (Feathers and Trumpets, A Story of Hildegard of Bingen, fall, 2013 Apprentice Shop Books) for inviting me to participate in the online literary blog called MY NEXT BIG THING. 

The blog is a series of questions about works-in-progress and not yet published titles. Many national and international writers have participated in this. It gives readers a glimpse into the working life of a writer. Part of the fun is tagging someone else. It is with great delight that I will be tagging two other writers at the end of this post.

What is your next BIG THING?  My NEXT BIG THING is a picture book  about the early life of R. Buckminster Fuller. “Bucky” as his family and friends called him, was an American architect, inventor, systems theoriest, poet and teacher best known for his invention of the geodesic dome.  Bucky was born “cross-eyed and near blind”, a condition that would shape the way he saw the world for the rest of his life. In his eyes, his steel tricycle, hard and cold to the touch, blended with house and the yard. Nothing was separate.  Everything and everybody seemed to Bucky to blend into something else. As an adult, he would never lose that awareness that the earth was tightly connected into one complete whole.  If he ever needed a reminder of that, he could simply take off his glasses “to see what I saw when I was four and a half years old.”   Most of the book focuses on the summers he spent on Bear, a speck of an island 10 miles off the coast of Maine in Penobscot Bay.

 What is the working title of your new book? I’m working on that right now.  He was perceived as quite the troublemaker as a kid, so I might work that into the title.

Where did the idea come from for the book? I took an Outward Bound trip in my twenties, and after spending three nights, four days on solo, I became fascinated by living systems, how they work, their patterns, how I’m part of them.  As I began to studying in the field of complex systems theory, I discovered Bucky alongside Ludwig von BertalanffyJoanna Macy, Donella Meadows, Elise Boulding, Russ Ackoff, Peter Senge and Fritjof Capra, and other systems thinkers. He has always fascinated me. Now that I have children, I want to share some of that fascination with them and other kids.

What genre does your book fall under?  A non-fiction picture book biography for ages 6 and up.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?  Oh, who would play the young Bucky?  An undersized boy, with coke-bottle glasses, a larger than normal head and owl-like eyes?  That’s a great question. If Jonathan Lipnicki was still a young kid, he’d be perfect.  I loved him as George in Stuart Little. 

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?  On a small island off the coast of Maine, young Bucky Fuller discovers an infinite curiosity about the universe that changed the way many people think about this planet we call earth.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?  I am still writing it.  I’m lucky to have met Gini Cunningham, an amazing storyteller and coach at a Jay O’Callahan workshop.  Gini keeps me following the thread of what’s alive in the Bucky story.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? I really admire Thomas Locker’s book about John Muir,  John Muir: America’s Naturalist (Fulcrum Publishing, 2003).  It’s beautifully written and illustrated and gives you a sense of how Muir’s young life helped to shape the adult he became.  Similarly, Amy Ehrlich’s story about Rachel Carson, Rachel:  The Story of Rachel Carson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2008), is another inspiring picture book biography.

 Who or what inspired you to write this book?  As I said early, Bucky was a near-sighted, under-sized kid with bottle thick glasses.  He got into trouble a lot, in part because he literally saw the world differently.   His father died when he was 12; he was kicked out of Harvard, twice. Yet from a very early age, he was a keen observer of nature who dared to ask unpopular questions if what he was being told didn’t match his own experience.  He would invent ideas, mostly inspired by his observations of nature, that have been used for decades.  I admire how he picked himself up and found his way in the world.  I want kids to have a champion.  Just like Bucky, you have something special in you too!

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?  Back in the late 1960’s, Bucky helped spark the current environmental movement with his book, “Operating Manuel for Spaceship Earth.”  He reminded us that we are all passengers on this spaceship we call “Earth”. How will we take care of it?  He also coined the term “synergy”.

What else are you working on?   Well, I have another children’s book called When the Wind Blows.  It is being illustrated by the amazing Jana Christy and will be published by Putnam in early 2014.  It’s a very sweet, rhyming picture book that follows a brother and sister on a windy day.

Now, it’s my honor to tag and introduce you to two other writers with BIG THINGS in the works Jacqueline Davies and Corey Rosen Schwartz.  

Jacqueline Davies:   I first met Jackie at her Rising River writing retreats and I was hooked.  She is as good a writing coach as she is a writer.  Jackie has been writing stories for children for over a decade. Her first book, Where the Ground Meets the Sky, was published in 2002. Four more books quickly followed: The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon (2004), The Night Is Singing (2006), The House Takes a Vacation (2007), and The Lemonade War (2007), which became available in paperback in 2009. Also in 2009, two more books were published: Tricking the Tallyman and Lost. Her newest book is the sequel to The Lemonade War.  Check out her third book in the series The Lemonade Crime.  My kids loved the whole series!

Corey Rosen Schwartz:  I met Corey through an on-line auction to raise funds for those impacted by Hurricane Sandy.  Little ones who like a lot of action, will love her fractured fairy tale, Three Ninja Pigs.  Corey just lets loose with her rhyme and you can tell she loves what she does!  If you like to rhyme or want to learn, her blog The Meter Maids, with Tiffany Strelitz Haber, is wonderful.