Monday, November 25, 2013

Coding Week

This past spring, I watched the video below and was inspired to teach coding to all my computer students.

There is only one little problem.  I don't know how to code.  So, I used Code Academy to teach myself coding in my free time.  That worked for a while, and I tried it out on my middle school class.  What we learned using Code Academy is that there are many glitches that caused us more stress than we needed.  I'm sure that Code Academy is a great way to learn coding, but I quickly ditched it as a teaching tool in middle school.

What I have found that I like is a host of apps that teach pre-coding skills, especially for elementary and middle school grades. I call these skills pre-coding because we're teaching logic, not language.  Students need to plot and plan a course of action BEFORE they actually begin any movement. The levels start easy but get increasingly difficult as the game goes on.

I recently learned of the Hour of Code Week coming up December 9-15 and got really excited.  In fact, I got so excited that I started early.  I dubbed this week (November 18-22) Coding Week in all my elementary computer classes*.

My kindergartners started out the fun using Kodable, and they loved it! In Kodable, students send a cute little furry creature through a maze, collecting coins as it goes. Students drag directional arrows and color blocks into a specific order before you send the little critter on his merry way.

Honestly, I wondered if I bit off more than I could chew on this. But, I jumped in with both feet and hoped for the best. I showed them an example so they would know the goal before they touched an iPad. It turned out my fears were for naught, because they dove in like the digital natives they are.  I loved how they figured it out, asked good questions, and celebrated victories -- collaboratively.  I liked Kodable so much, that I'm now using it with my daughter in preschool.  (We're taking it slowly, but I think she's getting the hang of the first few levels.)

My first and second graders got their start in Kodable, but they were ready for something else -- something a bit more challenging.  So, we brought in Daisy the Dinosaur with them. The coder's job in Daisy is a bit more complicated. One prerequisite is the ability to read.  On each level, you have to read the goal, then drag and drop the commands for Daisy into the "Program" square.  Daisy can move in two directions, jump, grow, shrink, spin, and do other fun things.  After completing the Challenge Mode, students go on to the free play section where they can really have fun with Daisy.

As students play around with Daisy, they learn what makes Daisy do what they want her to do and what makes her do things they never intended. They learn to use the "Repeat 5" and "When" commands which get into more complex programs.

Daisy was a good introduction to drag and drop coding for my third and fourth grade students, but I quickly moved them on to Hopscotch. (Daisy the Dinosaur was created by the Hopscotch people, for the younger set.) In Hopscotch, the coder picks a character (or more -- as my students discovered) and send them about a three-dimensional board.  Again, the commands are programmed before you see what the character will do.  There are many more commands and they are more complex.  I challenged students to make shapes, but after using the app myself a number of times, I got tired of triangles and showed them how to alter the angle just slightly to make super-cool figures (see below).

My fifth and sixth graders started with Hopscotch, but after about 15 minutes, I moved them on to Cargo Bot, a game in which the coder is challenged to program a machine to move boxes into a pre-determined order.  This is highly addicting and requires a lot of trial and error.  In fact, I could tell that I was bending their minds a bit more than they wanted them bent.

(Note: This solution does not work. I wish it did.)

Blockly is one program I wanted to do with the students, but never got around to using. This is not an iPad app, but is a part of the Google family.  In this game, you pre-program the guy from Google Maps around mazes and hope he doesn't get lost.

Cargo Bot was my introduction to this genre of iPad app.  I found it in the spring and loved it!  I spent many an hour playing it -- all in the name of research, of course -- and found it quite challenging.  However, the teacher in me must confess that I enjoy Hopscotch better because it gives students the chance to explore, plan, and make new things.  That's not to say that Cargo Bot (or any of these apps, for that matter) don't teach higher level thinking skills.

One thing is for sure, I've tapped into a thinking level that these students aren't used to.  For the most part, they enjoyed these coding apps, but they also couldn't wait to get on to something else.  (For instance, Sumdog's Thanksgiving competition is going on right now, and they couldn't wait to get a turkey costume for their avatars.) However, I'm excited to add these apps to my repertoire of apps students can peruse in their free time.  

I apologize for the poor quality of these pics below.  They were either taken with my dying iPad camera or my not-so-smart phone.  However, I thought it would be fun to include pictures of actual students playing these apps.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Wow! Life is busy in November!

I admit I've had a few moments this school year when I looked around and realized there was nothing left on my to-do list.  These were somewhat disconcerting for me, but I found solace in a few minutes of respite and quickly found another project to work on.

Those moments have not come anytime lately.  New projects, at school and home, and I find myself exhausted by the final school bell and a still-growing to-do list.

However, I'm making a list of things I want to blog about soon.

  • Coding Week
  • Haiku Deck
  • Accelerated Math
  • Another 20 Year Profile
  • Why I Love Kindergarten

So, stay tuned.  I will get blogging again soon. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Erin -- Creatively Connecting to Her Creator

I am celebrating my 20th year of teaching by profiling former students who are doing great things in their field. As I've watched them grow into adults, I have been impressed with an aspect of their lives and want to share them with you. I fully recognize that I was merely a small part in their growth and development, but I can't help to be proud. By highlighting these former students I hope to encourage other teachers that what we do is a noble and worthy cause. We have the ability to boost others to greatness we have never considered.

It was September 1994 when I stepped into my very first classroom.  I was the brand new 4th grade teacher at Phillipsburg Christian Academy in Phillipsburg, NJ. Armed with a four-year degree, I was wide-eyed and idealistic about the world of teaching.  And to be honest, I was quite clueless.  

I was bound and determined that we were going to experience learning and have fun doing it.  I’ll get into some of the great times later in the story, but this isn’t really about me. Some classes stick in your brain for years, and this first class was special in many ways.  Thinking back on it now, I’m sure those students and parents went into that year wondering what the new guy (A MAN TEACHER?!?!?) would be like.

Erin Ekkens was one of those twenty-one students who endured my first year of gainful employment. I remember Erin with a constant smile plastered on her face.  She was always happy!  In fact, there was one time she was crying and I just didn’t know what to do. (Erin? Tears? What do I do?!) She also loved soccer. Our playground doubled as a church parking lot, and it was interesting to have soccer and football going on at the same time on the same space.  I may be wrong, but I remember Erin as a permanent fixture on the “soccer field,” even with my attempts to get the girls to love football with me.  Erin was also a top-notch student, which could not have been easy with me at the helm. It took a while for me to realize that my fourth graders did not possess the brains of high schoolers. However, that was the one class I’ve ever had that I could push hard, and I almost felt an audible cry of “Give us more!” come from the students.

I only spent two years at PCA, then it was time to move on.  Moving on, for me, meant moving to Kentucky, where I taught for 15 years and currently live. Before the age of the Internet and social media, I lost track of most of those families from my first teaching gig. I missed out on the chance to watch kids grow up through the ranks of high school and teach whole families, but I’ve been fortunate enough to reconnect to some of those “kids” through Facebook over the past few years.

Erin is all grown up now, happily married and working as a graphic designer at a university. In addition to her full-time job at the school, she does freelance design and enjoys sports like volleyball and soccer.  She’s always dreaming up the next project, even getting ideas from Pinterest at times. “I love to create new things, and it seems like the artist in me never sleeps!”

When Erin started college her major was business administration.  Somehow it didn’t seem like the right fit.  Art, on the other hand, has always been a passion for her from childhood.  In a way, being an artist helps her feel better connected to her Creator.  Since God created everything from nothing, there is an innate desire in all of us to want to create.  Art has given Erin the perfect avenue to express that creativity.

The switch to her art major caused some interesting conversations with her dad, but she eventually convinced him that this was her passion and she would be fine. After all, it was her dad who taught her about diligence and hard work. Always give 100% and you will find success in all you do.

I’m not an artist, not even close. To make it worse, I was also her art teacher (and music and PE), so let’s just say I didn’t pass along great art skills to my students.  How could I even come close to helping Erin on her quest to graphic design?  I was pleased that she shared two of my favorite memories from that school year.  

While learning about sound waves in science, I got a pan and filled it up with water.  We put our fingers in the water and watched the waves radiate out.  I put the pan aside and began the class discussion.  I was in the zone and feeling really good about the lesson, when Max raised his hand to ask a question.  As I answered Max’s question, I sat down on the counter...right in the water.

There is no way to recover from that! You just have to laugh with the kids and spend a couple hours in your desk chair sitting on a pile of paper towels.

I refused to allow handwriting class to be solely workbook time.  So, I gave them creative writing prompts and asked them to write in their best cursive.  One of them was a create your own ice cream flavor assignment.  We voted on our favorite, and Erin’s won -- Dr. Pepper Pop! I borrowed an ice cream maker from a friend, and made Dr. Pepper Pop for the kids.  Oh my! That was some incredible ice cream, Erin! (Confession time.  I actually made vanilla ice cream, but I used boiled down Dr. Pepper as a substitute for vanilla extract.)

How does this help a graphic designer become a graphic organizer?

It’s funny to think back about 4th grade. I can honestly say that I have limited memories from grade school, but the majority of them probably come from that year. You were a great teacher! I actually wanted to BE a teacher after 4th grade because you showed us how learning could be productive AND fun (who knows, maybe I’ll be an art teacher someday!). You took things like science projects, and made them interactive (I’m pretty sure we were talking about waves when you sat in the pan of water!). You also let us make ICE CREAM in class, and I can still remember the name of mine, “Dr. Pepper Pop”. You encouraged ME to be creative by teaching us in creative ways. It was never a dull class. You always had something for us to do, and for that, I thank you. The artist in me thanks you!

One day, Erin hopes to be a small business owner -- she at least kept business administration as a minor -- whether it be a graphic design company or a flower shop.  In tandem with that goal, she would love to set up a non-profit organization to help churches and other ministries with graphic design at an affordable price.  And of course, she would love to one day have children and pass along the value of hard work that her parents passed on to her.

I've enjoyed reconnecting with Erin and learning about her life as it is today. I love that I could have a small part in who Erin has become.  I have serious doubts that I helped her in her artwork, but I love that I could be a contributing force in her life. I can’t wait to see the amazing things she creates as her career progresses.

Sadly, Erin couldn't find any childhood pictures at this time. She's hoping they are at her parents' house and we can add them later. Below you'll see pictures of Erin as an adult and some examples of her work.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Athletic Awards Slide Show

Our athletic director asked me if my middle school class could create a slide show of pictures for the fall sports banquet.  Of course, I said yes and gladly got into gear.

First, I got a hold of the external hard drive our AD used to store pictures and loaded pics on the hard drives of four computers around the room.  In theory, each computer had different pictures so no student would repeat a picture another student used.

I chose to use Google Presentation for two reasons.  One, the students could collaborate and build the slide show at the same time from numerous machines.  Two, it would be easy to share with our AD and on our Facebook page.

So, I started up a Google Presentation and gave the students sharing rights. Their job was to find 75 excellent pictures each from a variety of sports, including numerous athletes, and put them on the presentation.  (That would be a total of 300 pics.)

Two days, tops. Right? Wrong.

It turns out that the photographers used some wicked high resolution cameras and the pics would not load to the presentation. That led to a bump in the road.  We had to resize the pics using then load them up.  Another bump in the road was the sheer volume of pictures to sift through.  Thousands of pictures!  I didn't foresee my students taking a ton of time finding the best pictures, but they were slow.

In fact, it was so slow that after 5 days of sifting, resizing, and uploading, we had 140 usable pictures...and the banquet was the evening of Day 6.  That's when I took over.

I had quite a bit of "planning time" on Day 6 and I used every available minute to blitz through all the pictures on all the computers to find more pictures.  I was in constant-email mode with our AD and borrowed a CD from our Yearbook adviser.  Finally, as the end of the day approached, I put my finishing touches on the 192-slide presentation.  With 6 seconds per slide, that comes in at just over 19 minutes.  Loop it thrice, and you almost have the hour-long event covered.  Whew! I emailed it to the AD and breathed a sigh of relief.

Till... the faculty meeting.

I checked my email and saw a frantic message.  "It crashes after slide 142!"  Ugh!

I left the meeting, zipped to my computer, converted the presentation to a PowerPoint, burned it to a CD, and all was well.

Being a lover of Google, it made me sad that PowerPoint came to the rescue.  I was hoping to solve the problem within the world of Google. Wouldn't it be great if I could convert my presentation to a YouTube video?

I know that failure goes hand in hand with learning new things.  But sometimes I still get frustrated when I get to the end of a project and have a bigger list of cons than pros.  One of these days I'll feel good about the process AND the product of a project.  Till, then... Just keep swimming.

Should you want to watch the presentation, it's embedded below.  I hope it doesn't crash on you after Slide 142.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Prescription Drug PSAs

My freshman health class has been working diligently on creating PSAs about prescription drug abuse.  Enjoy the fruit of their labor!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Is Failure Really a Failure?

School is a place where students learn. They walk through the front doors needing a few more skills and a bit more information, and we go about our day finding ways to impart these things to them. Regardless of our philosophy of education and the models and methods we use, I think we can all agree to this.

I find it amazing that I expect my students to figure things out so quickly and easily.  I'm OK with them being befuddled for a while.  Confusion means learning will take place. I'm just afraid I expect students to pick it up faster than they may be ready and retain it longer than is feasible.

I read this article about the US government's Obamacare* web site debacle, and it made sense. When techies build a new tech tool, we expect there to be bugs in the system. How many people waited a few days to update to iOS7 for that reason? It would be nice if everything worked seamlessly when a new site goes live, but is that a reasonable request? I suppose we could argue that these are professionals, paid lots of money to build something, so it should work.  But is it safe to say that it takes many live users to see a new tools real capabilities?

Part of learning is making mistakes. Sometimes you have to try something to see if it works.  When it doesn't, you learn from that mistake, tweak things and try again.  Schools don't always give students that opportunity. We are constantly moving from one objective to the next at breakneck speed to cover the book/standards/goals for the year.  And that makes it hard for students to acquire skills they missed along the way.

When I learned how to play basketball, I had to miss a lot of shots before I learned how to put the ball in the hoop.  I had to let a lot of guys score on me before I learned how to play defense. Certainly, no one would expect a third grader to get out there and play on an NBA skill level**.

That's why I love my Innovation Projects and Genius Hour in general.  Students have time try new things. It's OK to fail, if only to learn from that mistake and move on.  The goal is growth, not perfection. I just love this post about a high school student who is trying to learn guitar genres; this guy got the idea.

Sadly, school isn't always Genius Hour and Innovation Day. As teachers, the trick is finding ways for students to explore and experience failure on the way to learning.

The more I think about my school's foray into Accelerated Math, I'm thrilled with the prospects.This may not be "teaching above the line" of the SAMR model, but students will have a real chance of reviewing mastered skills and relearning missed skills.  As students' math skills improve we hope to see an increase in the success levels of higher math and better logical thinking.

The question every teacher needs to ask is how do we help students recover from failure to turn it into a success? I'd love to hear your stories.

*Rare Political Aside: I don't normally engage in political conversations, but I do feel the need to mention that I am completely against Obamacare. As a person who has spent much too much time in hospitals lately, health care is too expensive. I just don't see how the new plan is going to help my bank account. However, that's not the point of this post.

**Not So Rare Self-Slam: The only way I was ever even close to consideration to play in the NBA was in my dreams... and such sweet dreams they were. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

My, How Things Have Changed

I just can't fit this in a tweet.

My health class is filming PSAs about prescription drug abuse.  One pair of girls, Mindy and Taylor, needed another classmate, Matt, to act in the video. No problem there.  They asked if they could film outside in the grass on the other side of the window so I could watch them.  All good so far.  I write them a note and send them outside.

All three of them magically appear on the other side of the glass and need help from a fourth student, Tyler.  The only problem is that Tyler can't hear Mindy, Taylor, and Matt yelling at him through the window.

The solution?  Mindy gets out her phone and calls Elise, who has her phone on speaker.  I wish I had THAT on video.  Mindy, standing about 3 feet from Elise, talking through Elise's phone to Tyler.

My, how things have changed since I was in high school.