Local Leaders Get Hands-on With Coding

Elementary campuses in Seguin this week have had several visitors attend technology classes to participate in Hour of Code activities. We have been privileged and excited to host current  and former school board members, a city councilperson, the president of our local chamber of commerce, the mayor of Seguin, and our county judge. Our guests tried their hands at a variety of coding tools, including Code.org, CodeMonkey, Lightbot, and CodeCombat, were introduced to the campuses’ 3D printing and design programs, and got a first-hand look at some of the ways the district is trying to give students a wide range of computer science experiences.

Block coding tools like Code.org have been used to intruduce basic concepts.

Block coding tools like Code.org have been used to intruduce basic concepts.

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City Councilwoman Fonda Mathis joined Jenifer Wells’ students at Rodriguez Elementary.

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Trusty Cindy Thomas-Jimenez received pointers from a Rodriguez Elementary coding pro.

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Trustee Ben Amador observes student coders using CodeMonkey at Patlan Elementary.

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20 levels of CodeMonkey have been added to Learning.com resources this school year.

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Code.org resources include educational videos, such as this one featuring one of the founders of the videogame Minecraft.

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Seguin mayor Don Keil joined students at Patlan Elementary for his second Hour of Code.

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Patlan Elementary students are excited about learning about coding!

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Mayor Keil and team work through a particularly challenging task.

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Seguin Councilwoman Fonda Mathis brought her computer science background to Rodriguez Elementary.

Trustee Amador also paid a visit to Mrs. Casiano's lab at Koennecke Elementary, where students were learning Python code using CodeCombat.

Trustee Amador also paid a visit to Mrs. Casiano’s lab at Koennecke Elementary, where students were learning Python code using CodeCombat.

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Trustee Cinde Thomas-Jimenez joined Rodriguez Elementary students in an Hour of Code.

Computer Science Education Week Resources

National Computer Science Education Week is fast approaching–December 5-11. I have copied the text of an email I sent to our campus technology teachers to help them plan for the week. I thought there might be some usefulness to others out there wanting some options in terms of ways kids might participate in the week or in Hour of Code. If you have other resources or classroom activities that you have come to find particularly successful, please share them in the comments.

Good afternoon to all,

This one is a bit of a long-winded email, but I ask that you take the time to read it all. I wanted to clarify a few things for our new folks in the Tech Apps family regarding National Computer Science Education Week, December 4-8.

  • That is one of several weeks in the elementary and, I believe, middle school curricula in which we emphasize computer coding. You should already be planning to have kids coding.
  • Starting last year, I invited special area guests to attend a campus and participate in a lesson with kids that week. No big deal–they just come in, see how cute your kids are, and enjoy learning the tool they are using. Oh, and I’m sure a picture or two will be taken. If your campus would like me to try and arrange a guest, I would be happy to. I just need to know some good days and times. Feel free to invite whomever you like, just please keep me in the loop.
  • Speaking of the tool you will be using, here are some options for you to brush up on before then. Choose what fits each group of kids best. I have put an asterisk by the ones most often used in our district.
    • Daisy the Dinosaur — fun, free iPad app teaches basics of computational thinking. Emphasis here is on getting the right steps in the right order to complete challenges. There is also a free-programming mode for kids to experiment.
    • ScratchJr — free companion iPad app to the Scratch website focuses on primary kids. Commands are simplified and fewer in number, icons and sprites (characters) are bigger and more colorful to make it more engaging and user-friendly for younger students.
    • *Code.org — great site has self-guided lessons for absolutely any age group, from the kindergartener still trying to master the mouse and keyboard to the high school kid ready to tackle javascript. It is free, and you can set up your classes with an easy upload. The site gives you usernames and passwords–bonus!
    • *Scratch — if your kids are ready for more open-ended learning, maybe upper elementary and middle school, Scratch is a great tool to use. There are tons of how-to vids and lessons out there to help them (and you) get started. Accounts are necessary and free, but there is no bulk upload. You’ll need to do them 1 at a time. Most work is done by arranging blocks for specific tasks, but students can get pretty advanced–things like variables and functions.
    • Code Combat — see the statement above regarding accounts. This fun site does actually require students to type lines of code as they navigate medieval-themed challenges. Students can earn armor and weapons upgrades (Don’t worry–it is comical, not violent.).
    • Swift Playgrounds — fun iPad app that teaches basics of the Swift programming language. Students type code to complete increasingly challenging tasks, all the while learning important coding concepts. Also includes downloadable content to learn to program games, such as Rock, Paper, Scissors or a Running Maze. This is a great step up for middle school kids, and 5th graders would probably also successfully enjoy it. Swift is a great language to learn, because it can be used on any platform, including mobile, desktop, or even the Apple Watch. (Note to middle school peeps–I REALLY like the possibilities for this with middle school kids, and there is a ton of curricula on iTunesU. It might be enough to persuade someone to buy a complete set of iPads for your classes. I plan to lobby for that.)
    • Code Monkey — now included in our Learning.com curriculum, this game-based tutorial teaches kids the basics of coding and the CoffeeScript language and how to create HTML5 games. Probably a bit challenging for the K-4 crowd, but worth a look for older kids already using the Learning.com curriculum.

I hope this helps clear up any confusion. If you feel worried about this unit of study, Code.org is where I would start. It has great classroom curriculum management resources and is super easy to learn. Please do not hesitate to email me if you need help getting set up or just learning the tool you want to use.

The 2016 Election and Information Literacy

Wow, what a year! This year’s presidential campaign was simply…indescribable. Among the highs and (many) lows this time around, the election results have produced an interesting and important dialogue that relates to our work as educators. Social media companies, Facebook in particular, have come under substantial scrutiny because of the proliferation of “fake news” stories on their platforms and the potential impacts these stories may or may not have had on the outcome of the election. Here are a few examples:

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Trump duped the GOP–egads! Trouble is, there is no record of this statement ever being made…to People magazine or anyone else. That didn’t stop it from spreading like wildfire among upset Hillary Clinton voters in the past 2 weeks, though.

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The Clinton dynasty crushes dissent once again. Not so much. The Denver Guardian sounds like a legitimate news organization. It isn’t, and neither is the story.  Regardless, it made the rounds among Trump supporters.

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This one showed up just today in my Facebook feed. Besides being pointless, the data is completely and entirely fabricated, something the original poster refers to as “projected”. Besides, the electoral vote is not “final” until January 6.

These are just a couple of examples of fake news stories that ran absolutely rampant, often picking up hundreds of thousands of shares and millions of likes. Whether or not they influenced the results will continue to be debated. However, if I was a librarian, a history teacher, or anyone teaching research skills, I would find a way to leverage this discussion into a life lesson about being a discerning and skeptical consumer of information and a person who engages in fact-checking of “breaking news”, particularly the kind that evokes such passionate, emotional, and important responses. I might start such a lesson this way:

  • What is your immediate reaction to this story?
  • Is it true? How can you tell?
  • For what purpose(s) might someone fabricate a story like this?
  • What strategies and resources did you use to determine the veracity of this story?

 

First Things First?

Img source: http://tinyurl.com/gq3jmx5

Img source: http://tinyurl.com/gq3jmx5

Last week, I attended and presented at Tech and Learning Live in Dallas. This is one of my favorite events of the year, because it is by its very nature extremely collegial and conversational, whether in sessions or in the numerous snack breaks (another reason it is a favorite). After a morning session on blended learning, I got into a discussion with a colleague who I highly respect on the goals and potential of blended learning. I had heard much during the session on how the district from which he came was looking at blended learning as a tool to increase student literacy levels and, of course, test scores. I see lots of potential for blended learning as, optimally, a tool for increasing student choice, creativity, and engagement, with test results being a positive side effect. During our discussion, my friend stated something to the effect that schools had to get test scores up “so they can then do the fun stuff.” Knowing the realities of the very oppressive accountability systems we have in place, I sympathize 100% with this point of view, but I don’t necessarily embrace it. Which brings me to the question of the day:

Which is the right approach?

  • Go for high test scores using whatever means necessary with the belief that more engaging, authentic learning will be possible once the unappealing stuff is knocked out.
  • Go with more learner-centered, engaging, and authentic learning and have faith that the tests will turn out fine.

While there is an obvious, pie-in-the-sky ideal answer here, the tough realities faced by schools make this a much harder question to answer than at first glance. What do you say? What is your school or district’s philosophy?

3D in Elementary: Our First Steps

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Img Source: http://tinyurl.com/hybzpt6

This fall, we are undertaking several improvements to our technology offerings. Elementary schools are all getting Dremel Idea Builder 3D printers. Middle Schools are getting courses in robotics. All K-8 tech apps courses are being updated to include a greater emphasis on coding, multimedia production, and 3D design. The aim is to make our offerings more current and engaging to our kids by taking them out of the keyboarding-and-Powerpoint routine.

The 3D design and printing aspects of the program are a work in progress, and we will be practicing what we preach by taking some risks, making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes. For the present time, we are only planning on piloting 3rd thru 5th grades. Here are the basic goals:

  • Foster creativity and innovation.
  • Develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills.
  • Develop visual/spatial reasoning.
  • Apply geometry and math concepts to authentic tasks.
  • Support core subject area curriculum whenever possible

Campus technology staff received their first round of training in September. I chose to train them on Autodesk’s Tinkercad for the design tool and Project Ignite  for the curriculum and introductory activities. Both are free and share 1 account per student. Accounts can easily be created by the teacher through the Project Ignite dashboard and require no student emails.  Project Ignite allows teachers to assign projects and enables them to monitor student progress. Students learn to use Tinkercad as they are taken step by step through the

Dremel's snowflake design tool.

Dremel’s snowflake design tool.

assigned projects within Tinkercad’s actual work interface. Dremel also has a few very easy, browser-based projects students can personalize and complete in just a few minutes, albeit without a lot of the real design benefits of the Tinkercad projects. Once a student has finished a project that will be printed, they simply save the .stl file to their Google Drive and share it with their teacher or save on a USB drive to move to the printing computer.

Here are a few of the starter projects our students may be taking on this semester to get their feet wet:

  • Fall symbols (leaves, pumpkins, ghosts, etc.)
  • Things for which they are thankful. These might be made into charms for rubberband bracelets or necklaces.
  • Personalized dog tags
  • Holiday ornaments
  • Election badges/get out the vote buttons
  • Pencil toppers
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5th grade 3D projects at RodrigueZ ES

For the time being, our elementary schools are focusing on 3rd through 5th grades. Primarily, this is to work out the kinks and give teachers time to develop greater mastery. We’ll eventually move to the primary grades, though (In fact, a first grade teacher approached me after school just yesterday with a specific project in mind for her kids.).

Because of the sheer number of student projects involved and the serious time required for printing on a single campus printer, we are implementing a staggered schedule for learning, designing, and printing. It works basically like this:

3d-printing-schedule

I am very interested in having classes create their own projects and purposes for 3D design and printing, and the details of that still must be sorted out. Will we require some sort of reservation? Will the printers travel (Most are on rolling carts), or will student projects have to come to them? Will the campus technology teacher print everything, or will the librarian or the classroom teacher be equipped to do so?

Down the line, our goals will evolve, as will our standard for these types of projects. Among the improvements  I will expect to see by the end of the year or beginning of next year:

  • Students in all elementary grades creating original 3D designs and projects.
  • Students create advanced, collaborative 3D projects (Think of different assembly lines creating one automobile.).
  • Student projects integrate other components, such as electronic lights, motors, sounds, Arduino computers, etc.
  • Create a 3D design competition fo elementary students.

I’rodriguez-3d-printing-studentll continue to periodically post updates as we move forward. If you have questions, please add them to the comments or shoot me an email. I’d appreciate the opportunity to connect!

Don’t Look Back

Doing a little scattershooting about what I believe will have to happen to get education to a better place…educationalchange

  1. Scrap the existing accountability system. Bankrupt the testing companies while you’re at it, right up to those AP and college entrance exams. Accountability if okay, especially if taxpayers are footing the bills, but tests were not invented to drive the bus. Create a new system based upon a variety of standards, not just bloated tests of obsolete or low-level performance. New criteria might include such things as randomized evaluations of the curriculum by student portfolio/performance assessment, student/teacher evaluations, community evaluations, or post-graduation student outcomes (jobs, trade school, college, etc.). Allow local districts/schools and communities to create their own systems.
  2. Scale the curricula back. Way back. As the standards exist today in our state, teachers hit the classroom running and keep running until they collapse from exhaustion at the end of testing season. Meanwhile, students have been exposed to far too many facts, figures, and formulas to explore in depth or practically apply, meaning long-term retention is highly unlikely. Focus on broader, disciplinary skills and give teachers and students more freedom to set the contexts of those skills based upon interests, current events, etc.
  3. Re-train our teachers, and re-design pre-service teacher programs. The role of the teacher as a brilliant dispenser of knowledge and wisdom, well-versed in everything from phonics to plate tectonics, needs to be laid to rest. Our kids have more knowledge in the devices in their pockets and purses than we could ever hope to achieve. Create a new generation of educators who set the stage for learning and doing and make brilliant adjustments, redirections, and clarifications on demand.
  4. Rethink the fundamentals. Grade levels were designed to ensure every student followed the same curriculum at the same age and at the same pace, as we prepared robots for factory work. Does anyone who has ever studied human development think all kids develop cognitively or emotionally at the same time and pace? While we’re shaking it up, why have separate subjects and class periods at all? If school learning is ever going to reflect real, human learning, it will have to be much more integrated and messy. And let’s abandon those letter and number grades, which are as useful for learning as gasoline is for putting out fires.
  5. Ensure all students have access to specific, fundamental technology resources, especially high-bandwidth internet. The form can vary, but students without fast speeds and capable devices are at a disadvantage, as more learning moves online, and video and video streaming resolution continues to increase. A student’s access to the knowledge and resources available online should not be determined by their zip code.

I really am confident that the future of education will be exciting and drastically different than it is now–it drives me to get to work every day. Maybe I am overly optimistic, but I anticipate a period of rapid change, probably within the next decade, as policy makers and educators finally recognize the futility of doing the same thing, just a little bit more intently, and expecting better results.

There are more I’m sorting out, but I wanted to get these out and perhaps stimulate some responses/discussion. What other catalyst events/changes must we see to get where we want to go?

Why Are We Here?

downloadApologies up front for being a bit ranty, but it will be cathartic for me. :) Yesterday, a colleague from another district shared a conversation he was having via email with one of his own children’s teachers. The event that precipitated the conversation was a high school math test his child had not been able to complete within the confines of the class period. The child had requested to stay after class (It was the end of the day.) and the teacher refused, saying it would not be “fair” to the other students who had finished. The teacher defended the decision, saying they had “worked hard” to get the kids prepared to complete tests by the end of the class period, and that this was preparation for taking SATs or ACT tests, the STAAR (our Texas state assessments), and for life in college, all places or events that forbid the awarding of extra time. She also said that her predecessor had always had the same policy, so there you go. Where to begin…

  1. Question: Why do math teachers deem it necessary to have 25, 30, 50 versions of the same problem on an assignment or test? Answer: Because their teachers did that crap to them, so it’s what they know. Nevermind the fact that mastery of the skill could be demonstrated in 1 or 2 problems accompanied by a student’s narrative description of the process. This has perplexed me my entire teaching  life.
  2. Nowhere in any state standards I have seen are objectives dealing with getting kids “test ready”. Why? Because even the idea is so disgusting and ridiculous even a state board of education wouldn’t go there.
  3. If you don’t work for a college or university, your purpose in life is not to get kids “college ready”, either. That is a line that has been put out to k-12 schools by an industry with almost a half TRILLION in revenue in 2014. Does college open up some doors that might otherwise be closed? Of course. Is it the only path to happiness and success? Of course it isn’t. Our purpose should be to get kids LIFE ready.
  4. Assessments should be for determining mastery and directing instruction, not measuring speed. Don’t try to rebrand rigidity as “hard work” or rigor or high standards.
  5. Habit or tradition are terrible reasons to perpetuate a bad policy. Be bold, be original, be right.
  6. I don’t think you completely understand the concept of fairness or, at least, how to apply it universally. Blanket rules/regulations, zero-tolerance policies, etc. are for teacher/admin convenience, not the greater good of the students, we all know that.

Just to be clear, these aren’t directed at that specific teacher, who I only know from a few emails. I have been around for 25 years as a teacher, though, so I know these kinds of practices are commonplace all over the place. Am I being too critical or just way off base? Love to hear your thoughts.

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