Technology Skills Your Students Might Not Have

Even before Marc Prensky brought the term “digital natives” into our lexicon, the impression of many teachers has been that our kids are young Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, spending their time away from school building robots, coding mobile apps, or creating the next Facebook. The fact is that our kids do have far more technology skills than we did at the same age, simply because an iPad was placed into their tiny hands at the age of two. They cannot imagine a world without smartphones, iPads, laptops, or wearables. However, we are being remiss if we believe that the technology skills most students bring to our classrooms are enough to get them through life. Here, in no particular order, is a list, based upon personal experience, of a few of the types of technology (and life) skills techno-savvy kids still need to learn.

  • Digital safety/security. Many of our students lack basic knowledge of email, preferring to use social media or texting, making them vulnerable to phishing, viruses, etc. Also, students are much, much less concerned with privacy than you or I probably are, making them more likely to share information that should be kept private. Students need opportunities to practice using email, interacting on social media, filling out online forms, even (gasp!) reading user agreements, so that they will know how to protect their identities, accounts, finances, and more.
  • Digital ethics. This one is a challenge, but we should at the very least be encouraging our students at every opportunity to be responsible, ethical, thoughtful users of the internet and social media, in particular. The detached or even anonymous nature of life online turns even the most mild-mannered into people who spread discord, misinformation, even hate. While this primarily goes to the core of a person’s moral makeup, adults can model proper, ethical behavior and encourage our kids to follow suit. They should also know that, increasingly, there can be real consequences to forgetting to do so.
  • Information literacy. The amount of information out there is really fairly staggering. There are 833 Tumblr posts, 463 Instagram photos uploaded, over 3800 tweets per SECOND online. Granted, much of these are nonsensical or pictures of some guy’s sandwich. Still, the cumulative effect is that students have to be smarter information users. They have to know how to wade through the inane or the inaccurate to find the inspired and informative. This takes practicing asking the types of critical questions that examine sources’ credibility, motives, currency, etc.
  • E-learning. When I say e-learning, I mean in terms of the formal, organized stuff that schools love. Kids do know how to learn online–they do it through YouTube, peer networks, etc. Formal online courses, however, have specific expectations, skills, and deadlines that require students to work independently but on a time table, if that makes sense. They have to be organized and have the drive to meet deadlines without a teacher’s constant reminders and encouragement. If you have ever taken an online course, you know it is an entirely different animal, and more courses are offered in this format by the day.
  • Higher tech skills.  These are the obvious skills like coding or robotics, of course. They also include things like basic hardware knowledge, such as how a hard drive works and, maybe, how to change one that has crashed. Knowledge of the basics of a wireless network have transferability to most homes and business settings. Skills like understanding and creating electrical circuits, simple soldering, disassembling and reassembling devices are all useful and needed down the line. The processes of problem identification/diagnosis, strategizing, and solving problems are ones that are useful far beyond the technology or electronics realm.
  • Electronic branding. Students need to be taught ways to leverage the internet and its relative permanence to their advantage. Creating “professional” blogs, websites, YouTube channels, etc. to document their accomplishments and learning gives students powerful tools to share with colleges, future employers, etc.
  • Screen-off time. Studies expressing concern for kids neglecting physical activity in favor of screen time are everywhere and a very important area of concern. Less discussed, however, is how so much screen time actually affects the way our brains take in and process information, even being linked to a reduced ability to stay on topic or focus on longer text. Students need to learn these potential effects and strategies to restore cognitive function, physical fitness, and interpersonal relationships (like actually get together with a friend and take a hike in the woods).

Seinfeld PD

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Image source: https://flic.kr/p/9C1u41

For more than a decade, I have been wearing myself out trying to plan the perfect PD session. I have taught on everything from how to save a file to how to build a robot and everything in between. I have done short, 15-minute mini lessons, all-day workshops, multi-day workshops, online courses, webinars, lunch and learns, etc. Something I have to admit, if I am honest, is  that probably only a small percentage of trailblazer attendees left my training and actually permanently changed their teaching practices. It doesn’t matter the enjoyment/engagement level or how amazing my presentation was, That is a cold reality. My success level is probably good for a power-hitting 3rd baseman, but not what I want as an advocate for innovative, effective classroom practices.

Something I have to admit, if I am honest, is  that probably only a small percentage of trailblazer attendees left my training and actually permanently changed their teaching practices.

An epiphany hit me this morning just as my 2nd cup of coffee kicked in. These aren’t the results I want, but I keep sticking with generally the same strategies (Something I constantly rail on with regard to our education system as a whole <slapping my forehead>.). What if I threw away the plans, the scripts? What if I “designed” professional learning about…nothing?  I shared the idea with my Assistant Superintendent, Bill Lewis, who like it and said it sounded like a Seinfeld PD plan. As a huge fan, I immediately stole the name.

What if I threw away the plans, the scripts? What if I “designed” professional learning about…nothing?

Here’s how it works. The goal is for PD to fit the curriculum and the classrooms’ needs as much as possible. So, instead of planning a session on Google Apps or digital storytelling, I will be implementing 3-hour sessions where teachers come with curricula in hand, and we collaboratively find ways that our available technology resources could be used to make the learning more powerful. This is what many of us have done for years on campuses we served–I just want to try it as THE district model for technology PD. There will be elementary and secondary sessions, and maybe sessions for specific subjects/disciplines. If someone suggests a tool for someone else, and we need to do a mini lesson or explore how it works, we will do so. The teachers, however, will drive the tech and the PD. Hopefully, everyone who attends will leave with a new skill or 2, sure, but, more importantly, with actual plans to put the tools to work as best fits their classes. My role will become that of facilitator (Ironically, a role I have advocated that teachers should take for years.). To be honest, sessions could be run and documented (for our district’s accountability purposes) by techno-savvy teachers. I also want to have fun with the setting. Meet at a local coffee shop? Why not?

This is a little bit similar to the so-called “un-conference” approach of events like EdCamp, but it differs in that the learning is even more individualized. It is immediately, directly applied to the teachers’ goals and needs.

Is it too open-ended? Too much teacher control and ownership? Will it even appeal to educators used to having these things planned out for them? I can’t say, at least not yet. I think it will be a success, though, because this will be about ownership over the learning, professional collaboration, and relevance. There are other considerations, such as having a variety of resources ready and waiting, just in case an iPad or a MakeyMakey becomes the tool of learning of the moment. Regardless of these questions, I like change, and I like risk, so I am going to give it a go. I will share my observations and assessments and teachers’ reactions as it moves forward.

47 (and Counting) School Maker Prompts

towerbuildingThe following are a few ideas to get kids’ (and your) wheels turning and creative juices flowing in a school makerspace. They are from my own mind or have been adapted from a wide range of sources, including websites, blogs, conference sessions, and personal conversations, too many to recall. The vast majority of the ideas require little in the way of expensive technology tools, instead using paper, tape, glue, cardboard, etc. A few utilize tools such as MakeyMakey, Arduino, etc. Materials can be kept in a specific room, if you are so fortunate, or can travel in storage tubs. The prompts can be written on challenge cards in the spaces/tubs.

  1. Create a paper chain that can support as much weight as possible when suspended between two chairs.
  2. Make a book light that automatically turns on when you open a book.
  3. Write and construct a popup book.
  4. Using 20 sheets of paper and masking tape, construct the tallest tower you can build.
  5. Use Circuit Stickers to make an electronic “choose your own adventure” book.
  6. Make an “Operation” game using MakeyMakey.
  7. Construct a class doorbell.
  8. Build a model vehicle that can move across a flat surface without being pushed or pulled by you.
  9. Design and build a usable and attractive piece of furniture from cardboard.
  10. Build a carnival game (a la Caine’s Arcade).
  11. Use typical household objects as brushes to paint a work of art.
  12. Make a keepsake box that lights up when opened.
  13. Use fabric scraps to design a piece of jewelry or accessory.
  14. Re-purpose “failed” 3D printed objects.
  15. Make a flipbook animation.
  16. Make an everyday object better.electronic book
  17. Complete the Mystery Bag challenge.
  18. Draw a picture or write a message using “invisible ink” (lemon juice).
  19. Create an original design for a paper airplane.
  20. Sew a pillow.
  21. Make a musical instrument and compose an original song.
  22. Design your dream house, then use paper or cardboard to construct a scale model.
  23. Make a toothbrush robot (“bristlebot”) that can actually move in a specific path.
  24. Make a paracord bracelet.
  25. Build a sound cannon.
  26. Make a balloon and sand “stress ball”.
  27. Create an origami menagerie.
  28. Make an avatar mask.
  29. Construct a catapult that can launch a ping pong ball into a specific target (bucket, can, etc.).
  30. Modify/customize a toy.
  31. Construct a newspaper geodesic dome.
  32. Make an automatic plant waterer.
  33. Learn to knit.
  34. Make your own hard-bound book.
  35. Customize a piece of clothing.
  36. Using a Lilipad, create an article of clothing to make people safer at night.
  37. Use Scratch to make a racing game.
  38. Make a stop-motion movie.stopmotion
  39. Create an electronic sculpture from aluminum foil and basic electronic components.
  40. Make an article of clothing or accessory from duct tape.
  41. Make a piece of recycled art.
  42. Create a sound amplifier.
  43. Construct a homemade flashlight.
  44. Solder a circuit.
  45. Create a flashing sign.
  46. Make art from an old book.
  47. Build a Lego marble maze.

Don’t forget, of course, that students will have their own, amazing ideas for projects if we equip them with the time and materials. I would love to hear your ideas! What other prompts could you share?

It’s A Clock. A Few Takeaways From the Irving “Bomb” Scare

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Edit–November 3, 2015–The politics of this situation have truly gone in some crazy directions. Many are even asserting that the entire situation was staged by Ahmed’s father, who definitely has political inclinations. The family relocating to Qatar has its own implications. Of course, hindsight is crystal clear. The general points I attempted to make regarding encouraging creative, innovative kids still stand, no matter the politics or motivations of the characters involved.

Irving ISD and Irving police have been the subject of significant scorn and ridicule the past couple of days, after the arrest and suspension of a 14-year old student who brought his homemade, electronic clock to school to show to his engineering teacher in a brazen display of 21st century show and tell. Fortunately, it appears that the police department has come to its senses, and no charges will be filed. (Not that any charges would have stuck to begin with. It was a clock. Unless punctuality is criminal, this is nothing more than a misunderstanding.) No word, yet, on whether or not the district is rescinding the student’s suspension.

Look, this event will probably (hopefully) not scar this young man for life, but it is very unfortunate and certainly very uncomfortable for the boy and his family. As an educator and innovation advocate, though, it does get under my skin a bit.  A few takeaways for me…

  • Too many adults are technologically…well… ignorant. Teachers, parents, police, you name it. This matters. In this world, our kids‘ world, educators especially have a responsibility for being “in the loop”, and at least have a passing understanding of how things work. It was a CLOCK. Irving’s police chief has asserted, “We live in an age where you can’t take things like that to school.” I am so appreciative for the service of our men and women in blue and the challenging work they do, but this is horse hockey. I am 100% certain that kids are sharing these types of things with favorite teachers all over the country on a daily basis. If his assertion was true, it would probably be time to find an alternative to public school for our best and brightest kids.
  • Independent thinking and creativity sure sometimes feel strangely undervalued and explicitly or implicitly discouraged by the powers that be (That would be us.). Sometimes we even put it in writing. This is a concrete, admittedly extreme, example of our unfortunate need to control everything about our students’ learning. Student does his own thing, student shows what he has done, student goes to jail? Just crazy.
  • Ahmed has some cool parents. I got an especially big kick out of reading about his room, filled with all sorts of gizmos and electronic gadgets. Clearly, he has parents who support and encourage his exploration and interests. If you’ve ever read Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators, you might see a similarity to a lot of the parents profiled in the book. From the Dallas Morning News article, this fantastic description:

    A box full of circuit boards sits at the foot of Ahmed’s small bed in central Irving. His door marks the border where the Mohamed family’s cramped but lavishly decorated house begins to look like the back room at RadioShack.

  • Ahmed seems to be the kind of kid we need more of–he’s motivated to learn, independent, creative, and excited to share what he has made. Wouldn’t it be a joy and honor to have a room full of similarly motived students?

On a cool note, this whole event is turning into a very positive thing for Ahmed and his family. Ahmed has received loads of positive reinforcement via social media, hearing from Mark Zuckerberg, Google, and even getting a tweet from President Obama, who invited him to the White House to show him the clock in question. Hopefully, he could make it past Secret Service with minimal drama and no suspension.

Matador Innovators Camp Reflections

19868261593_ecd0711fe4_zThis summer marked the 3rd year of our summer technology and innovation camps. We conducted two Minecraft camps, two robotics camps, and two technology/innovation camps, called Matador Innovators. All of the camps were 4 days long and lasted 4 hours per day for older students (generally grades 4 and up) and 3 hours for younger students. Camps were staffed by district teachers, librarians, and students.

Last year, I supervised and facilitated the camps, but left it to my extremely capable teachers to run the day-to-day events. I missed the face-to-face interaction with the kids, so I decided to lead the Matador Innovators camps again this year, and I am so glad I did.

20495460031_ec74edc42e_zMatador Innovators camps are fairly informal. We spend the week trying out a variety of creative technology tools, with the students given lots of leeway to determine just how they should be used. The activities and technology tools used this year included:

  • MakeyMakeys — electronic project boards that let conductive objects become computer input devices.
  • Paper and tape — students challenge to construct free-standing tower using only masking tape and 20 sheets of paper.
  • Circuit Stickers — surface-mount LED lights that were crafted into a variety of paper/electronic creations.
  • Lego Movie Maker — wonderful, free app for creating stop-motion movies.
  • Scratch — free, online tool for learning programming concepts and creating movies, simulations, games, etc.20462960086_9ae970febc_z
  • Squishy Circuits – homemade conductive and insulating dough that was used with batteries and 9v batteries to create and explore electrical circuitry.
  • Brushbots — simple robots created from toothbrushes, coin batteries, and vibrating cellphone motors. Guaranteed giggles.

These were active, noisy, engaged20301155578_dbce834fff_z camps. Students shared ideas, offered suggestions, asked questions. For the most part, we tried to make the outcomes purposely vague, offering specific instructions or guidelines when students expressed a need for them or just to introduce a tool. For example, I walked the kids through the creation of electronic versions of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which allowed campers to get familiar with Circuit Stickers. From there, they were limited only by their imaginations, and the results were quite varied: a mask; a car; lighthouses; a model video game controller.

20302528339_9c51b0b8c9_zStudents also had a great deal of autonomy when making stop-motion movies or learning to program with Scratch, leading to a diverse set of products. When we built the brushbots, students were given the challenge of creating a bot that could be steered in a particular direction. The brushbots were set loose on a makeshift racetrack to test students’ engineering ideas.

Here are four observations for the 2 weeks:

  1. Many kids actually need practice dealing with failure. They struggle with adapting their plans, testing new ideas. They are used to getting one shot to get it right, usually do, and consequently can get very frustrated when they are expected to overcome failures. I had to tell one student he could no longer say, “It doesn’t work” unless he immediately followed that with the word “yet.”
  2. 20489198965_077bb404d7_zStudents engaged in imaginative, hands-on experimentation are generally highly motivated, have few behavior issues, and actually have to be told to stop working.
  3. Kids’ imaginations are bigger than ours. A few might need us to provide specific rules or expectations for their products, but many more will exceed our own ideas when given the resources and the freedom to experiment.
  4. Maker classrooms must be flexible. Learning by making requires teachers to adapt to students’ needs and schedules on the fly. The open ended nature of the tasks lends to unpredictable timetables. Embrace the chaos.

All in all, it was an exhausting, extremely rewarding experience. It was amazing to get to spend so much time interacting with the students, the one thing I miss from my classroom days. I am already plotting next summer’s fun!

Ready for Some Solid Food?

Image source: https://flic.kr/p/6Abr9K

Image source: https://flic.kr/p/6Abr9K

I had some great conversations in the past couple of weeks with some folks that I really respect as educators. We talked about an array of topics that gave me lots of opportunities to stretch the mind, but one that struck a particular chord with me involves the subject matter and objectives that our professional development programs aim for. Stated more directly, do we fill our conferences and school/district training with enough really powerful, high-level thinking about pedagogy and how our kids learn? Or, do will continue to churn out top 10 lists of Web 2.0 or rapid-fire run-downs of the latest apps for learning fractions?

As I reviewed proposals for my own district conference and for others I am responsible for, I saw plenty of both. There are some very insightful educators sharing some really challenging concepts and powerful strategies. There are also lots of fast, fun proposals from which to choose that are, honestly, a lot less cognitively taxing. I tend to lean heavily toward the former, as I believe we educators need to experience things that make their brains sweat (That may be an event theme in the very near future!).

However, conference planner me knows very well that is not what sells the best. No, the lists of websites, the parade of new gadgets, the endless array of apps win every time. At my own conference last week, one such session required around 20 extra chairs to be brought in. Meanwhile, a workshop on metacognition had 5 folks that I had trapped and forced to attend. Clearly, they are what the people want, and they are not without value.

So the discussion revolved around just whether or not this really was the worrisome thing I saw it as, or was it enough that they were there, learning something. Also, if it is terrible (which has not been fully established), how do you attract them to the more challenging, brain-stretching sessions? Should we never schedule the sessions that seem more fluffy, and simply force-feed the sessions on cognitive theory and connectivism to the masses in attendance (I actually spoke to a friend in a district-that-shall-not-be-named last week where they just did this very thing.). Maybe we bribe them with double door prize tickets if they attend the less sexy sessions!

Original image source: https://flic.kr/p/97yJpb

Original image source: https://flic.kr/p/97yJpb

Actually, I think the most important factor has nothing to do with the conference sessions. It happens well in advance of the PD offerings. It is the professional climate in which the teachers work. If our leaders value new ideas and encourage teachers to learn, share, and take risks, we will probably see more butts in the metacognition seats, so to speak. If we celebrate the efforts teachers make to be on the cutting edge of practice and technologies and research half as much as we celebrate high bench mark test scores, we’ll have created a climate that encourages teachers to push themselves. If, on the other hand, we value compliance, lock-step adherence to a rigid curriculum, test scores above all else, and PD attendance with the primary goal of earning a comp day, then we get standing room only in the sessions on funniest cat videos of all time.

Maker Education Up to PARR?

I posted a new podcast today that outlines a rough idea I’ve been kicking around for standards for Maker projects in the classroom. The standards are identified as P.A.R.R., meaning Plan, Assemble, Reflect, and Repeat. It is something of a hyper-simplified spinoff of the engineering design process that is intended to help schools be sure that maker projects aren’t actually glorified arts and crafts.  Take a listen for more information, if you have a few minutes, and let me know if it makes sense or is just out there.

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