Thursday, September 22, 2016

Exploring Literacy and Coding

A while ago, I participated in a wonderful Twitter chat with #digitaledchat where we discussed what you could do with robots in class, such as Sphero. One of the things that came up was using them to create stories or videos by coding the robots as characters. I liked that idea so much, it got me to thinking quite a bit about how coding and literacy could be combined.

I've tried really hard to make my class a creative one, in which my learners are able to explore different ways of learning that are fun, creative and exciting. I want the children in my charge to wake up in the morning, excited to come to school and do their work (which they won't see as work). I have had many different ways of making stories and being creative (including Stop Motion and Digital Storybooks) so it wasn't a big step to try some new things. Here are three ways in which my learners used coding or computational thinking to create stories:

Choose Your Own Adventure Stories Using Google Forms

Many of us have read these books as children and this idea is definitely not a new one. You can use the "go to page based on answer" feature of multiple choice questions to direct readers to new pages based on their choices. When we first did this, I used Google Drawings to plan out the story (it can get very complicated if you have a lot of choices) but it isn't always necessary. A pair of my learners created this story earlier this year.

There are other ways of making stories like this, including Scratch.

Stories on Scratch

This idea came from where you can find a whole 8 lesson module on coding stories for code clubs, though if anyone has used Scratch Jr, that's basically what that app is for. The idea is simple: code the sprites to speak to each other and interact. As coding knowledge increases, so too does the complexity of the stories. This is definitely an area to explore for reluctant writers who happen to like coding (and I've noticed the majority of my learners are liking coding more and more everyday, some even attempting to code a Choose Your Own Adventure story).

Coding Robots to Tell a Story

This was the big idea from #digitaledchat that I have been waiting a while to try. We only have made one attempt at this, but it went, in my opinion really well. Some interested children joined me for a short brainstorming session. We came up with some characters and starting thinking about what their story was going to be about. Some other learners got interested and joined us at this point and the discussion started taking off. I backed off and let them sort things out. There were varying levels of coding abilities in the group and they were able to support each other. A lot of the story didn't really utilize coding knowledge, but it was a fantastic start. Again though, a little disappointed that these children won't get to try this again with me, but I'll keep on introducing these ideas to children and see how they develop.

The plan with this topic is to continue to explore it further, get children making more and more stories using their coding skills and then to share this in more depth next year (hopefully at GAFE & ISTE). So keep an eye out if you're interested as I think this is an exciting way to develop a plethora of skills amongst learners.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Lego Stop Motion Fun!

For those of you who know me and my classroom, you'll know that I have a massive collection of Lego, including many, many minifigures. My learners this year have, with much collaboration, become very creative with the Lego, building houses, cafes and many other things with incredible detail. A couple of my learners have even gone so far as to make a number of stop motion videos, but in the last week they've taken things to an entirely new level.

When I first introduced Stop Motion to my class, we had been using Stop Motion Animator on chromebooks. I had some webcams that worked (though the majority of the ones I bought did not) and that was going fine. Then we had some issues with the saving, so it became very frustrating to see my learners put a lot of effort into their videos and then be unable to save things. So we tried Monkey Jam on the class desktops. There was an improvement in being able to save an export, but it was still a cumbersome process.

Then we tried the Stop Motion Animator App on the iPads. Brilliant. Great resolution, easy to use, easy to add audio and easy to upload to Youtube. Over the past few days, the big sets have been used to create some really elaborate and creative stories from two of my students. I especially enjoyed the way they used Lego bodies with no heads as clothes. 

For anyone thinking about maker spaces, this is one way I have used my maker space to help develop literacy skills. Have a look at what they've done. My input was solely to provide the Lego and show briefly how to make a stop motion video. I'm really impressed with the direction they took with minimal direction. I think it goes to show that learners (of all ages) need an opportunity to explore. The first Lego creations and stop motion videos we did this year were not very exciting, creative or well done. But given time to try lots of things, they've been able to produce some amazing this. I only wish I could give this group of learners more time to develop these problem solving and collaborative skills.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Passion Project Sharing!

Today, after two attempts at Passion Projects and much reflection, my class had our first real celebration of our learning. And it was amazing! We had invited parents and some other staff members to come in for about an hour to find out what my learners had been doing all term. Last time we shared, we had each group or individual go up and talk to the class. This time, after thinking about it, I decided to try doing a fair of sorts. We had one learner who wanted to go up and present (see the video) and the rest took turns at sharing their work at tables throughout the room.

We had about 10 parents join us today and they were all amazing. They went around to each of the tables, talked to all of the children and asked lots of questions. It was such a positive and inspiring day and though I know I did do things to support my learners, this came almost completely from them. They were super confident and I was so proud of every single one of them. See below for pictures of the day.

How might I do more and better HTML coding?

Why do diet coke and mentos react?

Why do scientists invent so many things that are a waste?

How might I encourage people to like school?

What can we learn about nocturnal animals?

How might we make home-made jewelry?


How can I learn to code a website?

There was a buzz in the air?

How can I make a model of a wolf?

How can we make a house?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Revisiting my Mixed-Ability Reading Journey

I had written a whole long post on this topic last week, and was just waiting for some data to finish it up, but then something tragic happened, and it all got deleted by accident (ctrl+z did not work!).  So I'll try my best to recreate what I had written (and perhaps it will be better).

Two terms ago I changed the way I taught reading. I was souring on the effectiveness of achievement (ability) groupings in everything and this was the last frontier.  I wrote some initial thoughts after one term, but now I have some data to back things up. In those two terms, 19 of my learners participated in the mixed-achievement groups, reading two novels over the two terms. This change started in early May and the latest results have come during early September, so the time frame is approximately 4 months. Over those four months, the average improvement in reading age has been 9.9 months, more than double what would be expected The smallest improvement was 3 months and the largest was 21 months. Though this is not exactly a scientific study, it does show that a) I'm not crazy for doing this and b) even if the reasons for their improvement did not include the way I taught, it's clear that the mixed-achievement groups does not hinder learners from improving and the children are not subjected to who is in the lowest group. I wish I had taken some other data at the beginning of this (asking learners if they enjoy reading, if they think they are good at reading) as that may have been more valuable, but anecdotally, the class tells me they don't want to go back to the old way.

Furthermore, while looking at the reading results, I had a look at my writing results as well, a subject in which I have not had achievement groups all year. On average, compared to their term 1 Asttle results, my learners have improved an average of 3.1 points on the scoring rubric, which translates (roughly) to 1.5 sublevels, which is approximately the amount of progress expected in a whole year. So overall, my students have improved more than what would be expected over that time.

Given the improvements, I have spent some time thinking about why this might be, and I came up with several reasons:

Though the choice I gave my learners was not very big, I let them choose from books they would enjoy (Roald Dahl) and didn't force any particular books on them (in fact, there was a multiple step process to figure out which books to read, each step involving learner voice). Having children choose what they read puts a lot of the ownership back onto them, they want to read those books, and they are excited to talk about them.

A lot of the work was based around discussions and questioning, directed by both myself and my learners. Since all learners came from different backgrounds and experiences, mixing up the groups provided for richer discussion and thought about the books. Children who have never worked together before had a chance to share their ideas with each other. This is always a good thing, getting ideas and ways of thinking shared between learners, and having them support each other in developing their comprehension strategies.

Enjoyment, not Shaming
Most children who are not in the top group do understand what this means. By focusing on enjoyment over achievement (on an arbitrary scale) learners are more engaged and enjoy reading more. When reading is enjoyable, they do it more often. When they do it more often, they get better at it.

Most of the work I do with the groups for their novels, revolves around SOLO maps and using them to understand the book a bit better. From the first to the second term, there was a marked increase in confidence of students using the maps, to the point where some didn't even need me to walk them through it. They were able to think about what happened in the book critically and delve deep into the meaning of what the author wrote.

Harder Books
Rather than give learners books that are "at their level," more difficult books (which are chosen by the children) push them to learn more. They are motivated to read the harder books and when they go back to their levelled tests, they seem much easier by comparison, which helps them succeed more easily.

Overall, I'm extremely pleased with how this reading (and the writing) program has gone this year. My learners are clearly more confident with their learning and sharing what they know (though this is not just because of the reading, but it has played a part in it) as well as working as a team. Incidentally, it has been harder to prove an improvement in math results this year as it is not as easily quantified (or at least I haven't yet tried to do so). Has anyone else tried mixed-achievement reading? Has it been successful? Any comments would be greatly appreciated.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

My Learners Are Amazing!

Every term, each team at my school has an assembly where the learners come up and share something they've done. Each term, I've been the "lazy teacher" and had my learners come up with what to share, prepare everything and then present, with very little input from me. The first two times have been pretty good, especially considering they've likely not had any guidance in doing something like this before.

This term, after going to CS4PS, I went pretty hard out with teaching coding and computer science. I have some students who have really enjoyed doing coding (through code clubs and some of the lessons I've done in class) and they decided to share some stuff they've done on Scratch. The group chose itself, and was inclusive of all learners who wanted to participate. For few days of their preparation, I did absolutely nothing, except remind them they had a deadline. They worked together, having arguments and discussions. Tears  were cried, but followed by talks to fix the tears (I may have nudged them to have those talks).

We had a practice on Friday morning and afterwards in class, we had a little critique to help them along. We first talked about all the great things they did (and there were a lot!) but then we discussed how we could improve. It was amazing to see how supportive and positive the rest of the class was in helping them along. They realized most of what we said anyways, so they were also being self critical (which, is yet another thing I want my learners to be).

Then this happened in the afternoon:

I'm so proud of them and I didn't even do anything, other than guide them along. This is all their doing. It's been a fun last couple of days in class with this and some other amazing things going on (hopefully I'll be blogging about another group that did another AMAZING thing this week, but we have to finalize some things on Monday).

Koanga Festival with my Students

I am lucky enough to have some amazing teachers at my school who do amazing things with my students. This Saturday I got to see firsthand some of those amazing things at the Koanga Festival at Bucklands Beach Intermediate. Our school's Kapa Haka group was performing and I made sure that I would make it, having two of my students in the group. I had seen the performance a day earlier, but wanted to go to show my support. The students were amazing in their performance! Even better than the day before (though, the lighting and the larger stage no doubt helped that). Their hard work was clear and evident.

It was nice to be invited to this and to get a chance to experience life outside of school with my students. Being a foreigner (taking all your jobs and such) I have to admit ignorance when it comes to many things Maori. This was a positive way for me to learn a bit more and to help build those relationships with some of my students (even if one of them told me he didn't want to smile for the picture). As an added bonus, three of my students have brothers or sisters in Kapa Haka and I got to see them outside of the normal classroom setting.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Science Unleashed, Day 1: Rocket Launching

Last night I went to the first of four Science Unleashed workshops with Chris Clay and Ally Bull. I was quite excited because since I met him at the MindLab I've enjoyed everything that Chris has shared with me PLUS I have a science background and enjoy doing fun sciencey stuff with children.

After getting lost not once, not twice, but three times on my way there, I finally found the room at AUT North Shore and settled in. We had a brief introduction but it was straight into a fun, exploratory, playing activity. We were given rocket powder (not actually rocket powder), and rocket liquid fuel (also, not actually rocket liquid fuel, as well as a variety of other materials to make our rockets. Chris did a "shoddy demonstration" (his words, not mine, and on purpose) to give us some basic idea of what we needed to do, with the simple task of seeing if we could make our rocket go high.
All of the partnerships worked, trying different mixtures of the liquid (there were 3), different shapes for our fuel delivery system, as well as different amounts of liquid and powder. When we first started, the rockets didn't work really well (our first one didn't even explode!). But over time, it was clear that more and more of everyone's rockets were getting higher. It was at this point that Chris stopped us and brought us inside to conference. He had us discuss what we found out. Could we make any claims that were supported by evidence. We wrote our claims down and discussed what had happened. There was some consensus on what was certain (one of the fuels was useless) but there was also some disagreement.

Then we went back outside and had another go at it. This time a few groups spoke with each other and discussed which variables we would test. Angela and I decided on changing the amount of liquid. We found that a little bit of liquid worked better than a lot. Have a look at one of our tests. Unfortunately it shot up so quickly we couldn't see the whole thing. But you can tell that there was a lot of upward force propelling it.

The last step of our investigation was another debrief back in the classroom. We discussed ways in which we could improve our investigation. A few of us thought that it would be better if we decided as a group which variables we would test. Others discussed how we would make our measurements more accurate and what things we should measure (we thought that timing hang time would help determine which rockets when highest).

So what was the point of this? Well, there were a lot. The first one is that science and other fun, hands-on activities can be done on the cheap. Not all schools can afford lots of equipment, and Chris even said early on that having less materials and resources can actually be a good thing as it forces you to be innovative.

The whole process was one that was meant to promote the Nature of Science (NoS). Compared to a 'typical' science lesson, one like what we did pretty much gives opportunities to develop all four strands of NoS. For Understanding About Science, learners are given the chance to make their own explanations and understand how science works. They are clearly learning what Investigating in Science means because they are carrying out their own investigations. The whole time, learners are Communicating with their partners and with each other. The conferencing was a fantastic way of communicating this idea. There are also loads of possibilities to share their learning with others or digitally. Every single one of us was participating in actual science and we were all contributing the the scientific community that we had created amongst ourselves.

Though this is not the first time I've participated in Science PD that was similar to this, I have continued to get loads of ideas. As Chris said, he's not about giving us a recipe for a perfect science lesson. But he did give us some great ideas to provoke scientific thinking and investigating. And that's before you consider the inspiration that this night has provided me. I'm looking forward to next week!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

On Stepping Back and Watching

For a lot of my teaching career, I have been told that I must be doing something with the students. That maximizing time with me is what will make the difference for students. A buzzword that some principals and other leaders like to use is "direct acts of teaching." Our days are structured by how many groups we can see, as if this makes all the difference in the world.

But I'm here to ask if perhaps we've got it backwards. I'm not saying just let children be all by themselves the whole day - that has the potential for disaster (though I am somewhat interested as to what would happen if that were the case). I'm talking about pulling back and letting students have a go; letting them have a chance to make their own meaning and work through problems their own way.

A big focus of my teaching the last couple of years has been using the problem solving approach in mathematics. In it, I give my students some problems. We discuss what they might mean beforehand, then I let them have a go. Often I just step back and go help the other learners in the class and let them struggle. I've even gone so far as to ban children from asking me questions during their work time. I will drop in and out of each group, asking them to explain what they're doing (and sometimes even doing those - unplanned - direct acts of teaching, if necessary).

The struggle itself is what helps learners learn and grow. I could tell them what they need to know, but a) I doubt very much they're all listening, b) they all need to know different things, even learners who have achieved to a similar degree, and c) learners can and want to learn anything, so who am I to dictate what they should be learning by completing any given activity. There's even evidence that this gives bigger gains in the long run.

More recently (probably in the last few months), I've started doing this more, in other areas. Passion projects are a great way to do this. I've also stepped back in writing and have allowed my students to complete a writing project of their choice - which can range from writing a book to making a stop motion video. Everything we do, I want my learners to grapple with the ideas themselves, experience failure, and then move forward. We are risking the creation a generation of students who merely want to please someone else by spoon feeding them what they need to know.

In writing, I have also begun getting students to evaluate their own work. It was very successful this week. I had taught a quick mini-lesson on improving our vocabulary in our writing and the students went off and wrote on their own. Afterwards, I had them work with each other to identify the interesting words they had used. I watched the whole thing, but the conversations and debates they had ("Is Palmerston North an interesting word?") were much more valuable than me telling them or giving them a worksheet. I even joked during this time to them: "I'm not doing anything". But one student said to me: "Yes you are." They get it. They know it helps them.

There are definitely some interesting perspectives on this. Oftentimes, as teachers we need to feel like we are doing something, as explained in this article. However, I think we need to realize that we can be extremely effective by putting learners into positions where they will struggle and be able to figure it out for themselves.

I also came across this story a while back about WALTS (learning outcomes, objectives, etc for those not down with the lingo) and how they limit learning. Letting students learn their own way means that we shouldn't be dictating the learning outcomes. We can give them a task, but what they learn can be different from one student to the next. Just some more food for thought.

Monday, September 5, 2016

TAP Lab Visit #3

This Wednesday I returned to the TAP Lab to continue my education in all things Maker. Most of this involves Arduino and other types of coding, but we'll see where things take me and how much time I'll actually have in the future to come back (it is pretty far away - but definitely worth it).

Today's session started with me figuring out another sensor - a temperature sensor which is surprisingly accurate. Then the very helpful people at the lab started telling me all about all the parts I had in my Arduino kit, including some displays. Well, I was intrigued. My big thought was to get the display to show the temperature. Well, it was a massive job just to 1) figure out how to hook up the display to the Arduino board and then 2) figuring out the coding, which had a very simple, but inexplicable error.

The code we found on the Internet for the lights was giving some really strange results. We poured through it, trying to figure out what went wrong. Then we started testing things to see what changed. It became apparent, at one point, that the lights were doing the opposite of what they were meant to do in the code. So, I changed all the 'trues' (which the code said meant the lights would go off) to 'falses' and amazingly, the display lit up as it should have. It was a good lesson in debugging, though it got pretty frustrating at one point, and I was definitely in the dip (growth mindset FTW!). But this only led to a static display. I managed to change the display to my birth year and then discussed ways in which I could program the numbers to change - though due to the tediousness of the code I'd have to write, I put that off for another day.

Since I remembered to bring my mBot to the lab, I decided to have some fun with its display as well. It is much easier to program the lights there (it's all visual, and you just need to click on the squares), so I was able to spell out all the number words to ten and get it to count up. I bet I can modify this program to make it do addition or subtraction (or many other things). Hmmmmm.... I do love how learning one skill can get you thinking about how it can be applied. Have a look at the video of the lights changing.

Today was a fantastic lesson in what actually goes on in a makerspace. It was often quiet when I was working, but when I had a problem, many people there were willing and even eager to help me. That's the kind of atmosphere I'd like to create for makerspaces. I spent two hours there, but it felt like 10 minutes. Again, that's what I want for MakerEdNZ.