Now that I have the Nutcracker read alouds posted in the Willow Lane Read Alouds Youtube Channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCgo7q67pdVRkW2utB6Nnh8Q), I can have students work on this more independently. They can do it from home, and catch up easily if they miss a class. Also, I can differentiate by reading leveled books of the Nutcracker to some kiddos, while others listen to the original.
Appreciating the past is classy. That sentence was worded carefully. Being stuck in the past is not classy. In fact being stuck in general is not classy. Glorifying the past is not classy, either; It says, “Those times were far better than today.” With advances in medicine, technology, and transportation, no time in history can compare to modern times.
To appreciate something is to recognize its worth.
The opposite of “Appreciating the Past” is when a person thinks that things are the way they are because of his or her efforts alone. If you make a scientific breakthrough, that is great, but I guarantee that there were hundreds, if not thousands of scientists and scientific works, not to mention your teachers, parents, and even environmental situation that all lended to you being able to perform your accomplishment.
On the other hand, while age isn’t everything, the older the wine or…
When you meet someone for the first time, you might find that you have some things in common. These similarities tie the two of you together. They are usually thin threads of thought that help you relate to one another. “I also have a dog. What kind of dog do you have?” … “Does your dog chew things, too?” Connection, connection, connection= thread, braided-thread, forming string.
If there was something uniquely interesting about the acquaintance; This is a person whom you’d like to meet and spend time with again, you may choose to firmly attach a stronger string to the person, tying it to their garment before parting ways. Then, as you swim through the cave of your life, you may follow that string back to the person.
Perhaps you saved his/her information as a contact in your phone. Maybe you got a business card that you put in a special place. People who spelunk, especially in underwater caves, know that there are two paths of every caving expedition (Bernstein, 2017). The one from the entrance of the cave into the earth is the first. And then, there is the path from the end returning to the place you entered. Cave divers will often have a bright nylon string attached secularly to something outside of the cave and to themselves. Legendary cave diverThomas Iliffe explains that in addition to losing the path to the exit by forgetting the turns one has made through a maze of tunnels, it is possible to kick up sediment that will blind a diver (Grundhauser, 2015). With the multitude of distractions of life swirling around us, how could we ever find our way back to conversing with an interesting person whom we connected with? Sometimes we must carve out; forming our own cavern of time in our schedules. Even if we do, will that person be able to meet you? Pull them in by reminding him/her of all the many connections that you had formed when initially speaking. You may have to string them along a little, but how much will they thank you when you get together and realize that those threads were the beginnings of relational ropes that you can count on?
While the trust forged in an informal meeting is thin, a measure of how deep it is felt could be found in how many threads there are. You are both human. That is a teeny weeny thread. Perhaps you’d trust this person more than the house plant next to him, but it is very limited trust. Were you to learn that, although you now live hundreds of miles away, you both grew up in the same town, and then you begin remembering with the new acquaintance all sorts of things that the both of you independent of one another experienced that are the same! The shared location of growing up is the source of the threads, but now many are shooting out and attaching, some weaving, some solo, and some loose, maybe even unattached (an experience that only one of you had that doesn’t make a mark on the other). You both frequented the same bookstore. The same memorable clerk sold the two of you books. There was a place in the bookstore where you liked to sit and read; You both did this! It’s possible you sat across from each other at some point in what feels like a parallel universe. What?! Wild. I may not have this person babysit for me, but I’d definitely check out a book that he/she recommended. I would trust their opinion over a person whom I’ve known for years, but does not share my affinity for reading.
How can we make this metaphor useful?
When forging relationships, look for and celebrate similarities. Rope is a bundle of flexible fibers (How Products Are Made, n.d.). If you want a student to trust you, tie him or her to you as you lead them through a windy, dark cave of learning. Make sure that the rope of trust is tight and strong. If you dive into teaching with an un-secure knot, the kid could come loose and drift away. They may need constant reminders to find the rope, hold onto the rope, don’t lose the rope… If the rope is not strong enough, the student could get snagged on an idea and the tension could cause the string to snap. Do not assume that a teacher-to-student relationship automatically forms and ties knots of strong string. That is merely a thread, and the end is stapled to the student. If you don’t work on it, the thread will slip right through that staple.
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A mountain climber will have safety lines attached to him/her when scaling the side of a cliff. If a rope breaks or comes loose, the secondary string keeps the climber safe. He/she reattaches the primary rope and continues. When building trust with students, have many lines. Attach them all over your pedagogical pinnacle. Make connections between lessons, and connect those to the backgrounds of your kiddos. Weave a whole safety net of trust so that students feel comfortable performing trapeze tricks of practicing newly learned skills, swinging from concept to concept. They should behave as if they will just bounce if they were to fall. Falling (failing) could very well be even more fun than completing a trick! But, if they stick that tough trick, the whole world will know, because friends will shout from the mountain sides.
Perhaps there’s a pupil whom you have a hard time making connections with. There just doesn’t seem to be much that the two of you have in common, or maybe he is not interested in forging a bond with you. Find one thing that you can hold onto; one thread; and coat it with additional flexible fibers of support every time you see the student. If they play a sport, learn everything you can about the sport and mention one thing each time you see this person. Don’t over do it: That could strain the thread and it could snap. If the student feels like you are stringing him along, he could pull away, breaking the thin thread of trust. Add a new fiber, one at a time, and eventually you’ll have a colorful, strong mountain-climbing rope attached to that student. When he finally realizes all of the work that you put into researching the thing that matters most to him, he’ll know how much you care about him.
In a previous blog about trust (“Super Highway”) I had mentioned the connection
between neurons. Myelin coats the axon that sends information between connected neurons. The myelin acts as an insulator. The more there is the faster the information travels between the two brain cells. Your brain wants to send information speedily. That helps you think successfully. It can’t coat every connection with extra myelin, and you wouldn’t want it to. The best is for the brain
to choose the most helpful pathways of thinking and coats those with extra myelin. It’s your job as a communicator in the classroom to figure out the best connections to have with students and coat those connections with extra attention, understanding, and interest. If you do this, you will be able to communicate learning experiences more clearly and quickly with your students.
Before I end this analogy, I want to mention the problem of misplaced and broken trust. First of all, the thickest rope has its limits. In fact, mountain-climbing rope has many styles, gauges, and types (REI co-op). Is it possible that you were putting too much trust in a connection? Were you counting on a shared similarity with a student too much? Perhaps you need to attach some safety lines. Here’s another idea: When mountain climbing, you DO want strong rope, but you don’t want to have to carry a million pounds. You have to balance being trustworthy without burdensome.
I like the metaphor of rope for trust, because it has a lot of give. It takes quite a lot of force for even a little thread to break. The trust can snap, but it withstands pressure. One thing that will cause a string to break is when it wears down. This would happen if it were rubbing on a sharp edge. Trust will wear down if there is too much friction, also. Keep this in mind; The heavier the weight, the more friction and faster decay of the line of trust.
This thread/string/rope analogy for trust can go on and on. I would love to hear what you think of it. Please, add to it by commenting below. Share personal experiences, insights, additional metaphors and symbolism, and also diverging thoughts.
Thanksgiving night 2019 my daughter Scarlet, wife Sonia, and I all sat down to play a game together. Scarlet was interested in learning Cribbage. This is a card game where players move tiny pegs that stand in holes drilled into a wooden board. Each players’ line of holes goes to 150 points. You leapfrog the pegs, so that one keeps the place of the previous accumulation of points, while the other counts out the new total. The player to get her pegs to the finish first, wins.
I wasn’t sure how Scarlet would do with this game of many rules. There were many firsts: I taught Scarlet how to shuffle the deck. She did pretty good. I showed her how to deal the cards. Then there were the instructions of how to play.
Cribbage is all about points, and there are many ways to earn them. One of the ways to earn points is to form groupings of cards whose combined value total 15. When I witnessed Scarlet, who just turned 8 one week ago, working out the different combinations of 15, I was not only impressed with her math skills. It hit me that she was analyzing the cards and evaluating the future potential they held.
This is a little tricky to communicate via text. Without describing the entire game, let me try to convey what Scarlet had to think about when it came to the 15s. It takes several rounds to accumulate 150 points and win a game of Cribbage. Each round begins with all of the (3) players getting 5 cards. The first thing that you do is try to decide which 4 cards you keep, for you are to give up one of them. It can be a challenging decision to make.
See, you don’t just record the points represented in your hand. You play your cards against opponents’ cards. And then, there is a starter card that you use over and over, too. Finally, there is a crib that goes to the dealer. This is what you contribute to when you discard a card at the beginning of the round. If you’re not the dealer, you don’t want to place cards into the crib that will easily form combinations of 15, giving your opponent more points.
So, it’s Thanksgiving. The dinner is cooked, consumed, and cleaned up. I’m watching my daughter wrestle with the cards in her hand. Of the five she is holding, which should she throw in the crib for someone else to use?
Sometimes it is simple. The starter is a five, and you have three face cards (valued at 10, each), a five, and a four. Throwing the four into someone else’s crib is a no-brainer. It won’t make any points for you. How many different combinations of 15 are you looking at without the four? Try working it out.
The answer is six different combinations of 15 can be formed (3 combinations using your “5” + 3 face cards & 3 combinations using the starter card which is a “5” + your 3 face cards). What if rather than a five, you had an Ace (valued at one in Cribbage)? Now you have 3 face cards worth ten each, an Ace, and a four. And, don’t forget the starter, which is a five. If you give away one of your face cards, you would have four combinations of 15. If you gave away the four this time, you would only have three fifteens: Your 3 face cards, combined with the starter.
It’s extra hard when you have to add the numbers to make fifteen. Let’s say the five cards that you are dealt are 4, 5, 6, 3, & Ace, and the starter is an 8. You have to discard one of those cards to someone else’s crib.
Ace, 3, 6, 5 = 15
4, 6, 5 = 15
Ace, 6, 8 = 15
3, 4, 8 = 15
Am I missing any? It takes time and is pretty tricky finding all of the combinations. You can’t overlap any, using the same grouping in a different order.
As I’m sure you can imagine, this is great for developing number sense. It also helps grow critical thinking skills. Scarlet was doing all of this math in her head. Once in a while, she would ask for some help. We worked through all of the different combinations to make the best decision possible. She ended up winning, surprise/surprise!
What struck me most about this experience was the inner conflict centered on deciding which card you would choose to relinquish to the crib each round. I knew this to be an important part of the game, but watching my daughter wrestle with the decision, round after round, brought new light to the fact. With practice, she got better and more confident at choosing the card that she would let go.
The inner conflict of choosing the best cards to keep and which to get rid of reminded me of using controversy in the classroom. Making topics controversial by providing students with opposing, nearly equal in value concepts that they must analyze and evaluate to decide which is better or more appropriate for a given situation would develop the skill of critical thinking. Cribbage could be a great way to grow this higher order thinking skill, while also developing number sense.
This got me thinking about other card games. How might a teaching style be analogous to these card games:
“Go Fish” — Students ask for information. If you know it, you hand it over. If you don’t, the students fish for it online (ask Siri). What are students learning when you use this style of teaching? Education is a take/receive, skill-less process. During the card game, only conflict comes in deciding how honest you want to be;) The controversy lies solely in morals.
“Rummy” — Players work at making connections between like cards. They collect as many pairs, three & four of a kind, and make runs. The player who has accumulated the greatest value in cards at the end of play, wins. Analogy to teaching: Making connections is great! Each time you find two like ideas, you group them in your head. You categorize thoughts and store them away. Furthering this game’s message, however; If you’ve played this game much, you’ve probably learned that runs are where the play is. You can play one of your cards off of someone else’s run. You only get the points that your card is valued, but at least you get to play it! This symbolizes a group or team-learning approach. Students must decide which information they want to keep, and which to discard. This decision will be based on how valuable it could be in the future or how useful it is right now. A potential drawback to this approach is that it teaches students that the kid with the most knowledge in the end wins at life.
“Poker” — Kids play this when they try to get away with not completing assignments that they think won’t be checked or graded. The lesson students learn from this teaching style: Life is all about tricking people into thinking you are smarter than you really are, have more knowledge about something than you really do, and/or are able so do something when really you are truly incompetent.
“War” — Without consciously choosing, each player places the top card from their pile face up. Highest card value wins all. When there are ties, War ensues, and only one winner gets tons of cards. This is the opposite of equitable teaching. You teach everyone the same, period; Zero differentiation. Some kids greatly benefit. Everyone else plays along, losing in the end. It should be stated that early on in War, one person begins accumulating the aces and face cards. The other player(s) know that they are going to lose… Unless, they cheat. And, even then, it is hard to come back when you don’t know what card your opponent is playing.
“Solitaire” — “Go practice what I taught you.” Players become familiar with the cards and some relationships between them. They may practice shuffling. An element of racing a time could make this game more challenging, but you might as well be marooned on a literal island!
The thing is, we use each of these styles in our teaching. As teachers, we cannot assess everything, and sometimes we have to use a poker face. Sometimes we need to have students play quietly on their own, and there are times when it is good for a kid to repeat the same action over and over, in solitary practice. When a student does not know the definition of a vocabulary word in the middle of a lesson, it is appropriate for them to
ask, and there are other times when we tell them to “go fish” for it in their text. Everyday, all day long, students are making connections, building relationships between concepts and accumulating knowledge. Hopefully, there isn’t too much “Rummy” being called out in your classroom;)
When the profession of teaching seems to be swimming in data and everything seems like a numbers game, I suggest injecting life into it by making a topic controversial: Give it an element of inner conflict through pitting two or more opposing ideas against one another. This will require some creative thinking on your part, but the critical thinking through cognitive productive struggle that students will be engaged in will far outweigh the work you put into it. Good luck, and let me know what you do and how it goes through tagging me and my research partner James Norman on Twitter and/or using #ControversyCanBeClassy when posting. Also, feel free to leave a comment, here;)
You are cordially invited to try out being controversially classy; Or is it classily controversial… Either way, please join me and my good friend James Norman on a journey into trying out a cutting-edge pedagogy of using controversy in the classroom!
James Norman, a higher education teacher of literature from Massachusetts, and I have been exploring the idea of using controversy in the classroom. We are NOT talking about teaching “controversial topics”, although that very well may be a byproduct of our journey.
Specifically, we are proposing that teaching could be improved by introducing an element of controversy into lessons. I have been trying it out with great success!
Just this week, I was preparing to have my students read an article about teeth from a brand new Storyworks Junior magazine. What do good teachers do before delivering a text? We have students explore what they already know: recount prior knowledge. There are loads of great ways to do this, and they all work well. It hit me, though: Why don’t I tryout what I’ve been researching? James and I have been reading, discussing, and thinking about the use of controversy in the classroom since the beginning of the summer of 2019. What if teachers took ordinary topics and found ways to make them controversial? How would that affect learning?
I decided I’d try out some controversial class on my kiddos, and I asked them, “What is more important, brushing your teeth OR washing your hands?” Because I have had my students do this kind of thing before, they knew how it worked. After I split them into two teams and assigned positions, they naturally formed groups of three or four to discuss ideas that could support their position and challenge their opponent’s. I let them chat for a few moments. I was moved by how engaged and even animated my students became!
I stopped everyone and had them regroup with different friends from their teams. This way they were able to rethink and better organize their ideas. Mini-debates within teams ensued.
Some things that I enjoyed witnessing were students taking turns sharing, practicing good listening skills, and displaying passion for the topic through nonverbal communication.
When we regrouped as a whole class after only ten minutes of controversial competition preparation, I used Siri to “flip a coin”. One team “called it” and won the toss. I asked, “Who is going to present?” Hands were raised and fingers were pointed; Several students were interested in presenting. I told them, “You can only speak once, so decide if you want to go now, or hold onto your argument for later in the debate.”
The teeth team was presenting first, and the boy they had chosen to headline their position was confident. He communicated to me that, rather than wait, they wanted to come out strong–He literally told me this! I laughed, as I gestured for him to begin. “This is a true fact,” he began, “That once your teeth rot, it will affect your gums, and go down to your heart, and you will die.”
The metaphorical conch was then handed to the hand-washing team. A girl delivered their initial position that germs could be transferred from person to person if hands were not properly cleansed, thus (my word;) affecting more than just one individual.
Point * Counterpoint!
Next came the argument that if your teeth did rot and fall out, you wouldn’t be able to eat anything. Again, it boiled down to not brushing your teeth leading to certain death!
The hand-washers chose to point out that you could simply blend your food and “eat” it through a straw before presenting their new argument for the importance of cleansing your digits: It’s winter and everyone catches a cold in the winter. Washing your hands limits the amount of germs left on door knobs, helping everyone stay healthy. Someone called out, “Body-hygiene was the 2nd leading cause of death!” After I regained composure of the group and got over my own shock of third graders knowing and understanding such concepts, I suggested that brushing your teeth was a form of “body” hygiene. Also, “How do you know it is the 2nd leading…?” Shrugs.
This whole experience was so fun and exciting! I had everyone sit down for my wrap up. I praised everyone for their outstanding, classy behavior. I pointed out that one of the most important things to practice when discussing controversial concepts is being good listeners. I explained that this meant actually being open to the fact that the opposing team could very well have an idea that is correct. Do not assume that your opponent is wrong. You have to be ready to admit when they are right. Only through this attitude can you be prepared to come up with valid, strong, appropriate counterpoints. A classy debater is not dismissive.
“Who won!?” someone couldn’t help blurting out.
I didn’t even have to answer: “We all did,” a bright young lady pointed out.
All of this took less than 30 minutes. Now, we get to read the article that spurred this lively controversy in the classroom, “History of Teeth”, written by Kristen Lewis, published in the December (2019)/January (2020) edition of StoryworksJr.
Incidentally, every Storyworks Junior magazine has a section geared toward and even titled, “Debate”. What James Norman and I are working toward is taking the sparks of debating and lighting a fire in regular pedagogy. Don’t feel like you have to take your teaching topic all the way to debate. Simply find a way to make it controversial. Students could very well engage in an internal debate after you present a rhetorical thought-puzzle.
In closing, I will reiterate the invitation: James Norman and I would love to hear about how you tried out introducing the concept of controversy in your classroom. Tweet with the hashtag, #ControversyCanBeClassy and connect with us through commenting on blogs.
Have you ever purposefully made something simple controversial, in order to get kids thinking?
The other day, I was reading a blog about trust, written by Thomas Murray (2019), and it got me thinking. And, this got me thinking even more…
See, I was thinking about relationships being analogous to the connections between neurons in the brain. Neurons or brain cells communicate with one another through conversations called synapses. The messages are sent via an arm called an axon. You could think of this like an old fashioned telephone line or wire. These axons are coated with a material best thought of as an insulator, myelin. What this material does is it strengthens the axon, making it more useful for sending signals between the two neurons. The more two brain cells communicate with one another, the more the brain will coat the telephone line with myelin. It sees this connection as valuable and worth strengthening, speeding up, and reinforcing.
As I thought about neurons communicating via this thread of an axon, I imagined two people’s relationship growing stronger via trust. At the outset there is an initial contact, but then with common interests and shared experiences the connection grows stronger. If the two people were to depend on one another, they would need to talk more. This might make getting in touch with one another through various means necessary. In other words you speed up the way you can contact one another. You are texting, instead of emailing.
While you and the person you are building this relationship with forge an increasingly strong, resilient, efficient means of communication, the two of you insulate the bonds between you. This happens a hundred ways, and it causes you to feel more safe around the person, because they know where you are coming from. You feel like they understand your feelings. They are less likely than a stranger to inadvertently do or say something that could hurt you.
In addition to safety, this relational myelin speeds up communication. Something as tiny, fast, and simple as “a look” can say a lot–and fast! A tiny touch might tell you tons without any words.
Tom Murray attributes the success of collaboration, leadership, transformation, and even progress to the “speed of trust” (2019). With the popular warning of trust being easily broken, after taking so long to make, I’ve been guilty of thinking of it as a Ming Vase. The tiniest slip up could shatter the whole thing. Murray does not suggest that trust is anything like this, but it is what I have imagined for years; A once and done breaking of trust.
Rather, Murray’s idea of trust affecting speed got me thinking about it building and maintaining a highway of information. More than just pavement, trust is both the work of building the road, and the process of maintaining the smooth surface that lends to the speedy communication needed for all of the positive benefits Murray suggested educators would reap.
In this model, the road of trust takes a lot of work and investment, and an earthquake could completely devastate it, but if built well, it would withstand many travesties. A trust crew could clean up a crash in the morning, so that the afternoon rush hours doesn’t even know it happened!
Before we get too excited about our trust highway, you should know that there are some pains in making it. If you want a really fast thoroughfare, it needs to be straight and level. Hills and sharp turns will slow down transportation. Believe it or not, there is something even more troubling than blasting or tunneling through mountains and building bridges over valleys. While that will be a lot of work, you first have to come up with the land to make your highway.
In the Philadelphia area there is a highway affectionately termed “The Blue Route”. I haven’t heard it called this as much lately, but when I was in college, that was its only name. Nowadays, it is simply the southern part of the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike; the vertical highway (476) that runs South to North. James Wyatt (2016) tells the colorful history of this helpful highway. Any understanding of city traffic will point to the absolute necessity of quick transportation around the outskirts of town. The idea for The Blue Route was born in the 1920’s. There were a few routes that were mapped out, and all of them had to navigate around iconic properties and places. Each had a different color. The one that was finally decided to build was the color blue.
Here’s the thing. Many people and businesses were moving to the Philadelphia suburbs (Wyatt, 2016). This meant that a means of quick transportation was increasingly needed for decongesting local roadways. But, it also meant that property value rose significantly. In order to build this highway, private citizens would have to give up their property. It isn’t difficult to imagine that no one wanted to do that. There is a law that the government can use to seize property from private citizens for public use (Find Law, n.d.). It is called eminent domain. Citizens get compensated for the land that is taken from them. The property owners and townships that The Blue Route was to cut through protested and held up construction for nearly thirty years!
Trust requires letting go of things. When we are building superhighways of speedy trust between ourselves and others, it will be necessary, albeit painful, to give up the rights of security and privacy. When you trust someone, you are making yourself publicly available.
Once this happens, you then have blasting, borrowing, and bridging to construct to make your highway of trust straight, smooth, and level. Returning to my initial concept of myelin and axons, each trustworthy action sheathes your line of communication with more insulation that makes it that much stronger and faster is like laying final coats of asphalt, erecting guard rails, and providing express lanes on a trust highway.
In conclusion, I propose we view trust as something to build upon, in order to speed communication, help, and support. Tom Murray calls trust an “unwavering thread of classroom culture” (2019). That phrase is what first got me thinking about axons, which then turned into superhighways. He warns us to take care of ourselves so that we can effectively trust others. Perhaps we ARE the highways, and our relationships with others are the exit ramps where traffic comes and goes…
How do you view trust?I would love to hear from you in the comments.
“I have a math test to give you, but I thought we could program some Spheros instead,” I said Friday morning to applause from the Polite Pirates of Room 207. Students’ cheers gave way to music… Mission Impossible Theme Music!
“Your mission, should you choose to accept it… And, you’re going to want to accept it… is to rescue people from certain peril,” I proposed. With everyone on the carpet, I explained that before a rescue, engineers would set up models that they could use to plan out their efforts to minimize loss of equipment and life. Their mission was to program Spheros to make it through a model of obstacles, getting to someone or group of people who needed help. The Sphero couldn’t stray from the path or touch the walls because it would be damaged and not be able to complete its mission.
The students were riveted to my instruction as I taught the “Engineering Process” that they would need to use while figuring out the most effective code for completing their rescue. This was the real reason for the lesson, but simultaneously they would get so much more out of learning/practicing coding, problem-solving, and working together in a team.
I went over each scenario, pointing out the “criteria” and the “constraints”, two vocabulary words from the “Engineering Process” model from Foss Science. Students whispered with neighbors about which they were more interested in trying. I told them that if they mastered one, they may move onto another “Mission”.
Students then returned to their seats to get out their math spiral notebooks for taking notes about how they used the “Engineering Process” while solving their missions. They opened the Google slideshow that had all of the missions, as well as an image with the Engineering Process in it. I had “made a copy for each student” through Google classroom.
I pulled popsicle sticks with student numbers on them to pair kids. As numbers were drawn, pairs came to the carpet to redeem their Sphero robot. Then they chose whatever mission fancied them most. With two pairs per mission, the class was a buzz of engineering within moments.
No one got to complete more than one mission, and most did not completely finish every parameter I had set for them, but every single student was 100% engaged in a learning activity full of purpose.
I want to back up to the beginning of the day, before I tell you how this memorable lesson came to a close. Students entered my room to find me painting posters. They asked what I was doing. Because I didn’t know exactly what to call it, I didn’t give them a straight answer. That drove them crazy. They asked to help. “Sure,” I answered, getting out more paint brushes, cups and paints. All I had to do was outline things, and kids would fill in. When I told them that the white was snow or that the red was fire, it fueled their curiosity all the more! Dave Burgess calls this “Preheating the Grill” (Teach Like a Pirate, 2012). My students were so hooked on this upcoming lesson, they hardly wanted to go to gym! Have you ever heard of such a thing?
While students were at their special, I made some finishing touches and turned a fan on to help the paint dry quickly. Then I came up with names, stories, and varying parameters for each mission. I took pictures of the maps, typed up the scenarios, and threw together a slideshow to share with the class.
Back to the lesson. Throughout the “Engineering Process”, while students were working on coding Spheros, I stopped everyone a couple of times to instruct them to take screenshots of their code. That way they could have snapshots of different levels of success. It would help them describe their problem-solving, later. Finally, I put together a Flipgrid for students to make selfie-videos describing how they used the “Engineering Process” to solve (or come close to solving) their mission. If they finished, they could watch their peers’ videos and comment.
If you are a teacher and you are alive, you have heard about the importance of teaching computer science to students. “Code, code, code!” is shouted from the pedagogical rooftops.
Don’t hate me, but I haven’t been excited about this concept. I tried Scratch many years ago, but between wrestling with the failing tech in my school’s computer lab and less than perfect early-in-teaching-career classroom management of 8 year olds, I was unimpressed with the outcome of learning. I scratched my Scratch plans.
Over the years, I’ve grown increasingly comfortable with integrating creative use of technology in my lessons and classroom. We make movies, video games, and are Google gurus! But, still no coding.
Sphero rolled into my pedagogical practice. My school district is training teachers to roll out a computer science program, and I was chosen with several others to pilate some lessons. Among other things, we will be using SpheroEDU to share the coding experience with the students of East Penn. Spheros are exactly that; balls. They have mechanical parts inside of them that follow the commands that you input in an app on a device. They can roll, turn different colors, and make sounds. (Although the sounds come from the device, not the actual robot.)
When my teacher friends and I were initially introduced to the Sphero robots we were instructed to try to get it to do some tasks. We used a variety of coding methods and tried out several styles of lesson genres. It was fun, but I wasn’t completely hooked, yet.
A recent get together of this team was assembled to begin creating lessons that would introduce and begin teaching coding to the 4th & 5th graders of East Penn. We were to come up with 3 lessons. A brainstorming session was followed by some discussion and voting. In the talk a theme emerged where we would introduce a narrative of insect study to the students. They were all going to experience the joys and difficulties of entomologists. The students would get their robots to study insects and eradicate invasive bugs: Debug. (One of our lessons is to clean up code of problems.) Notice how the targeted study focuses on a positive term for the animals: Insects, while the animals that are a problem (Spotted Lantern Flies have become a nuisance around Pennsylvania) are labeled negatively. Also, an obvious dual purpose of the storyline is to reinforce the necessity of clean coding, devoid of bugs.
This idea of purpose-driven instruction helped me see the coding lesson in a new light. Rather than tell my students to get the robot to make a square or go from an arbitrary point A to a pointless point B, I would be helping kids learn how to tackle real world problems.
With new inspiration and vigor, I returned to my third grade classroom where a case-full of unused Spheros sat in the corner. Let’s get to work, I thought, as I tore poster paper, uncapped markers, opened up bags of cups, and pulled out piles of pipecleaners. It was the day before Halloween, and an idea hit me: Monsters Inc. I would make grids with a door in one square and a kid sleeping in another. Students would dress up cups to look like monsters. These cups would float on top of a programed Sphero robot. They would need to get from the door to the bed and back to the door again. Also, the Sphero would need to create a scary sound. (This was attempted after figuring out the code for travel.)
Prior to the lesson, I got out all of the supplies. I made one more poster than I needed for 9 groups of 3 to have their own. Each poster had the door and bed in a different location. I did this incase an outstanding group had solved every coding combination for the map they were initially given. They could try a new one. (Another way of creating challenge would be to place items on the map, like wardrobes or piles of clothing, that the robot would have to avoid.)
To begin the lesson I placed one poster on the board to show students. I explained that they would be “playing” Monsters Inc. They were going to get monsters to go from the door to the sleeping child. Most students were familiar with the concept from the popular movie. I explained that the monster world was powered by an electricity that ran on the screams of kids. In the movie, monsters were trained and worked hard at sneaking into bedrooms and scaring children. I reminded everyone that it was important that the monster get back to the door, so that it could get back to the monster world. Otherwise it would be trapped in the human-parallel universe! “Aaaaahhh!”
Before leaving the carpet, I showed the students how the block-coding in the Sphero app worked. I drew the “Roll” command on the board with labels explaining/reminding what each bubble was for: Direction, speed, and duration (time).
While student groups decorated their cup/monsters with pipe cleaners, I had one kid at a time get a robot. Teams were separated around the room. The only parameter was for student groups to try to keep the robot on the paper. Needless to say, there were varying levels of success. One group figured out how to introduce changing the light of the Sphero. I didn’t bother telling them that the sleeping child (drawn on the paper) might not see the light change under the monster cup;) I was happy for the intrigue-guided discovery!
I only had to get everyone’s attention once or twice. One time I wanted to mention only changing one variable at a time when adjusting the rolling command: Rather than changing both speed and duration, just alter one or the other. After giving the change a try, make another adjustment. Keep going until the movement is just right. After I witnessed one group make the discovery that you should “Aim” the robot before placing the cup over it, I shared that with everyone, adding that they must “practice-run” the Sphero with the cup, because the drag of the “monster” might affect its movement.
The whole experience was a smashing success. Everyone wanted to keep working on it, but recess time dragged us all outside. We put everything away, until the next day.
The morning of Halloween, I had students get the Spheros out again. This time, I wanted to know exactly what they were coming up with. Students did not have to use a “monster”. (Because having a Sphero roll up to you, while you are sleeping and growl, was scary enough;) I put together a slideshow that I pushed out through Google classroom, much like I did recently with the Plural Noun BloxelsEDU maze video game lesson. Students were to take screenshots of their successful codes that got the Sphero from the door to the bed and back to the door. The screenshots were then imported into the slideshow for me to view.
The room erupted in coding.
Students nearly lost their minds when, halfway through the experience, I showed them that they could get the Sphero to say anything you typed into a speech command. From that time forward, “Hey, kid, aren’t you scared!” was heard, among other ridiculous phrases, uttered in a robotic, honestly less-than-scary voice, all over the room. It was both hilarious and exciting.
Again, recess, and then a costume parade, ruined our robotic fun:)
The takeaway lesson for me was the creation of a narrative, giving coding a storyline, helped me present the tasks in a way that gave meaning and purpose. The plot of Monsters Inc provided the jolt of electricity that animated the previously lifeless lesson. What have you used to give life to your lessons?