Archive | January, 2011

Let go… you don’t need to know everything.

21 Jan

I have no prior experience working with robotics. In fact, what I do know when it comes to robotics is basically that I don’t know much at all. I also know that the activities we are doing so far in the after school club are not mind-blowing, world shifting activities that will win us any competitions, be heralded as wildly innovative, or require immediate patent applications (not just yet anyways)… and that’s ok.

We have to start somewhere.

I don’t know much about robots… but I do know a whole lot about kids. I also know an awful lot about problem solving, collaborating, asking for help, experimenting, being resilient, finding experts, locating resources, and mediating conversations. I know about boundaries and high expectations. I know about trust. So when I show up for our new after school robotics program, that’s what I bank on. I do my best to model and teach the skills I do know about and I get out of their way for the rest. So far this plan seems to be working well. See for yourself.

Keep in mind, the students in the club were not selected to participate in the program based on their excellent math or science skills, and they were not selected because they show great promise in any specific academic area or have outstanding GPAs or have consistently good behavior. (Honestly, I have no idea what type of students they are during the school day — which I like.) In fact, the students in the program weren’t selected at all. We are together by complete chance; their previous after school program finished early in the season, they needed something to do, and I came along and said, “Hey, try this with me. I don’t really have a plan but I know we can make it great if we work together.”

In a million years, I could not have picked or selected a more perfect group to start with. They are learning so quickly and they are proof that you just have to jump in and trust the kids to help you figure out where to go to next.

At the end of each meeting, we review our time together and each member shares his or her biggest “take-away” lesson for the day. I’m sure you can imagine how it felt when, completely unsolicited, these are the types of responses students gave:

“I learned that even if its hard at first, you have to try again, because you can figure it out.”

Or how about this comment caught on tape by his teammate, “I was just tampering with the program and I actually figured something out.” (Pay attention to that smile. Its the intrinsic-joy-smile and it’s what keeps me hooked on teaching.)

My biggest take-away lesson learned so far…

Let go. Let go of fears of inadequacy. Let go of the idea that you have to “teach” kids and embrace the idea that you can “facilitate learning”. Let go. You don’t need to know everything

(For the record… I’m a realist. I know there will be a point where my mathematical and scientific knowledge will not be enough. Not to worry. I have a plan. I have a few SMEs standing at the ready and I am in regular contact with a local university partner. When we are ready for the next step, we will reach out for help.)

I promised to share practical classroom tips and ideas so before I say good-bye for the weekend…

Here’s a super easy to implement strategy for integrating technology in your club or classroom:

I keep a Flip Camera available for the students in the club to use when they want to document. Anyone can use the camera, anytime they want. Sometimes I use it. Sometimes they use it. The camera provides a good break for a student who is frustrated. I say, “Why don’t you walk away for a moment and document?” It gets him or her up and moving around, gives him an opportunity to stay involved, and in many cases he ends up observing a peer working through the same problem.

(BTW…This strategy works great with kids who have a difficult time staying still in the classroom. You don’t have to do anything with the footage. It’s more that the student stays involves, continues to learn, and does not disrupt the class.)

When One Door Clozes… Look for another.

21 Jan

Bad pun. I should know better. I couldn’t resist. 😉

Today, we kicked off our first grade robotics lesson with what was supposed to be a quick review exercise of last week’s lesson. It ended up taking almost twelve of our PRECIOUS minutes, instead of the five I had planned for. (Losing seven minutes is huge when you only see the kids for fifty minutes a week and they typically run five minutes late because of lunch.)

The problem was not the kids and their abilities, but the Smartboard technology. The technology couldn’t keep up with them!

This was the original plan. Students would take turns at the StarBoard selecting words from a word bank and sliding the correct words into blank spots in a passage with gaps. If the class liked the selection, they would give a thumbs up. The student at the board would then choose the next student to come up to the board. It was a typical cloze passage exercise modified for an Interactive White Board (IWB). It should have been a fast, fun activity for the kids that would give us teachers the opportunity to assess what the kids had retained from last week.

During planning, I was a little concerned that I had overestimated the reading and vocabulary skills of our first graders.

I used a number of two and three syllable words, and I referred to technical vocabulary such as motor, axle, computer program and commands. My co-teacher mentioned that he thought I was a little crazy to expect them to succeed at this activity.

Boy, were we both surprised. What I had overestimated was the technology’s ability to keep up with this amazing group of young readers!

The kids had no problem with the cloze exercise or the vocabulary. They had the reading skills and they had retained the information from the previous week’s lesson. They were decoding, comprehending and using deduction when they weren’t positive about a word. Unfortunately, the StarBoard software was slow and unresponsive and the exercise ended up taking longer than it should have. Students were frustrated when their words wouldn’t slide into place and too much time was spent trying to manipulate the text on screen. I love IWB technology, but today I wanted to chuck ours out the window.

Luckily we get to teach the lesson to a second group tomorrow.

We reflected after the lesson and decided the cloze exercise activity was a good review and that we didn’t want to cut it, but we needed to find a more efficient way to incorporate it into the lesson and we ideally would like to assess the students on a more individual basis.

Since I want to model a paper-free work environment when possible, I set out to find a program for creating cloze passages that students could complete online using the laptops.

It turned out to be more difficult than you might think. While there are many sites that offer teachers the ability to create printable cloze passage worksheets, few offer a solution for an e-learning environment.

I found a program called Cloze Pro that looks great, but there’s no cash to spend on software. I read a post from Bill Boyd about a free software he uses called Cloze Test Generator. It was super simple and free, but it didn’t have a drop-down menu option or a click and drag option and since the goal was to speed the activity up, I didn’t love the idea of having a room full of first graders struggling to enter text into text boxes.

Finally, after a fairly thorough search I stumbled across J-Cloze from Hot Potato. It’s freeware and fairly easy to figure out. Download it, open it, and use the help function if you need it. It’s not as easy to use as the programs I mentioned before, but JCLoze allows more user control and if you are comfortable with freeware applications, it won’t be a problem.

Tomorrow, students will be working in pairs at the laptops to complete the same cloze passage review exercise we tried at the IWB today. I’m looking forward to seeing how it works out. I’ll report later with details regarding whether the activity was a success or not! Maybe I’ll even do a little before-after. 🙂

Wish me luck!

Five First Grade Activities for Robotics Instruction!

14 Jan

We had our second robotics lesson down in the first grade today, and before too much time passes I want to share a few activities from weeks one and two.  Any of these activities could be easily modified to be more age appropriate or to be used for different subject matter.

Activity 1: “Computer Says”

To help first graders make the connection that robots must receive commands in order to operate, I borrowed an idea from members of the Robotics Outreach at Lincoln Laboratory (ROLL) who had visited a first grade classroom to introduce students to the concepts of programming and robotics. (Read about their visit!)

The activity is simple… replace “Simon Says” with “Computer Says”.

Say, “I am the computer. You are the robots. Robots can only move if they receive a command from the computer. If you move without a command, I will have to power you down.” I used it both weeks for one or two minutes. The kids love it and the idea that a command must be sent to a robot has stuck! I’m a bit of a goofball, so I like to give my commands in a robot voice.

Activity 2: Robot K-W-L in Voicethread

I love Voicethread and I love K-W-L charts, and they work beautifully together. To keep track of our learning during the unit I set up a new Voicethread account and created an identity for each of the first grade students using the image of a cartoon or comic robot for their avatars. These avatars were also printed under their name on each of their name tags.

The layout of the Voicethread is super basic. It has three slides in total. Each one features an image of a robot. Slide 1 is titled “What do we know about robots?”, Slide 2 is titled, “What do we want to learn about robots?” and Slide 3 is titled, “What have we learned about robots?”

When a child has something to add, they come up and find their robot identity, they share their idea and I take dictation and type their ideas. Eventually we will move into recording their voices in place of typing comments.

You can visit our Voicethread and see what it looks like after three class periods. On day 1, we did not have Internet access, so I kept track of their ideas on the board and added them later. (I wish I could embed the thread, but WP doesn’t allow it, so you’ll need to click this link to see it.) 1649945

Activity 3: Prezi Story – Jerome’s Dirty Floors

I always look for ways to include literacy in lessons and this week’s lesson provided a great opportunity for a story. I couldn’t find any stories that featured the concepts I wanted to introduce, so I wrote a story to accompany the lesson. I created a Powerpoint of the story, but then I remembered that I had seen Prezi used for storytelling and thought I should give it a try.

It was a fun way to create a flow to the story and it kept the students engaged. I was able to have a student do the page turning by clicking the next arrow, and I could embed a video as well.

Click on the Prezi image below to take the story for a test drive! ( Special thanks to the folks at ProfessionGenie for giving me permission to modify one of their images for my main character, Jerome, the mechanical engineer. )


Why start with the first grade?

13 Jan

While there are no words to truly describe my excitement over the kick-off of our first grade robotics unit, for the sake of the blog I’ll try to gather a few.

I have been pushing for a first grade robotics program since I arrived on campus last September. I want this program right from the start of our students’ “formal” education, right from Grade 1.

Not because it will improve the schools’ “STEM curriculum” and make us more attractive to prospective parents, funders, or partners. (Even though it could.)

Not because it will lead to more minority or female engineers and computer scientists entering the workforce in 22 years. (Even though it might.)

Not because it will increase students’ understanding of mathematical and scientific principles. (Even though it probably will.)

And definitely not because it will improve standardized test scores. (Because, quite frankly,  I’m not a big advocate of standardized tests.)

I have pushed for this program because I believe it will provide an outlet through which we will be able to promote and foster  the development of crucial learning strategies, social skills, and life skills in our students. We can use it to facilitate each learners’ development of a  healthy self-concept.

This matters. The other stuff is just frosting on the cake.

During this unit students will collaborate, touch, share, imagine, try, build, follow blueprints, observe, articulate, think about the world around them, think about problems, wonder about solutions, use the language of a discipline, experience intrinsic joy, experience consequences, ask questions, design, create, build, predict, play, take care of materials, organize, classify, sort, read, write, fail, and succeed…

And that’s where I really want their education to start.

I want us to reach students before they have an opportunity to become convinced that math is hard, or that science sucks, or that some kids’  ideas are valuable while others aren’t, or that you can’t trust people, and that if it you don’t get it right away you’re probably not good at it, or that… well, you probably see where I’m going with this.

And that’s where I’ll leave this kick-off post.

In the future, I’ll give you the practical stuff including links to lesson plans, photos, reflections and more.

Wish me luck.

Just do it.

5 Jan

All year, colleagues and friends have told me to just “jump in” and start a robotics club.

“It will evolve on its own” they’d say. I wanted to, but worried I wouldn’t get it right, or that I didn’t have enough of an engineering or science background to lead the club. But with 5 new LEGO NXT kits and a new Dell laptop to go with each, I had no more excuses and today, we just did it. Just like that. As a school, we don’t have everything in place. We don’t know exactly where the program is headed. We don’t have every possible mentor or visiting engineer lined up and ready to go. And still… we just started.

I figure we can work on getting mentors, and funding, and support as we go… for now, at least, we have a room full of students trying something new, taking some risks, collaborating with each other and loving it so far.

I finally got the opportunity to see for myself how powerful of a program this has the potential to be and how anyone who understands how to facilitate a group and foster inquiry can start a robotics club.

I’m totally psyched. (I know that sounds completely juvenile, but what can I say, it’s how I feel.)

For the purpose of documenting our steps here’s a basic overview our first meeting.

Day 1: January 5, 2011

7 students in attendance. All seventh graders. One girl. Six boys.

I showed the kids a driving base model I had constructed using the blueprint in the manual and let them know it would be the first project we’d try together.

I reviewed rules: “Try your best and don’t quit. Follow directions the first time. Be kind; be helpful; share.”

I spoke to them very briefly about the importance of keeping our kits organized and in tact. I also pointed out that we had “scored” the best room on campus, couch and windows and space and all, and that we needed to appreciate how lucky we were to have such a great place to meet.

Next, the kids broke into groups, each with a brand new unopened kit, and then worked together to organize them based on the suggested layouts provided. I gave them some paper plates to sort the pieces on and suggested that they only open one or two bags of pieces at a time. They chatted and worked together, cleaned up and we regrouped. That took about 30 minutes.

Next, I asked them what they knew about blueprints. The general consensus was that they were used at construction sites. After a brief discussion, they agreed that someone designed and planned something and then created a blueprint for someone else so that they could build the design. They used an architect creating a blueprint for a builder as their model.

We then reviewed the layout of the blueprints provided in the kits and I explained that we would start by building models from the blueprints to help us gain some confidence and learn about the various parts and how to program them, before we worked our way up to building models from our own designs.

They again broke into groups and started building their first model, the “driving base”.

When time was up, they put their kits together and sat what they had assembled so far on the top of their kit.

I closed by asking, “What worked? What was fun?” The students all agreed, “Teamwork went well and building was fun.”

Pilot programs kick off this week!

3 Jan

And so it begins…

Today I managed to recruit eight 7th grade students to meet with me after school twice a week for the next two months to begin exploring our new LEGO NXT kits. We are currently in the middle of an activity cycle that does not end until early March, but a few students were enrolled in a program that ended early. As they had not yet been rerouted to other activities, I was given an opportunity to try and recruit a few from the group to be my NXT pioneers.

Initially, they all sat glazed over and totally unimpressed with my pitch. If I didn’t know better, I might have given up. Luckily, I know better.

I thought “Just keep smiling, laugh when they say something truly funny, don’t take their disinterest personally or yourself too seriously, and keep building  your case.”

To build my case, I proclaimed my nerdiness.

I said, “Look you guys, here’s the deal. I’m a big nerd.”

I waited.  The looks came and then a few laughs.

And then I said, “Yep, I’m pretty nerdy and I’m totally proud of it. In fact, I highly recommend you all consider joining me in freeing your own inner nerd. Here’s why.”

I then listed off a few reasons why loving math, science, school, arts and technology has benefited me over the years including the fact that I had access to cool gadgets, that I got to collaborate with with smart, funny people, that I was often offered opportunities that my co-workers weren’t, and that I could always seem to find work even during difficult times. I mentioned the fact that nerds, myself included, often live comfortably on their salaries. I hinted at the potential for college scholarships and I didn’t forget to mention that in addition to “nerding out” I also loved to play sports and music.

Pretty soon I saw smiles peeking out from under hoods and from behind ipods and next thing I knew… the entire group had their hands up and volunteering. Kids are so cool.

Make it mean something and their closed doors open wide.

I’m not saying they were jumping up and down with excitement, in fact a few still looked utterly disinterested, but I’m not worried. The fact that they were willing to give the program a shot is a step and I’m grateful for their willingness to leave their comfort zone and take that step.

So, we will meet this Wednesday for our first official meeting. Now, I just need to decide how to ease them into this… Feel free to send ideas. 😉

On another note, this Thursday I will finally get to put our LEGO WeDo kits in the hands of first graders.

We are going to pilot with the first grade using this model:

Every Thursday, I will model a lesson with the first group of first graders. The elementary tech teacher, and a support team member from Education Works will observe and assist. On Friday, I will swap roles with the tech teacher. He will teach the same lesson with the second group of first graders and I will act as support. Friday, we’ll debrief and reflect. We plan to film as much as possible to aid in reflection.

The current technology teacher has taught middle school in previous years and I’m hoping to provide support by modeling a few early elementary classroom management strategies, as well as how to use inquiry at the elementary level to improve the depth and complexity of the students’ learning.

Wish me luck! It’s a big week. I’ll be sure to fill you in on how it goes.

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