Monday, September 29, 2014

iPads: The Cart Before the Horse?

I've spoken with several teachers recently about ways I can support them as an Instructional Coach. I'm trying to put myself out there, identify what teachers want/need, and work to provide it. One of the most sought-after areas of professional development so far has been iPad support. "I've got all these iPads, I just don't feel like I use them enough!"

Man, that's frustrating.

It seems as though we've gotten really caught up in purchasing technology to be current and high-tech, but it's not until after we have the devices that we stop to think about how they'll actually be used. This is all backwards.

Technology and iPads should seamlessly become a part of our daily routine; they should enable us to do amazing new things we couldn't otherwise do, or even simply streamline work and help make us more organized. Instead, when they're purchased on a huge scale without work beforehand identifying needs and supports for training and integration, we get these shiny toys that we then have to go out of our way to "put" into instruction.

I've written before about my skepticism of iPads. Years ago, my grade level was approached with the idea of implementing 1:1 iPads. At the time, all we could see as the primary use was as a research tool and time sponge. There were plenty of apps that attempted to teach concepts or turn learning into a game, but we couldn't see much more use than that. Now, of course, there are tons of really great apps that enhance what teachers can do in the classroom.

If my principal approached me again with that same proposal, I would most certainly say yes (though I'd prefer MacBook Airs or even Chromebooks). This is the way that it should be, though! I should be asking for technology because of all the possibilities I can imagine, not because it'd simply be cool! I'd use formative assessment out the wazoo with Socrative, encourage and track literature analysis and discussion using Subtext, manage my students' behaviors with ClassDojo, require students to explain and demonstrate their thinking using Explain Everything, grade and guide classwork using Classkick, differentiate reading instruction using Newsela, help students create engaging, well-organized presentations using Prezi, teach programming fundamentals using Tynker and Lightbot, teach keyboarding skills with TypingWeb (and physical keyboards...), fill gaps in students' math skills using Khan Academy, and foster student collaboration using Google Apps for Education and Classroom.

And notice, not a single app (with maybe the exception of Lightbot and Khan Academy) is meant to replace me or do my job for me. These all serve to help me be more effective, to reach more students, to organize my classroom and speed up my workflow to allow me to do more.

This is how iPad rollouts should happen. Not because, "We have some money to spend," or because, "These iPads are fun!" or because, "I really want to do centers."

It's much easier to start at square one asking, "How the device can change and enhance my teaching?", than it is to un-think, "How can the device fit into my traditional way of teaching?"

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Computer Science Day 3 - More on Binary

We're still going strong with computer science in the classroom!

Today was my first time teaching the follow-up lesson to last time: the binary number system.

We began with a review of converting binary numbers into numbers we regularly use (decimal system). In some classes, I was able to use Socrative (if you have an account, you can access the quiz I made using this as the SOC number: 12813040) again to quickly get a sense of what kids remembered from last time. This also made it really easy to fix mistakes, since I was able to identify exactly who was misunderstanding the content and what they were doing wrong. We again posted correct and incorrect answers on the board, so students had to identify which one was correct and why, as well as which ones were incorrect and what mistakes students may have made. This allowed us to fix up mistakes and benefitted the whole class: seeing what a classmate did incorrectly helped others make sure they avoided the mistake themselves!

Today, though, the main goal was for students to see that binary numbers can be used in a coding system to create letters and symbols. We started by counting the keys on a keyboard: How many different symbols does a computer need to recognize? We established that it's around 128, since letters have both lower- and upper-case, along with several other two-function keys. I then challenged the students to figure out how many bits (binary digits; 0's and 1's, in other words) it would take to store 128 different symbols. They used pattern detection to see that each place value is twice the previous's value, so they would need seven bits to produce 128 different symbols, including zero. This took us straight into ASCII - how some dudes sat around and came up with a standard system for these symbols and decided that 01000001 should represent A, 00100000 should represent a space, etc...

This was the lightbulb moment for several students - they started to see that we could translate numbers into letters, if each letter was represented by a code! I then showed them's Binary Decoder Key (see page 7) from the K-8 Intro course. I used some black and white square tiles to show my initials, but they had to figure that out on their own. We connected black and white squares to 0's and 1's, learned that 8 bits is 1 byte, and then started sending binary text messages to each other on scratch paper! :-)

The kids were WAY into a coding system for letters - any time they get to send secret messages, they're hooked. We kept them short for now, since it was a partner's job to actually decode the things!

I then passed out a packet of worksheet activities from CS Unplugged that they'll complete for next time. I adapted the CS Unplugged sheets to allow for space for students to answer the questions, and I re-phrased some of the wording to make the questions clearer.

Oh, and I removed the part of one sheet where it asked kids to try counting in binary on their fingers, since once they hit the number 4 they'll be giving someone the finger...They can learn that on their own!

I also thought it was a great opportunity to talk about all the different ways binary messages are sent (see page 10) - how CDs and DVDs use tiny grooves on their surfaces that either do or do not reflect light, magnetic strips on tapes were used to store hard drive data, and the biggie: an old-school computer modem connecting over dial-up to the Internet! This visual was awesome at showing how data could be sent and received in this way, and the kids found it pretty interesting, I think. Well, they at least thought the sounds were funny...

Next time, we're onto depicting images using numbers. We'll lay off the binary for a bit (get it?) and just use decimals to code images, but I'll still be pulling from CS Unplugged. I figure 2-3 days of images, throwing in's Graph Paper Programming, and then we'll hop on the computers and start to learn some algorithms!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Computer Science Day 2 - Binary Numbers

Alright! I'm keeping up with my commitment!

Man, I feel so much better about how Day 2 has gone in the classrooms I've entered. We're getting into some pretty heavy stuff, but the kids are handling themselves really well.

We began today's lesson by reviewing the challenge I gave to each class: to create their own interactive computer program. We talked about our "Need to Know"s again and connected the day's lesson to our need to know how computers work.

I started with another Google Slides presentation, but it was much more limited than Day 1's. It basically helped me stay on track and cover what I knew we needed to learn. I told students how, at their most basic level, computers decode messages by determining if various circuits are powered or not: if a circuit is powered, it's the equivalent of a 1; if not, it's a 0. We talked about how EVERYTHING a computer does is translated into and out of binary. The videos they watch, the games they play, the music they listen to, is all being process and translated into and out of binary.

Next, we reviewed some real Kindergarten-type stuff: counting. How does our number system work? How many numerals do we use (in EVERY class so far, kids disagree on whether we use nine numerals or ten - even after counting on our fingers the numerals we use!)? What are our place values worth? We connect to work they've done previously on exponents, expanded form, and place value to really explicitly talk about how our counting system works.

Then, we start in on binary. I used CS Unplugged's dot cards from their "Count the Dots" session by having five volunteers come up to the front. We talk about how if you can see a person's dots, they're a 1; if you can't, they're a 0. Everyone hides their dots and we state that the number they're showing is zero (00000). Then, we have the student furthest to the right flip his/her card and count the dots. We see one dot, so we're showing the quantity 1 (00001). Then, we hit the quantity 2, and kids start to go "huh?" We have the next student over flip his/her card, count the dots and see 3 (00011), so we have the first student flip to be blank. Now this is showing 2, but we write it as 00010. Kids take a moment to wonder why we don't write 00020, since there are two dots on the card. I reiterate that "2" doesn't exist in binary! If you can see a person's dots, they're ON and a 1. If you can't, they're OFF and a 0. We keep pushing through and counting up and students start to catch the pattern and figure it out.

In every class, I've been really proud of how student stick with it; there are, inevitably, a couple of students who tune out, but most of them are intrigued and curious. And I continue to emphasize that they are pattern detectives - when they struggle, that means they're learning more and should keep at it. If they search for patterns, things will start to make more sense.

We continue counting up, with a student recording the numbers in binary on the board to track our thinking. Students start to see that the person with the one-dot card flips EVERY time, the person with the two-dot card flips every TWO times, the four-dot card flips every FOUR times, etc. They see that you always try to add one as far right as you can, and that sometimes that triggers chain reactions.

Once we complete this work, I reiterate that EVERYTHING a computer processes is in binary - colors correspond to binary codes; letters correspond to binary codes; pixels on their screen correspond to binary codes; audio tones correspond to binary, EVERYTHING! At this point, they're pretty hooked.

I pass out a set of dot cards for each student, and then we hop on Socrative. I hadn't used it much before, but MAN IS IT AWESOME! I took 5 minutes to make a quick short-answer quiz for the students to practice translated numbers into and out of binary, and the payoff is huge. I'm able to quick see who gets it, even with short answers! Because I only expect them to put in a number, Socrative will detect if they've put in that exact number and automatically indicate whether they're right or wrong. It just takes a few moments to go through the results and figure out how students did.

My favorite part of using Socrative, though, is the discussion we can have about the different answers students submit. I put up on the whiteboard all the different responses I received, and ask students to pick what they think is the right answer and justify it with clear reasoning. Some student disagree, so we gather several arguments before I reveal who is actually correct and why. Then, here's the big learning moment: as a class, we figure out what the thought process was of students who got other wrong answers. We investigate what flaws and mistakes they made in solving the problems, get them out in the open, and learn from them. This is huge: kids love to try to figure out how to get wrong answers, and MOST of the time the whole class learns from those mistakes and gets better. In one class, for example, the percent of the class who got the answer correct on four consecutive problems went from 75%, to 85.7%, to 92.9%, to 100%. Now, if that's not powerful, I don't know what is!

In most classes, we only got about halfway through the presentation; I can't wait to go back into classrooms and finish! We'll review binary again, finish our conversions and go back over why we're learning this in the first place, and then start to send secret binary messages to decode with each other.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Computer Science Day 1

This will be the first entry in a series I plan on writing on my experiences teaching computer science to upper elementary school children. I'm going to prioritize 20 minutes at the end of each day to really stay on top of this and reflect more intentionally. We'll see how long it lasts. :-)

Friday, I began entering classrooms again to teach computer science. I started this at the end of last year in two of the fifth grade classes at one of my schools, and in two fifth grade classes and four sixth grade classes at my other site. The two schools are pretty different, as well. I've seen, though, that kids at both sites are entirely capable of completing the challenges I offer.

This year, I decided to start early and put more of a Project-Based Learning spin on the series of lessons. I've also found more resources from which I'm pulling to build a more comprehensive set of lessons. That being said, I'm also trying to differentiate between grades to build some sustainability and not bore kids to death in sixth grade with the same ol' same ol'. Primarily, I'm using's Course 2 for the fifth graders and CS Unplugged's curriculum to supplement the unplugged lessons from Then, once we've learned the basics of programming, we move onto Scratch's Creative Coding curriculum and the PBL aspect of the lessons. The unit overview is here.

Today, I began with an intro lesson. Pretty boring stuff, really...

I mainly mirrored this first lesson on's K-8 Intro to the Art of Computer Science lesson, which may have been a mistake. I ended up stuffing a bunch of high-level overview stuff into a lengthy presentation, and I saw several bored faces over the course of six iterations. Plus, I don't know how much the kids will really take away from that lesson, other than the main points stated in's "What Most Schools Don't Teach" video. Basically, I start by asking the class what computer science means to them. We go over their ideas and gather some initial impressions, then watch said video.

Then: the barrage of discussion topics. I intended for these questions to be invigorating discussions, but after struggling to get kids talking I inevitably wound up just stating my own ideas. I really feel that encouraging students to respond to each other will make a huge difference in kids' engagement in class, but I'm kind of at a loss for how to achieve this. I have a suspicion that it's something that just takes lots of time and investment on the part of the teacher, but it doesn't keep me from trying to get it started. It generally ends in me just BEGGING to get kids to at least give me a thumbs up if they hear an idea with which they agree...

So anyway, we watch the video, talk about it and the messages the various scientists are communicating, and then discuss how computer scientists work, what careers benefit from computer science, what skills they need, and what computers can do. The kids go along with it, but I could tell in every class that they're not all that enthralled (with a few exceptions).

Things start to get better toward the end - we watch Scratch's overview video to get the kids excited about the kind of projects they can create, and then I issue the PBL-ish challenge: How can we as fifth grade students make a creative, interesting computer program to share with others? I paraphrase the challenge as, "Each of you is going to write a computer program," and start to see the stunned expressions. Many students have never even thought about programming, so many are nervous and skeptical. I reassure them and generate our list of Need to Know's.

This is where I'm unsure if I stick with BIE's PBL guidelines: we generate a list of skills and info we'll need to find out, and I guess we'll refer to it throughout the unit. I'll have to take a second look at some point.

I have a few more chances to improve upon this first kick-off: there are still four sixth grade teachers who I would imagine will have me in to work with their kids this year. I'm thinking I'll cut some of the discussion prompts to really sit with a few strong topics, pull some sample Scratch projects to show off what the kids can come up with, and possibly make a simple program together to show them that it's not as crazy as it seems. We'll see.

For now, I'm looking forward to day 2 tomorrow: teaching the kids binary! I'll be using CS Unplugged's Count the Dots activity, spread over two days, and then finish it off with's binary segment from Intro to the Art of Computer Science.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The classroom is calling.

I'm trying really hard right now to take off my rose-tinted glasses, but I can't help but miss having my own classroom. Big time. I was talking to a former student earlier today, a junior in high school now, and thought about how many other former students I've probably missed this school year. I'm also not creating any of those relationships with kids this year - the kind where they actually come back to their old elementary school to visit you! What has really put me over the edge, though, is the email I just received from said student at 11:45pm on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, apologizing for complaining and getting upset with me 5 years ago over getting a B+ instead of an A-. Dang. What a fantastic young woman - and she's now getting ready to attend a global policy summer opportunity with students from 35 other countries in NC, IL, and DC. I'd say that B+ from back in sixth grade didn't really keep her from achieving what she set out to do. In fact, she mentioned that she's now learned to focus much more on the memories, experiences, and personal feelings of accomplishment in school rather than the grades. It's simple acts like this that keep teachers going, I believe. In what other profession do you get to make that kind of an impact on another individual?