Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A coder's paradise

I love technology - I like to use, learn, hear and use it.  I first was introduced to computers in 1987 in an 8th grade computer class.  There were 25 students with 12 Apple IIe computers (with dual floppy disk drives - remember the 5.25" floppies?) around the room.  They had the old monochrome (green) screen because color monitors were super expensive back then (people who had them also had gigantic box phones in their cars - super cool!).  My basketball coach, math and computer teacher (I went to a very small junior and high school) taught us how to write a code on the computer that would draw a line across the screen!  We were so impressed...I mean you have to understand...you typed in a bunch of code and pressed a button and a line drew across the screen - all by itself!  Amazing right?  I mean who wouldn't be hooked at that point :)

I remember buying a modem for my computer so I could go on the 'World Wide Web' and hear those magical words "You've got mail!" (go ahead and click it...you know you want to!).  I began teaching and in my second year as a teacher finished my Masters degree in educational technology.  I have always loved computers and using them to create things like websites, videos or communicate with other people all over the place.

Well, we have all come a long way since then - and now I am a dad with two daughters (ages 4 and 6) who are digital natives.  We've all heard the term digital natives, but what does it mean really?  Well, Oxford Dictionaries defines a digital native as person born or brought up during the age of digital technology and therefore familiar with computers and the internet from an early age.  I think anyone with kids today would agree that this definition fits all of our kids!  When I take a picture of them they ask me if I am going to put it on Facebook so the grandparents can see it.

This year I left the classroom and I now work with teachers in our district to use technology in their classroom.  As I go in to different classrooms I imagine if one of my own kids were sitting in these seats and I think about what I would want for them.  My oldest is only in 1st grade but she loves my iPad.  We have not decided to get her one of her own (though the more I see the more I can make a case for her to have one of own soon).  I don't let her use my iPad very often - I want her to draw, color, read, play outside, build forts in the living room, play at the water table...you know, all the things kids should do without technology.  But when she does get some screen time on the iPad she starts off playing a math game...but ends up doing some sort of dress up thing (girls love princesses - and princesses need to be dressed up).

Monday night I was following #edtechchat (5-6 PST) and I saw @Kodable tweeting on the chat.  I had also seen them tweeting somewhere else last week.  So I decided to find out what Kodable is...and what I found is a great free iPad app (sorry android users).  The app helps teach young kids to write very simple code.  There is no actual "code" - kids use pictures to move a cute little member of the Fuzz family through a maze.  From the Kodable iTunes page I learned the following:

The fuzzFamily crashed their spaceship on Smeeborg and need your help to explore the planet's Technomazes. Use your finger to drag and drop instructions for your fuzzes to follow. Then hit Play to watch them roll through the maze with curiosity. BEWARE: Fuzzes are very LOGICAL and will follow every command exactly as you tell them! Get rewarded with stars, coins, and even EXTRA members of the fuzzFamily as you successfully complete mazes.

I downloaded the free version (I've never paid for an app) and started to play.  It is pretty fun!  I know my 6 year old will love it...and my 4 year old will want to play too.  I have read that preschool and kindergarten are great ages for kids to learn a new language - so why not code?

The app is listed as ages 5 and up - but like I said, I know my 4 year old is going to want to play...and will most likely be able to figure it out.  The levels do get more and more difficult as you go - but they also offer more tools as you move up (like a loop).  There is also a 27 page pdf file with lesson guides and recommended activities they will email you when you sign in as a parent or teacher.  I had to add this part from the forward of the pdf file "This book is designed to help you help them learn with the Kodable Curriculum."  Doesn't that just remind you of Jerry Maguire?!

The Pro version of Kodable is listed as $6.99 in the app store - a pretty steep price for a guy who has never bought an app in his life!  But...if my kids really take to it and start learning the logical sequence of coding - I'll probably buy it for them (and have to give up my iPad more often).  I think we can all agree that technology is not going away - and where there is tech there needs to be programmers.  So maybe in 20 years one of my daugthers will write a program that will help me everyday...or maybe they'll earn enough money to reimburse me the $6.99 :)

Friday, November 15, 2013

10 minutes?

I am a teacher - I have been for the past 16  years.  I've been at the middle school level for 10 years and in a high school for 6 years.  During that time I have tried what is new, given old strategies a new try and I have learned what works and does not work in my classroom along the way! I started my career as a high school chemistry teacher - long before "Breaking Bad" gave chem teachers some 'street cred'...and during all this time I was never a proponent of giving students homework just to give them work to do at home.

When I started teaching I wasn't very good - I'll be honest.  I lectured 2-3 times a week and we did a lab on the block day.  I would give HW nearly every night because that is what the teachers I had in high school did and that is what the teachers around me were doing.  As time went on I started to think more about what I was doing and I started to become a better and more effective teacher.  I had students working fairly hard in my classroom and I started to see that they didn't really need to do any HW as long as they were working in class.  I also realized students in my classroom had more going on after school than I did 'back in the day'.  They were on travel club teams, took music lessons, had to babysit their siblings or just about anything else you can think of - kids today are busy!  Over time my philosophy about HW has changed.  I was able to watch Waiting for Superman and I made some changes in my classroom.  I gave little to no HW, but I expected students to work hard in class.

Last week while reading my Twitter feed I came across a tweet from @jcorippo - which was actually a retweet of @TDOttowa who had 'scooped' a blog from @pernilleripp (just another example of the power of Twitter).  If you don't understand the "@" or "retweet" or "scooped" that is all fine...that is just how I ended up reading this great blog "Why the Grade x 10 Minutes for Homework is a Fail".

While reading the blog I started thinking about my 6 year old daughter who is in 1st grade.  She is a great kid and seems to love school and learning.  When she was in preschool she would tell me the things she had learned that day and she was excited to share what she had heard in a book or from her teacher.  In Kindergarten her teacher was able to keep her enthusiasm to learn at a high level and she learned to read - giving her the ability to learn more things on her own.  Over the summer between Kinder and 1st she started saying things like "I'm going to have a lot of homework in 1st grade" and "I think 1st grade is going to be hard".

I knew that she was right and I said things like "you don't want everything to be easy, if it's always easy you aren't learning anything" and "that's ok, you are a hard worker and with hard work you'll be able to figure it out".  She is now 11 weeks in to 1st grade and I asked her what she thought about 1st grade so far.  Her answer surprised me. 

She said she liked school and she was having fun...but she also said she didn't like going to school any more and she wished it was summer already.  (From an 8th grader I would understand this...but not from a 1st grader)  I asked why she wished school was over and she said something like "I used to like to go to school because it was fun, but now there is too much homework".  Of course I tried to remind her that she was working hard and doing well and I told her that I thought she actually likes the HW.  She quickly told me "I used to like HW, but it is always the same thing over and over".  She followed that up by telling me "my HW is just doing what they did in class at home".  She is only 6 years old and she understands that HW is just a repeat of what she has done in the classroom.

She goes to a great school (971 API for those of you who understand that) and I know that her teacher is awesome and doing all she can to prepare her for 2nd grade and the impending Common Core State Standards that are just around the corner.  I have felt like she has a lot of HW so I sat down and took a look at what she was doing each week.  Here is what I found...

My daughter receives a homework packet every Monday that is due the next Monday.  It is fairly simple and I always think it won't take too long.  The packet includes the following:
  • Small amount of ELA for each day (3 mins per day)
  • Book report - one page that does not have too much writing (20 mins per week)
  • Oral report - reading something and then practicing (20 mins per week)
  • CCSS Math workbook pages (5 mins per day)
  • Spelling list - 10 words that are all super easy right now (2 mins per day)
  • Optional math work in the packet (3 mins per day)
  • Reading log (at least 10 mins per day - for 7 days)

I have seen many articles and blogs stating the typical amount of HW for students should be 10 mins per day per grade level - so 10 mins per day for a 1st grader (120 mins a day for a 12th grader).  My daughter's HW adds up to 155 mins per week or 22 mins per day - double what I expected.  I hadn't really thought about it too much...but when I add it up and see 155 min per week that seems like a lot.  And realize this does not include soccer practice, AWANA (church group for K-3), soccer games on Saturdays, church on Sundays and any other family time!  My wife and I have talked about getting her back in to swim lessons, maybe signing up for gymnastics and/or piano lessons - but I'm not sure the poor kid has any time left in her week (although we just decided she is going to play softball starting in January).

So what's my take away from all of this?  Like I said, I know that she is in a great school and I truly believe that her teacher is awesome and is doing what she needs to do in order to prepare her for what is next in a 1st grader's life.  So for this year I'll continue helping my daughter with her homework and encouraging her to do her best.  I want her to love learning - and I'll try to keep that as our focus.  Hopefully as she goes through the rest of her school years she will find a balance between learning and homework.  Hopefully more teachers will realize how busy kids are and keep them working hard in the classroom so that their time at home can be a time for family and extra curricular activities rather than worksheets and busy work.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

What the Gami?

Here is something you can use in your classroom for many different things!  The app is called Tellagami.  It only works on a mobile device (iPad, iPod, iPhone or android) - but the great thing is that you do not need an account, so you can share your device with students.  What it Tellagami you ask!  Well, it is an app that allows students to create a 30 second animation (very easily).  Students control the background, character and dialogue.  One of the best things is that they do not need to type everything on the device - they can  just use their own voice for the animation!

Take a look at mine (only lasts 20 seconds - and only took 3 minutes to make):

The only negative I have found with this app is how you share the "Gami" (that is what your animation is called) once you have finished.  Students have the option to save their Gami to the device, send it to Facebook or Twitter, send a text message or email a link to someone.  If they are on their own device they can easily just email the link to you.  If they are on a school (or your personal) device they can copy and paste the link of their Gami in to a Google Form or Google Site that you have created for the class.  If students have a blog site they could use the embed code to post their Gami there (just like I did!).  Or if you are using a social networking site with your class like Edmodo, My Big Campus or Moodle - or using a back channel site like todaysmeet.com - they could post the link to these sites.

I know you can find many different ways to use this in your classroom!  If you come up with some great ideas let me know - just paste the link to your (or your student's Gami) in the comments below.  I'd give you more details about the app...but honestly, you should just check it out for yourself - it is that easy!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


You do great things in your classroom - and when you can't be there because you are sick, you have family obligations or you have to be out of the room because of a district wide training - you don't want your students to "lose" that day of instruction.  Why not create a screen cast and have the substitute teacher just play your video to the students?

Or maybe your students have created a great project and they want to share it with the rest of the class, school, district or world.  You could have them create a quick screen cast and upload it to your class webpage for everyone else to view!

I have done both of these things in my classroom.  I have tried different software and web 2.0 tools - but the one I found that works the best (for free) is screencast-o-matic!  This web 2.0 tool allows you to record your screen, voice and video from your webcam for up to 15 minutes for free.  When finished you have options of saving the video file to screencast-o-matic, YouTube or to your own computer.  

Here is a 9 minute tutorial on how to use screencast-o-matic:

A few other things:
  • You can create an account and login so that when you are done with your video you can save it right to their website.  This also allows you to store your screen casts all in one place.
  • Go Pro! - for $15 a year you can add many features to your account.  Highlights include no watermark, editing features, draw and zoom, screen shots and publishing to Google Drive.