I have a few things to say about racism. I’m grateful, in an odd way, for the viral video of the boys wearing MAGA hats and mocking the indigenous drummer in Washington DC. You know the one.
It hit me hard because I recognize those kids. Not these exact teenage boys. But the smiles, the color, the jumping, the shouting, and the hats. They look just like my kiddos in northern Colorado. I worked with over 1000 kids just like them last year at my suburban public school.
I am amazed that we live in an era in which the president’s name and signature slogan are used as racial taunts. And yet here we are. Over the past couple of years, it’s been shocking to see kids act openly racist to their classmates simply by yelling TRUMP in the face of a Latino classmate with whom they already don’t get along. Or by screaming TRUMP’S GONNA BUILD THAT WALL in a crowded hallway and then ducking into a bathroom. Amazing that a kid can wear a MAGA hat to school and just revel in the high-fives from half of the students and the glares from the other half, and just bubble over with joy at the chaos they’ve wrought around them. Because of a President’s slogan.
I have NOT handled it well for the past couple of years. I have tons of excuses. I really wasn’t prepared for students to act racist to one another. I’m not trained in strategies for ending it. If I intervene, how much of my motivation is based on ending bullying and harassment, and how much of my motivation is based on not liking the politics of the kid’s parents? What if the parents call me and accuse me of being anti-Trump? Am I prepared for that call? If not, maybe I should scale down my response until I can really understand what’s driving me. Is the kid really being racist or am I overreacting? Maybe I’ll console the kid who’s being teased and avoid confrontation with the bully. I swear I had these thoughts. I’m not proud of them. I do want to respect everyone’s political differences and suburban parents can be intimidating. But come on – I was looking the other way when there was obvious racial bullying going on, disguising itself as politics.
The incident with the Native American drummer was fascinating because it happened on a school outing. I found myself empathizing with the school and internally making excuses for them. I have been there. Teenage boys do stupid things. My own students have these same impulses. And while we’re passing the buck, I believe the president’s own racism is at the heart of these issues, absolutely. The man has claimed Central American asylum seekers are diseased. He tried to make his case for a wall based on the presence of possible prayer rugs in the desert. He made fun of Wounded Knee. These are only from the last few weeks – the man is not politically incorrect, he is outright racist, period.
I stopped empathizing with the school when I realized I needed to stop making excuses for myself. It’s irresponsible of me to not even try to clean up the mess when his words set fire to my student community. I can’t let these moments go by. Kids need to know their words and actions are not ok, and they need to be called out for what they are. No more “you guys need to just stop and walk away”. It needs to be “I heard you say BUILD THE WALL as a way of harassing another student. Racial intimidation is serious and we need to take some time out to deal with this.” Covington Catholic School – and me, and my former school, and my current school, need to have a moment of reckoning and realize we have to deal with these forces that have been thrust upon us. We have a racist president who inspires kids to be racist. This is the world we live in. That nonsense HAS TO STOP and we need to not back down because we’re worried about offending their parents.
And if any of you reading this have suggested tools, techniques, articles or whatever to help someone learn the best way to correct racism and right the ship, please send them my way. I believe in restorative discipline and want to not just end racist, harassing, and bullying behavior but create a positive, empathetic community.
This year I am teaching pre-calculus for the first time, and I am committed to doing projects with my students as much as possible. Last semester we created a parabolic trough solar oven and made holiday cookies for students. This semester I decided to start with a unit on trigonometry, and I happened upon an interesting project via Twitter that showed someone sighting a distant object and using a micro:bit’s accelerometer to calculate tilt and thus how tall the object was. What a cool application of computing and trig. I decided to try and create the project for my class.
I decided to spend some time actually creating the thing. I started by attaching the micro:bit to a cardstock tube. The tube could be used to sight the top of a tree or building. We would try to keep the micro:bit on the same side and simply adjust the tilt until an object was sighted through the tube.
I played with different programming languages and decided to use Python, because it had a robust library of math functions. I started with a simple program to just fetch the accelerometer readings when you push a button.
I found that if the tube is held level, the “x” reading was close to 0, the “y” reading was close to a maximum of 1024, and the “z” was close to 0. If I held the tube pointing straight up (90 degrees), “x” was -1024 and “y” was close to 0. “z” remained close to 0. So as you tilt the micro:bit, the “x” accelerometer goes from 0 to -1024 while the “y” accelerometer mirrors it and goes from 1024 to 0.
I did a little searching to figure out how to convert accelerometer readings into an angle of inclination. There are a lot of different formulas out there – probably all correct. One source I found had a very simple equation:
So basically the angle of inclination is the inverse sine of the ratio of the “x” accelerometer to 1g. I had a hard time visualizing why the ratio x/1g would be equivalent to an opposite / hypotenuse, but it started to make sense when I realized the forces at work are really similar to the kinds of forces on an object that slides down an inclined plane.
In the diagram, the parallel force is analogous to the reading on the “x” accelerometer. The perpendicular force or “normal” force is analogous to the reading on the “y” accelerometer. Fgrav is basically 1024, the reading you get when there is a full 1g on an accelerometer.
This triangle is similar to the triangle made by the inclined plane. I made a little sketch that maybe shows this more clearly?
So basically the formula above, the simple inverse-sine operation, works because your angle of inclination is congruent to the angle opposite the “x” acceleration vector. You can find that angle by finding inverse-sine of “x” to “force of gravity”, 1024.
I wrote another Python program that did this math and reported out the angle, and it seems to be reasonably accurate.
Once you know the angle, if you know how far away you are from your object, its height can be found this way.
tan(theta) = height / distance
distance * tan(theta) = height
Easy peasy! This assumes you’re sighting from the ground. We may find we have to adjust for eye height. We can do that. Time to create the student-facing activity.
I put together this packet for the students. My class is super tiny so the kids can go through it as one group. For a larger class I would make groups and do lots of catch and release.
Here’s how it went.
We watched the video on the biltmore stick. Students gave me hypotheses around why it worked, and we talked about potential sources of error.
I told the students that with modern technology, we should be able to make a decent height-finding tool. I introduced the micro:bits to them and told them about some of the features. They’re the first kids in my school to use the micro:bits, and they were ENCHANTED by them. You turn them on and they show messages and images, they play a game, and then they tell you to get coding. How fun! The students had a zillion questions about what else the micro:bits can do and how they worked. After the excitement faded just a little, we talked about accelerometers and how they worked, and the students started working through the packet.
I hoped they would be able to struggle through most of it up until they had to write their procedure in Python, but of course that isn’t how it went. We ran up against several big conceptual roadblocks.
- The idea of the x, y, and z-axis accelerometers BLEW THEIR MINDS. It was really tough to visualize which axis was which, and the students twisted and turned the micro:bits every which way. They had a very tough time being systematic about turning the micro:bit on just one axis to narrow down which accelerometers were changing. I hoped they would be able to sort out which axis was which on their own. They could not, and they got frustrated really quickly. I broke down. I just told them which axis was which and what the max and min values were. I have to admit this has been a struggle for me as well. Visualizing the three accelerometers is a challenge and I probably would have felt the same way in this activity.
- The accelerometers are really sensitive. One moment you set the micro:bit level and get a reading of 0. Another moment the micro:bit seems to be in the same position but your reading is -92. Another moment it’s 16. The text scrolls slowly so you don’t really appreciate what those readings look like in the moment. It was hard, then, to ferret out what the max and min values were. They floated around.
- I really thought with their geometry background the students would visualize the similar triangles really quickly. They did not. Looking back, I remember feeling frustrated and like my mind was a little blown when I learned about forces on an inclined plane. So I should have been ready for this. But the whole idea that a force of 1g directed toward the ground could be broken up into the x and y components on the accelerometers, and that they didn’t add up but rather made legs of a right triangle… WHOA. There was yelling. There was almost crying. Emotions were high. Eventually they did seem to understand but I am going to have to do some good formative assessment next class to see what they actually got.
I have a TINY class, only 5 students, and so the yelling and the emotion was totally manageable, but I am SO glad I did not go through this with a bigger class. I would have done a lot more pre-work on gravity, inclined plane forces, and similar triangles.
Today, after all of our drama, the students wrote programs to calculate the angle of inclination and strapped the micro:bits to paper tubes. Next class, we’ll go outside and take measurements. One of my students found an alternate method of measuring the angle that was something similar to this.
It seems to use a distance-formula calculation instead of the force of gravity and it’s interesting how it uses all three axes. I’ll let her try it and see if her results are similar.
I’ll take some pictures of the results of the experiment and hope I get to do this again with a future group! I feel like with better pedagogy this would be a really great activity!
Well, I have successfully (?) survived my first semester at a startup school. It wasn’t always pretty, I’m a little bruised, but I have some changes I am ready to make. Here they are.
- I am determined to get better quality work from my students. I think the students I had in my venture project class enjoyed the course and made creative projects, but I was disappointed in the quality if I’m being very honest. Their communication products were especially poor. Without a good poster, presentation, or research paper to accompany your project, it kind of looks like a 4th grade diorama. And some of the projects even by the 8th – 10th graders kind of looked like 4th grade dioramas. As a staff, we came to some common understandings about what makes good research – and I will also spend some time digging up exemplars and industry examples that the kids can look to for inspiration. Communication will be a full third of their “grade” for their projects and I need to leave enough time at the end of the semester to work on this piece instead of squealing into the exhibition still throwing hot glue on a project.
- I’ve carved out my space. I really needed part of a classroom to call my own, and I kind of took over the makerspace in the school. I needed to feel like I had some ownership over my little section of the building, in order to take pride in the work that takes place there. I hung posters, organized all of the shelves, set up the 3-D printers and sewing machines, carved out some space for student projects, and I made little journals for the kids. We were in such a rush to open the building that a lot of this basic stuff just got left. Living in a pile of clutter and unfinished setup is stressful on its own. Now things are organized and set up and I am calmer. I also recognize that claiming space is a big part of what gives the kids ownership in the school, so I’ll look for ways the students can display their work and label their own areas.
- I set up protocols for the makerspace. Because of our disorganization last semester, a lot of our equipment was used carelessly. Students would just grab anything from jumper wires to knitting needles to impact wrenches and either use them incorrectly or fidget with them. For any equipment that is either dangerous or delicate, I’ve set up a 3-tier badging system. A level 1 badge means you can follow a basic tutorial to use the tool with support. A level 2 badge means you can use the tool independently. A level 3 badge means you can troubleshoot the tool and also teach others to use it. When you have reached level 3, you can use the tool without staff supervision and also teach other students how to use it. I posted lists of our students that have level 3 badges next to everything – the 3D printers, the sewing machines, the Glowforge, the soldering irons, the podcasting system. Currently the lists are empty, but as students level up, they can start using the tools independently and showing their friends what to do.
- I think I have the start of a really fun venture project. This quarter’s venture project asks the question “What does it mean to be a Maker?” I toyed with the idea of having the students make inventions that were purposeful and noble, but when I reflected on how I got started as a “Maker”, I realized I only started being able to make purposeful things after I had spent some time tinkering and making a bunch of crappy things. I needed to have the permission and courage to use tools to make things that were lousy but fun and interesting to me. So the secondary title is “Useless Inventions”. We’ll learn about Arduino and micro:bits and 3D printing, and we’ll visit Fort Collins’ Creator Hub, and as the kids’ final project they will make their very own Useless Invention. It should be joyful and interesting but it’s perfectly OK if it’s crappy. Making a few crappy, entertaining things will help them build resilience and grit in a non-threatening way. The inspiration is this TED talk by Simone Giertz. When I’ve pitched this idea to students, they have been VERY excited about it and rattled off a list of a few things they’d like to make. A jellybean cannon. A fantasy carousel. A jump-scare machine. A virtual aquarium. I want them to appreciate the Maker Mindset and get involved in the open-source community. The students will share and publish their projects, giving credit to whatever inspired them. They can publish tutorials on a site like “instructables”, or even make YouTube videos. I’ve got a formal planning document but that’s the gist of the project.
It’s late and I will write more about venture project and what I expect from math this quarter… I’ll do that part later. I see my first group of students tomorrow and I ought to get some rest.
I am posting my CS Education week report waaaaay after CS Education Week – for someone who cares about CS like I do, this feels weird!
At Compass, our school leadership felt strongly that we needed some “teacher time” to wrap up semester 1 and plan for semester 2. They’re not wrong… we did need it. There are an awful lot of loose ends we never really tied up for the beginning of first semester, and we NEEDED to tie them up for second semester. Huge questions, like how will we give feedback to students, how will we measure them with respect to graduation requirements, levels of autonomy, competency and such. We didn’t even have clarity on basic questions like will we measure their content knowledge, core competencies, social-emotional intelligence or some combination… So yeah. We needed the time! During the past two weeks, the teaching staff at Compass met every day for a couple of hours and our main task was to assess every single kid. And we did. We spread rubrics all over a room at Colorado State and we had a conversation about EVERY KID. It was empowering and also exhausting, but I came away feeling like what we did was important and good. How great is it to say we know every single one of our 150 students, we know where they stand and what they need to do in order to graduate as a well-adjusted and competent member of society.
While we were assessing and planning, that left our school leaders and a bunch of volunteers with 150 students in the building for a couple of hours every day. So we ran a coding camp for the students, led by volunteers! It was so strange to not be involved in the coding camp, but I had to let it go in order to get our act together as a school. But it turned out to be a fantastic experience and I am so very humbled by what our volunteers and kids can do.
Our main volunteer for the coding camp was Karthik Palusa – he’s a CSU student and the owner of his own startup company in Fort Collins. He rallied some other volunteers and came in every afternoon for two weeks to run the camp. The structure was fairly simple. For the first hour every day, the kids did self-paced tutorials on coding at code.org, Khan Academy or the coding environment of their choice. For the second hour, they worked with a team on a hackathon project. The project could solve any problem they wanted, but they had to collaborate and create something that went through the entire design cycle from identifying a problem through prototyping a solution. Many students coded webpages, Scratch games, apps on code.org… some went a little farther and we even had some student groups make games in Unity. At the end, the students submitted their programs online. Karthik and a group of volunteers graded the programs and awarded prizes in three categories: younger beginner, older beginner, and intermediate / advanced. Some examples of winning programs included a math-education game, an anti-whale poaching game, an educational mobile app about climate change, and a Scratch animation about deforestation.
The kids had a great time. They learned so much. It was really liberating for me, honestly. I’ve been the only computer science teacher in a building for such a long time. Then here comes a group of volunteers and they prove that if kids have motivation, a chance to collaborate and be creative, and some support, they can indeed learn to enjoy coding. I’m really excited to take our program farther at the school, but look what an awesome head start we have. I was skeptical at first, but I would recommend this structure of a coding camp. You don’t need to have a staff with a lot of CS expertise to help children learn about computer coding. You can round up some helpful volunteers and some self-paced websites, add a competition and some prizes… and look what happens.
This coming semester, I’ll be teaching a venture project on “whimsical inventions”. The idea is to learn about the Maker Mindset. How to tinker, create, and make fun things just for the joy of making and sharing. It’s about building resilience and the ability to fail upward. And we’ll learn to code and create cool things with micro:bits and Arduinos. I’m very excited to teach real CS again and it should be a great followup to this coding camp experience.
Thank you to all of our volunteers and our administration for making the past two weeks happen. It was awesome.
I’ve been teaching at my new school, Compass Community Collaborative School, for almost a semester now and thought I ought to process a little by blogging. It was exciting to open a new building – our school was an old thrift shop before we leased the building, and seeing it transformed as a school has been amazing.
What a whirlwind. Parts of the job are a more intense version of what I was doing as a public schoolteacher. I have four “preps”, essentially. Our morning schedule consists of intensives, and I teach math exclusively during these blocks. I have a section of Pre-calc, a section of Pre-algebra, and two sections of Geometry / Algebra II. I’ve been teaching these sections mostly with resources on Summit Learning Systems and then some resources I create. One take-away is that I really, really wish Algebra / Geo / Algebra II weren’t so heavily recommended as college prep courses. It is so difficult to make the classes authentic and hands-on, especially when the content is new-ish for me. My pre-calc class is working on a construction project making a parabolic trough solar oven, and we’ve done some interesting math around conic sections. I code a little bit with Geo/Algebra II using Khan Academy and we’ve explored quadratics using that tool. The real-world applications don’t just jump out at you though; you really have to work to create them.
My fourth “prep” is my astronomy / space exploration / robotics venture project. I made a decision early on to offer participation in FIRST Lego League and FIRST Tech Challenge as full-fledged venture projects. I am a big fan of the FIRST family of programs since they entail real world problem solving, a tournament which is also an exhibition of learning, and a full network of support. The setup has been a little challenging, since in my venture project group, I have some students participating in FLL, some in FTC, some doing neither but doing a project related to space exploration… and some students doing both. I believe very much in allowing for FLL/FTC participation during the school day; I think it’s equitable. But it really makes classroom management a huge challenge!!
I worked hard to give the students plenty of experiences outside the classroom; we went to the science museum’s planetarium, visited Colorado State’s science lab, had a guest lecture from an instructor at Front Range Community College, went to observatories, researched at the CSU library, toured the robotics lab in the Electrical Engineering department, and toured the manufacturing floor at Wolf Robotics. I did very little actual “teaching” and have mostly been coaching, facilitating, and guiding the kids through the design process. For our final exhibition in December, we’ll have robotics demos and a showcase of student projects related to astronomy and space exploration. I have kids working on their own science fiction novels, self-sustaining biospheres, treatments for the mental health of astronauts, hygiene products for space travel, scale model maps of Mars, Arduino-based robots and more.
So yeah, it’s been busy! Some parts of the school model have been slow in coming, and some parts have strayed from our original vision and we’ve had to do some hard course corrections. I don’t want to do a full analysis of it here – but our tiny staff is trying extremely hard to make this whole thing work.
As it’s the holiday season, my little break from reality is to work on my annual Ugly Christmas Sweater. This year I envisioned having an IoT-enabled sweater that people could activate from their phones. I ended up purchasing an Adafruit Flora, some Neopixels, a wearable Bluetooth LE module, and then reusing my LilyPad MP3 player from last year. It took me a solid day just to get a prototype working, but I love this kind of problem-solving and can’t wait to see the sweater actually come together. Once I get it sewn together, I’ll just have to finish “choreographing” some of the music. It’s difficult to choreograph without all of the neopixels sewn together, and it’s a pain to prototype all those neopixels with alligator clips.
Will blog when the sweater is done, I promise.
I will blog about our exhibition in December also. That will be a better time to process the successes and challenges of this semester!
The academic year at my new school starts in a little over a week! We’ll have 150 to 160 students this year in grades 6-10. I’m teaching math and technology and am partnering with one other teacher for our mathematics curriculum. We’ve been working hard over the past month to get some key pieces in place. Not everything will be ready on day 1, but I feel like we’ve made some important decisions and we can go forward this year and see how we like it.
We plan on having students explore mathematics through venture projects, but we realize we would need to make compromises we may not want to make in order to cover the key Common Core standards. Compass School’s key mission is to help students learn by growing their interests & passions while connected to their community, and if we’re faced with a choice to cover quadratic factoring or doing something authentic with the kids, we’re going to do authentic work. We’ll include the math that makes sense in context, but have no intention of forcing a fit such as “find a way to include polynomial division in our study of recycling programs in Fort Collins”. No. It will be easy to include number sense, proportional reasoning, financial literacy, data analysis, charting & graphing, spreadsheets, estimation, and prediction, so those will be emphasized through projects.
Many higher math skills aren’t necessary, relevant, or meaningful to a teenager making their way in the world. And yet we’ll need to be sure kids understand them – through Algebra I / Integrated I if they’re unsure about their college plans, and through Algebra II / Integrated III if they are college bound. Colleges expect to see a solid math background, and if a student is enjoying it and wants to go through Calculus, we need to accommodate that. So there is the crux of our philosophical problem – how to create the conditions for students to learn in real-world, authentic contexts and also gain proficiency in math concepts that don’t lend themselves well to real-world authentic contexts? I wish we didn’t have this dilemma, but here we are.
We’re going to create this balance by offering flex time in addition to venture project time. Flex time can be either at the beginning of the day or the end of the day – it’s the student’s choice. We have scheduled 45 minutes a day, 4 days a week. We have come on board with Summit Learning Systems, which is a free content management system and curriculum and personalized learning tool provided by Summit Public Schools. My partner and I will do some intake testing at the beginning of the year, using MAPs and if needed, some of the short diagnostic tests provided by Summit. Since there are two of us teaching students of many different abilities and we will have no “grade levels” at our school, we’re going to group the kids in one of four flexible math groups to start.
Math 1 is number sense and arithmetic (4th-5th grade math standards).
Math 2 is pre-algebra (6th-7th grade math standards).
Math 3 is algebraic concepts (8th grade and Integrated I standards)
Math 4 is higher math (Integrated II and Integrated III).
pre-calc (and we may have a couple of students in this boat) will have its own personalized learning plan set up in Summit and may be on a special schedule.
Each group will get 1 or 2 teacher-directed lessons a week, using the Launch-Work-Wrap structure in groups. In each math group, the general concepts are the same so we can select lessons that help build students’ ability to use multiple representations, understand and communicate concepts. Then once or twice a week, the students will work on personalized learning time, doing exercise sets either alone or with a partner. Once a week, we will have Portfolio Time to work on application problems or interesting puzzles. The personalized learning time and portfolio problems are all built into Summit Learning Systems. They’re a really cool feature and we’re excited to use them.
If a student passes off all of the power standards for a math band, they can get promoted to the next math band regardless of how old they are or what “grade” they would normally be in. We have a few different systems that we can use to check off standards for students and I am not sure what that looks like yet. We need to have this in place by Labor Day or else be prepared with lots of clipboards and papers in the meantime.
One of our first projects will be on defining yourself and your identity. It’s the foundation for the rest of the work we’ll do with kids. As part of this project, we’ll explore how quantifying your life can help you better communicate who you are. I made a quick example for this below. I also think this little project can be a good formative assessment for how comfortable our students are using proportional reasoning, statistics, graphs, and formulas as tools for communication.
Those are the big ideas behind where we are so far! This is a bigger role in planning kids’ math education than I have ever held before, and I hope we do a good job with it. The systematic development of these math skills can sometimes be a weakness in project-based learning but I think we have a pretty good structure for making it work for us and the kids.
This spring, I tried something I’ve never done before – I tried my hand at curriculum writing! I had a great opportunity to work with Launch CS to create a 10-lesson curriculum for the BBC micro:bit. It’s not perfect, no product ever is, but I did end up happy with what came out of the effort. The package is aligned to CSTA standards and covers a variety of them in ways that are not typical of most coding curricula. There are a ton of lesson packages out there that introduce algorithms and programming, and I did include these but also worked to introduce networking, data, and the design cycle. The curriculum is intended for students in grades 5-8.
The highlights are:
- Events, Variables, Conditionals, and Looping (via mini-projects and pair programming using the micro:bit)
- Data modeling and analysis using micro:bit, electronics, and spreadsheets
- Networking using videos, a computer and the micro:bit radio feature
- Design Cycle via a micro:bit “Shark Tank” style project
I would have loved to see teachers at the CSTA conference, but alas, duties for my new job interfered this year. It’s on my bucket list to attend – hopefully next year.
Until then let me know if the micro:bit resources are helpful!
Edited later because I neglected to give credit where credit is due. Grant Smith and Cheri Bortleson are amazing to work with – they gave thoughtful feedback and edits, and they formatted the curriculum beautifully with lovely graphics and a consistent theme. I can share this proudly because they did such a nice job with the vision and final project! Thank you Grant, Cheri and LaunchCS!
I’m a computer science teacher. I’m an engineering teacher and a math teacher. Of course I am. My job is to help students become literate, empowered, and creative with mathematics and technology. Right?
Except now I’m not so sure. I’m changing jobs next year and teaching at Compass Community Collaborative School, a new project-based public charter school in town. We’re making progress on the hard work of designing what our school days, weeks, quarters, and years look like. It’s humbling. It’s really humbling, because my base assumption that my job is to help students develop skills and content knowledge isn’t very helpful. I think it’s totally wrong, actually, and it’s sending me into a spiral of doubt about who I am and what I’ve been doing with my life for the past 10 years. I’ve been proud to be an advocate for engineering and computer science education, and I still believe firmly that all kids need exposure, practice and the ability to create with these skills. And yet that is not my job and it never has been. I need to put it all on a shelf and sit in the notion that my job is to develop human beings.
Compass will use a human-centered design process to create learning experiences for the kids. The process is laid out here, and it doesn’t start with skills or standards but rather broad concepts. Concepts are umbrellas under which questions, directions of inquiry, and actual projects live and grow. For example, our first set of projects will live under the umbrella concept of “Identity”.
Identity is a concept that crosses disciplines, that is universal to the human experience, that can be addressed with an infinite number of inquiry questions. When we first start doing projects with students, we’ll create the inquiry questions mostly for them. As they grow, they will create the inquiry questions themselves. These may not be the inquiry questions we will use for this project, but some examples we pondered early on include:
- How do labels impact our identity?
- How can art help us better understand individuals?
- To what extent are labels harmful? To what extent are labels helpful?
From there, we start brainstorming products students can create to address these questions. We think about how the questions might branch, and explore the scope from individual to global implications – bring the kids’ empathy along. Students might, for example, create an art piece that explores hidden layers of labels.
THEN, we can begin the work of pulling in content. What skills can we purposefully develop in literacy, numeracy, social studies, science, art, computer science, physical education and more? What are the power standards and what are optional? This is where I come in as a content-area teacher, but the role is minor compared to the bigger role of guiding kids through exploring this idea of identity deeply, empathetically, rigorously.
Maybe you see why I’m unsure of my place in all this! I love teaching technology and math and programming… and while I love my students and have enjoyed getting to know them as the individuals they are… I have very little pedagogical knowledge or experience in developing community, empathy, identity, critical thinking, and kindness. I’m going to need to study hard. I’m going to foul some things up from time to time. I am unprepared for the experience of going through what I did in my first year of teaching when everything was new and I never felt like I did anything right. I am, however, excited to fly my nerd flag high while we are learning things that are relevant and deeply personal and authentic.
I’m ready to announce some news I’ve been sitting on for a while and can finally share. I will be changing jobs next year, leaving Preston Middle School and embarking on a new adventure. I’ll be a founding teacher at Poudre School District’s newest charter school – Compass Community Collaborative School. It’s a 6-12 school in midtown Fort Collins, opening for the very first time this August.
I’m very, very excited. Compass embraces student-centered learning – we’ll be helping the kids understand who they are as learners, community members, and human beings. We’ll spend our time working in teams on venture projects and making the community around us our classroom. We’ll learn by doing, making, experiencing. I’ll get to work in true collaborative teams – and still play with some awesome technology. And work in a building right off the bike path and next door to Whole Foods. My new school’s website is here. https://compassfortcollins.org/
I’ve loved my time teaching at Preston. It was my first and only teaching assignment. I’ve been so fortunate to teach somewhere I had the freedom to explore who I am as an educator and as a person, and to learn from some of the very best teachers anywhere. I loved learning how to understand and teach mathematics. I loved building a computer science and engineering program. And I just love all the awesome kids that have walked through my doors every single year. Every single one of these Preston kids is so special to me, and it’s going to be really hard to say goodbye to the students I was really looking forward to working with next year. There will never be a best time to make this change, but right now is the best time for me, so I have to make the leap. I’m ready to experiment with what I feel in my heart is the “right” way to do school. To get rid of the isolated subjects, the master schedule, the heavy emphasis on core subjects… and to start emphasizing who kids are, what they can do and be right now in this moment, where we fit in the world, and what we all need to be the very best version of ourselves.
I am actually excited to start working on mathematical understanding with my students again. I’ve missed it. And I’ll get to create with technology as well. I’m looking forward to the journey and I will blog about it.
A few years ago, I wrote this post about my struggles to have middle-schoolers do a computer take-apart and meet the high expectations I had in mind for them. I am happy to report I didn’t quit doing computer take-aparts. I did try to learn from those hard lessons and continue improving on it. Hardware Week now runs pretty smoothly and kids report it’s their favorite unit. I do this set of lessons in my 7th/8th grade Computer Science Explorations class. It’s a great one for the week right before spring break, or whenever you need a little something different to mix things up.
Prior to the lesson, I ask parents if they have any old computers they have been wanting to get rid of but didn’t want to hassle with recycling them. I have a small budget I can use for hardware recycling, so I have workplace services come and take the computers away for recycling when the take-apart is done. I accept laptops as well as desktops, and it’s fun when I have a mix of both. I stock up on tools, especially small phillips screwdrivers, flathead screwdrivers, a few small Torx screwdrivers, some pliers and a few wire cutters.
First, we learn about the basic structure of computers (I also relate this structure to micro:bits, since my CS students learn to program them in Python). We do several card sorts in which I give students a sheet with pictures and descriptions of computer hardware, and they have to sort them into categories: input, output, processing, storage. Sometimes I include Power in one of the categories. Although pieces of hardware like the battery and fan don’t have anything to do with the flow of information, they are visible inside a computer and really important to its operation. You can find the card sort at the link below!
Next, I have the students watch a movie and fill out an organizer with it. The movie is wonderful – it’s called Lifting the Lid and although it’s from the early 2000’s, the information is still relevant and it’s very entertaining and informative. The movie is expensive to buy, but I was able to reserve it from our public library. I had to get it from Prospector as it was at a local university.
Here’s the link for the movie. The instructor’s guide, linked on the same page, is the organizer I used. I circled the most important questions for the students to fill out, and paused the movie at certain points to work with the kids on filling out the organizer.
We then have a quick safety and procedure talk about the computer take-apart. I have learned to keep the rules really short and simple.
- If you have a laptop, take the battery out first and bring it directly to me. Don’t take anything else apart until the battery is out.
- Wash your hands well afterward to avoid getting lead in your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Do not break any screens.
- Many computers are meant to be taken apart. Look for the places where the computer has seams, screws, levers or tabs.
- As you remove pieces, label them. Each group will get a sheet of labels and some tape. Sometimes you may find more than one piece in a category.
I give each group a sheet with labels of computer parts, plus a couple of blank labels in case they find things that aren’t on the originals.
I circulate around as the groups are taking their computers apart and help them identify parts as they remove them. Sometimes they’re tricky even for me! When opening laptops, sometimes the easiest way to access the motherboard is to take the keyboard apart and come in through the top – which of course kids love and requires a little extra time cleaning up at the end because keys get all over the floor.
When the computers are dissected, we begin a group show -and- tell for their computers. I put prompts up on the board and ask groups to hold up a part that matches the prompt. We go around the room and every group explains what they’re holding. They rotate group members for each part. Example prompts:
- Hold up something that stores data.
- Hold up your CPU.
- Hold up something that is for input.
- Hold up something that is for output.
- Hold up something that’s used for cooling your computer.
- Hold up something used to power the computer.
- Hold up something used to connect to a network.
- Hold up the motherboard.
At the end, I do allow kids to take home a souvenir as long as it’s not a hard drive, solid-state drive, or a battery. I keep those and make sure they get recycled properly. We spend quite a bit of time placing parts in big moving boxes, which I tape up and label for recycling.
I could do a formal assessment. I choose not to. The show-and-tell is a helpful wrap-up and taking a computer part home is something the kids really enjoy as a reward for cleaning up well. I had a student tell me the other day that he took his motherboard home, set it in a frame, filled it with resin and hung it on a wall!
It has ended up being a fun set of lessons that are also great for learning. I’m glad I didn’t give up on it.