Archive | November 2015

Microsoft Underground Part 2: The Conversations

In an earlier post, I talked about the Microsoft Underground tour and workshop, and the technology we saw – Skype, Minecraft, the BBC micro:bit, and others. In this post, I want to dive deeper into why it was important – what’s in store for the future of education and what conversations are happening there.

The Purpose of Public Education

The group of people brought together for the workshop was interesting – a few of us are classroom teachers, and there were also educational technology specialists, leaders of ed-tech startups, students, bloggers and thought leaders. It was just as fascinating to note what was NOT said as what was said. We shared many thoughts about how to educate students in a creative, engaging, collaborative way. But the question of “why?” or “should we?” never came up. If you don’t live and work in the public education system, it’s a given that a kid’s education should be relevant and enjoyable, rigorous but creative. However if you gather teachers and administrators in a room, the subject of our conversations will be why and whether we should teach more creatively. The “real world” is ahead of us on this idea.

We also never brought up content standards and only mentioned test-based accountability a little. Again, if you gather teachers and administrators in a room and discuss improving teaching and learning, I guarantee we’ll mention test scores and discuss mapping to content standards. In our world, a quality education covers standards and is demonstrated by outstanding test scores, and if it happens to be engaging and creative, I would say that’s seen as a bonus. At the Microsoft workshop, the desired outcomes of our educational system were mentioned in the context of the four “C”s of a 21st century education: collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. This difference in mindset between the educational world and the rest of the world is important. Whether we want to admit it or not, for teachers and administrators, the purpose of our work is to meet standards and achieve decent test scores. The four “C”s are seen as a means and not as an end, or a bonus if you can find a way to fit them in.

Accountability, Metrics, Motivation to Change

In our conversations at the workshop, a common question was how to get teachers to more widely adopt innovative technologies and curricula in schools. There are many barriers, and test-based accountability is definitely one of them. Our success metrics are all wrong.

In some turnaround schools, kids get ONLY math and reading instruction and learn no science, social studies, or enrichments because of the need to bring test scores up. Would you want your child to go to a school like that? Yet teachers and administrators understand their metrics and strive to be seen as successful.

We talked about a common scenario in which teachers will visit an innovative classroom, say “Wow! I want this in my classroom! How do I get started?” And they try a more creative, collaborative, project-based lesson format for a while. And then they discover it’s difficult, and messy. The kids haven’t learned how to self-regulate their behavior or manage conflict, they’re not used to being self-directed learners, and there is no control in the classroom. If you aren’t committed to the effort, and your test scores are reasonable and nobody is making you change, it’s an easy call to quit. Put the desks back in rows and get out the textbooks and worksheets again. As Jim Collins says, the enemy of great is good.

I don’t see long-lasting change happening in classrooms unless metrics change. So what would 21st century metrics look like? I got an opportunity to brainstorm with Margo Day, the VP of US Education at Microsoft. Margo is awesome. She has immersed herself in the educational world to understand our model and gets it. I suggested we need the voice of tech companies in changing accountability systems. Big companies have a huge voice, and a more immersive and collaborative model in education benefits them and also the kids. She pushed back at first. Standards and accountability systems aren’t really their role, and I can see where she’s coming from, as it’s not in their business model or core expertise. As we talked more, we started to explore the possibilities in that space. What would an accountability system look like that really moved education forward?

Can you use mastery-based systems that level students up when they have achieved basic skills at a certain level?
What would you get if you asked schools what their students have created that year?
To what extent do you use student voice on how engaged, safe, and appropriately challenged they felt at school?
Can you keep basic standardized tests at a dialed-down level of stress and time?
What does actual college- and career-readiness look like and how do we know if we’re moving closer?

My district’s superintendent, Sandra Smyser, took a line from Jim Collins in her opening speech to our district last year, while unveiling new district goals / ends. To paraphrase, sometimes the best ideas defy measurement – and you don’t shy away from the ideas because they’re hard to measure.

We need to speak louder to our policy makers about this. Metrics drive performance. We’re measuring the wrong things.

Innovative Platforms, not Curricula

Microsoft is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the ed-tech market, and here’s why. Their vision is powerful and aligned with the potential that technology can unlock in our students. They could have come out with products that taught students skills mapped to standards, aligned to a curriculum, and focused on mastery of skills. But that’s not what they have done and it’s not what they believe in. Microsoft has created, and continues to create, open platforms. They’re endlessly personalizable, extendable, flexible. The most powerful learning tools allow the learner and teacher to create their own educational experiences, and to make a difference. Every technology we used, from Skype to Office 365 to Minecraft to TouchDevelop and more, is a gateway to possibilities. I sensed that vision in every employee I talked to. They are excited and passionate about what they’re bringing to the market. They see themselves as changing the world, and with that kind of cohesiveness and passion – Microsoft will, and you do yourself a disservice to underestimate them.

I really love the way they approach computer science teaching in cooperation with the BBC micro:bit platform. It would have been easy to look at the list of standards and come up with a curriculum, tests, and textbooks. Instead they see the challenge as how to create an open and flexible platform with which the kids can learn the key ideas through a personalized creative process. Wouldn’t it be awesome if every subject area had this philosophy?

My generation grew up with Microsoft products including Windows, Office, and Visual Studio. Today’s kids find these tools old-fashioned and stodgy, and Microsoft is working hard to win the hearts and minds of the younger generation. They love open-source and hacking and tinkering, social media and communication and creative arts. The way to the kids’ hearts is not through curricula and testing, but through enjoyable uses of technology that push the frontiers of what we can achieve. It so happens that these ideas align with good educational practices as well. This direction could be a true win-win.

MinecraftEDU: The teacher struggle is real

A great deal of our discourse in the educational technology community is around how to use Minecraft in the classroom. It’s a fantastic creative tool and very engaging. I’m Minecrafting at home with my daughters and often find myself excited to get home and start working with them. Minecraft is an open platform with endless opportunities to modify and hack… and some of the latest innovations that have my attention actually use Minecraft to interact with the real world… just wow. I can’t wait.

I teach electives and enrichments, and I’ve been piloting using MinecraftEDU in a couple of my classes to see how I like it and what I could teach with it. I have my enrichment classes using creative mode to create missions and lessons that are educational, so we can upload them to the MinecraftEDU world server. I got my Robotics class to program ComputerCraftEDU Turtles to be their helpful companions in a world where they cannot build, and learn about programming and physical computing this way.

It’s been good. But it’s also been a struggle, and as I’m finishing up the week before Thanksgiving break – a normally busy time anyway that doesn’t always bring out the best in teachers or students – I have plenty to reflect on.

Think about all the things you don’t like about your students or your own kid when they’re playing video games. The obsession and tendency to tune everything else out. The desire to go on side missions that seem more engaging than the real objective. At times, the anger and temper flare-ups. Think about natural tendencies of middle schoolers outside of video games that are hard to manage. Tattling. Bullying. Inability to use words in a conflict. Stubbornness. Seeking revenge. I believe in Minecraft as a creative tool and I am struggling with the reality of managing 30 adolescents on a server at the same time. I give them challenging work – it causes interpersonal problems and I am still learning the tools of managing those.

MinecraftEDU does give you important tools to manage your students. You can freeze and teleport individual kids anytime. There are border blocks, so even if the kids are in creative mode, you can confine them to a certain area. You can turn on and off their building power, and use “build allow” and “build disallow” blocks to limit where they can build/dig and where they can’t.

You can turn off fire, TNT, Player-vs-Player, and animals and monsters. You can always see logs of the chat and who was on the server at a certain time, and I know Minecraft even keeps logs of what blocks were placed and removed, where and when. These are helpful, but kids are more resourceful and determined than you give them credit for. Every boundary is one that can be pushed.

Here are my MinecraftEDU struggles laid bare.

The very feature of Minecraft that makes it so universally interesting, its openness and hackability, can also be a downside in an educational setting. I paid for licenses for my school but found that kids could easily copy the MinecraftEDU directory on a flash drive and paste it onto their own laptops, giving them a free version of Minecraft EDU. I wish this were fixed. It should not be so easy to pirate the software. I actually found today that kids from outside my classroom were logging onto the classroom server and griefing students in my class. I’m in a position now of needing the ability to password-protect the server and changing the password every day as a result.

I have a few students who yell and rage at video games. I have a couple of kids who are sensitive and they cry. Great kids who are still learning appropriate emotional control. This feeds other students who find it funny and do mean things. Little things. They break a block or two, or steal a couple of items from a chest, or just walk into or next to their area and stand there. I don’t even see them do it, I just hear the angry children yelling and crying. Super mean, right? We have normed around appropriate Minecraft behavior multiple times, at the beginning of the unit and every couple of weeks since then. Problems still crop up and you will still have to deal with them.  I always wish I had more tools to do this. I can tell the server is keeping logs of  who is placing, removing, and crafting at each time and position, but I would love a teacher tool to open the correct log and search by username so I can find evidence of what happened and who was involved – this would be so nice when having that hallway conversation with kids and would eliminate the he-said-she-said dynamic. It also doesn’t seem to save the log if the server crashes. Or maybe it does. Again, tools to view the log files would be really helpful.

I also would really like a sort of limited creative mode, where I can have them use unlimited numbers of certain blocks but not others. It would let me give kids power to make a house but not necessarily an army of Iron Golems. I could apply limited-creative mode to students as needed, or apply it to everyone and gradually release to creative mode if all is going well. Filling the screen with chickens? You must be on limited creative mode, creating with only oak and brick, until we can have a chat about Minecraft citizenship. Another helpful feature would be a teacher request tool. Right now my system for kids getting help from me is to have them write their username and help request on a sticky note, and I keep a line of sticky notes next to me. I work on the sticky notes in the order received. This also means I’m not monitoring the chat or student positions while I’m working on help requests, and bad behavior goes unnoticed.

Ultimately though, kids need to be explicitly taught about video game citizenship, and very few are perfect at the interpersonal side of multi-player gaming. Minecraft is about much more than building and creativity and problem-solving. I went into it excited about the creative aspect and have been quickly brought back down to earth – there are boring and uncomfortable and otherwise not-fun lessons the students need to learn about working in this virtual society. I’ll need to spend just as much energy creating a positive culture in the class as I do creating building challenges. If there are videos or discussion guides or other interactive resources for doing this, I am a very willing audience.


Microsoft Underground Part 1 #redefinelearn

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation in my mailbox for a special opportunity from Microsoft. Teachers get e-mails like this a lot… nominate a student, sign up for a free trial of our math tools, subscribe to our newsletter. I almost deleted it, but instead I looked inside and was intrigued at the invitation. They were asking me to come to Seattle for an educator’s workshop and underground tour, to have a conversation about education and technology. The topics sounded right in my wheelhouse: Skype, coding, Minecraft, and engaging students in curiosity and innovative practice. I made the trip to Microsoft HQ this weekend to check it out.  Their write-up is here. That’s me in the cover photo! In short, it was an incredible experience and I was blown away. I was very engaged in their tech products and really interested also in their corporate philosophy, culture, and attitudes toward education. I’d like to use this post to talk about my experience with the technology, some of the interesting products we were introduced to in this ed tech landscape.

Communication Tools

At the Underground workshop, we used a Surface Pro loaded with OneNote.


The OneNote pages were already populated with the content for our workshop. Each session had its own tab, with embedded images, videos, links, and a bio and contact information for all of the speakers. There was a page for us to add our own notes. I’m a note-taker and I happily used this little personal space to jot down what I heard in many sessions.


I enjoyed tabbing to the live doodle page where an artist created comics for every session we attended. These were a creative summary of the work we did.


My school district currently uses Google for Education products, and there are similar features here – collaborative realtime work for you and the kids, tools to manage your classes, embedded multimedia. I was talking with one of the workshop leaders about how much I like Google Classroom, and she told me that she was a fan as well, but has since been sold on OneNote because the process of grading and giving feedback to kids has been greatly streamlined. I am curious how this looks and would love to try it for a semester to see if I like it as a classroom tool.



Two awesome add-ons to OneNote were Office Lens and the Immersive Reader. Office Lens is a step up from a scanner – it uploads existing documents to Word and makes text and images editable separately. Super helpful for updating old worksheets in your new tech-rich life. Immersive Reader is the result of a companywide hackathon – it scaffolds text for readers who need larger text, syllable breakdowns, parts of speech, phonetics and such. Students who might struggle to read an article or text could get support from the Immersive Reader. Adults too, for that matter.


We all know and love Skype. Great tool for families and friends to communicate with each other, and the occasional business meeting. What was different about our use of Skype in this workshop was that we used it purposefully to make the world a little smaller and accomplish goals for students.

Skype for global connections and service: Andrea Friend, a middle school educator and presenter, uses Skype to connect her kids with a community in Kenya and help them obtain water filters. Her students were challenged to meet a fundraising goal in cooperation with a company called LifeStraw. In my own school, students Skype with friends in Uganda to find out about their needs and use the school’s makerspace to create tiny rechargeable lanterns to send them. They also consult with a high school physics class in Canada to create the lanterns. This kind of experience makes social studies and science so real for the kids. They have read about Africa. They colored their maps and they know the physical geography and the GDP of each country and the major religions. But until they have talked with kids their age in Africa, and have seen where they live and found out they want lanterns so they can safely use the outdoor toilet at night without being bothered by lions (!) – they don’t really understand. It’s profound when the connection creates that understanding.

Another great use of Skype was the virtual field trip. Microsoft’s education website lists many virtual field trips you can schedule with your kids. We went on a live virtual field trip to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and we video-chatted with a real pygmy hedgehog, a baby alligator, and a tarantula. We got to ask questions and learn interesting facts about the special adaptations of these critters to their environment. What a clever and engaging way to teach your kids ecology – and practically free. While there’s nothing that can replace a real field trip, a Skype is something you could do on a regular basis and still get the interactive learning.


We’re Skyping (that’s a verb now) with a pygmy hedgehog, people. I’ve seen videos of hedgehogs. Way more interesting on a live feed.

Our final Skype experience was a real crowd-pleaser. We were introduced to Maria from WonderGrove, a cartoon character that can Skype with you! She connects with young kids in ways that adults can’t, and she’s amazing for teaching the little ones basic social skills and more. In real life, Maria is a voice actor and a joystick control that’s converted to an animated character – but she had us all fooled for a long time and even I was asking myself “can Maria really SEE me?” Kids love her and she’s a nice addition to the Skype portfolio for the younger set.

Minecraft and Coding

We attended a workshop on Minecraft that segued into a discussion and workshop on coding. Minecraft is one of my favorite computer tools. My daughters taught me a ton about it over the summer, and I am using the MinecraftEDU version of the program in a couple of my classes this year. Many of my colleagues had never worked with Minecraft before, and I learned some new things about the possibilities of this platform that I’m so glad I experienced.

If we had experience with Minecraft, our task was to make a re-creation of our childhood home. The front view of my parents’ home is dominated by the garage, so I started there. I found myself asking questions I never had to ask about a house before. How many Minecraft blocks deep is a garage? How many wide? How should I gable the roof? What material best looks like the yellow siding on my folks’ home? When you’re given a creation task in Minecraft, you start from the end product you want to make. You drill down to some questions about it – dimensions, materials, tools. You drill down to even more questions. You end up with a pile of small bits of information and plans you’ve made.. your requirements. You start building them up into the small standalone parts and then backing up and tearing down and re-designing some of them because you messed up the first time. When you’re done,  you invite a friend to tour around your creation and give you feedback.
You know what you just did? You engineered something, something difficult. In a video game!


I thought I did ok on the garage. Now I want to finish the house.

Adam Clarke showed us some of the possibilities we can imagine with Minecraft. A scale model of a human body made in Minecraft blocks that you can dive inside and look around. A renewable energy plant. A temple of peace and hope. Famous works of art you can tour around and discover through hidden messages and signs and sounds. It’s an impressive world and it’s extensible beyond your imagination. Adam goes by The Wizard Keen in the Minecraft and YouTube world. My students were so very impressed that Adam has worked with “stampylonghead”, their favorite Minecraft YouTuber. 


We moved on to coding. Microsoft opened with a pitch about the necessity to get every student coding and why. Jobs. Critical thinking. Diversity in tech. Opportunity. Change the world. Steve Isaacs gave us a tour of their new Hour of Code tutorials created with Minecraft. Great puzzles as Hour of Code activities always are. They introduce basic coding concepts embedded within interesting puzzles to solve.

One of the engineers demonstrated TouchDevelop and showed us how it interfaces with the BBC micro:bit. We explored a portfolio of software for coding.  I would use TouchDevelop and SmallBasic in my world, teaching middle school CS. The micro:bit programming is really engaging and contains a simulator of the device. The more I play with the idea of this platform, the more I like it. Students today are used to having their own personal electronic, and here is one that is low-cost and has a small prototype of many of the systems in their smart phones – a display, inputs, sensors, embedded programming, output pins. I could see this device engaging a lot of potential electrical engineers.


Tony Prophet took us on a tour of IT administrative software and various 1:1 student devices. He emphasized that Microsoft is listening to the need for low-cost, high-performing devices for students and the software to manage it – and we’re making progress. There were some sturdy and powerful devices at the $200 price point.

Innovation Culture

Our final stop of the day was to a Microsoft science fair. The purpose of this, I think, was twofold: to showcase some additional technology, but also to show us the result of an innovative corporate culture. The culture is the subject of another post, but the technology was pretty cool too – I geeked out a lot here.

There were a great number of cool micro:bit projects that employees had set up, and I was so very excited at the potential of the little devices. Among the projects were a color sensor interfacing to a webpage (I called it a “banana ripeness tester” because it could show you the color of your banana), a two-player PONG game, a time and temperature sensor, and a homemade seismograph. Kids could create all of this stuff, and by the time they will have had a year or so of micro:bit work under their belts, I bet we’ll be amazed at some of the creative and rich work they produce. I work with embedded electronics with my kids and am constantly amazed at the cool things they think of – and how hard they work when they are creating something difficult that they came up with.


A time-and-temperature device, and two-player Pong with BBC micro:bits. I really want these connectors to extend what the micro:bit can do.

We saw several projects working with Microsoft’s Raspberry Pi IoT (Internet of Things) platform, such as a race car timer and an electronic piano. I liked what I saw and again love the openness and hackability of the Raspberry Pi. I have a lot of trouble wrapping my head around the IoT. One of my students and I worked on an IoT project with an Intel Galileo earlier in the year, and we were able to use a web interface to make LED’s light up and such, but the whole thing felt like a lot of work for very little payoff. The slot cars and piano didn’t have any special connectivity with anything, and you could have done the same experiments with an Arduino. What is the Internet of Things?  How are we going to connect the things in our lives together? I’m still not seeing the whole picture there, but I hope to.


We enjoyed looking at other innovations such as data visualization tools and table-sized pinchable, rotatable screens, and HyperLapse, a timelapse video editing tool that is a vast improvement over existing timelapse software.

I enjoyed what I saw from Microsoft. Overall their tools for education are creative, open platforms that allow for a lot of personalization of the educational experience. They truly help connect people and ideas. They allow kids to learn deeply. I loved what I didn’t see as well. I didn’t see software full of practice problems or low-level test prep. I personally believe Microsoft is heading in a very good direction with their education products, and they may yet change the world again and win the hearts and minds of a whole new generation of young people.

In the next post, I’ll talk more about the conversations we had and the philosophy I experienced around corporate culture and the ed-tech world. In the meantime I have an awful lot of geeking out to do when it comes to hardware and software. I am going to give OneNote Classroom a try next semester, to see if I like it compared to Google Classroom. I am very interested in being one of the first classroom teachers in the US to pilot the micro:bit. I told my students about it and showed them pictures, and they were beyond excited and jealous of kids in the UK!

Learning to Code in MinecraftEDU with Turtles

I haven’t posted about my Minecraft class / experiment in a while, but this has been a really interesting class to work with. My Minecraft class is a 40-minute period every other day, for a semester. Our enrichment period is not graded and is intended to be a time when teachers and students learn something interesting together. For example, teachers have classes on knitting, beading, Lego robots, ultimate frisbee, fly fishing, creative writing, and film. I have Minecraft. I wanted to use the class to explore the question “what can you learn from Minecraft?”

Since I’m a CS teacher, one interesting teaching tool that jumped out at me was the ComputerCraft mod (See a Video here) and the Turtles. I could see them as a unique introduction to programming and computational thinking. I had my class do the Turtle Island mission (which took four classes) and Turtle Canyon (which took two).  We enjoyed these pre-created missions. As a busy teacher, I was happy someone else took the time to create them and that they were so engaging and interesting for the kids. Many of the kids “died” multiple times and just kept trying to use their turtles to solve the puzzles.

The spawn point for Turtle Island. We had to install the CustomNPC mod on everyone's machine before we could use it, but the payoff was worth it because the characters help you with the missions and give you rewards.

The spawn point for Turtle Island. We had to install the CustomNPC mod on everyone’s machine before we could use it, but the payoff was worth it because the characters help you with the missions and give you rewards.

Next, I downloaded a world from the server that had ten building areas (Actually, it was this Volume Challenge with the extra buildings and things removed). I assigned the students to a numbered area with a small group. The world was set up so the students could not build or dig – but turtles could. I filled their inventories with supplies and gave them a short program to copy, and for three or four classes they could build whatever they wanted with the turtles. When you give middle-schoolers a prompt to “build whatever you want”, you get some fascinating things.

Many students used turtle remote mode almost exclusively. Some wrote very simple programs. But then some got a little more courageous with programming and made some interesting things with the turtles.

Houses, farms, pyramids, a strange creation of black wool, all made by turtles.

Houses, farms, pyramids, a strange creation of black wool, all made by turtles.

One group seemed to have a program to build a level of a house, and they ran it twice to get this weird structure with floating walls. Another group had a program to create walls and another program to create stairs. They ran this program anywhere they could.

One group seemed to have a program to build a level of a house, and they ran it twice to get this weird structure with floating walls. They also leveled their ground with the turtles. Another group had a program to create walls and another program to create stairs. They ran this program anywhere they could.

Most of the programs were very simple, but I did see some experimentation with nested loops, and with programs calling other programs. I wonder what kind of reasoning skills we’re building here. Why 19? Why 40? So many questions.


Nested “Repeat” blocks in the graphical turtle language in Minecraft. This program uses move and place blocks to build… four walls?

I am currently teaching some turtle lessons to my Robotics class, justifying it by telling myself “they’re virtual robots”!  This has some advantages over real robots – no parts to throw or break, for example. This is a graded class and so I have to approach it differently. I’m still working out how I am going to assess their knowledge of robotics principles via Minecraft. I will create a final project assignment. What should the guidelines and expectations be for a Minecraft robotics project? I am making the class more academic by including lessons like this one.


Kids used the link above and analyzed the programs, and made predictions about what they do. Then I opened Turtle Canyon and found each of the turtles with the programs in the document, and we ran them. We took another look at the code to match what the turtle did with the code. The group discussions helped me understand the programs a lot, and I hope to see the robotics kids being more adventurous with their coding as a result of the lessons.

You learn other things too, besides programming – and it’s what makes Minecraft such a confusing, but enriching, world to play in. I love it when lessons are nice and tidy and you have a certain goal and you’re laser-focused on that goal. But in Minecraft, you have to stay flexible with your goals. Some days, you’ll learn about robotics. On some days, you will learn anger management. Some days, teamwork. Some days, resource management. Self-advocacy. Information literacy. Conflict resolution. General persistence and resourcefulness. So I have to keep in mind that if a kid didn’t make much progress with programming, it was because their learning was happening in another area.

I leave you with this picture of my pixelated students interacting with their turtles building a house.

Turtles... so darn cute and programmable

Turtles… so darn cute and programmable

Booleans and Conditionals – Lessons and Reflections

Ask a CS teacher about a main goal of their course, and a lot of us say we want kids to be able to plan and write a program independently. And that it’s a discouraging but real part of the job that many don’t.

I really take that mission seriously, and as a result I move really slowly through topics.  I’ve mentioned before that I take weeks just to teach variables. This post contains a sampling of some of my lessons on booleans and conditionals.

Lesson 1: Structure and purpose of boolean expressions and conditionals.
Objectives: Identify the boolean data type and describe the rules that govern booleans, including logic operators.
Identify and describe the structure of the “if” statement.

We started by analyzing code samples and then modifying them – first with a partner, then whole-class. I created one that introduces the boolean data type and another that uses a variable and an “if” statement to simulate a coin toss.


That said, I’d love to have a protocol or a structure or organizer for code-analysis problems. If you have one you like, I hope you share it!

Lesson 2: Prisoner’s Dilemma

Objectives: Use boolean expressions and conditionals to create a program that models a situation.
I love this lesson and have blogged about it before here.  Kids used Processing standalone instead of Khan Academy this year, but the task was pretty much the same. This is a pair programming activity. The “release of responsibility” is very gradual.

Lesson 3: Button Clicks

Objectives: Describe an area of the screen with boolean expressions.
This lesson has a very clear mapping to Common Core math standards. In Algebra, students are introduced to solving inequalities and also systems of equations. Later in high school math, students move to solving systems of inequalities.  When you create a clickable button, you’re describing the coordinates that are included in the ‘button’ as a boolean expression, which maps nicely to a system of inequalities.

Here’s the starter program.

We start with the mouseClicked() function incomplete and discuss as a class how to finish it. We look at the coordinates, height, and width of the rectangle and consider some x,y coordinates that are inside the rectangle… and some that are outside. Then we try to come up with a general sentence for which coordinates are always inside the rectangle. The x-coordinate must be between 150 and 350. The y-coordinate also must be between 200 and 300. If all of the conditions are true, you have clicked inside the box. If even one is false, you have not clicked in the box.

Then I give the kids a challenge:  create two buttons, one in the upper-left quadrant, one in the lower-right. Make something “happy” happen when you click one of the buttons, and make the other one produce something “sad”. They made some clever creations and had fun with it.

Alex P’s “Two Button Task”

Lesson 4: If/then quiz

The “quiz” task is individual, so at this point the students no longer get to work with a partner and must create a program solo. I make this task easier than the pair programming tasks, with the goal of every kid writing their own program from beginning to end.

This task is pretty simple but ended up requiring some good thinking from the kids.


In a sports tournament, the tigers will play the lions, and the eagles play the hawks. The winners of these two games will play in the championship.

These 4 variables represent the scores in the first game.
int tigers;
int lions;
int hawks;
int eagles;

Write a program that will write the names of the two teams playing in the championship. If there’s a tie in either game, you should write a message explaining that the game goes into overtime.

Although it’s a quiz, if a student raises his or her hand, I help. I help by asking questions – something I studied hard at when I was a math teacher.  The goal of the questions is to determine just how much help they need and give only that. Ask:

  • Read the problem to me again. What do you understand so far?
  • Where did you get stuck?
  • Under what condition would you write “tigers win”?
  • What causes a tie?
  • Tell me your best idea so far?
  • Can you translate that into code the computer can understand?

By the time the quiz comes around, there are definitely still misconceptions all over the place and it takes time to work through them all. Some of the ones I run into:

  • Writing a boolean expression in words, such as “tigers less than lions”
  • Mixing up > and < signs
  • Confusing equality (==) with assignment (=) operators
  • Not closing text strings with quotes (shows more than just a syntax problem – they’re not seeing the text string as a single entity)
  • Confusing the variable name with text (e.g. lions vs. “lions”)
  • Not yet understanding the purpose of variables as an “input” to the problem that can change. for example, a student may write this code, which renders their variables pointless:
    lions = 14;
    tigers = 10;
    if(14 > 10)
    { text(“lions win!”,50,50);}
  • These are misconceptions where the students are, at some level, not getting the point of a CS concept. Mistakes abound also such as syntax errors. These are different kinds of problems and have to be treated as such… I have a couple of students who generally get the CS concepts but they make tons of syntax errors. I have no problem looking through their program for the semicolons and spelling errors and just fixing them quickly. A kid who is not getting a concept, though, needs more questioning and more work.

When I taught math, one of our big ideas in 7th/8th grade was the “two-step linear equation” and how to solve it. I learned over time there are no shortcuts to mastering this concept. Sometimes there were many kids in the room who just needed me to sit with them, and one on one, watch them solve the problems in great detail and give them feedback on that work. These early programming tasks require the same attention from me. Many students just need me to sit with them, one on one, and talk with them as they program and solve. It’s a time-consuming task – in the moment, you think to yourself this lesson clearly bombed – the kids can’t program independently and I’m just doing damage control. But I have noticed as I have taught this age group more, that the early work pays off by the end of the semester. By the time kids are done with the class, you give them a simple task with conditionals and they just pound it out with barely any effort. Even the struggling learners do learn to program independently. It just takes more time and practice and attention for some kids than others.


My experience with the NEA’s Teacher Leadership Initiative (TLI).

As I write this, I’m flying home from a transformative and very humbling experience in Washington, DC with some of the smartest and most passionate people I’ve ever met. I need to back up a bit and explain what the Teacher Leadership Initiative is and how I got involved, though.

In the spring of 2013, I got an e-mail message from my Poudre Education Association president, inviting me to participate in an online leadership program through the NEA (National Education Association). I had been teaching for six years and felt my career was at a crossroads. I enjoyed being in the classroom, but what other options were there for advancing my career? Did I want to go into curriculum development, mentoring, administration? What did I like to do and what kind of path would support me in pursuing a fulfilling career in public education? I had considered taking a leadership class through our district, and the NEA e-mail was timely and interesting. Their program was online, national, collaborative, and it offered a stipend for participating. It was an intriguing possibility, so I sent in an application.

The online leadership program turned out to be great for my learning, and it connected me with a lot of educators who were going through the same thing I was. I met colleagues in my local association as well as teachers in Massachusetts, Arizona, Michigan, Mississippi, and more. We attended online classes and webinars presented by the Center for Teaching Quality. We explored what we loved to do and were passionate about, and we started writing – learning how to turn our passions into a persuasive message for various audiences and then a call to action. I decided my passion was in computer science education, and my call to action was to give every child access to high quality learning in this important 21st century style of problem-solving. We began work on a capstone project, and mine took shape around writing computer science curriculum and being a strong advocate for coding in our school and district.

The leadership curriculum took more focus, and I took summer modules on leadership in the Common Core (the other content strands were School Redesign and Teacher Evaluation). I connected with other mathematics teachers working to bring high quality common core instruction into our classrooms. It pushed my thinking around instructional leadership a bit more.

Throughout the year, I was also able to do some really interesting work with my local and state associations. Since my local president knew I was getting involved in association work, he invited me to a lobbying day at our state capitol. We got to attend an Education Committee hearing and talk with legislators about school funding. I was so fascinated and energized by being part of the democratic process in this way – how fortunate we are that citizens like me can attend open lawmaking sessions and influence that powerful and noisy process. I was also invited to a Colorado Education Association (CEA) leadership conference, and it really started me down the road of getting involved with my union. I had many misconceptions about what the union is, and what it does, and I had always kept myself at arm’s length.  I had bought into the narrative that the union “protects bad teachers” and I avoided entangling myself with it. When I plugged myself into my local and state associations, I realized how precious and fragile our public education system is and that quality teaching was far more complicated than the “bad teacher” narrative would lead you to believe. A free, equitable public schooling system is a key democratic institution I had been taking for granted, and it is certainly not guaranteed with many other interests competing in that space. No single educator has the money or the voice to speak up for the millions of kids that need us, but together we have a powerful influence. Our membership allows us to organize around common visions and goals, and figuring out how to do that well is a rich and interesting challenge.

In the fall, I began writing and assembling my capstone project for the TLI. By that time, I had taken on a new role as a computer science and electronics teacher at my middle school. I wrote or re-wrote curriculum for three classes, mapping them to high standards and making them rich, collaborative, and project-based. I leveraged my communications training to become a conference speaker, presenting at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics conference and others about integrating coding into core classes. I got our teachers on board with doing a schoolwide celebration of the Hour of Code, and I continue to speak up for great computer science instruction at the district level and anywhere I can find an audience. The classes I teach are so much fun, for me and the kids. I’m incredibly proud of the work my kids do and I show it off on social media every chance I get. I’m continuing the work to modify the curriculum and increase the diversity, in terms of female and minority enrollment, in those classes.

This leads me to this weekend, when I attended the Teacher Leadership Initiative convening in Washington, DC with about fifty of my TLI colleagues, many representatives from the NEA leadership team, the Center for Teaching Quality, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and the funders involved – the Ford Foundation and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. What a powerful experience to network with people I had met online but had only begun to understand the incredible work they did. I met teachers who have created leadership projects around English Language Development, concurrent enrollment, mentoring for at-risk students, music education, political action, blended learning, cultural awareness, and so much more. They shared a deep passion for the work they did, not just in the classroom but also in driving great educational practices in their districts and state and nation. I took so many notes in my sessions about capstone projects, communication, policy, and organizing – I need a new notebook now and my brain is very full.

Wonderful friends and colleagues, partners, amazing leaders. Michael McCarthy, Laurie Wasserman, me, and Linda Hanson - three from Massachusetts and one from Colorado.

Wonderful friends and colleagues, partners, amazing leaders. Michael McCarthy, Laurie Wasserman, me, and Linda Hanson – three from Massachusetts and one from Colorado.

The Colorado connection! Kelly Hanson, Literacy Coach extraordinaire, Kerrie Dallman, CEA President, and me.

The Colorado connection! Kelly Hanson, Literacy Coach extraordinaire, Kerrie Dallman, CEA President, and me.

At the end of the weekend, I had the privilege to be part of a teacher panel at the National Press Club to discuss what teacher leadership means and where we take it from here. The audience was very receptive to hearing stories from teachers, and we had a full and engaging discussion. So humbling and exciting for me to be there representing my state, my school, and my local association for this event.

Greg Toppo, education journalist from USA Today, moderated the panel. On the panel: Dawn DuPriest (me), Richard Rosivach from Minnesota, Jason Girtley from Nevada, Erica Avent from Mississippi. Public Education warriors, all of us.

Greg Toppo, education journalist from USA Today, moderated the panel. On the panel: Dawn DuPriest (me), Richard Rosivach from Minnesota, Jason Girtley from Nevada, Erica Avent from Mississippi. Public Education Warriors, all of us.

Here are just a few of the key takeaways from the weekend.

  1. Teachers need an open, collaborative relationship with their leadership, all the way up the leadership chain. The myth of the “bad teacher”, I feel, is firmly rooted in leadership challenges. No one would ever blame a business failure on “bad employees” and yet the idea has stuck in public education. Administrators, department chairs, mentors, and district leaders should provide feedback and a solid support system for improving teachers, and an avenue for emerging leaders to explore their passions and drive them to innovative ends. It’s important to provide vision, empowerment, and critical questions – administrators need to trust their staff and minimize top-down mandates. They need to listen over and over and over again. I feel my own leadership project was a great success because I work in a well-led school and a well-led district. I was always trusted and supported, and encouraged to do ultimately what’s best for the kids.
  2. Teachers need time. It was interesting that many teacher-leaders I met had a structure in place for them to do leadership work at least part-time. Some taught half-time and did a half-time instructional coaching role, or a half-time association leadership role. Some were on a year-long TOSA assignment. The structures can be funded in a number of different ways, through the school or building district, through the local or state association, or through an outside funding source. Many teacher-leaders were quite creative with how they carved out and funded their leadership role. For me it presented a clear path to do what I love to do. I want to stay in the classroom. It keeps my work relevant, and let’s face it, working with the middle-schoolers is the highlight of my day. It keeps me young. But I am crushed by the sheer workload of five preps and over 200 students. I want to drive STEM education forward and I simply can’t when I am spending so much time planning lessons. I have 90 minutes every day to plan up to 4 lessons and give feedback to my 200 students, respond to e-mails and fill out necessary paperwork – needless to say this is impossible so I work many hours after school, and neither my leadership work nor my school work is getting proper attention. A hybrid role would be a dream and I feel this structure should be an option for teachers who want to apply for a leadership position for specific purposes.
  3. Teachers need to ask “what if?” This is a beautiful question and a beautiful alternative to simply identifying problems and complaining. Start asking, and ask different people until you find someone willing to go down that rabbit hole with you. What if? It will take you places you would not have imagined.
  4. Teachers need to collect data that’s meaningful to them. Standardized accountability systems have a limited place but do not result in actionable information. When you take on a personal project, and you decide what data will tell you if you’re successful – when you find critical friends to help you analyze the data and determine your next steps – you can see your own impact on the world more clearly. It’s better for you and the kids.
  5. Teachers need to find their passions. My school is an amazing place where we are exploring passion-based learning – encouraging our 6th, 7th, and 8th graders to discover what they love and use that passion to personalize their education and make it authentic. I realized through this process that I thrive when I do passion-based learning as well. It would do us good to do some soul-searching around this idea and carve out the space for kids and teachers to personalize our development through the public school system – to make the learning real and powerful.

I’m so grateful for the opportunity the TLI afforded me. I can’t wait to see what the next steps are. And if you get the opportunity to take on a personal leadership project in your own career, my advice is to absolutely go for it. Reach out to me if you want support, advice, or empathy. I would love to hear your story.

Here is mine: A video from one of my colleagues of my story at the National Press Club.

Dawn DuPriest on Teacher Leadership