First Semester Report

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.

Our main stage area. We spent the day before school assembling all the furniture!

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!

 

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Planning for Math at a Project-Based school

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.

Me by the Numbers Google Doc

 

 

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.

Micro:Bit Curriculum

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

The curriculum can be downloaded for free here, or on the micro:bit teaching resources page. I’m excited to see people using it and hope you find it useful and fun for your students!

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!

A new identity: who am I as a teacher?

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:

 

  1. How do labels impact our identity?
  2. How can art help us better understand individuals?
  3. 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.

 

Changes for 2018

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.

Cheers!

Dawn

 

My co-workers and I in our new home… renovation ready to begin.

 

2105 South College. It’s the old thrift store just north of Whole Foods.

 

 

 

The Computer Take-Apart (revisited).

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!

Lesson1Activity1wIllustrations

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Wash your hands well afterward to avoid getting lead in your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  3. Do not break any screens.
  4. Many computers are meant to be taken apart. Look for the places where the computer has seams, screws, levers or tabs.
  5. 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.

 

 

Looking back and looking ahead to 2018

The start of a new calendar year is a traditional time of reflection and anticipation. I’ve been an inconsistent blogger this year, which wasn’t intentional, but if I had to clear some things off my plate, this was an easy sacrifice. It’s been a full year. Along with constantly learning and changing in my job, I have two daughters who are in 9th and 5th grade and a busy husband too. When my children were little, I thought to myself “It will be so nice when they’re older. They won’t need us as much!” While it’s true that we can leave the house without calling a babysitter now, it is NOT true that your kids need you less. They need you more! You need to be more present, for everything from driving to emotional support to helping them make sense of the world. It’s been a joy being with the girls as they grow into interesting, independent people – but it definitely keeps you moving.

The job has been interesting as well. I don’t always know what to expect next, but here are some highlights from 2017 and what I expect from 2018.

  1. The CS for All and #csk8 movement.
    “Coding” is gaining more traction in my suburban public school district, and this year for the first time we started some high level discussions on how to introduce computer science as a core subject for every learner. Several colleagues and I have been working on suggested paths for a K-12 computer science sequence.  We are looking for sites to pilot ideas over the next couple of years and investigating grants for professional development offered by Colorado’s Department of Education. It feels like a painfully slow process, but there is definite progress here and I’m excited to see where it goes.
  2. micro:bits.
    I started using these cute little devices in both my required 6th-grade class and in the elective upper-middle-school class. The younger kids learned cs concepts using the block-based MakeCode environment, and the older kids learned using the text-based Python environment. It’s such an interesting tradeoff. I didn’t feel that we covered as much material as I had in previous years, but I perceived that the kids were VERY engaged in their learning and took their learning in divergent paths. Introducing the micro:bits meant that some kids did not learn as much about coding structures such as variables and boolean expressions. But they learned more about the design cycle, and got really excited about testing and iteration. They generated questions themselves like “will it still work if I’m on the opposite side of the room? Will it work if I push the buttons at the same time? Will it work if I shake and push at the same time?” And then they answered their own questions and improved on their designs, on their own. I love the excitement. I want to keep that. And I also want the kids to be well prepared for high school work and to understand important concepts in computer programming, so having it both ways is hard!
  3. Virtual Reality.
    I have a nice gaming system with an Oculus Rift controller in my classroom, and we have a variety of VR devices in the media center. Kids have access to technology at school that they don’t necessarily have at home, and so it gives them something exciting to use at school that they are very curious about. I’ve integrated a VR unit in my upper-level CS class, and our building tech coordinator and I teach a quarterly enrichment class called VR Exploration. We work with the kids to make 3-D models in Blender and little exploration worlds in Unity. We’ve had a few students that have gone above and beyond with their work in VR and that’s been fun to see. Toward the end of this semester, we received a $5000 grant to expand our VR program and so now we’re faced with the question of: how do we grow the program? We have some thinking to do about how we make this a more inclusive and interesting and cross-disciplinary experience for kids.
  4. Engineering for Others.
    Our media specialist runs a pretty awesome after-school program called Engineering Brightness, and I love the premise of engineering with a purpose – to help others and to help students have empathy for the human experience. I’ve been working on the technical side of the program for quite some time and incorporated a lot of the engineering ideas into my Electronics elective, and this semester for the first time we were able to produce some finished products and send solar lights out to residents of Puerto Rico who were still living without electricity. It was a fantastic experience and I definitely hope to keep the project and improve on it this coming semester.Those are the main things cooking for 2018! What’s coming up for you?

Media Literacy and Fake News

Part of my charter as the tech teacher is to facilitate learning about digital citizenship and online research. In the past I’ve used lessons from Common Sense Media and really enjoyed them. I especially love their lessons on copyright / fair use and maintaining your digital footprint.

I’ve had a few conversations with kids lately, including my own daughters, that have given me a sense of urgency when it comes to media literacy. Students love to show me funny things they encounter online and exciting or outrageous stories. Sometimes they’re real but exaggerated. Sometimes they’re total hoaxes.

One event that really made me feel a sense of urgency was when President Trump re-tweeted some clickbait videos with inflammatory titles against Muslims. The cues from the source and the video titles told me right away they were probably misleading, out of context, or possibly even fake. I’ve learned what questions to ask and so I was able to quickly realize I don’t need to be afraid of my Muslim friends or students based on the tweets. But the President is a world leader, and information coming from him carries weight. My students wouldn’t necessarily know what I do about clickbait and fake news stories. I wouldn’t want them to have bad opinions about their classmates or community members, or live in irrational fear, based on misleading information from social media. What questions should I help my students ask to really evaluate information critically? Middle-schoolers, in my experience, know about the prevalence of clickbait, fake news and bias, but they make decisions based on their gut reactions. They should start learning to look for patterns that help you make decisions about what to trust.

I started looking for lessons on fake news / clickbait / biased media, and was pretty pleased with what’s out there. Here is how we did the lesson:

Warmup: Ask students if they follow world events by reading or watching news. Most of my sixth-graders said no. Some even said their parents don’t let them watch news – it’s too upsetting (one even used the word “divisive”). Write “fake news” “clickbait” and “biased news” on the board and ask kids to share what they know about these terms. Most students are familiar with them or have at least heard of them. Some key points to bring out: fake news is completely false / made up. It might be a joke, or it might be trying to convince you it’e real. Clickbait uses an exciting title or thumbnail image to make you click, but the link usually isn’t as exciting as the title and thumbnail were. Biased news tends to be one-sided and it mixes opinions with news.
Bring out that the information economy is driven by clicks and views. The more clicks and views a site has, the more money it makes. Understanding this can make you smarter as a consumer – companies will do whatever it takes to make their link look interesting to you, so you click on it.

Activity 1: The purpose of this activity is to test their savvy at identifying real vs. fake news, and look for patterns that would help you evaluate articles in the future. Play the game FACTITIOUS at: http://factitious.augamestudio.com/#/  The game gives you a snippet of a news story and will tell you the source if you click a button. Your job is to swipe right for real news and left for fake news. Students should try to get the highest score they can the first time around. Look for tips and ideas that will help you identify fake vs. real stories the first time.
Students LOVED the game and found it really interesting and exciting. It is appropriate for middle-school. There are a couple of drug references but they’re informative and not promoting drugs.

Discuss Activity 1: Ask students what patterns they noticed that would help them be smarter about identifying fake news vs. real news. Here are some things my students mentioned. I was surprised at some of the interesting things they noticed:

  • Look at the source and see if it’s reputable (like the BBC) or not reputable (like ilovepancakes.com)
  • See if the article quotes professionals with real titles. Look for details like real locations.
  • Look at the images – are they real images of the event or are they photoshopped or stock images?
  • How is the grammar and spelling in the article?
  • Does the article use ALL CAPS or emotional language?
  • If it’s a science article, does it mention who did the study or what magazine the study was published in?
  • Use the common sense test. Read the article past the headline and think about if it’s realistic.

 

Activity 2: Identify biased news and look for ways to be a smart consumer of news. I found the website allsides.com when I was doing a search on ways to teach about media bias. I really like this site and recommend it! I selected two stories that I thought would be accessible to middle-schoolers, one from the “right” and one from the “left”, that dealt with the same topic. In this case, I chose the topic of taxes but you could choose whatever topic is relevant to current events.
Left-leaning article on tax reform bill
Right-leaning article on tax reform bill

I assigned students to read the headline and first few paragraphs of either Article A or Article B. Their question prompts were:

  1. What is the main idea of the Senate tax bill?
  2. Will this bill impact people positively or negatively?

Discussion of Activity 2: The student responses were interesting. At a first glance, only about half of the students used evidence from the text to answer the question. Should I have been more specific in the question prompt? I was surprised at how many students had an opinion on the tax bill, considering they told me they don’t follow world events. Did they learn their opinions from family dinner-table conversations or do they read news more than they thought?

We’ll have the follow-up conversation next class and this is what I want to pursue.

First, list some adjectives that convey an emotion or feeling. I’ll have the kids brainstorm adjectives like “dark”, “deadly”, “bright”, “winning”, etc.

We’ll go through the articles one more time and just look for emotion-filled words or phrases. These hint at opinions in the articles.

  • If we weren’t told ahead of time, we might not know these two articles are even about the same thing. Why are the articles so different if they are both news articles about a tax bill? [they’re about different parts of a tax bill and neither is about the whole thing]
  • The articles are a mix of fact and opinion. What tells you that you are reading someone’s opinion vs. fact?
  • What are some emotionally-charged words and phrases used in the article? Why should you be aware of these?
  • Are opinion articles useful? Explain.
  • If you don’t know your opinion about a topic and you’re using news articles to learn, what suggestions do you have that would help you be a smart consumer of news?

As a side note, I did have a hard time finding left-leaning and right-leaning articles that were written at a middle school reading level. Even with a tough read, though, I felt students could look for the general mood of the article and identify some phrases that would tip them off about the author’s opinion.

I will look for opportunities to bring these ideas into discussions as we move into break. Another interesting game I found is this one: Fake It to Make It. Some of the ideas might be above a middle-schooler’s head, but I think they’d enjoy this view into how social media gives us a really strange news ecosystem. I’ve read about college professors creating courses on how to write fake news. Maybe as a tie-in to web design or HTML, we could do a lesson on how to write a fake news story. For fun and education!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Solar Lamps for Puerto Rico made by middle-schoolers

Earlier I posted about the Joule Thief lamps my electronics students made. Students soldered the circuit, designed enclosures and assembled the lamps. We made multiple copies of the best designs of the enclosures.

Joule Thief Project

The enclosures turned out really nice! We had a few different 3-D printed designs, and one really cute “upcycled” design made from household items.

After printing the enclosures and gathering materials, we had an assembly party in class. Students signed up for the design of their choice, and the student that created the design coached them through the assembly process. We signed cards, took pictures and put all of the lamps in a box. There are 27 of them!

I was able to make contact with person I follow on Twitter, Dr. Antonio Paris, who is busy delivering supplies to Puerto Rico for hurricane relief. A vast majority of the island still has no reliable electricity! Solar lamps are a key item that people need. I got his address and shipped the box out. You can reach Dr. Paris on his GoFundMe page.

We hope our little lamps are useful to anyone who needs a rechargeable light.

If you would like to participate in this process, I was able to gather all of the instructions in one place in this Google Doc.

JOULE THIEF SOLAR LAMP INSTRUCTIONS

Please reach out to me or find the Engineering Brightness project at: http://e-b.io if you would like to get your students involved in learning about circuitry and engineering for social good. 🙂

 

 

Using the micro:bit radio in Python

I’ve been having fun getting to know the micro:bit with my students this year. I often plan lessons based on what they tell me they’d like to learn, and they were really intrigued by the idea of radio communication between micro:bits.  So I decided to learn about it. There is a “firefly” tutorial on the documentation page here:

micro:bit python radio documentation

But I felt what I wanted to learn was even simpler than that. I just wanted to know how to send simple messages, like numbers and text, between micro:bits. I ended up making my own little tutorial and maybe someone else will find it useful.

First, I had the students copy this program and download it to their own micro:bit.

from microbit import *
# must include these two lines to use the radio
import radio
radio.on()

# any channel from 0 to 100 can be used for privacy.
radio.config(channel=99)

while True:
 if button_a.was_pressed():
 # send this message over the radio. Up to 32 bytes OK.
 radio.send('HAPPY')
 sleep(200)
 if button_b.was_pressed():
 radio.send('SAD')
 sleep(200)
 # if there's a message in the queue, retrieve it. Up to 3 messages
 # can be in the queue at once, and if it's full, messages are dropped.
 msg = radio.receive()
 # ALWAYS CHECK for None..
 if msg != None:
 # as long as there is a message, display something
 if msg == 'HAPPY':
 display.show(Image.HAPPY)
 sleep(200)
 display.clear()
 elif msg == 'SAD':
 display.show(Image.SAD)
 sleep(200)
 display.clear()

 

After the students downloaded the program, of course they started fiddling with the buttons to see if anything would happen. The buttons don’t seem to do anything on their own device, but they would notice their device would randomly show smiley faces and sad faces.  Eventually a pattern starts to emerge and students realize their button-presses are affecting the other micro:bits in the room. After a few minutes I ask the students to try and make my micro:bit happy, and they all press button A. They make my micro:bit sad by pressing button B. If a student or two can make inferences from the code, they change the code and make it send messages other than “HAPPY” or “SAD” and then my micro:bit, and the others, start scrolling strange messages. It’s hilarious and chaotic.

So next we look at the example code and dig into how the radio works. We analyze the program that’s already on their micro:bits and then, I help the kids write a very basic skeleton program that just selects a channel, sends a message and scrolls all received messages on the display. Students could use it with friends to send secret messages during class. They had fun making their skeleton programs and sending messages to me and each other.

Some students took it farther and started setting up a protocol for their micro:bits – a little agreed-upon system of communication between them. If one message is received, play a tune. If another is received, sparkle the LED’s and send a message back. This is a great direction to take future lessons – to chat about how we can make computers communicate with each other so the communication is efficient, flexible and free from errors in different situations.

I envision using the radio commands when we learn about looping and iteration. I’ve seen fun examples of games that use multiple micro:bits and think there is a lot of potential there!

I made a video with the basics of the lesson – maybe someone else will find it useful if you’re using Python with your micro:bit.

 

Enjoy!