Monday, March 31, 2014

Student Tech update: Leaders In and Out of the Classroom

If you have been following my updates about my work with student tech teams, you know that one of the big themes that I stress with my teams is leadership.  Leadership means that students are helping others while also modeling positive behavior for those that they are working with.  Leadership also means working together to solve problems and create as a team.  In the last month or so, my student tech teams have been leaders in all of those regards, in and out of the classroom.  Here's a recap of the month in student tech:

Working on 1st grade ePortfolios at Nickerson
A fifth grade tech team student at K. Nickerson School reads
stories written by two first grade students.  Finished stories will
be uploaded into their ePortfolios.
In February I began working with a group of four fifth grade students at the K. Nickerson School in Swanville.  As with the teams in Searsport, their goal is to help with technology projects taking place across the school.  In addition, they help keep me notified of issues with the laptops as they arise, and making sure basic things like homepages are set and all of the icons in the dock are where they are supposed to be.

In the past few weeks, the fifth graders and I have been working with Kate Chapin, first grade teacher at Nickerson, to begin building electronic portfolios where students could store their best writing from first grade for archiving.  We have a few iPads in the building, so we are taking pictures of student work and then uploading them to the student's accounts in Google Drive through the Google Drive app.  The first graders are already familiar with taking pictures with the iPads, so the role of the tech team students is to help them with logging into Google Drive, uploading the pictures that they take, and organizing their Drives as necessary.

One of the great things that came out of this experience was to see the pride that the first graders had in sharing their writing with the fifth graders.  The fifth graders were so awesome with their patience and their listening, and even pointed out a few things that needed fixing.  This has already proven to be a valuable collaborative activity and I'm looking forward to what the next few weeks will bring.

Helping 3rd Graders with their Solar System Project
Fifth grade tech team working with third graders on their
solar system slideshows.

At the beginning of the year, our fifth and fourth grade teams helped the third grade classrooms at Searsport Elementary School get started with Google Drive.  Since then they have been using Docs to write electronically in Google.  Over the past couple of weeks, we have been working with third grade students on another tool available in Google Drive:  Presentations.  As part of the culmination of their solar system unit and project, third graders are creating short slideshows with information about their planets.  Our student tech teams have been there every step of the way, helping the third graders with their questions, inserting pictures and text into their slideshows, and formatting their slides so that everything fits.  It's been quite the effort, as there are three third grade classes at SES and only a handful of tech team students.  But, we've helped them all and they're almost all finished with their slideshows

On a side note, one morning our fifth graders helped me with a project that involved deleting and re-adding all of the upstairs printers on the student MacBooks, as well as updating Flash.  They had lunch at 11 instead of our usual 12, and then at 11:30 we went upstairs to work on this project.  We had all 30 laptops updated before the third graders even came back for recess, and then they helped those third graders with their slideshows.  Their ability to be productive and focused is just amazing!!

5th Graders Beginning Their Transition to Middle School

As we now enter April and approach the end of the school year, the fifth graders are beginning to prepare and transition to middle school.  The fifth grade tech team at Searsport Elementary School is no exception.  A couple of weeks ago, the fifth grade tech team at SES and the sixth grade Viking Pilots at Searsport District Middle School met to talk about what they were doing in each of their schools.  The Viking Pilots are helping to implement electronic portfolios at the middle school, and they have done a lot of work making model ePortfolios of their own, while helping students and teachers with adding artifacts to those portfolios.  We also talked about some possible projects that the two teams can work on together, including a website for the school and a website specifically for the tech teams at the Searsport complex.  We will try to meet once a month for the rest of the year; I'm looking forward to seeing what we accomplish, and watching as my fifth graders become more comfortable with their transition to middle school!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

What I Learned at EdCampME, part 2: After the Hour of Code

First off, I just want to say that the Hour of Code is awesome.  In early December, as part of Computer Science Education Week, thousands of classrooms and millions of students from across the country took an hour to experience computer science by engaging in activities that allowed students to learn and practice logical and computational thinking skills.  In my schools, we had six classrooms take up the Hour of Code challenge in grades kindergarten through five.  In these classrooms, we primarily used two web-based resources:  Light-Bot and Scratch, and the students LOVED them!  What was so great about the Hour of Code was the fact that it ended up being so much more than an hour; most of the classrooms I have worked with have continued or are looking to continue along with the Hour of Code, especially Scratch.  I love the Hour of Code for helping to reinforce the purpose of computer science education down the road while providing a series of activities that students can engage and channel their creativity in.

However, the Hour of Code has also left me wondering, what's next?  How do we continue the momentum and support the students who really want to go to the next level with these activities?  Good thing there's EdCamp!  At last weekend's EdCampME, I got to meet Jay Collier, who is program director for Project > Login, a business partnership designed to engage and connect students with technology-based careers in Maine.  Jay helped lead a great conversation about next steps after the Hour of Code.  One of the resources he talked about was the MIT App Inventor, created by many of the same folks who created Scratch.  With a similar interface, the purpose of the website is to provide a child-friendly way to design apps for the Android platform!  You can even test them out on an actual Android smartphone!

When I was elementary school, I loved staying after school for computer club.  While those computer clubs were about playing educational games (Oregon Trail, anybody?), we also talked at this session about computer clubs where the entire purpose was to engage in coding and programming on the computer.  The beautiful part of this idea is that there are so many free, web-based resources out there for students to use (Scratch, and Gamestar Mechanic are examples that come to mind) that, as long as you have computers in the school, you could start one of these clubs with little to no additional cost.  We also learned about CoderDojo, an organization with clubs all over the world designed to provide spaces for students to learn coding for free, together.  What I like most about the CoderDojo concept is their model for asking questions, which has three steps:

1. Ask the person next to you;
2. Ask another student;
3. Ask an adult.

I am really looking forward to using this model in a variety of settings, including LEGO Robotics and using Scratch in the classroom.  For our upper elementary students, it is important that we reduce their dependence on us, as well as encourage students to work collaboratively and independently.  I believe the model above is an effective step toward accomplishing all of that.

I think that this session will help me roll out some new activities and programs with students in the near future.  If you are/were involved with Hour of Code in your school, I'd love to hear the next steps you are looking to take.  Who knows, maybe there's an opportunity for collaboration?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

What I learned at EdCampME, part 1: 20% Time

I will start by saying that if you have never been to an EdCamp, you should go sometime.  EdCamps are conferences for teachers using the "unconference" format, which means that sessions are offered by teachers and for teachers.  Attendees can talk about an idea for a session that they could help lead, or they could also ask to see if someone might be able to lead a session about something else.  In other words, it's professional development that teachers can actually use!

There are hundreds of EdCamps held worldwide, and one was just held in Maine this past weekend.  I attended sessions about access to technology in low-income areas, Google Scripts, and more.  But two sessions stood out to me the most, and I hope that I can begin bringing these concepts into classrooms as soon as I can.

The first concept is known as "20% time."  In the first afternoon session we learned about how this concept from the tech sector is being applied to education in amazing ways.  Although it is most famously attributed to Google's policy of allowing employees to pursue side-projects of interest to them, this website credits the idea all the way back to 3M's use of "15 percent" time, which resulted in such creations as Post-It notes and masking tape (follow the link for some great and practical resources about getting started with 20% time in the classroom).  20% time applies very similarly to the classroom; this is the time for students to be learning about almost anything that interests them, or to be applying themselves and their learning to an interest or cause of importance to them.  This concept gets at a number of hard-to-reach ideals in education.  First, tapping into student interests would appear to create intrinsic motivation for learning in schools that is hard to create when most or all of the direction comes from the adults.  20% time would also appear to help students exercise a number of "soft" skills that almost never show up on a standardized test but are so crucial for future success, including goal-setting, learning independently, researching, decision making, and many more.  Students don't necessarily have to commit to learning something "new" either; 20% time could be used for helping a non-profit organization, fundraising, or raising awareness for a cause, all of which help students with other sets of skills.

I also like that we as teachers can integrate opportunities for students to show others what they've learned.  Jennifer Scheffer, who I learned a TON from during the course of the day, helped lead the discussion and mentioned that she used 20% Time for writing, and had students choose what they would write about.  I feel like blogging would provide a great platform for students to write about what they were doing and learning about during their 20% Time.  There was even mention of holding an EdCamp-style conference where the students would get to be the facilitators!  How exciting is that?  If you know me, you know I believe that the element of public presentation in education can be a powerful motivator for students and really increase the quality of the work they produce.  I for one would be really excited to see what kinds of things students will be able to show to their classmates, parents, and, yes, even teachers!  I've got a few at the elementary level who could show me a thing or two about technology already!

I also recognize that there are some challenges to implementing an initiative like this, too.  For starters, I recognize that it may be difficult to get students used to the level of freedom that would come with 20% Time, so it may take some time to get them to realize what they could possibly do with this time.  There was mention at the conference that some students are so motivated to work on their 20% Time projects outside of school that they come in with not much to do during the actual time.  Finally, for the small schools I work at, it would take tremendous effort and organization to coordinate where the students would work on their projects, who they would work with, and also to bring in some people from outside of the school that may provide some expertise and help to the students that we may not be able to do.

Nonetheless, I look forward to learning more about this concept and the feasibility of implementing this in any one of my schools.  If you are reading this and have tried or are doing 20% Time in your classroom or school, I would like to hear from you.  What have you learned from this initiative?  What are some things that people new to the initiative need to know so that it is rolled out in an effective manner?  What were some challenges that you came across during the process?  I really hope to learn more about 20% Time; this was the one thing I learned about while at EdCamp that has kept my mind a-buzzing ever since!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Robotics Update: Looking Back, Looking Forward

As we approach the end of our second LEGO robotics session (just two weeks left, can you believe it!?), I thought I'd put out a quick update about what we've been up to the last couple of weeks since I posted, as well as where I hope to go with the time we have left.

In the last couple of weeks we have been trying to put a serious emphasis on engineering.
Engineering plays a big role in robotics and how we use them to solve problems, and so my focus has been on getting our students to think like engineers and to also think of themselves as engineers. Last week we had Pasco Grove, who is a quality control engineer for a company that produces parts for Toyota and Honda, talk about his job as an engineer and solving problems that may arise in the manufacturing of parts. This week we had Claire Guse from Searsport District High School come over to talk about the engineering process. At the end of the session, we discussed how students used some of those processes while working during the session, and how the "cycle" can go around many times until you find the perfect solution to your problem. Ultimately, it is my goal to see our students engage in science and engineering in exciting new ways that will prepare them for fulfilling careers that allow them to find solutions to some of our most pressing issues.

Looking forward, after a couple of weeks building a basic robot and learning how to program, we will be finishing robotics with a little bit of a project. We will be creating a robotic amusement park! This means that we will be doing a little bit of research about some different rides, and trying to build models out of our robotics kits. This will be a new challenge for students as we will be building something that doesn’t come with instructions like our first robots did. I’m sure they will be up to the problem-solving challenge!

This week we will also be joined in the program by David and Sandy Perloff. This is a really important visit because Dave and Sandy are the ones that funded the ten robotics kits that we have right now! I’m looking forward to their visit and I would like for the students to get to meet them and talk about what they are doing with their robots!

There are also a couple of opportunities coming up that tie into robotics very well.  The first is the 2014 Engineering Expo at the University of Maine on March 22nd.  The weekend after that is the 4-H Robotics Expo for Washington County! In the fall, a few families and I attended a similar expo down in Gorham, and I thought it was a great experience for all in attendance. I'm hoping to maybe have a couple of students present their amusement park rides or other creations there!