Overwhelming Resources

As we engage in distance/remote/online/emergency learning Educators are being inundated with resources and tools to use in their virtual classrooms.  It isn’t easy to decide which would be most effective and which ones are safe for teachers and students to use.  There is no one size fits all answer to this but there are a few things that I do in order to narrow down my choices of whether or not to use a particular digital tool or resource:

  1.  I search for tools that are designed by Canadian or better yet, Ontario Educators and where possible, data is housed in Canada.
  2. I look at whether or not the tool will still be free after the COVID crisis is over or whether it has always been a free tool.  I honestly don’t mind paying for a tool from the outset but I don’t really like the whole free trial thing.  I also don’t want to pay some kind of a monthly fee.  One time price, please!  I don’t want to love a tool so much while it is free and then have to pay for it when I go back into the classroom.
  3. I look at whether or not it is a one time fee or negative billing.  I won’t give anyone my credit card to start a free trial for a tool.
  4. I search for tools that I know will be supported by my ICT department.  Anything that wants access to email contacts in my school board is a non-starter.
  5. I search for tools that inspire collaboration and creativity.  I’m not one to sign up students for a gaming platform that is really just an engaging math drill.
  6. I look at bang for my buck (even if it is free).  Is it a versatile tool?  Does it allow for different forms of communication?  Can I embed audio and video?  Is there an opportunity for a variety of feedback methods?
  7. I look at the Privacy statement.  Although I am no expert in this, I can generally tell when something has red flags.  Anything that is attached to third party social media platforms like Facebook is a non starter for me.
  8. Right now while there are so many sign ups and passwords for students, I stay away from platforms that want to create student accounts and want information apart from an email.
  9. I look to see if it is a Microsoft or Apple Education certified product?  I know that for the most part, those tools are trustworthy.
  10. I look at user reviews and YouTube tutorials.  I want to know what the pitfalls are of something before I invest time and/or money.

At the end of the day no tool is perfect and few tools are unlikely to meet the specific needs of each and every student in your classroom.  However, I hope that what I do when choosing a tool might guide you to the most effective tools in the over abundance of resources that are floating around out there.

Say Less, Ask More

Sometimes the smallest change can make a huge difference, especially in education. Things such as greeting students individually upon arrival at school can set the tone for the entire day.  Small changes in habitual behaviours can improve communication and relationships with students.

Over the last few months I’ve been reading the work of Michael Bungay Stanier.  Most recently I’ve been reading “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More and Change the Way You Lead Forever”.  I admit, that at first blush, it doesn’t sound as though this book has much relevance to elementary education.  However, as I was reading I kept making connections to communicating with students more effectively to encourage independence.  As learning becomes more inquiry based in many classrooms, teachers are having to move into more of a coaching role.  I think that the education sector as a whole has made some assumptions that teachers know how to be effective coaches and facilitators.  In my own teaching practice, there has been a huge learning curve.  Teaching through inquiry isn’t about leaving students to their own devices.  Students generally aren’t familiar with the curriculum and other than being children, they aren’t experts on child development.  Educators have to be guides for student learning.  But what exactly does that mean and how do we transition to this type of teaching?

For me the biggest change and challenge in becoming more of a guide in my classroom was talking less and letting the students do the learning. I am a problem solver, helper and rescuer and I’m sure many teachers can relate, which is why it is so hard to be quiet and back off.  I’ve also learned that asking questions might be easy, but asking effective questions is a skill for teachers and students alike.

So what did I learn from a “coaching” book that might help a classroom teacher? Keep in mind, these examples might be better suited for the older grades.  You might need to keep it a bit more simple for Kindergarten.  However, in most cases, better questions get better answers.  Here are some examples:

A student comes in from recess and is visibly upset.  Instead of asking, “What’s wrong? Did something happen at recess?  Can I help?”  Try asking just one question, “What’s on your mind?” and then be quiet and listen. The question “What’s on your mind?” is a focused question and invites someone to get into the heart of the matter. Sometimes all that is needed is a venting session and the child feels better.  You don’t always have to be a rescuer or problem solver. Most of the time, kids just want to be heard.

Normally in a situation like this I’ll ask, “Can I help?’ or “Would you like some help?”  However, the small change to “HOW can I help?” helps the student to articulate their request.  In addition, it gives them the opportunity to identify the solution and not have the adult jump in to solve things for them.

Tweaking the questions that we ask could improve communication and lead to more effective answers.  In addition, asking focused questions could empower students and lead to more independence. Michael’s work and questioning techniques are helpful for dealing with the people in your workplace.  You can sign up for Michael Bungay Stanier’s “The Coaching Habit” Podcast online and find other great coaching resources at Box of Crayons .

 

Coding in Kindergarten

I have taught every grade from K-8 in some way, shape or form.  I can say that without a doubt or apology I have more respect for Kindergarten teachers than any other grade level.  Hands down.  I have loved every grade I taught while I was teaching it.  I was young and without children when I taught Kindergarten and can say that there is no tired like Kindergarten teacher tired.  That being said, I absolutely love going into Kindergarten classes with robotics.  Unabashedly Kinder friends approach you to ask your name and promptly tell you about the “owie” on the bottom of their foot as soon as they walk in the door.

I work with Bee Bots in Kindergarten classes to teach sequencing, estimation, problem solving, geo-spatial reasoning through coding.  Bee Bots are a rechargeable, floor robots designed for early learning.  It is easy to operate and does not require any other equipment.

We start as a whole group using the hundred’s carpet and decide how to move Bee Bot from our start to another point on the carpet.  Students decide upon the directions and we program them in to find out what will happen.  Wonderful mistakes happen here and we need to clear the code and start again.  When we achieve our goal as a group there is much rejoicing!

It isn’t really about teaching Kindergarten kids how to “code”.  Coding is used as a vehicle to teach many other transferable skills.  Planning, organizing and communication are just some of the learning skills that come from using the Bee Bots.   If you have access to the mats as featured in the photos, you can automatically see the ties to language and math concepts as well.  There is a romance period that needs to take place when the students first get their hands on Bee Bot.  However, even if they don’t know the words for “right” and “left” at first, they get to know them quickly through the use of Bee Bot.  Bee Bots in many of our Kindergarten classes now have homes and some have villages made from found materials so that Bee Bot can be coded to go to different places.  The possibilities for creativity really are endless.

For more information about using Bee Bot in the classroom, check out these resources:

https://krgarden.ca/media/hold/the-beebot-robot

https://blog.teaching.com.au/5-mathematics-bee-bot-lesson-ideas-for-the-classroom/

 

 

Breakout EDU

Breakout EDU is like an Escape Room in a box. The players use teamwork and critical thinking to solve a series of challenging puzzles in order to open a locked box. The first time I experienced Breakout EDU with my students I was not the designer of the game.  Another teacher had designed the Breakouts and we were using it as a provocation for an inquiry on the Olympics.  I was amazed at how much I wanted to help my students.  It was difficult to watch them struggle and yet, that is where the learning happens.  We want our students to BE “gritty” and we need to provide opportunities for students to develop that grit.  Breakout EDU is a great way in which to have the students experience “the struggle”.  The kit looks like this:
https://www.breakoutedu.com/

The kit itself is quite pricey and unless your school already has one, it is quite an investment.  However, you can make your own with a tool box and locks purchased from a variety of stores.  You can also create online digital Breakouts that create the same kind of collaborative, problem solving activity just without the cool locks.  Here is the link to some curated online “digital” breakouts.   I haven’t looked at all of these for curriculum alignment, but it will give you some ideas to use to create your own digital breakouts.

“Breakout” is sort of a misnomer.  You are actually “breaking in” to the box using a number of clues students solve puzzles in order to open the various word, number and key locks.  This can connect to the curriculum in a number of different ways and can be used effectively as an introduction, provocation or summary for learning.  You aren’t going to get too terribly deep into content when students are busy trying to solve for clues.  For me, Breakout EDU is far more about developing the 6 C’s; collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, communication, citizenship and character building.   It is fascinating to have students work in groups to solve problems with a common goal.  Breakout EDUs provide opportunities for students to practice developing their learning skills and gives the teacher the opportunity to collect data as the learning is self-directed.  The activities lead easily into self-reflection of learning skills. Below are some of the questions that I find valuable for the consolidation portion of a lesson after a Breakout EDU activity:

Questions for Reflection

1.  How did you determine roles in your group?

2.  What did you find most difficult?

3.  What did your group do really well together?

4.  What would you do differently next time?

5.  How did you contribute to the group?

6.  How did you work to include everyone in your group?

Once students are familiar with the Breakout EDU format (depending on the age/grade level) they can then create their own Breakouts for their classmates.  The students interact with the learning from a different perspective and have to find the most important information to highlight for the clues in the development of the Breakout.

So what are the drawbacks?  Breakout EDU is competitive.  The students are working against each other and/or against the clock.  You have to know which students can handle that type of pressure. Working in groups on a common task may be difficult for some students with self-regulation issues so you have to know your students well and plan accordingly, as you would for any group activity.

Finally, Breakout EDU is also a great tool to use with your staff.  If you have a lot of information to get through and you want the participants to get to some salient points and the Google Slide presentation just isn’t cutting it, using a Breakout EDU will make for an interactive, team building staff meeting!  It is also great to have the adults experience the struggle that we all want students to go through to develop grit and resilience.

Like with any tool, it takes time and research to ensure that it is right for your classroom.  The more I use Breakout EDU in my teaching,  the more I think of ways to use it!

Artificial Intelligence

Have you ever been looking at something on Amazon and then see advertisements for that exact product on your Facebook feed?  Do you ever think about how “suggestions for you” on your Kindle or Netflix make it incredibly easy to click on the next book or t.v. series?  These are little ways in which artificial intelligence is becoming a normal every day occurrence in our every day lives and we don’t even realize it and we also need to make our students aware of it too.

According to research, scientists are far away from the C3PO kind of artificial intelligence but the reality about A.I. being a part of our world is far from Science Fiction.   I firmly believe that teaching students how to think critically about how artificial intelligence works is important.  Recently I was a part of a workshop with Microsoft and Kids Code Jeunesse in which we explored some of the pros and cons of A.I. in general and then specifically in education. We need to have these serious, ethical discussions with our students so that they are aware of the implications of a world with A.I.  Those recommendations that are computer generated may be helpful or they may narrow your experiences.  Just because I like historical drama doesn’t mean I don’t want to also watch romantic comedies.  However, until I watch a few, those don’t come up in my Netflix recommendations.  The narrowing of choice can save money for companies too.  See where I’m going with the moral implications?  So…how do we have this discussion with students in a way that they can understand?  Inquiry.

During the workshop we used The Teachable Machine which is an online program designed to demonstrate how machines can learn.   It is an effective tool to show that the more data that is entered, the more accurate the outcome. If you have a moment to look up the Google image for “Blueberry Muffins and Chihuahuas” you’ll understand what I mean.  Microsoft has been working with educators to help foster an understanding of artificial intelligence and bring that awareness to students.  On their website they have a number of experiments that you can take your students through in order to experience artificial intelligence at work:  Experience A.I.  As students use software such as predictive text, Google Read and Write or even chatbots for frequently asked questions, challenge them to ask the questions of how does this work?

Teaching digital citizenship and critical thinking needs to be a constant discussion, not a one and done lesson.  Students need to generate questions and explore how to find the answers with guidance from their teacher.  I think it is also important to highlight that A.I. might be a scary thing for some students so they need to be aware that although there are skills that humans and machines share, the machines do not learn those skills without the input of a human.  Machines cannot replace the empathy, creativity, communication and relationship building capability of humans.  They also cannot replace the understanding and caring of an effective teacher.

Fore more reading on the subject of Artificial Intelligence in Education:

Ryan M Cameron, A.I. 101 A Primer on Using Artificial Intelligence in Education

Wayne Holmes, Maya Bialik, Charles Fadel, Artificial Intelligence in Education:Promises and Implications for Teaching and Learning

Long-Range Plans

Alright, now I know that some of you saw the title for this post and thought, “Seriously? Long-range planning now? It’s almost the end of the school year. I’m just trying to make it through!” Well, if you still gave me a chance and clicked to take a read, I thank you. This post comes out of a conversation that I had with a colleague through email earlier this week.

In April, I had the chance to visit her classroom to see the design project that students had been working on all year. It wasn’t a project that was taking them all year to work on but it was a magical experience where one piece of learning connected to another, and then another, and another. While students were developing a deep sense of community and empathy for the experiences of others, they too were uncovering how their communities can become greater places for acceptance and inclusion. While emailing back and forth, sharing pictures of student work in action, she said the following:

“There aren’t any ‘long-range plans’ that can foresee the type of community a class will become.”

While this was in context of the work that was happening in this class, I got a huge “ah ha” moment when I started to think about how I go about creating my long-range plans. I usually sit down and start to think about what grade(s) I’m teaching and go through curriculum resources to see which big ideas relate to events or times of year that might be better for authentic experiences and set about planning from there. While I like to think that I hold to what is in my plans, I know that they should be seen as a “living” document in the sense that it must reflect the abilities, needs and interests of the students it serves. While these are big ideas for our units of study, student inquiries may lead them in specific directions. My plan is mainly an outline which may be altered based on student needs. I often make this explicit to parents during curriculum nights.  But now as I think of it, the learning that my colleague, Barbara Robson, was referring too was so much more than specific curriculum, but I would dare say that it was perhaps that hidden curriculum, whereby students are learning skills that go beyond the content that we are supposed to be teaching. This got me further thinking about how I might be able to go about planning differently in future.

What if in addition to of outlining the curriculum, which I still think is important to know where you’re going within the guidelines set forth for us; the plans also included the specific skills (or the hidden curriculum) we wanted to develop with students? What if my long-range planning was more intentional and included specific opportunities where I was going to work on creating experiences for students that developed their critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity? What might that look like? How might I help students explicitly understand that this is also the “curriculum” that we are working to uncover while engaging them in the curriculum from the Ministry of Education? Would this help students be able to speak to the changes that they were noticing in themselves over time in these areas? Would that make for interesting parent-teacher interviews if we empowered students to speak to these skills along with knowledge acquisition and the synthesis of information to create?

I just threw out a lot of questions there and I’m really interested in how educators are working towards helping students explicitly and intentionally building a transferable skillset over time. We know that the workforce is evolving and as educators, part of our mandate is supporting the development of the skills in students. I’m starting to think about what September might bring and I wonder if the interweaving of the curriculum I’m given, along with the “hidden curriculum” that we know students need, into my long-range plans might make for more intentional work.

We’re winding down for the school year and this might be food for thought for the coming year. Already doing great things around skill development explicitly and intentionally with students? I would love to hear about it!

The Gender Gap in Technology

Quote for blog

According to a recent report* by ICTC (the Information and Technology Information Council) Canadian women represent about 50% of the overall workforce but represent only 25% of the technology industry workforce.  Of the 100 major tech companies in Canada only 5 have female CEOs and 1 Co-CEO.   26% of the tech companies have no women in senior leadership at all.  There is a gender wage gap in the industry of $7,000-$20,00 per year.  When I read these statistics I wondered as educators, what can we do about the gender gap in technology?  This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a place to begin:

1.  Build her confidence in her abilities.

2. Cultivate a community of supportive peers.

3.  Provide a STEM/STEAM club for girls.

4. Ensure that access to technology and computer experiences is encouraged and inclusive.

5. Foster interest in computing careers.

6. Be a role model as a LEARNER.

May 11th is National Girls Learning Code Day.  If you are looking to encourage coders in your school, why not begin on May 11th?  Below you will find links to resources for beginning coding.  Many students code on their own at home and may appreciate the opportunity to mentor fellow students.  The resources attached will get you started.  There is no special equipment or robotics required.  Teachers do not have to be expert coders to encourage their students.  Teachers can be role models of resilience, risk taking and problem solving by learning alongside their students.  Teachers only need to open the door and expose their students to the opportunities.

Girls Who Code Canada

National Girls Learn Code Day

Canada Learning Code

Scratch

Hour of Code

Code.org

 

*Cutean, A., Ivus, M. (2017). The Digital Talent Dividend: Shifting Gears in a Changing Economy. Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC). Ottawa, Canada.

Elaborated and written by Alexandra Cutean (Director, Digital Innovation Research and Policy). and Maryna Ivus (Senior Analyst, Research and Policy) with generous support from the ICTC Research and Policy Team.

Coding with Microbits

Twice I have attended the Ontario Teachers’ Federation “Pedagogy before Technology” conference in the summer.  This year I attended a design workshop that the InkSmith company provided and would never have been able to predict the chain of events that would follow.  In the workshop we were grouped with people at our table to come up with a design concept and present it in the manner of a “Dragon’s Den” pitch.  As we discussed the concept and made diagrams on chart paper, I put the visuals together in a small Google Slide presentation and added an entertaining video.  I have my drama specialist and I’m not afraid to ham it up in front of a crowd.  When it came time for the presentation we wowed the InkSmith team and ended up presenting to the entire group.  We then went to lunch and I didn’t really think too much more about it.  However, because I had so loudly and visibly put myself out there in an entertaining way, I was contacted by the team at InkSmith and then connected with kidscodejeunesse team.  Kids Code is a federally funded program that helps students learn to code.  They provide free workshops to classrooms across the country using handheld, programmable micro-computers called micro:bits. The coding program is web based and is in the blockly format but can also be switched to html for more advanced coders.  When a workshop is provided to a classroom, the teacher is provided with ten microbits for the class to use and keep.  You can visit the website kidscodejeunesse to sign up for a workshop for your classroom.

microbit

                                                                                                                                 This is the microbit connected to a battery pack.

Kids Code Jeunesse provided me with training and as part of my job as an innovations consultant, I now go into classrooms within my school board to deliver workshops to students.  The only coding that I had done up to this point was with Spheros and Ozobots which was quite rudimentary.  I am now immersed into the coding culture. Which means that sometimes my kitchen counter looks like this:

IMG_6320 It was a little out of my comfort zone to be sure.  As I have gone into classrooms I have admitted to students that I’m not an expert on microbit   technology and I have learned from some of the students that have been engaged in complex coding on their own time.  With a quick conversation with   the classroom teacher I can usually make some decisions around differentiating the program to keep students engaged.

 You might be wondering what it is these little computers can do.  The LED lights on the front can be programmed to light up in patterns which create   animations.  Students can create dice or rock, paper, scissors games and with a few alligator clips and a small speaker or headphones, microbits can be   programmed to create music. With a little innovation and some adaptation it can be programmed to water plants automatically or become a pedometer.   It can also be paired with a robot called K8 which can be purchased from Inksmith and assembled.  The microbit website itself is where the coding takes   place and it has easy to follow tutorials and ideas for projects to code.

The initial workshop is only the beginning.  The only limit to these little computers is the limits of your student’s imagination.  Microbits would be incredibly useful in a maker space or genius hour environment.  The students develop design and critical thinking skills and problem solving techniques as they create and de-bug programs.  It is an amazing way to introduce coding to students-especially if you are a teacher who is brand new to coding.  Be warned: coding is extremely engaging and you and your students may have an inordinate amount of fun while learning.

         IMG_6350IMG_6200IMG_6358IMG_6326IMG_6356

Introducing Coding without Robots

A few years ago when I started hearing about teachers doing coding and robotics in the classroom I dismissed it as a fad.  I didn’t understand the value of coding nor could I see how it tied to the curriculum.  However, I recognize as a professional learner my initial reaction to something radically new can sometimes be resistance.  I think that this is because I can’t see myself fitting “one more thing” into my classroom practice. I always have to give myself time to process, research, find the value and then finally accept it.  After I have tried a new practice with students and see the beneficial outcomes, I endorse it and then begin to share it widely with colleagues.

When I began the journey with coding and looked at code.org I tried it on my own and admittedly, understood very little. I went to more workshops and conferences but avoided the coding and robotics thinking that it just wasn’t my bag.  Then I had a colleague that dragged me in to the world of coding and robotics.  We worked together.  I’ve since become convinced that we need to teach all students how to code.  I have also figured out that you don’t need any robots to do it.  In fact, when you start-you don’t even need a computer.

coding 4         coding 2

 

The above picture is a coding game that I used recently with a grade one and two class.  Students placed their obstacles (rocks) on a grid.  They placed their “gemstone” or finish on a spot on the board and their “robot” (animal)  on another spot.  They wrote their code on a sticky note using arrows and then had their partner take their robot through the code to test it for “bugs”.  A big part of coding is knowing your left from your right and being able to write instructions that someone else can follow.  We started out the day coding one another to walk in a square using only: “forward” “turn left” and “turn right”.  It was amazing to see how much problem solving took place.  They were using positional language, procedural writing, clear communication, visualization and proportional reasoning.  Their thinking was exploding! The students were engaged in the learning and well on their way to being able to code something online.  From there we explored the Scratch Jr. app.  After a short look together at what the different “buttons/blocks” meant they were able to code independently.  As teachers we sometimes get bogged down in the fact that we don’t have the money to purchase the technology and shy away from trying things based on the fact that we don’t have “the stuff”.  However, laying the groundwork before introducing the technology piece to students is key.  We need to always consider the pedagogy before the technology.

 

Why Coding Is Important Part Two

In Part one of this blog post I talked about coding with relation to the deep learning competencies and learning skills.  However, there are greater implications of teaching kids to code.  I am a huge science fiction and dystopian fan.  I think I am attracted to the resourcefulness of the characters in the movies and books.  The characters that have hands-on life skills and leadership qualities are valued and survive.  Let me be clear, I do not view the classroom as a dystopian or science fiction society…well…unless we are suffering from a severe heat wave.  I think that understanding the way the technology on which we rely on a daily basis, is a skill worth exploring.  That understanding also builds an appreciation of the work of coders and others in the computer science industry.  After taking 20 minutes to code a square with a small spherical robot a student said to me, “Wow. Can you imagine how much time it took to code everything in FortNite? Every step my character takes, everything it wears or every background must be lines and lines of code.”  That was a pretty serious revelation for a 9 year old.

It isn’t science fiction that there is a huge demand for computer science programmers and developers.  According to Code.org, 71% of all new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math)  jobs are in computing, yet only 8% of STEM graduates are in Computer Science.  According to the employment website Indeed.com there are currently over 2500 full time job openings in the greater Toronto area in the field of Computer Science with annual salaries between $60,000 and $140,000.  Learning to code increases the odds of securing a lucrative STEM career, especially in a world where computing jobs are growing exponentially. Coding has quickly become a vital skill in the work world.  Elementary teachers can begin to open doors for students by exposing them to coding in a fun and interactive way.  It is safe to say that coding language will develop into something much different before our students get into the workforce.  It isn’t about the “content” or “language” of code.  It is about teaching them a new way of thinking that they could apply to any coding language or problem solving situation.  According to Code.org, many colleges and Universities are looking for experience with coding on entrance applications.  It is difficult to ignore the statistics.

With Alexa, Google, and Apple in homes, cars, pockets and on wrists we know that this our reliance on computers as a society isn’t going away soon. Exposing students to these new learning opportunities to develop their deep learning competencies is necessary for development as learners and in the end, may prove quite lucrative for their futures.