The Smallest Gift of Christmas

Author Peter Reynolds reads out loud his book, The Smallest Gift of Christmas, in this video that reminds us that the best gift we can ever receive is love.

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The Elephant in our Schools

You see them in the headlines.  You see them on the side of the road asking for food.  You see them in your classroom.  Maybe, like me, you see them in the mirror.

Some us are easier to spot than others.  You recognize them, but feel unequipped to give them aid.  Or – you wonder why they don’t help themselves, why they don’t just try a little harder.

This is a post I started writing in 2015.  It has been in my drafts folder since then.  I couldn’t find a way to write it in a way to ask for compassion about this topic without seeming to ask for pity for myself.  But then I saw Mandy Froelich’s post about “Destigmatizing the Depressed Educator” and realized that I need to make another attempt.

About 15 years ago, I was diagnosed with clinical depression.  It is chronic, and it is wickedly destructive.  Mindy’s words about her brain being an emotional bully perfectly describe my own experiences battling this disease and I have great empathy for anyone who suffers from it.

It is difficult for many people to understand depression.  It can seem like a weakness or a self-indulgence.  I have heard advice suggesting that it just takes time, or a better diet, or more exercise to cure it – that it’s caused by laziness or even ingratitude.  Anyone who has gone through great sadness believes he or she knows how to cure depression.  But depression is not usually a reaction to a tragic event.  And it is not cured by time.  I once wrote a poem contrasting sadness and depression because it always seems so difficult to explain:

The difference between sadness and depression
is the difference between
Longing for time past, and wishing for time to pass
Wanting to get over the hurt, and thinking hurt would be an improvement
Trying to find meaning, and despairing of any meaning
Needing the comfort of friends, and avoiding the comfort of friends
Waking up with hope, and waking up with dread
Wishing for a different life and wishing you were dead.

The attitude towards depression is a symptom of a much larger problem in our society – our refusal to prioritize mental health.  People who have cancer get compassion (and rightly so), but people who have schizophrenia, depression, or OCD are ridiculed and disdained.  This is not a problem exclusive to education.  I imagine there are plenty of people in other professions who would never admit to their co-workers that they have any sort of mental health problems.

In March, I wrote about a young man named Joey Hudy who had just been diagnosed with schizophrenia. (His family is trying to raise money for his treatment here.)  My purpose was to bring attention to the importance of good mental health and the need for all of us to be educated on how to recognize the symptoms of those who are in crisis.

We need to de-stigmatize the depressed educator, the depressed parent, the depressed student, and anyone else who has less than perfect mental health.  Instead of denigrating the mother who stays in bed all day or the neighbor who never wants to socialize, we should have, at the very least, compassion.  At the very most, we should educate our society and provide mental health support to those in need. In our schools, we should give age-appropriate lessons about the signs of mental health problems so students can recognize it in themselves and in others.  Then we should make sure they have resources available to them and they know how to access them.  As a society we need to stop equating mental health struggles with weakness, laziness, or evil in our media and our own conversations.

If you want to know some basic facts about depression, begin with this resource. It describes the symptoms and offers links for those who wish to seek help.

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image from Pixabay

 

Gifts for the Gifted 2017 – RollerCoaster Challenge

A few years ago, I thought I would help out the parents of my gifted and talented students by writing about some games, toys, or books that I thought might make good purchases during the holiday season.  I called the series of posts, “Gifts for the Gifted,” and I have continued to do it annually on every Friday in November and December.  These gifts are suggestions for any child – not just those who qualify for a GT program. Sometimes I receive a free product for review, but I am not paid for these posts, and I never recommend a product that I wouldn’t buy for my own child.  For past “Gifts for the Gifted” posts, you can visit this page. Also, you can see last week’s recommendation here.  And, if you want to see the more than 100 games and toys I’ve recommended over the years on my blog, check out my Pinterest board.

RollerCoaster Challenge is another fabulous product from ThinkFun.  I’m pretty sure the company doesn’t need any PR from me, as this game has won numerous awards in the last year, including the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award and Toy of the Year Finalist.  I’ve seen it recommended on numerous gift guides – especially ones that are related to S.T.E.M. products. But all of those accolades may not have reached the audience who reads this blog, so I want to make sure RollerCoaster Challenge gets included in my list, too.

I’m going to start with getting one negative out of the way – pretty much the only negative about this game.  There are a lot of pieces in this game.  As a parent and a teacher, I get kind of nervous about games dependent on numerous parts.  Easy to lose, painful to step on, difficult to store.  However, the pieces are what make this game so entertaining.  It reminds me a bit of the game Mousetrap that I used to play as a kid.  The fun is in putting the pieces together just the right way. (I never actually played Mousetrap, just assembled the bazillion parts.)

RollerCoaster Challenge is a 1-player game that is suitable for ages 6 and up.  Of course, the number of players and the best age group varies in real life.  Most of ThinkFun’s solitaire games work well with 2 or 3 people collaborating to solve the challenges, and this one is no exception.  As for age range, I refer you to the above paragraph.  If your 6-year-old (or 10-year-old, for that matter) has a problem with leaving Legos all over your house, you may want to think twice about this purchase – or be proactive with a plan for keeping the pieces contained.

The game comes with Challenge cards, scaffolded perfectly to increase the difficulty slightly on each challenge.  The cards tell you which pieces to use to build your roller coaster: tracks, posts, and tunnels.  The diagram shows you certain locations, and then the player(s) must figure out where to place the rest in order to make a working roller coaster track.  When completed, you can put the small plastic coaster attached to a ball bearing (included) at the top of the track and let it go.  Watch it swiftly glide down the track to its end-point, and cheer!  (My students added the last instruction, and adhered to it faithfully at the conclusion of each challenge.)

Of course, there is no law against designing roller coaster tracks of your own imagination.  In fact, ThinkFun encourages this by offering a free online “Create Your Own RollerCoaster Challenge Card” link.  You start with a solution, then the challenge, and can share the whole thing on social media or print it when finished.

My 3rd grade students love this game.  If I had let them, they probably would have played it for hours.  Their spatial reasoning skills are far superior to mine, and they could identify where to place the posts and tracks with little effort on the Beginning challenges.  Once we reached the next level, it took them a bit longer to solve (which is exactly what I like to see), but they persevered happily.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that RollerCoaster Challenge is well worth the anxiety of keeping “track” of numerous pieces.  I definitely recommend it for budding engineers and problem solvers!

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Loopy

I don’t know how Richard Byrne does it, but he has this ability to suggest technology tools on his blog that fit in perfectly with lessons I am planning for the week.  In this case, I had known about the tool, Loopy, but forgotten about it. Richard recently included it in this post, “Three Good Ways to Create Instructional Animations.”

My 3rd graders are learning about Systems Thinking, which is a pretty hard concept to get across to anyone, much less children who are 8 and 9 years old.  We just completed the book, Billibonk and the Thorn Patch, about an elephant who learns his actions can have far-reaching consequences.  The book portrays some simple feedback loops, so I showed the students the basic ecology loop on Loopy.  Then I let the students try to create their own to represent a portion of the story that we read.

A few caveats before you look at their examples:

  • Loopy was blocked in our district for students, so I needed to log in for them to use it.
  • The Billibonk projects are works in progress at the moment.  Time ran out before they finished, and the text and loops definitely need some revision.
  • I only have 3 students in that particular gifted and talented class, and this is not an activity I would recommend students in large classes do without a lot of scaffolding.
  • These probably won’t make a whole lot of sense to you if you haven’t read the Billibonk book mentioned above.
  • The site does give you an embed code to use on a website, but it unfortunately does not work on this blog.  Therefore, you will have to click on the links below to see the “Loopy” from each student.

The interesting part of this process was listening to my students explain what they were creating, and how eager they were to make complicated loops with many factors.  I felt like they understood systems thinking in a way I’ve never had students “get it” before.  One of my students was so excited about it that he said he was going to show it to his dad at home and create feedback loops to represent other things.  Since my goal is for them to apply this to real life situations, I was happy to hear that.

Billibonk Systems Thinking 1

Billibonk Systems Thinking 2

Billibonk Systems Thinking 3

The Wish Writer

While trying to find some inspiring holiday videos this year, I came across this Macy’s commercial from 2015.  Even though it’s ironic for an advertisement to be about selflessness, I like the simple message of kindness.  For other videos you might want to consider for this time of year, you can check out this post.  Also, I keep a Pinterest Board of Inspirational Videos for Students here.

Holiday Ethics Lessons for Primary Students

One of my favorite activities posted on Joelle Trayers’ Not Just Child’s Play blog is the lesson she does with her Kindergarten students on ethics using The Gingerbread Man story. “Ethics” is one of Kaplan’s Depth and Complexity icons, and an excellent way to take a topic to the Analyzing and the Evaluating levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

I think that we spend a lot of time in school teaching students right from wrong, but we forget to tell them that not everyone agrees on what is right and wrong.  It can be shocking to a child to discover that her own judgment differs from someone else’s when it comes to morality, and it’s important for kids to learn to question the “obvious” and consider other perspectives.

Trayers also recently posted, “In Defense of Grinch,” which was a lesson where her students explained why the Grinch should not be put in jail for stealing the gifts.  With older classes, you could have students argue both sides.

Another good holiday ethics lesson could be done with the video, “The Snowman.”    Asking if the snowman should have saved the rabbit would be too simple, but “Should the snowman have kept the carrot at the end or given it to the rabbits?” could probably generate some good controversy in your classroom.

Speaking of snowmen, should Frosty have gotten a ticket for ignoring the traffic cop?

Of course fiction does not have to be your only resource.  Newsela (free to register) has lots of great news articles that I have used in the classroom for ethics discussions.  When we discuss the juxtaposition between freedom and safety in my class, I like to use, “Some Cities Say Sledding Too Dangerous.”

For a few more ethics resources, you can find a free animated video about ethics on BrainPop (most suitable for 2nd-5th grades) and Teaching Children Philosophy has a list of children’s books that you can use for teaching ethics, along with suggested discussion questions.

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image from Pixabay

Make it Snow in the Classroom with Scratch Jr.

I was invited to help a couple of first grade classes with Hour of Code activities last week, and thought that we would try using Scratch Jr.  I had a different lesson planned for our Friday morning (“Can I Make the Sun Set?”) – but then it snowed in San Antonio Thursday night.

For those of you in northern climes, snow may be somewhat unexceptional, but in San Antonio snow is pretty close to miraculous.  Many of my younger students had never seen snow in their entire lives, so it seemed only fair to change our Scratch Jr. lesson the morning following our unusual weather phenomena.

Most of the students in the class were as new to Scratch Jr. and programming as they were to snow.  I started the class with the BrainPop Jr. video I mentioned in last week’s post.  Then I used Reflector to demonstrate the Scratch Jr. interface on the classroom screen.  I talked about the meaning of “character” in Scratch Jr., and how it could be any object that you want to program to move in some way.  I showed them how to add a background.  I also demonstrated that they would need a “trigger” for their character such as the green flag, and how to program characters to move.  Then I gave them some time to explore.

After they played around a bit in pairs on the iPads, I asked for their attention so I could show them how to add a camera shot as a background.  This was something new I had learned last week, and it takes a bit of practice.  This video explains it well. (She is using the tool to make a character, but you can use it for a background as well.)

The students worked on taking pictures for the background.  Some chose the classroom for photos, and some chose themselves.  Their homeroom teachers and I definitely needed to give support to many students – especially when we realized the camera tool wasn’t enabled for Scratch Jr. on all of the iPads.

Once most of the students had backgrounds, I showed them how to add snow as a character.  They clicked on the + sign to add a character, and then the paintbrush icon to make their own.  After choosing the color white, I told them to make white dots all over with the tip of their finger.  It’s difficult to see the white dots on the white canvas, but after they click the checkmark at the top, the dots should show up on their background.

Students can move the white dots to the top of the background, and then program their snow “character” to move down when the green flag is triggered.  I showed them how to add higher numbers under the down arrow so the snow would reappear at the top and come down again if they wanted.

To make it look a bit more realistic, the students can add snow as characters several times, positioning them at different spots on the top to fill the screen with snow falling once the flag is tapped.

Another extension would be to teach the students the “bump” trigger so that when the snow hits another character, such as the Scratch cat, the character can say something, such as, “It’s snowing!”  You could also ask them if they can figure out a way to make the snow accumulate at the bottom of the screen.

There were various rates of success in the classroom for this project.  Some students got confused and added snow to the background instead of making it a character, and the camera tool required patience and practice.  However, there was a lot of learning going on, and great engagement.

This lesson could be another way to connect to the Snow Globe lesson that I have posted about in the past. . Hopefully, the students will now think of other ways to use Scratch Jr. for storytelling and creating in their classrooms and at home.

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Great Minds Don't Think Alike!

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