All posts by engagetheirminds

BreakoutEdu for the Win

My usual bag of tricks has not been extremely successful at my new school, especially in my engineering classes.  I didn’t bank on the fact that middle/high schoolers don’t want to appear interested even if they are – and most things that I have to share with them are apparently not even worth sitting around and appearing disinterested, judging by the steady stream of students asking to go to the bathroom.

I even tried the Hour of Code with a group.  But nothing I said could convince them that making games might be just as, if not more, fun than playing them.

It has definitely been a bit humbling.  Sometimes depressing.  Often humiliating.  I’m still trying to convince a lot of these students they can trust me, and they become immediately suspicious whenever I introduce something new into the mix.

Our high school students went on a trip last week, so the 8th graders were stuck with me.  I assumed (correctly) that they were not going to want to “work” (their current tortuous project is to design something in Tinkercad) while their classmates were kayaking.  So, I decided to try a BreakoutEdu with them.

I chose a fairly simple challenge since I knew most of the students had never done one before.  And I dangled the idea of a reward at the end. (A couple of chocolate candy Kisses)

I had two goals for them: collaboration and perseverance.

As I set them free to look for clues, I waited with bated breath for the inevitable, “This is too hard,” or, “This is boring.”

It didn’t happen.

The challenge took them about 30 minutes.  Nobody fought.  Nobody gave up.  Nobody surreptitiously kept taking out a phone to check Snapchat.

And no one asked to go to the bathroom.

After they finished, and we were reflecting as a class, one student said, “This is a great way to learn.  Every teacher should do this!”

But the kicker came from one of my other students, someone who always tries to figure out what’s in it for her before she applies any effort.

“Can we do this again?” she asked.  “And you don’t even have to give us a reward,” she promised me. As she popped a candy Kiss into her mouth.

Now. That. Is. Huge.

For my first post on BreakoutEdu, click here.

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Not my students.  But just as engaged.  From Kentucky Country Day School on Flickr
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Trying to Pick Up S.T.E.A.M.

My new job title at Advanced Learning Academy is “S.T.E.A.M.  Master Teacher.”  Thank goodness I didn’t know my co-teacher when I applied for the job – or I would have talked myself out of it.

My co-teacher, Kat Sauter, is A.MAZE.ING when it comes to everything from Robotics to Carpentry.  We both share the school’s Maker Space as a classroom, and I have learned so much from her since I began this job 4 months ago.

Our Maker Space has about a bazillion tools and I knew how to use approximately 1.5 of them when I started in August (if you don’t count the computers).  We have 3d printers, multiple saws, a laser cutter, and electronics I never knew existed.  I learn about 20 things from Kat per day, and I believe she has learned 1 from me.  Since September.

It isn’t only Kat’s vast knowledge of every piece of equipment that makes her incredible, though.  It is also the way she is able to weave the idea of “making” into so many parts of the curriculum, can manage several groups at a time working on completely different things, and has complete confidence that students can work a table saw just as well as any adult (with proper training and safety equipment, of course).

And her ideas!  I mentioned some of them in yesterday’s post, but I’ll recap and add more.

Kat collaborated with the 8th grade Humanities teachers to create an art exhibit at a local studio called, “Some are More Equal Than Others.”  Each of Kat’s 8th grade Robotics students were partnered with other students in their classes to design the interactive masterpieces displayed for parents and the public to see.

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With the Biology teacher, Kat helped her middle school students design working “Operation” games that demonstrate their knowledge of different body systems.  These made an appearance at one of our community gatherings in October.

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One of our math teachers happens to love carpentry, so he teamed up with Kat to teach an Engineering class.  So far, the class has designed and built a chicken coop for our primary campus.  In addition, with Mr. Woodman (yes, I know – PERFECT name), some of the students are currently making incredible cutting boards that they will be selling at our next community event in order to earn money for our space.

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Not all of the students in the Engineering class wanted to work on cutting boards, though.  So, some groups are learning how to make laser-cut jewelry, and others are developing a “Fix-It” workshop, where people will be invited to bring broken items for them to repair.

I feel very lucky to be able to see how a true S.T.E.A.M. program becomes an organic part of a campus, rather than a stand-alone course.  The students are learning the Design Process, collaborating with others, and creating across the curriculum.

Technically, I am a “S.T.E.A.M. Master Teacher’s Apprentice” as I observe Kat in action.  I feel like I should be paying her tuition.

The good news is that we just got a new CNC, and she tells me that she doesn’t know how to use it yet – so we can learn together.  I might know how to use 2.5 tools by the end of the school year…

An Invitation

As some of you may know, I made a giant leap outside of my comfort zone this year – leaving a job I had done for 19 years in a district where I had worked for 27.  All 27 of those years were spent teaching elementary school, and now I teach students in 4th, 5th, 8th, 9th, and 10th.

I haven’t said a lot about the school where I now work, so here is a brief summary:

Advanced Learning Academy is an in-district charter school in San Antonio Independent School District.  The school serves PK-12, but only grades 4-12 are housed on the campus where I work, Fox Tech High School.  The Fox Tech campus also hosts a Health and Law magnet school and CAST Tech High School.

ALA opened its doors 3 years ago, a combined endeavor between SAISD and Trinity University.  It is a school “for students who seek academic challenge with greater depth and complexity and opportunities for acceleration.”  Trinity interns work along with the faculty to provide Project Based Learning activities, Design Thinking, and a variety of enrichment activities.

ALA is diverse, with students who live a few blocks away to students who live outside of the city.  No area is “zoned” for our campus, so the only students who attend are those who have applied.

The first, and best thing (in my opinion), that I noticed when I joined the staff here at ALA was the extreme dedication of each and every teacher.  No one is here for “a job.”  They are here because they want to do what is best for children and they want to improve their craft.  The quality of teaching on this campus has completely humbled me.  Know this: if your child attends ALA, his or her teacher will do everything possible to help that student reach his or her potential.

Project-Based Learning means that our Robotics students collaborate with their Humanities peers to create interactive works of art, our Engineering students work with architects to design the new playground and build a chicken coop for the lower campus, and Biology students work with another Robotics class to produce “Operation” games to represent the body systems they have researched.

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Flyer for Student Art Exhibition at 1906 Studio

Design Thinking means that our students know what it means to make a prototype, test it, fail, and revise.  They have time to “go deep” into curriculum, and they often present to their peers, their parents, and outside experts.  We are working on craftsmanship to develop products that will enhance our campus, and will be lasting legacies.

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Student artwork, created in the MakerSpace for the Some Are More Equal exhibit. (Lasercut, woodwork, robotic movement – all created by students)

Enrichment Activities include field trips – lots of them.  Our campus is located downtown, a block from the Central Library, and within walking distance to the Riverwalk, the Tobin Center, and Hemisfair Plaza.  Our students go on at least one field trip a month, often more.  In addition, the grade levels have built in time for students to take “Wonder Courses,” which they can select based on interest.

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ALA students choose the 5 supplies they would take when fleeing their homes.  This was a Doctors Without Borders event hosted at Main Plaza (to which our students walked) from school.

Because of our unique structure, high school students can visit the 4th/5th grade wing to give students feedback on their video game designs, 5th graders can join 6th and 7th graders in programs like Speak Up, Speak Out, and students in grade 4-12 could work together to produce the musical, Shrek.

So, what’s the downside, you ask?

Transportation may be an issue, depending on your location.  There are in-district transfers on buses, but this may mean a long-ish ride for the student.

Because we are small, we cannot offer the number and variety of electives that larger high schools provide.  We do have athletics, a mariachi band, and a theater program.  The only foreign language we offer is Spanish.

Every child is different.  I would have thrived at ALA as a teenager, but my daughter, who wants to be in 10 million clubs and take Latin, would not choose to be here (especially with her mom as a teacher).

This is an invitation to consider our school if you live in the San Antonio area.  You do not have to be an SAISD student to apply.  The application window for our campus is November 26, 2018 – February 8, 2019.  To learn more about the application process, including opportunities to tour (which I highly encourage), click here.

Gifts for the Gifted – Creative Struggle

 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.

This year, I have decided to do my annual “Gifts for the Gifted” posts all in one week.  This should give anyone who likes to shop ahead of time a good start!  For this year’s suggestions so far, click here.

I adore the work of Gavin Aung Than.  His Zen Pencils site features illustrations of inspiring quotes, and he has published several books.  This year, he added Creative Struggle: Illustrated Advice from Masters of Creativity to his long list of accomplishments.  I enjoyed seeing lesser know quotes in the collection, and felt particularly moved by the “Creative Pep Talk #1” entry.  It illustrates the words of Jiddu Krishnamurti, and supports my philosophy that we should focus more on the process than the product in education.  “Our present education is rotten because it teaches us to love success and not what we are doing.  The result has become more important than the action.”  He criticizes our desire for fame and lauds anyone who “is a creative human being living anonymously.”

This book would be appropriate for teens and up, or for teachers to use in the classroom with any age.  As I try to convince my students to venture outside of their comfort zones and get frustrated with my own creative attempts and failures, the words of Brene Brown, so well depicted in Than’s book, keep me going:

“The only unique contribution that we will ever make in this world will be born of our creativity.”

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Creative Struggle by Zen Pencils Cartoonist, Gavin Aung Than

Gifts for the Gifted – Circuit Playground Express

 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.

This year, I have decided to do my annual “Gifts for the Gifted” posts all in one week.  This should give anyone who likes to shop ahead of time a good start!  For this year’s suggestions so far, click here.

If you know a child interested in programming who is not quite ready for Raspberry Pi or Arduino, the Circuit Playground Express might be just the right gift.  Adafruit upgraded its original Circuit Playground, which could only be coded with the Arduino IDE, to make a much more versatile development board.  Plug this little guy into a USB port on any computer, and you can immediately use Microsoft’s Make Code website to program Circuit Playground Express with block coding or Javascript.  In fact, the website makes it easy for new programmers to switch back and forth between the two coding options.  Eager learners can then move on to the Circuit Python and the Arduino IDE.

The Make Code site allows users to simulate what will happen on the physical Circuit Playground Express.  Once satisfied, creators can download the program to the Circuit Playground, and remove it.  The Base Kit is a good buy, as it includes a battery pack with batteries, USB cord, and a container.   This makes the Circuit Playground Express a portable electronic device that doesn’t need soldering, breadboarding, or any kind of advanced electrical knowledge.

With lights, music, and multiple inputs, the Circuit Playground Express would be the next step up the ladder from the Makey Makey.   Suggested “makeable” products are listed on the Adafruit product pages for the Express, as well as on the Make Code website.  Because of it’s size and portability, the Circuit Playground Express also makes it a fun choice for wearable inventions.

UPDATE 12/3/18: Rob Merrill has published an e-book course for Circuit Playground Express with great ideas here.

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Circuit Playground Express

(It should be noted that several other beginner products can be programmed on Make Code – most notably the Microbit, which is used extensively in the UK.  I have not used it, so I can’t review it, but it has extensive coverage online with multiple projects and tutorials.)

Gifts for the Gifted 2018 – Laser Chess

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.

This year, I have decided to do my annual “Gifts for the Gifted” posts all in one week.  This should give anyone who likes to shop ahead of time a good start!  For this year’s suggestions so far, click here.

No gift list is ever complete without one or two suggestions from ThinkFun!  If you search my blog for “ThinkFun” you will see that I have done many reviews of their games.  Periodically, ThinkFun sends me free games to review, but the only ones that appear on this blog are the ones I really, really like!

Laser Chess is a two-player game recommended for ages 8 and up.  If someone teaches them the game, precocious 5 year olds can probably play – though they may be more interested in enticing their cats to chase after the laser beams.  Knowledge of chess is not a prerequisite.  (For a good game to teach chess moves to beginners, I recommend Tic-Tac-Chec or Solitaire Chess.) Although Laser Chess does require similar strategic thinking as chess, the King is the only piece that they have in common.

Players can choose from a variety of game board set-ups in the instruction booklet to begin.  The object of the game is to capture your opponent’s King by directing the laser beam to it.  Each person has several pieces that have mirrors on them as well as some that don’t (to block the laser).  Pieces “struck” by the laser are eliminated.

For a more detailed description of Laser Chess game play, I recommend this blog post.  The only suggestion that I would add is to let the recipient play with the pieces for awhile before playing a formal game.  If you give him or her the opportunity to explore how the laser reflecting works, more time can be spent on strategy during the game.

Oh, and by the way – batteries are included!

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Laser Chess from ThinkFun

Gifts for the Gifted 2018 – Turing Tumble

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.

This year, I have decided to do my annual “Gifts for the Gifted” posts all in one week.  This should give anyone who likes to shop ahead of time a good start!  For yesterday’s suggestion, click here.

While yesterday’s gift suggestion could conceivably be used with anyone over 4 years old – and with groups of 2 to whatever – today’s game is a bit more limited.  Turing Tumble is a game I originally backed on Kickstarter, and was excited to finally receive this past summer.  You definitely don’t want to buy it for any child who is still in the “I-see-it-so-I-can-eat-it” phase due to the many small parts.  It’s also not very practical to use with large groups.  You can read my full review here. (It appears that it is currently unavailable on Amazon, but the Turing Tumble website has it in stock.)

So, who should receive Turing Tumble for a gift?  Children and adults who are interested in machines and logical challenges would be the most likely to enjoy Turing Tumble.  I personally think that it is best played with a few family members taking turns with the challenges.  My experience with similar games that could potentially be played alone is that children often give up too quickly.  They need adults to model the perseverance and problem-solving needed – and to cheer them on when they succeed.  Quite frankly, it’s kind of fun for the adults to get some encouragement, too 😉

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image of Paul and Alyssa Boswell with their invention, from Turing Tumble Press Kit