Category Archives: 3-12

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

First of all, this is the best book title I’ve ever seen.  It is intriguing when you see the cover, and totally makes sense on a variety of levels once you read the book.  Even the author’s name, Dusti Bowling, seems perfect for a story set in a theme park in Arizona.

I think I first learned that Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus existed from @TechNinjaTodd on Twitter months ago.  Before I even had a chance to read the book, I followed @Dusti_Bowling on Twitter and she almost immediately followed me – which I took as a sign that I am a Very Important Person.  After reading her tweets for a few month, I realized that Dusti Bowling is just a down-to-earth author who responds quickly to her readers.  She also supports her fellow authors by recommending other great books, and Skypes with students on a regular basis.  So, it turns out that, to Dusti Bowling, everyone is an important person – a theme she models in this book.

I finally got some time to read Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus a few days ago, and I was not disappointed.  The main character, Aven, is a young girl who was born without arms.  Her adopted parents have raised her to be a confident problem-solver instead of a helpless complainer.  She can do pretty much anything with her feet, and the friends she has grown up with don’t even notice her unconventional methods anymore.  However, Aven becomes much more self-conscious about her uniqueness when the family moves from Kansas to Arizona.  Starting a new school with students who have never seen a person eat with her feet, Aven realizes the one problem she can’t solve is that some people fear those who are different.  Just when she seems to have reached her lowest point, Aven meets a few friends who have also been mistreated due to their differences.  Throw in some tarantulas, a tantalizing mystery, and the declining Wild West theme park her parents manage, and Aven must summon up all of her will-power to ensure the family’s move to Arizona doesn’t end up as a disaster.

This is a great book to use for teaching empathy, perseverance, and the power of a growth mindset. (For another great story that has those themes, I also recommend Fish in a Tree.) I could see using it as a class read-aloud in grades 3 and up.  To learn more about the inside story of Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, you can visit the StoryMamas website for an interview with the author.  If your class wants to ask the author more questions, be sure to fill out the form on Dusti Bowling’s home page to request a Skype with her.

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Turing Tumble Review

I think I’ve finally come to terms with my Kickstarter addiction.  Basically, I choose an item to “back”, and wait until that product arrives on my doorstep before I find something else to invest in.  Most of the items I fund take around a year to get manufactured, so this seems to be a compromise that my bank account can handle.

Last summer, I wrote about my latest Kickstarter purchase, the Turing Tumble. I expected to receive it in January, but a few obstacles were encountered during production that delayed it to the summer.  Sadly, this meant that only the few students that attended my robot camp got a chance to test it out, but I think I got a pretty good idea of its impact from them and my 15 year old daughter.

Paul and Alyssa Boswell, who invented this unique game, kept their Kickstarter backers very well-informed during the production process.  Packaging is a huge part of getting products like this into the hands of consumers, and there were a lot of bumps along the way.  However, I think they got it right in the end.  Turing Tumble arrived in a substantial box that has a customized insert for all of the pieces.  It will definitely make it easy to store.

Speaking of pieces, there are a lot, including tiny red and blue marbles that are “tumbled” in the games.  The quantity of small pieces is a definite reason you should not ignore the age rating of 8 to Adult.    I would caution anyone with young children or pets (like mine) who are living vacuum cleaners to set up this game in an area where accidental flying marbles won’t be immediately ingested .

The Turing Tumble is basically a mechanical computer.  The different pieces represent what happens in a computer when a program runs.  The set comes with a puzzle book that is written in the form of a graphic novel.  Players are given 60 different objectives (challenges) throughout the story to complete using the pieces.  (You can see an excellent description of the game, along with pics and video, on their Kickstarter page.)

A few of my students, ages 8-10, got to try out the game.  Despite the beautiful images by Jiaoyang Li that accompany the story in the puzzle book, the students skipped straight to the challenges.  Once they understood the basic structure of the book (each challenge has an objective, a picture of the starting setup, and the available parts you should add), they began to cruise through the scaffolded puzzles.  A small crowd gathered around whenever they “started a program” by pressing the lever to release the first marble, and everyone watched in fascination as red and blue marbles fell in patterns determined by the placement of pieces.

My daughter was equally interested in the game.  We sat at the dining room table working our way through the puzzles, and I ended up being the gatherer of pieces as she mentally visualized where to place them in order to accomplish each new objective.  I was the one who finally stopped that night – mainly because I was feeling a bit grumpy about her solving the puzzles much more quickly than I ever could.

The good news is that anyone can now buy the Turing Tumble – and you don’t have to wait a year to receive it.  It is available directly through their website, from Amazon, or Gameology (for New Zealanders and Australians).

Turing Tumble also has an education portion on their website, which includes a practice guide.  You can submit your email address if you want to hear from the company when they release their Educator Guide.

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

Creativity Land

For her Genius Hour project, one of my 5th grade students questioned what the world would be like without creativity.  Since she used Scratch for last year’s project (on Sleepwalking), I told her that she needed to present her information in a different way, but that she could still use Scratch for part of her project.  Whereas she used Scratch to give her information about her topic last year, she decided to use Animaker this year.  However, she chose to use Scratch for the “interactive” portion of her presentation (I always insist that there be a part that involves the audience), and blew me away with the complexity of her game.  She designed “Creativity Land,” which includes five interactive games that help students learn the information she gave in her videos.  This. Was. Not. For. A. Grade.  She did this purely out of her love for learning and creating.  English is her second language – maybe third, because imagination is certainly her first.

If you don’t do Genius Hour with your students, you are missing out on something amazing.  And so are your students.

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Click here to play this game by Olivia T.

25 Challenging Riddles

My students have a love/hate relationship with riddles.  They groan and complain that I’m asking them to do the impossible, but as soon as they solve one they beg for more.  This is a good time of year for these fun puzzlers from Reader’s Digest.  There are more than a few that are new to me and I plan to add to my repertoire.  The one below, from Cydcor on Flickr, is a variation of a student favorite in my classroom.

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image from Cydcor on Flickr

826 Digital

Dave Eggers, award-winning author of books such as A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, explains in his 2008 TED Talk, “Once Upon a School,” how he conceived the idea of a tutoring and creative writing center that would be part of the community, a place that would offer one-on-one help to the students in the area with writers who would volunteer their time.

 The center, with its pirate storefront and ever-increasing list of dedicated tutors, was a success.  It grew into more centers around the United States, providing “under-resourced communities access to high-quality, engaging, and free writing, tutoring, and publishing programs.”  As quickly as it has grown, however, 826 National has an even more ambitious goal – to provide its inspirational creative-writing resources to teachers everywhere.  To that end, the company launched “826 Digital” in November of 2017, a website that offers innovative “sparks” and lessons ready to be used in classrooms to galvanize generations of writers of all ages.  Aligned with the Common Core, the unique activities include field-tested resources from Dave Eggers, educators, and volunteers at 826 National sites.

826 Digital is a “pay-as-you-wish” site, which means that teachers can become members for free or whatever they choose to donate.  With lesson titles like, “MIRACLE ELIXIR: INVENTING POTIONS TO CURE BALDNESS AND OTHER THINGS THE WORLD NEEDS RIGHT NOW,” students cannot help but be intrigued and motivated to write.  Sparks like, “CHEESY POP SONG POETRY,” and “MONSTER SCATTERGORIES” will contribute to a classroom environment of humor and creativity.

Your students may not be able to go to the original 826 Valencia pirate store, or the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company, but you can make your own classroom into a writer’s room that encourages imagination by accessing the great resources available at 826 Digital.826digital

 

30 Things I Believe

My 5th graders spend the last semester examining their own beliefs, developing manifestos, and researching a Dream Team of people who exemplify what they stand for.  We use some of the “This I Believe” curriculum to help them identify their values.  Yesterday, my students and I listened to one of the short radio essays archived on the website for the podcast.  It is called, “30 Things I Believe.”  In this particular episode, a first grader, Tarak McLain, reflects on his Kindergarten 100th Day Project.  While most students bring collections of 100 objects, Tarak brought in 100 things he believes.  For the podcast, Tarak shares 30 of those beliefs.  My students and I enjoyed listening to his earnestly read list, and talked about what they agreed/disagreed with.  We also discussed which of Tarak’s beliefs might change as he grows up.

Tarak would be about 16 years old now.  I wonder what his thoughts are on the manifesto created by his 7-year-old self.

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Sketch Kit from Wonder Workshop

With two posts in a row related to Wonder Workshop it might appear that I work for them or get a commission.  I don’t!  The Undercover Robots Camp curriculum I wrote about yesterday could technically be used with a variety of robots, but I do like to use the Dash robots because they are so engaging and user-friendly for younger students.  Today I wanted to review one of the newest products from Wonder Workshop, which is customized for their Dash and Cue robots – Sketch Kit.

Students love to program their robots to write/draw, but anyone who has tried to rig contraptions for this purpose knows what a nightmare this can be.  It’s a good problem-solving experience, but not the best use of time if programming is your main goal.  Wonder Workshop has solved this issue by designing a unique harness to attach to Dash or Cue.  This harness allows the robot to lift a marker up and put it down – and the free app updates include these accessory options for coding.

The $39.99 Sketch Kit includes the harness, 6 dry-erase markers, and 6 project cards.  The markers are customized to fit the harness, as you will note in the picture.  Marker Refill Kits (6 markers) are $14.99.  We haven’t had our kit long enough for me to tell you the typical number of uses you will get out of a marker.

As nice as it is to have the Sketch Kit, the whiteboard mat that I purchased for $99.99 is even more worthwhile to me.  Mats for robots are expensive, unless you DIY, and this one screams out versatility.  It rolls up fairly easily, but it is definitely durable.  With measuring guides on the side (100 cm x 200 cm), there is plenty of programming potential.  The marker erases nicely without leaving residual color on the mat.  Knowing I will be using it with several groups of students, I feel that it was definitely a good investment.

Programming the robot to draw what they wanted proved to be more challenging than my students expected.  I put my 5th graders in pairs and they had about 7-10 minutes in each group to create a program in Blockly.  Before we ran the programs, we projected each one on the board so the students could try to predict what the robot would draw.  This was great visual/spatial practice, and it was funny to hear the opposing ideas that were thrown out at the beginning.  No one’s program was perfect the first time, so I also gave them time to “debug” after each initial run.

So far, the programs have been fairly simple – drawing a letter or two, or a few shapes.  With a little practice, I’m hoping my students can advance to this free lesson that Wonder Workshop just sent in their most recent newsletter, which involves using Cue to draw mandalas.

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Can you read what Dash wrote here?  (Hint: this pair of students loves math!)