Category Archives: Critical Thinking

Raspberry Pi

“That’s it?! But that’s so little!” one of my students said, incredulously, when I showed him the Raspberry Pi.  I nodded.  Another student explained, “That’s what a computer looks like.  A lot of people think this [he pointed to the television monitor] is the computer, but it’s just a screen.” The other students, who mostly lived in a world of tablets and laptops, stared solemnly at the small device.

I had just returned from Picademy in Austin.  Whenever I am absent for any kind of staff development, my students demand justification for abandoning them.  They knew, before I left, that Raspberry Pi was a computer, not a dessert.  But just like me before the 2-day intense training, that was about all most of them knew.  It was time for me now to show them that my absence had been worth it.

“You said there was Minecraft,” one student prompted.  I pulled up the Python program we coded at Picademy and asked the students to guess what would happen when I initiated it in Minecraft.  They weren’t quite sure.  Then I showed them how my Minecraft character could walk, leaving a path of gold behind me.

“Cool!” was the general consensus.  I was proud because, before Picademy, I had never played Minecraft or coded with Python.  In fact, I was still awed by the fact that I had hooked up the tiny computer to an old television monitor from home, and that it actually worked.

I had applied to Picademy in Austin with great apprehension.  Raspberry Pi seemed to appear on many of the educational sites I regularly visited and I felt like I needed to to have one in my classroom.  But I didn’t want to have the school invest money on something that couldn’t be used.  When I saw that Picademy was being offered an hour and a half from where I lived, it seemed like I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.  But I was worried it would be way over my head.  The problem is that I am constantly telling my students to take risks, so I would have felt like a hypocrite if I didn’t even try.

Fortunately, the organizers of Picademy have a lot of experience differentiating for a room full of educators with multiple skill levels.  On the first day, they led us through several hand-on sessions, guiding us to “Hack Minecraft,” light up L.E.D.’s, compose music, and make ridiculous selfies.  We were given lots of free “stuff” (including a Raspberry Pi, keyboard, and mouse), introduced to new vocabulary (Sense Hat?), and tons of support from a group of experienced educators.

Raspberry Pi (the green thing) connected to a speaker, keyboard, and mouse.

On the second day, we were tasked with creating our own Raspberry Pi projects with partners.  We were given 4 hours and extra supplies.  My partner and I decided to program our Pi with Python to allow students to take pictures of their work with the touch of a button, also sending out a random tweet with the picture and a phrase such as, “Look what we did in class today!”  There was a lot of trial and error and frustration.  (Spelling and punctuation are extremely vital in Python, as we learned.) However, we finally got it to work, and got to experience the exuberance our students feel whenever they work through tough problems.

If what I just described to you sounds ridiculously impossible for your skill level, remember that I was (and still am) an amateur.  The key to programming Raspberry Pi is taking other programs offered freely on the internet and adjusting them to do what you want.  Once you get used to the syntax of Python, it isn’t that difficult to “steal” and remix. Also, you are not limited to using Python. Scratch, for example, now works with Raspberry Pi.

If you can attend a Picademy, I highly recommend you apply.  The 2-day workshop is free, and you do receive free breakfast and lunches, a free Raspberry Pi, and other accessories. However, there may not be a Picademy coming to your area anytime soon, so you may want to check out the new online courses.  All training information can be found here.

An incredible number of resources are available on the Raspberry Pi website.  I suggest that you go to this page if you are brand new to using Raspberry Pi.  The site is extremely user-friendly.  However, I think the training is what has made my experience so enjoyable.

The Pulitzer Center

In yesterday’s blog post, I mentioned how our class has connected with experts through Skype in the Classroom.  One of the experts was a science reporter named Erik Vance, who helped my 3rd graders really understand the impact overfishing has had on ocean ecosystems. (The students are working on a Genius Hour project about protecting the coral reefs.)  Mr. Vance was matched with us after we scheduled a request for an interview on the topic on Skype in the Classroom.  Our request went to the Pulitzer Center, and a member of their staff, Fareed Mostoufi, arranged for Mr. Vance to speak with the children at our requested date and time.  You can read about the interview here.

The Pulitzer Center in its own words, “promotes in-depth engagement with global affairs through its support for quality international journalism across all media platforms and an innovative program of outreach and education.”  In addition to virtual class visits and curricular resources for all grade levels, the Pulitzer Center has a “Lesson Builder” for educators, which is free to use.  You can use the lesson plans already available in the Community, such as “Visualizing the Drone Debate,” or, “Interpreting Global Issues Through Picasso’s Guernica,” or build your own lessons with the online tool.  You will need to register and log in (free) in order to build your own lessons and save them.

If you are trying to “flatten” your classroom, and to educate your students as global citizens, The Pulitzer Center is an excellent resource to help you get started.

Screen Shot of Some of the Model Lessons Available from The Pulitzer Center



I’ve been thinking a lot about courage lately.  Some people seem to feel that it is synonymous with confidence, but I disagree.  Confidence that you are doing the right thing does not necessarily make you courageous.  In fact, I would argue that many courageous decisions are made with hesitation, and that tragic outcomes do not make the actions any less brave.  I also know that courage does not have to be “big.”  There are many small, courageous actions taken every day by unassuming heroes – as Mark Bezos reminds us in his tale of saving the shoes, and The King of the Island portrays with beautiful subtlety.

What is courage, then?  With this great Google Slides Hyperdoc created by Sarah Landis, you and your students can explore the complex meaning of this word.  Rich with thought-provoking discussion questions, “Courage” will invite your students to consider the many layers of the word with scenarios, videos, and writing prompts all collected into one digital document.  It is an excellent resource for any secondary ELA classroom.


To learn more about Hyperdocs, visit this site created by Landis and her two colleagues, where they provide many other examples for use in all subjects. Also, Laura Moore has an excellent reflection on Hyperdocs here, which also gives links to awesome Hyperdoc projects.

A Blocky Christmas

I’ll be adding the “Blocky Christmas Puzzle” to my list of “Logical Ways to Survive the Weeks Before Winter Break.”  It’s a fun ABCya page that challenges you to move some blocks around the screen.  I know that doesn’t sound very fun or challenging, but trust me, my description doesn’t really do it justice.  As you move through the levels, new obstacles are added and your own block becomes magnetic – which can be helpful and irritating at the same time.  I love using puzzles like these on the Interactive White Board to talk about Growth Mindset with my students.  They cheer each other on and everyone celebrates when someone solves a particularly difficult level.

I learned about the “Blocky Christmas Puzzle” from Technology Rocks. Seriously.  You can find more holiday interactive by visiting this post by Shannon.  She also has a billion other awesome resources, so you should definitely visit her blog if you haven’t yet.

Blocky Christmas Puzzle
Blocky Christmas Puzzle

Breakout Edu Seasonal Games

I should probably add Breakout Edu’s Seasonal Games to my “Teachers’ December Survival Kit.”  What better way is there to keep your students engaged, learning, and problem-solving than sending them on a holiday quest?  You can find 5 Breakout Edu games related to December holidays on this page.

In case you haven’t hear about Breakout Edu yet, here is my first post about the site.  Also, don’t forget that there are digital Breakout Edu games that don’t require the physical equipment (boxes, locks, etc…) that are suggested for the regular games.  Don’t despair if you want to try a Breakout Edu game and don’t have the supplies.  I’ve seen teachers use many creative ways to simulate the boxes and locks with found materials.  The students will enjoy working out the puzzles no matter what you use!

image from Pixabay
image from Pixabay

Integrative Thinking

I first read about “Integrative Thinking” in this article by Katrina Schwartz on Mindshift.  The article outlines three thinking/problem-solving tools that are taught through the I-Think Initiative at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management: Ladder of Inference, Pro/Pro, and Causal Models.  Integrative Thinking involves using these tools and others to consider solutions for problems by thinking about other perspectives as well as metacognition.

What fascinates me about the examples in Schwartz’ article is that these methods are being taught to students as young as first grade, and the students are applying them in productive ways that could be useful to many adults.  By becoming aware of how our own experiences can funnel our inferences and assumptions, and deliberately trying to reach outside of these, we are able to think more creatively.  It seems like a monumental task, especially for students who are still learning how to read, but it can be done.

You can view an interesting Ted Ed video on the “Ladder of Inference,” embedded within Schwartz’s article, that gives a great example of how we often use the ladder to our detriment.  Teachers who have been trained by through the I-Think Initiative give other examples of how the thinking tools have made dramatic differences in their classrooms.

As we continue to prepare our students for the future, I think that it’s imperative that we teach them metacognition and offer them critical thinking methods that will help them to be problem-solvers who can adapt to the fast-paced world in which they will eventually become the decision-makers.

image from:
image from:

Tuck Everlasting and the Wheel of Life

On Monday, I wrote about Tarr’s Toolbox and one of the resources you can find there, the “Wheel of Life.”  My 4th graders have been reading Tuck Everlasting (R.I.P. Natalie Babbitt, who died October, 2016), which uses wheels and circles for symbolism throughout the novel.  They have also been discussing the attributes of the main characters, so I thought the “Wheel of Life” would be a fitting activity to try with them.

There are many ways this activity can be done, and Russel Tarr has great suggestions on his blog.  Because it was their first time doing this, I gave the students character traits to copy on their wheel, and deliberately asked them to put them in the same spots on their wheels.  Then I “secretly” assigned each student a character to plot the points for, and told them to hold off on writing the name of the character at the top.  I deliberately assigned the same characters to several students so we could compare their responses later.

When everyone was done, we went around the room and tried to guess the character by how each student’s Wheel of Life looked.  It was almost eerie how easy it was – until we got to one student’s graph.  After several wrong guesses from her classmates, she finally had to reveal her character’s name.

Jaws dropped and there was immediately the beginning of a debate. However, an unexpected interruption happened before we could discuss the varied opinions, making us table our questions until next week’s class.

The conversation associated with this activity is so deep and rich.  I can’t wait to continue it next week.  I also see some other extensions that we can do, such as creating graphs for our own personalities to compare and contrast with the characters in the story.

The experience with this lesson reminded me of the great learning that happened last year when we used Hexagonal Learning to examine our literature.  If you are looking to integrate higher levels of Bloom’s into your lessons, I highly recommend both of these activities.

Click here to go to Russel Tarr's Wheel of Life blog post, which includes the printable
Click here to go to Russel Tarr’s Wheel of Life blog post, which includes the printable

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