Category Archives: Education

Meet Your Cubelets Units

My students are fascinated with Cubelets.  It would be easy to just dump the box of Cubelets on the floor and walk away for 45 minutes because they would use all of that time to explore.  Exploration time is great, and I definitely recommend it (maybe not for 45 minutes), but you won’t maximize the learning potential of these modular robots without offering the students some guidance and some carefully worded challenges.

Modular Robotics recently unveiled an updated version of its Cubelets lesson plans that can help teachers from PreK-12 find ways to make the most of Cubelets.  The lessons are not detailed, but they are perfect for any educator who is new to using Cubelets in the classroom and looking for how to introduce them to the students, and there are tons of ideas for taking it further.

If you are not familiar with Cubelets, here is a post I did that I included in my Makerspace Essentials list.  I don’t think that you should spend a lot of money on “things” for a Makerspace or a classroom, but if you can get a grant or have the budget Cubelets are one of the few products that I recommend purchasing.  They provide an endless supply of entertainment and education.

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image from GCPL on Flickr
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Scholastic Beasts

I am currently offering an online Google Classroom for some students in our district that assigns them one Digital Breakout (Math) a week for 5 weeks.  “Scholastic Beasts” is the 4th one in the series.  For the first three, you can see:

All of these are designed for 4th grade gifted and talented students.  As with the others, you can e-mail me at engagetheirminds@gmail.com with the title of the Digital Breakout if you need the answers – but I find that it’s better to not help your students too much!

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Click here to go to the Scholastic Beasts Digital Breakout!

CommonLit Poetry

Back in 2015, I found out about CommonLit from Richard Byrne and pointed people to his post to learn more about this free resource for teachers.  Since then, CommonLit has added a Guided Reading feature that can really be helpful for differentiation in your classroom, Book Pairings, and probably a few other tools that I haven’t mentioned – yet it has continued to be free.  This is huge in the world of EdTech, where teachers often find ourselves priced out of “free” programs.

Since it is National Poetry Month, I thought I would remind you of CommonLit, which does have quite a few poetry offerings.  Once you log in and go to the library page, you can see some of the featured poems selected by the staff for this month.  You can also go to the “Browse all Text Sets” page in order to search for particular genres, themes, grade levels (3rd grade and up), and lexiles.

I love looking at the Book Pairings, which offer supplemental short texts to accompany novels.  For example, my 5th graders read The Giver, and CommonLit links to 4 poems that nicely fit with the themes of the book (along with some news articles and informational texts as well). The search page helpfully identifies the genre of each link, its lexile level, and grade level.  CommonLit even gives you advice on which point in the novel would be a good time to add the paired text.

CommonLit offers a Teacher Dashboard so that you can assign passages within the site.  There are also short assessments and suggested discussion questions for each assignment.

Because CommonLit is a nonprofit organization, it promises that its resources will always be free for teachers.  Take advantage of this site to encourage deeper reading, discussion, and connections.

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Go to CommonLit for more information.

Google Expeditions AR

I was a bit disappointed and, yes, a lot jealous, when our school wasn’t chosen to try out the Google Expeditions VR program as it traveled to different cities around the U.S.  I had tried Expeditions at some technology conferences and thought our students would enjoy the unique experience.

With virtual reality, students wear “Google Cardboard” goggles, which have phones inserted in the front.  Once an Expedition is begun by the teacher, the students are basically immersed in the environment as the teacher leads them through a field trip of a place like a coral reef.

The VR experience is great, but most elementary classrooms do not have the equipment to make it a reality.  Since only one student can use a pair of goggles at a time, and the goggles require a phone, the logistics are a bit tricky for the standard K-5 classroom.

Google has recently begun to beta test a new version of Expeditions, which is augmented reality instead of virtual reality.   No VR goggles are required, and tablets can be used.  The AR version is not available to the public, yet, but our school was fortunate this time to be chosen to try this version out. (If you are interested in seeing if your school can beta test Expeditions AR, go to this sign-up form.)

On the day of the beta test, all of the teachers who had signed up at our school attended a 30 minute training with the Google representative to learn how to use the equipment.  (Google provides everything for the sessions that day, including routers so they don’t have to use the school wi-fi.)  During each 30 minute session, groups of 3 students use Android phones that are on sticks (see the pics below) to scan QR codes that are on papers on the ground.  The teacher, who has already chosen from a list of possible Expeditions, leads the students through different images, controlling it all on his/her device.  All students see the same image at the same time.

When the first image appears, there are usually squeals of delight as the students realize that they are viewing a 3 dimensional version of a bee, or a dinosaur, or a volcano.  They can walk around all sides of the image, and even, for some, go inside.  A few students had some difficulty understanding the spatial dimensions, but most quickly caught on.  The enthusiasm of the teachers (many who had never used augmented reality) and the students mounted throughout the 30 minutes as they investigated planets, tornadoes, and some human anatomy.  Throughout the day, students in K-4 had a chance to try out the technology, and all seemed engaged.

Overall, this technology seems like it has potential for wide-spread use in elementary, since it will be available on tablets (iOS and Google Play) for free.  The trick will be to make sure that teachers design pedagogically sound lessons to utilize it rather than depend on the novelty to lead learning.  As augmented reality become more ubiquitous, the oohs and ahs will quickly subside if there is no other substance to the lesson.  As someone who has been using AR in my classroom for years, I am well aware that it is more important to include technology when it supports the lesson than to depend on the technology to be the lesson.

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Counties Work

The iCivics website is an incredible free resource that I have blogged about in the past.  Recently, the site added a downloadable, printable resource called, “My County Works,” for elementary students that gives an overview of the way county governments work here in the United States.  There are other links to lesson plans and activities for middle and high school on the “Teach Local” page of iCivics.  My 3rd graders, who have been studying Systems Thinking, enjoyed playing the “Counties Work” app, which allows the user to be in charge of a fictional county and make decisions about the appropriate ways to spend the budget.  The students had to learn which departments would be assigned particular projects, how spending money and charging taxes would affect their popularity (since they were in an elected office), and the importance of keeping a balanced budget.  Although the game is, of course, a bit simplistic, it does give students an idea of many factors that need to be taken into consideration by officials before approving citizen requests.

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Counties Work app from iCivics available on iOS and Google Play

Kaled It!

I overheard some of my students talking about a cooking show called, “Nailed It!” and decided to make my next Digital Breakout based on that title.  Because we have been having a few glitches with Google Sites in our district, I decided to use Weebly to create this one.  “Kaled It!” is a bit harder than my 1st and 2nd Digital Breakouts.  Therefore, I thought I would give you some of the clues I just posted for my Google Classroom students: Lock 1 can be answered with “The Milk Dilemma.” Lock 2 will be found on “Shopping.” Lock 3 is answered using “Kale Pesto.” If you want to answer Lock 4, then carefully explore the “Meet the Contestants” page.

As with the first two Digital Breakouts I designed, teachers can e-mail me at engagetheirminds@gmail.com to receive the answers. (Please put the name of the Digital Breakout in the Subject line.)  However, I agree with the one teacher who told me that she enjoyed not knowing the answers because she didn’t help her students too much!

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Click here to go to the “Kaled It!” Digital Breakout

Causal Modelling

I’ve been lately trying to use more Integrative Thinking in class.  It bring about really deep discussions, and I like to see the students make visual models of their thoughts.  In the past few weeks, I have been working on “Causal Modelling” with my 3rd-5th graders with varying degrees of success.

You can see a short video of Causal Modelling in action here.  Basically, students try to consider all of the possible reasons for a particular situation or problem.  In the video, the topic is, “People Struggling to Afford Food.”  With student input, the teacher makes a web with this topic in the center and several nodes that name possible causes.  It quickly develops in complexity as the students volunteer causes for the causes and begin to see connections among causes.

This blog post by Heidi Siwak shows several examples of causal models diagrammed by her 7th graders for issues varying from gun violence (very topical!) to unfinished homework.

To start causal modelling with my own students, we worked on creating a class causal model about why Nemo gets lost in Finding Nemo.  Then I put students in groups to generate causal models about the fiction we were reading in each grade.  For my 5th graders, this meant they explained an event from The Giver.

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After doing group causal modelling about fiction, I asked each grade level to apply it to “real life.”  My 3rd graders brainstormed recurring problems, such as a sibling interrupting them when they are playing with friends, and came up with multiple causes.  After breaking it down this way, they could see potential ways to avoid some of the precipitating events (sibling needing attention, for example), and potential solutions.

With my 5th graders, I had a different idea.  After reading this post from Heidi, I realized that the personal manifesto activity they were working on was the perfect opportunity for them to get a picture of why they believe what they believe.  Since we were about to have a 3-day weekend when many would be visiting with extended family, I sent them home with a rare homework assignment: pick one of your belief statements and do a causal model for why you believe it.  Think about your own experiences, what your parents believe, and even ask your grandparents and parents why they believe it (if that’s where it came from).

One student said to me, “What if it’s not from your parent?  What if it’s from you?”  I asked, “What’s the belief?”  She said, “Taking risks.”  So I explained how, when I was young, I had volunteered to do a monkey bar race at an amusement park.  Sneakily, the proprietors had greased the bars, so I fell off when I reached for the 2nd bar, landing in a pool of water.  I was humiliated.  Afterward, my mother bought me a coveted stuffed animal in the souvenir shop – not to make up for the embarrassment, but to reward me for trying.  That’s when I learned that it’s more important to try and fail than to do nothing at all.

The students came back from their weekend, nearly all having done the assignment in one form or another.  Some wanted to share it publicly, and some wanted to have a private audience with me to speak about the personal reasons for their beliefs.  I would definitely say that I learned a lot about each of them, and I hope that they learned more about themselves.

Overall, causal modelling helps students to grasp that “wicked problems” (as Heidi calls them) cannot be solved with sweeping generalizations.  “Why don’t they just…” rarely addresses all of the causes, or all of the deeply held beliefs that led to those causes.  It might help a few of our current leaders to keep this in mind. 😉