3-12, Education, Games, Gamification, Independent Study, Motivation, Research, Teaching Tools, Web 2.0

Gamestar Mechanic

Gamestar Mechanic
from: http://gamestarmechanic.com

In some of my posts about Genius Hour, I’ve mentioned Gamestar Mechanic.  “Gamestar Mechanic includes a self-paced learning experience that uses game-based “Quests” to help youth learn how to design games while they build critical 21st century skills.”

Gamestar Mechanic, by far, was one of the most popular projects my 5th graders pursued during Genius Hour last year.  A couple of my students had mentioned an interest in learning how to design video games, so I showed them the site.  When the other kids saw what they were doing, practically everyone clamored to register for it, too.

Even though I am a huge advocate of teaching programming to kids, I know practically nothing about it.  I am slowly teaching myself, but I left it up to the students to figure out Gamestar Mechanic.  Of course, I “vetted” it by researching it thoroughly beforehand to make sure it is appropriate for them.  Several reputable articles and blog recommended it, and I even found this curriculum from the Institute of Play, so I felt comfortable letting them explore.

Of course, it’s very uncomfortable to have your students working on something about which you have very little knowledge – but that is one of the feelings you must swallow and accept when you do Genius Hour.  It’s inevitable you will have students who want to learn about something that doesn’t fall into your area of expertise.  The great thing about this is that you can’t help them very much, and they know it, so they learn to problem solve and collaborate.  It may go “against the grain” for many of us who teach, but admitting we don’t know something can actually be the best thing to happen to our students.

Gamestar Mechanic has a free account available for anyone who would like to register.  There are also Education accounts that give the teacher the ability to track, assign projects, and otherwise customize the student experience.  The Education account does cost (last check, it was $2/student).  It is also available as an Edmodo app.   I have not tried the Education account, but I am considering it for this year.  I am thinking of including it as one of the benefits of “Leveling Up” in my classroom.

By the way, I insisted that anyone who chose to do Gamestar Mechanic during Genius Hour time had to teach the class something new about it when they were ready to present.  Interestingly, we all learned each time there was a presentation, and the students were regularly asking, “How did you do that?”, eager to try it themselves.  And, my greatest fear – that they would end up playing video games for the entire period for the rest of the year – was thankfully never realized!  They quenched their curiosity in one area, and went on to learn other things.

Apps, Creative Thinking, Critical Thinking, Education, Games, K-12, Problem Solving, Student Products, Teaching Tools, Websites

Next Year Will Be Even Better – Programming for Kids

from www.tynker.com
from www.tynker.com

For many of us, at least in the United States, another school year is over.  Even as we eagerly embark on our rejuvenation journeys for the summer, you might be thinking, as I am, of new ideas for the next school year.  This week, I would like to share some of the improvements I hope to make in my classroom for the 2013-2014 school year.  Today’s post is about the benefits of teaching programming to our students.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you have probably noticed that I am a huge advocate for teaching programming to kids.  You can see this trend building in a lot of the education blogs and professional publications.  Like all trends, it needs to be done right so that it will not be a colossal failure or a “flash in the pan.” Here is why it should be done, and how I plan on doing it next year in my classroom.

Why We Should Teach Programming to Kids

I think that there is a misconception that this is all about teaching kids a new “language” that is useful in the career market. While that is, perhaps, one of the benefits, I think that it should not be the main purpose.  Programming languages evolve quickly, and teaching a specific one might be likened to teaching Latin.  It can help you to decode other languages, but it is unlikely you will use it daily.

I learned Basic when I was in high school.  I haven’t used it since.  But I still remember some very important lessons that I learned in that class that can be extrapolated for real life.

The most important lesson was that, if you are not getting the results you want, you can’t keep doing the same thing.  I remember the first couple of times a program did not work the way I wanted it to, and I kept saying to the computer, “That’s not what you’re supposed to be doing.”

Once I realized that I only had myself to blame, I would set about finding out what I had done wrong.  This led to the next life lesson – find the real source of the problem or your “fix” will make things worse.  Sometimes I had to dig deep into the code to figure it out, but would not realize that until I had tried one or two simple revisions that would end in disaster.

When programming, you also advance through the Scientific Process, and learn to change one variable at a time if your conclusion is not what you expected.

And finally, programming is not all about logic.  Once you understand the code, you can use your imagination to create unusual, unique, and even beautiful programs.

What I Plan to Do Next Year

As some of my colleagues pointed out this year, Programming falls very easily into something that we already have in our curriculum for elementary gifted students – Systems Thinking.  Now that I am becoming familiar with Tynker through the online summer class I’m offering, I plan to use Tynker with my 3rd graders during our Systems Thinking unit.  If you want to start anywhere with programming (from about 7 or 8 years old and up), I would highly recommend Tynker as you can create classes and monitor student progress very easily.  Plus, it has an engaging curriculum of projects.

I want to weave programming throughout my K-5 gifted classes, so I will begin my Kinders with the iPad app Daisy the Dinosaur. For 1st, we will move on to Kodable, and for second, Hopscotch.  (I may switch these last 2 around – I need to play with them more to determine difficulty levels.)

3rd grade, as I mentioned, will do Tynker.  4th grade will work on Cargo-Bot.  And, 5th grade will work with Gamestar Mechanic (which is web-based).

If you have any suggestions, please feel free to comment.  Also, for even more links for Programming for Kids, feel free to visit my Pinterest board on this topic.

3-12, Apps, Critical Thinking, Education, Games, Independent Study, Teaching Tools, Websites

More Ideas for Programming for Kids


In the past, I have posted about some options for kids that are available to help them learn about programming:   Codecademy and the iOS apps Cargo-Bot and Daisy the Dinosaur.  I also briefly mentioned Gamestar Mechanic in one of my posts.  Many of my 5th graders have been using Gamestar Mechanic, which you can find here, during their Genius Hour time.  Another option would be programming robots, such as in the Lego Mindstorms program.

Since October, I have co-sponsored a “Code Academy” after school club, using the after-school program from Codecademy that I had read about earlier that year.  It has definitely had its ups and downs.  The Pros are:  it is a very in-depth program that teaches web design and Java, it keeps track of your progress, and it offers badges when you reach certain benchmarks.  The Cons are:  it is not compatible with Internet Explorer (which keeps becoming the default browser on our lab computers despite all of my attempts to change it to Chrome), it sometimes does not explain a lesson well, students must provide an e-mail to create an account, and some of the lessons are very wordy (we have 3rd-5th graders in the club, and some of it is a bit difficult for the 3rd graders to comprehend).

For today’s meeting, I gave the students the option of continuing with Codecademy, or to try a new site called Code Monster that I had learned about from Richard Byrne’s blog.  Once the students heard the word, “Monster”, I think they were sold.  By the end of our club meeting, nearly every student in the club had switched to Code Monster.

Here are the Pros of Code Monster: visually attractive to kids, minimal words to teach each lesson, no login or email necessary.  The Cons are:  no tracking of progress and it also seems to be incompatible with IE (at least the version on our computers).  The good news is that if you use the same computer each time you open Code Monster, you will return to the lesson where you stopped.  You can also click on the link for “Lesson Sections” at the bottom of the page to choose a new lesson.  I would emphasize to the students that they need to go in order, however, as the lessons build upon each other.

Code Monster seemed to work pretty well for our 3rd-5th graders.  Crunchzilla also has a site called Code Maven, which is for teens and adults.  I have not tried that one, yet.

I have embedded a TED video below, which is called “Let’s Teach Kids to Code.”  Mitch Resnick is the speaker, and he is one of the creators of Scratch, another great (and free) option for learning how to program.

Kids learn so much from programming: logic, problem-solving, and persistence.  It seems like there are more resources available every day – and you will find that the students are more than willing to try them.

Apps, Creative Thinking, Critical Thinking, Education, Games, K-12, Problem Solving

Computer Programming for Kids

Lego Mindstorms Robot

In yesterday’s post about the iPad app, Daisy the Dinosaur, I referenced some ways to introduce kids to computer programming.  For those of you who want to pursue this further, I thought you might like this post by Marshall Brain, “Teaching Your Kids How to Write Computer Programs”.  This is a fairly detailed summary of different websites and other resources for learning basic programming skills.  “Light Bot” is a website that he recommends for students who are 7 or 8 years old.  He also gives a summary of the Lego Mindstorms program, which I highly recommend for schools or other organizations.  There are links for learning how to code and how to design apps as well.  “Teaching Your Kids How to Write Computer Programs” is definitely a good place to start if you are a teacher or parent looking for this type of resource.  Two more resources?  Gamestar Mechanic (website) and Sketch Nation Studio (iPad app), both referenced in my post on Genius Hour, Part III.

3-12, Creative Thinking, Education, Independent Study, Motivation, Student Products

Genius Hour Update, Part II

A couple of months ago, I mentioned that I would be trying a “Genius Hour” with my 5th grade GT students.  You can read this post and this post to find out about the origins of this idea.  Click here to read about The Beginning of our project.
First – a little background.  I teach 13 5th grade Gifted and Talented students once a week from 8:45-1:30.  Many of these students have been in my GT class since Kindergarten, so they know me and the other students fairly well.  All of these factors might make it a bit easier for them to take risks than students in a regular classroom.  

The Middle

As our Genius Hours continued, the students began to get interested in each other’s projects.  Many of the kids were using Weebly for the first time, to create websites.  They would end up criss-crossing the room to consult each other on such things as how to make logos or to embed games into their sites.  Several of them were confounded by our district’s filters as they tried to access sites they could easily jump to at home, and quite a few of them got lessons from me on copyright violations.

A few of the groups decided to make websites that linked to fun games.  This led to not a little time being spent on playing the games to “make sure they are appropriate for school”.  We ended up having a conversation during one of our feedback sessions about whether or not they were making the best use of their Genius Hour by doing this.  They agreed that the games could be explored at home during the week instead.

The one student I absolutely could not help was fortunately one of the most self-motivated.  He had decided that he was going to make a remote-control robot.  He brought all of the materials from home, and took them back home each week so his grandfather could aid him with the tough parts, like welding and figuring out electrical circuits.

Two other students had selected a project that would be done, for the most part, outside of Genius Hour.  They wanted to start a tutoring group to help kids with Science.  They used their Genius Hour time to make a poster advertising the tutoring group, write letters to the teachers explaining their proposal, and to find support materials.

One of my students wanted to design a video game, so I introduced him to Gamestar Mechanic.  He basically got all he wanted out of it in three sessions, and started wandering around to help others with their projects.  Then I showed him Sketch Nation Studio on the iPad and he was back in business.

The variety of interests and projects was exciting.  We were all learning, and I kept hoping that an administrator would walk in during our Genius Hour to observe the engagement amongst the students.  When I was a little girl and pictured myself as a teacher, this was exactly the image that I had in my head – kids enthusiastically taking responsibility for their own learning.

Come back tomorrow for the final post in my Genius Hour series!

The “homemade” logo made by one pair of students for their gaming site