Category Archives: artofteaching

Minefaire 2016

Wow, what a weekend!

I was thrilled to attend Minefaire 2016 near Philadelphia, PA this weekend, where a Guiness world record of attendees met their favorite YouTubers, played games, did build battles, sampled VR wares, and even experienced how Minecraft can be used in education. I presented on using Python in Minecraft as an intro to text-based coding, based on the book Adventures in Minecraft by David Whale and Martin O’Hanlon.

Finally met Joel Levin, @MinecraftTeachr, one of my heroes
Finally met Joel Levin, @MinecraftTeachr, one of my heroes.

It was also a personal thrill to meet so many of my online friends and heroes for the first time! Hard to believe that six or seven years ago, this amazing game was just in its infancy in all its 8-bit blocky splendor, causing people to scratch their heads and predict that this would never take off!




The whole crew, complete with jazz hands.

Just spent a weekend in Baltimore at #picademy, a 2-day workshop presented by the Raspberry Pi Foundation for 40 teachers. And I have to say it’s near the top of a lifetime of PD experiences. Amazing instructors, an inspiring venue (shout out to the Digital Harbor Foundation), and a cohort of 40 enthusiastic, dedicated, funny, thoughtful, creative teachers. Couldn’t ask for more!

A picture of me taking a picture….

And school starts this week! I have 20 brand new Raspberry Pi’s, thanks to the generosity of the parents group at the Porter-Gaud School, and I can’t wait to get these Pi’s cranking!

What I hoped to get from Picademy was some practical ways to introduce the Pi’s and some ideas for extending Pi skills in the class. Whoa! I got all that and more! And in the best way possible… by experience. We were thrown in the deep end, coding Sonic Pi, Minecraft, lighting LED’s with Scratch and Python…. and even though I had some experience with some of this, I was challenged and inspired. The great thing was to see people with no background in computer science jumping in and trying to make new and cool stuff. On the second day, we have 5 hours to come up with something original. My amazing partner @scratch_boulder (Mai) and I made a Minecraft phonebooth that was triggered by a button or motion sensor, took a selfie, and then built that selfie in the Minecraft world. So much fun!

Our selfie worked! Props to @scratch_boulder for being such a great partner!

And now on back to Charleston. Tonight is back-to-school night for the middle school, with games and general mayhem in the gym. School starts For Real in a few days.

But I hope to keep that spark alive and stay in contact with my new tribe. Once more into the breach!

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Graphics

squarePinwheelIn my last post, I wrote about my decision to go with Small Basic as the best introduction to text-based coding in my classes. We make the jump in 8th grade CS, after having spent a month or so with GameMaker.

As I explained to my students, it was now time to take the training wheels off. We started with your basic TextWindow stuff: Hello World, getting user’s name and saying hello, calculating the user’s age in dog years, a simple savings calculator, a tip calculator. We slogged through my examples and students picked up some of the basics — variables, if statements, math calculation. All well and good. Not exciting but a good start.

After 2-3 days of that, I introduced the GraphicsWindow. We did shapes, fills, lines, background colors. Interest rose, as they could see the results of their code and the added benefits of color. The other day I introduced the Turtle… and BOOM! Knowledge and enthusiasm explosion.

I introduced FOR loops (with some trepidation, since I’ve found it’s a tricky concept for most middle schoolers). I casually demoed making some cool art with FOR loops. EVERYONE wanted to know how I did it. Showed them the simple code and challenged them to change it up, make it more colorful, experiment with different angles and movements. I had already introduced GetRandomColor, and kids went crazy. Some wanted to have a Turtle Art Exhibit.

Next up… making the art interactive. But I feel even more convinced that Small Basic is the right choice.

Finding the best coding language for beginners

if-kids-in-third-grade-can-handle-coding-so-can-youThe title is a red herring. First, what do we mean by beginners? Second, I don’t think there is a “best” language, even if we could define who those beginners are. Here are some thoughts from the trenches, though.

I started a new job this fall teaching CS in grades 7-9, so I’ve covered a pretty wide spectrum of “beginners” with various backgrounds and levels of understanding CS. Here’s what I’ve done by grade:

7th grade — HTML, Scratch, LEGO Robotics (and a little 3D modelling using MinecraftEDU.
8th grade — HTML, GameMaker, a bit of Minecraft exploring, Small Basic.
9th grade — Blitz Basic, S2 Robots, App Inventor.

We’re trying to find the right combination of challenge and enjoyment, correct scaffolding, what works, what doesn’t…. It’s been quite a ride. Things that I thought would be a slam dunk because I’d done them before, like Scratch, were more challenging than I expected. Things that I thought my 8th graders would love, like GameMaker, weren’t loved. Small Basic, which I thought would be too confusing, went really well once we got into turtle graphics.

To be fair, I’ve had to learn an incredible amount of stuff. I’d never heard of Blitz Basic till I started here. Never dabbled in Small Basic and have never used the SR robots and the Propeller language. My lab is a dual boot environment, with a Mac platform and Boot Camp for Win7. It took a few weeks to get everything running smoothly technically. Which is all to say that I was teaching stuff that I was learning just ahead of the kids.

More conclusions in the next post…..

Hard-earned lessons on hard fun

So I just finished teaching my Introduction to Robotics (IROB) course at the CTY camp in Baltimore. The students were rising 7th graders. For the last day, I asked the 14 students to write some advice to future students of this class. As I expected, their responses were fabulous. Here are some excerpts:

“Don’t feel down when you fail. It’s normal, it takes hard work to succeed. You feel awesome when you succeed. You’ll want to quit, but don’t. It’s worth the work.”

“In IROB, the classes aren’t just fun, they are HARD fun. If you learn to enjoy the hard parts as well as the fun parts, you will LOVE IROB. Do not get upset when you fail, learn from it. If a light sensor isn’t working check and see it is plugged in. As Thomas Edison said, ‘I didn’t fail. I found 10,000 ways it didn’t work.’ Don’t give up and do your best.”

“One important thing to remember is that Simple is always better. Also remembering that if you add a lot of things your robot will be less stable. I do think that it is fun to learn some lessons the hard way because you remember the lessons better.”

“IROB is a great course. However, I need to tell you few things to make it even better. First, learn the phrase ‘hard fun.’ You also need to learn to not get frustrated easily. If you are a type of person that gets frustrated easily, you may have a tough time.”

“If you like building with legos and Scratch without instructions, this will be twice the fun. For sumobots keep the center of gravity in the middle and low. For everything but dragbot and the mountain climber use at least 2 motors. Gear ratio is very important sometimes.”

“You have made a good decision to take IROB. The first few days are easy, but the rest is not difficult but frustrating. You will fail a lot, because getting a piece or program just so is extremely annoying. That makes getting it right all the more rewarding. Good luck, and build on.”

“During the course, it’s not completely difficult, but it’s not easy. Hard fun, one of Mr. Bob’s favorite terms, is true. But even if you find 10,000 ways that don’t work, not getting frustrated easily will help. Think of NAO, Stanley, Atlas, and Asimo. I guarantee the 1st versions all failed. As long as you don’t give up, the result is completely worth it.”

“In this course of IROB, you should take these next few statements very seriously. You must always make your robot stable, so it doesn’t fall over. You must program your robot exactly what you wanted it to do, step by step, because robots aren’t very bright. Finally, don’t get frustrated in this course if your robot doesn’t do what you want it to do right away. We have a saying in IROB: fail early and fail often.”

waving-robot-22623701“Always continue to improve your robot, but remember that simpler is always better. When designing your first robot, if it doesn’t work, keep trying before you come up with new ideas. Fix every problem one step at a time, so you can learn the causes of the problems and how to prevent them in the future. Most importantly, robotics is a perfect example of hard fun.”

“Within this course, building your own robots may be difficult, if not very difficult. Always make sure to never give up, as the solution to your problem may follow. Also, if you don’t contribute enough work and effort, a mediocre robot will inevitably follow. Also make sure to have hard fun, because it’s only three weeks. Make the best out of it!”

“IROB is a very fun class where you learn a lot about robots. You do a bunch of fun activities like sumobots and dragbots. In the last week you get to build a robot that does whatever you want, but remember to keep it as simple as possible.”

“I know sometimes, you feel like you want to rip your bot apart, LIMB from LIMB, but it’s okay. Things will get better, just because you failed doesn’t mean you can give up. Just keep swimmin’. Remember, it’s fun, but hard fun.”

“In IROB, you will encounter a lot of strenuous testing and failures. You will come close to fainting from exhaustion by thinking about how to fix or improve your bot. But there is so much fun also: the feeling of having accomplished something, the excitement of participating in competitions, the relaxation of watching a robot YouTube video for a break. But with persistence and hard work, you will enjoy IROB like no other class you’ve ever taken before. Just make sure you follow the rules.”


Robots robots robots

20140708_081720If you were a 12 year old with a techie bent, and someone offered you the chance to spend 3 weeks of the summer at a camp where you got to build and program robots pretty much all day, what would you say?

If you’re like the 14 students I have at just such a camp, you’d probably say, “Well, all right!” We are now in week two of Introduction to Robotics at a camp run by the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (known colloquially as just CTY). This is my 8th rodeo, and I can tell you from the instructor’s perspective, it’s intense and intensive. We move fast.

I have three of my mantras on the board. The first two are standard. “Hard fun” is my mantra from my hero Seymour Papert, and I guarantee every student will have some of this. I don’t know where the second one came from (“Fail early, fail often”), but it’s a good way to set expectations. Students at this camp are bright (that’s where the “talented” comes in), and are often the top students in their respective classes. They are used to achieving academic success as defined by most schools. They are not used to failing: having their robots fall apart, not do what they wanted them to do, lose a race, or get pushed out of the sumobot ring. But that failure is an important part of the course, and life itself, of course. As Thomas Edison said “I didn’t fail, I just found 10,000 ways it wouldn’t work.”

The third is an acronym. HOLEF stands for “Hands Off Legos, Eyes Front”. It’s my magical word for focusing attention on something everyone needs to hear or see.

How many slaves work for you?

If you haven’t seen the Slavery Footprint site (, you should. I had my 7th graders to this survey, as we started our unit on the causes of the Civil War. Slavery seems like such a distant concept to most of us. This site surveys your consumption of various goods, how big your house is, etc., and then tabulates how many slaves work in the production chain of your stuff. Selected responses from my students follow:

I was very surprised that so many slaves worked for me. To be honest I though that there were no more slaves, I knew there were bad work situations, but I didn’t think there were slaves. Overall I thought that it was very very shocking.

Ahhhhhhh! That’s crazy! I am mad at slave owners!

I was glad that I didn’t have to much technology.  But when I thought about it I felt a little bad about it, but then when I went to school I wanted to be the one with the most slaves.  I feel like that’s how people felt like would you rather impress your friends or be left out and have no slaves!!!

I had 41 slaves working for me. This kind of scared me to know that there were that many slaves for each person in the world. That is a lot of slaves. The product that most effected me having so many slaves was that I had towls and a bedroom. It said that towels were woven by hand.

I had 49 slaves working for me. I thought this was really surprising because in the amendments it’s says that slavery has been abolished but..there’s still slavery.

I was very surprised and upset that 94 slaves worked for me. I didn’t realize how bad slavery was, even now, in 2013.

I think that it is saddening that there is still slavery in the world most of which we didn’t know about. The way to avoid this is hard because they make the things that make life easier.

I was surprised. I was surprised because that is a lot of people that are suffering because we have a couple thing from different places.

I am amazed that there are that many slaves working for me.  Up until yesterday I thought that I had nothing to do with slaves.  Despite hating slavery I technically own 37 slaves.

I had 53 slaves and I thought that was very sad because I don’t like slavery but in fact I’m supporting it. It’s really interesting that buying things from regular stores here is still associated with slavery.


Escaping the Echo Chamber…chamber….chamber…

It just feels like it’s time. I’ve been in edtech for over 15 years now. I applaud the efforts of those who are trying to reform the educational system and make it reflect the modern world. But truthfully, I yearn to do something more than retweet what others are saying. And a lot of what goes around is simply that. I hear very few contrarian voices (maybe Gary Stager is the most prominent exception). There’s an awful lot of preaching to the choir.

So I’m pruning my Twitter feeds,  my RSS feeds, my Zite reading, and concentrating on actual learning projects that are  jazzing me. At this point, I’m looking at the Arduino, the Raspberry Pi, webmaking, and robotics. The common thread is that all of these are about doing something. I’d rather move into Mad Scientist Mode and see what students are coming along for the ride. My experience has been that nothing gains student involvement like passion, and they can inherit some of that passion from other passionate people, like their teachers.

Who’s with me?
echo chamber 7

From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom


Subtitle = “Hopeful Essays for 21st Century Learning”

We ordered this after seeing Prensky last week. I’m very interested in reading this and hope to respond here. Thoughts in process…

I love this paragraph from the introduction: “To the disappointment of some (and the delight of many),  the vision I have is not just about technology in education. In fact, it is not even just a vision of better education. My vision is one of better people, better equipped to face the challenges of the world they will live in — that is, a world far different than yesterday’s or even today’s. Technology has an important place in that vision, because it has an important place in our future. But it does not dominate the vision; rather it supports it. As one of my student panelists put it brilliantly, ‘We see technology as a foundation. It underlies everything we do.’ In the end, I am far more interested in creating important, useful learning and life opportunities for our students than I am in promoting any educational technology.”

The more I teach, and the more I work in ed tech, the more convinced I am that Prensky is correct here. First, that the world has changed. Much of education has not caught up and in fact, seems determined to follow a course based on 19th rather than 21st century realities. Second, what we call “technology” is simply part of life to our students, the way TV is to us. We don’t have deep, meaningful discussions about television qua television. We discuss individual shows, but the medium is transparent. Kind of like the air we breathe. “Technology” is like the air our students breathe, and as long as we fear it, try to manage it, treat it as something “other”, we’re perpetuating the disconnect between our educational systems and the realities our students inhabit.

prensky book

Digital Learning with Marc Prensky

I spent yesterday at a full day conference put on by ADVIS featuring Marc Prensky. I’ve been reading his stuff for years but had never heard him. It was a very thought-provoking day. And I mean that in the best way possible. In fact, it provoked so many thoughts that I will probably be writing about it off and on for a while.

So here’s the first. He said we live in an era of VUCA — Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. End result = Chaos. Then factor in accelerating change, which is more than rapid change. The speed of change isn’t just fast, it’s getting faster.  I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t “get” this. The question for us as educators is, “What now?” How do we prepare our students for their future?

The second point he made that struck me was that, because of modern technology, we now have augmented intelligence, or as he called it, an “extended brain”. We have at our fingertips a world of knowledge, and it’s getting easier and easier to access (thanks, Siri!). So what does this mean for education? He seemed to feel that everything is now up for reconsideration. I’m not so sure. But it is time (past time, really) to start having these conversations as educators.