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Planning the Raspberry Pi invasion

raspberry-pi-logoIt’s the next to last day of school. So naturally my thoughts are on next year! I’m still in “school mode” and not in “summer mode” quite yet. Give me a few days…..

I’m planning to inject some serious Raspberry Pi goodness into my middle school curriculum next year. It’s exciting and terrifying all at once. So what’s exciting? I truly believe in the mission of the RPi Foundation…. bringing hands-on computing to students today. And I believe that the Pi is the best way forward and will bring back some of the excitement that many of us felt when personal computers were brand new.

And what’s terrifying? Truthfully, it’s the sheer magnitude of what you can do with these things.  Go through the forums, follow people on Twitter, read the MagPi magazine, and you’ll be overwhelmed with what you can do with these things: refrigerator monitors, space exploration, weather stations, Twitter feeds, Minecraft coding, live music coding, electronics, sensors, oh my! The list goes on and on.

Fortunately I ran a Creation Station club this year, where I got students to experiment with various projects on the Pi (among other things), so I have some ideas of what might work. I’ve got 20 Pi 3’s, and 20 Sense HATs. I figure that right there should give us enough to play with for year one. I also have an assortment of one-off pieces: floras, cameras, etc. So any of those might spark serious interest, too.

Along with those ideas, I’m also working on logistics — where do I store them, how do I share them between classes, how do I back up student work, how do we run them in our iMac lab…..

Stay tuned for further updates over the summer! Also hoping to be chosen for August’s Picademy in Baltimore!


winterim_screenshotThe middle school at Porter-Gaud always starts the second semester with a great program called Winterim. It’s three days of programs that the students choose. Some are out of town, like going to Costa Rica, and some are in town. Several have a service component (mission trips, helping out at a local daycare or animal rescue). Several are just for fun (ropes courses, etc.). The last two years I have offered a 3-day intensive tech “camp” that I call TechFrenzy (shameless plug: that’s also the name of my YT channel.

Seventeen students signed up (14 boys and 3 girls, which is 3 more girls than I had last year). I’ve divided it up into one activity per day. Day 1 is NXT robots, culminating in The Grand Intergalactic Sumobot Challenge. Day 2 is Game Design. Day 3 is Minecraft. Here’s how it turned out….

Robots — those of us who teach robotics know the allure of making and programming your own robot. It’s the Secret Sauce! I’ve been doing it for over 10 years now. One of my fellow teachers, when he heard this (he teaches Latin) said, “Dude, you’re cutting edge!” I’d never thought of it like that….

But students love it! And when you combine that with The Grand Intergalactic Sumobot Challenge, well, you’ve got yourself some serious fun. I had a teacher who was down the hall tell me that the sounds coming out of my classroom were about the happiest sounds she’d ever heard! Aww….

Game Design — With a range of grades 6-8, and several levels of experience with creating games, I opened this up to student choice for the program they chose. Several used Scratch, quite a few used Kodu, a couple used GameMaker, and some used the PixelPress app on their iPads. Several students experimented with multiple environments. We finished the day with everyone sharing what they had learned, and then we played each other’s games. Who says learning can’t be fun?

Minecraft —  saved the best for last, of course. Again, we had a range of Minecraft experience from beginners to ultra hardcore types. It’s sometimes difficult to please everyone, but I decided to start out with a creative world in MinecraftEdu. The older laptops we were using were fairly laggy (4 fps!), and there were the usual requests for TNT, lava, monsters, PvP, etc. However, we stuck with that world and by lunchtime, no one wanted to go eat! They had created all kinds of amazing stuff, including some beautiful houses, a town hall, some beautiful pixel art (see above), and some redstone trickery.  For the last two hours, we moved to my lab with my more modern computers and I allowed them to check out Hypixel and Mineplex.  This made for some loud and raucous competition, and I think everyone left satisfied. And I felt even more convinced that my approach of “stealth teaching” really does work.

Now back to “real school” on Monday!

Finding the best coding language for beginners (revisited)

pythonProbably the most visited article on my site here is the original post on this topic. I wrote that about a year ago, and my conclusion was that Small Basic fit the bill best. It was written for beginners, had autocomplete, a syntax that made sense out of the box. Plus turtles!

However, I’m revising that assessment now. I still like Small Basic for all those reasons. But the introduction of two new approaches has made me rethink this (and what kind of teacher would I be if I wasn’t always willing reevaluate what I’m doing?). The two new gateways into coding that I’m using are Minecraft and the RaspberryPi. And I can do Python with both.

In some ways, Python isn’t as user-friendly as Small Basic. Indentation can bite you big-time, and while True loops don’t make sense to kids right away. But once you get those concepts at least manageable, and you get used to the syntax, the language itself makes a lot of sense to kids. Also, no curly braces! Plus it’s a language that kids can grow with. It’s a great beginner language, and it scales all the way up to professional. Sure, it’s not Java or C++, but there are jobs out there that require Python. And I have seen students move from Python turtles to Python Minecraft to programming sensors on the Raspberry Pi in Python.

And that’s a huge win. So, for now, I’ve got a new best coding language for beginners!


CJ40XdMUcAA263HSo many firsts last week — first time in Dallas, first time at the Computer Science Teachers Association conference, first time presenting at CSTA, first preso on Minecraft…. Lots of cool stuff to report!

My presentation was on Teaching Coding in the Middle School with Minecraft. You can see the preso in Google Presentation form right here. I have wanted to use the power of Minecraft as a bridge to learning coding for some time, so I spent this school year experimenting with different approaches. My preso is a summation of those, with the proviso that I had some very specific goals in mind, which would probably be different from yours. So YMMV, etc. Spoiler alert: I finally settled on the approach used in Adventures in Minecraft book by Martin O’Hanlon and David Whale. It uses Python, and it seemed to work great with my classes.

My Twitter feed blew up the night before, as word got out about my preso. Got to say it was very cool to get all that support, especially from the aforementioned Martin(@martinohanlon) and David(@whaleygeek).  The actual preso was well attended and it seemed to fill a need, as most people were aware of Minecraft and were interested in seeing what they could do with it in their classes. Keep in mind that this was a CS teachers’ conference, so we were looking at that very narrow strip of MC usage.

I got an invitation at the end of my session to present a pre-conference on Minecraft next summer in Denver at ISTE. Cool!

So what I enjoyed about my first CSTA:

  • being at nerd central — coding, cool machines, cool apps, and
  • cool people! Special shoutout to Dr Sarah Guthals(@sarahguthals) from LearntoMod who has a great product and is an awesome fellow traveler on this coding in Minecraft journey sarahme
  • meeting some people I only knew from reading them, like Alfred Thompson(@alfredtwo) and Mark Guzdial, and Laura Blankenship(@lblanken)



So what’s next? Definitely a determination to learn more Minecraft — modding, servers, coding cool stuff in Python…. and a determination to connect with other educators doing this or interested in doing it. Would also love to connect with some modders and learn more about that…. got to finish my Digital Youth course on learning to mod in Java, follow up on LearntoMod’s growing product, learn some more javascript…. oh, and get ready for school… learn more GameMaker, App Inventor, Small Basic…. got to go!

Kinect for Small Basic

kinectI’m drowning in coolness right now. If this works as advertised, it’s going to be a busy summer, what with learning more coding with Minecraft/Lua, Python/Pygame, and now this!

I already do Small Basic in my 8th grade class and have blogged about it here. Love turtles, intellisense, the logic of the language…. makes it a fabulous first texting language. Now if you add Kinect capabilities, look out.

I did note that “some” of the capabilities available in Visual Studio are not available in the SB version. Can’t find any list of what is missing just yet, and I’m hoping it’s not something critical.

I’m upgrading my school laptop early next week to Win 8.1, so I’ll have to wait till then to do some serious hacking, but woohoo.

Javascript & JQuery

book coverReading this fabulous book by Jon Duckett. I’ve had a nodding acquaintance with JS just from doing some web design and dev. I decided it was time to formalize and solidify my understanding so I bought this book. If you’re a visual learner like me, you’ll probably get a lot out of this book. Some concepts I can get just from reading, looking at code, writing code, etc. But I’m finding that a well-designed visual approach really helps me understand things better. And since I’m a teacher, I’m always looking for ways that will help others get the concepts. This book is full of such examples.

It’s beautifully designed as well. Kind of a coffee table style. Lots of white space, large charts, color photos, etc. But it’s not just the design, though that certainly helps. The author takes the time to explain each concept carefully, with many commented examples. The scaffolding is also logical, as he introduces concepts clearly and then builds upon them.

Highly recommended.

New coordinates


For all of my readers, I am excited to announce that I have taken a position teaching Computer Science at the Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, SC. It’s an exciting move, both in my career and geographically, and I can’t wait to get started. PG has a fabulously innovative CS program, led by Doug Bergman, and I’m flattered and jazzed to be a part of it.

This summer will be crazy busy, as we pack and move. More to come!

Twitter as a neurological extension of my brain

world_connectionsI was going to title this “Why Twitter is awesome” and then thought that sounded cheesy. Then I thought about what I love about Twitter and came up with the above title, which is the opposite of cheesy. Probably pretentious.

But there’s something about that scrolling feed of ideas, thoughts, lesson plans, jokes, pictures, movies, and questions that directly feeds into my own thought processes. Part of it is due to the people I follow. I try to surround myself with people who are interested in the same things I’m interested in: learning, making, coding, and thinking about the intersection of learning and technology. Then I curate my Scoop on Learning on the Digital Frontier and post those as Twitter feeds. People who think those are interesting retweet or follow. And I meet more interesting people. And I learn more.

It seems to fit my thirst for learning, my hyper-focused mind, my always-on curiosity. Now I can’t imagine life without it.

Arts vs Sciences?

Da-Vinci_human-proportionsI just spent a day visiting a school and talking about myself. Spending a day talking about yourself is not as much fun as you might think. Especially if you’re not the most interesting man in the world.

But some of the questions made me think about who I am and how I’m wired. Since I was discussing a possible Computer Science AP position, and my resume has a lot of teaching English and history, I got some puzzled questions. I realized that my career arc isn’t that normal! Not that many people start in the humanities, act as an English chair, teach history, and then transition to computer science. I think I might know one other person like that.

I come by it honestly. My father is an English grad from an Ivy League school and realized he didn’t want to teach. Knowing that seriously limited his options, he went back to school and studied welding, then metallurgy. He became a technical writer and editor for Welding Journal and then Iron Age magazine. I inherited that “both sides of the brain” approach from him.

But it made me think about this huge divide between the arts and sciences. Remember the Renaissance Man? Like Hamlet, he was supposed to be a great fencer, write sonnets, study philosophy and “natural philosophy” (science). There was no thinking that you were either one or the other (an “artsy” or a “techie”). I think it’s a false dichotomy. And I also think we’re at a crucial time in our planet’s history when we desperately need them both.

Today’s view from the frontier

As always, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about learning and technology. I’ve been in the game for about 20 years now. So I’ve seen lots of Shiny New Things come…. and go. I’ve seen the fetishization of technologies by educators who were seduced by the hype and snake oil sold by companies wanting to make a quick buck.

It can be dangerous to stay in the edtech thought bubble and forward, repeat, and curate the same things that everyone is forwarding, repeating, and curating. That’s why I like to seek out deep thinkers like Seymour Papert or Alan Kay, or contrarians like Gary Stager. And I like to read widely in fields that I know little about, because it’s important to keep learning and challenging myself.

I know that there are teachers who are fatigued by the relentless push to use technology… somehow, anyhow. And I get the pushback that some of them make. But having said all that, I really believe that tech isn’t a fad, and it’s not all about the latest Shiny New Thing. There are possibilities in learning today that are mind-boggling. And we’d be foolish not to take advantage of them. The emphasis on design and engineering (what is currently called the Maker movement) is one of those opportunities to make deep and necessary change in education. Robotics is a fabulous “gateway drug” into STEM thinking and doing. Learning code can do the same thing for our brains that learning any language can do. All of these can be that “hard fun” that Seymour Papert talked about.

So let’s move that frontier a little farther forward.