Saturday, February 20, 2010

Tinkering Part II

Can't get tinkering off my mind. Here are some other ways that we tinker in my technology class. This year I taught my first semester-long class in 8th grade. We did the same hands-on projects that I have always done in a 9 week class, but added some new computer applications. Three programs that we used were Pivot, Google Sketchup, and Scratch.

My teaching method was to have them download the program and play with it for a day. The next day we created a rubric of requirements together and then they went to work. We used Sketchup first and the students struggled with it. Since then I had a group of repeat 7th graders watch some tutorials on YouTube about Sketchup first and they have been more successful. Pivot is a much simpler program and they did very well tinkering with it.

I have used Scratch a little bit before with students and learned from the Sketchup experiment that students would need some support. I found four Google Slideshow instructions from Simon Haughton that taught students how to make an etch-a-sketch, race car maze, pong, and pacman games. Students followed these instructions and created the games. Those who finished early were challenged to make their own game. Only two students actually made something of their own. But to be fair it was the last week of the class so motivation to work was not super high.

Things I learned are that all of the students are willing to play at the beginning. But it is important that the task is at their skill level or that adequate support is provided. Students that struggle academically are often used to spoon-feeding or failure and give up quickly when not supported. The amount of support needed is difficult to judge and may be different for each student (Check out this John Spencer TAD talk video for a good explanation). I try to point students to resources first rather than helping them directly. I also have the students teach each other (and me) as much as possible.

One thing that seems to help is to start the first tutorial together as a class up to a certain point. It helps every student "get their feet wet" and builds important confidence in those that are unsure. Another technique I use is to announce to the class a problem that a particular student is having and ask if anyone can help them with it. A third thing that helped was to show examples of the best work from a previous class. My repeat 7th graders were not giving me much of a story line with their Pivots until I showed them some of the best 8th grade examples and they improved theirs immediately.

Students that are used to success in school often care too much about grades rather than creativity. They will faithfully complete the "lessons" and then help others, stall, or just sit there rather than try to create their own game in Scratch. I am now seriously considering a class with no grades to get rid of this problem. There would be no questions of "Does this count toward my grade?" or "How many points is this worth?" The class would be pass/fail based on did you attempt to learn? Experimenting and failure would be encouraged. We would talk about learning, not grades. Now to sell that idea to my principal...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

What I'm Reading

Here are some blogs that have influenced me lately:

Ira Socol's SpeEdChange Ira writes about radical changes needed in education rooted in a historical perspective. He shows how many things we do are rooted in history to prepare students for industrial society instead of for today.

John Spencer get two nods Musings from a not so Master Teacher  A blog about all kinds of educational thoughts from his classroom to ed. policy and Pencil Integration an excellent satire of technology integration.

Shelly Blake-Plock TeachPaperless  Blogs about using technology seamlessly to go "paperless" and focus on student-centered learning.

Silvia Martinez Generation Yes Blog Her latest few posts about "tinkering" in the classroom really have me thinking.

Russ Goerend Learning is Life ELA teacher blogging about his classroom and education in general.

Matt McTownsley  MeTa Musings A high school math teacher blogging about standards based grading.

 Joe Power's For the Love of Learning Just discovered this blog about abolishing grades and focusing on student learning instead.

And I will add one "big name" to the list because of the creative and important crowdsourcing project he is organizing right now Will Richardson  Weblogg-ed

So check them out and add them to your RSS feed.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I am guest blogging at Free Technology for Teachers today about Screencasting. A great blog to find resources on the web. Check it out.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Man vs. Washing Machine

Wednesday night I did a load of wash and went to put it into the dryer. It was soaking wet still; the machine would not spin-broke. Now I have worked in concrete construction for years but the truth is that I am not that good at fixing mechanical things. I hate working on cars and was not happy about my predicament. But I am Dutch (read cheap) so even though I have never worked on a washing machine before I tore it apart to figure out what was wrong. Three days later I had it fixed.
It really wasn't that difficult-a broken coupler from the motor to the transmission. Of course I also had some problems with the machine leaking as I put everything back together. The broken machine was a challenge, but solvable.  I used some resources: internet manuals, calls to my dad in Florida, and talking to the local part store. But ultimately I had to solve the problem myself and no one figured it out for me. I spent way too long on it but there is a satisfaction in knowing I fixed it myself, not to mention that it cost me less than $30. If I had to do it again I would be much more efficient do to my experience.

The time that it took me to fix my washing machine allowed me to think about the process. I have been thinking about the concept of tinkering as expressed by Silvia Martinez (I tried to participate virtually in her Educon session but the audio and video were too poor). I agree that tinkering is a missing ingredient in our schools. As a middle school technology teacher I attract some students who like to tinker to my class. But I have been amazed this year at how many of my students shut down when I ask them to tinker.

For example, I teach Lego Mindstorms Robotics. The robots come with canned lessons with a video instructor. Students work on their own pace and those who finish early I challenge to create their own challenge for their robot. I have had very few students take me up on it (here is one that did). They want to know if it will count for their grade or volunteer to help other groups to avoid the challenge.

This quarter I had three students who are repeating my class because of scheduling issues at school. So I gave them the challenge of programming the robot to go around a 2 1/2' x 4' table top laying on the ground with out touching it. They had two weeks and could not do it. They fought me on it, complained, and gave up. The solution was simply to make the robot go forward a set distance and turn 90 degrees four times.

But these students would not tinker. They were easily discouraged and basically fought against thinking. I tried to support them by pointing them to the specific videos to re-watch and even set up the first part of the program for them. Still no results. One of my other students finished early from the canned programs and solved the problem of going around the table top for them in only two days. My students had plenty of resources-videos and me- and the problem was very solvable. But they lacked the tenacity to attack the problem and keep at it until they discovered a solution.
My class is mostly project based learning, but most of the projects are scripted for the students and are not terribly open-ended. I want to encourage my students to tinker more but it is so foreign to them. They are used to being told exactly what to do (worksheet mentality) and then copy it back. Most rebel when pushed to think and create on their own. They do not have the tenacity and endurance to spend 4 days to fix their washing machine. Instead they would rather pay the repairman than tinker.

How do I challenge my students to tinker, when they have been programmed to copy and regurgitate for a grade so much that they choose to shut down rather than think?

Why do some students genuinely enjoy tinkering as opposed to the majority who would rather jump through hoops?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Technology Integration

I started my one hour a day of helping other teachers in my building integrate technology two weeks ago. I have been too busy battling my washing machine (more about that to come) to write about it. So check out a very nice summary of the highlight of my week by Silvia Tolisano (aka langwitches) "Becoming the Experts"

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Thanks IT!

At my school we have a student drive where we can put assignments that students can access. The problem is that students also can move and delete the files. A student figured that out this week and started deleting almost all of the files off from the student drive. My folder in particular was targeted. I had a backup file on my drive that I just copied over but this file started disappearing daily. A call was put into our IT department and they restored the files (every teacher except for one was deleted). They also changed the setting to make the files all read only. The IT guy said that our school had originally requested the setting that allowed students to edit files (I would like to know who the genius was that requested that :)

I took the opportunity to send an email to the guy who fixed it. He also has been very helpful in white listing lots of sites for me this year including Voicethread and student blogs in Vietnam. Not surprisingly he replied immediately saying thanks for the encouragement.

Many times I hear a lot of complaints, in particular, about sites being blocked by a teacher's district. I have taken time to go over to their offices and sit down and talk to the IT people in my district. In the past year our district has opened up many things especially for teachers. I think it is important to recognize these improvements.

In the end it comes down to relationships. Build some trust with your IT and let them hear why you want to use the "tool" for student learning. And take the time this week to thank them for all the hard work they do to keep the technology running in your district. They are often under-staffed and over-worked. Everybody likes to hear "Thanks, and good job" once in a while.

Who can you encourage this week with a heartfelt "good job and thanks!"