My School’s First Coding Club

Photo Dec 03, 8 19 15 AM

Last Wednesday concluded my elementary school’s first coding class. The class started in October and met once a week for one hour for a total of 11 sessions. Myself and two other classroom teachers led the sessions with 20 students in grades 3-5. Students learned about coding by creating a variety of projects within Scratch. Each session focused in on a specific skill. Students spent the last two sessions on a final project that showcased many of the skills that were acquired through the class. The final projects were submitted and reviewed by the instructors and parents.

The team has determined that another coding class will start up in January. Before that starts I want to reflect on the last class and a few things that have been learned in the process.

Student exploration is necessary

As coding topics were introduced I found that some students needed visual representations, while others were fine listening to the instructors. I found that all the students needed time to explore the Scratch programming language. Giving opportunities to explore the cause and effect of using different Scratch blocks enabled a better understanding of the sequence of a project. I can remember one project that asked students to use only 10 specific blocks to create a program. Through trial and error students evaluated whether what they were creating made sense. This low-risk activity also helped student hone in on what a particular coding phrases meant. Specifically, students started using “if” “forever” “change” “rotation” “x” and “y” more often.   This type of vocabulary helped set the stage for future sessions. I felt like the time spent completing this activity paid dividends later in the course.

Provide multiple resources

The class emphasized and primarily focused in on using the Scratch programming language. Giving context to some of the programs required using resources outside Scratch. At the beginning of the course students learned how computer programming requires direct instructions. Students completed an activity with partners that had them move around the classroom and complete procedures with simple direction scripts on notecards. Participants also explored the debugging process by learning about Grace Hopper and the moth found in a large computer.

The team also used a variety of books and resources to teach the class. Books from our local libraries, Twitter resources, and online forums provided many resources that helped supplement the class.

Provide guidelines

While exploration is important I believe the team found that having guidelines in place helped make expectations clearer. Students knew as soon as they entered the classroom that they needed to get their laptop and login to their Scratch account. Students were expected to create a specific program each time that the class met. Early in the class the team developed a checklist for students. The checklist gave students a visual representation of what was required and reminded students of the expectations. Students completed the checklist and then were able to move on to the next topic. Each student worked at a different pace so the checklist basically helped students see what steps needed to be performed to make their program complete. The last project included a guideline sheet that asked students to use all of their skills learned to create a capstone of their learning.

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Provide opportunities to extend

Before the class started one of my goals was to introduce students to a specific number of concepts. As the class progressed I was finding that some students were ready for additional concepts. Thankfully, my district’s programmer let our class borrow her Raspberry Pi. A number of students explored the different components of the circuit board. Some students started to learn the Python coding language. One of my students actually decided to complete their math research project on Raspberry Pi.

Photo Dec 03, 8 18 53 AM

Also, students that were part of the coding club were able to assist during the Hour of Code that my school had last week. Those students took the lead and helped introduce coding to students at all different levels.  At the end of the class the team sent out an email to all of the parents of the class indicating next steps that the students could take if they were to continue their coding journey. I felt like this was important as students became more enthusiastic and curious with the concept of creating content with coding.

Overall, this class was a rewarding experience and will help in planning future courses for my school.

Risk and Professional Development

Teacher Professional Development
Is this your teacher professional development?

I recently found some time to reconnect with a few teachers that I haven’t talked to in a while.  A group of us were able to meet up and discuss our lives during the past school year.  As the conversation extended beyond pleasantries a few common themes emerged:  high-stakes testing, new teacher/administration evaluations and district professional development (PD).  The last topic took up most of the time and reminded me of how important it is to connect with fellow educators.

Some stories about PD were positive and some negative.  I listened to a few less than stellar stories of districts that dictate all PD needs. These top-down, one-size-fits-all PD sessions help certain staff members, but not all.   One of the teachers at our table insisted that school districts need to be able to differentiate their PD opportunities .  Just as teachers differentiate for their students, districts should also differentiate their PD for their staff.  I’m encouraged to hear that other educators like Ellen (@sneakyfritz) have similar thoughts about PD being more aligned to teachers’ needs.  Teachers learn at different paces and have a variety of strengths, therefore different opportunities should exist for them.  I find that the second model in the image below is used frequently in some districts.

photo credit: superkimbo via photopin cc
photo credit: superkimbo via photopin cc

Another teacher in our group thought that educators should be able to choose their own PD sessions, even if they’re located out of the district.  By not mentioning PD opportunities outside of the district (Edcamp, Twitter chats, conferences, workshops, MOOCS) teachers’ professional growth can be limited. Administrators that aren’t connected may not be aware of the PD options that are available online and outside of their school.  Discouraging teachers or omitting opportunities outside of the district also infers that a district doesn’t trust the professional judgement of its teachers.  Obviously, not all districts are like this.  I believe that teacher ownership plays a role in increasing the effectiveness of PD.  This terrific post by Dean (shareski) sheds some light on some of the important issues of PD and teacher ownership.

When teachers share what they’ve learned with each other the district often benefits.  I applaud districts that encourage teachers to be part of the PD process by having them lead district training sessions, similar to an edcamp model.  That seems like one way to encourage teacher ownership and solidify a mutual trust between teachers and administration

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Sometimes the one-size-fits-all model of traditional PD is mandatory, as regulated by the state.  I’ve found that districts that have total control (top-down) of the PD often informally discourage sharing and innovation.  Not all sessions have to be this way. Districts can encourage teachers to grow professionally by taking a risk and trusting their teachers to pick and choose the PD that meets their specific needs.  Districts should advocate for their employees to attend the most effective PD sessions.  Many of the teachers in our discussion stated that some of their best professional development came from outside of their school district boundaries.

Another teacher in our group stated that many educators are already taking ownership of their professional growth through a Personal Learning Network (PLN).  In many cases, they take ownership because the district might not providing opportunities for the growth that they need.  Regardless of a districts financial situation, many beneficial PD opportunities exist and are found through Twitter and other social networking sites.  These sites are generally free to join.  It’s truly unfortunate that some districts decide to rely on traditional PD and expect it to dramatically change teachers’ skills.  By omitting the use of technology for PD opportunities, districts are actually limiting their effectiveness and devaluing the educators that are already utilizing these outlets for PD.

Despite the lackluster view on the process of PD in some locations, the group that I sat with agreed that there’s good news.  The good news is that teachers aren’t depending on school districts to provide adequate PD.  They’re seeking out their own PD and bringing back innovative ideas to the classroom.  Teachers can bring these ideas to other connected educators around the world.  Teachers are connecting with other educators across the world through Twitter and other social media avenues.  This connection has many benefits.  Being a connected educator often gives teachers opportunities to learn more from other educators and bring back practical ideas to the classroom.  These teachers are using ideas found through their PLN to better their students’ learning experiences.  Often times they are enhancing their students’ learning experience without the district even knowing.  Districts need to be able to identify and celebrate theses succeses. I’m optimistic that school districts will adapt their current PD practices.   My optimism is rooted in the fact school districts  are listening to the staff and increasingly adopting non-traditional PD approaches to meet the professional needs of their teachers. These teachers are taking risks to better their own classroom/school and I believe school districts have the opportunity to do the same.  I’m going to end this post with a Tweet that assisted in inspiring this post:

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photo credit: mikecogh via photopincc


Multiple Technology Devices or 1:1?

Penguin Multiplication

It’s becoming increasingly evident that technology continues to change the education landscape.  The landscape now consists of a variety of technology tools that teachers can use to facilitate the learning process.  If you look around the field of education you’re most likely going to find more schools that are going 1:1 with iPads (1 2 3) or Chromebooks (1 2 3).  I’ve even heard of schools that are using Kindles or tablets to replace textbooks. It can be challenging to decide what type of technology to order for your school district.  Should you go 1:1 or allow funding for multiple devices in the classroom?  I’m hoping to provide a different perspective on that topic through this post.

I’ve used iPads in the classroom and appreciate the many useful characteristics that they bring to the learning environment.  Students are often engaged while utilizing iPads and the user-friendly interface allows little transition time.  I’ve used iPads for individual math interventions, small group instruction, whole class problem solving activities, and math research.  The fast startup time, battery life, and enormous app selection makes iPads a contendor.  Regardless of all of the positives, I’m still looking for ways to create projects on the Ipad. I believe the iPad is primarily still considered a media consumption device first and a creating tool second.  Maybe this will change in the future?  For project creation involving increased keyboard volume, Flash, precision beyond fingers, and faster processing speeds a laptop/netbook might be a better choice.

Laptops/Netbooks bring additional processing power that an iPad may lack.  Recently my students created a podcast project that could only be completed on a computer.  The iPad has many podcasting apps, but all that I tried lacked the additional features that were needed.  Netbooks also provide opportunities to use open source education software.  This is often not possible with iPads.  From my experience, netbooks often fall short in battery life and startup times, although this is improving.

A document camera brings value to my classroom.  Everyday I use a document camera to display student work and model examples.  My document camera is connected to an LCD projector which displays images on a whiteboard.  Displaying work on the whiteboard and being able to use markers to make corrections or highlight exemplary work is extremely beneficial.  I don’t think I could go a day without using the document camera.

Of course there are many different ways to use technology in a math class.  Relying on only one option (like 1:1) without even considering computers may limit the opportunities for student learning and exposure.  Multiple devices, like iPads, netbooks, laptops, document cameras, tablets, Kindles, and ____ all have different uses.  Understanding how to utlize the technology at the right time is important.  Preparing our classrooms with multiple devices allows students the opportunity to pick the right tool for the project.  I believe we should model, but then give students the responsibility to decide what technology tool to use to complete the task.

What do you think?

Web-Based Formative Math Assessments

I’ll admit it, I’m becoming more of a formative assessment advocate this year. I believe that formative assessments have a place in the elementary math classroom. As a technology enthusiast, I’m always searching for ways to improve my instruction through the use of technology.  For the past year I’ve had the opportunity to use Socrative and Scootpad apps (both free) with my math class.  Both of these apps are web-based and offer the ability to provide immediate feedback to the student. I’ve added a few snippets of information about these apps below.


Socrative is a web-based program that is similar to a wireless clicker system, but with a keyboard.  Teachers can create multiple choice, true/false, and short answer quizes with this app.  The quizes are quick and easy to create – I actually created a 10 multiple choice question quiz on an iPad.  Teacher have the option for students to complete the quizes at their own pace or at an assigned pace as a class.  Similar to Google Docs, student information is updated and you can actually show the data on an LCD screen live.  Once short answers are submitted students also have the option to vote for the answer they feel is best.  This option definitely promotes student engagement.  Reports on student progress can be sent to you via email and they are in Excel format for easy sorting.


Scootpad offers teachers a way to assess students on Common Core Math Standards (Grades 1-5).  Teachers are able to individualize assessments based on the needs of their students.  Mastery (as a %) can be determined by the teacher and students have opportunities to earn badges and other awards.   The interface takes a while to get used to, but overall this app allows teachers a quick opportunity to assess students’ understanding. Student data is aggregated and can be sorted easily. Scootpad will be expanding to middle school math Common Core Standards in the near future.

What formative assessments do you use?

Math and Tourist Destinations

 Image by: Janoon028

Over the past few weeks I’ve been researching math activities that integrate multiple disciplines.  After visiting a number of sites on Twitter, I found an interactive Google Map.  This activity took students to a Google Maps page that gave information about various landmarks around the world.  Not only was there a social studies connection, but the majority of student work dealt with higher level math. There were links by the questions that gave students opportunities to learn more about the landmark.  Logistically, I decided to group the students in 2 or 3 and gave one iPad/laptop to each group.  The technology was needed to visit the site and find the information.

Some of the questions were quite challenging for my students.  I overheard one student saying that since they are already on the Internet they could  look up the formula.  They asked me and I told them that was fine.  Part of this activity is exploration and finding the information for application on your own.  

This activity is somewhat like a Webquest, but a bit more guided.  Students were asked to complete all of the problems on the site.  There was an actual answer guide near the end of the page that some students found.  I reviewed the process and answers with the students after approximately 45 minutes.  The class then completed a plus/delta chart on the activity.  Overwhelmingly, the comments were positive.  I will keep this in mind as I begin planning for next school year.  Some of the pictures from this activity are below

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Twitter and Professional Development

I’ve observed and participated in a number of Twitter chats this year.  To be honest, I’ve expected a conversation with individuals who may be part of a PLN that are willing to express their perspectives on education. Scheduled chats generally have moderators and participants are free to express their opinions and may even ask questions aligned with the topic. Constructive debate is sometimes encouraged as educators often question the norm (or are at least not satisfied with the status quo).  At times, resources might be shared and links bookmarked.  While contributing, I share background knowledge and resources that have improved my teaching practice. Generally I come away from the chat with additional resources and ideas that I can practically utilize in the classroom.

General Chat process (informal list)

  • Moderators ask questions / introduces topic(s) to start the chat
  • Participants offer their opinions / experiences on particular topic
  • Affirmations / connections become evident
  • New ideas / resources become available via comments or links
  • Ideas on how to apply newly gained resources / perspectives become evident
  • Participants express interest in next chat topic

Here’s an example:

My latest Twitter experience at #elemchat  followed the above process, yet challenged participants to take purposeful action after the chat.

The topic during this specific night was about social bookmarking.  The moderators did a fine job asking questions and guiding the discussion accordingly.  Background knowledge was expressed by individuals who have had experience using social bookmarks.  Social bookmarking links and student examples were shared during the chat.  Diigo, Delicious, Symballo, Google and Scoop bookmarks (there may have been more, but I’d have to look at the transcript) were all discussed and analyzed during the chat.

One participant even stated:

“Can’t believe all the SB (social bookmarking) sites I was totally unaware of!”

In my opinion, what was said above is intriguing.  Gaining a better understanding of how to practically apply social bookmarking was one of the purposes of the chat.  Not only were participants gaining knowledge, but they were able to find ways to apply learning to improve their own practice.

Approximately half way through the chat, one participant thought that an#elemchat bookmarking site should be created.  Another participant created the bookmark on Diigo and since it’s been created a number of people have added valuable resources that educators can utilize to improve student learning.  My latest chat gave me a sense of how a scheduled chat can transform into a professional development opportunity.  Administrators and educators alike can see the value of Twitter chats.   If you’re on the fence and wondering if an educational chat is actually worth the time and effort, I would recommend getting your feet wet and become an active participant.

The New Community of Learners

As many (or few?) of you know, a storm passed through the Chicago area recently.  The storm produced massive winds that caused devastating damage.  Electric power and internet has been inaccessible in some pockets of the Chicago region for the past few days.  The above image jumped on my computer screen shortly after the storm passed.

I’m always amazed at the amount of community building that occurs when power is cut from a subdivision.  As I look outside, neighbors from across the street come and join other neighbors to chat.  Generally, the conversations revolve around the recent lack of electricity and then proceed to how’s the family … kids.. etc.   The community seems more connected during these times, almost out of necessity to find familiarity and the need to acquire information on the whereabouts of the electricity.  It was quite refreshing to see the neighborhood come together during this time of need.

This made me think of how people view community.  Part of my personal community was inaccessible during this time because of the lack of internet.  Since I didn’t have access to the internet (or power) at home, I left in search of a WiFi location.

 I found a local coffee shop.  Approximately 80% of the patrons had laptops and were standing and sitting on spaces on the floor attempting to communicate with clients and bosses over email.  Eventually the coffee shop’s internet buckled and shut down completely because bandwidth issues.  It seemed like I wasn’t the only one who needed the internet. People / businesses /schools have a challenging time functioning without the use of the internet / technology.

About five years ago I read a book titled, Campfires in Cyberspace.  Not necessarily on the NY Bestseller List , but it was a good read. This book gave me a few ideas on how to integrate technology in my own classroom.

This book spoke of the learning that can occur via technology.  This book was published before Twitter, Google+ and web 2.0 tools grabbed any type of traction in the education sector.  Actually the “new” learning tool for that time was Webquests.  I still enjoy utilizing Webquests in my classroom.

During the time I read this book, the words “Digital Native” started to become more prevalent in schools across the country.  If you’re still wondering what “Digital Native” is, take a look at Jodi Harrision’s blog and graphic. Just like adults have communities, I believe students have an opportunity to create and be a part of their own school community by utilizing technology.  ASCD has a brief article that outlines how to establish and suggests guidelines in creating an online student community.

 If adults seem uncomfortable without a day of internet access, how do you think students (that use technology daily) feel when they spend their entire school day without the web or using technology?  

By  utilizing technology, Educators will be able to open the box of  untapped potential to improve student learning. Now, more than ever educators / administrators need to integrate technology in the classrooms.

If you’re hesitant or want more information, follow #edtech on Twitter. Also, check out the following tech blogs if you’re still curious.

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