Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Making "room" for makerspace

A couple of weeks ago I was able to facilitate a workshop about makerspace. Like many of us, I've been reading a lot about makerspace--how to start one, what to buy for one, etc.

We spent the morning talking about what schools are already doing, what educators think makerspace is, what parents think it might be, how students are responding to what schools are already doing, and reading some of the current articles about makerspace. I asked the participants to download a bunch of apps and we spent a bit of time in the morning coloring and playing with QuiverVision.

We spent the afternoon playing with green screen, Osmo, Makey Makey, Dash & Dot, Ozobot, Bee-Bot, Google Cardboard, and stuff. Lots of just stuff. I called that the "Figure It Out" station. I could have had several more stations but I wasn't willing to schlep or ship that much stuff, and the point was to give some of the unfamiliar a taste of what's out there. In fact, people were most excited about being able to experiment with things they've heard of but not been able to play with and then talk about what they'd already gotten and why they did or didn't like it. Perfection.

The next week I was at one of my schools and the principal was talking about the area for their makerspace in their new building. I sighed inwardly. Some of his folks had been at the workshop and they were, I'm truly delighted to say, still stoked about some of what they'd learned. In fact, a couple of the teachers were already integrating some of what they'd discussed at the workshop. That, my friends, is bliss.

My response to the principal was this, "Have you been able to talk with the team who work at the workshop last week?" He shook his head and told me they were going to share out at a faculty PD in April. Another internal sigh, but I get it: it's hard to find or make time to share new learning. And when I'm at his school, I'm there under the auspices of another organization, not my own business. But, well, I know what I know, so. . . .

I let him know some of his teachers were already doing makerspace in their rooms. I went on to say, as we walked down the hall of sea creatures made by his students, each grouping of creatures with its own "fun facts" researched and written by students, that makerspace work was already evidenced in his school. That was as we stopped to look out the window where the outdoor coop for the hatchery was being built.

He looked at me and I could see the connections being made.

We have established a bad perception that Makerspace is all about technology. That a good Makerpsace space has Raspberry Pi, arduino boards, and all kinds of coding stuff. That's not wrong. In fact, many of those resources are great for a lot of kids. Some of the kids love the coding option for Osmo while others really like the math and word games. (The new pizza company option is pretty cool, too.) Those are GREAT indicators for teachers who are paying attention to what draws their kids.

Now we've all seen those videos of kids creating prosthetics using 3D printers and that is Maker-mazing! Kids figuring out how to solve a specific problem for a specific purpose. That's Making at its best.

Then I came across a video about The Empowerment Plan and its sleeping bag coat.

And then I found a blog post about compassionate making. That was the genesis of the "Figure It Out" station. What can we encourage our kids to create to solve "right now" problems for themselves or their friends, some of which may have little or nothing to do with technology.

And then I heard a podcast with Tom Murray during which the host, Jon Harper, said that one thing he remembered and valued was a question he'd heard Tom asks his children at the end of every day: "What nice thing were you able to do for someone today?"

Now I love technology. Anyone who knows me knows I love me some technology. I'm always buying stuff so I can "test" it for my customers and teachers. Yea, right. Well, that's partially true. But I get itchy when people seem to think that Makerspace is all about technology because it isn't.

You look up the word "making" and the definition you're likely to get will read something like this:
Precisely. Look at all of those synonyms. That's why some felt or fabric, some duct tape sheets (I kid you not; I found them at Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts), and a glue gun could become something maker-mazing. That's why the sleeping bag coat is so powerful.

That's why the library media specialist who is talking about having sewing machines in her makerspace is right on.

That's why another library media specialist who is talking about having green fabric so kids can check out a "green screen" to take home or back to their classrooms is right on.

That's why the educator who is letting her third graders play with stop motion photography for their projects as well as using the ShowMe app to create math tutorials for their classmates is maker-mindblowing!

That's why the kid who wondered if an anemometer made as a class project was more or less effective than a smartphone app, and wondered how to test it is maker-exciting. (We'll work on that after spring break.)

So by all means have Maker Mornings in your libraries at least one day a week. Absolutely have Makerspace Mania in your libraries for as much time as you can schedule during specials with whatever students are present. 

If you're a classroom teacher, partner up with your library media specialist who can help you find and brainstorm different kinds of projects but don't forget how often you might already have your kids making in your classrooms even now. It's not a big stretch to take some projects to another level and realize how much more engaging that constructivist, hands-on, making learning is for your kids. And yea, go ahead and think SAMR because inviting kids to find new and other ways to demonstrate their learning definitely moves you along the SAMR scale.

Do you do centers? Some centers can be an opportunity for making. In that case, it's easy peasy to make room for makerspace because it's just a part of the learning process.

And that's my point. Making room for makerspace doesn't require a lot of stuff or a ton of planning. It might take some time because kids might need to work on some projects for more than one class period or more than one day, but that's good, too. I've seen projects where kids come back the next day, have a quick huddle, or decide to start over because they've each figured out what their project lacks and how to make it better. How freakin' exciting is that?

So whatever you do for makerspace doesn't have to be expensive or take up a lot of space. Though, yes, over time you'll need more room because you'll have to find space for sewing machines, fabric, glue guns, random stuff you collect for possible projects, some green fabric (buy it at a fabric store) for a green screen then the accoutrements you can't leave without for better production quality. That's when you'll really want to partner with the library media specialist for space for the larger and more expensive items you might not use every day. Or maybe you'll have grade level makerspaces though with agreements that allow one grade to borrow another grade's stuff should the project necessitate.

But, again, to get started doesn't have to be expensive or take up a lot of space. Buy some fabric at a fabric store for your first green screen and download Touchcast or (buy) DoInk. Done. Go to DonorsChoose to get your kinder and first grade teachers at least one Bee-Bot and the basic Osmo package (plus an iPad to go with Osmo). Download the Education Starter pack at QuiverVision.com and download the app for some exposure to augmented reality. Google Cardboard isn't expensive and a few free apps will get them interested in virtual reality. Rummage around the school and house for old shoeboxes, unpaired socks, old T-shirts, screws, nuts, bolts, etc. Buy a few mini glue guns. Ask someone to come to school to teach kids some basic sewing skills (including darning socks), maybe even some quilting or knitting skills. Maybe a compassionate maker project is to create something for the elderly or the very young in their community. Ask someone else to come to the school to show kids some basic carpentry skills: how to use a screwdriver, level and hang a picture, build something small and relatively simple like a birdfeeder.

Show students (and teachers) these BYU meets origami videos (Origami Inspires Tiny Medical Devices, Origami in Space, and Origami Ballistic Barrier) to see if and how they might be inspired about origami or other arts that could have other applications and uses.

It doesn't have to a big production. It doesn't have to be big. It doesn't have to take long. But any time students can put their hands on something that allows them to be creative or invites them to produce, construct, put together, assemble, fabricate, form, or forge something that enables them to express their learning in a way that makes sense to them, well, that is just maker-mazing!

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Kids, Keyboarding, and Coding

We’ve all seen kids struggling to find letters on a tablet or keyboard. They wave one hand back and forth across the keyboard looking for a particular letter, then poke at that letter, and then begin the hand wave again. It is painful to watch and yet, because there are no keyboarding or typing classes, there is frequently no option but for students to hunt and poke.

I’ve seen students pick up their tablets and try to use the talk-to-text feature for some of their work but then slam the tablet in frustration when they are not understood, and for a variety of reasons.

We want our kids to use technology but we don’t want the technology to be the point of frustration for them so there is value in spending time in a technology class to learn how to use a keyboard. It’s probably worthwhile figuring how to make that part of students’ learning experience. And if there’s no time before or during school, offer an after-school class that helps them learn how to type and then rewards them for being a fast and accurate typist. Unfortunately, we seem to be all about external incentives and rewards and I can’t imagine kids taking part in this without some sort of incentive.

As for coding, well, coding is a bit of a different story but kids can’t do a lot of things effectively on a tablet or laptop without keyboarding skills.

Why should we introduce coding at all? In May 2016, Joni Nguyen wrote:

For years, students around the world took typing classes, first with typewriters then with computer keyboards. This class was designed to help students develop the real world skills they needed to thrive after graduation. However, now knowing home row is less important than understanding HTML, and an employer will be much more excited to see “Java” on a resume than “types 120 words per minute.

Okay, maybe, but I think the value of kids learning anything about coding has more to do with computational and design thinking than the actual coding itself. Nguyen notes “Computational thinking is a method of thought that is used in computer sciences, but experts argue that it can also influence the way students solve any problem. Teaching coding may help improve the way students think about nearly everything.”

Years ago I taught computer programming. My students learned how to write code in old, OLD languages like Pascal, FORTRAN, and even Assembler. (Mmmm, assembler!) Some of them wrote elegant and efficient code. Others, well, not so much.

While most of them ended up in related fields, what programming also helped them learn about making choices to solve a problem efficiently and effectively.

So what’s this thing about computational thinking? Most automatically think it has to do with computer science and math. Computational thinking is, at its most fundamental, “taking apart a problem and figuring out how to attack it.” Now Diane Main, interviewed in this video, goes on to say that not only does it have to do with taking a problem apart and figuring out how to attack it, but also “using what we know about computation.” The video goes on to address the four components of computational thinking:
  • Decomposition: Breaking down data, processes, or problems into smaller, manageable part 
  • Pattern Recognition: Observing patterns, trends, and regularities in data 
  • Abstraction: Identifying the general principles that generate these patterns
  • Algorithm Design: Developing the step by step instructions for solving this and similar problems

It’s easy to see the computational elements, but I’d assert that some of these are systems thinking, design thinking, and/or logic.

Design thinking has five components: empathy, define, ideate, prototype, and test. Back, back, back in my coding days we didn’t call that first phase “empathy.” We called it “functional design” or “functional requirements.” A little colder, perhaps, but the purpose was the same. We were learning about the audience for the project, what the customer really wanted and needed, why. The more we learned, the clearer and more targeted our questions became as we helped the customer figure out what he or she really wanted or needed, and why.

Our design phase meant we started to draft how the project would develop. We weren’t writing any code yet, but we were figuring out what resources and pieces and parts we needed because we broke down the whole project into more manageable parts and focused on those parts individually. So yes, we took it apart and gradually put it back together again. That meant we often had to revisit the customer with additional questions or with recommendations because our functional design process helped us identify problem areas, or dead ends.

Eventually we would get to the prototype which would help everyone see whether or not the functional requirements and design processes met expectations. If not, well, that’s why this is a recursive process.

There are some who believe coding should be mandatory or should be accepted as a foreign language. For example, Tim Bajarin (Jun 2014) wrote he believed basic coding should be mandatory in junior high. He said,

While most people will never get under the hood to try and change the code of an appliance or device they use, by learning the fundamentals of creating the software code that runs our devices, a person will gain a greater understanding of how their devices work, and would be more inclined to go beyond their devices' basic functionality.

A coding class would also help them gain a greater understanding of how technology is designed and how software serves as the medium for triggering all of a device’s capabilities. This type of knowledge could be important in a future working environment where they're called upon to use technology as part of their overall job.

It goes without saying, but understanding how technology works makes it much easier for a person to get the most out of it.

I understand but I disagree. I don’t need to know how my microwave works to get what I need from it. I don’t really need to know how my tablet works to get what I need from it. I have no clue how much of my car works and I’m fine with that. I think most people go beyond a device’s basic functionality when someone or something else compels them, or curiosity simply gets the better of them.

Gottfried Sehringer (Feb 2015), vice president of marketing for Mendix, wrote that he didn’t believe we needed to teach everyone how to code. He went on to say, “Teach them how to identify and understand needs, as well as how to visually express logic. Teach them how technology works, so they can understand the realm of possibility and then envision game-changing innovations.”

There are ways to teach people how components of technology work without teaching them coding because, in my opinion, it depends on what we want and need them to learn. I think his first sentence is far more important: that we teach students how to express logic.

I was working with some second graders. One of the students wanted to help the student I was coaching. He said with some impatience, “Those numbers are five.” I looked up at him. “Yes, they are. How do you know?”

He gave me such a look. A cross between confusion and concern that maybe I didn’t know that 3+1+1 equals 5. So I asked him again and he explained to me, with great patience, how I could add the two ones and then add those to the three or how I could add one of the ones to the three and get four, and then add the other one to get five. He looked at me with some concern to be sure I understood and then smiled with relief when I said, “That’s absolutely right. Well done!”

My point is that he was able to express the logic, the process, of getting from 3+1+1 to 5. He knows it works that way because he knows what he’s been taught about the value of each of those numbers.

Computational thinking and design thinking introduce students to what it means to take a task apart, to figure out its components, to determine the requirements of each of those components, and then to begin to design a solution that meets the requirements of the components and the whole once the components are put back together again. This requires patience and perseverance, two qualities that can be hard to find in classrooms.

I’ve worked with some kindergarten teachers who use Bee-Bot in their classrooms. They’ve designed activities so students can practice their numbers as well as basic addition and subtraction. There are plenty of activities for students to learn and practice more by coding Bee-Bot. They have to figure out how many times to make it move in which direction. They are doing a lot of computational thinking without articulating specific steps. In an addition problem, they have to figure out the answer to the problem and then how to “program” Bee-Bot so he goes to the right number. When faced with an array of sight words, they have to figure out how to “program” Bee-Bot so he goes from the starting point to the sight word.

Focusing on coding inflates the importance of finding the “right” method to solve a problem rather than the importance of understanding the problem.

Basel Farag (May 2016) shares a story about a friend of his who won an international collegiate programming contest. Farag notes that the greatest thing he learned from his friend is the importance of understanding the problem to be solved. He writes:

This friend told me that even in the elite schools, students read the prompt to the coding problem only once then immediately code.

The year my friend won the championship he learned something: even those from elite schools dove headfirst into complicated problems, with code as their only weapon.

Meanwhile, my friend wrote his code only after thoroughly understanding the problem. He used almost all the allotted time to think about the problem. He did not write code until minutes before the deadline.

He became a champion.

He knew that banging out code would not solve the problem, but cool, collected problem solving would.

It’s not the coding that’s the magic. It’s thinking design thinking, the computational thinking, the basic skills of problem solving. That’s what our kids need to learn. As they learn that and realize that discoveries can come from good, old-fashioned problem-solving, they may begin to learn patience and perseverance.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

It's kindness month, and there's an app for that

I’ve been trying to process this for a few days.
“Promoting kindness is an important part of the daily curriculum in a classroom environment. Many would suggest that this is as important as teaching the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, yet 57 percent of teachers polled in a recent Kid Kindness survey agreed that the American school system doesn’t place enough emphasis on teaching kindness.”

The Kid Kindness survey link tells me there is a Kid Kindness month. In fact, it’s this month: January. I’m abashed we have to have a month to promote kindness. I’m not sure what I feel about teachers thinking we don’t place enough emphasis on teaching kindness.

I’m sorry. I never knew that had to be part of a curriculum. I remember learning how to be kind and what wasn’t kind from interactions with other human beings. And now I learn there are at least 10 apps for that.

Yes, I absolutely poo-poohed the idea. I think I still might but I also find I’m giving a lot of thought to why there is such an emphasis on kindness.

We have only to look back a few short months to grand finale of the election never mind the months leading up to it. We have only to look at the way people talk to each other in social media. We have only to look at almost any media channel to see and hear stories of the current outrage, though our outrage is much more muted these days.

I understand that we have a need to be more kind. I’ve been talking about that for weeks if not months. But I’m a little terrified for us if we think we have to teach kindness in school. Is that because adults are too busy being unkind to model and practice kindness?

Of those 10 apps for teaching kindness to kids, the first app listed is Toca Pet Doctor (Android). I have to confess that it’s time like these it’s really inconvenient not to have children, so I have to bother other peoples’ kids, or their names. Anyway, students take care of suffering animals. Not real animals mind you, but virtual ones. So for those kids who have actual animals for which they might care—empty the litter box, take for a walk, feed, brush, etc.—they can learn about kindness by taking care of electronic animals? I can see learning responsibility. I suppose kindness is part of being responsible but I think the message is confusing. And for those kids who don’t have real animals, how exactly will they make the necessary social emotional connections with the digital ones and then transfer those social emotional connections to real animals or even people?

The questions I’m asking inside my head are these: is virtual kindness better than actual kindness? Wouldn’t it be kind—as in gracious and considerate—to do a few chores around the house? To clean your room before your mom asks for the umpteenth time? To put your bike or shoes or whatever away so someone else won’t trip? To offer to wash or dry or put away the dishes periodically? Yes, kind stuff is often responsible stuff.

So another app listed The Great Kindness Challenge: School Edition. The description reads “The School Edition of this app is perfect for the classroom. The “acts of kindness,” such as “Smile at 25 people” or “Pick up 10 pieces of trash,” are appropriate for students of all ages and teach them simple but important acts of kindness they can do every single day. Set a goal with your classroom, and the countdown timer will remind everyone how long they have to reach their goal along with the number of acts of kindness left to complete.”

Sigh. So now kindness is a competition or a checklist and has to be measured, like a standardized test? So if I smile at only 23 people I’m not kind? But what if I smile at 23 people and sit with someone who is sad and just hold their hand and listen? Is that not a legitimate act of kindness because maybe it’s not on the list of “acts of kindness”? I guess my real question is how children begin to make the connections between their thoughts and actions, and the choices they have in the ways they think and act?

I know I’m being slightly ridiculous but I’m just having a hard time understanding why we would think an app might be a better model or teacher of kindness than a human being. Are adults that terrible at being kind? Is that what a rise in kindness apps is telling us? If so, we have to take some serious note of that.

I have to say, though, that the last one intrigues me but that’s because it was created by a student. The app is Sit With Us and the description reads “This app was developed by a teenager to fight bullying and is designed to help teens feel more welcome in the school cafeteria. It designates ambassadors at schools that will invite those looking for a friend or a friendly place to sit and have lunch. Students can create their profile, see nearby lunch options and even start a lunch and invite people to join.”

The app designates ambassadors at schools who will invite those looking for a friend or a friendly place to sit and have lunch. Huh. That suggests the school at which this developer was a student didn’t do such a great job of encouraging students to be kind. While I get the value of kids creating profiles to start to talk to folks with like interests, that means the app is just taking the place of kids learning how to have conversations with each other.

There are pros and cons to the profile of a kid. That could invite its own form of bullying via the app or kids dropping by to have lunch but mostly to make fun of a kid. It could ensure that only kids with similar interests opt-in to have lunch. Or it could mean that everyone thinks that kid is a complete loser so the kid sits alone anyway because he or she doesn’t know how to create a profile that reflects who he or she really is. But, again, kids don’t learn how to talk to each other. Really talk. Without emojis and text shortcuts.

I’ve no doubt there is need for more kindness. I’m dismayed we might think apps might be a better solution than human beings just being kinder to one another. On the other hand, maybe we all need the apps to reconnect with what it means—and feels like—to be kind. And to pay kindness forward. And to do it without posting on Facebook what a good thing you just did so people can applaud your generosity and kindness.

My hope is that in 2017 we will be kinder to one another in the classroom and out of it, and mostly because I think we’ll need to be.