Friday, January 26, 2018

Computer Lab Displays 2018

Hello, internet denizens!

This is just a quick write-up of the new displays in the IT Lab for 2018. I wanted to get this posted before the start of the year has passed me by, as I've had a great reception from staff and students on how the lab looks.

On the door:

This new poster is on the lab door. It helps new parents and students figure out what my lab is: the glass on the door is darkened so it's not easy to peer in and figure it out. I've since added a timetable for the lab as the venue is nearly fully booked already.

Awesome Algorithms, Brilliant BeeBots:

This display features the great free BeeBot instruction cards from TES. I printed the BlueBot over 4 A3s, I've never printed anything at such a scale but it turned out great. The directions also have helped as a reference for students when we work with the BeeBots.

For the first time ever, we are running an experimental extra-mural technology option for Gr 2 and Gr 3. This term we are working exclusively with BeeBots in our new Tech Club time so this board has been referred to often. My students like to use it to show their parents what we have been up to.

STEAM Showcase:

This board looks a bit bare now but the idea is that I will fill the STEAM Showcase with examples of great work. As we work mostly digitally, I didn't have a place to display student work last year. I think this board will help motivate my students when they see examples from their peers being displayed. I used the super, free, STEAM Monster posters on Teachers Pay Teachers.

The Biggest Change to the Lab:

Just before school closed at the end of last year I had asked for wires to be installed in the lab. The idea for these wires originally was to display student work but, after racking my brains the whole holiday, I finally had a better idea.

Right before school opened this term, I had a very diligent student helper who helped me punch holes into about 80 old CDs and DVDs that I sourced from my colleague. We strung these CDs onto colourful yarn and then hung them up all across the lab.

The change has been quite striking and it's charming to see the CDs dancing in the breeze. The new decor has also spurred some conversations with students about why we use CDs for (data storage), why we are using CDs for decoration (becoming obselete) and what we use now instead of CDs (cloud, flash/usb sticks). The older visitors to the lab have been having fun reading the titles of the motley collection of CDs, there are a few old games CDs tucked away in the corners of the room.

The pictures don't quite do it justice, they are quite animated little decorations - especially when the air-conditioning is on!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Exploring and Tinkering: My first time using Blue-Bots

After a successful proposal, I have been lucky enough to have adopted 12 new 'devices' into my IT Lab:

Say hello to the Blue-Bots! They have become, by far, the most exciting thing in the IT Lab (sorry, iPads). Blue-Bots are sturdy little robots with cute expressions and buttons on top.

I had specifically requested the Blue-Bots for a number of reasons:
  • The buttons on top of the robot are the primary input. This is perfect for young students as they need concrete experiences to properly understand Computer Science concepts. 
  • At the same time, the Blue-Bots can later be used with an app via Bluetooth. This gives the robot more versatility at older ages. 45 turns and repeats can be achieved through the app.
  • Clear plastic shell means that my students can see the inner workings of the Blue-Bot. This has utterly fascinated my children and already lead to conversations about motors, batteries, motherboards, speakers, input/output and all sorts of hardware bits.
  • Reliable: Bee-Bots and Blue-Bots have a good reputation for being robust and ideal for my young students and their sticky fingers.

Introduction lesson: Blue-Bots


This lesson happens after we've had a lesson on Crazy Characters and algorithms. We sit together on the carpet while I explain these are robots that work using algorithms and remind them what that means. We investigate the bots while they are switched off.  We pass the bots around and ask questions and wonder out loud together. We look at all the parts we can see and discuss how they could work, and what we think the parts do. The Blue-Bots shine in this stage because of the clear plastic shell and how we can wonder about all the inside parts and what they do. This exploring phase is so important as the students gain a better understanding of what the purpose of the bot is rather than just treating it as a toy.


When we have fully mined out all of the possibilities of looking at the Blue-Bots while they are switched off, I remind the students about the benefits of working with a partner while solving puzzles. The best benefit of a partner is that you can always come up with new ideas together (brainstorm). I encourage them to use the pair programming concept of driver/navigator roles in order for them to take turns and for both partners to be actively involved in the learning rather than one just sitting passively. I give the students the hint that the bots use algorithms, and that buttons need to be pressed in a certain order for them to move.

After that, I let them loose in the room with their bot and their partner for most of the lesson. I delibrately don't teach them how the bots work at first. They try the Blue-Bot out on the desks, on the floor, under the desks, on any random surface. Many of them soon figure out that there needs to be a way to clear previous commands, so after a few minutes I bring them back to the carpet to model what to press in order to clean the memory and start with a new algorithm.

As students find a problem, I encourage them to try to solve it. Once a group of students have found a solution, I get them to teach others.The students need this tinkering time with the bots in order to try out their wacky ideas and eliminate what the bot can and cannot do.  If needed, I bring the group to the carpet to deliberately teach a function or correct a misconception.

Next steps?

After the introductory free-roam lesson, the next steps are to give the students some more structured challenges. After the tinkering phase, they feel as if they are much more experienced bot 'programmers' and confidently approach challenges as they now understand how the basic mechanics work.

I plan to involve marching and dance in my follow-up lessons, as my students particularly enjoyed making the bots move in sync with each other. Another option is to get the Blue-Bots to move in shapes such as squares and rectangles, and getting students to record their algorithms before they program them into the bot.

I am pleased to report than a number of the class teachers have been very inspired by the students' enthusiasm and have given their own ideas for future projects. I am so pleased that other teachers see the potential of co-curricular ideas with these fantastic little devices.

Getting your hands on some Blue-Bots

This is a note only for South African technologists, but my school had great success in sourcing bots from a local company called Edit Microsystems. They have been nothing but helpful in shipping and getting the bots couriered to us. We also purchased 2 charging docks, which have been invaluable in giving us as less chaotic charging situation.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Pirate Cove Part 2: Digital Project-Based Learning in Minetest

This is post 2 of a two-part series on using Minetest to explore project-based learning with Grade 3 students. Click here to read Pirate Cove Part 1: Digital Project-Based Learning in Minetest.

Step 4: Check

I included a checking step in the project: all of the 'paperwork' had to be done before the teams could earn building time in the game. This was an opportunity for all of the student teams to finish the research and design phases and help anybody in the class that needed extra help. I emphasised that our pirate town is a community and we all had to help each other. This mentality was later seen in the building phase as students asked to help other teams finish their buildings. Our lessons during this project were quite intense and busy for me and this built-in checking step helped me actually have a chance to look over their written work and ask students to adjust their work if needed.


Step 5: Build!

This was the highlight of the project for the students and the part that provided the motivation to complete all of the previous steps! The students logged in and we spent a chaotic first session getting used to the controls, the map we were building on and the plots that the teams were allocated. My students impressed me with their levels of cooperation, they really tried very hard to follow the rules of Parley and stay focused on their objectives. Despite a large range of skill levels, the students helped each other learn basic tips and tricks to make their building projects a success. I rewarded the most helpful pirate of the week with permission to wear a gold medallion which further helped to incentivise helpful behaviour.

The Minetest version we used allowed for the students to customise the appearance of their character, which was massively popular. This feature had the side effect of teaching the students about using Function keys on the keyboard (F7 changed camera perspective) and the importance of a correct username (if they logged in with a differently spelt username they lost their customisation).


We constructed our pirate coves for a total of 4 hours = 1 hour per lesson. In that limited time both classes finished their assigned buildings and worked together to improve their towns. Students came up with original ideas to customise their town: one class worked on a large statue with a pirate hat and another class came up with the idea of creating a path to join up their buildings. Here a sample of one pirate cove being built up over the four lessons.

3H Timelapse.png

The final lesson was set aside for students to leave their plots and walk around the town, exploring what they had built together. At their request, I set the game time to night in order for us to see pirate cove lit up from the light of the lighthouses and other buildings. At the end of the lesson, I asked the students to park their character in a spot of their choosing as we turned the server off for the last time. Most of them chose either a beautiful viewpoint or inside the building they had made. One student gave this advice:

When the time comes to turn the server off forever, make sure you go somewhere with a good view.


Click here to view a slideshow of screenshots from our finished pirate cove project.

Step 6: Reflection

The students learned how to take a screenshot on a computer (print-screen key) and paste it into Microsoft Paint. After saving it, they imported the screenshot into their Building Quest document and completed a reflection page about the project. We then discussed advice we would give next year's students:

  • Don't jump into deep holes looking for shiny rocks, you will get stuck.
  • Work as a team and listen to your partner's ideas.
  • Keep your idea simple, don't let it get too complicated.
  • When you dig don't dig straight down, it's dark.
  • Ask people for help if you need it.
  • Don't sit in chairs, you will get stuck. (we had a few glitchy chairs)

I feel this is a refreshing mix of advice relevant to the game and also to wider contexts!

Step 7: Learning

Learning areas for this project included:

Digital literacy:
  • Online interactions and appropriate behaviour
  • Design process
  • Online research
  • Integrated studies: Pirates

ICT skills:
  • Software: Minetest
  • Software: Google Slides
  • Software: Microsoft Paint

Computational thinking approaches:
  • Collaboration
  • Persevering
  • Creating
  • Tinkering

The students and myself thoroughly enjoyed the experience of project-based learning in ICT this term. The maps for each pirate cove have been saved for posterity and future showcases.

Completed Building Quest Projects:

Pirate Cove Part 1: Digital Project-Based Learning in Minetest

Ahoy! Welcome to Pirate Cove!

Digital Project-Based Learning in Grade 3

Background: Objective

Pirate Cove was a 9 week project that I ran with two classes of Grade 3 students. Each week we had one hour of lesson time to work on our project. The Grade 3s had a term-long Pirates theme that stretched across all learning areas and I wanted our ICT lessons to integrate with that theme. I dedicated the entire term to the project as I wanted students to become invested in our final, collaborative product - a pirate town built in the computer game Minetest. Aside from learning how to play the game together and various ICT skills (screenshots, image manipulation and importing), I wanted my students to research, plan and design their building project and reflect on the process.

Background: Technical

Minetest was my chosen Minecraft clone because it was free and runs well on the computer lab Windows machines. It also runs locally which means that it didn't require any bandwidth or internet to run. Each student used a Windows desktop to access their project document (Building Quest) as well as build on Minetest. The students had briefly experimented with Minetest last year and some remembered it fondly, but this project was the first time any of them had spent longer than an hour with the game. I've written more about Minetest on my blog here.


Step 1: The Building Crew

The first step for us was to determine what we were building. The first lesson was taken up with explaining the parameters of the project, our goals, and giving the students time to come up with ideas. They filled in this Google Form so I could gather data about how much experience they had in Minecraft/Minetest and what they wanted to build. I used their responses to build up a number of teams (building crews) in each class, roughly based around what the students requested. I also used this step to introduce our rules of Parley, which covered expected behaviour to work together and not cause any trouble.

The survey allowed me to gather data from the students and sort them into compatible teams. The students were sorted to balance out experience at this kind of game and type of building they wanted to work on. They chose the crew names themselves and became quite attached to their colours!


Step 2: Research

The students were sorted into their teams and we rearranged the seating plan so that teams could sit next to each other. While this created a delay in the beginning with logging into new machines and profiles, in hindsight this was an excellent choice as it helped students work together with their partners. They started work on a structured research task to find out more about their building assignment. The students each worked in a Google Slides workbook (Building Quest) where they completed all of their 'paperwork' for the task. There are links to samples of completed workbooks at the end of this write-up.

Students used a bank of suggested websites as well as saved videos to learn more about their building assignment. They had to try and find out information about the types of materials that would have been used to build their assignment in real life during the 16-17th century. Each step of the project was clearly laid out and teams were able to move ahead with the next step as soon as they felt ready to. I was able to take certain teams aside to give them individual support to complete a task they needed more help with. This differentiated approach was a new experience in the ICT lab and the students appreciated being able to work at their own pace.


Step 3: Design

Once the research task was complete, students moved onto the design phase. They used Microsoft Paint, a new program for us, to sketch out a proposed design for their building. The students largely learned how to use Paint from each other. For the group of students that needed it, I ran a brief tutorial on the basics of the program. Afterwards, the students saved their design (giving the image file a good name!) and imported it into their Building Quest document. The next phase was to label their design to give it more detail, then complete a 5 sentence write-up of what their design would be made of.

I believe that including this design step helped the students become much more invested in the later process of building. I was blown away by the quality of their work!

This is post 1 of a two-part series on using Minetest to explore project-based learning with Grade 3 students. Click here to read Pirate Cove Part 2: Digital Project-Based Learning in Minetest.

Monday, August 14, 2017

5 Awesome Starting Activities on Seesaw

Hello, internet!

I wanted to post an update about using the Seesaw app with our Junior Primary shared iPad lab. Seesaw has been a fantastic tool in our classrooms here at Bridge House School. It's a brilliantly simple app and it often takes very little time for a teacher to understand how it works. The first snag can come, though, when you want to begin using it with your students but aren't sure where to start. This term I've been guiding my Junior Primary colleagues through Seesaw and many now feel ready to start using it on their own with their students (yay!). The important thing to remember is that Seesaw is a tool to record and reflect on learning. Add Seesaw to enhance learning and it will be hard to go wrong.

To help with getting started, here is a list of the top 5 activities that I have done with students ages 6 - 9 (Grades 1 - 3) on Seesaw using our iPads. It's in countdown format, but all have been equally fun and valuable.

5 Awesome Starting Activities on Seesaw

Friday, July 14, 2017

Seesaw: The app that changed everything

Maybe that's an overly-dramatic title for this post: the app that changed everything! Seesaw came along and did completely change how I think about using iPads in Junior Primary, though.

Seesaw has been on my radar as a portfolio-type app for years, so their icon was familiar. The first time I opened it I saw a login screen and immediately ruled it out as not useful for my situation. Here is my situation:
  • A class-sized set of iPads
  • Shared in a mobile lab
  • No guarentee you would get the same iPad each time
  • Users are 9 years old or younger
I saw the login screen on Seesaw and thought that it would be too complex for my little users. There are already enough logins that they/I have to remember: Windows login, Reading Eggs, Mathletics, Cami Maths, our typing program - I thought adding another login would be a waste of my time.

My colleague, @mrkirkbhs, pointed me back to Seesaw earlier this year as he had heard good things about it being used for younger grades. I have been given more earmarked time for iPad use this year and, in an effort to make that time more meaningful, I went back and had another look at Seesaw. Just past the dreaded login screen is the fantastic trick that makes Seesaw fit my situation:

Seesaw offers a class-level login based on QR code! This makes it ideal for shared iPads with young students!

This is amazing for two reasons:

QR code: No alpha-numeric login for my students to remember or type in on the tricky iPad keyboard. They just tap "I'm a student" then hold the iPad up like they are taking a photo of the code and voila! They are logged in to the main hub of Seesaw, ready to create content.

Class-level login: This is fantastic for my young students. From the main menu they create content then, when they are finished with it, they 'tag' their work by selecting their name from a list (or multiple names if it is group-work). Again, this removes any problems with spelling login names incorrectly and puts the student's work at the heart of Seesaw.

What have my students been able to do with Seesaw?

Seesaw has opened the door for my young students. Whereas before, the iPads were really only being used for drill work and games, Seesaw allows a child to record their learning. This is huge. Imagine Seesaw being a digital journal, where the student can add drawings, text, voicenotes and video - even on top of imported images. This allows the student to annotate and explain, and share their learning with their classmates.

Seesaw has a family app where families of the students can be invited to participate in the shared learning: next term I will be introducing that to my classes. I will also be making more of an effort to show the brilliant features of Seesaw to my Junior Primary colleagues, so that they can also gain the benefit of having a digital journal ready and waiting in their classroom space.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Children and Bad News: advice for helping children deal with world events

Waking up to news about another terror attack in London, I thought I would send out this collection of resources to help with conversations around scary events on the news.

First, there is an up-to-date excellent article and accompanying video written by BBC's Newsround (their childrens' news outlet) just after the Manchester bombing. It is comforting and practical, and aimed at the child. I listed this article first as I found it so effective in putting bad news in the context of your own life.

Next, here is a clip featuring Mr Rogers, taken from his American children's show, aimed at young children. His references are dated (Lennon, Reagan) but his advice is solid gold about what to do when encountering news about bad people and violent events.

On the PBS Parents site there is an article aimed at grown-ups about how to help children deal with scary news:

This last link is aimed at adults though could be of use when discussing bad news with children. The anxiety caused by bad news and the constant negative 24-hour news cycle can have a serious toll on our mental health. Here is an article about handling that anxiety about the bad events we see on the news:
Fred Rogers often told this story about when he was a boy and would see scary things on the news: “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”

I hope these links can be helpful in your classrooms.