Lego Mindstorms Project

A few weeks back, a STEM Outreach Coordinator from Taft College contacted me to see about collaborating with the Coding Club. She brought 24 tubs of Lego Mindstorms NXT and 10 Macbook Pros for my students to use. She also supplied a 10-week curriculum for my students to work on.

After much negotiations, we launched the program on February 21st, 2014. And here are my observations so far.

Lego Mindstorms Robots and MacbookPro Computers

Lego Mindstorms Robots and MacbookPro Computers

Challenges of Sustaining the Club

Even though the Coding Club has been one of the most successful clubs on campus, after our highly successful Hour of Coding event some students began to lose interest. It was partly because of the huge gap between the meetings. Immediately after the Hour of Code event, we were on Winter Break for two weeks. Then I was not in town for two weekends in a row because of my classes and a conference. To make matters worse, we had several Monday holidays in January and February, which made holding the club meetings difficult since they are usually on Mondays.

Furthermore, students were advancing quicker than I could financially support them. They wanted to create complex projects using several Arduino boards and LEDs that required more supplies, which I simply couldn’t afford. This created a huge challenge for the club.

Even though I had all the free tools available, without hands-on projects for the students to work on, learning to code became another “class” for them to manage rather than a meaningful learning experience. Being contacted by Taft college, therefore, was the lucky break that I desperately needed.

Why Lego Mindstorms

On February 21st, 2014, my supplies arrived. It has only been two weeks since we began, but I am seeing amazing things happen.

Students working on Lego Mindstorms

Students working on Lego Mindstorms

1. Name Recognition

Once I began advertising to the student about using Lego Mindstorms robots, I had several new students. They all cited wanting to work with Legos as their reason for wanting to participate. Clearly, the name recognition was working in my favor. Even though a few students have never worked with Legos, they all knew and have heard of them. Because of its reputation and ease of use, Lego Mindstorms provided an edge that neither e-textiles nor Arduino boards had over my students.

2. Practical Challenges that Encourages Students to Play

Rather than simply interacting with a screen, the students must manipulate the materials while working with these robots, which can be programmed to sing, talk, and even “dance.” Although many students are following the designated curriculum, I noticed them simply “playing” with the robot before moving onto the next challenge. One student programmed for his robot to “sing” before turning; another student programmed the robot to flash lights after completing three weeks worth of challenges ahead of everyone else. Because of its reputation as a toy, these robots seem to bring out the playfulness in my students in addition to teaching them engineering and programming skills.

3. Collaborative Learning

While working on the robots, my students constantly communicate with one another. Many of them opted to work in pairs partly because we don’t have enough robots, but partly because they wanted to work with a partner. Even though I tried to encourage them to work in groups, it was not possible while they were strictly learning to program using only the digital tools. I can see that working with these robots facilitates a fantastic social learning environment. It is equally fascinating to see a certain order of information sharing happening in the classroom. I noticed that my struggling students naturally gravitated towards others who already advanced to the next step to get information and guidance, and then passed the information onto others who were still struggling to accomplish the next task.

4. Positive Competition

Since I am aware of the benefits of what Gabe Zimmerman calls the 3-Fs, – Fun, Friends, and Feedback – of game-based learning, I decided to create a “Leader Board” to keep track of my students progress before the project began. I create an area on my board where a student could put an orange star his or her name after accomplishing each task. Seeing others receive stars has done wonders for some students. This became evident when I took a picture of the board to be included in this post. A student said, “Wait, Mrs. Glazer! We are almost done. Please take the picture after we put our star up!”

 5. Rewards for Effort

Since all activities are voluntary and being done after school, some students elected to attend more meetings than others. One such student is a freshman who has spent additional hours during lunch and after school. Even though he is one of the youngest ones in the club, he has accomplished more tasks than any of the other members because he spent the most time on his project. As a result, he has become an informal leader of the group, which has been a great experience for him.

6. Grit

Although these Lego robots can do amazing things, they are also extremely flimsy. My students are having a hard time controlling the robots because all parts are made of plastic. Some of my students have been stuck on a particular challenge not because they didn’t know how to program or construct their robots, but because the back wheel keeps coming off. However, I could tell this has taught them to persevere. Just today, I watched two boys attempting to control their robots while crawling on the floor for nearly an hour. Their robots kept moving out of bounds, which happened at least 15 times, but they kept trying to get it right.

7. Increased Student Engagement

Most importantly, this project has my students’ full attention. Since we began, I have been asked pretty much everyday if I was going to be in my room during lunch and after school. Even though we are only supposed to meet one hour after school on Thursdays and two hours on Saturdays, I had to stay until 5 p.m. on Thursday, March 6th, 2 1/2 hours after school ended. That doesn’t include 1 1/2 hours I stayed after school on Monday, March 3rd, 2 hours on Tuesday, March 4th, and 2 hours on Wednesday, March 5th. Furthermore, students asked if I could stay after school on Friday, and they said they definitely wanted to come at 9 a.m. on Saturday not the normal 10 a.m., so they could spend more time with the robots. Of course, not everyone is coming to every meeting. But at any give day, at any given day I have 3-4 students working on their robots after school.

It has only been two weeks, but I am thrilled to have the Lego Mindstorms robots. I can see how much my students are learning to problem solve and work collaboratively. I am certain that they are learning additional computational thinking skills such as problem solving and programming. They are certainly engaged and focused. I can’t wait to see what my students will do next!

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Technology in English Classes

A friend of mine told me that a student tour guide at a college he recently visited said, “This is an English Class so it really doesn’t require technology.”

I replied, “#offended. I use more technology than any other teachers on my campus.”

As irritated I was by the tour guide’s statement, however, I think there is some truth to that statement. I feel that many English teachers are either afraid of technology or dismissive of it. I believe this comes from the limited and incorrect view of who we are.

I believe that we – English teachers – shouldn’t teach English. As a matter of fact, I rarely teach “English.” Instead, I construct a learning environment where students can acquire effective communication skills, be it writing, reading or speaking. I have never taught Romeo and Juliet. Rather, I utilize various Shakespearean tragedies to help my students learn the function of literature in the Elizabethan period. I use Lord of the Flies to help my students understand the need for societal structures for humans to maintain humanity.

Just as math teachers teach computational thinking, English teachers teach communication skills.  And since technology is one of the best tools of communication, it should be used in every English class.

Poetry Project Continues

As a teacher, you know that when you trust your students to be creative, you run the risk of being shocked. However, I have learned to accept the surprises as they come. Truthfully, I look forward to my students surprising me with their amazing talent and ingenuity. I must say it is the best part of being a teacher. Luckily, I have had many wonderful surprises, and I know I will continue to be delightfully surprised. And I was thrilled to see that my students didn’t disappoint me during this particular poetry recitation.

Image

While reciting Billy Collin’s “Introduction to Poetry,” a student of mine decided to demonstrate what it was like to “drop a mouse into a poem / and watch him probe his way out” (Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry,” 1996). Needless to say, this “show and tell” was a big hit! Having met Mr. Collins at conference, I know he would have approved this recitation with enthusiasm.

Collins, B. (1996). “Introduction to Poetry.” The Apple that Astonished Paris. University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Ark. Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/001.html

Poetry Project

For "A Bird came down the Walk" by Emily Dickinson

For “A Bird came down the Walk” by Emily Dickinson

Last year, I did this huge poetry unit with my students. We had a lot of fun, and my video of that lesson ended up getting posted on the ASCD Edge blog (http://tinyurl.com/d45jlfq). This year I even shared all the steps with several rubrics for the world to use (http://tinyurl.com/ceqofcx).

Now we are doing this again, and my students began presenting yesterday. As usual, we are having a lot of fun. Since I required them to have a poster or an additional 3-D visual, my students are showing their creativity in different ways. For example, a pair presenting “A Bird came down the Walk” by Emily Dickinson brought customized cups for each student in class filled with chocolate pudding and gummy worms (see the picture above). Another group reciting “The Starry Night” by Anne Sexton wrote the entire poem with glow-in-the-dark ink on the back of their shirts. We had to turn all the lights off in the classroom while they were reciting the poem. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take their picture in the dark. But you can see their work below.

"The Starry Night" by Anne  Sexton

“The Starry Night” by Anne Sexton

Another pair reciting William Blake’s “A Poison Tree” built a tree and brought it to class (see below). I also had a pair playing the bongo drum while reciting their poem, a pair using a telephone made with good-old-fashion strings and toilet paper tubes, and another pair holding a bonsai tree and a bird house to represent a tree outside the window. These kids are using their creativity beyond my limited imagination. I am so proud of my students, and I can’t wait to create another video to showcase their talent. I truly have the best job ever!

“A Poison Tree” by William Blake

Identity Management

One of the toughest things about my journey since I came to the United States has been managing my varying identities. About a year after I arrived here, I became a wife and mother. Then I went back to school to get my degrees. I was still a second-language learner at the time – I  still am by the way, so forgive me for any errors that you see – trying to manage being all the other “people” in different contexts.

I am not saying that other people don’t have to manage varying identities. But I am experiencing a different phenomenon because of technology.

Since I moved to Bakersfield, I maintained a website. Because I found a great deal for my domain name, I was able to maintain a professional looking website with a personalized domain. But the site was mostly for my students who wanted to know what was going on in my class while they were absent. No one other than my students looked at my website, so I had to keep it looking friendly toward my population of high schoolers.

I spent about two years maintaining it as a class website, accumulating various artifacts along the way. However, I am starting to see that my website needs to be a professional website to help me cultivate a more sophisticated online presence. Since attending the 2013 DML Conference, it has beoame clear to me that I need to put my ideas about education and my project out in the world, so that people can read about them if I ever wanted to be considered seriously as a researcher and a doctoral student. At the same time, I still need a student friendly website for my students.

But how does one maintain that separation? I can barely find the time to write a class blog. Now I want to write about my research interest and my readings while writing all of that for the forums so I can pass my own classes at Pepperdine.

I suppose sleep is for the weak? But seriously. Someone find me more time! Please!

Dr. Nicole Pinkard

I met an amazing lady this week. Actually, I met several amazing people this week at the 2013 Digital Media and Learning Conference. I met Tracy Edwards from Pepperdine EDLT Cadre 15, who I began working with since October. I also met Akili Lee, the amazing Director of Digital Strategy and Development of the Digital Youth Network, and Asia Robeson, the Media Arts Coordinator and Mentor. But I was the most touched and inspired by Dr. Pinkard, who pulled me out of my insecurities with a couple of statements, and I thank my lucky star for having had the opportunity to meet her.

During a conversation about my peer-to-peer mentoring project, I said to Dr. Pinkard, “I don’t know anything. I am just a teacher, but that’s just what I think.” She gently reminded me with the warmest smile, “A man would never say that. So you need to quit. You have had to overcome a lot. If a person can’t respect you, it’s their problem, not yours.” She made me stand up straight and be proud of myself with her gentle encouragement. When I shared my desire to pursue the peer-to-peer mentoring project as my doctoral dissertation, she said, “The intent of the Digital Youth Media has always been for others to use it to do more research. No one person can do all the research. I am happy to help you pursue it.”

Then I found out more about her after the conference. A Stanford and Northwestern graduate, she is considered a leading expert in youth digital media. She even has a gigantic Wikipdia page with so many awards! So imagine my surprise how she didn’t dismiss me while I went on and on about how my idea of peer mentoring can make her “good” social media website “amazing.” Despite her status as an expert in the field, she was so open to listening to all my ideas. She truly is an amazing teacher. I can’t wait to work with her some more.