As part of my new very undefined role as Director of Academic Innovation, I’ve decided to try publishing a bi-weekly newsletter on teaching and learning at my school. I use it to highlight things going on in our classrooms, ask some questions to generate discussion about teaching, and write an “how I work” interview with one of my colleagues. Putting this document together has turned out to be a pretty wonderful experience for me—I get to learn about so many things happening at my school that I never knew about. I also get to play with Medium, a pretty sweet blogging platform that makes it easy to create be autiful posts.
Today we did an assignment in computer science where students were tasked with writing their names using scratch. We first thought about how we might make this process easier by developing a spec for writing letters—each letter would be 50×100 pixels with 20 pixels of space. The sprite would start in the upper right corner of each letter, and then it would be simple to spell out words by sharing the precoded blocks we wrote and shared on a Google doc. This seemed like a grand plan until we realized there is no way (that we could find) to cut and paste code in scratch. Oops—so then we got a good lesson in language limitations, and a bit more of a nudge to want to move on to more flexible and complex programming languages.
A student came into the lab on a Saturday and put together this video of her CVPM practicum. Anytime a student comes into the lab to work on a Saturday afternoon is a pretty good sign to me:
This year we’re replacing the old buggy collision CVPM practicum with one that uses robots. Students have to program a robot, with a fixed starting location so that it hits another robot right when it reaches the origin. We are also able to differentiate this assignment a bit, offering the students a choice of target robots, ranging from an easy one that moves at constant velocity, up to a hard one that moves erratically forward and backward.
I’ve been trying to make a habit of stopping class a few minutes early and asking the question “what did we learn today?” followed by “how did you learn it?” This comes at the suggestion from Eugenia Etkina, who visited last year and noted that we could do a better job with ending classes.
I’ve tried a bunch of ways of doing this—setting reminders on my phone or computer, but the only way that has worked is setting a physical alarm on my phone to go off 5 minutes before class. On the iPhone, I can set alarms for 5 minutes before each of my classes end, and turn them on and off as needed each day. It isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s made a big difference in my being able to remember this.
The other great thing to happen to me today was this email from a colleague.
Last year, I did this lesson with my class on Feynman’s Blocks analogy for Energy. While I liked the lesson back then, I felt like was a lot of me talking, and not much student engagement. I tried to make some small changes to that this year, by pausing and having students explicitly think of what things they’d need to know to determine the number of blocks in the toy chest, then define variables for each quantity, and finally come up with an equation. This turned out to be far more successful then when I simply tried socratically polling the class, and one or two kids shouted out the answer last year. We also got into some great discussions about variable naming conventions and units. The other thing I tried to be better about was emphasizing the big picture of what we are seeing—this equation has 9 variables and it looks super complicated, but the idea it is trying to tell us—Energy Conservation—is so very simple. One last thing that probably help rout at the end was giving them the formula for Kinetic Energy and asking make measurements that would let them determine the kinetic energy of a moving robot, which turns out to be tiny compared to a peanut or even a battery.
Today we played with Lightbot 2
in computer science. The students loved it, and managed to figure out the meaning of the term recursion completely on their own by playing through the tutorial (one student called it “function-ception”). After about 30 minutes of gameplay we stopped and talked about what we were doing, and I was deeply impressed by how many lessons on computer science students were taking away from the game. One student decided to write out all the steps of his program and then went back and looked for blocks of code that he could turn into reusable functions.
Canvas is a pretty amazing LMS. All I did was post one Peter Bohacek’s Direct Measurement Videos to a discussion and the the students took this idea and ran with it.
Here’s a video of our first whiteboarding session where I introduce whiteboarding to my class and we go through two pretty simple problems, but along the way, the kids make some important discoveries about how we represent change in position on motion maps and graphs.
Also, I welcome any feedback or observations you might have about this class—feel free to submit your feedback using this form: