Sunday, December 30, 2012

MakeyMakey and Twine Sunday

It's Sunday, and since it's the last Sunday of 2012, I felt it was time to do some playing. Today's toys: Makey Makey and Twine.

Let's start with Twine.

Here is what the folks at Supermechanical say about Twine:

Your experience as a Twine owner begins with the setup (at, when your device gets connected to your network and, bam, you are ready to go. Twine comes loaded with sensors: temperature, magnetic, and position. It also comes with a breakout board that allows you to add other, external sensors. 

Once you have set up your sensors, you can establish "rules" that allow actions to happen in response to certain criteria.  Here's an example rule I made (after connecting a light sensor). When darkness falls, the Twine sends me an email saying, "Hey, turn on the lights!"

The Twine is monitored via a web page, which provides rapidly refreshing displays of the data collected from your Twine. 

I didn't get very far, but this device is very cool.

Device #2 is the MakeyMakey. The MakeyMakey folks' video says it all:

So far, I have been able to do some typing, some game-playing, and some music making. Sadly, I am out of bananas until the next shopping trip, but look forward to creating my own banana-piano.

The coolest thing about this cool device is that it is Arduino compatible, and thus truly "open." 

I am looking forward to bringing both devices, but especially the MakeyMakey into my classroom.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Learning to Think

This video from Vi Hart is an amazingly powerful rant connecting parabolas (all puns intended) to learning to think. It is definitely worth the time to watch it.

go,  +Vi Hart

(thanks, Mindshift)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

It's a start, at least

Why Nate Silver Can Save Math Education in America | MindShift

I thought this article did a good job critiquing our current system of teaching math. I especially liked the notion of our current system being a pyramid, culminating with calculus.

Additionally, I strongly recommend reading the Mathematician's Lament ( mentioned in the article). It does an amazing job arguing for the beauty of math.

How about a math program organized around beauty?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Napster, MOOCs, K-12 Ed?

I am in the middle of reading this blog post by Clay Shirky called "Napster, MOOCS, and the Academy."

A neat quote:
Once you see this pattern—a new story rearranging people’s sense of the possible, with the incumbents the last to know—you see it everywhere. First, the people running the old system don’t notice the change. When they do, they assume it’s minor. Then that it’s a niche. Then a fad. And by the time they understand that the world has actually changed, they’ve squandered most of the time they had to adapt.

In it, Shirky talks about the revolution in peer to peer sharing of music via Napster coming to Higher Education in the forms of MOOCs (massive open online classes).

That’s because the fight over MOOCs is really about the story we tell ourselves about higher education: what it is, who it’s for, how it’s delivered, who delivers it. The most widely told story about college focuses obsessively on elite schools and answers a crazy mix of questions: How will we teach complex thinking and skills? How will we turn adolescents into well-rounded members of the middle class? Who will certify that education is taking place? How will we instill reverence for Virgil? Who will subsidize the professor’s work?

As an adjunct professor, I am very interested in the future of higher education. But in my day job as a middle school Science teacher, I wonder and fantasize about the time where K-12 education also undergoes this type of openness.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Love Note to

Recently, I was asked by some of my district administrators to review an online textbook being delivered by Discovery Education. It is called the TechBook, and features interactive elements. I am sure it is fine, but I wanted to repost what I shared with my colleagues about another resource, called

The site offers a large range of features:

1. The books are available in a wide variety of subject and grade levels, and all are free.

2. The books can be viewed online. The online versions have embedded videos in them. Here is an example of a chapter section on Common Parts of the Cell (forgive me, I am a Life Science guy).

Note that online readers can highlight sections of the textbook, as well as take notes.

3. The books can be downloaded (for free) in various formats: pdfs, ePubs (for Apple and Android devices) and mobi (for Kindle devices).

Notice that the chapters (and book as a whole) can be shared just like everything else on the web.

4. The books can be edited by teachers. So, if you want to include or exclude certain content, exercises, diagrams, review questions, etc., you can do that. If you want to gather various chapters from a set of books into one new one, you can do that as well.

Here is a screenshot of the FlexBook system, which allows for this type of editing.

5. Braingenie. Braingenie is a tool that allows students to work through a set of content on their own, by watching teacher prepared videos and then taking skills quizzes. Teachers have access to reports on their students' progress. This is also free. Braingenie is also separate from the use of the digital textbooks.

Here is a screenshot of Braingenie.

6. Multi-modalities. also offers (for teachers) a set of muti-modal tools (flash cards, activities, readings, etc.) on a variety of topics. Here is an example of the set of these tools for the topic, "Characteristics of Life."

7. Did I mention, these high quality materials are all available for free?

I have been using these textbooks peripherally for about three years, and this year I have been using their Middle School Life Science textbook, which correlates nicely with the Living Environment. The students have found the book really helpful and clear. They also really enjoy the portability of the various formats.

I have also been experimenting with Braingenie. Some kids love it, some less so, but this has had to do with learning styles more than anything else.

The app may be the thing, but what about being app makers?

The great blog Mind/Shift has an article about a new app for the iPad which embraces Shakespeare's The Tempest.

We spoke with (Notre Dame professor Elliott) Visconsi about transforming Shakespeare for the 21st century and why the intensely social experience of the app is what, in essence, the humanities have always been about.
I am sure the experience will be a great one for readers of The Tempest, and may even deepen users appreciation of the play.

I was left with one nagging question -- wouldn't this be a great project for students to do for/by themselves? I can imagine a Shakepeare class where this is a culminating project. Sure, it would be different than this, but wouldn't that be something?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

This is great. Why aren't there more of her?

This evening, I was listening to an episode of Bullseye, on WNYC in New York. One segment featured an interview with Tavi Gevinson. Tavi is 16 years old. She started her own fashion blog at age 11. She became kind of famous. She now has an online magazine for teenage girls, called "The Style Rookie." Stories from this magazine has been collected (by Tavi) into a book (Rookie Yearbook One).

Her story is very impressive, and definitely speaks to the possibilities of Web 2.0. What was more impressive to me was the question I found myself asking: Why aren't there more of her out there? How could I inspire my middle school students to be themselves in such a real and public way?

Here is the interview. Take a listen.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Power of One Teacher's Vision

Another great conversation starter from MindShift.

This article and associated video (embedded below) demonstrate the work of one teacher.
For me, what he is doing is impressive. I worry, though, that, as so often happens, his work will become a model.

While that would be fine, what I am more interested in is who he is and where he was standing to develop his classroom. I think his particular vision is more important than whatever the implementation might be.

Isn't It Time?


I have been reading this article on MindShift this morning.

In no way do I disagree with what this article is saying.

But this is the part, I wanted to start a discussion about. Isn't it time we moved beyond the basics of this conversation.

For example, in another domain of experience, we already know that aspirin (and other medications) work, so there is no longer any need for articles, books, professional development sessions, etc. promoting the use of medication.

Computer based educational technology has been in use in schools for over 30 years. I believe strongly that it is time to move beyond the "gee-whiz" and "tools-based" and "case study" approach to the use of technology, and to start developing real distinctions that would allow learners to benefit.

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Do time limits matter?

Is There an Uncanny Valley in Education?

Many of you are probably familiar with the notion of the "Uncanny Valley."

The term was originally coined by Japanese roboticist Mashahiro Mori, who was very interested in the emotional responses of humans to robots and other humanoid devices. It helps explain, among other things, while the various Tom Hanks characters in The Polar Express can seem so darned creepy.


Reading it made me think that perhaps we also experience an uncanny valley when we think of schools. It seems as though the further we try to move from a one-room schoolhouse setting, the more uncanny we feel. By the way, I do not believe that it matters if the one-room schoolhouse is the Amish one pictured here, or a more modern version filled with laptops and other technologies.

In my view, we are teaching in a one-room schoolhouse if the traditional patterns of knowledge acquisition (teacher as sole owner/curator of knowledge) and sharing are intact. When I read over the various blogs and other edtech news sources that I peruse each day, I find that the most popular articles are those that match this model. The much less traditional initiatives are less so.

Mori talked about several ways that this valley can be crossed. Here, he discusses eyeglasses. When Mori says "prosthetic hands," read "new education initiatives."
To illustrate the principle, consider eyeglasses. Eyeglasses do not resemble real eyeballs, but one could say that their design has created a charming pair of new eyes. So we should follow the same principle in designing prosthetic hands. In doing so, instead of pitiful looking realistic hands, stylish ones would likely become fashionable.
This is an idea I will be investigating more in the future.

Friday, October 26, 2012

From STEM to ST2zEAM

Education Week: From STEM to ST2REAM

I enjoyed someone finally acknowledging that people needed problem-solving skills prior to the 21st century.

I also appreciate the focus on connections.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Working with Scratch 2012

For this school year, I knew (for my 7th graders at least) that I wanted the students to be able to construct devices that modeled living systems -- especially feedback mechanisms. I firmly believe that modeling is an important skill. For a really good discussion of how models can be powerfully used to study biological systems, see Professor John Long’s work, which he calls Darwin’s Devices.

It was, in fact, Long’s work that inspired me to redesign/expand my 7th grade Science curriculum to include more extensive use of Scratch and biological modeling. In past years, I have taught my students a bit of Scratch, mostly as a presentation tool. But, as I said, I wanted to add a biological modeling component to 7th grade Science, leading to the building of some robots. So, I chose to teach Scratch way more extensively than I have in the past.

I began by identifying a small set of skills the students needed to learn in Scratch. Here is my beginning Scratch curriculum. I then gave the students a brief overview of the program and then let them go. They understood that within a short period of time they would need to have developed proficiency in this set of skills, and they got to work.

My past work with Scratch and with other Constructivist and Constructionist tools had taught me that I needed to bake in “discovery time,” and so this is what I did. The students were given several lab sessions to develop these skills. As they were exploring, they would naturally share with me and each other what they had learned.

This method of learning (being given objectives and then time to meet them, instead of everything being carefully scripted for them) was exciting and productive for most of them. Within a short period of time, most of the students has developed the necessary proficiency, and more interestingly, began to add their own spins to what we were doing. The great benefit of this type of learning is that each student can bring their own individual interests to the table.

Here, for example, is a project made by a girl who loves dinosaurs.

Learn more about this project

And here is a project by a boy who wanted to replicated Pac Man. In typical classroom situations, he is shy and retiring. However, he brought himself fully to this project, even recreating all the game sounds himself. Learn more about this project For the two or three weeks of this project, I offered before school help/working sessions. For most, more than 15 students attended, mostly just to hang out together and work. It was really something. They have asked for this to be an ongoing thing, which I see developing as a club. 

The next step has involved adding sensors to my Scratch “curriculum.” The students began by using loudness to change the behavior of their sprites. Since the sound came from microphones built into the class set of laptops, the place was a little crazy for a while, while students shouted and made other sounds. Eventually, one of them figured out how to build an oscilloscope in Scratch. You can play with it here. Learn more about this project This has been a really exciting and rewarding experience for both me and my students. More importantly, I feel like something is happening to the climate of my classroom. And, of course, I am beginning to see my students developing some computational skills and thinking.  

Next time -- Moving Towards Robots.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Project Learning described by a high school senior

This interesting blog post, "Why Learning Should be Messy," from MindShift, is an overview of a new book by a high school senior, discusses this student's views on project-based learning.

Here is my favorite quote:
The role of the teacher in project-based learning as Laufenberg likes to say is an “architect of opportunity. Through a scaffolding strategy, they help us make sense of what we have learned. Still, teachers must understand that learning is uncomfortable, messy, and complicated.” Get over compliance and control!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Upside Down Academy

When Students Do The Teaching | Edutopia
What I am most interested in here is how the teachers and students collaborated.

I am not that excited about the Kahn Academy connection.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Measuring Learning

This article is really interesting, and completely  matches my experiences in teaching middle school students.

Also, check out Negroponte's ideas about evaluating learning.


Teacher Expectations

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Light in New Haven

I am very inspired by this story.
I am very interested in the kinds of deep and rich assessments these teachers will develop, as well as the types of technology tools the will employ.

Some Technology Tools for Richer Types of Assessments

I have been doing some work with fellow educators this summer on developing curricula that involves richer types of assessments. These have included:

This has been really fun.

In each of these work sessions, my colleagues and I have been discussing what types of artifacts to collect which would really represent that types of work we wanted to students to participate in.

So, I have developed a suite of tools to support this. Here goes:

1. Progress Reports
I had reorganized my 8th grade curriculum last year to have students worked through a set of self-directed learning experiences. This was a new experience for most, if not all, of my students, and I began to notice that they needed a way to keep me and themselves up to date on their progress. I developed these progress reports using Forms in Google Docs.

The nice thing about doing these types of reports is that there are regular checkpoints for the teacher and the students. The nice thing about doing these reports using Google Forms is that they are instantly shareable, in addition to be customizable for the student or situation/classroom. Ning then changed its pricing structure, and its use became impractical for us.

I then began experimenting with other education-focused social networks, such as My Big Campus and Edmodo. Both are interesting and have good features, but we have settled on Edmodo as being the most robust. Some teachers like it as a class bulletin board. Some teachers like it as a place for students to turn in assignments. And some teachers like the freedom of communication and collaboration that it fosters.

2. Reflective Journals
Most educators acknowledge that periodic reflection supports learning. There are many benefits of reflection, including:

  • Practicing critical thinking
  • Developing mindfulness
  • Inserting a pause into a longer process
  • Becoming self-aware of one's learning process

Once again relying on Google Docs, I have developed some templates for these teachers.
The basic idea is that the "journal" is a Google Doc, shared between teacher(s) and student. In this way, it becomes a ongoing (perhaps year-long) conversation between the participants.

3. Digital Portfolios
The work these teachers and I designed typically involved a project or other longer term student work.
I have been experimenting with various web based portfolio tools. The one I am focused on for now is Three Ring. Three Ring is a mobile app that allows the teachers to photograph student work and then upload it instantly to a teacher website, thus creating a digital portfolio. I look forward to seeing how this develops.

4. Social Network
For years, I have used blogs with my students as a way to promote writing in the content area (Science, in my case), as well as develop a classroom culture beyond the school day. While I have really liked what blogs have added to my students, I began to have a problem with the basic structure of blogs, which has an author (typically me) and a set of respondents (the students).

In previous years, I have experimented with Ning, as a social networking platform. My students loved the freedom and ease of sharing things of all kinds (both academic and personal) and I enjoyed the democratization of the classroom that I saw -- any member of the network could post and/or respond. This very much matched the type of classroom environment I valued.

My goal today is to share some plans. As things continue to unfold, I will share the results.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A new, cool Arduino resource

For the past two years, I have been playing with Arduino boards and kits and shields. In addition to my own personal needing to make and tinker, I have been convinced that they would be very powerful tools for my 7th and 8th grade Life Science students.

Last year, I did some work with my students with these devices, which extended the work I was already doing in Scratch into physical computing. As part of a unit on the human body systems and feedback mechanism in particular, some of my 8th graders built models using Arduino boards. The one in the picture models/demonstrates human thermoregulation using a bendable potentiometer and a three-color LED.  The best part is that the students worked this out pretty much on their own.

This great resource showed up in my email this morning. It is a brief manual for the Arduino which is very nicely done and very clearly written. It was prepared by Dr. Jan  Borchers of RWTH Aachen University in Germany. I am very much looking forward to using this with my students as the school year begins here in New York.

I am in the second year of constructing the classes I teach as sets of self-directed learning experiences. I look forward to seeing how the Arduino work adds to the project.

Back in Business

For the past two years, I have been on a hiatus from this blog. I had gotten frustrated by the overwhelming reality of anyone actually reading what I was writing (although reader response had been positive). Thanks to Jeff Branson at SparkFun, I am re-entering the blogosphere. Perhaps, this is as good a time as any. So, welcome and please join the conversation.