Wednesday, July 26, 2017

All teachers can teach code! A book review of “Code In Every Class” by author-educators Kevin Brookhouser and Ria Megnin

*Click here for a list of resources to start a coding program, or to simply learn at home, inspired by the book with my additions. Copy, modify and share. Pick up the book for even more resources!

3D-Code+in+Every+Class+(1).jpgHave you been at school and in the middle of one of those “coding” conversations, and felt like you were listening to another language? Well, you were. But it’s a language you can learn pretty quickly, and one that children and teenagers will need for our future economy. The overall tenets of Code in Every Class, a book that encourages us to move away from the “programming geek” mentality to one that empowers us, addresses and critically missing piece in schools - coding. This book will raise your confidence with code. Moreover, the authors make many convincing arguments, such as:

  • We can all learn to code (small children to adults)
  • Coding teaches problem solving, critical and higher order thinking, and creativity - skills for their future
  • Coding encourages children to find problems and work towards solving them
  • Teaching coding promotes social justice and empowers the disadvantaged
  • Coding doesn’t have to cost

Coding ignites curiosity and allows children to create, which is highly empowering. It helps then break down a problem step by step. Teaching coding is about teaching thinking. (see p.19 for a list of skills, and perhaps jump to Chapter 19 for several lesson plan ideas)

Age-Old Excuses Debunked
Screen time may be an issue brought up. The authors echo researcher-author Dr. Devorah Heitner, who points out in her book, Screenwise, that screen time is a management issue rather than a problem. I like the term Brookhouser and Megnin use, “de-distracting”. We have to create a de-distracting classroom environment, not limit the use of educational technology. (they also make an important point that many families cannot afford devices that distract)

Technology doesn’t change too fast; children will adapt. They have to learn flexibility.

Technology isn’t too expensive. Yes, you will need an internet connection, but many coding programs are completely free and come with curriculums, tutorials, and teacher guides. See the resource document I’ve created.

Learning to code can assist in developing other areas such as computational thinking, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

The Challenges of Building Diversity. The authors discuss some of the careers in which the skills from coding are necessary. (indeed, this is really most jobs) They address what they call “the dark side of coding”, the belief that programming is the domain of nerdy white middle-to-upper class white and Asian males. The real problem lies with the lack of coding opportunities at a young age, for all students. Chapter 3 explores how this have evolved and how it has impacted disadvantaged groups, including girls. (check out “Girls Who Code”, a non-profit committed to addressing the low representing of females in computer programming) An encouraging shift is underway, and thankfully is coming from the tech industry itself. (check out a Google office - I’ve been to a few, in Japan, Australia and Singapore, and they are diverse places) Regardless, there is a long way to go until we have computer programming role-models for all children. The good thing is that we can begin that with a coding movement in our schools. (see the excellent work on 501c non-profit,, the organizers of Hour of Code, and perhaps “take the pledge”) Code in Every Class offers classroom solutions to bring more diversity to the tech world on p.51.

Getting a Coding Program in Your School, or Just a Simple Lesson. As with anything new, have a plan. Do some research and, as Brookhouser and Megnin suggest, start slowly and perhaps consider learning along with your students. You’ll model curiosity, build relationships and trust through showing your vulnerability, and empower your students to try, fail, try, succeed, repeat. You don’t need a computer to teach coding (see p.58), and for ideas check out Chapter 9 with a range of K-12 lesson plans to get you started. Some include gamification that will surely be popular. You don’t have to create a full-blown program. Start with a single lesson.

Chapter 7 is a crash course in coding language, why code matters, incorporating code into your lessons, and resources to further your learning. (you’ll even get a clear explanation of binary and the computer language “family tree”) When you have understood the underlying principles of coding, build your expertise. Seek out coding communities. There is a nice analogy to the English language which brings it all home.

If you think you’re ready for a program, jump to Chapter 8 and take the advice on how to launch a coding program. In a nutshell:

  • Create a plan and a timeline
  • Set up the environment
  • Start small and build from there; reflection, revision, repeat (be sure to include play!)
  • Seek support, share
  • Raise the level
  • Celebrate and share the projects (you could take Dive Into Inquiry author Trevor Mackenzie’s approach and have a coding fair that demonstrates learning, and share projects on YouTube as well)

The Fear factor. In building a program or even just trying some ideas, you will likely encounter resistance. Although this is natural, resistance comes from fear of the unknown or fear of failure. The book discusses strategies to getting over the “I’m bad at Math” mentality. (see the fun Google Search activity on p.65) Ultimately, we need to foster persistence, creativity, and effort.

Buy-In from the Community. Another challenge we often face is resistance from school leaders. Concerns about scheduling and meeting curriculum objectives are real and important concerns of teachers and school leaders, but they don’t have to shackle us to the “done and done”. Effective coding lessons, programs and clubs can meet curriculum standards. The free programs available online negate the argument that “it isn’t in the budget”. (again, see this resource document) Granted, the authors acknowledge that online connectivity and some devices are necessary. They suggest another strategy - guerrilla tactics that don’t get you in trouble. Do something with students to show their learning through code, and share it with the community. (administrators, colleagues, alumni, parents) Build on any successes. Get the local community involved to demonstrate how coding skills applies to business, science, etc.

Remember, anyone can code!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Inquiry Based Learning - A Follow-up to Dive Into Inquiry

*Feel free to copy and modify any documents in this post. A special thanks to Trevor MacKenzie, author of Dive Into Inquiry. See his website and follow him on Twitter.

Demonstration of Learning Display
Click here for a 30s video of the display
I’ve done inquiry projects in the past, but never as focused. For the last quarter of this past school year I chose to have my Grade 8 Social Studies classes work on a carefully planned inquiry project, rather than the usual essay that had been done in past years. (students have had plenty of experience writing in Social Studies and in other subject areas) More importantly, I felt it was time for them to have more freedom to choose a topic of interest, within the school’s curriculum. Feel free to skip down to the examples of student work. Another focus of emphasis was the authentic audience, producing work that was intended for an audience outside of parents and their teacher. (and hopefully generating more passionate and higher quality work) I was inspired by Trevor MacKenzie’s Dive Into Inquiry and the clearly laid out approach. I modified it to suit our timeline and needs. As the kids weren’t completely free to choose their topic, as it had to be Japanese history, this was a guided inquiry project. Students are required to use printed copies of this document to take handwritten notes, to help them learn to write key ideas in their own words. (aside from direct quotes) These qualify as part of their investigation grade, along with a bibliography.

The Approach
After I had a general plan in mind I began with a conversation, which sprouted wonderful support from our MS-HS librarian / media centre head. We decided to review the research process: how we explore and determine a topic, employing keywords and related terminology in our search, where to seek initial information to determine whether we have enough resources, where we would focus our research, and developing a strong research question. Through this I developed this Guided Inquiry Task Planning Document. After explaining the assignment to students, emphasizing that it was a 3-month commitment, we meandered down to the library and I let our librarian / media specialist take the reigns for the period. Students knew she was there to support them throughout the process. I usually give students an assessment description sheet, but felt that the planning document and rubric were sufficient. (see how I use Google Classroom to manage paperless assessments and rubrics)

See the Inquiry Project Rubric. (based on MYP style markbands) To differentiate, which was a suggestion from one of our learning support teachers, I created a checklist to help some students (and parents) focus on the key requirements of the task. See the Inquiry Project Rubric (Checklist Version). Needless to say, these students also had other modifications such as extra time to work, and more frequent check-ins form me.

Idea Generation for Demonstrations of Learning
An important step was to generate ideas for what MacKenzie refers to as “demonstrations of learning”. I love that term and now use it. I initially wrote some of my own ideas for the final presentation, but looked at a number of websites and created a document for review. We did go over the document, with me highlighting some of the more engaging ideas. The freedom to choose how they would present their learning culminated in ideas I NEVER would have considered myself. A case in point is this Paper Scroll Story on Saigo Takamori, the real “last samurai”. The student even created a prototype with an Oreo box! (see the image below)

Artist Katsuhika Hokusai Timeline
See the Inquiry Project Ideas document.

Unfortunately, due to a sudden trip overseas the students and I couldn’t plan and prepare, together, an “Inquiry Exhibition” at the school. However, I did have a morning before leaving and put together a display in the Middle School area. I wanted the students to see that their work would be presented to a wider audience. The school community was encouraged to stop by and learn a little Japanese history, and parents were given a document with links to each and every assignment. See a video of the display.

Here are some of the projects.

A museum brochure on Murasaki Shikibu, Japan’s first woman novelist, who may have written created the world’s first novel (pdf)

A museum brochure on Masako Hojo, woman samurai (pdf)

So what did they learn?
Paper Scroll Story Prototype
Beyond research and synthesis, you can see that many of the students have learned about the esthetics of a presentation - text and font colours and styles, colour contrasts, rule of thirds, narrative skills, and audio/video. Morevover, many of them employed storytelling concepts. There is always room for improvement, but for a group of 13-14 years olds they are doing very well, and learning a wide range of skills! (research, analysis, synthesis, oral and visual communication, and decision making to name a few)

What would I do differently?

Saigo Takamori and Masako Hojo Museum Brochures
I think I would more emphatically encourage students to choose topics that are not directly studied in the class. (or perhaps even require it) Many of the topic choices were based on course content, albeit with much deeper research. In the least, students had choice and were most likely interested in the topics. Additionally, I would encourage students to think more about what would be interesting to an audience. There were several screencasts of Google Slides, Keynote, or PowerPoint. This isn’t so innovative. One could argue that using an online comic app to create a presentation is also lacking creativity, but it is much more engaging than a slideshow.  

Monday, July 3, 2017

Google Innovator Program Mentoring: Some Mentoring Reflections

For the past year I have had the good fortune to work with a new Google for Education Certified Innovator, Austin Houp (Google+ and Twitter), supporting him as a mentor. Most of the ideas here are his reflections, along with mine as a mentor. Here is a fantastic New Google Site called Global ConnectEDU that Austin put together to keep the project moving forward, another testament to his commitment to continue this learning journey. 

Although I have been a Teacher / Technology Coach for the past four years, which has obvious elements of mentoring, this is the first opportunity I have had to work with a professional peer over an extended period of time. Some special characteristic of this year-long endeavour was that we worked between Japan and the United States, and more importantly, I could include students in two of my classes. (one for the project, and another with an idea we generated through one of our online Hangouts due to students studying primary source documents on Christopher Columbus) 

The experience has further reinforced my belief that we are indeed very fortunate to have digital technologies that allow collaboration and shared learning across the globe. 

The first key part of the project was to connect students by having them collaborate on a shared Google My Maps map on natural disasters around the world. My Grade 8 students focused on earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions in Asia, fitting in nicely with our course curriculum. 

Austin and I had several great conversations during check-ins and online Hangouts throughout the year as his project evolved. We both agreed that this has been a rewarding growth experience and appreciate the new connections we have made. Although Austin is now moving out of the classroom for a new blended Director of Technology / Curriculum Coordinator position we will be in touch and working with his teachers, in the hope of bringing others into new projects. 

In our reflections, Austin acknowledged that his ambitions were bigger than the final result, accepting that this is often the case. This has allowed me to consider whether I was thinking forward enough, and perhaps could have discussed the scope of the project a little more carefully. The map on natural disasters around the world managed to include schools in Japan, South Africa, China, Turkey, and Australia to work with his school and several others in the United States. In this sense, the scope of the project was wide and very successful. In terms of what more could have been done, I could have thought a little bit more. Our final meeting brought out some ideas that perhaps we could have considered in the beginning. Regardless, in my experience with being part of the global edtech community I've seen the difficulty of getting schools to collaborate. This project involved students across five continents. (if we consider Turkey as European, but could also be considered Asian) 

Austin expressed a feeling that the activity was collaborative, but too passive, and would like a more synchronous approach. It is difficult to have students work together in real time across time zones, and not all students have devices and internet at home, rendering meeting online for homework an incredible (but not impossible) challenge. We've discussed making future collaborations more active, or in the least have students visually see who they are working with, such as video feedback. One of his suggestions is to harness Flipgrid to have students collaborate through video. 

Another area I perhaps could have been more thoughtful as a mentor was suggesting how to reach out to more online communities. Austin did take to Twitter and some of his online communities early on, but suggested that he in should have reached out to Google Educator Groups (GEG) earlier on, though he did as the project progressed. I would have served him better by suggesting this. 

His own reflections also included new ways to add to the student-developed maps, such as creating YouTube videos describing the topic, or drawings and posters that match the project, allowing students to share more of their own self-generated content. Another was to build the use of spreadsheets into the project, but acknowledged that this would be a higher level of learning. (finding and manipulating data) Additionally, further challenges included getting buy-in from classes, and building projects that are more active and less passive - we agree that students ideally meet face-to-face in order to really make that "human connection". 

Some additional thoughts with regard to my part in this process includes a need to think more deeply about how I ask questions throughout the process, perhaps the most important one being "What will success look like?". I needed to evaluate the project plan better from the beginning, in order to offer better suggestions. (strengths, weaknesses, deeper ideas to consider, strategies for reaching out) 

This was an excellent experience for both of us. We managed to maintain contact in spite of busy schedules and time zones nearly half a day apart, both through fairly regular Hangouts and email. It reminds me that the success of a collaborative (and individual) project requires a serious commitment from all involved. Austin was successful on many levels, bringing many people together with his project, and he is clearly thinking about future projects. Indeed, he is thinking of what he refers to as a "Global Collaboration Book" - an admittedly "big idea", but we all know great things start from ideas. As he embarks on a new journey as Director of Technology and Curriculum Coordinator at his school he will be in a prime position to mentor his own colleagues and use this experience to enhance teaching and learning in his local community and others outside of it.