The Next Logical Step

Our third graders have officially entered into the realm of coding in the library. Many students have experience either through summer camp programs or on their own at home with coding, but few have explored the basic skills of coding,  namely logic and problem solving. If you search the Internet for coding activities your browser will burst with new online programs, some free some not, that teach young students how to program. However, often a very important skill is overlooked, that of really thinking like a programmer. To become true coders students need to learn to think logically and to problem solve. Students who lack these skills will often become frustrated as the programs they envision do not become reality. This is because students consider programming bugs to be problems within the computer instead of what they are, a mistake made by the person writing the code, the programmer.

This means that we start coding off the computer. Our third graders are working on their logical thinking and problem solving skills. In addition we emphasize that computers are not really smart, rather it is the person creating the program with the real brains. A computer will do nothing it is not instructed to do. Our first lesson was having students create simple pictures using lines and colors. They then had to create instruction cards for another member of the class to replicate the same picture. This lead to much laughing but through the merriment students were lead to understand that it was not the person following the instructions, but rather the instructions themselves which were bugged. This lead to interesting conversation about how they could have made the code simpler, easier to follow and was the order of the directions correct? How did a person know where to put the yellow line?

We followed this activity with another short pairing we called Caller and Drawer. Paired students were given a picture made with shapes. Sitting back to back, one student called out instructions on how to create the picture, while the other student drew the shapes with the directions. Again, there was much hilarity as the students shared their pictures, however, this time students were working much harder to get their ideas across. We discussed how clear, short directions were most effective. As a bonus, this also lead to a discussion about how we all communicate a little differently and that we need to be open to each other and seek to listen to understand.

Presently, the students are applying their skills to board games. We have grouped the students into fours with some groups playing Mouse Mania while others are playing Make’n’Break. The Mouse Mania is a simple straight forward coding game, however, we have used the adapted version of the rules for Make’n’Break. Similar to the Caller and Drawer game. Students played in pairs and worked to have their partner build the image they were assigned on the card.

The students are really enjoying the game play even as I continue to circle back emphasizing the skills they are learning through the play. Because students want to become better players, they are listening to advice and thinking more about how they can more logically approach their tasks. The students will be moving onto the online coding application, Scratch, in a few weeks, once they have time to establish and build some basic skills.

As with all skill development and mastery, some students will cement the skills very quickly while others will establish mastery at their own rate. Giving ample opportunity for the game play followed by discussion provides practice for students. This is a new way of introducing coding skills for me, so I am excited to see how these students approach Scratch, compared with classes I’ve taught in the past.

Fourth Grade Takes a Stand

Earlier in the year, the fourth grade worked on their first research/media literacy project. We talked about how to find information and that media contains messages, has a purpose, voices that are heard and voices that aren’t heard. Below are my reflections during the process. Looking back several months later I can think of few projects that ignited such passion in the students that inspired the focused and high level of work. Constantly through the process I had to remind myself that these were fourth graders because of the level of work and the commitment to the project. Here are the reflections in the moment:

“Wait, what do we need to know?” This is the question that was shouted across the library as students gathered with urgency around a computer. Normally yelling across the room makes me close my eyes and breathe deeply, but this time I lit up with joy. This was the exact right question for the group and the passion is something teachers dream of their students bringing to their learning. The fourth grade was working on their first in depth media literacy project. The parameters of the project are simple: each class is split into two groups and given one side of a topic to research and support. One class is debating the Philadelphia soda tax, one class is debating bear hunting in Pennsylvania and one class is taking on Inuit whaling. The groups must organize themselves, and their information. Students must find a minimum of three facts to support their argument and the facts must come from a reliable source, read they can’t simply say “I already know this.” They must point to a reliable source, whether it be from a text or online. They also must cite their source at the end of the project.

Some of the skills embedded in this project are how to:

  • find information
  • create a good research question
  • vet information
  • get back on track
  • work together
  • resolve conflict
  • present information 

Below is a link to a short movie with snippets from some of the conversations students are having. In the first two videos students can be heard finding focusing questions to begin research. Students in the third video discuss using Wikipedia, and then make a face because they know they will have to find two other sources. After the video, students question if they are moving in the right direction. You can see the students sharing what they learned if they ever run into a bear, but is this relevant to their argument? In the final video students are extrapolating information about the effects of the soda tax in Philadelphia. They are forming arguments and asking questions based on what they are learning. Click here to see the video,

Time for a Throwback

When I was younger most of my projects came in the forms of book reports, posters and the occasional diorama. Today, our students are creating movies, podcasts and slideshows to share what they know. The skills they develop from collaborating and problems solving together are invaluable. And of course they become more facile with the tools they will need for their future. But there is something so satisfying in creating with your own two hands. It was with this in mind that we decided to create dioramas in third grade. Students were challenged to pick a part of the book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin and recreate it in a shoebox. This is a book the entire third grade reads, so it gave us a common ground.

Before we started we discussed the importance of setting in a story. We read Dogteam by Gary Paulsen, a story of a dogsled ride through the woods on winter night. We found the words and phrases in the story that described the setting and helped to convey the feel of the ride. The students then shifted their attention to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Since this is a chapter book, we discussed how the images we see in our mind are similar but still different. In this way the book, like all stories, is a unique and personal experience. The students then chose a scene from the story they could clearly visualize in their head and then set to work recreating the scene in the shoebox.

Right away it was obvious the different skills this project demanded. Students had to problem solve differently. Instead of seeking and finding different parts of a program they had to create from scratch using paper, scissors, glue and clay. They could not choose from a vast array of colors, they had to find ways to develop the colors in the clay. What colors and how much do you add to get the exact shade you need? What happens when you have limited materials and you make a mistake? When working digitally there is much more room for error, for discarding something that didn’t work. When working with physical materials, we needed to discuss conserving, sharing and adapting when there is a mistake. Digitally we can bring in images that we don’t create, but rather use something someone else created. In this project every aspect was created by hand. For some, those who maybe struggled with fine motor skills this was more challenging. And yet, not one person complained, checked out or asked for someone else to do it for them.

Some aspects of the process were very similar to working with computers. Although each student was creating their own diorama, there was a sharing of ideas, of technique and much discussion on how to create a certain vision. In this way, the collaborating and group problem solving was the same as when the students work with technology. Although there was some roaming as students checked out each other’s work, mostly students were absorbed in their own process or stuck with the students near their own work space.

For me, this was a reminder that technology is awesome and students love to work on computers. And there is legitimate value to working off computers and working in the throwback project.

Looking For A Holiday

It is hard to believe that we are already heading into winter break. Every year the fall goes faster and faster. Before I know it, Thanksgiving is on the horizon and I am stressing about writing reports. I always have the initial first duh moment where I wonder, what I have been doing for the last three months. I know I have been here every day working, but what am I really doing? As a former classroom teacher, I continue to struggle with crafting curriculum that fits into forty five minutes twice a week. Sometimes, as I am planning I think I am pure genius. This should be my first clue that it is going to blow up in my face. What appears so perfect in my imagination, just doesn’t always apply to reality. An example of this is my use of PebbleGo recently. A first grade teacher requested that I do holidays with her students. Since I just finished character and setting and exposing students to different religions and cultures is a perfect tie in to our mission I thought it was an okay idea. I normally try to stay away from looking at cultures solely through celebrations, however, I convinced myself this was an easy entryway into bigger conversations. Also, it was the perfect chance to introduce research in the most gentle way. Students were directed to find one way the holiday was celebrated. Using technology to have the information read to the students, plus videos, plus pictures. Woo Hoo! Win! Win! Win! Except when it isn’t. Since I have the luxury of seeing the first grade in small groups I decided to split them into pairs and have them each research a fall or winter holiday. As this is the first time I have the class on computers independently, I chose the holidays: Diwali, Chinese New Year, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. I knew the students already knew a lot about Christmas and I wanted them to explore something new. After the students had the opportunity to learn about a holiday in PebbleGo, I invited the students to draw a picture about something they learned and then write one sentence in their best kids spelling. So here is where pure foolishness was masquerading as genius. These students did NOT want to learn about a holiday different from their own. Students who celebrated Diwali didn’t want to learn about Kwanzaa, and students that celebrated Hanukkah did not care about Chinese New Year. Students who celebrated Christmas begged to be able to research Christmas the next time. Which makes total sense. Children, especially young children, get so excited when something from their personal lives comes up in the school day. The connection with home is just too delicious and everything else fades from view. So of course it makes much more sense to have the students read about holidays they celebrate and then share them with a friend.
So this week I am letting the students choose the holiday they want to investigate. Then I am going to ask the students to compare the holidays for similarities and differences. I’m going to do this with a four corners activity first and then a classroom discussion. I already know I am in trouble because as I’m writing this, I’m already thinking, “This is going to be great!!!”


Trouble With Simple Advice

Never teach something that will need to be unlearned later. This seems like such simple advice, and in today’s world never more important. In a diverse world still searching for social justice, we cling to our myths and the traditions we have around them. As the Lower School Library and Technology Teacher as well as the Lower School Diversity Coordinator at a progressive Quaker school the myths and half-truths from my own education are constantly crowded in my head as I select books for the library, teach media literacy, create workshops for teachers and most importantly build lessons for my students. And yet, there are times that I wonder about how to best approach preparing students to be the kind of compassionate, empathetic truth seekers we strive to help nourish. 

All schools work to value the light within each child, and as a librarian, I take very seriously the need to not only have a wide range of books that reflect our population but just as important, the faces that aren’t represented in our student body. Finding books from diverse authors, representing a range of people in all of their humanity, has become somewhat easier over the years. I have a growing list of resources to support me in this endeavor which includes The School Library Journal, Embrace Race, Teaching Tolerance, The Brown Bookshelf, and The Advocate to name a few. It is a task I enjoy. It allows me to feel as though I am having a positive impact, I know how to find the books, and I know how to order them. I am lucky enough to work in a school where this is the expectation so there is nothing revolutionary about my actions.

Buying new books is easier than revisiting old favorites. Often when I pull out a cherished book from my childhood or even a newer favorite book, I find stumbling blocks. How am I supporting the myths, stereotypes and simplistic narratives that are playing out over and over again in our society? Even if I am not overtly teaching them, am I allowing them to go unchallenged, even supported through the books and materials I have? And although I can stand in front of adults and talk about the power of teachable moments, this hard line becomes blurred when I look out into the young faces in front of me. A diverse group of learners also means representing various levels of awareness. For instance, some of my first graders think boys wearing pink shoes is a non-event, while others would find it uncomfortable to the point of silliness.

The truth is in any one day I can have a fabulous discussion about stereotypes with the fourth grade, using the book A Boy Named Queen by Sara Cassidy, and inadvertently reinforce the same gender stereotypes with a younger audience by reading a book about a boy putting on his friend’s pink shoes. This causes great hilarity in my one of my younger classes. Except for the child who didn’t find it funny.  That child simply became quiet. And I don’t know why. Could this child be gender fluid?  I felt ill prepared to facilitate a conversation about gender stereotypes. I made some weak points about how pink sparkles can be for everyone, but this was greeted mostly by giggles.

And therein lies the problem. Much like our student body, our library represents society over years of development, with all of its stops and starts. For older students, this very much feels like an inroad to difficult conversations. For younger students, students that are sheltered and think of the eighties the way we think of ancient times, this perspective seems elusive.  And a strong part of me feels they have the right to giggle at pink shoes, as much as they have the right to laugh at girls going in the boy’s bathroom by mistake. It is meant to be silly. Except when I look into that one student’s eyes. And then it doesn’t feel so funny.