Category Archives: programming

Learning in the Lull

The school year has begun almost everywhere. Even if the kids aren’t actually in class, the grown ups are already dug in to work days. Meanwhile, after spending most of my summer working, I’m in a lull. Finishing up loose ends, planning ahead for future events, getting ready to teach a college course next week: but no travel or training.

Now is my time for learning. I have set up a work area in the den where I can easily use the Raspberry Pi and Kano as well as trying out the various 3D printing devices I’ve managed to acquire. There’s a PiBot robot to put together and an Arduino to play with. My first project beyond any tutorials is a simple monome. I tried doing one with the Makey Makey earlier this summer but could only get it to half work.

For now, I’ve been spending my time getting the Pi up and running. I bought the Cana Kit and am working through Make’s book.

campfireAs I mentioned in the previous post, I’ve been doing Camp Kano, which allows you to Make Art online, but today I noticed a rewards button for Kano kit owners, so I’m headed to the hardware next. My personal Kano challenge is to create a star with polygons. I haven’t completely mastered them yet, but yesterday’s “compass” art project gave me some clues. I’m also working through the pre-set challenges to get a more thorough knowledge of the programming language.

CullingI’ve also been culling the book collection. There are books on my shelves that have been with me since college. Moving into a house with a library meant being able to get all the books out from their various hidey holes at the old house. Even with a library, they overflowed when added to the books we inherited with the house. After living with all of them for four years, I was ready to start thinning the herd.

I’m passing along my education leadership, curriculum, and research books to a university for give aways. I’ve kept most of the texts about technology end education as I have a nice collection that helps with the historical perspective. Just put Neil Postman’s Technopoly on the TBR pile. I read it a long time ago but wanted to revisit it during the lull. Maybe dive back into Marshall McLuan and my old rhetoric professor Richard Lanham.

Despite filling ten plus boxes with books, the shelves are still pretty full. But, it’s a start.

Beyond Proof of Concept

Sometimes, when you’re in my business, you practice a sort of “proof of concept” approach to digital technologies. That is, you know enough to introduce a wide variety of tools to others but really only have a superficial understanding of many of them. For me, Scratch was definitely one of those proof of concept tools: I know enough to get a class through a basic introduction but not much more. I found two Scratch books (yes, books!) on the shelf and decided to do a more in depth study.

Jerry Lee Ford Jr.’s Scratch Programming for Teens is a traditional approach to programming, beginning with a a pretty extensive overview and then teaching coding through the use of specific projects. It is essentially a textbook, focusing on comprehensive knowledge of the program before writing code.

I am already fairly familiar with the Scratch “integrated development environment” or IDE, as Ford calls it, so I opted for the more project-centered book by The Lead Project: Super Scratch Programming Adventure. It’s a comic book that features computer science student Mitch and Scratchy. The former looks a lot like Mitchel Resnick and the latter is the cartoon version of the Scratch cat. There are a few other good and bad guys and the each chapter includes a programming objective and a game objective. I’m starting Chapter Four where I’ll be learning some new coding skills in the context of helping Scratchy attach flying viruses.

Each chapter ends with a challenge, ideas for how to expand on the work of that chapter. It’s important to spend time exploring these as they help you really understand the various pieces of code. And they can lead to new ideas much different than the original activity. For instance, I tackled the first chapter challenge and ended up with this rainbox slinky:

That activity got me wondering how I could get Scratchy to realistically move through a tunnel. Exploring that question led to this program that features my original artwork 😉 It may not be the best cave drawing but I am pretty happy with the way it seems like the cat disappears into the cave and the flicker on the candle. I may expand it into a tour of cave features.

I am using the notes area to record design ideas. Here are the notes I made for this project:

I started out with just the idea of how to make Scratch cat disappear into something like a cave and then reappear. I was going to do it all on the same backdrop but then decided to explore changing backdrops and broadcasting messages for things like the candle to appear.

It is fun to move beyond proof of concept with Scratch. The most recent activity was to create a quiz and a game in one. Players answer quiz questions and then get to play a game. If the player loses the game, she has to go all the way back through the quiz to be able to play again. I’m experimenting with how you might be able to return the player to the game and skip the quiz.

What I’ve Been Reading

Tim Stahmer’s blog post, It’s Not Pearson’s Fault, led me to the Forbes profile of the education giant. As Tim noted, it was worth the read. Two statements from Pearson executives stood out for me. In the very first paragraph, we see how difficult it is to pin down educational concepts. Jennifer Rheinfold writes of Pearson’s goals: “The goal is not merely to build a more successful and sustainable business—an imperative as Pearson’s traditional print operations shrivel—but also to improve the lives of millions of people throughout the world.” But the quote that follows from CEO John Fallon shows an interesting take on improving lives when he comments, ““What we’re trying to do is the same thing—to help improve learning outcomes.” Which translates to test scores. 

Sir Michael Barber, Pearson’s chief education advisor, wrote a report on Pakistan in which he refers to his education philosophy–standards and accountability–as “deliverology.” The image of education invoked by this word is a traditional, teacher- and curriculum-centered practice where students are the recipients rather than the participants.

The Man With 26 Million Students refers to Zach Sims, the founder of Codeacademy. Coding is the foreign language of our era. Fluency allows you greater creativity as you have more control over the development environment. But programming is more than that: it has a logic and syntax that requires critical thinking and deeper learning is often experienced through failure rather than success as Tom Woodward suggests in his post, Rookie Javascript Mistakes.  I’ve been playing around with the Kano I bought and going through the challenges for students that help them grasp programming concepts. I “learned” to program the way Tom did, by thinking about what I wanted to accomplish and finding bits of code that allowed me to do that.  Working through tutorials are helping solidify my understanding. After I finish this post, I’m going to try out this weekend’s pizza challenge.

#28daysofwriting from Oliver Quinlan describes Tom Barrett’s project to blog 28 minutes for the next 28 days. I’m in and hoping that the commitment, one I’ve tried before, will indeed kickstart this blog. I’ve signed on officially and this is my first post.



Unstructured Time

I was just thinking about getting ready to head to the after school program when I got a text indicating they were going to have to cancel. I was a little disappointed as I had pulled together some digital cameras and was hoping to work on some digital storytelling using Scratch as the production tool…get the girls interested in programming by building on their interest in digital media. I had spent an hour or so today creating two ideas for using digital photos in Scratch:

Farming Friends:

Farm Slide Show:

So, I kept working on them a bit, adding code to make sure they reset themselves when the green flag was pressed. I figured the girls could remix my work, thus learning both about the Scratch community and getting to see some code they can work with.

I finished tinkering and realized I had unstructured time. The last time it happened, I had to listen to a Coursera lecture. Today, I really could take a break from responsibilities. What to do? The dogs benefited as they got an extra walk before their supper. And my kitchen floor got a much needed cleaning.

But I was also able to escape upstairs to my makeshift sewing room where I’ve been working on my first quilting project. I had bought a kit for a small wall hanging several years ago and decided this would be the year I finished it, intending to give it to my mother for a Christmas gift. I had cut squares and done some sewing over the weekend but today’s job was to start creating the whole piece. I pretty quickly discovered just how badly I had done with the initial cutting. Some squares were more like rectangles, points didn’t match and after sewing two rows together, I found that one of the blocks was positioned incorrectly, a mistake that pretty much doomed the project. I could have taken it all apart but that wasn’t going to solve the poor cutting. I used a rotary cutter but just wasn’t as careful as I should have been. I’ll finish it as it is good enough for me but I’m going to try another one to give as a gift. This time, I’ll be better focused on the cutting, first taking some time to read tips from experienced quilters who are willing to share their secrets online.

A well-made quilt has a clean, neat look that results from clean, neat cutting. I knew that and yet it took failure to bring the lesson home. It’s tempting to give it up and go back to crocheting, a craft I do well, but I’m determined to master this new craft. Thank goodness I’m not being judged on my first effort.

Lots of lessons for educators here…first, the unstructured time and the chance to choose my activity, and then the chance to fail. We don’t allow much of this in schools since we are so focused on measurable results.

A Learning Journey

Since mid-September, I’ve been working with a local non-profit to provide an after school tutorial/computer program for local kids. We have a group of about 16 ranging from pre-K to 7th grade that comes to us on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Volunteers help with homework and provide a meal before taking the kids home.

My original plan was to work with upper elementary and middle schoolers to teach them to program with Scratch. I’ve done a bit of that with a few middle school girls but haven’t been able to really dig in yet. With the little bit we did do, only one seemed particularly interested. I am wondering if I need to give them more choice including doing something with digital storytelling. My larger goal is to help them see that they can create rather than consume on the computer and maybe programming isn’t the only way to achieve that.

Part of the problem is space. We meet in one big space, and even with a few rolling walls, it’s noisy and a little chaotic. There’s an empty elementary school just behind our building, and we’re hoping to work with the county to get access.

The other issue that became glaringly clear last evening was the depth of the educational needs in the group. My girls had a pile of math homework so they started with that, and I spent some time with two first grade boys working through a language arts worksheet. This is the first time I’ve really sat with some of the youngest kids. These two boys were really struggling. They can sort of decode, but they aren’t really reading or comprehending. They couldn’t read the directions for one of the assignments so they merrily copied the out-of-order words that they were supposed to be putting in sentences. When I wrote the words on cards, they were able to manipulate them into sentences and then copy them onto the paper.

Other activities didn’t even make sense to me…a series of sentences with blanks and a word bank. We used  a process of elimination to finish it, but with no context for the random sentences, it was sometimes hard to figure out which word made a comprehensible sentence. If I hadn’t been there to supervise and advise, I’m sure they would have simply guessed just so that there was something on the line since that had been their strategy on the first few pages. I couldn’t help but wondering how much feedback they got on the packets.

I also wondered how much time they get to hang out with books. I’m already planning to take my pile of children’s books when I go next week and get them reading together. The middle school kids could sit with the younger ones and help them and probably improve their own skills. And then we could use digital storytelling tools to create our own books. It would tie the program pieces together.

I worry that by just focusing on helping them get their homework done, we are missing an opportunity to give them larger experiences that they don’t seem to be getting in school. There must be a balance. I have to remind myself that we have only been doing this for a few weeks. We had some sketchy plans but didn’t really know how many kids would come and what their needs would be.

We are definitely on a learning journey together….