Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Coding with your kids: a guide for parents.

When we think about all the things that we recognize as “essentials” to our children’s learning, the list can get really long very quickly. Recently, several high-profile individuals are advocating to add another thing to that list, coding.


Coding is the set of skills and concepts used to modify or create software on a computer or mobile device. Coders are responsible for the apps that have become such an important part of our lives but there’s a huge shortage of people with this skill set. To meet demand, it’s estimated that another one million programmers will be needed by 2020.

Beyond the opportunity for jobs, we see potential in learning to code as a way for students to develop logical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, and resilience. As James Dalziel, UWCSEA East Head of Campus puts it, there are three reasons why we think kids should engage with coding:

  1. to understand the digital tools that are an integral part of our lives
  2. to engage with the kind of thinking similar to learning a new language
  3. (and this is the most important) to practice problem-solving through computational thinking
"Computational thinking teaches you how to tackle large problems by breaking them down into a sequence of smaller, more manageable problems. It allows you to tackle complex problems in efficient ways that operate at huge scale. It involves creating models of the real world with a suitable level of abstraction, and focus on the most pertinent aspects. It helps you go from specific solutions to general ones."
           "Why every child should learn to code" by Dan Crow theguardian.com Friday 7 Feb. 2014

UWCSEA Hour of Code by @klbeasley on Instagram


When suggesting appropriate entry points with kids, it's important to consider two factors:

  1. How old are they and what is their level of experience already with coding?
  2. What interests them most? Here are five basic interest areas they could engage with: animation, games development, app development, web development/remix, and physical computing.
Here are a few key apps and resources that you can use to help a child get started with learning to code or extending their knowledge to include computer science fundamentals.


Getting started with younger children (3-7 years old)

Daisy the Dinosaur is a fun, simple app for iPads that teach basic programming while making the dinosaur move, jump, grow and shrink. Using drag and drop blocks, kids can solve challenges or use free-play mode to write their own programs. Daisy the Dinosaur even explores concepts like loops and conditional programs.

Kodable uses a maze game to teach basic logic, sequence, loops and functions with directional command blocks. A great feature of Kodable is that it introduces the youngest children to the concept of debugging, trying to solve problems with their code when it doesn't work as anticipated.
There are even support materials for parents. 

play-i robots are programmed via code blocks from an iPad. Your child programs movements and actions in a sequence and sends the script to the robot who executes the action. The robots have sensors that can be used to learn basic "if" statements like: "if there is a sound, then turn clockwise 90 degrees." These are a great introduction to physical computing as you can set up a series of "challenges" for your child to program and solve.

Introducing coding to older children/pre-teens (6-13 years old) 

Hopscotch is an object-ordiented programming app for the iPad that has a great slogan.

"We founded Hopscotch so we could build the toys we wish existed when we were kids."

Using object blocks, children can create characters that respond to multi-touch gestures and sounds. These can be combined to create games, animations, etc. based on stories in the child's mind and see them come to life on the iPad.

Turtle Art is a creation of MIT's Media Lab and is an open source project designed to have a low floor but a very high ceiling for what kids can do with it. Turtle Art at it's most basic uses command blocks to create line art. But, since it can take input from sensors and output to a variety of platforms, Turtle Art can be used to program robots, and even create applications. See intro help files here. 

Scratch is another MIT creation that uses object blocks to help children make interactive stories, games and animations. Our own students are currently coding in Scratch to produce a series of mini-games about life at UWCSEA East. Find out more about what kids can learn from Scratch.

Scratch challenge cards             Scratch Learning Resources

Scratch Challenges

Code.org has a collection of resources for all levels of learning coding and computer science. They've recently released a K-8 Intro to Computer Science course that is worth exploring in addition to their wide variety of tutorials across several different coding languages.

Make Things Do Stuff is a site that takes kids through a series of DIY projects for the usual websites, animations, apps, and games but goes one better by including a section on physical computing projects.

Extending the learning

LearnStreet is a site that offers self-learning modules and projects for the most popular programming languages today including Javascript, Ruby, and Python. Learn at your own pace and use the integrated code testing window to develop your skills in character-based programming.

Mozilla Webmaker is a project that helps people create great web content while also teaching how the web works. This is a great next step for students interested in web-design or content creation.

Harvard CS50x is a self-paced introduction to the foundations of computer science and programming. This would be a great thing for kids who have an interest in going beyond object-oriented programming. The course can be taken for free or fee-based with a certificate.

Stanford CS101 is an excellent introduction to computational thinking before a student enrolls in a full programming course. It can be done self-paced without a certificate or during a session.

These resources can put your children on a path to exploring computer science and maybe they'll develop a passion for it. There's no one right path, and as their parent, don't feel like you need to know all the answers. You just need to give them the opportunity, praise their effort, and let them know you value their explorations.

What are your favorite resources or approaches? Are you facing any challenges? Please add them to the comments to continue the conversation.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Grade 1 Students Start Blogging with Easy Blogger Jr

At UWCSEA we like to empower our students to share their learning in lots of different ways. They take charge at Student-Led Conferences, and interact with various service groups as part of the school year.

In Grade 1, we wanted to add blogging to an authentic audience to the list, both as a part of our Digital Citizenship curriculum, and an extension to their critical thinking and literacy development.

The app Easy Blogger Jr (developed by teachers) was the perfect starting point. In Ms Robinson's class, we first discussed what a blog is, and why we use blogs.

Grade 1 BRo thought that we use blogs:
- To share what we have been doing.
- To help us remember our learning.
- So people far away (e.g. Grandparents in other countries) can see what we are learning.

We let the class know we wanted their expertise in helping share their learning with others on our class blog. Discussions then ensued about what we needed to have in a blog post. We came up with a list of things to think about as we blog.

The class decided on the following:
- Use sensible words.
- Use pictures to show what we are doing.
- Use words to explain.
- Think about what we want to say first.
- Use a storyteller voice.

We then invited students to help demonstrate the app (we reflected the app on the interactive whiteboard so all students could see), and created our first blog post as a class. From there, students paired up and created posts about the learning that week.

Here is an example of a blog post Jack & Zakia created to explain the things they want to remember when blogging.

Why not leave them a comment and tell them what you think!

Letting Go of the Step by Step Tech Lesson

I admit it. I have a problem. It's not a bad problem to have. But sometimes it can be depressing. Sometimes my problem makes me feel like I wasn't a good teacher that day. Or that I didn't make a difference for a student when I was in their class.

What is my problem you ask? Well, I often reflect on what I did in the classroom. That might not sound like a problem, but sometimes I beat myself up over how the lesson went. Sometimes I think and think about what I could have done better because I saw what I was doing wasn't the best that I could do. This problem sometimes keeps me up at night, but it also makes me a better teacher.

A good example of my problem occurred this week when I was working with a grade 2 class. The class teacher and I were introducing Voicethread to the students and showing them some of the features. We had them all sit down on the carpet to show them what we were going to do and then sent them back to their computers to take them through the process step by step. We thought that we didn't want to give them too many instructions all at once so we thought we would take them through the process on bit at a time.

Normally there will be students who are quicker to pick up on what is happening and they will finish each step first. We asked them to help the students who had not yet completed that step of the process. Once everyone had caught up, the class went on to the next step in the process.

Although I thought using students who had completed the step as experts to help others would be a time saver, things were still really slow. I looked at those students who were always finishing first and I felt like I was holding them back. Sure, they were helping others, but they weren't really getting the chance to go further and explore. I have been in that situation before as an adult learner where I was forced to go at the pace of the slowest learner and it was frustrating. So we came up with a plan to change it.

The plan was the eliminate the step by step lesson where students all followed along at the same time but still provide enough scaffolding for the students to be able to follow along and understand what they needed to do.

I was able to work with another grade 2 class a couple of days later doing exactly the same lesson. This time, as we introduced the students to Voicethread, we quickly wrote the steps on the board. The plan was to then go through these steps with the students. Those students who needed that step by step instruction would follow along and those who could go ahead would have the opportunity to move at their own pace.

But then something amazing happened.

I started with the first step of the instructions and didn't get any further. They all went off on their own pace and it was fantastic. I still went around the classroom and supported all students and the students also supported each other.

My main takeaways from this were:

1. Students got more work done and did that work quicker than before. We ended up covering much more than I had with the previous class and we were finished 20 minutes earlier.

2. The kids can do it! I was so worried about giving too many instructions to the students and them not being able to handle it. I was so wrong. They were able to watch a demo and use the instructions on the board to guide them. Some needed support, but they probably got less support than when I was taking them through the lesson step by step. When I was showing them step by step, they often didn't do anything until I came over and helped them individually. Now they were off on their own and thriving.

3. This way the students become problem solvers. When I was going through the lesson step by step, they had very little room for error and the students didn't make many mistakes. We learn by exploring and making mistakes and we were taking the opportunity to make mistakes away from the students. Now the students were becoming problem solvers and exploring the application on their own with steps to guide them.

So in the end, we eliminated the step by step lesson while continuing to scaffold each step for the students. This resulted in them getting the work done quicker and helping them to solve their own problems. It looks like we are all learning. Step. By. Step.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Commenting in Google Docs just got better

Many teachers and students are using Google docs collaboratively. They allow us to highlight passages of writing and leave text comments in the margins which can be responded to and eventually, marked as resolved.

These text-based conversations are great, but students and teachers may prefer to leave audio comments. Audio commenting was possible before but only on a whole document basis. This has all changed now with a new Google Docs "Add On" called Kaizena.

Kaizena is a service that, once you allow access to your Drive, gives you the ability to:

  • highlight a passage in a Google Doc
  • leave a text comment, an audio comment, or attach a resource to the highlighted passage

How will you use audio commenting as part of the feedback process? 

Friday, 7 March 2014

Email, Spam, YouTube Subscriptions and Snopes

One of the many wonderful things about having Google Apps at our school is that our students are able to have GMail accounts. This really does enable them to have the functionality we adults enjoy with having an email, with the added bonus of learning to use it in a supportive school environment. It allows teachers to play a role in helping guide them in appropriate use.

In Grade 5, some students expressed their frustration at the many emails they were being sent by YouTube to their school accounts. Some were puzzled as to how this happened in the first place, so we set about addressing the issue.

While logged in to their school GMail account, some students had (deliberately or inadvertently) subscribed to some YouTube channels. This most likely happened at home, where other family members share the same computer. Daily notifications were coming to their Inbox, alerting them to new content.

The quickest way to solve this problem was to show students where they can manage their subscriptions, and remove subscriptions that they weren't interested in, or might distract from their learning.

We explored how to unsubscribe from other emails too, e.g. marketing or other spam emails, using the unsubscribe link at the bottom of such emails. Other options include reporting the email as spam (the exclamation point in the circle above the email), or creating a filter to delete unwanted emails.

The subject of chain-mail or stories that employ scare tactics to get users to forward the email on to others, was another topic of discussion.

Frequently, students recognise that an email might be chain-mail and untrue, although they forward it on just in case, thus perpetuating the problem. Snopes.com is a great website to check the validity of emails they receive. Simply type the keywords into the search box, and you will find out whether it is true or false, when it originated and how it has been spreading.

Our aim is that students learn the skills to effectively manage their school email accounts, which will help them manage any other email accounts they may have.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

iBooks Author Intro

IBooks Author is an amazing tool that allows you to create your own multi-touch book that can be viewed on an iPad or an Apple computer that runs the Mavericks operating system.

You can create media rich books that enhance the reading and learning experience for your readers.

There are a few important things to know about the program before getting started. Have a look at the videos on our Vimeo Channel that will help you get started with iBooks Author.

This is the first video in the series and an intro to iBooks Author.

The rest of the videos can be found in a playlist on Vimeo.