Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Good Prompt is Worth a Thousand Words

My friend and student of Seymour Papert, Gary Stager, would always say that a “good prompt is worth a thousand words.” What exactly does that mean? There is a lot that goes into this statement. Gary Stager and Sylvia Libow Martinez discuss three rules for this in their book. For this blog post I will be using “learning adventure,” and “prompt” interchangeably.

The first rule of thumb is brevity. Prompts, which Gary calls “learning adventures” (a term I borrowed from him), must be short. They can fit on a small piece of paper, be written on a board in one sentence or delivered as a tweet. All the best questions are short.

The second rule of thumb is ambiguity. The learning adventure should be state in an open-ended way so that students can solve the prompt in different ways. The prompt should be crafted in a way so students can come up with different solutions, possibly an answer never thought of by the teacher. This helps students understand that there is often times more than one way to solve a problem.

The third rule of thumb is immunity to assessment. The learning is judged not by a test but rather by to learning adventure being completed. If a student is developing a video game, the reward is completing it, having someone else play it and tweaking the game so it is better. The motivation is caused by these rewards -- not by a B+, A, or the threat of a “F.” I know some teachers who understand that “failure is learning,”

A good prompt is also something that can’t be “Googled.” When the ubiquity of cellphones in students’ pockets occurred, some educators were concerned about students being able to Google or now, I guess, ask Siri the answer to questions on tests. Using the above rules “Googling for an answer” is just not possible.

Recently, I had a chance to be a “Maker in Residence” at a local school for a day. The school was Pioneer High School and I was located in the library. The tool I was using is called Cubelets and I gave student “learning adventures” that they were to solve. This occurred during the Hour of Code week and here is a previous blog post about the experience.

The hardest part of this teaching style, that Seymour Papert calls “constructionism," is thinking up the prompts. It takes a lot of creativity, knowledge of the tool and cognitive energy to think up learning adventures. Plus, we really want students to come up with their own learning adventures. Students coming up with their own learning adventures and playing promotes curiosity and wonder. Problem-solving, failure and working through failure, curiosity and wonder are really the only ways our world's problems will ever be solved.

While in Pioneer, working with Stephanie Hogan, I jotted some learning adventures down. Some I had asked before and some I had not. Here they are and in no particular order. All of these learning adventures involve Cubelets. The Cubelets are individual blocks and each one of them have a separate function. Some blocks are the battery. Some are wheels and others are sensors. The prompts below are written slightly in an order of easy to hard.

Make a flashlight.

1) Make a light house.

2) Using tape and a pencil, make a vehicle that draws a circle.

3) Make a flashlight that gets brighter when a sensor is covered.

4) Make a vehicle that when the light shines on itself it moves forward.

5) Can you make a vehicle that refuses to drive itself off of the table?

6) Can you make a light alarm?

7) Can you make a strobe light?

8) Make a vehicle that is controlled by your cell phone.

9) Make a vehicle that is attracted or follows a light.

10) Can you make a sound that either increases or decreases when light shines on it?

11) Can you make the Cubelets dance?

12) Can you make a vehicle that refuses to run into walls?

The above are just some ideas specifically for Cubelets, and if you have ideas of your own, please submit them as comments. All the above fit the “Invent to Learn” rules of thumb for a good prompt. The above rules of thumb are not just for Cubelets or any kind of making in general. Most questions asked in school should follow the above rules of thumb.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

#hourofcode in Pioneer’s High School Library

#hourofcode in Pioneer’s High School Library This rail-thin, young man, Eric, was in the library and it seemed like he did not have that much to do. His jeans were well worn, and his hat had some kind of tractor on it. The name of the tractor escapes me but after my question the student was engaged. This young man pulled out his cell phone and turned the flashlight function on. “That’s not what I asked,” I said. “Can you make a flashlight?” I asked again, pointing to the Cubelets blocks lying askew on the library table. Eric sat down, his right leg bouncing with nervous energy, and went to work. Although there are very little directions on how to use Cubelets, Eric had the flashlight figured out within 15 seconds. He was then asked a different question, which built on previously learned knowledge and continued to challenge him. I asked him if he could build a lighthouse.

Stephanie Hogan, the high school librarian at Pioneer Senior High School, invited me into her learning space to work with students. At Pioneer they have an explicit class called Problem-Solving. This class is for students who are interested in design and engineering and they were the first and only formal class to come to the library to work on the Cubelets. These students were given progressively harder challenges. They divided up into two groups at times. Sometimes the groups merged to find a solution, but the interaction between these students was congenial, risk-taking (for high schoolers) and expressive.

My "Maker in Resident" time in Pioneer's library happened the week of Dec. 7-12. This week is the Hour of Code week, which coincided with the Computer Science and Technology consortium’s Computer Education Week. To this day, just about 200 million students have experienced the “hour of code” according to When started the hour of code week three years ago, only 1 in 10 schools taught some kind of computer programming or coding. Now that number is 1 in 4. The rest of the day in the library, either random students had heard the word that something “fun” was happening in the library, or students were just coming down to socialize. The students who heard that something fun was happening approached me hesitantly but after they were challenged they dug right in. Other students who came down to socialize were curious as they watched me or fellow students “play” with the Cubelets blocks. Sometimes, I’d just ask a random student a question. Some of them would bite and some would not.

All different types of learners were involved. There was a circumstance when a special education student had the right answer and not until I pointed at the student or said “you are not listening to all of your colleagues” was this student’s correct solutions listened to and acted upon. This is a sad reality that no one really wants to see but if students are not put into these position there never is a “teachable moment.”

Even though I had a student skip class, use his teacher’s hall pass and come down to the library, all in all the day was extremely successful. Stephanie should be commended for all her work. She applied for a grant at her local Walmart and she won. With the money she ordered a class set of Cubelets, because she feels that libraries are not just for storing information but are also, places where information is created, invented, published and learned. On this day, students invented and learned in a collaborative and hands-on way.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Open Source Software that Changed a Girl’s Life

My friend Kaylyn, a student at the Olean City School District, is just like every other 12-year-old girl. She says things like “that’s the bomb” and “Wait till my mom sees this.” Kaylyn says “awesome“ a lot and she loves to draw. Specifically, she loves to draw hearts. She also has the best handwriting I’ve ever seen from any 12-year-old. But there is something you should know about Kaylyn. She does not have use of her arms and legs. This causes her life to be different.

Unable to use her arms and legs creates difficulty for her getting around school independently. She also has difficulty doing assignments, because typically there is much handwriting involved.
In September of this school year, since the Olean City School District subscribes to the Cattaraugus Allegheny BOCES Model Schools services, I went in to observe Kaylyn. This was an informal observation and I was just there to make suggestions. I was hoping these suggestions could possibly make Kaylyn’s life better.   When I initially visited Kaylyn I had absolutely no suggestions whatsoever. I had nothing. I was disappointed. I was unsatisfied with not coming up with anything but I continued work on it. Later, In October, I had an epiphany. I had used a software called eViacam and recorded a video of myself using it. YouTube Video of Rick Using eViacam eViacam is a free open source software that anyone can download to their computer but it seems to only be available for the Windows operating system (  I’m working on a Mac solution.  How does eViacam work? Well it uses the built-in camera or an external camera and ”locks onto your eyes and nose,” which allows you to operate the mouse with your head movement.

On November 18, 2015 I was one of the first people to witness Kaylyn not having to write her name on a piece of schoolwork using her teeth. This day brought goose bumps to all the educators who were in the room. This piece of software was a game changer for Kaylyn. She was now able to do more work [lg2] independently. If you think about it, that’s really what we want from all of our students. We want them to grow up and be lifelong learners, contributing members to society and independent.

A special thank you goes out to Marcie Richmond, Olean’s Special Education Director, Amy Buckner, Kaylyn’s Support Aide and all of Olean’s Tech Department. 
Kaylyn is a special girl and not because she can’t use her arms and legs. She is special because of her resilience, her stick-to-itiveness, and her ability to persevere. Kaylan is just like every other girl and that’s the way it should be. If she wants to dot her “I’s” with a heart or pass a note to another student in class when she should be paying attention, we as educators should do everything in our power to make that happen.   I’m so glad to have met Kaylyn and extremely thrilled to call her my friend.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Kindergarteners Learn to Kode with Kodable

kodable1.JPG     On Thursday May 15, I entered Kirsten Grubes’s room at Cattaraugus Little Valley school.  Ms. Grube had a substitute and since I was entering a kindergarten classroom we had to forgo any introductions and attempt to match the activity level of about 14 six year olds.  I never did get the name of the substitute.
     As a helper at one of the centers, I teach students the fundamentals of programming using the app called Kodable.  At kindergarten Kodable requires students to follow directions, which is good and can be a bit of a struggle with this age group.  I know this because I am pretty sure Kyle was not supposed to march around the room, growling like a monster while gently banging his crayon box on top of his head.  Oh well, we won’t tell Ms. Grube.

These students get so excited when they see me enter the room with iPads.  I often hear “He’s here. He’s here,” upon entering.  With Kodable students have to make their “Smeeborg,” which I call a fuzzball, move across the screen and eat coins. Grechen Huebner, co-founder of Kodable, describes the game like this, "Kids have to drag and drop symbols to get their fuzzy character to go through a maze so they learn about conditions, loops and functions and even debugging,"  The code is read in order and it does not execute until the student pushes the play button.  If the student has the code correct, he or she gets all the coins, completes the maze and goes on to the next level.  If the student is “off the mark” then the student is prompted with an “opps” and asked to try again.  Students are learning a great deal of valuable skills
kodable2.JPGWe have just been using the free Kodable app but there is a pay version, which is $6.99.  It seems like, as of now, the free version is working just fine.  It may be necessary for the pay app someday, but we will cross that bridge when we come to it.  For schools who want to buy the app and are part of Apple’s volume purchasing program (v.p.p.), if the school district buys 20 or more apps than they get them for half price.  And now, with how the v.p.p. is set up, the school district owns the app and can deploy it to different iPads anywhere in the school, as long as they don’t use more that what was purchased.
Many of these students can’t tie their shoes yet so why are we teaching them to be computer programmers?  "Ninety percent of schools just don't even teach it [coding or computer programming].  So if you're a parent and your school doesn't even offer this class, your kids aren't going to have the preparation they need for the 21st century," says Hadi Partovi, co-founder of the nonprofit "Just like we teach how electricity works and biology basics, they should also know how the Internet works and how apps work. Schools need to add this to the curriculum."  At Cattaraugus Little Valley we are making some initial steps in adding these important computing skills into the curriculum. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Second Graders Learn to Program

Second Graders Learn Computer Programming

IMG_2068.JPGWhen you enter Jill Rickert’s room you quickly find out what is going on in the world of the seven to eight year old learners.  Some kids are wearing bright green that many people wear to support a cause.  Many of the girls have chipped or chewed blue sparkly nail polish and the boys, some of them, just walk about with their shoes always untied.  I just tied a little boy’s sneaker yesterday.  

Typically, I enter Jill Rickert’s room around 9:30, which is right after snack time.  I know it is after snack time because the carpet I sit on is often littered with graham cracker crumbs or little pieces of granola bar wrappers.  I go to Mrs. Rickert’s room to teach her second graders the fundamentals of computer programing and math.  Second graders learning how to program computers, can that be true?  Well, is true.  With the help of iPads and the app, “Hopscotch,” students are learning things, interesting things--and they seem to enjoy it.  Students are learning how to make an avatar draw a square, a rectangle and just yesterday, students had their avatars draw circles.  Student can choose their own little monster or creature as their avatar.  To draw a square, students need to know that squares have 4 equal sides and four equal angles.  The whole concept of a 90 degree angle is really not something they are taught until they are older.  My colleague, Mark Carls, and I have taught students how to draw a square and to draw a diagonal line in the square.  To do this, students had to learn about rotating a certain angle and specifically they had to figure out what half of 90 degrees is.  

Students have had some real “aha moments.”  I recall one day a couple weeks ago when a student created a square, which was the task had given the students.  To keep the student learning, thinking and active, I asked her to “make the lines of her square thicker. She made a mistake.  She changed the line thickness by moving over the “change line width” block to the end of her code.  She could not figure out why it would not work.  Eventually, after thinking it through, she realized that when you change your code at the end, nothing happens because nothing is being executed at the end of the code.  She realized that if she moved the “change line width” to the front of her code it worked.  I heard the student, who was asked to get ready to go to gym, get up, walk over to Mrs. Rickert and say, “I figured it out all by myself.”  You could feel the confidence and self-esteem growing inside this child.

According to statistics at, by the year 2020, there will be one million more computing jobs than there will be students to fill them.  We need to teach our students programming.  It will prepare them for jobs that either don’t exist yet or have already been created  but are just unknown.  For many people just the words computer programming send a chill of fear up and down their spine.  If we continue to teach young children computer programming, that “chill of fear” will be a thing of the past.    

Monday, December 3, 2012

Flip: I Say "No."

This was published to the ISTE Communities Site on April 4th, 2012.  After reading it now, and since I've learned more about "Flipping" I would amend some of my comments, but essentially I stand by what I wrote below.

To Flip or not to Flip

No. Flipping your classroom is like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. For most its a waste of time, it does not allow for exploring topics of interest and just changes the order of an already flawed teaching style.

Flip your classroom is very similar to printing off the notes that the teacher used to lecture in class, have students read the notes at home and then come to school to do “homework.” Instead students no longer read the notes but now view a video or some kind of “digital notes.” This is not the definition of technology integration. Some may consider having students doing homework in class as learning by doing, but it's not what constructivists like Vygotsky, Dewey and Montessori had in mind. Once again, with flipping a classroom, teachers are not being constructivists. This is just a different model where the teacher is the leader of the class, disseminating information to students like a farmer feeding chickens.
The problem is flipping the classroom might actually be good for some teachers. It can create a conversation and have the teacher re-evaluate what they do in the classroom, and put real thought into how students learn and if the teacher’s current methods are working. With that said, for most teachers, flipping the classroom is way too low. Teachers can do so much more to create confidence in students, help students to discover their unique abilities and explore topics that students are interested in. For many teachers, going to a flipped classroom from what they already do would be taking a step backward. Many teachers do chemistry labs, go outside to collect data or even photograph a solar eclipse using a weather balloon so that the images are cloud free. To now have students view a video for homework and have them do traditional homework in class would be going from active to compliant learning.
I just spoke with a fourth grade teacher today who collaborated with the schools new media specialists to create what was called a living wax museum. Basically, the media specialist taught kids how to research, write a script, become a character and speak in public. Students had a button on their hands and when the button was pushed they became that character explaining the importance their character had on the world. Some of the living wax museum characters were Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King. This project was so popular it was later opened to the public and “performed” at the local library. Does this kind of rich learning happen in a flipped classroom? I would argue that it does not.

The flipped classroom takes an already broken, didactic, teacher-lead style and changes the order of a flawed style. We are great at rearranging this flawed teaching method. No matter what we call it we continue to control knowledge as if we were still in the industrial age. It is time we shift from teacher-centered instruction to student-centered learning.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Google Changes Background Customization

On a quiet Saturday morning, November 3rd, 2012, I fired up my computer in an effort to do some work.  Often, at least at my age now, formal work and Saturdays don’t mix.  On occasion I will work on a Saturday and, when I do, it is usually just answering some emails on my SmartPhone or checking on what I have going on Monday through a calendar app.  Today I went to Google Docs and noticed a notification.  Basically it was a thank you and a warning.  The thank you was for using Google’s background imaging function and the warning was that it is going away on November 16th.  Google allows people to add their own picture to the background and customize their Google Homepage.  This is ending soon.  Most people would not find this to be such a big deal.  Most people have a pretty picture of a cute, white, fluffy puppy or a setting sun beyond a dock over a lake or pond.  Not me.  I actually customize my background so that whenever I open Google I see my goals for the year shining right back at me. I can't help but see them and find this a very powerful tool.  Now I’ve never read the book The Secret by Rhonda Bryne, but I intend to.  One of the quotes from this book is “what you think about you bring about.”  What better way, for someone who spends many hours a day on a computer to see and think about their goals than customizing their Google background with a screenshot of their goals?  I really have no idea how many times I see my goals, think about my goals and plan to achieve my goals after looking at my customized Google home search page.  This might be very strange for one man in a small Pennsylvanian town to ask this but, hey Google, could you let us keep customizing our search homepage?