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.