littleBits and the BitOlympics at Vancouver MakerLabs

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What a privilege it was for Margaret Westaway and I to be able to present about our makerspace journey at this year’s ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference. I have many blog posts brewing about ISTE 2015, but in this post I am going to focus on our unexpected encounter with the wonderful folks from littleBits and the Vancouver MakerLabs.

Our students love littleBits, so we had to discuss the role littleBits played in our makerspaces through our ISTE sessions. Problem… we wanted to bring our kits with us, but didn’t have the room to pack them in our limited luggage (we were, after all going to make a trip to New York afterwards for some shopping!). So, Margaret decided to take a chance and fire off an email to the “people” at littleBits to ask them if we could borrow a kit. We were shocked that we actually received a response back! The littleBits people gave us a kit and it was waiting for us at our hotel when we arrived. What a great company!

LittleBits had a booth at ISTE, so we decided to visit to show our gratitude. We had so much fun! The representatives were all gracious, helpful, inspiring and as excitable as Margaret and I are! We had great conversations with everyone. Through one of these conversations, we found out that the MakerLabs in Vancouver was hosting a littleBits Olympics event.

After returning from our trip to Philadelphia and New York, on the first day that I felt recovered from my conference/vacation whirlwind, I dragged the family to the BitOlympics not knowing what to expect. I am so glad that we went! MakerLabs is a beautiful 26,000 sf makerspace that I have wanted to visit for some time and this event was a perfect excuse to check it out.

When we arrived, a number of people were engrossed in using littleBits to make Olympic themed creations. I was a little nervous as there weren’t many children around, but that went away when my 7 yr. old son excitedly expressed that he wanted to build a mini soccer goal net that lit up and buzzed every time a goal was scored.

Now I have to admit that I have seen my children and many of my students use littleBits to create awesome inventions. I have also seen many cool creations posted by littleBits. But, I have never really made a project on my own, let alone with my son. So, I let go and let my son lead the project.

Attempt 1: Motion Trigger

motion triggerhttp://littlebits.cc/bits/motion-trigger

For our first attempt, we tried using a motion trigger. If the ball rolls into the net, the motion trigger would trigger the lights and buzzer. After listening to the buzzer go off about a hundred times, we realized the sensor was too sensitive, it was reacting to every little motion. This resulted in the buzzer continually buzzing deep into my brain. I could sense myself getting frustrated. I wanted to abandon the idea, get some coffee and try something else, “Hey Zain, how about we do a diving board instead?”, but soccer means a lot to Zain. He wanted to continue.

Attempt 2: Roller Switch

http://littlebits.cc/bits/roller-switch

http://littlebits.cc/bits/roller-switch

Next, Zain examined the choices of bits and decided to try the roller switch. The theory was, if the ball hits the roller switch, it would trigger the buzzer for the lights to go off. At this point I begged him to not use the buzzer anymore. Mama had a headache. After a lot of tape being used to keep the switch in place we realized that the ball had to hit the switch quite hard for it to activate, plus our accuracy wasn’t that great.

Okay, now by this point I really wanted to move on. I even went and collected materials for a diving board. “Zain, it would be so cool if we made a diving board, see we can even use the roller switch for it.”

I saw the disappointed look on Zain’s face. He then said, “Mama, you really want to do the diving board, so do it.” I’m going to do my own thing. My seven year old wanted nothing to do with his mama! Ack! No, this was not supposed to happen, I wanted to create something together! So, I pulled back again and watched as my determined son went back to the bits library and pondered what his next step would be.

Attempt 3: Sound Trigger?

soundtrigger

http://littlebits.cc/bits/sound-trigger

Zain brought back a sound trigger bit and said, “I think this is really going to work, mama come on we can do it!”. My inside voice said, “What the heck is a sound trigger going to do? A diving board would be so much easier!” I watched him as he skillfully attached all the pieces together. After decreasing its sensitivity, the sound trigger was just the thing our soccer net needed! The ball rolled into the net and the noise that was created through the ball hitting the bit triggered the lights to go off! Success! We cheered and high fived as though we scored a goal at the FIFA world cup!

Zain Soccer Game

Zain then surprised me and marched up to Nick Weinberg, who was the littleBits rep helping with the event, and asked him if he wanted to see how he finally got it to work. Nick had stopped by a number of times during our process earlier and Zain was excited to show him the successful version. Nick ended up documenting Zain’s project and put it up on the littleBits site (you can see it here). My heart swelled while I watched from a distance my confident my little boy explaining our project and the pieces that were used to make it.

This event proved to me once again how kids will persevere if they are given the freedom to explore their own passions, with few limitations, and when given support if needed. It also shows me how easily us adults give up. Just the slightest glimmer into failure I wanted to abandon his idea. Yet at 7 years old he was able to push through numerous setbacks and eventually succeed. Even more powerful to me was that he was able to stand up to me and not allow me to change the path. He pushed me to keep going. As a mama, isn’t that what I am supposed to do for him?

Thank you littleBits and MakerLabs for providing us with an opportunity to play. More importantly thank you for the message that tech like littleBits in schools and home isn’t essential because it wows and “engages” students. It’s value is not in the products that it enables users to create, it’s value is in the process. Our end product was pretty basic and looked very messy, but it was made amazing because of the journey that Zain and I went through to complete it. Our hacked together goal net, assembled with tape, cardboard and card stock that lights up every time a goal is scored will hold a precious place in our memories. Here is another video of Zain explaining the project, showing how it worked and what we used to make it.

Parents and Teachers, You Can Play Minecraft Too: Tips for Beginners

collaborate and listen

In my last blog post, I am a Minecrafter: ISTE 2014 Made Me Do It, I made a confession that I began playing Minecraft and I was loving it! Since I last wrote, I have discovered an emerald and diamond patch, a slime block and a spawner cage. I have learned how to make pumpkin pie, milk cows, tame wolves and make the wolves have wolf puppies. They are soooo cute!

dogs

I also went through an epic journey that tested my patience and perseverance where I built a fantastic home complete with a well stocked farm and a yoga studio, while looking for some more iron got lost for two days (in real time!), was killed by a creeper, respawned in a dark cave, dug myself out of the cave with no tools or torches, got spit out in the middle of an ocean, swam to shore, cut my losses and built another new fabulous home then discovered my old home during an epic trek!

Want into this world?!

As a result of my last post, I have had many discussions with teachers and parents who are going to begin looking into Minecraft for themselves. I thought I’d share some advice and good resources (not in any particular order) for those of you who are interested in giving it a go.

1) There are different versions of Minecraft depending on what platform you would like to play on.

  • The computer version, which can be downloaded straight from the Mojang website.
  • The app, which can be downloaded for your respective tablet device.
  • The game console version which is currently available for PlayStation and XBox, but further releases are planned.

While all three have their different strengths, the computer version is the most complete. However, I have been playing on my iPad and am loving it. The computer version does take up a lot of memory and speed, so just be wary of that before downloading it onto your home computer.

2) Find a kid who loves to play. Ha, this should be REALLY easy! My tutor was my six year old son. He was thrilled that I wanted to learn to play his favourite game and even more thrilled that I wanted him to be my teacher. Turn on the multiplayer setting and play TOGETHER, meaning both of you work through the same world!

If you are on an iPad. Just click on the tools button on the opening screen to the game. Then slide the button to the right for “Local Server Multiplayer” Make sure your wifi is on.

multiplayer

Oh my goodness, this is SO frustrating at times, but you will learn quickly as to what you can and can’t do and how to communicate with your fellow player(s).

3) To ease yourself into the game play involved, begin with “Creative Mode” rather than “Survival Mode”. This option will be given to you when you create a new world. Creative Mode has all the resources available to you and you cannot “die” (oops, my son wants me to let you know… unless you dig yourself to the bottom of the world). Creative mode would also be a better version if you are working with a club and/or a class project where you are presenting challenges. Survival Mode is more challenging, you begin with no tools, there is day and night and there are many creatures (that especially get scary at night) that can kill you.

4) Watch Paul Soares Jr.’s (PSJ) Minecraft tutorials on YouTube. He is one of the leading experts on Minecraft and was the first person to create video tutorials for the game back in 2008. He has several series of videos out, but the How to Survive and Thrive series is a great one to begin with.

All of PSJ’s videos are so enlightening and entertaining. He shows viewers how to play and highlights projects that other players have been working on and challenges he embarks on with other players, including his wife and kids. Currently my family is watching a riveting series of episodes where PSJ’s trusty mule has been kidnapped by another player who is demanding ransom for instructions on his whereabouts. Another bonus is he strives for clean language and family friendly content, which I can’t say for some of the other video tutorials out there.

4) Get your hands on these babies.

minecraft booksMinecraft Beginner’s Handbook, Minecraft Redstone Handbook, Minecraft Combat Handbook and Minecraft Construction Handbook

I don’t know what I am going to do come September when I have to have our students share these books at the library. Multiple copies are on order, but I don’t think these copies are going to satiate the demand!

My son has read these books from cover to cover multiple times, so I decided to take a peek at them and they are ah-mazing!! On a side note, take a look at
Liam O’Donnell’s  post, How Those Minecraft Books Got My Students Reading. These books, co-written by Paul Soares Jr., are very clearly laid out and easy to refer back to if you have specific questions about how to play the game.

5) Google, Google, Google if you have any questions. I have stopped playing many times, after my son has gone to bed, to punch in questions about the game. There are so many Minecraft related websites and forums out there. It can be overwhelming, so here are a few you may want to begin with.

Minecraft Wiki
THE wiki for any information about Minecraft

Minecraft Forum
THE forum for Minecraft questions and answers and the sharing of ideas

Minecraft Institute of Technololgy
I found out about this at Marianne Malmstrom’s (@knowclue) Minecraft session at ISTE 2014 and I was floored! As their website states:

Minecraft Institute of Technology (MIT), is a premium school for minecrafters. Here we teach all sorts of skills, like building, brewing, and horse riding. The faculty has been selected from the best of the world. We own cutting-edge facilities which are always being expanded. MIT is located on XP Galaxy, near the capitol city Pigston.

You go through worlds with your teacher as they guide you through specific skills. How awesome is that?! Note: You need the computer version to participate.

Minecraft Architecture
Get inspiration from this collection of screenshots of amazing homes that players have created.

Minecraft Challenges
A list of challenges you may want to set for yourself or your students.

I hope this post gives you all a great start with Minecraft. Have fun, and remember that you may need to take a Minecraft break, it is very addicting!

 

 

Kindergarten Orientation: Not Just Another School Event

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Our school had it’s Welcome to Kindergarten afternoon today. I love it when new parents and students arrive through our doors at any time of the year, but the feeling I get from over 30 parents and their children arriving at school at once is even more exhilarating!

I have taught Kindergarten at many schools and the orientation format changes from school to school. Some schools have guests move through stations while they learn about important characteristics of the school and Kindergarten program. Some schools provide children a chance to spend time with the Kindergarten teachers while parents are given an overview of the school and the Kindergarten program lecture style. Some schools only invite parents.

Whatever format your school chooses to do, there are some important things that schools need to remember about this annual event. I get it, it’s a really busy time of year and things are crazy, but we can not risk treating this event as yet another obligation at this time of year to get through. I’d say it’s one of the most important events of the school year.

1) This is your chance to shine, to celebrate why your school is so great! With that you need to put your best foot forward. These parents are entrusting their most valuable possession to you. If you are having a bad day (who hasn’t had a bad day?!), put whatever is bothering you aside for a few hours.

2) Your role is to be welcoming. Be open to answering questions, and be patient with new parents who, most of the time, only have their own schooling experience to reference. Some parents and children may be overwhelmed with this new experience.

3) Use this opportunity to get to know kids and their parents. Covertly make note of “issues” children are displaying; however choose another, more private time to ask parents for more details.

4) Keep the teacher talk to a minimum. Share stories of your own kids and/or students. The best response I have received is sharing that I taught Kindergarten for over 10 years and when my own son entered Kindergarten I was a wreck! I needed to know every detail. If I didn’t have to be at work, I would be one of those moms hovering and peeking through the windows.

5) Don’t let them leave empty handed. Give them things to work on over the summer like a pair of scissors, play dough, a list of math and literacy games, etc.. Oh and, of course, you have to give them a tasty snack (healthy choices optional!)!

Kindergarten orientation is such an important event on so many levels, don’t let it go by without some thoughtful planning and discussion.

Art Show: We are Family

Zain Family Drawing

I love my school! I love how everyone works together like a family to support each other and get things done, always looking out for what’s best for our students. Like a family we go through the ups and downs of stressful and happy times, and sometimes like a family we make decisions, assumptions, and statements that can hurt. BUT, also like a family we talk it out, forgive, and move on… all because we are looking out for what is best for our students.

Our school recently put on a school wide art show, it has been a tradition for a number of years. After over a week of setting up and dealing with all the details, the show was held for two and a half days. Parents, students, teachers, and district staff, including our superintendent, came to see the hard work our students and teachers put in through a whole year of art making. Our students were proud that their work was displayed, “like in a real art gallery”.

Our school is considered one of the “inner city” schools in our district, and because of the hard life stories that some of these kids come to school with, some do not feel that they are capable of doing anything worthy. As well, the stress and hurt that we feel when we try to help these students sometimes overwhelms us. The art show proved to these students in particular that their work and their learning is important; and proved to us, that what we do with these students to help them come to terms and overcome their difficult situations is important.

When news spread of our art show, we received some wonderful feedback including those of excitement, encouragement, and thankfulness. In particular, one person asked if we had an artist in residence that did this… No we do not. What we do have are teachers and staff who are passionateabout our students’ and their learning. It did not come together overnight and without emotions getting in the way, but we were able to support each other through this large undertaking. We have teachers and staff that work together like a family.

Here is a video of all the art that was shown in our art show. I am so proud of my school, that I want to share this accomplishment (one of many) with everyone! There are some great examples of art projects using a variety of mediums. Maybe you can include some of these in YOUR art show!

 

Your School’s Online Presence

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I recently read a blog post written titled Apparently My School Sucks where Greg Miller writes how his school fared on the Fraser Institute rankings based on their Provincial Achievement Tests that are given to their Grades 3 and 6 students. As the title hints, you can guess that they didn’t do so well!  At the end of his post, Miller links to a great video about his school and the wonderful initiatives they are taking part in, showing that his school is a much better place than what the Fraser Institute presented.

This got me thinking about the current online presence of our school. I hope it is not simply a Fraser Institute ranking. When people are Googling our school, what are they seeing?

Almost two years ago, when I was told  the name of the school where I was to be the new Vice Principal, the first thing I did was look at our district website. Here, I was able to see the school’s student enrolment, address, teachers, and presentation of self through a dull boring photo of mostly a parking lot (yawn).  Then, I went to Google.  Here I found a video of a girl (presumably a student at my school) running around our field screaming (woo hoo some excitement), some old pictures on Facebook that ex students had posted (future blackmailing possibilities), AND the Fraser Institute ranking…

A parent last year told me during Kindergarten interviews that she and her husband moved from another province with no ties to the community and decided on living in the north area of our district because it was close to her husband’s work.  Before they bought a house, they looked online and found that the Fraser Institute ranked our school as one of the highest scored school in the area (which isn’t that high, believe me!).  So, they proceeded to buy a house near our school and register their children here. That’s it!. (Boo hoo to all the other schools in the north who lost out on a great family just because the only info this family could find online was the Fraser Institute’s!). I was shocked that they made their decision as a result of one source. But, as she explained, they knew no one, they had never been here and had no idea of how to find more information.  They wanted their children to start school in September and were on a tight schedule, so there you go.

Where can people look for the other valuable information that we like to hold up high? Where can people find how dedicated our staff is; how happy, engaged, and safe our students feel; and how we celebrate successes and overcome difficulties?…

I believe that we are on our way to providing a more rich online presence now that we have blogs, a class website, photos of our celebrations, and our school plan easily found through our district’s website, but I can’t help feeling that we need to do more.

A new set of Kindergarten parents are trickling in to register their children at our school for September. This is such a great opportunity to put our best foot forward, not only in person but online. I don’t want parents to rely on the Fraser Institute results to help them decide what school to send their children to. I want them to see that we are more successful than that!

What is your school’s online presence?

Class Blogs: Why Push the Parent Comments?

wordle for blog

It seems like everyone has a blog now. In addition to CanTeach’s blog I have also been  writing a class blog since September. Almost every week I add a post related to the exciting things that are happening in our classroom and school.  I have wanted to create a class blog since the word blog started popping up. Blog, blog, blog, blog, blog, I kept hearing it everywhere… the pressure was on.

I hesitated, though, trying to make sense as to what its purpose would be. Would anyone read it, would it really be worth the effort, would it make any difference in my teaching, would it be as great as those already out there? Well, 5 months later, the results have been much deeper than I ever expected.

First off I knew that photos of my students and their work was a priority.  Personally, as a parent to a Kindergarten student this year, I truly understand how it is to feel disjointed from my child and the place that he spends so much time in.  I do not get to drop him off every morning, visit his teacher, observe how he behaves around his classmates… and how his classmates behave around him! I knew as a parent I would appreciate visuals, so I sent out a permission form (I based mine on an excellent one that Karen Lirenman drafted and posted on her blog) outlining all the work we would be doing with technology this year and had conversations with parents explaining that this blog will be my main way of communicating to them. I only had one parent refuse photos of their child being posted, but they did agree to her work being posted and her name being referred to.

I was so excited when my first post went up. I’m sure all you bloggers did the same thing… refresh, refresh, refresh!  As I saw my page views slowly creep up, and I mean SLOWLY,  I was saddened that no one was commenting (and was it only my refreshes that was raising the page views?!).  More people visited but no comments.  So, I went to Google and typed “how to get more parents to comment on blogs”.  There are so many ideas out there from requiring parents to post with their children for homework, having a post contest, asking specific questions and making parents answer through posting…. on and on and on.

Then it hit me as after the weekend – parents began one by one telling me how they loved the blog.  One mom emailed me and expressed how thankful she was because the blog allowed her to take a look into her son’s classroom that, because of her full time job, she was never regularly going to be able to see. After Thanksgiving I noticed another jump in my post’s page views… more people were looking at it than I had students.  I discovered that parents were sharing the blog with their family members and friends!

So, I picked up my heart from the ground and began writing my blog with purpose. This was an opportunity to bring parents in mainly through posting photos, videos, and sound recordings. I realized it was not so much the idea of them commenting on the blog that held importance to me than the face to face conversations and emails that I received. Those meant so much more.

As Christmas holidays approached, the usual gifts and cards appeared on my desk.  The difference this year, though, was the scale and significance of comments of gratitude and well wishes that were written in those cards. These cards were just as personal, if not more than the ones that I received from my own friends and family.  I owe this to the blog.

Just because my parents were not commenting on the blog did not mean they were not reading it and getting a lot out of it.  Parents are referring to the blog in our conversations about the day to day extreme cuteness of Kindergarten, the nitty gritty learning outcomes, the achievements of their children and the things they need to work on. As well, the students are talking about the blog and ask daily, “can we put this in the blog?” and are giving me permission, “you can put this in the blog if you want Mrs. Khan”.  Now how awesome is that?!

Using gimicky tactics to increase the number of comments to my posts may have resulted in a massive number of comments, but it may of also created a pile of insincere and unproductive comments. I was looking at it the wrong way, I thought that the blog would be successful if parents posted comments… and really, think about how much courage that would take for many parents to do that!… The blog has been successful because it has encouraged more meaningful conversations safely in person and through email.

Our class blog has ended up being an amazing way to frequently show how much I care about my students and show to parents that I care about them, too. It has been one of the most important things I have done this year!

If you would like to visit our class blog.  Here it is: Mrs. Khan’s Class News

Now, if you don’t post a comment, I won’t hold it against you!

Happy Teaching!

Iram