Top Chef: Minecraft Edition

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Hanging the banner.

Today my district ditched the Science Fair. We turned it into the Science and Engineering Expo. It was a blast. It took a whole crew of people to pull off, and it was a huge success. The part I was most involved in though was what we called Top Chef: Minecraft Edition, with a tip of the hat to Jon Corippo for the Top Chef idea. The idea was kids would work in groups of three to create an environment in Minecraft that would support the fictional “Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus.” Every now and then in the two-hour event a new “secret ingredient” was to be announced that teams needed to add to their environment in a meaningful way. It was a great idea, but I had no idea how to actually pull it off. I have dabbled in Minecraft, but I don’t even rate the novice level. I am a total newb.

 

I turned to social media, and my friend Diane Main connected me with Shane Asselstine, in Hawaii,  who provided us with the perfect Minecraft world to work in. One of the tech guys in the office, Darin,  built a Lynux server for the event and repurposed some old laptops. He actually knew what to do with the world that Shane provided us! On the day of the event we had 7 teams of three kids each, and a whole big cheering section of family, friends, and teachers for each team. It was a whole thing!

I started to explain the event to the crowd; what the world was and how it worked when I was interrupted.

“Each block is 1-meter square. You should not say the area is 100 blocks by 150 blocks. You should say it is 100 meters by 150 meters.”

And that is how we started our first ever Minecraft Showcase, me being schooled by a 6th grader.

I corrected myself and continued explaining how the Minecraft challenge was going to work. To be honest, I had no idea how it was going to work, I was just hoping it didn’t end in disaster. It didn’t.

The first “Secret Ingredient” was an easy one: sand. I noticed that everyone had a lot of water in their area, and figured they would put the sand along the edges of the water, but I would trip them up by asking them WHY they put the sand there. The first time I did, the kid looked at me like I was a total scientific newb, and gave me my second schooling of the day “Sand is eroded rock. That is what it is. It flows into rivers and is deposited on the banks. It’s what sand does. That is where it goes. It’s natural.”

Excuse me.

One of the high school video crew suggested the second secret ingredient: paintings. How was a bunch of middle schoolers going to use paintings in an environment for the tree octopus in a meaningful way? No problem.

The first group put their paintings in a cave. You know cave paintings. Since the tree octopus prefers to hang out in caves, this team had a cave from “an ancient civilization whose population had mysteriously disappeared. These paintings are artifacts from that civilization” the 8th grader told me. That led to the discussion about the fallen tree that was just outside the cave. It was decomposing, providing a home for the frogs. Then they discussed the water lilies that attract the insects that the frogs eat. Because, you know, the tree octopus eats frogs. It said so right in the middle of the two solid pages of small text that I had given them explaining the tree octopus. You can’t have a tree octopus without frogs to eat, and you can’t have frogs without insects to eat. You see, they actually read the material. All of it. Then they discussed it among themselves. And made a plan.

It was awesome.

Why Maps?

We all know about maps, right? You know, Google Maps. We all use Maps to figure out how to get somewhere, what’s the best route, or how long it will take. I remember that first time, at a Cue Conference, when a collegue showed me that if you type “nearby pizza” into Google on a phone, you would get a map to a nearby pizza place! I have been hooked ever since. But do you use Google Maps in the classroom?

Last week I was working with some high school Social Science teachers in a professional development session on integrating technology into the classroom. The subject of Maps came up. “Why would you use Google Maps in the classroom? Where is the curricular standard in finding the quickest route to San Jose?” The teacher raised a legitimate question.

I had a simple answer. Social Science teachers are concerned with events that happened in the past. Every event that ever occurred, since the beginning of time, happened someplace. Every event had a location, and that location can be displayed on a map. And maps that show where events occurred tell stories. Why not have kids write these stories, collaboratively? Why not have kids share these maps with each other and the world? When kids make their own maps of events they can then see trends and relationships between the events, acquiring a deeper understanding of the events, and having an opportunity to write also!

We then spent some time collaboratively building some maps. We started with a Google sheet. Whoa there Mr. Hall you may say, I thought you said maps, now you are talking about spreadsheets! Yeah, we built a spreadsheet, one column was the name of a WWI event, the next column had the coordinates of that event, and the third contained a description of the event. This is where the students do their writing. Directly in the spreadsheet. All of the teachers were writing in the spreadsheet at the same time. It worked wonderfully. Then I imported the spreadsheet into Maps, and boom, we had a map!

I can’t wait to see the maps these teachers students create!

My Edu-Hero

This last week I was invited to attend some presentations in one of our elementary schools. The invitation was an opportunity to go and see how technology is being used in schools. On Tuesday morning I made my way over to the Primary Years Academy, pushed my way through a crowd of proud parents outside Ms. Matty’s first grade class, and was amazed. Kids were grouped around their little tables, in teams of two or three. Each table had a bunch of props representing aspects of the country the kids had researched. The kids were in costumes, respectfully representing the traditional clothing of that culture. Each team had a Chromebook the kids were going to use for their presentations. They were getting ready.

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As the kids were getting logged in to the Chromebooks, the problems started. Something had changed on the network the night before, and kids were presented with a screen they had never seen before. They didn’t know what to do. With a crowd of parents outside the room waiting to get in, and Ms. Matty busy with all the details involved in a day like this,  I watched a boy and girl interact:

“Hmmm, That’s not right” the boy said.

“Try clicking here.” said the little girl.

“That didn’t work. I’m going to log out and try again.”

This went on for a few minutes before word spread among the kids on how to solve the problem. It was really impressive. Remember, these were first graders! Six year old kids!  They had run into an unexpected problem, and were doing a fantastic job of problem solving. The kids solved the problem, and went on and gave their presentations to a room full of parents, and then repeated the performance for classes of older kids.

The kids did a great job. I saw really wonderful presentations. Kids were using technology in an authentic way, blended with realia to make a meaningful learning experience. I just wish everyone could see what is happening in Ms. Matty’s room. Great things are happening in that class.  Ms. Matty is my Edu-hero.

 

 

Learning is not quiet. 

“It should be quiet in here. You should be studying for the quiz!”

“Sit down and do your work, I want it quiet in here!”

I have heard these directions, and others like them many, many times through the years, and I just do not get it. When I am trying to learn something, especially something difficult to understand, I need to talk to people. I need to compare my understanding with another’s understanding. I think we all do. That’s why we have meetings! Can you imagine a staff meeting where the trainer said “I want you all to read this article, and study it. Tomorrow you are going to implement this new procedure, so study! Quiet!”

It doesn’t work like that. When we teachers are learning something new, we talk about it. A lot. We compare understandings. We argue about understandings. We challenge each other. We draw diagrams. We discuss. We get excited! So why don’t we let kids do that? It seems to me when kids are studying for a test the room should be noisy. Kids should be talking about the topic. They should be challenging each others understandings. They should be helping each other with clues. They should be giving high fives to each other. The room should not be quiet. Quiet is not the same as engaged. Quiet does not mean on task, and quite does not mean learning is happening.

 

Ditch the Points

This year I am doing it, I am ditching the points. After years of pretending that giving points for assignments was an objective way of giving grades, I am finally admitting that all those points really do is keep track of how many assignments a student does. Points do not measure what a student knows or can do. They measure what the teacher wants measured, which is too often not the standards the class is supposed to be focused on. They measure compliance, not competence, and certainly not mastery. And don’t get me started about “Extra Credit.”

So no points this year. Students get a ‘P’ or an ‘N’ for each project. ‘P’ means the student did a proficient job at what they were asked to do. An ‘N’ means the work needs more attention. So far students have a lot of ‘N’s. And they keep redoing things, and the work keeps getting better. Eventually the project gets the ‘P’. And no one is complaining, it is amazing. The students share work with me, I give feedback, they consider the feedback and make a decision as to what to do about it, and keep going. We are only a month into the year and everyone is at a different level, doing different work. Every student has an individual learning goal for each day. And best of all, as I walk around the room I see more actual engagement than I have ever seen. I know it is only a month into the year, but I am really liking what I see so far.

Showing Student Work in Public

I have long been a believer in students making their work public. When I started teaching my school was working with some of Ted Sizer’s ideas, and “public exhibition of mastery” was an important one of those ideas. I came to believe that when students control their learning and  are expected to show the results of their learning in public they do amazing things. So I have tried over the years to create just such an environment. I have learned that it isn’t an easy environment to create. Sure we can have students write blogs or create web sites. These are not too difficult to create, assuming the web filters aren’t overly restrictive. But my experience is these digital public venues, for all their strengths, just don’t pack the same punch as a student standing in front of a perfect stranger, looking them in the eye, and explaining some piece of work the student has done. Something really magical happens when these are the expectations.

This year we decided to create a new public exhibition event at our school. We participate in SkillsUSA, and we decided that students who go to the state competition would participate in our own event before the state event. Our local Chamber of Commerce recruited a couple dozen volunteers who have some expertise in the projects the students are doing. We bought the volunteers breakfast, invited the school board and top administrators, and suddenly we had our first annual Merlo Expo! Our school secretary said it went from a backyard bbq to a full blown Quencieta! It got complicated quickly. But our school community stepped up and made it a really special event. Our leadership class and their teacher really did an outstanding job with the details. The whole office staff did a great job with the logistics. The support from the whole school really made it a fantastic event.

The results were simply amazing. We have a couple dozen new industry supporters who think highly of the school. We heard nothing but fantastic comments about our students and their work. Our students were really excited about the feedback they were getting on their projects. Many of the students have already begun adjusting their projects in preparation for next weeks SkillsUSA event. That is something that has never happened before; in the past the state event was the first, and often last, public viewing of the projects. The students are considering feedback from a variety of real people, and making adjustments based on that feedback. One student called me over in the afternoon and told me one of the industry people told him his project would be better if there was an app for it. So he started sketching out plans for an app. That is simply awesome.

I think of equal importance is that the district administrators were able to come and interact with the students and see what the students are actually doing and learning. I don’t think we let them do that enough. We like to complain that district admins only care about the numbers. But when do we give them something else to consider? They see the numbers; they see the test scores and graduation rates and attendance and all the rest of the data. We complain that there is more to learning than that, and there really is. But when do we invite them to come and see the learning? I, for one, intend to invite them more often.

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Breaking Stuff and Other Problems

I have a problem. My students are doing great work. So great they are working on projects and doing things none of my classes have ever done before. They are taking the projects we do  to places I have not seen high school students do before. It is a great problem to have, but I am not sure what we are going to do next week, let alone later in the quarter. I will have to come up with more advanced projects, or at least ask better questions.

When I ask myself why this year is so much more productive I can only come up with a few ideas. The students have not changed much. Sure they are older because I do not have freshmen anymore, but I do have a lot of sophomores. So they are older, but not by much. My classes are a lot smaller. In some past years I literally had to step over kids who were sitting on the floor for lack of anywhere else to sit. All the seats were taken, and if there was an empty space on a table you can be sure a kid was sitting there too.  Now I generally have an empty seat or two, and that counts for a lot.

But I think the biggest reason for the change is that I stopped focusing on the end product and instead focus on the process. More specifically, I began encouraging kids to to “do it wrong.”  I encouraged them to “see what happens if…” When they asked “should I click this” instead of a yes or no I respond with “if ya want.” I asked them to turn in not only the finished project, but evidence of all the mistakes and problems they had. I no longer hear “my computer broke, I can’t do it. You better not give me a bad grade ’cause its not my fault.” I get “Hey let me take a screen shot, no one got THAT error message before.” I even had a student ask a friend record a video so she would have evidence of what was going wrong. She thought it would be better that way than taking a series of screen shots. It is really fun to hear them talk about problems they are having and come up with theories as to why.

So what’s the problem?

I have been taught to think that all of the students in the class should be getting the same education, they should be learning the same things. I remember early  in my teaching career having “terminal measurable objectives” drilled into my head. At the end of the semester all students will be able to (fill in the blank with some task students will learn to do.) I can’t do that anymore. In this new environment, where I am expecting students to take risks, to make mistakes, and to even break stuff, I can’t say all students will be learning the same things. Some students are not finishing anything, but are learning tons! Other students churn out finished products, but are learning very little.  Finishing a project or assignment is not necessarily synonymous with learning. Similarly, not finishing an assignment or project does not mean no standards were learned. It might mean we ran out of time. Or it could also mean the idea/project was a bad idea to begin with! It doesn’t mean we didn’t learn!

I have a team of students right now working on building a Remotely Operated Vehicle; an underwater robot, as their SkillsUSA project. They decided they would design it on the computer then print out all of the parts on the 3D printer and assemble them. Yesterday they thought they had some parts designed just right, the first one came out perfect, so they sent five of the parts to the printer and went home. This morning they came in to find the parts done, but it was clear there was a problem, something had gone wrong and the parts did not fit in the housing they were designed to go in. There was some discussion as to what went wrong and why, and they set about to solve the problem- redesign the parts. One of the kids was gathering the defective parts and I asked what he was going to do with them. He said “I am keeping these. They are evidence that we redesigned them!” I had to smile, but I still have a problem.

I really like what is happening in room 17 this year. I see lots and lots of learning. Lots of really cool stuff. But how do I sustain it? How do I replicate it next year, and the year after? Projects we do this year aren’t going to work next year. There will be different kids, different interests, and different times. Tools we use now will be obsolete. There will be websites that easily do things we now spend lots of time on. I guess that is one way teaching is different now than it was, say 20 years ago; you have to move a lot faster just to keep up with the times!

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About those quizes…

Yesterday we held our annual SkillsUSA Regional Competition. For those that don’t know, SkillsUSA is a national student led career and technical organization. Students compete in career or leadership related events. Welding students, for example, are presented with materials and drawings and asked to produce the piece depicted in the drawing. Leadership students might present their student designed and implemented community service project. It is, I believe, a fantastic way to assess what students are learning in the classroom. Which brings me to the point of my blogpost this morning.
The Washington Post this morning ran a story by Valerie Strauss called “How we teach kids to cheat on tests.” The story does a pretty good job of summarizing what happens when we put too much importance on the test score, or the quiz score.

This morning Daniel Ching  @danielpching published a blog post “The importance of process” in which he talks about the importance of providing feedback throughout the process of learning, and grading that process.  Too often we educators put all of the grade on the final test, and the students loose out as a result.

So lets go back to the SkillsUSA event yesterday. I was asked to run the Quiz Bowl event. This is sort of a “Jeopardy” type event where students, working in teams of 5, are asked a variety of questions. Questions include basic math, geometry, science, world and national politics, current events, and career related questions. It was fascinating for me to watch how students solved problems. Yea there were obscure questions where everyone in the room threw up there hands and said “whats a minority whip?” They were 10th and 11th graders after all. But for other questions it was interesting to me to watch the students break off into twos and threes and come up with their own answers,  talk their way through the questions, and come to an agreement on the answer. I could easily see strengths and weaknesses for each student. More importantly the students could see their own strengths and weaknesses. They were arguing for their answers, and providing  evidence to support those answers.

Photo by David Varela. Used with permission.
Photo by David Varela. Used with permission.

I learned much more about what these students knew by standing in the room and listening to them talk to each other than I ever would learn from the results of a test. Just as I learn more about what my students know by listening to them as they prepare for their presentations.

My students typically participate in the Career Pathways Showcase. In this event they prepare a presentation where they demonstrate what they have learned. On Friday a group of students was preparing their presentation and one of them said “We should bring the books we read as evidence of  our learning. We could talk about the books.” Another group decided to bring a stack of their mistakes, and talk about what they learned from them. I didn’t tell them to do these things, they decided it was the best way to demonstrate their learning.

I think these SkillsUSA events are much better assessments of student learning than any test. So no, there is not going to be a quiz on this on Friday.

Is it Good Enough?

Something different is happening in my classroom this year. To start with my students are moving along faster, doing much more complicated work than I have ever had happen before. They are working through difficult technical issues with good, positive attitudes. Lots of “well that didn’t work, lets try this” types of things are happening. One afternoon a kid yelled out, with his arms raised in triumph “Yes, our point data is displaying right, we did it!” As he finished the sentence the bell rang and he said “Dang, I still need to make a layer package!” It was fun to watch. In past years many kids would have given up, and I would spend lots of time trying to coax them into continuing. But its different this year.

I think part of the reason for the difference is I have made a deliberate effort this year to “encourage kids to fail.” Not fail as in flunk, but to take risks. I tell them they are supposed to mess up- that’s why we call it school. I dare them to break the software. I remind them to save often, but don’t be afraid to push buttons and see what happens. If something breaks don’t push that button next time. And if you figure it out (we even have a song “figure it out”) don’t be stingy, show someone else. If you can’t figure it out, ask someone who did.

I find myself sitting in the corner of the room many days just watching and smiling. Its busy. Its noisy. And its a bit messy. Often times every student is working on something different, no two screens look alike. Its awesome. Lately kids have been asking if they can do a project over because “mine came out boo boo. I need to fix this and that.” In years past they would have just said it was “good enough.” But my favorite comment so far this year was the girl who said “Hey Mr. Hall, come over here. Its time you learned how to do this too. Sit down right here, I am going to teach you how.”

Mom’s on the phone

mobile phones
mobile phones (Photo credit: phossil)

This year our school district changed a policy concerning cell phones used by students. While there seems to be some contradictions, my understanding is that it is ok for students to have and use cell phones on campus, as long as they do not disrupt instruction. While some teachers are still taking phones from kids I decided to try something new. I gave them an assignment and encouraged them to use their phones to do it. Then I told them it was ok to use their phones as long as they were not just texting, Instagraming, Facebooking, or what have you. I promised them I would not give them grief about their phones, if they kept it professional.

So far it has worked out well. Almost everyone has a phone, iPod, or tablet out and plugged in. They have their ear buds in while they are working, they take them out when I need to talk to the class. They take pictures of things they need to remember. They step outside to make audio recordings, and they compare apps for given tasks. And yes, they text. Every now and then I will see someone talking on the phone.  I tell myself it is ok. I asked a student who she was talking to on the phone. She said “My mom called.”

Yesterday I asked a girl if she thought she might be texting too much. She didn’t argue with me at all. She said “You’re right.” She turned to her friend next to her, handed her phone to the friend and said “put this in your bag and give it back to me after class.” No argument. No disruption. No referral. No calling campus security to search for a phone. Just kids doing their work. It looked and sounded a lot like a bunch of adults working in an office. I like this policy much better.