Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Obama: smartphones are new, racism isn't

This interview with Barack Obama, conducted by NPR's Steve Inskeep, was fascinating to me because the president made an insightful point about #blacklivesmatter. Obama remarked that the issues of racial injustice driving the movement and the protests weren't new. What is new, according to Obama, is the proliferation of smartphones which allow citizens to capture video of the police shootings and bring the injustice to light.

But in other cases, an issue like Black Lives Matter and the question of whether, you know, the criminal justice system applies equally to everybody, that's been an issue in the African-American community, and to some degree in the Latino community, for decades. There's no black family that hasn't had a conversation around the kitchen table about driving while black and being profiled or being stopped.
I think really what's changed over the last several years is the pervasiveness of smartphones and the visuals that suddenly have sparked a conversation about how we can deal with it. And although it's uncomfortable sometimes, I actually think that over the long term it's how, in Dr. King's word, you get a disinfectant by applying sunlight to it, and people see, you know what? This is a true problem, and as a consequence we've been able to have conversations that might not have happened 20, 30, 40 years ago, with police chiefs who genuinely want to do the right thing, law enforcement who recognize that they are going to be able to deal with crime more effectively if they've got the trust of the communities.
You know, during that process there's going to be some noise and some discomfort, but I am absolutely confident that over the long term, it leads to a fair, more just, healthier America. Sometimes progress is a little uncomfortable.
What the president said rings true. The recent stories of police violence in African American communities which are gaining national attention have historically been underreported by the media or spun by police departments. The digital cameras we all carry and the ready access we all have to social media channels have created a societal condition where citizens can capture and report stories informally and instantly. News narratives that used to be composed by news teams in search of ratings are now distributed across all kinds of media channels, by bystanders and professional reporters alike. The kinds of stories that rise to the surface under these societal conditions are different than the kinds that used to surface when only professionals reported the news.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

A powerful model of teacher risk-taking

My Diigo list of unread education articles called to me this morning and as I skimmed some of the titles that I bookmarked for later reading, this Huffington Post article, "Social Media and Social Justice in the Classroom," by Dena Lagomarsino stuck out.

The story details how Birmingham, Alabama social studies teacher Beth Sanders created a class-specific hashtag- #SandersTHS - for her students and how much of their classwork was conducted in public spaces online. The article makes it clear that students were challenged to do more than send a few tweets.:
As they engaged with social media in a supportive environment, students began to realize that they can "be the change they wish to see in the world," as Gandhi advised. For example, rather than simply discussing or reading about the essential question of what "being a citizen" looks like nationally, globally, and digitally, Sanders' class engaged in a collaborative effort with college freshmen to create public service announcements in various media. 
 As I read, I was motivated by the agency students developed as a result of engaging online with other classes and civic-minded organizations. Surely the class had things like rubrics and grades, but there was clearly so much in this class to drive and engage students above and beyond traditional top-down, teacher-centered feedback.  I was also motivated by what wasn't in the article- all the little logistical things that this teacher had to work out in order to pull off this type of learning environment for her students.

1. She clearly had to educate parents about social media and its purpose in this class.

2. She had to connect and collaborate with another teacher outside of her school in order to give her high school students the collaborative opportunity to work with college freshmen.

3. She had to take a leap of faith and bet on herself and her students to respond positively to the public platform she created. 

This is just a short list off the top of my head but these are some of the exciting risks that teachers take today which are powered by digital tools in order to foster student voice and interest-driven learning.

Connected Learning

In the book, Participatory Culture in a Networked Era, author Mimi Ito says that the connected learning reform movement asks for inspirational models like the one I tripped over in my morning reading:
We’re arguing against the vision of education as a competitive race in a winner-take-all career market. Instead, we ask what learning can look like if it’s about contributing to shared endeavors and building relationships, and not primarily about competing with your peers.
Certainly the work of Sanders and her class gives us a window into what participatory, networked learning can look like. I'm thankful for the inspiration this type of instructional approach gives me, as well as the digital footprint it leaves which becomes an invaluable resource for ambitious teachers who want to connect students meaningfully to their communities.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

4 resources to support #Minecraft instructional design

Laurel, a teacher I work with, has been engaging 7th and 8th grade students in the game Minecraft in her computer lab. Over this past summer she explored the instructional resources on Minecraftedu and downloaded the Swiss Family Robinson map that simulates the fictional world of Johann David Wyss's classic novel. Her students, familiarized with the story through text and film excerpts, are working in teams to explore and survive the blocky deserted island. The project is focused on developing collaboration skills and students are asked to plan strategy as a team and then journal regularly to reflect on their efforts. After observing the class recently, I was struck by the dynamics at work in the lab during this project that represent a shift from traditional teaching and learning.

The sunken ship in the Swiss Family Robinson world
Instead of acting as a content expert, Laurel acts as a digital "dungeon master" of sorts who sets the conditions for daily game play, then coaches students to work together and learn from the struggles they encounter. It struck me as a productive departure from the norm. Rather than learn skills through direct instruction, students learn to collaborate- a vital 21st Century skill- by facing challenges that demand collaboration.

As I watched, the students played purposefully and noisily, failing and succeeding at all kinds of things, getting separated and regrouping. One boy showed two girls in his group how to see their location by pulling up their coordinates in the game. Their team would designate a meet up point using the game's x, y and z axes. In another group, a boy had discovered a map of the island and his team huddled around his machine making plans. The engagement was obvious and made the class feel ripe with potential. After all, middle school energy is a powerful thing when it is channelled in a positive direction.

I'm anxious to talk to Laurel about what she sees in the student journals. I want to know what the groups' collaborative plans sound like and how she envisions them improving over time. For Laurel's part, she's asked me how we might devote her professional learning time - always scarce for teachers- to untapping the potential she sees in using Minecraft in her technology class. She wants to push herself and plan for future instruction.

To help her think through more possibilities, I'll share the following resources that might extend her learning and connect her to other teachers who are thinking about the same issues and uncovering Minecraft's potential in the classroom. I think her professional learning should be co-designed, and by asking her to consider and evaluate resources, I hope to help her connect with ideas that suggest a next step in this innovative path she's on, learning with her students. 

Minecraft Instructional Resource #1- Teachercraft by Seann Dikkers

Dikkers' book is a free download
First, and the most conventional professional learning resource, is a book recommendation. Seann Dikkers' Teachercraft: How Teachers Learn to Use Minecraft in Their Classrooms investigates teachers like Laurel, and gives examples of how they use the game for everything from leading creative clubs outside of school, to building coordinate planes and graphing in math class. Chapter 7 provides a range of content-area ideas and Chapter 8 is devoted to the way teachers evaluate learning in the game. It will be important for teachers to envision the types of student work they hope to see emerge as a result of game play At a combined 30 pages, these two chapters seem to me essential reading and the book is priced just right- it is a free download

Minecraft Instructional Resource #2- #Minechat YouTube playlist

Aside from Dikkers' book, most of the resources I think will support Laurel will come in the form of new media.  It is probably fitting that a teacher interested in uncovering possibilities for instruction with Minecraft will have to bypass the school's professional learning library and tune into YouTube for learning resources. Colin Gallagher, a teacher in Singapore and TEDx speaker, hosts a YouTube series called #minechat where he talks with teachers about their Minecraft integration ideas while they walk through the virtual worlds and lessons the teachers have created. With episodes ranging from 30 minutes to an hour long and topics touching on all grade levels and contents, this channel deserves a skim. 

Minecraft Instructional Resource #3- ConnectedLearning.tv Webinar Series "Supporting Connected Learning in Minecraft"

The website ConnectedLearning.tv has a treasuretrove of reading resources that can inspire innovative teachers. Amidst those resources is a video archive of weekly webinars with researchers and practitioners that date back to 2012. Looking back, the second video in the series is titled, "Mimi Ito- Translation, Triggers and Transitions: What does it take to connect interest to achievement?" Having observed tangible student interest in Laurel's approach, this strikes me that connecting interest with achievement is the exciting challenge in front of her and her students. If Laurel were writing a paper about, or seeking theory to support this work, I'd direct her to that video because of its high-level consideration of a complex idea. 
Minecraft Design Challenge from Discoverdesign.org

However, since she's expressed the very tangible desire to think through planning for her class going forward, I recommend the recent series, "Supporting Connected Learning in Minecraft." The four videos themselves might be worth a watch. If Dikkers' book is something that seems important, then his recent discussion with teachers, "Educators Innovating with Minecraft," would likely resonate. In addition to the four videos themselves in this series are the links below each webinar which lead to resources that participants mention in discussion. Among these link are some gems, like a Minecraft design challenge on Discoverdesign.org (pictured above). That challenge might be something a teacher could replicate on a classroom scale or challenge students to try at home in Minecraft. Also, teacher Steve Isaacs shared video tutorials his students created in Minecraft, showing some creative, production-centered possibilities for students to demonstrate what they are learning in Minecraft for a real-world audience. Between the four webinars in the series, there are probably 30 or more links to investigate. In the time it takes to watch a single webinar, a deep dive into these resources might surface 10 project ideas.

Minecraft Instructional Resource #4- Minecraft in Education Google + Community

The final resource is the Minecraft in Education community in Google's social media platform, Google +. With over 4,000 members, the community has everything from articles about the future of Minecraft in Education to chats about troubleshooting software. The digital footprint that so many teachers have created in the community is a rich, if messy, collection of ideas that holds possibilities for learning interactions. The articles might be useful in class, and the authentic discussions between teachers online might provide opportunities for students-as-experts to share ideas with Laurel which she could in turn share with the community. She might even ask students what they think of this post announcing that Sweden's National Land Survey will release a scale Minecraft model of Sweden where learners can explore and design. 

Probably better than the posts themselves are the educators willing to connect and share their practice. Any of the resources listed above could be useful and supportive for planning instruction but I would venture to guess that a potential partnership with another teacher, always a possibility on any social site where educators share, would fuel continued innovation and surpass static resources. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

10 steps to getting started with #Minecraft in the classroom; a design challenge to build teacher and student capacity

For the last few years I’ve helped teachers get started using Minecraftedu in their technology classrooms (and in one art classroom). Usually they express interest in learning about Minecraft because they hear about the education potential in the game and they overhear so much student interest. After working in a number of classrooms, I’ve settled on an approach that works best for me to help teachers feel confident in launching and managing a collaborative server and to support teachers in capitalizing on the open-ended, collaborative nature of the sandbox game. We begin with a simple house design challenge.

Since Minecraft is so flexible, there are surely other ways to structure initial gameplay in class. The approach I take is meant to build the capacity of teachers and students to take the game play in a direction that results in collaborative, innovative design. My recommendations intentionally only go about three or four class periods deep because that’s the point at which a teacher who started out unfamiliar with Minecraft will feel comfortable using the server management tools and can start to design Minecraft projects and challenges on her own. Three or four class periods is also about the amount of time during which a group of students- some of whom won’t have played the game before- will develop basic navigation and building skills to participate fully in whatever the teacher comes up with next.

It is important to note that I aim to build the student capacity for instructional design in those first few classes, too. After three to four class periods, even students who had no experience with the game before will have learned enough to help envision what the class might do next with the game as a learning tool. To me, that’s the ultimate assessment of how well those first lessons have gone: can the students suggest other relevant possibilities for using Minecraft in the classroom? 

Here’s how we usually get there:

Before you play

  1. Purchase and download Minecraftedu. This education-friendly version of the game simplifies server setup, so all the students in the classroom can be in the same “world” and the teacher can save their work on her machine. For me, the goal is to help teachers run a local server and know how to create a world, get students in, and save the work each day. (In my school district, teachers who want help acquiring the software and setting up machines should contact their ed tech coach for help.) 

  1. With the classroom or computer lab still free of students, test to be sure that the machines will connect by test launching a tutorial server and making sure that a student machine can access the server. The tutorial server comes with the Minecraftedu software and is a world built to teach novices basic navigation in the game by sending them through an obstacle course. 

The first day with students in Minecraft- play the tutorial

  1.   I recommend that teachers use the tutorial world as their first lesson in Minecraft. It provides guidance and practice for novices. It is also challenging and scenic enough to occupy experienced Minecrafters in class. Asking students afterward what the most challenging part was for them will reveal students’ skill level. 

The first design challenge- Build a basic house in creative mode

  1. For the first design challenge, have students build their simple house. To demonstrate, play this YouTube video tutorial "How to make a fast and easy house in Minecraft" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=No9KhwH5_Ew). In it, YouTuber KrystalKraftofficial demonstrates how to build a house in just under 4 and a half minutes. Though he builds his house really quickly, don’t be deceived. The majority of students will need 40-50 minutes to build a house. Explain that his simple house is an appropriate goal for Minecraft novices, and that experienced builders should try to build something more “fancy” inside the time constraints. 

  1. Launch a creative world that is flat. The creative mode will give students the ability to fly around and provide them access to all of the building materials they’ll need. The flat world has no trees or hills for them to get lost behind and also will discourage them from running around and exploring instead of building.

  1. Ask students to “spread out" in the game before building, leaving 20-30 blocks worth of room between them and their nearest neighbor.  When they find a place and begin to, instruct them to use the Function F3 key to see their coordinates. Direct them to write down their coordinates so they can always find their work the next day. Direct them to find a sign and label their house. Don’t forget to save the changes to the server at the end of each day and each class period. 

Establishing a learning culture with game play- writing and reflecting

  1. How long this first design challenge will take depends on how much you ask your students to write or discuss before, during and after game play. I encourage teachers to at least ask students to journal about what they plan to work on each day before playing and what was successful and challenging at the end of each day. Fifteen minutes of writing at a minimum every class period will reinforce that this gameplay has academic goals and will also support students’ in writing a more detailed reflection after the project is over. 
  1. Freeze the students every so often and ask them to reflect with a neighbor and articulate their next steps. This reminds the students that even building by themselves can be a collaborative endeavor. It also gives you practice with the 

Ending the design challenge

Ask, “Now that we know how to build together in the same space, what are some ways we could more intentionally design and build a Minecraft community? What would our learning goals be?” 
  1. When the challenge is over, have the students watch a projection of your screen as you fly over their houses. Say something like, “By building houses individually in a shared space, we’ve inadvertently built a kind of neighborhood or community.” Ask, “Now that we know how to build together, what are some ways we could more intentionally design and build a Minecraft community? What would our learning goals be?” 

In my mind, that last question could take 10 minutes or 10 days of class time. This is the point at which a teacher might ask students to develop proposals for how Minecraft might advance their learning. My experience and belief is that students will be able to suggest unique ways the game might help them meet the goals of the class, whether those are defined as standards or essential questions. If students struggle for ideas, prompt them to think of ways they see Minecraft used by other youth.

Part of the reason I recommend these steps is because the teachers I’ve worked with develop really unique and different ways to work with students in Minecraft after this first launch. I’ve seen projects that range from history simulations to video design projects. It is vital to me that the teachers and the students can explain why they’re playing the game after this initial work and what they’re learning from the experience.  

Friday, November 27, 2015

20 minutes of code

Today is the day after Thanksgiving and you know what that means: just 10 more coding days until Computer Science Education Week. For the third year in a row, the organization Code.org encourages educators at all grade levels to to spend one hour of the week introducing students to coding, or computer programming, in an effort they call the Hour of Code. In the last couple of years they've had celebrities ranging from the Miami Heat's Chris Bosh to none other than President Barack Obama make promotional videos explaining the importance of learning to program a computer. In recent years, they've boasted that this initiative has exposed more girls to programming in one year than in the past 70 years combined, (a stat I'm citing from memory but which has been removed from their site.)

Probably like most people and most educators, my own experience with programming is limited. In grade school I programmed the Logo turtle to draw a spiral, and now, in my effort to blog or build wikis, I occasionally cut and paste HTML code with marginal success and frequent swearing. That's about it. Still, I've developed an interest in investigating the claim that all students should have exposure to programming, in large part because so many of the arguments in favor of coding are equity arguments.

A screenshot of my first Scratch Program- a holiday card

For my part, I am inclined to believe that a little exposure is important after participating in a workshop led by MIT's Mitch Resnick a few years back at the NCTE conference. In that setting, in the span of 90 minutes, I programmed a digital holiday card that I personalized for my daughters. While my card will not earn me any job offers from Google, I was struck by the way most everyone in the room went from not knowing how to program at all in MIT's Scratch programming language, to being able to read all of the programs in the room as we gallery walked about 45 minutes into the workshop. Though I was still a Scratch novice, I was able to gleen programming tricks from reading my peers' holiday cards and seeing how they'd approached the task differently. As a literacy teacher and someone fascinated by the reading process, I was pleasantly surprised at how fast I was able to make meaning of the programs I read on the screens around the room.

Since then, I've talked with a number of teachers about programming in schools, and I've gained a little practice with other tools like Code.org's Code Studio, Mozilla's webmaker tools, and the University of Colorado's Scalable Game Design tools. I've talked with students and most importantly, I've sat side by side with my daughter, now 9, while she programmed in Scratch and puzzled through some of Code.org's puzzles.
Code.org's puzzles increase in difficulty as you progress. 

Going into my third year now of participating in the Hour of Code myself, I better understand the claims made by Code.org and the debates that might rise and persist in the coming years about the role of coding in schools. Still, I'm less interested in debating than I am in kidwatching, especially as the weather in Denver turns cold and I'm less likely to shoo my daughters outside and more inclined to try to steer their interests away from Netflix to more creative endeavors when they are inevitably indoors and looking at screens. As I've written before, I believe the best arguments in favor of teaching kids to code will be developed by watching kids code and talking to them about it. It was with that in mind that I asked Hailey to check out Code.org's Minecraft puzzles this morning when she asked if she could log on to the computer. She spent about 20 minutes on the puzzles and here's what I noticed:

  • Hailey remembered to how to connect the programming blocks even though it's been many months since she used Scratch or Code.org's tools. She instinctively reset the puzzles to start over when she hit barriers. 

  • I watched over her shoulder as she encountered trouble on an early puzzle. I had to resist offering help. Seconds passed before she shoved the mouse in disgust and said, "This puzzle is hard. Can I have help?" 

  • She seemed to develop a positive strategy. As the puzzles increased in difficulty, she began to run the programs well before they were finished to check her own progress and to determine her next programming step. 

  • On a later puzzle that demanded she use a repeat command in her programming, I watched her make an error in the middle of a relatively long script. Again, I resisted helping, biting my lip, but I doubted she'd be able to debug with so much code- about 13 lines- to go through. When she ran her program and saw the error, she didn't shove the mouse or express any frustration. She sorted the code blocks on her little digital workstation and figured it out on her own. It took her about 5 minutes to get things cleaned up. Just as I had resisted helping earlier, I resisted patting her on the shoulder or giving her a high five. I wanted to see instead when she might celebrate.

  • She never did celebrate. After completing one more puzzle, she asked, "Can I save this somehow so I can come back and work on it later? I want to watch a show." 

Grudgingly, I let her navigate to Netflix and I set the kitchen timer for her screen time as I always do on the weekends. The 20 minutes of coding she'd done didn't count against her allotment. When I boot her off the computer in a while I'll share this post with her and see what she says. In that way, my investigation about the importance of programming will continue. We've got just 40 more minutes to go to finish our own hour of code and it is pretty cold outside.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Why I haven't blogged in a while... a 5 minute blog post

1. I have blogged... Just not here. (A few times I've opted to write on NWP's Digital Is instead of on my own space. Why is a longer blog post.)

2. Because I'm swamped at work.

3. After a while, it seems like it is easier to post in other places than to post on the neglected blog.

4. I have two children and a wife.

5. I've committed myself to exercising daily and I have somehow created a blogging/exercising tradeoff in my head. (Why is a longer blog post.)

6. I liked the idea of creating different blogs for different purposes, so I have a neglected Tumblr, and Wordpress blog, as well as a few other Blogger blogs. Reflecting now, I started several gardens and tended none of them.