Talking to Robots

I don’t know too many kids who aren’t fascinated by autonomous, moving things. Whether it’s a remote-controlled car (not strictly atomonous), a robot, or even a puppy, kids love to watch things that move by themselves. Given the chance to tinker with such things, kids go bananas!

Harnessing the inclination to tinker was a big part of the reason we introduced Beebots into our primary curriculum this year. Letting our kids explore programming as a problem-solving skill offered a more compelling reason from a teacher’s perspective. For those unfamiliar with Beebots, they are little robots disguised as bees that offer an excellent introduction to programming and sequential thinking for young children, and there’s a lot a class can do with them.

In Grade 1 we had just completed a unit on robots where we investigated what they are, what they do, and why humans make them. When we designed and made our own box-sculpture robots, but the kids really wanted them to work like real robots. Introducing Beebots became followed naturally, and the students were very pleased now to have real robots.

Gr1 Robots

We began with an introduction to Beebots, what they can and can’t do, and then the first graders had a play with them. There were no specific programming goals at first; just allowing the students time to get familiar with what we can make Beebots do. With most technology, I really like to give kids a chance to mess around at first; lots to be learned this way.

Beebots 1

Next we used an assortment of Beebot mats to provide the kids with specific programming goals. We have, for example, the Beebot race track, and kids are to program their Beebots to complete the racing circuit and avoid barriers. Many kids found it helpful to move the Beebot by hand through the course as they programmed each direction, one at a time.

Beebot Mats

One child noticed that the Beebot mats all had grids on them, and this led to our investigation of how far a Beebot travels when programmed to move forward once. With this information we created our Beebot rulers and were now ready to make our own Beebot paths. The students did this, first on our floor with whiteboard markers, and then on large pieces of chart paper which they decorated.

Beebot Paths

From here we moved into talking about the need for ‘coding’ because, no matter how politely we ask, Beebots can’t understand us when we say, ‘Move forward, please.’ Beebots use symbols to stand for words and this is code. I asked the students to write the code that would allow a Beebot to successfully navigate their own Beebot paths.

Beebot Coding

This inevitably led to our investigation of ‘bugs’ in our coding and the skill of ‘debugging’ a program. Listening to a child exclaim, ‘There’s a bug!’ when her Beebot goes off course, and then speak seriously about the need to ‘debug’ the program provides evidence that not only do the kids enjoy programming Beebots, but they understand that they have to power to both make and, more importantly, correct their mistakes. The students are well aware, at least at this level, that they control the robots, and that the real automony belongs to the kids.

Beebot Misc

If you’re looking to get your younger students started with Beebots and programming there are some excellent resources to be found here:

ICT Learning Innovation Beebot Guide

Beebots Down Under

Design Simply, Simply Design

I’m early into reading ‘Invent to Learn‘ by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager at the moment, but already I’m totally inspired by the possibilities to invent for our students a truly wonderful, meaningful design experience. In addition to learning more about the Reggio Emilia approach and why Seymour Papert is the godfather of digital playgrounds, I love the design model that Martinez and Stager outline. It’s simply elegant.

Think. Make. Improve. (TMI) The ‘Think’ stage of design is where the problem is defined and students begin the brainstorming and planning. ‘Thinking’ includes brainstorming, talking it out, predicting, gathering materials, forming groups (or not), sketching, outlining, researching, and planning. (Invent, p.52-53) In our Design@NIS cycle this would be the Discover, Define, and Brainstorm stages.

The ‘Make’ stage includes playing, building, tinkering, creating, programming, experimenting, constructing, testing, observing, borrowing, sharing, documenting, and recreating. (Invent, p. 53) This is often where children are most engaged and learning is The ‘Make’ stage is what we at NIS call ‘Prototyping’.

When kids get to the stage where they either are finished and satisfied with their product or they find that it’s just not working, then they enter the ‘Improve’ stage. Here they will typically do more research, talk it out, shift perspectives, try different materials, change variables,  draw on past experience with similar problems, play, ask experts, be cool, get fresh air, or sleep on it. (Invent, p. 53-54) At NIS, we view this stage as that in which our ideas and products ‘Evolve’.

Trinities are powerful (think triangles, the three musketeers, and the three stooges) and simple. There’s a lot going on in the Think, Make, Improve model of design, but TMI is expressed simply, elegantly and powerfully. It just might be a design model worth evolving into.

Empathy: Walk A Mile In My Duct Tape Shoes

The first design brief at NIS for Grade 2 students focused on the idea of empathy, and the students were challenged to make shoes for a classmate. I came across the idea of having kids design and make shoes in Suzie Boss’s article in Edutopia earlier this year when I was looking for ways to help our students explore empathy.

 Duct Tape Shoes

We began the year by introducing NIS’s take on the design cycle, and then moved into exploring why people wear shoes.


After drawing their favourite shoes and explaining why they liked them, the students partnered up and began to interview each other about what kinds of shoes they wear, what kind they like, and what kind they don’t like. The idea here was to get the kids to understand the needs of another.

 Favourite Shoes

We dissected existing products by cutting up some old shoes on a bandsaw and seeing how shoes are constructed.

Cutting Shoe

Click for video: Shoe Cutting

The next step was to get the kids designing shoes for their parnter. The went through their notes from the interviews and began sketching the shoe they thought their partner wanted.  They had to have four parts of a shoe: sole, midsole, insole and upper. They shared their sketches with their ‘client’ and went back to drawing board if the client wasn’t satisfied.

 Shoe Design

When it came time to actually start making the shoes, my students were surprised to find out that I had no idea how to make a shoe. I did, however, know that there is a wealth of resources online to help us discover this. I hoped to teach my students that ‘knowing how’ is rarely as important as ‘wanting to’. We had the desire to make these shoes, and so we began by looking at excellent tutorials like this one on ‘How to Make Duct Tape Shoes’ by Duct Tape Creations.

Soon, cardboard, felt, duct tape and foam tiles filled the room and the kids were off and running. The kids learned to safely use hot-glue guns and box cutters, and soon the shoes were coming together.

Shoe Making

  Click for Video: Shoe Making

 As the students tried on their new shoes, it was lovely to see the makers beaming with pride. The real beauty was in watching this pride turn to confidence as the kids helped one another with tools and materials.

Pride & Silliness

Click for video: Pride & Silliness

I must admit that early on I wasn’t too happy with how the shoe-making process went. The kids didn’t seem quite as excited by the interviewing and shoe drawing as I’d hoped, and they were very distracted by the four tons of Lego that the other grades were using in their design. ‘Why can’t we play with Lego?’, they begged. (Why, indeed!) As soon as the kids got cardboard, duct tape, felt and scissors in their hands everything changed. The level of excitement and engagement went through the roof, and the kids were dealing with real problems on how to make this or that part, or how to put things together. I found my own level of engagement peaking as well.

Class Shoes

It’s obvious that the real passion for the kids is in the making- using their hands and minds to create something that they can call their own, something they can be proud of, and something that stands as a testament to ability to be a maker.



Rube Goldberg Machines

As our Grade 3 students investigated ‘How the World Works’ we wanted to find out ‘What cool things we could make using Newton’s Laws of Motion?’ After several investigations into Newton’s laws and a look at simple machines, we began to look at how people put simple machines together to make interesting things. This inevitably led us to Rube Goldberg and a plethora of machines designed based upon his wacky ideas.

After looking at some amazing examples- our favorites included OK Go’s ‘This Too Shall Pass’ and Joseph Herscher’s ‘The Page Turner’– and discussing the many simple machines and Newtonian Laws at work, we set to our design our own Rube Goldberg-style machines.

First, each student chose a simple task like turning on a tap, flipping a light switch or ringing a bell. The students then designed their machines on paper focusing on the sequence of simple machines.



Initially, I think the students were confused by the complexity of the examples they saw, and tried to design equally complex machines which led to some serious design problems. Perfect! Once the kids built their machines they got to experience how these design flaws (which seemed to work well on paper) were very difficult to pull off.

We set aside a whole school day to build, describe and share our machines among the Grade 3 classes. When describing their machines we asked our kids to focus on the concepts of ‘function’ and ‘connection’, and we asked them to use specific vocabulary related to Newtonian mechanics (eg. gravity, force, kinetic energy and the like.) Although very few of the machines were successful, the experience of trying to build a complex machine was very valuable and this students were able to both identify simple machines and the forces at work in them.

Play Video: The Tap Opener

 Our class spent time the next day reflecting on the machines that worked and discovered a few important ideas. First, we found that successful machines were all made by connecting simple machines that worked well. Second, successful machines were designed backwards; that is, the students started with the end of the machine and worked toward the beginning.

After reflecting, we set out to redesign our machines for another Rube Goldberg Day. This was a key move. Giving the kids another opportunity to go back to the drawing board, think carefully about what worked and what didn’t, and encouraging the kids to have another go at their machines led to a deeper understanding of how to connect simple machines into a more successful complex machine.


We had our second Rube Goldberg day yesterday and virtually every machine was both interesting and successful. We had plant waterers, t-shirt painters, coin flippers, bell ringers, stapling machines, chip dispensers, goal-scoring machines, and they all worked! Parents and other classes who viewed the kids’ machines and listened to their detailed explanations of the forces at work were blown away not only by the complexity of the machines but also the feverish enthusiasm of the students who built, displayed, and described them.

Play Video: Rube Goldberg Day at NIS

The Inertia of Curiosity

Objects at rest? Not likely in Grade 3. Objects in motion? You betcha!  Better wear goggles to NIS’s Grade 3 these days as our new unit ‘How the World Works’ has objects rolling, bouncing and flying. With the central idea ‘Understanding forces helps us to use them’ we have been investigating Newton’s Laws of Motion.

As a provocation I told the kids a story about a cool egg (literally) named Bob who loved to drive around too fast and talk on his cell phone too much. One day when he was being reckless he ran into a tree and…well, here’s what happened to Bob.

Bob- One cool egg











I asked the kids what led to Bob’s demise, and many already knew that he should have been wearing a seat belt. (Good for them!) But when we talked about why Bob didn’t just stop with the car, the conversation really got going. The kids had already seen a few Brainpop videos and had the vocabulary to talk about gravity, speed, motion, and friction.

Time for a design challenge. In pairs, I gave the students a small car and a ping-pong ball (a substitute for the egg) and asked them to think of a way to keep the ‘egg’ from ejecting from the car after a sudden stop. The partners brainstormed and sketched their designs before prototyping them. Once the building started, tape, string and blue tack were flying!

It was time for testing the prototypes so we brought their cars and eggs back to our inclined plane and let ‘em rip.

As we discussed the prototypes, some of the kids noticed that a few of the harness designs, while they worked brilliantly, made it very difficult to get the pingpong balls out of the cars because of tape and blue tack. So, we added a second parameter to our design challenge: the pingpong ball must be easlily and cleanly put in and taken out of the vehicle. The kids went back to prototyping.

We finally ended up with some very safe designs that adhered to our two design parameters, and the kids had an opportunity to think more deeply about forces in action through a design challenge.

As a follow up and to really drive home the importance of seat belts, I showed the students this video of an actual car crash with crash test dummies.

The next time these kids get into a car and buckle up they will, through action, demonstrate a greater understanding of forces and how to use them.


A Satisfying Journey

Three years ago I first heard about the Apple Distinguished Educator program while attending Flat Classroom event in Beijing. As I listened to ADEs talking about the program, it seemed like the perfect blending of two passions: teaching and technology. I decided right then that I had to become part of this community of educators.

Three years later I am sitting at a stunning resort in Bali overlooking the Indian Ocean ready to join the ADE Class of 2013.  I feel very satisfied with the journey that brought me this far, and know that I owe a lot to the many ADEs I follow through social media and rely on for inspiration. Most of all, the journey wouldn’t have been the same without my former teaching partner at the International School of Yangon, Perry Tkachuk who so enthusiastically embraced so many of the ideas that made our Grade 6 students become better learners through technology.

I am empowered by this journey, and this empowerment feels wonderful! I know it is how my students feel when they set goals for themselves and achieve them. I can see it on their faces when the rush to show me what they are most proud of. Each time, I know it empowers them to see that they truly can succeed at whatever they desire. My role is simply to help them realize that when you dream and then add a specific plan with manageable steps you suddenly have a goal. My students are learning that the best goals take time, thought, and work, and that the more of these one adds the more satisfying the milestones along the way.

Joining the ADE community is definitely a satisfying milestone towards my goal of becoming the best educator I can be.


iPad, DIY Doc-cam, and Student Feedback

Last year I created a stand for my iPad out of an old ring stand from the science lab and it works really well. My teaching partner had a fancy document camera that he was willing to share with me, but it was too much of a pain to move back and forth, coordinate our usage, and…whatever. Truth is, I love to make things so I made my own.

 One of the coolest things about my iPad doc-cam is that it records, and I’ve been using it a lot to gather evidence of student learning in my classroom. I record my students when the come up to the front and share their work. With a cool little app called AirServer my iPad connects to our SmartBoard wirelessly, and the students can show their work to the whole class. The iPad camera app shoots great video and the mic is close enough to capture their voices with volume and clarity. In math my students are encouraged to explain their mathematical reasoning, and my iPad doc-cam is great for preserving the explanations. Later the students listen to themselves and can reflect on their mathematical reasoning.

The kids love their recordings. At first they giggle at hearing themselves, but soon they are listening carefully and they really enjoy seeing their fingers swipe across their work as they explain their ideas. Now, when I ask for volunteers to explain their thinking to the group, I’m never without many hands to choose from.

1 Km of Kuai Video

I highly recommend a DIY doc-cam if you’ve got an iPad. There are probably a million ways to make a stand, but I think making friends with the science teachers is a good way to go. Not only can you have a cool ring stand like mine, but you’ve also got new friends!

Creating A Culture of Caring


Years ago when I taught at the International School of Islamabad in Pakistan, I worked with a dynamite principal who helped establish a powerful culture of caring among our students. Our school was guided by three simple principles: Take Care of Yourself, Take Care of Others and Take Care of Our Place. Our students soon learned that every action could be seen as an instance of one of these ideas. Ever since, no matter where I teach, I begin the year with an investigation of caring.

I’ve recently joined the amazing community at the Nanjing International School as a Grade 3 PYP teacher. My first week with my students was spent establishing our ‘essential agreements’. We began by discussing why we come to school and the students quickly agreed that ‘learning’, ‘making friends’ and ‘having fun’ are of paramount importance.

Once these goals were established we discussed the many behaviors that can either support these goals or keep us from them. After brainstorming these I introduced the three ‘caring’ principles, and the students sorted the many behaviors into one or more of the categories. They soon realized that each of the behaviors they imagined fit nicely into these three simple ideas.

Kids love to be on stage so I asked partners to develop skits that show us specific examples of how they can ‘take care of themselves, of others, and of this place.’ They had no difficulty showing us how to eat healthy food and get exercise, to help a friend who has fallen down, or to pick up trash or plant flowers.

After this I began each day by asking the kids to share different examples of the three caring principles. I also asked them to describe counter examples. This way we reinforced the many choices we make to take care of ourselves, of each other and of our place.

Children are natural artists so I asked my students to create examples in art of how we can take care, and they created thoughtful, colorful drawings.

The fourth day of school I reminded the kids of their goals (to learn, make friends and have fun) and I asked them if we can all agree that taking care of ourselves, each other and our place would be good ways to achieve these goals. They also came up with different ways that they should behave in class, but they found that these neatly fit into one of our caring behaviors.

By agreeing to these principles of caring, we take our first steps towards a culture of caring and our year is off to a great start!

Responding to Literature with Art and Technology

My Grade 6 students are currently reading Jeanne DuPrau’s dystopian novel The City of Ember. As an exercise in comprehension and (let’s face it!) creating beautiful things, they set their hands to drawing characters, settings, or scenes from the book.

The students also crafted concise (300 character) descriptions for their artwork and ‘translated’ them into QR codes. QR (quick response) codes were created in Japan and can be ‘read’ using a QR reader on mobile devices like iPads, iPod Touches and phones. There are many such readers, but the favored one in my class is i-nigma. There are plenty of great places to learn more about QR codes in the classroom; good places to start are the Cool Cat Teacher Blog and Steve Anderson’s Live Binder.

My students really got into this assignment and worked carefully to create some stunning art.  Once their work was complete we put together an ‘art gallery’ in our classroom. The students loved ambling through the gallery discussing and admiring each other’s drawings, and they had fun translating the QR codes with their mobile devices. After the gallery walk we discussed those descriptions that really captured the essence the characters, settings, or scenes.


Are you using QR codes in your classroom? My class would love to hear what your students are doing with these pixilated products of technological wizardry.

A Game-based Journey, Part 2

A while back I posted ‘A Game-based Journey Through History with Google Earth‘ about a challenge to help my students address the essential question ‘How does WHERE we live affect HOW we live?’ I developed this project after reading some excellent stuff from Andrew Miller and Judy Willis on using the video game model as a learning tool.


The Grade 6 students have completed the project and there are now some excellent tours of Neolithic sites available. Check out an excellent sample here. Students can use these tours to compare and contrast how the first agriculturalists developed in different regions of the world. The final stage will be for students to demonstrate their understandings of our essential question.

The students really enjoyed the project. The first levels were content-based and required a good deal of research and writing. These were demanding but the students eagerly pressed on because they loved the challenge of moving from level to level. When the students reached level 5 and began adding their content to Google Earth, the excitement reached a fever pitch and things really got crazy! As expected the students really got into using Google Earth, but they now had the content to create a meaningful tour.

As the teacher I enjoyed the project because  it helped my students to create content-rich digital work using an amazing tool. Throughout the process we examined the difference between content (the ideas) and form (how we present ideas), and I am satisfied that my students have a clear understanding of the difference. It will be easier in the future for them to see the difference between projects that look great but say little and those that express great ideas in meaningful ways.

This project created a wonderful opportunity for me to differentiate my instruction. Students worked on levels at their own pace, levels were adapted for different abilities, and those students who excelled had the chance to become experts and guides for others. I even had a team of students who served as ‘gatekeepers’ and checked work to see if students were ready to move onto the next level. All this gave me the opportunity to spend more time with individual students throughout the research, writing, and game creation.

These Google Earth tours are now a digital record that can be shared with classes across space and time. Students in schools around the globe can use these tours as a resource in their own studies, and next year my own students can tweak and improve upon them as we explore different questions about the first human revolution.

There are a few things I’ll do differently next time. The biggest change I will make is to have the students work in teams to complete the tours. I’m not sure why I didn’t go this route this time, but teams will certainly help to complete the tours more efficiently so we can spend more time using the tours to explore our essential question.

I had prewritten instructions for each level ready to be emailed to each student once they finished a level. The constant mailings often interrupted my work with students. Early on I’ll identify a couple of keen kids and put them in charge of emailing the levels as students progress. I will also add deadlines. Initially there were no deadlines as students worked at their own pace, but I think that even flexible deadlines will encourage the more ‘methodical’ students to work more efficiently. Finally, I’ll figure out a way for students to include their answers to the essential question into their tours to add depth to our journey through time to the sites of the Neolithic Revolution.