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

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!