Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Week 3: letters and more letters

For the third week of class, we wanted to start out with something different: we received letters from three high school aged students in Vietnam in school to become teachers. The plan was to have them wait to turn on their XOs until after we got them started with the letters, but as the students poured in with their running laptops in hand, we thought we were up for a big challenge to fight for attention. The kids found a seat and many resumed working on the TurtleArt maze project from the previous week. After a few minutes, we brought the kids back together to listen to us read the Vietnamese letters. Most of the group quickly engaged and listened, and when asked to respond with their own letter using the Write activity, quickly started working. We were amazed by how willing they were to do sit down and write a letter given all the other stuff they could do on their laptops. After 10-15 minutes, most of the group finished up and added their picture to the letter using the record activity. We picked up their files with a flash drive and moved back into programming.

Now done with the letters, we wanted to build on the concepts of using TurtleArt with…alphabet letters! The previous week, everyone made their turtle walk through a maze they generated from the maze activity. This week, we introduced the arc block and got everyone started with writing out the letters of their name. Some kids just started figuring things out on their own, some grabbed the FLOSS manual we brought along to construct a few example letters, and others needed some discussion and prodding before they started thinking and drawing out the steps required to make a turtle write a letter of the alphabet. Unlike last class where we ran almost 15 minutes over our allotted time, we started wrapping up a few minutes early. The kids were not interested in leaving, but we eventually got them out and on their way home.

Most surprising this week was the combination of excitement with the XOs and focus in their work. They have now had the XOs for over two weeks – far from new by kid standards, yet they were all eager to have them up and running before class even started and resistant to get away from them at the end of the class. At the same time, the XOs are capable of running multiple applications at once, yet the kids rarely got distracted when they were in the middle of working. A couple kids strayed off at times to play with the speak activity, but it didn’t drag the whole class off topic, and eventually those kids returned to worked and stayed fairly productive. The kids also show almost complete mastery over the standard operations – opening and closing programs, resetting the mouse when it goes wacky (an annoying bug that has been coming up often), and modifying the computer name and colors. The kids are also proficient users of many of the activities and understand how the journal works. For three hours of class time and very minimal direct teaching, the kids have collectively learned everything we hoped and more.

When we teach, we usually let the kids go free, but this week we took a more active teaching role when dealing with the complex angles and turns. The kids appeared to enjoy the discussions that helped them graphically draw out the problem and talk through the program that could solve it. It looked like real world learning was happening! This is especially comical after the things the kids talked about when writing their letters about themselves, their families and friends, and their school. According to all but one of them, school is boring, but they must not have noticed the real academic learning they were doing as they sat in their 2nd floor classroom.

Next week is Olin’s spring break, but we’ll be back the next week!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Week 4: A little more open ended

Last week, we were pretty good about keeping the kids focused and on task, and I think we were helped by having very specific plans for them.

This week -- not so much.

With regards to the Vietnam collaboration we brought up in our last post, our contact set up a Google site for us that can be found here:

Anyway, without letter writing to get the kids focused on a uniform task this week at the onset, I feel like we made it difficult to get them on the same page later. Any suggestions for small 10-15 minute exercises/activities to engage them?

Some kids settled down and went back to their TurtleArt name-writing activities -- the ones that took to it have really gone for it! Two of our fifth graders are almost finished, and it's fascinating to see how they work with the program since it can be pretty inefficient. One kid piled a bunch of his frequently used blocks in the lower corner as he worked so he wouldn't have to keep scrolling back up. The two kids (of the seven) that were actively working on the name-writing project got to learn about the 'action' blocks, though I'm pretty sure they're still a bit away from grasping the concept of encapsulating commands into a function :P
It was also super cute -- both kept asking the others, "Hey, are you going to try writing your name in TurtleArt?"

One response they did get was, "No, it's too hard for me."
Dear readers, do you have any advice for us as to how we might be able to re-engage some of these students?

(On the other hand, we did take a little mini-foray into TamTam today, and came out with a pretty fun remix of the Star Wars theme from an unexpectedly musically talented kid! We'll try to obtain a recording for next time!)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Week 2: TurtleArt + Maze

We were excited to see how the kids responded after a week with their XOs -- had the novelty worn off? Did they continue to explore at home? Last week, we asked them to come back with the most interesting thing they found. Unfortunately, we didn't find the range of distance or chat over the mesh in the sleepy suburbs, but the kids brought back some cute videos and 'Speak' provided general amusement.

This week, we introduced them to TurtleArt. I can't speak for my collaborators Elsa and Andy, but I was pretty skeptical about our ability to keep them engaged and interested in the program. I'm glad to have been proven wrong!

It took us easily the first half of class (if not more!) to get the kids to settle down and get to the task we'd set up for them this week, but that's something we're working on. We think we'll have it a little more under wraps next week by setting up something more structured not involving XOs at the beginning.

The challenge this week was to get a turtle to navigate the maze, as demonstrated in the screenshot below:

[screenshot coming soon!]

It was pretty cute -- it took them a little bit of nudging to get them to catch on to the fact that each grid represented more than one unit, but even the second grader understood the task! (I suspect more guess and check may have been involved, but still.)

We mollified his "oh, this is hard" response by telling him this was the sort of thing that much older kids were doing! I'm not sure how motivating he found it, but on the whole, I was really pleased to see that the collaborative theme established continued on :)

Next week, we're planning to set them up with some penpals in Vietnam -- Elsa knows more about this, and introduce arcs in TurtleArt by encouraging them to write their own names.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

First Day of Class

We taught our first after-school class today. The idea behind the curriculum we're using is to teach math and programming skills to our 7 2nd-5th graders by using turtle art. Our class is all boys, which is unfortunate, but they're all very well-behaved and excited to be there. Today, we talked about OLPC and handed out laptops. Lots of chaos ensued.

We started off the lesson by talking about what XO's are, and what OLPC is. Mostly we just explained some of the differences between XO's/sugar and what the students are probably used to using. The first thing they wanted to know was if they could get on the internet. So much for not telling them about networking on the first day, as we had planned... We also showed some picture of kids using XO's in lots of different places, and were surprised about how excited they were to see that. They all started leaning over their desks to get a look. We're thinking about maybe incorporating a weekly OLPC story, since they seemed to think that was pretty cool.

Next we had a discussion about care of the laptops, and came up with 7 of the most ridiculous contracts I have ever seen, ranging from "No distrucshun, no spilling" to "I will treat my laptop as if it were my DSi." We sent home forms for their parents too.

After that, we gave them their laptops. We had originally planned to give them some instructions for using the Record activity and then have them find something they liked about the XO and make a short presentation on it. They were way too busy changing their name, solving mazes, making friends on the mesh network, and, in the case of one of the students, programming in turtle art, to do any such thing. I'm sure if we hadn't taken all but five activities off the home screen they would have opened all of them. We did manage to teach them how to find the journal and how to get files of a USB drive, how to turn off the computer properly, as well as some other practical things like unfreezing the touchpad and left vs. right click.

About 15 minutes in, they remembered to ask about chat again, so we told them about the rest of the activities. They are going to try to figure out if the mesh network stretches between their houses tonight - there's a chat scheduled for 7pm. We also have a pair of brothers who said they would try to see how far the network stretches. They also learned about the different mesh channels and that there's a limit on how many people can be connected on one at a time. There were about 5 people in one chat before it stopped working.

Some of the things we thought were interesting:
  • If we can get one kid excited about something, then the whole class will know in about 2 minutes. If not, the only way to spread information is to make everyone close their computers.
  • All of the kids started deciding how good they were at the Maze activity (e.g. "I'm really good at this!", "I'm ok, but not the best") even though they couldn't see each other's work.
  • Some things they picked up on right away, like how to open activities. Some things that we would have expected them to have seen before on other computers, like left and right mouse buttons, we had to tell them several times before they got the hang of it. Our turtle art programmer figured out how what turtle art was for right away, but couldn't figure out how to delete blocks.
  • They didn't think the computers were slow at all, which we had been worried about. The only time they got impatient was the initial boot-up and opening an activity for the first time
Planning for next week - We are going to have them solve mazes in Turtle Art, so we were really glad they liked mazes so much. We'll distribute some sample code that loads an easy maze and draws a grid and then tell them to try to solve that one, then harder ones. They will learn basic turtle art controls and also Cartesian coordinate systems in order to solve the mazes. We're also going to try to introduce making presentations again, but that's a secondary goal.

Things we're concerned about for future classes - we'd love suggestions!
  • The atmosphere today was really collaborative, and we'd like to harness that in the future to make sure we don't get too much of a learning gap. This is particularly important because we have a large age range in the classroom - we don't want the 5th graders to go off on their own. We also have one student who seems to know a lot more about computers but is less social, so we're trying to think of ways to both keep him engaged and get him to interact more.
  • A lot of the kids seemed really interested in seeing the inside of the laptop and learning about repair, but we're hesitant to unleash them with screwdrivers. We're thinking about maybe showing pictures, or taking them out in groups of 2 to see the laptop taken apart.
  • We're planning on only talking to them as a group at the beginning of class to minimize the amount of times we have to get their attention when the computers are out. Hopefully they'll get most of their initial exploring done during the week before next class, but we're still a little concerned about keeping them on task.

Friday, February 5, 2010

This Year: New and Exciting Projects

John Eliot Elementary School After School Program

After some fantastic adventures with the Cambridge Friends School, this semester we will be involved with our own local elementary school at John Eliot (10 min away), where we will run a Turtle Art after school program. Details to be found at

XO Jam for G1G1 Owners

How many of you have XOs and really don't know how to enjoy it? How many little kids do you think might have the same problem? We've been getting enough interest from parents of disinterested children to see this as an area where we can take action. One thing we hope to try this year is an afternoon or evening session, where parents and children would come. The kids would be led through a group of activities that would expose them to fun things they can do with their XO, and parents would be led through training sessions so they too can help their kids at home.

We currently need someone to take lead for this project. UNDERCLASSMEN, THIS MEANS YOU!!!

Haiti Support

Recent events in Haiti have turned our attention to perhaps one of the poorest nations in the world, and now may be a good time to get involved with the Haiti effort. Recently, there was a brief conference in the Boston area discussing next steps, in which our very own Jeffkinson has participarted. In short, they are going to hire ~100 very soon in 20 locations across Haiti and do a first-stage deployment with 400 children (including expanding their existing pilots somewhat). They hope to at a later date trace down the 13000 laptops already in the country and make sure they get into the hands of teachers and students. It’s purely speculative, but there might be 10000-20000 additional laptops with Haitian keyboards that OLPC may or may not be sitting on. In the words of Jeff: “In any case, it’s likely to get very big, and I’m sure we can help in crucial areas. I’m just not sure yet what those are.”

Visit and contact Jeff Atkinson for more info.

This Year: Ongoing Projects


Last semester, we began a new and exciting adventure in seeing how much of the XO's features we could test out, and built a small robot! If you were around at EXPO last semester, you might have seen it move around under only simple manipulations in TurtleArt, which is super exciting. Contact Ian and Elsa to get involved! More info on the wiki page:

Olin College Repair Center

We will continue operations of our repair center here, but with a few modifications to structure, mainly in that we will begin charging people when possible in order to cover our own costs and expedite the process. If you are interested in helping out, this is a great opportunity to get involved if you want to learn more about the XO, as the group is more than happy to train you in whatever is necessary. Contact Ian Daniher for more info.

Support Gang Conference Call

One great way of learning what is going on in OLPC is to attend the weekly Support Gang conference calls, in which the wonderful Adam Holt and SJ Klein will coordinate a discussion about what is going on in OLPC politics, what big changes are coming, and how to respond to current XO users. If you are really into this, we can show you how to become a support gang member yourself and answer RT tickets, a somewhat mindless but super fulfilling task!

Cambridge Friends School Tech Support

Our latest interactions with CFS have been in getting them set up with a new printer for their laptops. If you're interested in helping out, please contact Xy or Elsa for details; they will love you immensely!

Cambridge Friends School Turtle Art

There has been talk lately of extending our Turtle Art curriculum to CFS, where we already have some support. If you would be interested in pursuing this effort, contact Elsa for more info.



As our brilliant leader Elsa Culler is studying away next semester, we must begin the process of training a new Club Leader (affectionately titled Pong Person.) Keep your ears perked for info, and if you're interested in the position, let Elsa know so she can begin the training process!


Every year we have problems with documentation. The wiki ends up being too messy, and our meeting notes are a bit too personal to the people who actually show up to meetings. So this semester we're going to try a two-pronged attack; Tank is going to keep the wiki organized, documenting everything we've done, and I'm going to send out weekly digests to keep you updated with what is new and urgent. This means if you have news you want to include, or just some fun jokes, you should email me about it!