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.