Understanding the differences between Categories and Tags

Today we are learning how to use Categories to make searching a web site easy.

Is It Real, Or Is It Photoshop?

Students, you probably have heard of the well-worn phrase “Can you Photoshop me into the picture?” Or Sometimes you hear people say, “That’s not real, that’s been Photoshopped!

This week we wrap up our classes with a short discussion on not just Photoshop, but Media Literacy. It means using a critical eye, and being perceptive about what you see published. 

Here are two images that may or may not have been altered. Could you tell?

This is the Northrup F5 E Tiger II at an air show recently. Mirror image? 

This was supposedly the last photo taken at the World Trade Center on 9/11. 


Coding in schools gathers steam, thanks to Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook et al

I began introducing coding to my 5th grade classes this year, and the interest level is truly inspiring. I was planning to up the ante in the next school year. Looks like my timing couldn’t have be better.

Many stories have begun to appear about how Coding is being pulled into the curriculum.

The latter piece (by Matt Richtel, 10, May 2014) weighs in on the pros and cons, especially wondering if there’s something iffy about having big-name backers such as Microsoft and Facebook. The insinuation is that they may have vested interests in this, and not be interested in the bigger picture of inspiring the science in computer science.

That’s being a bit too snarky. After all, the ‘career ready’ jobs that educators talk up so much are in such spaces that the present and future Gates’ and Zuckerbergs will create and nurture. I want these kids to glide into those plum jobs, ten years from now. That the runway is being paved with corporate dollars –and their sweat– is not necessary a bad thing, is it?

Also, teaching students to code is not trying to turn them into over-paid kids working out of a coffee shop. Making computer science a mainstream discipline, not a nice-to-have, is a place to start.

If you really want to know the grand plan of computer science, here is an illuminating document on Computer Science Standards for K-12 by the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA). Some of the points they stress:

  • CS’s role in “logical reasoning, algorithms thinking, and structural problem-solving.”
  • The value of being closely aligned with business people, scientists, artists etc.
  • Teaching students to work ‘cooperatively’ and ‘collaboratively’
  • Teaching ‘Computational thinking’ –from data representation to problem solving

Sounds a lot like Common Core to me. This is what educators in CS have thought through, calling for us to embed these skills as early as Kindergarten. This is not something that grew out of Silicon Valley.

It’s time we put it into practice. The kids are hungry for this!

Robots with Cameras – Scary or Fun?

A camera on a robot might sound a bit intrusive. 

But by combining the two technologies it could get students to think beyond table-top variety, and consider the real-world applications. (Think self-driving cars with that clunky sensor on top…)

So this week we took the Robot Maze Challenge to the next level – adapting a camera to see what the robot sees as it goes through the maze. 

Dr. Bill Johnson was here today and helped the students think through a new maze that could be navigated with both a color sensor and an ultrasonic sensor. We built a new maze with cardboard boxes. Notice the extra obstacles the bot has to avoid.

This is what the camera sees.

If you do not see the video, use this link.

Encryption and Coding – 100 Years Before HTML

Interesting how the art of the cryptic language has been something that we humans practiced for a long time. I use this as a preamble to my 5th grade class on coding.

Students could see a broader context of coding when we discuss the following:

There’s a wonderful story of how Thomas Jefferson used to correspond with a friend who wrote to him in code – around the time of the authoring of the Declaration of Independence. Then there’s the predecessor to Braille, which was really a military code (‘night writing’) for soldiers to read messages without light.

And more recently, we have seen the news of how Jeremiah Denton, as a POW, ‘flashed’ a message to the world using his eyes –blinking the word ‘torture’ in Morse.

From Magnets to Circuits – Making it Interactive

During this semester I try to cover a lot more STEM areas with my classes, and have begun engaging students a lot more with activities they could then build on – in documents, presentations, blogs etc.

It doesn’t take much more than a small coil of copper wire, a motor, flashlight bulb, and rudimentary switches to explain how magnetism and circuits work.

After a few hands-on make it/break it sessions, I let my third graders use this web site, Cleo, to try their hand indesigning their own circuit. Cleo is a British web site that promotes the use of rich media and broadband.

Like a white board with wires and batteries –a better description would be an interactive sandbox– it lets a student not just build a circuit, but run it to see if the device works. If it fails, great! Erase. Reconnect. Run.

I let them print out a working circuit and take it home for further discussion.

Cross-posting this from my school blog.

Teaching kids to Code

We hear a lot of ‘codes’ but very often it involves computer coding – from HTML to C, to Java etc.

To follow up on a coding class to my 5th graders, I took them one step back to give them more context about why we use and need codes. Society has always hade people who could code, if you think about it. It was just a way of keeping things secret, or understandable within a small community. See list at the bottom of this post for more on this.

But hiding in plain sight are lots of codes that students take for granted:

  • UPC Codes on packaging, books etc that encodes pricing 
  • Product codes (on say produce in a grocery store)
  • UPC codes on stickers on technology here in the school for inventory control
  • QR Codes – now becoming ubiquitous in marketing, on T-shirts etc

Into this mix comes the need to understand how coding is now a highly desirable skill set in many, many careers. (I tell my students that even if they don’t take up computer science, a knowledge of coding will help them manage digital spaces that they surely will be involved in.)

This week I began taking students to Khan Academy, which has a brilliant introduction to coding. It’s hands-on, and even as the video presenter explains, it lets you pause and tweak the code within the video, to reveal changes in the display area on the right. You could find the first lesson on coding different shapes, here.

I’ve been on many, many online learning portals, and this is beyond any doubt the most amazing example of how to engage a learner, even as the tutorial is in progress. I could tell, by how reluctant students are to log off. It’s almost a disservice to have to do this in a few lessons – I have been floating the idea of maybe starting a coding club in the school. I keep hearing that it is never too early to teach students how to code.

The tug-of-war between social media ‘policies’ and ‘guidelines’

Social media in the education system is often treated with the broad brush. I’ve gotten used to this, and fielded this argument long before I got into education – as a communication consultant.

Organizations who have been mildly exposed to the uses and abuses of social media immediately throw two things at it: filters and policies. You see that’s how we always dealt with these things, didn’t we? When email came along we had gatekeepers (human filters), and policies. Long before that, when people started had access to phones, people did exactly that – they ‘locked’ phones inside booths and rooms, and were worried that employees might spend too much time talking on the phone.

Fast forward to today. Schools are wrestling with this age-old communication issue of Policies vs Guidelines. Gatekeepers vs Accessibility. To address this head on was a timely White Paper on Ed tech in Schools (by the American Association of School librariess) that noted how Acceptable Use Policies or AUPs, are more a list of things young people should not do, rather than what they ought to be considering as digital citizens.

Expanding on this, Frances Harris and Megan Cusick update it with a call to rethink social media policies in schools.(“What’s Not to ‘Like’? March 10, 2014), citing Common Core standards that call for making knowledge “robust and relevant to the real world.” I like how they dig deeper into CCSS to suggest that we ought to be teaching students to use technology  “to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.” (Italics, mine). The point here being that, one effective way to solicit feedback is to get them to be out there in public, on published platforms. While we are busy erecting high fences around this pool, we may be leaving them unprepared to dive into the “real world” where the pools are everywhere and unfenced.

Don’t get me wrong. I teach K-6, and have children of my own, so I know the importance of guidelines and ‘small fences.’ But to the authors’ larger point, we parents often try to teach our children to swim, rather than making them fear the deep end.

I’ve just begun a class on blogging for my 6th graders. They’ve read the AUPs, and that’s behind us now. Now it’s time to see them go public.

U.S. Olympian, Sean Smith’s message: “Dream big, and stay in school”


Sean Smith had a lot to share, outside of his favorite Olympic activity, Moguls.

The twists and spins he had to master to be on the U.S. team took a lot of practice, and was hard work. But the truth is, he said, that event just took 20 seconds! To put it another way, you train all your life for those 20 seconds.

Students asked many questions, directly to camera, and via text messaging, and email, while the Olympian was on the big screen – a UStream feed, projected onto a Promethean board in the music room.

James Schaaf, Sean Smith

Using Facetime and UStream to ask a question

Sean’s main message to Salt River Elementary students was to set goals. Saying “I want to fly” is not realistic, he said. Set goals that are achievable. “But you have to dream, and dream really big!”

Sean Smith - Olympic Skier

“Today, my goal is to have fun, to help people, and to smile every day.” Sean Smith

Learning to Code (with a little help from Zuckerberg)

Starting tomorrow, being Digital learning Day, I plan to start using Code.Org, the site that lets a student learn coding, and understand the syntax behind an interactive website.

Code.Org is backed by two of the most recognized coders in the world: Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill –needs no introduction– Gates. Partners include Amazon, Apple, Google, Yahoo, Khan Academy, and Saleforce.com

One of the goals of Code.org is to introduce Computer Science into the math and science “Core” curriculum. The thinking behind this push is to make students excited about computer science, which tends to be confused with Technology Literacy, and ‘education technology.’

Indeed, it’s never too early to get students fired up about the ‘science’ of what makes computers so interactive. Even if it means introducing a Red Bird into class.

As the site says, this is for those age six to… 106! Which means you qualify, too!


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