Slow Down. Not Just For a Day!

A 'loading cat' icon that net neutrality proponents can used to indicate their support for Title II reclassification.Wednesday was –in case you didn’t skim the headlines — National Slowdown Day! A day to bring awareness about who could control the flow if information through the plumbing of the Internet.

Whenever we discuss reading, we talk about the need to slow down. We are fighting the trend where skimming, scrolling, and headline-browsing is becoming the norm. (By the way, there’s a book titled Slow Reading.) We take for granted that with reading comes comprehension, but unless there is ‘absorption time’ no amount of reading time will improve literacy.

Enter something called Close Reading. We have just begun to adopt this as a reading practice for our students at Salt River Elementary. It means encouraging young people to a habit of reading that will ‘uncover layers of meaning.‘  It involves reading and re-reading. Slowing down for more than a day!

Here are two good discussions of Close Reading:



Digital Citizenship. Why Should You Care?

Last week, I began introducing the topic of Digital Citizenship.

It’s easy to see what it means to be a Digital Citizen, by looking at what happens when people have got caught not doing the right thing. Or why Google Glass, though useful to some, is upsetting. No shortage of these examples!

Plagiarism, bullying, and password theft are the big three in schools. But as more and more of students get into online sharing and commenting, we must think of Digital Citizenship in terms of how they perceive Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp., Twitter and SnapChat –and a slew of others coming right after these.

Alongside this unit, I am introducing something that gets 4th, 5th and 6th graders all fired up: Learning how to blog. This is a fun class, and not only because I’m a writer. Teaching students to publish content is a great way to recognize how language arts (the mechanics, even), connects with the digital skills they need to have. It gets them to consider what it means to have an audience!

It’s also fun because you don’t have to sweat bullets to make these units cross-functional, and multi-disciplinary –to be in keeping with the Arizona College & Career Ready Standards.

Here’s something that could be sent homeA Digital Citizenship ‘Family Contract’ for children to sign.

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!

Using mixed-media and Rube Goldberg in a STEM class

This year I began trying a series of mixed-media in my class, with Common Core in mind.

For instance, last week I began using Rube Goldberg as a point of interest through which to teach 4th, 5th and 6th graders both science and document creation. It’s impossible for young people to not be enthused by the simplicity and complexity of Rube Goldberg contraptions –a useful point to make, considering his belief that we humans tend to make simple tasks more complicated than they need to be.

What resonates with students seems to be the basic elements of one of these machines – ordinary objects lying around a home. I’ve even found it useful to get third graders to talk excitedly about forces and gravity, after demonstrating a crude ‘machine’ in my class. “Crude,” as in what appears to be a hastily put together contraption of a ball, some string, paperclips, and a ruler. Here’s what I did last week:

I tied a length of string to the door handle, and wrapped it around a computer terminal, then stretched it about 15 feet to a stool, tying that end to a ‘lever’ (made of Lego pieces).

When the lever is moved, it drops a ball onto a ruler balanced on a cardboard box. The ruler, when tipped (by the weight of the ball) sends another ball shooting into the air.

We tested it out; it was hit or miss. But when it worked, I picked a student to catch the flying ball.

What was fun, and unexpected, was when the teacher came to pick up the students, the contraption went to work, and the ball flew into the air. I don’t know what the teacher thought was going on in a ‘computer class’ but I think they have all come to expect that this is not just about hardware and software, but science and technology.

Rube Goldberg’s ‘machine’ also helps me draw out the larger lessons of STEM:

  • Problem solving and experimentation go hand in hand
  • It’s OK to fail -and learn something from your mistakes
  • The ‘laws’ of science don’t need to be memorized to be applied
  • Scientists are cool people. They don’t only work in murky labs with hazardous chemicals
  • Big Ideas haven’t all been taken. The world is always anxious for the better mousetrap!

Here’s another contraption I’ve begun using to teach…. animation in Powerpoint.



And what’s the connection between PPT and a Rube Goldberg contraption?

I get students to create one of their slides using shapes, and create a ‘machine’ using shapes –you know, cones, cylinders, slides, etc. and get a ball to ‘move’ through a sequence, almost mimicking the device they help me build and test.

It’s turning out to be a fun way to combine computer skills, science, and hands-on activity, and get them thinking deeper about the connection between a computer lab and science and technology.

War on “drug” (also the ugly skirmish between “bring” and “Take”)

Does it make you cringe when you came across folks saying “brung”? How about “drug” as the past tense of drag. My other pet peeve is the use of “bring” when someone means “take.” How hard s it to figure out that one “takes’ something away, and brings something toward?

How do these oddities creep in? If you are to tell me this is accepted speech, then we are surely being “drugged” to the edge of the very slippery slope. You may have heard that so-called “initialisms” such as OMG and LOL have entered the Oxford English Dictionary.

If there is one common core issue in language that needs to be addressed it’s how we start raising the bar when it comes to descriptive language. As I have noted here and elsewhere, I have outlawed two words in my class: “thing” and “stuff.” This is not just  language arts concern. Even in my robotics program, I have to stress the use of a good vocabulary,

Yesterday I ran into a parent who was bristling that Common Core was ‘dumbing down’ standards. This kind of reaction to change is to be expected, though myopic; it does sound a lot like Fox News talking points. But where’s the rage against sloppy vocab?

But for now, having seen a grown-up use the word, I am waging a war on “drug.”

Friday Focus – Blogs of the Week

I run into so many great posts, articles and podcasts, I decided to curate them here every Friday.

These will most likely be long-form content, material that analyzes trends, by writers / podcasters who analyze and start discussions. It’s for those of you who want to go past the headlines. Not suitable for content snackers!

Here’s this week’s Friday Focus.

Radio – not too ‘old school’ for digital natives

Is radio too ‘old-school’ for our so-called digital natives?

On the face of it, radio is not cool because it lacks visuals that most young people have grown up with. Also, given that the screen has become our interface of life, teaching for the ear gets a thumbs down.

If we give up.

I’ve recently discovered that, in class, radio –and the recorded voice—has a remarkable potential for engagement. I’m still trying to decide if it’s the hardware (a simple, cheap  corded mic) or the ‘studio setting’ I establish that gets a class all excited about creating content, and interacting.

The past few weeks, based on a lesson on sound and audio, I pushed my first graders to work on a format to make their own class radio show. I know what you’re thinking- First Graders?!  They may never ‘get’ why interacting (live) is big part of learning/thinking, right?

I beg to differ.

I give them 30-second practice-runs, and then pick a ‘host’ (based on the voice recordings last week) and get that student to basically run the show.

They make a mistake, no problem. We start again. They flub on their words. We re-record.

This is a lesson that combines technology and language. Technology at the service of language. My goal in this class is two-fold:

  • Let them discover a technology that helps them  communicate better, think fast. New Common Core standards call for integrating “information from oral, visual, quantitative, and media sources…”
  • Understand how vocabulary is key to describe an event (playing in the snow), appreciate a piece of content (a book review), show interest in a subject (the “I want to be a/an………….. because” prompt)

But by putting a child in the proximity of a medium (the visible hardware and the invisible software), I want him or her to see Language Arts through a new filter; To appreciate why good metaphors and word choices make good scripts, great stories…

KJZZ & Story Corps

I thought a lot about this yesterday, returning from Phoenix, after stopping by the Story Corps booth, at the Phoenix Art Museum. A mobile studio goes across the country letting people tell their stories. They may not have radio voices, and six-dollar words, but their stories are compelling. (While we were there, former Chief Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor was in the booth, recording hers.)

On the drive back, my 10-year old daughter insisted on listening to ‘The World’ –a news segment from Public Radio International, BBC and NPR. She’s a huge fan of the segment, Geo Quiz.

She’s a digital native. Yet it’s radio, not TV, that has sparked her interest in geography and world events.  It’s not as old school as you’d think.