Trying Twine

Twine is an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories. (At least, that’s what the website says.)

I thought I might use it with my after-school group this quarter, as we’re working on creative writing. I could see it as a way kids can easily write and share a choose-your-own adventure type story. If we get that done, I’ll try to share their results (or at least my reflections).

I made one but it’s mostly a vehicle for bad jokes.

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Teacher Off Topic Plays Minecraft! Episode 1

So… this happened. Number one, yes, it is a way I can justify how much time I, as a professional adult, plays Minecraft. But I also want to convey to parents what can be positive about playing video games, starting with Minecraft. One excellent resource that convinced me to give Minecraft a try is The Minecraft Guide for Parents by Cori Dusmann. I really liked how this book addressed some reasonable parent concerns (like what if my kid won’t do anything but play Minecraft?). But it also offers advice on using the game to guide kids through things like coping with online bullies and navigating other online relationships. That plus like actual instruction on playing the game itself.

A Technology Teacher’s Halloween Ideas

Okay, yeah, Halloween was weeks ago, but I’m already planning my costume for next year.

In 2013, I was Ada Lovelace for Halloween.
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I even won a costume contest! Thanks Take Back Halloween! Bonus: my Ada costume also gets worn again on “Royalty Day” during “Fairy Tale Week.” Add a crown and boom, instant queen.

This year I was Admiral Grace Hopper. Yes… I got the idea from Take Back Halloween again. They’re a great resource that I recommend for any young girls who need to dress up as their personal hero for a wax museum project.

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I even issued a Halloween challenge to students during the morning announcements on the day of our Halloween parties. (My brother-in-law’s favorite part was the awkward six seconds I wasted in the beginning.) Not every class participated, but the ones that did were really excited. If you ever wanted roving bands of seven- to nine-year-olds screaming someone else’s name at you during a Halloween parade, this is how to achieve that. (Also you need to rethink your life goals. Just saying. I sure am.) Students and teachers reported back with information about compilers and the famous moth story. (Which I guess turned up on Jeopardy this week as a piece of trivia!) What a blast!

Next year I’m planning on being Margaret Hamilton. Perhaps just for an excuse to trawl thrift stores for totally fab late sixties fashions I can totally deck myself out in. Groovy!

Code.Org K-5 Workshop

Recently I read an article about how video games like Minecraft motivate kids to read beyond their level and are therefore surrounded by a “culture of literacy.” It is not a new article and also not a new idea – at least one acquaintance has told me that, while their child reads class materials at a snail’s pace, they devour books and magazines if the topic is WWE wrestling.

Basically, when something is interesting to you, you learn it faster, more deeply, better. The difference is in the wanting. Motivation makes a huge difference. And that reminds me why I started writing and podcasting – because I wanted to learn how to do it, and I wanted to be part of the larger conversation. And I called it “Teacher Off Topic” because I am well aware that the things I find interesting often fall outside the classroom curriculum.

So today I attended a Code.org K-5 workshop. Thanks to quirks of timing and geography, it was a workshop located 137 miles from where I live and teach. Why would I go so far? Because I am genuinely interested in learning more about computer science, so that I am better able to teach about computer science. Interest and opportunity happily converged and I was able to attend. I feel like the young kid striving to read higher-level books about my favorite video game, for sure!

Firstly, I have done Hour of Code in the classroom before, but not since 2013. It has changed for the better since then. It is much easier to create and keep track of student accounts, and their materials have grown more robust and comprehensive for the early childhood set. Is the Teacher Dashboard completely perfect and intuitive? No. But the fact that it has improved over time I think indicates that those responsible for creating and maintaining those interfaces are trying to keep their users in mind. I haven’t fully explored the entirety of the website, largely because there is simply more there to explore. So while I hesitate to pass judgment on everything, I have good feelings about it.

So let’s talk about the workshop.

The price was right, because the price was free.

It was a reasonably fast-paced professional development. I have sometimes had professional development that feels like I’m being talked at and not to. This did not feel that way. It was well-paced, with variety built into the agenda. It helped that most of the other attendees I interacted with were game, even though I knew no other people going in. Most everyone had a positive attitude, was open-minded, and happy to be there despite the fact that it was Saturday and we had to put on pants.

Some of it was review for me, because I already had some experience with Hour of Code and Code.org. But, it was great to talk to other adults who were interested in it. There are others in my school district who are also interested in Hour of Code, and Code.org, but they are not in my building and I don’t get to work together with them very often. So it’s energizing to have that with other adults in a room together, willing and able to share their thoughts and reflections as well!

I think it’s important to mention that the basics, the absolute bricks-in-the-foundation of computer science, do not change over time. The capabilities of technology change – the speed, the size, the scope of technology grow and grow and grow. But the basics stay the same. So a lot of the material, particularly the unplugged material, will not become outdated or obsolete any time soon. They are also not hard for you to wrap your mind around. Many teachers I have met have a bit of a mental block about teaching computer science concepts, because they think they don’t know it, and if they don’t already know it, it might be difficult. It is not difficult at least at the early elementary (K-5) level. It is beautiful, sensical, logical, and wonderful. I would encourage every K-5 educator – from homeroom, to art and music, to gym, to intervention specialists, to administrators – to at least acquaint themselves with the basics on Code.Org. Try it! You can do it! I believe in you! But also I believe in the accessibility of the materials available online.

Some challenges I anticipate might be to make the curriculum more accessible to students with disabilities. Sure, the website pieces can be presented in a variety of ways – desktop, laptop, tablet, with whatever interface adjustments needed. But some of the unplugged materials might need tweaked or adapted before they are fully accessible to everyone. And while that will be a challenge, it’s a challenge that excites me, because that’s one of the goals of technology in education to begin with: to empower students. Period.

And that’s why I want to teach my students computer science: to empower them. They are the boss of the technology, not the other way around. Period.

Reverse Tie-Dye

So, a huge part of the reason I started a podcast/blog was because a lot of the things I find interesting to teach, learn, and explore with others are not things I can currently incorporate in my classroom. So I explore them on my blog and in a podcast instead!

This year I have started to teach in our after-school program. The way it is structured allows teachers autonomy in designing our curricula, and students have choices when they sign up. It is so popular that we need select students by lottery, and every quarter new students get to participate.

For my first quarter, I taught “Science Experiments.” I don’t currently teach science in my classroom and I was thrilled to have the chance.

One of the goals was to have some sort of product students would get to keep as a result of their learning. The teacher who taught cursive writing had students do an art project with their names written in cursive. The teacher who taught technology projects had students make iMovies and showed them in our end-of-quarter party. My group made t-shirts to wear to our end-of-quarter party. Well, we didn’t make them from scratch. We used reverse tie-dying.

See, tie-dying refers to adding dye to fabric. Reverse tie-dying means removing dye from fabric.

One of the things I learned throughout the quarter is that science experiments don’t always go how you think they will. I pulled out some old classics that I’ve done dozens of times, and I still can’t be sure how they will go with every new group of kids. Sometimes you don’t even fail dramatically. Sometimes what you get is just disappointing.

See, the reason I thought about reverse tie-dying to begin with was because we tried skeletonizing tree leaves with it and it didn’t work – too delicate for such little hands. I wanted to find something else we could do with it, also making use of the gloves and goggles our program director procured for us. (I already owned lab coats, because nerd.)

So first I tested out reverse tie-dying at home, to make sure it would work.

Step one is to tie up your shirt as though you were going to tie-dye it. There are several techniques you can try – rolling and twisting and bunching. I tried something I saw online where you tie objects in. I don’t have the decorative glass stone thingies from the tutorial, so I used some of my least favorite Dungeons and Dragons dice.

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This did not seem goofballs enough, so I roped it up even further.

2015-10-25 09.46.182015-10-25 09.46.542015-10-25 09.47.34No one is looking forward to seeing how I treat a Thanksgiving turkey this year.

Anyway.

I then put this bundle into a bath of water and bleach in a tub in my kitchen sink. I also opened windows and turned on the fan above my oven, to be safe.

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In it went! I poked it a bit with my tongs and then let it sit for about twenty minutes, checking on it in five-minute increments.
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This photo, after about ten minutes, shows the dye really coming off the shirt.

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This is when I decided to take the shirt out.

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And there it is, hanging up in my shower to dry after the rinse bath.

Ultimately, the test I did at home was a good idea. The smell was really strong despite my precautions. Also, the result was much more dramatic than I was really going for. I decided I needed to reduce both the amount of bleach and the duration of the bleach bath when I repeated this with the kiddos. I also instructed the kids to wear old clothes. (I have previously ruined a pair of leggings when working with bleach. Not this time. I learn from my mistakes!)

I am also glad I did the test at home first because, while doing this with students, I did not have the ability or the opportunity to take as many photos. I will say this: they used far fewer rubber bands than I did. Most of them decided to tie their shirts the same way. One student said her father does a lot of tie-dying so several others flocked to her for guidance. That was super fine by me because her idea worked out really, really well!

Also when working with bleach, make sure the kids understand that it is a harsh chemical that can harm their eyes, skin, and the inside of their throat and lungs if they do not take care. We wore gloves, we wore lab coats, we wore goggles, and we practiced waving and wafting before I even poured the bleach out. Also we had buckets/sinks of water and eyewash in case we needed to rinse skin, clothes, or eyes in a pinch!

2015-10-26 15.36.45This is one of the shirts ready to go in the bath. I did take photos to help me remember whose was whose. We used different colored rubber bands in different patterns and arrangements to help us tell them apart.

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This was the way they all looked in the art room sink together. (I am not the art teacher, but we used the art room because my classroom doesn’t have a sink. Thanks art teacher for being cool with it!)

It turned out we didn’t have time to do the rinse ourselves. We took the shirts out and put them in plastic bags with zipper locks and got ready for dismissal. I went back and did the rinse bath after the kids left. At home, I did the rinse bath by hand since I only had the one shirt. Plus, I live in an apartment building and have to pay to do laundry, so that was a non-starter. At school, though, there is a washing machine (and dryer!) that the custodians use to clean their supplies. The custodians also let me use it to wash my reptile carpet. They kindly allowed me to use the washing machine for the shirts. I put them in for a rinse, then hung them up to dry (since it was going to be two days since our program met again, and I didn’t want to hang out at school waiting for a dryer load to be done).

Then, our kiddos wore them for our end-of-quarter pizza party! We viewed the iMovies and the sign language performance by other students in other classes. They were great!

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Here are three of the kids showing off their shirts. I chose to blank out their faces because, while I have their parents’ permissions to publish their images on school-related publications and social media, it feels different to do it for a personally-kept blog (even if my blog is related to my profession).

The student in the photo on the right used the technique his classmate taught him. He also wore his shirt to school the next day!

We made these Halloween week so I was pleased that they came out in orange and black. Some of them sort of have a camo look to them as well! I gave the shirt I made at home to a student who had been absent when we did this activity, otherwise I would take a picture of myself modeling it.

Anyway, I would absolutely do this again, but perhaps as an activity at a private birthday or Halloween party. Or, another small group – maybe not an entire class at a time. Maybe could rotate in small groups, especially if we could work outside and had another adult helping out. Either way, I liked how it turned out, and so did the kids.