Last Message Received

I recently discovered a Tumblr blog called The Last Message Received. The curator posts anonymous submissions of the last electronic messages people received from others – they may be ex-friends, former romantic interests, or deceased loved ones.

I find it interesting that we now live in a world where “last words” are a little more permanent, and also not necessarily our last. Our thoughts and ideas can live on, in comments and tweets on the Internet. Someone can save an email or voicemail message for ages. In fact, you would have to choose to delete them.

Of course, I thought of one person who I really will never have the chance to talk to again. My father died three years ago today, after spending nearly four years in a comatose state. He had received a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. Though I did get to speak with him while he was in a coma, when I think of the last conversation I had with my father, I remember our last email conversation.

So I searched for it in my old email address.

dadmailThis, I think, shows my father’s voice clear as a bell. He was big on family nicknames; Fluff chick and Mo-mo were both ways to refer to my sister Maureen, “MT” is my mother, and he called me Caito-son because I was living in Japan at the time. (He really enjoyed being “Dadman” too.) He enjoyed co-opting “hip” slang and using it incorrectly (pretty sure that’s not a completely correct use of “cha,” which was a word Fluff chick used all the time). He also sent this from his work email address – I blanked out the work phone number, but I’m pretty sure “Compliance Director” was just part of his email signature. Still, it’s funny to think of a guy called “Dadman” also being in charge of compliance.

It was only days after this conversation that he got in an that accident.

When I dug up this email, I also showed it to my husband — my husband and I didn’t meet until Dad was already in a coma, so even though he met my father in a technical sense, he didn’t really get to know him. So I showed him this, so he could know my father a little better (and understand a little where my sense of humor comes from).

I am glad that my last recorded conversation with Dadman was a positive one. I can look at this and feel no regrets. It’s a decent reminder to make sure that most the things I say are true to myself. I can never know for sure which messages I send will be the last ones received.

Wednesday Website: Online Clock

In a pinch, you can Google something like “five minute timer” and have a timer right in your web browser you can use.

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But maybe you’re not in a pinch. Maybe you’re looking to create some ambiance. If that’s the case, I recommend OnlineClock.Net. Sure, the front page is a very pared-down digital clock, but there are more options. You can customize it with sounds and backgrounds, like an aquarium or fireplace. You can change it to a stopwatch or a timer. There are pre-set timers for major cultural events, like the upcoming New Year or Superbowl. You can even play a radio station. There’s even a games section if you’re just looking to kill some time.

I like to put this website up on the Smartboard with the timer on to remind students when it’s time to log out and leave the lab — my classroom is one of the few in the building without a wall clock, so it’s been very useful, especially for my after-school group.

My Little Pony: Mindset is Magic

Carol Dweck is a researcher particularly into the areas of motivation, personality, and development. She’s done numerous studies and wrote a book, but her ideas about fixed mindset versus growth mindset really, really caught on since her TED talk last year.

So (and I am taking great liberties in paraphrasing), one’s mindset dictates how they think, feel, and act in every aspect of their lives. One might have a fixed mindset and believe their traits and talents are permanently set. Or, one might have a growth mindset and believe traits and talents can change with effort.

And naturally that makes me think of My Little Pony.

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is the current iteration of a popular toy and cartoon franchise that I think motivated me to get potty-trained back in the eighties, so maybe that’s why research on motivation brings it to mind. Just kidding. Actually, I think it’s the cutie marks. Cutie marks (a play on the phrase “beauty marks”) are images that appear on a My Little Pony’s flank. These are often pictorial representations of the pony’s name. My favorite one as a kid was Moondancer; I remember she had a crescent moon and three stars as her cutie mark.

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I spotted this pony cosplaying as Moondancer at the county fair a couple years ago.

But cutie marks can also indicate something that the pony is particularly good at, or associated with. Applejack, who works on an apple farm, has apples for her mark. Fluttershy, who works with animals, has three butterflies. There are even characters called the Cutie Mark Crusaders who do not yet have cutie marks (I guess it’s a coming of age thing), but continuously try new hobbies and explore new interests in case that is where there cutie marks will come from.

So what does this have to do with a fixed or growth mindset?

Well, first there’s the idea that a pony’s cutie mark is somehow pre-destined. This would fit into the fixed mindset mentality, that talents are something you’re born with, something innate, and something that cannot be changed.

However, once you actually watch the show (because you have an eight-year-old niece), this is not an entirely comprehensive understanding of it. Yes, many of the ponies have cutie marks that relate to their talents and interests. But for even many of the ponies there for set dressing, the cutie mark is not the be-all and end-all to who that pony really is.

There is more to a fixed mindset than believing in natural abilities. Someone with a fixed mindset might give up quickly on something they’re not good at when they first try. They stick with what they know because they believe their potential is static.

Main character Twilight Sparkle seems to have that mindset in the beginning of the show. The first episode shows that she’s very bright and academically inclined. She is referred to as a gifted student who is very talented at using magic. She is even mentored by Princess Celestia, the ruler of the land — who tells her that “there is more to life… than studying” and assigns her some homework most unusual: to make friends. The point of the show is that Twilight Sparkle learns how to make friends and then nurture and maintain those relationships, while her friends also learn valuable life lessons. So while Twilight Sparkle does have a natural inclination towards book learning rather than social interaction, she does learn to be a good friend (and learn to love it, too). This is an example of a growth mindset — recognizing that some people are born with talents, but that you can sculpt your talent through experience and effort. Attitude affects aptitude.

I also appreciate the fact that ponies who have special talents and interests do not necessarily make their living off these special talents and interests. Rarity the unicorn is a fashion designer and seamstress who runs her own business. Her special talent is finding gemstones. She uses this talent in service of her passion, rather than building her business on this ability. Pinkie Pie is another example — her ability to throw awesome parties can come in handy, but she still has a day job at the bakery.

Supposedly it is preferable for people to have a growth mindset — it helps us be persistent, to be open to new experiences, to learn better from failure, and have better self-esteem. Knowing that, though, it is difficult to nurture a growth mindset in young learners, often because adults model a fixed mindset themselves. In My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, the pony peers do a good job of praising one another’s efforts while also acknowledging their innate strengths. Ponies often struggle with a concept before they master it, and these concepts frequently have to do with social and emotional learning. They cooperate more often than they compete; they make room for making mistakes in their relationships, because they know perfection is an untenable expectation to have of themselves and of each other.

 

So, overall, I feel like this is a good cartoon to watch with your kids (and nieces, they also matter!). The characters do a good job of challenging our expectations of them, and modeling different ways to learn positive character traits. Two hooves up!

5 Things Kids Can Learn from Video Games

So I recently read Alice Keeler’s post on 5 Things Teachers Can Learn From Video Games. I come down on the pro-gaming side, and have since the days of Bubble Bobble on the original NES. So if your kids are into video games, do not distress. They might be learning.

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Video games can help your kid with decision-making. Specifically, budgetary ones. Many video games have their own economies, where you can pay for better gear or more lives or whatever. You often have to earn money of some kind and save up. Sometimes you have to make decisions because you can only hold or afford so much in game. And I would rather practice make the wrong choice about what to spend my money on in a video game than in real life.

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Not every video game economy is equally imaginary.

Video games can help kids make friends and build social skills.
Video games can help us learn to be patient, persistent, and face up to challenges. They can help us learn to handle frustration and disappointment. Plus, they are a common hobby these days, and even though kids aren’t supposed to play them at school, it doesn’t stop a lot of cafeteria conversations revolving around them. And often communities are built around video games, whether in or outside of the game itself. I for one participate on Nintendo’s Miiverse; it’s a good place to ask for help if you’re stuck on something in a game, or just journal or comment on your gaming experience. In fact, the most polite argument I think I’ve ever been in during all my years on the Internet was on Miiverse.

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Taking turns! Sharing! Yay!

 

Video games can make your brain do work. Problem-solving is an important part of many video games. Often you have to come at a challenge from new and different directions. That’s learning in progress. They get immediate feedback from the game to tell whether or not their ideas work, and they can learn from it and try again until they succeed. (With breaks if needed, of course.)

Video games can also be an outlet for creative expression, perhaps as part of the game itself, or within the community around it.

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The Legend of Zelda series of games are well-known for the puzzles, among other things.

Video games might inspire your kid to learn more. Kids who want to learn more about a game, or improve their game experience, might seek out books about the game. If books do not exist, they may take to the Internet and scour message boards or other resources to find answers. I also see kids write about their gaming experiences — maybe they’re journaling their experiences; maybe they’re sharing tips and tricks; maybe they’re creating a story for their game character and going more the fictional route. Either way, video games, like any hobby, can spark kids’ interest in a topic and open them up to new kinds of learning experiences.

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Team Science actually lost to Team Art, but I think we still get the picture.

There are psychological benefits to gaming. Sure, I’ve already listed some, but some studies show that video gamers show improvements in basic visual processes, attention and vigilance, executive functioning, and some job-related skills.

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Granted, not every video game is an appropriate choice for every kid (the same way that not every book, movie, or TV show is an appropriate choice for every kid). But that doesn’t condemn the whole medium; even games not purported to be “educational” can provide unique and useful learning experiences.

Disclaimer: I drew all this art (because nerd alert) using Nintendo Wii U Pad or 3DS. Characters depicted are property of Nintendo.

 

Teaching and Learning and The Force Awakens

Okay, now is where there are going to be spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Teaching and learning are huge themes in the Star Wars movies. Teachers guide their students and sometimes impose on them. Students sometimes select their teachers —  often a choosing between the light side and the dark side of the Force in the process. Mentor-mentee relationships are some of the most important in the franchise.

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I can’t explain this clip art. I just like it.

The Force Awakens features lots of learning, though much less teaching. Finn the former stormtrooper has had blaster training, and transfers that training to operate the gunner positions on at least two different ships. Later on in the movie, he’s even willing to pick up and use a lightsaber, despite that being a very niche weapon.

Finn learned to do those things with minimal teaching. He is coached on the TIE fighter by Resistance pilot Po Dameron — who himself has never flown a TIE fighter before. He is also learning on the fly. Rey the scavenger talks him through some aspects of operating the cannon on the freighter they steal, but he’s mostly on his own for that.

You don’t always need a teacher to learn, although it usually helps. For better or for worse, we can learn simply by being in great stress. He is forced to learn because he is in life or death situations. There are loads of examples of people learning in these kinds of situations, but a lot of the time the takeaways are not practical or transferable. For example, a child in an abusive situation may learn unhealthy ways to cope with the abuse. In fact, considering that Finn was “taken from a family [he’ll] never know” and “programmed since birth” to be a foot soldier, he probably had a lot of experience learning in situations not so much tailored for his specific learning needs, but rather for the needs of those hierarchically above him.

Rey the scavenger also demonstrates much learning throughout the movie. We are only given glimpses into her past, but she’s been living alone on a desert planet for most of her life. So I presume that many of her basic skills and abilities come from simply needing to survive. She’s good with a melee weapon (staff) because she needed to defend herself. She’s familiar with mechanical pieces and parts because she needed to scavenge from shipwrecks to survive. At one point she tells Finn that she’s never piloted a ship off the planet before, which leads me to assume she’s had experience moving machines on the surface, comparatively. She moves quickly and makes split-second decisions when Han Solo is her copilot. But I think her really interesting learning experiences come from her interactions with Kylo Ren.

Kylo Ren is the masked dark side Force-user of the film. He idolizes his predecessor, Darth Vader, and while he may have the same power, he does not have the same self-control. Unlike Rey, Kylo has had training — first from Luke Skywalker, who he turned against; later from Supreme Leader Snokes. (We do not see either actually train Kylo, unlike in A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, where we see student Skywalker interact with teachers Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, respectively.)

Kylo uses the Force to try and get information from Rey, by doing something that seems like reading her mind. He can recite her favorite daydream but she blocks him from the information he wants. Then, she tells him something deeply personal about himself, shocking him and sending him running to Snokes. How could Rey have done this without being trained herself? Well, as I said before, it’s not ideal, but you can learn and adapt in a stressful situation. Also, Rey probably paid attention to what Kylo was doing enough to try it on him. Any parent who has cussed around their kids knows that this unintentional teaching happens. Rey tries this power out on a stormtrooper later, making several mistakes she can learn from before getting it right.

Later on in the midst of a lightsaber duel, Kylo tells Rey she needs a teacher, and says, “I could show you the way.” However, though he has more training than Rey, I would argue that Kylo is not prepared to be a teacher at this point. Simply knowing more than someone else on a given topic is not qualification enough. Yes, she could learn from him, but she has already demonstrated that she can learn things from him that he did not intend to teach her. But I’m not going to worry about it too much, firstly because I do not constitute any kind of Jedi or Sith education licensing agency. But also because Rey responded to Kylo’s invitation with a lightsaber to his face.

I am sure that, if I watched it again, I could probably mine some more examples of teaching and learning from The Force Awakens. And goodness knows I would (I haven’t seen it in 3D yet…). But perhaps I should rewatch the original trilogy to get a better understanding of how Jedi teach Force powers to their students.

And also because it’s winter break, and I don’t need an excuse to nerd out.

 

On Fiction and Fandom

Yesterday, after other holiday festivities had wrapped up, we went and saw the new Star Wars movie. When we came home, there was a lot of discussion of what we liked, what we didn’t like, comparing it to previous Star Wars movies, etc.i-m-a-nerd-md

I could go into the specifics about our discussion, but I won’t. And it’s not because I’m afraid to spoil you. I just wanted to talk about fiction and fandom in general.

When I was a student in school, I was taught how to structure an argument about something from a work of fiction using various skills. I learned to clarify what I was reading, summarize, make predictions, ask questions about it. I learned to compare and contrast; cite my sources; describe and evaluate; interpret the meaning of a passage; and organize my thoughts, mostly in writing. And while I’m sure I do these things in my everyday life — like comparing and contrasting prices in a grocery store, for instance — the times when it is most obvious to me that I’m using what I learned in school is when I am being my absolute nerdiest. Specifically, when I am being both nerdy and socializing with other people.

We had dinner with friends the other week and spent a huge amount of time discussing the character development on the new Muppets show (I am particularly interested in what they’re doing with Miss Piggy). In the car on the way here, I turned on the Hamilton soundtrack to demonstrate how the freshness of the hip hop music distinguishes the newness of certain ideas in Hamilton’s time, even though now we take those same ideas for granted as old and part of history. Even as I write, my niece is on the couch next to me, acting out a story with her Lego people, which is a way for her to make sense of things.

Fiction matters, because it can help us make sense of the world. Fandom matters — fandom is being part of a community of fans, and a community can help us grow and shape and challenge ourselves and our ideas. (Online fandom is where I first felt comfortable disagreeing with others, and also where I learned to disagree in constructive ways.)
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It’s very likely that I will start using this blog to explore some ideas that come from fiction and fandom. Why? Because I’m the “teacher off topic.” Just because the school day is over and I’m home enjoying my favorite hobbies, doesn’t mean I’ve turned off my brain and stopped learning.

Expect more nerdiness in the future!

Friday Five Favorites: Christmas Traditions

childrens-choir-hiI don’t think very many people are likely to be reading their blog rolls or checking their Twitter feeds as per usual today, but I did want to write a post every day in December, so here I am, holding myself to that.

Here are five of my favorite Christmas (or around Christmas) traditions:

    • Stair carols. I come from a big family. When I hit my teenage years I still had very, very young siblings who were very, very excited about Santa coming. But a teen has a very different circadian rhythm, and my teen siblings and I may have been up very late the night before playing elves. So to compromise between morning excitement and morning need-to-sleep in, stair singing developed. Basically, kids weren’t allowed to come all the way downstairs until everybody was up and awake – that way no one got any kind of head start on stockings. A time was set as to when it was “okay” to deliberately rouse teenagers, which was significantly later than the little kids would and could get up. So the little kids, not allowed to directly interact with the teens, would sit on the stairs (because why stay in your room?) and sing all the Christmas songs they could think of at the top of their lungs. It could take a full thirty minutes to make it through a rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with all the false starts, stops, and wrongly remembered lyrics.
    • Christmas morning elf. This is not the elf on the shelf who is spying on your kids. “Christmas morning elf” is something that my in-laws have always done. Every Christmas someone is designated to be the elf, and has the task of passing out presents. They have to read tags and deliver the gifts to others (possibly in a particular order). They have to make sure people get to take turns — no giving one person gifts twice in a row. The first Christmas morning I spent with my in-laws felt extremely organized and methodical compared to the “storm the tree and take what’s yours” atmosphere of my childhood. It was peaceful and relaxing. Plus, being the elf is a job kids take very seriously, while adults can lean back with mugs of coffee.
    • Tree trimming. My family always had a party to trim the tree — we would make appetizers, serve punch, and make an event of it. (Sometimes it would make an event of itself — the tree sometimes got heavy on one side and fell down.) My in-laws don’t go to quite that extent, but welcome help in putting up the ornaments. As someone who does not get too much into holiday decorations (we do not have a tree in our apartment, for instance), I appreciate using division of labor to make a task that might get tedious go faster. I also appreciate approaching it like a party and not like a chore. I also appreciate that when bad things happen to the tree, like falling down, we all feel invested because we all worked together on it, so we all will work together to fix it.
    • Food. My in-laws always have julgrot served with fruit on Christmas Eve. This is rooted in my mother-in-law’s mother coming from a very Swedish family. My mother-in-law (and this year, my sister-in-law) likes making julgrot because it is an extremely easy but very delicious meal. And because Christmas Eve can be very, very busy with other plans, it can be a relief to make something so simple for the evening meal.
    • Being open to other traditions. This year we attended a Mass at a local Catholic college, which makes sense because we’re out-of-towners, so we don’t belong to a parish around here. The college is run by an order of nuns, and many members of their order come from Bangladesh, Nepal, and India. The second reading was read in Bangla (although it was printed in English in the program too). And during the offertory, several students and acolytes performed a ritual rooted in South Asian traditions called aarti (though it was spelled aroti in the program). I really enjoy this incorporation of other languages, cultures, and traditions. Firstly, I have firsthand experience of living in a different country, so I relate to the feeling of needing to recreate some of your cultural traditions in a new setting, to feel connected back to where you came from. I really like that it felt very easy to make room for that at this church we went to. Also, I sometimes struggle with tradition — it can have a lot of positive elements, but I have also had negative experiences with some traditions too. I think being open and flexible with and to traditions helps temper that for me.

      Being open to new traditions has helped my family grow, develop, and evolve traditions as our lives have changed. Like I said, there are a lot of us, so buying Christmas gifts for everyone would be expensive and impractical. We also have moved to different parts of the country (and world, in some cases!). So we do a Secret Santa style gift exchange managed through DrawNames.com. We make arrangements to send gifts or meet in person to open them. If we can’t be with each other, then we take “unboxing” style videos of opening our gifts and share them on social media. So technology has helped us stay connected to each other!

Well, I am totally aware that this post has a definite unfinished quality to it, but I am going to leave it as it is. I have fulfilled my obligation to myself for the day, and being a holiday, it is important that I also step away and give of myself to my loved ones. Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, I hope you have a lovely day!

 

Do You Want to Wear a Snowman?

My eight-year-old niece and I are having a silly hair Christmas Eve. We’ll see whether the other adults stop me from wearing my hair this way to Mass. I want to see whether the nuns react.

Structure made of two differently sized hair donuts, stacked on each other. Tissue instead of colored hairspray. Niece drew the buttons and nose, and glued on wiggly eyes and the Hersey kiss hat. Pipe cleaner scarf.

Wednesday Website: Print Friendly

As the technology resource teacher in my building, I spend more time with the printers than many other people in the building. Thing is, I’m almost never printing. I’m mostly changing toner or trying to undo a jam.1194985666834114944laserprinter.svg.med

A big frustration I have is just how much we print. Yes, we need all sorts of worksheets and tests and handouts and study guides and homework pages and so on. The things that really annoy me are when we print out websites.

Not every website is designed to print. They’re designed to be viewed on a screen, not a piece of paper. It’s not their fault. But how to handle it when you just need a hard copy?

Try using Print Friendly. It whittles down the website to the bare bones – ads, links, images, comments, social media icons gone. I entered in a long, listed article to test it out, and I could even click on a paragraph to delete it from the final page. I bet that would be useful if you just want to use excerpts from online news articles to use when discussing current events. You also don’t have to print – you can save the file as a PDF, or send it in an email. And you don’t have to go back to the website every time you have something to print – there’s an extension available for the Google Chrome browser.

Reflections on Hour of Code 2015

Today was our last day of school before winter break, which is a great time to reflect on Hour of Code… because it took us this long to “finish” with it. (“Finish” is in quotation marks for a reason!)
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Things I did that I will do again:

  • We did the Hour of Code during regular scheduled computer lab times. Every class in the school comes to the computer lab once a week for a lesson with me. These classes are forty to fifty minutes long, depending how long transitions take. I never thought I would cram in the Hour of Code in one week, because I planned on it taking at least two class periods per class. Because of other December scheduling conflicts (singing practices for our holiday music program, standardized testing), it actually took most classes three weeks to get a full sixty minutes of coding in.
  • I created accounts for every student that matched the usernames they use for school email addresses. But, I had them use “secret pictures” instead of their usual passwords.
  • I linked to the Hour of Code login sites from our school website. I showed them how to get to the website from our school website.
  • I had planned on doing the Hour of Code since August, so I started working in important words, phrases, and concepts subtly. For example, working in “if statements” during games of Simon Says when we’re filling five minutes in the cafeteria. Or dressing up as Admiral Grace Hopper for Halloween and telling them that debugging story about the moth!
  • Students had some technology free time in the last week of school before break (on classroom Chromebooks, not during computer lab time). Many chose to continue Hour of Code and remembered how get there! I was thrilled and proud and it was probably the best way for other teachers to see and understand what Hour of Code was about. Many students also did Hour of Code at home, or at the public library, and asked if they could do it over break. So… that’s why “finish” was in quotation marks. Because many of these kids are not done! Let’s see whether I can keep this momentum going in 2016.

Things I will do differently:

  • I will send a letter home to parents explaining Hour of Code to them.
    • That letter can also include directions on how to access Code.org accounts from home, and on different devices, in case parents want to check it out for themselves, or students want to extend their learning independently.
    • Similarly, I will better communicate about Hour of Code to other teachers at school.
  • I will make student accounts AND subdivide them into smaller groups so that they are easier to distribute (and for students to find on a page).
  • Not every kid went back and found errors in their program when they made mistakes. They just clicked-and-dragged the entire thing into the trashcan. That was frustrating because it was often just the more recent steps that were off, and the first steps were fine. We learned the phrase, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!” But even though I knew this was happening, I am sure it was still happening all over the place, despite my best efforts to prevent it. So I will try to anticipate that happening next year, I’m just not sure how yet.

Things that were just plain awesome, and not because of me:

  • Minecraft was a huge draw. Not only did it draw in kids who already play Minecraft, it drew in kids who had never played it but know it is popular with their peers.
  • Star Wars and Frozen also provided pull for kids, even though I did not start them on those tutorials. I simply told them they existed, and they were welcome to try after doing the Minecraft version first. Some kids worked really hard to get to code characters they already knew and loved. The Star Wars tutorial was a cakewalk to kids who had finished the Minecraft one, too, and they breezed through it even though the content was slightly different. They felt like geniuses.12065592241647756196mystica_LightSaber_(Fantasy)_2.svg.med
  • Actually, yeah, many kids felt like geniuses. A lot of the kids who understood the material quickly were not the same kids who succeed academically with little effort; they were very excited because they could see evidence that they were learning, and feedback was immediate. I remember being frustrated with math as a kid, because when I got a wrong answer, I couldn’t tell it was the wrong answer — I thought it was right until someone told me I was wrong. I could get entire pages of math problems wrong before a teacher realized. With Code.org, you can run your program right away — and it either does what you want it to, or it doesn’t. You know instantly whether you’ve solved it correctly, and if you haven’t, you have the opportunity to fix it before moving on. You can learn so, so much from your mistakes, but only when you know you’re making them! So the immediate feedback is a huge thing, I think.

Overall, I really liked it, and I hope to keep using coding and programming in my classroom this school year and next.