Hour of Code Is Almost Here!

Question: What happens every year in the month of December and is loved by children all over the world?

Answer: Hour of Code week! (Bet I fooled you, huh?)

In all seriousness, December 4th through 10th is the annual Hour of Code week, celebrated at schools and rec centres all over the world. (Don’t believe me? Check out this map!)

Every year the team at Hour of Code outdoes itself in presenting entertaining yet challenging activities designed to give students from preschool to Grade 12 a chance to explore different aspects of coding and computational thinking. This year is no different!

I had actually thought I might go through and try all of this year’s activities so I could really give you my opinion on the ones to try. Ha! What was I thinking? But the ones that I did try were great!

You can check out the activities here. You can search for activities based on the age of your students, the devices you’re using and the students’ previous coding experience. Most activities are designed to provide about an hour’s worth of engagement, although this will depend a bit on your students! The activities use a variety of coding “languages” from block based coding to text based coding like JavaScript, Python, CoffeeScript (an easier version of JavaScript) and Apple’s Swift. There are even a bunch of new unplugged activities if you scroll right to the bottom.

Along with lots of new activities, the Hour of Code website now includes a whole bunch of activities you could do with robots and circuits!

December is a busy month in any school. Report cards, sports tournaments, holiday festivities, crazy weather and busy personal schedules can leave all of us (students and teachers) feeling a little frazzled. Why not take an hour long break from it all and try some coding with your students?

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“Unplugged” Coding Activities

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This is Kaylee’s code she wrote for her Partner Robot!

This year, Hour of Code week takes place December 4 to 10th. For those who have not yet heard of Hour of Code week, it was started by Hadi Partovi and his team in 2013 with a goal of encouraging more students to try their hands at computer coding and see how much fun it can be. The Hour of Code website has a ton of great coding puzzles and activities for kids to do and most of them are available all year long!

However, the reality is that we don’t all have access to devices in our classrooms and even when we do, it’s winter weather time here in BC and you never know when the power or wifi might go out due to storms. Not to mention, some days you’d just rather go old-school! Luckily, there are lots of great “un-plugged” (no device) activities you can do with your students! NOTE: I have personally tried all of the following activities with students. There are lots of other activities you could find, but I only feel comfortable recommending something I’ve actually tried (and liked!).

Partner Robots

This is one of my favourite activities and I’ve used it with Kindergarten to Grade 9 students – all successfully! I’ve even seen kids out playing it in the playground at recess – how cool is that!? Here are the instructions.

Getting Loopy

There’s a big long explanation for this one on the Hour of Code website. I’ve taught it exactly to their lesson plan and I’ve also taught it spontaneously without much pre-planning. Both work. The amount of time you spend on this will depend on the age of your kids – the younger they are, the more often you will do this. Older kids usually get it quite quickly. Here are the Hour of Code instructions.

If, Then, Else Simon Says

This one works for teaching conditionals. I thought only the younger kids would like it, but my Grade 7s had fun playing last year. With most ages, it helps to use flow charts or write instructions on the board as the game gets more complicated. Once the kids are used to playing as a class, let them break up into smaller groups and take turns leading! Here are the instructions for this one.

Conditionals With Cards

All you need for this one is a deck of cards. Kids love the challenge of this game and you can modify the rules from very basic to quite complex, depending on the skill and age of your students. This one is great for mental math and kids will often ask to play it on their own, so be prepared to have extra sets of cards around! I’ve done this one with Grades 2 to 8. Kindies and ones might need extra help, or maybe make the deck of cards simpler by taking out the face cards and two of the suits. Here’s how to play.

Graph Paper Programming

I LOVE this one! Again, I have used it with younger students (Grade 2 is as young as I’ve gone with this one and with older and I just make it more complicated as the kids get older. This one does take a little prep, as it makes it easier for the kids if you can give them graph paper or pre-made grids. As the kids get older and more experienced, introduce bigger designs/images and add colour to the code. If you Google “pixel art” or “pixel art grid”, you’ll get some neat ideas for older kids. Another place for inspiration is cross-stitch images! Here are the instructions.

Binary Bracelets / Binary Dance

Binary Bracelets is great to do with younger students (K to 3) and Binary Dance would be better with older kids. In both cases, you need to spend a bit of time talking about what binary means with regards to computers! If you’re not sure, check out this explanation. It’s not all-encompassing but it’s a good start!

For Binary Bracelets, show kids the binary alphabet. Give them a piece of string and access to beads of two colours or two kinds of pasta they can put on the string and have them code their initials. Here are the full instructions.

For Binary Dance, put kids in groups of 3 or 4 and give each group a simple, 3 character word like “cat”. Show them the binary alphabet and have them figure out how to “dance” the word, using two motions (one for white/on and one for black/off). After they’ve practiced, have them “dance” their word to the rest of the class and see if other kids can figure it out.

Coding Cups

Are your kids in love with cup stacking? Do they like the Cup Song? Then try Coding Cups. All you need is a bunch of plastic cups. I must admit, I have only done this activity with Grade 6 and 7 students, so I am not sure how it would go with little ones. Check it out here.

Relay Programming

This one is basically Graph Paper programming turned competitive! I’ve had great fun doing this with intermediate students but have not done it with littles, as I worry that they would get stressed out by the “panicky” nature of it. Look here.

I know there are tons of other unplugged activities out there, but these are the ones I’ve tried and used. If you have one you like, I’d love to hear about it! Post it in the comments or email me at cwilson@wvschools.ca. Enjoy!

The Argument for Computational Thinking

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Halloween is packed away, Christmas looms on the horizon, report cards are consuming way too much time…all of which means it is almost one of my favourite weeks of the year: Hour of Code week!

This year Hour of Code officially runs from December 4th to 10th. Last year our teachers and administrators worked really hard to ensure that students in all grades and across all of our schools got a chance to try one or two coding activities during Hour of Code week. I hope we do even better this year and for the next several weeks my blog posts will be dedicated to helping teachers prepare for Hour of Code in their classroom.

However, in any discussion about coding, I think it is important to start off by discussing Computational Thinking. Computational Thinking is the basis for all coding. More importantly, it provides a great base for problem solving in any arena of life, from getting dressed for the snow to building a gingerbread house to completing a school project.

At its heart, Computational Thinking involves breaking a problem down into its parts, deciding which parts are important and which aren’t, looking for patterns that can help solve the problem and then creating a series of steps to solve the problem. These steps are called Decomposition, Abstraction, Pattern Recognition and Creating an Algorithm. Let’s try using them.

So, you’re 6 years old. It’s just snowed all night and all morning, and the problem you want to solve is “how to get outside as quickly as possible once the recess bell rings.”

Using Decomposition, you might realize that the parts of the problem are: getting my snowsuit on, getting my boots on, getting my school shoes off, getting my hat on, getting my mittens on, eating my snack, getting in line, getting my toboggan and pushing my chair in.

Using Abstraction, you think that maybe your snack is not that important. After all, you can eat it at lunch, right? From past experience, you know that forgetting to push your chair in means the teacher will call you back, so you’d better make sure not to forget that step!

If you look for Patterns, you will hopefully see that you need to take your school shoe off before putting your boot on, and you need to do that twice – once for each foot! Can you spot any other patterns?

Once you’ve broken down the problem, taken out the parts that aren’t important and looked for patterns that might help you get out the door more quickly, you are going to make a plan (an Algorithm) for solving the problem! It might look like this:

  • Push in chair
  • Take off school shoes, put on snow boots (left foot then right)
  • Pull on snow suit
  • Add hat
  • Add mittens
  • Get toboggan
  • Line up

Once you have carried out your Algorithm (run the program), you can see if it worked. Maybe you should have put on your snowsuit before your boots? This is an important step and it’s called “De-bugging” – find the “glitch” in your algorithm or plan, fix it and then test the plan again! (Anyone recognize the design cycle here?!)

Now, I realize that this is a very simple look at computational thinking, but I use it to show that even very young children can be taught the necessary skills to become computational thinkers. And the great news is that if we start teaching them these skills when they’re little, it will become second nature as they get older and the problems become bigger and more impactful.

As a teacher, you don’t need to know anything about computer coding to teach Computational Thinking. In fact, you probably do some of it already! Here are ways you can encourage these skills, regardless of the age you teach.

  1. Think Out Loud – Explain your own thinking to your students and show them how you solve problems. Work through the steps of CT together on a relevant problem.
  2. Use Flow Charts – Flow charts are a great visual way to illustrate CT. You can create flowcharts about regular daily activities like lunch procedures and keep them up in the room for kids to refer to.
  3. Use Real World Models – The first time I give my students an independent project, I map out a timeline and plan for completion on the whiteboard with them. We break the project down into its steps and decide on a plan for how to get everything done on time.

And finally, as a thank you gift for hanging in until the end of this post, here are 5 Computational Thinking posters I created. Feel free to make copies to use in your classroom! Computational Thinking (1)

6 Steps to Digital Sanity

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So….I started prepping for this week’s blog post by thinking of some cool websites and apps I could recommend for you. Which in turn got me thinking about the absolute plethora of cool ed tech tools that exist. Which then led me to panic about which ones I should choose – there are so many! Which led to me thinking “how can I possibly know them all – what if I am missing some great ones?” Which led me to a complaint I often hear from teachers. You know…the one that goes like this: “Technology is always changing and there are always new things to learn – how can I possibly be expected to keep up with it all? The minute I think I’ve learned how to use something you/they/the man change it again and I have to relearn! Why bother? It’s driving me insane!”

Well, here are my 6 steps to digital sanity. (Yeah, I know most self-help sites have 10 to 12 steps, but I have marking to do and I want to catch the next episode of “Stranger Things”, so you’re getting the condensed version!)

Step One – Relax!

I hear you! Technology is constantly changing – how can we keep up? Well…put on a pot of tea and some comfy clothes, take a few self-regulating breaths and repeat after me “not even the tech gurus can keep up with it all…I’ll be okay…om mani pedi, om mani pedi…” Repeat this chant while drinking the tea and gently stretching.

Now, let’s be clear – the above mantra does not let you off the hook from using educational technology, it just gives you permission to not worry about keeping ahead of the curve.

Step Two – Baby Steps

You know the saying “go big or go home?” I think it should be “go small and stay sane”! We’ve already established that you’ll never get ahead. So instead, give yourself permission to take small steps. Choose one ed tech goal for this term or even this year. Learn to use Fresh Grade, build your PLN by trying Twitter, learn iMovie with your students so that they have another way of presenting their learning. Get comfortable with the tool/app/site you’ve chosen…and then make sure you don’t skip Step Three!

Step Three – Attitude Adjusting

Okay, so I may lose a few of you here….but…I need to say it….lose the ‘tude, dude! I remember the complaints and hair tearing that happened here a few years ago when we switched from Microsoft Word to Google Docs. Oh, the angst! I’m pretty sure some people were convinced Beelzebub (if not Larry Page and Sergey Brin) himself was involved. Nope…it’s just technology feeding its need to reinvent and improve! So….relax (Step One), go small (Step Two) and adopt a growth attitude (def. the positive attitude that accompanies a growth mindset). Be willing to learn – isn’t that what we expect from our kids? And by the way, don’t use getting older as an excuse – the more you exercise your brain, the younger you stay! Still with me? On to Step Four!

Step Four – PLN, SLN and “Google It”

Does iMovie look different after the latest iOS update? Are you a little stressed by this or other ed tech changes? Well, use your PLN (Personal Learning Network)! Approach a colleague who seems more confident and ask them for help. Offer to bring them a coffee or a Christmas orange in exchange for their time. PLN not available? Are you in the middle of class when you realize you need ed tech help? Well then, turn to your SLN (Student Learning Network). Don’t be afraid to admit that you’re not quite sure which button sends the work to Google Drive (or whatever you’re struggling with). Ask the kids! It goes something like this: “so, now that we’re finished with this, we’re going to upload it to Google Drive. Does anyone here know how to do that step?” Chances are the kids will fall all over themselves trying to show you. Don’t be afraid to show them that you’re a learner, too! And if none of that helps….Google it! Seriously, you can learn how to do just about anything by googling it and chances are that someone else has had the same problem you are having and has posted their solution online!

Step Five – Be Mindful, Young Padawan!

Okay, so I will admit to being a total Star Wars nut as well as a bit of a tech nerd (surprise!). But I’m also the first to admit that, while technology is an awesome tool and can be a real game-changer in some situations, it’s also not always the best answer to the question. Make sure you choose the right, or appropriate, tool for the job. Giving a vocab test? Why go online – paper and pencil work well enough. Creating French vocab flash-cards for your class? Use an online tool or app so your kids can access them when not at school.

Test a tool/site/app out, ask other educators for advice (there’s that PLN again!) and use your time and efforts mindfully. If the digital tool is going to make life easier or give students an opportunity they can’t get by going old-school, then consider trying it. Remember, since we’re following Step Two, you don’t have to try doing it all. But you also can’t ignore ed-tech, so be mindful of what you put your time in to!

Step Six – Look for Joy

Let’s face it, teaching can be a tough job! But it’s also rewarding and that keeps us going. Finding joy in the time you spend at school and in the things you do with your students is an important way to feed your soul. Okay….I know you’re thinking I’ve gone off the deep end…what does this have to do with the crazy pace of technology and school? Simple. Find a way to have joy in the technology you use (yep, right about now those of you who are using technology to write report cards are thinking very evil thoughts towards me!) Hear me out. You might not love the app BookCreator as much as I do, but you can’t deny the excitement in the eyes of your Kindergarten student as they show off the electronic book about penguins that they created on the app. Coding not your thing? That’s cool. Find joy in the fact that that quiet little girl in your class is suddenly getting attention from the other students as they ask her for help debugging their code.

I hope these six steps have helped you (re)gain some of your digital sanity. I’m off to mark French tests while watching Eleven and her friends battle scary creatures in the Upside Down!