Saturday, December 28, 2013

Squishy Circuits

I gave my 13 year old brother Squishy Circuits for Christmas. Here are his first projects.

AnneMarie Thomas TED Talk: Hands-on Science with Squishy Circuits

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Hour of Code....For Teachers?

Wow mom, look what I earned! For one hour of coding, I earned my very own certificate.

SWAG! as the children would say.

All kidding aside, this week is National Computer Science Education Week. The main initiative of the week is the much-acclaimed Hour of Code. Celebrities, athletes, and techies like Mark Zuckerberg promoted the event. It even has its own hashtag, #hourofcode, circulating social media.

The idea, of course, is to make coding "cool". Hour of Code also looks to engage more schools in computer science. According to CSEdWeek, nine of ten schools do not teach computer science. There is obviously a disconnect to the way the world is and school curriculum.

Many policy-makers cite economic reasons for teaching coding. They say computer engineers make a good salary, and the United States needs to be globally competitive. I suppose those reasons move policy, but I think there are more fundamental reasons for kids to code.

Mitch Resnick likes to say coding teaches kids how to learn to learn. Coding teaches intangible skills like trial and error, divergent thinking, perseverance, even collaboration. Coding provides young people a foundation for metacognition, and creative coding classes may allow students to be creators, innovators, and inventors.

There is also a serious lacking of diversity in computer science. Silicon Valley is overwhelmingly white and male. If the rich are the only class exposed to computer science, current levels of inequality are bound to repeat. Schools should provide equitable access for all.

I could list more reasons, but my own Hour of Code got me thinking about something else. Is a teacher Hour of Code just as necessary? How can schools accept some level of coding across the curriculum if teachers have no idea what it is? Will teachers take risks and learn alongside students if they are unaware of the benefits of coding? Can educators inspire students if they are ignorant to resources available to them?

Do teachers have time?

Great teachers learn about the world around them. They make an effort to understand latest technology because this is the world their students live in (if not the world the teacher lives in). While I don't consider myself a great teacher, I do the best I can to hand my students the tools for future success. I think computer literacy, and the thinking associated with it, are the tools. I am also willing to give up control to allow my kids to experiment, tinker, and play with technology, including coding. Students often know more than I do because I am way late on the learning curve. I am just learning the basics of computer programming, or coding. I desperately want to get better.

...But where is the time? Is PD devoted to understanding code? Am I given opportunity to learn cutting-edge skills? Do I have time and resources to practice with my students?

Maybe a teacher, educator, administrator, even politician Hour of Code would help!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Let There Be Light

I waited patiently at the door for my fourth grade science class.

When they walked in, I handed them a sheet of paper. It read, "One free plane ticket to any place in the world."

They all wrote a different destination. Some wrote Mexico, some Las Vegas, Hawaii was popular, and one child even picked Michigan.

We loaded 'the plane' and zoomed toward our respective vacation spots. Suddenly, this clip played on the projector and everything went wrong. The plane crashed and the students scrambled to find supplies.

Each pod of students found a 'first aid' kit in one desk. The bag contained some copper wire, an LED light, and a battery. 

The challenge? Turn the LED bulb on.

The students complained they didn't know how. I told them to play and experiment. I walked around making sure everybody was safe and listened to complaints.

"Tell us how!"

"I don't get it."

"This is too hard."

Suddenly, Robert screamed with excitement, "I did it, I did it!" Robert figured out how to make a simple circuit. His light shined bright.

The kids rushed around him. "Show us how!" Show us how!" 

Robert couldn't answer questions fast enough. 

I failed to mention that many teachers complain about Robert. He doesn't do his work, he always gets detention. Sure, he may be a tough shell to crack, but he was always one of my favorite students. Now, he was a class leader. His smile was brighter than the bulb.

Within minutes, other kids found alternative ways to light the bulb. Some grabbed tape to reduce the feeling of heat. Some figured out how to make a 'switch' to turn it off and on. Some grabbed a box to improve the 'switch'. They wanted to play with their circuits all day. 

Best yet, they refused to let me throw away their creations. 

"I want to bring it home to show my dad."

"I am coming back at recess."

"This is the best."

What a great day for them and me. Did I mention they were in fourth grade?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Marble Madness

This marble machine project from The Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium kept my 8th graders busy for the first month of school. We used their creations to learn and understand concepts such as speed, motion, and acceleration. These concepts proved just the beginning because ideas like friction, gravity, and force sprang naturally from the kids tinkering. 

The goal of the challenge was to create a course that would take a marble from the top of the board to the bottom "catch" as slowly as possible. The biggest challenge ended up being completing the boards. Leaving the boards in the classroom often led to "surprises" the following day. Materials fell off, boards were touched, and students often had to go back to go forward. Next year, I want to spend more time collecting materials, storing the boards, and stressing the idea of slow movement. 

The highlight of the project was the final museum day. Many students from other classes came to my room to play the machines through the course of the project, but the museum day was a final showcase. The 8th grade students enjoyed presenting their machines, and the sheer joy of the younger visitors was self-evident. The audience showed the students how much the students accomplished. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Flex Your Brain (FYB)

We all love Fridays...

but I really love Fridays. 

Our school dismisses each Friday at 12:30 for faculty meetings. In addition to the half day, there is a weekly assembly, and often extended recess. It makes for an awkward, choppy day. It is impossible to run regular classes and periods with these goofy schedules. To counter this lack of regular class, our school has a "Flex Your Brain" (FYB) program. Basically, FYB is a way to continue learning outside of a regimented science, history, english, or math class. It is a time to learn about things we may not learn in school. We combine different class levels and the students work in teams to finish projects. 

When I came to my school last year, the FYB program was fledgling. Instead of an opportunity for students to explore, experiment, and create with other students, FYB was very similar to everyday school work. Teachers claimed the purpose of FYB was to reinforce curriculum, a time to help students remember times tables, writing devices, or science vocabulary. Students received some type of "project" that looked the same as an assignment based on standard instruction. Students complained it was boring and teachers hated planning for it each Friday. We even though of canceling the concept.

I fought to change FYB to truly embrace its name. Why not truly have students "Flex Their Brains"? Rather than add more structure, requirements, or work, why not do the opposite? Let students pick what they want to learn, take away the grades, and create actual projects. This would lead to true engagement and also reduce some teacher stress. I vociferously defended my thoughts and swore it would work.  

The school gave my idea a shot. The faculty decided to organize each month around a theme. September's theme was "change". We picked "change" so students could think about the nascent school year and other new things in their lives. We gave them a simple planning sheet (to define essential ideas and schedule), put them in groups, and told them to create something about "change". A month later, the students presented projects to other the faculty, parents, and other students. The results were simply breath-taking.

The October theme was "community" and the students stepped their game up. They came me up with bigger ideas, grander thoughts, and more innovative products. I was astounded and amazed. Mind you, there was no grade or reward for finishing, the students just wanted to come up with things that were "cool". It was pure intrinsic motivation and learning. 

Below are a few pictures I snapped to illustrate the learning. This is "community" to our middle school. 


What does music mean to our school community?

A model of our school carnival 
(A student built the Ferris Wheel without outside design)

Plans for a Community Service Week at school

Designing the community restaurant of the future on Minecraft

Student bracelets to create community

A community "food truck"

Do sports help a community?

What would an eco-friendly community look like?

How would you Flex Your Brain?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Social Media and School....Ugh

I am writing this to sort out my own thoughts and feelings. I apologize in advance for disconnected points and pointless rambling. 

My school is confused.

My school stresses technology in the classroom, but the school has not set up a necessary infrastructure for ubiquitous use. My school allows students to bring their own device, but strongly discourages cell phone use. My school claims technology is good for student learning, but bans all social media. My school has a Facebook and Twitter, but students can find themselves in major trouble if they are sharing photos with each other on Instagram. We claim students need strict rules to develop discipline, but they are not given a chance to make an actual choice or a mistake. 

I push the rules as far as I can. I let the students bring in personal cell phones and use their own networks if possible. If my school lacks bandwidth to handle student traffic, I want them to access the Internet anyway they can. The first few months of school have been successful. We made movies, set up websites, created QR codes, shared Google graphs, built societies in Minecraft, programmed robots, and coded for Scratch video games. Its nice hearing all of that. 

I thought all was good.

I received a text message Friday saying our kids were lightening up the Instagram world and, gasp, posting pictures at school. My first emotions were anger, humiliation, and disappointment. I thought I had developed trust, respect, and honesty. If students had their devices out, they were expected to be doing school-only activities. I didn't need to be a hawk over their shoulder because they would never betray me. And I felt betrayed. I also feared the response of my administrator. A few days earlier, I assured her the students would always use their devices "responsibly" and were wonderful self-monitors. 

Then I took a couple deep breaths and started laughing. Was this really a big deal? I gave the students a choice. I gave my students the opportunity to use it in a way deemed fit by my school. This is how true self-discipline is achieved- by having the opportunity to actually choose right and wrong. Given the rules at my school, they made a bad choice. Bad choices and mistakes are at the core of learning. The bigger question would be--how can I use this in the classroom? How can we learn from this to make a good choice next time?

We talked as a class and I told them they needed to delete the accounts and make better choices. I told them I still trusted them and they would have multiple chances to improve their decision-making in the future. I thought the talk was good, but there was a deeper issue here. The students picked up on it. Why are students banned from Instagram in the first place? What is so bad about social media? Can't we use this stuff in the classroom? Can't they change their "handles"? Are we forcing them to lie? 

Talking to them after class, I realized how heart-breaking this was for them. Those pictures were part of their lives. They loved sharing with each other. They were devastated. The school was taking away a part of their world. I was enforcing a policy I didn't believe in.

My school is confused.

Clearly so am I.   

Chalk Walk

I recently learned this strategy in a post graduate class I am taking. It is quite simple. Put a word or concept on the wall and allow the students to mark up the whiteboard. The students can connect the word or concept with a memory, a experience, prior learning, or other ideas it leads to. The students can also use other comments to write new ideas.  I was introduced to the Chalk Walk as an introductory activity to build schema, engagement, and comfort for English Learners. My seventh grade class is a collection of English Learners, bilinguals, and English only students. It was engaging for all different levels of the class. I used it as a way for my students to debate the proper balance of freedom and order. The freedom and order debate emerged as an engaging theme in our reading of The Giver. The Chalk Talk led to some amazing, high level exchange of ideas. My whiteboard overflowed with critiques, philosophies, and opinions. The end result was a brilliant cacophony of student thought and voice. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Phil Jackson the Teacher

I try to read a lot. I read everything. I try to mix up education, non-fiction, young adult, classics, and spirituality texts. I love books because they force me to think deeply about questions, situations, and subjects. This is often a challenge because so much information is truncated. Blogs, Twitter, and other 21st century information exchanges often focus on quantity, rather than quality. I love me some Twitter and blogs, but I also need to read qualitative arguments and well drawn out thoughts. 

I recently finished a book written by Phil Jackson. What is so fascinating about Phil is the way he leads and constructs the team. In an era of big egos and authoritative figure heads, he has a totally different approach. This approach wields unbelievable success. 

I need to write more about the learning and inspiration I draw from books. With that in mind, I share my favorite quotes from Sacred Hoops. It is amazing how analogous some of the thoughts are to education.  

"In basketball -- as in life -- true joy comes from being fully present in each and every moment, not just when things are going your way."

"Winning is important to me, but what brings me real joy is an experience of being fully in whatever I'm doing"

This reminds me of the concept of 'Flow' by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This idea of complete, absolute engagement in a task is very important to teachers.

“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”

Speaking of the triangle offense

"what they liked about the system most was that it was democratic: it created shots for everyone, not just the superstars. 

Phil believes it is imperative to make every member feel important and worthwhile. Only when each member feels their contribution valuable, will the whole team shine. This is a powerful concept. We are only as strong as our weakest link. What does that mean to you?

"We try to create a supportive environment, that structures the way they relate to each other and gives them freedom to realize their potential"

See Daniel Pink. Humans crave autonomy! So do our kids.

Speaking of the book Leading Change by James O'Toole
"Value-Based Leaders, O'Toole says, enlist the hearts and minds of their followers through inclusion and participation. They listen to their followers out of a deep respect for them as individuals"

"Some coaches try to force players to bond with each other by putting them through hellish Marine Corps-style training. That's a short-term solution, at best. I've found that the connection will be deeper and last longer if it's built on a foundation of true exchange."

"What I've learned as a coach, and a parent, is that when people are not awed and overwhelmed by authority, true authority is attained"

See Alfie Kohn's work on reward and punishments.

"Skillful means is used to describe an approach to making decision and dealing with problems that is appropriate to the situation and causes no harm....a parent who packs a kid off to bed for spilling milk instead of handling the child a sponge is not practicing skillful means"

How do you approach "classroom management"? This seems very humane and works for long term change.

"Eventually, everybody loses, ages, changes. And small triumphs- a great play, a moment of true sportsmanship count even though you may not win the game"

Such a valuable learning and life lesson.

"Make your work play and play work"

"My primary goal during practice is to get players to reconnect with the intrinsic love of the game"

This is my mission as a teacher, pure and simple. We all love learning, we just don't like doing it at school.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Just Talk it Out

When I write, I often share my perfect days, my unequivocal successes, and my bright spots. I search for positives in the darkest of situations. This attitude has helped me through many tough situations, both in the classroom and in life. I view every mistake as a learning opportunity, every snide remark as a chance to repair a relationship, every outburst points to a failure in lesson/classroom design, rather than a personal defect.  

All that being said, I still have my struggles. I love my classes and the way I teach, but not everything is perfect. I, too, have the classroom management issues, the difficult students, the challenging individuals. I let a lot go because my students need the freedom to make discoveries, explore, play, and stumble to meta-cognition. Their end products often justify the freedom and lack of structure I tend to favor. They do amazing things and claim to genuinely enjoy the periods I teach. Still, there are students that push my buttons and consistently cross to the side of disrespect. 

A number of my students in eighth grade habitually make inappropriate comments, distract others, and generally make themselves the center of attention. They like to cross the line and do just enough to get their "boys" to focus on them. I teach middle school after all. In short, I have some students who are not creating a respectful classroom environment each and every day. I don't blame them entirely, it points to some failures by me, the teacher. Regardless, things had to change. 

I could solve this in the short term by handing out "respect marks" or detentions, but I would rather shape long term behavior. I would rather get to the bottom of their behavior rather than simply make the class a blind exercise in primitive behaviorism. I would rather focus on relationships and conflict resolution more than power dynamics. 

Knowing the make-up of my eighth grade classes, I spent much of the first few weeks collaboratively constructing rules. I hoped this would help the rules seem more genuine and worthwhile because they had a stake in them. Unfortunately, they used our collaborative exercise as a time to make jokes and did not take it seriously. 

When reminders of the rules did not work, I used a strategy coined by Larry Ferlazzo called Three Things I Want.  Basically, I had an adult conversation with the kids where we each listed the three things we wanted from the class. They wanted more freedom of speech and democracy (I wasn't quite sure how they could have more) and I wanted more respect for me and their classmates. We agreed on some concrete steps to make this a reality. It has actually worked quite nicely for most of the ring leaders. 

One student in particular seemed unaffected by our agreement. He continued to test my limits. Out of options and without a new plan, I went back to basics. I just sat down and talked with him. In the most honest way I could, I told him my feelings. I told him this can't continue and I would like his help in fixing our relationship. I told him that I was not going to threaten him with punishments. I told him I had nothing to offer him except improving our relationship. I pulled out our three things and told him they were important to me, just as the relationship between him and I was. I told him I honestly believed he was important to this class and I looked forward to things improving. I told him I knew he could better his behavior and I was excited for us to work on our communication. This seemed to have an effect on him. My honesty made an impact. While things are nowhere near perfect, I see gradual improvement. It isn't a total and unmitigated success, but we are moving in the right direction. 

I offer this new strategy---an honest talk.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

How Many Ways Can you Use a Straw?

Excuse me if this post is a little late, but I had a busy summer

The end of the school year is always an interesting time. Teachers have to deal with goofy schedules, extra assemblies, high temperatures, and myriad other factors. With this reality in mind, it can be hard to start or finish projects/lessons and there tend to be a lot of "free days". It was during one of these days I had a tremendous amount of fun with my fourth grade science class. I was also schooled in divergent thinking and witnessed unbelievable creativity first-hand. 

I planned to harness my inner Arvind Gupta by having the students make musical instruments from straws. I had the video cued up and ready to rock when my Ipad ran out of battery. I pulled an audible and grabbed my computer. Crap! I forgot the adapter. A tad flustered, I changed the play once more. I gave each pod of students six or seven straws and told them to create something this simple and good. 

Here are a few of their creations. It shows just how creative students can be.... and how little we give them a chance to show it.

Caterpillar Bridge
Steve was our class caterpillar. A group of students hypothesized Steve would cross a gap of desks if he had a bridge. The straws just so happened to be a perfect bridge. The students came up with a science experiment with little impetus from the teacher. Heck, I don't think I am creative enough to construct an experiment like that. 

A sword
Why not cut one straw to create a handle for another? The end result being a straw. Amazing what happens when kids are looking for objects to play with.

Geometric Shapes
Pretty gnarly triangle, right? Why don't we have kids play with their imaginations like this in math class?

I am still trying to figure out how the students bent the straws like this.

Perhaps inspired by Zelda?

Scissor Guard
Probably my favorite. A simple straw is a perfect guard for small scissors. Know a kindergarten teacher looking to keep the class safe? Pretty easy solution.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Flipping? I Don't Think So!

I have many reservations with the phenomenon called "flipping". In fact, I am giving a talk at the second Hack the Classroom event September 28 at LMU called Flipping the Classroom: Bad Pedagogy in New Clothes. The talk description highlights some of my objections to the practice. 

Many people have embraced the flipped classroom as the next "big" idea in education and educational technology. The idea of "exciting" homework, increased efficiency of class time, seamless integration of technology, and student engagement go hand in hand with "flipping". Let's stop and talk about this. This sounds like more homework, more lecture, and less student choice to me. If we are making the switch in order to advocate for more engaging class time, shouldn't all material be engaging? This talk will be a conversation about how flipping may present some problems and how it may be used effectively. 

A new study from Stanford confirms some of my concerns. Research suggests that students learn best when they can explore and play with an idea before formalized instruction. Think of this as the "explore first" model. This is in contrast to the standard method of reading specific text or assigned videos to prepare students for incoming lessons. 

A new study from the Stanford Graduate School of Education flips upside down the notion that students learn best by first independently reading texts or watching online videos before coming to class to engage in hands-on projects. Studying a particular lesson, the Stanford researchers showed that when the order was reversed, students' performances improved substantially. ( PLOTNIKOFF

Check out the article to review the research and methodology. It confirms the obvious to me, "flipping" is nothing more than a fad with little empirical evidence. Also check out he post, The Flip: End of Love Affair by Shelley Wright for a candid look at "flipping".  

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Do They Know They Are Creators?

There is a major question replaying in my head lately--do my students know and understand they are creators and inventors?

In Spring of this year, I took an online class from MIT's Media Lab called Learning Creative Learning. It was an absolutely enthralling experience and changed some of my core assumptions about learning. One of my major takeaways was the learning theory called constructionism.

Constructionism, a concept originally offered by Seymour Papert, builds upon Piaget's constructivist learning theory. Where constructivist theory asserts that learners build (or construct) mental models to make sense of the world, constructionism holds that people learn most effectively if they build physical models to understand the world. Why not actually construct, in a physical way, our understanding of the world?

We could teach fractions in the same stale way using workbooks, but is this how students learn? Instead, we could have students build blocks or fractional models to experience the learning. Is there a better way to understand fractions than by shaping and cutting wood to make a table? Going with this idea, students could design a Scratch video or game that calls for an intimate knowledge of fractions to appropriately design a proportional playing surface.

How about scavengers and decomposition? Show a video to "teach" them compost, or have them build a living, functional compost pile? I hope you get the idea. Make them experts in the designing, the building, and the constructing, in a literal sense, of their knowledge.

This idea blew my mind.

Starting last spring, I changed my teaching style so it was based on this concept. My students built Toys from Trash, used Minecraft in math class, shot videos, designed water filters, played with Scratch, and used the Makey-Makey. This year, eighth grade science students are building marble madness machines to understand force, friction, acceleration, etc. Inspired by the maker movement, I want my students to make and design the world. I want them to be little innovators and creators. I want them to tinker, to play, and ultimately learn more than I could teach.

You see, when children play Minecraft, they can actually create a new world. They craft building materials, try out ways to use them, and construct a whole reality. Think about that for a second. That is an almost magical act. Minecraft is not the only way kids are doing things like this.

Think of a photo app like Instagram. Via cell phones, many young people have access to great cameras in their hands. They can experiment with lighting, setting, and timing to construct the perfect picture. They can fail and try again for free. They can throw on a filter and change the total way a picture is viewed. Using photography they are sharing their built world. These are amazing times.

My worry is kids and other young people don't understand just how creative they actually are. They don't see themselves as designers, creators, and inventors. Is Minecraft a way to pass the time or is it an exercise in active learning and creativity? Do students need to be aware of their design prowess? Do students need to see designing a Scratch video game as tangible construction? Basically, do they have metacognition of their creative activity? Is this type of metacognition necessary?

The reason I feel this question is important is because I want my students to see their design and construction projects as preparation. In any way I can I want to prepare them to change the world around us. I want them to understand they can create, invent, and build the world we live in. They can use construction and creativity to build their lives. I want the resiliency and innovation displayed in Scratch creations to be a building blocks for later breakthroughs. I want them to use the trial and error skills honed when building marble run and catch systems as foundation to later inventive projects that will make the world a better place.

Are these skills and traits gleaned in the process of construction? Absolutely! But without metacognition will the skills and learning be repeatable? Will they transform themselves from consumers to producers? Do they understand they are creating to make sense of the world around them?

All of these are profound questions and make me think very deeply.  Maybe I think too much. If kids are having fun learning and building, steps are surely being made. And just maybe I don't give young people enough credit. Perhaps they do see themselves as creators. Last year, a fifth grade student cut out a Time Magazine article on Minecraft and gave it to me. Not only did he read the article, he understood it, and saw himself in the piece.

They subtitle of the article read: Their game (Minecraft) teaches kids to create, not destroy.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

I Believe...

I wrote my "syllabus" a few days ago and suddenly my core educational beliefs appeared in the middle. I wasn't planning on posting them, and didn't think through the language or verbiage. The words wrote themselves and when I read it to my students, I was stoked to have the succinct list. The words may change on any given day, but the overarching framework remains.

 If you had three beliefs, what would they be?

-I believe students learn by constructing knowledge, ideas, passion and physical creations.

-I believe students work best when they are motivated by intrinsic rewards rather than external punishment and reward.

-I believe I have an awesome job and enjoy learning with my students.

Monday, September 2, 2013


I want to thank colleague and friend Shannon Tabaldo by featuring my recent post about Minecraft on her blog. Shannon has a great blog on technology in the classroom. Check them both out!

Link to guest post

Tabaldo on Tech Blog

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Some Ways we Used Minecraft

I don't completely understand Minecraft.

I am not very good at Minecraft.

In fact, I don't like playing Minecraft.

And yet, I am absolutely convinced that is a superb learning and teaching tool. Let me explain.

First, listen to how Minecraft describes itself.
"Minecraft is a game about breaking and placing blocks. At first, people built structures to protect against nocturnal monsters, but as the game grew players worked together to create wonderful, imaginative things." (
Reread those last four words, create wonderful, imaginative things. Bingo! That's the beauty of the game better than I could ever describe it. In an education system that stresses conformity, rote memorization, and testing, Minecraft also students to create. They create by themselves and with others. The only limits are their imaginations. What imaginations they have, if we allow their use! I learned this quickly.

Truly amazing educators have put their imaginations to work as well. You can build or tour famous ancient buildings. You can learn design. You can learn about economies and manufacturing. You can breed animals and creatures to learn about genetics. You can even create a massive civilization game to experience history.

Before you run off and download Minecraft for yourself, here are five examples from my classes last year:

Illustrations and examples for student presentations:

This was a student project about artificial bones. He wanted to build a model to illustrate how bulk metallic glass could be used as a very strong artificial bone substance. Minecraft not only helped him understand the science behind his research, it allowed him to present his ideas in a relevant, interesting way the entire class could appreciate. I was blown away with the creativity and advanced thinking. By the way, the whole topic and project was his own unique idea.

Student exploration and learning outside school: 

One student was absolutely smitten by how the eye and brain work together. His in-class project explored how your eye helps to kickstart the brain. He was so interested in this idea that he went home and played around with developing connections between the eye and brain. There was no assignment and nothing to turn in. He just wanted to enhance his own knowledge because he was intrinsically motivated. Minecraft allowed him an arena to build and design his ideas.

How does Minecraft mirror reality? 

One student continually tried to convince me that Minecraft was just like "real life". I was just a tad skeptical. He definitely had a passion for his theory and his argument was internally consistent (as much as one could expect out of a seventh grader). So I told him about Padlet and challenged him to back up his claims. He did so with pictures, text, and video. In my opinion, this was an advanced piece of philosophical work, not to mention an exercise in language arts. Minecraft helped him understand his physical world. It might be hard for me to fathom, but this is high level learning.


The basis of Minecraft is blocks. What a wonderful way for students to visualize fractions? It also gives students a chance to play with fractions. Why does 1/2 plus 1/2 make a whole? What is a whole to begin with? By reading A Mathematician's Lament by Paul Lockhart, my very understanding of math was shaken to the core. Math is neither a set of numbers, nor necessarily an area for practical usage. Math is an art form. Math is imagination. Math is trial and error. Math is fun. This very idea can be reinforced by Minecraft. Students can play around with blocks to see what happens. This is fractions and this is math.

Triangles and Angles:

Students love shapes. The last few weeks of school I asked my fifth grade math class to skim through the math textbook and pick anything they wanted to learn. It was shocking how many of them chose triangles. It is one thing to memorize formulas for triangles, it is another to try and create them yourself. When building triangles in Minecraft, it becomes apparent how they really work. Triangles are not two-dimensional drawings on paper, but design problems. How many blocks are needed on the base to get an appropriate shape? Is there a pattern there? This is engineering in action.

The same thing occurred as students started to explore angles. How are they made? Are the complex? Are they easy to build? Does shape matter? Building an obtuse angle is a challenge. Drawing one, not as much. The connections and creativity are truly mind blowing.


All the stuff above is great, it really is. Many times it has left me speechless. I might not like the game as a playing experience, but I love what my students can do with it. I have also loved learning from them and sitting back in awe. I am dumbfounded by their motivation, their experimentation, their trial and error. I am all smiles when frustration is not seen as a negative, but rather a challenge. Minecraft allows young people to own the design process. Minecraft allows them to build, create, innovate, explore, play, learn, and have fun. It teaches the creative process. This is way more important than any formula or theory I could teach them.

The one thing I struggle with is if the students themselves realize how much they are learning. Is there development of meta-cognition? Do I need to step in and announce they are wonderful designers? Do I need to spell out that they can create the physical world around them, just like they do in their game? Do I need to point out the similarities between Minecraft and authentic learning by experimentation, intrinsic motivation, and trail and error? Or should I just let them play? For right now, I will enjoy the outcomes and hope the students are gleaning these important life lessons through the process of their game.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

What I Learned from Walking 470 Kilometers

Buen camino!

I spoke that phrase often this summer. The favor was returned countless times by complete strangers. Buen camino is the customary greeting exchanged along The Path of St. James in Spain. The Path of St. James, or El Camino, is an ancient pilgrim route winding through the countryside of northern Spain. While there are numerous routes, the most popular trail counts about 800 kilometers. This summer, my wife and I (we got hitched in July) spent two weeks trekking just under half the path. 

Without question, it was one of the most amazing, beautiful experiences of my life. For thirteen days we simply walked across Spain. It sounds so excruciatingly basic, but in essence that is all we did. We carried our lives on our backs and worried about nothing. We ate when we were hungry and stopped when we were tired. We didn't make reservations, or worry about staying in hotels with favorable yelp ratings. Most nights we stayed in town albergues, sometimes large halls or old schools, filled with shabby bunks. 

We shared conversations, meals, and walks with all types of people. Locals, Germans, unemployed, young people, recently retired, Irish. The list could go on and on. One night of food, or twenty minutes of discussion often felt like a reunion between old friends. It was uncanny. You formed instant and genuine connections. There were times of mental and physical pain, but it was completely worth it. The journey was liberating. 

The trip was a giant adventure and I certainly learned a ton. It was a giant lesson in creative learning. Specifically, there are a few things I took away. 

Nature is beautiful 
There is so much to learn and experience from what is around us. We take it for granted. Take a walk and pay attention. How can you not marvel at the entire system we call the world? How does a single bee survive in complete wilderness? How did it get there? How long has it been there? Nature poses so many questions that are simply magical. 

All we have is time
We have more of it then we think. We throw it away, have jaded priorities, and rarely notice the present. Our time is ours and instead of worrying about wasting it, why not simply enjoy it. 

So time away from tech is not bad
Technology does so many wonderful things and I am a big, big fan. On the other hand, it can be a social crutch that sometimes takes us away from enjoying others, ourselves, and all around us. Instead of reaching for your phone, why not pay attention to the person next to you. The device and all it can do will be there five minutes later. 

We learn so much from other people
We learn from our interactions with others. Enjoying others is a wonderful thing to waste. We all have gifts, talents, stories, expertise, and knowledge to share. Complete strangers can teach us all sorts of crazy things. Why not listen?