Tuesday, November 28, 2017

An Hour of Code With Edmodo

Hour of Code and Edmodo is a logical pairing. Hour of Code (December 4-10, 2017) is a yearly worldwide event that promotes the idea that anyone can code, aimed at encouraging students to develop an interest in STEM. Edmodo is a superior LMS that allows teachers and students to connect by sharing ideas and helpful tips.

The question then is "How can you use Edmodo to run an Hour of Code event?" This is my answer:

Friday, November 24, 2017

Paper prototypes - From idea to reality

If your students are anything like mine, they hate planning. Whenever they hear something along the lines of "Create a presentation, website, game, etc.", they immediately run to their devices and open a tool, never mind that they have no idea what will be put in there. Then, they blankly stare at screens or worse, start furiously typing (or copy/pasting) with little thought as to why they are putting any kind of content or ideas in there. Much like writing an essay without an outline, they just want to get to what they consider the "fun part" and skip over the very boring planning stages.

As teachers, we have tried to solve this problem with graphic organizers, templates, storyboards and a myriad of other tools which, while useful, tend to thwart creativity. We then have to sit through presentations and products that look basically the same. What's worse is that students seldom see the connection between the planning tools and the end product, so there is little cross-usability.

Pondering this problem, I took inspiration from game developers and introduced the idea of paper prototypes to my students. It went something like this:


What is paper prototyping?

Paper Prototyping is exactly what it sounds like. It's your opportunity to make a usable version of your game/website/app/presentation on paper or with other physical objects. This means you don't need any electronic device to make your product.

Making a paper prototype allows you to create a version of your product much quicker; this gives you time to include as many features as you like. DREAM BIG – now's your chance!

Creating your prototype allows you to test your product before it is made. This means you can make fast decisions about your product without wasting hours adding features you may realize you don't like.

Sketch your main screen:

Get out your sharpies, coloring pencils, etc. Make a sketch of your product. You may use this general template, or a specific template for your particular product. The paper prototype is like a draft, so don't worry about creating perfect drawings.

Add Functionality:

Once you have your main screen, it is time to add buttons, sprites, or whatever you need to help the user of your product navigate through your product. Cut each element out, and play around with placement.

Sketch other screens:

Continue the process of sketching, cutting out items and placing them. You can reuse backgrounds as needed. Just make sure you keep all papers and cutouts organized.

Play test:

You have all your screens and cutouts. You have a general idea of how your product works. Create a video where you demonstrate your product.

Here are some sample videos of paper prototypes:


Have a partner play test with you. This conversation will help you become aware of possible interactions with your product that you have not foreseen. Use the I like, I wish, I wonder format to provide feedback:
  • I-LIKE: Highlight what you see as a strength in the work. 
  • I-WISH: State one area that could be improved. Focus on the big ideas.
  • I-WONDER: Ask clarifying questions and offer specific solutions to the stated I-Wish.




Needless to say, I was very happy with the results. Going through this exercise allowed my students to think in terms of usability and content and helped them make better decisions for their final product. They had a plan for creating, unburdened by the constraints of a specific tool.

Moving forward, I plan to incorporate paper prototyping for all sorts of products, even presentations, hoping to see more creative final products. I think it is well worth the effort. What do you think?

More paper prototype resources:

Saturday, November 4, 2017

FLUXX MOD Project - Board Games in the Classroom

Although I am not affiliated with FLUXX® (or Looney Labs) in any way, I think that FLUXX® is a great game that everyone should own.

We often think of board games as a staple for Family Fun Night, and because many of them help teach soft skills and facilitate higher order cognitive abilities, teachers routinely incorporate classics like Monopoly, Risk, Scrabble and Apples to Apples in their classrooms. By the same token, creating MODs or skins for existing games is a time-honored classroom activity. A simple Google search will bring up a plethora of "create your own board game" classroom projects. For those of us that have tried it, we see it as an opportunity to review content, both as the game is being created or modified and while the students play them during those extra-long rainy day recesses.

A couple of years ago, my own children introduced me to a great little game called FLUXX® - The card game with the ever-changing rules. The game was very easy to learn and portable which made it a staple for my family. Over the next few months, we purchased several versions happily bringing them out as part of our game repertoire.

Not long after that, I started toying with the idea of not only sharing it with my students but also having them create MODs for it to play in the classroom since the gameplay itself is based on reaching a goal of paired concepts. This makes it super efficient in helping the students revisit concepts, while at the same time allowing for some deeper thinking about the relationship between ideas. For example, in FLUXX's original version one of the goals is Rocket Science, which "needs" Rocket and Brain on the table to win.

After a little refining and tweaking of the idea, I set about creating a project page with directions, templates and of course a rubric for my middle school students. I introduced the project on a Monday, and gave them two weeks to come up with their skins.

Of course, there were some students that did not know what I was talking about, which made me realize that before anything else happened, we needed to play a couple games of FLUXX. After a couple of rounds, and some more clarifying of where to find the "big ideas" and how to keep track of their paired goals so they would not repeat them, I had them get into groups (of 4) and choose a topic for their MOD.

Students took to this creative form of review in a way I had seldom seen otherwise. They loved the idea of coming up "funny" titles for their goals and were seen scouring textbooks and notes to figure out how they could pair ideas that at first glance may not have been obvious. In one of my favorite examples, a group that developed a Newton Motion FLUXX Mod, included Robert Hooke as a creeper.
Here is the full set of "Newton Motion" cards in case you want an example for students:
I have run this project now several times, and I am always amazed not only at the cards they create but also by the enthusiasm that they show whenever I declare "it's review time", and bring out stacks of student-created FLUXX decks.

For obvious reasons all of my students' FLUXX decks are science related (Motion, Evolution, Genetics, Matter, etc.) However, I can easily see FLUXX decks for novel studies, American Revolution, and even Linear Equations. In case you missed it above and are interested, here is a link to the Instructions and Templates that I share with my students.

If you try this, let me know. I would love to know how it went for you and your students.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A Chemical Bonding Lesson with Old-School Manipulatives

For many years, I have been using ACS's "Middle School Chemistry" as my main curriculum to teach chemistry concepts in my middle school classroom. I love the simplicity and ease with which these lessons can be used in a classroom that does not have a traditional lab set-up. I have also always felt very confident with the knowledge gained by my students through the use of this curriculum. However, this year, as I was moving along in the unit, I came to the realization that this particular crop of students was very comfortable reciting answers without much in the way of understanding.

This was especially apparent when it came to bonding. In our assessment, my students were able to recite the difference between covalent and ionic bonding, but as soon as the question required even an iota of critical thinking, they were completely lost. Mind you, this is middle school chemistry, and I know that many of these students are not particularly interested at this point in pursuing chemistry careers, but I still felt an obligation to ensure that they could do more than simply recite information.

So, I set about trying to find some way for the students to gain that conceptual understanding of bonding that I saw as lacking. During these explorations, I came across a couple of good things that students could do in a virtual space - the ChemThink tutorials for example. These were good, but a little too much for middle school. As I continued to look for something that students could manipulate I found an awesome SEP lesson titled "Exploring Chemical Bonding", and that is when it became clear. If students could actually manipulate those valence electrons, perhaps they would finally move beyond stating "covalent bonds form when non-metals share electrons", and actually be able to explain why.

I modified the SEP lesson templates (simply to add color to the valence electrons so that students would not lose track of what they had) and  dedicated one full Saturday (and over 500 brass fasteners) to creating 9 sets of atoms. I also created a sheet to go along with the manipulatives that would help guide students through the task. Here is a link to the adapted lesson plan.

With all of this in place, Tuesday morning I finally taught the lesson, and was overwhelmed by the engagement and results. Although the students did struggle a bit to finally figure it out and at times I felt like a spinning top as I tried to listen in on all the conversations that were happening, having these old-school manipulatives helped my students visualize exactly what was needed for the different types of bonds to form. Physically moving electrons created the opportunity for actual discovery of concepts in a way that no computer simulation had been able to achieve. Even though creating all of those atoms took a lot more time than many teachers usually have, I highly recommend spending that time. Your students will reap the benefits of handling your "old school" manipulatives!