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Trying to keep up

Phew!

The Victorian Curriculum is trying to kill me.

I’m 42. I was once (until just after Y2K) a professional web developer. I can read code, but if I was any good at writing it, I would probably be earning more than a teacher’s salary.

With completely unfounded confidence, I created a new subject at my school called DigiTech – Web Development. In it, I teach my Year 9s about the separation of Content and Design, file handling and management, how to create and manipulate a database and the various security and people-related issues surrounding the creation of software solutions for small businesses.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. We needed a hard-core programming subject to offset the animation and game design subjects and I desperately wanted to tick off some boxes on the Victorian Curriculum.

At the end of my first semester teaching the subject, I feel a certain amount of pride in my accomplishments, and a great deal of dread in the idea that I will be doing it again next semester.

I told my students at the start of the semester that they would be guinea pigs. That we would be trying a number of different ideas out and seeing what they could handle. That being said, I knew that I wanted them to be able to use CSS and some basic database concepts. I worked with our amazing IT techies to put together a virtual machine with PHP, SQL and FTP capabilities, running only within the school network for safety’s sake.

And then I added people into the perfect solution and watched it explode into chaos.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Students don’t read instructions.
  • The ftp command line is painful.
  • codecademy.com is a beautiful thing.
  • I don’t know as much as some of my students.
  • I DO know more than most of my students (phew).
  • Differentiated learning is absolutely necessary.
  • Students don’t read instructions.

My initial idea for a major project was to have the students create a house system where teachers could add or subtract house points from a database, and the resulting scores would be displayed as beautiful hourglasses a la Harry Potter.

The boys decided within seconds that they would prefer to create an order system for the school canteen – a fantastic idea which has worked very nicely.

My next idea was that small teams would work on their own versions of the project and the canteen staff could choose their favourites at the end of semester.

The boys decided that they wanted groups of seven or eight, all with different jobs. After a single lesson watching one person work while six others stood around him making jokes, I capped teams at 3. The customer is NOT always right.

I decided on three basic roles:

  • content creator and client liaison.
  • Programmer
  • Designer

This allowed for each group to have one person who hated programming, but could still be involved and active in the creation of the site. The programmer would work on the PHP and SQL. The Designer would work with HTML and CSS as well as Photoshop. The Content Creator would collect information, write up process and instruction documents, complete reports for the client and keep the project plan on track.

This necessitated different assessment rubrics. Each team member would be marked on their skillset. Again, this has worked very well. If the team was less than three, and one person was taking on two roles, then they could tell me which role they wanted to be assessed on.

Today, I am working with one very keen student who completed all of the programming over the weekend and has brought the thing into school on a virtual server on his USB. Again, liaising with the tech department, he will have the virtual server installed on the school network and then testing can begin.

The rest are still working on their login screens.

As with any project I ask my students to undertake, I have created my own version of the task. I am creating an order system for the school’s Breakfast Club.

I have FileZilla for FTP. I have Notepad++ for code creation. I have Stackoverflow and w3schools for the many issues that come up every time I try to run a script.

And I’m ready to become a full time History teacher.

Never ask your students to do anything  you’re not willing to try yourself. The number of Professional Development sessions I’ve been to in regards to the Victorian Curriculum where I’ve been told “You don’t need to know it to teach it.” Yeah, OK, maybe that is true. But I’m not an empathetic person. I am quite sympathetic. I don’t have a lot of empathy.

Doing this myself has allowed me to solve a number of problems for my students.

Doing it myself means that I have greatly modified my expectations of what they should be able to achieve.

Doing it myself means that I can look them in the eyes and say “Yeah, but if I can knock this off in ten minutes, then you should be able to get it done in three hours.”

Just think: eventually  you are going to need to know how to do this stuff, if you are going to teach it. Kids can tell when you’re out of your depth. That’s where bad behaviour comes from. Jump in the deep end now and give it a shot.

And ask for help. Help is everywhere.

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Creators not Users

I usually talk about cyber safety. Today I say to you: the best way to be safe in the cyber-world is to be a creator and not just a user.

creatorsThe new Digital Technologies curriculum is coming into place next year. ICT capabilities (using word processors, spreadsheets, answering emails, creating wikis) will be incorporated into the rest of the curriculum. It is now assumed that students will know these things but if a History teacher wants a Word document handed in, they’ll have to check to make sure that the student is using styles for headings and not just pressing space a hundred times to get the heading into the centre of the page. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Can you get Word to auto-create a table of contents using the headings from your report?
  2. Could you create a budget in a spreadsheet program that automatically updates as your financial situation changes?
  3. How would you find out what the Iranians called the Iranian Hostage Crisis?

This is stuff the students should know by the time they hit Year 7. Obviously, that means the teachers need to know it as well. That’s beside the point. We’re not teaching this stuff in IT any more, unless we need to as students hand in reports on the new DIGITAL TECHNOLOGIES curriculum.

The idea behind Digital Technologies is that in a rapidly changing technological world, teaching students how to use Word is teaching them software that will be outdated by the time they hit the workforce.

We need to teach them how to think. That’s the concept that underpins Digital Technologies. Students are going to become creators rather than users.

If you know how to break down (decompose) a problem into smaller manageable pieces, and then create a series of steps (algorithms) that can solve each of the steps in an ordered way (computational thinking), allowing for the possibility of change in scope, then little things like working out how to do a mail merge in Word become easy, because you know the steps to solve that problem (Google it).

http://xkcd.com/627/This cartoon by XKCD sits above the desk in my office. It is guaranteed to turn anyone into an IT support person in seconds. Live by it. (link: http://xkcd.com/627/)

The easiest way for students to demonstrate computational thinking, decomposition and the creation of algorithms is to code. There has been a massive push in around the world to make sure the younger generation can code. It has finally made it to Australia and from next year (if they haven’t already started) students in primary school will be coding as part of their curriculum.

Where does that leave us? The secondary classrooms that haven’t been explicitly coding? We need to do some catch up. It might take a few years for us to be teaching the Year 7 curriculum. And that’s fine. It won’t take our students long to pick up on the concepts they missed out on.

And why am I doing this spiel on a blog? Because as parents (or teachers), you can help. Let’s get our students introduced to coding in a fun way before they need to do it in class. Start them on the basics so that they can take on the more structured lessons as they progress.

Here are some resources being thrown about at the high school level:

  • https://www.codecademy.com/ – This is a great resource we’ve been using with our Coding Club. It has courses in Javascript and Python – two very popular languages out in the world.
  • https://codecombat.com/ – learn to code while killing goblins and orcs! You tell your character what to do using code and learn while you’re at it.
  • http://Code.org/learn – The Hour of Code is a fantastic starting point. There are coding hours starring characters from Star Wars, Frozen, Minecraft and Angry Birds. Students can create their own Flappy Bird game, mazes and puzzle games as they progress.
  • https://bitsbox.com/ – good for Year 7s, but probably not much further on from there. You can subscribe for printed booklets with hundreds of little coding activities.

 

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