Saturday, August 29, 2015

Robots in English Class?

For the past two weeks, we've been studying early American literature in my English 11 classes. We've read Of Plymouth Plantation, General History of Virginia, Anne Bradstreet poems, slave narratives, "Young Goodman Brown," and Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. We've been busy and working hard, and by Thursday my students were over it. It was the perfect day to bring out my new Spheros.

This past summer at ADE Institute, I met fellow Apple Distinguished Educator Richard Perry from New York, and he told me about how he used Sphero robots to teach The Grapes of Wrath to his high school students. It was literally one of the most fascinating lessons I have ever listened to someone describe, and I knew by the end of that conversation that I had to try to integrate Spheros into my high school English classes this year. I mean, what better way to engage kids in literature than to find some way to connect it to playing with robots? 

So the first step was to purchase the Spheros. I did not have the classroom budget to make this purchase, so I decided I would try Donors Choose for the first time. It was a great experience. The site is so user-friendly, and my Sphero project was fully funded in under 24 hours! I was so excited! The Spheros arrived last week on the second day of school, and I could not wait to get them out of their boxes and into the hands of my students. However, this is when I really had to stop and think: How am I going to make these cool little robots relevant to our study of literature? 

Here's what we did. I decided to teach Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford and General History of Virginia by John Smith as paired texts. We read each text with a strong focus on author's purpose and author's perspective. I really wanted students to identify each man's objective for traveling to the New World. Next, I created two identical mazes on my classroom floor with blue masking tape. At each end of the maze was a sign that said "Europe;" at the place where the two mazes met in the middle of the room, I placed a sign that said "The New World."

Students stood on each end of the maze, in "Europe," and had to guide the Sphero through the "Atlantic Ocean" maze in order to reach "The New World." They raced to see which Sphero could get there the fastest and the most accurately. I told them that if the Sphero went outside the lines, the "ship" was damaged, and they had to start over on the journey. Students LOVED this activity. I had reluctant readers who had been complaining about this literature all week jumping out of their desks to be involved. We even had our principal participating in the activity during 2nd block.
It was so awesome to watch students interacting with each other and helping each other learn how best to guide the Sphero through the maze. For this first activity, I decided to use the basic Sphero app since I was just introducing Sphero to my students. In future activities, I hope to implement some basic coding skills as well by using other third party apps. 

So this was a lot of fun, but the best part of this activity was listening to the connections that students made to the texts we had been reading prior to this activity. Once every student had an opportunity to try to guide the Sphero to the New World, I asked students to go back to their seats for a discussion. I simply said, "Now that you've completed this activity, tell me what connections you can make to the lives of early American settlers." Here are some of the answers I received: 
  • It was really difficult to control the Sphero; just like the settlers struggled to control their own lives. The Pilgrims and the Jamestown settlers both struggled to grow food and take care of themselves in their new homes. 
  • When you had to recalibrate the Sphero, it's like when the Mayflower ran into all those storms on the Atlantic in "Of Plymouth Plantation." They had to decide whether to go back to England or continue their journey, and they had to fix their ship, just like you had to fix the Sphero. 
  • The more slowly you went, the more control you had over the Sphero. The settlers had a long, slow journey across the ocean. 
  • Everyone had to work together. Even if only one person was guiding the Sphero, the rest of us were helping to explain the controls or providing encouragement. Everyone in the settlements had to work together, too. 
I loved this conversation. It was so awesome to see my students make these connections and be so completely engaged. Even students who really struggled with some of these difficult texts earlier in the week were able to make literary connections after the activity and expressed a stronger understanding of the time period in general. It was a great way to spend a Friday with my kids, and I can't wait to experiment with new ways to use the Sphero as we move through the rest of the semester!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Swimming in a New Pool

Happy Back to School! I am thrilled to report that I've made it through my first two days as a high school teacher. It's been exhausting. I came home this afternoon and promptly took an nap, and now I feel like I can finally write a little bit about my new gig as a teacher of high school sophomores and juniors.

One thing on which I really wanted to focus this school year was optimism. I've blogged before about reading Deliberate Optimism last spring with my middle school team. I just loved that book. I can't tell you that starting a new job hasn't been stressful. I know how to teach, but I have spent the past two days feeling like a brand new teacher. So needless to say, I've been doing everything I can to stay positive. Everything I do can't be perfect, no matter how badly I'd like for that to be the case. I'm definitely feeling like I'm back in a "fake it 'til you make it" phase of my work life. 

However, there were some things I implemented in my first day of school routines that I feel were a real success. My favorite thing that happened yesterday was the Positive Thoughts board in my classroom. My new classroom feels pretty spacious compared to my old space. I have three whiteboards! (Yes, I was super excited about this since my old classroom had one whiteboard that badly needed replacing.) I also had a blank wall in one corner of my classroom. I covered it with whiteboard and chalkboard contact paper, so it looks like this. 

We'll use the chalkboard to track great contributions to classroom discussion and to write down great lines from literature that we love. I've already had a few students add their favorite quotes from their favorite books to our Literature Graffiti board. The Google It whiteboard will be a place for questions that need answering during class discussion and for new vocabulary we need to investigate. My favorite part of this wall is the space for positive thoughts. Yesterday, I asked my students to raise their hands if they had ever had a bad day at school before. Every hand in my room went up in every class period. Bad days happen. I asked students to keep their hands up if someone had ever had a bad day get better because someone said something nice to them. Lots of hands stayed in the air. I explained that the Positive Thoughts board would operate on a "give what you can, take what you need" basis. Students who are having a great day can write a compliment or an inspirational quote on a sticky note and stick it to the board. That way, when someone has a bad day, he can take a positive thought with him when he leaves. Hopefully it will make that person's day a little better. Here's a sample of what the board looked like at the end of the day. 

This was my favorite part of my day. I got to spend my day with awesome kids who were willing to put some goodness out into the world, and I loved it. At the same time, I was also letting my inner perfectionist get the best of me by the end of the day. I really felt like I struggled with pacing on this longer block class period and there are so many things to remember in the first days of school. I felt like it took me all day to finally hit my stride and get it together. Then, the school day ended, and I thought, "Yikes, I have to figure this all out again for tomorrow!" Just when I was about to let myself get overwhelmed, one of my new colleagues came in my room to check in, and she gave me the most encouraging pep talk. She said, "Jessica, just remember that you know how to swim. You've been swimming really well for a few years now. Just because you're in a new pool doesn't mean you forgot how to swim." Our short conversation was exactly what I needed to keep going. I'm not sure if she knew how much I needed to hear what she had to say or not, but her positive words made me feel like everything will be just fine. I do know how to swim, but I'm definitely having to adjust to the new current in which I'm swimming. I'm excited for the challenge and ready to see where this year takes me!