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!

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