Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Rolling on the River: Huck Finn & Sphero

I wrote early in the semester about my first experience with using Spheros in a lesson in my English classes. While it was incredibly engaging and fun for the kids, what I loved most about the lesson was the critical thinking that it generated about complex texts. Giving students the opportunity to have an active, hands-on experience related to the text seemed to trigger a different kind of thinking in my students. It created a sort of relatability to these older texts that my kids couldn't gain by just having a class discussion about it.

My students have been asking about "those little robots" all semester, so I decided that early December was the perfect time to pull them back out for another lesson. This time, Dr. Michael Mills came to co-teach the lesson with me. We decided to have students use the SPRK app to do some block-based coding rather than having them use the basic Sphero app to manually control each Sphero during the activity. This added another layer of engagement but also another level of challenge to the activity. Many of my students had never been exposed to a program like this before.

The first time I used the Spheros, we had just read John Smith's A General History of Virginia and William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation. This time, Dr. Mills and I decided that Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the perfect novel with which to integrate the use of the Spheros. After reading the novel, students completed a plot map and a character chart to ensure that they all had the necessary background knowledge to participate in the Sphero activity. 

Next, we moved all the desks into one corner of my room, so we had lots of space. Guys, I think my co-workers thought I was crazy, but the kids were so excited to walk into this altered classroom environment! After we cleared the room, we created the Mississippi River on my classroom floor. 
We placed markers along the river to represent various settings in the novel. When students came in to class, we asked them to form small groups. We had six Spheros for this activity, so we formed groups of 4-5 students. Each group was asked to pick a character for their Sphero to represent. We asked the kids to first create a storyboard for a small piece of the plot in Huck Finn in which their chosen character played an integral role. Then we asked them to create a second storyboard explaining how the Sphero could illustrate the character's emotions and actions in this part of the story. In addition, students could take notes about their code.
Once students had brainstormed as a group and completed the storyboard handout, they began programming the Spheros on the iPad. As they created, they began engaging in the process of inquiry by testing their code and making adjustments in order to make the Sphero do exactly what they wanted it to do. It was incredible to watch them cooperate with each other to problem solve and test their work until they got it just right. 

At the end of the class period, students got to present their Sphero's program to the class. They had to explain which character their Sphero represented, which part of the plot the Sphero was reenacting, and why they had chosen certain colors and actions for their Sphero's program. This forced them to go back to the text and establish a strong link between this activity and the novel. 

I have never seen my students so engaged! They were working together, discussing the characters' emotions, motivations, and actions, and they were learning some basic coding. Typically, when you throw all that at a reluctant learner, they throw up their hands and say "I can't!" Not a single kid said "I can't do this" during this lesson. What was great about the open-endedness of the challenge was that kids could differentiate for themselves. If they didn't feel very comfortable with the programming of the Sphero, they could choose a fairly simply section of the plot to reenact. If they felt really comfortable, they could choose more elaborate pieces of the story and create longer programs for the Sphero. It eliminated the struggle of having some students racing ahead while others needed more time.

As we head into Christmas break, I am already brainstorming new ways to incorporate the Spheros in my spring classes. Story identification races for The Canterbury Tales? Sphero battles for Beowulf? I just can't wait to see what we can make happen with these little robots next!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Thanks for the Struggle

With Finals week around the corner, I find myself reflecting on the chaos and the awesomeness of this semester of my life. One thing that I've always loved about being a teacher is the defined beginning and ending of each season within which I work. This year, since my students will be moving on to new classes in the spring rather than coming back to English class, I find myself feeling oddly nostalgic already. Teaching kids for only a semester is so bittersweet. I'm saying goodbye to such a fun, interesting group of students; I'm so excited for a restful Christmas break, but I am definitely sad to think that I won't see this group of kids everyday when we return in January. I feel like I'm really just getting to know some of them.

In reflecting on this semester, I realized that one thing I've really tried to stress through the literature we've read is the importance of thinking for oneself. I want my students to be free thinkers. I want them to be confident in their own ability to justify their opinions. I want them to pull away from the group think of the herd and figure things out for themselves. That is so hard in high school. Let's be real, it's difficult in adulthood, too. There is so much pressure to keep your head down and fit in; there is so much pressure to do what you're "supposed" to do. Society constantly tries to dictate our choices if we let it.

As I scroll through the news and social media lately, I can't help but start to worry about this herd mentality, this lack of critical thinking in our society.  Our kids have to learn to look critically and objectively at a problem and decide for themselves what they believe about that problem and its solution. There's a lot of danger in the alternative.

I've also found that removing the "right" answers has been liberating for many of my students this semester. Students that have been told for most of their secondary education that they aren't "good at school" have opened up and flourished in an environment of inquiry, a place where it's safe to ask questions and struggle and fail forward.

I'm so thankful everyday for the opportunity to be a part of this journey with my students. I love that I get to build a community of learning where we walk through open doors of thought instead of standing in front of closed doors of conformity and wrong answers and doing what's always been done.

This semester, I feel like I've stretched myself as a teacher more than I ever have before. Having a clean slate to plan a course gave me the freedom to take things I've always wanted to do and do them. It gave me the courage to change it up because what did I really have to lose? It's been frustrating and intense and stressful at times, but it's definitely been worth it. If I'm going to ask kids to struggle, then it's only fair that I join them in that struggle to be better every day. I'll just tell you this. It's been a great struggle so far.