Teaching Tuesday: What Does Computer Science as a Core-Curriculum Class Look Like in 4th - 8th Grades?
Teaching Tuesdays are back!
I can’t believe that it’s been seven years since our last check in. So much has happened in the six-and-a-half years since we opened our doors, both in the building and in the world. During this time, we grew our school from serving four grades (4th-7th) to serving nine grades (4th-12th), we were accredited and earned a STEM certification from Cognia, we graduated our first class last June, and tripled the student body. We have had an opportunity to work with inspiring people, serve great children, and partner with amazing families. Now that we graduated our first class, it is time to reflect and what better time than the new year (after digging out from last week’s snow)?
School is about learning and as adults in the school, I feel that I have learned as much as, if not more, than the kids. When I think back to my high-school years at TJ or my middle-school years at Lanier, I have a different appreciation for my teachers and administrators.
A parent from our community best put it recently when we were talking - we “live and breathe STEM.” And to me, Computer Science is the T in STEM. I start with CS, because along with Engineering, our dedication to both CS and Engineering (which I’ll cover in a future post) is integral to the fabric of our school. All of our 4th to 8th grade students takes Computer Science as a core class, receiving three hours of class time per week for five years, and our high-school students continue their study of Computer Science in high-school. We’re thankful for our amazing computer science teacher, Ms. Emily, who with Mr. Ryan has worked hard to continue to improve and evolve our curriculum.
So, what does this actually look like in practice? The short answer - Fun! Our children are technology natives, and this is a class that generally makes sense to kids that they enjoy. For the long answer - read on.
In 4th and 5th grades, we use block-based programming languages, so that the focus is on the logic, and not on the syntax. We have found that different kids like both working in the digital world, as well as in the physical world, so we integrate both into our courses by covering units in programming and developing where the output is on the screen, working on a unit in robotics, as well as working on a physical computing project. Our units include Computing Systems and Computer Literacy, Foundations of Computational Thinking, Introduction to Programming in Scratch, Robotics, and Physical Computing with Scratch.
In 6th grade, we begin the year with foundations of computer science where we learn about the history of computing and explore how computing has impacted other fields of study. We are introduced to Python and work with physical computing, such as Micro:bit or Raspberry Pi. This year we are applying what we’re learning to create an invention using their Micro:bits for their physical computing project. Finally, we’ll be revisiting Robotics with MicroPython this time. In 6th grade is where we are introduced to the field of data science.
Seventh grade is a fun year, where we go deeper on what we have learned in 4th - 6th grades. We continue to develop our computational thinking, and continue to explore impacts of computing, in addition to careers in the field of computer science. We explore networking, cybersecurity, and the internet in more detail, then return to applying our computation thinking skills while learning how to apply fundamental programming skills in Python. We go deeper into applications with Python with an introduction to Machine Learning. Finally, we spend the last third of the year first in software development using Agile Software Development practices to develop an app that addresses an education need, then ending the year with developing a game after introducing the PyGame library.
To round out our lower school curriculum, in 8th grade we continue to practice computational thinking, while considering cybersecurity. At this point, we introduce data structures and object-oriented programming, and then apply what we learned to store and analyze large data sets and create visualizations of the data. Finally, we end the year by building our own voice-driven assistant.
Everything I just wrote about is our core curriculum that all of our lower school students take. For kids who love to work with tech, we also have electives that meet weekly for 85 minutes that include Game Development with Roblox Studio, Computational Thinking w/ Minecraft, Introduction to Unity for Game Development, which are this year’s Lower School electives. And if that’s still not enough, we can’t forget our clubs, which this year include the System Administration club where they are building a server, and a Game Development club that will be kicking off in a couple of weeks where students will tinker with the Unreal Engine.
Students who complete our five years of computer science are ready for high-school, where many of our high-school students take AP Computer Science Principles and AP Computer Science A in their 9th and 10th grades, and study MATLAB as an elective.
How do I measure success? It can be in the traditional sense of seeing what our students can accomplish when they go to other settings in summer programs and the glowing feedback they receive. However, I want to see them applying what they learn at school. An example is from this year when we opened our school store. One of the school store team members decided to create an inventory and check out system for the store. It was implemented with the opening of the school store, and they’re now working on the second iteration which will incorporate student IDs with a credit balance at the store. This is what happens when education comes together with curiosity, initiative, and teamwork.
Come back next Tuesday and read about Artificial Intelligence at Ideaventions Academy, the subject of our next post, and what Computer Science looks like in 11th and 12th grades.
P.S., If you want to read what I wrote about in 2015, check out Computer Science for All. Looking back and rereading this, I’m so proud that we have accomplished what we set out to do!
Today's Teaching Tuesday blog is about the first day of school and our journey to today.
These last two weeks, while very busy, have been pleasantly reminiscent of my former life in technology where the week before going live with a system brought a flurry of activity and some late nights!
The parallels between starting a school and software development projects are astounding! That's why I strongly believe in what we're doing in our school - teaching kids how to solve problems. Whether the problems are engineering problems, math problems, community challenges or designing experiments, giving kids the challenge, but not the answer or the predetermined design and letting them work through it, find issues, find the fixes and continue to work through those challenges is what we believe will serve them best in life as they grow up. Whether it's the scientific method, the engineering design problem or the math's steps to solving a problem, it's all variations on the same theme.
When I think about what it was about my education that best prepared me for my career (or should I say careers?), it was the ability to take a problem that has no clear answer, structure a solution, and work through the solution, while dedicating time to communicating with the people who are impacted by the work that I am doing.
If we think of the school year as being for the kids, the week before school starts is the time for the teachers. Spending time this week with the teachers as they get ready for their classes, one thing is crystal clear - their thoughts are about the kids. Building this team of professionals has been very similar to how I have built teams in the past: hire a team of diverse individuals that are passionate and compassionate.
I define diversity as diversity in thought and thought process. In hiring a team, you need the big-picture, top-down, and data-driven thinkers. You need creative, right-brained people and sequential, left-brained people. We looked for introverts, as well as extroverts.
In forming our team, we also looked for a variety of professional backgrounds. This is one of the things I'm most proud of about our team, as each person will bring a unique perspective that has been shaped by his or her professional background.
The one common attribute: Every single person has decided to dedicate their lives to educating children. Our goal in purposely recruiting professionals with such a wide variety of professional backgrounds is that we can all learn from each other's strengths and support each other's weaknesses. We will bring different points of view to the table which I hope will lead to lively discussions!
Passion and compassion are absolute must haves for teachers. We look for teachers who are passionate about their subject matter. It's why they chose to study that field in college. We look for teachers who want to share that passion with the kids in their class, while showing compassion for those children by attending to their needs - noticing when they need to be challenged, encouraged or supported. Together it is what great teachers do!
Ron Clark's book, The Excellent 11: Qualities Teachers and Parents Use to Motivate, Inspire, and Educate Children informed us about other qualities to look for, but the three key ones were diversity in thought and thought process, passion and compassion.
Like musicians with various talents, life experiences and tastes, both teachers and children are about to come together to make, to create, and to learn together. We hope to inspire, reach and support each other this year to do things we never thought we could do. I am excited about our teaching team and confident that we have assembled a symphony. Let the music begin!
I was talking to a family who was considering the Academy and was asked a couple of questions that I had not considered in my planning, “What is the expectation of parents? What can we do to help?” These two questions are absolutely critical questions as there is a very close partnership between parents and the school when working in concert to raise and educate children.
I’m not certain if the question referred to a request for volunteer hours, but here’s my interpretation and the answer I provided.
Providing children the best possible environment that helps them succeed is the single best thing that parents can do to help the school. Providing for the basic needs of the child is conducive to learning: sufficient sleep, nutritious food, and comfortable clothes. If there is anything that parents can do to help us, it’s helping kids get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet and come to school appropriately dressed.
The single best thing parents can do to help teachers is help the kids get the amount of sleep they need the night before. Tired children can be cranky children. Tired children have a difficult time concentrating. Tired children can be fidgety children. Just think about those days when you’ve had to concentrate for extended periods of time but only slept 4 hours the night before. How difficult was your day?
Eating a healthy breakfast before school can’t be stressed enough. The effects of nutrition on learning are well documented. There are many children who skip breakfast every morning. I was one of those kids in high school. The first step is to have breakfast. The second step is to have a non-sugary breakfast. I grew up eating cereal for breakfast. Imagine my shock as an adult when I saw a nutritionist that considered most cereals to be breakfast dessert. To me, breakfast dessert was a warm Krispy Kreme donut, cereal was healthy. Her recommendation to me? Don’t eat carbs first. Give your body protein to break the fast first.
This is an odd one, but something that a teacher brought up. The moment she mentioned it, it made complete sense. The clothes should be appropriate for what is being done in school that day and something that feels good to them. If we’re going to be outside for 30 minutes in 30 degrees, we need coats, gloves, long pants, closed-toe shoes. Not only are there safety considerations when working on experiments or engineering projects, but also it should be one less thing to think about when trying to learn. Too tight clothes, clothes not appropriate for the weather, too loose clothes, too short clothes, or too long clothes - many of today’s styles can get in the way of learning.
If parents help kids with these three things, as teachers, we’ll be eternally grateful. We know that it’s hard to get a child who wants to keep reading to go to sleep. Or we know it’s hard when a child can’t fall asleep because they are still wound up from the video game he or she had been playing that you had asked to be turned off an hour before. We know that it’s hard to rush home to make a healthy dinner. We know that it’s hard to get that same child that was up until 11:30 pm reading awake in time for breakfast. We know that a power struggle can quickly develop when the clothes the child chose to wear are not appropriate.
These three seemingly simple and basic requests, can in fact be a lot of work. So, when asked what, as a parent, can be done to help, getting kids to bed so that they get about 10 hours of sleep that night, having a healthy breakfast (and diet in general) and coming to school in comfortable, appropriate clothes is what we’d answer.
Homework. The single word that strikes fear in every child. Well, not really. But it’s generally a bad word in children’s vocabulary…
From parents’ perspectives, I have heard opinions ranging from the belief that the amount of homework assigned determines the rigor of the program, to advocating for less homework in favor of after school sports to create healthier children. To determine our philosophy on homework, we analyzed different perspectives to make our decision. There are conflicting research studies; some support the benefits of homework and others argue that homework negatively impacts children. To make our decision, we considered the purpose of homework, the child’s schedule and the requirements for homework given the unique nature of the school.
Homework can be used to practice what was learned, extend what is being learned, and/or help a student learn study skills. When looking at the purpose of homework in a silo, the three goals listed above all make logical sense.
It makes sense that if you need to practice division problems, then homework time spent practicing them would be a good thing. It makes sense that if there is additional material to learn that wasn’t covered in school, then it could be done at home. It also makes sense that a child should learn to plan his or her time. However, one must look at the purpose of the homework in combination with the school’s setting.
Many experts recommend 10 minutes of homework per grade that the child is in. Therefore, a third grader has 30 minutes of homework, an eighth grader has 80 minutes of homework, and high-school students would have from 1.5 hours to 2.5 hours of homework per night. Depending on the purpose of the homework being assigned, the time component may or may not make sense. However, given that there are 24-hours in a day and provided our longer school day, we looked at the available time a child could reasonably have to maintain a “school-life” balance.
Our goal is to teach children how to think critically, understand concepts and solve problems, more so, than memorizing facts. Our goal is to teach children why and how formulae are used to explain the world, so that the formulae make sense because they understand the relationship it describes. It’s not an exercise on how well a child can memorize what equation should be used with a certain type of problem. Therefore, the purpose of practice has less emphasis in our school as it does in a traditional classroom.
When we analyzed the purpose of extending material, we looked at it under the lens of small class sizes and individualization of each class. With small class sizes and the individualization of the hands-on, project-based curriculum the extension is already part of the classroom. Simply, we spend the time to extend learning in school rather than taking that work home
This brings us to study skills. Learning study skills is an important life skill and a goal we wanted to incorporate into our curriculum. But how much is enough to grow and reinforce it as a skill?
For that, we looked at our school day and analyzed how much time for homework is realistically possible. With the school day ending at 5:15, we assumed that children wouldn’t be getting home until about 6 pm. Assuming 30 minutes for dinner and 30 minutes getting ready for bed, that would put us at 7 pm. We budgeted one hour of play and relaxation time, which takes us to 8 pm. According to the Centers for Disease Control, school-age children should get at least 10 hours of sleep per night and teenagers should get between nine and 10 hours of sleep per night.
We assumed that in order to be at school in time for the school day to start at 8:30 am, children would spend an average of 30 minutes commuting to school and about one hour eating breakfast and getting ready for school. Therefore, they would have to get up at 7 am. Therefore, the latest time that children would have to go to bed by is 9 pm. This workup of time assumes no after school activity.
That leaves one hour that could be assigned for homework.
Using the analysis for available time in the day and our analysis of the purpose of homework, we decided that we would require 30 minutes of reading per day. The reading selections will be mostly based on the child’s choice, and is intended to be an enjoyable and relaxing activity, that is intellectually challenging at the same time. By making reading required homework, it teaches planning and organization, as well as the learning skills that can be taken into adulthood.
In summary, our philosophy on homework is that at least 30 minutes daily will be required for reading and learning and practice will be done during the school day.
Pizza Friday, Taco Tuesday, Breakfast for Lunch. Yum… Those were the words that came to mind when I thought about the school lunch program.
When planning the school, we knew we wanted to have lunch included to make it easier on parents. We also knew that we wanted the food to be healthy and tasty. Tasty is easy, who wants to eat food that doesn’t taste good?
Healthy, what does that mean?
Being parents ourselves, we have spent countless hours making lunch in the morning or the night before and struggling on how to make sure our children get (and eat!) their veggies. I also know that when I eat well, and by well, I mean healthy, I feel better. It’s easier for me to think, I feel sharper, and I have more energy. Shouldn’t we want that for our kids? I can also see what happens to my kids when they have a bag of M&Ms or when we travel and eat out for a week, how our behavior changes.
Therefore, it was easy to decide that the food that would be served at the Academy would be held to the same standard as the food that I feed my family: organic food for the Dirty Dozen, food that is responsibly farmed, humanely raised, meats from animals that have not been treated with antibiotics or hormones, and cooking that does not add preservatives or artificial colors.
How do you implement a school lunch program that meets the “healthy” criteria and that’s tasty?
We were lucky to find a caterer that does school lunches whose philosophy mirrors ours. Lokl Gourmet, a local caterer referred to us by a parent, believes in knowing your food, which is a great way to describe a philosophy around food. After meeting the owners and learning about their program, they added a criteria that we had not thought about - locally sourced where possible. Then, we were presented with a sample menu. What can I say? It was exactly what we had been looking for and even more. The selection and variety is better than what we could have imagined.
The final step in the process was the taste test. The kids who were in town last weekend got together for a social at Gadsby’s Tavern. At this event, the team from Lokl Gourmet brought some samples for kids to try. The result? An overwhelming success. They liked the food!
We are thrilled to have found a partner in our school lunch program that shares our philosophy and is able to provide the type of school lunch that rivals (and surpasses!) mom’s healthy dinners. I’m going to have to step up my dinner game.
There will be a two week hiatus on the Teaching Tuesday. We will return on August 18.
Our philosophy on Humanities is a logical follow-on to last week’s topic of travel. When I travel, I experience the culture of the country, or even the city or state. However, the culture of the people that I am visiting has been influenced or formed by their history. Having an understanding of that history allows us to have a deeper appreciation for the people and places we visit. With this in mind, one of our biggest concerns as we planned the curriculum for the Academy was the Humanities. It’s not a concern for the kids who enjoy both STEM and the liberal arts. But it was a concern for those kids who are your really STEMmy kids, the ones who haven’t liked social studies or history so far.
The reason to study history is beautifully explained by Peter Stearns in Why Study History for the American Historical Association so I won’t repeat it. Rather, I will focus on the approach to make history and social studies an enjoyable subject for all.
Our approach is to first present the story to the kids, in essence, what’s the plot. This will give them the context for the next level of work. Next, we want them to learn to analyze what they read or observe, so that they can draw their own conclusions. Lastly, we use the information that we have learned and critical thinking skills to understand recurring themes throughout history, such as power, leadership, or immigration.
Therefore, we set out to make the Humanities class something that they would enjoy, or at the very least, appreciate. Our goal is to make the story of the world, sometimes a beautiful story, sometimes a tragic story and sometimes a frightening story, come alive for the kids
Because we live in the United States, we believe it’s important to understand the history and culture of the country that we live in. We also believe it’s important to understand the history of the world we live in. That’s why our 4th and 5th grade sequence focuses on learning the context and story of the United States and the world. To make the story of the world meaningful to the younger grades, we look at history through the eyes of math and science, and tie what we are learning in our other classes with history. This also gives us a very interesting perspective since different cultures and civilizations have experienced periods of scientific or technological advancement at different times.
Once in the traditional middle-school grades, 6th to 8th grades, we move to a more analytical class. We present primary and secondary sources where students learn to think like historians, analyzing the context and bias and drawing conclusions from what they are analyzing. Instead of studying the history chronologically, they now examine themes and the relationships between different events or periods of time in history surrounding that theme.
Finally, students learn about the United States government and international governmental organizations and laws so that they are able to understand current events.
In order to bring it alive, we use a multitude of media. The obvious one is that we read, but we also watch videos, we create projects, we film a documentary, we engage in debate, we question historical reenactors, we role play, and finally, we travel. Surprisingly, the ways to learn about history in a creative and “hands-on” way are endless.
I remember being a foreign exchange student France on Bastille Day 23 years ago and the amount of learning I experienced that summer. Perfecting a foreign language, living the culture, watching Francois Mitterrand on television with my host family and traveling around the country, I learned so much more in those 8 weeks in Europe than I had in two years of classroom French. Now, I was able to better appreciate everything I had experienced because of the four years of French I had studied and that brings me to today’s topic - Experiential Learning, otherwise known as Field Trips.
Part of our teaching philosophy is that we should have an experiential learning experience monthly. These experiences can range from seeing a play on a topic we’re studying, to digging for fossils or visiting an historical location. Students should have an opportunity to get out of the classroom and see the country and the world. We believe students should be able to take what they have learned in the classroom and experience it in real life.
With time being one of the most scarce resources for any classroom teacher, taking children out of school for these experiences should be planned carefully so that the experience means something and reinforces what the students have been learning in class. And with money being the other scarce resource for schools, the financial investment should have a return.
Having the background, the history, the context turns a simple outing into an experience. Imagine walking around Westminster Abbey and not recognizing the names Charles Darwin or Isaac Newton, it probably looks like another beautiful church in Europe. Next, imagine walking around Westminster Abbey with an understanding of the people who have contributed to history, literature and science. All of the sudden, this beautiful church takes on a different level of significance. The context and preparatory learning are needed to appreciate and learn from the experience.
In planning this coming year’s trips, what I have found is that there are so many places we want to take the kids and so little time. Therefore, we are choosing the best trips to support what we’re learning in school in the different subjects as we view it as another learning modality. In an ideal world, the week would be eight-days long, with five days in school, one day out in the field and two days off for rest.
In addition to day trips, we believe in the value of overnight trips. These trips are wonderful because we’re able to work on social and emotional skills, which, along with academics, form the three-legged stool that is school. Travel can be an intimidating experience. Eating new foods, visiting new places, and interacting with our school friends all day AND all evening provides many informal learning opportunities on social skills, resilience, flexibility and manners. What we hope children gain from traveling as part of a school group is a better appreciation for the world we live in, that they internalize what they have learned in school and that they gain confidence in themselves.
I love reading. I love reading fiction, non-fiction, periodicals. I love reading books, newspapers and on my Kindle. You name it, I love reading it. Reading is a form of travel. When engrossed in a book, the reader travels to other times, to alternate worlds or other countries. Reading is also lifelong learning. Think to your college experience. Yes, there were classes, seminars and problem sets, but there was also a lot of reading. Building the Library at Ideaventions Academy has been one of the most pleasurable experiences of this journey as I think about sharing this passion for reading and learning with our students.
When I read about Nancie Atwell winning the Global Teacher Prize, her story struck a chord with me. We knew we wanted a library and had ideas on how to build it, but after reading one of her books, The Reading Zone, the ideas that we’d been talking about crystallized into an action plan.
One of the main ideas behind her teaching philosophy is Choice. Her students have a choice in books to read. They have a choice to not finish a book. The goal is for students to experience “the zone” in reading. Children are seldom given the opportunity to choose and there is so much power in being given a choice of what to read that helps one develop a love for reading. The role of the teacher is to get to know the child and what that child likes in order to facilitate finding a book that the child will enjoy.
I love the categorization of Holidays, Just Rights and Challenges. Holidays are the easy-reads. They’re the comfortable blanket that you may go back to. Reading Holidays every once in a while is great as it develops confidence.. Just Rights are books that introduce some new vocabulary, but are Just Right for the child at his or her current development. These are the types of books that the child should be spending most of his or her time reading. Finally, the Challenges. These are the books that a child may want to read now, but it’s difficult to do so independently. It could be the vocabulary or the plot, or the sentence structure that makes it too difficult for the child to read alone, but it provides good exposure when read with help of an adult.
The concept of booktalking is phenomenal. How many times did you struggle as a child to write the 2-page, single-space book report on a book that you did not like? Book talks are language arts with a purpose! The purpose is to share and communicate about a book that the child feels strongly about.
Reading Workshop is part of the Humanities curriculum and reading is the only assigned daily homework students will have. In order to have books to read, students need a library. I’ve shared the philosophy, but I’d like to share the implementation plan and logistics that will allow us to make that a reality.
Building the Library
To build the library:
Organizing and Using the Library
We’ll be organizing the library based on genre with a section reserved for recommended books by the students. We’re working on implementing a simple check-out process so that we’re able to track the books.
We’ve decided that non-fiction books will be housed with the subject teacher. For example, chemistry books will be in the Chem Lab, engineering books in the Engineering Lab and History books in the Humanities Classroom. Fiction books will be housed in the school library. And of course a few bean bags are in order.
We can’t wait to see the kids actually using the library!
With the 4th of July right around the corner, I thought it was appropriate to discuss the Pledge of Allegiance and whether it should be part of the school day. It may seem like one small decision among many, but I’d like to share our thoughts. We think it is an important decision as we prepare for our inaugural year at Ideaventions Academy.
In making the decision, we had to start at the beginning and think through what the Pledge of Allegiance means to us. We view the Pledge of Allegiance as an oath to the flag, which represents the ideals of the United States defined in the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal [Equality], that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights [Rights], that among these are Life, Liberty [Liberty] and the pursuit of Happiness [Opportunity]. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed [Democracy].”
I’m a first-generation immigrant to the United States. My father was born in Cambodia and myself and my mother in Venezuela. I emigrated from Venezuela when I was seven. When I started school in the US, I remember trying to learn the Pledge so I could recite it with the rest of my class every morning. I barely spoke English and did not understand what it meant, but I wanted to fit in, so I said it like all of the other kids in my class.
It wasn’t until 7th grade when our Humanities teacher taught a lesson on the Pledge and what it stood for that I finally understood what it stood for. Even though I wasn’t a US citizen yet, I now stood proudly and recited the Pledge, no longer out of routine, but because I felt American and believed in the ideals of this country. Finally, in college, when I was able to become a citizen of the United States, I proudly took the naturalization oath.
When I remember my cousin, as a 12-year old, telling me about what she would do to survive the rice fields of Cambodia or when I think about another cousin and her newborn daughter in a bathroom so that the tear gas from last year’s protests in Venezuela wouldn’t harm the baby, I am thankful for the peaceful life my children are able to live.
When I think of the currency exchange restrictions placed on my family that makes it impossible for them to travel outside of their country, I am thankful for the freedoms I have.
And when I think of my father’s family, who I never met because they died for being educated, I am thankful for the men and women, including Ryan’s grandfather, father and brother, who have defended my and my children’s way of life.
So, when we had to decide if, as a school, we would say the Pledge of Allegiance, it was a very easy decision to make. As a school we will stand and say the Pledge. As a school, we will also provide students with the lesson that my teacher provided me, which gave me freedom to make an informed decision on whether or not I wanted to continue to say the Pledge. Finally, whether or not to say the entire pledge, or parts of the pledge is a very personal decision each student and teacher makes for him or herself, which we respect.
I hope that you have a wonderful Independence holiday weekend!
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