I’m 5 Again

One of the things that I used to tell my computer science students was that every program that they create was actually a story. 

You tell the story to the computer and the computer retells parts (or all) of the story back to the user.  I suppose in the kindest of ways, it was a way from deterring from programming as an academic affair from the very beginning.

As we witness programming languages evolve, it’s increasingly appropriate.  Instead of writing programs like tax calculators, we now introduce programming by a more formal approach to story telling.  We manipulate screen objects, set backgrounds, add interactions, etc.  Programming languages like Hopscotch, Alice, Daisy the Dinosaur, Scratch, and Tynker make story telling the heart of programming.  The logic is to introduce students to programming concepts in a fun, easy to manipulate environment.  From there, the level of sophistication, and choice of languages develops a culture of programming. 

With classrooms across the world moving to tablet based programming, it’s so good to see introductory programming languages embracing that environment.  Frequent readers to this blog know that I’ve tried (played) with many of them.  The combination of a familiar environment and a well crafted developmental environment is a formula for success.

This morning, into the mix, comes ScratchJr.

With ScratchJr, young children (ages 5-7) can program their own interactive stories and games. – ScratchJr website

If you’ve used the Scratch Programming language on a PC, the iPad implementation is a breeze.  Download it, load it, give permission for it to use your microphone, and you’re ready to program.

Hit the ? to get an introduction to ScratchJr, learn about the environment, visit a few examples and you’re off to the races!  If you’re a Scratch programmer, you’re so familiar with dragging, modifying, locking, embedding objects to get the job done.  The same concepts apply here.  There was such a flat learning curve for me.  It’s like programming in Scratch – only easier! 

Normally, there would be concerns about a program being “late for the party” but I suspect that won’t be a problem in the case of ScratchJr.  There’s a huge collection of folks who have been using Scratch for years that I’m sure will become big advocates of the program.  I can just imagine copies flying out of the app store.

Scratch has developed such a large online community of users.  The same will happen with ScratchJr.  There will be all kinds of ideas and support available once this happens.  At present, you can follow the discussion on Twitter here.

You can download ScratchJr here.

Digital Citizenship Resources

Common Sense Media serves as a huge repository of resources that addresses many of the curricular needs. 

Like any repository, teachers should use their professional judgement with respect to the resources to ensure that they meets the needs of their curriculum and their classroom.  All of the things like bias, age-appropriateness, etc. need to go into the determination as to the appropriateness of the resource.

One are that many want to address but can find challenges in finding quality resources is the area of digital citizenship.  Can you define what it means in your classroom; never mind a single definition that fits all grades! 

To help the cause, their entire digital citizenship curriculum has been made available as iBooks and freely downloadable through the iTunes store.

If you’re looking for resources of this type, take the time to download and use your judgement as to the appropriateness for your students.

The resources are available for download here.

Another One Bites the Dust

I had another sad conversation with a friend today.  He indicated that his employer was getting rid of the position of tech coordinator and that he was being sent back to the classroom.  I had two immediate questions:

  • Why?
  • Who will be replacing you?

Sadly, this isn’t a unique situation.

The answer to my second question was “nobody”.

The answer to my first question was “The district is going to buy iPads and the IT Director has convinced the administration that a position like mine is not necessary since ‘anyone can work an iPad'”.

We looked at each other incredulously.

Is the use of this (or any technology) treated so superficially that this logic makes any sense at all?

I recalled reading a piece from eSchool News recently that was so timely.

5 critical iPad mistakes to avoid

Just as the first teaching and learning machines failed on the promise to take over education and make it all good, so flies the iPad.  (Or any device – it’s just that all roads point to the iPad in this case)

Of importance is point #3 in the article.

It’s sad to think that any system would consider self-taught tap, tap, tapping and hoping that the magic happens, a critical part of their technology implementation.

Has Every App Been Written?

I had to smile a bit when I read this story on Mashable.  “Marketing Students Create Concept Video for ‘Google Gesture’ App“.

It was interesting to read the story and read some other stories with a different take on the same deal.  But, it got me thinking…

For many school districts, this June marks the end of a year or a second year of 1:1 or BYOD.  There will be some high flyers that have used some of the numerous tools to write their own application.  Hey, even I wrote “My Own Flappy Bird“.  It certainly wasn’t from original work and development; I had used the example from one of the Hour of Code resources and then modified it just to see what I could do.  After all, there’s nothing like creating something that’s “yours”.

In the classroom, teachers or someone tall selects the applications that students get to use.  I doubt that anyone short has anything to say.  More than likely it’s tied to the curriculum or an IT Department decides that they can support it.  What voice do the students have?

Maybe, they need to take a look at the concept behind this story.  They may not be able to write the code, but how about creating a video explaining what sort of application they would like to make their life as student complete?  Perhaps they have some insight as to a productivity tool that would be helpful.  Or, maybe a homework helper?  Or, a research tool that works for them?  Or, maybe something even more important.

As I was thinking about this, I poked around the applications that I have installed on my iPad.  I have a collection of comic creators.  As I looked around seriously (and this isn’t why I’m not naming names or titles …), I noticed an area of exclusion.  The characters that were available didn’t give a complete sampling of Ontario society.  If I’m sitting in class, looking around, I wouldn’t always be able to find a character representing all of my classmates or, in some cases, me.  That isn’t right.  It would be a shame if the story had to be changed just because I couldn’t find myself or my friends as one of the characters.

I wonder — if a student could create a video outlining what should be in a new application to be written, what would it be?  Personal?  Cool?  Productive?  Enjoyment?  Entertainment?  

We’ll never really know until we find a way to amplify their voice.

I Know Now

Have you ever had one of those things that just bug you and you promise yourself that you’d figure it out some day?

Only you never do?

Sometimes, I think it’s the story of my life.

I’ve been playing this game for a long time.

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It has an interesting animation for its opening screen

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Once opens, it sits here for a second or two.

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Then, you play the game.

The thing is that the letters on this screen always puzzled me.  They never stayed on long enough to pronounce the word but I kept looking at it and remembering the letters every time I played. 

I still didn’t get it.  Were they random letters?  Was it an anagram?

So, I did what I should have done a long time ago.  I searched for it.

Boy, do I ever feel stupid.

Tetris at 30

We’ve certainly come a long way in the development of computers and the software that runs on it.  Nothing hit the mark more for me than a download for my iPad last week.

From Electronic Arts, it was a special 30th anniversary version of Tetris.

Why did this particular application resonate with me?

Early in my teaching career, I had a small group of students who were very passionate about programming.  It didn’t matter what I threw at them, they found a solution and then added bells and whistles to really extend the program.  Nothing could stump them.  Well, maybe documentation…

They worked on their projects before school, at lunch time, and between dismissal and the time that the bus would leave.

To inspire their programming, I used to give them special assignments and things to learn.  One of these things was dabbling around in machine language code.  Right about that time, one of the students had a home Atari game and a version of the Tetris game on play on it.  They approached me about developing their own version of Tetris on the school computers and to try their best to do a faithful reproduction of the game.  The concept of open source and sharing was foreign at that time so it would have to be done by scratch.

I said yes thinking that this would keep them busy for a while. 

And it did.

I don’t recall now how long it took but I still have great memories of the three or four of them gathered around a computer shouting ideas, pointing at the screen, and looking up references in a technical manual that I had purchased for them from the mall.  I remember that they would go home to the Atari game and make notes about how it played, recorded all of the starting blocks, and making the rules of the game.  They eventually got a working version and they proudly showed it off to anyone who would look.  

For smoothness, it had to be written in machine languge – interpretive code wouldn’t work.  The actual controls were relatively simple.  They would just scan the keyboard for the left and right cursor arrows for movement, the down arrow to drop the block and the space bar to rotate it.  There were also things like keeping score, clearing a row, etc. to check for.  When it was all done, it was a much bigger project than what they had originally anticipated.  But, they did it.

Fast forward to today and the iPad game has modern features that really put it over the top.  Music, sounds, special powerups, social media integration, different levels, challenges, and so much more.  It only barely resembles the original game!  After all, you’re not controlling via a keyboard – your input on an iPad is limited to tapping on a screen.

It’s really an engaging implementation and enhancement to the original game.  If you poke around the internet, you’ll see that there are various online versions that let you relive the past.  Get your hands on this new version and you’ll realize that we’ve become so sophisticated over the past 30 years.

Happy Birthday, Tetris.

A Secret Door to Writing Ideas

How many times have your students written a blog post about their dog or their cat?  Looking for something new and completely different? 

Then, you need to check out “The Secret Door“.

Open the door (by pushing it with your mouse) and you’re immediately transported somewhere interesting in the world, viewing your location with Google’s Streetview.

If you’re not interested in where you land, as the Secret Door to take you somewhere else.

And, like Rod Stewart says, “Every picture tells a story”…what a great inspiration for writing. 

Have your students put themselves into the picture, or make themselves a fly on the wall watching what’s happening, or what happened just before (or after) the picture was taken?  Depending upon the picture, some research about the area may be necessary.  But, in the language or second language classroom, this just inspires.  Displayed on a data projector, it could be the start of great conversations and inquiry.  The potential is limitless!

The use in blogging is so apparent.  Capture the image to the post and then write about it!

After all, think of the stories that would be inspired by this image!

What a wonderful rabbit hole for your students to fall into for writing inspiration!

A Fifth Anniversary

I’ve always liked a good puzzle.  For me, it’s got to be:

  • challenging;
  • obtainable;
  • full of logic;
  • makes me visualize and think forward a few steps.

I don’t think these are “unique to me” attributes.  You probably feel the same.

This morning, I noticed that there were a few updates available and one was to one of my favourite little puzzle applications, Unblock Me Free.  (Android, iOS)

Now, updates are just part of our everyday world but this was a bit different – it was the app’s 5th anniversary.


Unblock Me and I have been through a lot together.  It’s my go-to time killer when waiting for a doctor, dentist, lawyer, dog park outing, … and just about anywhere I’m sitting, waiting and need a momentary mental jog or diversion.  My first installation goes way back to an iPod Touch where it still resides today.  Of course, there are also iPad and Android installations.  It was the iPad installation that really caught my eye with a special 5th year anniversary theme.

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The theme changed the blocks that I’ve used for so long to a metallic looking, 3D effect.  It was very pleasing to look at.  Looking at the low score on the iPad made be realize that the home for me for this application was truly mobile, away from home.  But that’s OK.  Each person has his/her own preferences.

I also marvelled at the application itself.  I’m sure that I had a game similar to it as a child although I’d be hard pressed to tell you the name.  The app itself doesn’t seem to require an update all that often.  Over the course of five years and how many OS upgrades, I think that’s pretty impressive.  It just works.

Congratulations to the authors – five years in a digital world is very impressive.  I’ve still got a long way to go before I can claim to master the ~14,000 levels.  I hope that you’re still puzzling me another five years from now.

Hopscotch – REALLY Big News

One of my fun activities is to fire up the Hopscotch Application on my iPad and just mess about, writing little programs just to see what I can do.  There’s no particular purpose except to push what I can do and know about the application.  It helps when you have a discussion with others and, I’ll say it – it’s just fun.  I had shared my thoughts about the application here.  My opinions still stand but have now been amplified.

Any good application has a good support system and the Hopscotch website certainly does this and, lately, there has been a tease about big things coming.

So, naturally, when the upgrade was available, I grabbed it.

All that I can say is, wow!

Rules, Abilities, Blocks, Libraries, Previews – you may not even recognize the application if you’ve used it before.

Even the overall look to the environment adds a big level of sophistication.

I know that, sitting on the couch, tilting and shaking, I may look a little silly.  But it’s a good silly and a great deal of fun.

If you’ve used Hopscotch before, you’ll absolutely want to grab this upgrade.  If you haven’t but have always wanted to do some programming on your iPad, now’s the time.  You won’t be disappointed.

Student Authored Digital Portfolios

Isn’t this a sign of the times?

That’s the bit of information that you’ll find attached to Kathy Cassidy’s newest iBook “Student Authored Portfolios: Archiving Learning with iPad“.

In the book, Kathy takes on the issues and technical side of things as she describes how Student Portfolios work in her classroom.

It’s a relatively short read (only 17 pages) but covers the topic in a way that makes it all reachable with technology.  While the title does make reference to the iPad, the techniques are certainly not restricted to that one piece of technology.

So often, there are blocks to successful implementation.  Kathy takes these on up front explaining how it works for her.

  • safety
  • tools
  • platform choice
  • photos
  • video
  • audio
  • drawing

They’re all nicely addressed within the various sections.

If you’re curious about using digital portfolios with your students, looking for ways to convince yourself and others, or looking for tips about how to make it work, it’s all covered in this book.

And it’s free.  Why not download it right now and add to your personal professional library?