Amazing time at Kenwood today


I have been in touch with Kenwood Assistant Principal Jessica Pitcher for quite some time about tech stuff in schools, even before her migration over to Kenwood. Since joining Kenwood, we have talked about how Kenwood is doing a full-fledged pilot of eToys with signicant help from the University of Illinois (MTSE and GSLIS). As mentioned several times on this blog, I have been helping out with a smaller-scale eToys excursion at Carrie Busey; ever since hearing about it, I have been itching to get into Kenwood to see how they are “doing” eToys.



Today I had quite an opportunity. Kenwood had a special event going on, and part of the event was to cram as much STEM stuff with eToys/Scratch as possible. I took some time off work (thanks boss!) and dove in.

(To the left is a partial schedule listing of concepts covered at Kenwood on April 16th)


First off, one of my favorite things about walking into any Unit 4 school is how open the doors are. Literally, almost every classroom has the door open. I was greeted at the front door and after signing in, I marched down to my first pick. It happened to be a split 4th/5th grade class, and they were working on creating an advertisement. The teacher left it up to the students what they wanted to sell; they had to come up with something and then attempt to make it flashy and likable. I talked briefly with the teacher and was introduced to a very common theme for the rest of the day; teachers are seeing themselves as facilitators. As door-openers. Not so much the safari guide, but perhaps the travel agent.


After that, I had the honor of meeting and speaking with the Kenwood librarian, Todd Lash. As another staff member said, Todd is the Energizer Bunny who doesn’t know when to stop. 🙂 He is full of charisma and passion for teaching kids about technology. He was in-between things, so I only had about 30 seconds of his time – more on him later.


I hit up a class that was using eToys to animate a seedling as it grew into a plant. The children had already been through a lesson on the parts of a plant, had already drawn up some sketches and labeled things, and now were working in an electronic medium to make it all come to life. Again, this teacher self-described as a facilitator. In fact, these teachers openly admit they are not experts on eToys, but rather learning right alongside the children. Sometimes the child is the teacher. This is so Highlander Folk School, it brought back many memories of reading We Make the Road by Walking. I walked around, interacted with students, asked questions and observed. Another persistent theme that pops up for me is how to address children that do not readily thrive in these situations. In every classroom I have been in (even before today), there is always a student or two who just don’t fit the status quo. They need extra attention, sometimes even to try something completely different or off-track. How does a single teacher accomodate the wide range of skill level and interest? I will come back to that question soon.


I visited another class that was tackling math in eToys, specifically “How to find the area of a triangle or rectangle?”. This class in particular gave me some ideas to bring back to Carrie Busey. I noticed how there was a solid skeletal structure or framework describing how to tackle the problem, but the minute details or approach was totally up to the student. Not that the other classrooms were lacking this, but I really noticed it in this class. First the teacher gave a lesson that introduced the topics. Next, the teacher walked the students through a four-step method that started with asking “What is the area of a triangle?” (Some students had rectangle) The next 3 steps laid down the path for measuring and discovery. The students (most of them, not all) had already written down all the steps they needed before I even got to the classroom; the next task was to turn their work into a tutorial on eToys. Some kids were going to town by recording their voices, some had fun-filled pages of favorite superheroes, some used very precise graphs…. the variety was amazing. I love that! As the teacher said, there is no one way to come to the same conclusion. Again, some students were struggling; a couple had trouble transitioning from paper to computer, one or two were wholly distracted. Afterwards when I talked to the teacher, it came down to how well the teacher can differentiate (“I hate to use that word, but that’s what we really have to do”).


A couple times I took a moment to stop at the library to catch the “demystifying” class. This was being led by a GSLIS grad student who had worked with Martin Wolske on similar workshops before. I had tried to do something similar at Carrie Busey, but I really had no idea what I was doing; I chatted with the fine folks at Kenwood so I might be able to mine some precious stones. And I hit gold! Again, having a general framework that allows a session to flow from beginning to end is critical. *grin* I know, this is fundamental to education, you laugh at me. Anyway, it was really encouraging to swap stories and to watch the GSLIS student work his magic.


kenwood_homepage_imageAnother big name at Kenwood on the eToys scene is Minsoo Park (currently featured on the Kenwood homepage observing a child’s progress with eToys). As the Enrichment / Technology Specialist, he has done a lot of work alongside Todd Lash to integrate eToys and Scratch into the curriculum. I had a fantastic talk with Mr. Park about his work and the challenges thereof, about various technologies (ie, Raspberry Pi) and “computational thinking”, which led to a brief chat about Wolfram and a possible project coming up later this semester. I also asked Mr. Park about how to handle the kids that do not thrive in these often creative electronic sessions, and my take-away is that it comes down to several factors; 1) the teacher has to know the child (a la Lisa Delpit’s “in order to teach you, I must know you first”), 2) the framework leading from point a to point b must be solid and easy enough to understand, and 3) the more community members that can help the better. Where Todd is the Energizer Bunny, Minsoo is the ancient Oak Tree, with deep roots and wide branches.


Before heading off to my last class, I sat down with Todd again. He showed me his flowchart, a sort of idea-board the he and others had worked on, brainstorming ways to enhance student experiences via various technological means. It was quite an impressive display. We talked about the challenges and pitfalls of using computers on such a scale; for instance, it really sucks when a computer decides to blue screen and/or decide it is time for a Windows Update. It is not just the inconveincne to the student, but rather a detrimental context switch for the student and often the teacher who must attend to the problem. What about eToys vs Scratch? Or other tools? Kenwood started off really strong with eToys, but due to the level of complexity they have slowly been migrating to Scratch. Todd also mentioned that MIT (who developed Scratch) is working on a “Scratch Jr.”, targetting pre-school and kindergarten. Freaky scaring that is. 🙂 Throughout our chat, it become more and more clear to me that Kenwood is really fortunate to have folks like Mr. Lash and Mr. Park, who are so passionated and committed, and staff who are willing to give it a go, not with cynical hesitation, but with excitement and a desire to learn. It makes for a lot of synergy, which is critical for any kind of pilot. And for someone like me, it was all but intoxicating. *grin*


To wrap things up, I hung out with a class going over the basics of electricity. They had already done a lesson where they used real batteries with real wires and a real lightbulb (my hands were a bit too clumsy to hold it all together in the brief couple of minutes during the teacher’s intro talk). The next step was to simulate it all on eToys. They used a pre-fabricated eToys lesson, which made it easy to string up a virtual Christmas tree of lights, batteries and wires. So after stetching their imagination a little bit, they were challenged to go back to the real thing to see what was possible. Of course, the sheer number of resources was the most obvious bottleneck, but some students got creative and teamed up in small groups to expand their possibilities. One child was having an exceptionally difficult time. It turned out that his laptop had crashed, and the other laptop he was given could not connect to the internet (which was required to download the template). I worked with him to get both computers working, and then we just went a little crazy with it. *grin* But what I really want to drive home is that this child could easily have been written off as “lazy”, “disruptive”, “stubborn” and/or “uncooperative”. But with a little bit lot of patience (how do I explain why the computer is not working?), and a little bit of asking who he was and want he wanted to do, the ball started slowly to roll. Before long, he had picked up enough momentum that he was not ready to quit at the end. I consider that a good thing. One other point – this was a very hands-on lab. In my own experiences, one adult/teacher just isn’t enough for these situations. Fortunately, we had about four adults in this particular class, and it seemed to me that the one teacher would have been swamped if flying; how many children would not have had as much fun and learned as much?


Before I walked out the door, I dropped by a “buddying” class, where Kindergarten students were matched up with third grade students. I absolutely love this idea! They were doing very fast, one-minute “computational thinking” exercises where one student gives hints about an object’s function, and the other student has to guess the object.


On the heels of my previous post about Choice and the Kindergarten Lottery, I find it curious that Kenwood averages third to last every year. Perhaps with the focus on a “immersive technology learning environment“, creative teaching techniques and an outstanding team of staff of teachers, maybe this will change a little. Of course, statistically speaking, if all the schools are totally awesome, then being “last” is quite meaningless. 🙂

One Response to “Amazing time at Kenwood today”

  1. #cu4techcon | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] and for me personally, I love how this is implemented. Hers was one the classes I visited in the middle of April, and today she reiterated that she sees her role as a facilitator and to allow the student to […]

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