updates around the district

Today, Unit 4’s Stephanie Stuart and Carla McCrory of the Champaign County EDC are hosting another Twitter Chat, specifically about the high school “future facilities” and the November tax referendum. Use hashtag #AskUnit4, from 12-1:

“Don’t forget to join us today from 12-1 for an chat with on the upcoming referendum. Simply use the hashtag to ask your q!”

 

Kenwood recently had an Open House to kick off their Community Tech Center:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/KenwoodStars

 

Barkstall is looking for old (but working) computers:

“Miss Winters’ kindergarten classroom needs a couple of elderly laptops for listening stations.

 
We are digitizing her decaying books-on-tape collection. Anything capable of running Windows Media Player 9 (or iTunes 1.0) is good enough. Tiny hard drives. weak processors and minuscule RAM will not be a problem. An audio jack, however, is necessary.
 
Each will have a fresh OS install. Let me know if you need help wiping your disks.
 
Thanks Freecycle!”
 
On Wednesday, Imani Bazzell invited Superintendent Dr. Judy Wiegand an ACCESS Live at WBCP 1580 AM. The recording should be online soon (I will link it when I find out).

Student Agency

My new favorite video:

 

Todd Lash (leading Computational Thinking/Educational technology at Kenwood) has been tweeting some great stuff this past week, and the concepts embedded in his short updates have really excited me about the possibilities of education, even here in Champaign. One retweet highlights an article that explores a pilot project out in Massachusetts where 8 students independently “did” their own school, called “This Is What a Student-Designed School Looks Like“.

 

It is fascinating that we are spending so much time and energy talking about how to spend $100+ million for new/upgraded buildings, but so little effort spent on figuring out what is really best for students.

 

More to come.

Amazing time at Kenwood today

kenwood_stem_topics

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 Read the rest of this entry »

Chat with Kerris Lee

Board member Kerris (up until a couple Thursdays ago, the newest board member) was out of commission for a few days, but we finally connected. I had initially contacted several board members about the Bambenek appointment, but our conversation morphed and took on much bigger issues. Which is a good thing; Kerris enlightened me on many of the awesome things he is in the middle of right now.

To do things a little backwards, I’ll start with my conclusion or my take-away, which I told Kerris at the end of our talk; somebody really needs to take an audio recording when talking to board members! *grin* He shared so many great things I fear I will miss some of them in my retelling of them. Yes, I realize having an audio record can be abused and might even stymie some of the more colorful expressions one might use. Baby and bathwater. Or maybe board members need an outlet to broadcast/publish without so many restrictive guidelines. I do not know any perfect solutions – I am just very inspired when talking to Kerris, and it would be awesome if more folks could have been in on the chat.

To that end, we covered the topic of “transparency” a bit. As with many other subjects we went over, there are two facets or aspects when it comes to the board; there is the “public” face they show to all of us, the portal through which we start to form our opinions and perspectives, and then there is the more private portion, where individual board members are doing amazing things, and even as a board, they are moving in various directions and covering some ground, but the public just has no clue whatsoever. As mentioned in my Bambenek post, I think it is important to recognize the progress that the board has made while also at the same time keeping an eye on the end goal. I had to agree with that, by and large, I believe the Board as a whole does not want to hide things; rather, I get the impression that there is an underlying systemic force that works against creative ways of communicating and sharing. On the whole, the board tends to err on the side of caution, or rather, on the side of being “informationally conservative”. Kerris indicated that he has talked to Superintendent Judy Wiegand and Board President Laurie Bonnett, as well as School Attorney Tom Lockman and Board Attorney Sally Carter, about addressing these fundamental roadblocks at the policy level. As with other board members, I have asked Kerris about all that goes on in Exec Session, and he has reassured me he is asking if more can be shared in Open Session.

We also covered AYP a bit. With NCLB pushing unrealistic goals (we are not aware of a single public school that meets 100% AYP across all subgroups), school districts are being faced with not only the temptation to “teach to the test”, but now are also being hammered with Common Core transitions. This topic alone was one of the big issues during the CFT negotiations (time outside of teaching time), and something I hear about from teachers as being a challenge to deal with. Again I asked how parents and the community can help shoulder that burden or at least do something about it.

In terms of the board engaging with the community more and along the lines of the board getting their thoughts out to the public, we lightly considered blogs, tweets and even a radio show. The fact of the matter is that nothing beats one-to-one conversations. What if the board did rotating shifts (no more than two board members each) at a coffee shop or other such venue? When Chuck and I were out at Houlihans every Wednesday, we were honored to be graced by board members every once in a while, and it was a great way to connect and catch up. I am curious, would members of the public take advantage of these opportunities? I am not looking for casual sounds of “sure”, but solid commitments; even though we made opportunities available at Houlihans, not many people at all showed up.

Kerris also mentioned that the board is preparing to make several presentations to the public about the high school referendum. He expressed a little bit of frustration in that the board is constrained to only communicate facts, and so being “informationally conservative”, their message may lack the soft edges of more embellished thoughts. I challenged Kerris with the idea of doing charrettes, of bringing in opinions and perspectives from students, teachers and community members. Even at this late stage, there is no reason why the district cannot see what people want. Kerris gave me some insight into some of the ideas that are being batted around internally (some of them sound really cool, like more focus on vo-tech), and again I had to ask where the community was in that discussion. I am hoping to hear back from Kerris in a couple weeks to see how these ideas are being floated internally.

Our conversation transitioned to Educational Technology, and this is where most of my excitement comes from in regards to our discussion. Most people already know, but for those that do not, Kerris has been a huge supporter of getting kids into programming, eToys and pushing technology in the curriculum (ie, STEM). Makes me wish I was a kid again. 🙂 As recently announced on the Unit 4 Facebook page, Kenwood is taking the next step to encourage kids to think “computationally” and pursue programming. The school’s new theme (Technology and Literacy in the Community) is benefiting from huge support from the University of Illinois’s Mathematics, Science and Technology Education (MSTE) department, headed up by George Reese. As a side note, Dr. Reese is also on the Advisory Council for the Center of Education in Small Urban Communities, which has been very involved in local education and will be doing a lot more. I mentioned that it is still hard for me to see the wedding of technology in today’s curriculum, but Kerris assured me that we are only going through the birth pains right now.

 

I need to circle back and ask about the topic of increased usage and interest in technology; what will “school” look like in 20 years? Will classrooms become more “flipped”? Will more students (and families) be able to learn at home (perhaps on school provided technology)? How does that play into the whole high school tax referendum?

 

One thing that really impressed me as I was talking to Kerris is that he is out there in the community doing things. Not just talking the talk at board meetings, but he is tracking down and researching policy issues and legislation that stands in the way of progress and is talking to pivotal decision-makers in an attempt to make things better for our children and our community. He is involved with United Way, the recently started Cradle to Careers and many other service-oriented ventures in town. To put it bluntly, the guy is just friggin’ nuts! 🙂

This post is just a sample of what we talked about. As with many other board members, Kerris reiterated that he is more than happy to chat with anyone. So give him a call or drop him and email. I warn you, he is extremely busy and you might have to be patient to hammer out a good time. But the wait is worth it. 🙂

Hour of Code

my_hour_of_codeSomething quite interesting is coming to Kenwood and Carrie Busey this next week; the Hour of Code.

You can read a little more from Stephanie Stuart’s recent Unit 4 news item. Or you can jump right in at code.org (the twitter feed is quite hot at the moment).

I am a CS major, so all this talk about Computer Science is right up my alley. What is most fascinating about this approach is that the collaboration of authors (they drew on engineers at Google, Microsoft, Apple, Dropbox just to name a few small companies) have done a very amazing job at taking the dull, boring, tedious and onerous stuff I learned in high school and college and turned into a fun, intuitive subject matter that anyone can get into. Not just computer geeks. My daughter invited a friend over today just so they could both “play Blockly” (Blockly is the underlying environment).

hour_of_code_example1The “Hour of Code” that kicks off on the 9th starts you with a very well-done video featuring some people you might recognize (Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg just to name a couple), and then gives you a pointer about how to complete the first task. And of course, these guys got rights to use the “Angry Birds” theme, making an instant connection to that mindlessly addictive vice. What I love about this environment is that it is very forgiving, very smooth, very “web 2.0” and quite instructional. You start with a very simple task with a very clear goal, with only a few options to complete that task. And it just builds from there. Before you know it, you are using loops and logic branches (if .. then), and then immersed into the world of “Plants vs Zombies”. How can you not love this stuff?!? 🙂

hour_of_code_example2

The “Hour of Code” deals with just the first ‘stage’ of 20 total stages. Think of it is 20 different lessons, all building upon each other until you get to the end where you have essentially “mastered the basics.” And in my opinion, mastering the basics is a fundamental skill in our modern society. But it doesn’t stop there; the teams that bring you the cute little computer science training with the full sound effects of Angry Birds went a step further and created an “unplugged” version, an entire lesson plan on teaching these concepts with no computer at all. They use another fun, addictive activity that many youngsters will think fondly of – the Cup Game. In the “unplugged” series, a team of students, comprising of one “robot” and several “programmers”, have to instruct the “robot” how to play the game using a limited vocabulary of 4-6 “commands” or symbols. Basic things like “pick up cup”, “put cup down”, “move cup left”, “move cup right”, etc. The idea is for the programmers to come up with a stack of symbols such that the robot can follow the entire thing from start to finish. Not too different than the old punch cards programmers used to use several decades ago. 🙂

Both Kenwood and Carrie Busey have been exploring how to use a program called eToys in their curriculum. Kenwood has done a full-school immersion, while Carrie Busey is isolated to one class. eToys is built on a platform called Squeak. MIT came out with a very similar concept called Scratch, also built on the Squeak platform. Where eToys is open-ended, robust and quite comprehensive, Scratch is very focused, straight-forward and in my opinion, easier to use and teach. eToys is powerful and big, Scratch is simple. The Hour of Code utilizes something called Blockly, similar to Squeak, and looks almost exactly like Scratch. It is written entirely in javascript (unlike Squeak and eToys/Scratch), and the authors have made it available so you can download it to a simple usb stick and run it in a modern web browser.

Congratulationshour_of_code_all_trophiesI had a lot of fun with Blockly. I zipped through the first 20 lessons of the Intro stage, then marched through the remaining 19 stages. Another fascinating element is that the student is almost being tricked into learning core Computer Science concepts. Aside from control loops, logic branches, there are also functions and parameters. But these are hidden, or rather abstracted, behind fun tasks that are short, quick and easy to digest – bite-sized chunks of Programming 101. And beyond that, there is plenty room for creative exploration. One can choose to beat the suggested number of blocks and optimize their “code”, or one can just go crazy and make the subject do totally random things. I really appreciated how there are several stages devoted to artistic expression; this leaves things wide open for those that just want to try things out. There is no “penalty” for using too many blocks in these creative lessons (in the normal lessons, you are constrained by a maximum number of blocks). I had a bit of fun trying to figure out how to use the basic functions available to create the Golden Ratio, ovals and finally a sine wave.

I realize programming is not the end-all-be-all. I realize some kids have different strengths. I don’t know how all this programming stuff will fit into K-12 Education. My excitement revolves around the fact that some really smart people have come up with a totally fun way to open the doors and allow anyone to learn concepts that I labored through. For some, this might open the door to a future career without even having to go to college. For some, this may ignite a passion for computers. Who knows. All I know is that I had fun with it. 🙂

blockly_sine_wave

Unit 4 gives kudos to the BOE and Raspberry Pi's to Kenwood

Stephanie Stuart just put this out:

http://www.champaignschools.org/news-room/article/6364

Truly board members are indeed volunteers; even just being involved on the peripherary as I have been, I know they put in a ton of demanding hours. It is no trivial task, and the feeble of heart need not apply. So my thanks also to Board Members.

My attention was quite piqued when I saw that notice that Kenwood would be getting 7 Raspberry Pi units (one in honor of each board member). The Pi is down to about $25, so this isn’t some huge expense. But that is the beauty of the Pi in the first place – it is an awesome, DIY hobbyist-era miniture computer that is cheap.

For those that might not recall, Kenwood is piloting a STEM curriculum out of the University of Illinois headed up by Martin Wolske. They have debuted the implementation of eToys (again, with strong University support) as reported by the NG with an element of addressing computer learning in the community (again, as reported by the NG, hat tip to Meg Dickinson). I hope to learn more from Avigail Snir at eToys Illinois, Director George Reese, and Kenwood staff Minsoo Park and Todd Lash.

For myself, I have been helping a 4th grade classroom at Carrie Busey with their own exploration of eToys. It is amazing to see the rich variety of how kids tackle problems and challenges. True, computers are not for everyone, and it shows when some kids struggle with the interface. But what I really dig is when another student leans over and teaches their peer.

But I have to confess, perhaps my biggest reason for this post is to brag that my daughter will be doing a demo of the Raspberry Pi at her school’s Science Night tonight; she will focus on a program very much like eToys called “Scratch“. She favors the paint editor and duplicating Scratch into a family. 🙂

quick note on Sept 23rd special board meeting

The agenda has been posted; got some interesting items from the RPC about a study on transportation effects of a new high school (I have not read them thoroughly, yet). Also, a “public hearing” on the budget. I would like to hear from folks who have never been to one what you think it is. 🙂 Couple other odds and ends.

 

I also expect to hear things during public comment about CFT negotiations, and maybe even from Kenwood parents.