Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Why girls should learn computer programming

Lately, I have made a case for programming in the curriculum and my colleague, Sarah Macdonald, wrote about using Scratch to help students "understand their own problems, make mistakes and explore alternatives". This post is a manifesto for teaching girls in particular how to program. In it, I argue that this is an essential skill for girls to help make the future rather than see innovations as black magic which they may only consume.
Samantha (Year 9): "I have a friend who wrote a program that generates bibliographies for his school work."
Me: "That's great. How would you like to learn to write your own programs?"
Samantha: "No, Mr. Baroudi. That's what boys' schools are for!"
Picture from: canstockphoto.com

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Beyond teaching programming: Scratch as a constructivist learning environment

This is a guest post is the second in a series (you can read the first post here) and is written by my colleague Sarah Macdonald. In it, Sarah tells about teaching Scratch for the first time to her year 7 girls.

Flashback, 2010
End of year curriculum planning meeting.  Students departed.  Reports written.  Teachers fatigued... and my Head of IT has just announced a major change in the IT curriculum for the following year.  We will be teaching Scratch.  What do I know about Scratch?  I know it’s about programming and primary schools are using it to create endless cartoons about a yellow cat.  Why Scratch?  I realise I have a lot to learn.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Every child should learn computer programming

In a previous post, I have listed a few reasons for teaching programming in school. In this post, I intend to argue that computer programming is an essential skill in the curriculum. I was prompted to write it when I read the following comments made by Steve Jobs:

"In my perspective ... science and computer science is a liberal art, it's something everyone should know how to use, at least, and harness in their life. It's not something that should be relegated to 5 percent of the population over in the corner. It's something that everybody should be exposed to and everyone should have mastery of to some extent, and that's how we viewed computation and these computation devices." (http://www.npr.org/2011/10/06/141115121/steve-jobs-computer-science-is-a-liberal-art?sc=tw&cc=share)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Building an APP with Students: What I have learned this year

Last year, I decided to start an APP development club at my school. I spent some time in the summer break investigating alternative development environments. In the end, I settled on Corona SDK. Unfortunately, I only had a few days left to learn it before the start of the school year. I took some time in Term 1 to complete some tutorials and make connections with Corona developers. Thanks to Twitter, I was able to make friends who have taught me a lot about the technology. The group began in Term 2 and we are now most of the way through an APP we intend to submit to the App Store. A friend has prodded me to get back to writing about the experience so far.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Book Review: Totto-chan - A book for every educator

Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window
Author: Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, Translator: Dorothy Britton. Publisher: Kodansha International, 1996.
ISBN: 4-7700-2067-8

This book was given me as a gift by my sister-in-law, an educator and avid reader. It is the autobiography of a famous actress and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. The book concentrates on a short period of time when the author attended Tomoe primary school in Tokyo. In fact, the book is more a description of the school founder's practice than it is a life story.

Expelled from first grade!
The book starts by telling of Totto-chan's expelling from her previous school, when she was only in grade one. You see, "the little girl at the window" would wait all morning for street bands to walk by the school and call them over to play their music. This was seen as highly disruptive behaviour and, exasperated, her teacher decided the girl did not become at the school. Eventually, her mother found a school that would take her: Tomoe Gakuen.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Twitter + ReadItLater = Connected educators

I am writing this blog post for my colleagues, and other educators, who are not yet on Twitter. In it, I intend to provide a guide to using Twitter and to managing the reading load that the Twitter-habit will generate.
Understandably, teachers don't want to add another distraction to their busy days. They often hear that Twitter is a forum for people who think the world needs to know every opinion they have and every place they visit.

These were my views of Twitter until I took the plunge and signed up. I now have an active exchange with educators from around the world and, thanks to ReadItLater, I have found a way to read some of their output without adding to my workload. This exchange has enriched me in many ways: it supplies me with lesson ideas, gives me a forum to put my ideas out for scrutiny and keeps me up to date with educational trends. Through Twitter, I have met someone who has visited my classroom and taught my students valuable skills.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Am I the only one upset with Apple?

Like many people, I have switched to using a Mac and I love it. I also have an iPad which I enjoy very much. As of this year, my school has begun the process of putting a laptop in the hands of every student. Our machine of choice was the white MacBook. In this post, I argue that Apple has disadvantaged schools when it terminated this model.
A bit of context: I work at a school with a forward-looking IT manager. He convinced us to become a Mac school about five years ago. That was when I bought my first MacBook. It was not perfect and I even had to return it for repairs after the first year. Still, it was the most predictable computer I had ever owned. Slowly but surely, the staff and students grew to love the MacBooks and iMacs around the school.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

I searched eight years for this answer

When I first began teaching secondary school Mathematics, roughly eight years ago, I wondered where word problems fit into the structure of a topic: Do they come at the beginning to provide a context or at the end, where they provide an application for the acquired skills. In case you don't want to read on, I am now certain that they should come at the beginning. Still, please keep reading, I want to discuss my reasons and give one example of what I mean.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Students presenting at a teachers' conference

On Monday, August 29th, I was joined by three of my students in presenting a workshop at the Victorian Information Technology Teachers Association conference: Leading and Learning from the Edge. We ran a workshop entitled: "Building mobile Apps for iOS and Android Devices using Corona SDK." I was very proud of the three girls (I work at a girls' school) and I wanted to write this blogpost in their honour.

At our school, an Apps programming club has been running for a term and a half. When I received the "call for papers" from VITTA, I thought it would be a good idea to involve some students as this would motivate them and give them a special experience. As we came closer to the conference, I realised that we had covered less ground in the App Club than I had anticipated. The student presenters and I were not as confident anymore.

Monday, August 29, 2011

VITTA 2011: What I learned on day one - First session

Today was the first day of the VITTA (Victorian IT Teachers' Association) conference. It is the only day I am attending and, as always, I have learned a lot! Here is my summary of the first session of today:

Keynote 1: Roger Larsen, Pearson Platforms
Roger's speech was very engaging. In it, he emphasised 21st Century skills. In particular, he noted critical thinking and entrepreneurship as key among those skills. Roger emphasised that digital content must not be a mere digitisation of paper. He wanted digital content to be changeable and interactive.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Book review: Mindset by Carol Dweck

I have recently listened to the audio recording of Carol Dweck's book: Mindset (Ballantine Books, 2007).  Dweck is a professor of Psychology at Stanford University (formerly at Columbia). She had had a profound effect on me as a teacher when I was looking at research into feedback.

Dweck's work showed that praising children for their traits, "you're a good boy" or "you're so smart" made them less likely to attempt subsequent tasks which they perceived as challenging. On the other hand, praising children for their effort made them want to persist with difficult tasks and look for alternative strategies to complete them:

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Last App Club meeting for the term

Today, we had our last App Club meeting for the term. Some of the students now have exams to prepare for and I have reports to write. I have scheduled 8 meetings for the following term. So, here is what we did today:
  1. Peach Pellen, Corona celebrity and owner of Techority.com, appeared via Skype. She told the girls about the early frustrations they could expect and told them it would be worth it in the long run. She encouraged them to have Apps on the App Store by the time they finish school. Should they stick with it, she added, they'd be able to charge a good hourly rate to companies who needed Apps built for them.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Why teach programming using Corona SDK?

At the moment, I am not aware of other schools teaching App Development in Corona SDK. I am sure that such schools are out there and I would love to get to know the teachers. Being a beginner in this field, I am sure I can learn a lot from those with more experience.

Here is why I believe Corona SDK is a good platform for teaching programming:
  • App Development is more likely to engage the kids' imagination than, say, database programming;
  • Corona supports both iOS and Android devices;
  • Lua, the language used by Corona, is a flexible, minimalistic language. Eg: variables don't need to be given a type and semicolons are not required at the end of each statement;
  • The SDK includes objects that give access to the mobile device's screen with great ease;
  • It is a new platform that is gaining a lot of momentum among developers;
  • The Apple University Consortium (AUC) has started offering courses on Corona SDK. A great endorsement;
  • Every evaluation I have read of the performance of Corona Apps has concluded that speed is not an issue at all; and
  • The Corona community is very helpful. There are many bloggers who are happy to post tutorials and answer questions by email.
If you can add to this list, please do so via the comments.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

App Development Club: Starting on our first game

Today, there were 31 students in the after-school App Group. One student had apologised for a medical reason and another one was absent from school.

We started on a simple game that would help consolidate what we have learnt so far note my use of the first person plural, as I am sorting things out myself. This is what was achieved today:
  • Words falling across the screen (using transition.to)
  • An event handler for the "touch" event.
  • When the user touches the words, they disappear.
This may not seem like much, but this simple App made them understand the concept of event handling. They also had to do some debugging, which was nice. For the first time, they had to write their own code and then look over it to find - mostly spelling - mistakes.

A few of them replaced the words with an image and one student had three different sentences coming in from different parts of the screen.

We will make this App a little more involved next time. I hope to have and iOS developer license sorted out in the next week or two so they can finish this term's sessions (six in total) with something on their mobile devices.

It was very rewarding to see the joy on some of their faces when they got it working. I really look forward to these sessions each week.

Exciting news: Corona SDK celebrity, Peach Pellen, has agreed to appear by Skype in two weeks' time. I bet the girls will be inspired by her.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

App Development Club: Beginning to program

After getting over the installation problem discussed in the last post (using the laborious process described in that same post), we had a great class last Tuesday after school. 30 girls filled the lab and worked in pairs. Among them, 3 year 10s sat on the floor and worked on their laptops.
Here's what we did:
  1. I demonstrated a "Hello World" program, where the words fall across the screen. This was a tutorial posted on the Ansca videos page.
  2. I explained about Red, Green, Blue and why 255 was a significant number inside a computer (largest unsigned integer that fits in 8 bits).
  3. I left the students to reproduce this themselves.
  4. The students moved on to a tutorial published by Peach Pellen:
    • Display a picture in the middle of the screen
    • Listen to a "touch" event on that picture and make it disappear
It was great to see the girls modify the exercises to suit their own purposes. Some simply swapped Peach's picture with their own. Others used a picture of their favourite singer and made his name drop across the picture.

At the end, I asked them if they had enjoyed the session, and I heard a collective "yes".

My next project is to get them to write a simple game. The words "Tap me" keep appearing at the top of the screen, in a random position, and then move to another place on the screen while fading. When the user "taps" the text successfully, the score increases by one. The game ends when the user has managed 10 successful taps. I intend to break this exercise up into smaller ones with increasing complexity.

I have three people to thank for the learning I have done so far:
  • Carlos Icaza, from Ansca Mobile, who corresponds with me about all kinds of issues;
  • Peach Pellen, of the Techority website, for her excellent; and
  • Jayant Varma, of OZApps, who gives me personalised tutorials via Skype
The reason I am promoting this club is to hook up with other schools that may be teaching App Development, especially using Corona SDK. So, if you're doing this, please get in touch with me.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

App Development Club: Teething problems

Late last year, I decided to start an App Development club at my school. I wanted to use a programming environment that used a language that was less intimidating that Objective C. The idea had to have some differentiating feature, as previous attempts to teach programming had not met with great success. I decided, in consultation with a few others, that it would work best as an "extension activity" for those identified as being among the school's top Maths students.

I spent sometime in the summer exploring LiveCode. It looked good but I couldn't find a clear learning path. In the last week of the holidays, I discovered Corona SDK.

On the last day of Term 1, I sent out ninety odd invitations to girls (no boys at my school) in years 8 to 12. I specified 6 Tuesdays on which we would meet for an hour after school. I was very pessimistic but, while rejecting late submissions, I had to accept a total of 33 students. A mate of mine, Maths/Science teacher and all round scholar, Tony, expressed an interest in learning alongside them.

Well, there was nothing to it. Corona SDK, TextWrangler and a few other tools were installed in one lab. The year 10s, of whom there were 3, would bring their own laptops, as would Tony and I.

It may all sound straight forward, except that it isn't! Here is the issue we have had to deal with:
  • Corona SDK requires the user's registration details when it is run for the first time on a machine. 
  • This registration procedure cannot happen through the school's proxy server
  • Each registered user can log on to two machines. There is no such thing as a multi-machine or site license! (Picture me tearing my hair out at this point)
Here is how I have solved the problem for the time being:
  1. Log on to the machine as administrator
  2. Use my Samsung Galaxy S phone as a mobile access point (note: untick remember network)
  3. Turn off all proxies for that connection
  4. Pull out the Ethernet cable
  5. Adjust the time on the machine (Corona is very meticulous)
  6. Run the Corona Simulator and register using one of the student's registration details (we decided that did not need to be a top secret. Those who want to profit from Apps can buy a license for the computer in their garage!)
  7. Restore proxy settings
  8. Reconnect the Ethernet cable
  9. Log out.
  10. Move on to the next machine
  11. repeat steps 1 to 10
Thank you to those who are still reading at this point. The problem is that the registration only "sticks" for admin! So, I now log the students in myself, given that I cannot divulge the admin password under pain of death (my own, that is). The students have been warned not to use the admin privileges for evil, lest the club be terminated.

I will let you know if I find a permanent fix or if Ansca come back to me with a good idea. I will soon blog about the actual learning activities I am using and the people I have to thank for them.

If your school is doing something similar, I would love to hear from you.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

A lesson in leadership from a thirteen year old

Last week, I was on camp with the Year Sevens. A colleague of mine and I were in charge of 17 year 7s and one year 10 "peer-helper". One morning, the team had an activity called "Team Rescue". It was their task to get through a crocodile infested river using a minimal set of equipment, until they arrived at a helipad. The girls had to carry a mannequin on a stretcher. They decided the mannequin's name was Janet.

The activity brought out many individual characteristics in the girls. One girl displayed some selfishness, while others were great foot soldiers. A few girls carried Janet through obstacles without complaining once about their burden. The most remarkable girl was Jenny. She was a great leader and this article is an attempt on my part to consolidate the lessons I learnt about leadership by observing her.

Jenny was full of creative ways to get through the course. She conveyed them to the other girls in a courteous manner and they accepted her suggestions. She gave herself many of the less glamorous jobs. Jenny listened to the suggestions that others made and affirmed them. One thing she wasn't doing at the beginning was giving others pats on the back. This changed half way through the activity, to complete her skill set as a leader.

The thing that impressed me the most about Jenny's manner was how nonplussed she was in urgent situations. Her sense of humour was not threatened for one second, even when she fell and when others were doing the wrong thing by the team.

When we're back at school, I intend to speak to Jenny about her leadership. Our school provides training and responsibilities for such girls, especially as they enter Year Eight. I hope she puts her hand up for a captaincy. I also hope I can learn to maintain my sense of humour when "the chips are down".

Like many of my colleagues, I find camps tiring and I wonder about the sacrifices that have to be made, such as leaving my family and being on duty for 24 hours of the day. What makes it all worthwhile is the privilege of seeing students in a different light and coming to realise just what remarkable individuals some of them are.

Can you think of a time when you learnt a lesson from a child? If so, please share it.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Creating mobile Apps? My thoughts on two helpful environments

I wanted to spend some time over the holidays (It is summer down under) learning to develop Apps. My purpose is to start an App development club at my school, so I needed to find a set of tools with the following features:
  1. Low cost;
  2. A visual environment for the user interface;
  3. An easy(ish) programming language to add functionality;
  4. A clear learning path to take my students and me from beginner to advanced developer; and
  5. A helpful community who are ready to point me in the right direction when I get stuck.