Kicks Condor


This is a primary tag here on the blog: it covers my work teaching and researching in an elementary school. I am very focused on early education - pre-reading students and their use of technology as part of being ‘literate’, part of their understanding.

14 Dec 2018


Building three-dimensional voxel-type pottery and maps with Python.

Need to investigate this further for my students—a language for writing LEGO-building algorithms, perhaps inspired by LOGO. There is a real need for more modern tiny languages (and One-Line Languages) that give children a taste of novel, playful creation. (Not the impractical abominations that and such have given us.)

Seems like a dozen fascinating project could spring from this one. Are there similar projects that produce Paint 3D-style output?

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29 Oct 2018

I often hear that kids today are ‘entitled’—but shouldn’t they be? Do we expect every generation to rebuild from scratch? Yes, in some ways a human has to—but I do hope that there can progressively be more of an inheritance that goes to every human child.

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10 Sep 2018


Phonetic HFEI. have fun, encourage, inspire.

Phonetic HFEI. have fun, encourage, inspire.

This is my ethic as a teacher. Having fun is priority one. And part of that is to encourage the kids along their way and inspire them to dig in with me. Of course, there is a lot more to teaching—but there are times I forget to heyfey and I always regret it…

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09 Sep 2018

Reply: Teaching as Gardening

This is wild! I was recently having a discussion with another teacher about the similarities with gardening. One of the other helpful metaphors (for elementary teachers) is that the plants are kind of in their own world. Not that we’re not in their world at all and that we don’t relate to them, care about them, lift them up—but that I think they really just see each other when it comes down to it. Their social realm is very important to them and it’s kind of alien to us, which is just how it is.

But I also get the same feeling surveying a lush garden as I do when I step back and look at the whole class.

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29 Aug 2018

Reply: Confusing One’s Self

Eli Mellen

I’ve played a little bit with some apps meant for kids, and in a past life, before I confused myself with a liberal arts education I was set on becoming a pre-school/kindergarten teacher. If I ever go back to school I’d most certainly be interested in exploring how to design systems (digital, physical, and otherwise) with children in mind, e.g. what does a public transit system for kids look like.

You should! I wondered if I would enjoy teaching kids or if they would drive me nuts. And they drove me nuts! But then I learned to adapt and now I just think they’re each a wonder. There have definitely been kids that I didn’t like. But then I got to know them.

I haven’t really discovered too many ‘educational’ apps—I like the form factor of the iPad and the kids use apps for filming, recording, drawing, linking to each other. We use it more like a ‘medium’ rather than a ‘subject’. I went into this job thinking that I wanted to help find a way to bring programming into the classroom—but I now feel that was misguided and arrogant. There are more important things than programming. Perhaps not in commerce—but in life, surely.

Thankyou for your questions and for the linked article. I really appreciate your sincere searching for answers and the fact that you would take the time to read and to listen is remarkable!

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28 Aug 2018

Reply: Caution: Chromebooks

Eli Mellen

Hey Kicks! I’d be interested in your thoughts on this piece about how Chromebooks (and I guess iPads, too) potentially limit students’ ability to push the boundaries of computing.

I’m not an expert on all grades—and I’m only three years deep into my research on the grades I specialize in, which is 1st through 3rd in the U.S. I have spent a bit of time in 4th and 5th—Chromebooks are very useful to these grades and are a step forward. (From no computer 😆.)

I have such a different perspective from articles such as Stager’s that I just don’t know where to begin! And since this is an off-handed comment, I’m not going to dig up citations—but hope to do more of that soon on my blog.

On the topic of laptops:

  • Trackpads are a huge problem. Childrens’ hands get extremely tired trying to manipulate them. So an article that mentions a laptop without emphasizing a mouse—I realize this seems like a small thing, but it isn’t!
  • To say a Raspberry Pi is better—I just can’t imagine. I did RPi stuff in after-school clubs but the setup and takedown is insane. And you don’t want your kids behind giant glowing tombstone-sized screens. They also are totally underpowered—they take longer to boot and get going—so it seems funny to criticize Chromebooks as not being beefy, then mention… RPi?
  • To say that a Chromebook can’t fulfill Papert’s and Solomon’s list smacks as disingenuous—it’s just that there is a lot of elitism around what is proper technology. Just off the top of my head: Sphero, Twine and Voxel Builder are legit tech. Scratch and Scratch Jr. are legit—but are aging. I looked down on these, too, until I saw what kids were doing with them.

There was also a project that Linden Labs was doing on iOS called Blocksworld that was fantastic, but everyone ignored it (and their in-app purchases were awful.)

Since my focus is young kids, I feel (and the research seems to be showing more and more) that tablets are the sweetest computer at that age. A pre-reader just cannot navigate a keyboard yet. And a tablet is not a computer for mere consumption for them—armed with the right software, they will write, record, create visuals of all kinds, it totally opens them up. I hope to show more of the projects that I do with the kids because I think it will be eye-opening.

For me, the hardware issue is pretty easy at present: iPads for up to 3rd grade; Chromebooks thereafter. The more interesting discussion—the software—is where we should spend our time. And also, there is a limit to how much time you can spend with technology in the younger grades, for motor skill developmental reasons.

If I am off, I am always glad to be directed to papers I’ve missed!

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A Kindergartener’s Best Computer is About to Die

I think the iPad Mini could have reshaped pre-reading education, but it didn’t get a chance to.

The iPad mini, which was last upgraded in 2015, and the 9.7-inch iPad, last refreshed in March, won’t be upgraded, a person familiar with the company’s plans said.

Chromebooks are the new fashion in elementary school. They are cheap; they are everywhere. And they are unusable by kids in kindergarten through, in some case, third grade.

Sure, by now children can do some rudimentary typing and mouse flicking. But if you think trackpads are awful for adults, you should observe children using them. Tears, people.

I like this—from an abstract I saw recently:

The choice of the proper device can lead to benefits in terms of user engagement, which often is the prerequisite for learning. There are also additional dimensions to consider, as the usability and the physical fatigue. Their undervaluation, in an educational context, can hamper the successful outcome of the experience.

The iPad Mini was the first device in a very long time that I was truly excited about. In my mind, the most underserved group in our educational system is the pre-reading group from K-2, which cannot be served by the current Internet and which are largely given mobile edutainment apps.

Despite that—the touchscreen is watershed technology for this group. And younger:

Children as young as 24 months can complete items requiring cognitive engagement on a touch screen device, with no verbal instruction and minimal child–administrator interaction. This paves the way for using touch screen technology for language and administrator independent developmental assessment in toddlers.

In my experience, using Chromebooks and iPads among these groups, the tablets far outshine—a child is able to immediately speak its language. Sure, time spent learning a Chromebook can be useful. But making the device an end unto itself is part of our problem—language is technology and technology is language.

The language that toddlers are picking up on their parents’ phones can be built upon in school. This is a great benefit—since it has been very difficult to map gamepads—another similar ‘language’ form—to education.

And yet, we have so many problems:

  • The software has not caught up. We are so impatient to move on that we don’t take the time to utilize amazing technology that is still trickling its way down to children.
  • The stock market has moved on. Apple is end-of-lifing the iPad Mini for its poor sales. Despite tremendous evidence that this device has the ability to transform the lives of a specific group of pre-readers (and, I would also argue, the lives of autistic and special ed students—who I’ve seen similar results with), Apple is ready to just leave these groups to Google in pursuit of further growth, when they should have the freedom now to make a contribution like this.
  • Mobile devices are still seen as lesser technology in education. Yes, for adults, a mobile device can be a handicap. But to a child, this perspective is reversed—they can actually work on mobile devices. They can create, they can express, their abilities are enhanced.

Apple has recently put a $299 price for schools on their standard iPad, but Chromebooks are still eating them alive. I’m afraid that this signal away from the iPad Mini could set us back for the foreseeable future.

If only we could see an era where a $199 iPad Mini flourished among second grade and lower. This age group needs a breakthrough.

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19 Nov 2015

Those Delirious Tales

I often have the students concoct their own story problems. I highlight the most insane.

I often have the students concoct their own story problems. Lately, I’ve been using a tablet-based drawing tool along with some stickers from Byte. (I would love to use Byte—but it doesn’t live up to COPPA.)

One kid came up with the pictured story problem. Pardon the grammar—we didn’t proofread these.

The lime that got struck.

To clear this up: the lemon is struck by lightning 117 times each day! This lemon also appears to be alive, unlike the unfortunate turtle and teacup that found themselves stuck on the same hillside.

He is also probably actually a lime. How would that be—to have your key identity discarded during this defining moment? Maybe this is that elusive lemon-lime that the soft drinks always talk about.

Clearly we are dealing with a tough fellow here—an affluent, though morose, lemon-maybe-lime. We all hurriedly dashed out the answer so that we could know exactly how many strikings this poor citrus had endured! It was a tough four days.

Now for this one.

Kids love bombs. Almost as much as poop.

I asked the student, “Will the hobo still blow the monkey up after he spends his $40,000?”

He said, “He’s going to blow him up no matter what.”

Wealthy monkeys, don’t do business with hoboes! Especially hoboes trafficking 18 mil in explosives! That seems suspicious to me.

The last story problem I want to mention never actually materialized, but this next one is a math-in-feelings problem.

It went like this:

(Student who has been at the counselor’s office arrives late for the activity.)

Me: “Ok, (Student). We’re coming up with story problems.”

Student: “Oh, I know what mine is!”

Me: “Let’s hear it.”

Student: “Ok. There are two guys. And they’re neighbors.”

Me: “Sounds good.”

Student: “And they hate each other in a hundred different ways.”

Me: “Oh, wow.”

Student: “But they love each other in a hundred different ways.”

Me: “So they cancel each other out.”

Student: “No, so you take all of their feelings—how many feelings all together do they have for each other?”

One of the kids next to us goes, “Four hundred feelings!” jubilantly.

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30 Oct 2015

Twine in the Fourth Grade

A detour: three weeks teaching Twine at school. Implications feel profound.

At the beginning of the year, the principal came to me and said, “I’m going to have you help with the after-school computer club. It’s a club for fourth- and fifth-graders.”

I was like, well, yeah, I’m the computer teacher, that makes sense.

She tells me the first grade teacher is in charge and I’ll just help her.

Perfect. This particular teacher is a close friend and this probably means we can do what we want.

“And is going to give you all the stuff.”

Ok, no sweat. We’ll take a look.

A month ago, I walk into the first grade teacher’s room and she’s got this little pile of stuff on her desk.

I go, “What’s all this?”

It’s the stuff from A cup. A packet of seeds. A gumball. Dirt.

She’s like, “I don’t get this.”

I clear a space and start to look over the paper she’s got—it’s this lesson plan that goes with the cup. And the dirt. (Wait—is that real dirt?)

Programming in the dirt.

Now, I’m just a computer teacher at a public elementary school—meaning I am absolutely the bottom of the chart on Career Day—like you do NOT bring up my job as some kid’s future—I am next to the guy selling Japanese dexterity games out of a kiosk at the mall—same guy who dresses in gold spandex and gets to be the Snitch in college Quidditch games—you don’t see him for two hours until you notice him above the quad, scaling the political science building—so, yes, a paltry elementary school computer teacher, but I have to tell you: I would never teach computer programming with a cup of dirt and a gumball. Nut uh. Not the way they’ve got this.[1]

So we bag that.

“Ok, good,” she says. “So I’m not crazy.”

She is. All humans are. But now’s not the time.

She seems relieved at first. Until she goes on. “So the next thing is: zombies.”

Still programming in the dirt.

Couple clicks and her Macbook is showing the zombie lesson. In this lesson, all the kids get a zombie.[2] You basically control a zombie with code. You make it walk. Lurch forward, lurch left, lurch forward, lurch left, lurch left, lurch, lurch, lurch, then lurch right. That kind of thing.

“It’s not bad,” I say.

“I just don’t get why,” she says. “What is this for? Like: is this really teaching code?”

I’m thinking that, well, it kind of does—I guess?

“ is like a million-billion dollar thing, isn’t it?”

“Well, Mark Zuckerberg,” she says. “And I think President Obama is in the video. Or he’s on the site or something.”

We look. Yeah, that IS Obama.

“So we’ll work for an hour and the kids will have made a zombie walk around a bit.”

So we bag that.

Fortunately—meaning this is where our fortune left the realm of mere dirt and a little bit of zombie walking—I had recently played a game called HIGH END CUSTOMIZABLE SAUNA EXPERIENCE. And somehow my thoughts turned toward this game, of which I recalled two things. For one, I remembered something about hacking into a cupcake in the game, which was certainly a fond memory. And then, the other thing, of course, what also came to mind, is that the game was a Twine game. A hypertext game. Made by Twine—some kind of neat way of building these games.

I pulled it up on her Macbook. Fifteen minutes later, we were like: “This. We are doing this.”

I just think this is a gorgeous thing.

So we covered Twine for the first three weeks of the club. The first day we just showed them how to link.[3] This was actually plenty. I think this could have gone on for three weeks alone. One of the kids came up with this game THE BLOOD FLOOD. And, in his game, everywhere you went, THE BLOOD FLOOD showed up. Like this tsunami of gore.

Another girl came up with this game where you just lose. Over and over, you just lose. First you die. Then you lose a hundred points. Then your mom traps you and you lose. And then you die and you’re broke.

Great game. Pretty lifelike.

I expected the crazy stories. What really surprised me was: a kid showed me his project and it was a map of his family, done using Twine links. So he had links for his sister and mother and father and grandparents. And you could navigate his whole family and learn about them.

The creative story side didn’t appeal to him. He wanted to use the information housing and organization aspect of programming. It was a database.

So the kids universally loved the first week. (Kids love a lot of things, though.)

Second week we ran into problems getting everyone’s pages loaded. Not everyone was using the same laptop that they used the first week. So that can be a bit of a setback when using Twine—you’ll need to archive your stories and put them on a USB stick or something. Technically, the district’s user profile sync stuff should have brought down all the Chrome settings. However, I guess it doesn’t do anything with Chrome’s LocalStorage. So some kids had to start over. It was okay—they’re a resilient bunch. All humans are. But this problem, coupled with the time required to subsequently be resilient, meant we couldn’t cover as much.

We talked about the set: command and the if: command. The point was to help them see how to pick up things and how to give the player coins, swords and other trinkets one might take a-questing.

One kid wrote this dungeon where you could pick up a sword—and the sword is at 100%—so it’s like (set: $sword to 100).

And then, as you fight through the dungeon, the sword wears down.

So: (set: $sword to $sword - 5).

And then when it’s at zero, it’s useless.

(if: $sword > 0)[Take another [[swing]]?]

I was blown away by how much they could do with a simple variable and a conditional statement. I mean how. How are we spending time drawing shapes, lurching left, lurching right, when you can do all this great stuff with a variable and an if? I realize Papert did it this way—with shapes, with lurching—not with zombies but with turtles. Who am I to question Papert? Look him up on the career chart.

To me, this is incredible. On our first day, we were making actual games—text games, yes, but fun ones. I should have known better. I mean this is the generation that plays Minecraft for fun.

They were actually building the game logic. Like in a meaningful way—by turning these abstract constructs into concrete, actual iron swords that wear down.

The beauty of Twine is that your variables persist—they last the whole game. Doing this with straight JavaScript and HTML would be such a hassle to teach. There’s no need to understand scope or storage or anything like that. You’re just putting stuff in little cups. Not irrelevant dirt or gumballs. But REAL imaginary coins.

Initially I had planned to write some macros to help with inventory in Twine. I’m so glad I didn’t. By forcing the kids to use the basic constructs directly, they were able to grasp the rudiments and then apply those throughout their games.

Too often I see sites (like comes to mind) which give a kid an API to use. Like useSword(), turnRight(), openDoor(). I can’t understand this. It is teaching the API—not the simple constructs. Anyway, should we really be starting right into objects, methods, arguments and all that?

Our third lesson covered adding images, music, colors and text styling. I’m not as happy with Twine’s absence of syntax here—you’re basically just doing HTML for most things. But I also felt it would be good for them to dip their toes in HTML. For some kids, they didn’t care to take the time to use this tougher syntax just to put a picture in there.

They also struggled with stuff like (text-style: “rumble”). They loved the effect—esp. the two girls doing a graveyard adventure—but they didn’t like having to get everything perfect—the double-quotes, the colon, the spacing. This kind of syntax is a hurdle for them. Typing skills are still needed. This is a generation of iPhone users.

In all, my experiment using Twine went great—super great—they could do this every week and be content. There are a lot of movements out there to try to teach computer hacking, but they all really miss the mark in a way that Twine doesn’t. They don’t get railroaded into solving mazes. The kids come away with a real game.

  1. In case you don’t believe me: Real-life Algorithms. ↩︎

  2. Right here. ↩︎

  3. Twine kind of follows the wiki-style of linking. You simply surround a phrase by double square brackets. Like so: [[Johnston St.]] Now it’ll create a new story page for Johnson St. ↩︎

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21 Jul 2015

Review: The Educated Mind by Kieran Egan

How to teach — with an eye to Plato and Vygotsky

It was Christmas—and I binged on Piaget videos. And later that week, the grainy Seymour Papert documentaries where he has kids acting like robots in a field. Left! Left! LEFT! And I made several meals of Susan Engel’s essay on Curiosity. And then had it all dashed apart by Vygotsky.

Okay. Good. However—how should I teach? All this theory swimming around so impressively. What to actually say and do?

I was recommended The Educated Mind by Bret Victor at the 20 minute mark in a talk of his[1]. Turns out this is truly a lovely book. It attempts to sum up all the theory. Everything from Plato to Piaget, Vygotsky to Carl Sagan. (Even devoting a hearty portion to irony—a virtue which never seems to get its due.) After half the book mulling over the theories, we move into practical discussion of how to materialize all of this lofty thinking into teaching our real classes. Much like the real classes I teach in one corner of an old brick elementary.

Now, it’s funny. At the same time that I find myself troubled with how to teach, I realize there is almost no other way to do this. As the King of Hearts said, “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

We recapitulate. We take a young one through the alphabet and all the numbers and symbols, the great novels and how to sketch with perspective and how to disassemble a frog—all that we once went through. We relive a history with them.

It is through this interiorization of historically determined and culturally organized ways of operating on information that the social nature of people comes to be their psychological nature as well.[2]

This interiorization happens through understanding. Kieran Egan covers the many ways of understanding—he lists his five most crucial types—like Mythically, in which we deal with binary concepts and construct imaginary beings that dwell at the extremes. Romantically, in great stories that pretend to have some grand purpose. As well as Philosophic, Somatic and Ironic.

These are not mere gimmicks. We often rely, in small children, on their mythical understanding. We don’t need to explain Hansel and Gretel.

The narrator does not explicitly discuss and explain the concepts of opposition—in this case, security and fear. We presuppose that in some profound way children already know these concepts; the narrator is using their familiarity to make events in some distant forest at some distant time meaningful.[3]

These early chapters on mythical and romantic understanding are wonderful. The mythical section studies the import of fairy tales and Peter Rabbit to toddlers; the romantic part studies both Herodotus and The Guinness Book of World Records, the appeal of high drama and human limits to adolescents. I found so many of his questions to be top notch.

[B]y far the most common learning principle urged on teachers is that children’s learning moves “from the known to the unknown,” and that, to engage their interest and make new knowledge meaningful, one must begin with something relevant to their everyday experience and connect the new knowledge to that. If this indeed is how children learn most effectively, one must wonder what does the fattest person who ever lived have to do with their everyday experience, or the most expensive postage stamp, or the longest beard?[4]

So the theory isn’t too detached from practice. Find the extremes in the subject you’re teaching, the soul of it. Play to the bizarre and the novel. It’s not quite as simple as that, of course—leave room for a touch of irony.

By preserving the earlier kinds of understanding as much as possible, we may develop a kind of irony that enables its users to recognize validity in all perspectives, to believe all metanarratives, to accept all epistemological schemes, to give assent to every belief. […] we do have other pursuits than understanding, and for some of the more exotic amoong them magic will trump science.[5]

Wow, this kind of thing has got to be a heresy in today’s society! The predominant notion today is that our goal is progress, our goal is a perfect truth and knowledge. To be brought back to Socrates and Nietzche—who suggested that the pursuit of truth is only driven by “wanting to be superior”[6]—gives the feeling of an old great truth: that we are really just working with scraps of the universe here. Not the keys to ultimate truth that we pretend.

As a technology teacher, this helps remind me that maybe technology is more of a magical substance than it is a great medicine for society. A realization that cannot come quick enough now that our ideals about social media have been dispelled by the absence of the interpersonal advances we were promised. No, it was all just a trick of getting messages from here to there, not a new form of living.

The final chapters take apart how to structure actual lessons. He falters a bit here—I feel there aren’t quite enough good examples given. But he does give a few very good ones. Such as when he discusses teaching about the air around us in a mythical way.

All in all, though, very near five stars here. I read books not to agree with the authors, but to think. To mull over someone else’s thoughts, in order to find where mine stand. But this book very much influenced me. I know I will be staying close to it from now on.

  1. The Humane Representation of Thought. ↩︎

  2. Luria, A. R. (1979) The making of mind: A personal account of Soviet psychology. p. 45. ↩︎

  3. Egan, Kieran. (1997) The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding. p. 42. ↩︎

  4. Ibid., p. 84. ↩︎

  5. Ibid., p. 162 ↩︎

  6. Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1968) The will to power. p. 249 ↩︎

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