Friday, 25 October 2013

Minecraft in Math: Problem Solving and Failing without Fear

I noticed something a little peculiar this year. Whenever it was time for math, there was an almost universal groan. My class had a phobia, there was a real fear of failing. When doing a problem in class, if they did not get the correct answer on their first attempt, students felt that it was too hard. They were so worried about getting something wrong, that their creative thought process was stymied.

There had to be a way of motivating the class to feel like they can take on the challenge of math, and to do so with a positive attitude. I tried to think of a situation where children regularly have to problem solve and fail in order to figure things out. With a built-in structure that allows them to start over until they find success. 

Video Games!

Video games have a built-in structure that challenges the player enough to make the game interesting, and to make them want to succeed. But when they fail, they are able to start the level over with confidence, and knowledge gained by their progress in that level up to that point. Video games help them to accept failure and realize that by persevering, and learning from their mistakes, they can succeed. 

I wanted to engage the students using real life math and by attempting to use Minecraft for creating our graphs. We graphed the results of our food drive. As they created their graphs errors were made, but the groans and furious sounds of erasers rubbing out mistakes was gone. Students calmly smashed blocks that weren't working, redoing their graph with nary a complaint to be heard. The expectation was that it wouldn't all work perfectly the first time and they were prepared to back out, see the big picture, and swoop back in to rebuild their graph.

As a BYOD class, there is never only one way to complete a task. Students had the option of using Minecraft, interactive whiteboard apps, or paper and pencil. In some instances students showed their work in two different ways to decide which worked best. 

It was not universal, diversity reigned. Some students preferred making the graph on graph paper, some liked the graph paper background in Educreations, and others liked the constuctivist approach of Minecraft. At the end of the day, everyone had successfully created a graph. They had succeeded beyond my expectaions, and they were eager for the next challenge in Math.

Friday, 18 October 2013

BYOD - Fits, Farts, and Misstarts

When the option to bring in any device that works wirelessly is available, the diversity of devices that comes in is amazing. It is both a blessing and a curse. When everything works it allows for a wide variety of ways to create a finished product. For example a girl in my class was wondering what kind of spider she had caught at recess, so she searched for the spider using her iPod. She then found some information, put some notes on her device, and then shared it with the class. In that moment BYOD feels great. The wide world of information is at our fingertips, just waiting to be tapped and harnessed, but... it isn't always that easy. 

Sometimes the internet and the device don't seem to be willing to get along. The moment of excitement, and engagement can be lost. But here is when the variety of devices becomes a good thing. Another student has a Blackberry device that finds the wifi signal, when an Android device won't, and so two students partner up and all is well. 

I often feel like I am in an infomercial when I stand in front of my class. I am there to sell them on the next awesome idea that we are going to start to explore, or on their own capabilities to succeed. Once I have everyone on the edge of their seat, I bring out the new technology that will help us to reach our goal. It is the first time they have seen it, and it should be magic! But sometimes it isn't. 

One day this week everything that could go wrong... did. A perfect storm of electronic mishaps, that ended with a class slipping away from the moment. Attention spans stretched to the breaking point, chairs shuffled, and the dreaded sound of off-topic giggles began. I lost the moment when the technology didn't work the way it was supposed to. The moment of engaged excitement had passed. 

That is why there always has to be a backup plan, waiting in the wings, engaging, interesting and on topic. The analog savior, to our digital disaster. When the internet is not cooperating, when the Google Doc is insisting they have a log in on devices, when the QR code creator, that worked flawlessly for two years, suddenly doesn't work anymore, when the Google Maps Street View of Nunavut is unavailable without a Google account on an ipad, then it is time to power down, and switch gears.

I constantly try to let my students know that failure leads to success, and that we can't be afraid to fail, whether we are conducting a science experiment, or working on a math problem. I have to remember that the rule counts for me too. Letting them see that I fail too wasn't easy, but role modelling patience, and perseverance as we went through the process of problem solving was a good experience. 

Today the same lesson worked, the glitches were fixed, and groups were working successfully. We learned that things can be difficult, but every problem can be solved if we are willing to keep trying, and work through the problems. I guess in the end, we learned more than I thought this week. 

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

BYOD in Grade 3/4

Last year was my first time trying BYOD with my class. It was a Grade 5/6 class, and we spent two weeks discussing Digital Citzenship, and how to be safe online. Then the permission forms went home, and the devices came in. It was a great experience, and it was well worth the effort. I was told at the end of the year that my next teaching assignment would be Grade 3/4. 

I was a little hesitant as to how successful BYOD would be. After all there is the reality of Galaxy Tabs, and iPads in a room full of 8 and 9 year olds, who don't always remember to push in their chairs, or how to walk instead of run. But the trade off was that if we could care for the equipment and be respectful of everyone's technology, then a whole new world of opportunities awaited.

So we spent a week learning how to be safe on the internet, how to care for our equipment, and how to be good digital citizens. Then the permission forms went home, and the devices came in. At first the overpowering urge was there to do something... ANYTHING! with their devices. And I let them. I set up a Today's Meet when reading a chapter of our read aloud. I let them show their math work in Blackberry, iOS or Android apps. 

As we progressed through September, they started to recognize which activities were just quicker and easier to do on paper, with a pencil. I never needed to tell them what they could use, they just started using the best tool for the job at hand.

Today we started working with weight scales. There were four large boxes of random, mixed-up weight scales in the Math Area of our school. I was told that some were broken, and some parts were missing. I thought what a great way to start measurement!

The class was offered a challenge. Work together as a class, 30 minute time limit, and see if you can get the scales working. 20 minutes later we had a room full of working scales. 

Problem: Missing Parts
Solution: String, Tape, Found Material
The students problem solved their way through building and piecing together the scales. When parts were missing, or extra, they went to other groups and collaborated to get all the scales built. Sometimes other materials were grabbed from around the room to "McGyver" the weight scale. What is especially interesting is that they didn't immediately search on the internet, rather they looked at the real world around them first. 

When a more challenging problem presented itself, a student first worked his way through the other groups, then approached me for some help. He had a weight scale that obviously was missing parts, but no one was familiar with the design of the weight scale. 

I asked him how he could find out more about the scale.
 He said, "I could use the computer to check the internet. But I don't know what this scale is called."
 I asked him what phrase  he could start with, and he decided upon "weight scales." 

He limited his search to images, looking until he found the design he was looking for, then clicked the image to discover both the name, and a close up of the missing parts he needed to finish building his scale.  

While jotting down their ideas on what was hard, challenging, and successful about assembling the scales, some students wrote on paper, and some used their devices. 

When working on their finished explanation, some students used paper, and other students used devices, but everyone was able to share their learning. Truth is, our class isn't a BYOD class, it's just a class that uses everything we need to be successful, and learn... and have a little fun along the way!

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Minecraft: The Motivation Factor

As an educator I have always believed that if you want students to rise up to a certain level of achievement, you first have to go to where they're at. If you want them to be interested in what you have to teach, use what they're interested in, and half the battle is already won.

About a month ago I had a student approach me in class. We are a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) class, and students have several digital options for completing their work. This time however, my student asked me a question no one else had: "Can I show you my work in Minecraft?"

My first reaction was to say"No!", but this was a student who has had difficulty in sharing his work in class due to real learning challenges with reading and writing. We were trying different digital alternatives, but this was not something I would have suggested.

I said: "Sure, why not. You are a smart guy, lets see what you can do." 

Boy, am I glad I said that!

He shared his work, and he built the words out of blocks, and created images with the different blocks that represented the concepts we had just learned. This student would often reverse, or flip letters when trying to spell them on paper, in Minecraft, he constructed them perfectly in 3D blocks.

He learned the concepts, and he could retell the important characteristics of the four soil types. I was impressed. 

The students in my class love Minecraft. It is unlike most video games. It is very open, meaning that their are a lot of options available. Whole medieval villages have been built by high school students, for elementary students to tour through and learn about medieval times. 

Our class is creating a play, writing scenes based on characters from a book we enjoyed in class, "Wayside Stories at a Sideways School" by Louis Sachar. We decided to use Minecraft to construct the scenes from our play. The school is thirty stories high, and has a very large playground. I gave the go ahead, and expected to get a few rooms that we could use for backdrops (draw out onto cardboard backgrounds). I got so much more!

Students worked collaboratively, huddled around the iPads, iPods, and Galaxy Tabs. They helped each other get started, showed how to achieve different objectives, and ensured that everyone was being successful. Students that had never used the game before were working in three dimensions, building the library with books, placing signs on the wall with sayings from the story. They were upset when nutrition break snuck up on them. They wanted to keep working.

Students were going home and continuing to work on the school and the school yard at home. Students were problem solving when challenges arose. 

"Oh, no! water is in my classroom, it is flooding!"

Someone quickly swooped in to help, not to do it for them, but rather to teach them what went wrong and how to solve the problem.

Thirty story buildings were constructed, playgrounds were complete, and some students that couldn't sit at their desk and brainstorm/write out their scenes, were suddenly running up to tell me the whole scene they had "written out" in Minecraft. As they constructed the props, and walls of their scene, the story came together for them, and they knew what they were going to write about.

Now we are going to experiment with projecting our Minecraft backgrounds onto the stage with a projector. Digital backgrounds. Will it work? Who knows, but we will have fun problem-solving, learning from our mistakes, and moving towards a successful play.

Is Minecraft in the class a smooth, perfect ride? No it is bumpy, it is messy, some things have worked, others won't. Is it the only way we are going to learn. NO! There are tons of fun ways to build and share our knowledge, but it is definitely another tool to add to my toolbox of teaching strategies.

My next idea is to try 3 digit addition and subtraction with the Minecraft blocks. Different colour blocks to represent the Hundreds, Tens, and Ones. If it works, I'll let you know.