The fourth and fifth graders recently finished creating spirolaterals in computer science. "Spirolateral" is defined as a geometrical figure formed by the repetition of a simple rule. Our students designed their spirolaterals based on their names. Each student individually assigned every letter of the alphabet a number (e.g., a = 10, b = 20, c = 30 . . .), and then created straight lines based on the values of the letters in their names. The degrees turned between each line depended on the type of spirolateral the student wanted to create. They used their previous knowledge of polygons to determine the size of the angles; for example, if the student wanted their design to be rectangular in nature, they turned 90 degrees every time. How much, then, would the student need to turn to create a triangular design? Pentagonal? Decagonal? These were questions the students had to ask and answer for themselves, and they did so beautifully. I've included a photo of their finished products below.
In Lower School, our technology applications focus has been wonderfully cross-curricular, and with every passing week, we discover a better way for our students to achieve their technology goals while also increasing their knowledge and ability in other classes. First grade, for example, spent one class period playing internet games that helped them learn their colors in Spanish, a study on which they were working with Mrs. Rowe in Spanish class. The students practiced their internet browser navigational skills, as well as just their basic mouse and keyboard skills. Because they go to Spanish right after Technology Applications class, they were fresh and ready to impress Mrs. Rowe with their translational abilities.
And just like that, we're back in school — and everyone is a year older. The school year is off to a fabulous start, and the excitement on campus is wonderful to see. St. James welcomes several new teachers this fall. We are so happy to have Diane Johnston back in our preschool on a permanent basis. Diane is teaching the 3-day Primary I class this year. Her teaching partner in Primary I (5-days) is Florence Pace. Three-year-olds are having a spectacular time in their first year at St.James. Our newest teacher is Jessica Miller, a former teacher at St. James who has returned to teach our first grade class this year. Jessica also has lots of experience as a St. James mom with two St. James grads and one son still here. St. James welcomes two new teachers to our extra-curricular subjects this year: Melanie Tipton in music, and Beth Rowe for Spanish. These new teachers join an outstanding faculty that prides itself on whole child development. WELCOME BACK TEACHERS, STUDENTS, and PARENTS! It's going to be a great year!
The Lower School students have been studying squares in computer class. I like beginning the year with an in-depth look at squares because it gives the students a strict paradigm within which they can create and explore. Level of instruction varies greatly between grades 1 and 3, of course, but the basic principles we cover are the same: What makes a square a square? What numbers must always stay the same in order to create a square? What numbers can vary (that is, what numbers can we replace with variables)?
After a few weeks of trial-and-error, discovery, and analysis, the students created masterpieces using only squares. I love the variety of their designs.
The kids keep telling me that they "can't remember" certain coding procedures they learned last year. "What's the code for a circle again?" "How do I write a polygon command again?" It's "I just can't remember xyz," over and over again. This is normal; who could remember long strings of code if they weren't using them regularly? And, of course, our goal isn't ever to memorize code; it's to learn principles rather than particulars; it's to think.
So, with that in mind, I decided that we are not "reviewing" anything—we're re-learning, rediscovering. Instead of, "Let's remember that circle code," it's, "Let's rediscover that circle code."
The fourth- and fifth-graders were thrown into the deep end right off the bat with a circle-dissecting assignment. We dimmed the lights, projected a timer on the board, and listened to a playlist called "epic classical," setting the mood to be intense and urgent. Teams of two or three worked to rediscover the properties of a circle and re-learn how to use coding and math to split one first into 12 pieces, then into 15, and then into 11 (the hardest one, requiring decimals). Once they finished those three pieces of the official assignment, they were allowed to "play" with the principles they re-learned, changing sizes, colors, and other properties.
The younger students have been rediscovering more basic tenets of coding in Logo, our chosen coding language. The first things I needed them to re-learn were basic commands, the reality of angles, and relative distances. To do this, we created plaid patterns using code. The designs turned out beautifully, and they felt such a sense of accomplishment as they succeeded.
I look forward to a full year of discovering and rediscovering with these diligent and capable students.
In February, I wrote a predictive post about our musical coding unit—what the students would learn, how they would learn it, why they would learn it. Yesterday, the students submitted their final projects—a song of their choice, coded in Terrapin Logo. I now want to reflect on the unit—on the successes, on the learning opportunities, on what we did right, and on what we can do better next year.
As expected, the students with musical backgrounds (piano lessons, etc) began with more momentum; they weren't faced with the steep learning curve of basic music theory. However, prior musical ability was not a strong indicator of student success; in fact, of the top projects, about half were created by students with no musical background (excluding, of course, their St. James musical education). A few of the best products, in fact, were created by students with significant learning disabilities. Their success makes total sense for a couple of reasons: firstly, research indicates that students who have to work harder in general and who develop grit are more likely to be successful long-term (I highly recommend checking out the work of Angela Duckworth for more information on this). Secondly, and more revolutionarily, these students were being exposed to a language and a way of learning that they'd yet to experience, and, from what I gathered, their disabilities didn't interfere. Is it surprising that a severely dyslexic student had success translating sheet music to code? Or that an ADHD kid thrived in an assignment that required lots of cognitive effort? Maybe so, maybe no. The fact remains, though, that these two students fared better than their academically "superior" peers, and I believe that their neuroatypicality was actually an asset to them. Had they attempted to learn music through more traditional means, I doubt they would've seen such success.
It was interesting, too, to see which students chose simple sheet music versus more difficult pieces. Those who were up for a challenge found themselves up against musical notation they didn't know—and musical notation that I didn't know. We leaned a lot from other students, other teachers, alumni, and Google. These learning opportunities, of course, lifted up the entire unit and class, and I am so grateful for that. Next year, I will be much more equipped to teach this unit in-depth, all thanks to my ambitious students.
Most students had to work on this project outside of class—before school, after school, during free periods, and even at home. The essence of this big assignment required students to take charge of their work, manage their time well, and make strategic decisions (e.g., "Do I care more about being successful in computer science class, or do I want to go home right after school to watch t.v.?").
Overall, I am over-the-moon proud of these kids and this unit. My students can now read sheet music (at least remedially and at most close-to-fluently), and they can translate it into code. Most importantly, they can dig deep, concentrate, and challenge themselves. I can't imagine a better outcome.
Check out a few excerpts here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTUecJK2E4s (Don't judge the video quality—I, not a student, threw it together very quickly!)
All students, kindergarten through 6th grade, learn to type using Keyboarding Without Tears, a program that aligns with our handwriting curriculum, Handwriting Without Tears. KWT is an integral part of the technology curriculum, and I was surprised to realize that I haven't written about it on the blog.
KWT was initially designed and is consistently being updated by a team of educators, researchers, and occupational therapists. As such, it is developmentally appropriate for all students, and it further benefits our students who have developmental disabilities, motor skill struggles, etc.
While most typing programs on the market are concerned only with technical ability, KWT is rich with academic content. It's not uncommon to see students typing things like Latin root words, a paragraph about a Beethoven, or maybe just the letter R in correspondence with an image of a Rembrandt painting.
Also great is that most students enjoy the program. It's uplifting and rewarding (you'd be surprised how much students of all ages enjoy virtual ribbons); it's very rarely timed (only during interspersed checkpoints, for data-collection reasons); and it's non-competitive—students all work independently and at their own paces.
As the 2015-2016 school year draws to a close, the School is now accepting teacher applications for 2016—2017. To apply for a teaching position in PRESCHOOL, grades 1 thru 6, or SPANISH, please click on FORMS in the top menu and download an application. You may also come by the administration office at 5501 N. State Line to pick up an application. Cheryl Brown, Head of School, is currently interviewing for openings.
April is National Poetry Month, and, as such, many classes have been studying poetry. During first grade's haiku study, we played a few haiku computer "games" in the lab. We use online games very seldom in the lab, but there are a few games out there that are really worth the time. After the students finished typing the haikus they'd written in class, they were allowed to choose between using a haiku-writing template and playing a game called "Haiku Hero." The template is great because it compels students to brainstorm first and requires they count syllables before they even begin writing. It also gives them a few illustrative options, which is motivating for them. I felt good about the kids using this template, but I was particularly excited about Haiku Hero. Haiku Hero gives the player a challenge (e.g., "Include the word "evening" in your poem. Use as many Rs as possible.") and an optional time limit. It made poetry a challenge for those who were able to quickly blow through syllable-counting, and it "gamified" writing for those students who weren't intrinsically motivated. It was thrilling to watch.
Thanks to everyone who helped make the 2016 Black Tie and Blue Jeans Gala such a phenomenal success! We extend special appreciation to our chairs, Jessica Miller, Lori Wood, and Sigrunn Yost for their innovative planning and for recruiting such an outstanding group of volunteer parents to help. It's always great to be part of the St. James Day School family! So many parents and friends of the School were there, having a great time, and dancing until midnight! Our children thank our donors, sponsors, and auction bidders for supporting St. James.
This week, the first graders are increasing their hand-eye coordination, practicing their mouse skills, better learning application navigation, and paving more neural pathways to learn their weekly sight words. They're doing all of this by using the Microsoft Word "Freeform Line" tool to write or draw their sight words. This experience is unlike typing, handwriting, reading, "air writing," etc., which means that the knowledge is just being further cemented; the more ways we can teach something, the better!