‘Tis the season… Tech-Mas 2019 is upon us, my friends!
Each year, I receive tons of questions via social media about our annual collaborative computer science and library tradition. This year, I’ve gathered ’em up for one big FAQ post. So grab a mug of hot chocolate and slap on your ugliest Christmas sweater, because we’re diving right in!
What is the 12 Days of Tech-Mas?
We’ll start with the basics: Tech-Mas is a catchy name for a computer science mini-intensive for grades K-6 that I run with our K-8 Computer Science Coordinator during November and December. It generally runs after Thanksgiving Break through Winter Break (although this year we started early to ensure that each class gets three opportunities to participate with our six-day rotation cycle). This is our 4th year of the Tech-Mas tradition! The concept originally took shape as a way to incorporate Hour of Code into library class time, and has grown exponentially from there. The bulk of Tech-Mas activities take place during classes’ fixed library class time, with a family showcase that takes place before school for students to show off their work and share their favorite projects and games. You can learn more about our past Tech-Mas events events and follow the way the programming has developed over the years: Tech-Mas 2016, Tech-Mas 2017, Tech-Mas 2018.
Why November? Isn’t this Christmas themed?
From Tech-Mas 2017: “Those few short weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas… does anyone do their best work at this time? If my own distraction and forgetfulness are any indication, we are all struggling to hold it together under the twinkly lights. With our six-day rotation cycle, I only get to see students in the library three or four times between breaks – and with sugarplums and candy canes dancing in their heads, that short hour or two that we get together can feel like a waste of time. Luckily, there is one sure-fire way to increase student engagement while providing students with worthwhile educational experiences: computer science.” (Read more here.) Tech-Mas turns the ~3 weeks between Thanksgiving Break and Winter Break into a fun, exciting, and hands-on unit that students look forward to. As a bonus, the behavior management battles we normally see at this time of year (thanks to lack of routine, crazy weather, impending holiday excitement, etc.) are dramatically decreased, because engagement and excitement are so high!
An important thing to note is that Tech-Mas gained it’s name through a love of puns and silliness, not because of a link to the Christmas holiday. Tech-Mas can take whatever shape or form the teacher desires, and the theme could be as religious or secular as you like. For us, the celebration is not linked to any holiday, but instead to the general merriment and excitement of the winter season (past themes have included CS Education Week, robotics, and winter wonderland; our theme this year is light).
What happens to your library content?
I’m a big planner, and I tend to create an overarching plan of the year for each grade before school begins in August. This means that I plan my content around Tech-Mas from the very beginning. In my experience, the schedule gets pretty mixed up this time of year anyway, thanks to special events, field trips, concerts, etc. – so I usually end up seeing some classes more than others, and can’t reliably cover much academic-related content, anyway. I have found that Tech-Mas mostly takes the place of what would be holiday storytimes and activities, so the only thing I’m really losing is reading The Polar Express for the bajillionth time 🙂
What does this have to do with books?
EVERYTHING! Linking Computer Science to literacy is kind of my jam. If you’ve been reading Fitz Between the Shelves for awhile, you know that I’m incredibly passionate about bridging the gap between the library and the computer science lab – it increases equity and access for all, helps kids to see themselves as both readers and scientists, and brings literature to life in a fun and exciting way (just to name a few). We root all of our computer science activities in literature, and use tech to bring storytime to life as often as possible. Check out the Tech Talk tag to see more of how our library links computer science to literacy for elementary and middle school students.
Our Computer Science projects, units, and events are always rooted in literacy and empathy. Each year, Tech-Mas is inspired by a book or story, and each lesson begins with a readaloud. One year, all of our activities were inspired by a school-wide obsession with the book The Wild Robot, by Peter Brown. Last year, our winter wonderland theme had us reading snowy stories like Snowflake Bentley, All you Need for a Snowman, and Blizzard! This year, our theme is light, and every class is reading Winter Candle, by Jeron Ashford.
Winter Candle takes place in the Juniper Court apartment building, which houses many different families celebrating different winter holidays and events. Every family needs to bring light to their celebration, but one by one, they realize that they’re all out of candles! One ugly mysteriously bright candle makes its way from apartment to apartment, lending its glimmer to Thanksgiving dinner, a Havdalah ceremony, the Kwanzaa kinara, and more. We loved the way this book introduces readers to winter celebrations that may be new to them, and shows connections between families and cultures honoring different traditions. No matter what you’re celebrating or not celebrating this winter, light, warmth, and connection are probably a part of your traditions, and we want to honor that!
But what about checkout?
My readers would never forgive me if we went a full month without checkout. To keep classes at ease and ensure that I respect their reading time, we start every class with 15 minutes of checkout before we dig into Tech-Mas activities. If students need more time than this abridged checkout time allows, we have open checkout every morning, or they can arrange a time with their teacher to come down and refresh their reading materials at their leisure.
I don’t know anything about computer science/I’m not a computer science teacher/I don’t have any computer science training. How could I make this work?
I have zero formal computer science training. I was a music major in college! But I love to learn, ask a lot of questions, and have no fear of trying new things. Does that sound like you? More important than computer science knowledge is a computer science mindset: knowing that it’s never too late to learn, that mistakes are valuable, and that you get to be in charge of your own learning.
What’s more critical than teachers’ knowledge and comfort is what our students deserve: access to the skills and mindsets that will help them to be successful in school and beyond. Kids need, want, and deserve exciting and engaging interactions with literature and access to computer science, and educational standards are starting to catch up. Experience and formal education are not necessary. Don’t wait to be trained. Just get started and learn along with your students. It will probably be the most fun you’ll have in your classes all year!
How does a Tech-Mas class work? How much do I teach?
Have you heard of the hole in the wall method? In 1999, Sugada Mitra installed a computer into a wall in a very poor area of New Delhi, with no fanfare or announcement. Then, he watched as children flocked to the computer and, with zero introduction or directions, taught themselves everything they needed to know in order to use it. You can learn more about the experiment here, or about the hole in the wall educational method here. Ms. Wilkens taught me about the hole in the wall method when we first started working together and its main idea, that kids can teach themselves, changed the way I manage my classroom.
Here’s an example layout for a Tech-Mas lesson with students in kindergarten, first, or second grade:
- Part 1 – Checkout. 10 minutes. Students check out books and read quietly.
- Part 2 – Readaloud. 5-10 minutes. Class gathers and hears the book that is acting as the foundation for the day’s activity. We always spend some time asking questions and discussing the story.
- Part 3 – Computer science connection. 5 minutes. Create the connection between the book and the day’s activity. Briefly introduce any tools that we will be using, tell students what they need to know in order to be successful, and leave them with some guiding questions.
- Part 4 – Exploration and play time. 15 minutes. Step back and let them go! I do my best here to make myself silent and invisible. I only step in if a conflict is getting heated or a group is truly stuck.
- Part 5 – Reflection. 5 minutes. Gather together as a group and reflect: What went well? Why? What was challenging? Why? What will you try next?
- If we have time, I love to jump back in after the reflection and give students another chance to use what they’ve learned.
What tools do I need?
Tech-Mas doesn’t require any tools except for enthusiasm and a growth mindset. Activities can be linked to a specific software or hardware, or can be totally unplugged – whatever you want! Over the years we’ve had great luck using MakeyMakey (a physical computing tool), LittleBits (hands-on experimenting with circuits), Code-a-Pillars, Spheros, and BeeBots (all kid-friend educational robots), if your school has them. If you have computers available, the resources from Code.org are great, and students always enjoy creating with Scratch 2.0. But unplugged CS activities are just as useful and exciting! Tech-Mas is also a great time for makerspace and building/design challenges, which can use as much or as little technology as you want. In short, use whatever you can, and don’t sweat about what you don’t have!
How do you decide what to do?
I’m lucky enough to have an incredible collaborator that takes the lead in this department – Kim Wilkens, founder of Tech-Girls and our school’s K-8 Computer Science coordinator. I tend to dream up the theme and find the perfect book, and then Kim helps to create activities that will be a good fit for each grade and developmental level. This year, we invited middle schoolers to take over the planning and beta-testing process for the first time, and the results were so cool and so much fun. If I were planning by myself, I’d work with some backwards design – what do I want my students to know, make, or experience? Then, I’d work backwards from there for each grade level. For example, this year’s theme of light gives us lots of opportunity to work with circuits and LEDs. I want my more experienced middle school students to take their prior knowledge of LEDs and coding and use it to try something new, so they’ll be experimenting with Micro:bit’s LED functions and programming.
What grades do you work with, and how does this work for all of them at once?
I work with grades K-8, and Tech-Mas curriculum takes place during class for grades K-6, the grades that have fixed library time every single week (7th and 8th graders come to me on an every-other-week rotation). Grades K-2 have 45 minutes, and 3-6 have 60 minutes. To put it simply: It works because we plan carefully and stay organized. Ms. Wilkens and I start putting together activities, blocking off time, and syncing our schedules in August so that when November arrives, things are ready to roll.
Most of the time, each grade has a separate activity, so our resources and tools need to be prepped ahead of time. We keep a chart of each class for every rotation with notes on necessary materials and prep, and check them off as we go. Tech-Mas materials are organized on a moveable cart, and in-process projects are placed in specific areas according to grade level and homeroom.
Does Tech-Mas involve a community event?
We love any opportunity to bring families in to the library, so we try to end each Tech-Mas event with a family showcase. The family showcase is manned by middle school “tech-perts” who run each station and help younger learners and their families complete crafts or play with tech tools. We try to make the tools or skills that students have been working with in class available, so that students can bring their families and show off all that they’ve learned. What has worked really well for us is to hold this event in the morning before school begins, so that families can simply come to school early and then adults take off when kids leave for class. Last year, we had the family showcase open from 7:30 AM through when classes started (8:10 for the Lower School and 8:20 for the Middle School). If we play our cards right, we can schedule the event on the last day before break, when students are invited to wear celebratory clothing, hats, or pajamas. One year, we even had the Upper School choir sing for us in their festive gear as we celebrated. It was lovely!
Can I start a Tech-Mas tradition at my school?
YES! Please do. We share our resources and ideas in the hopes that other teachers will incorporate these ideas into their classrooms and libraries. If there’s anything more we can do to help you get started, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask.
Where do you get all of these professional photos and graphics?
If I had a dollar for every time I got some form of this question, I could retire early! I love photography, and I bring my personal camera to school when we have events to shoot my own photos. For everyday photos, I use my cell phone. I shoot 99% of the photos you see on the blog – which is why I’m rarely in them! For graphics, I love using Canva.