Distance learning is hard.
Honestly, it’s hard for everyone involved. It’s challenging for the students, who long to be in their classrooms with their friends. It’s challenging for the teachers, who have had to pivot in a moment’s notice and completely recreate their curriculum and teaching style, all while staying up at night worrying and missing the little ones they love And it’s challenging for the caregivers at home, who are suddenly forced to take on the million roles that a teacher normally fills, all while maintaining their myriad other responsibilities.
There’s nothing easy about it. But I’m grateful for it, because it’s keeping my community safe. I am lucky to be safe at home, providing the highest quality of education I can while helping to flatten the curve and slow the spread of COVID-19. It’s not ideal, but it’s real, and I’m grateful for this inconvenient, exhausting, frustrating, lonely, and pretty much impossible situation.
Our school was on Spring Break when Virginia schools were ordered to close. Unlike most others, we did not take any time off – teachers launched into virtual planning on Tuesday, March 17th (the day we were supposed to return from break), and our distance education began in earnest on Monday, March 23rd. That means we are currently in week six of this new routine. The blog has been mostly quiet during this time as I have worked to get my feet under me and support my readers and colleagues during the transition. But now, with six weeks under my belt, I’m ready to try and share what I’ve learned.
First things first – I have made approximately seven zillion mistakes.
Projects have flopped, readalouds have cut out mid-recording, angry emails have been sent, incorrect links have been embedded, hours have been put into assignments that have garnered zero feedback (or sometimes, zero clicks at all). If you can name it, I’ve done it. The mistakes have been painful, but important. Each week I get a little faster, a little better, a little stronger. And finally – finally! – there have been some successes. Most of my successes have included collaboration. I have brilliant, passionate, and incredibly flexible colleagues, and I do my best work when we push and challenge each other. I’m excited to share one of those successes today.
K-8 Robot Design Project
Today I’m going to share a collaboration between myself, Kim Wilkens, our K-8 Computer Science Coordinator, and Trent Holden, 8th grade Science Teacher. The collaboration took place over two instructional weeks, and the 8th grade portion of the project continued for an additional week.
We used a few virtual tools for this project:
- I uploaded my readaloud videos to YouTube and shared them via Safe YouTube, as is our school’s policy (videos embedded below)
- K-4 students uploaded their designs to SeeSaw, the platform that our Lower School students use to share work
- 8th graders received instruction on robotics and were introduced to their assignment using their Google Classroom
- 8th graders and K-4 learners connected via Padlet (Padlet embedded below)
Before the project began, Kim, Trent, and I met on Zoom for two 30-minute meetings to discuss details.
Our goal for the Lower School students was to engage, excite, get them thinking creatively about robotics, and connect them to middle schoolers. (We are a K-8 campus, and while we often have cross-divisional activities on campus, it has been difficult to make that happen digitally because the divisions use different learning platforms).
Our goal for the Middle School students was to move forward with a robotics and sensors project that was planned to take place this spring, without the robotics materials and hands-on assistance available at school. We infused the project a little bit of extra joy by connecting the middle schoolers with their younger buddies and their work.
We decided that the Lower School students would have a simple challenge: Begin exploring robots and robotics, and think about how robots already impact our lives and might impact our lives in the future. From there, get curious and get creative! We knew this would work well for this age group with a combination of learning, brainstorming, and hands-on designing.
The middle schoolers, who currently get more direct instruction, would go more in-depth with robotics, sensors, and design in their science class. They would also have the chance to get curious and get creative – because distance learning is the perfect time to dig in to student-lead projects! Then, they would use what they learned to comment on the younger students’ robot designs with constructive feedback and ideas.
Robot readalouds were shared with K-4 classes. I chose books that I thought would get them excited, teach them something new, and leave them thinking… “Hmmm, what could I do with a robot?” You can check out the books I chose below.
Along with these readaloud videos, I recorded an additional Robot Design challenge video inviting students to use their imaginations to consider what kind of robot they would like to create. I provided Ms. Wilkens’ Robot Design questions for them to consider as they were designing:
- What does your robot do?
- Does it have any special powers?
- How does it interact with people?
We left the design process completely open-ended, deciding not to show a model at all. Over the course of the week, students created their robot designs and shared their thoughts, photos, and videos on SeeSaw.
In 8th grade science, Ms. Holden and Ms. Wilkens began instruction on robotics. As the students had just wrapped up learning about human senses before Spring Break, they dove in to learning about how robots sense the world around them, and how they are different than humans. Then, rooting the process in empathy, Ms. Wilkens and Ms. Holden presented students with a series of real-world problems and challenged them to choose the one that was most meaningful to them and design a robot that would address it. Click here to view the slide deck, titled Sensors & Robotics: Human-Computer Interaction.
Behind the scenes, Ms. Wilkens and I prepared the Robot Design Padlet, and then transitioned each robot design from the K-4 SeeSaw pages to the Padlet to prepare for the 8th graders.
This week included another round of robot readalouds for K-4 readers. Additionally, the link to the Robot Design Padlet was shared with all K-4 families, so that roboticists could peruse each other’s designs and leave kind and constructive feedback. Additionally, this week’s activities included an option to make their robot design 3-D by creating it out of household materials. That was the final step of the K-4 portion of the project.
In 8th grade science, students dove deeper into their robotics unit and shared/presented their designs. Then, they used what they learned to provide comments on K-4 student designs using the Padlet. The 8th graders continued their more in-depth work with robotics over the next week. You can check out the Robot Design Padlet below. (And, because Padlet can be finicky, here’s a link to the page, just in case.)
Man, did this project bring about a lot of joy! Feedback from K-4 students and families was that they loved the robot stories, and the opportunity to design their own personal robots. As you can see in the Padlet, these designs took tons of different forms – pencil sketches, drawings, toilet-paper roll prototypes, lego creations, and even cardboard box masterpieces! There were many K-4 designs shared the first week, but no students chose to go deeper into the project by streamlining their design or taking it 3-D in week two. That was a good data point for me – in this weird world of releasing lessons a week at a time, it’s hard to keep momentum going from one week to the next on a project.
My favorite feedback was from the middle schoolers, who seemed absolutely delighted to have a creative and interesting project to work on. I loved reading their comments to the young roboticsts. (My favorite? “Having a robot that is literally a sentient shoe is one of the most creative and cool things ever.”) We interviewed two 8th grade students, Izzy and Spicer, on Morning Meeting this week to learn more about the project, and they repeated again and again how much they loved the opportunity to be creative and hands-on. You can hear their interview here.
Were kids are engaged in this project as it seemed from our end? I’m not 100% sure. I haven’t yet learned how to gauge student engagement via distance learning, other than tracking clicks and collecting optional feedback. But it was wonderful to see students getting curious, creating, and connecting, and I’m proud of that outcome.