In the spirit of Valentines Day, I challenged the girls to make hearts using the binary alphabet similar to these. It was a concept they caught on to very quickly and needed little guidance. I'm told that Hindi, which many of them speak, is at its core a binary language so maybe that's in part why.
Using the ASCII binary alphabet, they chose three colors of beads: one for 0, one for 1, one for a space. Some did their name, some did the name of a friend, some did the word LOVE. This activity helps with foundational coding concepts and also improves fine motor skills.
Today I only had 3 girls which was perfect to practice offline coding using the Robot Turtles board game. It's made for young children, which I told them, but it really reinforces some foundational coding concepts that make it easier when we do more challenging coding online. They liked it, probably because I kept it fast-paced and we increased difficulty quickly by adding in new challenges. I liked that they became even more confident using basic commands and seeing immediate results from their program.
I've been wanting to have the girls try Storybird for awhile and today was the day. I've used this site for a few years and have taught a creative writing class built around it. The reason I like it so much is that it spurs creativity and reverses the usual writing process. Usually when writing, the story is thought up first and then illustrated. This site pools collections from professional illustrators together and users select which illustrations they will use...and then craft their story from it. I love this idea and the illustrations are beautiful.
Part of the fun of working with these girls is trying new things and seeing how they'll do. I try not to give too many directions or parameters and I watch closely what their thought process is. We read a book I had written using this tool just to get them thinking. They then got started choosing their artwork and adding some text. Some got started right away, others struggled.
One girl kept asking me, "What do I write?" Staring at a blank page is hard for any of us. Part of the magic of today was watching them get going, glance at their neighbor's ideas, take the plunge and start to write. When it came time to wrap things up, most wanted to keep going. They were genuinely proud of their efforts and we high-fived on being published authors.
Here are their books. Not bad for a first draft in an hour's time!
Today was all about Stop Motion! I'm pretty sure this was a new concept for the girls. They've taken heaps of photos and videos using a device of some sort, but this is different.
To provide context, we discussed animation and how it used to be made using many different drawings, strewn together to depict motion. We then took photos and pieced them together to make movies. We made still things–solid things–move.
One of my goals with these girls is to foster their creative and innovative spirits. They are extremely bright and have many who care for them. I want to build on all of that and give them even more opportunity to think in ways they may not do very often. I brought a few piles of small objects (cubes, Jenga bricks, and Brain Flakes). I gave them a very short how-to on the Stop Motion app and showed them a few examples. Then I stood back while they tried, adjusted, and tried again.
Stop Motion takes patience, steadiness, and perseverance. It doesn't come together after just one try. One girl became frustrated, even bored, and asked to do something else. I encouraged her to keep trying and then she wouldn't stop. She got into it and changed the effects of her Jenga tower structure, background, and took great pride in her work.
That's what it's about.
Here are a few examples, made by them with very little help from me. I offered encouragement and later did a few minor technical edits before publishing. This work is theirs.
Watch all their videos here (they are super short and you can see their thought process evolve).
Today with the girls I focused on English language support. I knew they wouldn't jump up and down for joy – and they didn't – but they solidified some skills and had enough fun to press through.
I intended to use Duolingo, an engaging language support platform, and I created logins for each student, set them up as a class, and assigned certain tasks for them to complete. I figured it would either be too easy or hard but that we'd eventually find what was about right. Instead, due to complications I couldn't overcome in the moment (the text was in Hindi as they practiced their English, so I couldn't help them know where to click and navigate through lessons. Also, not all of them are fluent in Hindi and typing in Hindi text on the keyboard wasn't possible.) So, that was a bit of a bust. Hopefully next time I'll succeed at configuring it better or find a different tool.
We switched over to BrainPopESL. They each took a placement test and it walked them through appropriate lessons and videos accordingly. Even the older girls seemed engaged and in various vocabulary and grammar activities.
So, they made it through. With a few minutes left we practiced some typing and the older girls are all 20WPM or higher. I challenged them to try it without looking so much at their hands, but they are in a good spot.
Next up: hands-on, offline!
While we're no family Von Trapp, my kids do play musical instruments. We have a few pianists, a trumpet player, a flutist, and a violin player. Playing a musical instrument isn't easy, and in the beginning it isn't very fun. Practice can be tedious and frustrating. However, I've enjoyed watching them progress over the years to the point that they really enjoy playing and they see how far they've come.
Similarly, learning to type is like that. It's such a necessary skill in today's world and one that is often picked up rather than strategically taught. Yet, with a little practice as often as possible, students build fluency and improve. I learned to type in 8th grade during a keyboarding course and to this day I am an excellent typist without looking at my fingers. I try to help students of all ages improve their typing skills because it will serve them well.
Today was my first time on the computers with the girls and I was pleasantly surprised with how well it went. I know they get regular computer instruction from a different volunteer and they had workbooks they showed me from school with basic computer terminology and parts. We reviewed some of that (by pointing to various parts of the computer and named each) and they are quite adept. They easily drag and drop, open a website, search, navigate around, and perform basic troubleshooting. Even our youngest first grader did great. The internet worked fast enough and overall today’s effort was a success.
Now that I have a better handle on where they’re at, I am excited about the possibilities of moving forward from here and building on what they already know. They, like most kids I’ve worked with, naturally gravitate to mindless games or searching for random images and the like. I’d like to motivate them to use the computers for learning and expanding and enriching.
We started with a review of basic terminology and a quiz. With the older girls, vocabulary included:
Then I gave a pep talk on keyboarding and encouraged them to practice even a few minutes whenever they can.
I let them practice using DanceMat typing (interactive and fun but can't save progress) and typing.com (less colorful but students can log into a teacher-created account and keep track of progress). I stepped back and watched how they'd do and I think they surprised even themselves. I gently guided proper fingering and placement but they were self-motivated and pressed through several examples. A couple of the younger girls got a little frustrated towards the end but gave it a solid effort. I'd like to see them all practice once and while on their own.
We then did some Hour of Code activities from code.org. We reviewed some offline coding activities from before and they tried their hand to program an Angry Birds maze or make Elsa ice skate around the rink. At times it was frustrating but they stuck with it and were authentically proud of themselves when they'd complete a portion of the code and it worked.
I'm really looking forward to what's ahead with these amazing, bright, and motivated girls!
Today as part of my STEAM effort with the girls' home we designed and launched balloon rockets. It was a 'BLAST'!
With the older group, I reinforced through drawing and discussion force, motion, thrust, and friction. We reviewed the scientific method and filled out a worksheet that encouraged asking questions and making predictions about what they thought would happen.
Using this framework as a guide, we wondered aloud:
We practiced calculating velocity based on how far the rocket traveled and how long it took.
I especially liked when we added cargo on top (a rupee coin inside half a ping pong ball) and predicted at what point along the way it would fall out. It actually made it all the way to the end of the line.
In the end we found that the more air in the balloon, the faster it goes. It also matters if the straw is straight and if it's going with or against the breeze coming through the window.
And everyone enjoyed the leftover balloons...
Today is a major holiday in India, Ganesh Chaturthi, where millions take Ganesha to the beach to be immersed. There's a lot of music, dancing, drums, processions, and celebrations. The girls had the day off school so I had a few join in that I don't normally get to work with.
Pouring monsoon rain, a holiday, and a bunch of eager girls meant: manipulatives.
I plan to incorporate a STEAM-related activity each month, and fortunately so many fun things fall under the STEAM umbrella: including manipulatives.
The older girls have been studying force, motion, and velocity and need a bit of hands on reinforcement. We started with a warm-up on the iPads using the Meet Science app. They watched some instructional force and motion videos and demos of related experiments, and then they played a couple of catchy games that reinforced the concepts. These girls are super bright and are doing high school level physics. While this app is geared for younger kids, it worked fine as a lead-in activity or extra practice to reinforce the concepts.
Next, I followed this framework for working with Keva planks. I first discovered these blocks at the USA Science and Engineering Festival while in Washington, D.C. several years ago. I was immediately impressed with how simple they were and yet required critical thinking skills to produce complex outcomes. Most importantly, they are fun and kids of various ages love how open-ended and versatile they are. Today we stayed pretty basic.
I gave them 10 planks and challenged them to build as high as they could. Then they did the same with 20 planks. They rotated spots and added another person's structure. I gave them 4 small cubes and asked them to build a structure starting with only the 4 cubes on the bottom. I asked them to design a ramp that would carry a ball down and we filmed it in slow motion and talked about the force of hitting the dominoes at the bottom.
I found it fascinating how individual each girl's approach was. Some instinctively dove in and seemed to know just what they wanted to build and how to make it come together. Others struggled and kept looking at the instruction booklet for some ideas. Some got restless after a few attempts and some could have built for hours.
I asked them questions as we went along about how a ball might fall through their structure, what would happen, how high would it bounce, or similar attempts to get them predicting. Nothing was too formal but I think they had fun and saw a bit of force in action.
Next up, the younger and middle crew. For them, I set up several different stations and we rotated through. Again, it was fun to see different approaches, creative thinking, and problem-solving skills. Some organized by color. Some prefers to work with a partner and others alone. They enjoyed showing off their creations and trying some new tools.
These girls are sharp, creative, and open to new experiences. I look forward to what we'll try next.
Literacy is far more than the ability to read and write. It's also understanding, communicating, and thinking.
I was awarded a literacy grant from Phi Kappa Phi to do some STEAM outreach with a group of girls here in Mumbai.
These girls come from underprivileged backgrounds and a variety of circumstances. There is a small army of volunteers and others who look after their daily care and welfare. Some help tutor academics and English language, others participate in cultural celebrations and wellness efforts. I am honored to join those who reach out with their time and love to support these girls.
For the purpose of this grant, I've expanded the definition of literacy. I have three main goals:
I will rotate through Coding, Digital Literacy, STEAM, and English language activities. My goal is to expand their thinking and expose them to tools and resources they don't already have.
Today was my first day and like all first days it was a bit rough but also wonderful.
I like the computational and critical thinking that coding requires. Using the Move It, Move It lesson plan from Code.org, I introduced some offline coding activities.
We defined "instructions" and practiced giving each other instructions. We played the Move It game where a person gives simple hand signals one at a time to another player in order to find the hidden smiley face. They caught on really quickly and I had to keep adding papers to make it harder.
To test their understanding, they completed Meet the Flurbs worksheet, pasting in arrow commands. They aced it.
Having built a foundation, they were ready for something more challenging. On the iPad we practiced with Daisy the Dinosaur, Move the Turtle, and Cargo-Bot. It was a little tricky sharing iPads, as it always is (even with only 2 kids on a device), and they each wanted sufficient opportunity to try.
Perhaps the most rewarding part for me was watching them try, get frustrated, try again, feel proud of themselves for succeeding, and then reach over to help the other person figure it out.
That alone is a valuable journey for Day 1.
This is my final recap of Daniel Levitin's book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload and will highlight the "Organizing our Time" section. This is by far the most fascinating and practical section to me and I won’t do it justice in a short summary. Still, here’s a very simple look at organizing our time, including everything from sleep, procrastination, distractions, multitasking, language learning, creativity and flow, calendaring, and aging. Whew!
[In case you missed the others...Part One: Brain research 101, Part Two: How such brain research should help us organize our homes, Part Three: Organizing our social connections]
To Multitask or To Focus?
Focus! It takes less energy to focus than to jump all over the place trying to get a lot of things done. If you organize your time in a way that allows you to truly focus, you’re not only going to get more done but you’ll be less tired and less neurochemically depleted afterwards. It takes a lot of cognitive energy to shift from one thing to another. More than that, Levitin notes, multitasking is bad for innovation, problem solving, and creativity. Our brain is easily hijacked, or interrupted, by novelty. “The very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted by shiny new objects” and we get distracted rather than reap the rewards of sustained effort and attention. Remember...the mere awareness of an unread email, even if you don’t read it, can reduce your effectual IQ by 10 points (p.170). One thing that distinguishes experts from novices is that experts know what to pay attention to and what to ignore (p.177). Moms are pros at distinguishing the types of cries and voices our children use and we’d all do better to improve this skill.
Bottom Line: Stay focused. If you have chores to do, group similar chores together like pay the bills rather than decide which new car to buy too. If you’re cleaning the living room, don’t get sidetracked by the closet that needs sorting. If we can organize our mental resources efficiently so we can focus on similar tasks at a time, we will get more done and finish with more energy (p.176).
We all know sleep is important, but why? Scientists have only recently determined the enormous amount of cognitive processing that occurs while we’re asleep. Specifically, during sleep we consolidate events in the previous few days to form and protect memories (p.183). It’s argued that disrupted sleep even two or three days after an experience can disrupt our memory of it months or years later (p.184). Sleep also improves the type of learning we do while we’re awake. In fact, “new information and concepts appear to be quietly practiced while we’re asleep, sometimes showing up in dreams. A night of sleep more than doubles the likelihood that you’ll solve a problem requiring insight” (p.185). Cool!
Take language learning, for example. If you work hard on the language for an hour or so during the day, giving it your best focus, energy, and emotion, it will be ripe for your brain to replay and elaborate on in your sleep (p.186). REM and NREM sleep gets complicated scientifically, but basically the first two hours of NREM sleep and the last 90 minutes of REM sleep in the morning are most critical, which is why sleep deprivation leads to memory loss when that 90 minutes is interrupted (p.187). And no, you can’t make up for lost sleep. When it’s gone, it’s gone and that Sunday nap isn’t going to bring it back. However, 5-10 minute power naps can yield significant cognitive enhancement, improved memory, and increased productivity (p.193). Just don’t nap longer than 45 minutes or it’s counterproductive.
Bottom Line: Sleep is critical for cellular housekeeping, peak performance, memory, productivity, immune function, and mood regulation (p.189), so we ought to do a better job at making sure we’re getting enough. Even a mild loss of sleep or altering of our sleep pattern by just one hour can “produce detrimental effects on cognitive performance for many days afterward” (p.189). The good news is that for some people who have a hard time sleeping through the night, a bimodal sleep pattern could work too (e.g. sleep for 4 hours, up for 2, sleep for 4 more). The key factor is consistency. Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time each morning.
A side note on jet lag: Our body’s circadian rhythm has a hard time shifting by external factors, causing the clumsiness, fuzzy thinking, GI problems, poor decision-making, and sleepiness associated with jet lag (p.194) -- and it gets harder as we age. Levitin gives these tips (p. 195): If you’re westbound, keep the overhead reading lamp on, exercise lightly when you reach your destination by taking a walk in the sun, delaying your body’s melatonin production. If you’re heading eastbound, wear eye shades to cover your eyes two hours before sunset in your destination city. Melatonin supplements, by the way, are not recommended, because by bedtime your body has already produced as much melatonin as it can use.
You can read this section later if you want…
We all suffer with the urge to put off what we ought to do right now. Procrastination is a lack of self-regulation, planning, or impulse control – or all three (p.195). Levitin suggests one simple tip: do the most unpleasant task of your day first thing while gumption is high, because willpower depletes as the day progresses. Another idea: head outside! Being outside in natural settings (parks, forests, mountains, beach) rather than urban environments replenishes our brain and has been shown to reduce the tendency to procrastinate (p.195).
I had no idea there was so much science behind procrastination (even an equation that quantifies the likelihood you’ll procrastinate!) and differing types of procrastinators: such as a) do you like to do restful things like play a game or watch TV when you’re putting-things-off or b) still do something but choose a fun task that yields immediate results rather than slowly move forward on a long-term project? Do you suffer from the chronic inability to finish projects you start (which technically isn’t procrastination but a lack of finishing skills, an entirely different problem) (p.198-199)? Successful people see setbacks and failure as opportunities to gain more knowledge that will help them accomplish the goal (p.200)
Bottom Line: Do your most unpleasant task of the day first, get outside in nature as often as possible, and learn from your setbacks.
Creativity “involves the skillful integration of the time-stopping daydreaming mode and the time-monitoring central executive mode” (p.202). We are generally most proud of our creative contributions and our ability to achieve insight across a wide variety of problems. If we encounter a problem that is complex or tricky, scientifically we need to relax and let the right hemisphere of the brain take over. Relaxation is crucial to allow the brain to make complicated connections and bind neural networks that will yield insights (p.202). So, go ahead and take that hot shower and ahhhhh….relax.
Flow is quite the buzzword and I can see why: it’s a blissful state to be in. It’s that state, for us or our children, where we are involved in a creative pursuit we enjoy, we lose track of time, forget to eat, and are not easily distracted. Scientifically, when we experience flow, two parts of the brain deactivate: the part responsible for self-criticism and our fear center. Not surprisingly, when we’re in this state we produce our best work (p.203).
From a neurological standpoint, “creativity engages the brain’s daydreaming mode directly and stimulates the free flow and association of ideas, forging links between concepts and neural nodes that might not otherwise be made” (p.217).
Bottom Line: Manage our time effectively to allow more creative time. Relax and let the brain take over to help us solve complex problems. Experience true flow and engagement often and provide opportunities for your children to experience that also (and try not to interrupt them when they do). We’ll be happier and performance will be strong (p.206).
I’ve long believed that distractibility is a huge problem in our society (take distracted driving as one example, let alone phone-checking, conversation-lacking exchanges). If we really want to manage our lives and time better, we’ve got to get better at avoiding distractions (and realize when a diversion has gotten out of control, like the need to constantly check email or social media feeds) (p.209). Levitin states that the social networking addiction loop (via whatever tool or feed of your choice) sends chemicals to the brain’s pleasure center that are genuinely, psychologically addictive (p.209). Our brain’s novelty center for completing a task is fed so we feel productive, but we’ve actually been lured away from achieving sustained success.
What to do? Trick our brain and establish systems to stick to the task at hand. For me, this means deleting Facebook from my phone (except when I’m traveling and choose to deliberately share and browse) and instead checking it on the computer at a consistent time each week, checking email at specified times during the day, and going offline when I’m working on a task so I’m not distracted by everything else. For you, it might be different things, but analyze your distractions and set up your environment accordingly. Levitin suggests that for such external distractions, you should set aside a particular place that allows you to focus and to train your mind to think that whatever you’re working on right now is the most important thing you could possibly be doing (p.210).
Brain-clearing (such as externalizing our environment so we don’t have to remember so much) helps us minimize internal distractions. If you have a difficult task to face, it needs at least 50 minutes or more because it takes that time for your brain to let go of other things and get into a focused state (p. 210). Write down as much as you can so you don’t have to spend cognitive energy remembering. Set up a time of day to deal with tasks that will take 5-minutes or less and knock a few of those out, like that unpleasant phone call or email. If you schedule a block of time, then all these little tasks won’t interfere during your focused time.
Bottom Line: Stick to the task at hand and structure your environment and brain to not get distracted. Get your phone-checking under control and don’t spend more time on a decision than it’s worth. And please, commit to never, ever, ever use/touch/glance at your phone while driving! Keep it in the back seat or trunk if you have to or put it on airplane mode -- the risks just aren't worth it.
Levitin strongly believes in structuring our future by maximizing calendars and reminders (p.213). Take as much out of your brain as possible! Don’t partially use a calendar -- put in all of your events and tasks and projects right as they come up.
Some of my favorite tools are:
Bottom Line: pick your tool(s) and clear your brain. On the days I’ve really taken this to heart and scheduled projects and tasks into my day, in addition to just events and places we need to be, I’ve been incredibly productive.
Once we reach thirty (yes, 30!) our reaction time, cognitive processing speed, and metabolic rate slow down, along with our neural transmission speed (p.215). The way we choose to spend our time changes too. Young people are driven by novelty and are motivated to learn and experience new things. In our teens and twenties we strive to learn as much about ourselves as we can, what makes us tick, and how we want to spend our time. By the time we approach ouf fifties and sixties we place a higher priority on actually doing the things we know and like rather than discovering new things (p.216). Older people have generally found what they like, who they like, and spend their time doing those things with those people. Our perception of time passing and how much time we think we have left influences our decisions as well.
One of the ways we’ve always heard to stave off the effects of aging, and is backed by brain research, is to stay mentally active. Perform tasks you’ve never done before (p.217). Stretch yourself. We can’t just do this when we’re old -- our brain needs a lifetime pattern of mental activity and learning. We need social interaction. We need creativity to help us reset our brain, stop time, contemplate, think outside linear lines, and reimagine our relationship to the world (p.217).
Bottom Line: Stay active, make friends, do the things you enjoy but still try new things, and organize your brain and your time to leave time for creativity. Stretch yourself. Live.
And that’s a wrap, friends. This book has been extremely interesting and insightful, and it has made me want to work on the same team as my brain to support it and maximize its incredible potential. The more we can understand how it works, the better we can organize our time, our homes, and our digital lives...and the greater our contribution to this world will be.
Levitin, Daniel J. 2014. The organized mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload. New York, NY: Plume.
This post will highlight the "Organizing our Social world" section of Daniel Levitin's Book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. My first post was a recap of some fascinating brain research, my second post was on using what we know about the brain to organize our homes. This post will look briefly at social connection in today's world and how to best navigate this path.
Crowdsourcing, or outsourcing to a crowd, is a "technique by which thousands or even millions of people help to solve problems that would be difficult or impossible to solve any other way" (Levitin,114). It's been used for all kinds of things like Amber alerts, editing the Oxford dictionary, deciphering text, research, and traffic alerts. It taps into our social networks' energy and expertise for the benefit of all (Levitin,115). A large number of people, the general public, can often help solve problems outside of traditional agencies through networks such as Wikipedia, Kickstarter, Kiva, Yelp, Tripadvisor, etc. (Levitin,116). But can you trust the crowd? Yes and no. So many things around us harness the crowd's experience such as driving times, related products on Amazon or Netflix, and even reCAPTHCHAs human checkers (Levitin,118). Cheating and dishonesty are out there, but anyone using crowdsourcing implements checks and balances to make it useful and mostly trustworthy.
Bottom line: We live in an increasingly complex interconnected world. "Modern social networks are fraught with dull old dysfunction and wonderfully new opportunities" (Levitin, 120).
Modern social relations are complex
The number of people you'd encounter in an entire lifetime, say in the year 1200, was fewer than the number of people you'd walk past during rush hour in present-day Manhattan (Levitin,121). Today we build and maintain social networks with friends from high school and college, meet more strangers, and incorporate them all into our lives in very new ways (Levitin,121).
How do we keep track of all these people?
The lure of Facebook and social network sites
We are social creatures, even the most introverted of us. We like to be part of something greater than ourselves. There is comfort in belonging and social isolation is a risk factor for cardiac arrest and death, even moreso than smoking (Levitin,126). After a whole lifetime of trying to keep track of people with little slips of paper or address books, or losing track of people entirely, now we can connect with anyone we want to without any trouble. Facebook, for example, has over a billion users (one out of 7 people on the planet) and appeals to our sense of novelty and our drive to connect with others (Levitin,126). We can choose who we want our friends to be, who we engage with, who has relevance to our lives.
But, be wise, friends. Online connectivity provides breadth but rarely depth. If we're not careful we'll spend a day under the illusion that we're being social rather than really connecting with others, which can lead to decreased empathy and increased loneliness (Levitin,127). Interestingly, social rejection causes activation in the same part of the brain as physical pain does (Levitin,137). We're more connected but are we really more connected? In my next post I'll highlight what Levitin calls the social networking addiction loop (yep, it's a phycological addiction) and how to combat distractions and the sugar-short-term-high they give us.
Bottom line: Facebook (and other online connectivity) is best used as a supplement, not a replacement, for in-person connectedness (Levitin,127).
Beware of falsehoods
Brain research shows that we have a very difficult time ignoring information that has later been shown to be false (Levitin,149). If someone tells you something or you read something that is later determined to not be correct, it is impossible to hit the reset button in your brain. The original knowledge still exerts a lingering influence on your thinking (Levitin,149).
Bottom line: Be truly careful of online gossip and what type of information you both share and take in.
I'll highlight my favorite section and probably end with that. Levitin takes us on an incredible journey through organizing our time. This includes everything from sleep, procrastination, distractions, multitasking, language learning, creativity and flow, calendaring, and aging. Whew!
In Nepali, didi means older sister and is often used to describe one who works for you, one you respect, one who walks beside you on your journey. I work hard to bring teachers, parents, and students the best educational technology tools out there that educate, engage, and empower. Enjoy!