Peanut Butter Not Included – Adapting CS50X for the High School Classroom

This summer I had the opportunity to participate in the CS50 AP Bootcamp sponsored by Microsoft. I’m so excited to bring this incredible curriculum into my classroom. I couldn’t wait to introduce my students to all the fun, so I let an activity from CS50 inspire my first lesson.

After the obligatory syllabus and classroom procedures administrivia, I decided to kick off my intro level Coding course with an activity to demonstrate how a computer “thinks”. I wanted to do the peanut butter and jelly demo they use in CS50, but I was worried about time constraints, bringing food into the computer labs, and finding time to run to the grocery store during my last weekend of summer. With these concerns in mind, I decided to adapt the lesson so it better suited my classroom.

  1. We began with a discussion of the topic: Who is smarter – a human or a computer? After a brief conversation, we agreed that a computer may be better at certain tasks, but that it would only know how to do what someone tells it to do.
  2. Here’s where the pb&j demo would go. Instead I asked a student to hang a piece of paper on the back wall. The student found the supplies (a roll of tape and stack of paper I set out on a desk at the front of the room before class) and proceeded to follow-through with the request. Then I played the part of a computer and had the students instruct me to do the same thing. I was worried that this tamed-down version would lose some of the fun from the CS50 original, but honestly, it worked out great. I think the secret is in how you sell it. I tried to take every instruction as literally as possible. When they said, “Turn right,” I spun in circles on the spot. When they instructed me to walk forward, I plowed right into a desk that was in my path. They thought it was hilarious and, by the end, they had determined that a lot more thought went into a simple process than what they had originally assumed.
  3. After the demo, we had a chat about computers, computational thinking, and algorithms.
  4. To reinforce the activity, I paired up the students and asked them to turn their chairs so they were seated back-to-back. Each pair assigned one person to be the computer and the other person was the programmer. The programmer was given a random design and her task was to try to get the computer to replicate the design. The computer couldn’t see the design (of course) and couldn’t communicate to the programmer through questions or responses. It was fun watching them try to communicate with precision. (It was even more entertaining listening to the “computers” grumble while they tried to decipher their tasks. I wonder if my computer has ever felt that way while I’m working on a program!) When the programmer finished her instructions, the computers revealed the (usually laughable) output. I spent a few minutes with each pair discussing how they could have improved their program. (I.e. Why do you think the computer drew the circles in a row instead of each one inside the previous one? How could you fix that bug?)
  5. For homework, I asked each student to email me a program that would teach a robot how to move in a square. This was a great informal assessment tool to check in with each individual. It also allowed me the opportunity to challenge the students who already “got it” by asking them to find a way to simplify their programs.

These activities really set the tone that I was hoping for with the course. It was interactive, collaborative, and fun – a fantastic start to the semester! The ideas for this combination of activities came from the following sources:

Check them all out!

And for your enjoyment, here is a sample output from one of my students and the design she was trying to replicate.  Nailed it, right?  I’m posting this with her permission (she’s quite proud!).

And our "computer's" output.

Our “computer’s” output.

Here's the assigned design.

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Classroom Observations – Gasp!

Wednesday was the day of Freshman Induction.  As the freshman class moderator, I’m one of the leads in charge of organizing the students for the ceremony.  So my day on Wednesday was filled with assigning my assisting coworkers responsibilities for the practice and the ceremony, organizing last-minute details and assisting with the preparations in the gym.  The free block period on Wednesday was reserved for our rehearsal.  The freshman class was so great during the rehearsal and my coworkers were willing to pitch in so all went smoothly, which of course scared me for what was to come that night.  Turned out there was nothing to fear, and although it was a long day for me, everything went off without a hitch.  Including the induction ceremony and dinner that followed, I’m logging 11 hours for the day.

Thursday was my chance to breathe again now that Induction was behind me.  So of course my assistant principal showed up to observe one of my classes.  

It was my first observation of the year and my first one ever with the assistant principal.  She asked if she could observe (and can you really say no?) and I explained that she was welcome to do so, but that we were having a “bit of everything class” that day.  

And when I say “bit of everything,” that’s exactly what I mean.  It was one of my sophomore scriptures classes and not my most objective-driven lesson.  You know this classes when there’s just a lot of loose ends to tie up? I knew that the tasks we had scheduled were important and needed to get done, but I was definitely nervous about being observed on this particular day.  Still…we pushed forward.

The girls had designed prayer cards for their bibles earlier in the week.  I returned the graded cards and passed out clear contact paper so we could laminate the cards.  The girls and I spent about 10 minutes helping each other to cover the cards.  After the cards were preserved, I passed out a new assignment that the girls will be working on throughout the school year.  I explained the assignment and took questions.  Once we had the assignment marked in our planners, the girls played an online review game of books in the Old Testament.  We’ve been playing the game periodically for the past month and the girls try to improve their scores from week to week.  By the time we finished the game, there was about 5 minutes left in class.  It had absolutely nothing to do with Scriptures, but I had planned on showing this video to the girls if there was time.  I figured “why not?” and went ahead and showed it even though I was being observed.  I like the message (especially at an all girls’ school) and we spent the last few minutes of class laughing and conversing.  It felt like a risk to show something unrelated to the subject material, but it was true to me as a teacher so I was prepared to defend it if necessary.

My observation evaluation was waiting in my inbox immediately following class.  It was a glowing eval.  The assistant principal recognized the organization of the class that we were able to move seamlessly from one task to another.  She remarked that the atmosphere was relaxed yet productive and that, although the class was a “hodge-podge of activity,” there was clear indication of a cohesive and controlled learning environment.  She even liked the video.  

Whew! I was thoroughly worried about how this particular class would be received by and outside observer, but it was such a validation in the end.  It’s nice to hear feedback that you’re on the right track…even when you feel like you’re completely off the map!

I spent about an hour and half making hotel reservations and ordering decoder glasses for yearbook (yep, you read that correctly).  A total of 9.5 hours on Thursday.

Friday we had the day off school and, though I had big plans for the day, I didn’t do a darn thing for school! It was great!  I had a 9 hour shift with the other job today, so I guess the schoolwork will just have to wait until tomorrow!

When Inspiration Strikes

I’ve been struggling with selecting the next topic of study in my senior theology course.  The course is Faith and Media and the primary objective is to consume secular media through the lens of faith.  I switch up the various topics we study from quarter to quarter because I teach the course so often throughout the year and I like to try to keep things fresh.

The last unit we studied was Religious Hypocrisy and it was very successful.  The students were engaged and the subject matter was relevant.  We watched a movie which lead to lively discussions and thoughtful reflections.  We then examined the hypocrisy prevalent in the music industry and the students further explored the subject through a creative project.

Of course, I wanted to keep the momentum going with the next topic.  Unfortunately I was short on ideas.

This past weekend, I picked up a new book at the local bookstore.  It’s part of the new trend of dystopian stories flooding pop culture today.  Books, movies, tv shows…it’s everywhere.

And that was the inspiration I needed.  These stories carry powerful messages about doubt and faith.  It’s relevant and fun.  And just what I was looking for.

Friday was just an eight hour day.  I spent about 2.5 hours this weekend working on lessons and ideas for yearbook.  Nine hours today.  Midquarter is Friday – where is the time going?

Review Games Bring Fun and Relevance

I’ve mentioned before that we are on a modified block schedule. Today was our four period block day – my busiest schedule all week.

My sophomore classes were on Day 2 of a two period lecture.  Finishing up the topic today only took about 30 minutes.  And I had expected it to take 50.  Le sigh.

So I got them started on the second activity of the day – they are creating brochures that address the main objectives of the unit.  I allowed them the option of working with a partner for this assignment and many of them chose to do so. I knew that allowing too much time for partner work could have disastrous results, so while they worked I turned to my trust lesson plan book for something I could shift around to fill the last 20 minutes of class.

The problem was that we are getting to the end of the unit and none of the few remaining activities would be a smooth transition for today.  

So I jumped on the internet and did a quick search on one of my favorite sites, Sporcle.  If you are unfamiliar with the site, don’t check it out until you have some time to get distracted.  This website is filled with trivia games galore.  Two small disclaimers:

1. Some of the games may contain material that is not 100% “classroom friendly” – especially if you have elementary or middle school students.

2. You should play the game first before sharing it with the class to make sure that the information is accurate.  Some of the games have been denoted “Sporcle verified,” but many are not.

My sophomores take Scriptures.  Currently we are studying the Old Testament, so I found a game that asked the students to name (and correctly spell!) as many of the Old Testament books as possible in a specific timeframe.  I posted a link to the game on my website and each student played on her own laptop.  As they finished, I recorded each girl’s score on my weekly participation log.  We will play again over the course of our study and see if each student can improve their own personal best.

After each student was warmed up and had played once individually, we played once more as a class.  I called this Sporcle Sparkle.  You know the Sparkle game – the teacher gives a word and the students have to spell out the word one letter at a time. If a student misses their letter, they sit down and the play proceeds to the next player.  So for today’s version, we went around the class and each student had to name a book in the Old Testament.  If they could name one, they remained standing.  If not, they were out.  

This activity was easy and quick.  It took about 20 minutes to complete, which made it the perfect time-filler.  The girls really had fun quizzing themselves and comparing their scores with their friends.  And best of all, it was relevant to the lesson.

After school, I spent an hour working with a new web-based program I’m really excited about.  I’ll blog more about it once I’ve tried it out in class.  Then I changed into my SuperSalesGal uniform and headed off to job #2.  So in total, I spent 9 hours on school stuff.

Roadblocks in Lesson Planning

Over the weekend, I’ve been able to work in a total of about 9 hours on schoolwork – in between being SuperSalesGal, doing some yardwork, catching up with the family and escaping through a bit of retail therapy.  Unfortunately those 9 hours were grasped here and there and, as a result, left me feeling a bit disjointed.

This isn’t really anything new. It’s kind of the nature of the beast when you have a job that just won’t stay at the “office,” so to speak. You work when you can and try to keep a hold of your relationships (and sanity) the best you can. This is why I’m such a big fan of to-do lists.

At the end of each week, I place a post-it inside my lesson plan book.  Before I leave school on Friday, I fill the post-it with jobs and tasks I need to accomplish for the coming week.  When I find a minute to work over the weekend, I choose one item from the list to tackle. An hour enjoying my coffee when I first wake up = updating participation grades online. 30 minutes before I need to leave for the retail gig = writing a journal prompt for the sophomores.  The method works for me most days, but I struggled with it this weekend.

I tend to like to organize and plan ahead.  My lesson plan book has a special home behind my desk.  It sits on my podium during every class and I’m constantly updating it and making adjustments.  And yet…

It’s so hard for me to plan at the start of the year.  I think it has to do with not really knowing my classes well enough yet.  I’m so hesitant to work more than a week or so ahead of the class.  I feel like I’m constantly over- or underestimating the amount of time it will take to complete assignments in class.  

I know that this is a temporary problem. I realize that becoming acquainted with classes is a process that unfolds naturally and I’m confident that, before long, I’ll be buzzing along with my lesson-planning at a pace that feels comfortable to me.

For now though, I just try to take deep breaths and remind myself that a blank box does not mean that I’m unprepared – just that it’s a class filled with possibilities. 🙂