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.

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.

Lose the Remote. Actively Engage Your Students.

Confession: I lost the remote. Not the DVD remote – that would be too awful for words. The smartboard projector remote. The one with the magic button that allows me to freeze the screen. How I miss that remote.

On my most productive days, I would freeze the screen when I was projecting instructions for an assignment. Then while my students worked, I could catch up on emails, prep the next part of the lesson or even update grades.

But my remote has disappeared and taken my freedom along with it. (Perhaps, I'm exaggerating slightly here.) As a result, student work time was a new experience for me today.

My frosh were working on an assignment in their interactive student notebooks after we finished our lecture notes for the day. I had an example of the assignment projected on the smartboard. I knew I couldn't remove the example and, since I had no way of freezing the screen, I couldn't work on my laptop while they worked.

So instead, I walked around the room and checked in with my classes while they worked. This is something I do all the time of course, but usually it's just a quick spin around the room to make sure everyone is on task and not Twitter. Today was different for me. Today I took my time and really tried to engage my students instead of just rushing through. I complimented artistic talent. I received invitations to several upcoming sports games. I even traded book recommendations with a couple students. This may sound like we were off-topic but actually the time was quite productive. We only had about 15 minutes to spend on this assignment and at the end of that time, several volunteers shared their complete assignments with the class.

And it turned out I didn't really miss that remote as much as I thought. (I do need to find it though. Where could I have put it?)

When not teaching today, I spent most of my time creating a PowerPoint for my sophomore class. The material in the book is important, but so dry. I've been using really interactive powerpoints to try to add a little something to the material. So far, so good. Believe it or not, the PowerPoint took me about three hours to create, bringing my day's total to 11 hours.

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. 🙂

Half the Classes, Double the Fun: A Modified Block Schedule

Last year my school implemented a new schedule. We went from a six period per day, eight periods per term rotation schedule (don't ask) to a seven period per term modified block schedule. Basically what this comes out to on a normal week is three days with all seven classes (45 minutes per class) and two days of block classes (80 minutes per class). The block days meet with four classes one day and three the next.

There was a lot of fear and anxiety that came with the new schedule and it does have its downfalls, but overall, I've gotta say, I'm digging it. It suits subjects that benefit from every day meetings (every class meets four times per week), as well as class that require longer class periods (i.e. science labs). It's kind of like having the best of both worlds. Now that we're in year two of the modified block schedule, I've begun to look forward to the block classes.

Today was our first block day of the year. The pace of the block days is so much more relaxed than the seven period days. It was nice to follow the madness of the first day of classes with a more leisurely schedule.

I tend to treat the block days in much the same way as I treat non-blocks in theology. I rarely spend an entire class lecturing, so I don't have to worry about overloading the kids with info on the block days. I think more in terms of variety. A typical block session in one of my courses may include: a longer prayer (often an inspirational song or video), an individual work assignment (maybe 20 minutes), a full class follow up discussion (25 minutes), and then some kind of creative assignment that allows them to move around and talk to others. Add in a minute here or there for transitioning from working on their laptops to another medium and an 80 minute class truly seems to fly by.

I had all of my preps today (because life couldn't possibly take it easy on me and balance out my schedule between the block days). The nice thing about that is that I have no planning to do for tomorrow since I'll only have one class (besides yearbook) and they will be doing the same assignments I already prepared for the other section for today.

Since I had no prep work for tomorrow, I was actually able to leave at semi-decent time. 9.5 hours today.

Oh yeah. Today I used the icebreaker I told you about in this post. I had only planned to use it with the sophomores, but they had so much fun with it, I ended up using it for the seniors and frosh as well. I highly recommend this one. It was almost as fun as the silent interviews from yesterday.


Reinventing a Tired Lesson

Tried and true is good, but we teachers need to watch that our lessons don’t become tired.

I’ve taught a certain course now for 6 years.  Faith and Media is a senior elective and a popular one at that.  It’s a quarter course so I have taught it 4-6 times each year, depending on the number of girls who sign up for it.  Clearly the girls have heard about my exquisitely prepared lessons and supreme teaching abilities.  Either that, or they just want to take a class that includes a lot of movies in the curriculum.

And there in lies the problem.  After teaching the course multiple times over the span of several years, lessons start to feel old.  They’re new to each class of course; but after 30 viewings of Chocolat, I’ve started to lose some of my enthusiasm for teaching it.

I’ve updated some of the movies over the years.  I have a few with similar themes that I alternate using.  But still…the lessons, the projects, the grading…it can start to feel like a bad case of deja vu.

So I spent the majority of the day, working on my website and lessons for Faith and Media.  The plan is to try a new course format.  In the past, we’ve watched a movie, discussed the movie, then written reflections.  The next week, the students would work in groups on a creative project using some other medium – music, tv, literature, etc.  This year, I’ve tried to create more cohesion between the topics. So I identified a central theme we would focus on for the first unit.  Then I selected a movie that would correspond, found an article from a news source and made a list of appropriate songs.  I haven’t worked out all the details, but I’m in the process of developing some new assignments to fill out the unit.  I’ll share more when I’ve got it hashed out better.

In addition to my course revisions, I also rearranged my new (smaller!) desks. Several classroom layouts later, I settled on the original arrangement.  So in total today, I clocked in 5.5 hours.

Day One

So my idea is to try to track my time, outside of the general school day hours, that I spend working on “school stuff”. I’m not counting any work I’ve done before August 1 – mainly because I didn’t think of this blog until today. So I know this entry will say it’s posted on August 2, but you’ll just have to take me on my honor that the work I describe was all completed yesterday. I swear on my lesson plan book. 😉

I only worked on “school stuff” for about 3 hours yesterday (midnight until 3am, actually). I would’ve liked to get into my classroom, but I was there the day before and the janitors told me I wouldn’t be able to get in again until next week. Le sigh. So I brought out my lesson plan book and laptop and worked from home.

I have a new prep this year, so I spent the 3 hours creating the website, writing the syllabus and planning the first unit’s lessons. None of those projects are finished though, so more on them as I progress.

One task I was able to complete was preparing an ice breaker game for the first week of class. Here’s the background:

My new prep is the sophomore level Scriptures course. I also teach theology to freshmen and seniors and advise the yearbook program.  I wanted to come up with a couple of new ice breakers to play with the sophomores because some of them already played my usual ones last year.  Plus they already know each other somewhat, so we don’t have to focus so much on basic name memorization. I adapted this one from a list I found on Pinterest.  The original was designed to be played like a board game and I thought it would be awesome to create a “SmartBoardgame”. Fun, right? Unfortunately the board game  template wouldn’t play nice and it was 3 am, so I adjusted the plan a bit.

Here’s the finished product.

get to know throw

The idea is that the students will throw a ball at the SmartBoard and it will bring up a random question that they will then need to answer. Like this…

get to know throw question 2get to know throw question

Simple, silly and fun.  I won’t use this on the first day of class; I’ll use a more interactive icebreaker that day.  My school is on a partial block schedule though, so I think this will be a great break during our first block class.

Here’s the template I ended up using.  It looks like it was designed with a younger age group in mind, but if it goes well with my class, I may end up using it for a review game from time to time.  I think it may be a keeper!

So 1 day into our countdown between summers and the total stands at 3 hours of planning and prep work.