teaching machines

Job-shadowing Mr. Kurt

May 16, 2017 by . Filed under public, teaching.

Today I job-shadowed Mr. Kurt, a 4th and 5th grade teacher at the Chippewa Valley Montessori School. I am not looking to become an elementary school teacher. I just wanted to see how someone spends the entire day with such undeveloped brains and bodies. As a university professor, teachers of this age group instantly have my respect.

The day started with Writer’s Workshop. The entire class gathered at the central platform in the room, and they browsed the website of a local fun park. Mr. Kurt asked them to closely examine the descriptions of the attractions. Some attractions were obviously written to cautious parents, others to kids. Some included height and weight requirements. The students then found a workstation, designed their own attraction, and wrote about it. I visited with one young man about Orbs-a-Turn, a ride that had more axes of rotation than I thought possible. Another young man had a blank piece of paper. I asked what ideas he had. None, he said. I asked him if he liked water. He said yes. I asked him if he liked lights. He said yes. I asked him if he liked bugs. He said kind of. I suggested he put them all together into some sort of thrill ride. I don’t know what he ended up doing.

Next Mr. Kurt gathered just the 4th graders to the platform. He asked them all to find a picture of their favorite animals on Google Images and share it via AirPlay to the projector. They discussed how the animals organized into communities. He then weaved a fictitious story around the kids that kept me enthralled to its end. They started off as a small group trying to survive. But then one of them discovered a tasty fruit growing far away. Given the distance, one individual is put in charge of harvesting the fruit full-time. But soon the village is overrun by the stone pits that have been spat out everywhere. Another individual is commissioned to build clay spittoons to hold the discarded pits, and another is commissioned to empty the jars regularly in the dump outside the village. But one day, some hunters discover that the fruits are growing in the dump. Soon enough, agriculture has developed. By the end, the students have learned about how a society grows up into a civilization. What I liked about this lesson was that Mr. Kurt made every child a participant in it without being dependent on their participation. He gave each a role and personality that drew them in, even though he did most of the talking.

The 5th graders came to the platform next to learn about six types of interactions between tectonic plates. Mr. Kurt had assigned that they each build or bake a model of the Earth’s layers. But there was some confusion about the due date. Some had brought in baked goods, but not the ones who thought they had until Friday. Mr. Kurt solicited ideas about how they should handle the mixup. Strangely, the students voted to freeze the cakes that had been brought in already and save them until Friday. They even had the option of eating the cakes both today and on Friday. I was sad, because one girl had brought cream cheese and chocolate cupcakes that looked wonderful. But my sadness was short-lived. Mr. Kurt overruled the decision to wait after the girl said that she needed to get her container back home.

The whole class had specials next. I was invited to go with to music, but I didn’t want to drop in unannounced on the music teacher. Instead, I joined a different class. They were headed to gym, the teacher of which knew I was visiting. The warm up activity was to visit all the letters of sportsmanship painted around the perimeter and do ten exercises at each. Mr. Bart then brought the class together, inviting the 5th graders to reflect on the track event from last week. I had to sit between two boys who couldn’t stop talking with and touching each other. All headed outside to play Capture the Football. I joined the yellow team, and I think we probably got trounced. But I didn’t hold back. I ripped flags off of young people with abandon and avoided getting my own flags pulled. My adult legs get all the credit. But I wasn’t adult enough to organize my team. We had no strategy and no defense.

Sweaty and worn out, I headed to the teacher’s lounge for lunch. One of the teachers had brought two drumsticks lathered in barbecue sauce for lunch. But she had no plate. I lent her a lid to one of my Pyrex dishes. I learned that one of the teachers had just run the same half-marathon that I had run. Another, the teacher of my 8-year-old son, had run the full marathon in less than four hours. I had already respected her, but this took her up a couple of notches.

Back in the classroom, Mr. Kurt read to us from Peak, a young adult novel about climbing Mount Everest. The lights stay low for the rest of the day, and the classroom is far more peaceful than I could have imagined. The class then broke up into reading groups, and I was asked to go around the room and visit with students about their work. Isaac showed me a catching game he was working on in Tynker. The player tilted the iPad to slide a player around and catch falling objects. The tilt movement was working fine, but he needed a counter to track the player’s score. It was excruciating to watch him switch back and forth between the Tynker app and the PDF worksheet that structured the activity. Right then and there, I vowed to always integrate walkthrus into the app itself. Besides the clumsy interface, he ran into several issues. First, he confused the idea of script ownership. He had a when touches? alien event defined on the alien actor. He realized on his own that the event needed to be on the player. Next he had a set count to 0 instruction inside the event handler. This was immediately followed by a count = count + 1. Needless to say, the score never grew past 1. I talked to him about one-time execution vs. the many-time execution of his collision event handler. He wasn’t getting it. I tried to make an analogy: “Suppose you were saving up for a Nintendo Switch. What if every time you got your allowance, your parents first emptied out your piggy bank?” He said he didn’t want a Switch and didn’t get an allowance. But he did end moving the set count to 0 block into the on start event.

A girl showed me her program, which she said wasn’t working correctly. Two coral sprites were supposed to disappear when the player died, having collided with a crab. They had these event handlers:

when "im ded" received

But the coral weren’t disappearing when im ded was broadcast. I helped her discover that a stop other scripts instruction was probably the culprit. It was killing the coral’s event handlers. The girl immediately suggested adding a 2-second delay before stop other scripts, which would give the coral event handlers enough time to do their thing.

All told, I am amazed at how much coding experience these students are getting. I think the landscape of introductory computer science is going to be very different in 10 years. The students are spending a lot of time on their iPads, and I think pencil and paper skills will suffer.

In the final hour of the day, students decomposed numbers into balancing mobile-like structures. For instance, the number at the root might be 48. 24 of that number would be distributed out to the left and 24 to the right. But the left might have three square children distributing the weight (8 and 8 and 8), while the right had two circles (12 and 12). I think math is being taught in a lot of fun ways these days. I’m jealous.

The day was really quite fun. But there are two negatives. First, Mr. Kurt is not returning next year. He told me that he isn’t able to fully utilize his Montessori training at the upper elementary level. There’s been a lot of focus on engineering and math, and his passions lie elsewhere. Second, and quite devastating to me who’s trying to build tools for teaching computer science, I think that educational technology and curricula play a very minor role in young people’s learning. Nothing beats a quality relationship with a caring adult.


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