Outside the Box

This week’s theme was just that… outside the box. We started in the classroom this week with a kick off exercise of “connecting 9 dots by only using 4 straight lines and not picking up your pencil”. Out of my 165-ish student, I believe only one genuinely got it! Some admitted they’ve seen this exercise before. Can you do it? It’s a 3 x 3 block of dots… connect ALL dots with 4 straight lines. (Here’s the answer)

Yes, my students LOVE to groan at me! “Mr. Urban!!! Ugh!!” This was to make the point of being or thinking outside of the box. With that, we kicked off our week with their “About Me” presentations. With everything in society that’s happened in the past few years, I’m REALLY working hard to hone their communication skills (i.e., digital, written and oral). They took my PowerPoint template and their assignment was:

  1. Insert a picture of themselves (it could be just them, with family, friends or even a pet)
  2. Change their name from “About Mr. Urban” to About their name (yes I modeled the expected outputs)
  3. Change the minimum bullet points (3) to details about themselves. I called it “stub data” because they were sentence starters and good computer science terms to get used to.

Two out of three communication skills conquered! (digital and written) Then they need to step “outside of their comfort zone box” and present back to the class. This is building on their oral presentation skills, team building and the likes. Most gave feedback that they were nervous but once it was completed, they felt is was a fairly easy assignment. I DID give the option for those who felt anxious to use Flip. Not one student took me up on it !

My next block days consisted of Unit 1: Problem Solving. I’m taking in several content / technical considerations and blending them together.

  1. The first resource I’m using is Code.org. They’ve got a good set of lessons to introduce problem solving. The introduction for this block was building an aluminum boat to carry as many pennies as possible. It steps a learner through the design to prototype process with accompanying worksheets to document design, findings and group project work.
  2. I’ve introduced Microsoft Teams and more specifically the Class Notebook. Within Code.org’s lesson, the first 5 or so minutes of class is journaling. Where’s the PERFECT place to practices notes and journaling? Microsoft OneNote! So, I have a class for each one of the sections which I am teaching. I’ve used student ID’s and assigned them to each class. This allowed me to provision a notebook for each student. As the teacher, I have access to view and or comment on their work within the space yet no other student can see another’s work.


Another GREAT feature I’m using is Reflect which allows me to ask a question to understand how a student is doing. I’ve started out with basic questions however this will progress as time goes on. In the example below, it allows me to proactively engage students to make sure their basic needs are being met. Otherwise, as stated by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in Education, how can a student move into learning mode if their basic needs have not been met? (Thanks Dr. Dugan!)



The aluminum boat lesson, if I were to perform it “by the book”, students are broken into small teams that design a boat using a 5×5 inch piece of aluminum foil with the goal of floating as many pennies (dropping one at a time) as possible before capsizing or sinking. They document the process of how many pennies they were able to float, what were the strengths and weaknesses and then move into the innovate phase where they build upon the strengths and shore up the weaknesses. Once they have the new design, they then build, float and finalize the process.

However, not EXACTLY this way in Mr. Urban’s class! I, of course, need to put my own personal thumbprint on the lesson. I had everyone hold off on the 2nd float. I made it a BIG deal that they were going to have a class “float off’”! To the victor, is fame, knowledge and a laptop / water bottle sticker! What they DIDN’T know is that I was going to float their boat and I was going to be doing the penny placement! “Awww…. come on Mr. Urban! You’re cheating!” I assured them that I was playing by the established rules. Drop the boat, don’t touch it while in the water and drop one penny at a time. However, what actually happened is that I would drop the boat and proceed to drop one penny at a time in the “worst” corner or side. My results went from 77 pennies to 10, for example. They claimed I wasn’t playing fair and moaned all the way back to their seats as I asked them the final questions before the bell rang.

Why would be float aluminum boats in water in a computer science course??!! Great feedback during the discussion. Teamwork, communication, and building something better in the process. All good and fair points. However, WHY would we be doing, what may seem as a classic science lab project, in computer science? I then would turn to the team which had the highest count during the first run and rib them a little bit. I’d ask them what happened? Did they not use the process? I mean, after all, the assignment was to learn from their first float, identify strengths / weaknesses, and improve. Why didn’t they improve?! Did they not follow the process which I taught them?! Some caved others told me I was the problem. I would correct and mold their words… I wasn’t the PROBLEM, I was the VARIABLE! Smile In computer science, as in math, we use variables. I used that to reference future work as I pointed to the poster which covers coding variables in my room. I then asked them who they were designing the boat for? I explained to them that they ALL had solid plans for float #2. They described how and where they’d place their pennies… how the whole thing would play out. However, just as in the world of software, BEST design principals are that you design FOR the users, not YOURSELF. When we are in a communications class or giving a speech, it’s FOR the audience, not themselves. When they are writing in their English class, they are writing for the reader NOT themselves. As in computer science, I did a “social hack” to their boats to exploit their weakness. Sometimes we need different team perspectives and think “outside the box”! We’ll be covering this in the weeks to come… BING. End of class!

First Days of Being a Teacher

The summer “ramp up” course to help “teachers in training” coming from industry is over. It’s full on teaching mode now. I’ve just finished my 3rd full day of classes. Granted, the first 2 were more about getting to know my students on a Thursday and Friday. Today was the kick off to the first full week in school as I look at what’s in store for my with block schedules (90 min classes).

I have to say that my first few days have been GREAT! I come home with my feet a little sore and lots of stories to tell my wife. You see, I have my students out of their seats probably half of the time right now. I started out the first day with “This or That”. It was a PowerPoint I put together with just product images and company logos. I figured the easiest way to slide into this exercise was to ask PlayStation vs. Xbox. Yep, that woke them up! I split the room in half as they picked the side which corresponded with their images. I did several iterations such as Apple Mac vs. Microsoft Surface, and then Apple Mac vs. Dell XPS.

The last one sort of threw them for a loop but I walked them through, “Are we talking about Dell or Windows?” My typical non-response is “You tell me!” It was a guided journey of corporations, brands (and brand awareness), products, logos and reputations. (Yes we covered many more such as cost, reliability, cool factor, etc.)

This allowed me to have fun discussions with my students as well as between themselves. My three rules:

  1. Be an active listener
  2. Make eye contact with your audience
  3. Be respectful (either making the point or counterpoint)

This was all on the journey to each class coming up with a class name and logo. I thought it’d make for a good “buy in process” for it being THEIR class. WOW the discussions! A lot of insightful naming, which at face value I was like “what the heck are you talking about and why??!!”. For example, a simple one when students weren’t talking and I was trying to draw out some feedback, a student looked to the front of class and said “door”. I was like, okay! I’ll take that! However, when I asked each student why, that’s when the depth of conversation kicked in. “Why a door?” The obvious answer was “…that’s what I was looking at” however it went deeper; it was a play on words with Windows. Sweet! The whole class laughed and that broke the ice! They weren’t afraid to throw out ideas! “How about the Walnuts, Mr. Urban?” as they throw out an “odd idea”. Why? “Well, when you crack them open they look like a big brain”. Heck yeah I’ll take that answer! There were SO many insightful answers!

Then the voting process. “Out of your seats! You’re voting with your bodies!” Those who weren’t engaged are now “part of the process” again. The room starts to buzz with debate and politicking to join “their group” so they get their name. Perfect.

Onto logos! I first start by asking for their ideas as I’m scribing them on the PowerPoint slide in ink. They’re seeing, in real time, the ideation process again. This time in a more creative form. They first start telling me attributes of a given logo… and then, bam! One student says, “…can I just draw it up there for you”. Heck yea! All of a sudden, I have a line of students wanting to draw their ideas and share with the class. I just fade away from the ClearTouch and let them go with their creative and engaged learning. One of the group names as “Tree”. Again, not a convincing name at first. However, the student started to explain that trees have branches (representing students” which grow leaves (growing and learning). They also have roots which spread into different facets of a community high school. As the student grabs the pen for this logo… he’s thought about this one over the weekend! You can tell he can’t wait to get it off his chest! In fact, it’s already down on paper! Then one student points out that the roots should be cables because, of course, this is a tech course! Ideas building on top of ideas! They are having fun with it. That one logo went through several iterations alone! Again, they vote with their body! Boom. Done!

I ask them… why did we do such a crazy and somewhat time consuming exercise? Some share the insights and perhaps what I want to hear. Team building, getting to know one another, and having fun. All great points! However, I ask the harder question of how does this DIRECTLY related to computer science? I mean, that’s what we’re in here for, right? They look at me with blank stares. I explain to them that software is about teams and building on ideas. However, it takes teams sharing ideas no matter how “crazy” they may be because that may spark another idea in someone else. I then point out to them “the Tree”. Version 1.0 You see, in computer science, code has versions. We ideate, share ideas, prototype, and then take a whack at it. 1.0 Then, we may get feedback from out customers or peers. Walnut Tree. 2.0. All of a sudden, this interactive game of naming the class is full circle showing them how versioning and code check ins (with comments) works. Ah, Mr. Urban!! Until our next topic…