Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Digital Corps

We have had the amazing opportunity to be a host site for the Sprout Fund's Remake Learning Digital Corps program, twice! We participated in one class, once a week for 8 weeks. Our students love this program and always look forward to it every time.
Don't know what Digital Corps is? Watch this quick video to learn more

Over the course of the 8 week program, our students learned how to manipulate code, learn basic machine functions, build their own robots and more. It became a reward for good behavior because all of our 5th graders could not wait for our Tuesday sessions with their Digital Corps teachers, Ms. MK and Mr. Mike.

Each session built off the last session. They played educational games to understand functions the first week which set the foundation for lessons to which the instructors would refer back to each lesson. The students seemed to understand the way the technology worked from when they acted it out in a game. 
This was a great learning tool to see in action. When students act or participate hands on in a lesson they are more apt to retain the information, and in a way have become the teacher as well. 

Our students really seemed to like the hummingbird kits and had a lot of fun manipulating the technology to work for them and and their desires for a specific robot. 

The best part of the program, for me, was watching two particular students. Student A tends to excel in school, at homework and likes to spread knowledge to anyone who will listen. Student B experiences great difficulty when it comes to homework, reading and following basic directives in a classroom setting. Student B came alive in this class, he quickly grasped the concepts that were taught and jumped ahead immediately without needing further instruction. When I asked Student B if he had done this before he replied "No, It's just easy, Ms. Amber!" Student A struggled and needed frequent assistance and often sat back and gave up or expected the teacher to do the project for him. 
It was amazing to see how the roles were reversed given the environment and the task. A constant nod to Ingnacio Estrada who stated:

"If a child can't learn the way we teach, 
maybe we should teach the way they learn."
Ignacio Estrada

I also appreciated how empowered our girls felt after each class.  Back in October, before the program started and after hearing the class description, one of our girls commented that this was a boys class. We discussed that this was not true, girls and boys can both excel at technology based programs and so much more.  After each class the girls would excitedly tell me all about what they did and how much fun they had. 

We have greatly appreciated all the hard work and effort that Ani Martinez, Digital Corps Program Manager, has poured into this program as well as the many Digital Corps instructors.
We look forward to doing it again in the future!


Monday, January 26, 2015

Before the Selfie, There was the Self-Portrait: Day 1

"I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you." - Frida Kahlo
We're starting off 2015 at the New Artist after school program with studying Realism... more specifically, Self-Portraits. For many elementary students, realism is really cool to look at but frustrating to try for themselves. It's a challenge but it all starts with taking that first step. We're not going for perfection, we're going for learning and trying new things.

Also, I want to note, this was an intentional lesson for our students to cultivate their creative eye and get them started on the application requirements for the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts 6–12 (CAPA), a local magnet school located in the Cultural District of Downtown Pittsburgh. Since, many of the students from Phillip's Elementary apply to CAPA and "a self-portrait in pencil done from observation (looking into a mirror)" is a requirement, I decided Realism would be our first focus of the semester.

Let's jump in!

It's an involved process to teach young kids to draw a realistic face. First, our students needed to practice! Using mirrors, newsprint, graphite, erasers, and a tips handout; we studied the human face.

Self-Portrait Lesson:

The lesson was split into 3 parts. But, before I get into what we did let me share what we started with. I gave each student 3 pieces of paper, 1 pencil, 1 eraser, 1 crayon, 1 ruler and 1 mirror. 

First, students drew their face using a mirror for reference. This was to get a base level of their drawing skills and so they can stretch their creative minds. I think it's important for students to be able to see improvement in their skills. Throughout the lesson the students compared their new drawings to their original. Not only does this help the students, but it helps me assess the lesson qualitatively as well.

Second, students used a crayon and a mirror to outline their facial features. Students then compared their first drawing to their outline on the mirror. We discussed the similarities and differences. What shapes are involved? Where are the eyes located on the face? How wide is our mouth compared to our nose and eyes?  These are the questions I wanted to challenge the students to think about.

While they were going through this process we discussed their observations. One student mentioned,
My eyes are half way down my face.
This was one of the main concepts I wanted them to learn! Many young children tend to draw eyes far up on the face and that squishes the top part of the face and makes the bottom part really elongated. Since our lesson is on realism and how to make a realistic self-portrait, I wanted to challenge them to learn the structure of the face. For a link to the handout I provided the students click here.

You can see an example in the photograph below. The drawing on the right was this students 1st attempt and the drawing on the left was her 2nd attempt. You can see the face is more centrally aligned and symmetrical!

Third, students were given a handout that explained 6 steps of drawing a face. Using their new findings and knowledge they were challenged to draw their face a 2nd time. We then discussed the differences between their first drawing and their second drawing. For the rest of the class time, they completed a third drawing for extra practice! (You can't go wrong with more practice.)

In the photograph below, you can see this student has really integrated the rules she learned about the face into her practice self-portrait. Her face is symmetrical, her nose is realistic, and she even captured the shape of her head quite amazingly! What an awesome job!

What I Observed:

I had a mixed reaction with my 3rd and 4th grade students. A few really liked being able to focus on making their drawing as realistic as possible and enjoyed pushing themselves to erase lines, try again, and adjust. However, a few students were quite frustrated and even temporarily "quit" before trying again.

I'll admit, it's not only difficult to learn but it can be challenging to try and teach 3rd and 4th grade students these concepts. I really had to get a feel for where each student was in their artistic development in order to help them. I found myself giving some one-on-one attention on this day to students who were frustrated or confused. Even though they are being challenged, support is so important to provide!

Patience.. Patience.. Patience! Self-portraits aren't easy. Students have to forget about what they know about the face and almost re-learn how to see and observe their own faces. That's a difficult thing to do. Students need to be reminded, this isn't about perfect, it's about growing as an artist!

Helpful Self-Portrait Resources:

Portrait Drawings by Everyone Can Draw
How to Draw a Pretty Face by KatCanPaint
Drawing People Summer Art Class - Day 3 by T Matthews Fine Art
Self Portrait Drawing for Kids by PixGood

Remember the most important thing about self-portraits is to... HAVE FUN! Stay tuned for our Self-Portrait Day 2 follow-up post.

- Corey

Friday, January 23, 2015

Geocaching with Venture Outdoors!

In December we shared our Indoor Adventures with Venture Outdoors, and we shared that we have had some rough weather the last few outings with Venture Outdoors.   In January we realized we had a few inches of snow to stomp around in, so our VO leaders decided it was perfect for geocaching in the snow! The students loved it!
Don't know what geocaching is? Watch this brief video to get a better understanding.

Essentially, you punch in the GPS coordinates and go find the cache.  I like to think about it as a crazy hide and seek game, our students saw it as a treasure hunt!

We bundled up and headed out to Grandview Park. Grandview Park is an amazing Pittsburgh treasure that sits between the Allentown and Mount Washington neighborhoods.  It provides a beautifully clear view of the city, with walking trails and a small stage/amphitheater to boot.

Our VO leaders explained what a GPS was and how it worked, they then showed the students how to operate the GPS to find the specific coordinates to the caches that were hidden prior to the outing by Mr. Alex, and they were off! 
Some students chose to run through the snow in search of the cache and others stuck to the trails.  Mr. Alex explained that a GPS sends a signal to a satellite into outer space and then comes back down to us, sometimes it may take a few seconds for the compass to catch up with which way we turned.  This allowed our students to work on being patient with the technology 

The students worked as teams and learned to help each other with the GPS and by searching together for the little yellow box. Their faces were priceless when they found it. A few "happy dances" followed a couple difficult caches.  There was one student that became frustrated that they could not find it and literally sat down on the tree stump the cache was hidden inside, this resulted in lots of laughter and silliness. 

As a teacher the part of this activity that I enjoyed the most was watching our students work together as a team, they had a goal and a purpose and they worked together to accomplish it. I especially loved the excitement and spirit of adventure they exuded, it was contagious and I found myself excitedly looking for the caches too.
Overall our January geocache experiences were a success and lots of fun was had.

We greatly enjoyed this adventure and the students have already asked to go again!  ALEC students are looking forward to what our February Venture Outdoors experience will hold for us.

For more on Venture Outdoors and the many activities they offer and participate with please check out their website,
For more information on geocaching and to find coordinates near you please check out
Did you know there are 576 caches near Pittsburgh! That's a lot, so pull out your GPS and go on an adventure!


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Community Activities

Teaching students about their community can be difficult. Without the mobility and independence that adults enjoy, kids' ideas about where places are and how they relate can be fuzzy or uncertain. A recent community day at ALEC sought to overcome this challenge with fun games and puzzles!

To get a new perspective of the neighborhood, the ALEC students followed the instructions on a map to plot the places they go each day and the paths they travel. This exercise focused on individuals' reading skills and spatial reasoning.

 The next station on the circuit was a game of hangman which featured community-themed vocabulary words. Taking turns within their teams, the students guessed the letters for nearby street names, neighborhood institutions, and qualities that we try to emphasize in our community lessons.

Hangman was a great addition to the activity day. It requires very little preparation but involves everyone while reinforcing spelling and reading skills.

Station three mystified some students at first, but once they learned that it was a puzzle, they set to work placing the neighborhoods of Pittsburgh in order. The home-made map was rather fidgety, with irregular shapes that were prone to sliding out of place. Nonetheless, the kids sorted out the oddly shaped neighborhoods in little time at all.

 Cooperation was the key to success in this game. With 24 pointy, curvy, jagged pieces to lay down in only eight minutes, finding neighbors was a team effort.

The final activity of the rotation was a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game that replaced the tail with six city landmarks and the donkey with Pittsburgh. Rather than compete with each other as in the original game, this version challenged teams to coordinate their efforts to place the landmarks on the map.

Going one at a time, the players would take their landmark, stand on the starting line a few feet from the map, and cover their eyes (no peeking!). The rest of their time would stand away from them and guide them with their words, not their hands, telling them "left left!" "up a little bit," and "stick it!" Gentle reminders ensured that this activity remained one of communication and listening rather than one of physical manipulation.
A quick poll after the activity time reaffirmed the obvious: students prefer engaging, varied activities over sitting down for lessons. Look for more days like this in coming months!

- John

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Students, Time Management, & Visual Timers! Oh My!

It's the start of a new year! Fresh beginnings, new routines, and implementing goals are on our minds here at ALEC as we wrap up our first week of the year. We have been looking for tools and systems to put in place that structure our after school time in the most productive way possible and provide appropriate educational opportunities for our students.

While students grow and adapt, we understand there will be challenges along the way. Consistency is something we have found to be quite important with our students. The more consistent we are, the more our students understand what is expected of them. Hence, when we follow a routine schedule each day, our students are ready, responsible, and respectful.

However, change is inevitable. Whether it's a multi-week break, new students, new policies, or even a change in weather; we are challenged to transform our routines in order to be flexible and resilient.

I had noticed prior to break that students weren't on the same page when it came to homework time. Some would waste the first half of the time talking or being goofy and then be rushed and anxious to finish their homework during the last half. Some just didn't want to do their homework. A few students have even been quite upset at the teachers for not "allowing" them to finish their homework once we moved on to activity time. So, self-discipline, which is a foundation for time management and concentration, is something quite important for our students to practice so they can learn to be even better students.

I started to do some research online and I found a really helpful tool that we could easily implement here at ALEC. Matt Gomez, a Kindergarten Teacher and Blogger, wrote an article describing his experience utilizing visual timers with his classes. He writes that he first began to use them for his own sake then quickly realized how it was a great tool for his students to understand time and use time in a better way. I recommend reading his story.

With the start of a new year we decided to give it a try. I used Matt's suggestion of Online-Stopwatch's classroom timers, specifically the Clock Countdown. We are using a laptop and our television (you could use a Smartboard or just a computer). All you have to do is follow the link, click on clock countdown, click on "Use the Clock Timer Full Screen", set your time (hours:minutes:seconds), click set and start. Also, there is a button in the upper right-hand corner to make it full screen and there is a "Back" button to change your time.

The first day we used this visual timer, I overheard many students mentioning how much time was left throughout homework time. The teachers also enjoyed the countdown so we could all have a quick reference on time, but the students really got the most out of the timer.

I was helping some 5th graders with their homework and one of our students began to rally his peers. He would say, "Oh there's only 10 minutes left, come on let's do this." For the rest of the week we kept implementing this new tool and each day seemed to get better and better in regards to time management and self-discipline. A tip that Matt gave, which we haven't tried yet, is to keep the timers at 15 minutes or less. So, if you have a 30 minute session, divide it into two 15 minute sessions. I could see this working well with prioritizing time more efficiently since students don't seem to hurry until the timer gets to 15 or 10 minutes.

When the countdown was around 10 seconds, all the sudden our students began to countdown. I was a bit shocked to see them so aware of the time. This was new for our students. It made our transition from homework time to activity time a lot quicker and more definitive.

We are now using the timer for homework time and our free time at the end of the day. The countdown timer really challenges our students to practice self-discipline in terms of completing tasks and time management. I only see this new tool helping more and more this new year as they get accustomed to the visual timer becoming a regular, consistent part of our routine.

- Corey

Thursday, January 8, 2015

ALEC on WESA 90.5

We were recently mentioned on WESA's Essential Pittsburgh for a segment on Allentown. Give it a listen here.



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