Category Archive: Teaching

2015
07/23

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Teaching

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Pastures new

I am in the very fortunate position of having finished teaching at a school in Leicestershire (which broke up on July 10th) and getting ready to start at a school in Northamptonshire (which only just broke up yesterday, July 22nd).

Thanks to a very kind offer from my parents, my two boys (aged 11yo and 7yo) were able to have a “big boy” holiday with their grandparents, and my little girl (aged 3yo) was able to visit her nursery for an extra week leaving me free to spend some time in my new school.

That week has already proved invaluable, as not only do I have an understanding of what I’m coming back to, in September, but it afforded me a very real chance to meet and start building relationships within my department (I’m stepping up to be “Head of IT”) ahead of the summer break. So now I have a list as long as my arm (a not inconsiderable length) of units to plan, courses to investigate and programming languages to brush up on over the summer.

To that end, I’ve started putting all of these items down on a Trello board, that I intend to share with my team so that we can see just where we are up to, ahead of the new school year. I’m hoping that this will ensure that everybody sees that we are sharing the work out evenly and no-one will feel de-motivated at the size of the task ahead of us.

Thanks to my previous HoD, I have a good framework in mind for how to aim over the next year, 3 years and then 5 years – all I need to do now, is deliver!

Fun times ahead… what have you got lined up for your summer “holiday” this year?

2015
01/22

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Computing
Teaching

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Embedding movies in DokuWiki

We have a solution in school that is using a mirrored DokuWiki instance to share lessons between ourselves and a partner school (or, at least, will do).

The “main” instance is running on this server, for the moment, and the slave is running on a Raspberry Pi. The two instances are kept “in sync” by using the synchronisation plugin available from the standard DokuWiki repository.

The primary idea was to allow students to video science experiments, which our partner school may not have the resources to do for themselves, then upload it to the wiki along with a commentary, so that pupils at the partner school could learn from seeing and hearing our experiments, not just reading about them in a science textbook.

The first hiccup was finding out that the default installation of DokuWiku didn’t allow uploading of the .mov files generated by iMovie on iOS. Ah… After some thought, we decided we could just upload them to YouTube and link to them there, or maybe even try and embed them.

Part-way through the process, it occurred to me that we had somewhat broken one of our initial design goals, which was to have all of this running on the RaspberryPi instance, so that it could serve wiki pages even if their internet link was down. No point stressing over that, if all the videos are on YouTube! D’oh!

Back to the drawing board, we looked into plugins that could embed videos. The main one we found uses HTML5 to embed videos from the wiki media library directly on a page, but it clearly states that it only supports the encodings speed by native HTML5, of which QuickTime is not one. Boo!

After a number of fruitless experiments altering the source on my host and a fair bit of reading up on the supported codecs, I was all set to try option “b” (or was I up to “q”?) and instead simply convert the videos into MP4 files and upload those. So I found a free app in the AppStore and converted a short sample video, when I noticed something potentially useful: both the original .mov and the converted .mp4 were using H.264/AAC encodings, the only difference being the envelope!

A glimmer of hope shone through!

I tired simply renaming the file. Bingo! Hosted, embedded video!

Taking it one step further, it turns out that if I simply redefine the MIME type for mov from video/quicktime to video/mp4 and amend the plugin code to allow the .mov extension through, then all is shiny!

W00t – iPad-generated videos, uploaded straight to the wiki can now be embedded in the wiki pages. Result!

I am a happy geek 🙂

2014
10/29

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Teaching

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Intriguing reactions

My starter this week has been based around the Queen sending her first tweet from the launch of the new “Information Age” exhibition at the Science Museum.

The two big questions were: why would the Queen need to use Twitter; and how long do you think it was before the first troll appeared?

More than anything I’ve been surprised by the range of reactions to the second comment on the Queen’s tweet – from absolute shock horror, to giggles. What I also found interesting was the number of people who assumed that it would be illegal (to “troll” the Queen); only one particularly switched-on Y9 boy had an immediate response of, “Why? It’s just their opinion!”

Overall, there have been some excellent discussion on exactly what Twitter (and, by extension, social media in general) is for; how people use it; what “trolling” is; and why the monarchy would need to keep up with technology.

It’s been a good week 🙂

2013
04/24

Category:
Computing
Teaching

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After-school MinecraftPi sitrep

So I’ve have a few weeks of running the RaspberryPi after-school programming club and I have to say it’s been an interesting ride. In a way I’m a little disappointed with the lack of programming we’ve managed to achieve. But, on the other hand, the amount of Linux experience they’ve gained (to say nothing of the un-spoken appreciation – there’s been little to no grumbling – they’ve developed for the smoothness of systems like Windows and OSX) has been incredible.

So far, then, we’ve managed to set up and boot a RasPi. We then added configuration to try and work through the school proxy (more on that, later) and then managed to grab MinecraftPi (the “hook” I’m using to get them thinking about coding). This last week we finally managed to get a sample program working (this sample, actually, which draws an analogue clock in the sky) against a couple of the pupil’s MCPi instances.

From here, then, I hope to draw out the programming aspects of the club (using Geany to code Python against their own Minecraft instance, initially, although I hope to work up to running mini-competitions, eg building races, in one world) starting from more simple coding challenges like building a cube of a given material, working up to pyramids (well, ziggurats I s’pose, which I’m thinking must be possible with recursive calls).

So, what have I learned?

Well, it’s mostly been about what I’d do differently next time

Like, having a proxy-configured system image and working from there, instead of having to think on the hoof and get them to change configurations as we go. I could still get them to startup, update and install packages, run X and then shutdown… but I could do it from a position of strength, knowing that the proxy side of things will simply work!

Or, about double-checking the amount of background knowledge required, in order to be able to follow instructions I carefully set out, on how to set up the environment to use the proxy.

Finally, there’s a lesson in terms of not testing, testing and then re-testing (just to test that the testing was working) ideas, configuration and systems before blithely assuming that they would “all work okay” when put in front of pupils; no matter how keen and self-motivated they are, they’re only KS3 and don’t have my 13+ years of programming experience to fall back on when it doesn’t quite work first time because they mis-spelt “Aquire” or didn’t match case in a function definition.

So, one final thing about the proxy. We’re in one of the ex-EMBC counties that stuck with the Capita solution, which means we’re now using the WebShield proxy solution (albeit with custom certificates so I can now actually access Twitter across the school network) – this has been a right royal pain to work around, but for those interested, the answer seems to have been to actually put the proxy login in the configuration, as well as the proxy address.

So, for example, environment variables need to be set like http_proxy=http://user:password@webshield.embc.uk.com:80/ or, for apt-get to function, settings like Acquire::http::proxy "http://user:password@webshield.embc.uk.com:80/"; in the apt.conf file.

Anyone needing fuller details on any of this, don’t hesitate to comment/tweet me – I’m happy to answer questions.

2013
03/21

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Teaching

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Victory!

Small beans, but our STEM czar ( @RedmoorSTEM ) has been running a wind power engineering challenge all week, and WE WON!

My intrepid team of 4 Y7s plus myself built the most successful wind powered crane – wish I’d taken photos now (actually, they did, as it turns out) – lifting a whopping 38ml of water!

I’m going to stick with the day job for now, I reckon 🙂

2013
03/19

Category:
Computing
Teaching

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My first after-school club

So I ran my first proper computing after-school club, this afternoon. This is my third year at the school, having transferred up from primary teaching, and I guess it’s fair to say that it’s taken me this long to feel ready and able to take it on and give it the attention I deserves. Nevertheless, it was a busy session, but one that I found rewarding… once I got my breath back!

As a school we had bought some Raspberry Pi computers to use at a poetry exhibition the school had put on at a local gallery (the Atkins Building gallery), to play recordings of the pupils reading their own poems. The clever gent who helped out it together had carefully popped them in a large plastic casing with buttons, wired onto the GPIO port, so that when you pressed one of the buttons the recording was played through the headphones.

Challenge one for us this afternoon, then, was to get into the cases and “liberate” the Pi’s. Running alongside that, I was busy imaging the pupils’s SD cards that they’d brought in (it seemed fair; we supply the Pi’s, they supply the SD cards – which, after all, they can then take home and use if they feel sufficiently inspired to buy one of these fabulous devices).

After that, it was “merely” a question of hooking them all up (we’re based in my normal ICT suite, so that involves connecting to the PC monitors with a HDMI-to-DVI cable, cannibalising the various PC that have USB keyboards and mice, plus swiping their network cables for the duration) and watching them all switch on… And they all worked! Yippee!

We then briefly talked about the concept of the console shell, X-windows, the superuser and access rights before it was time to show them how to shutdown again and put the lab back to normal, ready for tomorrow.

Next time, I’m hoping to get as far as configuring them to go through the school proxy, updating and then downloading and getting MinecraftPi up and running. The ultimate aim is to be teaching Python programming to these dedicated, geeky, few (I have had interest from about 12 pupils, 7 of whom turned up tonight).

Watch this space…

2013
03/18

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Computing
Teaching

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Inspiration from within

So we have an incredibly dedicated Science teacher here in school. So much so that her efforts in the STEM area have just borne the most incredible fruit:

  • The Broadcom Masters Place
  • NSEC Junior Science and Maths Runner Up
  • NSEC Intermediate Science and Maths Runner Up (former pupil)
  • and recognition for the club itself

  • Young Engineers award for the “diversity of projects”

Massive congratulations to staff and pupils alike for all their hard work.

But now, us other STEM-related teachers are wondering what we should be doing, too? Me, I think I’m going to be trying out some programming-related activities on the Raspberry Pi, but I know the Maths department are also looking to get some projects going.

Time to share the spotlight around a bit, maybe?

2013
03/02

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Teaching

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When they don’t do what you expect… #tmmk

Last night I attended TeachMeet Milton Keynes (#tmmk – I’ve tried to Storify the experience into a useful form here) and had a fabulous time; fabulous ideas, fantastic people, inspiring all-round.

I also tried to deliver a 2 minute nano-presentation but found that despite some rehearsing, on the evening I significantly over-ran and had to stop short (next time I’ll bite the bullet and put in for a full 7 minute slot, even if I finish short).

So below are the full ramblings and ideas I was trying to get across: the talk was titled as above and sub-titled “or how I learned to get over myself” and the slides I was using to accompany the talk are here on Google.

My background is in computers. I remember my Dad soldered together a Sinclair ZX80 as our first home computer when I was 9 or so, and it grew from there. After 13 years or so as a programmer, I feel I know my way around systems pretty well and being (as my sixth-form wrote me up as) suicidally pedantic, I make sure I know what I’m doing in software as best I can.

Which does mean I get a little exasperated with pupils who will insist on assuming that PowerPoint is the answer to everything:

  • Need a poster?
    • I’ll fire up PowerPoint.
  • Making a mind-map?
    • Hey, here’s PowerPoint.
  • Design a menu?
    • Ooooh, I could use PowerPoint.

Aargh!

So, I’ve got my year 9 groups working collaboratively on a project to “help” the owners to a flesh out a new cafe in town, producing such things as colour schemes, posters, booking systems, interior models, customer service training and the like. And, while I have had to beat off the odd inappropriate PowerPoint file, I’ve actually had to admit that there have been times when the pupils have made appropriate choices for software for tasks THAT I HADN’T EXPECTED.

Oopsie!

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For me, the learning actually starts slightly earlier this academic year, when a set 5 pupil asked whether he really had to use Publisher for the task (I think it was a poster, I was trying to get them thinking about backgrounds, page sizes, good colour schemes, etc – basic stuff, I know) or whether he could use Paint.NET (which, if you haven’t tried, you should). I hummed and hawed – he isn’t the best worker, and I was concerned he would just scribble something and call it quits.

How wrong could I be?

20 minutes later I was sat down next to him having a high-speed master class on best use of transparency in colours, on layers, Gaussian blurs and the like. It was from this encounter that I took home the lesson that I don’t actually know everything there is to know about computers (ouch!) and made a mental note to listen more carefully when pupils asked to use alternative software.

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Fast-forward a term or so and we are back in our cafe task.

Only now, where I asked for a 3d interior model, I naively assumed they would all turn to SketchUp (which we studied last year). Hah! I have a handful of groups using Minecraft. And using it WELL. One group have completely finished that part, then videoed themselves flying around their model giving me a guided tour. Some of the building tricks that I’ve seen in other groups have been, for me, breath-takingly fabulous. They know their onions, in that world, no doubt about it.

And finally, where I had asked for a “customer service training package” carefully trying to slant the task to get them thinking in terms of animations of customers entering the coffee shop to be grilled mercilessly about what they wanted, whether they wanted the cake of the day, etc (we’ve done animated nursery rhymes in Scratch, too) I instead get one group of girls recording themselves in a drama performance which they have then used iMovie to edit into a suitable training video!

I’m pleased, don’t get me wrong. Very pleased that for 9 out of 10 students, PowerPoint isn’t the default. But oh boy, was I wrong to try and assume that I knew what the “most appropriate” choice of tool for them.

Hopefully I won’t make that mistake again. Hopefully…

2013
02/10

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Teaching

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Same pastures, new challenges

So I’m still here, still teaching ICT to pretty much the whole school pus a little maths too, now. Still looking for ways to expand and improve the curriculum I teach, using coding wherever I can. But I’m now facing up to (well, more than just that now, I’m quite the convert – not to Apple wholesale, but to the opportunities that iPads bring to the classroom, computing excepted) the fact that our school is looking likely to adopt an iPad 1:1 stance from next academic year (we’re in the midst of a trial, with 45 Y8 pupils) and I’m beginning to question just now appropriate the ICT side of my lessons are, to be delivered in the way they currently are.

With this in mind, I approached my head of department and expressed concerns about the validity of the current approach, touting ideas of breaking ICT out of the lab and into other subject (either defraying my classroom time completely, or making me a “department for hire” to the subject that needed me most at that point). These ideas seemed well-received in that the next icing I know is I’m to put the thoughts down in writing for the head to consider. The passed, and when we came back in January, the head asked to speak to me about the ideas and essentially said that he agreed and now he needed me to figure out how that would work in terms of our current timetable regimen.

Hmm… still working on that one – any ideas, folks?

Our timetable is organised around fortnightly blocks of lessons, apparently, with subjects pairing up to make chunks of 10 lessons a fortnight, so if ICT were to need less of the allocation, in terms of computing lab time, how would the system balance? Eep! At this point in the conversation with the deputy in charge of time tabling, my brain started melting and I’ve yet to make and inroads into how this more “itinerant” approach might work in practice.

The way I see it, though, particularly in an iPad environment, rather than yet another ICT “research this topic and then create some kind of document to present your findings” whether Word, PowerPoint or Publisher project we need to be fully embedding the creation/communicating/presenting side of the equation with core subjects where there are more “real world” topics to be studied.

This is not to say that there aren’t some topics that bear investigation from a computing perspective – the history of cryptography is a great topic I’ve done before, which gives a real chance to bring in the work of “greats” like Turing – but too many times I’ve tried standing in front of a class, saying how important it is that they now use these skills whenever they think of doing a presentation, only to see the output from other subjects and think “ugh!”; now I’d like to take the opportunity to embed that teaching at the point where they’re doing the work, make it much more of a case of the ICT supporting the learning rather than the ICT being the learning.

And, regarding the computing side I’m mindful of the CAS curriculum recommendations, but I have to say that even as an ex-developer there is some stuff in there that would question the usefulness of, for the majority of pupils, especially if we’re trying to convince them how much fun there is to be had in programming. Things like sorting algorithms, for example, strike me as a suitable topic for perhaps maths – structured logical thinking is just as much a part of that discipline as it is computing.

What say you all?

2012
07/08

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Computing
Teaching

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Using Inform7 with English

I love the idea of children programming in school. I’ve used Scratch, Kodu, done some simple HTML development and am mooching around with also using GameMaker, Greenfoot and Alice. But of particular personal interest is Inform7, an interactive fiction development platform that attempts to handle plain English to create games.

The breakthrough for me came when I discovered that the head of English at my school was a bit of a computer games, in particular interactive fiction, geek. We bashed a few scenarios around and eventually came up with a plan for a one-day session which we ran successfully a couple of times. We showed children a story-heavy i-f game (in our case, it was Anchorhead) and then let them explore for a while. After a break we helped them plan out a small world of their own, modelled how to define locations and doors, and then let them loose to see what they could work together to produce. The results were great fun.

So we decided to “think bigger” and opted to plan out a proper scheme of work, to try and build a full (still trying to think small) game in groups. Year 8 were the lucky volunteers, as they had a small gap at the end of the year and also, we thought their recent work on Shakespeare gave us an obvious “in” in terms of a story hook without curtailing their choices overly.

The idea was that they would plan and write the creative descriptions in English, then work on turning that into a game in ICT. There were various technology-based hiccups (like when we opted to try and get them to map their world out in Prezi, but then English found they had spent entire lessons with ICT support in there having to reset passwords, etc) but overall English have found the experience a positive one (woo-hoo for cross-curricular working) so we are set to try again, next year, building on what we have learned.

So… what have we learned? Well, for starters, I’ve learned a lot more about game development in Inform7! I’ve still a long way to go (so that’s part of my summer learning, right there) but it’s been brilliant having something geeky to get my teeth into. Also, I’ve learned that children’s imaginations are way less constrained than mine – some of the ideas they have come up (that I have had to read up on) have been fantastic! I’ve been thrilled with some of the work that otherwise troublesome pupils have done – obviously, this unit really inspired them.

But I’ve also had to face that some children still found this very hard. So next year I think what we’ll do is get some of them to think of it purely in terms of freeze-framed tableaux… ie, how did the story end? if you could wander around at the end of (for us) Macbeth, then what would you see? What items would be lying around? What bodies? What would you be seeing, smelling, hearing, and so on. Perhaps, for some, the key is to link it to their creative writing and being able to use the computers to explore that world, rather than having to think of it in terms of game development, again.

What do you think?