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Squish the Boredom and Power Up Play with Squishy Circuits

February 6, 2016

squish1Full disclosure: I’m embarrassed of the way I taught circuits in my classroom many years ago.  I was bored with the topic.  I mainly lectured to my 10 year old students and asked them to draw a circuit. Then we moved on faster than I could grade the tests and check their regurgitation. I’m sharing this because I know I’m not alone in feeling that way.  We weren’t taught how much fun circuitry can really be, nor were we encouraged in our teacher training to veer off the path of the textbook and engage kids with Playdoh.  But everything has changed in my mind.

Squishy Circuits are featured in this amazing TED Talk by AnnMarie Thomas.    It takes the intimidation of wires out of learning about circuitry, conduction, and electricity, and puts the focus on clay, colorful lights, and your imagination.   While this activity primarily makes it way through younger maker crowds, it’s great for makers of all ages.

What do you need to get started?

You can get the entire Squishy Circuits Kit based on University of St. Thomas’s work.  The kit is honestly well worth the initial cost. It’s reusable and you won’t have to hunt around for the parts to get started.  But if you are looking to start smaller, you can purchase the materials yourself.  Here’s what you need:

squish2The minimum? A 4 AA battery pack. LED lights. Playdoh, or make your own homemade dough that contains salt.  The salt is key for conducting.

TIP: LED lights come in a variety of sizes. I love the 10mm size, especially for tiny hands, but the 3mm and 5mm size are more widely available and less expensive.  Their lights are equally impressive.

Taking it to the next level?  The minimum, plus modeling clay, an electric buzzer.   The modeling clay, a non-conductor, allows kids to build clay figures using the clay as a barrier in the Playdoh.  squish3

After the art of positive and negative creations are mastered, add in Copper tape to lengthen the leads and raise the bar.  Toss in a motor to add spin to designs. Cardboard to build bigger and better.  Cardboard, just like the modeling clay, is a great barrier between the positive and negative dough. Kids can experiment with what conducts or doesn’t conduct. Paper? Cardboard? Model Magic?  Plastic? Small wood scraps?

What do Squishy Circuits Offer Students Across the Curriculum?

Reading:  What book character can I build?  How might I light up words I’ve built with dough?  Where can I read about circuits in the library?

Writing: How do circuits work? What kind of story can I create about the creature I built with light up hair?   What will happen if I try…?

Math: How many volts are the batteries?  How many lights will this set of batteries power?   How long does my wire need to be to reach the playdough?

Science:  What is a conductor?  What materials conduct electricity?  How do I build a circuit?  How do LED’s work?  How can I use copper tape instead of Playdoh in a similar way?  Do humans conduct electricity?

Social Studies:  How might I use LED’s to light up a topographical map?  How was electricity developed and by who?  What careers are available in the field of electricity?

But these questions will be even more powerful if you start with one thing….

Play.  Explore.  Let them try things.  Try things yourself. See what happens.

And Playdoh becomes the foundation for playing, learning, and reimagining science in the classroom.  Design, dreaming, and doing.  The way it was meant to be.




Don’t Wait To Make

January 29, 2016

make1Just about every day I get an email from someone asking, “How do I start making in my classroom?” And you know what the next statement often is?  “Since I don’t have a maker space in my school.”   The good news? You don’t need a makerspace to make.  Classroom desks. The floor. The hallway. A table by the windows. Your big ol’ teacher desk. A rug and beanbags on the floor.  Provide the space in the curriculum and the time, and it doesn’t matter where the physical location is.

What if you look at one simple assignment in next week’s lessons?  A reading activity? A math assignment?  And what if you just open it up… make it more creative.  Give the kids more freedom.  Start small with one exploration.  One pile of cardboard.  One block of time for kids to create, collaborate, and design a solution to a problem.

You just don’t need the space to get started.  You just need a little courage to let go and try it.


January 3, 2016

If school had been right for us, we wouldn’t have a nation of adults that have waited for coloring books labeled “adult coloring books” to do something creative. School beat it out of us, one worksheet at a time. It made many of us feel like we aren’t creative, or worse, that a score rated us as incapable.  It pushed us along on the conveyor belt until we gave in. Conformed. Joined the masses. And stopped coloring outside the lines. It’s a sad reality that we don’t really think about, until we look at the school system that is in front of us.

10583971_10153367174363325_8377820887259269185_nFull disclosure: I just spent almost every second my holiday break creating. When I wasn’t creating, I was sleeping. I painted, glued, made, sewed, and cut. My canvas this time was our home and I didn’t ask anyone for permission to make every room as bright and colorful as possible. Fortunately, my husband knew what he was getting into when we married many years ago… I love color. The more the better.

One day, while I painted a chair, I heard a story on the news about the shortage of colored pencils taking place across America over the holidays, because of the “adult coloring book craze.” I smiled. Have we all been deprived for so long?

And the only thing it tells me is that we have an obligation to make (pun totally intended) school more for our kids. Because we don’t want them to require a personal invitation to get creative when they grow up. We want them to hold onto to that very thing that exudes joy in learning from us all, no matter our age… play, exploration, curiosity, creativity, and learning. And maybe, if we’re lucky, we can get it back for ourselves.

Because at the end of the day, when you imagine a conversation between your LED light, the battery, and the copper tape, you’ll know that you’ve fallen off the conveyor belt of conformity, and it feels great.  You’ll know that it’s silly, a little weird, and the way the google eyes on the bulb make it look alive will make you smile.  And you won’t care about any of that. The people who will say you’re “hobby” is a waste of  time?  Let them.  Because your inner soul will be smiling in a way that it’s meant to.   They just never got off the conveyor belt, and it’s not your fault.

But the kids you teach?  Now is your chance to help them.  And it turns out, that will make your inner soul smile, too.




You Totally Have Time for #HourOfCode

December 5, 2015

It’s here!  This coming week is the big Hour of Code.  You might be thinking, ‘Ain’t nobody got time for that?’ Or, maybe you’re like me, thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is my superbowl!”   Either way, whether you have an entire coding curriculum in your classroom, or have never even understood what the heck the coding revolution is all about, there is something out there for you to encourage your kiddos to try… no planning, no purchasing. Just an activity that will get it started.  There is likely a kid or ten in your classroom that thinks in the visually goodness way that coding speaks to. Trust me, often kids that are struggling in some areas, find success in coding.  Doesn’t that make it worth trying in the classroom?

Here are five ways to incorporate Hour of Code THIS week…. or the week after, whether you have one device or a class set.

1.)  Paper Coding.

On index cards, create arrows of Turn Right, Turn Left, Forward, Backward.  On the floor, use the floor tiles or use masking tape to create a grid.  Depending on what you are learning about in class, create a game board with the grid.  For example, Oregon Trail?  Add obstacles on the grid like a river, a rock, a moutain– all things students will have to navigate around.  Students write the program by laying the cards out, and another student follows the program by moving through the sequence on the floor. Young students could practice letter recognition, find numbers by rolling a dice, or even sight words.  Older students could create their own board with a historical topic, make cards to draw a task like, “Navigate from the mountain, across the river, and stop at the bridge.”    Oh, there’s no device even involved.  Just teamwork, creativity, collaboration… and fun.  This could also work on a small scale using grid paper and moving objects.

Fractus Learning offer these FREE PDF printables for coding games and some great suggestions for other paper coding!

Space Paper Coding Example

2.) Websites has three amazing ready to use tutorials that kids can partner up and try out for some collaborative fun, or dive in on their own.  Minecraft, Star Wars, and Frozen make the tasks fun and interactive, but the idea is to introduce kids to the basics of coding.  Do it along with your students and you’ll be surprised at how much fun coding is.  It’s certainly not just a boring bunch of numbers and letters like I once thought.  No experience necessary.

Scratch.  Scratch has to be one of the most underused and overly awesome things online.  I know why – it’s a bit confusing to a teacher that doesn’t have a lot of spare time to take a look at coding sites.  But have no fear!  Scratch has you covered– they offer FREE Scratch Cards for you to download and print.  And guess what, with NO experience on your part, you can hand these to your kids, and ask them to figure it out. And you will learn right along with them.  Once they start discovering what Scratch can do, they’ll be hooked.   Scratch also has an amazing little set of easy tutorials to help kiddos begin to understand coding.  Be sure to check out last years “Create a Holiday Card” tutorial… it’s a fun one, too.   So how can Scratch fit into your overpacked curriculum?  The skills it reinforces, among them creativity, collaboration, problem solving, also include tons of math skills (number sense, time, measurement, angles, shapes), could easily be used to reinforce understanding in a science or social studies topic, or could be a springboard to a creative writing project because of the interactivity. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination!   NOTE: Scratch Jr. is also available as an app, and definitely one to check out for the younger crowd.

3.) Apps

Hopscotch:  A great app to begin coding with. Similar to Scratch.
BeeBot:  Now you can code with BeeBots on an iPad, whether you own the BeeBot robots or not.

Daisy the Dinosaur: Created by Hopscotch, another fun one. Daisy is cute, too.

And to look for a few more, check out Common Sense Media Coding Apps.  This is a must use site for vetting apps and websites for the classroom or even your own kiddos at home.  Excellent rating systems and they keep it up to date.

4.) Videos

What is coding?   Great little intro for primary and elementary ages.

What is coding?  Good intro for Upper Elementary.

Should Everyone Learn to Code?   Very cool way to show kids the possibilities of the cool careers that coding involves.  Would be excellent for upper elementary and middle school.





It’s So Wrong

December 3, 2015

Every once in a while I get fired up.  Like, you borrowed my Sharpies and broke the tips… THAT fired up.  On the drive home today it was one of those moments.  Why?  Because this week has been AWESOME.  I mean, like, learning on fire awesome.   It’s left me thinking, why doesn’t this happen at all schools?  How can we get everyone back to authentic learning?

002Science and social studies are far too often tossed aside to squeeze in time spent reading boring stories from basal texts. Why?  Science and social studies ARE great reading content.  Why can’t that reading be “reading class” if you must label your subjects?  Writing could tie into the Science topic or the Social Studies through writing diaries, journals, lab reports.   Writing letters?  Write to Congressman about causes you care about, write to family to ask about where they live.  Blog. Share writing with the world… what more authentic way to check your grammar is their than hitting “Publish.”

While the world debates things like “Is it STEM or STEAM?” or “Where do I post the list of standards I’m teaching?” we’re missing precious moments.  Moments kids will never get back.  Moments where they could be dreaming, growing, being curious, creating, and most of all? Learning.

School should be a place where kids are running to get in and not wanting to leave when it’s over.

001Kids should leave school with more ideas than they bring with them in the morning.

Kids need to experience that feeling of making something… whether it’s a book, a poem, a cardboard castle. That exhilaration of DOING and BUILDING something you worked on?  It inspires more learning.
I don’t even think this probably makes sense.  But today, at the end of a long day, when a kid was thrilled with his amazing historical artifact he was building, his eyes were all lit up and he said, “I’m so beyond excited about how this is turning out,”  I thought, “Me, too.”

And then I drove home. Thinking about all the kids in schools across America that need the opportunity for their eyes to light up, and instead get handed a test booklet or a laptop to take more tests.  And that’s really even more wrong than broken-tipped Sharpies.