Teaching in the 36K Computer Lab, part 6

Part 6, Block Coding

My goal for the time I was in 36K was to teach students computer programming, aka coding. I began by discussing robots and commands. Now it was time to transition from spoken commands to a live person/pretend robot (move forward, turn right) to block commands (rectangular blocks with arrows pointing in the direction the robot is supposed to go).

Here is an example of a command block for making an on-screen character move one step to the right (or East). It is from the code.org website.

In the code.org environment, command blocks are stacked in a column, like puzzle pieces, to create a sequence of commands (i.e., an algorithm). Below is an example of five East blocks attached to a “when run” block. This means that when another block, called a “Run” block, is pressed, then these commands beneath the “when run” block will activate.










I told the students that pressing the “Run” block is like when you press a light switch: the electricity begins to flow through the wires and the light bulbs and light is created. So in the same way, you press the “Run” switch here, and something else happens there (in the “when run” section).

[BTW: Code.org is a great resource to learn programming: it lets teachers set up classes, assign exciting challenging courses, and track student progress. More on this later]

Here is an example of an on-screen robot being commanded by an algorithm. There is a “repeat” block in use. Do you think the code is beautiful? (The code.org doesn’t think so)

What would you do to beautify the code? Here is a screen shot. Do you see that the robot has already moved one space to the right in the screen shot?

To be continued

Teaching in the 36K Computer Lab, part 5

Part 5, Beautiful Code

In the previous post, I had the students command the Bender Robot to walk to the light switch using only “turn left,” “turn right” and “move forward” commands.

I explained:

that “command” is both a verb and a noun: you command a robot to do something with commands.)

I explained:

that the list of commands it took to get me to the light switch (i.e., turn right, move forward two steps, turn left, move forward six steps, etc.) was called a “sequence” of commands, which is also known as an algorithm. (I wrote one or both of these vocabulary words on the smartboard depending on the level of the students).

I explained:

that it is better to stay “move forward ten steps” rather than “move forward one step” ten times.

I explained:

that less is more, that shorter code is more beautify code.

I explained:

“If, when commanding a robot, you can use either five commands to do something, or you can use four commands to do the same thing, it is better — it is more beautiful — to use four commands. And, if you can do the same thing with just three commands, it is more beautiful to do it with three. Fewer commands equals more beautiful coding.”

I explained:

“see my face? That is not the beauty I am talking about. I am talking about the beauty of using the fewest commands to accomplish something.”

This was the introduction to beautiful code, and I brought it up in subsequent lessons.

To be continued

Teaching in the 36K Computer Lab, part 4

Part 4: Commanding Robot Bender

After all the students had come up to the board to write their names, I made a new Notebook page and wrote “Robotics.” I asked the class if anyone knew what this meant. I underlined “robot” in red and asked again. Students called out answers, and we agreed that it was the study of robots, or making robots move, or something like that. Some students started doing the “robot dance” in their seats or out of their seats.

I told them that “I am a robot.” Yes, Mr. Bender is a robot. And I only understand three things: turn left [I turned left]; turn right [I turned right]; and move forward [I shuffled forward]. I explained that I had to turn off the light switch by the door, and they — the student programmer-coders — had to command me to get to the light switch.

I didn’t know the students’ names yet so I had to use my book to call the students in turn to give me commands. There were obstacles in the room — chairs, desks, legs — but through trial and error each one give me a command.

  • some students stood up to count the floor tiles to tell me how many steps to take;
  • some students had to get out of their seats to see what to command me;
  • some students estimated the number of steps [NB: A para used the term “guesstimate,” which is a bit slangy and should be avoided to avoid confusion]
  • some students gave commands that were bad, e.g., “move forward 100 spaces” in the small computer lab. So I moved forward until I hit an obstacle and then kept moving my legs in place. I told the student that it was a bad command and I returned to the prior position. I told the student to fix the command and try again.
  • some students gave bad commands to be silly; some did it on purpose
  • some students had to work on their estimation skills and counting skills.

After I was commanded to go to the light switch — at which point I turned off the light, so the kids really knew I accomplished the task — I asked if anyone else wanted to be the robot. Hands flew into the air and so we practiced commanding other student robots to move around the room.

To be continued

Teaching in the 36K Computer Lab, part 3

Part 3: Yes, I am Jewish

On the first day in the 36K computer lab, one student stage-whispered “he’s Jewish!”

A teachable moment!

[NB: I wear a yarmulke on my head and have been in many classrooms in which students have demonstrated a certain callowness towards Jewish people: I have heard loud whispers of “hitler,” “Jew”, etc.]

I informed him (and the other students the following spiel:

“Yes I am Jewish; yes, this is a yarmulke; yes, I hope to leave early on Friday afternoons; yes I do not eat ham sandwich. Any questions?”

They had questions. Which is good, in fact, which is great. There are no stupid questions. And there is a lot of confusion about why certain Jewish populations — particularly the Chasidim of that part of Brooklyn (e.g., Crown Heights, into Brownsville, into East New York)¬† — look and dress they way they do. So we got side-tracked while I answered questions.

“Do Jews have a bible?” (“yes, the bible. What Christians call the ‘old testament’ we just call the bible, or the Torah.”)

“Why do Jews wear long curls in their hair?” (“They are called ‘payos.’ It means sideburns. I wear sideburns, you wear sideburns. There is a verse in the bible says ‘do not cut off your sideburns.’ Certain really religious people believe that if some sideburns are good, then even more sideburns are better.”)

“Why do Jews wear the strings?” (“I also wear the strings. [I untucked one pair to show the students.] There is a verse in the bible that says ‘men should wear strings on their undershirts,’ so we wear strings on our undershirts.”)

“Why do Jews wear black and white?” (“Religious people try to dress modestly. Simple basic colors, nothing too showy or flashy. And other people, like myself, wear whatever we want and we are no less religious.)

“What does ‘shalom‘ mean?” (“‘Shalom‘ means ‘hello’ in Hebrew.”) [I wrote “shalom” in English on the board.]

“What does ‘salam‘ mean?” (“‘Salam‘ is Arabic for ‘hello,’ just like ‘shalom‘ in Hebrew. Hebrew and Arabic are very similar.”

‘What does ‘Allah Akbar’ mean?” (“‘Allah‘ is Arabic for G-d. It means ‘G-d is great.”)

At this point, I saw how the conversation was getting away from us, so I returned to the class introductions.


To be continued

Teaching in the 36K Computer Lab, part 2

Part 2, Names on the board

After students were seated and they saw my ID card, I informed them I would write my name on the Smartboard. Notebook software was open to Full Screen view. Only the tool bar was showing.

I clicked the three buttons in the middle of the toolbar to reveal the menu.

I chose Pen and told the students that green was my favorite color, and that there may be a quiz at the end of the period. I asked them “what was my favorite color?” and they all responded “green.” Some students called out their fave colors.

I also showed them the Calligraphic Pen. I explained how calligraphy was different then script, and that calligraphy was used for fancy invitations to weddings and such.

I wrote my name in green ink on the smartboard.

I demonstrated how the smartboard was so sensitive, that sleeves and knuckles could also make stray lines when writing. Students could erase these types of mistakes by using the “eraser trick:” make a fist, and drag the side of the hand across the smartboard to erase stray ink marks. Some students had a hard time not making stray marks, as to be expected.

I called up each student and invited them to come to the board to write their name. They could use the Pen or the Calligraphic Pen. (After the first couple of classes, I only offered students the Pen.)¬†Students had to remember the sequence to get to the Pen(s) and choose a color. Students helped other students. (In one of the classes, a student erased another students name, then denied doing it. A quick “undo” put the name back on the screen, and a warning was issued that it would no be tolerated in future.

As the students were writing their names, I was advancing down the line writing down their names in my book and playing my ID card trick (see Teaching in 36K computer lab, part 1).

Here are day 1 names:



Fun Fact: “Jaquin” is really Anthony. Can you find his name?


To be continued

Teaching in the 36K Computer Lab, part 1

I was at 36K for a total of nine days (eight days at the main site where I actually taught in the computer lab). This series of blog posts will describe the actual way I taught each class. I taught 34 classes in total over the eight days.

This is not the only way to teach in a computer lab, obviously. My focus was on robotics and coding. Other teachers focus on using PowerPoint or good digital citizenship.

Part 1, Introducing myself to students.

  • I met the students outside in the hallway, as they lined up against the wall adjacent to my room
  • I informed them that they would be sitting around the table in the center of the room; additional students would sit around the perimeter tables, chairs facing outward
  • Kids entered the room, some jostling for seats, but not bad..Asked the para for optimal placements
  • I introduced myself and showed my ID card. The fun thing about my ID card is that it is on a retractable wire, so it pulls down and back up again. I challenge the kids to catch it if they have fast hands. Some kids were “too cool” to play the game, but most tried to catch the card.

To be continued…

October 2021