Thursday, April 28, 2016

'Take Your Kid to Work Day' Coding Workshop with ScratchJr

A new professional development day was recently added to our local school board's calendar. One of my colleagues, John Duff, made the brilliant suggestion to have a 'take your kid to work day' instead of scrambling to find babysitting. Naturally, I suggested we also add a coding workshop.

Little did I know that most of the kids in attendance – my own included – were between 4 and 7 years old. Grade 4 or so was the youngest I'd ever worked with before, and the idea of teaching kindergartners was especially foreign. Thanks to the helpful advice of a few kind folks (especially Kate Arthur of kidsCODEjeunesse), the workshop turned out great!

To prepare, I read through a bunch of The Official ScratchJr Book from No Starch. The book is awesome, and I definitely plan to use it to continue working with Molly. One thing that I especially liked was the curriculum connections listed out at the end of each chapter. If you happen to be a kindergarten teacher, and have access to tablets, I highly recommend checking this book out.

In case you want to run a similar workshop, here's a bit of info on what we did. The workshop was held in our coffee shop. We moved away a bunch of tables and set up our bear beanbags in a semi-circle in front of the projector screen. I AirPlayed an iPad to the screen for demonstration purposes. To get the attention of the kids, we did a "hands on head" thing: everyone, parents included, had to have their hands on their heads before I talked about the next thing.

Before the workshop, I sent out a doc with information for parents containing the following key information.

 What we'll be doing
We will be working with ScratchJr, which is a visual block-based programming tool. While not required, you might like to learn a bit about the tool ahead of time. On the website, you can get an overview of the interface, the sprite editor, and what each block does. There are also videos with tips
ScratchJr is officially intended for ages 5-7, but the appeal for this workshop should be broader. That said, older children might prefer being a “helper” for a younger sibling and/or trying out the web-based Scratch instead. The older kids could get the basic ideas in ScratchJr first, and if they get bored, they should be able to pick up the main ideas of Scratch fairly easily. 
We have arranged to bring iPads for those who said they needed them.
We recommend bringing your laptop with you, both to look things up about ScratchJr, and to switch to Scratch if desired.
During the workshop
The assumption is that you, as the parent, will sit with your kid the whole time and work with them on their projects.  If you are bringing two kids, you may choose to have them work together or separately. We are hoping to have extra volunteers who would be able to help if they end up working separately. 
We hope to have those participating in the workshop up near the projector, “circle time” style. We should use comfy chairs and beanbags to sit on in a generally circular shape. 
One of the techniques we plan to use to gain attention of the kids is “hands on head” – when we ask kids to do this, it would be great if parents did it as well. Once everyone’s hands are on their heads (and therefore not touching the tablets/computers), we can starting talking up at the front. 
Super important: Try as much as possible to not do anything for your kid. Make sure that you guide them, ask them questions, perhaps even make suggestions, but not do it for them. 
Try to stop your kids from playing with other apps on the iPad at first (perhaps turning off wifi will help?). Later on, if they get bored of working on their own projects, they might enjoy sharing their favourite apps with the other kids.
General workshop plan
  1. How to add a new sprite and edit it.
  2. How to add a new background.
  3. Example blocks (will ask kids what they think the blocks do before showing them; time to play will be after all blocks):
    1. Move right (what does the number change?)
    2. Turn left (what does the number change?)
    3. Say (how could you have it say your name?)
    4. Play recorded sound (try recording your voice!)
  4. Example of snapping blocks together (can you guess what will happen?)
  5. Start on Green Flag:
    1. Have them add this block to the beginning of a script (suggest a bunch of movement blocks to make the character dance)
    2. Have them press the green flag button at the top
    3. What happens?
  6. Repeat forever
    1. What happens if you put a repeat forever at the end of the script, then press the green flag?
  7. Save your project! Go back to the home screen to save

I was pleasantly surprised that we managed to keep the attention of the youngest kids for a whole hour. Later, at lunch, several of the girls excitedly exclaimed how much they loved working on the iPads / playing with ScratchJr. Music to my ears!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Mastering Difficult Conversations

Do you dread bringing up a problem in your relationship because you know your partner will be blinded by emotion? Are your 1:1s at work just happy recaps of your weekend because nobody wants to bring up the hard issues? Sometimes conversations are just plain hard, but it is possible to learn how to have them effectively. I've personally learned a lot from Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, and have even put some of it into practice already.

The book introduces three conversations that are really taking place in a difficult conversation: what actually happened, how feelings factor into it, and how the participants' identities might be affected. When you're about to embark on a difficult conversation with someone, you should first walk through each of these three conversations to sort out where your story came from as well as the other person's, to "explore your emotional footprint," and to reflect on what's at stake in terms of how you see yourself.

Then, you need to determine what your real purpose in the conversation is. Generally, it's a good idea to come from a place of learning, which means keeping your mind open to the fact that you could have been wrong about how you viewed the situation.

When it's time to talk, you want to start from the "third" story – that is, you need to "describe the problem as the difference between your stories." You have to pretend you're an innocent bystander, and invite the other person to become your partner rather than your adversary in sorting out the problem in front of you.

During the discussion, you have to be an amazing active listener (so much easier said than done!). Acknowledge, paraphrase to check understanding, question...and continually reframe to keep on track. Then, finally, you can get to the problem-solving stage.

A few key takeaways for me:

  • Never lay blame; instead, talk about contribution, and try to reframe the conversation to help the other person do the same. Every problem arises because of contributions from both sides, even if the split is 95% to 5%.
  • Pay special attention to feelings. They are always there, and they can get really complex. Even in a professional situation, it is ok – and important – to discuss how various actions and outcomes make you feel. It can help to sort through feelings before the conversation so you can unpack complex bundles of emotions and better explain your perspective.
  • Be mindful of your identity, and how it has been affected by the problem you are facing. The reason that the conversation is so difficult might be because you have to face the fact that you may not be acting in alignment with how you see yourself.
I've used the ideas in the book already to talk through how a friend might be able to approach their next 1:1 at work. The feelings story was of particular importance in this case, and not something that my friend would have talked about normally.

I have also found the knowledge useful when faced with a difficult conversation started by someone else. Where I might have normally become defensive and frustrated, we were able to resolve our problem somewhat quickly. (Now I just have to make sure I don't do the same dumb thing again.)

I think this book would likely have something useful in it for just about anyone. If you're in a leadership position of any kind, it will be all the more valuable.