Third Graders Branch Out with Physical Computing

During the first part of the 2019 – 2020 school year, Third Graders created their own digital characters, and then they coded these delightful creations with Scratch so that they  could meet and then have a conversation with one other. With Scratch, the Third Graders also make something surprising happen after the conversation ends.

This is an example of a Third Grader’s Scratch Project.

Third Graders Bring their characters and Backgrounds to Life

So far this year,, Third Graders have also received and learned to use their Friends Seminary Google Drive accounts. They are also preparing to teach their buddies how to solve problems with the Bee-Bot robot.

Now we are branching out with the Micro:bit chip. Instead of getting their digital characters to move when the space bar is pressed, Third Graders are learning to use a magic want (and concealed Bluetooth enabled Micro:bit chip) to activate their digital creations. When a digital world responds to something in the world of material objects, it’s Physical Computing!

Wand prototypes developed by 7th Graders.

As we create the wands with branches and art supplies, we are asking families for selected materials from home:

Fabric Scraps of no more than one yard. Make sure it’s light weight cloth that would be suitable for a decorating a wand that will wave. Perhaps it’s shiny or sheer or it glows in the dark? If you are not sure if the material will be suitable, feel free to email a photo to Judith:

Silk Ribbon. Please no gift package ribbons.

Beads, wire, and other small materials that could be attached to a branch.

We will be collecting these supplies in a marked box in the lobby starting Friday, February 21.

Don’t worry. If you do not have materials from home for the wands, Judith will make sure there are plenty of supplies on hand in Room 308.

And we will provide the branches! Can’t wait to make magic in Room 308.

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New Scratch Accounts for Fourth Graders

This fall, Fourth Graders are using  the block-based visual programming language Scratch to design and program an interactive, maze game. This is an opportunity for the students to learn more advanced coding while also taking advantage of their artistic and creative skills! Previous classes of Fourth Graders have constructed visually compelling and exciting games, and our student teacher Kelly Grey and I are thrilled to help the class of 2028 create their unique variations on the project.

This winter, students will use the Micro:bit chip with Scratch to reconstruct and reimagine stuffed toys. When the button on the Micro:bit chips are pressed or the chip is shaken, animations will play, sounds will be heard, and stories will be told.

Kelly Grey and I are happy to let you know that this fall, we have given the Fourth Graders their own Scratch Student accounts. The randomly generated usernames they received do not reveal their real names or any identifying information.

 We created these Scratch accounts so that the Fourth Graders can easily access their maze games and Micro:bit projects from any computer at school or at home. Although we have not assigned any Scratch homework at this time, it is fine for your child to sign in to Scratch at home and show you what they’ve been working on. Please also feel empowered to continue to enforce your at-home rules for screen time!

Another advantage of setting up Scratch accounts is that we will be able to access student work easily and keep good track of student progress. This will enable us to provide the support they need to succeed. 

Please contact Judith ( if you have any questions about your Fourth Grader’s Scratch Account or if your child forgets their username or password. Online Scratch can be accessed at

We are looking forward to seeing all that your students create in Scratch this year!


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Wide Walls Outside and Inside 308

Wide Walls and The Lower School Computation Thinking Curriculum

Wide Walls of the Halls

Looking to the 2019 – 2020 year, I wasn’t thinking that the students I taught Lower School’s Room 308 would have a new experience of their physical space. Sure, I had lots of exciting programming, design, and physical computing projects planned for this school year, but I thought the places where students would engage in those projects, the classroom I share with Remy Mansfield, would remain basically the same. Our room is not one of the new ones in the townhouses. Nor was it renovated over the summer.

 What I did not take into account were the welcoming wider walls of the halls right outside the door.

 The stunning removal of the lockers in our Lower School halls offers new possibilities for our projects.

 Here are a few:

As students prepare robot activities for their younger kindergarten and first grade buddies each year, they have spilled out the door into the hall to experiment with BeeBots, BlueBots, and KIBOs. Within our wider walls, there will be more room for in the hall for designing mats and obstacle courses.

 Recording sound amidst a classroom’s buzz has proved a challenge. Our less congested halls can provide students with places for recording sound effects for the maze games they program each year.

 Last spring students helped old toys new life, students typed out the words their stuffies would say. I am hoping that this year, with more places to go work on making sound recording, student will generate their own animal noises and stories.

And I wonder, might these wider hallways also be a place for students to build and create in connection to many areas of curriculum?

I am are fortunate to be mentoring a student teacher this fall and an intern this spring. Both will be able to work with small groups of students out in the hall.

 The Wide Walls of Lifelong Kindergarten by Mitch Resnick

 When I arrived at school this year and found new inspiration simply walking down the hall, I couldn’t help think about another set of wide walls.  In his book Life Long Kindergarten, Mitch Resnick writes of the wide walls offered by the Scratch programming language.

When discussing technologies to support learning and education, my mentor Seymour Papert (who, sadly, passed away last month) often emphasized the importance of “low floors” and “high ceilings.” For a technology to be effective, he said, it should provide easy ways for novices to get started (low floor) but also ways for them to work on increasingly sophisticated projects over time (high ceiling). With his Logo programming language, for example, kids could start by drawing simple squares and triangles, but gradually create more complex geometric patterns over time.

But the most important lesson that I learned from Seymour isn’t captured in the low-floor/high-ceiling metaphor. For a more complete picture, we need to add an extra dimension: wide walls. It’s not enough to provide a single path from low floor to high ceiling; we need to provide wide walls so that kids can explore multiple pathways from floor to ceiling.

Why are wide walls important? We know that kids will become most engaged, and learn the most, when they are working on projects that are personally meaningful to them. But no single project will be meaningful to all kids. So if we want to engage all kids—from many different backgrounds, with many different interests—we need to support a wide diversity of pathways and projects.

Wide walls has become a guiding design principle for my Lifelong Kindergarten research group at the MIT Media Lab. As we develop our Scratch programming language, for example, we explicitly design it so that kids can create a wide range of projects—not just games, but also interactive stories, art, music, animations, and simulations. And as we develop and introduce new robotics technologies, our goal is to enable everyone to create projects based on their own interests—not just traditional robots, but also interactive sculptures and musical instruments.

When Friends students start to program, the floor is low. Scratch programming projects in Third grade begin slowly and students have time to explore simple commands before they use more complex programming tools. For those who want to extend their learning, there are also more complex options at the end of each project. Our ceilings get very tall!

It is also my goal to create a social, emotional, artistic, and academic learning space with wide walls. This means different possibilities for children who bring different interests and strengths to programming. Scratch enables students to build projects that are stem from what they care about give them a chance to build on their unique strength and interests.  A Third Grader who loves to draw, for example, has time to carefully craft their own expressive characters as they enter into their first big Scratch project. Those who enjoy expressing themselves through stories can develop in-depth conversations between their sprites (characters).  When students create soundtracks for their work, those who love composing music shine.

One of the many things I love most about Friends Seminary is that this is a community that wholeheartedly embraces the wide walls approach. As educators we that for students to be successful we must give them multiple, equally valid paths into learning.

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Tinkering with Micro:bit and Scratch 3.0 Beta

A dinosaur roars. Rainbow fish swims randomly. Four stuffed creatures “play” songs when students toss them around the room. What does all this play have in common? It all involves a toy plus a Micro:bit chip! The chips are programmed in Scratch so that when the toy is tossed, shaken or its “A” or “B” button is pressed, something happens in the world of Scratch.

Students in the Wednesday after school coding class have been programming with Scratch for years. It’s the Scratch 3.0 Micro:bit extension that’s new.  Never before could we connect the Mico:bit to Scratch via Bluetooth.

As students dove into this project, there were plenty of glitches. It took a while  to upgrade  the computers in 308 so that the operating system would be compatible with Scratch Link, a program that must run in order for the Micro:bit extension to function.  Since Scratch 3.0’s developers have not released all Scratch 3.0’s saving feathers, we had to figure out work-arounds so that we could save and share  Scratch 3.0 Beta programs.

Coming up with a method for affixing and/or embedding the Micro:bit Chip was about trial and error. Since most of the toys were fluffy, duct tape was often better choice than Velcro. What was really gratifying was using the seam ripper to cut open the toys, removing their stuffing and attaching a Micro:bit chip inside. In the end there was not one perfect solution. In addition to the fish, the singing cubes and dinosaur, our collection of revamped toys included a penguin who was cured of pink eye, a toy car that served as a game controller and laughing and singing Elmo.

The culmination of this project was taking the toys, Scratch 3.0 and Micro:bit to Scratch Day at Teacher’s College on December 1. In our “sold out” workshop, students in the after school coding activity demonstrated their coded toys and then they taught participants of all ages how to revamp their own toys and program them with Scratch 3.0 and the Micro:bit chip. Our high school assistant teacher Stephen and five Friends parents joined the effort.

We also brought along plenty of duct tape and Velcro!

There were squeals of delight when a preschooler and her Dad programmed a pink unicorn to sing Happy Birthday. The Micro:bit chip was conveniently located in a purple purse that the unicorn carried.

A teen challenged himself by beginning to build a complex game environment that was controlled by Micro:bi

At the end of the workshop, all the participants shared their challenges and successes and what they hope to do next with Scratch 3.0 and Micro:bit. Here’s what one of our adult participants had to say.

A big thank you to The Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio for inspiring me to try out this activity, Michel Tempel, head of the Logo Foundation, for organizing Scratch Day, Hope Chafiian of The Spence School for lending us Micro:bits so that all participants could work with their own Micro:bit, Friends parents for helping keep track of our students and materials, Stephen, our high school assistant teacher for his amazing tech support, the students from Friends for persevered through all the glitches, and to the participants for bringing their keen desire to learn and play to our Toy Tinkering workshop on Scratch Day.

The full release of Scratch 3.0 will happen in January. I am hoping to bring this new activity to my Friends Fourth Grade classes after winter break.


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Coding and Computational Thinking in the Lower School: Questions and Answers

How do elementary school students practice Computational Thinking?

a) by thinking like a computer

b) by thinking in ways that make you faster at coding

c) by learning to break a problem down into manageable parts

The answer is c.

Before writing a computer program that solves a problem, a student needs to define the problem that needs to be solved. Although we don’t expect our Lower School students to master AP Computer Science, they can practice organizing problems into manageable parts and coming up with strategies for finding answers. For young children, computational thinking means good thinking overall.

Can you teach computational thinking without a computer or iPad?


In the Lower School, teachers across disciplines teach problem solving and critical thinking skills. Though our math program doesn’t ignore basic skills, from block building to developing their own algorithms, the math curriculum also helps all our students get good at thinking creatively as they tackle challenges.

If Computational Thinking can be taught without a computer, why teach coding in the elementary school at all?

There are many developmentally appropriate tools for learning to program or code. Bee-Bot robots, ScratchJr, Scratch and Micro:bit can all help students begin to express and challenge themselves and start to debug their own code. By charting out their own routes to reach destinations, creating whimsical animations, and constructing exciting games, students gain confidence. They will be able to move forward to more difficult programming challenges in Third and Fourth Grade and Middle School.

When do you start teaching Lower School students to program/code?

Our youngest Friends students start learning to code during buddy time. That’s when our Third Graders teach their younger buddies about ScratchJr and the Bee-bot robots. These pairs use the graphical language of ScratchJr on an iPad to create stories and animations; they use the commands on Bee-bot’s back to move the robot to a destination on a mat.

How do you build upon this in First Grade?

First Graders engage in more in-depth Bee-bot lessons. They learn about different symbol systems, developing their own set of commands that they can use to get one another to move, often in refreshingly silly ways. In these lessons, students begin to explore the difference between the way humans and robots think and move. They also work on predicting outcomes – writing down a series of Bee-Bot commands, giving those commands to their partners to execute, and then revising the commands based on what worked and what didn’t.

What happens in Second Grade?

In Second Grade, integrated activities are designed to make the elements of Computational Thinking more explicit. All Second Graders read Hello Ruby, a children’s book in which a girl sets out on an adventure to find a series of gems. Along her journey, she solves her problems using pattern recognition, sequencing and decomposition- skills that programmers also employ. Hands-on activities that reinforce pattern recognition, sequencing and decomposition go along with the reading.

Second Grade Science students are exposed to Scratch as they study simple machines. First they build trebuchets with K’NEX. Then they attach a distance sensor and observe how the reading of the distance sensor value changes as an object gets close to the sensor. They then run and revise a Scratch program in which a Scratch sprite changes when the distance sensor value is less than a specific number. When the projectile reaches the target, the sprite changes color and size.

When do Separate Tech Classes begin?

In Third and Fourth Grade, students attend Technology Classes for two one-hour sessions every 8-cycle-days. In both grades, the curriculum is intertwined with creative arts and students start to build their own extended Scratch projects from “scratch.” Third graders start out by drawing their own characters in a graphics program or by hand. With movement, angles, and broadcast messaging, they breathe life into their creations.

With art as an anchor, our Third and Fourth graders become more connected to their projects than if they use canned code or characters. Even the most reluctant become engaged and have difficulty leaving at the end of the period! Regardless of their previous experience at home, at camp in after school programs, coding becomes a form of creative expression. In Third Grade students all learn how to use an if statement to test if their characters are close enough to each other to begin a conversation with each other. With Scratch’s messaging system, they can make something surprising happen at just the right moment.

In Third Grade Tech, during choice time, students also experiment with other graphical programming languages similar to Scratch and use these languages to code Ozobot robots and Lego’s We Do building system.

In Fourth Grade, students start the year in Tech by brainstorming about their themes for a complex maze game. Characters of their own design move with arrow keys, avoid obstacles, and open a “magical” door with a key. In this unit students tackle more complex concepts – if statements, loops, random numbers and variables – as they code their own maze games. When they have completed their project, they especially enjoy playing each other’s games.

Fourth grade also gives our students the opportunity to extend their knowledge of programming to control the mBot robot. This year we are hoping to create and revamp toys that will include a Micro:bit chip. When the toy is tilted, or shaken or when it’s “A” or “B” button is pressed, the students’ Scratch sprites will sing and dance. Micro:Bit + Scratch 3 can also be used as a controller for the students’ maze games.



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The 308 Makerspace Lightens Up!

The front and the back of the Tech Classroom/Makerspace in 308 are filled with new light! In the front of the room, the school has installed new projection system that larger, brighter and easier for all students to see from the back of the room.

At the back of the room the scaffolding was removed and we have new windows.

The room, the students and their projects are sparkling. Third Graders are designing their characters for a Scratch animation and Fourth Graders and developing their themes for the maze game they will code with Scratch.


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Wecome Back to 308

It is a delight to welcome back the Third Graders from last year as new Fourth Graders. It’s exciting to introduce Third Graders to the space where they will design, build and program from Third through Sixth Grade.

Our emerging makerspace has a lot more room for projects than the classroom in the townhouse did. We have more lots of places at the tables for designing and creating.


Those tables aren’t bolted to the floor. So we can slide the tables aside and get work done on the floor!


New robots like mBot and Ozobot inspire a sense of wonder,


and the urge to design, test and revise paths and code.

With more room to roam, robots and children of 308 are going to have many new adventures this school year. Stay tuned to learn more about those explorations.

In addition, the children will make their voices heard as we design renovations to 308 that transform the room into an even better space for making and programming.

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President Quiz Games are Ready for Downloading

This spring, Third Graders in Linda’s class used Scratch to create their own president quiz games. In Google Drive, students wrote questions and accompanying answers that were based on president research in the fall. Each student also each drew the president by hand and learned how transform that drawing into a Scratch sprite.

Linda and I created, tested and revised the code that made the quiz game work. We made sure that every students’s drawings and questions were included in the games. In the end, students also had a chance to work on that code for they discovered that Linda’s an my programs for the games had some errors that needed fixing and debugging.

With facts, creativity, artistic talent, coding skill and lots of perseverance, Linda and her students finished two quiz games and showed them to their parents at the parent breakfast on May 24th.

All third grade families can download copies of the quiz games. Students should log into their google drive accounts. To find the files to download, they should go to either their own documents or “shared with me.”

For instructions on how to download Scratch 2.0 at home and how to download a particular project, visit the resources page of this blog. If you have questions on how to access either your own child’s projects or the president games, also feel free to email me at

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Third Graders Design Conversations

This year, Third Graders were asked to construct a creature in the computer graphics program Pixie. Some relied entirely on their imaginations. Other drew inspiration from such drawing reference books as Ed Emberly’s Animal Drawing Book. Such a wide array of imaginary creature came to life with Pixie in K411!

Third Graders imported these beings into their Scratch projects. Then the Third Graders coded them to move towards each other. When they meet, they begin a conversation and they aren’t supposed to interrupt one other. When the conversation ends, something surprising happens.

In the process of  making their Scratch projects Third Graders have learned such coding basics as creating a setup procedure, using an if statement, and a broadcasting message to make something surprising happen at the end of the animation.

Third graders can download these Scratch projects at home and show them to their parents. Instructions for seeing those projects are located here.

This is one of the many activities that bring Friends Third and Fourth graders much more than an hour of code. Third and Fourth grade students come to K411 for designing coding, robots and making for two one hour sessions every eight days. In recent weeks students have prepared Scratch Jr and Bee-Bot lessons for their kindergarten buddies and been practicing typing with the Typing Club.

The Third Graders next coding challenge is coding the Ozobot robot with drawing and the Ozoblockly language, which is similar to Scratch.


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Transformation in Animation: 2016 NY International Children’s Film Festival Short Films One

Animators draw a series of pictures. When they put those pictures together one after the other very quickly, the series of images can give the impression of movement or transformation. This is a how an animated film is made.

This past weekend, I attended Short Films One at the 2016 New York Children’s International Film Festival (NYCIFF). Although this program is supposed to be for children ages 5 -10, as a parent of young children and more recently as a grownup whose teenagers have too much homework to join their mom, I have enjoyed seeing the varied collections of shorts that NYCIFF puts together every year.

In this post I’m writing about how four of the films I saw last weekend tell their stories through beautiful, funny, and some cases, sad transformations. There are predictable transformations that happen as creatures go through their life cycle. Other transformations happen when an object that isn’t usually alive experiences emotions and has adventures. In another one of the short movies, young people change from children to adults in a just a moment and that’s a transformation. And finally, a story can illustrate how people parts of our natural world transform when humans love and cherish them.

I hope that after my students and their parents read this post, some families will buy tickets for a remaining screenings of Short Films One:

Transformations in the Natural World: Deux Amis

In “Deux Amis” by Natalia Chernysheva, a tadpole and a caterpillar are buddies. The tadpole takes care of the caterpillar and they frolic together in their pond playground. The frog demonstrates that it is compassionate when it uses a nice big leaf to shield its caterpillar friend from nasty mosquitoes. In this short film, the tadpole loses his tail and becomes a frog who spends more time out of water. After the caterpillar goes to bed in its sleeping bag chrysalis, it wakes up in a new state; it transforms into a charming butterfly. Although we understand where the butterfly came from, the frog does not. There is a sad ending to this funny and beautifully illustrated tale.

deux amis 1frog

From growing plants to hatching chicks to experiencing the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies, students in the Lower School at Friends Seminary gain concrete knowledge of and experience with change in the natural world. According to Third grade teacher Courtney Retzler,

Raising monarch butterflies and tracking
their migration gives children an opportunity to experience the
natural world first hand.  They aren’t just looking at pictures or
watching a video clip on the computer.  Instead children are growing
an appreciation, an interest, a wonder, an early understanding of the
interconnectedness of the world.

It’s no wonder that our third graders know more about the cycles of nature than the unaware frog in “Deux Amis.”

Trailer for Deux Amis

Transformation of an Inanimate Object into one with Feelings: Object at Rest

In “Object at Rest” by Seth Boyden, the part of the natural world that transforms is not living, but it sure seems to have feelings. The main character of “Object at Rest” starts out as a stone mountain in prehistoric times; its main goal is just to take a nap. But instead of staying put and resting, the stone mountain experience a huge number of transformations. First it wears down and goes through an ice age. Then people shave that piece of stone down to a fraction of its original dimensions. They put that exhausted rock to work as a part of a grinding machine and after that, they transform it into a cannon ball. A chance to rest is just not happening for this piece of stone! Thrown out far out across the sea, the stone lands in the water and becomes home to a fossil. For a very short time, a museum treasures our main character and the fossil it holds, but that comfortable situation doesn’t last long. The unfortunate rock crashes to the museum floor, shatters and and turns up in a garbage pail. Flattened and then launched into outer space, the stone has yet another life in outer space. I am happy to report that the ending of this action-packed 6-minute film isn’t as sad as “Deux Amis.”  You can watch the whole movie here and see.

object at rest 1 Object at Rest 2 object at rest 3

The Power of a Mother’s Love to Transform: About A Mother

A third kind of transformation in a movie of Short Films One happens in a family. The short “About a Mother” by Dina Velikovskaya tells the tale of an African woman and her three boys. She keeps all her children safe, well-fed, and well- groomed and she teaches them to swim and jump rope. Then all of a sudden, the boys grow up from tiny toddlers into tall young men. They travel from the familiar world of their village and their mother in a ship, a helicopter and a train. Even after they leave home, the mother still provides her boys with what they need to survive; she transforms her own hair into warm clothing and a parachute.

About a MotherboysAbout a mother 2

Trailer for About a Mother

Transformation and Losing Someone we Love: My Grandfather was a Cherry Tree

My favorite of all the short films in Short Films One was “My Grandfather was a Cherry Tree” by Olga Poliektova and Tatiana Poliektova. It’s a longer movie than the others that are discussed in this post. There is more time for the main character, a young boy, to narrate the story. From his point of view, we learn that he spends the first years of his life in the city. Then when his beloved grandparents are getting older, he and his mother move to the country so that they can spend more time with them. There is so much beauty and space in the outdoors. This is where the grandmother introduces the little boy to her wise goose. The boy also spends a lot of time under the branches of the cherry tree that his grandfather planted when his daughter, the boy’s mother, was born. He remarks  “all of us grew with the cherry tree.”

My Grandfather is a Cherry Tree

Though it is very sad when the grandma passes on, the grandfather comforts his grandson by teaching him that their memories of grandma will live on. Her spirit and love are with the goose. The boy comes to understand that,

You can’t really die if someone still loves you.

You have transformed into something else.

The grandmother has become the goose that she and the boy cared for. When the grandfather is taken from the boy, he is still dearly loved by the family and he becomes the cherry tree. At the end of the movie, the  boy rises up and uses all his strength to defend the cherry tree against those who want to destroy it. Protecting the cherry tree and what it stands for helps the little boy grow more mature.

It’s difficult for children to watch their grandparents grow old. This powerful movie helps us understand how grandparents’ love for the world around them and children’s love for grandparents can endure despite change and even death.

Trailer for My Grandfather was a Cherry Tree

Animation artists are magicians who enchant us by making a series of drawings that give the illusion of movement and change. Animations help us see that part of what’s beautiful in the world is the very fact that it is always changing and transforming. Maybe artists and animators are also trying to tell us that even with all the change going on around us, some parts of our world stay the same. In “Deux Amis”, we are reminded of predictable natural life cycles like a tadpole turning into a frog and a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. In “An Object at Rest”, we see that despite many hardships and readjustments, one can survive and even flourish. The love of the mother in “About a Mother” stays strong after her boys transform into men. Finally, In “My Grandfather was a Cherry Tree”, even when death takes someone we care for away from us, our love for them and the love that they had for the world lives on in nature, and maybe even inside of us.

I hope that members of the Friends Community who had a chance to attend the NYICFF last weekend enjoyed Short Films One. If you saw these movies, feel free to email me your thoughts and/or reviews so I can include your perspective in future posts.

There still may be tickets to Short Films One for this coming weekend and the weekend of March 20. You can check to see ticket availability at The Festival website.

When GKids produces a DVD of the 2016  festival shorts, maybe they’ll include some of the films I’ve written about in this post. Hope so.

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