Innovating at the Harold Washington Library!

Over spring break I visited one of my favorite spots in Chicago… The Harold Washington Library on the corner of State and Lasalle. This bright red architectural gem of a building occupies an entire city block and if the gargoyles aren’t enough to make you stop and look, this library has two makerspaces (one for everyone and one specifically for teens), various exhibits happening throughout the year, a gorgeous skylit garden atrium on the top floor and an amazing teacher resource section. In my opinion, the library is a top notch destination for relaxing, learning and now innovating in the city.

Harold Washington Library

One of these Makerspaces called the “Innovation Lab.” The Innovation Lab is different from the New Media Lab which also a cool space but specifically for teenagers.

The CPL “Innovation Lab”

Background & Projects The “Innovation Lab” is Chicago Public Library’s version of a hackerspace or makerspace. It is community-operated and when you walk into this space, you can see people working alone, working together and people utilizing the skill-set of the volunteers, who are very knowledgeable in 3-D design, printing, vinyl cutting, laser cutting and milling. People come to the space to use the computers for design or to print, cut or mill their creations.

A volunteer demonstrates 3-D scanning with a Sony Kinect

Some of the 3-D print outs at the lab.

Some of the 3-D print outs at the lab.


One of the wall sized whiteboards explains filetypes and software available for the various printers.

Ideas & Interests There are definitely people who come to the “Innovation Lab” with a file that needs to be printed. These are typically design students who are testing ideas or printing for school but others are just everyday people who are interested in these technologies. One of the best things about this lab are the free classes they provide each month where newbies can try out the different software and printing devices available.

When you walk in the lab, you immediately notice the printers lining the right side of the lab. One the left wall is a giant whiteboard with all of the information needed to get you started on 3-D design. As I said before, the staff is there to help you along (to some extent) but they will always recommend coming in for one of the classes prior to doing a solo project as their primary job is to facilitate and assist in the lab and not necessarily teach people who have no experience.

Learning Community The “Innovation Lab” is a welcoming place and the volunteers will take time to come over and greet you, answer questions and typically people do not mind if you look over their shoulder while they are working. You have to be 14 or older to use the lab unless you are accompanied by an adult. There don’t appear to be “community guidelines” posted but there are guidelines available on their blog and the volunteers will also ask you if you have been before and then fill you in on certain guidelines before you sit at a computer. For example, they’ll tell you that during open lab you cannot use the printers unless you are a registered participant whereas in between shop times, you can use anything that is available. They also encourage you to chat with people about what they are doing and ask questions so if you are going there to concentrate and work privately, then the “Innovation Lab” is probably not the best place because people are always wandering around and checking things out in there since it is right at the top of the escalator that leads to the first floor of the stacks.

Space The “Innovation Lab” at Harold Washington is about the size of a typical computer lab and the whiteboards in there definitely support the creative learning process. The whiteboards add a brainstorming element to the room and the notes that appear on the whiteboards demonstrate the thinking and creative process happening while people are working in the maker lab as well as resources for makers to use and filetypes compatible with the printers. The furniture is lightweight as are the stools so they are easy to move around. There is also an LCD screen at the front so people who are demonstrating can project anything by computer or camera. The green wall color and lighting brightens up the place and keeps you awake and thinking!

A colorful graphic on the wall explains the maker movement and qualities of great makerspaces.

Overall, this is a great free resource for the city of Chicago and if you live in the area, I encourage you to check it out! I hope to see more of these appear in other libraries and especially in our schools!

Computer Science Education Week – Hour of Code

Screen Shot 2013-12-13 at 12.00.58 PMAs part of Computer Science Education week, students in all grade levels at Avoca West participated in an “Hour of Code.” ‘To code’ means ‘to program’. In other words, writing instructions with a language that computers can interpret and execute. We brainstormed all of the different devices, apps, websites and technologies that we use on a daily basis that have been developed and coded by computer programmers. This week I explained that there are different languages that computers can interpret but that you have to be specific and use the correct ‘syntax’. The syntax that some of the games required did frustrate the students at times but these activities helped us practice overcoming obstacles. One thing I noticed this week is that some students had the ability to persevere in the face of frustration while others did not. I think that the puzzles and websites that we used to learn programming basics this week (See below) are great ways to foster a growth mindset in our young learners and teach them important lessons in problem-solving and tenacity. I did my best to discourage students from simply clicking over to another activity when they hit a wall and I write this in hopes that YOU will continue to foster the same kind of perseverance at home. Here is a great TED talk that explains this idea.

At Avoca West, our “Hour of Code” takes place at other times during the school year as well. We use Bot Logic with our first graders to practice counting and spacial recognition. In 2nd grade and 4th grade students learn programming concepts with Scratch. In 3rd grade students program PicoCrickets (robots) using a program similar to Scratch called Pico Blocks. They also explore software called LogoPaths. This week in 5th grade, I will be revisiting concepts we have already learned and reminding students how to continue practicing programming with their laptops at home. It is my hope that our students can begin to think about creating as opposed to just consuming apps, video games and websites. I hope you will join me in encouraging computational thinking, problem solving and programming beyond the regular school day! While winter break is a great time to unplug, it is also a great time for students who would otherwise be spending free time playing games to spend an equal amount of time learning how to make them!

Beginner: To complete puzzles and program an Angry Birds game, students can go here:

Beginner: LightBot is a fun game that uses loops, if-then statements and problem solving to navigate a bot around the screen: . Students can also practice game developing at the beginner level with Tynker. Their hour of code activity can be found here:

Intermediate: To practice Scratch skills and create a interactive holiday animation, students can go to:

Intermediate:  Khan Academy provides students with a variety of interactive lessons in JavaScript, Python and HTML/CSS. Students can sign up for accounts with their school Google username/password and earn badges by completing lessons. Here is their lesson for Hour of Code:

Intermediate: Similar to Khan Academy, provides students with interactive lessons in JavaScript, HTML/CSS, PHP, Python, Ruby and APIs. Students can sign up for an account using their school Google username/password, collect points and track their progress along the way. Here is their Hour of Code tutorial with a fun activity that teaches students how to animate their name:


Interested in making an Android App? Check out this website from your home computer:

As you can see from the diagram below, careers in engineering, computer science  and math will account for over 50% of the job industry as our students graduate from high school and I have a feeling that percentage will continue to rise. Thank you for your support and please let me know if you are in the field and interested in talking to our students about careers in computer science!

Project Annual Growth of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) jobs

Projected Growth STEM Jobs

Source: Jobs data are calculated from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Employment Projections 2010-2020

4th Graders Go Global!

Screen Shot 2013-11-04 at 3.52.43 PMI am excited to be launching a new, 12-week global learning unit with the 4th graders called, “Out of Eden,” in partnership with National Geographic and Harvard Graduate School of Education. I read about this opportunity on Twitter and the most I investigated, the more I realized that the activities and time commitment associated with this experience fit nicely with our one-hour-per-week meeting time. The projects that were described in the syllabus can also be modified to fit the skills that I cover in my Encore Technology curriculum, while adding the global learning/sharing component that I could never find a natural fit (or the time) for in the past.

While student blogs are certainly helping us with the home/school connection and our connections with our Avoca classmates, this will give students the opportunity to connect and communicate with students around the country and world through a private, online learning forum. Our four fourth grade classes were split into two different “walking groups”. These “walking groups” are comprised of various (about 6) classrooms similar in age but not necessarily location. We have already begun introducing ourselves to one another through our “Out Of Eden Learn” forum. So far we have introductions from students in New York, Michigan, Minnesota and some neighbors right down the road in Arlington Heights! We are still waiting to hear from other schools in our walking group located in Portland, California, Italy, UK, Ireland and Saudi Arabia! My students have articulated that they are excited to breakdown the classroom walls and “virtually” explore the big wide world around us. I hope that this experience will help us see things from many different perspectives and teach us important lessons in tolerance.

What I find truly dynamic is that Out of Eden asks students to slow down, observe the world around them, think deeply about their community and place in the world and connect with others around the globe. This includes but is obviously not limited to Paul Salopek, a National Geographic Explorer who is on his own Out of Eden walk. He began this journey in January and committed to walking for 7 years through Ethiopia, the Middle East, Asia, North America and South America, tracing the migration paths of our earliest ancestors. Since we all live such fast paced lives, Paul is hoping to encourage others, including young students to slow down and take time to absorb and reflect on the sights, sounds and stories all around them. He calls this reporting technique “slow Journalism”. As a traveler and undergraduate Journalism major, I can definitely relate. I was lucky to discover early on in my travels (thanks to my parents sending me on two extended travel abroad experiences in college) that in order to really process your experience and understand people and culture different from your own, you must give yourself time. 232323232-fp537;5-nu=5787-75--252-WSNRCG=3338;8469;343nu0mrjPeople often ask me what it’s like being away from home, away from my comfort zone for one to two months. While this is nothing compared to Paul’s 7 year journey or my friends Dave & Amy Freeman who just circumnavigated North America via kayak and dog sled, I truly believe that when you are able to find the time to slow down and truly immerse yourself in another culture by volunteering (or simply choosing a home stay as opposed to a hotel), it shifts travel for the sake of a “vacation” into travel for the sake of learning.  As a teacher, I feel it is my duty to learn as much as possible in this lifetime and spread that knowledge to as many people as I can, but most importantly, my students.

It is amazing to think that Paul will be gone for 7 years! I am completely envious! Similar to Paul Salopek, I hope that my travel stories and experiences like “Out Of Eden” will inspire my students to not only slow down but to one day become adventure seeking global ambassadors who spread knowledge to others and advocate for world peace. As technology continues to evolve and we are able to gain easier access to unfamiliar places, I hope my students learn that we are all in this together. Next week we will be creating maps of our neighborhoods to share with our new walking group friends. We will keep everyone posted on our journey as we collect more experiences!


Shifting gears…Here is a quick update on my first graders:

Over the past few weeks, I have seen amazing strides in our first grade students as they are coming into the lab with their usernames and passwords memorized, navigating the web, working much more independently and becoming more comfortable with the keyboard and mouse. Our first graders are using Tux Paint for various drawing exercises which is helping with the fine motor skills needed for desktop computer input as opposed to the finger input on an iPad, which many of them are more used to these days! In addition to learning basic computer skills, we have successfully completed three blog posts with first grade – A self portrait, the life cycle of an apple and the life cycle of a pumpkin. For these posts, students were challenged to log in, create a post then use capital letters, correct punctuation and two hands on the keyboard to type a sentence. Keep up the great work Avoca West first graders!!

And, last but not least, my fifth graders are busy working on their poetry podcasts, creating sound effects and learning the ins and outs of audio production with GarageBand. Stay tuned, we will be sharing those in the next few weeks!

iOnAvoca goes LIVE!

Logo_EDV_MediumGone are the days when you need to visit a theme park to experience a roller coaster ride. Just sign up for iOnAvoca LIVE and you’ll experience one without even leaving school! Takabisha_roller_coasterIn all seriousness, I cannot recall a time in my career that I was so determined to get something right and had so many people rallying around an initiative as I have this week. While I am really going to enjoy my weekend and especially the Ohio State vs. Northwestern game tomorrow, as I sit and reflect, I can’t help but smile! I am so fortunate to work with such motivated and dedicated students, teachers who have adjusted their morning routine to squeeze in our broadcast, a Principal who saw me at the breaking point and said just the right thing, and the company JDL Horizons and EduVision who worked with me all week to get this right!

In many ways, we are still doing student broadcasting on a dime. EduVision has provided us with a cost effective LIVE stream and video storage and I cannot thank our Parent Teacher Committee (#PTC) enough for subscribing our school district to this great service. Not only will EduVision store our events, flipped classroom lessons and allow us to stream LIVE, all of our students and families are going to be able to watch. The last three years we have broadcasted iOnAvoca once a week on Fridays via YouTube. The teachers could pull this up every week but the students were not able to view it on their school computers due to our web filter. We explored both Google Hangouts (huge fan but not for this purpose) and UStream for our daily broadcast but at the end of the day, we are conserving much more bandwidth with EduVision and not a single teacher has experienced issues with buffering!

Daily Broadcast on a dime equipment:
Cannon ZR960 handycam (found in our tech closet and just dusted it off!)
Tripod $49.95
Azden Audio Mixer $64
Sony ECM CS3 Clip on Mic $19.99 x 2
iMac or projector/screen and (free teleprompter works like a charm!)
Painted Backdrop

Macbook Pro (OSX Mountain Lion):
Flash Media Live Encoder – FREE
CamTwist – FREE
EduVision Subscription

As you can see, you do not have to move mountains or budget lines around to produce a student broadcast! We reversed one table in our computer lab, tossed up a backdrop, wheeled in a few chairs and while a teacher can dream…….Page_12-2-e1343166924752

I’m going to thank my lucky stars for what we do have and do my very best to keep the momentum going. It is hard to believe that I have forty five 5th graders signed up over three sessions (fall, winter, spring). We have an anchor and crew members who come on a designated days of the week (M, Tu, W, Th, F) and will do so for the entirety of their session. Having the anchors come for one day as opposed to every day has worked really well so far. Our crew comes on two designated days per week and they love running the show! I am still behind the scenes at this point as well, operating Adobe Live Encoder/CamTwist while our crew runs the teleprompter and music but soon enough this will all be student run.

Our writers meet twice a week with Mr. Erf and write the broadcast which we then receive in Google Docs the following morning and copy/paste into easy prompter. I anticipate our morning announcement/topic of the day format shifting to include more feature stories, news packages and investigative reporting as we get used to writing for broadcast.

We will be broadcasting on EduVision every day at 8:20 am so TUNE IN to see these dynamic 5th graders in action!

And, here it is…in all of it’s glory!! The new iOnAvoca LIVE studio!


Leave me a comment or find me on Twitter @MacTeacher if you are interested in starting something similar at your school and have any questions.