A New K-2 Technology Curriculum
Last fall, I began a new job as a K-2 technology teacher. Besides teaching 400 students each week, I was also asked to develop a new technology curriculum. Because the existing technology class had grown out of an academic support class, students were mostly using educational iPad apps to practice math and ELA skills. School leaders wanted to design a more modern curriculum which would support students in developing 21st-century skills.
You can read about my experiences in my weekly blog. Over Christmas break, I also built out my class website to explain the new technology curriculum to parents and the wider community. The website and curriculum are both very much works in progress. I plan on updating the website to include more tools, such as GarageBand and ScratchJr, in the spring. And I hope to add some new projects (several engineering design projects and at least one data project) in the next two years. As I’m designing and rolling out the new curriculum, we’re currently using the same basic tools and projects in all three grades—with a few modifications to differentiate for developmental readiness. However, once the current kindergarteners are in second grade, we should have a three-year curriculum, where the tools and projects in one year leverage and build on the tools and projects from previous years.
What follows is the content from my class website. Hopefully, this will provide you with a big picture understanding of where we’re heading.
The fastest land animal on Earth is the cheetah, which can run up to 70 mph. The fastest human can only run 30 mph. Humans are much slower than cheetahs. But on a bicycle, we are faster than a cheetah. The fastest human on a bicycle can go up to 90 mph!
Humans are natural tool-makers and tool-users. That’s one of our superpowers. By inventing things, we make ourselves stronger, faster, and smarter. Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, famously described the computer as a bicycle for the mind. In technology class, students will learn to both make and use tools safely and responsibly.
In technology class, our focus is on encouraging students to see themselves as tool makers and users. Students start by learning how to use a core set of tools to create digital artifacts. A computer, like the iPad, is a special type of tool: we can program the iPad to function as many different kinds of tools simply by downloading different apps. Students learn to use Art Set 4 and Sketches to draw, Easy Studio to create animated flip books, GarageBand to make music, ScratchJr to program interactive stories, and Book Creator for iPad to create rich multimedia books.
Throughout the year, students will select and reflect on the digital artifacts they create as they construct their own electronic portfolios, which they will take home and share with friends and family at the end of the year. Students will also work on an online research project and at least one independent project. The goal of the online research project is to enable students to develop online research skills — as well as learn how to navigate the internet safely and securely, while behaving ethically and lawfully as responsible and well-informed digital citizens. The goal of the independent project is for students to design and plan out their own long-term projects, empowering them to learn how they can apply multiple tools together to achieve a single purpose.
From Flip Books to Coding
One goal of the technology class is to introduce students to computational thinking. However, computational thinking is a lot more than if-then statements and for-loops. While we do want students to learn how to code, it is more important that they understand how computers think. Because if we understand the strengths and weaknesses of a computer, we’ll know what it can do — and how to redesign parts of a task so the computer can do it for us.
Students learn to code by writing simple scripts to animate images on a screen. For example, in ScratchJr, students might program a cat to move right, turn left, shrink, and play a sound when tapped.
Animating a cat in ScratchJr is both empowering and limiting. To move the cat to the right, all we have to do is drag and drop a block onto the programming area. But, at the same time, we are also very limited in how we can animate the cat. We cannot wag the cat’s tail or change the cat’s expression. We cannot move the cat’s arms or have the cat sit down.
To help students understand what they can do in ScratchJr (and why), we first start by exploring and creating flip books. A flip book is a series of pictures drawn on the pages of a book. When we flip through the pages of the book rapidly, it looks like the images in the pictures are moving. By drawing those pictures by hand, we can animate almost anything we’d like: even a cat’s tail or its expression. However, drawing every picture in a flip book by hand is very laborious. That’s where Easy Studio comes into play. In Easy Studio, instead of drawing each picture from scratch, we can simply copy the picture from the preceding page onto the current page — and then edit the picture. But there’s a catch. In order for pictures to be editable in Easy Studio, they have to be drawn only using shapes. No pens, pencils, markers, or paints. Just shapes.
In ScratchJr, we move even higher up the abstraction ladder. Instead of editing each page by translating, rotating, and scaling shapes by hand, we program a computer to transform and redraw entire images for us. This automates steps in the flip-book-creation process, but we lose the ability to separate an image into its individual components, which we can edit independently. Once we have drawn a cat in ScratchJr, the cat’s image is fixed; whereas in Easy Studio, our cat is still fully editable.
By introducing flip books before scripting animations in code, we enable students to construct more robust mental models — which they can then leverage to analyze (and evaluate) how different apps automate different steps in the flip-book-creation process. This is the heart of computational thinking and the design process.
Once students have learned how to use a core set of apps (Art Set 4, Sketches, Easy Studio, and Book Creator), we begin integrating those apps to create electronic portfolios. First, students decide which drawings and animations to include in their portfolios, sharing those drawings and animations as photos and videos on the iPad’s camera roll so they can import them into Book Creator. Then, students write a series of reflection or self-evaluation pieces to describe their journey and what they have learned along the way. The point of the portfolio isn’t to showcase all of your work (or even your best work) — it is to capture who you are, what you can do, and how you got there. In Book Creator, students will have the option to type their thoughts, record their thoughts as audio files, or use the iPad’s built-in speech-to-text capabilities.
Because electronic portfolios and independent projects will be accessible online (enabling students to share their work with friends and family), we will also be discussing best practices for sharing our data on the internet. For example, students will not be able to share last names, photos of themselves, or other personally identifying data in their books. To make the risks concrete, we will discuss spear phishing and identity theft. In spear phishing, if we share too much personal information, we enable bad actors to impersonate people we trust; and in identity theft, if we share too much personal information, we enable bad actors to impersonate us (hijacking our online accounts by answering standard secret questions).
While working on their portfolios, students will also have an opportunity to design and work on an independent project. For example, a student might choose to create a storybook, combining text with drawings and animations. Other students might create books on animals, trucks, a fictional family, or a fictional country. Rather than create a whole story from scratch, younger students might recreate a favorite story as an audio book with drawings. The goal of the independent project is to encourage students to think of themselves as designers and makers — and to provide them with the support they need to develop and implement a long-term plan. Through the project, we will also discuss the ethics of designing apps to interoperate versus designing apps to lock users in with proprietary formats. And older students will co-design classroom rules and systems with me. What procedures and processes must be in place so students can manage themselves and work independently? How can we redesign the learning environment so students are able to sit down with me to conference and set goals — or to receive personalized one-on-one instruction?
Online Research Projects
Building on their independent projects, students will conduct an online research project, where they will search pre-selected, kid-safe websites for information and media on specific topics. The goal is for students to learn how to use a search engine and to become more responsible digital citizens. As part of the project, students will learn that the internet is an incredibly useful window onto the world, but some neighborhoods are safer than others. To navigate the internet safely, they must develop situational awareness and learn to evaluate websites. As creators themselves, students will also learn to respect copyrights and to cite sources. After all, how would we feel if someone not only copied something that we had created, but then passed it off as their own and profited from it?
Another important goal is enabling students see how mixed media can help them teach and explain. Drawing and animation tools are not just for fun and entertainment. We can use drawings and animations, in addition to audio and text, to clarify and get our points across. Apps, such as Sketches and Easy Studio, are powerful tools which we will be using throughout school, at work, and in our lives.
Finally, we will use our experience with search engines to launch a discussion about machine learning, algorithms, and profiling. If a database is small, the order of a search result may not be that important. But if a database is huge, like the internet, the order of a search result is hugely important. Most people choose the first result in a search, and few people look beyond the first couple of pages. So, how do search engine designers decide which results to list first? Companies like Google, Netflix, and Spotify use machine learning to profile each individual user, so they can try to guess which results are most relevant to that user. But what happens if that profile or their algorithm is wrong, and we cannot find the thing we are looking for because it is not even listed for us? Or what if the profile is sold to other companies and used to predict who we voted for, what college we should go to, or how much we will pay for a new pair of jeans — reducing our privacy and our freedom to choose? As designers of future products and services, these are ethical dilemmas our students will need to confront.
Art Set 4
Students begin creating on the iPad in Art Set 4 by tapping on a drawing tool (pencil, pen, marker, crayon, oil pastel, watercolor, or oil paint), tapping on a color, and then drawing with a finger. This is a great introduction to the iPad because the process is so tactile. Art Set 4 simulates materials as realistically as possible, so paints mix and have texture. Student drawings can then be saved in a shared library.
Moving from Art Set 4 to Sketches, students continue drawing directly with their fingers using nine basic tools, including pencils, pens, oil pastels, acrylic paints, and an air brush. The materials in Sketches are not nearly as realistic, but students gain access to an additional set of more powerful tools.
Using the fill tool, students can quickly fill spaces with color. Using the shape tool, students can draw with circles, squares, and triangles. Using the ruler, students can draw straight lines. Using the cutter, students can move, transform, and duplicate parts of a drawing. Using the layers manager, students can layer one drawing on top of another. While these new tools are less accessible and more abstract, they vastly expand what students are able to create.
Sketches also enables students to store drawings in a personal sketchbook, where drawings may be copied, deleted, or shared as photos (for use in other apps) on the iPad’s camera roll.
Moving from Sketches to Easy Studio, students draw simply by layering, rotating, and resizing shapes. Unlike Sketches, the shapes in Easy Studio always remain fully editable. While this can make it more difficult to select and precisely manipulate a specific shape, it does enable students to create animated flip books by copying and then quickly editing drawings. One of the most powerful tools in Easy Studio is the chain tool, which is used to chain multiple shapes together. By chaining the shapes in a snowman together, the snowman can then be moved, rotated, resized, and copied, just as if it was a single shape.
Flip books are saved in a shared library. To keep the size of the library manageable, students learn to name their flip books so that I know when to delete their books or share them as video clips (for use in other apps) on the iPad’s camera roll.
Book Creator for iPad
Once students learn how to use Book Creator, we are ready to pull everything together: creating electronic portfolios, working on online research projects, and developing other long-term independent projects. In many ways, Book Creator functions as a container app. We can use it to design books and pages filled with drawings, animations, video, and music we create in other apps — combined with text and audio. Book Creator is ideal for young students because it enables them to express themselves by typing, recording their voices with the iPad’s microphone, or utilizing the iPad’s built-in speech-to-text capabilities. And, because Book Creator creates books in the standard EPUB format, students can easily share their books with friends and families.
Besides learning how to make and use tools, students are also learning how to be good digital citizens. At this age level, digital citizenship includes:
- sharing resources responsibly;
- being safe and secure on the internet; and
- following ethics and laws.
While we support students in their growth as digital citizens, we cannot do it alone. Citizenship begins at home, where many students already have unsupervised access to technology and are formulating the habits and mindsets they will carry forward as adults. At the end of this section, we share a few strategies parents can use to model and support good digital citizenship outside of school.
As students learn how to use the iPad as a tool for “making stuff”, they will also be learning to respect and share their tools. Every student is assigned an iPad for technology class, but that iPad is shared by as many as 16 different students — and everything is stored locally on the iPad itself. This means that, if one student uses the iPad to create and save a drawing, the other students sharing the same iPad can open and alter that drawing, too. Students at the Primary School do not have individual logins.
Fortunately, our students already have lots of practice with sharing resources in a physical space — their classrooms. In technology class, we will be extending those same ideas to the digital space. Students will learn how to organize their own work, respect the work of others, and clean up after themselves so the iPad is ready-to-go for the next user. Students will also learn how to use apps safely and responsibly. For example, some of the apps we will be using this year enable students to take photos and record movies. But because photos and movies take up a lot of space, students are not allowed to access those features without permission.
An early lesson on sharing occurs when students first begin using Sketches. In Sketches, students are able to save their drawings in a personal sketchbook. Students quickly learn how to navigate to their own folders and clean up after themselves. If they launch Sketches and find another student’s drawing or folder open in front of them, they know to put that student’s work away before starting their own. Later in the year, students also learn how to manage their own sketchbooks, deleting unwanted drawings and sharing drawings as photos on the iPad’s camera roll for use in other apps.
Keeping one’s own work organized is especially important in Easy Studio. Unlike Sketches, students do not have personal spaces for storing files in Easy Studio — all files are saved to a shared library. To keep track of which file belongs to whom, we give each file a unique name. But kindergarteners cannot read, yet! While they can identify individual letters and eventually determine which files are theirs, it is a very slow and arduous process. This is a problem the second-graders take on as a design challenge: What rules and procedures can we implement so that the shared library is usable for everyone?
In the end, the second-graders came up with a system where each student is only allowed to store two active files in the library at a time. Any drawing or animation which is finished is marked as “done” — so I can share it as a video on the iPad’s camera roll and delete the file from the library. By constantly pruning the library and limiting the number of active files, we keep the size of the library manageable; and by adopting consistent naming conventions, we make it easier for everyone to scan the library and find the files we are searching for.
Safety and Security
One goal of the technology class is to encourage our students to see themselves as makers and craftsmen. This includes respecting one’s tools, planning ahead, solving problems, and constantly revising one’s work. But it also includes designing and making artifacts for an external audience and being a member of a larger community. In order to share our work with friends and family, we are posting our electronic portfolios and other projects online for the world to see. Sharing our work with the world is empowering, but it also carries some risks — risks we must be cognizant of as digital citizens.
Every day, I receive emails asking me to click on some web link. Since these emails tend to be random and highly impersonal, I recognize them as spam. But what if an email was filled with lots of personal details and seemed to come from someone I know and trust? Would I click on the link then? By sharing too much personal information online, we enable bad actors to impersonate people or companies we trust, tricking us into compromising our own security. This is known as a spear-phishing attack.
To secure ourselves online, we typically use passwords. Security experts are constantly trying to balance security and convenience. Today, we now have password managers, biometric systems, and two-factor authentication. But what happens if we forget a password? Most large companies, including banks, use standard security questions in case someone forgets their password — decreasing security but increasing convenience. Common security questions include: What is your mother’s maiden name? What was the name of your first elementary school? What was the name of your first pet? By sharing too much personal information online, we enable bad actors to find the answers to our security questions, hijacking our accounts and stealing our online identities.
In technology class, students will not be allowed to share too much personal information online, such as last names or photos of themselves. However, we also want students to understand why those safeguards are in place, so they can make smart decisions when on their own.
Another area where students must learn to exercise situational awareness is when surfing the web. The internet empowers us by opening up a window to the world, but not all neighborhoods in the world or on the internet are equally safe. As digital citizens, we must learn to evaluate websites for credibility, accuracy, reasonableness, and support. Do we know who the authors are? What do we know about the organization behind the website? Is there a bibliography or a list of sources for us to check? Is the information current?
Ethics and Laws
As part of their online research projects, students will learn to cite sources and respect copyright. Now that they are creating digital artifacts and sharing them online themselves, students are in a better position to understand and appreciate ownership. After all, how would we feel if someone not only copied something that we had created, but then passed it off as their own and profited from it?
In technology class, students will also discover multiple opportunities to discuss their ethical responsibilities as makers. When selecting which tools to use in the class, I intentionally chose tools which interoperate. Drawings in Art Set 4 and Sketches can be exported as photos, animated flip books in Easy Studio can be exported as videos, and books made in Book Creator are saved in a standard EPUB format. This interoperability facilitates the sharing of media and the creation of rich multimedia experiences. But not all apps support interoperability. Some app developers attempt to lock users in with proprietary formats, in an effort to build their own platforms. As future app developers, which path will our students choose to take?
Another issue students will encounter is the ranking of search results. When we have millions of apps, songs, and movies at our fingertips, we cannot possibly look at and review each one. We rely on algorithms to recommend the most relevant results to us. And those recommendations are increasingly personalized, based on profiles which companies construct using our personal data. Now, if Netflix is able to use my profile and its algorithm to recommend movies I am going to enjoy, that is a good thing. But what if either the profile or the algorithm is faulty, and the movies I would like to see are never shown to me. Or, what if profiling becomes ubiquitious, and instead of predicting which song I might enjoy, a profile is used to decide whether or not I am hired for a job or I get to go to college? What if a profile is used to predict our potential for criminality? As makers, we cannot afford to just invent things because we can; we have to consider the ethical ramifications of our inventions. How can this invention be misused? What are we doing to people if we gamify this app and encourage our users to become addicted through microtransactions? Am I making an ethical decision?
Strategies for Parents
When I arrived at the Primary School, students were not making or saving digital artifacts on the iPads; students regaled me with horror stories about how they abused technology at home; and my fellow teachers strongly advised me not to expect students to share the iPads responsibly or respect other students’ work. All in all, it was fairly sobering, but I was determined to forge ahead with my plans. Humans invent and use technology to make things. I could not, in good conscience, design a technology class where students were using technology, but not making anything.
In their first three weeks using Sketches, nine student sketchbooks were deleted. None of the deletions were intentional, but several of them were caused by what I consider to be reckless disregard: students hammering on the iPads while neither caring nor paying attention to what they were doing. As an educator, I felt this was symptomatic of an unhealthy relationship with technology — one I was determined to change. Over the next three weeks, the number of sketchbook deletions dropped to zero; and today, all students are in the habit of finding and opening their own folders, working carefully on a drawing, and then cleaning up after themselves.
My point is that students can learn to share their iPads responsibly if we support them and nurture appropriate expectations. After all, students in the Primary School already do share physical spaces responsibly. None of them would think of going into their teacher’s desk or another student’s personal cubby. All we had to do was relate digital spaces on the iPad with physical spaces in the classroom, and the students understood. Students were also able to see the direct benefits of sharing responsibly for themselves. If students were going into other students’ sketchbooks and deleting or defacing drawings, no one would be able to save their work from week to week. And students were delighted when, opening their folders, they saw their saved work safe and sound.
Here are four strategies for encouraging children to share technology responsibly at home:
- If a child is sharing responsibly in one aspect of his or her life, connect that to sharing digital resources. For example, if a child shares a play area with a sibling or has permission to go into the family’s refrigerator for a snack, discuss what would happen if family members were not keeping their own stuff organized, respecting the property of others, or cleaning up after themselves. How would the child feel if he or she entered the play area only to find toys scattered everywhere and nothing where it was supposed to be? Then, connect that with using the tablet, computer, or smartphone.
- Create personal spaces on your devices for children to use and save things. They will respect other people’s property more if they have property of their own.
- Model sharing responsibly yourself. Actions speak louder than words: children will misuse technology if they see you misusing technology. A useful practice for working with students is talking aloud. If I turn on an iPad and discover that the previous user did not clean up, I will point that out. More powerfully, when a student turns on an iPad and, instead of finding himself or herself at the homescreen, finds some random app open, I will walk over and say: “Oh! It looks like the last student didn’t clean up and left a bit of a mess. Do you mind cleaning up after them? Thank you so much!” This strategy: (a) informs the student that he or she did nothing wrong; (b) lets the student know what did go wrong; © enables the student to be part of the solution; and (d) reinforces what is expected behavior.
- Explicitly discuss and practice how to clean up each app. It takes 3–4 tries before students internalize what to do. And, if the child is old enough, have the child co-design clean up procedures with you. The key here is the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When turning on the iPad, where do you want to find yourself? At the homescreen. So, when turning off the iPad, we should leave it at the homescreen for the next user. When launching a specific app, where do you want to find yourself? So, when closing the app, clean up by returning the app to that state for the next user. It is common courtesy, which children do understand at this age.
As parents and educators, if we see children behaving inappropriately, we cannot simply throw up our hands and walk away. We must set clear expectations — and then provide students with the support, understanding, practice, and modeling they need to meet those expectations. Will it take time and patience? Of course! But it is well worth the effort. It is our job to nurture children so they grow into good digital citizens.
The technology class addresses standards from the 2016 Massachusetts Digital Literacy and Computer Science (DLCS) Curriculum Framework and the 2016 Massachusetts Science and Technology Engineering Curriculum Framework.
Digital Literacy and Computer Science
Computing and Society:
- Understand basic safety and security concepts and basic understanding of safe information sharing.
- Explore what it means to be a good digital citizen.
- Observe and describe how people use technology and how technology can influence people.
Digital Tools and Collaboration:
- Develop basic use of digital tools and research skills to create simple artifacts.
- Develop basic use of digital tools to communicate or exchange information.
- Understand that computing devices take many forms and have different components.
- Consider basic structures of computing systems and networks.
- Explore human and computer differences to determine when technology is beneficial.
- Explore abstraction through identification of common attributes.
- Create and enact a simple algorithm.
- Understand how information can be collected, used, and presented with computing devices or digital tools.
- Create a simple computer “program.”
- Use basic models and simulations.
Science and Technology Engineering
- Ask questions, make observations, and gather information about a situation people want to change that can be solved by developing or improving an object or tool.
- Generate multiple solutions to design problem and make a drawing (plan) to represent one or more of the solutions.
- Analyze data from tests of two objects designed to solve the same design problem to compare the strengths and weaknesses of how each object performs.