Tag Archives: students

Sheer Joy

There is no greater reward for a teacher than when a class of students is enthusiastically engaged in learning and expresses delight in what they are doing. When it comes in the last class on Friday, it’s even sweeter!

This is awesome!

It’s so cool!

I want to do this all day long!

These were the comments from my students at the end of the day and week as they reluctantly packed up their laptops and headed out of the door towards home. They had been thoroughly engaged, both mentally and emotionally, and the energy in the room was amazing.

The Computer Programming class at ICS has grown over the years from around 6 students to now 23 students learning the basics of programming. We’ve used various tools and techniques to teach programming, but we’ve settled on using Processing as an introduction to Java and object-oriented programming (and hence a good introduction to the IB Diploma Computer Science course) …but it is also engaging and appealing to a broad range of students.

In Friday’s class, students were building their first program. They had explored Processing and seen what kinds of things could be built. They’d looked at the code – a mess of {s and ;s and weird words like void and println. Now it was time to dig in and get started.

It was a wild ride. I wish I’d had the time or presence of mind to take photos and videos, but I was too busy bouncing between presenting programming basics to the whole class (what on Earth are those { } for??), helping individuals trouble-shoot, high-fiving kids who were eager to show what they’d done, etc. Every single student had a huge smile on their face and were eagerly sharing with their tablemates what they were doing & asking what the others were doing.

It is that kind of experience which teachers live for.

processingI’m lucky that I teach a practical, engaging course like computer programming. Students are creating new things and actively engaged in learning. They get to immediately practice and implement what they are taught and get immediate feedback when it works (or doesn’t). Sure, there’s a fun element to it (and Processing makes programming fun from the start), but the main thing is the success. They write some code, click “run” and immediately the computer does what they tell it. Their code creates an image on the screen as they imagined. Or it doesn’t, and they have to figure out what they need to do to make it work they way they want. Click “run” again – instant feedback.

My favourite times were when students would ask me, “what would happen if I did ______ instead?” I got to smile broadly and say, “Don’t wait for me to tell you. Try it out!” The students were experimenting and trying things out – a real inquiry activity. I had to give them enough information to make sure they got working programs, but they could alter the data and order of commands to make different programs. As I said to them, “The worst thing that will happen is you’ll get an error message and you’ll need to either fix it or change it to something else.”

If only teaching was like this every day. The reality is that this kind of energetic and energizing lesson is a rare treat. Teaching is one of the most demanding, emotionally draining and stressful jobs around. It’s seriously hard work. (And deadly serious work!)

But when a lesson goes like this, a teacher is on top of the world.

Technology for all

It’s not news that technology is making a big impact on education. Schools are spending lots of money on computers, robots, tablets, 3D printers, etc. Curriculum is being rewritten to embed technology skills within every subject at all grade levels. Students are being required to learn computer programming and being encouraged to become makers.

roboticsBut it’s not enough.

In our world 50% of the population are female. But only 8-20% of engineers are women. Less than half the schools in UK have girls taking A-level physics (and only one in five of the students taking that exam are girls). 19% of students taking AP computer science  are women.

The various technology industries, businesses and communities are predominately male. And schools are not doing enough to fix that. Schools and teachers can’t solve the problem (there’s plenty of indication that it’s societal and influenced by parents), but we need to constantly work at it.

teamworkIn our school, we just hosted a special all-girls technology event. It was a lot of fun and the girls loved it. But we only had 13 girls. It’s a start, but it needs to happen again and again. And we have to bring in the younger ones to combat societal and peer pressure.

I’m in. I owe it to my daughter. I owe it to all the girls.

DIY Learning Projects

gaming_JacobThis semester, we had a new High School course on offer for students: “Project X.” It was an experimental course of “DIY Learning,” where the students took control of their own learning. They chose a topic to learn about, planned their learning, and conducted their own research into the topic. The semester started with some teacher-led instruction of how to plan a learning experience, as well as how the brain works and how to study and learn new topics efficiently. The bulk of the semester had the students taking the lead, and so my role as “teacher” was to guide them and make sure they were on track, sticking to their plan, and making progress.

This week we had them present their learning to their classmates. It was a diverse range of subjects that they’d chosen to study. One studied astrophysics, while another studied graphic design and art using a graphics tablet. A few learned computer programming, and a few studied business plans and entrepreneurship. One learned computer game design, another studied how computers work and created a “visible computer” display showing the exposed components of a computer. The last presentation was by a student who studied international law, and she led the class in the enactment of a trial.

It was a fascinating experience, both for the teacher/facilitator, as well as for the students. We all learned a lot – not only about the subjects we studied but also about how we work and learn.

graphics_AbelAbel showing off art created on a graphic tablet. ExposedComputer_MoMohamed showing off his “visible computer.”
court_NubiaNubia presiding over a class trial. business_SebSeb making his elevator pitch.
Cross-posted from my school blog.

Do as I do

Better late than never.

I’d required my students to write a plan for the semester and keep a reflective journal on what they’re learning. It’s an experiment, this class: a chance for the students to get credit for self-directed learning. So they’re each learning something different, something they’re interested in. One is learning business models, another programming in C++, another Art and Law… To keep track of it all and make sure they are keeping track of their own work, they have to keep a learning log and plan out what they want to learn and how they are going to learn it.

And then it struck me: I’m doing my own self-directed learning. Apart from my personal learning (a new language, investment strategies, etc), I’m also having to learn a new curriculum and teaching & assessment techniques for the IB Diploma Computer Science course I’ll be teaching next year. I’m presently taking an online course and have signed up for a face-to-face workshop, and I’m reading curriculum materials and brushing up on my Java programming. I am doing all the things that my students are doing.

So why am I not doing the tasks I set my students?

It seems to me that it’s only fair that a teacher not ask his/her students to do more than he/she is willing to do. If I am asking students to plan their learning, keep a journal, and show off their learning experience to me and each other, then I should do the same.

So I did. I’m doing the same tasks I set my students. I’m recording my work and reflecting on my learning and following a plan I’ve laid out for the semester. I explained my thinking and my work to my students and am showing them what I’m up to.

I’m not sure how important it is to them that I’m doing this, but it certainly has become so to me. It’s a good experience for me as a learner …and as a teacher. I understand better what my students are going through – not only the learning experience but also the tasks that I require them to do.

It only seems fair.

Interesting: I realize that I wrote a piece with the same name about teachers & administrators over a year ago.

Robotics: making, programming, competing

You can see it in their faces: the broad grins, the light shining in their eyes. You can hear it in their voices:

“This is so cool!”

These are the signs of students who have successfully done something that they’ve never done before. They’ve made something themselves, and got it working by themselves. This is the joy of the “maker” movement, the appeal of robotics, the push to teach programming in all schools.

I see it regularly in computing and robotics classrooms at ICS, and here it is in our High School robotics after-school activity. This small group of students are learning to build and program robots. It’s a small start for them: they got the robot to move in a straight line and then spin around in a circle. But those small steps start the students on a long and exciting journey.

robotThis is the process of building and making things for themselves. Many of us are content to read other people’s content on the web, watch other people’s videos, play other people’s games, etc. Some – the movers and shakers of today – are driven to actually create these things. They make new websites, create new games, build new tools. Robotics is part of that: the process of assembling a robot is an act of making and tinkering, which helps not only to lead to work in engineering and other fields but also to success in problem-solving. Then, once the robot is built, the students have to write a program to get the robot to do what they want. It’s a precise task, and one that requires the students to think through a task in logical steps, write out the code and then check it for errors.

I’ve written about programming before, and its value in modern society. Perhaps Douglas Rushkoff sums it up best by saying that people who can program are the true literates of the modern age: the writers who create new things compared to the majority of us who are simply users. These students are on the journey to being the leaders of the world: the ones who can build the tools and systems that the rest of us use.

It’s exciting to see the students start down that road …and see the glee in their faces when they get the machine to do what they want. There’s an extra bonus incentive for them: competition. ICS is part of ISSEA (International Schools of Southern and Eastern Africa), which primarily sponsors sports tournaments. (Our upcoming track & field event is an ISSEA tournament.) However, the group has branched out into Arts events and – starting last year – a STEM competition in which students are challenged to solve mathematical and scientific problems, including building and programming robots. Last year, our students traveled to Harare to compete, where the robotics team won the KISS award despite problems knocking them out of the competition. This coming April our students will head to Lusaka, and they hope to do better!

We’ve started on our journey. It’s exciting to think about where it might lead…

Cross-posted from my school blog.

Anuther kase four programing

Can you see the error in this code?
Can you spot the error in this code?

As I go from student to student, helping them debug their program, it strikes me that there’s a very simple reason why teaching programming is a help for all students. So many of them have simple typographic errors: three n’s in “running,” leaving out the n in “column,” etc. I give them some hints (often simply saying “spelling error!” suffices) and they stare at the screen intensely until, with a smile, they find the mistake. That’s when I tell them: they’re going to be so good at proofreading their work in all their classes!

There’s probably a good research question there: do students who learn to successfully program apply their proofreading and error checking skills in English and other classes? It’s something I’m going to track with my current students …meanwhile, I’ll just continue to help them develop careful spell-checking and proofreading skills.

Our Digital Life

“Smartphone” by Jeshoots licensed CC0/public domain

What’s the place of digital media in our lives? What’s the consequences of oversharing online? How can we make responsible choices when we use other people’s creative work? What factors intensify cyberbullying and online cruelty and what can we do to lessen them?

The distinction between online life and offline life is blurring more and more, especially for young people. It’s our responsibility as educators to help our students not only be successful in learning more about the subjects our school offers but also in how to navigate the media and networks of our online life.

Our school teaches explicitly the skills and concepts of “Digital Citizenship” – responsible, ethical and intelligent behavior while online. In our Advisory sessions, as well as in other classes, students will be grappling with issues such as cyberbullying, oversharing, copyright and remixing others’ work, and other important aspects of online life.

To help us do this effectively and efficiently, ICS is using the Digital Citizenship curriculum that was developed by CommonSenseMedia, a non-profit organization devoted to helping families be informed and responsible online users, consumers, sharers and creators. The Digital Citizenship curriculum they’ve developed is highly regarded and widely used in schools, and we are using and adapting it for our students at ICS.

But this education can’t only happen in school. We ask all parents to help your children to learn their place in the online world and act responsibly and safely. I’ll be publishing information on this blog and in the school’s newsletter for parents and other community members to be more informed about how to help our children grow and develop in the online world.

For starters, I encourage all parents to read this PDF Family Tip Sheet on using common sense in digital life. It’s full of good advice for parents, with some excellent suggestions on how to help your children cope with life online.

As for me, the key is one of our ICS Learner Profile traits: balance. It’s OK for kids to be online, chatting and posting on Facebook, sharing on Instagram, watching YouTube videos, etc. It’s also important for them to get outside and play soccer, or go to a dance, or just hang out chatting with their friends over coffee. We’re lucky here in Addis that this is the norm for our children. It’s part of our culture (in school and throughout the community) to value these offline, person-to-person interactions.

As the weeks go by, I’ll be showcasing many of our projects with students and the skills and ideas they’re grappling with. Share your questions, concerns and ideas!

Cross-posted from my school blog.

STEAM week for Grade 10 students

JpegAs we’ve refined our Week Without Walls trips, we’ve adjusted the school schedule to minimize the disruption to classes. In the High School, we’ve scheduled two grade levels at the same time, leaving two other grade levels in school to focus on different parts of their learning. For IB Diploma students in grades 11 and 12, that week is a chance to focus on the IB courses and related work. For 9th and 10th grade students, the week is a special off-timetable week that focuses on project-based learning and learning experiences beyond the normal boundaries of subject areas and class periods.

This week, Grade 10 students are experiencing a special STEAM week. STEAM is an acronym referring to Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. This is an are of increased emphasis in education, as schools recognize the increasing need to educate students in these areas to help them be more creative and critical thinkers as well as being more adept in our technological world.

For this week, we built a special schedule that would give students a chance to get a little introduction to each area, and then to choose an area in which to work for longer periods of time. Each group of students is working in one area to develop a project that they will share and show off at the end of the week. The PE teachers organized some physical breaks for the students, and Elias Fessehaye is leading the students in a fun and engaging Korfball tournament.

JpegThere are five main areas where the students are working on projects. In the Arts, Laura Blue-Waters is guiding a group of students to create a 3D mural to be displayed outdoors on campus. Leulseged Assefa is working with a group of students on programming robots to complete different challenges, working in the areas of Technology and Engineering. In Mathematics, Rob Maddock is working with a group of students to measure school buildings and use the 3D modelling software SketchUpMake to build a scale model of the campus. I’m working with students in Technology to build applications, programming games that can run on any computer. And in Science and Engineering, Dave Acland is challenging students to design and build a device that will launch and transport an object a set height and distance.

These challenges let the students explore different tasks than what they normally have to grapple with in classes, work together, plan and build solutions to problems, test those solutions and revise their work as needed. It’s a dynamic, fun and challenging experience for all.

JpegIn addition to these set areas, we’ve also built in some “Genius Hour” time (also called 20% time) to allow students to explore and learn in areas that they have an individual interest. This is a technique that many schools are implementing – it comes from various sources, including Google’s initiative to allow employees to use 20% of their time to work on any project they are interested in. There’s a long and growing tradition of “heutagogy” – allowing students to develop their own learning experiences by pursuing things they are passionate about.

Our grade 10 students had to plan and get approved their ideas for their own Passion Projects, and there’s an interesting and varied bunch of projects. Students are making videos, building models, creating artwork, making posters, taking photos, doing research, and more. These are in areas related to physical fitness and sports, medicine, history, zoology, Art and other subjects. It’ll be exciting to see what they come up with by the end of the week!

It’s proving to be an active and fascinating week (I’m writing this midway through) and I’m looking forward to reporting on the outcomes after the students share their STEAM and Passion projects on Friday.



poster_develop_superpowersBy popular demand, and to meet the needs and interests of ICS students and parents, we are proud to announce that we are relaunching our weekend programming opportunity, CoderDojo:

ICS CoderDojo

Saturdays, from 2pm to 4pm

Starts 15 Nov & runs every weekend (except holidays & long weekends)

Room S021 (secondary computer/maker/robotics lab)


What’s a CoderDojo?

CoderDojos are informal, fun sessions where children and adults can learn programming skills in a relaxed, positive atmosphere. CoderDojos were started by James Whelton, an Irish High School student who taught himself to program and who wanted to share this skill with others. CoderDojos are free and open places to share skills and learn programming.

What are the rules?

There is one main rule: Be Cool. This is the CoderDojo way of expressing The ICS Way. We do ask parents of young children to come with your child. This not only helps with logistics, but also helps you learn alongside your child!

What will children learn?

That’s kind of up to them! This is NOT a formal lesson. There are no tests, no exams, etc. We won’t set any homework (although any children who want to practice at home are very welcome to – we’ll use free, multiplatform systems that children and parents can load onto their home computers).

We will encourage young children to use Scratch to build computer games. Scratch is an easy, free, multiplatform system that is intended to help children learn programming. (Children can use the website to code online, or parents can download and install the offline version to save bandwidth.)

Older students will be encouraged to explore Greenfoot or Processing, two versions of Java that are easy to get into. Others might like to learn Python, a powerful but simple language. We’ll also explore HTML to learn how web pages are built, as well as CSS which is what’s used to style websites. Any students who have other ideas are very welcome! Last year, we had some students take their own courses to learn Java and C++

Who’s running CoderDojo?

Both myself and Leulseged Assefa (MS Computing teacher) will be overseeing the dojo. We will also have guest experts who will help students and show some tips and tricks.

Can I help?

Sure! If you want to help supervise, organize or be a guest expert, you’re very welcome. Let me know! If you lack technical expertise, we’d still appreciate assistance in organization, supervision, etc.

Where can I find out more?

Read the FAQs of CoderDojo here. Or email me: john.iglar at icsaddis.edu.et

Learning from the students

Note: this is a cross-post from my school blog, intended for parents & students.

JpegWhen you attend an educational conference, you expect to learn new things from your colleagues. They give talks, they present workshops, you network with them. They tell you about projects they’re working on, they show you tools that they use, they share information about their own schools.

What you usually do not expect is to learn from students. At the recent Learning 2.014 conference we just held on campus, however, we did!

At Learning 2.014, hundreds of teachers from around the world (Africa, Europe, Middle East, Asia, America) came to ICS for a conference about learning and educating using modern methods and tools. (“Learning 2.0” means new ways of learning – version 2.0! This generally means with technology, but not necessarily.) Presenters included invited experts, ICS faculty, and conference participants. All of them are currently (or very recently) teaching in schools – generally international schools.

To help with logistics and provide extra tech support, we enlisted the help of a number of students in the Middle and High Schools. Keith Liebetreu and Ken Gunther were the main teachers in charge, and they set up some training sessions for both Tech Support and Student Ambassadors in advance of the conference. They showed the students how to help with wifi connectivity, projecting computer screens, etc. Ambassadors were told about protocols and how to help people. Some students were shown pictures of past conference and discussed ways to get interesting and appealing photographs.

“Special shout-out to all the student ambassadors, they were great!!”  – a conference participant

IMG_20140920_113355Throughout the conference, our Student Ambassadors, Photographers and Tech Support were enthusiastic and eager. They not only agreed to take on any jobs they were asked to do, they also offered to do additional jobs. At one point, I was working with another conference organizer (Nick, from Poland) on a task. Two Middle School girls, Faru and Jadesola, had finished with the jobs they had been given and asked us if they could do anything to help us. I thanked them, but said we were doing fine and didn’t need any help. The girls asked if we would like any coffee. Both Nick and I laughed and said yes, and the girls went and got us macchiatos!

It was delightful seeing students eager to help, eager to take on jobs. While students at ICS often show independence and initiative, it’s particularly impressive and rewarding when they do this with visitors on campus!

“Highlights: the ICS students were incredibly helpful, kind, patient, knowledgeable, friendly and welcoming” – a conference participant

More than just being helpful, often our students were actually able to teach us adults some things. Here are two experiences I had that made me think and learn from our students:


During the conference, several “unconference” sessions were held in which any participant could put forward a topic of interest to them and, if there were enough people who shared that interest, a place was set aside for discussion, sharing, planning. I proposed that we hold a show of solidarity with Neil Bantleman and Ferdi Tjiong, two teachers from Jakarta International School who have been falsely imprisoned without charge for more than two months in Indonesia. Many people agreed and as I was setting up the space for a group photo, two students came up and asked what it was all about. I started to tell them, and Kate said, “Oh, yes. Free Neil and Ferdi.” I was surprised she knew about them. Aysha then said, “Can we join in?”

Sometimes we get so caught up in our own circle that we forget about and ignore others outside of it. I was so focused on international school teachers that I didn’t even consider students. Kate and Aysha (and the many other students who joined us for the photograph) taught me that I should never assume that people outside my immediate circle are either unaware or unconcerned. (Thank you for the lesson, all of you!)


I met Bamlak and asked him how things were going. (You can see his reaction above!) He told me he was learning a lot from Jeff Utecht, one of our presenters (“Learning 2 Leaders”) from the US. Jeff later told me about his interaction with Bamlak during his session.

Jeff was teaching teachers about building their (and their schools’) PLN (Professional Learning Network) through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. By building connections, we expand our knowledge and the sources of our knowledge – we also expand our ability to gather information, answer our questions and solve our problems. During part of the session, Bamlak asked Jeff if he would give him (Bamlak) a shout-out to Jeff’s over 17,000 followers on Twitter. Jeff, being kind to this young student, agreed to do so. Bamlak then offered to give Jeff a shout-out on Instagram. Jeff figured this was nice but wasn’t terribly impressed by the offer …until Bamlak showed him that he had over 26,000 followers on Instagram! (Jeff doesn’t have quite that many.)

It’s worth considering that everyone around us has strengths and excels in various ways. We may not think so, but each person we meet has areas in which they can surpass our own achievements …no matter how young (or old!).

(Thanks, Bamlak, for following me on Instagram!)