Monday, August 1, 2022

Blackbird Provides an Innovative Way for Anyone to Teach Coding

Disclosure: Blackbird is currently an advertiser on

A Around this time every year I get emails that go something like this, “Hi Richard, I have a new job this fall and I’ll be teaching coding for the first time. Do you have any resources you can share with me?” Usually these emails come from folks who aren’t teaching coding as their full-time jobs but will be doing it under the banner of a larger title like tech coach, STEM teacher, or Makerspace Coordinator. If this sounds like you, Blackbird is a resource that you need to bookmark right now.

Blackbird is a free platform designed to make it easier than ever to introduce students to coding principles even if you don’t have any prior experience teaching coding. I gave it a try with my students at the end of the 2020-21 school year and we liked it. Since then Blackbird has significantly expanded their offerings by partnering with schools and listening to feedback from teachers and students. As we head into the new school year, let’s take a look at how Blackbird works and how using it can be beneficial to your students.

What Makes Blackbird Different?
The first thing you need to know about Blackbird is that it is not a block editor, it’s a text editor. In other words, through Blackbird students learn to write code (specifically, JavaScript) instead of positioning blocks to create a program like they would do in something like Scratch.

If you’ve used block programming in the past and are now looking for something a bit more advanced, Blackbird is for you. That said, you don’t need to have any prior coding experience in order to use Blackbird. Blackbird will show you and your students everything you need to know in order to write code from scratch.

Lead Innovation at Your School!
The other aspect of Blackbird that makes it different from other learn-to-code services is that Blackbird is actively looking to partner with schools to develop curriculum that meets their needs. For example, take a look at this article about Blackbird’s work with Washington’s Bellevue School District where more than 400 middle school students learned to code physics simulations as an integrated part of their science classes. It was done that way to help students see computer science as a conduit to problem solving and not as just an elective course of study that stands alone.

The Blackbird Approach to Teaching Coding
Blackbird offers four curricula to choose from. Those are Games and Animations, Expressions and Equations, Magnet Rocket, and Ratios and Proportions. Whichever curriculum you choose, Blackbird works in the same manner. That manner is to start with a simple activity that makes a point or line appear on the screen. Students then see a split screen lesson that shows them some brief instructions on the left side of the screen and a code editor on the right side of the screen. It’s in the split screen environment that students write their first lines of code. See the screenshot below for a visual of what students see.
Students can work through the lessons at their own pace. There is a helpful “show me” button that students can click when they get stuck on a lesson. Clicking “show me” reveals the solution and its explanation. However, students still need to actually type the code in order to complete the lesson. And if you’re worried about students progressing too quickly and getting ahead of their classmates (or you), Blackbird’s workshop space gives students a space where they develop their own projects.

Blackbird makes it incredibly easy for you as a teacher to try all of the lessons that your students will do. All you have to do is sign into your teacher then click “learn” to see what your students will see. You can complete any and all of the lessons yourself and use all of the help tools like “show me” that your students have access to when they’re signed into Blackbird.

What if the kids know more than me?
When you’re teaching coding for the first time the fear that “the kids know more than me” is a very real one. Likewise, there can be a real fear that some kids will go way ahead of you and or their classmates. If that’s the case for you, consider what a teacher named Ashley at Bellevue School District had to say about these topics.

Ashley used Blackbird to teach coding as an integrated part of a science class. She didn’t have prior experience teaching coding and was worried that kids would know more than her and get way ahead of their classmates. She said having some students go ahead gave them leadership opportunities in her classroom. Additionally, she liked that it helped those kids build their confidence.

Ben, a middle school teacher in Portland, Oregon, saw using Blackbird in his classroom as an opportunity for his class to feel like they were building something together instead of just following his instructions. He also mentioned in an interview with Blackbird that he liked the fact that using Blackbird moved the focus of the class away from him and onto what the students were creating.

Finally, I’ll remind you that teaching coding (or anything that you’ve never taught before) is a good opportunity to model lifelong learning for your students.

How to Start Using Blackbird in Your Classroom
Getting started using Blackbird in your classroom was easy when I did it sixteen months ago. It’s even easier to get started for the 2022-23 school year. You can register for a free account using your Google account, Clever account, or your email address. Blackbird will let you sync your Google Classroom rosters in order to create classes for your students to join. Alternatively, you can manually create classes for your students to join. Either way, once they’ve joined your class they can start on the lessons for the Blackbird curriculum you’ve chosen to use. And as you would expect, you can view your students’ progress in your Blackbird account.

Watch the video embedded below for an overview of how to use Blackbird to teach coding in your classroom.

Elinor's Nature Adventure and Hands-on Learning Activities

As I mentioned last week, my daughters have started to enjoy Elinor Wonders Why on PBS Kids. While they were watching an episode this morning I went on the PBS Kids website to search for some Elinor-themed learning activities. I wasn't disappointed with what I found. 

The parents page for Elinor Wonders Why is full of resources for activities for parents do with their children. Of course, the resources are also great for elementary school teachers who are looking for some hands-on activities. On the parents page you'll find directions for making Elinor-themed finger puppets, placemats, mini-libraries, costumes, and many other craft projects. You'll also find directions and templates for creating investigative activities like identifying insects and sorting "treasures" found in nature. 

PBS Kids also offers some online games for kids to play and learn from. Those games include the investigative style games Elinor's Nature Adventure, Pond Life, and Backyard Life. There are seven games in all. All of the games can be played without having to sign-up or sign into any kind of account. The games I tested worked equally well in the web browser on my laptop and on my iPad. 

How to Make Whiteboard Videos in Microsoft Flip

Last week's most popular post was Getting Started With Microsoft Flip. To start this week let's look at doing a little more than just a basic selfie video in Microsoft Flip. An additional way to use Microsoft Flip is to create whiteboard style videos. 

When you open the recording tool in Microsoft Flip press record and then open the options menu you'll find lots of tools for enhancing your videos. It's there that you'll also find an option for a whiteboard. You can use that virtual whiteboard when recording a video as a topic prompt and or when replying to a topic. 

Watch the following video to learn how to record a whiteboard video in Microsoft Flip

Applications for Education
You can use Microsoft Flip's whiteboard video tools to create an instructional video for your students to watch. But having students make videos can be a great way to learn what they know about a topic and how they think about a topic. Here's a list of 25 topics for students to create whiteboard videos about.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

July's Most Popular Posts on Free Technology for Teachers

The sun is setting on what turned out to be a great last day of July. I spent the last day of the month hanging out at the lake with my kids and going for a little bike ride. I hope that you ended the month in a similarly relaxing way. I say that because, to me, the switch from July to August always feels like mental switch to back-to-school season. 

As I do at the end of every month, I've taken a look through my Google Analytics account to find the most popular posts of the month. Take a look below and see if there's anything interesting that you missed during the month. 

1. Pictures as Math Problem Prompts
2. A Good Place to Find Free Images and Music for Classroom Projects
3. Try the Fact Check Explorer
4. Geo Artwork - A Fun Game About Geography and Art
5. A Great Place to Find Free Sound Effects
6. Reminder - Two-Factor Authentication Saves Frustration
7. Five Google Forms Features Overlooked by New Users
8. Getting Started With Microsoft Flip
9. Five Ideas for Classroom Apps
10. Best of 2022 So Far - Image Background Removers

50 Tech Tuesday Tips!
50 Tech Tuesday Tips is an eBook that I created with busy tech coaches, tech integrators, and media specialists in mind. In it you'll find 50 ideas and tutorials that you can use as the basis of your own short PD sessions. Get a copy today!

August Webinars!
This summer I'm hosting a series of Practical Ed Tech webinars. There are two left in the series. You learn more and register through the links below.
Other Places to Follow Me:
  • The Practical Ed Tech Newsletter comes out every Sunday evening/ Monday morning. It features my favorite tip of the week and the week's most popular posts from Free Technology for Teachers.
  • My YouTube channel has more than 42,000 subscribers watching my short tutorial videos on a wide array of educational technology tools. 
  • I've been Tweeting as @rmbyrne for fifteen years. 
  • The Free Technology for Teachers Facebook page features new and old posts from this blog throughout the week. 
  • If you're curious about my life outside of education, you can follow me on Instagram or Strava.
This post originally appeared on If you see it elsewhere, it has been used without permission. Sites that steal my (Richard Byrne's) work include Icons Daily and Daily Dose. Featured image captured by Richard Byrne.

Five Good Resources for Learning About Airplanes and Airlines

We're planning a little trip this fall to visit some family that we haven't seen since before the start of the pandemic. When we told our daughters that we're going to fly they got very excited about it. We've now been answering questions about flying seemingly nonstop for a few days. Those conversations prompted me to compile this list of resources for teaching and learning about the science of flight. 

Turbulence: One of the Great Unsolved Mysteries of Physics is a TED-Ed lesson that explains what turbulence is and the forces that create it. The lesson explains that even though we typically associate turbulence with flying in airplanes, turbulence exists in many other places including oceans.

The Wright Brothers - The Invention of the Aerial Age offers timelines for teaching about the developments made by the Wright Brothers. Dig into the Interactive Experiments section of the timeline and you'll find Engineering the Wright WayEngineering the Wright Way offers interactive simulations in which students learn about wing design by joining the Wright Brothers for test flights in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

How Things Fly hosted by the Smithsonian features an interactive module in which students design their own airplanes. The activity starts with a simple and slow airplane that students have to modify until it reaches a target speed and altitude. As students modify the wings, fuselage, and engines of their airplanes they are given instant feedback on the effects of those modifications. In some cases the feedback includes the airplane crashing and the students having to start over again.

TED-Ed offers a lesson about breaking the sound barrier. The lesson is called The Sonic Boom Problem and it explains how a sonic boom is created and how math is used to predict the path of a sonic boom in the atmosphere. 

Here's some archival footage of Yeager's flight in the Bell X-1.

If you have ever wondered why airlines sell more tickets than they have seats on an airplane, the TED-Ed lesson Why Do Airlines Sell Too Many Tickets? is for you. In Why Do Airlines Sell Too Many Tickets? you can learn about the mathematics that airlines use to maximize the revenue that they can generate from each flight. That math includes calculating the probability that everyone who holds a ticket for a flight will actually show up for the flight. The way that probability is calculated is explained in the video. Finally, the lesson asks students to consider the ethics of overbooking flights. Watch the video below or go here to see the entire lesson.

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