Campaign ads and voter disenfranchisement: middle schoolers take on the 2016 Presidential Election

There are loads of lessons and projects on elections out there – but how do you run a week-long unit on this presidential election? How do you prevent your classroom from devolving into the chaos that this election warrants? That was the question we spent hours trying to answer – how do you strip away the virulent attitudes and meaningless conversations and instead impart some true academic value? The answer proved surprisingly simple – ignore the politics. Don’t mention the candidates. Abstract away what makes the 2016 Presidential Election the 2016 Presidential Election; instead, tackle topics that go beyond the battles playing out on television every night.

For our Election Week, students across all grades looked at two aspects of elections: campaign ads and voter disenfranchisement. On Monday and Tuesday, we built upon an excellent lesson from the Museum of the Moving Image around historic campaign ads. After a warmup in which students brainstormed a commercial for a new flavor of Cheetos, students were introduced to a rubric with which to evaluate campaign ads. They learned how to decompose ads into their emotion, their persuasiveness and their cinematic style. Their favorite was a 2004 ad featuring Secretary of State Kerry on a surfboard:

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The Rational Football League

Fantasy football can be a ton of fun, but winning your league requires months of careful research, late nights searching for updates on players you barely even know exist, and the toll of an emotional roller-coaster played out in fifteen minute increments. It also requires math! Specifically, it involves reading and understanding a wide range of player statistics, optimizing your team player by player based on an ever-dwindling pool of prospects.

Our Rational Football League activity was like a full season of fantasy football injected with targeted math standards and stuffed into a single class period. Students, working in pairs, drafted a six-player team given just two statistics and three options for each position. These statistics were randomly generated, so each pair of students was presented with a vastly different set of players. To understand which player to draft for a given position, students had to use ratio and proportional reasoning (the focus of the unit) to compare the three options, then decide which of the two stats they deemed more important. They justified their choices on paper, including both their mathematical reasoning and their football strategies.


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Body System Amusement Parks

Body systems are inherently gross. This is evidenced by the sheer volume of “eww!”s and “turn it off!”s radiating through the walls of Ms. Fernandez’s seventh grade science class in the days leading up to this project. Muscular system? Gross, because you’re looking under your skin. Circulatory system? Gross, because there’s blood everywhere. Digestive system? Poop. Everything leads to poop.

In order to abstract away some of the gorier details of the human body, we tasked students with designing and building amusement parks based on the body systems they had been learning about. The goal was to pitch their park to the Fernandez and Sheldon LLC investment firm using a physical model and a PowerPoint presentation explaining what made their park unique and how each attraction related to a body system.

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Polygon Transformer – an exercise in collaborative Chrome app development

Eighth grade math kicks off with a unit on geometry. More specifically, geometry transformations – understanding how translations, reflections, rotations and dilations affect congruent angles and sides of a polygon. Eighth grade students can plot vertices on the coordinate plane until the cows come home, but the real power of this unit comes from understanding the geometric properties that govern the shapes and transformations themselves. Mr. Williams, our eighth grade math teacher, approached me about creating a Chrome app (which would run on our students’ Chromebooks) that allowed students to more quickly explore these transformations without being hampered by manual vertex plotting.

Fortunately, I had the foundation of this app already from a lesson on algorithmically creating line art point-by-point last winter. The first round of feature requests included:

  • Creating a closed polygon out of a series of vertices entered as ordered pairs
  • Translating, rotating and reflecting that shape, while keeping each result on-screen
  • Labeling each polygon in sequence – ABC, A’B’C’, etc.

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Launching a new data initiative within our CT program

As we kick off our second year of Computational Thinking at Excel, we decided we wanted to be more data-driven going forward. Last year focused on understanding how best to integrate CT-rich curriculum into classrooms, how to get students hooked and how to ensure we were working towards our program goal of empowering all students to see themselves as computational thinkers. Subjectively, it all felt pretty successful – we had some great lessons, students seemed to enjoy the projects, and we saw some national attention. This year, we’re looking to prove our success.

We have two goals we’re focused on. The first is to show that students are demonstrating knowledge transfer by connecting computer science concepts to other disciplines. This happens when a student proposes using an algorithm to help write a poem, or when they can identify when and how they used pattern recognition to analyze lab experiment results. The second, more audacious goal is to show that integrating computational thinking into core disciplines increases student mastery of targeted standards. That is, we want to show that this program can and should scale to the broader K12 education world – it directly increases measurable student success where teachers want it.

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Reforming the American criminal justice system, one case at a time

Batman is going to jail for life, without the possibility of parole. It likely wasn’t the sentence he deserved, but it was the one we as a class needed right now.

We were in Day 2 of our seventh grade criminal justice unit, and Batman had just been found guilty of first-degree murder. Our students had served as witnesses, judge and jury as Mr. Murphy and I belligerently argued our sides. This lighthearted case followed our first day kickoff, walking through the eye-opening real-world case of Reynolds Wintersmith Jr., a first-time offender who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for selling crack cocaine to support his parentless siblings.

The learning objectives of this unit were relatively straightforward – students would learn how the American criminal justice system works, how it frequently fails stakeholders from suspects to taxpayers, and how there are not a lot of easy fixes to the many issues plaguing it. To invest students in such a complicated set of issues, we broke them into teams of four and had them create their own personalized criminal justice systems. Each team spent a class period debating topics such as mandatory minimum sentences, marijuana laws, stop and frisk policies, civil forfeiture, juvenile detention and treatment of felons post-release – many of the most controversial topics associated with criminal justice reform.

The interactive storytelling platform used to capture the students’ criminal justice systems and process each day’s real-world-inspired case.

Once they reached consensus on an issue, they locked in their choice. For example, for three strikes laws, they might choose to follow states like Washington, requiring at least one offense to be a serious and violent felony for the law to come into effect. They might increase the severity of the law to apply after just two felonies, even if neither is violent. Or they might trust judges to determine sentences in all cases, removing a mathematical formula from the process entirely. Mr. Murphy and I were careful to present both sides of each issue so as to minimize bias in their decisions, regardless of our personal stances on topics like solitary confinement and police militarization.

With custom criminal justice systems ready to roll, the rest of the unit consisted of students processing real-world-inspired cases. This was built on Twine, a digital interactive fiction platform – essentially a computer-based Choose Your Own Adventure book that I could code cases into. The cases unfolded based on all previous decisions a team had made. For instance, when running through the case of Cristian Fernandez, a 12-year-old charged with murdering his brother, some teams tried Cristian as a juvenile while others sent him to adult court. When considering the case of Davon Crawford, a repeat violent offender who ended his own life after killing his family, some teams were able to avoid tragedy based on their three-strikes decisions – though many teams had already softened their law after processing the case of Anthony Jerome Jackson, a three-time nonviolent offender sentenced to life in prison for taking a wallet from a hotel room. There were some cases we ran through together as a class to elicit large group debates – getting trapped in the poverty cycle of suspended licenses and lost jobs in a system that graciously doesn’t use jail time to punish unpaid fines and fees, or determining if and when it’s morally acceptable to seize and sell suspected criminals’ cars and houses when your police department really wants to buy a new tank.

The logic flow for one of the cases shown in Twine.

As students worked through the each case, they were prompted to justify their decisions and suggest changes to their own systems in short-form essays. As each case concluded, they read through the true story of each case so they could understand how their criminal justice systems handled things differently. They were also given the opportunity to change the relevant portions of their systems – changes that would ripple across all future cases. It was remarkable to hear students discussing some very mature topics and to see how personally injusticed they felt as they took on the roles of suspects denied proper counsel, families with children killed by SWAT teams and police officers forced to make quick decisions without the equipment they needed to stay safe.

This unit leveraged the computational thinking skills of algorithmic thinking and decomposition. We presented the criminal justice system at a high level as an algorithmic system used to process cases from arrest through sentencing and release – the steps differed depending on the circumstances of the case, but there was always a definitive outcome for the suspect. The American criminal justice system as a whole was decomposed into twelve key issues that students had to decide on in order to build up their own system. There are many more issues we could have had students consider, but it was great to see the wide array of opinions on those we focused on in this first iteration.

Batman is still in prison today, awaiting the results of his second appeal. Even after three weeks of diving deep into the failures of the system that landed him behind bars, no one seemed to think his brand of justice was preferable.

Charging cell phones with the power of the sun

When first asked to lead a hands-on project around renewable energy, the sheer volume of possibilities seemed intimidating. Energy source aside, I wanted something that would motivate our seventh graders to persevere through the inevitable challenges of their first week-long design project. What is it that a group of young adults with fairly reliable access to light and heat care most about powering? Their cell phones, of course.

Having identified the target device to power, there were still a multitude of renewable energy sources to choose between. Should we wire together a hundred pounds of potatoes? Build a hand crank generator using a DC motor or a magnet? Dive deep and build a Seebeck generator or a wind turbine?

In the end, I went with what I know – solar energy. Through two volunteer projects to install solar energy at orphanages in Africa, I’ve learned the basics of solar power and why it is incredibly important for the future of our planet. However, I also knew we didn’t need a (pricey) panel and inverter just to charge a low-end Android phone.

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My Earthquake Brings All the Kids to the Desk

In addition to our faux earthquake apocalypse, our sixth grade earthquake unit included a hands-on design project that put our students in the role of structural engineer. At her previous schools, Ms. Worthington has had students create structures out of straws, Popsicle sticks, paper and tape that were then subjected to her very scientific shaking of the desks. Here at Excel, we knew it was time to step up her game.

Without knowing how to do it or even really what I meant, I committed to creating an earthquake simulation table. Something more fair – it would shake each structure consistently the same way – but more importantly, something to really motivate our students into seeing this challenge as a serious, computational thinking powered competition.

After considering several options online, I landed on a design using a DC motor that cranks a wooden top back and forth along rails. The original inspiration comes from the US Department of Energy’s Jefferson Lab. Our modified version replaces the motor/top interface with 3D-printed components and leaves the circuitry powering the design exposed to curious minds. An early attempt to leverage an Arduino-powered servo didn’t give us enough speed to disturb even the weakest structures, but thanks to some quick thinking by (and many hours of weekend work from) our very own electronics expert Mr. Williams, the table was ready to go in the nick of time. The simulation table even featured three different speeds (based on adding and removing batteries through the use of large switches) to simulate different earthquake strengths.

Students leveraged all they had learned about earthquakes and good building design to create their own structures. Pyramid-shaped projects proved to be the strongest, though with enough tape there were plenty of less-conventional designs that withstood some serious shaking as well. Listen to a student describe her winning structure below!

Saving the World from Earthquakes and Volcanoes

On Tuesday, February 2nd, breaking news reached students here at Excel – the world was in danger of being destroyed by a rash of earthquakes all across the globe, and top scientists and politicians were calling on our students to save the world. Using the power of computational thinking to decompose the potentially apocalyptic problem and analyzing real-world data to find patterns, it was up to our sixth graders to understand what was happening and where we might be safe.

This lesson was heavily inspired by CIESE’s Musical Plates project, a wonderful (albeit slightly outdated) lesson plan on using real-time data freely available online to understand the relationships between earthquakes, volcanoes and tectonic plate boundaries. As our lesson began, students were asked to answer the following questions:

  1. Where are earthquakes happening? Are they clustered or do they seem random?
  2. Can we predict where earthquakes will happen next?
  3. What is causing these earthquakes to occur?

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Creating beautiful art, one point at a time

At Excel, we firmly believe in the value of STEAM education – that is, ensuring art has a seat at the same table as science, technology, engineering and math. Letting students flex their creative muscles is just as critical to students’ success as boosting traditional STEM skills and technical intuition. When my colleague Mr. Bulale showed me the unit plan for his sixth grade math unit on graphing positive and negative integers, I figured this could be a great place to inject a little artistic freedom.

I spent an afternoon creating a Chrome app (that would run full-screen on our students’ Chromebooks) that allowed students to interactively draw lines on a coordinate plane using ordered pairs. Leveraging some coordinate lists from another school, I created a few sample pieces and added some additional functionality – zoom levels, custom colors and mirroring across each axis.


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