A young boy whose mother has died is told by a wizard that he can bring her back to life with a magical “Liferock,” but he will have to fight an evil villain atop Mount Everest to obtain it. There are twists and turns, but our hero triumphs over all and is reunited with his mother.
Reminiscent of a fairy tale, this short story actually sprang from the fertile mind of Young-Jae (Andrew) Chang in Write 4 Life, one of the two-week summer courses available to students in grades 5-8. The classes go all day (8:30-3:30) and offer a fun take on a single subject area.
Flexing Their Creativity
Write 4 Life Teacher Martin Walsh is thrilled to see Chang and his other students implementing Freytag’s structure for dramatic storytelling, which is one of the key concepts he tries to drive home in the class. But he is equally excited to see their creativity bubbling over.
A former teacher in international schools (Caracas, Phnom Penh) and university admissions director, Walsh is currently a college counselor at Harker’s high school. “My colleagues and I in the college counseling department think that writing your personal statement for college, being creative on that application, is a muscle,” he says, and “like any muscle, it needs to be worked out.”
His students are indeed getting a workout, and one that will serve them well. Chang, hailing from Korea, is fairly typical among his classmates. Most are international, many from Asia, and Walsh anticipates that nearly all of them plan to attend college in the United States.
When asked what he thinks of the class, Chang indicates that he really likes his teacher. Walsh is “very congenial and kind to everyone,” he says.
Walsh is, in fact, quite congenial, but since when did fifth graders use that word? The answer is since teaching assistant Diana Lai, a Harker alum and sophomore at Washington University, collected a list of common PSAT words to use in daily vocabulary games.
Students will not be tested on the words, though. Summer courses are “a lot lighter,” says Walsh, “If you get the vocabulary, great, but there are no grades and no homework.”
All the better to let the students’ ideas flow where they will. “On the board is a list of all the ways I have been killed in their stories,” says their teacher and muse, “and then there are the Walsh Aliens and Walshettes….”
Next up was a factual writing exercise in which the students were to watch video of a rocket launch and write a news story about it. No offense to the Walsh Aliens, but they were not invited.
In Robotics, another of the two-week gr. 5-8 courses, students use Legos to construct robots of all kinds.
Middle school computer science and robotics teacher Michael Schmidt models the class on his required 7th grade course. Aside from a few key concepts, much of the curriculum emerges naturally he says, “I just start them off and go where they go.”
Of course, it’s not too hard to predict where they will go. “Once they can make the robots move, the natural tendency is to make them slam into each other,” he says, “So we end up with a lot of robots just pushing against each other in the middle of the room. They think this is hilarious.”
It’s also a teachable moment in which Schmidt offers, “If this is what we are going to do, then we have to make proper bumpers and devices to flip the other person over.” Robot wars, anyone?
The next step forward comes when students get frustrated with the wires connecting their robots to the remotes they are holding. “True robots are autonomous,” Schmidt points out as he teaches them how to program the robots in advance.
Girls Rock Robot Wars
Schmidt always has a mix of boys and girls in the class, and one needn’t worry about how girls fare in the realm of robot wars. This year, “the girls were the first ones to figure out how to win consistently,” he says.
He attributes this to the fact that, while the boys tended to focus on combat apparatus, the girls “started making their robots more streamlined and protected.” The last robot moving freely is the winner, and those with too many appendages inevitably got tangled together.
At the beginning of the course’s second week, Schmidt shifted the focus from destruction to construction, mandating the students to come up with a robot that does something useful.
Products included several Lego motorized wheelchairs, robotic pets, a grocery scanner, and a vending machine–made out of Legos–that operated perfectly during the parent demonstration before slipping off the table and falling apart. With a maturity beyond his years, the builder shrugged, “That’s why vending machines aren’t built out of Legos.”
Schmidt imparts some essential take-aways while his students are having fun making fighting, singing, or vending robots. To be successful in the class, they need to learn about sequential ordering. He says, “I push the concept that programming is a big set of instructions broken down into smaller ones that they can manipulate using modifiers.” He also introduces one electrical engineering concept: that of polarity. “It just means the direction the electricity is running,” he explains, “We talk about alternating current vs. direct current.”
Of course, the students usually end up way beyond that. This summer, says Schmidt, “We started talking about subroutines and using stored memory.” Clearly, they are not just playing with Legos.
Their teacher’s enthusiasm for robotics is infectious. “The more fun I’m having the more fun they’re having,” says Schmidt, “I don’t ignore the rules, but if I’m looking at something and thinking it’s fun, then 90% of them are probably doing that, too.”