Here is another installment from my programming podcast “Beyond the Hour of Code” This episode is about . . . Chapter seven of my book exploring the instructional models most useful for robot-based ELA learning in the primary grades.

Robot as Actor

A robot in the classroom can be a simple programmable puppet. Students can program a robot to move, act, and even speak. When students use robots as actors, it frees them from the pressure of performance and makes the cognitive task more complex.

A robot is a physical avatar; it stands in for someone. These programmable actors have been standing in for people in assembly lines and factories for years. Some robots can broadcast recorded sound, adjust their mood through color and sound. Cute and expressive robots are very engaging for children. Teachers can capitalize on this natural engagement by adding robots to previous “make a skit” activities.

Narrative and programming both rely on sequence. When students write a program that instructs a robot to reenact a narrative, they are doing a very complex sequencing task. In fact, the task is considerably more complex than simply writing the narrative or writing the program. When students are asked to work together to program a robot to act out a narrative sequence, they are engaged in complex learning.

The lesson in this chapter is almost ready to go; it is only missing a central text that the students will be retelling. The lesson uses the Dash and Dot robots from Wonderworkshop; they are programmed through the iPad app Blockly. For students who are not yet reading this lesson can use the Path app with limited functionality and an even larger role for imaginative play. Teachers can present this literary lesson to the students as a movie-making experience. In groups of 3-5 students will write a short scene, program a robot to act out the scripted scene, and get help from their group in filming their short scene. Then the group will combine each scene into a movie.

“The P word, play is a magical gateway to learning, if your class community can support play.

The ELA Learning Objectives

  1. Students will practice retelling a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
  2. Students will program a robot to follow scripted commands.
  3. Students will collaborate with a small group on authorship and production of a short video.

Working in groups

This lesson is designed to be part of a multi-week unit focused on a single subject or author. The activities are planned out to be delivered as three 45 minute weekly classes. The tricky balance is allowing the students enough time to write, script, program and film without succumbing to the impulse to give them all the time they need. Without a meaningful deadline, students will not learn how to manage time or make the call that something is “good enough.” Also giving them all the time they need will not make their films great, possibly not even better than they would be when created in a constrained time situation.

Students need enough time to:

  1. Write a 30-second scene with detailed actions for Dash
  2. Program Dash to act out the scene
  3. Test the program with the Dash
  4. Work with their group to get scenes filmed
  5. Record voice over if needed
  6. Compile and export video

When students are working on a complex project like this over several class periods, management of time and resources can be challenging. Here are some tips

  1. Set a two take max on video shoots. Endless retakes are not allowed. Try your best, try again, and move on.
  2. Have students share their program directly via email.
  3. Reward good code. When students figure out a good way to do something, share that out. Support a culture of collaborative learning.
  4. Set time limits on robot program testing. Be prepared to help students manage turns.
  5. Make sure students have scripts and programs written before they even have a robot in hand.
  6. The students should know the robots before using them in a lesson like this. To be prepared for success in this lesson, students should have at least sixty minutes hands on experience with the robots and the programming apps.
  7. This lesson model adapts well to any summary activity. Students can write a book trailer starring Dash and Dot, or retell any important story studied in class.

This lesson provides many opportunities to support students. The best support available for students in a lesson like this is a functional group. The right group for an activity like this is a mix of abilities and egos. A lesson that uses imaginative play to bridge the gap between the remembered story and the script asks students to take creative risks. A collaborative learning community is the best support teachers can provide for these creative risks. When possible, teachers should place students in groups they feel support them.

Pace and Structure

This robot and narrative unit has several significant pieces and spans at least 3 class periods. A lesson this complex requires both careful planning and flexibility. In addition to managing all of the tasks involved, the teacher's greatest challenge is toeing the pedagogical line. Can even this lesson be empowering to students? Can choice be protected in the process?

Decorate robots to add persona
Decorate robots to add persona

Group work employs both choice and compromise, each group's movie will need three representative scenes. There needs to be a beginning, middle, and end. Within those demands, students can choose. As the groups plan their scenes, be sure to check in and help them make great choices.

In this assignment, students are asked to write and program their scene. They are working with groups to create a short retelling of a text being studied in the class. The first negotiation in the group was about who would write which scene (beginning, middle, and end). Once that was settled, the students set to scripting. By working out who would cover which part of the film first, this group maintained choice. Each of the students made their decision about what to include in their scene passed on their assigned segment.

No robots are out at this point. The robots only arrive once students have a script and a first draft of their program. Often this will not happen until the second class.

Day One

1. Students script their scene, include blocking notes for the robot's actions.

2. Using Tickle app or Blockly, student drafts a program of the full scene.

Day Two

3. Student sets the stage for the filming

4. Student gets a robot and tests the program, debugs as needed.

5. Student works with a partner to film the robot performing the scene

Day Three

6. Student shares the film with group members in a Google Drive folder or using Airdrop.

7. Student writes voiceover script (if needed).

8. Group works together to edit and produce the summary movie.

In many ways “Robot-as-actor” is a very adaptable role. The lesson described here has been used in second and fourth grade. Below second grade, this lesson requires adjustment to keep the focus on the content area learning. The programming platforms used here, Tickle app, and Blockly, require basic reading skills. When this lesson was used in Kindergarten, the teachers used the KIBO robot. KIBO uses a programming interface built out of wooden blocks. The kindergarten students were very successful stringing wood blocks together to write the program and then using the barcode scanner on the robot to input the program.

The kindergarten students programmed the robot to act out important pieces of their Jewish identity. The robots acted out lighting candles, dancing and singing. When students program a robot to do something about the subject they have been studying, they have to slow done and think carefully about procedure and sequence. In the case of the kindergarten students, they deconstructed actions like lighting candles into a sequence of movements that they programmed into a robot. The robot supports learning by adding a layer of procedural thinking and problem-solving to almost any assignment.

Thank you for listening to this episode of Beyond the Hour of Code, where teachers learn together how to use the newest programming tools to reach the highest pedagogical goals. Please review and subscribe if this podcast feeds your practice and buy the book Programming in the Primary Grades: Beyond the Hour of Code now available from Rowman and Littlefield at