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Going Back to School with Educational Designer Emily Eissenberg

While many people think about back-to-school as taking place in September, most educators have already been hard at work by then, preparing lessons, taking inventory of supplies, and putting the finishing touches on their classroom designs. Adding a new STEM tool, like Cubelets, to an already jam-packed year can seem like a tall order. So, we sat down with Educational Designer Emily Eissenberg to get her insider perspective on this crucial period, and learn all of her best tips for integrating Cubelets into the classroom year-round.

Tell us a little bit about the classrooms you used to teach in. What grades have you worked with? Any subjects you specialized in?

I taught fourth-grade (every subject) and then became the district K-6 science content specialist, so science is my gig. I’m a nerd for all things education, though, so I’ve designed curriculum for all subjects and coached teachers in every content area!

What was your favorite part of getting ready for a new school year? Were there any tools you found particularly helpful during this process?

I loved gearing up for the “classroom culture” aspect of a new school year. I really stand by the motto, “Go slow to go fast,” so I specifically designed my first few weeks of school to be focused on routines and protocols that I wanted to use consistently throughout the year, but anchored them in get-to-know-you content. My favorite protocols are from Making Thinking Visible [by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison] and Make Just One Change [by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana], and our classroom routines flexed with each year’s schedule, classroom layout, and executive functioning needs.

For instance, when we were preparing for groupwork, I would use Cubelets as the tool for class.  It made sense for my classroom to introduce Cubelets early in the school year specifically so I could get them out in connection with other units later without needing to “Introduce the Cubelets” during that vital learning time frame. So we’d practice collecting evidence, creating claims, and working collaboratively during the beginning of the year Cubelets time.

Because Cubelets are so engaging, our classroom was always filled with teachable moments about managing emotions, sharing ideas, and problem-solving. It also gave me incredibly valuable data about how each of my students worked with peers and independently. Plus, it gave every student a common, highly-engaging experience to bond over right off the bat.

What was your favorite way to introduce Cubelets to beginners? What did you learn from that experience that you were able to add to the Cubelets lesson plans?

I’ll start with what I learned – Cubelets as “Open Play” function very similarly to just giving all of my students ear plugs. Every student is deeply engaged in the learning, but not always listening to their peers, and definitely not listening to me!  I learned pretty quickly that the Battery Cubelet was my classroom management superpower. Now, when I introduce Cubelets to students (and that’s part of what I do when I travel – teach model lessons to students of all ages), I am much more intentional about setting expectations early, explaining how I’m going to use the Battery Cubelet to signal to my students, and what their roles will be during the class. It has helped tremendously, and also keeps the students more focused on using Cubelets as a tool, not a toy.

I also love launching Cubelets with some simple design challenges like build a lighthouse, how many ways can you make a robot move, and steering robots. Each class has a different connection point, but every student benefits from these basics. Once students know the names of every Cubelet and can explain their unique functions, we spend most of our time using Cubelets as one resource within many different content areas.

When putting together the Cubelets Classroom Bundles, I really kept in mind what helped me get the year started well. I included my best Cubelets classroom management tips to help you design smooth Cubelets routines, and detailed lesson plans so you can focus more on your students rather than on the flow of the lesson during this crucial relationship-building time.

What did you wish you knew about Cubelets when you were teaching?

I wish I had realized that Cubelets really aren’t as complicated as I had thought. At first, when we’d come across bizarre behavior (and you will!), I’d have a gut instinct about what must be happening, but I’d gloss right over it because it flew in the face of what I thought I knew, or I thought the computer science approach would be more complicated than that. Now, having worked closely with our Cubelets software engineer, I realize that those gut instincts were actually right – I just needed to voice them, and then work with my students to understand and explain their implications to the robot system. So my advice?  Go with your gut!

Aside from full lessons, what are your favorite ways to integrate Cubelets into your STEAM curriculum?

I love using the Activity Cards as a station during math, science, or literacy workshop (depending on the unit).  When we’re studying character traits, I’ll have students design robots that represent characters in their books. When we’re studying narrative writing, students will invent characters to write about and make dioramas to show off the setting.  When we’re studying scientific writing, we’ll write Claim-Evidence-Reasoning statements about more complex Cubelets concepts like weighted average or how the Inverse Cubelet works.

In math, I’ll have students draw and label data flow diagrams to build their number sense (for my intervention groups, they use the Bar Graph Cubelet so their numbers are between 0-10, whereas for my extension groups, they use the Cubelets App so their numbers are between 0-255). It’s also a terrific brain break that students love to earn – and I love to give them Cubelets minutes because it’s so good for their critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration!

While our lesson plans make a point of meeting several standards, it can still be difficult for educators to know they’ve covered everything they need. What’s one tip you would give to anyone new to Cubelets?

Teaching happens in the conversations you have with students, not within the tools themselves. If you plop Cubelets in a corner and don’t hear from your students about their robot constructions ever again, they aren’t going to be growing their skills as computational thinkers and communicators.  So be intentional.

If you’d like to focus on helping your students become better communicators, give them clear success criteria for verbal presentations, group communication, and writing expectations. If you’d like to focus on helping your students become stronger problem-solvers, help them create ways to make their problem solving visible to themselves, their peers, and you. The metacognitive approach helps students understand how they learn – and that’s the most powerful thing we can teach them.

Now, you’ve left the classroom and joined Modular Robotics as the Cubelets Educational Designer. What’s your vision for the future of Cubelets Education?

I am excited to continue to get out in the field with educators across the country. I love modeling lessons and having deep, fruitful planning conversations with educators about how Cubelets fit within their specific goals. Teachers I work with during Cubelets Workshops inspire the work that I post on The Hub for everyone to access.

In the background, we’re currently growing our supports for the Cubelets App and Cubelets Blockly. That work is helping us plan the rest of our resources to help teachers of all grade levels prepare their students for a computer economy.

I’m excited to lead Cubelets Education to the forefront of education thought leaders who are wrestling with the shifting landscape of education – how do we balance the workload of managing 20-40 students in a classroom in a way that keeps every student anchored at the front of their learning journey? There is no one answer, but together, we can keep finding more questions and that wonder leads us forward.