Valerie Sun, Ed.D.


Unplugged Coding

In 1980, Seymour Papert, described his vision for computer integration in schools:

The child programs the computer and, in doing so, [the child] both acquires a sense of mastery over a piece of the most modern and powerful technology and establishes an intimate contact with some of the deepest ideas from science, from mathematics, and from the art of intellectual model building” (emphasis made by Papert, p. 5).

As an EdTech leader, I often question my own practices in classroom tech integration. Are my students on the creative or consumer end of the technology? I realized that if I want my students to be on the creative end, an understanding of computational thinking will need to be achieved. Jeannette Wing, professor at Carnegie Mellon, explained that computational thinking has characteristics of conceptualizing, where “thinking like a computer scientist means more than being able to program a computer. It requires thinking at multiple levels of abstraction” (p. 35). Having this understanding can lead to more creative projects that stem directly from the students.

The irony to teaching basic computational thinking is actually without technology. has some fantastic unplugged lessons that work for all age groups, even adults. I used “My Robotic Friends” with edtech leadership doctoral students last week and they had a fantastic experience; they claimed after the activity that they were going to bring the activity to their students. The preparation was simple: plastic cups, paper, writing utensil, and sample models (included in the unplugged lesson plan).

These were the slides I used in my lesson. First, I showed them the introductory video created by Then I frontloaded the vocabulary words that we could possibly use while completing the activity. We studied the symbols key to understand the signs we needed to draw on the paper as our code. We clarified the starting position and placement of the cup stack. As a class, we wrote the first algorithm together to complete this tower:

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There were multiple opportunities to debug as the students realized that it was difficult to break down every movement. When we successfully wrote the algorithm to build the cup tower and after they understood the necessary steps, they worked in pairs. Individually, each person secretly chose a cup tower design and wrote an algorithm. When each person was done writing, one person chose to be the robot to follow the written algorithm. Any problems that arose along the way were debugged by the programmer. While completing this activity, the participants asked if they could add their own symbols to provide clearer directions. YES! This is computational thinking and problem solving at its finest. A few of their own symbols represented return to beginning position, move hand up, and move hand down.

In our debrief, they discussed the appreciation for the possibility to add their own symbols, the idea of breaking down every step to write the correct algorithm, and the surprise at times to have forgotten to break down a motion. They also discussed the importance of having the same ground rules, where both the programmer and robot had the same starting place and having the same set of movement understanding. From there, we moved on to a coding activity in Scratch.

Thinking of early elementary students, I would adapt the activity steps to let students work in groups of four after the whole class activity. Three students would be programmers to help write the algorithm while one person is the robot carrying out each step. Instead of writing/drawing the symbols, there could be cards that they place in order. Their roles would switch after each round. When they are more comfortable, there could be one student who constructs a small tower, one student who writes the algorithm to match the tower, and a third student who tries to replicate the tower by following the algorithm. This could also become an independent or center activity for the students.

Having this basic understanding of computational thinking can provide a solid foundation for students in conceptualizing their thoughts into a project. It also gives them the satisfaction to think critically when they encounter and resolve a problem. Further, it encourages other coding activities that could lead them to program games, stories, and projects via, Scratch, Arduinos, and Raspberry Pis. The opportunities using the skills of computational thinking are endless.



Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Childrens, computers, and powerful ideas.

New York: Basic Books Inc.

Wing, J. (2006). Computational thinking. Communications of the ACM, 49(3), 33-35.

Immersion Weekend at USC

Lunch and mingle with various teachers.

Lunch and mingle with various teachers.

With the support from USC's Francophone Resource Center and the French Cultural Services at the French Embassy, I organized a free professional development weekend for immersion teachers over Veteran's 3-day Weekend. The original focus was placed on French teachers since it was supported by the French Embassy, nevertheless, realizing the best practices and support was needed for all immersion teachers, it was opened to everyone. Among the French immersion teachers, there were also those who taught Chinese, Spanish, and Hebrew. We also had English teachers whose schools started dual-immersion programs in attendance as well. 

The following subjects were covered:

  • Standards-based grading
  • Standards-based curriculum development
  • Informal and formal assessments
  • Second language acquisition processes
  • Community building with stakeholders
  • EdTech integration in lessons
  • Special education students in dual-immersion
  • and Resources provided by the French Consulate
The attendees who stayed until the very last session. 

The attendees who stayed until the very last session. 

All of the information and resources for those two days can be found via this website: ImmersionWeekendUSC. The two days were long (9:30am-4:45pm) and information dense, however, everyone was able to walk away with new ideas and skills to implement in their classrooms the following week. I am forever grateful for my colleagues who came and presented their expertise. With the survey results, we'll be tackling even more issues that rise in dual-immersion that we did not get to cover or go into detail. With the positive result of these two days, I'm almost certain there will be another one in the Spring. I'll keep y'all posted. 

Becoming an Iron Chef

David Platt, a fellow SGVCUE board member, gave a 20-minute CUEtip on a protocol called Iron Chef using Google Slides at the annual CUE meeting. I've been honing down on this protocol while working with Jon Corippo and Steven McGriff lately, too. It is simple, quick, and helps students reach the 4Cs (Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, and Critical Thinking) while letting teachers assess student learning. Now that I’ve done it in my class, here’s a breakdown of Iron Chef. Like the game show:

  • Time is of the essence;
  • Presentation and flavor (aka content) are important; and
  • There is a secret ingredient

What is it? Iron Chef is a student-centered creative presentation, where they have the choice to work in groups or individually. This works well in a one-to-one or shared device environment.

How does it work? The teacher determines the subject of Iron Chef. It can be a brand new subject that the students are about to learn or a review on the content they have learned already. The teacher provides a framework for the Iron Chef slide – the necessary ingredients. It can be shared in Google Drive or Google Classroom. Each slide usually includes:

  • A title
  • 3-5 sentences or bullets of the content
  • A picture that represents the content
  • A secret ingredient that is relevant (or not) to the content

The teacher determines the length of time students will have in preparing their particular slide. Each group (or person) needs to complete only one slide and they add their slide to a central slide deck so that it would be ready for the presentation. Give a reminder when there is only one minute left to add the slide. When the time is up, the hands are off the keyboard and the presentations begin. Presentations range from 1-5 minutes, depending on the teacher/subject.


I used this protocol in a doctoral course on EdTech Leadership. First, I explained the Iron Chef protocol and showed them the sample slide I wanted them to complete. I also provided An Educator’s Guide to “The 4Cs” as reference.

The students (mostly post-secondary educators) were not familiar with the 21st century skills. Thus, they were assigned one of the four Cs, to work individually or as a group. I gave them 15 minutes to complete the slide. Within those 15 minutes, they had to read their portion of the article that explained the 4C provided by the link and create their slide. To be fair, I started the countdown clock after making sure that  everyone was on the shared slide deck and had opened the link to the article. They worked fervently and I gave them time warnings when it was 8 minutes, 5 minutes, 2 minutes, and 1 minute. Click on this link to see their creation. Their presentations were 1 minute long.

In our debrief of the protocol, one student said she felt really nervous. She and her partner divided the work – she found the facts for the bullet points, he looked for the image and the student example. She said she realized right away that she needed to prioritize her steps, which were: read for main ideas, type in ideas, check with her partner for agreement, and then make the slide pretty. Another student said he appreciated the rapidity of the protocol and was happy to be able to be able to put his own spin on the slide. A third student said she realized that they were applying all 4Cs in the protocol. They all came to the conclusion that this could be used as an assessment tool as well where they could “live grade” their students with a rubric.

Some ideas to practice Iron Chef in your classroom:

  • Self presentations (Name, 3 facts, a photo of self, secret ingredient: something they find funny)
  • Farm animals (Name of animal, 3-4 facts, photo of the animal, animal habitat, secret ingredient: animal sound)
  • Math properties (Name of the property, 3 facts, example, secret ingredient: application in everyday life)
  • Countries (Name of country, 3-4 facts [ex. population, language spoken, religion, continent], picture of the people, secret ingredient: popular dish

There is very little preparation for the teacher while the students take full responsibility for learning and knowing/reviewing the content. Give the Iron Chef protocol a try in your classroom! The more times you do this in your classroom, the better the students become at the protocol. Furthermore, with 30 second to 1 minute presentations, they are able to practice public speaking on a regular basis in a low-stakes environment.

This post originally appeared in SGVCUE's blog then in CUE's blog in September 2017.