December 18, 2009

And we begin...

The following is a blog devoted to the teacher learning curve and classroom use for the Silhouette Digital Cutting Tool. I am Kris Schwengel. I teach 4th Grade in Honolulu, HI. I am working in conjunction with several groups, departments, and individuals. I would like to thank the University of Virginia Curry School of Education for donating a Silhouette to our classroom.

It all started with boxes and software. And let me tell you, it was a bit overwhelming at first. But I quickly learned (the hard way) that there are just a few very simple steps to getting up and running with the Silhouette. Downloading Tabs software (see link below on links entry) was easy. Unpacking the Silhouette was easy. Creating the first project was a snap, also. Working with Adobe Illustrator to get the Silhouette to cut is not easy. As a matter of fact, I think it could be considered cruel and unusual punishment. Tabs is awesome and boy is it simple to use.

I made a few sample projects (above) just for fun including a mini-grape juice box, a Bacon box for Kevin Bacon memorabilia, and I've even started making actual mock-ups of my mother-in-law's coffin. If you see her, don't tell her as it is her Christmas gift.

Mini-Juice Box


Bacon Box


Practical Use


Classroom Use

Enough about me, let's get onto how this can help in the classroom. There is no doubt this is an awesome tool, and the software is fantastic, but the question is how can this help students learn? I believe there are some big picture and tight-focus ways learning this skill set can help students' thinking develop in a variety of paths.

First of all, the idea that we can easily program a computer to tell a cutter to make precise cuts is amazing. I liken this to iMovie which brought film editing to the masses. Machines like this have been around for a while, but they've traditionally cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Secondly, there is a myriad of skills that can be learned through this process: Spatial Reasoning, Engineering, Graphic Design, and the list goes on and on. The Tabs software website has a great page devoted to this idea of broad appeal to educators.

My first exposure to the students was to simply demo the Silhouette. When that thing started cutting they were shocked and awed!

Tabs Instructions by Students


Tabs Instructions by Students..


Tabs Instructions by Students...


Unexpected Uses

Next, I taught them the Tabs software. They quickly learned how to use just about every aspect of the software. The were challenged to make two-page instruction manuals. I was quite surprised how quickly they learned and also taught me things I hadn't picked up before.

Now this is where things got interesting. Kids started using Tabs for reasons I didn't expect. One student used it to illustrate a Native American bent box while another saw that the hat they needed was made up of two simple shapes that the Tabs software could easily create and the Silhouette could easily cut, so she did. Wow, right?

Bent Boxes


NW Indian Hat Design


Spatial Reasoning

Tabs fits in perfectly with a spatial reasoning unit I've been doing for years with elementary students. Students work with cubes to draw, construct, and now render them. I believe this opens up their little minds to 3 dimensional thinking quite well.

How to Draw a Cube


Spatial Reasoning Demo


Spatial Reasoning Lesson


Natalie's Cubes


Graycn's Cubes



Students designed their gingerbread houses using Tabs. Again, I was thrilled with their creativity. Plus, they got to do this to scale and use their measurement skills as well.







What's next?

What's next? Well, we're now looking at packaging and creating cubes out of flat shapes ourselves. Christmas should provide the students with lots of opportunities to see some neat packaging that you can 'unfold' into a single sheet. This will lead into some serious high-level thinking and planning in the upcoming unit I hope.

This is all new to me so I'm learning myself. One frustration I am having is the scale of the products that come from the Silhouette: everything has to be quite small to fit on a single page. There are other issues with Tabs that I'm compiling as a sort of wish-list that would make the software much more useful for a classroom teacher.

January 7, 2010

Area Puzzles


Area Puzzles Unit

In order to have the students really understand and master the concept of area, we embark on a series of very challenging spatial reasoning puzzles that eventually lead us to volume.

Supplementary Games to Explore


January 13, 2010

The Cereal Box Challenge


The Big Project

So now that the kids have mastered (yes, mastered) the FabLab ModelMaker software, understand area, have explored 3D shapes, and also know Comic Life well I am confident they are ready for a challenge. I was given this challenge and fell in love with it. It's creator is Dave M. from Hofstra University. He is a nice man with a moustache. I did have to alter the assignment to fit this grade level and where we are in the school year by placing the math at the end of the assignment rather than the front. Meaning, they will calculate the surface area and volume once they are done rather than using parameters from the git go. The next project will do that.

So, the kids (in groups of three) have to come up with a cereal idea and then the packaging for their cereal. What they came up with was astonishing. Some groups took bigger risks than others and that's fine.

Overall, the kids did not struggle in the least with this challenge. Compromising and committing is always a challenge for kids (and humans), but the technical aspects of this challenge were well within their abilities. Had they not been as proficient with the various software we used, this would have been really tough on me as a floating facilitator.

Below are the designs and the final products. This is a great assignment that is based in math, but can easily spill into Language Arts. Assessing this project get tricky I think because there is a certain X-factor involved when judging their designs. Staying within the parameters of a challenge is easy to assess, but when it comes to giving "Berry Blast" a score it gets a little subjective I think.

CB 1


CB 2


CB 3



What was the biggest challenge on this project for the teacher?

I think the fact that the groups worked at such different paces was hard to manage at times. One group was done a full two sessions before the last group, but they served to help the other groups problem solve so that was helpful.

What was the biggest challenge for the students?

Working in teams is always hard, so personality conflicts arise naturally. When a child's design isn't chosen sometimes they pout and want to shut down, so the teacher has to watch for that.

Was the hardware difficult to use?

Not at all. You'd be pleasantly surprised how easy the Silhouette is to use. The teacher should be in the room, but if you create a couple of "class experts" they can pretty much do it as good as an adult would.

Does glue work to hold the shapes together?

Not any glue I've found. Cello-tape works well if applied neatly. Glue would be neat, but I have yet to find one that dries quickly and strongly.

How did you end up assessing this project?

Verbal praise for each group. Since this was our first try at this, I didn't set up assessment standards since I had no idea how they'd do. Next time, I'll create a rubric with parameters and guidelines.

What's next?

Great question. Our next step is to hopefully get another 4th Grade class to do this project with my class as the mentors to the other students. After that, another challenge based in math, specifically volume. I'm thinking another packaging challenge, but this one with clear parameters such as a range of cubic inches and a combination of geometric shapes (like the original cereal box challenge).

January 29, 2010

Volume Work in FabLab

Now that we are onto the concept of volume in Math studies, let me explain how FabLab is helping kids understand, conceptualize, and play with volume.

Previously, teaching volume meant simply drawing shapes on the white board and perhaps looking at some real life boxes. FabLab allows students to solve challenges in a variety of ways and actually manipulate the dimensions of the shapes in order to see the relationship of volume to measurements.

The challenge below had two challenges: The first was to make three shapes with volumes of 50, 60, and 75 cubic inches. The second was to make four shapes that total 200 cubic inches. 26 students tried and there were 26 different and correct answers.

Volume Work


More Volume Work

After playing with FabLab and just a couple more small challenges, I felt the students were ready for a new and difficult challenge - and boy did they prove me right!

Challenge: Create a design for Mr. Schwengel's Swimming Pool that will surround his lovely home on three sides and have a combined volume of 275 cubic feet (we use inches on the design as this is a scale model). Since the pool surrounds my house this means the students must combine three shapes that total 275. Using FabLab is perfect because the students can "sink" the pool under the ground-level of the house. As you can see below, the students did a wonderful job.

Pool 1


Pool 2


Pool 3


Assessing this assignment

Assessing this assignment can be either easy or difficult, depending on how you look at the goals of this challenge.

If this is purely a math challenge, it is easy to assess. Did the student combine three shapes totaling 275 cubic inches? Easy peezy lemon squeezy.

But if this is a design challenge, things get a bit sticky as you can see below. How can I score a design that meets the math standards, but as far as the design goes would be impractical, impossible, or dangerous? I suppose imbedding these standards in the original assignment is a fix, but I love the open-endedness of the assignment.

I do love this sample below because the student stated that the deep part of the pool would be "heated by the Earth's core" and save me a ton in electricity. Very clever indeed, but I'd hate to see the bill for digging up a pool like this!

Deep End!!!


July 10, 2010

Yokohama Int'l School Movie

Download file

March 7, 2012

A Dash of Crazy

our spring program rehearsals continue. it's nice seeing a show shape up from behind the curtain. ain't always pretty, but always interesting.

we finished 'imposters' today. whatta book! the kids now can't wait to start the next book tomorrow.

here is a good example of our usual 'happy or sad' ending writing response:

Whoa - that's a lot to take in. At the end, there is so many things that are revealed, and set in the right place. It's like the whole time you've been reading with a veil over your eyes, and at the end - it's been taken off. I think it was a pretty happy ending. Scary, sad, and surprising at some parts, but happy in the end. It's happy that Luke, (Lee) gets to go outdoors, save four other shadow children, and do what he does best - farming. I hope at the end of the series, there is going to be a big difference in how third children are treated - death, torture to death? We shouldn't treat them that way! We have a problem here, and we need to fix it. The question is how?

in math we're continuing with adding fractions. the kids are doing great and most reported that they helped teach a parent so that's great.

in grammar the students were introduced to the dash which is clearly the anne heche of punctuation: over-used, over-appreciated, and should only be used in an emergency. the book definition says it "is used to show a sudden change in thought or direction." i personally - dogs are better than cats - don't understand the need for such changes in direction. i imagine the unabomber used a lot of dashes in his writings. there is however-arby's is a delicious meal-a use of the dash that i am agreeable to:

"the dash will obstensibly muffle your volume and flatten your tone, but used carefully, it can do more to make a point than any page and a half of italics." - lynne truss

He learned the arts of riding, fencing, gunnery, 
And how to scale a fortress - or a nunnery.
Byron, Don Juan, 1818-20

have a fantastic evening,

mr. schwengel