ESL, computational thinking and robotics



Does it make sense to take part in a robotics competition for an English teacher? Sure, it does! Firstly to show that robotics is not the exclusive ‘deal’ of STEM, technology, engineering and mathematics, but it can become a creative exercise that involves many skills and different fields of knowledge, thus developing more than one of the eight key European competences which have become part of the final assessment of pupils in schools at all grades.

Actually, what prompted me to participate was also a workshop I ran and organized as part of the activities for the open day of the school whose purpose was to be able to follow English instructions for programming robots. It was during this workshop that I ‘discovered’ some particular skills and interests of my students: passion for music, for electronics and dancing, which they expressed in choosing some tutorials for coding dancing robots or robotic music instruments (eg. theremin).

When I got to know that the competition included an Onstage category, I immediately thought of proposing it to my students who welcomed the idea enthusiastically. So we began our project which I structured in the following steps to follow the computational thinking process:

  • Exploration
  • Analysis and breakdown
  • Identification of patterns and theme
  • Abstraction: organization of the show
  • Implementation: writing robot code
  • Validation and improvement

As you can see these stages are my adaptation of the phases the computational thinking: decomposition of the problem, pattern identification, abstraction and algorithm processing. In this case I added the Exploration phase to introduce the topic. Also the other phases are not strictly related to technological aspects, instead they focus on understanding and processing creatively the literary text of the Wizard of Oz by Baum on which the show had to be based. I believe that computational thinking can be applied to any field to analyze a problem or even text to learn to use technology creatively.. The learning curve of students has been exponential; since the first timid approach to coding and to structuring the show, they went a long way to become completely autonomous in the abstraction and implementation, proving that the process used allows to develop real-world skills and stimulate the ability to learn independently . Throughout the journey the team has documented the progress and technical “discoveries” on a digital board

Our show


The following activities were carried out in classes of seventh grade as part of the ESL curriculum.


During the exploration phase we worked on the story of the Wizard of Oz by Baum in English. After reading the story, they have been structured a series of activities to engage in the production written and oral skills.

  • Vocabulary building
The class is divided into groups and each group is assigned a character.

The task: build a concept map around one of the main characters with nouns, adjectives and verbs that describe it.

The maps are presented to the class and become part of a common poster.

60 min. + 15min. Poster organization
  • Guided summary
The teacher asks questions to guide students in writing a summary of the story.

Each student writes a summary of the story using the past tense of verbs and sequencers first, then, afterwards,finally.

60 min.
  • Role play
The class is divided into groups of 4 students maximum.

Task: Each group has to choose a scene to represent and build a dialogue in which all group members are involved. The scene is acted before the class

120 min. + Work at home and revision rehearsal of the assigned part.
  • Guess who?
Game in which two students in turn go out of the room and think of a character. The rest of the class is to guess the character by asking yes / no questions which contain the adjectives, verbs and nouns identified in the character maps. 60 min.

(if the task can be repeated)

Analysis and Decomposition

This phase focuses on the analysis of the meaning of the story and the elements that help to convey it. Particular attention was drawn on some elements, such as the road, the Emerald City, the green glasses,the witches, the shoes which also have a symbolic value in the story. The students were asked to make assumptions on what they could symbolize in real life. The unveiling of the symbols was guided with the help of the teacher of Language Arts. For example, the road is the journey to the growth of the main character, the Emerald City is the place where all wishes can come true, but to get in the City you have to use the filter of the green glasses, otherwise the reality appears for what it is and the dream disappears (the magician reveals to be a cheater). The witches are our fears that we have to overcome and Dorothy’s shoes are our personality: if we trust ourselves and our feelings, nothing can stop us. As part of this analysis students were asked to underline the passages they thought could best express the meaning of the story. Each student chose the most important passage and then the class brainstormed and agreed on the most important passages.

Pattern identification

In order to lead the students to identify a pattern, ie the narrative structure of the story, the teacher asked the students the following questions: What triggers the story?; who is the main character? Are there helpers of the main character? Are there characters who want to stop the main character? What is the ending of the story? Are there other stories you know that have the same structure?

The purpose of this activity was to identify the narrative structure of the so-called “hero cycle”, which was part of the Language Arts curriculum the previous year. Dorothy is a hero with an unfortunate birth who suddenly finds herself isolated and starts a journey. On the way she meets the “helpers” that make her discover the importance of certain values and skills and how they are often hidden. Finally, after defeating the antagonists (the Wizard and the Wicked Witch), Dorothy will be able to return home with a new awareness of herself and her “powers”. The same structure can be found in other stories such as those of the Homeric heroes, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and even the Lion King.


The previous stages were preparatory to the phases that follow in which students are asked to organize a show based on the analysed story of a duration of maximum 2 minutes which also includes the interaction between students and robots. Students are guided in the activity.





Describe the scene you want to Represent. What are the characters in the scene? Who is a human and who is a robot? What does each character do / say in the scene? How do they interact? What do the actions / Represent characters on stage or express?

After completing the above storyboard, the students can plan in detail the show: stage design, costumes of robots and students, music, etc. The class was divided into teams and each presented their ideas to the class who selected the final one to work on.

Once the decision was made, the tasks were distributed in the class so that in teams they could work on various aspects of the show: the movements of robots and students on stage, the scenery, the costumes, the music and background video. Once everybody knows its tasks it is possible to proceed with the implementation.


This is the phase in which students code the movements of the robots, make the costumes, the scenery and videos. At this stage each sub-team works separately and to meet then regularly all together to discuss progress, the problems that have arisen during the process and coordinate outstanding activities.The meetings between the teams were very important because they allowed to involve all class members and everyone could contribute to the show with his/her point of view, often different given the different skills and experiences also acquired outside the classroom.

Assessment and improvement

In addition to the checks and adjustments made during the rehearsals and meetings between the teams, the real testing occurred during the first performance before an audience during the regional selection. The show was filmed so that the whole team could watch it. The students also were provided with the score sheets of the international competition in English and were asked to discuss how they could improve the performance to get more points. It was decided to change the robot costumes and movements and improve the interaction between dancers and robots, avoiding to launch the program from the computer but installing directly on the controller. To make robots look more human and express their feelings, students proposed to add facial expression through the use of a led matrix screen and to use the ultrasound sensors as the “eyes” of the robot to start when the dancers passed by them.


The team passed the regional selection and took part in the national competition. During the national competition they learned how important it is to contribute each to the success of the team, particularly during the technical interview in which they did not get top score because not all of the team members answered questions. The first performance was almost a disaster, but the second one, on the following day, was great thanks also to the effort made by all the team to improve. They went back to the hotel to check the programs of each robot and to rehearse with the performers. I was very proud of them!

Further reading

The students produced slides in Italian to describe their work process.

Minecraft is C.O.O.L.


DSC_0185This year, I continued my experimentation with games and learning. I have always thought that a game can better serve my objective to motivate and make real the learning of a foreign language if it takes place with a partner class, possible abroad. This would mean the students shall need the language to interact in the game and proceed to the goal. eTwinning was the easiest way to find another class and teacher with the same idea, so I found as partner Miguela Fernandes from Bathala in Portugal; her colleague teacher of English was looking for a way to motivate the students to speak and use English and she has an ICT programme to carry out. So we started to think of a project to carry out together using technology to collaborate and English as a vehicular language.

The title of our project is COOL: Collaboration online with outstanding learning. The title was the acronym for the the objectives and competencies we wanted to develop with it. First of all we wanted to focus on the development of 21st century skills: collaboration, communication and creativity. We decided to use Minecraft, which the students already used at home in their leisure. Minecraft is a virtual world game where you are assigned a piece of land you can modify and build on as you like. We were particularly interested in the multiplayer game mode offered by Minecraft, whereby several players (students) can interact in the same virtual space hosted on an online server. The students could thus work to the same aim and build together something, so they would need to use English as a common language to , negotiate and agree among them. Building in Minecraft, also stimulated the creativity of the students as they could build just anything they like, and they could make their dreams come true in fantastic locations.

The process

All the activities of the project were centered on the driving question of “What is your ideal school like?”. The students were divided in groups with a more or less equal number of members from the partner countries. The first task was indeed aimed to creating a team collaboration spirit. To this purpose, each team had to share a powerpoint presentation including a page for each member. Another team-up activity was that of creating in Minecraft a logo for the project. This activity had the aim to spur a sense of belonging to the project and further motivate participation; it also introduced Minecraft as a tool to create graphics and artwork.

The next step was to ask each team to set up a free server using and decide who was going to be in charge of updating the server on both the Italian and Portugues sides. This was very important as the member of each team could then play, that is continue building, also when they were not online at the same time.

The details of how to work in Minecraft and what to build were discussed in a videoconference with the teams also connected on the Minecraft servers. This videoconference was particularly interesting because the students were also working on the Minecraft servers and there was a nice “getting to know” interaction also in Minecraft world; they chatted and also fought between them, which is exactly what you expect from young people before they can become friends.  Finally, to reflect  on the final product each team prepared a video presenting their Ideal school built in Minecraft. They selected the most relevant screenshots of their building in Minecraft by sharing them on Google Drive and shoot a clip for each picture. For teams 1 and 2 the Portuguese students and for teams 3 and 4 the Italian students were in charge of mounting the video. The teams organized a video introduction to show the complete teams working on the project. Finally, the students answered a questionnaire to evaluate the project and keep track of their learning outcomes.

We tried to design synchronous and asynchronous collaboration opportunities to develop aural and written skills in the foreign language and also to develop awareness of the different constraints and etiquette of the two modes of communication as a way to develop digital competence generally and also a lifelong competence in using both modes.


Impact on curriculum

ESL 1st year curriculum was taught through the project by providing the background grammar, functions and vocabulary to use in the project:

  • Introducing yourself: age, name, interests and hobbies were integrated in the completion of student profiles and team presentations
  • Talking about your school and timetable: asking about the time, numbers, school subjects. This was important to describe activities and lesson in the ideal school.
  • Talking about belongings: this unit was essentially on the use of “have got” and possessives which were used in the asynchronous discussion about the school
  • Talking about abilities and routines: these functions were used then in the video describing the Minecraft school.

Also other subjects contributed to the project. The Italian teacher stimulated a reflection on school through readings and class discussions; the Technology teacher, instead, used the project to teach how to draw a plan of a room and then of the entire school building. Beside citizenship competencies, the students developed digital competence by becoming aware of the collaboration opportunities offered by the Internet, not only in Minecraft, but also to write a presentation or to mount a video. Building in Minecraft also developed critical thinking: you have a clear picture of what you want to build, but you have to do it using the blocks, a constraint if you want to draw national flags. This skill together with creativity are the basis of entrepreneurial competence. Students learnt to take responsibility for the final product and to apply their knowledge and skills to carry out the assigned tasks, the competence of learning to learn. Technology was regarded as instrumental to the project aims. Minecraft is a game and virtual environment widely used in education worldwide mainly because it allows teachers to simulate environments where their students can explore and discover subject related topics. In our project we used it because it is a virtual environment where the students could collaborate also remotely; instead of having the teacher build the environment, we had students build the school of their dreams. The project was also an experimentation for both schools since it had never been used before in the institutions and by the teachers involved in the project. The experimentation was very interesting since the students proved to be expert Minecraft gamers, yet the teacher were able to steer their learning experience to assure the learning goals set at the beginning were achieved.  


I started this project because I wanted to pilot experimentation in my school using Minecraft as a virtual learning environment. When we started the project both me and my partner did not know how to play Minecraft, but we had both read a lot on its benefits in education especially in terms of problem solving and motivation to learning. We relied almost totally on our students knowledge and skills for interaction in the game. This was good because the students realized and appreciated the fact also the teachers were learning and allowed us to show them how to learn and master new situations. The outcomes of the project were very encouraging both in terms of student engagement – about 100% of the participants said the project was very interesting -, and in terms of the learning goals set for the project, namely increasing collaboration skills, encouraging mastery in using English as a vehicular language in communication and developing creativity. In my school the project was presented at the end of the year teacher meeting to encourage other teachers to use Minecraft in their lessons and include it in the Educational Offer of the school.  The strengths highlighted in the presentation were the increased motivation of the students, their empowerment as they master the game very well, the problem.solving and critical thinking it develops. The added value of eTwinning was also stressed which allowed the students to collaborate with other European students who were a stimuli to communication in English.  Furthermore, eTwinning partners were a real audience for their work with which to reflect and interact. Also for the teachers eTwinning provided once again a colleague with the same motivation and vision, willing to learn and experiment new paths to improve learning. The project is duly documented through videos, photos and chat room records in the public Twinspace.

Smithsonian Junior Folklorists Challenge

It was during Easter holidays that I came across the Junior Folklorist Challenge and I thought of proposing my second year class to take part in it.  In my Region, Puglia,  in southern Italy,  we have many traditions connected with Easter!
So when we came back from holidays I launched the idea. It was the 28 April. As usual,  they were enthusiastic!  We brainstormed together the traditions to document and the class decided they could document in fact two traditions. Not everybody wanted to link it to religion,  so they decided to document the tradition of orecchiette making,  which is a typical homemade pasta of our region, beside that of the procession of the Virgin of Sorrows.
What I liked of this project was that it allowed students to learn also how to proceed in the documentation,  and having a method is very important for young students (my students are 12).

Once we had chosen the two traditions to work on, the first step was to identify the ‘tradition bearers’; these are people who practice the tradition.  They brainstormed in the groups and  asked also their parents who could help.  The next day they came with a last of people they could  interview about the tradition.
So,  we were ready for the next step!  I asked each group member to think and write down individually at least 2 questions about the tradition.  Then they got in groups and decided which were the most interesting questions. They had to care for the interviews during another long school holiday which was coming at the beginning of May. I recommended they got the approval of the interviewees to use their image in writing and actually dictated document they needed to read and ask them to sign.  In the document it was also explained the purpose of the recordings.
When we met again on 6 May,  they had interviewed a lot of people and we had in fact even more material then we could possibly use.  So I asked them to summarize the important facts they had discovered about the tradition and select the best interviews.  Some interviews were also videos taken with their mobile phones,  whereas others were just recordings. They made a list of all files and a brief description of their content,  so to track them more easily. Then they started to type the scripts of the selected interviews.

The interviews were all in Italian,  but the video had to have subtitles or voice over in English,  so they needed to translate the scripts.  To this purpose and to allow them to do it more quickly I decided to use Google translation toolkit.  It allows to upload a document and provides a machine translation,  then highlights sentence by sentence and it is possible to check it corresponds to the original and also correct possible grammar mistakes or edit the text for word choice.  It worked very well!  Oh,  I forgot to say that it is collaborative,  as it uploads the translation to Google drive and you can invite others to edit it with you!
The final step was to put together the video.  I used wevideo trial version which allows to edit videos collaboratively.  It was good because it allowed me to work also from home to finalize the project and send out the videos,  since we were again on holiday from school!
My students are now waiting to know if their videos got selected for the price,  but they enjoyed a lot working in this way,  because they were creative and free to choose how best to carry out the task!

My gamified class – What about grammar?

imageIn planning and setting up my gamified class,  the main issue was how to include grammar exercises in the game in order to keep the students engaged. Grammar had to be part of the game!
So I decided to use a website called zondle which also has an app the students can download free to play on their smartphones.  Zondle allows teachers to set up classes and assign quizzes both as formative and summative assessment. You might comment ‘well, what then!?’ Each quiz is connected to a game the student can play to earn points (called “zollars”). There is a class scoreboard and with the zollars students can buy “teacher’s goodies”.

The teacher can allow a certain quiz to be played for a certain amount of time and then assign a new one. This accounts for a level up in the game. Furthermore, teachers can increase/decrease the zollars for any special reason, e.g. good behaviour, commitment, good team work, etc. This is very good for class management.
Teachers are mostly “control freaks” and this is not the only control they have!  Zondle records the progress of each student both in terms of percentage scored for each quiz and as the percentage over the last three plays.  It is possible to know which were the weakest sentences in each quiz for the student,  how many times he/she played it and when.
Now,  how could I link zondle to the other missions?  I decided to use the zollars to allow students to buy ” walkthroughs”  in the game as teacher goodies. These come in the form of hints,  suggestions where to find certain answers and also extra infos they were allowed to access to complete the task.
The students love to play zondle games and increase their zollars to buy items which allow them to progress faster in the game.
I’m now testing also their progress in English grammar with the routine tests which are compulsory in Italy  every month. Indeed the student score and progress in the game is not at all connected with the official assessment,  which is based on criteria set by the institution based on governmental guidelines. In a next post I will tell you more on how progress in the game compares to assessment according to the set standards.
Still working on it!


My gamified class – The beginning

Last year I wanted to changemap_glog the ESL textbook but I couldn’t because all the other teachers were happy with what they had, so I decided not too adopt any textbook and preferred just a grammar book. Then, during the summer I came across a new approach using games to motivate students; I found and attended an online MOOC on Canvas on the topic and immediately decided it was the approach to use with my first year students aged 10 and just exiting elementary school.
I spent the whole summer reading on the topic to learn more about this approach and how to design such a course.
A book that helped me a lot was “Gamification Survival Kit” by Hyle Daley and also a very inspiring webinar held by Gerol Petruzzella during a MOOC on gamification I participated in last July in which he explained how he gamified his philosophy course (here is the video) .


So, based on what he said here is my own table of analogies between a game and a course, on which I wished to base my experience.

GAME                                                             COURSE

Goals                                              ===>       Syllabus

Levels                                            ===>       Units

Challenges  or quests              ===>       Assignments or quizzes

Non-playing characters        ===>       Teachers

Experience points (XP)          ===>      Feedback on skills and content acquired

This suggested how it should work. I had to divide the syllabus into units. The learning outcomes of each units would be the core of each challenge or quiz needed to accomplish in order to pass the level, i.e move on to the next unit in the syllabus. The teacher would be the non-playing character who could guide the students with walkthroughs for the various challenges and also assign experience points to provide feedback on progress.

I needed also a narrative to engage my students and stimulate their curiosity; a storyline which could be interesting for my students and take them to use English as a foreign language and which could also teach social skills and promote positive behaviour. It was on the beach during my camping holiday that I got the right idea which could cover most of the functions and grammar for the first year: a future world where the students had full control as their task was to enforce the rule and protect other children.

I also wanted their game experience to be collaborative so that they could have an audience of real people with whom to interact,  that is why I looked for other classes with whom to work. I launched the project on the eTwinning community and received the answer from three teachers from different European countries: Ireland, Romania and Sweden. So we started planning the activities and how they could be shared. We set up the Twinspace for the project so that our students could use it to accomplish the missions.

Usually at the beginning of any course you have to set and verify the perquisites,  so we started from the beginning; an application form and test to enter the police force.  It was a very involving activity for all the students in the class,  even the weakest because that was not boring and they also had to create their avatar for the game.

The activity worked very well and the students built then new puzzles and quizzes also on our countries to get to know one another better!
It worked very well and encouraged me to go on with the remaining missions!

Keep reading if you want to know more!