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.

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!