Robots in the ELA Classroom

Concord Middle School students learning with Spero robotsThis year Concord Middle School received a MassCUE grant for a classroom set of Sphero Balls. With these Sphero Balls we were able to engage the students in learning about a different type of writing in that students were coding robots to mirror character journeys as well as the character’s encounters with injustice. During a literature circle unit, the students followed the book’s protagonist and documented their most important setbacks and accomplishments.  After completing the novel, the students coded their Sphero Balls in a way that emulated the character’s most important moments. For instance, if a character was encountering confusion, their ball would move in a haphazard fashion. Students used their notes to trace and emulate the journey of the protagonist from beginning to end.

A Constructive Approach to Learning

The project improved teacher practice utilizing a more student-centered constructivist ideology in which the teacher facilitated the learning as students made meaning working through the creation of the protagonist’s’ journey.  As students were allowed to take the Spheros home, there were instances in which certain students were teaching both their peers and the teachers, offering insights into how to best use the Sphero robots to convey a message about the protagonist’s journey.  To further illustrate the impact of the grant on teacher knowledge and ultimately on influencing change of practice, the Sphero balls are now being used by other teachers in our school. Our colleagues came to watch our presentation at the MassCue conference, and one individual has chosen to incorporate the Sphero balls and coding into her own classroom, developing additional student-centered, hands-on activities through which students make meaning and come to construct knowledge.

Increased Student Engagement for All Students

In addition to impacting teacher practices, this grant helped meet our goal of increasing student learning outcomes.  In purchasing the Sphero balls to use in an ELA classroom, we were working to meet the needs of some of our less engaged students. These individuals may be students who, in the past, did not find success completing traditional ELA writing assignments. This assessment was developed in an effort to increase student engagement for all students, a task that we surely achieved. A number of students who struggle with traditional writing assignments found success in this task as the assignment garnered their interest and thus further buy-in from students. Their success strengthened their confidence, as witnessed through their group participation, and at times, role as a leader.

In the future, we intend to use these robots in additional units; for instance, we aim to teach different types of literary archetypes including the Hero’s Journey and the plot mountain, through Sphero emulations.

Overall, the grant provided us with an opportunity to offer new, innovative, and engaging lessons in our ELA classroom. Student engagement improved, and teachers were tasked with taking risks that provided their students with more autonomy.  Like all new endeavors, though, we encountered some challenges. We found that consistently charging the Spheros proved to be difficult. Students had to individually plug Spheros into their computers, which at times drained laptop batteries. Upon reflection, we would surely purchase a charging case for the Spheros, as we had a large number that regularly lost their charge due to inconsistent charging stations.

Jen Coty Frizzell is an Eighth Grade English Teacher at Concord Middle School. She may be reached at



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