Category Archives: Coding

Networking with CodeClub

When I first got involved in CodeClub, I hadn’t expected to meet so many new people and become so involved in the “community.” Funny how things turn out…

We’ve managed to create quite an active group of CodeClub volunteers and wannabe volunteers in the Greater Manchester area thanks to the NW England Community Forum on the CodeClub website. It means we can stay in touch via email, share ideas and solve problems. It’s also a good resource for people who are keen to set up a CodeClub but need a bit more information/reassurance from people who’ve been there and done it (and literally got the t-shirt.)

Manchester Chamber of Commerce

We had our second meet-up on 8th May at the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. Thanks to Steven Flower for organising this. It was really interesting to meet such a range of people keen to get involved in setting up CodeClubs and I hope the “veteran volunteers”  were helpful with their practical advice, personal experience and encouragement.

We chatted a bit about the HTML projects in Term 3 of CodeClub. One of the volunteers present had already piloted these and so had some useful advice to pass on. I’ll probably blog separately about this!

Alan Turing statue

Alan Turing statue, Sackville Gardens, Manchester
© Copyright Stephen Richards and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

So why were we meeting at the Chamber of Commerce? Manchester has a thriving digital/creative sector. It’s the original tech city, according to MIDAS, Manchester’s inward investment agency.

“Ever since we invented the computer, we’ve been fiddling about with it, designing, programming, creating content and sharing ideas.” (MIDAS)

That’s fantastic! But the industry is finding it hard to recruit people with the right digital skills. Matthew Kershaw, the Chamber representative for the Digital Infrastructure Group, told us there simply weren’t enough computer programmers in the Manchester workforce these days. That not only makes it difficult to fill vacancies, it inflates salaries making local digital companies less competitive.

The digital sector is so worried, its leaders have approached the Chamber of Commerce to ask for something to be done urgently. And they’re willing to throw money at the problem.

Their original suggestion was to put a Raspberry Pi in every classroom. On the face of it, this sounds fantastic – very now and a great photo opportunity! But then they thought about it a bit more. Hmm, what were schools going to do with these Pis? The Chamber realised that in most cases, the Pis would just be gathering dust in a corner of the classroom. Sad but probably true.

So Matthew Kershaw wanted to ask CodeClub volunteers for our ideas! As enthusiasts already working in primary schools, could we suggest equipment that would help kickstart a knowledge of computing in the next generation? We threw around a few thoughts but eventually reached a very different conclusion. It’s nothing to do with equipment. Most schools have access to computers. The problem is, they don’t know what to do with them.

What primary schools lack are the skills and confidence to use the computers they have to teach children to code. If Manchester’s digital sector wants to do something about that, it needs to put people into schools, not raspberry pis.

This is something the Chamber had already started work on so we were on very fertile ground here. We discussed encouraging companies to allow their employees to take time off work to volunteer at CodeClubs. We talked about promoting CodeClub to their members. The Chamber already has many school governors amongst its membership so this could be a great resource to tap in to. Perhaps members would prefer to volunteer at the weekend? CodeClubs can now be set up in libraries and other community centres so that needs to be publicised.

So, everyone left with plenty to think about. We need to keep in contact with the Chamber to see what help we can offer. Perhaps a video of volunteers’ testimony would be a good way of promoting the idea to digital companies…..(that’s the subject of yet another blog post, I suspect.)

Silicon Goyt Valley

Marple Viaduct, Goyt Valley

Marple Viaduct
© Copyright Ian Roberts and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Just a week after the Chamber of Commerce meeting, I was at the local pub with the volunteers from our Mellor/Marple Bridge CodeClubs. Thanks to Steve Kay for organising this.

We currently have CodeClubs at at least two schools in our tiny area so we’re fast becoming a programming hub!

One of our main discussion points was what happens to our CodeClub children once they get to the local secondary school? Will there be anything there to develop the skills they’ve learnt in Year 6? We’re going to get in contact with the ICT head at the secondary school to find out more. For example, could they set up their own CodeClub?

Volunteers from our two local CodeClubs get together to chat about the Big Stuff.

Volunteers from two local CodeClubs get together to chat about the Big Stuff.

We also talked about a joint coding activity so we’re trying to encourage as many of our CodeClub members as possible to go to the next CoderDojo at Manchester’s MadLab. I produced some flyers about it to thrust into parents’ hands. No idea if any of them will turn up….

“Make a difference”

What I loved about both these meetings was that CodeClub volunteers don’t just talk about their own clubs, projects, problems etc (although we do do a lot of that!). They talk about the Big Picture beyond their immediate school. They see themselves as part of a mission, if you like, to give more and more young children the opportunity to learn these skills. They want to make a difference in the wider community and they have the ideas and commitment to do this.

So if you’re already a volunteer, I really do recommend getting together with other volunteers in your area and seeing what you can come up with. It’s great to have the support network around you when you come against problems or when you’ve hit a stumbling block.

There are rumours that CodeClub may be going global. So maybe for future meet-ups we’ll need to remember our passports!

© Copyright Byrev (Emilian Robert Vicol) on Pixabay and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Related Links

Raspberry Pi with a dollop of Lego

Pimp my Pi!

Lego

When it comes to making a case for your Raspberry Pi, Lego is really the only way to go. I didn’t have the heart to use my daughters’ shiny, girly pink Lego bricks for this, so we dug out my husband’s Lego from the cellar.

Vintage Lego

We worked out that some of this Lego is FIFTY YEARS OLD, inherited from an older cousin! Some of it’s a bit discoloured but on the whole it’s in great condition and felt somehow “right” for styling a Raspberry Pi.

This is what we came up with. The yellow fruit Polo thing is decorative but also structural.

Note the subtle modification to make it WiFi. Saves clogging up another USB port.

It got quite a few retweets on Twitter but there was some disappointing scepticism….

Centre for Computing History

So I started thinking about the combination of 50 year old Lego and brand new Raspberry Pi computing technology. What was happening in computing fifty years ago when this Lego was being forged in a Danish furnace?

An internet search brought me to the Centre for Computing History. It will be opening to the public in July 2013 in Cambridge but in the meantime its website is full of useful information such as a Computing History Timeline. Cool!

So let’s choose 1963…

I hope you’ll explore those links.

And it’s worth pointing out that you’d have needed far more Lego bricks to encase your computer back then….

Related Blog posts

 

My seven year old daughter’s first ever CoderDojo – at Manchester’s MadLab

“I just want to make a horse riding game!”

Just being in Manchester’s Northern Quarter is exciting. It’s very different from our little village!

That was Isobel’s plan for her first CoderDojo on 7th April 2013. I just wanted her to enjoy it and didn’t expect her to learn much on her first visit. I thought she’d just be testing the waters, having a look around, seeing if there were other girls her age there (very important when you’re seven).

So we decided to make a day of it. The CoderDojo is at the MadLab, right in the heart of Manchester’s Northern Quarter so just wandering around was a bit of an adventure.

Making Scratch Friends

It was busy and chaotic at the beginning in the best way possible. Isobel hooked up with a couple of other girls her age who are old hands at CoderDojo. They joined a Scratch group  aimed at the younger children. It was led by the fabulous, inspiring, endlessly patient DJ Adams who came up with an idea to write a program that would take the monotony out of Times Tables. They all thought this was a much-needed tool!

Need to fuel up before CoderDojo. Home Sweet Home almost opposite MadLab is my perfect choice.

The perfect preparation for a first CoderDojo. Home Sweet Home cafe is almost opposite MadLab (it’s the one with the green shutters) and the milkshakes are delicious!

With a mix of gentle questioning, allowing the older children to use their knowledge and experience, he took the group through the process step by step. Isobel’s new friends helped her out a couple of times which made it all the more sociable. It was just lovely to see such young children completely engrossed in a problem-solving task together.

New Challenges

Wouldn’t it be great if they could do stuff like this in ICT classes in school? I’d love to see teachers being able to pick up something from elsewhere in the curriculum (times tables is a good example) and then exploring it in a computer class.

Even better, after DJ had finished, the girls started chatting about how they could make the times tables program even better! Could they get the monkey to move its mouth? Could he explode at the end?! DJ set Isobel a challenge – could she get the monkey to put its arms out when the answer was even and down when the answer was odd. That got her thinking….

The Banana Piano

So much interesting stuff going on all over the CoderDojo! Isobel’s new friends dragged her over to see Steven Flower – the organiser of under-18 events at MadLab – make a piano out of bananas.


Yeeaaah, the banana piano is good, but Isobel just wanted to get back to her program so she could work on getting the monkey to react to odd and even numbers. She’s still not sure how to do it but knows she has to make another “costume” for the monkey sprite so gets to work on that.

Scratch monkey

Eureka!

Another wonderfully generous, patient mentor talks Isobel through the modulo operator. Suddenly, she sees a way of solving the challenge. It’s exciting for both of us – but it’s time to leave.


Dinner vs debugging

Some things are more important than dinner….

She wants to work on it on the train home. I draw the line!

But as soon as we get home…..

Nothing was more important to Isobel than fixing that program! She still needed guidance to get it to work and it took a lot of trial and error. But she got there in the end.

TimesTables in Scratch

We did NOT make a horse riding game!

For me, that was the biggest achievement. I saw a different side to my daughter. Who’d have thought she could be so passionate about something which doesn’t involve writing a story (about ponies, usually)?

I met lots of familiar faces at CoderDojo, met new people whom I hope to see again and I came away with lots of new ideas for our CodeClub. Sadly, we won’t be able to go to the next CoderDojo because it clashes with the Mellor March – the big annual charity event in our village. But we will be back!

And finally, I’d like to say thank you to all the wonderful mentors who make CoderDojo such a fantastic experience for children and their parents. I’m very grateful.

CodeClub in Manchester: Bringing it all back home

Manchester has a pretty good track record when it comes to computing so it seems like the perfect city for CodeClub to thrive.  There’s just so much talent here!  And I say this as a Scouser…

So today CodeClub volunteers and enthusiasts from around the Greater Manchester area got together at the fabulous MadLab in Manchester’s Northern Quarter.  Some of us already knew each other either in Real Life (they’d visited our CodeClub in Mellor) or through Twitter or the NW community forum on the CodeClub website.

photo-52

What we discussed

It was all very informal.  Anne (my fellow Mellor volunteer) and I talked about our experience setting up CodeClub and answered questions about how to go about it and how the projects work.  The CodeClub website is a bit sparse on these details and this can make it all seem quite daunting.  In my experience, it was really useful to reach out to other CodeClub volunteers around the country to pick their brains.  But ultimately, every school is different so you do just have to take a leap of faith and accept there’ll be a few niggles along the way.  But I think it’s good that we now have this little supportive community to help each other out and share experience.

It was really interesting to hear how other people had got involved and why we were so committed to giving up our time to this project!

Next Step

We definitely want to meet again!  We only scraped the surface today by the time we’d introduced ourselves.  We want to talk about how we can spread the word to other schools or encourage more developers to get involved.

But CodeClub is only the starting point.  The group of volunteers in MadLab today had so many good contacts/ideas/projects they were already working on which all tie in with the CodeClub ideals. For example, Steven Flower – who kindly set up today’s meeting -organises U18 events at MadLab and is involved in Young Rewired State and CoderDojos.  I’d love to encourage some of our CodeClub kids to come along to a big event like that.  And my daughters too!

We also loved this cheeky chap….

photo-51

He’d hitched a ride with Dr Andrew Robinson from the University of Manchester who has been doing great work promoting fun projects using Raspberry Pi.  His tweeting chicken even caught the attention of ITV news!  He’s been writing worksheets to help children build these projects themselves and there’s a whole set of YouTube videos which are really fun to watch (Disclaimer- no hamsters were harmed during these demos, Andrew says :-)  He’s also taken these projects into schools.

To be honest, it’s beyond my capabilities (unless I devoted a SERIOUS amount of time which I just haven’t got) but I’m really hoping my far cleverer fellow volunteers at Mellor would enjoy taking CodeClub in this sort of direction in future.  The first step would be to encourage the children to attend events at MadLab where this kind of fun stuff is available to play with.  The second step would be to arrange sessions to train volunteers how to do something simple with, say, the robotic chicken.  They could then have the confidence to try it out with their own CodeClubs.

DJ Adams did a great job noting down web resources for all the different stuff we discussed and he’s started a Delicious list with it all which should be a useful resource.  Thanks, DJ!

Maybe we’re being a little ambitious but that’s no bad thing.  We’ve got a lot of catching up to do if we’re to create a new generation of computer programmers.  And if we can’t do it in Manchester, then where else?

First Term of CodeClub draws to an end

We’ve had about ten CodeClub sessions since we started in September so now seemed like a good time to reflect on how it’s gone, what the children have learnt, what we’ve learnt and what we might do differently.

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NUMBERS

We decided to start off very small so we just had eight Year 6 children in the club  – two girls, six boys – as well as the offspring of our volunteers who were younger but joined in.

Sadly, one girl and one boy have dropped out.  The girl dropped out because she wanted to do lacrosse with her mates instead.  We clash!  I don’t know about the boy.

We’re also going to lose another boy when he moves school in January.  He’s sad that there isn’t a CodeClub at his new school so I’ve told him he should ask for one!!

We now have a team of 6 volunteers!  Not everyone comes every week but there are usually three or four of us there.  It seems a ridiculous ratio but the kids actually keep us pretty busy!  I’ve no idea how clubs manage with just one volunteer.  I guess the kids just learn to be patient!

So now that we’ve found our feet, we are feeling confident enough to expand our Code Club.  Letters are going out to Year 6 and Year 5 parents asking if their children would like to join CodeClub next term.  We’ll need to plan how we manage the different levels but I don’t think it will be a problem.  For example, it might be best if I, as the non-developer, stick with the newcomers whilst my more expert colleagues challenge the children who’ve been with us since the start.  We’ll see what the uptake is anyway.

HAVE THE CHILDREN LEARNT ANYTHING?

Definitely, yes.  They are much quicker finding their way around Scratch than I am, for a start.  Surprisingly, perhaps, they seem to have no problem with the concept of a variable. They’re happy setting up timers and scores.

We asked them at the start of last week’s session how many now have Scratch at home.  All of them now do and they use it.  Most of them have also shown Scratch to someone outside CodeClub.  This is great!

And they were very positive about what they’d been doing, what they were now able to do and liked making games they could play.  They compared CodeClub to school ICT classes.  We definitely came off best in the comparison!  They said ICT classes were “boring” and “pointless.”  That’s such a shame.

BUT, as luck would have it, their Yr 6 teacher walked in just as they were moaning about ICT and she suggested they show the rest of the class how Scratch works.  I wasn’t sure how serious she was but, sure enough, in their next ICT class a few days later the CodeClub children were asked to show everyone else how Scratch worked.  I heard this from one of our very excited CodeClub members!  The teacher also suggested doing an early CodeClub project in an ICT class.  YAY!  It’s great for our CodeClub children to feel a bit special and even better that other children are able to see their enthusiasm and new skills.  The coding revolution has started!!

WHAT’S NOT GONE SO WELL

Some of the CodeClub projects have been better than others.  The children’s favourite (and ours!) was fish chomp.  The game was fun and the challenges seemed to be pitched just right.  Fruit Machine, however, was not popular and didn’t work well.  I’ve passed our feedback onto CodeClub and was told they would look into it.  I’ve not heard back.  But, on the whole, the projects have been interesting and varied enough to keep the children’s attention.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to take an extra week to do the What’s That game so that the children could work on the challenges.  It was a disaster!  The children were not interested in the challenges, they were bored and most just started playing games from the Scratch gallery rather than making their own – a definite CodeClub no-no!  So, just because I find the challenges interesting and useful it doesn’t mean the children agree.

So in future it’s one project per week unless the children clamour to carry on.

WHAT ELSE HAVE WE TRIED?

We are keen to enter the University of Manchester’s school animation competition.  It’s a national competition and already 570 schools have registered.  Closing date is March 2013.  We have posters around the school!

So last Monday, we decided to have a break from CodeClub projects and talk about animation instead.  We asked children about the difference between games and animation.  We got them to think about how they could use Scratch to create animations.  They had lots of good ideas!

We also had a guest speaker!  Another parent at school is a bona fide animator and has done work for Cbeebies amongst many other projects.  So he talked to the children about his job and showed them a showreel of this work.  They thought it was really cool!!  Then he talked about creating characters and the importance of storyboarding your ideas.

We then asked the children to draw their own storyboards for an animation they could do on Scratch.  Perhaps predictably, the boys concentrated on bombs, explosions and guns! (I have daughters so this is alien territory to me.)  The girl did a story about a fish!!

So, keen to move away from the apocalyptic blood and gore scenarios the boys were coming up with, I’m going to suggest that next week – the last CodeClub before Christmas – they create an animated Christmas card on Scratch.  Surely, that’ll force them to stick to cute and fluffy?? No?!  Anyway, to inspire them, some of the volunteers are going to make their own animated Christmas cards.  We’ll demo them at the start of the session and challenge the kids to do better.

Maybe a future plan might be to bring in some Raspberry Pis and get the children playing around with them?  Lots of logistical problems to doing that, of course, but definitely something to think about.

Maybe the school would consider investing in some Pis…..?

My Pi

WHAT DO WE THINK OF CODE CLUB?

We’ve really enjoyed CodeClub although it’s been a learning curve for us.  Sometimes it seems chaotic and noisy and that worries us sometimes.  But in the midst of that, the children are actually making the games and enjoying the process.

It’s great being part of a national movement with ambitious aims.  We like to think we’re “doing our bit” to promote coding in schools!

The projects have introduced a good variety of concepts and built on the children’s skill and knowledge each week – without them even knowing it, probably.

We would like to move away from just creating games every week which is why we’ve introduced animation.  We’d also like to explore interactive games/animation.  We’re hoping the CodeClub developers will introduce that into future projects.  If not, we’ll just go off piste every couple of weeks and try something different.  But we’ll still keep coming back to the CodeClub projects as our basic activity.

UPDATE: Clare Sutcliffe – one of the CodeClub founders – read this blog and confirmed that, yes, there will be animation projects in term 2.  Hooray!

SPREADING THE WORD

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, we’ve created quite a bit of interest in other local schools and a couple are planning on starting their own CodeClubs in January.  I must check in with them and find out how they’re getting on.

We also seem to be a major attraction on the CodeClub tourism route!  Several people from schools around Greater Manchester have paid us a visit before going on to set up their own CodeClubs.

Gradually, CodeClub enthusiasts from around the North West are finding each other on social media and the CodeClub forum.  As a result, we’ve arranged to have a meet-up in Manchester’s MadLab on 13th January.  We’ll let you know what we get up to!

So, thank you very much to all our wonderful, enthusiastic CodeClub members for making it such a worthwhile experience for the volunteers.  And thank you to Linda and Clare for coming up with the crazy idea in the first place and making it happen.

Let’s keep working at it in 2013 to help make that 25% dream a reality!!

Lucy & Emily

The First Mellor CodeClub

So it happened!  We ran our very first CodeClub session on Monday 17th September.  Children actually turned up.  Children actually coded.

First things first, we got the badges sorted out.  I spent Friday evening making them according to strict CodeClub instructions.  They seemed to go down well.

 

Here are some quick thoughts about how it all went and what I learnt from doing it.

1. Children don’t just follow the project step by step to get it to look exactly like the one in the example.  That’s what I’d do.  Instead, they go by circuitous routes, stopping to explore and experiment.  (I’d probably do my experimenting at the end once I’d made sure I’d completed the assigned task and gained my pat on the back from teacher.  I’m SO old skool!)  So they didn’t want to call their cat Felix and their mouse Herbert.  They chose their own names.  And some chose a different background.  At first, I heard myself saying, “let’s all keep to the same script for now.”  But I couldn’t think of a good reason for sticking to the script so I chilled out and let them experiment and personalise.

I guess that’s what programming is all about – making the computer do what you want it to do instead of simply following instructions.  So that was my first lesson learnt!

2.  They are noisy!  Much noisier than we’d expected.  But when I think about it, all the noise was centred around the task in hand ie creating something on Scratch.
And amongst the noise you can hear words like “cool!” and “awesome!” when they can see what they’ve achieved and want to share that sense of accomplishment.  That was a lovely feeling.

3. We’re very lucky to have such enthusiastic, patient volunteers.  Maybe the children become more autonomous as they progress through CodeClub but for the time being, they do need quite a bit of support and they like to ask questions.  So the volunteers have to work pretty hard.

4. The children wouldn’t leave!   I kept telling them we’d come to the end of our time and they needed to save and log off but they just ignored me and carried on.  Then when their parents came in to collect them, they wanted to show off what they’d done.  So we might need a better plan for ending the session!  Setting the fire alarm off?

We’ve had some positive feedback already so I think they’ll come back again next week.
I’m looking forward to finding out if they’ve been playing with Scratch at home and what they’ve come up with.

I should add that we’re getting total support from the head teacher and his team at school which is why we’ve been able to get up and running so quickly with CodeClub.

But above all, I’m grateful to Clare Sutcliffe and Linda Sandvik, the two amazing women behind CodeClub.  Their hard work and vision has enabled me to turn a vague pipe dream into a reality – with very little effort on my part.  The CodeClub they’ve designed tells children that programming is not something they should be scared of or sneer at.  It’s fun, creative and can be learnt.
Degree level maths is hard.  But we don’t use that as an excuse not to teach Key Stage 1 children basic arithmetic.
Similarly, coding is hard at the upper levels.  But there is an entry point which enables children to understand the fundamentals.  Above and beyond that, it’s their choice how far they take it.  But without an entry point, they’ll always see it as scary and inaccessible.

CodeClub is a great place to start.

So what do I do with my Raspberry Pi Computer? Go to a RaspberryJam at Manchester’s MadLab 08.09.12.

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Photo by Muffet on Flickr – Creative Commons

This really tested my commitment to turning myself into a techy.

RaspberryJams are events taking place monthly all over the country (even globally) as a way of supporting and encouraging people to get the most out of their Raspberry Pis – those little credit-card sized computers which cost about £25.   I’ve had one for a few months now and it was still sat in its snug, foam box doing nothing because I just didn’t have the confidence to start tinkering.

So, I decided the only way I was going to start playing with it was to go along to a jam.

This was about as far out of my comfort zone as it was possible to get whilst still being in a breathable atmosphere.  The attendee list showed that I was the ONLY female signed up and I knew I was going to be the class dunce.

To drum up the courage to walk through the door of MadLab, I went across the road to the LOVELY Home Sweet Home cafe for an espresso.  The window seat on a sunny Saturday morning is a fantastic place to people watch as the Northern Quarter wakes up to the weekend.  I also like a cafe that tweets back!

So, were all my fears about RaspberryJam justified?

On the whole, absolutely not.  I was really impressed by how generous people were with their time and equipment to help me get started.  Even the keyboard I’d brought with me decided not to work properly (wouldn’t do S or T at all, pretty good at J.) so I had to borrow one of them, plus various cables.  I am extremely grateful to all of you, especially Dave who copied the operating system onto my SD card!

And as it turned out, I was NOT the only woman!  Hello, Dawn!

It was great to see lots of dad there with their 10, 11 yr old sons.  But where were the daughters?

I really liked the way the event was set up as a sharing experience.  Everyone was asked at the beginning what they wanted to get out of it and what they were able to put in (nothing, in my case).

So, what did I get out of the McrRaspJam?

  1. I finally found the motivation to take the Pi out of its box.  An important first step.
  2. Got the OS copied onto the SD card.  Thanks, Dave!
  3.  Got my Pi connected to a screen, mouse and keyboard and saw it spring to life.
  4. I borrowed an SD card with OPENelec’s XBoxMediaCentre so I got my Pi to play TV programmes from iPlayer onto a screen – which is something I definitely want to have a go at myself at home.   I want to be able to do it myself because I think that would give me a great sense of achievement but I’m worried I’ll get frustrated and just find somebody else to do it for me!  But the Jam has made me feel I could give it a go,  I know where to find the information and I could probably go to the next Jam and get some help if it all goes wrong (sorry to bug you, guys!!)
  5.  I started to make a shopping list of equipment I need.  This will end up costing more than the Pi
  6.  I met Simon Walters (@cymplecy).  He’s an ICT technician and network manager in primary schools but he also teaches children REAL computing.  He had a small gang of 11 yr old boys utterly absorbed in using Scratch to programme a tiny set of traffic lights.  Even better, he takes the time to blog about the stuff he’s doing with his RPis.

I have to admit, I left after a couple of hours because I felt I couldn’t absorb any more and I wanted to go away and digest what I’d learnt.  I may go back to the next one – if they’ll have me!  (I was definitely a taker rather than a giver)

But I’m pleased I didn’t stay in my window seat at Home Sweet Home.  That would have been too easy.