Coding: Taking On the Challenge of a New Literacy

One week last December coding was all the rage in educational institutions across the country. The Hour of Code™ effort aimed at exposing children in grades K-12 to the basics of computer programming and was spearheaded by a nonprofit organization, Code.org. This effort was endorsed by President Obama, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and many other industry and business leaders in hopes of highlighting the ever-increasing gap between demand and supply of computer programmers. But the “Hour of Code” represents so much more than a fun module of learning: it is an effort to inspire deeper recognition of the building blocks of the digital universe. I introduced my version of the Hour of Code™ to our students in March.

Basic Tynkering Around

There are many great tools available to introduce basic coding skills. Kindergarten used Kodable and 2nd grade learned with Tynker for iPad. Both apps are free in the iTunes store and are very user-friendly, introducing basic programming concepts and problem solving in a kid-friendly way. Both classes LOVED playing around.

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Intermediate Dabbling

I wanted to delve more deeply into coding with my 4th and 5th grade students. My 5th graders had been repeatedly asking me over the last months about the opportunity to code. So now I wanted to know from them what they knew about coding. Turns out several of the students had a very good understanding and a couple had already dabbled with coding. To get everyone excited, I showed them the 60-second teaser created by Code.org, Anybody Can Learn.

We spent our first lesson with the Angry Bird tutorial available on the Code.org site. The tutorial uses Blockly, a graphical programming language developed by Google, requiring students to drag blocks together. It consists of 20 game-like puzzles, which increase in complexity.

Learning to Fail. So while the kids were flying through the first eight or so puzzles, many were suddenly facing some challenges. We knew from the beginning that we would never finish all the puzzles in the lesson. The goal was just to introduce students to these new coding activities. Even though we did not have enough time to work through all puzzles in our lesson, several students decided to finish the tutorial on their own time. Perhaps the key to effective instruction on coding is to borrow Carol Dweck’s term “Growth Mindset” vs. “Fixed Mindset.”  The point is to emphasize the process and not the outcome. Once the tutorial is completed (with always more to learn!), a certificate will be emailed to the students. In addition to a certificate, however, my students asked me for a badge to be added to their Badge Backpacks. We are consciously integrating badges and certificates as additional achievement markers, such as genre reading badges.  My colleague, Shelly Zavon, is currently offering badges for various math activities.

Free Reign to Logic and Creativity!

Next, I introduced both classes to MIT Media Lab’s Scratch, a different programming language which uses the same basic graphical commands as Blockly. My goal was for students to create an interactive animation using Scratch. So we watched a great introductory video that briefly shows the various creative project possibilities. The kids were immediately hooked and ready to “scratch”.

My 4th graders were tasked with creating an interactive virtual pet animation and the 5th graders were to create an interactive About Me collage showing three things about themselves. The former is a project my colleague Andrea Hernandez had done with her students a few years ago and the latter is an adapted lesson from the Scratch Curriculum Guide Draft (2011). In all, students spent three 40-minute lessons “scratching”. Judging by their motivation and engagement, they could have easily spent even more time.

Transferrable Skills

So why did I decide to integrate coding skills into my library and media curriculum? Aside from the fact that my students had been bugging me about it, I was very curious about all the hubbub during the Hour of Code™ week. Both the Code.org site and MIT’s Scratch made it easy for me to learn some very basic coding skills. Coding is actually a lot of fun! Moreover, after witnessing my students in-action, from an educator’s perspective, coding empowers students with new literacy skills that:

  • engage students in new ways of thinking
  • develop problem-solving skills
  • strengthen mathematical and computational thinking skills
  • teaches sequencing
  • fosters creativity

All are transferrable skills.

In the meantime, several students created their own Scratch accounts to continue scratching–the biggest testament to student motivation and engagement!

The 4th and 5th grade students posted their final products to their student blogfolios. Following are some examples. To view them all, please search the tag MJGDS on the Scratch website. Or check out the following selected creations:

Press the space bar to drop the beat, and make Mr. Penguin change colors! Click on Mr. Penguin to make him dance to the beat! Click on the green flag to make Mr. Penguin go back to his original spot, with his original color.

Press the green flag button to make it play!

Up arrow-football moves to the guy.
Left arrow – football comes back to original spot.
Spacebar – dog jumps.
Green flag – guy talks.
Click the ball for it to bounce.

Passover Haiku Poetry

My 2nd grade students wrote and illustrated Haiku poems! In celebration of National Poetry Month, I chose to expose my students to Haiku poetry–mainly to reinforce syllabication with words. We recently created I SPY riddles, which are written in a 4-beats per line rhythm, requiring parsing of words into syllables. As some students found this difficult, writing Haiku poems seemed the perfect reinforcement activity. While traditional Haiku is about nature, I’ve changed our topic up a little bit. Since I teach at a Jewish day school and Passover is right around the corner, I wanted my students to write Haiku poems about Passover.

Introduction to Haiku

We began by reading lots of examples and counting the syllables in each line (traditional Haiku consist of 17 syllables–five in the first line, seven in the second line, and again five in the third line, are non-rhyming, and written in the present tense). Using the topic “Spring” as a whole group activity, we brainstormed any related words and recorded them in a web organizer. My original plan was to then write a Spring Haiku together, but the students were eager to get started and work on their Passover poems. So we did.

Creating Passover Haiku Poems

Armed with a graphic organizer, the students began brainstorming and then drafting their poems. They did a wonderful job incorporating everything they have learned about Passover in their Jewish Studies classes.

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The next lesson, we used the BookCreator app for iPad to type the poems and draw an image to illustrate them.

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Check out some of their beautiful creations!

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Digital Citizenship: Creating Quality Products

I’ve written earlier about my 4th grade students’ completion of their digital citizenship unit, remarking that their final product was too general and failed to reflect all the different aspects of digital citizenship. So I decided to avoid this pitfall by offering my 5th grade students more structure in creating their final product.

Common Sense Media’s Digital Passport™

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First, we began with a review of all the different lessons we learned using Common Sense Media’s  Digital Passport™ app for iPad. Through videos and games, the app aims to reinforce key concepts about digital citizenship in five different modules: safety and security, privacy, cyberbullying, responsible cell phone use, and respecting creative work of others. As students work through each module, they collect a badge to ultimately earn their Digital Passport. I thought this would be a fun way to wrap up the lessons and wanted to give it a try after learning the app won a bronze medal at the International Serious Play Awards and was named a “Top 10 Educational Technology You Should Try This Year” in 2012 by eSchoolNews. The classroom version allowed me to set up student accounts and track and measure student progress.

Creating a Product

Students were tasked with creating a product to demonstrate knowledge of one of the concepts of digital citizenship we had studied (Internet safety and privacy, online communication, giving credit, cyberbullying, or digital footprint). Since my 5th grade students are in a 1:1 iPad classroom and quite savvy with a variety of tools, I wanted them to choose the tool they considered the best fit for their purpose. The idea was for them to be as creative as possible in articulating what they had learned about their chosen concept of digital citizenship.

At the same time, as mentioned earlier, I felt the process of creating a product needed to be fairly structured. So I provided the students with a worksheet to guide them by taking notes on the key vocabulary and important points about their topic. Also, students were tasked with developing a motto.

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Peer Review

Where appropriate, I’ve been incorporating peer reviews in all of my lessons. It is not only an opportunity for students to review their own work, but also to learn from their peer’s work by gaining a better understanding of the required criteria, possibly triggering further improvement and revision. The larger goal is always to give students more of a stake in their own learning and to understand the importance of quality work.

CD Artifact Checklist

Many of my students did a wonderful job, using the “Artifact Checklist” not only for peer review but first to ensure their product meets all the required criteria for a quality product. Unfortunately, not all students took advantage of this form of quality check. A few of my 5th graders’ artifacts produced less than satisfying results. In fact, it seems students rushed through the peer review process, quickly checking each box and not offering quality comments. Several of the “completed” checklists show lots of check marks but none of the boxes asking for the key vocabulary or important points filled in.

Producing a Collaborative Emphasis on Quality

Quality work is something I stress with all my students. I give them the time needed to really “go deeper” to focus on a project or product rather than to move on with less than satisfying results. Having students create their own digital products as alternative forms of assessment requires much more time than any traditional forms. So our last lesson was spent on critiquing products the students created. Equipped with the rule to point out something positive and then make a suggestion for improvement, I pulled up each student’s product and let the students provide constructive criticism. This was a great session, which produced a collaborative emphasis on quality. Students then had the option to revise their work. Since our students own blogfolios, the last step was to publish the product along with an explanatory blog post.

Overall, I am happy with the results, with special emphasis placed on going over the product one more time before pressing publish!

Please check out some of the creative products created by my students.

Griff’s Comic:

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Structuring a Lesson on Digital Citizenship

I have been working with my 2nd through 5th grade students on digital citizenship. There are lots of great instructional resources available online, but I have grown partial to Common Sense Media’s lessons and video library. While this not-for-profit organization suggests a scope & sequence for teaching the various topics/building blocks that make up digital citizenship, I’ve decided to adapt some of the lesson plans to better suit my students’ needs. My fourth grade students just completed their last unit lesson, “Digital Citizenship Pledge”. For a final product, they created Digital Citizenship posters.

We began by brainstorming everything we had learned these past few weeks about digital citizenship and discussed adding a motto or slogan to our posters. How do you package a concept like digital citizenship into a few catchy words? Not an easy task for some of the kids, but in the end they came up with great posters.

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I do know that the students understand the various elements that make up digital citizenship, but in hindsight I don’t think creating the posters was the best artifact for students to show their learning. This already occurred to me while the students were brainstorming their mottos. Even though we came up with many examples from the advertising world and discussed how mottos are short and catchy, there were still some students whose mottos consisted of two long sentences. Also, while creating this poster was definitely a quick process, it was too general.

So for my 5th grade students, who have also completed the digital citizenship unit, I’ve decided to change things up a bit.  I’ve provided more structure in the form of a worksheet. Students are to choose from one of the five main topics we learned about digital citizenship. They then think of a motto, decide on the digital product they plan on creating, and brainstorm important points and key vocabulary they will include in their artifact.

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So far, most students have  completed the worksheets and  I am encouraged by the level of detail they provide and the creativity they show. So stay tuned for a great variety of student-created artifacts about digital citizenship!

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Retelling Stories of Author Chris Van Allsburg

My 4th grade students have been working on “retelling.” Their language arts teacher, Andrea Hernandez, asked me to work with the kids on this project after reading my post about retelling in 1st grade. The students began by watching some examples of 1st grade students retelling The Paper Bag Princess. They noticed that retelling is about telling a story again, emphasizing the various story elements, and speaking fluently and with expression. Since they had just learned about writing summaries in language arts class, they also noted it was okay to give away the ending of a book when retelling. When summarizing, however, one should “not give away any spoilers”.

For their retelling project, my group of ten 4th grade students focused on books by Chris Van Allsburg. This was a practical decision based on the fact that our school library owns several of his books, most are on my kids’ reading levels, and none of the kids were familiar with Van Allsburg’s work. Students began by finding a comfy spot in the library to read the book, study the illustrations, and then discuss the story.

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The students then used a graphic organizer to help identify their story’s elements. Agreeing on the main events was challenging for some of the students, forcing them to convince their partners of their opinions. It was great listening to the kids digging deep into the stories!

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Once the graphic organizers were completed, students began practicing retelling the stories to their partners. This was much harder than they had expected. The fact that I meet the students only once weekly for 40 minutes did not help. For some of the kids, at least, it seemed they needed a bit of time to get back into the story either by re-reading the book or carefully studying their organizer. I strive to let my students be as independent and self-directed as possible. So for this project I wanted the partners to coach each other’s story retelling by providing constructive feedback. Of course the added plus was that this also allowed the students to learn from each other. To aid in this process, I created a checklist.

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Once students felt ready, the next step was to video record each other retelling the story. Some times it was camera shyness, other times it was lack of preparedness, and in some cases it was a matter of fluency–but for all students the recording stage consisted of multiple takes. In a couple of instances, students edited their own retellings, requiring a reminder that edited versions were not the point of retelling.

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The last step was for students to embed the retelling video and write a brief post on their student blogfolios. Please watch some of their retellings, read their posts, and leave a comment!

Abigail Retelling from MJGDS Classrooms on Vimeo.

Isa’s Retelling from MJGDS Classrooms on Vimeo.

English-to-English Translation Challenges

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On Tuesdays, our middle school rotation students are in the library for study hall. Most of them typically work on their current event assignments, which are due on Wednesdays. The students have to find a news story of national or international impact and summarize it in their own words. This week, I worked with one of our 6th grade students, who had chosen a story about the current Russia-EU/US standoff over the Ukraine. Aside from the fact that she was clearly lacking any background knowledge on the shared history of the Ukraine and Russia, the student also had an extremely difficult time comprehending the text due to a lack of vocabulary knowledge. For example, what are “political, diplomatic, and economic sanctions”? What does it mean when “Putin says he thinks the West is provoking Russia”?

I am currently meeting twice weekly with a small group of 5th grade students who are reading Verne’s classic (original, unabridged version) Around the World in 80 Days. Written in the 1880s, the novel’s old British English presents my seven students with a completely new language and style. We are using Subtext for iPad (there’ll be a post on this app some time in the near future), which allows me to pose queries for the students directly within the text. One challenge I like to pose is: “Please rewrite this sentence in contemporary English”–oftentimes resulting in a number of varied interpretations. Examples include: “A room was engaged for the young woman, and Mr. Fogg, after seeing that she wanted for nothing, set out in search of her cousin Jeejeeh.” Or, “He acquitted his task with characteristic serenity, and invariably replied to the remonstrances of his fair companion, who was confused by his patience and generosity.”

Whether reading for information as in the current event assignment or reading for entertainment as in our classics reading group, students must show comprehension. Both types of assignments are requiring students to read deeply, i.e. forcing students to stop and think about meaning. Deep reading is challenging. It is easy to read one Rick Riordan or Margaret Haddix or JK Rowling book after another, following a highly engaging story. But it is an entirely different proposition to read deeply, interpreting style nuances and translating vocabulary. But it is in facing these challenges that readers gain maturity and depth. Both our social studies teacher’s current event assignments and the reading of a true classic promote just that: enhanced literacy.

I SPY: “The Project That Keeps on Giving”

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“This project just keeps on giving” was my colleague’s, Arlene Yegelwel, comment on the second blog post about our 2nd grade students’ I SPY project. Arlene is right! After working hard on creating our class I SPY book and then on perfecting our interviewing skills as a means of project reflection, we enjoyed a fabulous virtual visit with Jean Marzollo, author of the I SPY book series, today. It was Jean’s challenge that inspired our own class book and resulted in about 20 minutes of insights and learning from the author herself.

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As new experts in the process of creating an I SPY book, our students were especially curious about Ms. Marzollo’s process. They wanted to know how she finds the items for her collages (turns out most are selected by the I SPY photographer, Walter Wick), how she creates the rhymes (as this was not always easy for our kids), and why she chose a 4-beat rhythm for her riddles (we did a lot of clapping to practice). Lots of great questions!

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Notice the last question about advice for improvement of our class book. No, Jean did not have any advice for us–instead she praised our book, describing it as “the best one yet”, and telling the kids that they “deserve a blue ribbon” for their work. And she asked if she could feature our work on her website.
The second grade students, their teachers, and I are both thrilled and honored. Thank you, Jean Marzollo, for inspiring us and visiting with us!

Hands On! Interviews for Peer-to-Peer Reflection

At our school, we talk a lot about “reflecting” as a means of self-assessment and thinking more deeply about learning.  Faculty write weekly reflections on our faculty Ning and our students write on their blogfolios. So in order to provide our 2nd grade students with a form of reflection after the completion of their I SPY class book, I decided to have them interview each other.

We first talked about the concept of an interview: What is it? What is it’s purpose? Rather than just letting them loose, I felt it important to provide students with some potential interview questions. So we brainstormed:

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The students were paired up, provided with an iPad and a printout of the questions, and instructed to take turns interviewing each other–where the interviewer was also the videographer. The only requirement was to ask at least three of the brainstormed questions.

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The interviews turned out great. Definitely listen to the kids reflecting on their learning:

Authentic Learning: Creating I SPY Books in the Library

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Teacher Learning: 2nd Graders LOVE I SPY Books

It all began one Friday morning when I found my 2nd grade students sitting comfortably together in the library looking at I SPY and Where’s Waldo books. I thought: I must do something with those kids and those books! Turns out that Jean Marzollo, author of the I SPY series has a fantastic website. There she posted this challenge: A free 15- to 30-minute Skype visit with any class that creates “their own original beautiful I SPY pictures and write their own fantastic I SPY riddles.” I presented the idea to the kids and they were ready to take on this challenge!

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Student Learning: Media Literacy

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We spent our first lesson looking more closely at a number of different I SPY books, paying special attention to the image collages (choice of items displayed, arrangement of items, photographer perspective) and noting the beat and rhyme of the riddles.

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To help students begin thinking about their individual pages for our class I SPY book, I created an organizer. It outlines the steps to create a page in the book as well as provides a space for writing the riddle. I wanted them to just brainstorm some ideas. Several kids knew exactly what items they wanted in their collages and drafted their ideas on the back of the paper. Other kids already practiced writing riddles.

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Student Learning: Visual Literacy

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Our next lessons were all about creating the image collages. We began by talking about what to look for when creating a collage using some examples I had prepared: not crowding the picture to make sure we can identify all items, taking the photo from a bird’s eye view, leaving a two-finger-spaces border, making sure to take a straight not crooked picture. Students used poster board as background. They were free to choose any items they found in the library for their collages. However, the big hit were the two bins of toys our 2nd grade teaching assistant, DeeAnn Wulbern, supplied on loan from her two sons.

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Student Learning: Problem Solving

Some students worked in pairs, others preferred to create a collage on their own. We actually had two “gos” at this: our first attempt taught us that the white poster board worked better as background than any of the other colors. Also, its larger size provided more space for more creative creations. While I had mentioned to students that they should think of the riddles while creating their collages, none really did and were stuck when DeeAnn and I asked which items in their collages rhymed.

Finally, when the students returned the following week, we emphasized that in each collage there needed to be at least two rhyming items. Several students quickly figured out how to best approach this issue by first finding the “just right” item and then searching for something else that rhymes with it. Only then do you look for other things to add to the collage. Watch our student Talia explain the process of creating an image collage.

Once the collages were created, students took pictures using the iPad. It was not always easy holding the iPad perfectly straight and still, or even be up high enough to get the full bird’s eye view. Multiple pictures were taken and the best selected.

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Student Learning: Rhythm and Rhyme

I SPY riddles are written in a 4-beats per line rhythm and an aabb rhyme format. Our students wrote 2-line riddles. To better grasp the rhythm, we listened to some examples of student-created I SPY raps on Jean Marzollo’s website. We also clapped with the beat using some example riddles. If you’d like more information on her riddles, see Jean Marzollo’s brief video on “How to Write an I Spy Riddle”. The students then got to work using the following template:

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Student Learning: Digital Literacy

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Each student created an I SPY page using the BookCreator app for iPad. They imported their images into the app and then typed their riddles, choosing legible fonts and using the dictionaries to ensure correct grammar and spelling–because, remember, Jean Marzollo is looking for quality work!

Teacher Learning: A Project Worth Repeating

The students and their teachers LOVED this hands-on project. It highlights the four Cs of modern learning: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creation. But best of all, it is an extremely engaging project. Now we are ready to visit with Jean Marzollo via Skype for her feedback on our great product. Take a look!

Download on the iBooks store:

Biography and Authentic Literacy

I’ve been struck in recent weeks by student responsiveness to three heartwarming projects, Book Tasting, Retelling, and the Book Minute.  In Book Tasting, students have three minutes to examine a number of books, evaluating each according to their own entirely personal and subjective assessment of “what matters.”  In Retelling, students take it a step further by personally narrating the summary elements of a story (character, setting, problem, solution, etc) to their peers and in their own words. In the Book Minute, students choose a favorite book and try to “sell it” to their classmates in a one-minute presentation. In all cases, I’ve been struck by how students engage with the material in their own unique ways–interpreting, evaluating, emphasizing, ignoring or celebrating aspects of their reading in ways completely informed by their unique personalities.

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In being privileged to sit with students as they negotiate various reading materials–involving both content that they “love” and self-selected as well as assigned reading–I’ve realized (again) how important literacy is to the formation of identity and biography.  I’ve often heard the statement “you are what you eat,” but I see how it becomes even more true that “you are what you read.” What I found particularly revealing were the presentations students made about their reading during the Retelling (here and here and here) and Book Minute sessions. In each case, the unique personalities of each little soul came shining through!


As a librarian, I live to connect people with the content that they seek. In whatever format, print, digital, audio, or video–my role is to help make the connections. In doing so, I have the privilege of helping to shape students’ personal reading biographies. I have come to realize (again) how it is my personal mission to help young people become who they are, in the most supportive and caring ways possible. Participating in authentic literacy activities is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job.