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:

http://scratch.mit.edu/projects/19456206/

http://scratch.mit.edu/projects/19520328/