The What and Why
Coding. The foundational process by which our digital world of apps, websites and operating systems is built. The demand for professionals who can code is increasing exponentially year over year, even while most schools simply do not teach coding, let alone introduce it. Beyond future employability, there are a host of other reasons why schools should be moving coding into the classroom. A 2013 Forbes article called "Teach Kids How To Code And You Give Them A Skill For Life" by Nick Morrison summarizes the need for coding instruction in schools quite nicely.
"...Teaching coding is about much more than helping children understand the technology they are using, important though that is... At a basic level, it improves problem-solving and thinking skills, and having digital skills will improve their chances of being employed in the future....It also has the potential to bring about a fundamental shift in the way we view technology, turning us from passive consumers into active producers... There is a massive difference between consuming content and being able to create it... It is important to have agency over the tools you are using."
So, great, coding is valuable and may have a place in my classroom. I think I should be doing it, but I have no idea how or where to get started. I don't know anything about coding myself. How can I expect to teach it to my students? And isn't early elementary a little early to start?
Leaping Before Looking
In April, after months of dealing with extensive water damage in my home, I realized that my opportunity to introduce my students to coding this school year was disappearing quickly. Because our math curriculum is quite "light" in the final quarter of the year, I thought it best to devote two 20 minute slots for coding throughout the month of May. Before I could come up with another reason why I didn't have time or couldn't pull this off before the end of the year, I downloaded Lightbot:Code Hour and Scratch Jr. to all of the Kindles during a break and had my kids jump into Lightbot before I could change my mind. I had toyed with Lightbot earlier in the year and remembered that the first level was very basic and that they built in complexity from there. So, in pairs, my students jumped into coding. I figured, if it didn't work, I'd try Scratch Jr. next. If that fell through, I could at least say I gave it a shot and build on it next year.
The Nuts and Bolts: Using Lightbot and Scratch
Lightbot: Code Hour is a great FREE introduction to coding. Students draft collections of commands for a little "lightbot" to perform. It is very intuitive and builds in complexity the further you proceed into the game. This is a great way to dip your toes into coding in the classroom. If your students really enjoy this game, there are more Lightbot apps they can purchase for their devices at home. These include Lightbot Jr: Coding Puzzles for Ages 4+, Lightbot Jr: Coding Puzzles and Lightbot : Programming Puzzles. For further information check out this review at Common Sense Media.
Teacher Tips: Don't tell your students how to do anything. That is what their brains and buddies are for. If they have a question about what to do, ask them what they have tried and who they have asked for help. Remind them that failure is a stepping stone, not a stop sign. Keep your hands off of their devices. Here are some pointers for each level in the app:
Scratch Jr. is a conceptual step above Lightbot. Where Lightbot gave very specific tasks, Scratch is a playground where students can choose their own adventure and program objects to move, change size, change color, make noises and much more. I see this variety is both a strength and a weakness. There are a lot of fun things that kids can accomplish, but it's also easy for students to get distracted and to jump from one thing to the next. Nevertheless, we had a great time with it. We just spent two or three class periods using Scratch Jr.. I hope to go deeper in the year ahead. For further information check out a review at Common Sense Media.
Teacher Tips: While you could have the kids just jump in, I think a more orderly entry may be called for. There are great printouts with fun self-directed activities for students as well as scripted teacher lesson plans. I printed out packets for each pair of students and let them decide what they wanted to do. For more ideas or "Starter Projects" as they call them, click here. There is also an awesome Scratch for Educators section of their site that I highly recommend checking out. Just as with above, resist the temptation to solve problems for your students. Remind them to follow directions carefully and to work together to find a solution.
There are endless amounts of apps, programs and curriculum for teaching coding out there. Of all of the things I have seen, the best stuff is being published by Hour of Code and Code.org. Looking into the next year, I think I'd like to run a similar coding program in the spring, but will start the week after returning from spring break. This will lengthen the overall coding "unit" from 4 weeks to about 7 weeks. I will continue to use Lightbot:Code Hour and Scratch Jr., but hope to use more of the other Hour of Code and Code.org activities out there. I know I will for sure use the Angry Birds or Star Wars activities. I still need to find some time to discern whether these will work on Kindles, or whether I will need to use the iPad cart or computer lab at our school. I'll continue looking for a variety of quality, easy to use, free programming that will peak student interest in coding. Then, perhaps later this spring, I'll share what I've found.
It's worth pointing out that this unit will not create master coders. This is all about exposure to a new language, a new process, a new and important way of thinking. The true measure of the success of this program will be found in student engagement and intrigue. I hope to open a door to something new and light a spark of excitement for coding that will extend into the future. I'd love to have other educators join me.
As always, if you have any ideas or successes you have to share or questions about the items above, please ask in the comments section below. For many more free coding ideas for kids Pre-K through College, visit Hour of Code and Code.org.
Special thanks to Juan Carlos Velasquez for finding and sharing the Code Studio Star Wars activity.
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