Recently I read an article about how video games like Minecraft motivate kids to read beyond their level and are therefore surrounded by a “culture of literacy.” It is not a new article and also not a new idea – at least one acquaintance has told me that, while their child reads class materials at a snail’s pace, they devour books and magazines if the topic is WWE wrestling.
Basically, when something is interesting to you, you learn it faster, more deeply, better. The difference is in the wanting. Motivation makes a huge difference. And that reminds me why I started writing and podcasting – because I wanted to learn how to do it, and I wanted to be part of the larger conversation. And I called it “Teacher Off Topic” because I am well aware that the things I find interesting often fall outside the classroom curriculum.
So today I attended a Code.org K-5 workshop. Thanks to quirks of timing and geography, it was a workshop located 137 miles from where I live and teach. Why would I go so far? Because I am genuinely interested in learning more about computer science, so that I am better able to teach about computer science. Interest and opportunity happily converged and I was able to attend. I feel like the young kid striving to read higher-level books about my favorite video game, for sure!
Firstly, I have done Hour of Code in the classroom before, but not since 2013. It has changed for the better since then. It is much easier to create and keep track of student accounts, and their materials have grown more robust and comprehensive for the early childhood set. Is the Teacher Dashboard completely perfect and intuitive? No. But the fact that it has improved over time I think indicates that those responsible for creating and maintaining those interfaces are trying to keep their users in mind. I haven’t fully explored the entirety of the website, largely because there is simply more there to explore. So while I hesitate to pass judgment on everything, I have good feelings about it.
So let’s talk about the workshop.
The price was right, because the price was free.
It was a reasonably fast-paced professional development. I have sometimes had professional development that feels like I’m being talked at and not to. This did not feel that way. It was well-paced, with variety built into the agenda. It helped that most of the other attendees I interacted with were game, even though I knew no other people going in. Most everyone had a positive attitude, was open-minded, and happy to be there despite the fact that it was Saturday and we had to put on pants.
Some of it was review for me, because I already had some experience with Hour of Code and Code.org. But, it was great to talk to other adults who were interested in it. There are others in my school district who are also interested in Hour of Code, and Code.org, but they are not in my building and I don’t get to work together with them very often. So it’s energizing to have that with other adults in a room together, willing and able to share their thoughts and reflections as well!
I think it’s important to mention that the basics, the absolute bricks-in-the-foundation of computer science, do not change over time. The capabilities of technology change – the speed, the size, the scope of technology grow and grow and grow. But the basics stay the same. So a lot of the material, particularly the unplugged material, will not become outdated or obsolete any time soon. They are also not hard for you to wrap your mind around. Many teachers I have met have a bit of a mental block about teaching computer science concepts, because they think they don’t know it, and if they don’t already know it, it might be difficult. It is not difficult at least at the early elementary (K-5) level. It is beautiful, sensical, logical, and wonderful. I would encourage every K-5 educator – from homeroom, to art and music, to gym, to intervention specialists, to administrators – to at least acquaint themselves with the basics on Code.Org. Try it! You can do it! I believe in you! But also I believe in the accessibility of the materials available online.
Some challenges I anticipate might be to make the curriculum more accessible to students with disabilities. Sure, the website pieces can be presented in a variety of ways – desktop, laptop, tablet, with whatever interface adjustments needed. But some of the unplugged materials might need tweaked or adapted before they are fully accessible to everyone. And while that will be a challenge, it’s a challenge that excites me, because that’s one of the goals of technology in education to begin with: to empower students. Period.
And that’s why I want to teach my students computer science: to empower them. They are the boss of the technology, not the other way around. Period.