Reflections on Hour of Code 2015

Today was our last day of school before winter break, which is a great time to reflect on Hour of Code… because it took us this long to “finish” with it. (“Finish” is in quotation marks for a reason!)
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Things I did that I will do again:

  • We did the Hour of Code during regular scheduled computer lab times. Every class in the school comes to the computer lab once a week for a lesson with me. These classes are forty to fifty minutes long, depending how long transitions take. I never thought I would cram in the Hour of Code in one week, because I planned on it taking at least two class periods per class. Because of other December scheduling conflicts (singing practices for our holiday music program, standardized testing), it actually took most classes three weeks to get a full sixty minutes of coding in.
  • I created accounts for every student that matched the usernames they use for school email addresses. But, I had them use “secret pictures” instead of their usual passwords.
  • I linked to the Hour of Code login sites from our school website. I showed them how to get to the website from our school website.
  • I had planned on doing the Hour of Code since August, so I started working in important words, phrases, and concepts subtly. For example, working in “if statements” during games of Simon Says when we’re filling five minutes in the cafeteria. Or dressing up as Admiral Grace Hopper for Halloween and telling them that debugging story about the moth!
  • Students had some technology free time in the last week of school before break (on classroom Chromebooks, not during computer lab time). Many chose to continue Hour of Code and remembered how get there! I was thrilled and proud and it was probably the best way for other teachers to see and understand what Hour of Code was about. Many students also did Hour of Code at home, or at the public library, and asked if they could do it over break. So… that’s why “finish” was in quotation marks. Because many of these kids are not done! Let’s see whether I can keep this momentum going in 2016.

Things I will do differently:

  • I will send a letter home to parents explaining Hour of Code to them.
    • That letter can also include directions on how to access Code.org accounts from home, and on different devices, in case parents want to check it out for themselves, or students want to extend their learning independently.
    • Similarly, I will better communicate about Hour of Code to other teachers at school.
  • I will make student accounts AND subdivide them into smaller groups so that they are easier to distribute (and for students to find on a page).
  • Not every kid went back and found errors in their program when they made mistakes. They just clicked-and-dragged the entire thing into the trashcan. That was frustrating because it was often just the more recent steps that were off, and the first steps were fine. We learned the phrase, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!” But even though I knew this was happening, I am sure it was still happening all over the place, despite my best efforts to prevent it. So I will try to anticipate that happening next year, I’m just not sure how yet.

Things that were just plain awesome, and not because of me:

  • Minecraft was a huge draw. Not only did it draw in kids who already play Minecraft, it drew in kids who had never played it but know it is popular with their peers.
  • Star Wars and Frozen also provided pull for kids, even though I did not start them on those tutorials. I simply told them they existed, and they were welcome to try after doing the Minecraft version first. Some kids worked really hard to get to code characters they already knew and loved. The Star Wars tutorial was a cakewalk to kids who had finished the Minecraft one, too, and they breezed through it even though the content was slightly different. They felt like geniuses.12065592241647756196mystica_LightSaber_(Fantasy)_2.svg.med
  • Actually, yeah, many kids felt like geniuses. A lot of the kids who understood the material quickly were not the same kids who succeed academically with little effort; they were very excited because they could see evidence that they were learning, and feedback was immediate. I remember being frustrated with math as a kid, because when I got a wrong answer, I couldn’t tell it was the wrong answer — I thought it was right until someone told me I was wrong. I could get entire pages of math problems wrong before a teacher realized. With Code.org, you can run your program right away — and it either does what you want it to, or it doesn’t. You know instantly whether you’ve solved it correctly, and if you haven’t, you have the opportunity to fix it before moving on. You can learn so, so much from your mistakes, but only when you know you’re making them! So the immediate feedback is a huge thing, I think.

Overall, I really liked it, and I hope to keep using coding and programming in my classroom this school year and next.

Code.Org K-5 Workshop

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.