A wonderful thing happened during the 2015-16 school year. Somehow, I managed to email my 3rd-5th grade teachers about Hour of Code and Code.org at the perfect time. Essentially, every one of my teachers was looking for “something” to do with their students. As a result, all students in grades 3-5, as well as our 6th and 7th graders, not only participated in coding activities during Computer Science Week, but also many of the students continued to work on Code.org activities throughout the school year — both as a part of their classes and on their own. Needless to say, I say thrilled, but I also knew that we had only begun to scratch the surface. Some haphazard activities age a long way from formally including computer programming and coding literacy as an integrated part of our entire K-8 curriculum. So, as I headed to ISTE 2016, one of the many things percolating in my brain was find a tangible hook to get my teachers excited about bringing coding and programming into their classrooms. Enter Jake Lee and his brilliant use of coding to teach content!
I honestly think I had a ridiculously good streak of luck when it came to selecting my ISTE activities. While I did pick a few knowing that the speakers were fantastic, for a vast majority of my sessions, I based my choices on descriptions and my gut. That is particularly true of my BYOD sessions because I chose them months earlier. Jake Lee’s session on coding was no exception. I entered hoping the session would give me a few ideas as to how I could get my teachers to embrace coding in their classrooms. Instead, Jake’s session provided the answer, essentially in its entirety, and he even provided an abundance of resources and curricular material between the session webpage and his iTunes U course that explores classroom coding in even greater detail. It was stunning to realize both the magnitude of Jake’s generosity and the simplicity of his solution.
Although Jake certainly does “teach” coding to his first graders, his deeper purpose is providing them the coding skills so they can enhance and engage in their own learning. The coding becomes the vehicle through which they engage in other content, not to mention the problem solving, organizational skills, collaboration, design elements, and decision-making that are inherent in the process of coding. Jake begins his coding instruction in an analog state. First, he has his students play Robot Turtles, a wonderful board game created with fundamental coding skills in mind and funded by Kickstarter. The next stage is also “analog” in that it does not require a device or computer, but it does involve a robot — Bee-Bot — on which the the students directly enter graphic commands to program it. As it becomes clear that the students understand the fundamentals of programming and the pre-planning required to create an accurate program, he moves them into a digital environment. First, they use apps like Scratch, Jr which allows the students to create actual programs using on graphic commands. It is also at this point that Jake transitions from “learning to code” to “coding to learn.” After the initial introduction to Scratch, Jr, Jake’s coding activities always have a purpose to them. While coding is fun, students can get stuck there, and Jake wants his students to realize the wide array of things students can do with their code. He has them create introductions about themselves and presentations about other content areas. He has even allowed his first graders to create an app designed to help the Kindergarteners next store recognize sums of five. By coding to all areas of content, Jake makes the material not only integrated, but also provides authentic “literacy” in coding and its process of creation.
The final step in Jake’s classroom is the introduction of full-blown robots — Jake uses Dash from Wonder Workshop. Not only is Dash durable and resilient, but also all of the apps from Wonder Workshop are free, intuitively designed, and logically build upon each mastered skill. It is with Dash that Jake’s “coding to learn” approach blossoms completely. Once the students master the basics of programming Dash and maneuvering the robot through a maze, Jake turns them lose, both to take on lessons he has created (like “Silly Sentences” where Dash must select a noun, a verb, and an adjective to make some wonderfully bizarre statements — Jake’s students are also responsible for generating the word cards) to activities of their own design that always incorporate other content (Jake and his students created their own robot-based addition game called Capture the Kingdom, and his students programmed Dash to do a bee pollination, “waggle” dance). Throughout our session, Jake continued to underscore, especially with Dash, that the purpose of all of his activities was NOT for his first graders to learn beautiful, elegant coding (he repeatedly described the actual coding for the “waggle” dance as frightening), but instead for them to be empowered by their ability to code so that they are actively engaged in the own education across all content areas.
I left Jake’s BYOD session electrified by the possibilities his insights opened for me. And, in the subsequent days, my enthusiasm has only grown. While I am still plotting how my school will find the funds for at least a few different “robot” options and scheming how I will introduce the coding possibilities to my teachers without overwhelming them, I am overjoyed that I have a clear picture of how to bring coding into my classrooms without disrupting the existing curricular activities. Rather than trying to replace what is already happening, or asking teachers to squeezing in “one more thing,” my focus will be getting teachers to link coding to existing learning and activities. I am wise enough to know that even that will result in growing pains and periods of frustration, but it is a much smoother road than the one I had been conceiving that would have put coding at odds with other grade level content. Best of all, I have a plethora of resources from Jake Lee and tangible, viewable evidence that using code to learning not only works, but that it actually allows students to thrive and to be far more invested in their own learning. And, even if I can not find the funds for Bee-Bot, or Dash, or Ozobots, or Sphero, or any other robot, the fact is that unplugged/analog activities like Robot Turtles and apps like Scratch, Jr will still allow my teachers to bring coding into their classrooms and to use those things as tools to facilitate their content areas. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant! It is easy to see why Jake was selected as an Apple Distinuished Educator and why he is sch a fantastic teacher. I extend a huge Mahalo! to him, and I look forward to the adventure ahead of me!