Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Adventures in coding

When I set out to support a Grade 1, 2, 3 class with the Coding Trek program, I had no idea where my path would lead. It turned out to be a world with few limits, flexible spaces, cooperation and accomplishments!
This fit in nicely with the existing classroom culture of strong collaboration, celebration of success, and sharing of ideas.
I really grew to appreciate the Coding Trek program for the way it set out the steps in our learning process. Having registered as a teacher, I had access to several weeks – or months -  of activities, accompanied by explanatory slide decks and brief video tutorials. At this particular school, I was with the class from 11:15 a.m. to about 1:00 p.m. for three consecutive days.
We were all newcomers to Scratch Jr, the platform for Coding Trek, and we each had our own iPad to work on.
I was amazed at how easily the children took to Scratch Jr and were able to follow the colour-coded menus. On the first day, we explored most of the basic tools, talked about the green flag, and made a variety of personal projects. In some cases, we had to configure the camera or microphone on a device, but this all worked out. Did you know you could use the camera to place a photo inside the outline of a sprite?
We saw that many of the students were deeply engaged with simply adding sprites, drawing, taking photos etc., using the stage as a canvas instead of creating actions and interactions, so we challenged them to add some movement before the end of the class. They all decided that they had had so much fun that I should come back for Day 2.
We began the follow morning with a Coding Trek “coding unplugged” activity. The teacher was a willing demo robot! Then the students were partnered up to work on this activity for 15 minutes or so, one Robot and one Controller, and then switching roles. Given the age range of the students it was interesting to see how this spatial activity reinforced counting, directionality, and estimation.
Next, we moved through 10 Coding Trek challenges. These were designed to review the tools they had learned the previous day. We were more methodical, asking for a “thumbs up” before moving to the next activity, to ensure that all the students had the same understanding of the basics.
The day finished with some free time to work on personal projects – by request!
On both Day 1 and 2 it was great to see these young children using tech tools with ease, tools that I am often directly teaching to older students and adults. They often asked to Airplay their device to show their work or answer a question. Without asking for help, they used Siri to enter text onto their screens. They seemed to intuitively know what they could type for themselves and what they should dictate.
I was very apprehensive about Day 3 due to the fact that the next Challenges all involved implementing multiple tools in multi-step processes. The next few activities were interchangeable in terms of level of difficulty, so I consulted the teacher as to whether she would prefer a literacy or math focus. We went with math.
Day 3 we would make Mental Math Machines!
I looked over the Coding Trek materials and played the demo video in advance. It used speech bubbles to pop up and display the math question and three or four possible answers. I decided that if I were playing this game, I would want the questions and answers to stay on the screen and not just flash. So, I made a second version of the game with text boxes. The popups were still used for response messages such as “Great answer” or “Try again.”
This enabled me to show the students both versions, talk about the fact that in technology there are always multiple ways to accomplish something, and that they are all usually correct.
Before starting to make their Mental Math Games, the students were given very few instructions. The main tool that was taught on Day 3 was the red icon to add a new screen.
Much to my surprise, there were very few expressions of frustration. They all simply got busy and either succeeded on their own or asked for help as they would in any other class.
They also devised new adaptations, such as the youngster who discovered that with the keyboard on, emojis could be added into Scratch Jr. So, a new, more visual question became: how many burgers are there?
Students surprised me in many ways.
One child seemed to really take to coding and was having great success. I thought perhaps he was a grade 2 student. In conversation with the teacher I learned that a week prior he had celebrated his sixth birthday.
I approached the teacher to mention another student who was completely at ease with not only using Scratch Jr, but discovering new ways to use the tools. It turns out that that child is not usually academically successful.

As well we both were very interested and impressed with the language that the students used to communicate with each other, ask questions, offer advice and describe their projects. For example, by Day 2 they often referred to the narrative line or action screens of their game in “story” terms.
Finally, after three mornings of learning, it was time to take a break. The teacher brought up a favourite winter-themed dance video, with some animated Santas. They all hopped up and got ready to try out their best moves. First, though, one student took a good look at the screen, turned to me and said, “Wow, that’s a lot of coding to make that video.”
The teacher and I were thrilled that this connection had been made, and the student was asked to share her comment with the class – and I got to chime in that the person who made the video did it as their job.

By this time, all the students had a very thoughtful look on their face, as they thought about the possibilities of a job in computer programming.

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