Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Have an hour to fill with your students?

Something amazing is happening at my school right now: the kids are all abuzz over - WAIT FOR IT - the prospect of a computer science class next year! I mean, yes, there is also talk of prom and all other aspects of teendom, but for the past few weeks there has also been a tangible excitement over coding.

It started when my school decided to hold an "Academic Festival" - one day when we were encouraged to deviate from our curriculum, throw guided practice to the wind, and teach something that we are passionate about. I decided on a one-hour introduction to programming, which was really a thinly disguised pitch for the computer science course we'll be offering for the first time next year. I had my students warm up with a Do Now asking them to identify some of the many ways they rely on coding in their everyday lives, without even realizing it. I used this PowerPoint as a basis for our discussion, which led into this (now semi-viral) video put out by, and finally some live coding in Python (the Word Smoosher was a big hit). The anxiety I felt prior to this lesson can only be compared to the anxiety I felt nearly every day when I taught in a project-based environment: What if the kids don't find programming interesting? What if the lesson is a flop? What if we speed through the PowerPoint in two minutes flat and they have NO questions and they fall asleep during the live coding???

Of course, that did not happen - not because of anything special I did, but because my students had never before been exposed to the world of coding. In fact, I had to pinch myself at one point, when I announced to one group that there would be a coding class next year and they actually - no exaggeration - cheered wildly. "Okay," I thought. "They're really into it now. But they've never actually tried coding. What if they find it boring/frustrating/uninteresting?" 

I thought I'd have to wait until next fall to get that question answered, but just a couple of days ago North Star was lucky enough to be paid a visit by Jeremy Keeshin, cofounder of Thirty-two (out of 74) juniors from across the academic spectrum signed up for an after-school workshop that Jeremy ran to introduce students to some of the basics of coding as well as the terrific online platform for learning coding that he has developed. The program is such that students are able to watch short tutorial videos and work on challenges at their own pace, and Jeremy and I mainly circulated to help students troubleshoot -- what a great model for true differentiated instruction in computer science! In less than an hour, kids were already getting at some pretty big concepts softened only by the cuteness of Karel the Dog and the entertaining challenge names (Mario Karel!): "How can I teach the dog to turn right using ONLY turnLeft() commands?" "What if I want to make Karel move over and over - is there an easy way to do that?" 

When it comes down to it, what I'm feeling right now is probably what every teacher feels at some point - the magical epiphany that "A few weeks ago, my students didn't know [what programming was], and now they're [running home to work on coding challenges] and [saying that they want to study computer science in college]." 

They say that what we do every day changes lives, but some days that just feels especially true. 


  1. WOOOOHOOOOO!!!!!!!!!! I always knew you were a great teacher Allison, but this is great. Also, I think that learning to program in high school (and manage linux computers and emacs and the like) is important for success in CS classes in college. I would have quit the only programming class I ever took but for a friend who literally sat with me while I did the first assignment. I think that if I started college knowing how to program my life would be different right now. (Not that I have any complaints cause things are pretty good.)

  2. Fantastic, glad to hear it! The students' reaction is unsurprising because CS is a very creative act and once students see past the stereotypes they see how empowering it is.

    Glad to hear things are still going well and as inspiring as ever. Keep up the great work and thanks for sharing, I always enjoy hearing about your class/school.

  3. That sounds incredibly satisfying and lots of fun. I was just wondering if you could tell us more about the Academic Festival idea as a whole. I think it sounds great, and I started talking to some colleagues about the concept, but I'd love to know more about what happened and how it was organised, if you have the time to explain it.

    1. Tanith, I'm sorry for not replying sooner! The academic festival coincided with a poetry festival that my school has been having for a couple of years now, where outside poets come in and do readings, workshops, etc. All English classes went to poetry readings, and then in other classes teachers had the option to a lesson on really whatever they wanted, in whatever format they wanted. I did programming with all the 11th grade math students; other teachers did lessons on psychology, heat transfer (the physics teacher did a demo with molten chocolate cakes), the politics of the Olympics in a history class, an art history lesson in a history class, etc. In addition to being fun for the teachers and students, another purpose was to give our kids a taste of what college can be like (although they were not able to choose their classes, which would be a cool way to make the day more college-like in the future). Hope that helps! Let me know if you have more questions.

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