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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Last year at this time, I was trying not to think about kindergarteners. I was still teaching ninth grade English and had just accepted a job teaching technology to K-5. I was excited about the challenge, and I knew that I'd bitten off more than I could chew.

Developing the tech curriculum challenged me to teach programming or at least computational thinking at each elementary grade level. Our school is mid-pivot in technology -- we're in our second year of a middle school 1:2 iPad program, our first year of having a cart of iPads available for elementary, and our last year of two PC labs for the students to use (next year we'll have only one lab). Knowing this, I wanted to design a program that mostly used tablet-based tools.

Challenges and Resources

I was really excited when I was introduced to the apps Daisy the Dinosaur and Hopscotch. Both use visual blocks to represent commands. This approach to syntax is physical, like puzzle pieces. The commands fit together if they work together and are grouped into color-coded families. These features are great for kids. Color helps them navigate, and the physical syntax guides them toward success. From a teacher perspective, it's much easier to find errors in this physical syntax. (I don't know how many missing semicolons I could find in a class period.)

With these apps, I was confident that I had a good entry point for grades 1 and 2. Working with a kindergartner during coding club, I asked her to find the block that ended with the word "up." Now, in my defense, I thought chances were pretty good that she'd know such a likely sight word. She was incredulous. "I can't read!" So here was my challenge: can I teach programming to students who do not yet read? Of course, I looked beyond this challenge to see the next: can I use programming to support and deliver literacy instruction?

I'm happy to report that, my own surprise, the first challenge has been met. There are many ways to get pre-reading students to engage in meaningful coding challenges that develop computational thinking. My short list includes Kodable, LEGO MINDSTORMS Fix the Factory, and Bee Bots. With Tynker and the planned release of Scratch Jr, it seems like there are new platforms to support young coding all the time. As a critical and reflective teacher, I know that any of these tools is only as good as the lesson it supports.

As a push-in tech teacher, I work closely with the classroom teachers to create lessons that dovetail with and support their lessons. Real-world programming with students or with robots can create great opportunities for content integration. My first graders program a robot to fly to the planets in order (see the video below). I use the content as the surface on which the robot operates. This format also creates social learning opportunities. Since it's challenging for a group of six students to work on a robot, I plan for four to a robot. So in many ways technology class is a communication workshop and a crash course in ninja-level sharing. I am grateful that my teachers stay to help me out. We often have three adults in the room with 24 kids and six robots.

Practical Tips for the Early Grades

Elements of Programming That Support Pre-Readers

  1. Sequence
  2. The concept of code (written language)
  3. Cause and effect
  4. Counting
  5. Planning
  6. Left-to-right reading
  7. Problem solving

How Programming Supports Social Learning

I was looking for standards about social and emotional learning, but they are not nearly so common as other standards. My school values social and emotional growth, and it's an important part of all classes, tech included. If you've never handed out devices to students, you may not know the almost universal body language of pulling the device close in and turning away from other students.

The Power of Pairs

Until my students really understand an app, I like to have them share an iPad. We always have to discuss how to talk to your partner about sharing and offering help. I really appreciate my classroom teachers' knowledge of the students at this point and ask them to pair the kids up. While it's hard to share devices like this, I see a real learning benefit. Most students will stay tuned in to what their partner is doing while waiting for their turn. As they watch, they mentally rehearse and problem solve, building their understanding for their next turn.

When we program robots, we work in groups of four students per robot. This can be challenging and a little chaotic, which is why we take the time to model and rehearse some group communication skills and sentence stems. When we give each student a specific role (programmer, input engineer, debugger, recorder), some of the students are more successful. In these roles, the programmer is in charge of writing the program. To do this, she lays out the programming command cards left to right. The input engineer presses the buttons on the robot to input the program from the cards. The debugger watches the robot execute the program to check for errors or locate any mistakes in the program.

From Pairs to Parallel Play

The first time we explore an app, we do so in pairs, but once the students seem comfortable with it, we graduate them to working individually. One delightful surprise this year was students asking if they could move their chairs together to work side-by-side even though they had their own iPads.

Keeping Learning at the Center

One challenge of programming with robots and apps is that they are designed to look like toys and games. My goal is to structure an interaction that's thoughtful enough for students to build their understanding of programming and robotics. With the robots we have, you program directly onto the robot using the buttons on the top. I ask my students to use command cards to plan out their programs. The students want to physically steer the bot around and input commands as needed. "But I can do all that in my head," they object. Without a physical record of the commands, there is no way to debug, edit, or even audit the program as it runs. In this case, the cards are the critical difference between learning and play.

To App or to Bot, That Is the Question

Whether it is nobler in the mind to work in groups or alone, to take to desks or abandon them into a sea of learning, these are the choices that wake teachers up at night. When bringing programming to young students, should you use an app or a robot? This decision might be based on what you have available to your class. In a tablet-rich environment, it makes sense to focus on apps, but if you're going to buy some tech, which will give you the most return? Here's a quick side-by-side. I like Kodable because it's another great learning resource on my iPad cart. I like the Bee Bots, as I can make some great connections to content.

Kodable Pro Bee Bots
Structured interaction Strong content integration
Built-in tutorials Stand-alone unit, no device needed
Graduating complexity Limited complexity
Isolated from class content Simple interface
Cost per unit: $6.99 per license (up to 10 units) Cost per unit: $90.00

The Bee Bots could be shared effectively between several classes. A good lesson with the robots requires a good deal of prep. This can mean laminating goal cards, creating command cards, building maps for the bots to navigate, and even downloading custom jackets to turn the bees into rockets when needed. You can find materials for this at Primary Treasure Chest.

If you've taught coding to early elementary grades, please tell us about it.

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Comments (12)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

database's picture

You can play with 1-4 kids (plus one older person to make the mazes). So far I've only played it with my daughter.

Sam Patterson's picture
Sam Patterson
K-5 Technology integration Specialist
Blogger

I could see that working well as a "station" for a coding rotation, some are on ipads, some with robots, some with the Robot Turtle game. It is challenging to get enough of any one tool to get all the kids doing the same thing, but setting up stations allows you to pilot some resources without a heavy finanical commitment.

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Terri Eichholz's picture

Robot Turtles does work well as a station. You can also get more students involved than 4 if you have them play in teams. With one person as the "Turtle Mover" and partners for each of the 4 turtles, you can get 9 people playing at a time. In fact, I really liked them working with partners because there was a lot of discussion about strategies. Here is one of my articles on using it in the classroom: http://engagetheirminds.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/the-return-of-robot-tur...

Bon Crowder's picture
Bon Crowder
Math Mom & Education Advocate

I've been using a bee bot in my classroom of students with neurological differences this summer. They range vastly in abilities so I let some program in "real time" - moving the bee and punching the arrows. And others I challenge with using a tiny Lego dude on a mini version of our 4x4 grid. They have to move the guy and write down the code as they go. I've used stickie notes instead of code cards, but I'll make some cards on Monday! The good thing about stickie notes is that when you debug, you can replace one color with another to see where things went awry. So perhaps I'll make some "debug" code cards for this of a different color.

We are now at the point where we are "programming" the shapes of letters so we can send simple secret messages to other classes. One student programmed a beebot version in scratch so other classes could decide more easily (especially since we have only one bee in the whole school). You can check that out at www.tinyurl.com/KaiBeeBot (one student named the bee "Kai")

Thanks so much for sharing these ideas. I can't wait to try more!

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Sicomac CoderDojo's picture
Sicomac CoderDojo
Official CoderDojo of Wyckoff Public Schools

Great info, Sam. Thanks. Our kindergarteners love Kodeable Pro, which we have used in our tech classes as well as in our weekend CoderDojo sessions.

Mary's picture

Our school recommends two iPad/iPhone apps, Smart toddler puzzles Pro ++ and Smart toddler school which help kids prior to first grade. These apps helped our school kids to learn faster in fun and relaxed way. Being a teacher and from my experience in teaching kids, I personally suggest these apps for kids.

Sam Patterson's picture
Sam Patterson
K-5 Technology integration Specialist
Blogger

Look for the Kodabale Class upgrade from Pro!

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia
Facilitator

Just have to join in the support for Kodable - great fun!

Bon Crowder's picture
Bon Crowder
Math Mom & Education Advocate

I've been using a bee bot in my classroom of students with neurological differences this summer. They range vastly in abilities so I let some program in "real time" - moving the bee and punching the arrows. And others I challenge with using a tiny Lego dude on a mini version of our 4x4 grid. They have to move the guy and write down the code as they go. I've used stickie notes instead of code cards, but I'll make some cards on Monday! The good thing about stickie notes is that when you debug, you can replace one color with another to see where things went awry. So perhaps I'll make some "debug" code cards for this of a different color.

We are now at the point where we are "programming" the shapes of letters so we can send simple secret messages to other classes. One student programmed a beebot version in scratch so other classes could decide more easily (especially since we have only one bee in the whole school). You can check that out at www.tinyurl.com/KaiBeeBot (one student named the bee "Kai")

Thanks so much for sharing these ideas. I can't wait to try more!

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Sam Patterson's picture
Sam Patterson
K-5 Technology integration Specialist
Blogger

I could see that working well as a "station" for a coding rotation, some are on ipads, some with robots, some with the Robot Turtle game. It is challenging to get enough of any one tool to get all the kids doing the same thing, but setting up stations allows you to pilot some resources without a heavy finanical commitment.

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database's picture

Thanks for all the resources. One offline resource that my 5-year-old daughter and I have really enjoyed is the board game Robot Turtles. It involves many of the programming elements outlined above and is a refreshing break from the screen. Might not work in a classroom, but it's definitely worth looking into for home. http://robotturtles.com

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Sam Patterson's picture
Sam Patterson
K-5 Technology integration Specialist
Blogger

I like Robot turtles. The legacy of Logo runs deep through the coding tools for younger students. Thanks for sharing this great resource! How many players does the game involve?

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