Jane is my student, and she loves stories. Jane loves movies, she loves narrative video games, she loves telling stories to friends, and hearing stories read aloud. But Jane struggles to write and read. She loves to experience stories but lacks some of the skills that make stories possible.
So I talk with other teachers and learn what works in math or history. I scaffold assignments with Jane and check in frequently. I use her interests to find relevant books and topics. Jane might not see herself as a reader and writer, but I believe in the growth mindset -- with the right strategies and lots of work, she can improve.
Until recently, I was like Jane, but with technology. I used tech tools all day with little knowledge of their workings. And, despite my interactions with Jane, I had a typical fixed-mindset explanation for this: "I'm an English teacher. My brain doesn't work that way." What I was really saying was, "I forget how to be a beginner."
A year ago, though, I became a beginner, an apprentice, a struggling learner. I decided to learn how to code.
Immediately, the experience became less about designing websites and more about experiencing the growth mindset, improving confidence with technology, and learning that failure is part of the process.
1. Ask for Help
Learning to code was a reminder of the need to ask for help. Teachers praise the growth mindset, recognizing the benefits for student learning. But how often do teachers live this philosophy by collaborating across grade levels or departments? Rarely. Teachers have our own fixed mindsets and are often reluctant to ask others about gaps in our knowledge.
My experience: In order to learn how to code, I started from zero. I quickly developed a strategy and list of resources. Instead of sticking to one course or book, I found multiple communities of coders who answered questions from beginners. I was able to fill gaps in my knowledge, but only by asking for help.
The takeaway: Teach students to visit multiple sources for filling gaps in their knowledge. Demonstrate reaching out to experts through Twitter. Facilitate peer feedback sessions, and have students consider multiple perspectives on their work. Asking for help is hard, but it's a priceless part of the learning process.
2. Confidence Through Failure
Learning to code helped me embrace failure and gain confidence with technology.
My experience: When learning to code, things get "broken." The app crashes. The web page won't load. No matter how broken things look, there's nearly always a solution (except for those few times when I scrapped everything and started from scratch).
The resources: Dive into something new like a blogging platform for students, try a backchannel discussion during class, or explore some of the fantastic (but somewhat complex to set up) Google add-ons from New Visions Cloud Lab.
The takeaway: Learning requires diving in head first without a fear of failure. Try a new tech tool to solve a problem, even if you're not totally comfortable using it. Invite students to help figure out how to use new apps or platforms, and when things break, consider it a challenge and not a catastrophe.
3. Keeping It Fun and Real
Learning to code reminds teachers what makes learning fun, challenging, and authentic.
My experience: Each week, I reflect on three questions in my notebook:
- What’s working?
- What's not working?
- What next?
As my coding skills increased, my goal became creating a blog app to use for these reflections. I stayed motivated because I had a project to complete.
The resources: I used One Month Rails to learn the web framework Ruby on Rails because their courses are project-based. If you have zero experience coding, start with one of the project-based courses on Codeacademy.
The takeaway: The process of learning to code reminded me of the importance of making school authentic. When students do or make something real, they stop focusing on their inabilities and start looking for answers to their questions.
Empathy and Growth
Though I approached this challenge hoping to learn a new set of computer skills, I came away with lessons about learning that I believe any teacher can gain by throwing him- or herself into something as a beginner.
It's been about a year since I started learning to code, and I'm not ready to build the next Twitter. However, the next time a student like Jane comes along, not only will I have a set of strategies to share, but I'll be able to say, "I know how you feel, believe me."