The change happened on the first day of school in 2014. Students walked into their computer labs that day without knowing that their special area technology class would never be the same. They came to learn that we replaced their old lessons with coding curriculum. The students grew ecstatic at the prospect of creating, designing, making, and exploring with tools they had never used before. As educators, we tried to remove all boundaries and create an unlimited learning environment. One 6th grade student proudly stated that “with code I could create games and programs to cure cancer.”
As the year progressed, some students became disillusioned as they realized that coding is hard work. Our educators encouraged and pushed their pupils like coaches on the sideline during a playoff game. The children learned true grit and gained critical thinking skills. At the end of the school year, a 4th grade student decided that, “I would like to keep on coding because it can help you a lot in your lifetime. It can help me in collage [sic].” Statements like these are even more profound when one considers our demographics. All schools in the district are Title 1 with an average of 86% free and reduced lunch.
After reflecting on the last year of teaching all 5,500 students the basics of computer programming, there are four keys factors that can be attributed to our success.
Key Factors for Success
1. Agile Teachers
Much of our ability to gain traction in the beginning of the year was due to the willingness and ability for our teachers to immediately start with a completely new curriculum. Normally, school districts take months to prepare and rollout new ELA, Science, or Math curriculum adoptions. Rarely do schools start teaching an entirely new subject area. As we began teaching computer programming we felt like we were flying the plane while building it. Despite this, however, the Coding classes were up and running within the first few weeks of the start of school. The Coding teachers spent the rest of the year actively growing their professional skills and content knowledge. Teachers worked alongside students on Code.org and Khan Academy lessons to learn the basic principles of computer programming. When teachers lacked the knowledge to answer student questions, they asked the students to figure it out, then come back and teach them. The Coding teachers of the Avondale Elementary School District did a phenomenal job of learning and teaching a curriculum and subject matter that was new to them.
2. Community Involvement
When we started our coding classes, we realized that many people still thought of programmers as boy nerds who wore thick glasses and sat alone in dark rooms because they lack social skills. We knew that for our initiative to be success, we had to show the public that anyone can learn how to code. Therefore, we launched a number of projects to change the zeitgeist. We started by talking about the merits of learning computer programming at every meeting we could. This included presenting to the District’s Governing Board. A major way we involved the community was by hosting an 'Hour of Code' during Computer Science Week. During the week, all AESD staff members (from cafeteria workers to administrators) were challenged to complete an hour of coding activity provided by Code.org or other affiliates. By the end of the week, 66% of all AESD employees completed the goal. Many employees actually spent multiple hours coding and thoroughly enjoyed the time they spent experiencing our students’ curriculum. We also hosted a community event where we invited parents and leaders to learn from our students how to write their first program. Hundreds of people, including our city’s Mayor, attended and the event was a huge success.
3. Free and Easily Accessible Curriculum
Another key to our success was the fact that we obtained all of our coding curriculum for free. The Coding teachers also received free professional development training from a Code.org affiliate. The free curriculum and resources we used were from Code.org, Khan Academy, and Scratch. These non-profit and educational organizations made it possible for us to lower the barrier to entry and immediately implement a complete change in curriculum without the red tape budgets often present. Despite the fact that these resources are free, the quality is extremely high. Code.org has video tutorials featuring well known programmers like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Susan Wojcicki. This does not mean that we will not continue to search out the best resources for our students. Our goal as we move forward is to continue to provide our students the best chance for successfully learning computer programming.
4. Weekly Professional Development
The last major contributing factor to our success was the amount of professional development offered to our Coding educators. The educators attended a weekly PD meeting on Wednesday afternoons. Each meeting was 70 minutes long. Teachers were taught strategies to improve their instruction, classroom culture, student strategies, assessments, and more. Teachers also gathered every other week for a District Content Collaboration immediately following the Cluster meeting. This hour was spent collaborating on projects, strengthening content knowledge, and working through glitches. The Coding teachers never left when the meeting was adjourned, they always stayed for hours to continue their learning and strengthen each other. It was also valuable to have a position dedicated to mentoring and guiding this special group of teachers. The Technology Teacher on Special Assignment used previous experience in teaching coding to primary-aged students and a strong content knowledge to augment the classroom skills possessed by the Coding teachers. Having weekly professional development and a guide helped the Coding teachers continue progressing throughout the year.
Our mission is to make the Avondale Elementary School District the preferred destination for the students of our community by providing the outstanding educational opportunity of learning computer programming in all grade levels. We expect our students to be more prepared for college and their careers because of our coding classes. Our intentions were not to churn out a generation of future programmers, but to enrich our students’ lives with 21st Century skills.
Despite our intentions, a surprisingly high percentage of students responded in a survey that they would like to keep coding when they grow up (53% Yes, 39% No, 8% Maybe). Many students realized that they would want these skills for their job even if they are not planning on becoming a computer engineer. For example, one of our 7th grade students responded to the question with a typical middle school tone, “I want to be an astrophysicist on a rover team. So, ya.” While another 6th grade student excitedly responded that “I would like to use coding for CAD in the fashion industry and have it as apart of my skills in job history.” This 7th grade student recognized how the course is great training for their future, “I would like to keep coding when I grow up because it'll help me concentrate and it can help me in my life.” There were also students who responded that they want to become computer programmers. This 7th grade student responded, “One of the things I'm thinking of doing when I grow up is game development, and as you probably know, coding is an important part of that.”
It is abundantly clear to the students, parents, and educators, of the Avondale Elementary School District that the initiative to teach all students computer programming has launched with great success. There is no doubt about the future success of this program.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.