"For truly creative people there is no box"-Yong Zhao
A few weeks back I attended and presented at the EARCOS Teachers Conference in Bangkok. For me EARCOS was a bit like completing a puzzle. There were lots of independent pieces of information that I took in from conversations and presentations with Hamish Clark, Wendy Smith, Brian Smith and Yong Zhao. With each interaction I began to get a clearer picture of what this all meant to me. My big takeaways were
* Kids need opportunities to design
* Coding is a creative outlet
I once heard a children's author explain, "I have the best job in the world. I get to write and create whatever I imagine. That is much more exciting than just reading what someone else wrote." What I have come to realize is that sentiment is true anytime we create. Letting students create gives them ownership of their thinking.
Yong Zhao explained, "If you create a product you have a purpose. Learning should serve a genuine purpose. Students take more responsibility. Students get into the habit of trying to become great. You want children to
learn that they can become great through effort." I have seen this in my students when they create something in Scratch or when they create websites with HTML and CSS. I don't have to design lessons for them. They figure out what they need to learn in order to accomplish their task. I end up becoming more of a learning coach and less of the holder of knowledge.
Hamish Clark who attended my workshop spoke to me and explained that the crux of what I am doing with my kids is not teaching them to code, it is giving them a vehicle to be creative. I had never thought
about that before but he was exactly right. The reason I have come to love teaching coding is not because I enjoy coding, it is because I love the possibilities it gives my students. It takes the box of a pre-made app or program away and lets students be the creators.
I got to experience what it is like to be a creator when I attended Brian and Wendy Smith's "Young Makers" workshop. They had tables set up throughout the room and on each table was a challenge. I got to make a robot toothbrush. During that experience I learned that creating while highly engaging is also challenging and it is in that challenging moment that true learning happens. While I was challenged I had to rethink my design, I had to problem solve on how I could get the pieces to stick. When I figured out the answer and successfully made my Brush Bot I experienced the satisfaction that students feel from accomplishing a task.
From this I was inspired to take some key next steps in my classroom:
1. Give students regular opportunities to be creative by setting up making times where they get to explore both with coding and physical materials.
2. Make summative assessment tasks open enough that students can chose to code something to demonstrate their understanding.
Previously I had introduced my class to Makey Makey's, through an Electricity unit. It was a great way to get kids coding and to explore Makey Makey's, but what was missing was an opportunity for students to design. An hour of maker time was the perfect next step for my students. For my first attempt at giving kids creative time I set out 4 Makey Makey's, some electrical equipment, clay, string, and magnets. Then I gave students the next hour to see what they could create. It was awesome. Most of the kids chose to work with others. Some students wrote animations on Scratch, others created games that they controlled with magnets or clay via the Makey Makey. Every single student was engaged for the entire hour, every student reflected that they felt successful because they figured out an answer and overcame a problem. It was great to see students all over the room throwing up their hands in excitement as they figured out how to do something.
A week later we had Heidi Kay's fourth grade class come walk around and see what we created. This gave my kids an audience to share their creation with and it gave the 4th graders some inspiration for what they could do. Having coworkers such as Heidi who are eager to try out new uses of technology is great because we can try out new ideas together and give each other feedback.
It feels like a small step but it is a step. It is not a maker space or a DIY night. But it is a step to my classroom and the school becoming the type of place Yong Zhao described. A place where students design, create and own their learning. A step to teaching beyond the box.
Students discussing their design ideas.
I am a person that tends to have a hard time saying no. I am a sucker. I am the sucker that you look for when you need a volunteer to coach, or lead Sunday school or to cover your recess duty. I just can't say no very well.
Speaking in public however is one task I have never had a problem saying no to. I never wanted to do it, and no matter how many times someone wonderful like Michelle Matias encouraged me to speak about my experience with coding I could easily laugh at her and say, "No, not going to happen." I am no expert on coding and I had no desire to stand in front of an audience and pretend to be one. But then she did it. She convinced me when she said, "Mindy just think of all of the teachers out there like yourself who are interested in teaching code and are just starting. Just tell them your story." That got me thinking, there probably are a lot of teachers out there like myself who are a bit freaked out when they first heard about teaching coding but are willing to give it a try. Teachers who aren't sure what that might look like and they just might get something out of hearing my story. They may even be encouraged that someone as non techie as myself could introduce kids to coding.
So I signed up to speak, first at Vietnam Tech Conference and then at EARCOS. I spent hours researching and connecting with other like minded people. I connected with amazing people like Chez Vivian and Joe Schmidt who took the time to give me feedback and new ideas. I learned a great deal from preparing my presentations.
My presentation felt ready. The entire presentation was aimed at teachers who are new to coding. I was going to tell my story to other teachers and hope to encourage them in their journey.
Then I stood at the front of a room full of participants and realized I had it completely wrong. I had a room full of tech people. There were a few classroom teachers in the audience but the majority were tech facilitators. I went ahead and told my story anyway and what happened surprised me.
They asked questions. Questions like, "How do you see this fitting into the curriculum?" and "What resources would you recommend for teaching coding to an 8 year old?" I realized that these impressively techie people might be more capable coders than most teachers but they have the same question that teachers do, "How do we actually make this work in our school?"
Speaking with the participants was awesome. I came away having learned more than I taught. I gained new insight and new inspiration and along the way somehow I helped encourage others. Riki who attended my workshop at Vietnam Tech Conference might not know it but when she posted the below tweet it did more than make my day. It felt like my preparation had been worth it.
I spoke with Riki via Skype the other week. She mentioned that although she had been nervous she started her schools coding club that week. She said it was a big leap for her. She said their was so much excitement that they had maxed out the number of students who could attend. Hearing that and knowing I was a small part of encouraging her to take that step made me really glad that Michelle convinced me to present. Sometimes saying no is overrated. Say yes, take a leap.
Mindy Slaughter is a classroom teacher at UNIS Hanoi. She started learning to code when some of her students wanted to study it for the PYP Exhibition. She has since help start the Elementary Coding Club and is a founding member of the Global Codeathon. She believes coding opens the doors for student creativity and is working to integrate it into the curriculum.