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Coding instruction expanding into K-5 classrooms

Karyl Willis fully expects to be at a disadvantage when her fifth graders start tackling computer coding problems. She’s excited about that arrangement.

Two female teachers work together with their iPads. “I have a feeling roles might reverse when we get into this,” the Banks Elementary teacher said. “They may teach me more than I’m actually teaching them, and that will be good. If they can explain it, they know it.”

Willis and her 17 colleagues who comprise LCPS’s Elementary Coding Cohort are now in what she calls “student mode” as they and the digital learning specialists at the district’s nine elementary school prepare to take formalized coding instruction into K-5 classrooms. This past summer they familiarized themselves with Apple’s Everyone Can Code curriculum that is the foundation of the initiative and last week they spent two days with an Apple expert putting the finishing touches on their instructional plan.

Because LCPS instituted coding instruction in middle and high schools a year ago, the K-5 program is something of a prequel to a proven success story, one that saw students get comfortable with coding in their middle school STEM labs, opt for online coding classes as a high school elective and, this year, progress into college-level coding classes.

Like the instruction for older students, coding in elementary schools intends to acquaint students with what could be considered the quintessential 21st century skill, but not necessarily with the goal of turning out battalions of coding professionals. Instead, coding instruction is the tool that can teach all students – computer nerds or not – perseverance, logical progression and critical thinking skills.

But unlike the middle and high school classes, coding in elementary schools won’t be compartmentalized instruction. It will be integrated into all subject areas, from math to reading to science. That’s why LCPS decided to start small, using the Elementary Coding Cohort – two teachers selected from each elementary school last spring in a competitive process – to explore the path forward.

“We’re making a focused effort to provide opportunities for every student to code throughout the year, but the Cohort is going to actually implement a curriculum tied into content standards,” said Melissa Lynch, the district’s digital learning instructional coordinator and an architect of the elementary coding initiative. “We want a small group to really dig deep in it so that we can see how we can take these lessons and really infuse them within the current content and standards for that grade level.”

Willis has already given some thought to that infusion process for her Banks students. “When I was looking through the curriculum this summer, I saw one of the lessons was on sequencing. I instantly thought of reading, putting the story pieces in order,” she said. “Logic goes into math, which has a lot of logic and reasoning to it. It’s the same thing with science.”

Computer code is the “brains” behind the buttons, the lines and lines of formulas that go into algorithms that drive the apps on a smartphone or help drive a modern automobile. Early coding instruction can look a lot like game playing – helping an avatar navigate a maze, for instance – but by the time middle schoolers become high schoolers, they are writing code and designing apps.

None of this seems foreign to youngsters, partly because of their enthusiasm for and seeming natural affinity with technology but mainly because occasional coding instruction and events like the International Hour of Code and Digital Learning Day have involved LCPS elementary students for at least the past five years. Those intermittent activities have now blossomed into a full-blown instructional sequence for the district’s youngest students to its oldest that – with the help of two state grants in the past three years – have made LCPS a regional leader in this area of instruction.

“Students are going to have such an opportunity to learn and grow as students when they don’t even realize they’re learning. It’s going to be a very natural feel for them,” Lynch said of the new elementary initiative. “I think one of the most important pieces we’ll see is that there’s going to be value to that computational thinking that kids are going to build. So that effort and failure and effort and failure eventually leads to success. The ability to persevere and try and work through problems – that can be applied to every content too.”

Willis decided to apply for the Coding Cohort for the obvious reason. “I thought it would be really good for my students,” she said of her AIG (Academically or Intellectually Gifted) class. “Sometimes they don’t understand what it means to fail, or to not be successful at something. With coding, a lot of time students have a tendency to get frustrated with it because it doesn’t always work the first time. For them to understand that success isn’t always going to be instantaneous, that they’re going to have to think through the process, I think that’s going to be really great for the students.”

Coding Cohort teachers will be thinking through the process, too, determining which lessons are most effectively integrated into various content areas and sharing those insights with their colleagues in monthly meetings of the Cohort and the schools’ digital learning specialists. With that experience, they’ll become mentors for the second wave of teachers expected to join the Cohort next school year.

“We want everyone coding in elementary by 2021,” Lynch said.

Photo captions:

(Above) Karyl Willis, right, a fifth-grade teacher at Banks Elementary School and a member of LCPS’s Elementary Coding Cohort, works with Banks digital learning specialist Ashley Hood last week during a two-day workshop where Cohort teachers firmed up instructional plans for a K-5 coding program now being rolled out.

(Below) Members of the Elementary Coding Cohort, school Digital Learning Specialists and district administrators involved in the creation of an elementary coding curriculum gather after their initial meeting last spring.

 

Twenty-six people post for a group photo with about half of them seated.