Hour of Code

Ending the year with hope

Usually I’m a planner. I like to-do lists and calendars and vision boards and check boxes. But I’m also fond of those lightbulb moments when an idea pops into my head and I can see an entire project unfold that my students could start tomorrow. And that’s what happened when I read this article from Edutopia: In Schools, Finding Hope in a Hopeless Time, by Nora Fleming.

I have worried so much this year about my students, 7th and 8th graders I have never met face-to-face. We have been learning on Zoom all year, and while I have seen lots of growth, creativity and community in our Zoom classes, I know there has been plenty of pain and struggle that I haven’t been able to see or respond to online.

But now we are on Spring Break, and in a couple weeks we will return to a campus that will be brand new for most of my students. We will finally see each other in person! The sun is out, the days are warmer, flowers are blooming and the cold, rainy weather is fading. Hope is in the air.

Photo by Henry Lai on Unsplash

But when we do meet in person on campus, with only seven weeks left in the semester, how will I engage my students in a positive way to wrap up this really hard year? How will I motivate and inspire students who may have struggled throughout these past months of isolation and distance learning? How can I give them hope, not only for our immediate situation, but also hope for their futures?

And why hope? Why bother to weave hope throughout my curriculum? I love what the research tells us about hope:

“…people who are hopeful aren’t simply optimists or Pollyannas but are able to think proactively about the future and plan ahead to get there. Research shows that hope is a learnable, measurable skill, and one that has a sizable impact on students’ success and persistence in school. Children who are hopeful are also found to have higher self-esteem and social skills, are more likely to set and achieve goals, and can more easily bounce back from adversity.”

https://www.edutopia.org/article/schools-finding-hope-hopeless-time

While middle school students tend to get stuck in the present, there are ways we can shift their focus to the future and help them be strategic about defining and pursuing their own hopes and dreams. The Edutopia article includes a project from high school teacher Allison Berryhill, who had her students choose a hope they had for their future, and then work backwards to figure out how to make that hope a reality. Thinking about what that might look like in my middle school Design Lab class, my mind went to one of our favorite mediums: computer games. Since games revolve around a character trying to reach a goal, they are a natural for representing one’s own hopes and dreams.

Photo by Alex Haney on Unsplash

What if my students created a game that took a character through potential obstacles on the way to reaching something they hope for in their own futures? Thanks to Scratch coding, my students will be able to not only design their games, but even code them and share the link with their friends so they can all play. And with remove.bg, my students can use a picture of themselves as the main character in their games. They will be able to literally move themselves past obstacles on their way to seeing their hopes realized. Thinking of the fun they will have as they code toward their dreams fills me with hope. I can’t wait.

Get off the stage, sage

I have a confession to make.  I don’t know how to write computer code.  I don’t know how to animate digital art.  And I don’t know how to create 3D architectural designs.

So how could I possibly teach a class in which my students are learning these skills?

If we waited until we had coding teachers and animation teachers and architectural design teachers, our students would never encounter these potential careers until college. So rather than make them wait, I decided to let my 8th graders take advantage of the online tutorials and free programs that allow anyone to teach themselves coding, animation, architectural drawing, and more.

If a 3rd grader can code and sell apps in the Google Play store, and a 17-year-old can become a millionaire by selling his own app to Yahoo, then clearly our students don’t have to wait for teachers to impart knowledge. They can go out and find it on their own. Just listen to Sam, Luke and Dakota talk about the coding journey they’ve been on in my Digital Media class:

It was 1988, my first year of teaching, when I heard that teachers should be less a “sage on the stage” and more a “guide on the side.”  And here we are, 26 years later, and teachers still need to be encouraged to let go of their role as the all-knowing sage and let students learn through hands-on projects and outside sources. With so much available to our students via the internet, why don’t we let them explore and learn through experience?

As Hadi Partovi, the founder of Code.org, says, the problem facing our future coders isn’t that coding isn’t cool. The problem is that coding isn’t available.  Let’s give our kids a chance to discover coding — whether as a hobby or a future career — but let’s not wait until we have coding teachers and coding classes.  It’s time to find ways to guide from the side. Time to get off the stage, sage.