Programming for 6 to 12 year-olds

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The following is a guest blog written by a CodeMonkey Teacher Ambassador

I have been working with the little kiddos for about 5 years now after being transferred from a 17-year teaching gig at the local high school. I have been a coder since I was 8 years old thanks to the Intro to Programming video game cartridge for the Odyssey game console. I never did completely figure out Assembly machine language at age 8, but all I had helping me was a textbook. Fast forward to the present, and I will give you my insights on how to teach coding to 6 to 12-year olds. 

I have not been officially trained to teach little kiddos how to code, so what I will share is through experimentation and observation. In the beginning, there was only www.code.org. It was great. There were many choices for different grade bands. I picked a few for us to try, Kodable for Kindergarten and 1st grade, and something with blocks for 2nd and up. I projected what we were doing on my projector screen, explained the main moves and objectives, and stood back and watched the chaos of discovery learning take place. Most teachers detest discovery learning because it is loud, chaotic, unpredictable, and misunderstood by evaluators, but I embrace it every chance I get because it is the kind of learning that sticks with the kids for many years to come. Does it always go as planned? Never. Is it going to sound like you are having a ginormous party in your room with kids hanging from the ceiling? Sometimes. Will you be flipping on the switch of some awesome computer science learning? Always.  

Presently, there are hundreds of choices to use to teach kids how to code. You can either allow your class to make the choice, let students choose independently, or you can divide and conquer what’s out there a few months ahead of time. I usually start taking them out for a test drive during my Fall Break in October. Did I mention I’m a computer nerd? I’m actually on Fall Break right now, and what am I doing? Coding and blogging about coding. Total nerd. As the students were leaving class this week, I told them to code during break if they got bored. I got the “Yeah, right” look from most of them, but I did see a slight sparkle of interest in the eyes of a few of them. I knew I would be coding. This is the time of the year that I LOVE to sharpen my own coding skills. You must bring your “A” game during Computer Science Education Week in order to hook more students into Computer Science. But, where to begin? Again, it will depend on your situation. I only see my kiddos once a week for 45 minutes, so I am going to choose something that they can do without much assistance from me. If I can get them hooked, then they will be coding on their own time. Code.org has attempted to reel students in through teaching coding with popular games or characters. After the kids get over the initial excitement, they get bored really easily. Several of my students usually ignore the instructions and the goal of the levels. They get drawn into being able to move one of their favorite characters around on the computer screen. Then, you must waste class time because you must make them go back to level 1 and learn what they are supposed to be doing instead of propagating hundreds of cows LOL! You’ve got to love them, and it is sort of funny. 

And then, I found CodeMonkey. Of course, I loved it from the very beginning, but it took the kids a little while to warm up to it. It didn’t have all the eye candy of those block games on Code.org. It was tough. I got to hear about “that stupid monkey!”. However, when I explained that he’s only as stupid as you make him, the old “Garbage In, Garbage Out” programming mantra, I started hearing less about the mentality of the monkey. Plus, the kids were really learning how to program in CoffeeScript. I could still tie in my typing standards from the state! Some of the non-computer science teachers at my school thought that the kids were just playing mindless games. I had to explain to them that they were coding, programming, solving problems, and increasing their analytical skills. 

How did I approach teaching the different grade bands? I kept Kindergarten and 1st grade on Kodable. However, this year CodeMonkey came out with CodeMonkey Jr.. It looks very good, and I know that the little kids will love it! For 2nd grade and up, I put the kids on CodeMonkey’s Coding Adventure. On my projector screen, I start the first few levels and show them how to maneuver the basic steps of walking and turning in order to catch the bananas. Then, I hand the coding over to them. Let the chaos begin! I find that the younger students learn more from making mistakes and tutoring each other than they do from me helping them. Well, I sometimes must get them back on the right path of what their objective is and how to arrive there. But once you get them there, it’s “on like Donkey Kong!” They no longer need you, and you can sit back and watch the magic happen. This is my favorite part! I absolutely LOVE the excitement that is in the air that you can see on your kids’ faces as they figure out each new level. There is collaboration and communication between many of your students. The critical thinking skills are off-the-chart amazing. And the very best part is the opportunity for students to express their creativity skills once they have mastered the intermediate levels and unlock the Game Designer Challenge. I have not had a student to reach this level, yet, but I know that this year will be the year. I can just feel it! 

Now, how do you get your older students interested? Some of your more mature students will scoff at the monkey, but once you show them the Intermediate Level Courses, where they learn how to code in Python with Banana Tales, they will be hooked. I, myself, cannot quit playing Banana Tales. It is SO addictive! Once they realize that they are coding just like a professional computer programmer, you have them hooked into Computer Science. It doesn’t take that long to get that kind of student interest. It only took me 15 minutes, once a week, for about 1 month to get my students this excited about Computer Science by only using CodeMonkey’s software. My students have asked to go to other coding sites, but I insist on just using CodeMonkey. It is just that good! Plus, I can easily track their results using CodeMonkey’s gradebook. You are also able to export the information into an Excel worksheet, which I love to analyze the data!  Some of your students will advance faster than others. Some will amaze you, like my 2nd and 3rd graders that are coding in Banana Tales! This is also a great opportunity to help with leadership and social skills in your more introverted students. Some of my more reluctant students are now getting interested thanks to my Super Coders! 

Once you have a large group of students that love to code, then it is time to take it to the next level – coding contests. CodeMonkey has an awesome Code Rush Coding Contest every year. It brings out the best in my serious coders – to be able to code head-to-head against other students across the nation. You can arrange students in diverse groups with different grade levels. There is nothing like peer tutoring! Plus, it is a great confidence booster for your best coders to be able to teach those that need a little push into deeper understanding. There is nothing like some friendly competition to challenge your students to learn more about coding! 

If CodeMonkey isn’t your thing or your kids’ thing, then search for something that is. There are multitudes of choices out there. I would start with www.code.org and find something that clicks. Then, you must make the choice of blocks or no blocks for 2nd grade and up. It really depends on the coding abilities of your students. I personally prefer no blocks, but I am an old-school coder myself. Your main challenge is to get your students engaged and coding. You must also show the connection of coding to the real world. After you see success in coding, the next step is coding competitions. These are a little harder to find, but they do exist. Some competitions are free, and some are not. Then, the final step is to start a coding club. You can take the initiative, or you can challenge your coders to take this giant leap. In either case, it is a win-win situation. Happy coding! 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Michelle Ward is a PreK – 8th grade Keyboarding/Computer Apps specials teacher at Lake Road Elementary School in Union City, TN that sneaks in Computer Science at every available opportunity. She is a CodeMonkey Ambassador, a member of CSTA, and an advocate for CS4ALL.

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