When my co-operating teacher (CT) came to me with an email from our district’s technology TOSA, I was excited about the possibility of teaching an #hourofcode in my 10th grade World History class. With coding in my professional background, I know the benefits of this literacy firsthand and wanted to empower others to create using programming. The annual global event is designed to demystify code and show that anybody can learn the basics. My goal was to turn the light on for ONE student in the hopes of broadening participation in the field of computer science.
My CT challenged me to link the lesson to WWI, and so we did by discussing the story of wartime communication. The Zimmerman telegram, which was encrypted and subsequently deciphered, altered the course of the United States’ participation in the war. We discussed different ways to secretly send information, including homing pigeons, codebooks, and ciphers.
I decided that students could learn to program Caesar ciphers using Scratch, a free tool created by MIT. Scratch allows users to build programs with small blocks of code. Their sandbox environment is inviting and visually supportive. I thought the students would have fun typing secret messages to one another.
The night before the lesson, I couldn’t sleep. I was obsessing over the perfect instructions and worried the kids would riot over something “soo new, Mrs. Johnson!!” In my first period, admittedly, students were frustrated. My initial strategy was to give them some basic guidelines and then turn them loose in the fairly intuitive sandbox environment. Tinkering is a crucial process in coding and I desired that bumbling feeling to be replicated in my lesson. After assessing progress, and receiving feedback from the TOSA, I decided to slow down and provide much more support and many more rounds of it on the second go. Students who caught on quickly simply moved on to their independent practice, while those who needed more guidance watched along as I created each key in my cipher.
It worked! Several students who were not normally activated in my class were engaged; students were shining and working with their neighbors. More than a few of them surprised me. We had multiple successful ciphers and an environment of joy in our classroom.
When all was said and done, I was excited about the results. Not only had students learned the basics of programming, but I had a lightbulb moment myself. My teaching practice relies on boldness to inquire, which makes it important that I join my students by conducting inquiry myself. I learned that my students needed more "hand-holding” through using the new tool. Specifically in that classroom, it didn’t work as well to minimize instruction and place them into a "laboratory" setting. What seemed to work out better was supporting an iterative process so students could have multiple quick attempts and real-time feedback.
Several students did touch base with me afterwards. I’m fairly certain I turned the light on for at least a few.