When Students Become Teachers

Morning in Quincy, WA – home of Quincy High School and a gorgeous section of the Columbia River

Every year in December, one week is designated as Computer Science Education Week, during which schools and non-profits across the world ask people to sit down and complete one hour of code. There is an incredible number of pre-planned lessons and activities, from Star Wars to Frozen to flags, that can help anyone of any age sit down and learn to code.

My high school students are now a semester in to our Introduction to Computer Science course, and so they’re mostly more advanced than the Hour of Code activities. While Hour of Code wouldn’t be the most useful in our classroom, I came to a realization: the knowledge our students had would be plenty useful to anyone participating in Hour of Code. There’s nothing quite like a real, live teacher to help you get introduced to a new topic.

Our teaching team (other volunteers from Microsoft + the in-classroom teacher employed by the district) quickly settled on a plan: our students would spend time traveling to the elementary schools in the district, and help run an Hour of Code for as many K-6 grade classes as they could. The provided activities would be the lesson plan, the videos would be the main instruction, and our students would take on our role as teaching assistants.

On Friday, we traveled out to the school for an in-person visit, and spent the class period debriefing with the students. And the survey says: smashing success. The students loved going out and being teachers, and the teachers loved having the high schoolers in to show off what the “big kids” are learning. Many of the student reflections commented on how easy it was to help teach what they called “the basics”. Those basics, including loops and conditionals, are exactly the topics we has as our main learning outcomes for the semester, so it was rewarding to hear that they’ve internalized those concepts so well that it’s now just “basic”.

The students also got their eyes opened to just how different each newcomer is. Some of the elementary students could quickly pick up the activities and needed only a little help, while others needed help nailing down the different between a right click and a left click. Our high schoolers could also relate with the elementary students incredibly easily, and share their own struggles when trying to understand the concepts.

During lunchtime of our visit, we invited teachers and administrators to the classroom, and our students has the opportunity to show off some of the projects they had made, and help the grown-ups start on an Hour of Code too. This lead to one of the most incredible moments of the day, between one of our students, a bit of a trouble maker, and the vice principal, the main disciplinarian. The vice principal came ready to listen and learn, and our student got a chance to show off his work, show off something he was proud of, and teach something he knew that the vice principal didn’t. Each got to see a side of the other that they usually don’t – a moment of learning well outside of the normal curriculum.

P.S. I’d be remiss not to mention the incredible amount of planning and coordination done by Mr. Kondo, a downright incredible teacher at Quincy HS and our partner in CS education, for making the entire experience possible

An Unplanned Lesson

While this blog will usually be about my experiences teaching coding, I have a wonderful recent story I can’t help but share.

On Friday mornings, I volunteer at a local elementary school, helping run a robotics club for 5th graders. This past Friday, there were a wonderful five minutes of learning that were totally unplanned (and unplann-able!), but that were the best few minutes of my day – and they didn’t have anything do to with robotics.

The scene: myself and two students returning a cart of laptops to the classroom after club:

  • Student A, humming “Jingle Bells”: “uggg, I don’t even know why I have this song stuck in my head!”
  • Me: “Well, it’s a good time of year to have Christmas songs stuck in your head!”
  • A: “Except I celebrate Hanukkah, so it’s a little awkward”
  • Me: “You can just get some Hanukkah songs stuck in your head instead!”
  • Student B: “Are there even Hanukkah songs?”
  • A: “Yeah, there are.. like…”
  • A starts singing “I have a little dreidel”, I join in
  • We finish the first bit of the song, return the cart, and the students go off to start school

In just these few minutes, some amazing learning was able to happen –

  • I was able to connect with a student in a way outside of lesson plans. Students’ faces light right up when you can talk (or sing!) with them about their life outside of your lesson plans, and they will transfer that connection back to your classes.
  • I have an opportunity to deepen this connection in the future, simply by recalling it and wishing her a Happy Hanukkah before winter break.
  • The other student got to learn something about another culture/religion that she may not have otherwise, and have a personal connection to it, because she learned it directly from a peer

Those lessons and connections are hard enough to build into a curriculum when you try!

Lesson learned: always be ready to jump in and learn at a moment’s notice.