It was dark when I pulled into the parking lot of the middle school where I would spend the next hour volunteering for the Hour of Code. I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t spoken much with the site coordinator, and I thought 5pm was an odd time to host the event.
I’ve spoken numerous times at many conferences but never about technology to middle-grades students. I wanted to instill in them a love for technology, but I wasn’t sure how to relate to them, and so I ran over and over in my head different scenarios of things I would say and questions they might ask. I was nervous on a different level.
“What if I say the wrong thing and turn them off to programming?”
“What if I bore them, and they think coding is boring?”
The school day had ended some time ago, and I walked along quiet, locker-lined halls, as I made my way to the classroom, smelling those once-familiar, musty smells of decades-old, concrete block school buildings. Down a hall, somewhere, a floor cleaning machine hummed, as a custodian buffed the white, vinyl tile floors. I recalled many hours I had spent at school after hours for extracurricular activities.
I spoke briefly to Kathy, the site coordinator, before entering the classroom, and I learned that the school has a variety of after-school programs their students participate in. This one happened to be the STEM program. They were mainly focused on conducting science experiments, but they decided to do the Hour of Code during Computer Science Education Week this year. She had never done the Hour of Code and had requested a volunteer to help out. I was to be the one leading the entire program.
No problem. Winging things is my specialty. So, that’s what I did.
I spent a few minutes telling about what I do as a programmer on a daily basis, and I quickly realized that, while I’m passionate about what I do, it can sound rather banal when being explained to others, so I switched gears. I told them a brief version of my origin story, so to speak.
I began with a question: “Who has ever written code?” No one raised their hands, so I pressed on.
“I wrote my first computer program when I was in fourth grade. It was a Mad Lib generator.” The students seemed to perk up and get interested at this.
I continued with my brief introduction to tell them that I went on to build my high school’s first web site back in 1995, but I never saw programming as a career. It had always been a hobby for me. Then, I stumbled into a job building web sites and doing sever-side programming, while I was still in college. It wasn’t until a professor convinced me to keep my job and drop the education requirements of my degree (student teaching, etc.) that I began to see my hobby as a career. I wanted to impress upon the students that careers don’t have to be boring things—they can be the things we are passionate and excited about. The things we enjoy doing in our free time are things that we can do for a living.
From there, I had them open up code.org on their Chromebooks and click the “Start learning” button. They chose the “Learn an Hour of Code” exercise that appealed most to them and proceeded to complete the steps. Some students breezed through the activities, while others struggled with the concepts. I used this as a teaching point, since my primary goal was to teach the students that failure and trial-and-error are natural parts of coding. If something doesn’t work the first time, then keep trying until it does work. Sometimes it takes many attempts before you get it.
After Kathy asked me several questions about the history of programming, I decided to wrap things up and try to answer her questions in a brief review of what the students had learned. I asked them what their favorite part of the exercise was and what they felt the most difficult part was. The answers varied. Then, I introduced a tiny bit of computer science history with a discussion of ENIAC, bugs, and Grace Hopper.
By then, our hour was up, and it was time for the students and myself to go. The time had been all-too-short, but I will volunteer again, and I learned a few things that I’ll keep in mind for the next time. I encourage you to volunteer, and I’m sharing my take-aways to help you when you do:
- Don’t spend a lot of time talking. Get the students right into the coding exercises.
- Chances are, the teachers you are working with haven’t been through the Code.org exercises. If they contact you through the Code.org volunteer site, they probably think you’ll be prepared to lead the class. So, be prepared to lead.
- Code.org provides teacher notes for each of their exercises. Familiarize yourself with the exercises and the notes.
- Tell the students what you do for a living, but don’t focus too much on the specifics of your job. Our jobs are mostly boring to adolescents, unless we’re video game designers or movie animators.
- Do tell what made you interested in coding and how you got started.
- Tell about the first program you wrote.
- Make sure you point out the importance of failure in writing code. Almost everything I have learned in coding has been a result of failure through trial-and-error. Students need to know how important this is.
Interested in volunteering for an Hour of Code near you? Sign up here to have teachers contact you.