Fifth grader Danato Christie dutifully holds up an iPad so that kindergartner Euri Leguisamon can see the screen.
“Watch this, watch this,” Christie says, as the two boys sit in a former computer lab at the Kennedy-Longfellow Elementary School on Thursday. “Now, let’s give it some moves!”
Christie and Leguisamon resume their task, tapping at the glowing screen with fervor. No, the students are not playing “Angry Birds.” They’re learning to code.
Kindergartners and 5th graders seem like an unlikely classroom mix, but the 5th graders have taken on a new role — as teachers.
In Thursday’s lesson, Kennedy-Longfellow 5th graders taught their kindergarten counterparts how to code using ScratchJr., a programming language for children.
The activity, organized by the team behind the Kennedy-Longfellow/Lesley University Partnership, is a part of the Hour of Code, a week-long national grassroots campaign organized by Code.org that encourages teachers and students to participate in coding lessons.
The Maker Space
“What’s so unbelievably exciting is how accessible coding is to kids now. It didn’t used to be,” said Sue Cusack, co-leader of the Kennedy-Longfellow/Lesley University partnership and associate professor at Lesley University’s Graduate School of Education. “You kind of had to be a math geek in middle school or high school before you could gain access to coding.”
The buzzing room shows just how far things have come.
The students are in the school’s Maker Space, a former computer lab that is now a free flowing high-tech workspace. The easily configurable space has no desks and no bulky desktops. Instead, it is equipped with iPads, a green screen for video production, an interactive whiteboard, video cameras and electric circuits.
Preparing Students For The Future
The Kennedy-Longfellow School, located in East Cambridge, serves about 300 students in grades junior-kindergarten through 5th grade. On 3rd and 5th grade reading and math assessments it is among the lowest performing 20 percent of schools in Cambridge. About 65 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
“In this day and age with the tech that is around us in everyday life, schools have to figure out a way to make it an educational tool and integrate it,” said principal Chris Gerber. “Otherwise I don’t think that we are preparing kids for the future in the way we need to.”
Nearly four years ago, through a $2 million grant from the late Albert Merck, philanthropist and former director of Merck & Co. Inc., Lesley University partnered with the Kennedy-Longfellow school to integrate modern technologies into classroom learning, with a goal of enhancing student learning.
Out of this partnership, the school’s Maker Space was born last year.
“Kids are already swimming in tech by the minute they’re born,” Cusack said with a laugh. “I think it’s essential, particularly in urban environments, to give kids that are typically under-served high quality exposure to technology that is informed.”
‘Learning How To Program Is The New Literacy’
Central to the Kennedy-Longfellow/Lesley University Partnership has been the large-scale deployment of iPads, the ones students currently code on.
The school is what teachers call a “one-to-one” environment: every student in the school is given their own iPad to use. Many of the upper grade classrooms are even going paperless.
Typically, there’s a real lack of technology access for most low-income k-12 students.
In one study, 56 percent of teachers who work with low-income students declared that their students’ lack of access to digital technology was a “major challenge” to incorporating more digital tools into teaching.
“The population that our school students come from, for a lot of them, their parents don’t have the resources to provide them with some of the things that we have,” said Kathy Malone, the instructional technology specialist at Kennedy-Longfellow. “The resources that they have at their fingertips now, it’s no longer the novelty of technology, it’s becoming a tool, just like having a pen or a pencil.”
Marina Umaschi Bers, a professor at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development and an adjunct professor in the computer science department at Tufts University, agrees.
“Learning how to program is the new literacy,” said Bers. “Programming allows them to think systematically, to engage in problem solving, to understand that sequence and order matters.”
ScratchJr. Gives Youngsters Coding Opportunities
Bers is the creator of ScratchJr., the programming language that students use in the day’s activity. ScratchJr. is an introductory programming language designed for young children 5-7 that has been developed over the past four years, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
ScratchJr. is entirely icon based, and almost appears to be a game. Students pick and design characters, then drag blue “motion blocks” with arrows pointing in different directions into a line to create symbolic systems that their characters then follow. This is in front of backgrounds that the students pick or draw themselves.
Although words may be introduced into the program, they are not necessary. The visual nature makes it so that students do not even need to know how to read and write to use ScratchJr.
“It’s very open ended and allows children to really express themselves and use their imaginations, while at the same time learning how to program,” Bers said. “We designed ScratchJr. so that when learning to programming you can apply it to anything else you’re learning in school, like literacy or math.”
Teachers have found the program so effective that they use ScratchJr. in Sheltered English Immersion classes — classes for English-learners — to help visualize math problems.
It is also available as a free iPad app that students may use outside of class.
“It teaches them to think, to dive deeper into a problem,” said Kreg Hanning, technology specialist for the Kennedy-Longfellow/Lesley University Partnership. “They break it down into individual, solvable pieces then go about solving them.”
A Partnership Nears Its End
The partnership between Kennedy-Longfellow and Lesley University is reaching its final year before completion.
“A concern of mine is what will happen to our school once the grant is done. Will all of this be replaced? Or will we go back to the old model?,” said Malone. “It’s really important that if you provide these tools for kids, that you continue to provide these tools for kids.”
The team from Lesley is confident that their model will sustain high-tech learning at the school even after their departure. Anne Larkin, a co-leader of the partnership, cites the day’s activity as evidence of that.
“The older kids being a buddy, you know, a teacher to the younger ones, that’s an important part of this whole thing,” said Larkin. “Start early and they keep progressing. I think that’s what we’ve done in this school.”