Something Strange in the Neighborhood

Who ya gonna call? This week we tackled the Ghostbusters game from Code Club level 1 projects.  I slated it for this week since we met just before Halloween.  I gave them a bit of leeway on following the project to the letter and let them pick any ghost sprite, and use any sound. Most of the issues we encountered this time were same as the ones we encountered last week – generally there were issues locating specific code blocks and difficulties following directions specifically enough for the game to work.

Ghostbusters Scratch

But they pick this stuff up so fast and make sense of it, too.  It is amazing.  Some of them are starting to know where they can make their own changes without affecting the game play or where their changes actually can make the game better.

My plan for Code Club this week was to start off reflecting on last week’s learning project and see how everyone felt Code Club was going. As much as I understand the importance of reflection, I don’t always take the time to let the students reflect. This week, though, I wanted to hear their thoughts on how the first learning project went. Unfortunately, reflection time at the beginning, during snack, was derailed a bit by the general, insuppressible excitement level of the students, something that I had been noticing all day – probably due to a trifecta of events this week: Open House last night, indoor recess due to rain that day, and the anticipation of Halloween on Friday.  There was nothing to do but move on to the main event: Coding!

I felt a bit more prepared this time as I had just walked through the Ghostbuster project with a couple of students earlier during indoor recess.  It really helps to actually work your way through a project, or help someone work their way through one. It is a different level of understanding than just reading through it. (Shocker)

When we came to the part to add a sound to the game when you score a point, I did fuel the fire of their enthusiasm by bringing out two microphones and letting the students record their own sounds. Recording from microphones worked surprisingly well despite the noise level of 22 students working in Scratch in an after-school setting.

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 10.37.02 PM

For their final independent project, I will want them to create all of their own sounds, sprites and backgrounds.  I may have to scrounge up another microphone or create a schedule for their use.

Boy was it hard to stop at 4:15

How to Think like a Programmer

Yesterday was our second Code Club meeting, our second Hour of Code, if you will. It went well. Kids did great. It’s incredible, actually, how much we got accomplished.  I have to remember that, because I want even more and I think the students’ expectations are at least as high as mine.

I had been thinking about what I wanted to introduce this week since Code Club ended last week. What could I introduce at this point that was relevant to where they are in this journey? Too soon to talk about initial conditions.  They’re not ready for elements of game design (although a number of them would tell you otherwise). Explaining what an algorithm is was a definite possibility, but I needed some guidance. So I looked through the Computing at School Primary Guide for some help.

The guide explains how primary teachers can get started with the new curriculum and provides many pointers to excellent resources and ideas for building an innovative and exciting curriculum.

I recommend checking out CAS (Computing as School) for anyone interested in teaching computer science in elementary grades. From there I developed my topic for week 2:  Think like a Programmer  with two key points.  The first is that computer language is different from human language.  The second point is that to think like a computer programmer you need to know how to do 3 things: 1) how write clear algorithms, 2) how to debug, and 3) how to test your program.  I tell you, when I opened with, “Today I’m going to tell you how to think like a programmer”,  I got 100% attention from a whole bunch of my coders.  I think they even forgot about their goldfish crackers and apple slices for a minute. It was like I was revealing some mystery of life.


Felix-and-Herbert – first project from Code Club

I only talked for 10 minutes because I wanted them to have a good 45-50 minutes to tackle our first learning project from Code Club: Felix and Herbert.  I had a printed project packet for each student.  They were to go through the project step by step as best they could.  This is a creative bunch and many whined a bit about having to follow the directions precisely.  I told them these projects would show them how to do things they might want to include in their own programs later.  For a while I wasn’t sure anyone was going to even finish the project. I didn’t print the projects in color so we spent a good bit of time figuring out under which menu button each code block was. Some things were a bit different in our version. Also saving the project can be an issue in our network set up. But it was all productive learning.

scratch menu

Scratch 1.4 menu – color coded

I had a former student email me with an interest in helping out with code club.  I remember when he was in elementary school here.  He was in the chess club I ran back then and I believe he wrote a persuasive essay in 5th grade about why our school needed more, and better, computers. He’s a high school senior now and at least a head taller than me (I’m only slightly taller than a 4th grader). When I introduced him to the students their comment back to me was, “no offense Mrs. Pollard, but you’re old.”  Well, yes I am. He was a great help with the students even though he didn’t know the programming language Scratch.  With three of us, my former student, the snack-bringing parent who stayed and helped, and myself, we managed to field most issues and a number of the students actually finished the project.  Some were even able to spend a minute customizing it.  Some didn’t quite finish.  A couple of students wanted to take the packet home.

The end of Code Club came so quickly, I didn’t have time to check-in with each student.  A downside of having such a large group and wanting to accomplish so much.

Code Club says “Hello, World”

Finally, six months after first putting together a Code Club proposal, eight months after taking Future Learn’s Teaching Computing, part 1 and learning about Code Club World, one year after introducing Scratch to 4th graders for the first time, today was the first meeting of Code Club.

And the verdict is….the students had fun.  They were totally engaged, on task, and being the kind of goofy, creative, enthusiastic, limit-testers that 4th graders tend to be.  When I called for everyone to save their projects, log off and shut down, one girl looked at me incredulously.  Yes, I said, the hour is over. Parents are now waiting.  We’ll be back next week.  She couldn’t believe time was already up. Score.

code club

Everything went smoothly, if a bit chaotic, but I expected some of that. First order of the day was going over rules & goals while we had snack.  We decided to use school rules and after a number of examples from the students I summed it up as Respect.  We are going to respect each other, the computers and the space (at about this time our cool custodian stopped by and ribbed us about eating in the computer lab.  The one rule he was sure of was there was no eating in the computer lab, and he preferred us to keep it that way).

Then I asked what everyone’s goals were:  Many said they wanted to make a video game (like a new version of such & such game), another student wanted to build a website, some said make a movie, another to design stuff.  Some were concerned we were dreaming too big and we may not be able to realize our goals.  I expressed my goals as wanting everyone to have fun, be creative and learn about computer science.  Just the broad strokes today – we are all dreaming big.

And so we got to it.  Everyone opened up Scratch and I introduced the stage and sprites, sounds and scripts. Then we wrote our first “Hello, World!” project, because that’s what computer programmers do.

hello world

For the last twenty minutes I just let them explore Scratch.  I had two other adults with me, which was extremely helpful. They were both experienced with the 4th grade population and with coding – if not Scratch specifically.

All in all, it was a successful first meeting, yet I am ambivalent about my leadership.  I could have explained things better, or understood better where I need them to be in their knowledge of Scratch by the end of the first week so we can get to where they need to be to be able to design their first game at week 6.  I want to make sure they have a good foundation as well as exposure to different things Scratch can do. Great, thought, but I think I’m going to have think and be more specific as to my weekly goals.  I’m probably expecting too much from the first meeting of the first round of Code Club, but I feel like I’m just winging it.

Over the Limit

On Monday, seven more students turned in their forms and I closed the club with 23 students (13 boys, 10 girls). I wonder how the management of a group that large in the computer lab will work?  I may need to seek more assistance, but I know these kids and I know which ones will be quick learners and which will struggle.  I have some parent volunteers, a colleague who is interested in learning Scratch and made email contact with the high school computer club student president.

A few more forms came in on Tuesday and now I had to let those students know that the Code Club was full for this first round and I’d let them have the first slots for the second ten weeks.

So I solidified an outline of the course and wrote up letters of welcome or sorry, class is full.  I sent those home on Wednesday.

Here’s a weekly outline of what I have planned, which I included in my welcome letter with the actual dates:

Rough outline of the plan for the 10 weeks of Code Club

Rough outline for 10 weeks of Code Club

I’ve been going over project materials from Code Club World and trying to conceptualize what each week will look like.  I have an idea of what it all is going to look like and of the goals I want to accomplish.  Reality may prove to be something else.