It started with a tweet, and it continued Friday with Commissioner of Education Deborah A. Gist tweeting her followers about what’s happening at Warwick Neck Elementary School.
First-grade teacher Tracy Mollock started the exchange on Twitter about a month ago. She was following Gist’s tweets on Computer Science Education Week, which is being celebrated this week across the country. An estimated 10 million students from grade 1 through high school are expected to focus on computer science and the Hour of Code, including those at 52 Rhode Island schools.
Mollock wanted to see what her first-graders might do to join the celebration, and to get kids not only learning on computers but also programming computers to do what they want. She wanted to have elementary school students writing computer code.
The goal was endorsed by Warwick Neck Principal Patricia Cousineau and embraced by the faculty. Warwick Neck joined Code.org, a nonprofit that offers an online tutorial in writing computer code. And on Friday in a sea of red T-shirts bearing the Code.org logo, the school came together to hold an Hour of Code kickoff assembly.
“You don’t know a world without computers,” Cousineau told students and guests gathered in the school’s all-purpose room. She highlighted some of the uses of computers in the classroom and in communicating with parents, and she had students cite devices from telephones to televisions and automobiles that rely on computers to operate. She also spoke about the evolution of computers. Using a projector, she showed a picture of an abacus, which was quickly identified when she asked the assembly what it is. Additional images were of a room-sized computer built in 1941, the first computer, and the bulky computer she used in college. She then held up her cell phone to illustrate how compact and versatile computers have become.
It all fit with the kickoff invitation she and Mollock sent to parents and, of course, Gist.
In it, they speak about the use of critical thinking and problem solving, which will allow students to design technical solutions to problems in science, math, social studies, the arts and literacy.
“We firmly believe that our students should not just know how to use apps and play video games, but they should know how to create them,” reads the invitation.
To make that leap, Mollock turned to available teaching programs and to those who play computer games, including the very familiar “Angry Birds.” With different keystrokes, the bird is programmed to turn different directions. “It will only do what you tell it to do,” Cousineau said in describing the lesson. Mollock’s first-graders also use another computer science instructional program, Lightbot.
“And they have just taken off with it,” she told Gist, who visited the class following the assembly. The students spend from 20 to 30 minutes a day working on computers and practicing on writing code. Some of the computers being used were acquired through a Rhode Island Teachers for Technology grant, which has ceased, and others, such as tablets, have been provided through the online Donors Choose program. The school is looking for an additional six more tablets through Donors Choose.
Gist used her own iPad throughout the assembly, tweeting colleagues as first-grader Seth McGrew stood in front of the assembly to show what he had learned. She also used the iPad to snap pictures of the kids as they stood to read quotes from the founders and computer science engineers at Microsoft, Google, Pay Pal, Hewlett Packard, Facebook and others.
But it was the classroom where Gist really went to work. She talked with Cousineau, Mollock and others involved in staging the assembly. She watched students work at computers and talked to them about what they were doing.
Mollock promised not to deluge her with tweets. Gist said she wanted the feedback and the questions, urging to keep the communication going.
But it’s not all taking place on Twitter.
It’s happening in the classroom.
Wearing a smile as wide as the Cheshire Cat, first grader John Ricci held up a Post It Note. It contained a series of five or six squiggly lines no longer than a half-inch each.
Was this a doodle?
What did it mean?
“This means, it turns that way,” he said pointing to the first of the lines.
He knows his computer code.