Scratching the Itch to Learn Coding with Special Needs Students

by Gerri McConnell @mcconnell_gerri | 11/13/2018

As an elementary school teacher working with students with special needs in Waterloo, SC, Gerri McConnell is always interested in meeting her students’ unique learning needs in different ways. Last summer she attended Pathfinders Summer Institute to obtain computer science professional development. Because of this free training, she is able to offer CS education, including coding and Scratch, to her enthusiastic students.

My school consists of students coming from a rural, impoverished. We are a Title One school with over 75% of our students receiving reduced or free lunch. The focus of our instruction and funds are mainly used on literacy and math instruction. Very little technology or coding instruction occurs at my school.

Gerri McConnell

My students with special needs are a diverse group of children that range from pre K- to 5th grade. They require hands-on and visual approaches that require many cues for teaching new skills. They learn best when all their senses are used and they are able to explore new things in a non-threatening environment. My students, especially the 4th and 5th graders, tend to be disengaged, hard-to-reach learners. Many are discouraged, on the brink of giving up, having already experienced so many setbacks in a traditional school environment.

During the 2018 spring semester, I decided to start offering coding to my students. This was a new experience for both me and them. I bravely marched into the world of coding, not sure of what might happen. But after only our first lesson using Scratch, I noticed a change in how excited and eager my students had become. They were begging to do some coding! I knew this type of activity could help to unlock their endless potential. I also knew I needed more training in coding so that I could meet their needs and prepare them for the future.

Scratching the Itch to Learn Coding with Special Needs Students

That is why I opened a DonorsChoose project to secure donations and matching funds to attend a 5-day free course in Computer Science professional development at Pathfinders Summer Institute. This was hosted by Infosys Foundation USA on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington, Indiana.

I attended the Everyday Math and Coding session which worked primarily with K-5th teachers. I was the only special education teacher in this session. I learned the importance of integrating computer science, computational thinking, coding, and mathematics using Scratch and other coding programs. Our instructors emphasized the importance of including all students. They gave us tips on how to do this. They were committed to the inclusion of all students. How refreshing! My instructors were very knowledgeable and passionate about offering coding to special ed students.

It was a week of hands-on programming using unplugged and plugged activities. We coded using Scratch and other coding programs. During the week, I gained a wealth of knowledge and left with a newly found confidence that I could do this.

Scratching the Itch to Learn Coding with Special Needs Students

I am hoping to change this by educating and showing other teachers how to use coding in the curriculum. I am trying to change the mindset of other educators by demonstrating how it can be incorporated in other subjects, like math and that coding is for ALL students.

The week at Pathfinders shifted my mindset on how to educate learners with special needs and how to better prepare them for future jobs for the 2018-19 school year, I am now giving my students with special needs numerous coding opportunities using Scratch and incorporating math and some unplugged activities. The excitement has been contagious.

Scratching the Itch to Learn Coding with Special Needs Students

My future plans include planning a professional development for teachers. I plan to demonstrate how to use Scratch and integrate it with math. I also want to demonstrate to my colleagues how it can be beneficial for ALL students.

I appreciate the opportunity to attend Pathfinders through the partnership of DonorsChoose.org and Infosys Foundation USA which has transformed my teaching and way of thinking. I enthusiastically recommend this program to all educators. I am excited to use this new knowledge and give my students with special needs a new way to express themselves and learn. The children and I will learn to do more Scratch as this school year progresses.