As we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week this year, we consider why teachers embrace the considerable challenges they face. What makes teaching such a special and rewarding profession? For most, the answer lies in the eyes, minds and lives of their students – in those special breakthrough moments when learning is joy, when a child lights up with fresh understanding and satisfaction, engaging to embrace the present moment and eagerly anticipate the next – igniting the intrinsic desire to learn that exists in every child. At these times, teachers know they are making a difference in a child’s life – sometimes a life-changing difference.
Enabling any educator to achieve this kind of satisfaction and impact in computer science (CS) education has been Family Code Night's mission of recent years. Our work is for all K-5 educators and requires no coding experience or special training. This all began when we first hosted a "Family Code Night," taking the fun, self-guided puzzles from Code.org's Hour of Code and turning them into an evening event for our entire elementary school. With two weeks' notice, 130 K-5 children and parents filled our school's multipurpose room, pairing up to do their first hour of coding, together. The effect was instantaneous: all over the room, a dawning realization and delight as child and parent together embarked upon a fun, validating learning experience that inspired the shared belief that computer science was a viable aspiration for every child in the room.
The experience did not go unnoticed. Following our first Family Code Night, every school in our community asked us to bring the program to their school; we were featured on the front page of the Sunday New York Times; and the White House invited us to speak at the CSforAll Summit in 2016. Since then, we have built our Family Code Night into an "Event Kit" that lets any elementary school host this activity – led by any teacher or educator, regardless of coding experience, in a scripted hour and 15-minute evening program that has drawn widespread praise and enthusiasm. The script, slide deck, organizer’s guide, and companion handout materials we have developed complement the superb Hour of Code puzzles to create a memorable learning experience, and a desire for more CS learning at school and at home. Thousands of educators nationwide have downloaded our Family Code Night Event Kit to accelerate CS learning in their school community. When they host their own Night, they too get the community recognition and appreciation we received at our first Family Code Night event, often generating their own local press.
The Special – and Urgent – Imperative for K-5 Educators
Family Code Night closely aligns with a new imperative in elementary education. K-5 educators are today an essential but often missing link in computer science learning. Computer science literacy and computational thinking will permeate nearly every profession and vocation our children will undertake. This makes "CSforAll," the Computer Science for All movement, one of the most urgent education, social justice and economic security issues of our time. But if we wait until middle school to build CS literacy, the mission of CS for All is already lost – because by then so many children have decided coding and CS is not for them, but instead just for the nerds, the boys, the white kids, or children in some other zip code. Nothing could be further from the truth: ALL kids are digital kids. What we must do in the K-5 years is inspire students to believe that they can be digital creators, not just digital consumers, and to build their confident assumption that they will take their rightful and essential place in our digital future.
Given the urgency of K-5 CS learning, we should also engage the people that for most children are the most powerful influence in their lives and who contribute to the formation of their self-beliefs: their parents. When we enlist parents and family as active participants and partners in their children’s CS learning, it can have a defining impact on a child’s aspirations – so often the engine of a child’s life and learning trajectory.
But for Teachers, There's a Catch…
Most would agree with the points above, but then be confronted by reality: teachers are overwhelmed with existing workloads, often with little or no coding or computer science experience, perhaps intimidated by the entire idea, and with no time or incentive to learn and teach computer science to their students. Yet the imperative to teach CS to all our children requires them to act.
Happily, a response to this dilemma lies in the very theme we celebrate this week: teacher appreciation and community support. Our view and experience is that top-down programs through which CS standards and mandates are imposed can often engender resistance from the very teachers we are asking to step up to this next mission in K-5 education. In addition, in the local environment so common in K-5 education, decisions about priorities and resources for our teachers are often made in the political ecosystem and microcosm of each school community. What is needed, then, in addition to top-down programs, is support, awareness and recognition from the grass roots of every elementary school community. With that support, teachers are recognized, rewarded and empowered to accept this new mission, to embrace incremental change because they want to, while knowing they will be successful in doing so.
These factors argue for building a virtuous circle of practical steps within the capability of any educator and school, a series of small successes clearly in their self-interest. This means important but modest actions any school can take; building parent and school-community awareness and engagement; and creating support for more ambitious steps and investments from there. Not just because standards or mandates are coming, but because children and families love CS learning, and understand its importance; and because teachers know they can be successful in providing it as they too come up the curve of CS literacy. The result is ever-growing recognition and support from administrators, parents and families, fueling further CS program evolution and capacity building.
This virtuous circle reflects the very appreciation and support we celebrate this week.
We believe Family Code Night checks all these boxes, for nearly any school, and nearly any educator. This free evening event is a first or next step for any elementary school, requiring no CS or coding experience, through which teachers, students and families can together embark upon CS education. Family Code Night ignites school community awareness and support for more, all inspired by the self-interest and the joyful engagement of everyone involved. More information and the free Event Kit are available at www.FamilyCodeNight.org.