By Dr. Tim Swick | June 08, 2022
There is no doubt that we are ready for a break. Surviving the difficulties of teaching through a pandemic qualifies anyone who works at a school for some well-deserved rest. As a lead teacher at an elementary computer science magnet program, I work with a group of educators who have spent the past 2 ½ years going far beyond any normal expectations to make sure their students continue to learn regardless of the learning environment or instructional complications.
While I feel we should all revel in a nice break, I also want to suggest that now is the time to start preparing for making the next school year the best it can be. So, as we celebrate surviving the difficulties of the past few years, I would like to suggest that teachers take some time to also refuel and recharge themselves as professionals. Dreaming about the potential of the upcoming year is what gives many teachers excitement about returning to school. Visualizing a new strategy or applying new learning as we evolve as teachers is one of the benefits of not being surrounded by a classroom full of kids for at least a few months of the year. This allows educators the opportunity to build blueprints for our planes before we must fly them.
In particular, I would like to convince elementary school teachers to invest in expanding the role of computer science (CS) in their classrooms. I feel strongly that CS skills will play a key factor for all students' future success. Because CS literacy is linked to improved problem solving, it is just as important as any subject. One of the best ways to encourage students to explore the ways they can use computers to solve problems is to start them early.
It is likely that you have already heard about the growing call for CS to be taught in schools. There are several organizations dedicated to encouraging educators to offer more CS to students, and national and state agencies are introducing guidelines for CS instruction that map out the domain of K-12 CS. I feel we have reached a tipping point for expanding CS instruction. Most schools seem to agree that CS education is important and more needs to be done, however, understanding the need for expanding the role of CS in schools is just the beginning. It can be difficult for teachers to make sense of how to fit CS into their teaching.
In my role as a lead teacher, an important aspect of what I do is coaching teachers to integrate CS into their classrooms. From my experience, while most elementary teachers see the importance of teaching about CS, they do not feel comfortable actually teaching it. Traditionally, CS is considered to be the realm of specialized high school instructors and is organized as a part of career and technical education in many situations. I hope to see this change, but the issue is building teacher capacity for CS.
The biggest challenge is taking the first step. I have a simple plan to convince teachers that now is the time to give teaching CS a shot. Whether you are new to teaching CS or not, here are three steps that will help anyone start exploring how computer science can play a role in their classroom:
1. Take Time for Some Suggested Reading
Summer reading lists are a time-honored tradition, and your path to upgrading your CS skills starts here. Try to find some time to read a book this summer and you might be surprised by the ideas you develop. Here are some titles I think K-8 teachers might enjoy: How to Think Like a Coder by Jim Christian, No Fear Coding by Heidi Williams, Rev Up Robotics by Jorge Valenzuela, and Computational Thinking and Coding for Every Student by Jane Krauss and Kiki Prottsman.
2. Experience Coding Through Play
The biggest fear is the unknown. Coding and CS can often feel like a skill for specialized jobs. This quickly goes away when you get the courage to give it a try. There are many ways to get started for free, and I suggest trying out a tutorial to help you experience the importance of play in developing CS skills. Nothing beats the feeling the first time you successfully program a computer. Try signing up for and using MIT’s Scratch platform, the world’s largest free block-based coding website, to write your own program. Not sure how to start? Try one of the tutorials or activity guides listed on the Ideas page. If you are looking for something else, then head over to Code.org. Sign up for a free account and explore a course from their catalog. Most elementary teachers will want to check out one of the CS Fundamentals classes to start.
3. Find a Partner in Crime
Trying to do something on your own is always difficult, and the biggest obstacle to innovation can be isolation. If you are taking on the challenge of upgrading your CS skills, then do yourself a favor and find a way to collaborate. The power of a buddy is key to your long-term success with CS education. Trying something new, like integrating CS into your classroom, will likely present some challenges. Plan on experiencing some failures, and the best way to overcome any failure is a supportive group of colleagues. Start by finding someone in your school that is willing to give CS a try. If you can’t collaborate with someone directly, then reach out through online communication. CSTA has a number of active online communities that are always sharing ideas. Twitter is also a great resource. Following the hashtag #csk8 is a good place to start.
These are just a few simple suggestions to start your path towards integrating CS in your area. If you are new to CS, I hope you try at least one of the suggestions above. If you have already been teaching CS, I’d love to hear your ideas and strategies for teaching CS. Please feel free to reach out to me on Twitter through @Itecswick. I’d love to know what books, coding activities and partnerships you have been using.
Dr. Tim Swick is the lead teacher at the Computer Science Immersion School at Sandlapper Elementary in Columbia, South Carolina. He has been teaching elementary school for 22 years. He is a National Board Certified Teacher and holds a doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of South Carolina with a focus on Educational Technology and Innovative Learning Design. Over the past four years, he has been coordinating the development of a school-wide integrated computer science immersion school that was recognized by the Magnet Schools of America Association as the 2022 Top New and Emerging Magnet School in America. In his role, he strives to encourage all teachers to participate in CS. He feels that early engagement in CS is vital for under-represented students to get involved with CS careers, and to accomplish this task, schools will need to build teaching capacity for CS instruction at the elementary school level.