What’s the first rule of Code Club?
No Dad jokes or references to 90s fighting films. Eerie silence descends. Lots of small faces look at you like you’re drunk.
I volunteered to run a Code Club after my daughter came home from school and showed me what she had been learning in computer class. She demonstrated how to open up Microsoft Word, how to make the type bigger and how import clip-art pictures of animals. This made me feel a little sad. Aside from some
in bad-ass reflected chrome, there wasn’t a lot to get excited about. Sure, they were learning to use tools but what about learning to make stuff? Where was the fun, the creativity, the collaboration?
This is what convinced me to volunteer for Code Club.
If you haven’t heard of Code Club, it’s a nationwide network of volunteer-led coding clubs for children aged 9-11. You register on the Code Club website, they connect you with a local school who wants to run a club and give you the resource materials you need to get a club up and running. After meeting with the head teacher and completing the various security checks, you pitch up for an hour a week, run through some fun projects with the kids and hopefully pass on some coding knowledge along the way.
I had two main barriers to entry:
1. I’m not the world’s best coder
I can write HTML and CSS but I’m not exactly spending weekends firing up the BeagleBone Black to test my new Node.js framework. Was I really in the position to teach anyone about coding?
While a basic understanding of coding principles will serve you well, you don’t need to be a hugely experienced coder to run a Code Club. You start off using Scratch – a visual program where you drag-and-drop blocks of code to create your own interactive stories, games and animations. After a couple of hours working through Code Club’s Scratch projects, I felt confident enough to teach it.
Then I started getting excited about Scratch. The results are so immediately gratifying! Press play, turn up your speakers and use the arrow keys to see me me busting some moves with the cat*
* I never get to make things this rad for clients.
2. Children are scary.
I was nervous when I pitched up to the first session. I regularly present to clients but had no idea what to expect from a group of primary school kids. I started off with a few slides about my job, how I learned to code and showed them some of my early efforts at games and websites. I also talked about some of fun jobs and hobbies you can do if you learn to code and showed some creative stuff my mates do for a living.
No one cried. Everyone got excited when I showed a slide of MineCraft. One boy pointed out my surname was spelled wrong (I vowed to take this up with my husband). I ran through the basics of Scratch on the projector and they got to work on the first project.
None of the kids had used Scratch before but it seemed to click with them straight away. Some of them ripped through the projects, others approached it slowly, asked lots of questions and it gradually fell into place. I got used to being called “Miss” and realised the kids were actually talking to me and not someone behind me.
My tips for starting out:
* Ask the school to install Scratch on the computers, rather than accessing it online. While the Scratch website is dead exciting, there are too many distractions. Save this for home exploration.
* Insist the children get their code working before they start to experiment. Get them to tick off each step with a pencil. [I can hear you tutting, hear me out on this one]. While I’m keen to encourage creativity, if you let them do their own thing from the get-go it typically results in lots of football backgrounds (boys) and flower drawings (girls) and not a lot of working code. Everyone gets sad and frustrated, Miss has a little cry in the corner.Keep the creative bit for the end of the session as a reward for getting their code working. Then go large modifying it, draw your own characters, add sounds and animations, test all the variables to see how many ways you can break it. It’s brilliant the crazy stuff they come up with and there is a real sense of achievement that the code THEY built works.
* Demonstrate projects by programming a ‘class robot’. Explain the code you’re going to write and ask the children to code the robot to perform the actions. On the surface Scratch is just dragging blocks of code into a scripts area. I’m keen for the children to understand the principles behind what they’re doing, rather than copying the scripts rote.
* Encourage collaboration but don’t force it. I’ve found some of the children work brilliantly with a partner, others want to go it alone. If one of the kids is struggling, get everyone together 10 mins before the end of the session, open their project and work through their problem as a team. Helps reinforce working together and everyone leaves happy.
* Buy cheap ink in bulk for your printer. Scratch is colour-coded and the sheets really do need to be printed in colour. At 5+ pages/each a session, it can become a bit of a printing marathon!
I’ve started looking forward to my Thursdays down with the kids.
The children are really sweet and enthusiastic and without sounding trite, I’m actually finding it rather rewarding.
After my third session a little girl told me that Code Club was “her most favourite lesson of the week” and I nearly did some crying. The children ask for copies of the projects to take home for their siblings and friends and they spend an excitable few minutes telling me about the Scratch projects they are making at home. The best thing is I’m getting them making on the computer. High-fives all round.
While it’s a relief to see positive changes happening to the school computing curriculum, it’s going to take time to roll out and train teachers to implement it. While Code Club offers a sticking plaster solution, it is a timely one and something I’m glad to be part of.