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 became a Code Club volunteer 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

Word Art in Reflective Chrome - hell yeah!
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.
Code Club logo
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?

Scratch logoWhile a basic understanding of coding principles will serve you well, you don’t need to be a hugely experienced coder to become a Code Club volunteer. 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.

Just buy the cookies

 

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.

 

Me, bad hair, IBM 5155

Me circa 1985. Not much has changed, just less hair and more RAM.

 

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.

 

RoboKid2000

RoboKid2000 – top tip from Stef.

 

* 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 look 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.

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.

 

Finally

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.

Code Club shirt. Hello World!

You should volunteer too. You. Honestly. If you’ve got any questions hit the Code Club community or drop me a line, I’d be happy to share my experience.

I'm a freelance UI/UX Designer from London.

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Comments

  1. I’m a CC volunteer too – you’ve captured just how it feels. The children have enough schooling to be able to manage for themselves most of the time, but are not yet ‘too cool to code’ (and maybe some of them never will be).

    But what IS the first rule of Code Club?

    Reply
    • Cheers for the thoughts Chris. I debated whether to volunteer for Code Club for ages and so pleased I did. Took a few sessions to get into the swing of it but now I’m starting to think up different ways of engaging the kids and keeping them challenged. I’m too old and uncool to even suggest the first rule of Code Club. Something coined post 2006!

      Reply
  2. My 9yo son is just about to start coding at his school, but this piece has really made me think about what he will do there, how will it be presented (at meet the teacher I was asked if I’d like to help her out!!!) and what will he really get out of it? I’m not that conversant enough to teach it as an aside, like you, but I’m more than willing to teach myself more in order to help my son out and, in time maybe, a few of his friends. You never know, if I do get a grip of it, I may follow your lead. Very inspirational! Thanks for posting, Geri.

    Reply
    • Hi Brendan, thanks for the thoughts. If you’ve got the time to learn Scratch and basic HTML you could easily run a Code Club. I had never used Scratch before and I’ve found it straightforward and actually rather fun to learn. I bought a book but loads of great resources online. Check out:

      http://www.scratchprogramming.org/
      http://www.teach-ict.com/programming/
      scratch/scratch_home.htm
      http://www.code-it.co.uk/scratch/scratchplan.html

      I have twins the same age. They have a little friend who comes to play and he wants to spend the whole time on the computer. When I asked him why he said “at our house computers are only for grownups”. Must be a lot of kids in the same position, makes me feel sad. Every little helps!

      Reply
  3. On the use of paper and ink side of things, this term I’ve used the booklet feature of Adobe Reader for printing. This puts four pages per backed sheet of paper and nobody has complained about it being too small. I merged the projects together into a booklet with a cover with the Code Club logo and school name and a place where the kids could put their name and class. In hindsight I should have done a booklet per level as stapling that many pages together didn’t work well, but otherwise I’m hapy with it. I also printed stickers with their username and password on to stick inside the front cover so they have them when logging in (I totally agree that using the website is distracting now I’ve moved from Scratch 1.4 to 2). I’ve used a set of club accounts for them to use as creating one that each of them can keep wouldn’t work in terms of personal details, choosing a login name, etc. (it is easy enough to migrate projects to a new account if they create one).

    Reply
    • Cheers Paul – I haven’t thought about printing 2-up per page. I’ve noticed the new beta projects run to like 20 odd pages so I might try this, I am ordering rather a lot more printer ink than I used to! Thanks for the input.

      Reply
  4. Nice article and interesting comments. Possibly a little late in the day, but for what it’s worth here’s my twopenneth:

    My (then Year 6) grandson told me he had done his “hour of coding” and seemed happy that that was coding done and dusted; sad but true.

    On printing: schools have printers! I send the pdfs to the club teacher and she gets all the copies done and brings them to the club. Also, the school where I run Code Club has a big box of iPads, I did see somewhere someone putting the scripts on a set of iPads and not having dead tree copies at all.

    Finally, Scratch is such fun to use, I wrote my first code in 1972, every year or so something new comes along and sometimes makes it easier to translate thought into code (on line WYSIWYG editors -wow, I mean WOW!), but for putting the fun back into coding, Scratch is hard to beat. When I was a kid I had a Spirograph, fun but the pens kept slipping out, now I have a Scratch coded spirograph pattern generator WOW++.

    Reply
    • Hi Alan,

      Thanks for the thoughts. While all initiatives to get children interested in coding are to be encouraged, I do find some to be a little hollow. It’s a hot topic and you see a lot of local bodies jumping on the bandwagon with little more than a hashtag on Twitter. Still – I guess every little helps to raise awareness.

      My school doesn’t have a colour copier for me to use and I do find Scratch makes a lot more sense in colour. Similarly, we’ve only got a handful of iPads. At least I’m keeping my local cartridge shop in business!

      My first memories of anything graphical on school computers was directing the turtle in LOGO. Even though the UI is now so much fancier, the concept is the same – it’s great to see children trying to work out screen co-ordinates and angles. Maths is much easier to digest with a fun, practical application.

      Appreciate the comments – even if it has taken me away from my “hour of coding”!

      Reply

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