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Becoming Lifelong Learners with Computer Science at Shelby County

August 10 2021 · By Karen Melara

Nestled within Memphis, Tennessee, lie three teachers creating safe and innovative spaces for their students to experiment with computer science and go beyond their regular routines. At Shelby County Schools, the 2021 school year was anything but normal. Yet, Stephanie, Blair, and Jessica preserved and found joy in letting go and venturing into the unknown. Jumping into something new is never easy, but given the opportunity, these teachers took the unfamiliar and turned it into a valuable learning experiment with their students. They overcame the challenges of remote learning and turned it into something engaging that every student could imagine for themselves.

Teaching at Belle Forest Community School, Stephanie Phelix was wary about including an additional task for her students on top of everything else that was happening. But once she started her professional development (PD) workshops, she quickly noted what a powerful tool that teaching Scratch in the classroom could be. Working through a unique situation where she only saw her students on alternating weeks, Stephanie would partner with the Spanish teacher to share resources, including coding lessons, to ensure kids had a seamless learning experience.

Meanwhile, at John P Freeman Optional School, Jessica Moorhead advocated for the importance of starting students at the elementary level before their preconceived notions kicked in. She noted that students can explore subjects and interests outside of their usual comfort zone. "CS is for All," and it creates an equitable environment for students. On top of that, coding aids with Social Emotional Learning (SEL). It has become an outlet for students and a uniquely creative way to express themselves and share their values and interests.

Echoed amongst the teachers were the hardships faced going remote. Not having the one-on-one connection and struggling to keep students motivated were constantly top-of-mind. Luckily, access to technology wasn't the most significant obstacle faced by the district, as schools provided tablets for students to continue learning from home. While tablets weren't the issue, some students had to learn how to properly engage virtually and safeguard those safe spaces for all.

And at Snowden Schools, Blair Stock noted that students get a stark reality check when they realize the shift from face-to-face interactions to digital ones. He emphasized the importance of being a good digital citizen and teaching students the importance of translating “good behavior in-person” to online. Students are growing up in a world where they know how to "touch" a screen but not fully understanding what is happening behind the scenes. Blair states how critical it is for students at an early age to understand the background of coding and the thinking behind the design, and how it relates to their daily usage.

Leaning into the virtual experience, Jessica found a positive way to translate a BootUp lesson into a warm message to a student on her birthday. It brought joy and a huge appreciation to the student and her family. It made them feel connected once again after spending so much time in isolation due to the pandemic. From sending virtual greeting cards to friendly class competitions, Jessica's class thrived once they felt safe to explore code through their own lense.

In the library, "everyone is welcome," making it a diverse and inclusive space where students can feel safe regardless of their background or academic ability. Teachers can set the tone of what inclusivity means within the classroom. This allows those who learn at different speeds to feel comfortable and included in lessons, as one shy student demonstrated by zooming through a Scratch project Stephanie showed in class. He impressed other teachers around him and revealed that coding can be the true equalizer for academic aptitude. Sometimes you just have to show a little extra love.

Leaning on inspiration from her daughter, Stephanie, a little hesitant at first, got the courage and confidence she needed to prepare lessons for her class. Learning to let go and not let her fear get in the way, she opens up to students and allows them to become the facilitators. In addition to McKay's guiding hand, she allowed herself to work alongside teachers, many new to coding, who share remarkable "Aha" moments while learning to code.

Blair expresses the importance of being a lifelong learner. Each time you face something new, the curiosity and sense of adventure make the experience more enjoyable and keeps your mind open to new possibilities. "Don't be afraid to let the students teach you something." You eventually learn how to be ok with saying, "I don't know."

Whether you're a seasoned teacher or a complete novice, Jessica assures you that starting with Scratch is just like building a puzzle! The blocks become puzzle pieces you can put together to create an animation or bring a character to life. Students and teachers alike need those safe spaces to experiment and learn, and coding affords them that liberty where it's ok to fail. "Failure is just a starting point where you can try something different."

What do you do if you have a student who's constantly on YouTube? You teach them how to code! As young learners' screen time increases, Scratch has been a good outlet for those students who are more inattentive than others. Stephanie noted that students who watched videos or played games while in class quickly got excited when it came to a new coding lesson. For Belle Forest Community School, Stephanie sees the prospect of drawing in families, and the community, to teach them code. "You never know, this is something that could bring jobs to the parents and community as a whole."

With a positive outlook of what the new school year could look like, Stephanie, Blair, and Jessica all express their excitement about bringing something new into the classroom. Although scary at first, each teacher set their fears aside and opened their minds to new possibilities with Scratch and code. It's all about voice, choice, and creating new spaces when it comes to learning. With the latest tools in their toolbox, they walked away from PD with a new sense of wonder and eagerness to learn. One thing's for sure, nothing is stopping these teachers at Shelby County Schools from empowering their students.

District Highlight - Shelby County

Shelby County Schools
District Highlight
Elementary Coding

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