Code for Learning

Darkness shrouded the abandoned amusement park making it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead. I followed the path between the rides as best I could, knowing someone else was hiding in the darkness, and hoping I could find him before he found me.

I checked the carousel, finding it still had power, and rode it once around, looking out into the night. I walked through a giant maze, hunting for the criminal I’d been tasked to find. “I think I’m lost,” I said aloud. An adolescent hand pointed over my shoulder. “Just go forward, then left, then right.” And then, before I could manipulate the keyboard, the pale face of the man I’d been pursuing filled the computer screen and the game was over.

photo 1I turned to the 8th grade programmer who’d developed the game. “Very cool.”

He smiled. “Want to play it again?”

I was visiting one of the computer programming classes at Diegueño, invited to check out the interactive stories and games the young coders had developed. As I moved around the room, seeing a huge variety in subject matter: swooping planes, spinning rubik’s cubes, and even a whack-a-mole game, I was impressed by three things…

First, the programs were really good. Every game I played or story I watched had both interesting graphics and thoughtful design. Sure these are middle schoolers, so more things caught fire in the games than adults might expect, but the quality of the work was jaw dropping.

Second, the kids really knew what they were doing, and could take me behind the curtain to show me how they’d coded the games. This ability to articulate what they did to create their projects struck me as a significant part of learning to program.

They’d worked in pairs or groups of three and collaboration was a part of all they did. This necessary teamwork helped produce more than great products on the screen, I believe it helped these students think critically about the how and why of all they were doing as well as the what.

photo 4Finally, I walked away from that computer lab infinitely impressed by the pride and excitement I’d seen in the kids. The students were having a ball showing off their work to each other, their teacher, and to me. It reminded me of talking with student actors after a play or musicians after a concert.

Engagement, energy, and fun fueled powerful learning in that programming class, where a gifted teacher guided students from just offstage, and kids had the confidence to tell their principal how to navigate the world they’d created.

I never caught the culprit I was searching for in that abandoned amusement park, but the young coders in the room most definitely caught me. I’ll go back for more doses of inspiration, and if the day has been a stressful one, maybe even try my hand at whack-a-mole.

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