By Jocelyn Segal Tarkoff
In my third grade classroom at JCDS, Boston's Jewish Community Day School, I make literature come alive for students by integrating computer coding into the unit. Across an integrated unit exploring prejudice in literature, there is fertile opportunity to teach children about the power of our choices. After spending weeks reading books dealing with topics of prejudice, for the final project, students created an original story map to illustrate how prejudices, both positive and negative, inform our actions. They modeled their stories after "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, where the reader makes decisions which determine the final outcome of the story. Students then designed and programmed a Scratch computer program where the user drives the protagonist's choices. In each student's project, questions are posed to the user about how s/he wants to treat someone based on a personal characteristic. The user makes a decision to be prejudiced against a character, or not. Depending on the choice, the character will react in different ways and the story will take a different route. Although many characters we read about faced prejudice, JCDS students, using their budding computer programming skills, were able to redeem the unfortunate stories by giving the computer user the option to be kind, accepting, and non-judgmental towards the characters in their programs.
Building on the computer programming skills they have been developing through projects since Gan Nitzan (kindergarten), third grade students are now creating more complex projects with deeper content. The students needed to build every component of their programs, including each potential outcome whenever the user is given a choice. The specific programming commands, such as "broadcast" and "if, then or else" were modeled so that students could imagine different possibilities and develop sophisticated programs. Embedded in the computer programs, kids see the power of choice and how different choices lead to vastly different effects.
I am in awe of what these 21st century innovators, my 8 and 9 year old students imagine and produce. Instead of responding to an already designed program or game, such as a purchased program, my students visualize their own program from a blank canvas, develop it, and then watch their peers press play! As students work to revise their programs, I work to revise my curriculum and instruction based on their areas of challenge, both for this year's class and for future third graders. Additionally, my students were open to and required to adjust their programs to address bugs. Both teachers and students publically model new strategies for problem solving to make our thinking visible to others. Moreover, students give each other feedback as they act as beta-testers for one another. This flexibility parallels the mind flexibility that I am teaching as a core value through this unit. Not only are the students learning the power in reserving judgment when meeting people who are different from them, but they are also learning how to be open to problem solving when faced with challenges.
At JCDS, not only are students able to exist in the gray, they are able to be the directors of the paths they choose in their lives, striving to make our world just and accepting. As a 21st century teacher, I feel blessed to be able to explore the timeless questions of how we should treat others through the technology of today.
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