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Kindergarten Code

By Debra R. Messick

Amy Shepler, Supervisor of Instruction with CCPS, and Lindsey McCormick, Director of Instruction with CCPS ­— both proponents of the new partnership between CCPS and BootUp, a nonprofit dedicated to incorporating basic computer literacy into school curriculums.

Like many career educators, Amy Shepler, Caroline County Public School (CCPS) Supervisor of Instruction, has worn several hats. Initially an art teacher, she earned a master’s degree in Instructional Technology. For Shepler, such a leap made perfect sense.

“I always tell people, as crazy as it sounds, I think my art background helped me when it came to computer science. In art, you’re constantly trying new things; if it works great, if not, you go back and try again. That’s how I approach this whole computer science thing,” she states.

Having been an Instructional Technology Coach for CCPS before her current position, Shepler’s resourcefulness became a major asset when the State of Maryland essentially adopted the national standard requiring computer science instruction from grades K through 12.

“At the secondary level, we felt we were doing pretty well, we had classes providing a pathway for students to graduate with computer science coursework under their belts,” Shepler recalls.

“The real challenge began with elementary. How do you begin to teach a kindergartner, who is still learning their letters, about algorithms?” Shepler wondered. “Can they even say the word algorithm?”

With no clear blueprint for implementing the guidelines, Shepler reached out to her online community of instructional tech gurus and learned that coding robots with kid-friendly names like Bee-Bots, Spheros, and Dashes provided a key portal to early learners. Basically tactile, without letters or numbers, youngsters could push an arrow button two times to move a robot two blocks on a map, something even nonreaders could understand, she notes.

Students at Federalsburg Elementary School learn the foundation for computer coding through robots.

Her son and daughter got to “test drive” the robots, and Shepler gave several presentations to the Caroline County Board of Education, principals, and other supervisors, affording them a chance at hands-on robot engagement. They were a hit and were soon delighting and gently teaching classroom youngsters coding foundations.

“We found ways to incorporate the robots into core classes like English Language Arts, where they could be coded to go from one current sight word the kids were learning to another,” she explains.

Though offering a promising start, there weren’t enough robots to use in every classroom. Resuming her Internet search, Shepler accidentally stumbled on BootUp, a nonprofit program dedicated to providing elementary teachers with support and resources for incorporating basic computer literacy into their curriculums.

Expecting a recording, Shepler was pleasantly surprised when BootUp’s Executive Director Clark Merkley answered her call and spoke with her for an hour answering her questions about the program. When BootUp Professional Development facilitator Brenda Bass conducted a workshop for Calvert and Charles County educators on the western shore, Shepler and CCPS Director of Instruction Lindsey McCormick, went to observe, but eneded up fully participating in the platform’s hands-on coding experience.

McCormick, experienced teaching kindergarten and first grade, but a coding beginner, joined Shepler in immediately recognizing that they had found what they needed — training user-friendly enough for instructors whatever their level of tech-savvy.

Both were pleased with the strong support from CCPS school board members, administrators, and the five elementary media specialists charged with introducing the computer literacy program to students. Shepler also credited the Maryland Centers for Computing Education with awarding several grants and offering to provide whatever they needed to get started. Responsible for the district’s Title IV federal funding, McCormick wrote the grant application. The group funded 100 percent of the robot purchase.

Originating in 2015 as a “give back” initiative of Emerald Data Solutions, which Merkley had headed as COO, BootUp’s mission has been to provide in-person professional development, coaching, and online resources to prepare elementary teachers to introduce interactive coding, computational thinking, and computer science instruction. The initiative is especially targeted to districts that have been underserved and underrepresented in tech education. According to the organization’s website, they have assisted almost 477 elementary schools impacting over 150,000 students. This past year, Amazon stepped in to underwrite professional development funding for over 1,000 more districts. Caroline County is the first Maryland district onboard, currently engaged in a two to a three-year partnership.

Bass, the Personal Development Facilitator assigned to work directly with Caroline County since 2019, taught for over 30 years in several Texas school systems. Although originally a classroom teacher for seven years, she applied for a computer technology position, despite not knowing how to turn on the large Apple 2E she had relegated to her bedroom. Husband David provided a crash course in “everything Apple” helping her land the job she grew to love and believe in. Signing on with BootUp after retirement has helped her continue to channel that unwavering dedication.

Summing up her role, Bass explains, “I’m not really a sage on a stage. I don’t say, ‘Okay everybody, we’re gonna learn algorithms (a sequence of specific directions given to a computer for solving a problem) today, what’s an algorithm?’ It just comes up while doing the first project. Then I say, ‘Look, you’ve just created your first algorithm.’”

Bass notes that providing time to individually create the project, with someone standing by to answer questions as they come up, enables people to customize the program for their unique curriculum. Among the questions she is most often asked is, “How do I begin to teach these students, when I don’t know how to code?”

Assuring teachers they don’t need to be experts at the outset, Bass advises, “Don’t worry about not knowing everything, and don’t wait until you know it, just go ahead and introduce that coding to students. By saying, ‘We’re going to learn this together,’ you’re modeling how to be a life-long learner, and that’s very, very powerful.”

She explains that the goal of the program isn’t for every student to become a computer programmer — but rather honing the skills and character-building strengths, such as problem solving, creativity, grit, and perseverance learned through coding, which will help carry them through school and beyond.

In her experiences with school districts large and small, she universally observes youngsters excited and eager to engage with the process. And she never fails to hear teachers tell her, “See that student over there? That student struggles with everything. They’re good with this coding, though.”

For Bass, that was the case with her youngest daughter, who had difficulties with schoolwork and social skills — without much self-esteem or many friends. But when she began coding in middle school, where it was just between her and the computer, she excelled, impressing others, gaining confidence, and peer recognition.

In her own classrooms, Bass witnessed first-hand how two essentially nonverbal youngsters had coding-inspired breakthroughs. One was a violent kindergartener needing two teaching assistants, who hadn’t spoken since starting school two months earlier. Preparing to lead the class in a coding exercise, Bass felt a tap on her leg then heard him say, “Ryan turn, Ryan turn.” Everyone stopped because those had been the first words he had spoken. He stayed engaged on the iPad program for 45 minutes.

She also recalls a second-grade girl who hadn’t talked all year long but had created a story using Scratch Jr., a version of a free MIT coding platform, Scratch, adapted for early learners. She entered her story into the STEMfest which required students to speak about their program.

“She was so shy, they put her in the library, and she whispered about her project, but that was, in fact, the first time her classmates had ever heard her talk,” Bass notes. “Coding gives all students a voice.”

Going forward, Caroline County’s five elementary school libraries continue to be the focal points for meshing computer skills into a broader literacy model. Federalsburg Elementary School Media Specialist Brittainy Simmons likens the overlapping creative and cognitive skills involved to popular “makerspace” or hands-on learning being used in many schools today. Initially, a coding novice, Simmons appreciated being able to learn Scratch Jr. by doing the lessons herself first. Buoyed by her students’ enthusiasm, she is eager to create lessons that meld storytelling with problem-solving.

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