Before becoming a little code witch, I was a teacher in a low-income school. My students received 100% free breakfast and lunch, our building smelled faintly of mildew, and resources were limited. We finally hired a technology teacher, but that position only lasted for a year due to budget constraints. As an adult, my surroundings were often disheartening. The staff, the teachers, and most importantly, the students, deserved more.
But you know what? The kids were inspiring. My little second graders were so curious, so kind, so funny.
They were thrilled with the technology they did have (my former principal worked extremely hard to acquire and maintain 6 carts of 30 iPads each for the entire building to share, and we had 2 semi-functioning computer labs). But they were also normal kids. They loved recess, dance parties, and the fact that their teacher couldn’t help but randomly start singing Disney songs during work time. Note: I also only know the KidzBop version of many pop songs.
My last batch of second graders is now a group of tall, lanky fifth graders. I had dinner with some of my former colleagues last night, and I was so pleased to hear from their music teacher that my kiddos are still as funny, curious, and crazy as ever. Leaving those kids is my biggest regret about abandoning the teaching profession.
Remember that technology teacher? That school still hasn’t replaced him, nearly four years later, and my school is not an anomaly. Many school districts across the nation are struggling with what is known as digital equity, both within their buildings and their communities as a whole.
Recognizing this need, what can we, as developers, do? We can share our skills with our community by starting or volunteering at code clubs. As a former educator, I have a few inside tips to help you get your program up and running.
Before approaching a school about starting a club, you must first ask yourself a few key questions:
Do you want to teach the little ones that may not even know how to use a mouse yet, or would you rather dive right into programming with an older group? At the middle or high school level, you can probably open your club to all grade levels. However, I recommend only offering your club to no more than three levels in elementary school to narrow the range of skills.
Personally, I think the 3rd-5th grade is a perfect range for the elementary level. They have basic technology skills, have decent reading comprehension, and are wildly curious. They also tend to be a little easier on the behavior management side of things.
Do you want to run a program year-round, or would you rather limit your club to a quarter or semester? How often and for how long will you meet? \To respect students’ time, I recommend meeting at most twice a week in no longer than 90-minute sessions. Remember students have homework, families, and other extra-curricular activities, so make it easy for them to fit your club into their schedule. I would also consider running the club for a limited time multiple times throughout the school year so more students have the opportunity to participate in your program.
You should have a curriculum in mind before approaching a school about starting a club. Let’s look at a few free options, starting with the most work on your part:
- Scratch MIT’s Scratch is a programming language designed for ages 8-16, but people of all ages love it for its visual and user-friendly approach to code! While Scratch does not recommend a specific curriculum, they do offer many tutorials and other resources. For some curriculum examples designed by other teachers, check out ScratchEd.
- Code.org Code.org offers detailed lesson plans and a full curriculum for grades K-12. They also provide promotional videos and other resources to encourage students to join your program.
- Girls Who Code Girls Who Code was designed with the mission of increasing the presence of women in tech. They have programs for the 3rd-12th grade, and their curriculum teaches both soft and hard skills. Clubs focusing on 3rd-5th can run either with or without technology, while the higher grades require a computer with an internet connection. \Unlike the other options mentioned above, Girls Who Code also provides funding to help qualified clubs provide snacks, t-shirts, and guest speakers.
As a teacher, the most obvious place to host a code club would be a school. However, consider other options in your community as well. Many libraries, churches, and other non-profit locations will gladly provide a free or affordable space for your club.
If you do go the school route, consider the following:
To protect their students, many school districts have an application process for new volunteers. This application often includes a background check. Once you decide to start a club, this should be the first thing you look into, as it can take several weeks to receive volunteer clearance.
Do they have a computer lab? What about a reliable internet connection? If not, how can you help overcome these challenges? Consider pairing with a teacher to write a technology grant or launch a DonorsChoose campaign.
In a similar vein, does the school have a budget for extra-curricular activities? Schools will be particularly attracted to clubs that are free for both them and their students.
In my experience, most schools require a teacher or other staff member to sponsor all after-school activities. Remember, these folks are exhausted. There’s tired, and then there’s teacher tired.
If you want to get one of these angels on-board with your club, please make it as easy as possible on them. Do the legwork so they can come in, supervise, and support your club without having to dedicate any extra time outside of your one or two hours a week.
If you are struggling to find a sponsor, look to your state’s educational standards for a way in. Teachers have a huge list of concepts they must teach each year, known as teaching standards. Look at the standards in your state for the grades you are interested in teaching, and figure out which ones you will address in your lessons. Note that while you are hosting a code club, you may also be addressing concepts in your state’s math, reading, or even social studies standards, so look around. Teachers love “cross-curricular” activities.
If a teacher realizes their students will have extra exposure to, say, reading and analyzing informational text, they may be more likely to join on… and have a few prospective students in mind.
You’ve got a venue, you have a teacher sponsor, and you are ready to go. There’s just one thing: you still need students to join your club. Code.org and Girls Who Code have some promotional resources to help you out, but the easiest way to enroll students is to show them what they will create.
A few weeks before your club begins, arrange to visit the classrooms for a 15-minute presentation. Show the kids the program they will be using, some cool things they can do, and then – here’s the kicker – point out that Fortnight, Angry Birds, or any other game they like was created with code. Play to their interests and save 5 minutes or so to answer questions at the end.
After introducing the club to the students, leave flyers for the teachers to send home. Be respectful of their very limited copy budget and make a Kinkos run yourself. If you can, also ask to hang up a poster or two in the classroom, in the halls, and in the cafeteria. If you are nice to the front office staff, you may even manage to get a shoutout for your club on the school’s website, social media, or the marquee out front. It’s amazing what the front office can do for you.
Most importantly, have fun with this. No matter the grade, the students will latch onto your enthusiasm. Be excited about coding, and they will too. Celebrate every little win, encourage collaboration and pair programming, and watch your code club flourish. Good luck!