A few summers ago, I had the opportunity to teach a computer science enrichment class to four periods of incoming 4th and 5th grade students. Initially, I thought the goal of the class was to show these students that each one of them could learn a computer programming or web development language and, one day, become engineers at a place like Google or Apple.
As it turns out, I was wrong. Teaching students that they could become computer science professionals was the cherry on top, not the reason for taking the class.
For this month long summer class, I decided that my students would spend one week creating a website using HTML. Instead of using a fancy development environment, we used nothing but Notepad to write our webpages. To anyone who has not made a website from scratch, HTML is a jumble of tags made of letters, symbols, and numbers which surround the content of your page. In the jumble, however, is precision. Every colon, space, and slash must be placed perfectly. If a character is incorrectly inserted or a semicolon missed, the whole project fails - the incredible web page that exists in your imagination appears only as a blank screen.
Fourth and fifth graders can, at times, still struggle to remember to capitalize the first letter of a sentence or remember the five parts of a friendly letter. After a few days of tackling HTML, with the precision that it requires, it became clear that these nine and ten year olds would learn as much about tenacity and perseverance as they would about hypertext and website publishing.
I had a student in my class named Justin. Imagine a nine year old version of any given Silicon Valley startup CEO. Picture this kid with flip flops, shorts, and a hooded sweatshirt. A shaggy mop of light brown hair on top of his head. A kid who loves technology, but only as a consumer. Someone who has never had the opportunity to delve deep and learn about how it works or to create something on a computer from scratch. That was Justin.
Alongside his classmates, Justin struggled with the assignment. On a regular basis, he would come up to me and, with sincerity, plead - “Mr. Z - I have looked at every line of my code, and it all looks perfect to me! But it isn’t working!” Then, like clockwork, he would begin to blame the computer. “It must be malfunctioning,” he would reason, as though it was impossible that he missed yet another character or a semicolon in one of his HTML tags.
After a few of these interactions, I came to a realization. I was officially in over my head.
Now, the goal of the assignment, the end artifact that my students were working towards, was not what you are probably picturing in your head when you imagine a website. We were not trying to display pictures or build menus. There were no videos or interactive features. No. Our goal was simply to use HTML to markup short essays about our hobbies and our favorite things so that they would display using a web browser. Initially, we were working towards just a few sentences, maybe with some splashes of color thrown in for those early finishers.
It seemed simple enough when I planned it.
Normally, the way that school works is that lessons build off of each other. The term spiral review comes to mind. We keep returning to concepts learned previously and we grow on a continuous path. This HTML project was unique in that it came out of left field for most of my students, Justin included. This was their very first experience delving into the realm of computer science, and had little prior foundation to build their learning upon. Everything was new. The tags, the use of Notepad, the way that we were opening their HTML using a web browser. Almost everything we did had to be learned for the first time.
Days passed in our week of HTML. The students continued to struggle with the assignment. I began to question why I assigned it in the first place. And to 120 students! Why not do something simpler? Something that could be more guided and more scaffolded? I wondered when the challenge of this webpage assignment would become too much. When the scales would tip and frustration would turn to boredom which would lead to an inevitable loss of interest. Heck, half the time my own HTML web page wouldn't work.
And yet, the students remained engaged.
On the third day of the project, I was working with another student when I heard a whisper come from Justin’s direction.
It was not the kind of “…yes” that is designed to brag or boast.
It was not the kind of “…yes” often accompanied by a smirk, a subtle attempt to purposely distract a classmate.
I don’t think Justin even realized he made the sound. It was barely audible. It was genuine and sincere, full of pride and joy. When I walked over to Justin’s desk, there on his screen glowed three sentences displayed in his web browser. A simple and yet functioning website. It read:
Welcome to Justin’s Awesome Website.
I like to swim, play baseball, and program websites.
I hope you like my website.
These three admittedly ridiculous, black and white sentences transformed how I view education.
Justin shared his experience with the class - the hours of frustration that led to his eventual success. His “... yes” became our classroom anthem - kids would get stuck, stick with it, and then “… yes.” Our community changed. As students began to whisper that word, I watched them stop shying away from challenges and begin relishing in them. They recognized that the genuine challenge and discomfort of real learning was the very thing that would lead them to their feel good whisper - the audible realization that, despite the very real challenges and obstacles to success, they stuck with it. It felt good.
I am so happy I had the opportunity to work with those kids that summer.
It taught me that one of the hidden benefits of teaching kids how to code or make websites is found in the novel opportunity to learn something totally new for the first time, often without a foundation of past knowledge and lessons. It is rare for this to happen in schools, and yet, it is so powerful. It puts the discomfort of learning on stage. This discomfort can be experienced, observed, and then reflected upon. It is a playground to safely find perseverance and grit that can then be applied to other learning challenges in the future.
They taught me that students reflect a teacher’s genuine excitement for learning and being curious about the world. I taught them HTML, not from a lectern, but alongside them in the trenches, learning as I went. They saw me become frustrated when my page didn’t work, and overjoyed when it did. It doesn’t matter if you are learning about Charlotte’s Web in third grade, or the The Great Gatsby in high school. When teachers are genuinely engaged not only in their curriculum, but in actually learning and gaining new knowledge, our students will follow suit.
They taught me about the power of a genuinely engaging unit. They made me understand that, no matter what you teach, kindergarten to calculus, as educators we have the power to kindle new passions in our students, to give them opportunities to find the moments where they cannot help but whisper “... yes” under their breath.
When students have that sort of genuine release upon finding success it is proof that we have reached them. The perseverance that preceded it will stick with them long after they leave our classrooms even if the specific concepts of the unit eventually fade. And that, in my mind, is the goal of the work that we do every day of the school year. To chase those elusive, under-the-breath whispers.
In your classroom, maybe it won’t be a whisper. Maybe it will be a silently pumped fist or a student who can’t help but lean over to a classmate and say, “Hey, check this out…” as she points to her work. Whatever form it takes, notice it and realize that you have had an impact on that student’s life. Echoes of that moment will last far longer than your class period or the school year.
Like Justin, that student will never be the same.
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