Last Autumn my school was approached by a parent who worked for one of the big investment banks. He came to us as a representative of CAS, which, at the time, was an organisation I’d never heard of. Computing At School had been one of the many groups petitioning the government for a change in the curriculum and had a goal of supporting teachers and schools with introducing the new curriculum. He also mentioned a useful coding scheme of work called Code Club.
Within an hour of him leaving, I had already signed up to CAS and was investigating Code Club.
CAS is a great site, however it can be quite confusing and intense unless you have something specific in mind. I love the ideas behind it, but for a novice like me, I can find it all a bit overwhelming. Also, when I first signed up, it automatically sent me daily update emails, which just seemed to clog my inbox and annoy me. Now that I’m a bit more confident, I know I can use CAS to look for resources, as long as I know what I’m looking for, but I still wouldn’t go there instinctively. The other problem is that a lot of the resources, though helpful, are made with the assumption that you have some prior knowledge, which is not always the case. Having said that, I downloaded a lovely physical computing lesson plan which involved the children physically being a search engine (as a way of explaining how the world wide web and search engines work). One thing that CAS is really keen on is what they call ‘physical computing’, which does seem to be a great idea. Instead of explaining binary, act out binary, instead of explaining that your code syntax must be correct, act out being a line of code and see what happens when you misspell things or put them in the wrong place.
Anyway, I also started to look at Code Club and the first thing that CC asks you to do is to search for a volunteer – this is my problem with the site – I spent a good few weeks mindlessly emailing their lists of volunteers, most of whom didn’t reply at all and the two that did both sent a terse “no I’m already running a code club” back. It would be helpful if volunteers could tick a box saying that they don’t want to be approached by any other clubs when they find one. From my experience, most club volunteers directly approach a school because they have some connection with it (the parent mentioned above did offer to help, but only if we could run an 8am club, which I just don’t have time for). Anyway, disheartened and a bit cross, I took the plunge and decided to run the club myself; I really wish I’d done this from the outset as it would have saved me a lot of time and effort, particularly since the resources are so well written and easy to follow.
When I last looked, there were 4 terms of code club resources, however, their aim is to have 6 full terms of information. The first two terms are titled Scratch and Advanced Scratch, then CSS and HTML, followed by Python.
The first term contains three ‘levels’ of Scratch games to make: each level has three games in it. My first reaction was that the children would finish it all well before the end of term – 9 games, 9 weeks right? How wrong I was….by the end of term 2 I had 3 children that finished level 2 and that was the furthest anyone got….having said that, we did get distracted by Raspberry Pi and Codecademy, but more on that later.
What I really liked was that not only did you get instructions and ideas, you got detailed guides for the children (printed, laminated and stuck in a lever arch file), guides for the teachers, cool ‘badges/cards’ that can be laminated as proof that you are part of the club (never underestimate the power of a laminated card), you get certificates to print out along with the twelve original Scratch cards and three more which they have created themselves because they feel they are important skills too. There is also a register with a handy tick-chart to monitor progress, which I left in the front of my folder and allowed the children to tick off when they had finished a project.
So, here’s what I did (spot the OCD teacher here) – I printed off each of the projects (nine in total), I laminated four copies of each, hole punched them, threaded them with a treasury tag and allowed the children to work through at their own pace. The initial plan had been to work on a project each week with a whole class input at the start, but the children worked at such wildly different rates and became so independent that I didn’t need to input, I just had to be on hand to debug AND after a few weeks, the children began to debug each other, which was such a wonderful thing to observe!
The first project, Felix and Herbert, was fairly simple and most children managed it without too much support – most children didn’t notice the instruction to click the button to stop the cat rotating and keep him on a horizontal axis, but otherwise there weren’t any problems except a slight delay with a costume change from a mouse to a ghost that seemed to be a flaw in Scratch rather than anything to do with the programming.
There were a few problems with Whack-a-witch when the sound file only played intermittently and occasionally the witch disappeared never to return, but again these seemed to be Scratch problems rather than any issue with the code and the classic ‘save’, ‘close’ and ‘reload’ seemed to do the trick.
The third project, called Fireworks, involved teaching a few new skills as the children had to import 5 image files and a sound file, which I simply emailed over to them and got them drag and drop onto their desktop then they had to navigate the Scratch interface to access the desktop and import the files. I also had a few issues with the suggested code – I’m not sure if it was meant to be deliberately wrong to encourage children to think for themselves, but the gist of the project was that the firework shot into the air, banged and then turned into an explosion picture before disappearing. The code given by Code Club wanted you to use two separate sprites and have the rocket sprite disappear and be replaced by one of the 4 explosions (in a random colour), but I found it more elegant to simply have it set up as a secondary costume and then when the instructions asked you to make the firework select a random explosion, setting all 4 as extra costumes and asking the programme to select one at random made much sense than getting it to chose a random sprite (if you’re not sure what I mean by sprites and costumes please take a look at my earlier post about Scratch).
I haven’t needed to help the children who worked through level two – they were confident enough by that point that they helped each other through any problems and so any problems they came across were sorted out without me needing to be involved – scary but true.
Having said that, one of the main reasons I haven’t been helping the children working in Scratch as much is that I got distracted by learning about the coding language Python on the website Codecademy and working with a handful of children who had decided that they wanted to move on from block based languages and sink their teeth into a real, wordy programming language…..