Can a classroom teacher—or parent volunteer—who knows nothing about coding actually teach coding to a classroom of elementary or middle school students? Yes! With a positive attitude, a willingness to learn, and the right supports, anyone can teach coding and have fun doing it.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned on my journey from classroom volunteer to coding instructor.
Don’t worry about where to start; just begin
I stumbled into coding when I volunteered in the classroom at my children’s elementary school. When my youngest was in the second grade, I saw an article about the Hour of Code. I thought it might be fun so pitched the idea to my child’s teacher. Although I knew almost nothing about coding, I offered to teach the class.
The first Hour of Code was a success, so the teacher asked if I wanted to teach more coding. I found Scratch, a free programming language, and thus began my coding career!
A few months later, a parent who was a friend wandered by my weekly coding class and asked if I wanted to help her start a STEM Club. I had to go home and Google the meaning of STEM, but I said yes again. Within a month, 30 kids signed up. A year later, we were running several classes per week. When some of our kids hit middle school, we started an in-school STEM class there. We also launched an after-school program and taught about 200 kids per week.
Each week with coding and STEM, I winged it. Then a teacher at Bella Vista Elementary asked if I’d like to volunteer in the Academic Talent Program (ATP), a magnet class program for students in grade 4 through middle school who are identified as highly gifted. I now teach a weekly technology course there to several classes.
What I learned from these experiences is that we don’t have to know anything about coding to start. Students’ enthusiasm more than made up for my lack of confidence, and it helped propel me deeper into the world of STEM.
Find tools to make it easy to teach and fun to learn
In the magnet class, we had a platform that had students creating programs using a text-based programming language called Python. Like other platforms we’d tried, students liked it for about a month but then found it to be too cut-and-dry.
Last spring, a parent suggested that I look at a K-12 program called STEMscopes Coding, powered by Bitsbox. I paid for it out of my own pocket and began using it last fall. It was an instant hit with my students. I now spend an hour a week on coding in one third grade, two fourth grade, and two fifth grade classes.
Students like that the projects are open-ended and that they can create their own games, simulations, and storytelling apps with graphics, sound, animation, and interactivity. What I like is that the program provides all the hand-holding I need to feel comfortable with coding. I can access resources such as lesson plans, videos, and coding tips and tricks whenever I need them. Even though I’ve been teaching coding for a few years, I know I couldn’t do it without support, so I appreciate having a safety net. My students, on the other hand, like to just jump in and code, and they easily figure out how to use the program on their own.
I also appreciate that the coding program has worked well with remote learning. During the pandemic, I taught coding over Zoom, and students coded on the program website. Since their apps were cloud-based, they could code from anywhere. When students completed their projects, I’d ask them to share their screens and show their app, which they loved. Listen to the funny sounds in this app! Look at the cool animations in this one! The show-and-tell was entertaining, and it helped spur their creativity as well.
Engage reluctant learners and build real-world skills
One of the unexpected benefits of coding is that it engages students who might not otherwise find their place in school. Every year I see about 20 kids who break out of their shells and come alive with coding. They’re not the “A” students or the “D” students but somewhere in between. These students—who used to be bored or uninspired—suddenly begin to develop a passion for school.
Coding gives them a chance to do something they might not normally get to do, and they excel. They get excited about their projects and enjoy sharing their ideas and teaching other students. Their enthusiasm and creativity is contagious. I often get emails from parents expressing how happy they are to see their children so inspired and confident about something at school.
Another great thing about coding is that it helps students build real-world skills they can use no matter what field or career they choose to pursue. Through coding projects, students learn how to collaborate, problem-solve, troubleshoot, and persevere. They learn how to present, critique each other’s work, and provide positive feedback. They also learn that there may be many paths to solving a problem.
Take the leap!
I know that many teachers (and parents) are intimidated by the idea of teaching coding. In the business world, I’m a Certified Public Accountant. When I meet my students’ parents at Back to School Night—many of whom work for high-tech companies—they’re often stunned to hear that I don’t have a tech background. When I tell them I’m not a coder, they think I’m joking.
What is helpful though is that almost everyone is fascinated with coding, and kids and parents love it. Coding captures students’ attention and holds their interest. Despite our worries as instructors, it doesn’t bother students if we’re not experts at coding. In my classes, I like to tell students that after a couple of months of working together, they’ll probably know more about coding than I do and they can teach me.
Coding programs for schools have come a long way over the last couple of years, so it’s easier than ever to get started. And if a teacher isn’t available, maybe a parent volunteer — even one with no prior coding experience — can help.
Tom Glynn is a parent volunteer and technology instructor at Bella Vista Elementary in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District in Danville, Calif.