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Teacher's coding lesson helps students show gratitude

Tori Pickens’ students at the George B. Armstrong Elementary School for International Studies joined millions of teachers and students around the world to do an Hour of Code last week. Hour of Code is a global computer science initiative that creates a fun and creative environment for students to be introduced to the concepts of computer programming. The activity they completed, Code Your Hero by CS First, allowed students to reflect on and honor the everyday heroes in their lives while learning computer science concepts. 

As the Dynamic Technology/Computer Science teacher, Tori is responsible for envisioning and coordinating the technology and CS education for all 1,200 students in the Chicago school from Kindergarten through 8th grade. She is also a leader in CS4All Chicago, helping pilot and develop many of their curricula and initiatives. In a recent conversation, Tori talked to us about her Hour of Code experience, her teaching philosophy and the power of CS education.

Why did you want to teach an Hour of Code this year?

I think that working on these projects increases students’ metacognition, or ability to “think about their thinking.” The activities can change year to year, but the important part is that students are aware of what they are doing while they are doing it. Practicing that thought process is the important part because it’s a transferable skill that they can apply to other real life situations.

Tori Pickens looks at camera, smiling, while she stands next to the desk of a student working on a coding lesson.
Coding isn't a talent, it's a skill. Tori Pickens

What did you enjoy most about CS Education Week this year?

This year’s activity was particularly special because of the theme around heroes. The specific sprites and scenes (aka characters and background) in the Code Your Hero activity were so diverse, just like my group of students. Over 50 countries are represented at our school. At the beginning of the lesson, we had inspiring conversations around who our heroes are, and I learned about a lot of new heroes in pop culture! But I also saw that my students found unique ways to acknowledge the strength in others. 

How did students express that through the activity? 

Sometimes I’m not sure my students know how to show gratitude very well, but this activity really got them thinking about the qualities of a hero. One student chose to create a project using the sprite that looked like a dad wearing a baby carrier. She said, “My dad is my hero because he makes sure that we eat every day!” They were showing impressive coding skills, but those moments were the real highlight for me.

What advice do you have for other teachers who want to incorporate coding into their curriculum?

Educators often feel like we must have all the knowledge. In my class, I make it really clear that we’re always learning together. I’m a life-long learner, and I want to model that for my students. But with everything we want to learn, the hardest part of our jobs can be pacing and time management. There’s often just not enough time! My recommendation is to start with an exploration of materials. Try to make time to “play with purpose” regularly, even if that’s just 30 minutes at the end of the day on Friday. I tell teachers to try CS First. It’s the best program I’ve found for introducing students to Scratch.

What is your teaching philosophy for computer science, or anything else?

I teach perseverance above all else. I think this is the most important skill for students to walk away with. We talk a lot about having to be driven, and not giving up. I tell students that they can’t say, “there’s no way.” It might not be the way you thought it was going to be, but there are creative ways to solve all problems. I’m happy if they develop their coding skills, and I often remind my students that coding is not a talent, it’s a skill—but mostly I want them to experience success from perseverance because they will learn and obtain so many other skills in life that way. 

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