How to Teach Coding in the Elementary Grades with Sam Patterson

Sam Patterson on episode 201 of the 10-Minute Teacher Podcast

From the Cool Cat Teacher Blog by Vicki Davis

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Teachers don’t have to be experts or “geeks” to use coding to improve literacy, use higher order thinking skills, and excite students in their classrooms. Elementary and primary students can learn to code. For Hour of Code week this week, learn how you can go past the Hour of Code and use coding all year long!

#HOURofCODE Sam Patterson

Today’s sponsor: Metaverse is a free simple augmented reality tool. Students can program. You can also use and create breakout educational experiences. See or download the Metaverse app today.

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Below is an enhanced transcript, modified for your reading pleasure. For guests and hyperlinks to resources, scroll down.


Enhanced Transcript

How to Teach Coding in the Elementary Grades with Sam Patterson

Link to show:
Date: Monday, December 4, 2017

Vicki: Happy Hour of Code Week!

So we have Hour of Code, but do we stop there? And why do we even want to code?

Today we have Sam Patterson @SamPatue with us, author of, also a podcaster, does so many other things. But he’s also written a book, Programming in the Primary Grades, Beyond the Hour of Code. And do check the Shownotes. We’ll be doing a giveaway of his book.

Why code in the elementary grades?

So, Sam, why do we even want to code in the elementary grades?

Sam: It’s really kind of amazing. When I first heard about coding in the elementary grades, I was really put off by it. I got this picture of kids sitting in front of a screen, kind of not talking to each other.

But what I have found, as I’ve worked to find really meaningful ways to get programming into classes, is that there are apps and platforms out there to allow you to do meaningful programming activities at any grade level that connect to and extend existing coursework.

So I can take a worksheet that I’ve been doing with my first graders, convert it into a Scratch Jr. activity, keep the learning goals the same, but actually add another level of scaffolding and another level of cognitive complexity.

You can actually use coding to kind of lower the floor of an activity as well as raising the ceiling.

Use coding to lower the floor of an activity or raise the ceiling.

Vicki: OK. So this sounds like you have to be a geek. Do you have to be a geek to use coding to teach kids?

Sam: You don’t. You hardly have to know anything. All you have to be willing to do is have one part of your class that the kids might know more about than you do.

And that’s actually — that willingness to engage that uncertainty — has so much magic inside it, Vicki, because what happens when I teach coding…

Like, if I’m teaching the water cycle, I’m going to teach them all about the water cycle. They’re not going to go out and discover the water cycle somewhere, right?

But if I’m teaching how to use Scratch Jr., the Scratch Jr. app is designed to help people learn how to use it. So I don’t have to teach my kids everything.

Under-instruct and under-deploy.

I do what’s called under-instruct. I don’t tell them quite enough to get the thing done. Then I under-deploy. I have one iPad per two kids, so they’re working together on one iPad, figuring out the incomplete instructions.

Their experience of that is they are figuring out and discovering how this platform works, and then they’re sharing it with their classmates.

So oftentimes, I’ll give a little bit of instruction, then the kids figure something out, and you can actually see that thing they have figured out work its way across the room. Or, if it’s the audio recording function in Scratch Jr., you can hear it work its way across the room.

Vicki: So you’re pretty smart, and you’re pretty technical. Do you ever feel like your students know more than you do? And does it make you feel like you’re not a great teacher?

Sam: On the days where I’m doing things right, at least one of my students ends up knowing more than I do about something because I’m always learning brand new things.

And almost as soon as I learn a program, and try to bring it into class I put the kids in it. My feeling is if I have 23 kids in my room, and I’m trying to learn how a program works, I need all of them to also be working on it. Then we’re learning like 23 times faster.

It never makes me feel like I’m not a great teacher because I’ve learned that my role as the MakerSpace teacher is to help my students learn how they learn best, and to put them into situations that reward them for exercising their own learning tools and skills.

My role as a MakerSpace Teacher is to reward my students for exercising their own learning tools and skills.

Vicki: Obviously we can go to to get started, but we want to get beyond the Hour of Code. You’ve talked about Scratch Jr.. Are there other apps or tools that you just love with kids in primary grades?

Sam: Scratch Jr. is my absolute favorite. As the kids get to second and third grade, going into Scratch makes a lot of sense. The reason I’m in love with Scratch and Scratch Jr. is because they’re both supported by universities. Scratch Jr. is a Tufts University project. Scratch is an MIT project. I’ve met the incredible really smart people behind both of these. Right? There’s nobody at the bottom, at the far back end of Scratch Jr. or Scratch, saying, “What can we do to make this a profitable model?”

That being said, there are a lot of really great programs out there. For my youngest students, my top three have got to be Scratch Jr., The Fooz by CodeSpark, and Kodable.

All three of those have, essentially, a language-free coding platform. My Pre-kindergarten students who are four can do meaningful coding on all of those platforms.

Vicki: Wow!

So what is the most remarkable thing you’ve noticed about your students as you started coding with them?

Sam: The most remarkable thing I’ve noticed about my students is that they want language.

My students want language.

Like, all of my young students want to be using language so much that if I take something like… I say, “Hey, let’s tell a story in Scratch Jr.. We’re going to start off on this piece of paper with four squares on it.”

They fill out a little storyboard. Then we go to Scratch Jr. and they compose the story in Scratch Jr. — very similar to what they would do on paper — I don’t have to ask them to label things, or to include dialog.

They’re immediately asking, “How do I spell this?” or “What do I do with that?” I can’t get through a coding lesson without putting a temporary Word Wall up so the kids know what language they can use, how it’s spelled, and that kind of thing.

So I’m always amazed with — even when I don’t approach it by saying, “Oh, let’s design a literacy-rich learning activity.” I’m always amazed by how much my students are ready to use language and eager to use language.

Vicki: Sam, what do you think are some of the most common mistakes that educators make when they start using coding with kids.

Sam: The number one mistake, and I know it’s the number one mistake because I made it… was trying to learn faster than the children.

Don’t pressure yourself to learn faster than your students can.

When I first learned Scratch, I said, “Oh! I’ll spend about a month noodling around in Scratch, learning how it works, and then I’ll bring it to my fourth grade students. And then I’ll figure out in a week, between Day 1 and Day 2, how to do everything for Day 2.”

But that was a really bad plan, Vicki.

Vicki: (laughs)

Sam: Do you want to take any guesses as to how quickly they burned through what I understood about Scratch from learning about it for a month?

Vicki: (laughs) What, a day? Two days?

Sam: Eighteen minutes.

Vicki: Oh no! (laughs)

Sam: We were 18 minutes into the class, and they’re asking me questions that I have no idea how to answer at all.

That’s when I realized that my model of trying to learn — that’s actually when I suddenly had a flashback to my “Learning in the Brain” physiology class, where they explained how the brain learns at different ages.

And I remember that children just learn faster than adults, period. So this was a losing proposition.

That experience really taught me that I needed to create challenges and experiences that allowed my students to discover the program, how it worked, without making it my responsibility to teach them everything about how it works.

So the learning goal isn’t, “We all have a Scratch program,” The learning goal is “We use Scratch to explore our understanding of this or that.” Right? That way, you can really keep it focused on process.

At the end, you can have a conversation about, “Hey, we were trying to use Scratch to build a version of Oregon Trail that was about the California Gold Rush. How far did you get? What were you able to do? What did you figure out?”

This was when I realized that — the second mistake is thinking you’ll get things done. Right? This was when I realized that not only can I not learn faster than the kids, but we don’t need to finish a game to have a complete experience when we’re working with code.

Not everything gets done.

Not everything gets done.

Vicki: That’s hard.

Sam: It’s really hard! Because we’re used to everybody gets it done, everybody works, and we all take it home. Because we were about making that thing.

But when we’re about the process, then we’re going to rip through a number of these things and get like 80% done on a bunch of them. Then later on, we’re going to ask the students to choose what they’re doing. And we’re going to give them enough time to get it done.

That comes down to one of my biggest secrets about if you want to design a coding project.

I finally figured this out, Vicki. I wouldn’t want to say that you lie to the kids about the timeline, but I’ve taken to calling it the “Six Week Project in Nine Weeks.”

So you have the students write an outline of their project and what they’re going to do in that project for six weeks. Then you allow nine weeks for it on your calendar.

Then everybody actually finishes the six week project.

Vicki: Well, I just don’t think kids really understand how long it takes when they’ve never done it before. The whole prototyping and alpha testing and beta testing process. And, you know, kids aren’t really used to revising, are they?

Sam: Well, the great thing about coding is that it actually puts the students in the situation where they want to revise because they can see that it doesn’t work.

Vicki: Yeah.

Sam: I always felt like when I was asking them to revise, as their English teacher, they didn’t really believe me. They were pretty much convinced that I was just making more work for them…

Vicki: (agrees)

Sam: … because their perception was that paper they wrote was fine, and they don’t need to do any more about it. (Because they didn’t really care about it in the first place…)

Vicki: Sure.

Sam: Now, they have a program… like today, my fourth grade student were writing a program that would introduce themselves to others. They’re very interested in making sure that’s right, because it’s about them.

Vicki: Absolutely. OK, Sam. We have to finish up.

Why is coding important? Why participate in Hour of Code?

Could you give us a quick couple of sentences of encouragement for why coding is important and about getting involved in Hour of Code this week?

Sam: You bet.

Coding is important because it’s in our students’ lives already. They live in a world that is programmed. If we want our students to be empowered creators in this world, they need to know that the 3-D printer or that computer animation or that garage door opener are all things that they have the power to control.

As far as encouragement, with the tools that are out there, any teacher — no matter their level of of comfort and experience — can find a way to bring some code into class and really open up what’s going on in the class.

The best thing that changed when I brought code into my class was a different group of students rose to the top, as those that were most prepared to figure out the challenges of coding. It changed how my students treated each other.

Vicki: Well, teachers, get out there and enjoy Hour of Code.

I know that I will be. My night and tenth grade students will actually be planning coding experiences for all of the kids at our school, K-4 through sixth grade. So I’ll have a very busy weekend, posting those pictures to Twitter and Facebook.

I hope you enjoy it! It’s going to be a lot of fun!

Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford

Bio as submitted

Sam Patterson is a Makerspace Coordinator for Echo Horizon School. He has a doctorate in literacy education and he isn’t afraid to use it.


Twitter: @SamPAtue



Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored podcast episode.” The company who sponsored it compensated me via cash payment, gift, or something else of value to include a reference to their product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe will be good for my readers and are from companies I can recommend. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” This company has no impact on the editorial content of the show.

The post How to Teach Coding in the Elementary Grades with Sam Patterson appeared first on Cool Cat Teacher Blog by Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher helping educators be excellent every day. Meow!

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