Expert Viewpoint

How We Launched a Districtwide Computer Science Program with Just 4 Teachers and No Formal CS Training

At Patterson Joint Unified School District, our teachers union recently negotiated for every classroom teacher to get an additional prep period each week. To cover this time in their schedules, three other educators and I became teachers on special assignment, or TOSAs. We travel between classrooms and schools to offer instruction to students while their teachers prep.

After considering several subjects that we could teach, including art and physical education, we settled on computer science, a new subject in our district. Here’s how we’re making it work.

Starting a Districtwide Computer Science Program without CS Experience

Prior to this program, there were pockets of enrichment activities during which individual teachers offered computer science, but as a district we had no formal computer science instruction. Now, every K–6 student in our district gets a 45-minute computer science class each week, covered by one of our four TOSAs. This has been pretty eye-opening for the students, and that’s a really fun experience to be part of as a teacher.

Most of the TOSAs had no experience teaching computer science. Our district would absolutely support us if we found a professional development class we thought we needed, but so far it hasn’t been necessary. We’ve been able to research what we’re teaching and learn as we go.

Part of the reason it has been an easy transition is that we’ve been able to choose our own curriculum, resources, and materials. We chose to use Codelicious because it was organized like the curricula we were used to, with the objective and standard for each lesson clearly laid out. We also liked that it used Scratch, which in turn allows us to use other cool tools such as Microbits.

Why Computer Science Instruction Matters

Though our students love it, computer science isn’t just about fun. One of the main reasons we chose to offer it to our students is that computer science is essential for understanding the modern world; it is a required skill for many jobs these days, and that will likely only be more true by the time our K–6 students are entering the job market. So many jobs require working with technology — even artists now use computers to create their work! And many of our students will work in jobs that haven’t even been invented yet.

Also, our district is in Silicon Valley, so there are a ton of jobs in areas like coding and web development right in our students’ backyard. However, despite their proximity to the birthplace of so much technology, many of our students don’t have regular access to it. Our schools are Title I, and many families in our district simply can’t afford computers in their homes.

How Our Computer Science Program Works

Traveling from school to school can be a little rough on the TOSAs. On the day I’m writing this, for example, I’ve been to three different schools, and I taught three classes at one of them. However, while the logistics are challenging, being “the fun teacher” with the robots is very rewarding.

We have quite a bit of leeway in what we teach. In the lower grades, TOSAs tend to stick to Codelicious lessons. In third and fourth grade, we introduce Microbits, and then in fifth and sixth grades, we start working with Yahboom robots.

But even in the upper primary grades, I tend to sprinkle in some Codelicious lessons, because many of them don’t require extra materials. For example, if I’m in six different classes in one day and I have to ask each class to get out their scissors, I may run into six different routines for getting out scissors. Sometimes, I just need a plan that allows us to dive right in and make the most of our time together.

We have about 250 Microbits and 150 robots. It’s probably more than we need, but it’s nice to have enough to make sure that each student has something to work with. Since all of our lessons employ block programming, it’s easy to switch from one tool to another. Students can simply focus on seeing the ideas come to life in their hands when they build a rock, paper, scissors robot, for example, without getting hung up on terminology or process.

Being ‘The Fun Teacher’

During each weekly lesson, students are learning lots of computer science terminology as well as the process of coding. They even get to work with robots! It’s great to be the fun teacher, bringing in hands-on stuff that students are excited about. It makes their day — and that makes mine.

So far, students are taking in everything they’re learning and running with it. Last year I had fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders, and this year my classes include just fifth and sixth grades — so all my students were also in my classes last year. We started out with the Codelicious lessons on Scratch and different computer science professions and then used that to build up to Microbits. We’re now starting to introduce robots, and a lot of students are learning on their own.

Now, instead of playing video games when they get home, students are coding their own games. They’ll come into class and say, “Hey, Mr. Atchison, check out the Tetris game I made. Can I download it to the Microbits?” Of course my response is, “Yeah, go for it” — and then I’ll see that their game has all these different levels. It’s a real wake-up call for me: I have to step up my own coding game if I’m going to keep up with them!

Assessments and the Future

Our students don’t get a grade for computer science, but that doesn’t seem to affect their engagement at all. Generally speaking, they’re excited about the subject and intrinsically motivated to learn about it. I do hand out tickets for things like completing assignments, behaving well, or being particularly creative on a project. Those tickets go into a raffle for prizes that I award at the end of class. Other TOSAs offer their own incentives, such as stickers and other small rewards.

If computer science were to become a requirement, we would have to assign each student a grade — and something would have to change to allow us time for grading. Right now I have approximately 1,000 students each week, so I’d need a whole day every week just to grade their work.

To make sure students’ computer science skills are growing, we use the pre- and post-assessments provided in our curriculum. While any growth is good, we’ve been seeing about 10% growth at some schools. This is especially impressive considering that TOSAs only get 45 minutes with students each week.

We don’t have any formal plans yet, but we hope to expand our computer science program in the future. We’re just two years in, and it’s been a total success so far, especially given that we’ve been learning right along with our students. It would be a shame not to capitalize on that momentum.

About the Author

Zack Atchison is a Teacher On Special Assignment focusing on computer science at Patterson Joint Unified School District in Patterson, California, where he previously served as a fifth-grade teacher. He can be reached at [email protected].