A MiddleWeb Blog
We were in the midst of moving the oversized red bird around the maze to capture the evil green pig, using block-style programming codes up on the interactive board, when one of my sixth grade students raised her hand and asked the inevitable question: “Mr. H, why are we learning about computer programming in writing class? Why do we need to know this?”
It was a question I was ready for. Here we were, participating along with millions of other students around the world in the Hour of Code initiative. The aim: expose students to at least one hour of computer coding and programming during a week in December. We were doing a combination of activities over the days of the week, ranging from using some of the entertaining tutorials at the Hour of Code site (including the Angry Birds game), programming with Gamestar Mechanic for our science-based video games, and using a site called Tynker to learn about animation.
How does all this fit into a writing class? Here’s how.
Our world is in the midst of incredible change, and the way we compose and the way we write and connect and communicate with others is changing right along with it. Information (and knowledge) is no longer just words on paper, bound in books. Media and technology are becoming more and more an integral fabric of our being, as we google facts, upload videos, send texts, crowdsource ideas and share shards of our lives in social networking spaces.
And yet, as music producer Will.i.am so eloquently put it in a video we watched in class, while the world has become increasingly dependent on technology for everyday tasks, “…none of us know how to read and write code.”
We need to pull back the curtain
We don’t understand what goes on behind the veil of technology. We’ve somehow settled into the role of being just users of information, and not always creators of ideas. While the world is opening up incredible new possibilities, very few of us understand the framework being activated behind the screens that we press with our hands and tap into on our desktops.
If we don’t understand the basics of how it all works, how can we bend technology to do what we want it to do? We need to understand the architecture of the media in our lives. We need to know why something does what it does, and how to adapt it for what we want it to do. We need to be educated.
I don’t expect all of my students to become software programmers, nor do I think many are going to take the time to learn how to use Java and Python and even Logos, although I was pleasantly surprised to see one student passing his Java Programming for Dummies to another student during the week. Yet I do think it is vitally important that they have a conceptual idea of what is going on when they power up their devices and start to use the technology.
We shouldn’t relinquish that agency to the “age of technology.” We can’t give it up out of some willing ignorance of the way things work or with a shrug at the complexity of machines in our lives. I’m not warning of some robotic revolution from dystopian fiction. I’m talking about knowing what we need to make our lives better and manipulate our world to make things happen. I’m talking about humanizing our experiences with the changing technology.
Technology is powered by writing
So, yes, coding is composition, and reading and writing programming languages on even a very basic level belong in the writing classroom as much as in the computer science class. Is there any doubt that the workforce that my sixth graders will enter in a decade or so will be highly technical and that those who understand the technology will have a leg up on those who don’t? I have no doubts whatsoever.
This is how I replied to my student’s question, in kid-friendly language. I challenged them all to dive deep into this world they knew very little about before the Hour of Code began, and to come out the other side with at least a rudimentary understanding of how technology is powered by writers and writing. I believe they did.