When you think of elementary school, you think of reading, writing and arithmetic — but probably not computer programming.
Computer science in elementary and secondary schools got a lot of press earlier this month, as schools all over the country participated in a program called Hour of Code for Computer Science Education Week. It encourages students to try coding for one hour.
But at Champaign's Kenwood Elementary, it should be called hours of code, said Principal Lisa Geren, given that students there have been focusing on computer programming since the first day of school in July.
The new focus came about when staff members decided to rewrite the school's mission to emphasize technology, literacy and their community. Much of the staff trained last summer with partners at the University of Illinois.
"From there, it just caught fire," Geren said.
Now, all of Kenwood's students participate in programming on a daily basis. Same goes for the teachers.
"We've found that the smaller they are," Geren said, "the quicker they learn."
What it means for kids
The school teaches students computer programming while incorporating it with other subjects, including art or at the school library. They use software called EToys, which has also been introduced at other schools around Champaign.
Because of new, more rigorous state standards, there's just no time to focus on computer science on its own, said Maya Israel, an assistant professor of special education at the UI's College of Education.
Librarian Todd Lash said with programming, there's no right or wrong answer, but students have certain goals or expectations.
And they can use their own creativity and critical-thinking skills to expand whatever they're working on.
"The kids are enthralled by it," he said. "We want to encourage intellectual risk-taking."
Geren said students have learned to experiment and not fear making mistakes.
For students who don't have computers at home, repeated exposure at school will help them when it comes to the state's new standardized tests, which will soon be taken on computers.
Geren also hopes that learning about computing now will help Kenwood students in the future.
"If they can program, they have a solid career path," Israel said.
Israel said a computer-programming focus throughout an entire school is unusual, especially one with such a high poverty rate. About 75 percent of Kenwood students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Many times, students learn about programming in an enrichment program they must test into or in an after-school program, she said.
This spring, 10 Kenwood third- through fifth-graders will go to a technology conference in Normal where kids do all the presenting. Geren said she hopes that next year, they'll be the ones teaching other children.
The school recently got a gift of seven credit-card-sized computers, called Raspberry Pis, from the school district in honor of school board members during the week set aside to appreciate them.
Each Raspberry Pi is an inexpensive computer meant to teach the person using it computer programming. Geren hopes to get a huge Lego set and start Kenwood students on creating robots with them.
Lash said other schools might have tried an hour of code this week, but at Kenwood, "we are making it sustainable."
"This has become a way of life for us," he said.
What it means for teachers
Everything the school expects of its students, it's also expecting of its teachers, as far as taking risks and learning in a new way.
"Our staff has embraced this wholeheartedly," Geren said.
An Informatics and Computation Ubiquitous throughout Baccalaureate Education grant from the National Science Foundation paid for 20 Kenwood teachers to spend a week training at the UI Department of Computer Science's Siebel Center this summer.
Teachers at Kenwood are feeding off each other as they get excited about programming, especially as what Israel calls "maverick" teachers tried it first with strong success in engaging students and sparking their creativity and collaboration.
Geren said students are also watching as their teachers get the hang of programming, she said, "and it's important for children to see you're always a learner ... and it's not always easy."
She said she's also supported teachers in acknowledging that the focus on technology and computing "is going to be messy."
"You're learning and experimenting," Geren said she told teachers. "That doesn't mean you're not learning or teaching. It's an adjustment of mindsets."
The teachers and administrators are working with a variety of other partners, including community group Illini for Kids and the UI's Department of Computer Science; College of Education; Office for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education; and Graduate School of Library and Information Science.
What it means for parents
One week during the fall intersession this year (the school is on a year-round calendar, with three-week breaks in the fall and spring), students and professors from the UI Graduate School of Library and Information Science taught a computer workshop aimed at parents.
It included taking a computer apart and putting it back together. Parents also learned about networking and troubleshooting, and at the end of the week, took a computer home to keep. Thirteen parents participated.
"That really started a bridge between home and school," Geren said.
They had a similar workshop last weekend, and this time invited whole families. Eighteen came, including 15 kids.
"Right there, you have 31 computers in homes," Geren said.