Running my first Code Club

It’s a new year, a new term at schools up and down the country, and I’m about to start my second round of Code Club activity, so I thought I’d take an opportunity to write a little bit about my last go, running level 1 at Broadstone First School here in Bournemouth, Dorset.

Code Club badge

Prologue

I’d registered as a volunteer on the Code Club site about a year ago, really just to check it out after I’d seen this video of Clare Sutcliffe talking about it. After signing up, I didn’t rush out and make contact with any schools largely because there weren’t actually any local requests for volunteers. That’s how it works by the way; you say where you are, it shows you schools who want a volunteer (or instead, schools that you can just offer yourself to – that sounded too scary to me), you hook up, then the magic happens. It’s pretty painless. I checked back now and then – mostly after the monthly Code Club newsletter came out and reminded me – until August when I saw a school just a few miles from my house was looking for someone so I sent them an email asking if they wanted to chat. Obviously it was the summer holidays, so a month went by without hearing back, but when I did, it happily coincided with another talk that Clare did (at Silicon Beach) in September which was attended by a couple of my colleagues. Long story short, I now had a contact at a school (hello Mrs Stone!) and bit of support at work to actually push forward and get a Club off the ground. Thus followed various conversations, DBS wrangling, panicking about materials, etc, etc, until it came to the start of November and my first session.

Nerves

Welcome to Code Club

I’ve done workshops aimed at Undergraduate students before (Just once or twice. A day. For 4 years. PTSD.), and have taught Postgraduate students and college students on occasion. I’ve done presentations at work to pretty much every level possible. Yet despite all that, the prospect of standing in front of a room of primary school children filled me with a unique sense of dread. I can’t really explain why. Something about their tiny judging eyes; their complete lack of fear (or empathy); the incessant desire to just do stuff; the unwavering way they manage to ask every conceivable question about a topic in quick succession – then casually add a question you’d never ever considered before. Basically all the traits that turned out to make the Code Club sessions a success!

I don’t know why I was worried. I didn’t even have to bite my tongue to stem the flow of my potty mouth at any point. No cause to swear, but plenty of cause to be wowed by the way they jumped into the projects. Their excitement and enthusiasm for the projects was pretty much constant and I like to think that they came away from each session with one or two actual bits of learning too.

The sessions

That said, it wasn’t all plain sailing. The first session is clearly the easiest, and mostly a guided walkthrough, but I grossly underestimated just how quickly the hour goes and got about halfway through the project when the bell rang and they upped and left. That’s one thing to mention actually – when it’s 4 ‘o’ clock, they’re off. Parents are waiting, people have got homes to go to, and there’s no room for slightly overrunning! I tried to get into the habit of actually looking at the clock and wrapping up with time left to log-off and talk about the session but it’s really hard in such a short space of time.

Felix and Herbert

Because the first session didn’t finish properly, I used session 2 to finish it off by giving them the worksheets and letting them work through individually. Most people finished it by the end of week 2 but there were plenty of questions along the way where they were getting used to Scratch and already trying to deviate from the script. This intensified in week 3 when they were theoretically completing the ‘Whack-a-Witch’ project on their own (which by the way, coincidentally was the week before Halloween, so was perfect). Dealing with all the questions and attempts to turn the witch into a monster which fired lasers was tricky with the group of 15 and I think only 1 or 2 actually finished the project.

The next session I decided to try walking them through to start with again, but it turns out that the Fireworks project is actually quite difficult. There’s a lot of dynamic x/y variable stuff and while everyone managed to keep up to get some fireworks in the sky, it was obviously a struggle and no-one managed to continue to actually get explosions in the air. But they did sing Happy Birthday to me which was pretty great, so I count that lesson as a success.

Because of various scheduling issues, I originally had only 6 sessions lined up with the group. The Code Club format of the first term is 3 levels of 3 projects across 9 weeks, so from the outset I knew that we wouldn’t be able to complete the full first term. When it came to this point though, I wasn’t even sure we’d really finish level 1! With only 2 sessions left before the end of the year, and Christmas impending, I decided to veer away from the format (instead of jumping into level 2) and try to keep them engaged with a festive game.

Christmas Code Club

The Code Club-approved ‘Christmas Capers’ game seemed a bit much so I came up with a simple interactive Christmas card type of project (which you can see in all it’s glory on the Scratch site) myself. The intention was to refresh their skills from the previous projects and was actually largely successful. Even had the chance to cover custom drawn sprites and some other new things, and it was definitely popular. I also used this session to start using Scratch 2 (the online version) because of some issues around getting their projects uploaded past the schools firewall; seeing their work online was dead exciting and I’ll definitely make moves to getting that side of things sorted earlier on next time.

Code Club certificate

For the final session, I asked them to go back to all the old projects (we’d done 4 by this point) and try to finish them off if necessary, or think about developments and to them. It was a very informal session, falling at the end of the school year a week before Christmas (it was even a mufti day!), but was a good chance to go ’round and see the progress they’d made. Right at the end, I gave out the certificates for level 1. Strictly speaking, I’m not sure that everyone 100% finished all the projects required but they’d all worked really hard for the 6 weeks and definitely deserved the recognition. I like to think they all went home and framed the certificate on the wall.

Doing it all again

As I’m about to embark on a repeat of level 1, with a new set of 15 children (it proved to be so popular at the school, we thought it was best to do it this way before moving on with the original set.. we’ll see how that works out), I like to think that I’m a bit more prepared this time. Couple of points;

  • Folders and badges. This is recommended by Code Club anyway, but to reiterate; I gave them out at the start of the last group and it’s amazing how much of an effect such a simple thing has. Might try to get some stickers for the folders at some point. Also, I’m going to collect the badges back at the end of each session I think, because a few people lost theirs and I ran out of badge clip things.
  • Recap at the end of each session. Again, this is suggested already, but it’s harder than it sounds to fit in. I’ll definitely make more effort to end a session on time and try to get them thinking about what was covered.
  • Uploading their work. It’s quite awkward when that ‘share online’ option doesn’t work for a group of 15 expectant kids. Because I’m at the same school again, I’ve got it covered this time but if I were to do the session anywhere else, that’s something I’d test more than the once.
  • Printing. There is SO much printing to do. I may have slightly pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable on my work print card so this time I’m trying to work out if the school can help out, or whether I can get some cheaper photocopies of the worksheets done.
  • Working in pairs. I’d said that a couple of people could work in pairs because they asked to, but in retrospect, it’s much better if everyone can do the work individually.
  • ‘Free’ sessions. It’ll be hard in the time we have, but I might try to work in some ‘free’ sessions after each level perhaps, to allow everyone to catch up or work on their games a bit more before moving on.
  • All sorts of other things. I’m going to write up each of the upcoming sessions on a weekly basis to go into a bit more detail about the projects themselves, but generally, it’s been a lot of fun and a great success.