A few summers ago, I had the opportunity to teach a computer science enrichment class to four periods of incoming fifth grade students. Initially, I thought the goal of the class was to show these students that each one of them could learn the basics of a web development language.
Turns out, I was wrong. Teaching students that they could become computer science professionals was just the cherry on top.
For part of this summer class, I decided that my students would create a website from scratch using HTML. To the uninitiated, HTML is a jumble of tags that surround the content of a webpage. In the jumble, however, is precision. Every colon and slash must be placed perfectly. If a character is incorrectly inserted, the whole project fails: your incredible web page appears only as a blank screen.
After a few days, it became clear that these students would learn as much about tenacity and perseverance as they would about website publishing.
I had a student in my class named Justin. Imagine a nine-year-old version of a Silicon Valley startup employee, with a shaggy mop of brown hair covered by a hooded sweatshirt. Justin loved technology, but, until this moment, never had the opportunity to create something on a computer from scratch.
Justin struggled with the assignment. On a regular basis, he would come up to me and plead, “Mr. Z! I have looked at every line of my code, and it all looks perfect!” Then, like clockwork, he would begin to blame the computer. “It must be malfunctioning,” he would reason, as though it was impossible that another missed semicolon could be the culprit.
I was in over my head.
The goal of the assignment was not what you probably are picturing when you imagine a website. We were not trying to display pictures or build interactive features. No. Our goal was simply to use HTML to get short essays about our hobbies to display using a web browser.
It seemed simple enough when I planned it.
The students continued to struggle. I began to question why I assigned it to 120 students in the first place. Why not something simpler? I wondered when the challenge would become too much, when frustration would turn to boredom which would lead to an inevitable loss of interest.
And yet, the students remained engaged.
On the third day of the project, I was troubleshooting with another student when I heard a whisper come from Justin’s direction.
It was not the kind of “…yes” that is designed to brag or boast.
It was not the kind of “…yes” that purposely distracts a classmate.
I don’t think Justin even realized he made the sound. It was barely audible. It was genuine and sincere, full of pride and joy. When I walked over to Justin’s desk, three sentences glowed from his web browser. A simple and yet functioning website.
Welcome to Justin’s Awesome Website.
I like to swim, play baseball, and program websites.
I hope you like my website.
Justin shared his experience with the class—the hours of frustration that led to his eventual success. His “… yes” became our classroom anthem. Kids would get stuck, stick with it, and then, “… yes.” Our community changed. I watched students stop shying away from challenges and begin relishing them. They recognized that the discomfort of real learning was the very thing that would lead them to that feel-good whisper.
That summer, I learned that one of the hidden benefits of introducing students to computer science is found in giving them the opportunity to learn something totally new for the first time. It puts the natural discomfort of learning on stage where it can be observed and reflected upon. It is a playground to find perseverance and grit that can be applied to other learning challenges in the future.
I discovered that students reflect a teacher’s genuine excitement for learning and curiosity about the world. I taught them HTML alongside them in the trenches. They saw me become frustrated when my page didn’t work and overjoyed when it did. When teachers are genuinely engaged in actually learning and gaining new knowledge, our students will follow suit.
When students whisper “… yes” upon finding success it is proof that we have reached them. The perseverance that preceded it will stick with them long after they leave our classrooms even if the specifically learned concepts eventually fade. That, in my mind, is the goal of the work that we do every day of the school year.
Chase those elusive, under-the-breath whispers.
Nicholas Zefeldt is an Instructional Technology Coordinator at the Contra Costa County Office of Education. He can be reached at @NZefeldt or www.joyfulclasscollective.com.