The New York Times recently ran a piece on teaching elementary kids how to write code. In fact, a lot of people have jumped on this as a way to create some interest in computer science...and as a way to sell yet another program to our already semi-privatized schools. Well, teaching elementary kids how to code is not a new idea.
Thirty years ago I was a classroom teacher in APS. I believe we got our first classroom computer, the venerable Apple IIe, in the fall of 1984. Please let me share with you our school newspaper written by the 4th and 5th graders in my classroom in the basement of Monte Vista Elementary School. We were hoping for school-wide distribution, but I think one copy per class was all we could do.
Empowerment, Not Entertainment
The two-page first issue was called the Monte Vista Computer Print-Out and was an attempt to start a discussion among the students of the school about what that brand new Apple IIe could be used for. We were not interested in using the computer for games, even though the games were supposed to teach things like math. We wanted something more. We wanted something that showed kids that computers were not some kind of magical device: they could be programed and made to do our bidding. It was about empowerment, not about entertainment.
So here it is--an actual classroom newspaper dated December 10, 1984...Volume I, Number I. It was the first student newspaper that I know of using the computer as the main tool for writing and publishing. Click on the picture for a full-size image. But rather than skip right to the coding aspect of the story mentioned above, let’s first browse our way through the newspaper.
Bank Street Writer
Maya Long starts off the issue with a piece on the Bank Street Writer, a student word processing program which she used to help in her play-writing. It is interesting to note how clumsy it was to replace a word or letter. There was a cursor, but no mouse or touchpad.
The Monte Vista Computer Print-Out itself was done with Bank Street Writer. There were no font choices, no bold or italics, and no type sizes. With the apparent exception of being able to do two columns, the output was a replication of the typewriter.
If you look at the print closely, you might be able to see the tiny dots that comprise the letters. It was printed on the standard type of printer of the day, the dot-matrix printer. These printers had perforated strips at both sides of the paper that contained holes that fit into similar holes on the printer roller. Called a tractor feed, the sheets of paper were all connected on the roll and were tore off when the printing was done.
Bank Street School
The B.S.W. was a product of the Bank Street School in New York City. Bank Street School is a legend in the field of elementary and early childhood education. For one thing, to help NYC kids understand their world a little better, they produced a series of books that did things like show how products arrived in the city, where garbage went, and how rivers start as small streams before passing through the city on their way to the ocean.
That particular children’s book was called SCUFFY THE TUGBOAT and was a classic of children’s literature. With both an excellent writer and illustrator, The Bank Street School could have had any number of New York publishers put out this book and have it sold in the best bookstores nationwide. Instead it was published by Little Golden Books and sold in grocery stores. Brilliant.
Josh Tafoya rates the Apple IIe at 4 stars in an incisive review, all things considered, for a fourth grader looking at a computer for the first time.
Below that, the letters from readers highlight what the newspaper is really about: Now that I am sitting at a computer, what do I want to do? The reporter’s advice: Turn the sheet over to the Programers Page.
There were only two programs available when we got our new Apple IIe: LOGO and Bank Street Writer. LOGO consisted of an arrow shaped cursor called a turtle that the student could move on the screen by typing commands. The path of the cursor formed a line and these lines could be combined in a program to make shapes. It was pretty boring...real boring, in fact. It took ten minutes for a child to even make a square--In other words, tell the computer to go forward 50 spaces or so and then turn right 90 degrees. Four repetitions became a square.
However, it didn’t take my kids long to figure out that squares could also be encapsulated and repeated into a more complex shape. And in one of our more interesting discoveries, that if the programer didn’t turn exactly 90 degrees, things got really wild...sort of a twisting kind of star that had a hypnotizing effect on the viewer as it progressed.
In other programs, if the commands exceeded the screen dimensions, LOGO would move the turtle to the opposite side the screen and keep going. This led to what we called “wraparounds” which sometimes changed colors as they went.
BASIC isn’t so much a program as it is a programer’s language. We found that by accessing BASIC we had another way use the computer. Bill Scott's short piece tells what the acronym BASIC stands for and gives the reader an elementary understanding about how BASIC programs work.
They are written in lines of code which are numbered. We always left room between numbers so we could add more code if we wanted to afterwards. BASIC is full of commands like PRINT and GOTO. There are INPUT statements and IF, THEN statements. In other words, the students start with nothing but an idea, figure out how to get there, and create the code to get it done.
Bill’s “Wallpaper” program is simple enough for those kids totally new to computers to use, but still shows the order and logic of a BASIC program: numbered commands organized to produce a result. Bill and other students sometimes wrote two or three pages of code that did things like ring bells, change the color of the computer screen, do some math, and make simple “choose an adventure” types of programs.
Hopefully, what you have derived from this piece is more than a nostalgic look back at the classroom of 30 years ago. And it is about more than coding or programing. It is about addressing the interests and strengths of the students and the teacher. It used to be called “the teachable moment.”
The Commodore 64
My own first computer was a Commodore 64. Not only did it not have a hard drive, it had no disc drive either. Or at least it was an add-on that I could not afford. It was basically a keyboard with a small motherboard inside. I would plug it into our TV at the foot of our bed and write programs from a book. Eventually, when I got really tired, I would turn it off and go to sleep. Of course that meant that every night I would lose the program I wrote. So the next night I would write another program. And that’s how this elementary teacher learned to program in BASIC.
My point it that it doesn’t really matter if it’s BASIC, pottery, poetry, weaving, or great books. Good schools build on the strengths of its teachers as well as its students.
Teaching is a passion. Ask any teacher. Learning can be as well. And a passion for learning is transformative. Just look at that newspaper: play-writing, coding, reviewing, editing, art. It’s not just coding, it’s the whole world reflected in the excited eyes of a ten-year-old.