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For the 4th year in a row, my elementary school students participated in the annual national Hour of Code activities launched during Computer Science Education Week back in December 2013. While I’ve written about the different apps students have used in my library classroom, about the idea of understanding coding as a new literacy, and how coding contributes to building a growth mindset, I decided to approach this year’s Hour of Code from a slightly different angle. This year, my goal for my K-2 students was to integrate reading responses with coding skills. At this age, coding is all about building a relationship with algorithms -- a list of instructions that can be followed to finish a task. Think about the steps involved in making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or tying your shoes or, as we did in class, drawing a smiley face or planting a seed. All instructions have to be completed in a certain sequence in order to accomplish the task. We started our mini-units with unplugged lessons and then designed algorithms to create digital projects using the Scratch Jr. app for iPad.

After reading There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel by Caryn Yacowitz (David Slonim, illus.), Kindergarten students completed a coding sheet drawing arrows in the correct order of events. I adapted this algorithm coding activity from JDaniel4’sMom. On a story grid template, students placed up, down, left, and right arrows to sequence the events of the story--the Old Lady devouring ever greater Hanukkah foods and symbols-- and thereby creating an algorithm that would at last reconnect her with her family.

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In our final lesson, students applied sequencing skills to create a simple animated Hanukkah greeting card. The instructions were to choose a background from the app’s library, draw a Hanukkah symbol, and then animate the symbol by sequencing block commands.

Coding requires these young students to create an algorithm in such a way that a machine, i.e. iPad, could carry it out. As such coding supports computational thinking, communication and, as these projects illustrate, is a very creative way for students to express themselves and share their ideas. For me, coding has proven to be another great digital tool to use for student reading and listening responses.

I started teaching unplugged coding lessons last year and am a huge fan as they allow students to directly master relevant concepts. When, for example, I asked one of the classes for directions to draw a smiley face, they quickly understood that it is not enough to simply say, “Draw two eyes”. Instead, students needed to provide the geometric shape and the exact location where they should appear--a good opportunity to talk about “precise instructions” and the fact that machines cannot interpret what one may mean. There are some great unplugged lessons published by I used “Plant a Seed” with my 1st-grade students, where students related the concept of algorithms back to a real-life activity, planting a seed, and I used “Move It, Move It” with my 2nd-grade students, where students practiced controlling one another using a simple combination of hand gestures. The goal here was for students to understand the importance of giving precise instructions in order to complete a task.

For the literacy piece, 1st-grade students coded the setting (a house) and the main character (a dinosaur) from the story How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Hanukkah? by Jane Yolen (Mark Teague, illus.) using Scratch Jr. Some of the students figured out how to add a speech bubble and several quickly learned how to add sound to their projects.

The 2nd-grade students focused on coding the main characters and a main event from the story Hanukkah Bear by Eric A. Kimmel, which is about a nearly blind and deaf woman mistaking a visiting bear for a rabbi. These 7- and 8-year old kids quickly figured out how to use the app’s built-in editing and drawing tools and how to best animate a main event from the story.

A growing body of research demonstrates the value of integrating coding instruction into reading curricula.  While “coding” sounds intimidating, the basic practices of sequential ordering, textual application, and using multimedia tools works well even for young students.

I love reading and discussing stories with children. We elaborate on the meaning of a character's action or question our understanding of the turn of an event. Often the children make connections or associations. We also study the illustrations and think about how they help tell the story. As the children are reflecting on the plot or the characters or a specific event, as an added bonus I learn about each child and their interests.

I also love incorporating technology into my lessons. So this year in celebration of Thanksgiving the Kindergarten through 3rd-grade classes listened to, pondered, and responded to Thanksgiving-themed stories and concluded each lesson with a tech-inspired activity.


Task: Illustrate and write about how you would disguise yourself before the Thanksgiving dinner if you were a turkey.


First Grade

Task: If you were a turkey on Thanksgiving Day, what would you do? Complete the sentence starter, take a selfie and move it onto the turkey's body.

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Second Grade

Task: Follow specific steps drawing a turkey. Then, in a speech bubble, tell the turkey's feelings when he sees Mr. Moose and the other animals approaching.

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Third Grade

Task: Draw a book character balloon.

Beginning this school year, we have further enhanced our literacy instruction in grades K-5. Students are now immersed in the “Reading Workshop” (Units of Study for Teaching Reading), a research-based curriculum written by faculty of The Reading & Writing Project of the Teachers College at Columbia University. It is the companion curriculum to the “Writing Workshop,” which we successfully implemented two years ago. The goal of the workshop model is consistent reading growth achieved via a combination of strategies and tools. Teachers determine the appropriate instructional reading level for each student and teach them at that level. In order to better align with the new Reading Workshop curriculum, we no longer use the STAR/AR program to level students. Instead, students now progress on the  Fountas & Pinnell Text Level Gradient.

How does this translate to best practices in the school library? While student reading levels are still assessed, students are not restricted by level for checking out books.  When selecting books, student choice incentivizes (or “encourages”) reading. According to Donalyn Miller, teacher and author of Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits (2013), “When students select their own books to read and enjoy, they develop confidence in their abilities to make reading choices and build their capacity for choosing books in the future” (p. 46). In the classroom, students are taught meaningful strategies for selecting books. Considering that books are not leveled in the real world, this is a more authentic approach. Additionally, the ability to successfully choose a text that meets personal and academic goals is a vital skill (Miller, p. 47).

This approach to growing readers is a natural match with a primary goal of the school library program -- to create lifelong readers. While many factors play a role in achieving this goal, one is access to current, high quality, interesting, and extensive collections of books. In our school library, books are organized by type (e.g. “Junior Fiction”) using a standard classification system. This enhances our students’ ability to find materials in other libraries, including our local public libraries.

Our school library is a place where students can fully explore their reading interests. In collaboration with the classroom teachers, I encourage “choice” books as well as books on a student’s reading level. The classroom teachers and I continue to work together in order to support our students’ growth as readers while fostering a love of reading.

At the heart of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School library curriculum are lessons designed to strengthen modern literacy skills for accessing information, negotiating mass media, and building digital literacy. We also focus on responsibilities of using digital media by developing the concept of “digital citizenship.” Modern literacy skills and digital citizenship matter. They are a requirement for success in almost any field. Nearly every job today requires some form of technology use, from email to research. We depend on technology for communication, from announcements to organizing events to inquiring about an order status or health products. Technology has made these things easier and more efficient. But it is not about the technology--it is about using technology thoughtfully and responsibly.

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Martin J. Gottlieb Day School students are immersed in and shaped by a world dominated by technology. Various devices in our homes and pockets bring to our fingertips a world of opportunity and one fraught with thresholds that sometimes dubious--or even dangerous. But this is the new normal. As parents, we seek to protect our children yet we do know that eventually our children will have to negotiate the online world.

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Improving Fluency
Here at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School library, we socialize our students to these new media and integrate technology to extend and enhance teaching and learning. Each student has a personal blogfolio showcasing their learning across subject areas. Students use lots of different apps and websites to create new products. These efforts to integrate technology directly into our curricula as objects of learning in their own right, as well as tools for learning about other subjects, requires balance and an ethic of continuous improvement. Technology integration has engaged and motivated student learning as well as improved student fluency with the various tech tools.

To that end, we use Common Sense Media’s K-12 Digital Citizenship Curriculum. Lessons are aligned to the ISTE, AASL, and ELA Common Core Standards and focus on Internet safety, privacy and security, online communication, cyberbullying, digital footprint and reputation, and copyright/attribution. The goals are to enable students to think critically, to behave safely, and to participate ethically and responsibly.

Improving Safety
But we are not just learning about staying safe online and the trail we leave every time we enter the digital world. Instead, we focus on empowering students to do great things online: to access the world’s information, to communicate and collaborate with other students, and to create new products and share them. Call it guided immersion into the digital world -- helping students balance safety on the one hand and purpose and opportunities on the other.

Note: Common Sense Media is a not-for-profit organization committed to providing parents and teachers with timely, up-to-date advice about mobile apps, video games, movies, and reviews of other media. There are even suggestions for what to watch and talk about together as a family. Use the link below to explore more information about digital citizenship and become an ally for your teens as they navigate an ever-changing digital world.