Spanish meets STEAM: World language, culture and coding

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With almost perfect timing, one Kentucky teacher shares a classroom experience of learning computer science skills through cross-cutting concepts with her elementary students learning Spanish.

During the 2017-18 school year, new Kentucky K-12 computer science standard will be proposed for adoption by the Kentucky Board of Education. Kentucky teachers have engaged in writing these standards, which will be based on the K-12 Computer Science Framework and will be released for public review November 2017.

The five main concepts the proposed standards focus on are: computing systems, networks and the internet, data and analysis, algorithms and programming, and impacts of computing. These five concepts are combined with practices and cross-cutting connections with the expectation that the standards are written using common terms, for all students grades K through 12, to understand, use, and create with.

Along with some major statewide computer science initiatives, the proposed standards will help engage all students in computational thinking and creative problem-solving, while also raising the bar for students who will be our future computer science leaders. The experience shared below by a forward-thinking elementary Spanish teacher focuses on the algorithm and programming concept – one of the five core computer science concepts – but also represents a model for other content specialty teachers in Kentucky.

– Marty Park, chief digital officer, Kentucky Department of Education

By Jennifer Kennedy
Jennifer.Kennedy@Fayette.kyschools.us

I am a Spanish teacher at Southern Elementary (Fayette County). In December 2016, my students – ranging from kindergarten to 5th grade – not only learned how to code, but also combined Spanish language skills with culture.

World language teachers around the country and the state of Kentucky have pushed back on attempts to allow students to count computer coding classes as their foreign language requirement in high school, but that doesn’t mean that world languages and coding can’t coexist. In fact, they can be combined in ways that can enhance each other. With a shortage of qualified employees in STEM jobs, as well as a shortage of workers who are globally competent and bilingual, it is essential that students get exposure to how computer science and world languages can work together.

Students around the world participate annually in Hour of Code, most often in December during Computer Science Week. Hour of Code introduces computer science to students of all ages with kid friendly tutorials and lessons in a variety of languages. The variety of languages caught my eye and the student-friendly tutorials – which included “Star Wars,” “Minecraft,” “Angry Birds” and “Frozen” – convinced me that my elementary students could not only learn to code, but they also could do it in Spanish.

However, as a world language teacher I also needed to incorporate culture into my lessons. I combined what normally would have been a rather bland unit of Dia de Reyes, or Three Kings’ Day in Spain, with Hour of Code.  

In Spain and Mexico, as well as other Spanish-speaking countries, people celebrate Kings’ Day on Jan. 6 – the day the three wise men arrived in Bethlehem to bring baby Jesus gifts. Children receive gifts from the Magi in their shoes and eat king cake. There are also parades and other celebrations.

Students practiced the global competency skills “Investigate the World” and “Recognize Perspectives” by comparing how children in Spain don’t leave out stockings for Santa on Christmas Eve, but instead put out their shoes every Jan. 5 for the three kings to put gifts in. They learned coding by writing algorithms – using direction words like “go forward” and “go left” in Spanish – to solve problems about how to get the three kings to deliver their gifts to Bethlehem and to the different shoes left out for them.

After getting in some good practice on paper – Code.org calls these happy maps – and using a giant grid I had constructed in my classroom, students dove in and tried their newly acquired computer science and Spanish language skills on the Code.org website. The older students chose which coding games they wanted to play, with many choosing “Frozen” and “Minecraft.” Younger students played “Star Wars.” They used their newly learned phrases in Spanish to direct their droids around different obstacles and avoid storm troopers.

Many students quickly moved beyond the level of language that I had taught in class and began to acquire new Spanish vocabulary in a truly authentic manner – through trial and error and by guessing meaning from context. Most students had some difficulties with this uncertainty, but I resisted the urge to help them out too quickly because their shouts of victory each time they succeeded on their own validated their struggle. Students left Spanish class that week with smiles on their faces, knowing that they had risen to the challenge and succeeded.

The unit ended with students coming into class to find the three kings had left them a small candy cane in the paper shoes they had colored – a magical moment indeed for the younger students in kindergarten and 1st grade.

Because Hour of Code traditionally is done in mid-December, it fit perfectly with what I already was planning on teaching. But that doesn’t mean coding needs to be restricted to only winter celebrations or even to the world language class. The STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) framework, by design, encourages the intersection of disciplines that deepens a student’s experience.

I envision coding being combined with other cultural topics, such as Day of the Dead. Students could write code to build an altar for the Mexican holiday on Nov. 1-2. In German class, students might navigate through a Christmas market. Or in conjunction with English language arts, students might have to write code to route Little Red Riding Hood down a different path from the Big Bad Wolf. In art class they might write algorithms to recreate a famous painting.

I knew almost nothing about coding when I decided to take my students down this path. I only knew that our previous STEM lab teacher had participated in Hour of Code before and that students had enjoyed it. But that is the beauty of Code.org. It is a great resource with tutorials that are fun, easy to understand and come in a dozens of languages.

How can you use coding in your classroom this year?

Jennifer Kennedy is a Spanish teacher at Southern Elementary (Fayette County). She is the Kentucky state representative for the National Network for Early Language Learners and writes about her adventures in elementary school on the blog www.senoraspeedy.blogspot.com. Kennedy is passionate about integrating literacy and STEAM into her K-5 Spanish classroom.

 

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