The Write Code

Ari ’32 is having some trouble with a robot. 

“I want him to be like, ‘Whoo hoo! Yay!’ for like two minutes. I tested it out and it works, but not so good,” he explains. “I don’t really like it, so I’m going to go back in and change it.” 

And with that, Ari goes back to his iPad to continue coding. This isn’t a computer class, though—Ari and the rest of Joyce Bidi-Olagunju’s 2nd grade class are actually working on telling their personal stories. It’s a unit that Bidi-Olagunju, known as “Ms. Joyce,” began developing a few years ago.

“I was part of the curriculum design team for the summer program at my church, and there was a group that came in that was doing some work with these Sphero robots,” says Bidi-Olagunju. (Spheros are small, ball-shaped robots that can roll, spin, light up, and make sounds.) “They would describe a social-emotional scenario and the robot would move through a space constructed through recycled materials. That put an idea in my mind: Can code tell a story?”

After receiving a Principal’s Grant to develop the curriculum in summer 2019, Bidi-Olagunju now uses the Spheros in her classroom to blur the line between science and art. During this writing unit, the students write a personal narrative, design a path that illustrates where their stories take place, and then use iPads to code their Spheros not only to illustrate plot, but emotional components of the story.

“My story is about going to Disney World to celebrate my birthday,” says Alina ’32. Therefore, her Sphero travels on a map that she made from her “house” down to Florida, with stops that mirror her family’s actual trip. When her Sphero gets to “Disney World,” Alina’s code will tell it to turn green to show how happy it is.

The link between the writing process and the coding process is surprisingly strong. “The students were writing the stories and then coding, but then they’d have to go back to their stories to revise them in order to enhance their code,” Bidi-Olagunju says. “So there’s this relationship where the code is informing their writing and the writing is informing their coding—even my most reluctant writers were then interested in actually doing their revising and writing, and those students who find writing easy are met with the challenge of computational thinking.”

That’s why Chloe ’32 and Emmi ’32 are at a table revising their stories; Emmi’s is about the time she had a sleepover for her birthday, during which she and her guests walked to Papa John’s for pizza; Chloe’s is about getting her dog, Koda, “who looks like a big bear.” They’re making sure their stories have enough elements so that the Sphero has enough to do.

“We need to put more things in the story, like maybe more characters and more emotion words,” Emmi says. 

“At the end, I’m going to make my Sphero bright red because I was, like, red-zone excited when we got my dog,” Chloe says.

The journey from writing to coding and back again (and again and again, if necessary) is one of the integral lessons of the Sphero activity.

“There’s a thing called ‘digital tinkering’—it’s this idea of building through the doing and not having the design fully formed; it’s so good for children’s brains,” Bidi-Olagunju says. “I tell the students all the time that those moments when you ‘mess up’ are where the growth is; that’s the learning. Your brain loves that discomfort because that’s where it’s getting stretched.”

The number of whirring, blinking balls tumbling along the classroom floor—sometimes going where they should be, sometimes not so much—suggests that there is plenty of brain-stretching going on as students work with their robots to tell their own stories.

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