It’s always great to hear from our members, but when a Middle School teacher told us how her class uses appFigures to track downloads from an app the students built, we were thrilled. Many engineers will confess that they wish they’d started coding earlier, and with more efforts and initiatives than ever before bringing this subject to the forefront, it looks as though the next generation is getting an early start on just that.
We spoke to Karine Boulle Nguyen at St. Anne’s-Belfield School about how this unique project taught her students two languages when they developed an app while strengthening their French comprehension skills:
As a language teacher, I believe the most important skill one can have is to communicate with others, not just through language, but also through admiration and respect of others. Our app project gave my students those skills, and we didn’t know this would be the outcome.
Tell us about the app the class developed
The project started with the idea of teaching others French in a fun and natural way using the 2Lingua approach to languages. I wanted to incorporate the same thinking process that bilingual people use when they speak, where the flow between one language to the other is like a beautiful dance. No grammar rules, no verb conjugations, no translation needed, just context.
Our app includes a story written in English with about 250 French expressions incorporated in it (with beginner and advanced level). This is a non-threatening way of learning a language. You pick up expressions at your own level, at your own speed. No pressure. In the teaching world, we call this “differentiation.” In the end, you still understand what you read because the main story is in English, but you get a wonderful sense of accomplishment. The stories my 8th graders write are performed as a play by the 5th graders, for the 4th graders. Since our 4th graders do not know a word of French, it is important that the French expressions are included in a natural and logical way.
To begin our project, we took a field trip to the French embassy in Washington, D.C. We interviewed a diplomat and toured D.C. In general, teachers take a field trip at the end of their unit to reinforce what they have taught. We did the opposite. We went on our field trip not knowing what we needed to take out of it, which forced my students to take notes and observe as much as they could. Any details they grabbed could be used in their story. When asked what was the best part of the project, some students said coding, others mentioned how much French they learned, but all commented on how special the field trip was! To use their words, they “felt free.”
We then started to work on our app. There were so many components to think about!
- The logo had to reflect the purpose of our app.
- The cover page and the title needed to show the theme of our story.
- Coding: students learned coding for the first time (CSS and HTML) and ended up coding the entire text. We then finished up the app using the Laker Compendium framework, the Baker framework, and custom code from 2Lingua.
- Our text needed to respect copyrights and could not include trademarks. The info boxes needed information provided by sites that allowed us to use their information for commercial use.
- The photo album included our own pictures, which we had to reformat for the app. We also had to make sure any other pictures we used were from Creative Commons (for legal issues).
- Our story needed to include cultural references, humor, interesting combinations of sounds to make the French more catchy, and suspense to make people want to swap pages.
- Spelling and punctuation had to be perfect.
- The recordings had to be perfect (or close to perfect) both for the beginner and the advanced level.
- There was also the “behind the scene” work, such as the description of our app for the app store, as well as which key words we needed to submit so people could find our app during their search.
- Finally, the whole product had to look professional.
What inspired you to teach the kids how to code?
Our kids need to be prepared for their future and as educators it is our responsibility to guide them in the right direction. Education is changing. Just like our world, it doesn’t have boundaries anymore. We cannot teach just history in one class, or just math. We need to combine skills with technology, so our kids can get the global experience they need, in order to live in a world without frontiers. My first goal for making this app is for people to learn a language for free. I also hope our story will inspire other educators in many different ways. Not everybody will make an app, but we hope educators and students will feel inspired to try something new in the classroom, step out of their comfort zone to include new essential skills, such as coding.
How did the kids respond to the coding lesson?
Our coding lesson reinforced the strengths and challenges that my students experience with learning a language (seeing patterns, following rules, attention to details…). Students with great writing skills understood coding right away, but students who are strong orally and struggle with spelling and grammar experienced more difficulties with it. Learning how to code was truly like learning a new language. Because coding was new to all, the whole class’ hierarchy ceased to exist. Quiet students emerged as leaders and ended up helping others. Through coding, my students got to see many other facets of their peers, which made them value each individual more.
The new talk in education is about “Project-based Learning” and “21st century skills.” Our project was both. Such open projects force students to brainstorm, communicate with each other, collaborate, listen to others, and show off their skills. When I asked my students what they got out of the project, the most surprising answer came from Henry D., who answered: friendship. They learned to respect other people’s opinion, verbalize their reasons for disagreeing, compromise, and appreciate other people’s talent.
What do you think other Middle Schools should do to promote Computer Science education from an early age?
Computer Science does not need to be promoted. It simply needs to be incorporated. In the world our kids are growing up in, Computer Science is an essential tool to acquire. In my mind, it is the pencil you need in order to transform your thoughts into words on a paper. I used to think that Computer Science was a completely separate subject, and it might have started as such, but now I realize how intertwined everything is.
What proved to be the biggest challenge in teaching such technical lessons to this age group?
The first year we taught coding, our biggest challenge was to simplify it as much as possible, so it would be accessible to Middle School students who had zero experience in the domain. We then realized that we did not need to simplify the coding process, as long as we explained the role of coding. We used Mozilla Thimble to show how to code and how the commands we gave to the computer changed the text. The program allowed my students to see the results as they were coding the text. Such instant gratification was the key to their success.
How is the app doing so far?
In just a couple of weeks, we had more than 86 downloads from 22 countries. The map from appFigures representing which countries downloaded our app was an effective way to teach geography. That map also made an incredible visual impact when my students presented our project to Middle School parents and teachers. The daily report is extremely valuable, as it shows students that their project is not something they did in class that will be forgotten as soon as the test is over.