Digital project gone awry? It’s OK!

One of my most precocious sixth-grade girls shook her head and looked at me with wide blue eyes.  “Mr. Kinser,” Ashlyn said, “I don’t understand a thing you’re talking about.  I mean it.  Not a word.”

As I wrote in this spring’s SEEN Magazine, “Fear Your Digital Natives? Build an App with Them,” my English classes are learning to write apps as part of a Magnet Schools of America (MSA) research project.  Our ultimate goal is to program a book club app.  The project has engaged us in a relevant way and is as exciting as any I’ve ever led.  My students are researching, reading, writing, and presenting like pros.  They’re articulating ingredients of successful apps and starting to think both logically and abstractly about how their favorite apps are really series of written commands telling the computer to do something.

Standing in the shadows of our Brightlink projector, I realized Ashlyn wasn’t alone in her bewilderment.  I had finished interpreting a Stanford professor’s breathless lecture clip on methods and algorithms.  I tried to clarify his point that if you can plan a good essay, you can write a computer program.  What an analogy for us as we applied English concepts to scientific work!

“See?” I boomed, “You already have the skills!”  The eerie silence told me it was not my most astute assumption.

For the first time since we tackled this project four months ago, its complexity has forced me to question not only the occasional drawbacks of my ambition but also my sanity.  Does this assignment embody the idiom biting off more than you can chew? You bet.

I’m reminded of a time in eighth grade when I snorted an orange Pixie stick for ten bucks in front of a goading crowd.  Sure, it seemed cool and innovative when people were watching, but was it a smart idea?  One bloody nose and a ruined Cubs jersey later, I had my answer.

While I’m teaching myself to navigate the complex principles of object-oriented computer programming with some degree of success, it doesn’t mean I can teach my classes to do it as easily.  The achievement gap is a chasm here.  Some kids are off and running, writing sample code, mastering Stanford’s iTunes assignments.  Others stare at me with frazzled expressions as if I just asked them to fly the Space Shuttle.

We’re in deep, and you know what?  I love it. Tampa’s Fox 13 surprised me during our “Cool School” television interview by announcing that the Magnet Schools of America awarded us one of ten research grants.  You can see our shock on the second of four videos from that day’s interviews.  We have our parent developer checking in.  One of his colleagues, a former Apple exec, is flying in to visit us. Another has invited me to attend an app developer course in Virginia later this year.

“Listen, people!” I implore my first period.  “Edison said, ‘I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.’  We’ll get there.”

If you’ve experienced a similar freak out over a digital project, it’s healthy.  When the work threatens to overwhelm you or your students, take a breath.  Embrace the learning opportunity that comes from failure.  Then pump them back up.

I back up and reteach, knowing it’s better to scaffold instruction and meet the kids where they are instead of hurtling forward.  I review my expectations.  Are they realistic? Differentiated? Flexible? When you reflect, ask yourself, is this something I can improve for future students, or is it a one-time experiment?  After all, our learning targets lay in the process, not just the product.  That’s what your kids will remember.