Some teachers have the coolest toys: Erika McEnery

Some of the most exciting – and personal – academic work at Moses Brown has emerged from the faculty cohort plan, a professional development and evaluation program. In a year of transformational study, a cohort of veteran teachers sets goals, serves as resources for one another’s evaluations and shares professional development plans at year’s end. At the heart of the program are cohort projects, each teacher’s big idea for personal research to be shared in the classroom. The benefit to students is clear: teachers continuously deepen their expertise, refine their curriculum, and bring the latest research back to the classroom to improve the learning experience.

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Twelve second graders sit in a semicircle on the rug. Holding their work in their laps, they wait for their turn to go to the board and share their projects with the rest of the class. One boy fidgets, then gets up and hands his work to the teacher. “Erika, could you take this?” he asks. “It’s too tempting.” A seven-year-old, distracted by schoolwork? Learning is irresistible when it’s on an iPad.

Lower school technology teacher Erika McEnery has developed a coding curriculum for MB’s fifth grade as her faculty cohort project. “Coding is the art of creating anything from computer games to iPad apps,” she explains. “When kids learn to code, they learn to achieve goals that seem overwhelming by breaking problems down to manageable parts. Coding teaches storytelling, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.”

Erika’s project is supported by Code.org’s professional development workshops and tools, blending online, self-guided and even “unplugged” activities that require no computer at all. In addition, she and her students are exploring iPad programming apps. With iPads, the second graders learned programming with Scratch Jr. Step by step, they created short pieces of animation, building the code required to design, color and move characters and elements.

Of necessity, Erika’s curriculum is constantly evolving. “That’s what I find most rewarding and most challenging about my job,” she says. “Every year I try new curriculum, software or technology,” Erika says. “I’m not afraid to fail, whether it’s in front of my students or my colleagues. In the fifteen years I’ve been at MB, you’ll often hear me tell a student: ‘I don’t know, let’s find out.’”

Erika’s students plunged into last year’s pilot Hour of Code projects with enthusiasm. This winter, after tackling more Hour of Code projects, they began Erika’s new curriculum. “In project-based learning, fifth grade students are creating programming tutorials that will teach first and second graders programming.” That’s bound to prove irresistible for older and younger students alike.

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