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Coding mentors bolster kids’ confidence at William Wells Brown Elementary Promise Academy

Third, fourth, and fifth graders learned the foundation of computer programming in a basic coding class. (Photo from FCPS)

Learning to manipulate game elements to achieve goals proved an enriching experience for youngsters in the Promise Academy at William Wells Brown Elementary. “The success is solely based on their efforts,” said Obi Taylor, who with partner Lafe Taylor runs a business called Code Command. In the past several weeks, the men introduced two classes to the basics of coding, or computer programming. Even more impressive, they led the students to a new understanding of themselves and their abilities.

For example, fourth-grader JerMarion Robertson spoke comfortably about alphanumeric variables and the text-based programming game CodeMonkey. He also grasped the importance of working closely with his coding partner. “You have to make sure he’s with you and on the same level,” JerMarion explained.

Lafe Taylor of Code Command worked one-on-one with students as needed. (Photo from FCPS)

The technical details will come later; initially, the aim was to encourage logical and critical thinking among the third, fourth, and fifth graders. “Coding is making the monkey get where the bananas are,” said fifth grader Moses Mapigano Jr., adding, “It’s really fun to compete and beat the levels.”

The class improved the students’ reading comprehension and soft skills like communication, and the leaders stressed a strong work ethic and integrity. “They learn how to be accountable. ‘Be truthful and take responsibility,’ ” Obi Taylor said, citing their mantra.

With laudable efforts came tangible results. The mentors handed out a braided bracelet whenever a child asked or answered a relevant question, and rewarded them for remembering to wear their Code Command T-shirts and name badges. In addition, every Friday was payday when the students received real cash for focus, diligence, and other qualities and actions that employers value in the workplace. The Taylors (no relation) also spread kindness liberally, raising self-esteem in youngsters who too often associate adults with discipline or criticism.

The coding class was one of several options in the school’s enrichment series, which is part of the Promise Academy model of providing extra supports and opportunities. “We were looking for a way to expose our students to experiences they may not regularly have access to in their day-to-day lives. We want to bring in community partners and organizations as well as utilize the talents of staff members to allow our students to find their passion,” said Amanda Stewart, the enrichment coordinator.

Students paired up for the Hack-A-Thon challenge. “On any team, if you want to be a champion, you have to work together,” said mentor Obi Taylor. (Photo from FCPS)

Each morning has three enrichment blocks divided by grade-level groups. Other recent choices included baking and cooking, African drumming, arts and crafts, drama, digital art, news broadcast, and science and agriculture. Even intramural basketball involved problem solving and conflict resolution. Some student favorites will repeat in the next rotation, along with the addition of chess, golf, book writing and illustration, and an advanced coding class.

“We need to actively engage the children in their learning. This instills a little more value in education,” said Stewart, who forecast a corresponding uptick in academics.

Spirits certainly were high in the coding class, where confidence rose and behavior improved. As the mentors inspired trust, the students responded over time with extra effort. For instance, after Taylor wore T-shirts featuring various historical figures, a few children chose to research and write short reports on the famous people. Other students wrote thank-you notes to the mentors, and one boy invited them to his football game, where the men connected with his family. Those initiatives had nothing to do with coding but everything to do with mutual respect. The children also gave their all in the culminating Hack-A-Thon challenge, knowing the mentors would be fair with their praise. On the final day, students received certificates, dog tags, and $2 bills. Some also earned cash prizes, embroidered backpacks, and iPads for exemplary participation, unprompted helpfulness, and unselfish kindness.

“It’s amazing the transformation you see in six weeks,” Taylor noted. “Imagine what we could do in a year. They’d all come out rock stars!”

From Fayette County Public Schools

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