Hurricane Harvey spared our town, about four hours from Houston and near the Mexican border. But our hotels are full of people of people who have been displaced from homes in the storm area. As the school year starts here at Dr. Pablo Perez Elementary school in McAllen — where I am the school librarian — we are enrolling 40 to 60 newcomers in Harvey’s aftermath.
We had a unique relationship with Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago, as fleeing New Orleaneans took refuge here; we understand what children are going through because we’ve seen this before.
In the library, we’re ready to let them talk about what has happened. As conversation starters, we have a number of books that help inform children about the crisis. These include: Zane and Hurricane: A Story of Katrina, What Hurricane?, Yesterday We Had a Hurricane, Hurricane! The 1900 Galveston Night of Terror and Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship, and Survival.
But what about those times when children don’t pay attention to flat, motionless books?
This is not your grandmother’s library. It isn’t only books that greet our students here, but also two friendly, coding-proficient robots named Dot and Dash.
Dot and Dash have transformed our library into a hub of hands-on learning where we’re constantly in motion, working in groups that plot, collaborate, troubleshoot and celebrate.
Albeit daunting at first, the introduction of robotics has helped to connect the seemingly intangible skill of coding with the very tangible action of physical movement. Students see the immediate effects of a program that opens the robot’s eyes or makes it light up, or in some cases, move in the opposite direction from what they intended. Students learn to try new programs and modify codes to get the robots to follow complex paths or make tight turns. And suddenly, it all makes sense.
At the youngest levels, students interact with Dot, which lights up and makes noises, and students learn how to initiate those responses. When they move to Dash, which is mobile, they learn much more about coding and sequencing that will link to the physical actions they want to see. Students find themselves in storylines that require them to, for example, program Dash to rescue animals at a faraway island.
The interest and engagement among students, from kindergarten through fifth grade, has exceeded my every hope. We’ve taken tablets — which most students have only ever used for games — and taught students to use these devices to program. Some of my students — “the programming princesses,” a duo in third grade — even placed in the international 2016-2017 Wonder League Robotics Competition last year.
I had tried to introduce coding before, using computer programs and tablet apps that exposed students to formulas and programming languages. But all of this was two-dimensional; it never came to life, and it didn’t interact with or engage kids as much as I had hoped.
Bringing coding to library time not only enriched those regular sessions I had with students, but it also bled into math and language arts, giving those teachers tangible applications of the concepts they taught. It energized the school.
I now travel throughout my district and region to show colleagues how to introduce coding and robotics in their own schools. And I teach my colleagues just as I do my students, setting the robots in front of them and allowing them to figure out how to make Dot light up or move Dash around the room. Once they see how tangible the robots make a seemingly abstract concept like coding, they get it just as my students do in the library day after day.
It’s the same electric sense of satisfaction I get when parents approach me with some version of, “My daughter comes home all the time talking about ‘library time.’ I have to know: ‘What’s going on during library time?’”
These days, as it turns out, quite a lot.
And in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, these kids are going to need all we can give them.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
This year’s Texas Librarian of the Year, Cynthia Cooksey was named Teacher of the Year for her school and district the year she introduced coding to her school.