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4 tech skills every middle-schooler needs

A principal and a computer teacher detail the trifecta of technology tactics that they teach all of their students

Saint Patrick’s is a small, pre-K–8 Catholic school in Yorktown Heights, New York. Last
year, we received a grant to revamp our computer lab into what we call a STREAM lab, which stands for science, technology, religion, engineering, art, and math. The grant allowed us to invest in 30 new MacBook Airs to supplement our existing iPads and Chromebooks. Before we spent a cent, though, we made certain to connect every purchase with our two important goals: improving each individual child’s academic and career prospects, and improving our students’ scores on state assessments, which are critical to whether we’re succeeding or failing as a school. To that end, here are four essential skills that we strive to teach all of our students by the time they finish middle school.

1. Robotics and coding
Like many schools, we’ve expanded our robotics and coding programs. For the past year, we’ve been using the Sphero SPRK+ and Dash and Dot to introduce robotics and support inquiry-based learning. This year, students will also be using Ozobot’s Bit and Evo robots, as well as Lego WeDo and Mindstorms robotic kits. Robots encourage kids to collaborate and to drive lessons with their creativity. They decide as a team what they’re going to accomplish, and they go from there.

When it comes to coding, our K–8 students start with the visual block programming platform Blockly. In addition, our 8th-graders use CodeMonkey, an online platform that teaches them text-based coding in a language called Coffee Script. Students take on the character of a monkey, and each lesson is part of their monkey’s quest to earn bananas. The goal is to make coding fun, and to prepare our students to program using other text-based languages like Python and JavaScript.

2. Keyboarding
Today’s students need keyboarding skills for coding, but also for their assessments, which are now being delivered online. Here in New York, students can be required to type paragraphs on an assessment as early as 3rd grade, and our state standards require keyboarding skills as well.

To help all of our students learn how to type or to hone their skills, we use online typing games from TypeTastic. Our kindergarteners start by using the mouse first to get familiar with the keyboard, then move on to actually finding the letters on the keyboard.

For our younger students, typing is one unit covered throughout the year and is taught as a full-period lesson during their weekly computer class. Keyboarding is embedded in the curriculum for K–3 students so that, as they move from grade to grade, it becomes second nature to them.

For 4th- through 8th-graders, typing is more often a 10-minute warmup at the start of computer class. Each child works at their own pace within their assigned units. In addition, some students have the opportunity to continue their lessons on Chromebooks during their weekly library period (once they finish their library work). They love that the keyboarding skills they’re learning are presented as a game.

3. Making
Ultimately, we want our students to be producing things that are valuable to other people. For example, we do a lot of 3D design in TinkerCad. Some of the grades use a program called Book Creator to help kids write and illustrate their own stories. With an art program like Kid Pix 3D, students can draw, paint, and create animated artwork or slideshows As much as they’re creating, though, they also need to be able to explain their finished product and the process they followed to achieve their goal. This is another reason keyboarding is so important to our program.

4. Communication via multiple devices
Verbal expression is important, of course, but today’s students need to be able to use different forms of technology to produce rather than just consume media. Our middle school is 1:1 on iPads, so devices are part of their blended learning experience in every class, whether they have an attached keyboard or are using the touchscreen.

For the younger grades, we have 50 iPads and about 25 Chromebooks that can be shared among the K–5 students. This means that from an early age they become comfortable with both the touch screen and traditional keyboard. They independently locate apps as well as websites, and are able to connect with their teachers and peers using whatever device is at hand.

At Saint Patrick’s, we’re excited about expanding our use of the technology that we were able to purchase with our grant and within our school budget. We’re using those tools not just as part of students’ day-to-day work, but to give them the best possible chance at success in high school, college, and their careers.

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