Coding for English Teachers


My students learning to use hex tables to create color on the web.
My students learning to use hex tables to create color on the web. They did it!

When you’re building research in digital literacies, it often is very useful to be married to a coder. Chris often helps me think about the perspective of someone who works in the industry and whether what I’m thinking about teaching might actually be useful for students — either immediately or at some point in the future.

Recently, he came in to help me teach my students about coding. All of the folks in this class are English teachers, reading and writing specialists, or headed into pre-service English teaching internships. To say the least, many of them were highly skeptical. They weren’t sure whether they could code, first of all, or whether they wanted to learn. What relevance does code have to teaching reading and writing?

We started with the classic PBJ coding problem, where first Chris misinterpreted their sandwich-making directions to an absurd T. Eventually, after they were thoroughly frustrated by the interpretability of language and the conventions of sandwich making, he broke down and taught them how to write a function by thinking through the steps necessary to open a jar (which, apparently, confused more than a few people who used the lab after us since I forgot to erase our work from the whiteboard).

Then, we moved on to actual mark-up, altering a painful Shakespeare fan-page that Chris drew up. Ah, former English majors who have learned a little mark-up. What you’re missing is the lovely aqua and yellow color scheme of the original.

My students got super-excited about the aesthetics of all of this (we normally blog together on a class Google+ community, so they can add images and very basic formatting, but seldom have the ability to choose their own colors), so we moved quickly from instructing Chris in how to edit the Shakespeare page to using TextWrangler (a free, easy, color-coded text editor) to build their own fan pages: They are fans of Judge Judy, local beaches, alligators, English teachers, and faerie tales, just to name a few. They quickly built confidence first with text mark-up, then with layout, and they used their new HTML markup skills to whip up some 30-minute tributes to all of these things. I love it.

Watching everyone move from skeptics (“why do we need to know how to code anything?” “Alecia, we’re trying to get off social media,” “there’s so many sources out there that do the coding for you, so why do we care?”) to interested novices was deeply inspiring. I love it when my students feel good about digging in and experimenting with a new tool! I’m going to be excited to see where their further explorations take them.

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