Nashville Charter Schools Start Teaching Coding But First Must Teach Teachers

Three Nashville schools run by charter operator RePublic have decided every student will learn computer coding this year. They’re putting into action a famous quote from Apple founder Steve Jobs.

“I think everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer, learn a computer language, because it teaches you how to think,” Jobs said in a 1995 interview with PBS.

Besides the problem solving, there’s also the predicted shortage of a million coders over the next decade. But there’s another shortage that may be more pressing – the almost non-existence of coding teachers.

In an echoey classroom empty for the summer, Ryan York is leading a one-month crash course. The former Apollo Middle School math teacher and self-taught computer programmer is charged with equipping some of Nashville’s first dedicated coding teachers. It starts with a cartoon fish.

“This first lesson I think is something that should be pretty straight forward,” he tells the soon-to-be coding teachers. “It’s just getting a fish to be able to swim back and forth of its own accord without flipping upside down when it bounces off the edge of the canvass.”

These teachers with Nashville's RePublic schools spent the month of July learning coding in order to teach it this year. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

These teachers with Nashville’s RePublic schools spent the month of July learning coding in order to teach it this year. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

The teachers hunched over laptops are learning a fairly rudimentary coding language called Scratch, developed by MIT with the primary purpose of making coding less intimidating.

Ben Keil is pasting in different blocks of code, using a bit of trial and error.

“It’s not really hunt and peck,” Keil says. “I know what some of the basic things are, so I know kinda what I’m looking for. So I just need to get to the right area.”

These teachers come highly recommended. Two are top-notch math and science instructors. But they arrive knowing almost nothing about coding.

Until this school year, Keil says the closest he came to being a coder was living with a few at Ohio University.

“I actually roomed with two computer science guys in college and watched them through the whole process,” he says. “In hindsight now, I wish I had done a little more learning from them along the way.”

School leaders are spinning the lack of experience as a potential plus. Instructor Ryan York reassures them that they can identify with their students because they’re just a few steps ahead.

“This is something where you are learning alongside with your students,” York says. “And that’s a beautiful model that’s at the heart of programming. But it also means there’s a lot more preparation on the front end.”

‘The Only Way’

It’s been a vicious cycle of sorts.

Charter school founder Ravi Gupta says he’s wanted to start a coding program at his three schools. But there’s been no one to teach it.

“What we decided was we were operating out of fear,” Gupta says. “We all knew that our students needed the skills, but none of us knew how to tackle the challenge. So we started to teach ourselves as we teach our students not because that’s ideal but because it is the only way.”

The country’s top tech entrepreneurs – Mark Zuckerburg and Bill Gates, to name two – have been on a campaign to inspire schools to require coding. But even they haven’t offered a great answer for who will teach it.

There’s much more money to be made outside the classroom. And one question that’s bedeviled these teacher training programs popping up around the country is this: what if their new instructors are so good they get poached?

“We have definitely had that happen,” says Mike Palmer, who runs an organization based in St. Louis called Code Red.

Recently, Palmer had a teacher leave for greener pastures.

“We basically trained her up to be a coder. She ended up self-training a little bit more, and she ended up getting a job in the private sector. She left teaching,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s us doing our job too well, but it’s happened.”

The potential for high turnover is a problem that – at this point – Nashville’s coding education pioneers say they’d be happy to have.

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