(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
In a small, ground-floor classroom packed with learning activities and restless first-graders, Katerina Lewinsky was trying to solve a problem.
“Where do you need to tell Mario to go?” asked her teacher, Marina Vyrros. “What are the numbers over there?”
Lewinsky looked back at Vyrros with giant brown eyes, spoke softly, then turned and used an electronic stylus to point to a spot on the Smart Board before her.
Vyrros said the coordinates aloud: “X-five, Y-minus-two.”
She then led the little girl through the process of selecting a circle — color black, size one — from a menu of options so that Mario, the familiar video-game character, would add an eye to the face she was creating.
Together, feature by feature, pixel by pixel, teacher and student were creating a monster, a digital monster based on a picture Lewinsky had drawn earlier in Vyrros’ class.
A few months ago, none of this would have been possible. Lewinsky came to Vyrros’ English-language learners’ class at the Hugh Roe O’Donnell School in East Boston last fall, having moved from Puerto Rico speaking almost no English. She certainly knew nothing about computer programming.
But through this class, a collaboration with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lewinsky and her classmates are learning not just how to communicate in English, they’re also learning the building blocks of how programmers communicate with computers.
“It gives them a lot of opportunities for authentic use of language,” Vyrros explained over the Babel of young voices speaking Spanish and English, voices of students from Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras engaged in other interactive learning projects in her classroom.
The project grew out of a workshop at MIT on using technology in the classroom that Vyrros attended two years ago. There she met Daniel Wendel, an educational software developer for MIT who was one of the lead developers of the StarLogo TNG educational software her students now use.
Together, Wendel and Vyrros began exploring ways they could combine teaching kids technology with teaching them to speak and read English, so they learned two important skills that would reinforce each other.
“It’s just really great to connect the language component with analytical thinking,” she said. “It’s given me an opportunity to learn and grow, as well, as an educator.”
They began in the 2010 – 2011 school year, with seventh- and eighth-grade English learners at Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, who got to design their own video games in the class. For the first-grade students Vyrros has taught this year, the work is simpler, but still based on the principles that guide real computing.
One early project had them taking turns playing computer and programmer, one student giving instructions to another on how to draw a monster, much as Lewinsky did with an actual computer. Both activities encourage them to think about how to give the right set of information to create the outcome they desired.
For another project, the students used a four-square court on the playground to practice charting coordinates on an X and Y axis, getting a basic lesson in Cartesian coordinates. For this age group, Vyrros said, integrating physical activity into lessons is key. Keeping both mind and body focused on a single task keeps these energetic 6-, 7-, and 8-year-olds engaged.
Vyrros is teaching another class of English learners at the Guild Elementary School in Orient Heights without the technology, and she can see a difference in how quickly the two groups learn and what they’re learning, she said.
Using the technology is especially helpful, she said, for teaching children things like sequence — the idea that one thing must go first and another second, and so on. But it also has the intangible benefit of preparing them to use computers for the rest of their lives.
C. Sura O’Mard, the school’s principal, has been supportive of the project from the outset, and she’s excited that it could help ready students for the jobs of the future.
“I think it’s really about making connections for children at an early age,” O’Mard said. “If they begin to develop their minds and aspirations of, ‘What do I want to be?’ — I’d love for them to be policemen and firemen and teachers and lawyers and the like, but we really need our children to begin to think beyond those categories, because there is capacity, and yet they lack exposure.”
Vyrros and O’Mard hope early exposure to computing can help level the playing field for these children of immigrant parents, giving them a chance to compete academically with students who come from wealthier backgrounds and have greater access to technology.
But perhaps the most important lesson Vyrros can teach about computers is the last thing she said to Lewinsky as they completed the day’s tasks.
“Always save your work,” she said.
(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)