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How Do You Grade Projects When Using Programming: An Interview with Nicole Reitz-Larsen from

Outreach Manager and Facilitator for, Nicole Reitz-Larsen works with 25 U.S. states west of the Mississippi, helping districts implement Computer Science. A former high school teacher from Salt Lake City, Utah, Nicole taught business classes for over 14 years. Once she started using the Exploring Computer Science (ECS curriculum using Scratch, Nicole recalls, “I was like, ‘This is exciting and students are engaged in class.’ And that's where I fell in love with teaching kids that Computer Science is not just programming, but it's all these facets: human computer interaction, problem solving, web design, programming, data, and robotics.. I went from one section of ECS to 15 sections. People were like, ‘How could you do that?’ And I was like, ‘Kids saw that computer science was broader than and they were having fun.’”

Nicole has loads of experience facing challenges head-on – and hands-on – when hosting a professional development workshop, giving a presentation at a conference, working with local teachers to integrate a coding curriculum, or raising her five children. In our interview, Nicole discussed some of the toughest teacher criticisms and questions related to programming – and shared her practical strategies and answers.

“I say, ‘Do you want your kids to be engaged? Let's give you a new set of teaching practices and skills that you can take back to class then try it out. A lot of teachers are like, ‘But it looks so hard.’ I’m like, ‘No. Let's go through and discover with this together and then collaborate with each other on how you think that would work in your class. And Scratch is one of the biggest ones that I share at the elementary and middle school level, because you can integrate it with so many other classes. That's one positive that people have seen with Scratch -- it doesn't have to be put in a stand-alone technology class. Any teacher can pick it up and play with it. And then when they walk away, they’ve had experience, and now they can go test it out.”

And a lot of the teachers are like, ‘Well, how do I grade kids’ projects?’ I'm like, ‘I have the perfect tool. This is what computational thinking is.’ And I'm like, ‘Don't even think of it as just programming. Computer Science is broader than that. How can you think about these concepts in a broader term?’ And teachers started opening up.

What's funny is that the name of my original presentation was Computational Thinking and Assessment in Programming. And nobody signed up. So I changed it to How Do You Grade Kids When They're Making Programming Projects? All of a sudden I had all these people sign up. I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ And they were like, ‘It's the name that you gave the presentation. It was a terrible name.’ Most teachers have no idea what computational concepts and practices are. They have no idea.” (See Nicole's presentation slides attached below.)

“Teachers think ‘Computational Thinking’ is going to be something really hard. You need to address it with a name that people can understand or relate with. There is a little segment of Chris Bosh talking a little bit about computational thinking in a video called What Most Schools Don't Teach. It's just a 60-second segment and it makes teachers say, ‘Oh. Well, what is computational thinking?’

The biggest barrier is that teachers aren't comfortable with programming concepts like computational thinking, computational practices, reusing, iteration. A lot of the teachers say, ‘Tell us what that is in regular English first.’ I went into our YouTube channel, and found our two-minute videos on sequencing, looping, and debugging. The debugging one is a young gymnast who talks about when her routines don't work, how she debugs it. So I took a lot of those concepts that seemed really foreign to the teachers, and connected them with our little videos that made it so that the teachers had some kind of a real world connection. And that really broke down some barriers.

We also talked about careers that used those concepts or even everyday scenarios. I'm like, ‘Okay, when you think about the Repeat block, think about what you do every single day. Everyday, when you get up, what do you do?’ Teachers are like, ‘I get up, brush my teeth, eat breakfast.’ Okay, that's looping! Everyday you're repeating the same routing. If you had to make a list for a babysitter of what you wanted your kids to do everyday after school, would you want to write down that same list everyday? Well, no. Instead you'd want to write it down once and then go ‘ditto,’ As teachers, we need to create connections of what we are trying to teach the students with everyday things around us, and then we can explain it to kids so they can internalize it..”

“Helping teachers understand there are different ways to assess students, I say,’In a math class you can give a student a point if they got the answer right or take a point away if they got the answer wrong. Then you use those points to give a letter grade. When students are writing programs, it is harder to give them a grade when their work depends on multiple lines of code or blocks working correctly. So I've shown teachers how to use rubrics to assess what students are learning while creating a Scratch project. The rubrics are a way to show what concepts the student is learning, critical thinking, as well as, problem solving, thus the student is showing 'progress' in a project that not might not run correctly and get the outcome they expected. Often times, having those rubrics have helped students who work creatively to demonstrate their level of understanding to get a 'pass/fail' grade out of a traditional class for showing their level of understanding in a non-traditional way. Did they get this concept? Yes. Here's how they demonstrated this concept.’

The teachers have to be more flexible on their grading, but some teachers get really frustrated that there are some students that won't do the teacher-assigned activities because they don't want to do that handout with 30 problems on it. It’s helping teachers say, ‘Hey, if a kid can create a little Scratch project to show you that he knows that concept covered in the assigned work, that kid obviously knows the concept, but feels it is more worth their time to do it in a way that matches their learning style.’ Students are connecting, “I can now show my teacher this review game with the same information from the worksheet, which is a project I want to work on, rather than doing this boring worksheet.” That really helps teachers for the computational thinking perspectives part too. Students are actually doing a high level thinking activity than your handout that has 30 questions of the same thing. And then teachers could say to their principals, ‘I'm using computational thinking practices in my curriculum, and here is how I'm doing it,’ I think those teachers would get higher reviews and remarks if they knew how to talk the talk. That really has helped teachers to think about, ‘Well, why is it that these kids would rather do the harder projects to show that they know the concepts? How can I help them to make learning more meaningful? To want to do a project, instead of just some assignment I'm supposed to do?’

And then I have the teachers collaborate with each other, ‘How would this look with my with my curriculum, in my classroom, with the students I have?’ You know you don't have a ton of extra time, so what can you do to make this actually a reality that a kid could go and do this? What kind of scaffolding or support do you need?’ It's great to communicate and collaborate. Everyone has the same goal, that they want students to have experience with Computer Science, whether it be a stand-alone Computer Science course, a few modules integrated in an existing course, or just getting exposure to with the Hour of Code, and broadening that participation.”

Thanks for sharing this resource.  I especially like the sentence "tell us what that is in regular English first."  I can relate!  Teachers need to "talk the talk" so that administration can understand what they are trying to do in the classroom.  I have been teaching Sctatch in the classroom for several years now and it really is gratifying to see students who have been struggling with a programming concept to have an "aha" moment.   I like the fact that debugging teaches problem solving skills in a very concrete way.