Scenes from #isaFestivalOfCode

I have been following’s 2013 initiative Hour of Code since its launch. I still remember watching the famous video What Most Schools Don’t Teach with all my classes back then and working to promote and expand the computing options students had in High School. For almost 8+ years now this global movement to embed computational thinking (CT) across the K-12 curriculum has grown exponentially. There is a bigger all school focus on creating computing opportunities for students at all grade levels. From Scratch to physical computing (Arduino, Raspberry Pi, MicroBit etc), from app design platforms to visual coding (P5JS) there is a plethora of options now for students to study computing concepts without necessarily being in a Computer Science or Technology class.

Of course, there is still much work to be done! Integration with CT at the cross curricular level should be an ongoing conversation at every school. Ideas to integrate elements of decomposition, fragmentation, pattern recognition and algorithmic breakdown should be something every unit could potentially address in their own contexts. So, to create some awareness about this discipline and to get a community event/tradition started at ISA we launched the very first all school edition of Festival of Code. As we approach the end of what has perhaps been the toughest year of the 21st century for everyone around the world, having some sense of fellowship and collaboration using coding and computational thought seemed like the right step forward.

Converting challenges to opportunities

One of the biggest challenges we had with something like was the setup of it. Perhaps having a week akin to hour of code in the same week as the rest of the world would have been fine. But we wanted to push forth a bigger idea that went beyond coding and involved every student from Kindergarten to Grade 12. Hour of Code typically happens in the second week of December and as it turned out that was High School exam week at ISA. So, instead of shifting the week we extended it to two weeks. What started out as an hour of coding activities turned into a two week festival (the idea behind this being celebration, accomplishment, community and creativity) that would bring together students from across grade levels even if only virtually. The entire event was to be hosted online and every day a new set of activities and challenges were to be posted.

I am a fan of Advent of Code which has been taking place for the last few years. Even though my participation levels with this event have been varied I have liked their approach to building a lead up to Xmas with incrementally placed coding challenges. So, inspired by that approach I put together an advent calendar of sorts for ISA’s Festival of Code. This created a sense of enthusiasm in the community as they looked forward to a new set of activities and information each morning. The event ran from November 30 (Monday) until December 11 (Friday). The second week ran parallel to the annual Hour of Code hence creating more options for students to work with.

This is the Day #10 version where all doors are open. The event started out with one door opening each day.

Behind each of these colorful doors lay a structured approach to what that day’s theme/focus was. For instance, on Day 5 (the most popular day from what we’ve seen in our visit stats!) we showcased classic Arcade games and associated design. There was a bit of history provided for this hugely popular gaming platform and few activities that allowed students to design their own arcade games were presented.

After the home page for the website, this page stands #2 in hit statistics. Goes to show arcade games still rule!

Students in their morning advisory sessions and also in between/after lessons would continue trying out new coding challenges. Since the entire event was online it made it easy for them to work with it anytime anywhere.

Bringing grade levels together

Another important aspect of this event was the potential of getting older coding students (Middle/High School) to conduct short 15-20 minute webinars to entire grade levels in the Elementary School. I went out looking for volunteers from my Computer Science classes and got 12 talented and enthusiastic students who worked in pairs with one grade level each. In these mini sessions they would start off by talking to the little ones about their journey with coding, what they struggled with initially, how they overcame the challenges, some important aspects of knowing the why before the how of coding and of course, some examples of their current/past work. This offering was a huge success! Student leaders reported back positive engagement levels and all the questions kids had! We heard back from various homeroom teachers on how powerful it was for younger kids to hear from their older counterparts during such a community event. This aspect of the festival is something we will definitely be looking to expand and develop in future versions given its immense potential.

K-12 student showcase

As part of the final day’s celebrations we created a K-12 student showcase which highlighted some unique examples of coding from various students. From block coding to text based IDE programs, from Microbit project demos to adventure games in Twinery, it is quickly growing into a repository that can evolve into something much bigger in coming years.

Divided into school levels, it showcases screenshots and live links to programs students have written in various languages.

Also, starting this year, we are offering a weekly Computer Science lesson to all Grade 6s where they are currently working with Microbits. The idea is that every year this program will evolve into more advanced concepts hence making them ready for offerings like the IGCSEs or IB. Even if they do not choose these courses eventually they still leave ISA with a strong CT foundation acquired through several years of computational design experience. So, as a good stopping point, we have created a special showcase only for Grade 6 Microbit projects. Students designed a simple interactive product – such as a Kiosk, Smart Watch, Thermometer etc – and demonstrated their learning through short video clips. We continue to collect and document them on this showcase for the entire grade level.

The community response

As of yesterday we have seen 1100+ visits (this number continues to rise!) to the website and over 500+ new and returning users looking for ways to engage with the activities. This includes parents too! Despite the second week of the festival being exam week in High School we saw healthy participation across the other grade levels due to increased awareness and interest in the activities being posted. During the second week I also had a few students sign up for CodeHS’s online webinar series where they worked with experts as they talked them through a wide range of coding activities involving music and art. Parents in our community have already started asking if the website will be open during the Xmas break! This goes to show that the message we were trying to send about the relevance and power of CT has reached.

Takeaways and next steps

Starting a new job at a new school in a new city/country/continent during a global pandemic – enough said? But in many ways this event has helped me (and my family!) finish this year on a strong note despite the challenges that came our way. So the biggest takeaway for me has been that the quest to constantly find new opportunities in every challenge needs to continue. This has given me more confidence in the fact that various blended options exist for future versions of this event. It has also encouraged me to continue looking for collaborations outside the school (educators, admins and developers both locally and from around the world) who can bring in their expertise, unique thought and creative presence to #isaFestivalOfCode2021! It also opens up potential for inter-school collaborations within the region where teaching and learning communities can partner with one another in such creative spaces.

#isaFestivalOfCode has made a strong start. Anyone can code so keep calm and code on. Check out the wrap up video clip below.