Tuesday, November 07, 2006

"Web Page Success!" or "Why I Love Teaching Fourth and Fifth Graders"

A big thanks to everyone who commented on my idea of teaching my students to write HTML code rather than using FrontPage to create their student web sites. I appreciate your insights.

Based on your feedback, I have decided to go ahead and teach my fourth and fifth graders how to code their own pages. We may eventually switch back to FrontPage, but for now we are working in Wordpad and previewing in Internet Explorer (because that is the only browser we HAVE.)

I am using a site called WebGenies as the backbone of my lessons. Thus far, it is written at just the right level, or rather, it is in their Zone of Proximal Development, which is just what I want.

In lesson 2 it gives them guidelines for designing their site. After reading those, students fired up Inspiration and began to develop their web plan. For now, those plans are long on ideas and short on actual content, but at least the students have begun thinking.

Next, we jumped ahead to lessons 6-8 which introduce HTML, first the idea, and then the actual tags. It steps them through coding a really simple web page.

I do a lot of modeling. For example, today I showed them how to line up two different windows on their desktop so that they can see the directions and their code at the same time. I modeled right-clicking on their index.html file so they can "open with" Wordpad and Internet Explorer. I modeled typing the opening and closing tags for a section first, and then clicking between them to insert content. Most importantly, I modeled the repeated process of re-saving the Wordpad document and then refreshing their browser window so they can view changes.

I figure this first page is the most difficult because they need to get their brains around the idea of a computer language, of tags, of opening and closing tags. To my delight, they are getting it.

I worried that these tech savvy kids would be underwhelmed by their efforts to code, since most have already used FrontPage to some degree and they all visit complicated sites on the web. Thus far my fears were unfounded.

My hopes that because coding is a constructive, generative process, that the children would see the value and experience success have proven accurate. The class sessions are full of Ahas! In typical nine-and-ten-year-old fashion, cries of "Yes! I rock!" can be heard when they first view their very simple page in Internet Explorer. I've seen a few happy dances and a great many broad smiles of self-delight.

One fifth grader took an after school class last year that involved coding web pages. She remembers a bit of it and is already one of our "experts". In general, I am delighted that kids are starting to develop a playful, "I wonder what happens if I do this?" attitude, which is just what is needed, both in this activity and in life. Many of our students, especially our Asian students, are afraid to take risks so I rejoice to see them boldly tweaking tags and quickly refreshing their browser to see the results.

The class sessions fly by because I am so busy. We are just starting to grow our own experts so for now, I am in big demand. I worried that the kids would get frustrated waiting for me, but many of them have said as they walked out, "Class was short today" or "Was that really 45 minutes?"

Our next lesson helps us spice up our page with formatting tags such as bold, italic and color. After that, we need to go back to planning, figuring out the navigation links they need on each page and on the home page. We'll also learn how to create a template so that they aren't coding each page from scratch. I am thinking I should create a few resources on the server as well, such as writing the code for a basic table so that they can copy that and paste it in. I'd rather have them tweak that code than spend days creating their own from scratch. I only get to work with them once per week, and this is one project that their teachers won't be able to work on outside of class, at least not until we have a few more student experts.

[UPDATE: The WebGenies site just closed! Fortunately, they recommend using WebMonkey which is another excellent resource.]