Last week, Missouri’s governor Mike Parson announced that all schools in the state will remain closed through the end of the school year. It wasn’t a surprise for most of us educators, but the announcement sure sucked. We teachers miss our kids! And we’re especially troubled by the idea that some of our students will ride out the rest of the year in places that aren’t safe, where food is scarce, and where they feel anxious and alone. Music teacher Liz recently best summarized teacher concern and frustration at having to instruct our students remotely for another month and a half. We’re well aware that parents have been vocal about how online learning is causing more stress in their homes, and we as teachers certainly don’t want to create added stress. If possible, we do, however, want our students to make an effort to stay connected, further their learning (even if it’s not school-related!), and know that they have our support if they need it. I’ve seen so many extraordinary things come out of this challenging time, and I’m hopeful that we will see permanent, positive change as a result of this pandemic. Many of us have realized that prior to the spread of this virus, we weren’t prioritizing family time, self-care or happiness. If we’re smart, when we’re back to our new “normal,” we won’t let ourselves slip back into busy lives. Instead, moving forward, we’ll give more thought to whether “this” or “that” truly fulfills us. Don’t let the important message of this time be lost on you, friends, and help me remember it, too.
Everyone Has an App Idea
When you take a break from coming up with your personal definition of “fulfillment,” you may need a lesson idea or two to share with your students or teachers. So, not only will I share some quarantine-style Plot Driven Life experiences over the next few months, but also I’ll share some tech tools and lesson ideas you can steal. Today, I’m sharing a really simple way students aged 13 or older can jump into the role of an “app developer” even if they have NO coding experience at all. That goes for you, too. I think many educators shy away from introducing students to coding because the concept is intimidating. Don’t let it be. For this activity, neither you nor your students need to know a thing about computer coding. This is an activity you could lead through a video-conferencing tool or post in a virtual classroom for students to complete step-by-step.
- Napkin, piece of paper towel or paper
- Writing utensil
- Access to Thunkable website & iOS app OR Adobe XD download & app
Part I: Brainstorm (Allow approximately 20 minutes)
When I introduce this activity, I don’t tell my students it involves coding. I don’t want to scare away anyone. Instead, I want them to be so inspired by their own problem-solving and creative abilities that they want to figure out how to code. So, to get them started, tell them they need a piece of paper, paper towel or a napkin. I prefer to use a napkin for this exercise because it’s fun and it establishes that this activity is “out-of-the-box,” but I know napkins and paper towels are hot commodities right now, so it might be best to encourage students to use paper.
Action Step 1: Tell the students to separate their paper into four equal sections. Don’t give too many directions on how to do this. Let them show you how they think differently right from the start of the activity.
Action Step 2: Next, ask them to choose one of the quadrants and write down three to five problems that bother them. These can be small and personal, or they can be major and worldwide. Their responses will blow you away and give you insight into what is really going on in their brains. Give them ample time to complete this part, and make sure they do it independently.
Action Step 3: Next, tell them to identify the problem or issue that they are most passionate about solving. They need to circle, star, highlight, underline, etc. this one.
Now, tell them to pretend they are app developers! Here’s the scenario: a client has come to each them with this problem (already identified by each student from the previous step) and as an app developer, each student needs to brainstorm a realistic idea for an app that could tackle the problem. This app doesn’t need to fix the problem entirely; it just needs to offer a way to combat the problem.
Action Step 4: Students need to write a short, one sentence description of their apps in the second quadrant.
At this stage, I usually give them an example. One of our teachers identified “mean people” as a problem. Her app concept involved the user receiving random notifications throughout the day that included uplifting quotes, jokes, and healthy reminders to stay positive. She hoped this intervention would help users be kinder to others.
Action Step 5: Once students have described their app concepts, they will continue to respond to these questions in quadrant two:
- Who is the audience for your app? Be as specific as possible. Is it teenagers with a mental health diagnosis? Adults who need transportation? Pet owners looking for public walking trails?
- How much does your app cost? And if it’s free, (how) are you planning to monetize it?
- What is the name of your app? Make sure it’s catchy and relevant to what the app does, like “Snapchat.”
Action Step 6: In the third quadrant, they need to list the features of their app. Tell them to think about their favorite apps and draw from these features, if necessary. Does the app have GPS? Send notifications? Involve a calendar? Allow you to take pictures? Allow you to chat with others within the app?
Action Step 7: Finally, in the fourth quadrant, students will respond these questions by sketching their answers:
- What does the home screen of the app looks like?
- What is your app symbol?
This activity usually takes less than 20 minutes when I lead it in person. At the end of this brainstorming session, I ask for volunteers to share their ideas. I also praise the students for their focus, creativity, and ability to problem-solve. When I lead this activity, I had students generate ideas for apps that taught empathy, allowed students to petition for changes at their schools, and allowed victims of abuse to safely report crimes. I was floored by the amount of compassion my students showed while engaging in this activity!
Part II: Easy App Creation (Hours to Days)
Part II is where students dive into the meat of app developing, and there are two FREE tools that they have the option to try:
Thunkable is a website and app recently recognized by the American Association of School Librarians as one of the Best Websites for Teaching and Learning of 2019. This tool allows students to use drag and drop coding (the simplest kind, often taught to elementary school students) to program their app’s commands. Thunkable is free to use for students 13 years old or older, but by using the free version, their .apps are part of the public domain, just FYI. Thunkable has a YouTube channel of tutorials, documents with step-by-step instructions, and a community forum you can access for support. But here’s the thing: I know very little about how the website works and I tell this to my students. I don’t pretend to be an expert. I tell them to play. I encourage them to help each other if they get stuck or Google the answers to their questions. They will learn how to use this tool best by diving in and continuing to tap into their problem-solving skills, and they’ll amaze you with the end product.
Adobe XD is a downloadable program that words on Mac or Windows computers and users can test their designs via the Adobe XD app. Adobe XD is a more complex tool to use to build and test an app, but students can use this combination to create a prototype if they wish, meaning they can just design the look of the app and don’t have to concern themselves with any back-end coding. If you want way more info about Adobe XD, including a series of tutorials specifically developed to support using Adobe XD in the classroom, check out this blog post from The Tech Rabbi, a super cool educator I recently developed a professional crush on at the 2020 METC Conference.
But Wait, There’s More!
While we’re on the topic of coding, I saw today that Bill Gates is teaching a live Code Break lesson over at Code. org on April 22. Encourage students of ALL ages to attend so they can learn from the literal master of coding himself!
You can also check out this page on my school library website to connect to tons of other online coding activities.
Oh, and if you want to check out a great book that features a strong female protagonist who codes, I encourage you to try When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon. Check out my Goodreads review here.