SOLE NYC

John B. Russwurm P.S. 197M is the proud host of the first SOLE lab in America. Located in Harlem, New York City, we inspire students to ask and solve Big Questions while teaching each other the intricate paths of knowledge. Continue reading

What’s the code for New York?

A leading kids’ coding expert recently lamented that teachers are making computer class ‘way too boring’. Well, he obviously hadn’t sat in on a SOLE Code session recently!

As part of international Hour of Code week, two SOLE classrooms 3,000 miles apart linked up for joint sessions where they not only tackled the Big Question: What is a computer bug? but they also bugged and debugged a lite version of the infamous Flappy Bird game.

“Creativity is key to successful coding,” explains Dr Anne Preston, who is part of the collaborative team at Newcastle University running these sessions. “You can teach coding by getting children to sit in front of a computer on their own, but where’s the fun in that? By using self-organised learning, the children collaborate to devise questions they want to solve, and also come up with their own answers. That way, the learning really stays with them as it’s tailor-made for each different group.”

On Wednesday 9 December, children from Amberley Primary School near New York, North Tyneside, UK had the chance to learn more about computational thinking and develop their coding skills. They were working alongside fellow students in their more famous namesake SOLE NYC at John B Russwurm PS197 elementary school in Harlem, the location of Sugata’s Mitra’s latest TED SOLE research lab.

Dr Shaimaa Lazem, who leads the joint coding project between Newcastle University’s SOLE Central and Open Lab, was extremely pleased with how everything went. “The children collaborated really well,” she says. “They even thought of something we hadn’t considered, designing their own ice-breaker by gathering in front of the big screen and asking each other questions about Newcastle, New York, and a typical school day.”

During the follow-up SOLE session “What is a computer bug?” on the Friday, the children used iPads constantly connected to New York to keep the conversation flowing.

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The Year 4 (3rd grade, US) children experimented with the coding skills they gained earlier in the week to self-organise around a programming activity to design a bugged game. They used a lite version of the controversial Flappy Bird game (which was the most popular app in the world until its inventor got fed up with the fame and took it down).

They implemented a bug (a ‘mistake’ in the code) and then switched groups to find the bug in each other’s program, switching once again to fix it. Afterwards, they had a joint ‘debrief’ between the UK and the US to discuss how they tackled the coding challenge.

In previous SOLE Code sessions, researchers have used Lego to help children learn coding, which is not at strange as it might initially seem: visual programming languages depict commands as blocks that can be snapped together, just like Lego, into more complex sets of instructions.

Mitchel Resnick, who made the comments about ‘boring’ computer classes on NPR Ed led the team that developed the visual programming language called Scratch over a decade ago and has also created a junior version designed for children aged 5+.

Teacher Chris Carr, who runs Amberley SOLE each week after school, welcomed this new way to use SOLE in the classroom to teach coding skills. “What interests me about SOLE is the creativity that happens alongside the students gaining knowledge and social skills,” he says. “It’s not about a teacher standing in front of a class delivering knowledge anymore – it’s about sparking children’s interest and creativity and letting them take ownership of their own learning.”

Hour of Code Week, which ran from 7-13 December 2015, is organised by Code.org, a non-profit organisation dedicated to expanding access to computer science. Their vision is for every student in every school to have the opportunity to learn computer science and for it to be part of the core curriculum, as it is in the UK.

It takes a village to raise a SOLE

SOLE NYC in Harlem has got its work cut out. Simply introducing the concept of self organised learning is a challenge in most schools, but at John B. Russwurm PS 197M they are also using it to engage particularly hard-to-reach students.

“I didn’t want to do this in a school where everyone was doing ok – I wanted to do it here because I knew it could make a real difference,” says Natalia Arredondo, who is the driving force behind SOLE NYC and is overseeing the research into reading comprehension, social skills and how young students navigate Big Questions.

Professor Sugata Mitra officially opened SOLE NYC on 14 October 2015 as the first dedicated American SOLE research lab. It joins five other labs in India and two in the UK that have all been created as part of his 2013 TED Prize wish to build a School in the Cloud.

New York’s schools are the most segregated in the whole of the USA, with students divided not only by race, but also by socio-economic status. SOLE NYC is in a high poverty and low income area, where most families live on well under $25,000 a year.

Jungle adventure

Most of PS 197M’s students come from less well-off African American families, along with those from Hispanic and Asian backgrounds. “Some kids have difficult home lives,” explains Natalia. “This can have a knock-on effect on behavioural issues and make it difficult for them to engage in class.”

Natalia sees her role as SOLE lab co-ordinator as also part counsellor, trying to talk to the students to see what’s going on and offer a bit of stability in their lives.

This SOLE lab, which is being funded through Newcastle University’s SOLE Central, will cater from Pre K (three to four-year-olds) up to 5th grade (12-13-year-olds) and will be run by a committee made up of 3rd, 4th and 5th graders.

The design the students decided upon that best reflected their idea of ‘adventure’ for the SOLE lab was a jungle, complete with an animal mural with clouds, monkeys and butterflies hanging down from the ceiling.

Classes cycle through the SOLE lab during the day, so that everyone gets a chance to be involved.

“I feel very lucky that everything has come together in such an amazing way,” says Natalia, who is one of Prof Sugata Mitra’s PhD students at Newcastle University and is currently living in New York. “I’ve been bowled over by the help the school has provided – custodians, teachers, construction workers and parents have all come together to help, often after school hours. They’ve made it their own project. It’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child, but in Harlem it’s taken a village to build this SOLE lab.

“I’m confident about what will happen with the students but what I’m curious about is the teachers, as very few are into inquiry-based learning and it’s very much the opposite of traditional teaching.

 Whether the teachers embrace it or not is crucial and I think this is where the work will need to be done.”

Students take to SOLE surprisingly quickly

Natalia had already carried out several SOLEs in the school beforehand to get the students used to the idea of working in this way and was surprised how quickly they took to it. They have now been involved in 100s more.

PS 197M is a focus school, meaning it has failed to pass state examinations several years running and so becomes the district’s focus, with more support and visits from the superintendent’s office as a result.

Natalia carried out a lot of research and demonstrated in all types of schools in the area before deciding to locate it in Harlem. “Natasha (Spann, the school principal) has a passion for education – she just loves it but is in a difficult spot,” Natalia says. “I wasn’t sure if she’d go for this, as it’s a gamble, but in the end I just put it to her, stepped back, and did as Sugata would, sitting back and just letting it happen.”