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English Learners at Glenwood Elementary Thrive with Robotics and Coding

Laura Holmes earned a degree in broadcast journalism many years ago, but she realized she couldn’t embrace the intrusive-- and hectic -- elements of that career, so when she moved to Chapel Hill, she took a position as a teaching assistant for a year. That’s all it took for her to realize how much she loved working with children, and she returned to the University of North Carolina for an Masters of Arts in Teaching for English as a Second Language. Holmes has taught English Language Learners (ELL) at Glenwood Elementary School (GES) for 14 years now, and she’s clearly still energized by her daily work with students. Her most recent initiative has been an integration of coding and robotics into language study, and she seems to be as excited by the learning as her students are.

Holmes noted that ELL students often reach a point in their language acquisition when they are still showing growth, but not enough. Many children reach a plateau in their development through the last levels of World-class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA), and they need to find new ways to maintain interest in their literacy work. Enter robotics and coding, a language they can learn as they also become more proficient in English.

In February, Holmes and five of her students traveled to Raleigh for the annual North Carolina Technology in Education (NCTIES) conference, and they presented a showcase called “Speaking Robot.” In early April, the same students came to the CHCCS School Board meeting, and they brought an abbreviated activity for board members to try out. Although their English language skills may still need polishing, these GES students are becoming pros as presenters!

GES ELL robotics Three years ago, at an International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE)  conference, Holmes learned about Dash and Dot robotics through the company Wonder Workshop. She observed how accessible coding could be for all students, and she decided she would bring that technology into her work with GES students. “Teaching with robotics forces a conversation that allows for controlled external information,” she said. “No one is an expert as they explore, and in the learning process, a growth mindset is encouraged for all.”

The GES P.T.A. funded the first two sets of robots for Holmes’ third through fifth grade students, all of whom were at least a half year to a year behind in their literacy assessments. She said that all of her students reflect strong social language abilities, but higher level reading and writing is still a challenge. With robotics, they can learn coding language together, and the shared experience helps them stay focused. The activities also emphasize and strengthen collaborative capacity.

To create additional motivation and fun, Holmes enlisted the students in the Wonder League Robotics Competition, a coding contest for developing problem-solving and creativity skills. One of the essential components for the contest is journaling, as students record their scientific thinking, an obvious benefit to ELL students. Although her students didn’t complete the multi-phased process in time to meet the cutoff date for the competition, they plugged away until January, and they were prepared to demonstrate their results by the time they presented at NCTIES.

Holmes wrote in “Speaking Robot,” the NCTIES presentation, “The use of robotics, coding, and computational thinking are frequently seen as math, science, or extracurricular activities, but we couldn’t disagree more. We’re here to show you that robots, coding, and robotics competitions are actually best suited to support students with their language and literacy development.”