Out of school time vs. in school learning, Is it all that different?

How time as a digital literacy mentor in out-of-school spaces helped Erin Cawley become a more flexible, open minded educator in her current school setting.

A big part of an Educator’s job is to reflect and refine their teaching practices. As I go through this process, I often think of my time working as an out-of-school time educator through the Digital Corps program and how much working in this setting has shaped both my teaching practices and my philosophies of education in general.

As an educator, I feel it is my responsibility to instill a love of learning in my students. I want them to be engaged and excited in the classroom. I want learning to be fun! That being said, throughout my master’s program and studies in education I often worried about whether teaching was the right path for me. While I had many opportunities to work in schools throughout both my master’s and undergraduate course work, some opportunities I loved, while others were lacking a level of excitement and engagement that I was hoping to find. At times, the classrooms felt too traditional or inflexible and the rigidness that I felt was often reflected in students who were disengaged from classroom learning. I couldn’t exactly pinpoint what was missing, but I knew there was more to education than what I was finding and for whatever reason I just knew it had to be happening in Pittsburgh. So I did what any twenty-something would do in the internet era and I took my inquiry to Google in search of “ed-tech in Pittsburgh.”

As the search results started flowing in,I found that my inclination was right on the nose. Not only was there more to ed-tech in Pittsburgh than my traditional school placements were exposing me to, but there were a lot more. As I sifted through countless links, the words “Sprout” and “Remake Learning” kept popping up. It was clear there was something brewing in Pittsburgh. My search led me to an opportunity to dive into this lively community almost immediately: it just so happened that the Digital Corps was accepting applications for people interested in becoming digital literacy mentors in local afterschool programs. I was oozing with excitement for the potential opportunities that this might bring and anxiously anticipated a response to my application. A few weeks later I heard from Ani Martinez letting me know I was selected to be part of the program.

What then unfolded was far more than I could have ever expected. We met with a mixed group of people ranging from educators, like me, to researchers, artists and professionals looking to give back to the community. We learned to teach with tools like Scratch, Makey Makey, and HummingBird Kits. We discussed ways we could use these new tools and resources to excite learners about coding and technology related career paths in an out of school time setting. I was hooked, and so began the adventure of working as a Digital Corps mentor and becoming a Remake Learning network member. I ended up serving at least five different out-of-school-time programs in the two years that this program thrived.

Erin Cawley leading a Digital Corps session / Photo: Ben Filio

For me, the biggest thing that came out of this opportunity was the inspiration for my master’s thesis. After being at a host site where the program manager’s eight-year-old daughter would often sit in on my meetings with teenage girls, I began to notice that she was able to pick up coding and robotics concepts just as quickly, if not faster, than her teenage counterparts. Reflecting on that moment I began to think of how coding and robotics are similar to languages and that maybe the earlier you start, the easier you’ll master those skills. This lead me to researching standards at the elementary level and seeing if any of the ELA standards for young learners could also apply to coding. I felt I found an overlap with logic and sequencing skills in third grade. This discovery lead to my study of a group of students at Keystone Oaks School district where we implemented coding in an elementary classroom during their reading and writing curriculum. We found that it had a positive impact on bridging the gap of understanding between low and high achieving students if we used tactical and engaging tools to teach these concepts through code. This study was too small to conclusively draw any bold claims from, but I am convinced that there is something there. This study, and the effects that I saw on learners’ interest in computer science in both schools and the out-of-school time learning setting has lead me to the passion I have for coding integration in education today.

In addition to my graduate research, my time working with students in an out-of-school time setting was invaluable to my classroom management styles and unit design. I believe that I am a more flexible, open minded educator because of my time in an out-of-school time setting. Working in the out-of-school setting, I discovered the value of student-centered, flexible curriculum. I saw students motivated to complete projects by their pure desire to learn and create, rather than being motivated by grades or formal assessments requiring them to finish. Seeing students excited by this style of learning in an out-of-school setting has shaped the way I design learning opportunities in my formal classroom setting today.

Now, as a Technology Integration Specialist and Computer Science Teacher for a public school district I believe my time in the out-of-school learning setting has had as much of a positive impact on my teaching as my formal teacher training program. As I reflect I find that it has made me more open to trying and failing and letting students learn by doing. Is in school learning really all that different from out of school? My answer – it doesn’t have to be.

Erin Cawley in her role at Avonworth


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