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In Hartford, A Dancing Cat Teaches Fourth Graders To Program Computers

Charlotte Albright
Skye Webb and Corinne George, fourth graders at the White River School in Hartford, figure out how to program their computer.

Vermont’s public school students are not as good at science as they should be. That’s what Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe conceded when she released the latest standardized science test scores. But she made the announcement at an elementary school in Hartford, where students performed better than many of their peers elsewhere in the state.

That’s where Mr. Duguay’s science class has just begun and the room is already buzzing. Pairs of students are using laptops and logging onto an instructional  program called Scratch.

“And it’s a little computer programming, a little program solving; the program components click together almost like Lego blocks,” Duguay explains.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
A poster in a science classroom at the White River School in Hartford reminds students how to solve problems when they get stuck.

Following complex instructions on their screens, the budding programmers are supposed to find cartoon figures, put them on a stage and make them dance — maybe even talk. Duguay watches a puzzled 9-year-old named Nolan McMahon poking randomly at keys instead of following directions to set the stage up. Instead of correcting him, his teacher asks a question.

“So Nolan, when it says to get a new background, and they do here, where do you find that over there?"

Nolan slides his cursor to the right, over a new box, and clicks.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
Science teacher Mike Duguay helps fourth grader Nolan McMahon solve a computer programming problem at the White River School.

“Aha,” says his teacher, “and look, now the backgrounds pop up.”

Turns out, animating felines is a lot harder and more frustrating than using two thumbs to play a video game. But the goal of this assignment is not to do it perfectly. It’s to keep trying to do something that’s hard.

“We’re working on lot on the persistence and tenacity habits of mind," Duguay says. "Try something. Did that work? Oh, try something else. Change one thing at a time.” 

Trial-and-error discoveries are also happening next door, in Maryanne Driscoll’s classroom.

When Skye Webb and Corinne George figure out together how to make their cartoon cat say "Hello," Mrs. Driscoll spontaneously brings the whole class together and asks the girls to re-trace their steps to success.

“Skye just told me she saw ‘Say hello’ in one of the blocks…” Corinne begins.

"…which we thought it was in sounds,” Skye adds excitedly, “and I thought, 'Somewhere like sounds or looks,’ and I said, ‘Why don’t we try 'looks?’”

“And so we did,” Corinne says, barely containing her glee.

Teacher Maryanne Driscoll is as pleased as her triumphant programmers..

“That’s a lot at once,” she says to the whole class. “So we need to do a quick round of applause for the persistence and the success.”

The kids clap loudly.

After classes end, Driscoll and Duguay and another science teacher, Suzan Locke, gather around a table.

They talk about new federal science benchmarks recently adopted by State Board of Education. Nationwide, they’re controversial. But Locke likes the way the goals, called Next Generation Science Standards, foster problem solving, not just rote learning. And they dovetail with another set of math and reading standards called the Common Core.

“Your speaking and listening is really part of your science discussions. Having students use science notebooks is writing,” Locke notes.

Vermont is one of only a handful of states to adopt the so-called Next Gen standards. They may be hard to meet, given recent mediocre test scores. But teachers say such scores don’t account for classroom breakthroughs like the ones that got a cat to dance at the White River School one sunny fall afternoon.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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