Educator Spotlight: Coding in K-2 with Elaine Gross

In this Educator Spotlight, Elaine Gross walks us through her technology lessons, from teaching the basics of respecting devices, to helping students understand the building blocks of coding language. She also shares how students use hands-on experimentation and role playing in "unplugged" lessons.

Elaine Gross began her career in education as Morah Elaine to countlessthree-year-oldss at HANC Plainview. After pursuing a Master in Library Science, she became an expert in teen literature as a librarian in Amityville High School. Her experience in books, computers, and early childhood has led her back to Jewish Education. In “retirement” Elaine has found a new passion preparing the next generation at the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway (HAFTR). Morah Elaine teaches technology to Pre-K through Grade 2, and sometimes they teach her! Elaine and her husband Gerry are longtime members of the Young Israel of Plainview Community. They have three great sons, three amazing daughters-in-law, and seven very special grandchildren.

How do you introduce technology to young learners?
I start the Pre-K students with iPads and eventually, they’ll progress to computers. A lot of what I have them do with iPads is experimentation. I want them to become totally familiar with the devices. They learn how to use the Home button, how to put something in the Trash, how to take a picture on the iPad, etc. They are digital natives, but they still need guidance to understand how to control and navigate the technology and how to be responsible while using the equipment. They might be able to play a game, but they don’t naturally realize there’s so much more they need to understand. I teach a lot of technology basics, like how to take headphones in and out, how to respect the equipment, and using both hands to carry equipment. In Pre-K they learn how to use a mouse, and in Kindergarten we do keyboarding because they need to become familiar with it; I have them hold up cards with all the letters to make a human keyboard and then we take a picture of it. I have to teach them that it’s a QWERTY keyboard and it’s the same on the computer, iPad, and phone. This is all an important part of their learning experience.

What are your primary teaching goals?
Encouraging perseverance - that’s my main goal because learning technology is not just learning how to play a specific game, it’s learning what it takes to use technology effectively. Each year I give my students a quote to inspire them. One year it was “You’ll only succeed if you try.” This year the quote is from Dr. Seuss: “Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!” I want them to learn that they have to figure things out themselves or work with friends to figure it out. I’ll encourage them to think, “How can I figure out how to do this?” That’s a lot of what I do.

I also want students to understand that they can control computers. Yes, they need to know how to use a mouse, keyboard, or iPad, but more importantly, they need to learn to experiment. I feel that in the past you had to learn to do something, but in today’s world, you have to do to learn something. I also want the class to be a social environment, so I do a lot of pair programming. They’ll use apps like Jewish Interactive and I’ll have them work together. I want them to communicate and learn to take turns. I actually have a rule that they have to ask a friend the answer to something before asking me. It’s encouraging socialization even though they’re in a computer lab. It’s not good for little kids to be isolated, so that social piece is very important. Even though I teach computers you’d be surprised by how much socializing is happening in my classroom. Collaboration is another big part of socialization and my students are collaborating.

Students these days are learning coding very early. How do you teach coding in your classroom?
Last year I took an amazing class from, and now I do a lot of what they call unplugged lessons. The philosophy behind these lessons is that the students need to understand the concepts behind programming before they get into the real thing. That basic understanding is key. I want them to understand that they can control the machine. They need to learn that computers are not as smart as we are. They also need to learn to be exacting. One example of an unplugged lesson is a game we play in which they tell me how to get from one room to another, and if they don’t do it right, I will walk into the wall! So through that game, they learn the basic concepts behind coding.

Once they have the basics, in Kindergarten we use Kodable, and in first and second grade we use These each have leveled games that teach coding skills, especially sequencing, and they use block-based programming. Every one of my first graders can tell you that an algorithm is just a list of steps on how to finish a task! We also use Scratch Jr. on iPads. It’s really a great next step after they’ve learned the coding basics and it’s amazing. After Scratch Jr., they move on to elementary robots - we use Dot and Dash. I actually have first and second graders programming the robots with block-based programming, and they play and have fun. I was inspired to make those a priority by Tony Wagner’s Play, Passion, and Purpose, which really redefined teaching technology for me.

Can you walk me through one of your favorite lessons to teach?
Yes, it’s an unplugged lesson for which the students are in pairs. One of them plays the role of the robot and the other plays the role of the engineer. I give them a clipboard and the engineer writes their code down using arrow symbols. Then, the robot has to read the code and follow it exactly. This activity teaches them the concepts behind coding, giving precise directions to a machine. It’s not teaching them C++ or anything, but it helps them understand what they’re doing. Another activity I love is introducing them to Dash the robot. We break into groups and make an obstacle course, and they have to code the robot to get through the obstacle course. The invention of block-based programming has allowed little kids to do this kind of basic coding work.

Some parents and teachers have concerns about screen time for young learners. How much screen time do you feel is appropriate?
I think we should limit their screen time, I’m a big believer in that. What is also important is that screen time needs to be meaningful. At HAFTR we provide students with educational opportunities that make screen time valuable, whether it’s Dreambox, Raz Kids, or another program.

What are some highlights of your time teaching technology at HAFTR?
When one of the parents said to me, “You’re a superstar in my house!” When I see my students have that “Aha!” moment when they work at something and realize they can get it right. A student will say, “I can’t do this!” and I read them my quote, “You’ll only succeed if you try.” To me, self-esteem is that feeling they get when they figure out something themselves or with a friend. Self-esteem and self-confidence is what I see they get out of my class. There’s nothing like the light in their eyes when they realize they’ve accomplished something. It’s that sense of “Wow! I didn’t think I could do that!”


Yonah Kirschner, former Project Manager, Digital Content and Communications at The Jewish Education Project.