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For sixth graders, James Denman Middle School is a haven of hope, where bad choices are told to hit the road and the effects of gang violence take a backseat to hard work and creative thinking. The school has a number of heroes in attendance, both within the student body and the faculty. One of these is Anna Gin, a stalwart champion of change, who has been fighting the good fight with an arsenal comprised of math, science and coding for close to 15 years.
Coding Their Way to the Future
“James Denman is a Title I school, where 75 percent of the kids get free or reduced-price lunch and 65 percent are English language learners. There are lots of gangs in their part of the city. Lots of my kids come from the projects and are used to hearing gun shots. Many have been exposed to bad situations or know someone who has been shot and killed. They’ve seen danger and have become used to trauma in their lives,” says Gin, the sixth grade teacher responsible for creating the first elective coding class in a California middle school.
Gin’s pragmatic, real-life approach is turning around the lives of kids who are learning to love learning while acquiring 21st century skills, ambition and hope for their futures. Gin’s students learn coding through a variety of programs like Blockly, a web-based visual program based on games and puzzle pieces and Code.org, a non-profit computer science program aligned with the Common Core Curriculum.
The 20-Minute Difference
In addition to teaching science, math and coding, Gin meets with a small group of students in an advisory capacity for 20 minutes each day. There, the kids learn social and emotional skills and talk about concepts that are less-than-abstract, like how to deal with bullies and absentee parents. They create groups and pick partners to explore concepts they are passionate about and then use iPads to create public service announcements (PSAs) about the topics.
“The students are very aware of the world around them. They have picked topics as diverse as why it is important to care about the environment to cyber bullying and the effects of sex and drugs on the body. The PSAs are shown to the class and ultimately to the entire school, which supports each student’s awareness of the issues as well as the presenting student’s sense of self-esteem,” says Gin.
Gin, a recipient of the Mayor’s Teacher of the Year Award, currently heads the school’s Mathcounts Club and Yearbook committee. “My focus is more on hands-on learning than on lecturing. I spend lots of time with the ones who fall behind so they don’t stay there,” she says.
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.