LOGAN SQUARE — Imagine what Bill Gates could have done if he learned how to write code in third grade.
The computer mogul discovered his love for writing programs in eighth grade when his school got a basic computer terminal. Now some Logan Square students are getting that chance a full five years earlier, and it's all because of their teacher, Sharon Vinh.
"As parents, we appreciate this because our son is really into technology, so just giving them that shot to get educated in that field as third-graders is great," said Brentano Elementary School parent Jennifer Parsio. "If that's something that interests them, they can focus on that through school and maybe get a job in the field."
It's through Vinh's own tech savvy that she came across Code.org, the site the students use to write basic programs and games.
"I heard about it through an email through DonorsChoose," said the 25-year-old Vinh, who is in her third year at Brentano. "They were offering some kind of incentive, but I still think it's really important for them to learn it."
DonorsChoose is a website that allows teachers to ask for help buying certain items for their classrooms so parents, community members, or even perfect strangers, can chip to pay for various educational endeavors.
Vinh was an early adopter of the crowdfunding site, and has put it to good use, successfully funding four campaigns on the site and buying key items for her classroom, such as a rug, a whiteboard easel and magazine subscriptions.
"It's kind of ridiculous how much a classroom rug is," she said, as she pointed to a colorful rug in the corner. "That was $600."
She's putting it all to good use though. Between the coding lessons and frequent trips to the school lab for hands-on experiments on things like the water cycle and geology, Vinh is making a sizable difference in her students' learning.
So much so, that last year Vinh's students' NWEA scores — a measure of student growth from the beginning of the year to the end — were in the top 1 percent in the nation in both reading and math, according to Brentano's Local School Council.
"By learning at such a fast rate, she is helping to close the achievement gap and bring students up to grade level [and beyond]," Local School Council member Kate Kindleberger wrote in an email, emphasizing that Vinh does it by engaging the students in meaningful ways, and not by resorting to "kill and drill" test-prep sessions.
Vinh also keep the students engaged by playing classical music during coding lessons, and keeping her classroom tidy despite it being full of all the usual third-grade paraphernalia of workbooks, art supplies and the like.
"I love that she's organized her room so it just has a calming effect," Parsio said. "And she's got this quiet presence, yet it's a strong presence. So the kids listen to her, and they really respect her. They want to please her and do what she asks."
Like any good teacher, part of Vinh's secret is her own desire to keep learning as she guides the kids through their learning. In addition to discovering that she has more patience than she ever realized, for instance, Vinh said she also delights in making new discoveries about her young wards.
"I really like seeing the community among the students when they don't notice that I'm listening to them or watching them," she said. "Seeing the kindness they show for each other without it being for an extrinsic reward, it's something that I'd hope they'd continue through the rest of their lives."