St. Gabriel kids can code in Grays Ferry

Amira Graham holds up her Hour of Code certificate with pride after completing a coding challenge speedily.

Staff Photo by Bill Chenevert

It seems pretty clear that a large-scale digital evolution continues in American culture and, in fact, is picking up steam. The future is online, for better or worse. And it also seems that it’s essential for South Philly youths to be prepared for a world in which they’ll need to type well, use a computer, work with various technologies, and generally develop a complex digital vocabulary.

That’s where comes in, and at St. Gabriel School, 2917 Dickinson St., computer technology teacher Brien Nunn is teaching with a forward-thinking curriculum that’s both powerfully useful and widely resonant with a student body who are, often times, more technologically-advanced than their parents.

On Friday, SPR visited a fourth-grade class where Nunn’s also teaching typing skills with That site and are not only huge hits with his students, but they’ve also been taking a newfound love for typing and coding home because they can continue to work on classroom projects from computers in their living rooms.

“A kid learned something in my classroom and then goes home and shows it to their parents and wants to implement it at home? This is obviously a concept that’s connecting deeper than I thought it would,” Nunn, a recent Millserville University graduate and Media-area resident, said. “I love it because coding with K-8 students, I never thought that I would have the opportunity to balance the curriculum – I never thought it would be something I could teach.”

These sites know how to cater to kids, too: there are Disney themes (“there’s a “Frozen” one with Elsa doing figure eights,” said Nunn); Hot Wheels, Minecraft; Star Wars; and comic book-style character games.

“What turned me off [from coding when I was younger] was the sitting and memorization, and this takes that away,” Nunn explained. “This flips it and turns it into a game.” says more than 220 million people have been served in over 180 countries through 200,000 hours of code. In a Frequently Asked Questions section, the 501(c)(3) organization aims at demystifying coding and computer sciences.

“Every student should have the opportunity to learn computer science. It helps nurture problem-solving skills, logic and creativity,” according to the site. The mission is “dedicated to expanding participation in computer science making it available in more schools, and increasing participation by women and underrepresented students of color.” They have some pretty hefty supporting companies, too: Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and the Boys & Girls Club of America.

The school’s principal is proud of the work happening in Nunn’s classroom.

“As technology continues to advance us, it is important that we keep up with those changes,” Sister Noreen Friel said. “With the introduction to coding in Mr. Nunn’s fourth-grade computer class, we are insuring that our students are provided with both the information and instruction needed to succeed not only here at St. Gabriel’s, but also anywhere after to further their education.”

Nunn teaches technology at the Grays Ferry-situated Independence Mission School and also handles technical support, sometimes showing teachers how they can expand teaching practices to open up worlds for students.

Like with the 21 Dell computers in his classroom, they’ve also seen donations from alumni, companies, and nearby organizations in the form of iPads.

“With Google Maps, for instance, you can take a trip and explore,” he said. “It’s an opportunity that some of these kids might not get, and, with technology, we’re able to make it possible and enjoyable.”

Interestingly enough, some of his students have extensive tablet skills but don’t know how to operate a PC with a keyboard and a mouse. It’s essential for the future – high school and college-level learning doesn’t rely solely on tablets.

“I really press word processing skills and typing. When you get to high school [and have to start writing long assignments], I would never wish anyone to type a paper with two fingers, but it happens,” Nunn said.

Ahmed Keita lives a block from the school, and on Friday he was really into his “Ice Age” coding game (in fact, when Nunn prompted the class to move from to, an audible “yessss” was heard). He’s trying to get Sid and Manny to go on an adventure by stacking blocks of code that prompt the “actors” to move forward, turn left or right, and speak. He thinks, however, that he might not want to be a programmer, but more of an NBA player.

Regan Lynch is a coding prodigy. He’s working with Minecraft, a game I don’t know about, and he seems shocked.

“It’s a video game – a very popular one. I play Minecraft all the time, so I know what to do,” the boy, another school neighbor, said.

Does he like coming to Mr. Nunn’s classroom?

“I think it’s my best class,” he stated.

Lynch, in fact, exhibits one of the keys to success for coding: trial and error. He’ll start by running a set of coding prompts he’s stacked thus far to see if it “works,” then he’ll go back to add more coding until he’s completed the game. It’s smart and applicable to more than just coding.

One of the really charming aspects of Nunn’s class, that’s not especially academic, is that the kids type and code to Kidz Bop pop tunes like Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” and Shawn Mendes’ “Stitches.” One student makes a request – Justin Bieber’s “Sorry.” The younger pupils type to Disney – it clearly adds another bit of enthusiasm to his class.

Rick Sowell, of the 2900 block of Reed Street, completed an impressive run of Flappy Bird coding and got to print a certificate of completion. He loves this class “because I get to do and type.” Does he want to be a programmer some day? “Maybe” he said, but certainly beamed with pride holding his Hour of Code certificate. Even when his certificate of completion showed up on his screen, Sowell was given the option of Tweeting or sharing on Facebook his accomplishment.

Nunn said the web expands his teaching capacities.

“With the internet, it’s great. There are great resources online for new teachers,” he explained and, another thing he’s been surprised by, is the support from alumni. “For being a Catholic school and a school that at one point was supposed to be closed, the generosity from alumni and the neighborhood and companies and businesses looking to reach out and donate have been overwhelming. They’ve blown my mind.”

No doubt his students surprise him with their enthusiasm for coding at the age of 10, too.

Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at or ext. 117.