Reflections After One Semester of Computer Science

One semester down of my school’s and, coincidentally, my first computer science class. When I graduated college four years ago, the last thing I thought I’d ever be doing was teaching kids how to program computers, but here we are. From a purely educational standpoint, instruction of this class has been truly fascinating. I feel born to be a teacher, and you could put me in front of any class, in any subject, and I’d find a way to make it interesting and engaging to the students, but with the content that is computer programming, I found myself a little lost. There is no need to make computer programming engaging or relevant to students, because it is the most relevant content area that our schools have ever seen. While we go through great lengths as teachers to make our kids connect to the content we teach, there’s no such need with this class: just flash the projected job numbers for the next twenty years in front of students and your work is done.

In this regard, I felt almost as if my own desire to teach got in the way. As a teacher, I’m very much the entertaining type, but when there’s no need to make content entertaining, I had to do some revision of that style for this class. I had to get out of the way of the content. It got as far one day where I just stopped direct instruction all together. This is when I came to an important conclusion.

The new trend in education is “student centered learning” and the “teacher as facilitator” model. This is great: if the content is interesting. Unfortunately, the content we teach in schools is neither interesting nor relevant to most of the students we teach it to. As teachers, we can do our part to make it interesting, parents can do their part to pressure students into wanting to do well, but these are all unrelated to the actual problem, and it’s that students don’t actually want (or need) to know what we’re teaching. They might want to interact with me on a daily basis because I’m fun, or do well in school because of various rewards they think they’ll get, but few of them want to actually learn science. We can try all we want to deploy a student-driven approach, but it will never truly work if the student is not interested in the content. Sal Khan would argue that the content truly is fascinating, and I personally am fascinated by certain content areas, but for the majority of students in front of me every day, they are not interested by science. This is a common dilemma for teachers.

This is not common for computer science. In this content area, student centered learning shines. Students come into the class and are immediately convinced of the value of what they’re about to learn, or they already know. The economy doesn’t lie and high school students react well to the prospect of easy job hunting post college. After being convinced of the value, every student-centered learning approach really does well. I quickly realized that while I was mostly useless providing amounts of direct instruction, I was extremely useful curating various levels of content for students. We used Codecademy for basic tutorial lessons, Learnstreet for differentiated projects and activities, and my own dose of class discussion and research about career choices. Because students were already interested in this content, all of the problem solving, discussion, and organizational skills that we seek to teach in our classrooms were learned naturally, and when students were struggling, it was easy for me to patch understanding.

You might be reading this and thinking, “Duh, of course it’s easier to teach when students want to learn”. Keep this in mind though: computer science is the most tedious work students have ever encountered in school, and they still want to. The reasoning is simple: they can actually use all of the skills they’re receiving to make money. The tech industry is our country’s golden egg, and students see that these skills afford them a piece of it. But there are other ways to make money, or to earn fame in the world, and convincing students that they can obtain these instinctual desires might be easier than you think. We have had success in science by teaching a lot of sustainability, solutions, and acid base chemistry through hydroponic farming. As far as agriculture goes, hydroponics are gaining a lot of support and by showing students how much money is being made, and how relevant content actually is, we can do a lot of convincing. I plan to focus on this for semester two.

That’s the end for now, more to come surely in the next few weeks.




Computer Science at Greenwich High School

Fact: a great product speaks for itself. The first computer programming course at GHS is now wrapped, and I couldn’t be more proud of how far the students have come. I’m looking forward to sharing more thoughts on the potential of this content to change how we teach and learn, but for now, please enjoy this video showcasing these brave students’ work.


Conference Attendance Tips

I’m excited because conference season is almost upon us. I’ve been to one every year, attending the AVID Summer Institute twice and the NSTA area conference once, but this year I’m going to up the ante and head off to at least three. There are myriad reasons professionally to attend one of these get togethers, but from a strictly objective standpoint, hanging out with a bunch of people in the same profession for a few days is downright fun. I will be going both as a teacher, looking to pick up new insights about computer science teaching and common core for science, and also as an app developer, providing product demos and trying to get our Planner into another school. Regardless of who you are or why you’re attending, here’s a list of the five most important things to do at your conference this year.

1.  Be Prepared to Share Your Work

No matter how long you’ve been teaching, come to the conference ready to share. Bring lesson plans, a flash drive, handouts, or anything relevant to your three best lessons. There are many reasons for this. First, as teachers we can easily forget that there are thousands of other people in our profession, but we never actually get to see inside their classroom. Be prepared to give people a glimpse inside yours. Second, if someone shows me a great lesson idea, I’m going to want to follow up with them and ask more questions about how to best implement it. Last, the best way to network is to demonstrate your own excellent work. People want to associate themselves with and learn from others who do excellent work.

2. Talk With At Least One Exhibitor

As a potential exhibitor myself, I promise we do not bite. Exhibitors are there to sell products, yes, but you can get a really great sense of a company by talking to these people. Are they just throwing their material in your face, or are they taking to time to talk with you and ask you how you work in your classroom? By learning this information about an exhibitor, it can help inform your own future decisions. Additionally, many exhibitors are quite knowledgable in the field and could point you towards workshops or demonstrations that you may find interesting. Perhaps just talking to one is interesting, because remember, many of these people make the tools that you use in your classroom. Larger companies have sales teams that attend these conferences, but in my case (and other smaller companies), we’re actually the people physically building your products! Let us know how they’re working and how your kids like them because I promise, we really care about that stuff. I’m up for selfies to show your students as well, but don’t quote me on that one with other groups.

3.  Connect on Social Media and/or Blog About Your Experience

Blogging about your time is a no brainer, but perhaps a little less obvious is the benefit of using a Twitter account for a conference. Lots of announcements, special promotions, communication, and networking is done exclusively through Twitter and if you’ve never used Twitter before, this is an excellent excuse to start. You don’t have to give up any personal information, but it lets you keep track of the products you’ve been introduced to at the conference and keep up with the people you’ve met. Facebook works too, but that’s a little too personal for some. Twitter is perfect though and every attendee should be using their account.

4.  Hang Out With Your Colleagues Outside of the Conference Walls

Conferences are usually held in pretty happening and fun places, and there’s no better way to get to know your new network members than to go out for a drink or dinner with them. If you attend a conference with members of your own faculty, this is even more true because it’s a great time to get to know these people better. One of my most valuable conference takeaways is the quality of relationships I’ve built with faculty members from attending together. Most of the time, this is done through going out after hours since during the day, there’s little time to talk. It’s especially important if you’re new in the building, because it will fast track you to feeling more welcome. 

5. Find Inspiration Somewhere

I was going to title this section “Learn Something New” but that’s going to happen whether you want it to or not; that’s why we attend conferences. Far more difficult is to find a new spark or inspiration amongst the many new faces you meet. Whether it’s someone with an incredible story, a new interest you can pursue when you go home, or a new topic for a unit of instruction, find something at this conference that will leave a lasting impression on you personally and professionally. It will be worth your while, and you may not even have to leave your comfort zone to do it!  

Any other conference advice? Let us know below, and I look forward to seeing you at one of the many upcoming events. I’ll post our schedule once we have it finalized so we can connect!

My Teaching Wish List for 2014

Education is an ever changing profession, and sadly one of the only things that stays the same is that very few things remain unchanged. New standardized tests, objectives, and curricula all change content students learn, while new pedagogy, teacher evaluations, and training programs change how students learn. Technology is slowly adapted into schools that sometimes make them better and sometimes worse. Education reform discussions always wind up talking about one of these three things: content, practicum, or technology. While certainly any positive change is a good change, I have a few different ideas. Here is my wish list for the things I’d like to see happen most for schools in 2014.

1.  Not just competent: inspired.

The state of the tenure system is a discussion to be had elsewhere, but the fact of the matter is that one feature includes preventing bad or indifferent teachers from being fired. This is of course not entirely true, and teacher can theoretically be fired, but it never happens and that’s moot for the subject of this post. Since we can’t change the tenure system, I’d like to see us change the way we hire and keep new teachers. I had to work for three years before I was awarded tenure. First of all, three years until a teacher has one of the most supreme job security benefits in the world is ridiculously short. You’d be lucky to earn one promotion in a company after three years, let alone a job for the rest of your life. Changing this time period would be relatively easy compared to changing another piece of the system. 

Also of concern in the three year time window is you really don’t get to know an employee in that timeframe. What happens when a teacher has the same classes three years in a row once they’ve lost some of their initial passion? Can a teacher contribute positively to curriculum development in the District? How does a teacher pursue professional development and conference attendance? Like it or not, people who don’t take the extra step to instruct our children are not in our best interest, and three years is nowhere near enough time to evaluate whether we want them at a school for life or not. We always talk about wanting inspired teachers but fact is, we don’t really care about even finding them, let alone making sure they have a job. Note that this also goes for administrators, whose quality is also paramount to the functioning of a District, yet whose practice seems to continue to be sub standard for administration when compared to other fields. 

 2. Common Core Success

I want the CCSS to be successful. This isn’t because I know anybody who has written them, or have even studied them closely myself, but because it’s a step in a hugely positive direction for education in this country and will set a precedent for national collaboration that we haven’t seen before. If students in every state are learning similar topics, the potential for collaboration amongst classes in different states is realistic, not some pipe dream that we continue to feed news reporters and politicians. You already see this occurring on social media and Edmodo, where people are far more likely to help each other out when they’re speaking the same educational language. Right now, we have the communication tools but we don’t have any reason to use them. The CCSS are really the first step in this direction, and this could usher in a whole new series of pedagogy involving connecting with classrooms across the country. Think about this seriously for a moment: the most shining example of this type of connectivity is having a pen pal in elementary school. That’s grossly outdated. Many of our kids manage to have boyfriends and girlfriends halfway across the country, so there’s no reason they can’t also have classmates. 

3.  Another Hour of Code

I’ve made clear why the Hour of Code is the best educational movement we’ve ever seen, and I want another one. It doesn’t have to be computer science related, but this simple movement demonstrated the power of uniting capitalism with educational interests, and why it shouldn’t be shied away from. Since inception, 21 million people have tried an Hour of Code. Listen, this isn’t Gangnam Style which has multiple billions of hits and is a 3 minute video, this is intellectually taxing and challenging work that we need more people to learn how to do. The fact that this group of entrepreneurs, politicians, philanthropists, educators, and pretty much everyone got together to make it happen is just great. Let’s see it happen again in 2014 with the same quality, hype, and advertising provided to the Hour of Code. 

4.  A Reality TV Show Centered Around Teaching

This one’s a long shot but hey, why not? Let’s get the basics out of the way; when I say reality TV I don’t mean Honey Boo Boo and the like, I mean a documentary. The problem is that the majority of people have no clue what goes on inside our schools. We go to school until we’re out of college, and then never see it again. We have people creating products, making decisions, and training school personnel who haven’t seen the inside of a classroom in many years, let alone on a daily basis. The logistics of this type of project are obviously incredibly difficult, but I want to see it happen for a number of reasons. I want the people of this country to have an honest and accurate look at what happens inside America’s classrooms. I want to for someone to document some real trials and successes of this profession that don’t involve test scores. I want video evidence of different teaching styles and how much they reach students and don’t reach students. Last, I just think it would be awesome to see a real picture of how other classrooms work. Think about it: we hardly know how our colleague’s classrooms work, let alone those in a neighboring school or state. I feel like this has been tried before, but in different ways. England has a comedy running right now on the same topic, and there have been several movies, but all of these productions fall short of what we actually need: reality. I’d love to see it happen in 2014. 

Anything you want to see happen for education in 2014? Let’s hear it in the comments!


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