Takeaways from the CSTA Conference

This past week I was fortunate enough to attend the Computer Science Teachers Association’s national conference. An organization of computer science teachers that is celebrating its ten year anniversary, the CSTA is responsible for the go-to standards document that almost every computer science curriculum writer in the country bases their curriculum off of. It’s also responsible for sprouting the new AP CS Principles course coming this fall. I have a lot of respect for this type of work because it’s complex, requires consideration for scalability, and must be generational across a large number of people. It’s no wonder they did a great job, since writing code is very similar.

Here are some of my favorite takeaways from the trip.

The Emerging Filmmakers

When I arrived in Chicago free of hiccups from my travel curse, except maybe waiting for 20 minutes for my car at the wrong terminal (that doesn’t really count), I started to worry. I worried all the way from the airport to the resort where we were staying. We got there and I was certainly impressed: Pheasant Run in St. Charles, IL is a pretty sweet place. It’s got a beautiful golf course too – I wish I had known this as I would have probably tried to play while I was there. Anyway, I kicked off my conference with a dinner including the guys making our new product video, which I can’t wait to share. Nick Carroll and Billy Baraw are part of a group of filmmakers looking to tell stories through an incredibly innovative medium on a mobile device. I don’t want to give away too much detail about their project, since that will be their job, but this was a lot of fun.

Miss Blomeyer’s Awesome Website

Elaine Blomeyer is a prominent computer science educator, but her website was by far the most impressive part of a conference presentation I’ve seen. One of the nice things about computer science education is that a website can demonstrate all the skills you want your students to learn, since they can just inspect your source code. Miss Blomeyer’s website goes above any beyond, with beginner and advanced projects including animation on the html5 canvas, complex math functions, physics, and other applicable programming skills. I have to say that I was a little unimpressed by the number of presentations that did NOT include these things that programmers actually do every day, but Elaine’s presentation was not one of them. This was outstanding. Her website also includes information about her other classes, which look no less interesting. Great job Elaine!

The New Frontier

Despite the varied quality of presentations, one thing stood out to me above all else amongst everyone I spoke to here: this truly is the new frontier of education. There is no best way to teach computer science today, hardly any publications about doing it, and the course material as well as the way to teach it is constantly evolving faster than any other course students could take. This makes it truly an exciting thing to teach, and that excitement is shared by almost everyone in this subject, which I love seeing. Chemistry can get menial after a few years, since the subject doesn’t change too much and it’s been around forever. Computer science, on the other hand, will never experience that due to the nature of its evolution.

The Travel Curse Strikes Again

I hope you didn’t forget about my curse, did you? I sure didn’t, and I was just waiting for the curveball my curse would throw at me. Usually these are particularly creative but this time, it wasn’t: my flight to JFK just got cancelled due to bad weather. The catch was that Delta was going to put me on a flight at 7AM the next morning. Not only did that mean I’d have to wake up at 4:30 (nope), but because the school was paying for the trip out of its budget, I’d have to pay for the extra hotel night (another nope). To most New Yorker’s this wouldn’t be too big of a problem since you could fly into Newark, LGA, or Westchester, but my car was parked at JFK. I managed to find a flight out of Chicago to La Guardia at 3:30, which meant I had to leave almost immediately after receiving notice that my 6:45 had been cancelled. It also meant I would have to take a cab from La Guardia to JFK to pick up my car. Sure enough, all those pieces worked out, except I arrived at the terminal, made it all the way through security, and found myself in the American Airlines building, not the Delta Airlines building. Scary. After doing it all again in another building and praying that my bag would show up, I arrived just in time to hear that the flight had been delayed three hours. Three hours elapsed, we boarded the plane, and after a hiccup free flight we arrived in La Guardia’s marine terminal, which is apparently eschewed by taxi drivers because the line was about an hour long. I took the bus to terminal 2, got in the line of zero people for a taxi there, and made my way to my car without any further intervention from my travel curse.

Seriously. Don’t travel with me.

Weekend Blog ISTE Edition: Part Four From an Airplane!

My ISTE experience is now over, and I’m happy to note it was a great experience. Most important to make mention of is the fact that I’m writing this blog post from an airplane in my first air-WiFi experience. It’s actually pretty good.

Here are my top 5 moments from ISTE 2014:

1. The Lead and Transform Panel was a collection of intelligent people who had a lot of great insight to share. It was also my first session at ISTE, so obviously it deserves mentioning.

2.  Kevin Carroll’s Keynote was hilarious, rousing, enlightening, and entertaining. He is a master of the spoken craft, and delivered a positively memorable story.

3.  The #YouMatter Panel did something to me that is difficult: it changed my mind about the power of this message. With data backing its warm and fuzziness, I was enlightened about the way thoughtful encouragement can make tremendous difference in people’s productivity.

4.  Running Into a Student’s Father halfway across the country is the ultimate small world story in a year that’s been full of them. You just can’t make that stuff up.

5.  The “20 to Watch” Reunion was certainly the highlight of my trip, because I was reminded just how blessed I was to be honored next to a cohort of such special people.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my ISTE blog as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it, and see you back on the ground when I get there.  Don’t miss part’s one, two, and three as well.

Weekend Blog ISTE Edition: Part Three

As with any weekend long conference, by the third day the energy is lagging and everyone is a little sleepy. All it takes is a killer morning keynote to wake everyone up. Good thing we had one of those.

The Little Fast Guy

Kevin Carroll, the self-proclaimed little fast guy, was absolutely fantastic. I wrote a blog post a month or two ago on the art of storytelling and how teachers can employ it in their classrooms. Carroll’s style is an absolutely paragon of storytelling excellence. Every intonation in his voice, well timed joke, and animation he used in his hands was spot on. The number of sound bytes from this address dwarfs any I’ve seen before, and he was hilarious on top of this. Perhaps my favorite quote was, “What’s a little black guy going to do learning Croatian?” Hilarious – but more importantly is one that hit home for me, because it’s a little motto of mine and has been ever since we started Slate & Tablets. “If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.” I love this mantra, because of its truth. Nobody ever accomplished anything by dreaming small, and as Steve Jobs would put it, “those who are crazy enough to think they could change the world are the ones that actually do.” This is a pervasive truth. Dream big, then dream bigger. Then go do something about it.

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The Ultimate Small World Story

After a quiet morning doing some programming, I decided I was hungry and needed to watch the world cup. The side effect of watching the world cup is having lunch. I sacrificed an eon of my time at Dantanna’s and sat down at the bar. Midway through the first half, I looked down at some things on the bar next to me and saw an Old Greenwich to Grand Central train ticket in a gentleman’s wallet sitting next to me.

“Oh, you’re from Greenwich?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

“I teach at Greenwich High School,” I explained. We had a quick laugh and he asked me what I teach. “Computer science.” My default answer, although I still don’t know whether to call myself a science or computer science teacher. The look on his face changed quickly, and he looked particularly shocked as he said, “Oh, my son just went through computer science at Greenwich High School.”

I ran into one of my students’ parents in the middle of a bar in Atlanta.

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This is the third in many ultimate small world stories I have, which I don’t quite understand because I’m not exactly a social butterfly. I’m more like a caterpillar. Still, this was a welcomed surprise, and we had a chat about his new charge, DevBootcamp. I’ll be taking a peek over the summer.

The Kids Who Code, Actually

Please don’t take this the wrong way, because I’m really thrilled that the world is starting to catch on and become excited about computer programming. The Hour of Code was instrumental in achieving this, and I am grateful both as a teacher and as a citizen of this country. A meeting today during the poster sessions with a group of students from Kamehameha School in Hawaii alerted me to an importantly disturbing trend. These are students who were discussing their work in building apps using Xcode, as in the program that real developers use to create real programs. Their booth was relatively empty, compared to the teacher’s booth next door discussing his use of Scratch in his classroom.

A dangerous misconception I’m sensing spreading through the teaching public is that programs like Scratch teach kids to code. They do not. Completion of curricula on Scratch and similar programs like Codecademy does not qualify someone to teach programming, it does not qualify someone to pursue advanced computer science courses, and it means basically nothing in the real world. These programs are designed to introduce people to the fundamentals of programming and learn some basic syntax in many languages, but they do not teach students to code.

The only way to learn to code is to build something using it.

We made this mistake in the establishment of tradition with virtually every other subject area in school, that you could learn by sitting in a classroom and seeing someone else’s idea of that subject. The only way to really learn something is doing, and while I’m excited there’s enthusiasm about programming, the students from Kamehameha School are the ones who should be swamped by attendees, not the Scratch guy.

CoSN CTO Forum

This was an interesting panel discussion in which Jeremy Schorr, someone I keep running into, was participating. Perhaps the greatest takeaway was a discussion I had with my table mates, in which one of them shared a rule they have at their 1:1 school. That rule is, “when you’re walking, no talking or texting on the device.” I love this rule. It’s simple. It’s easy to follow. Most importantly, it builds school community and forces people to consider interaction in the hallways, which if you walk through a technology heavy school, you’ll see that many students shuffle by buried in their phones.

“20 to Watch” Reunion

From the moment I met the “2014” group in D.C. last March, I knew this was a special program. The greatest part about this event was not reuniting with the folks I met in D.C., it wasn’t meeting members of the other “20 to Watch” classes, it wasn’t interacting with the great folks at Techsmith, and it wasn’t even the free drinks, which were awesome, by the way. No, the best part of this event was concrete proof of something incredibly important. These are all successful people in this group, and they all share one thing: passion. These people are all incredibly passionate about what they do and are just fun to be around. I found this entire event to be worth the entire trip, because I have so much respect for the way these incredible people interact and their passion for education and for life. As Ann Flynn, our ringleader put it, “keeping up with you all is impossible, but watching you go on to start your own incredible journeys makes it all worth the effort.” Everyone is doing something and they’re not just half-assing it, they’re smashing it. It’s a shame we don’t do this more often, but I hope we’ll do it again next year because it was the best part of my weekend.

That about wraps up my ISTE blog, although I may do a piece tomorrow depending on the USA game’s outcome. Thanks for reading, and if you haven’t yet, you might want to check out part one and part two.

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