BLC15 Conference Roundup and CS50

It’s time for another excitement-packed conference roundup. This time, I packed a bag that was far smaller than anything my fiance could possibly condone, and made my way to Boston for Alan November’s Building Learning Communities conference. Remarkably, there was no issue getting here. If you’ve read any of my previous posts on how fortunate I am on my travel adventures, this is quite a surprise. I think the curse must be limited to airplanes. That is, until I arrive to the hotel, which I was lucky enough to be staying in during a fire that broke out at 3AM during an National Science Teachers Association conference a few years ago. Minor hiccup.

After arriving at 11:20 and checking in as fast as possible, I made it to the Technology Leadership workshop run by Shawn Fortin who remarkably resembled a spartan-racing, probably more funny, Horace Mann principal version of Jimmy Fallon. I suggest that he create a version of his school’s morning announcements called “Early Morning with Shawn Fortin”. It even rhymes with Fallon. The session on leadership focused on a lot of big picture ideas that many schools forget about during large-scale implementations of anything, but in this case the lens was technology. At the forefront of these were these first two steps towards sparking change:

  1. Develop a shared vision – This is something that your staff not only understands, but also believes in and is willing to do.
  2. Share leadership responsibility – To get people believing in the same vision, it helps to involve them in its development (duh, but this is forgotten too often).

The rest of the steps actually don’t matter if these first two aren’t accomplished, because any great leadership initiative or plan requires execution, which is impossible without a staff that shares the vision and feels empowered with responsibility. I would have liked to see a few more details about how to make these things happen, as they’re difficult, but it certainly was a good thought-invoker.

After a quick lunch at the most confusing Au Bon Pain I’ve ever seen, Erin Klein’s session on inspiring creativity¬†was next. It started with a reading of a children’s story which was remarkably well practiced. If you don’t know already, Erin’s work presenting at conferences across the country has rightfully made her a bit of a superstar at these types of events, and her presentation skills and delivery represent those of an outstanding speaker. While this session was geared towards elementary and middle levels, and I have a bile-inducing repugnance for teaching that age, I still think her advice was applicable in spawning curious questions in students who may have lost interest for various reasons. We eventually migrated to a dutifully heavy story about a discussion revolving around child abuse and the song “Alyssa Lies” which had maybe quite a bit of gravity to it, but furthermore proves the effectiveness and impact of a teacher brave enough to dive into such extremely sensitive issues like abuse, bullying, and others. As a series of anecdotes of students being creative, the session worked, however after around 30 minutes I think the point was made and as a secondary teacher, I was ready for some more content specific to that grade level.

Following this I began to search for places to eat dinner in Boston. After a Facebook query turned up great results, a quick google search revealed a place that specialized in my favorite charcuterie: The Salty Pig. After a short walk through the rain, I made it, and quickly took up residence at the bar. We have places like Barcelona in Stamford that will serve this type of food, but the Salty Pig was clearly a specialist in meat and cheese boards. The giveaway was the unbelievable compliments of their homemade mustard and pickles, which were amazing. I might go back for lunch.

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Yep, I took a picture. Yum.

After an uneventful evening in the hotel which threatened to extend my travel curse, I woke up excited for the main reason I came to this conference: the sessions on CS50 with Dave Malan. Before I even got to the sessions, I was blown away by Blake Copeland’s identical experience to mine as someone looking to learn how to code. The difference was he was in high school and nobody at the cathedral of learning he went to could help him achieve his goal. It was a fantastic talk.

Then came the main event: a three hour session on the world’s greatest blended learning product, CS50. If you don’t know, this is a Harvard introductory computer science course only in disguise: the real gem beneath it is the quality of technology utilization on display at all corners of this program. The online content supports are ridiculous thorough, comprised of full-length lecture videos, brief problem walkthroughs, relevant literature, a complete code reference on class material, and fully developed problem sets for each week of the course. The in-person structure is also as it should be. CS50 doesn’t echew the sage-on-the-stage model: it embraces it, turning the classroom into a stage for Dave Malan’s emphatic and energetic lectures, and settling for nothing less. Then, it takes these lectures, whose replays are all available online, and extends them through a robust office hour and recitation schedule bolstered by a teaching staff of over 60. Last, because of the quality and scaffolding present in the curricular material, enhanced by educational technology being utilized by this outstanding team, the course is able to treat the humanity in its content to multiple culture-building exercises, such as CS50 Fair, Puzzle Day, and Hackathon, all of which are in-person, all of which build social skills and all of which foster collaboration and interpersonal relationship building. In short, literally every single teacher on Earth can learn a thing or two from CS50, from technology novices to the most seasoned wizards. I myself will be off to the CS50 AP bootcamp in a few weeks to get trained on implementing this at the high school level, something I am excited for.

Oh, and I went back to the Salty Pig for dinner a second time. It was that good.