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.

Weekend Blog ISTE Edition: Part Two

Welcome to round two of rigorous writing from Atlanta. No travel curse today: just an overly nervous Nigerian cab driver who was anxious about his game tomorrow.

You Matter

I kicked off this morning with the You Matter Panel. I’d like to preface this piece by saying these types of campaigns are not something I personally believe in. Feel good campaigns typically obscure the truth about performance by overemphasizing something that is a real world fantasy, and telling every student that they matter is something that the real world will not do. There is science behind this particular one, but that is not the case with most of these. Perhaps it is because I am a high school teacher, and this is one of the fundamental differences in the mind sets of children of different ages, but I stand firm by this perspective, because I believe it’s important to prepare students for what they’ll really face in the world. This is the divinity of capitalism that must also be celebrated for its focus: the only thing that matters is what works.

There is something different about this campaign, however, and I felt that as soon as Angela started talking. True passion is contagious – it can’t be faked. It can do wonders for children, and move mountains for a purpose. Angela’s passion for her cause has not only sold millions of people around the world, but also her panel members who are giants of education in their own right. It has sold me as well. I am still not convinced that this is the best message to send to the public, but I am certainly convinced that this message has found the right prophet to convey it, and anything done by a passionate person that makes a positive difference in the world is something I am happy to support. In addition, there is certainly data supporting the claims about these words, something unique amongst these types of messages. Well done Angela and the rest of the You Matter panel, you did a great job and it was an inspiring hour for the packed room.

Lunch

Lesson learned; Dantanna’s for lunch is a prospect that only the time wealthy should endeavor for. In addition, I got to eat lunch with a budding ed tech firm called “Go ennounce” and all around awesome guy Brad Waid, as well as some passionate Mexican fans. Tough game folks, I was really rooting for the Green. But lunch showcased something I really love about going to conferences and that’s talking to people about their unique ideas and ventures. It’s really a proving ground for new products, showcasing your ideas and designs to the audience they’re meant for. The audience is easy to find, but what’s rare is to find someone who will give you honest feedback about what you do. When you find those people, make sure you have a conversation with them.

SIGlit Session

I want to thank SIGlit for having me but I have to tell you a secret and don’t tell them this – I’m a science teacher. Shhh. Literacy is multidisciplinary though, so who cares. Speaking about computer science in a literacy forum might seem strange, but there are actually many related skills for students to learn in both fields. My presentation was on the topic of creating a startup culture in a class, which is the way the majority of these students will work once they graduate college. It provides something I think schools have trouble doing, which is real-world literacy instruction. This also happened to be my first five minute presentation and I really liked the ignite style: several speakers, five minutes each, fast paced exposure. It’s kind of like the poster session I spoke about yesterday but a little more structured. Thanks to everyone who said hi afterwards, and it was also cool running into fellow 20 To Watch Tracey Dunn and all 5,000 of the Mentor County Public Schools attendees. Seriously. There’s like an army of you people.me

The Other Two People From CT

I attended the Remind event after hours and, while asking people where they’re from, realized that hardly anyone at ISTE is from Connecticut! Someone told be about “two other people” they met from CT, but that was the only evidence I had that such creatures even existed. I wound up running into these folks from TheAnswerPad at the event, who also happened to be the only two people I’ve met from CT, aside from myself. I hope people will let me know how wrong I am in the comments.

Thanks for reading! In case you missed part one, here it is. I’ll be posting part three tomorrow night!

Weekend Blog: ISTE Edition Part One

ISTE. To many, it’s a mispronunciation of the word “frisbee”. To some teachers, it’s a representation of exactly what they don’t want to be doing over the summer. To the many thousands of us who made the trip to Atlanta, however, we manage to not only pronounce it correctly but happily deliver the energy and incredible vibes I got from this event all weekend long.

The Travel Curse

Let’s start by giving some advice: don’t travel with me. I’m cursed. I’m not kidding – it started as a joke something like 12 years ago and every time I’ve travelled since, something mildly annoying to cantankerous has happened to my travel plans. From pilot strikes, to snowstorms, to hotel fires, to trains getting lost (more on that in a little bit), I have almost seen it all when it comes to travel plans getting messed up. This trip was no different.

I started by hopping on the train from my hometown Stamford while heading towards NYC. I planned on taking the 4:54 express, and because the ticket machine mysteriously stopped accepting credit cards when it was my turn to buy one, I had to change machines, causing me to miss that train and get on the 5:03 local. No biggie. The train starts towards the city when, after around 10 minutes, the conductor announces, “Sorry folks, looks like we’re going to have to back up since we took the wrong track.” WHAT? I’ve been on a train that got lost before, no clue how that’s possible, but the wrong track? Never heard that before. Of course the 25 minute delay causes all sorts of train traffic and it takes me an hour and a half to get to the city. Good thing I left plenty of time to get to the airport for my 9PM flight, right? I finally get to the city and buy a shuttle bus ticket, eat an awesome pulled pork sandwich, and then hop on the bus to LGA with 90 minutes to spare with what can only be described as the craziest bus driver I’ve ever seen. The guy drove at 80 on 495, and I could obviously hear the wheels of the bus coming off with every bump. Of course, my premonitions aren’t wrong, the bus DOES pop a tire, and we have to pull over a few miles short of the airport. Thankfully, 45 minutes later, the second bus comes by and picks us up.

At this point, I’m a little worried. Here we go again. I leave enough time for Luis Suarez to return to football so that I could be sure to arrive on time to the airport, and the universe has colluded to make it not happen. I finally get to the airport at 8:30, 10 minutes after my flight started boarding, and right now you’re probably guessing that security took 2 hours and I missed my flight. Luckily, it took 2 minutes, thank god I’m not a terrorist because nobody would have known, and I managed to glide onto my flight with relatively few additional complications. Unless you want to count that the taxi I took from the Atlanta airport to my hotel didn’t take credit cards when I had no cash on me, that was interesting. By the way, thanks Courtyard Marriot for the $4 ATM in your lobby.

Seriously, don’t travel with me.

Lead & Transform

No, this is not a power phrase section title, it’s the power phrase name of the first town hall session I’ve ever attended at ISTE. Sarcasm aside, it was an incredible interesting event, but first I will share a story. Outside the ballroom were a series of poster tables for a session taking place at 7…PM. I got there a little early so I parked myself outside the ballroom at one of the tables and started typing this blog post. I got asked at least 12 times when the poster sessions started. It’s incredible how little the “pm” in the poster catches your eye because I made the same mistake when I sat down.photo 1

EDIT: Now that I’ve made fun of 12 people, I realize that I had been sitting here for a little too long. Turns out I was not only outside the wrong room, but I was sitting in the wrong building! Whoops…

I finally got to the correct session and the room was setup immaculately. Major props to Brian Lewis, Kecia Ray, and the entire team for putting together a room that looked the part of such a well billed event. Perhaps the most important thing that jumps out at me is a major theme being presented by almost everyone at the event: the importance of community engagement. Clark County Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky thinks it’s so important that it’s one of the four pillars of their district’s administrative plan.

This is exciting to me for two reasons. First, it’s recognition of one of the few things in education that really matters. Engaged parents and communities are proven to lead to higher achievement. Second, we just finished designing our new app whose entire purpose is to build stronger school communities. While I can’t announce too many details at this time, look for a major release about the product in July. I speak for all of Slate & Tablets when I say that we’re wildly excited to help schools achieve this incredibly important objective.

World Cup

For those of you not following the World Cup that don’t exist, I have nothing to say. For the new soccer fans out there, it’s important to take a second to appreciate what you’ve just gotten yourself into. Walk into any bar with a T.V., like the one I walked into today across from the convention center, and you’ll see something that’s truly unique to America: people wearing more than three different colored jerseys supporting their teams. The beautiful game is called that because it unites peoples of all cultures, and you just need to want a hamburger to prove it.

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Keynote

This was a real negative for me. Logistical issues from having record attendance aside, Ashley Judd’s keynote left me and several others at my table scratching our heads. Her message was good: little interactions to us often mean a whole lot more to our students. The way she went about delivering that message, however, was ineffective and in my opinion, borderline inappropriate. Without bashing too much, she went into her own history with alcoholism and childhood abuse to deliver this message. This is a technology conference, and I was a little shocked at the tone and theme of her presentation. She also felt the need to lead off by saying a religious prayer, which rubbed me the wrong way too. I don’t think too many people would consider giving a keynote like that should they be selected to deliver one.

Poster Session

After the keynote came a real positive for me – the poster session upstairs. This is a great meet and greet and I suggest more conferences get into this style more heavily. It showcases people actually doing something, which we need more of in this profession. My only wish is that there was a little more space for more presenters, because the floor was actually fairly limited for the number of people it looked to serve.

Looking forward to a great day tomorrow where I’ll be presenting at the SIGlit session at 2:30pm. See you there!

On Homework: An Honest Teacher’s Perspective

In doing my daily Twitter sleuth for inspiration on this blog, I came across this article about the fight some California parents are putting up against homework. I find the need to write about things like this because the truth about this issue cannot possibly come from parents or students, who are on the receiving end of something nobody likes to do, homework. Let me preface this by saying I am a teacher who gives one hour of homework per week, assigned every monday, due every friday. I teach regular level high school classes, and I believe that this is an appropriate amount. Homework time is actually a hot topic at GHS, so it’s been on my radar lately even without this article.

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To accurately determine how much and, more importantly, what kind of homework is appropriate, we have to ask the critical question of, “what is the purpose of school?” I think you’d get a variety of answers to this question, but I hope the majority of them would involve preparing students for the real world. Whether or not school actually does this is a different story, but we have to start somewhere.

Now, we must ask the question, “how much homework do adults complete in the real world?” This is more complicated because the answer is different based on which profession you look at and who you talk to within that profession. In some professions, the answer is none, while in others, a lot of homework is completed. Most importantly, every individual must do some measure of work at home, whether or not it is based on their current and main profession. I’m speaking about house work, trip or event planning (yes, that’s work), athletic training, cooking, cleaning, reading, networking, and many more. A lot of these tasks are important, yet not completely necessary to one’s career. They require a certain set of time management skills, organization, and wherewithal to complete at home. Completing homework during school forces students to learn these types of time management skills, and that’s why it’s important to have it.

How Much Homework?

This is a complicated question, but I settled on “the lowest amount that forces students to manage their own time to complete the set of homework they have to do for school.” The purpose of homework is to teach these time management skills. There’s another possible answer to this question, and here’s where the truth starts to become diluted. That answer is, “however much reinforces what we did in class today.” In an ideal situation, this type of homework is not necessary, because all the reinforcement is done in class, but many parents and students do not understand, especially in states or courses with content-first curricula, that this is logistically impossible. There’s too much to cover in too little time. I’ve been able to witness this dichotomy first hand, because teaching in New York with the Regents exam is drastically different than teaching in Connecticut which has no such thing. California has something similar to the Regents exams, by the way. (Edit: It’s coming to my attention that the Golden State Exam no longer runs. I will leave this link here for reference, but credit to Mark Epstein for pointing this out to me.) This is a vital observation because the amount is inherently highly dependent on the class, which is where we start to get into problems.

For regular level classes, there is usually far less homework than advanced and AP level classes. At the surface, the answer seems simple in that these classes require a higher amount of rigor, so more homework, right? This couldn’t be more wrong, in fact, the definition of rigor has nothing to do with homework. If you subscribe to the notion that homework is for the purpose of reinforcing what is learned in class, then when a student takes an advanced (SAT II prep) or AP level class, teachers and schools have absolutely no control over what they have to cover in the amount of time they have to cover it. At the end of the day, we want to prepare students as best we can, and because there’s so much material to fit into such limited time, teachers have to give larger amounts of homework in these classes. The answer is not, “teach better,” since we cannot manufacture the requisite additional four hours of class time per week. In addition, many students load up on these courses for the sole purpose of boosting their GPA, which is not the goal here. For a students to take five honors/AP classes in a year and then complain about the amount of homework they’re getting is equivalent to running five marathons in a month and complaining that you can’t go to work the next few days because you can’t walk. If students were ready for college in senior year, they’d be in college. For those students, we must stop having sympathy, since they are choosing to put themselves in that position, often despite the dissuasion of their counselors and teachers.

But still, there exists a real issue with the curricula of the Honors (SAT) and AP courses that should certainly be addressed. We need to move away from this “fit as much into the brain as possible” mindset because it’s not productive, informative of real world success, or telling of any sort of intelligence. Much of the education world is already doing this and, to be fair, many AP exams are moving away from this mindset as well, but this is the root of the quantity of homework problem, not teachers.

What Type of Homework?

There is another important issue to examine, and it surrounds the type of homework we assign our students. Like I said before, my belief is that school should prepare students for the real world, and in the real world, homework doesn’t usually involve reinforcement of topics you covered at work. Sometimes it does, but often it’s separate but related learning and exploration. This is why I assign weekly reading assignments about current events every monday, which are due on friday. I do this because for my homework, I read about current events, blog about them, talk to other entrepreneurs about them, design apps surrounding issues in current events, and read what many others have to say about them. I’m also not alone. Why should we assign worksheets for homework? I don’t do worksheets at home. Worksheets are for the sole purposes of reinforcing concepts in class, so if a student feels they have a sufficient grasp of material, why should they be required to do hours of worksheets for homework every year? These sorts of things do not prepare students for the real world, and only sometimes do they effectively reinforce what is being taught in class. I’m surprised this isn’t scrutinized more than the amount of homework students do, because often homework is simply a bunch of practice problems or assigned readings that are never discussed or appropriately dissected in class. My promise to my students is that I will spend as much time in class discussing what they did for homework as they spent at home doing it. This might be a good rule to live by.

What Can We Do To Alleviate Stress From Excessive Homework?

Now that we’ve cut down the major issues, let’s talk about what to do to alleviate student stress with excessive homework. If you’re a parent, first honestly evaluate the classes your student is taking. I have to be honest when I say that students do not have a right to complain about homework when they are taking five honors or AP level classes, on top of their extra curricular activities. But if your student is only enrolled in 1-3 of these upper level classes, is not heaping on extra curricular activities, and is still receiving seemingly excessive amounts of homework, there are certainly steps you can take. Usually, these sorts of things will happen to a student on particular parts of the week when their schedule gets full for a day or two. Reach out to their teachers and explain the situation. Many teachers will do what they can to accommodate your student if it’s something reasonable like this.

If you’re a teacher in a school where excessive homework is prevalent, it’s easy to feel attacked and taken advantage of when your class is the one that has to cut back, but in this case, a little can go a long way. Work into your class schedule some breaks in the homework schedule. We have a “no homework that must be completed during vacation” policy at GHS, save for projects that have been assigned long in advance. Building in “no homework weekends,” or something similar, once a month can not only decrease your students’ stress levels, but also show them that you respect their needs in this area as well, which will set you apart since many people do not care about student homework complaints.

Finally, if you’re a student and you’re (unbelievably) reading this, I do an S-ton of work every day, and live by a simple rule: do it now so you don’t have to later. A lot of your homework is stuff that doesn’t require world championship caliber mental lifting, so when you have five or ten minutes, take care of one thing. Then, when you have another five or ten minutes, take care of another. Stress generally comes from a lot of little tasks that wear on your to do list, not larger ones. Take care of the littler tasks ASAP and you will be far more stress free.

Now that nobody will have too much homework for the next few months, I’m glad that anyone made it to the end! Enjoy your summer!

5 Steps to Creating a Startup Culture at School

Classroom culture is the most oft overlooked, under evaluated, under valued, under planned, and vitally important aspect of the student experience. Every single one of us has been in a class with rotten classmates, irritation as the norm, cheating, and overall negativity. A student’s experience is infinitely better in a more positive environment than a negative one.

There are other sorts of culture available for teachers to instill in their students, and every great teacher takes the steps to implement these. When you watch these people, you take for granted the culture they’ve built, because the kids take it for granted too – that’s how you know it’s been successful. I started doing this myself today, one of the last days of school, as I watched two of my computer science students put the finishing touches on their final project for our introductory course. A web app that graphically represents where people should compromise on time or money debates, they were intensely typing on the same document and debugging their code. It was then that I was again reaffirmed in my belief of the importance of computer science education, although not for the reasons most would think. Sure, it’s a valuable skill, but what it allows students to do is something no other class can preach: it allows students to imagine anything on screen, design it, build it, and deploy it to any audience they choose free of charge. These students had started what was essentially a company, all on their own, and have almost reached their goal of building their idea. And they’re not alone.

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Creating the startup culture in the computer science program at GHS was not as easy as it sounds. The problem is that you have to get the students already interested in coding interested in the business and design side of the discipline, and get the students interested in business and design interested in learning how to code. At the same time. As any entrepreneur will tell you, running a startup is multidisciplinary, and that’s why this is so valuable in school. Here are five steps I took to achieving this:

Real World Examples

I’m fortunate that my own experience with Slate & Tablets is its own real world example, however there are tons of individuals out there willing to lend their expertise to your classroom, and bringing them in via Google Hangout or in person is honestly not that difficult. I’m willing to help here as well, but for most of these people, you just have to reach out and ask. Providing students with examples and conversations of people who are successful in the real world is vital to teaching them what it takes. Most of these people have similar advice: work hard, don’t be afraid to fail and learn from it, and learn code. It’s one thing when I say these things, it’s another when someone else does.

Provide Opportunities for Structured Creativity

Structure and creativity are two things that are often at odds with each other. Too much structure and you stifle creativity. Too much freedom and you lose the ability to obtain meaningful work out of your students. You must find a way to balance the two. I did this by providing numerous opportunities for students to build out their own product designs, that all required the use of a specific coding skill they had been learning the previous month. It’s important to provide these opportunities with coding specifically, because startup culture is all about taking an idea one is passionate about and pursuing it until it’s built.

Display the Best Work

In the real world, the best work is oftentimes portrayed on the internet, Youtube, news outlets, and social media. In school it’s shown…nowhere meaningful. With digital projects, showcasing student work is easier than ever and it’s vital that you put in the effort to do this. It shows the students that their work matters, that other people will be seeing it, and that other people will be asking about it. You can see our GHS Computer Science video below:

 

Always Build on the Last Project

Startup culture dictates a ferocious growth pace that is constantly building on previous success, failures, and lessons. School should be no different, and in some subjects it’s not, but in others students move from disconnected unit to unit without ever building on skills they learned previously. In computer programming, it’s vital to constantly build because it’s not only a language but a logical skill set, which means practice makes perfect. Students may find this type of work repetitive, but that’s OK, because just like with certain math skills, they need to repeat certain programming skills before they master it.

Mentor As Much As You Can

In the startup world, rarely do you ever encounter an individual who knows the answer to everything, and who is in control of your success or failure. That’s the notion many students have of teachers, but it’s just not true in the real world. Create this culture in your classroom by stepping away from that role as much as you can, and into a more mentoring role. Help students find the answers to their own questions and solve their own problems. This is important in programming because they’ll never be able to look up how to write every piece of code, they’ll need to do research and come up with their own solutions eventually. By mentoring instead of teaching, you prepare them for this reality.

Have any more tips for creating a startup culture in your class? Let us know!

Tenure Declared Unconstitutional in California: The Backlash is Horrifying

In case you didn’t know: tenure was declared unconstitutional in California today.

First, this case is monumental in its implications but the important thing is the sound argument brought forward by STUDENTS: tenure is unfair to urban students because unlike richer schools, their systems cannot get rid of ineffective teachers even if they want to since it costs too much. An incredibly robust and valid, in my opinion, argument. One of the students cited an eight grade teacher who made the students color and watch YouTube videos all year. The cost to fire a teacher like this? Anywhere between $250,000 and $400,000. It’s also notable that this argument is not a “war on teachers” as many propagandists would have the public believe. It’s a simple matter of economics and law, and quite frankly, I agree with the conclusion reached by the judge.

I’ve written about my feelings regarding tenure before, but the TLDR version is that the system needs serious reform, but the world must be prepared to compensate teachers appropriately if it wants to take away their security. If schools want the ability to fire teachers without the restrictions imposed by tenure, then communities better be ready to shell out a lot more money in salary and/or benefits to attract any sort of talent to the field.

But my real concern in this story is not the argument, but the backlash by not one, not two, but three separate leaders in the school communities of California. Alex Caputo-Pearl, the leader of the LA Teachers’ Union, had this to say: “What this is going to do is destabilize schools…It (tenure) protects a teacher’s investment because they get to teach a curriculum they’ve developed over the years.” I’m sorry, Alex, but if all a teacher is doing with their investment is teaching a curriculum they’ve developed over the years, they deserve to be fired. Really? Is that all we demand of our educators? To become so good at teaching a curriculum they’ve developed over several years. Shoot me if that’s all I become, and forgive me for being brash, but every single teacher training institution demonstrates the power of setting and maintaining high expectations for students. Maybe we’d better start with a higher expectation from the leader of the LA Teachers’ Union.

The fun doesn’t stop here though: Tim Torlakson, aside from having an awesome name, is the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. He had this to say: “…Today’s ruling may inadvertently make this critical work (the hiring of talented teachers) even more challenging than it already is.” Jennifer Thomas, who leads a group of 1,700 teachers in San Jose, said, “Nobody is offering a solution for when teachers are unfairly fired. Great teachers need to be protected from arbitrary decisions by administrators.” I’m sorry Tim and Jennifer, but isn’t it your job to perform these duties? Tim, your job is to hire and retain the best teachers for your state. Jennifer, your job is to negotiate in the best interests of the union you represent. Invent a solution for when teachers are unfairly fired. Stop giving phone interviews and start innovating in ways that might cause positive change. The system hasn’t changed in like 30 years, do you think it’s going to remain the same for another 100? Tim, stop whining about a state superior court ruling and start brainstorming realistic benefits packages your state can put together to lure and retain better teachers. This is what real companies do, and it’s time to start operating in the real world.

Here’s yet another one: California Teacher Association spokesman Mike Mylinski said the ruling was “unnecessary and misguided,” preferring a stricter discipline process for teachers. Once again, California Teacher Association leaders, it’s your job to implement systems in the best interest of the people you serve. Where’s the blood, sweat, and tears poured into this new system? Mike, did you create a new discipline system? Tim, what have you done to retain teachers in your state? Jennifer, what exactly is your solution, now that we know the existing system is against the law?

The defensiveness portrayed by those quoted in this article, and undoubtedly many others is disturbing. If you’re a leader in your District, be it on a teacher’s union, school board, or administrative executive, don’t sleep tonight. Don’t sleep tomorrow. I don’t want to hear another peep from the people who we hire to represent us until they come up with a better solution. Don’t send out the typical communications emails that look like this: “…and we promise we’ll fight for the best interests of our union…” Enough with the politics. Your job is not to sit at a desk and collect money while you argue over pay raises and step freezes. Your job is not to deliver phone interviews to EdSurge complaining about how there’s no solution to a problem you are employed for the ongoing purpose of developing a solution. Enough of the stalling to fix a clear problem with the educational system, lock yourself in a room with the state superintendent, and figure out a way to fix it.

Raise expectations people. It starts with our leaders, and these leaders in California dropped the ball here. We’ll have to look towards the LA Superintendent, a plaintiff in this case, for his reaction. I’m not the superintendent in LA, but if it were me, I’d take the lead chair in developing a new, fair, and appealing package to offer teachers in the absence of tenure. I’d develop a new way of holding teachers and administrators accountable for their actions under this agreement, and I’d ask the myriad people in Silicon Valley how to do it, because they clearly know what they’re doing as far as retaining talent goes. But what do I know, right?

As I wrote a few months ago: tenure needs to go, and eventually, it will be forced out. There are better ways to do what it wants to do, ways that don’t force schools to retain complacent and incompetent employees. We can either proactively develop an alternative to it that has been vetted and is effective, or we can wait for a judge to rule it unconstitutional. Let’s try the first one, for a change, instead of going through what California is about to experience.

Book Club: Creativity, Inc.

I was in college when my mom told me something I’ll never forget. It was the first year I started paying for my own books and tuition, and I was never the type of person to read through books as if I was burning them. I’m still not – but I try to read a book on an interesting person every two months, because I love reading about true stories that are more remarkable than fiction. My mom told me, “Matt, you’re paying for your education now, so if you don’t want to buy the books for your classes don’t, but you’re probably ripping yourself off.” I bought and read every book for every class since.

That got boring real fast, but I gained from it a love of interesting people and topics. You can read about my thoughts on The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way from a few months ago if you like, and below I’ll continue this series by talking about the book from one of Pixar’s main men, Ed Catmull.
creativity inc

Here’s your one sentence summary: awesome guy at awesome company shares his methods and observations behind creating the most awesome corporate culture in the world.

Ok, let’s dig a little deeper. Let’s start with the positives. I thought this book had some great advice, and unlike many books of its kind, it took the time to explore these pieces of advice in great depth and detail, much like a Tolkien landscape. I personally took notice of a few pieces of the book for various reasons.

Catmull suggests that every company foster a brain trust. This is a group of people who offer advice on issues at hand candidly, without judgment, and without authority. This last piece is key because nobody wants to listen to a colleague who is all of a sudden in charge of what one does. Catmull suggests in his book that this group must be fluid and ever changing, another key. I was thinking about this, like with most things I do, as it pertains to a school environment. I’ve never heard of something like this in a school environment. Schools have committee after committee after committee aimed at solving various problems in various disciplines, all with little to no supervision, guidelines, or structure. A brain trust is perhaps the ultimate symbol of open mindedness, where people take their work to be criticized, digested, and improved. Can you look at your school or staff and say they’re open minded and flexible enough to change quickly and fluidly? I can’t, and it’s a major problem in school culture and quality.

Creativity, Inc. also suggests to focus on revealing what is hidden. While this was one of several particularly poorly written parts of this book, I couldn’t help but admire Catmull’s focus on something few people care about. He mentioned that even when certain movies were going great, like Toy Story 2, he had the overwhelming sense of something being wrong because there were no problems. Despite what many people think, conflict is a sign of healthiness. If workers experience conflict, that’s a good thing because they care. It’s the resolution of this conflict that is important to office dynamics. When there’s no conflict in the production of a movie, Catmull tends to worry because there must be a hidden problem. I find this to be an important conclusion, and one I seek to apply to all facets of my professional life immediately.

Once again, I’ll apply it to schools, where my life centers. This is another piece of clearly sound corporate advice that for some reason does not hold any weight in schools. Because there is no reward, either financially or otherwise, for outstanding performance by teachers, administrators, or buildings as a whole, as long as you get through the year most schools consider their work complete. To many, a lesson is successful if the students are quiet. It’s strikingly ironic that as teachers, our jobs principally involve teaching students how to ask great questions, yet schools have trouble asking productive questions of themselves. There’s a certain defensiveness you get out of many people at a school that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else. It’s hard enough to get at what’s not hidden, let alone problems when everything seems to run smoothly.

Catmull discusses a scenario that arose during the incredibly fast paced production of Toy Story 2 which involved everyone working ridiculous hours to meet a deadline. The movie was a success, but the staff was terribly worse for wear afterwards, leading him to a conclusion that nurturing staff is the most important job he had. He took this a step further by implementing things such as Pixar University, company retreats, and intraoffice sports. Pixar University in particular is incredibly interesting: they hire people from outside to come in and teach classes about various topics, and all manner of staff at the company attend. Communication channels really start to open up when you see your boss’ boss sweating in a hot yoga class right next to you. They offer cooking, coding, art, and a whole host of other classes, all to reinforce the idea that every individual in the company, all the way up the hierarchy, is always expected to continue learning and growing.

At school? I think we know what would happen if the school put together a series of these types of classes and had people optionally attend. We did this with some success for a professional development day at our school, which I must commend our administration on putting together. That only occurred once out of the four years I’ve been here though, which is of course nowhere near enough. I would love to see this happen once per month, and with the format that we used, it wouldn’t even cost the school much money, since the teachers led the sessions anyway. In fact, I might assign teachers to teach at least one throughout the school year, because it’s good practice to both learn something new and teach something new on a regular basis.

On a more negative side, I was not as enthralled with this book as I have been with many books in the past. It was a little boring, to be honest, and for people who specialize in telling stories, this book has little notable structure. It was broken into four parts, comprising four separate areas Catmull wanted to talk about his management experience in, with the first part being the best since it covered the story of the birth of Pixar from start to finish. The last three sections were hard to get through frankly, and thus they diluted the undoubtedly sound advice being given by the author. It would be hard to recommend this book to anyone but someone pursuing management or in such a position, unlike the other books I’ve recently read which I think most people should read. Still, I think most employed humans could learn a thing or to from Catmull, who admittedly has a unique perspective on this subject.

Have a good recommendation for the next Book Club? Let me know!

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