Hi everyone, sorry for the long silence on the blog. I don’t have any good excuses but would love to do better. Sometimes I have so many things going at once that if I think for an evening about what I want to write, everything is different the next day.
Here’s the report on how Fall 2016 went at Preston Middle School and beyond. It was quite a whirlwind!
Before school even started, I traveled to Washington, DC for the Teacher Leadership Initiative Alumni Academy through the NEA. We did a lot of group brainstorming on some of the sticky issues of teacher leadership. The team really focused on what to expect under ESSA (the new law replacing No Child Left Behind, which puts a lot more power and flexibility in the hands of states), as well as early career teacher retention and mentorship. I did some targeted work with a small team on the student-discipline aspects of ESSA, which requires states and districts to track discipline data and disaggregate it by subgroup. Sharing stories, we realized our schools and districts still have much progress to make in this area. There’s ample evidence that suspensions and exclusionary practices result in worse educational outcomes and they’re applied unevenly when it comes to the students’ race or special education status. Yet many schools still practice them – here’s an area where our association needs to help educators take a stand on behalf of the kids.
I always enjoy working with my colleagues at the NEA, and I appreciate what they do for the 3 million of us (!!!) that are members.
Also in August, my family and I vacationed hard and had visits from friends right up until the day school started. It was a rush to get ready for the school year to start! Our building tech coordinator, Matt, and I also had to set up and plan for a year of working with our new VR makerspace. We had won a grant for it in the spring, and so we spent some time in the summer ordering equipment and getting the makerspace ready.
I taught five different classes this fall, and had over 200 students total – not too uncommon for a middle school elective teacher. Most of August is spent just getting things started – learning names, establishing your classroom norms, getting started with whatever it is you’re planning to do.
All of my classes moved forward with learning content and working on projects – Scratch, Processing, Arduino, NAO robots, and Minecraft kept all of us busy. Toward the end of the month, I traveled to San Diego to work with Convergence on their Education Reimagined initiative. I represent a group with Poudre Education Association and Poudre School District at these events. Education Reimagined networks practitioners who are moving toward learner-centered education – a model in which schooling looks very different from what we think of as schools. In this model, education is driven by the needs of the learners instead of the needs of the system around it. The learners have choice, develop an individual map of competencies instead of progressing through grade levels, learn socially as not just students but as peers and teachers, and they learn in the context of the world they live in. These events involve very big thinking and it can be difficult to find the thing you’re going to change in your classroom Monday morning. You come back wanting to tear down the whole structure you work in, wanting to rebuild it based on the new paradigm. It’s hard to do work like this in short bursts and then come back to a traditional public middle school. I try my best to be learner-centered in the 90 minutes I have with all of my 200 students every other day, but of course there are limits to how far we can take it. If you’ve ever thought about the big structural changes you’d like to make to your own schooling environment, or if you’ve had some success making those changes, it would be wonderful to network with you.
I traveled to Providence, RI with my colleagues in the Allen Distinguished Educator program in the middle of the month. Sometimes I come back from a professional development experience thinking how far ahead my school is when it comes to innovative education. And other times I’m deeply humbled as I realize how much I could still grow. My meetings with the ADE’s always fall into this category. My colleagues have allowed their students to grow into true engineers and entrepreneurs, and they seem more energized the more they do. We visited the MET, a Big Picture Learning school in Providence, and we toured the entrepreneurship program and met some of the amazing students there. We also visited AS220, an arts school and also a residential art program that really focuses on students who have been in the correctional system.
The more I visit programs such as these and hear the stories of lives changed and inspired, the more ridiculous our current standards-based curricula and accountability systems seem. The real work of changing lives requires more out of us – harder thinking from the adults as well as the kids in the system.
In addition, in October, we got a really interesting invitation from Colorado State University to attend a Virtual Reality symposium and hackathon as special guests. I hoped the students might be able to participate in the hackathon (some of the middle schoolers would have done really well), but that was not to be. But the symposium was great. Matt and I had 20 kids attend the symposium and another dozen come to visit the hackathon. I think anytime a student gets a chance to be in a university setting, talking about academic topics with the adults, it’s good for them. Some of the language was over their heads and the students described the experience as “sometimes boring but also interesting”. We never knew some of the ways VR could be used, and how exciting it could be if we were involved in the cutting edge of that kind of research. Everything from immunology to big data to civil engineering.
Matt and I infused the symposium experiences into class curriculum by including readings and videos for the kids about the future of VR, and by allowing kids to choose to work on semester projects in Unity that explored how VR can be used to make the world better.
In 2016, the Colorado State House passed a law requiring the CDE to develop standards for Computer Science, and allowing districts to opt into them. The bar is set low here, but the ceiling is high. At the very least, the initiative to develop standards gets educators talking about CS education and that’s worthy in itself. The effort to develop standards and get stakeholders together is just getting started. With a couple of my co-workers at the high school and district level, I attended a stakeholders’ meeting and standards input meeting in November. It was great to meet the folks in Colorado passionate about bringing computer science education to every kid. There are a lot of us, from diverse backgrounds, involved. Leaders from government, nonprofits, K-12 education, higher education, and private industry all had a lot in common. We believe computer science education is critical for the new workforce kids are expected to enter. We believe CS education should involve concepts and skills, but perhaps more importantly, creativity, problem-solving, and innovation. I loved that one message that came through was that we should exceed the expectations of the law. We don’t need to limit ourselves to high school and don’t need to set the expectation that CS is optional. We also believed that CS education should be accessible regardless of zip code or family background, and whether a student plans to attend college or not. We believe computing jobs should be available to high school graduates and we’d love to offer that track to learners.
I am excited about where these efforts are going next.
November 8th came and went. I volunteered throughout October and up until election day. I canvassed for our school district’s mill and bond, and I went out many weekends with the Larimer County Democrats for Hillary Clinton. Election day was hard. As an educator, all I want for my students is for them to think critically and be kind. The result of the presidential race felt like we have a long way to go, and it was disheartening. In the days following, I listened to the kids and just enjoyed being around their innocence and good spirits. Middle-schoolers sometimes bring their parents’ politics to class, but overall they are just interested in being kids, learning and having fun, and so we honored that and will continue to do so. We tried, and continue to try, to keep school safe and polite while also allowing students to discover their own voice and reason about what they believe. I will be flexing my own voice about policy and messaging in the coming months and years… while keeping my identity as an educator separate from my identity as an activist citizen. And this is the delicate balance we walk as educators. I would never deign to influence my students’ beliefs and yet I want them to know I believe in them and want the best for them.
The critical time in December is Computer Science Education Week, the week of Dec. 5. The awesome staff at Preston agreed, for the third year in a row, to conduct an Hour of Code with the students at some point before winter break. Math teachers and science teachers carved out a little time to make it happen. The kids in my classes told me all about it and how fun it was. For my part, I had a few different items cooked up. I created a Minecraft Hour of Code using the ComputerCraftEDU mod, in which students program a turtle to mine and build for them. They love this Hour of Code and the kids asked to continue programming turtles afterward. For my Computer Science students, I wanted to empower them as CS ambassadors and advocates. I arranged a tour of elementary schools, and for four class periods, volunteer parent drivers shuttled my 7th and 8th graders to several other schools where my students taught an Hour of Code to kids from kindergarten to 5th grade. The CS students had to develop a lesson plan, with a learning objective, an opening, activity, and a way for kids to know if they had been successful. My students said this was their favorite part of the semester, and I heard from parents that their child would not stop talking about their elementary school visits at home! This was a devilishly challenging puzzle to work through, with the logistics and timing and paperwork, but it was very rewarding.
On the Wednesday of that week, we hosted the 2nd annual Preston code-a-thon. 160 students signed up for it, and we accepted 50 of them for the big day. The code-a-thon’s theme was “Hack the Holidays”. Students had about three hours to design and code a solution to a holiday-related problem. We got educational programs that taught about world religion, a robotic light-hanger, an app to help you with meal planning, a 3-D virtual reality holiday maze, a budget planner for gifts, a gift-delivery game, a few stories about helping the homeless, and many more. The event was a wonderful success and the kids had a great time coding with their friends for a morning. We hope to hold another one in February to accommodate the students who couldn’t get in the first time.
Finally in December, the VR and emerging technology enrichment class I taught with Matt came to a close for the semester – as did my other classes. We decided to host a Passion Project night in coordination with one of the GT English teachers, in which students could share their projects with their families. We had students create a few VR projects, including a skydiving app, a fear-of-heights simulator, and a virtual zoo. One student did an involved Arduino project, one student did a web design project, and another did research on how to build his own computer. We featured a couple of students in TED-style talks in front of the large crowd. The young man who created an Arduino-based distance sensor and the young lady who created the VR fear-of-heights app demonstrated their projects in front of a crowd. It was a fun way to put a cap on a very good semester.
I’ll try to blog a little more consistently this semester instead of writing about EVERYTHING right at the very end. I’ve enjoyed communicating with those of you I meet on Twitter and social media, so please reach out if you’d like to share thoughts or plans on anything.