Just blogging to report on my two big initiatives for the week: finishing up a mini-project on trigonometry using the micro:bit accelerometers, and a week on anti-racism in my sixth-grade advisory.
The mini-project finished up SO well. We started last week by assembling micro:bit inclinometers and programming them to report out the angle measured by using trig ratios. This week, we took measurements with them and did the math. The students measured the height of a neighboring building by standing exactly 800 centimeters away and sighting the roofline with their micro:bit devices. It’s been a cold week so we rushed inside to do the math, and the kids calculated a building height of around 39 feet. We probably got in the ballpark.
One commenter on my blog suggested we try another method, sighting an object from a distance, then backing up a known distance and taking another reading. This ended up being a cool application of a system of equations. Great suggestion!
Even though learning to solve systems of equations feels like drudgery at first, it’s one of the more useful algebra concepts I have learned. In my decade as an engineer, I modeled many situations involving systems.
The kids did a great job and seemed to enjoy the challenge of the activity.
The other day, I blogged about the very strange situation involving the Catholic school teens in DC mocking other protesters near the Lincoln Memorial. With the MLK holiday coinciding with that weekend, I really felt the need to do a lesson series on racism in my advisory class. They are sixth-graders, and I decided to survey them first – I’m glad I did. Only one of the kids had even heard of the incident with the protestors, which I found fascinating. What we perceive as going viral doesn’t reach all age groups equally. I decided to leave the incident off the lesson plan and focus on basic, age-appropriate lessons on racism.
We started with a few circle prompts about times they have ever seen someone treated unfairly because of their race, skin color, or religion. I asked them about their perceptions of bullying at our small school. Almost all the students feel that at our school, bullying is not really so much the issue. Some students can be rude or insensitive, but they understood the difference between rudeness and bullying.
I talked about how it’s healthy that in our lifetime, it’s not socially acceptable to be outwardly racist. People in our community tend to call each other out on it. Racism tends to take the shape of the many small ways in which your life is made a little easier or a little harder because of your race. We read through the list created by Peggy McIntosh in the Invisible Knapsack. Some of the students were able to chime in with ways in which privilege tends to show up at school – for example, if a girl hears “you’re pretty smart! Girls can be smart can’t they?” or if you get in trouble with the principal and a little voice makes you wonder if it’s because of the way you look.
Today, we started watching “A Class Divided“, the story of Jane Elliott’s brown eyes / blue eyes discrimination experiment in her third-grade classroom. The kids find it fascinating. It’s a very good and comprehensive introduction to what discrimination is and what it does to people. As a sixth-grade lesson, I think it’s a solid foundation to build on. I’m interested to debrief with the kids tomorrow to get their thoughts on it. By the end of class today, they were begging me to try the experiment at my school – to bring collars and let them try it. I think they’re intrigued at the idea of lording it over their classmates, but also wondering if the collars would make them the same nasty people that the third-graders became when they were empowered over their lower-class friends.
Jane Elliott is a nationally-known advocate for racism education now, and I told the students I have seen her do this experiment on adults and it’s still just as powerful. She can make adults cry. (I won’t show that video to the kids because there is swearing… but man!)
At some point, one of my students raised his hand and said “Donald Trump is racist.” I sat in it for a moment and then said “Yes. He is.” Other kids wanted to chime in. I allowed a few comments. I ended with “He says racist things. It’s not OK.” And I moved on. I have heard arguments that Trump says the things he says to provoke crowds, or build his “message”. If you say racist things to provoke or build your message… you are a racist. I would never allow one of my students to say the things the president says. That behavior needs to be named.
It’s not a ton of lessons, but the students have been engaged and receptive, and I think it got us off to a good start when it comes to understanding these themes.
I have a few things to say about racism. I’m grateful, in an odd way, for the viral video of the boys wearing MAGA hats and mocking the indigenous drummer in Washington DC. You know the one.
It hit me hard because I recognize those kids. Not these exact teenage boys. But the smiles, the color, the jumping, the shouting, and the hats. They look just like my kiddos in northern Colorado. I worked with over 1000 kids just like them last year at my suburban public school.
I am amazed that we live in an era in which the president’s name and signature slogan are used as racial taunts. And yet here we are. Over the past couple of years, it’s been shocking to see kids act openly racist to their classmates simply by yelling TRUMP in the face of a Latino classmate with whom they already don’t get along. Or by screaming TRUMP’S GONNA BUILD THAT WALL in a crowded hallway and then ducking into a bathroom. Amazing that a kid can wear a MAGA hat to school and just revel in the high-fives from half of the students and the glares from the other half, and just bubble over with joy at the chaos they’ve wrought around them. Because of a President’s slogan.
I have NOT handled it well for the past couple of years. I have tons of excuses. I really wasn’t prepared for students to act racist to one another. I’m not trained in strategies for ending it. If I intervene, how much of my motivation is based on ending bullying and harassment, and how much of my motivation is based on not liking the politics of the kid’s parents? What if the parents call me and accuse me of being anti-Trump? Am I prepared for that call? If not, maybe I should scale down my response until I can really understand what’s driving me. Is the kid really being racist or am I overreacting? Maybe I’ll console the kid who’s being teased and avoid confrontation with the bully. I swear I had these thoughts. I’m not proud of them. I do want to respect everyone’s political differences and suburban parents can be intimidating. But come on – I was looking the other way when there was obvious racial bullying going on, disguising itself as politics.
The incident with the Native American drummer was fascinating because it happened on a school outing. I found myself empathizing with the school and internally making excuses for them. I have been there. Teenage boys do stupid things. My own students have these same impulses. And while we’re passing the buck, I believe the president’s own racism is at the heart of these issues, absolutely. The man has claimed Central American asylum seekers are diseased. He tried to make his case for a wall based on the presence of possible prayer rugs in the desert. He made fun of Wounded Knee. These are only from the last few weeks – the man is not politically incorrect, he is outright racist, period.
I stopped empathizing with the school when I realized I needed to stop making excuses for myself. It’s irresponsible of me to not even try to clean up the mess when his words set fire to my student community. I can’t let these moments go by. Kids need to know their words and actions are not ok, and they need to be called out for what they are. No more “you guys need to just stop and walk away”. It needs to be “I heard you say BUILD THE WALL as a way of harassing another student. Racial intimidation is serious and we need to take some time out to deal with this.” Covington Catholic School – and me, and my former school, and my current school, need to have a moment of reckoning and realize we have to deal with these forces that have been thrust upon us. We have a racist president who inspires kids to be racist. This is the world we live in. That nonsense HAS TO STOP and we need to not back down because we’re worried about offending their parents.
And if any of you reading this have suggested tools, techniques, articles or whatever to help someone learn the best way to correct racism and right the ship, please send them my way. I believe in restorative discipline and want to not just end racist, harassing, and bullying behavior but create a positive, empathetic community.
The academic year at my new school starts in a little over a week! We’ll have 150 to 160 students this year in grades 6-10. I’m teaching math and technology and am partnering with one other teacher for our mathematics curriculum. We’ve been working hard over the past month to get some key pieces in place. Not everything will be ready on day 1, but I feel like we’ve made some important decisions and we can go forward this year and see how we like it.
We plan on having students explore mathematics through venture projects, but we realize we would need to make compromises we may not want to make in order to cover the key Common Core standards. Compass School’s key mission is to help students learn by growing their interests & passions while connected to their community, and if we’re faced with a choice to cover quadratic factoring or doing something authentic with the kids, we’re going to do authentic work. We’ll include the math that makes sense in context, but have no intention of forcing a fit such as “find a way to include polynomial division in our study of recycling programs in Fort Collins”. No. It will be easy to include number sense, proportional reasoning, financial literacy, data analysis, charting & graphing, spreadsheets, estimation, and prediction, so those will be emphasized through projects.
Many higher math skills aren’t necessary, relevant, or meaningful to a teenager making their way in the world. And yet we’ll need to be sure kids understand them – through Algebra I / Integrated I if they’re unsure about their college plans, and through Algebra II / Integrated III if they are college bound. Colleges expect to see a solid math background, and if a student is enjoying it and wants to go through Calculus, we need to accommodate that. So there is the crux of our philosophical problem – how to create the conditions for students to learn in real-world, authentic contexts and also gain proficiency in math concepts that don’t lend themselves well to real-world authentic contexts? I wish we didn’t have this dilemma, but here we are.
We’re going to create this balance by offering flex time in addition to venture project time. Flex time can be either at the beginning of the day or the end of the day – it’s the student’s choice. We have scheduled 45 minutes a day, 4 days a week. We have come on board with Summit Learning Systems, which is a free content management system and curriculum and personalized learning tool provided by Summit Public Schools. My partner and I will do some intake testing at the beginning of the year, using MAPs and if needed, some of the short diagnostic tests provided by Summit. Since there are two of us teaching students of many different abilities and we will have no “grade levels” at our school, we’re going to group the kids in one of four flexible math groups to start.
Math 1 is number sense and arithmetic (4th-5th grade math standards).
Math 2 is pre-algebra (6th-7th grade math standards).
Math 3 is algebraic concepts (8th grade and Integrated I standards)
Math 4 is higher math (Integrated II and Integrated III).
pre-calc (and we may have a couple of students in this boat) will have its own personalized learning plan set up in Summit and may be on a special schedule.
Each group will get 1 or 2 teacher-directed lessons a week, using the Launch-Work-Wrap structure in groups. In each math group, the general concepts are the same so we can select lessons that help build students’ ability to use multiple representations, understand and communicate concepts. Then once or twice a week, the students will work on personalized learning time, doing exercise sets either alone or with a partner. Once a week, we will have Portfolio Time to work on application problems or interesting puzzles. The personalized learning time and portfolio problems are all built into Summit Learning Systems. They’re a really cool feature and we’re excited to use them.
If a student passes off all of the power standards for a math band, they can get promoted to the next math band regardless of how old they are or what “grade” they would normally be in. We have a few different systems that we can use to check off standards for students and I am not sure what that looks like yet. We need to have this in place by Labor Day or else be prepared with lots of clipboards and papers in the meantime.
One of our first projects will be on defining yourself and your identity. It’s the foundation for the rest of the work we’ll do with kids. As part of this project, we’ll explore how quantifying your life can help you better communicate who you are. I made a quick example for this below. I also think this little project can be a good formative assessment for how comfortable our students are using proportional reasoning, statistics, graphs, and formulas as tools for communication.
Those are the big ideas behind where we are so far! This is a bigger role in planning kids’ math education than I have ever held before, and I hope we do a good job with it. The systematic development of these math skills can sometimes be a weakness in project-based learning but I think we have a pretty good structure for making it work for us and the kids.
I’m a computer science teacher. I’m an engineering teacher and a math teacher. Of course I am. My job is to help students become literate, empowered, and creative with mathematics and technology. Right?
Except now I’m not so sure. I’m changing jobs next year and teaching at Compass Community Collaborative School, a new project-based public charter school in town. We’re making progress on the hard work of designing what our school days, weeks, quarters, and years look like. It’s humbling. It’s really humbling, because my base assumption that my job is to help students develop skills and content knowledge isn’t very helpful. I think it’s totally wrong, actually, and it’s sending me into a spiral of doubt about who I am and what I’ve been doing with my life for the past 10 years. I’ve been proud to be an advocate for engineering and computer science education, and I still believe firmly that all kids need exposure, practice and the ability to create with these skills. And yet that is not my job and it never has been. I need to put it all on a shelf and sit in the notion that my job is to develop human beings.
Compass will use a human-centered design process to create learning experiences for the kids. The process is laid out here, and it doesn’t start with skills or standards but rather broad concepts. Concepts are umbrellas under which questions, directions of inquiry, and actual projects live and grow. For example, our first set of projects will live under the umbrella concept of “Identity”.
Identity is a concept that crosses disciplines, that is universal to the human experience, that can be addressed with an infinite number of inquiry questions. When we first start doing projects with students, we’ll create the inquiry questions mostly for them. As they grow, they will create the inquiry questions themselves. These may not be the inquiry questions we will use for this project, but some examples we pondered early on include:
- How do labels impact our identity?
- How can art help us better understand individuals?
- To what extent are labels harmful? To what extent are labels helpful?
From there, we start brainstorming products students can create to address these questions. We think about how the questions might branch, and explore the scope from individual to global implications – bring the kids’ empathy along. Students might, for example, create an art piece that explores hidden layers of labels.
THEN, we can begin the work of pulling in content. What skills can we purposefully develop in literacy, numeracy, social studies, science, art, computer science, physical education and more? What are the power standards and what are optional? This is where I come in as a content-area teacher, but the role is minor compared to the bigger role of guiding kids through exploring this idea of identity deeply, empathetically, rigorously.
Maybe you see why I’m unsure of my place in all this! I love teaching technology and math and programming… and while I love my students and have enjoyed getting to know them as the individuals they are… I have very little pedagogical knowledge or experience in developing community, empathy, identity, critical thinking, and kindness. I’m going to need to study hard. I’m going to foul some things up from time to time. I am unprepared for the experience of going through what I did in my first year of teaching when everything was new and I never felt like I did anything right. I am, however, excited to fly my nerd flag high while we are learning things that are relevant and deeply personal and authentic.
I’m ready to announce some news I’ve been sitting on for a while and can finally share. I will be changing jobs next year, leaving Preston Middle School and embarking on a new adventure. I’ll be a founding teacher at Poudre School District’s newest charter school – Compass Community Collaborative School. It’s a 6-12 school in midtown Fort Collins, opening for the very first time this August.
I’m very, very excited. Compass embraces student-centered learning – we’ll be helping the kids understand who they are as learners, community members, and human beings. We’ll spend our time working in teams on venture projects and making the community around us our classroom. We’ll learn by doing, making, experiencing. I’ll get to work in true collaborative teams – and still play with some awesome technology. And work in a building right off the bike path and next door to Whole Foods. My new school’s website is here. https://compassfortcollins.org/
I’ve loved my time teaching at Preston. It was my first and only teaching assignment. I’ve been so fortunate to teach somewhere I had the freedom to explore who I am as an educator and as a person, and to learn from some of the very best teachers anywhere. I loved learning how to understand and teach mathematics. I loved building a computer science and engineering program. And I just love all the awesome kids that have walked through my doors every single year. Every single one of these Preston kids is so special to me, and it’s going to be really hard to say goodbye to the students I was really looking forward to working with next year. There will never be a best time to make this change, but right now is the best time for me, so I have to make the leap. I’m ready to experiment with what I feel in my heart is the “right” way to do school. To get rid of the isolated subjects, the master schedule, the heavy emphasis on core subjects… and to start emphasizing who kids are, what they can do and be right now in this moment, where we fit in the world, and what we all need to be the very best version of ourselves.
I am actually excited to start working on mathematical understanding with my students again. I’ve missed it. And I’ll get to create with technology as well. I’m looking forward to the journey and I will blog about it.
The start of a new calendar year is a traditional time of reflection and anticipation. I’ve been an inconsistent blogger this year, which wasn’t intentional, but if I had to clear some things off my plate, this was an easy sacrifice. It’s been a full year. Along with constantly learning and changing in my job, I have two daughters who are in 9th and 5th grade and a busy husband too. When my children were little, I thought to myself “It will be so nice when they’re older. They won’t need us as much!” While it’s true that we can leave the house without calling a babysitter now, it is NOT true that your kids need you less. They need you more! You need to be more present, for everything from driving to emotional support to helping them make sense of the world. It’s been a joy being with the girls as they grow into interesting, independent people – but it definitely keeps you moving.
The job has been interesting as well. I don’t always know what to expect next, but here are some highlights from 2017 and what I expect from 2018.
- The CS for All and #csk8 movement.
“Coding” is gaining more traction in my suburban public school district, and this year for the first time we started some high level discussions on how to introduce computer science as a core subject for every learner. Several colleagues and I have been working on suggested paths for a K-12 computer science sequence. We are looking for sites to pilot ideas over the next couple of years and investigating grants for professional development offered by Colorado’s Department of Education. It feels like a painfully slow process, but there is definite progress here and I’m excited to see where it goes.
I started using these cute little devices in both my required 6th-grade class and in the elective upper-middle-school class. The younger kids learned cs concepts using the block-based MakeCode environment, and the older kids learned using the text-based Python environment. It’s such an interesting tradeoff. I didn’t feel that we covered as much material as I had in previous years, but I perceived that the kids were VERY engaged in their learning and took their learning in divergent paths. Introducing the micro:bits meant that some kids did not learn as much about coding structures such as variables and boolean expressions. But they learned more about the design cycle, and got really excited about testing and iteration. They generated questions themselves like “will it still work if I’m on the opposite side of the room? Will it work if I push the buttons at the same time? Will it work if I shake and push at the same time?” And then they answered their own questions and improved on their designs, on their own. I love the excitement. I want to keep that. And I also want the kids to be well prepared for high school work and to understand important concepts in computer programming, so having it both ways is hard!
- Virtual Reality.
I have a nice gaming system with an Oculus Rift controller in my classroom, and we have a variety of VR devices in the media center. Kids have access to technology at school that they don’t necessarily have at home, and so it gives them something exciting to use at school that they are very curious about. I’ve integrated a VR unit in my upper-level CS class, and our building tech coordinator and I teach a quarterly enrichment class called VR Exploration. We work with the kids to make 3-D models in Blender and little exploration worlds in Unity. We’ve had a few students that have gone above and beyond with their work in VR and that’s been fun to see. Toward the end of this semester, we received a $5000 grant to expand our VR program and so now we’re faced with the question of: how do we grow the program? We have some thinking to do about how we make this a more inclusive and interesting and cross-disciplinary experience for kids.
- Engineering for Others.
Our media specialist runs a pretty awesome after-school program called Engineering Brightness, and I love the premise of engineering with a purpose – to help others and to help students have empathy for the human experience. I’ve been working on the technical side of the program for quite some time and incorporated a lot of the engineering ideas into my Electronics elective, and this semester for the first time we were able to produce some finished products and send solar lights out to residents of Puerto Rico who were still living without electricity. It was a fantastic experience and I definitely hope to keep the project and improve on it this coming semester.Those are the main things cooking for 2018! What’s coming up for you?
I want to send a huge thank you to Shreya Shankar, a CS student at Stanford, for putting together a really well-written blog post about one of the ways in which being a woman in tech is a strange and sometimes isolating experience. In this article, Shreya talks about the complex feelings associated with being hired into a diversity program. There’s the resentment and blame cast on you by your male peers. The feelings of self-doubt about your qualifications. A little guilt, maybe you aren’t even sure about your level of passion for engineering. The annoying voice that creeps into your head when you introduce yourself as an engineer – the one that says “they are looking at you right now and casting you as the token diversity hire who doesn’t know what she’s doing.”
Shreya, I felt all of this and more when I was an engineering student. After my sophomore year in 1994, I applied for an internship at AT&T. It was a diversity program specifically geared toward women and minorities in tech. I spent the summer writing Unix shell scripts to run the system backups, and plugging tapes into drives to test the backup system. AT&T, at the time, ran a really good summer program. We attended lunch talks with speakers who talked about everything from negotiations between men and women to AT&T’s outreach to the gay and lesbian community. We went on outings to theme parks and restaurants to get to know each other better. It was the first time I’d ever worked with such a diverse group of young people and I learned so much beyond the technical skills. My older co-workers said they liked the backup scripts I wrote and would continue to use them. I thought it was a successful summer.
The following year, I applied for, and got, a second internship with Hewlett-Packard. I was over the moon excited, because I’d get to move to Colorado for the internship and HP was going to pay me a moving allowance. HP’s program wasn’t exclusive to women and minorities, but diverse hires were a priority and we all knew it. I was going to write a configuration utility for some test and measurement equipment. It would be a great adventure working for a really cool company and I was stoked.
I ran into one of my friends on campus one spring day before the end of the semester – and I’ll never forget the conversation we had. I asked him about his plans for the summer and he said he would probably be going back home to work for his dad because he didn’t get an internship. I said Oh. He had already heard about my opportunity through mutual friends. He had no cheerful words for me. He pointed out that he had a 4.0 grade point average, and I only had a 3.6 and we were both involved in a lot of activities and then he practically spit out the words when he said “And I don’t have a summer internship and the only reason you have one and I don’t is BECAUSE YOU’RE A GIRL.”
It stung! It stung then and those words stayed with me and they STILL sting. We’ve stayed in touch from time to time and I’ve never brought up that conversation again. He did get a nice job at a big tech company later and has done well for himself, so whatever happened that summer didn’t ruin his life. I assume he was upset and angry and it made him feel better to bring me down a notch. I’m sure he was resentful that a student he perceived as less qualified got an internship he wanted. That awkward moment was terrible and I don’t even remember how I ended the conversation. I knew at that moment he was angry and I just wanted to get away.
And Shreya, and any other women out there who have had those moments, I want to give you some perspective as someone who did end up in a good career as an engineer and somewhat successfully finished that gauntlet. (I did change careers after a decade; I’m now a schoolteacher. I have no regrets about either career.)
- You can really enjoy being an engineer if you work for a good company with a good support system and culture. In my careers at AT&T and Hewlett Packard in the 1990’s, they did a lot of things right. The leadership was committed to making the workplace welcoming for everyone. They held lunch talks and events geared toward bringing out diverse voices and problem-solving together. They created a culture that welcomed different, even opposing, perspectives. They had employee groups that helped you network with other people with the same background. They believed in listening. Watch for this when you apply for, and accept, a job. Ask questions of your interviewer about the company’s support of diversity. If you get a chance to shadow an employee for a day or take an internship, do it and keep your antenna up. Don’t be afraid to change course even after you’ve accepted a job. There’s no reason to work for a company that makes you feel like you’re not respected or heard. There are plenty of good workplaces out there.
- People who seem less qualified on paper get opportunities over “more qualified” people ALL THE TIME. Sometimes it’s because the people interviewing perceive a good fit in something that’s harder to measure. The new hire has a great temperament. The new hire has networked well and has a contact that can vouch for them. The new hire has a skill in an area the company really wants. If this new hire is a white man, nobody will ever complain that they’re less qualified and they only got hired as a token diversity hire. Resentment comes out differently when the new hire is a woman or minority, and it’s an uncomfortable truth. You don’t have to do anything to justify your presence to others who didn’t get the job. You have a great opportunity – just try your best to hold the door open for those who follow you.
- Understand that companies hire for a “good cultural fit” all the time. When you got hired, the company made a decision that your skills and grades were what they were looking for, and your background and perspective is something they value and they wanted you on board. You’re a good cultural fit. You’re going to make that workplace even better by being part of it.
- Seek out mentors who are like you, even if they don’t work in the same company. Talk to them often. It helps if your mentors are in leadership positions – the section manager or vice-president won’t mind one bit if you invite her out to coffee just to talk about how work is going and how you like it, or you want to pick her brain about what it’s like to have a leadership role at a tech company. You might need an advocate later on, so try not to be shy about reaching out to other women. We need each other. I have had some very good mentors who were male as well, but I *needed* my female mentors when I had those moments of insecurity or self doubt. I would not have stayed in tech without them.
- You’re going to be subjected to sexism or racism from time to time. This is a fact of working in an environment in which you stand out as different. It’s going to happen. If you have plenty of good experiences to fall back on, it builds up your resilient core and the negative experiences don’t bother you as much – but they do happen. This is where having female mentors is so helpful. Process it with them. It’ll give you good perspective. You’ll start to know when to stand up firmly for yourself and when to just let it go and pick your battles.
- You’re also going to have experiences in which you just aren’t sure of yourself, in which your co-workers aren’t being explicitly sexist, but since you come from different cultures, neither is sure how to act around the other. Lunches, happy hours, golf outings, video game competitions, going to the gym – or work-related gatherings like a debugging session or breakfast meeting or an impromptu teleconference – you might feel like you’re not welcome, and it’s very likely that you are totally welcome, but the men didn’t think to explicitly invite you because they didn’t realize you felt you needed an invitation. Anytime you stand out as different, you tend to sit back and wait for an invitation. Try not to sit back. Ask “I’d love to attend. Mind if I join you?” Go, make an appearance and use it as an opportunity for everyone to learn.
Lastly, this is an awkward topic to bring up, but I have some pretty good evidence that during my time as an engineer, I was gradually paid less than less-experienced, male coworkers. I only have a couple of pieces of data and a lot of suspicions. But understand a merit-based pay system is not really merit-based. Everybody in your leadership chain has some discretion, and individual discretion is biased in ways we don’t always see. It would be very reasonable to track down more information in whatever way makes sense for the company you’re in. I never rocked the boat, but I look back and know I should have used the guidance of my female mentors to help me navigate the pay system better.
You matter. The career you’re entering is a good one, full of interesting opportunities, cool problems to solve, people who are smart and creative and fun, and a global workforce and customer base that is very diverse and that your skills will impact positively. It has its challenges but it’s very worthwhile. If you enjoy creative problem-solving, you will like engineering even with its issues. It’s a great field. I look back with awe at how I got to be part of technologies that changed the world without even realizing it at the time. Engineers make history!
Reach out to me or other women engineers anytime. We have your back!!
I really believe that a major obstacle in making much-needed changes to public education – making it more personal, relevant, flexible, enjoyable… making it less boring and more likely to build literate, happy, employable and productive members of society… a major obstacle lies in the Common Core Math Standards and everything that causes us to cling to them.
I can’t prove these standards are bad for kids’ education. I can’t prove it because we measure the quality of a child’s education by how well they take a test according to these standards, and whether they eventually learn these standards well enough to graduate high school. We don’t tend to measure the quality of a child’s education by metrics that actually matter, but when we do, the measurements aren’t good. The achievement gap persists. Students report increasing boredom and disengagement with school as they proceed through high school. Students that attend college increasingly need remediation. Employers report a dearth of applicants with needed skills for jobs. Surveys of adult science and math literacy are depressing.
A thought experiment. If there were no math standards and no curriculum and no textbooks. Nothing. All math books and online curricular resources and all math teachers suddenly went away, and we had to figure out a way to teach children what they needed to be successful, confident, productive, empathetic citizens. What would we do? We had a similar thought experiment in our Education Reimagined cohort, and interestingly, not one of us suggested anything looking like the current state of mathematics learning. We thought of many ways to make mathematics interesting, relevant, creative, personal, even joyful.
There are undoubtedly math and numeracy skills that are fundamental for our students to learn. Maybe it would be a good thought experiment to start with the end in mind. What do literate adults need to know about mathematics?
What would be on that list? Here is my list. I put stars next to “advanced”, possibly optional, topics. Just an off-the-cuff list of what I am glad to know and what I wish other people understood about math. What are yours?
- Basic principles of addition / subtraction, especially mental math and estimation
- Multiplying and dividing, again especially mental math and estimation
- Doubling and halving mentally
- Percents and proportions (mental math and back-of-napkin techniques)
- Ratios and fractions
- Using technology for all operations above and testing reasonableness of answers
- Statistics and presentation / organization of data. Estimation, identifying outliers, using technology
- Making sense of very large/very small numbers and the proportionality of them
- Scientific notation
- Formulas – substitution into a formula, and writing your own
- Spreadsheets, data collection, visualization tools, and spreadsheet formulas
- Computer programming
- Logic and puzzles (*?)
- Personal finance – taxes, loans, interest, saving for goals, budgeting, shopping.
- Entrepreneurship and running a business. Profit/income/expenses.
- Strategy, game-playing *
- Simulation, modeling, making predictions. Taking a real-life situation and modeling it with bare-bones variables, with or without technology. Evaluating a simulation to determine if it’s valid. (*?)
- Measurement, units and unit conversions. Length, weight, volume, mass, area, speed, time. Making your own units when needed. Using measurements in: Food prep, sewing, crafting/DIY, gardening, home improvement, public transportation and auto care.
- Coordinate graphing – plotting points in 1, 2, and 3 dimensional space and making meaning from the graphs – creating your own coordinate axes and using them – xy and xyz. Applied math in 3-D design and automation.
- Trigonometry – sin,cos,tan and using these in 2D and 3D space for design *
I believe most of these skills can be taught in an applied way, relevant for students at whatever age they learn them, in the context of a project or experience. Students that enjoy learning math for the joy of pattern-finding, logic and thinking just for the purpose of improving one’s thinking could certainly dive deeply into theoretical mathematics. But there’s no reason all students would need to learn most theoretical mathematics. I think they could learn to find beauty, joy AND relevance in math and learn numeracy in an applied context.
Did I come close to your list? What did yours have on it?
For kicks, now go to the Common Core Math Standards website and browse through. This is the essential set of math knowledge experts deem that kids need to master by the end of each grade band. By the end of high school, to be college-and-career-ready, you should have mastered the whole thing. This is the low bar. Is that where you would have put it? Why or why not?
I have to tell you I find the high school standards outright discouraging. They are difficult to understand, even for me, a former engineer with a major in Computer Engineering and an almost-minor in mathematics. As a teacher, you have to search the far corners of your brain and your resource library to TRY and find a way to make many of those standards relevant or interesting. Kids don’t retain them after a unit’s over, let alone after a summer or a year or two. They don’t retain the math knowledge because it doesn’t connect to anything in their lives. There’s no purpose for it. Nobody in the “real world” actually interacts with math in the same way we do in a math classroom. As teachers, we know this about brain-based learning and we teach these stupid standards anyway.
Colorado is beginning a review process for all of its content-area standards, including math. I applied to be on the standards review committee, but didn’t make the cut. I started the lengthy process of giving feedback via the online system, but I’m embarrassed to say that around the submission deadline, I ended up swamped with things to do at school and in life, and I never turned in my answers. I did get a chance to talk with a representative from the CDE about the first review meetings, to ask him what kind of changes they were thinking of. Would Colorado keep Common Core? He indicated that we probably would, but the new standards would be better organized, easier to search and more useful for teachers.
This is ridiculous. They need to be gutted. We need to start over.
I studied computer engineering in college. I went to school on a 4-year scholarship, so I had 8 semesters to get a degree before the money ran out. This is important because I had to pass every class I took. I couldn’t fail a class or I might lose my scholarship, and if I had to repeat a class that was a prerequisite, I might not graduate on time.
Along the way, I took my first class in circuits, and I got a B. Good enough to pass and move onward to the next class. However, I knew at the time that I was struggling to understand circuits. I did reasonably well on the assessments, but I didn’t really get how an RC or LC circuit worked, or the meaning behind Maxwell’s equations or Gauss’ formula. I could use ratios to calculate the output of a transformer, but I didn’t really understand why they worked. I could answer questions about transistors but was helpless when it came to designing something with them.
I remember wishing that I could just retake circuits even though I had passed. I felt at the time that I had to move on to the next class. A lot of electrical engineering went over my head because I was a little lacking on the fundamentals.
I’m reflecting on this now, because at the middle school level I often have students repeat a class. I’ve had students that have signed up for CS or Electronics 2 or 3 times. Does this ever happen in a high school? It can be a great experience for me and the kids. The benefits are different for every student.
Take James, for instance. James took Computer Science Exploration last spring, and signed up for it again this spring. Last year, we made projects in Unity and James made a little forest scene you could walk around. This year, James made an immersive Robot War game, with marching animated robots, a scoreboard, and rocket launchers. In one year the growth was incredible. It was clear James understood what he was doing much better than he had the year before. He enjoyed retaking the class and going farther with the material.
Kamiya took Electronics in 7th grade and then came to my classroom at the beginning of 2nd semester. She asked if she could be a TA during the spring, and I said yes. She continued to be a TA in Electronics for 2 consecutive semesters. She was interviewed about the class partway through her second time as a TA. She said she loved learning about electronics, and it was her passion. She never minded being in the same class over and over, because she learned something new every time. Things were taught in a slightly different way, with different projects. Kamiya came with me to conferences and presentations often. I knew if I asked her to present to our superintendent, or congressional representative, or at the ISTE conference, she would do a good job. Kamiya is a generally shy kid who really seemed to blossom when she was making things with technology. She went on to participate in a nationally-honored FIRST robotics team in high school, and I like hearing about what she’s up to.
Luis took Electronics for the first time and did reasonably well and got a B. I knew he probably didn’t understand the content solidly, but he did a decent job and passed. When he signed up for the class the second time, I offered him a choice and said he could either take the class as a student, to learn the material better, or he could take the class as a TA and help others. He chose to take the class as a TA. Even though he wasn’t a top-tier performer in the class the first time around, this was an option that worked for him. Patrick is shy and needed support when it came to friendships and bullying. Being a TA helped him learn more about electronics but mainly improve his status. He helped other students when he could and alerted me to their needs when he couldn’t. He told me that he felt the class was a safe haven for him, where he didn’t feel any academic or social pressure. I suppose he needed that more than he needed to know about Ohm’s law.
For James, Kamiya, and Luis, re-taking a class helped them to grow in ways they needed. I love that our school gives kids the option to sign up for a class a second time – no penalty, no pressure. If you want to learn a little more and in a slightly different way you can re-take a class and tailor the experience to meet your needs.
I wish I’d had that option in college with circuits class. Or I wish I had known about it and had taken it. I think it would have really helped me grow as an engineer to learn the same material again, with no pressure and no risk, just to make sure I understood it.
I have been teaching computer science for 3 years now, and I’ve never actually had any training or PD on the pedagogy of computer science! I was thrilled when my friend Kristina Brown (twitter: @MsBrownTeachCS) told me she was able to round up some support and a little funding to go. Although I had to pay a little of my own way, I am really glad I got to attend! Here are some of the highlights of the sessions I went to. Many of the sessions were set up as a themed group – 20 or 25 minutes each, three presentations in a row. You could float between groups, but if you were interested in the theme it was easy to just stay and get information on three projects all at once. I liked the format of these sessions. Although the time frame seemed rushed for the presenters, I thought it was perfect for the audience. We were engaged the whole time, we got a short movement or stand-stretch break between each one, and we never got bored.
I went to a couple of sessions in this theme – one, presented by Shuchi Grover and Satabdi Basu, was about using formative assessments to identify misconceptions students had about CS concepts. Tobias Kohn led the next presentation on a related topic, beginners’ misconceptions about variables. When I taught math, I frequently got training on how to identify, question and correct common misconceptions of students – but this was the first time I’d had similar training in CS. Many of the misconceptions they talked about are ones I wrestle with when I teach middle schoolers:
- Not understanding the assignment operator is different from the equality operator in math
- Missing loop initialization
- Grouping items in a loop incorrectly
- Not understanding a variable’s value has been changed after an assignment operator
- Not understanding a variable’s value can change during a loop’s execution
- Confusing OR, AND boolean operators
I feel I understand better how to ask questions, use assessments and identify the misconceptions, but I think I will still struggle with how to correct them. I have many 7th and 8th graders who are still struggling with how to write a basic program that asks for input, does some math, and produces an output. I know some of the misconceptions above are to blame, and they can be devilish to fix.
Data Science for Kids:
I also went to a session on “Introducing Data Science to School Kids” by Shashank Srikant and Varun Aggarwal, and this was one of my favorites of the whole conference. I had been thinking for a long time that data science was a neglected area in beginner CS but I didn’t know how to teach it, so this gave me a great place to start. These researchers developed a lesson toolkit that tasks kids with developing an algorithm that can predict whether they’d want to be friends with someone, and testing the algorithm. It also covers data privacy and consent… really good, full lesson set. You can find it online here! http://www.datasciencekids.org/p/home-page.html
I enjoyed a session presented by Yin Pan, Sumita Mishra, and David Schwartz about “gamifying” a college-level course using an achievement map. I had been thinking I would love to have badging and an achievement map for my beginner classes. Their interface allows for creating assessments. http://forensic-games.csec.rit.edu/ I would have to consider if I want to put a lot of investment into something like this, but I love the idea.
I went to a session led by Sue Sentance which was a report on how students enjoyed using the BBC Micro:Bit in a few locations where it was deployed. I’m really interested in this device and hope to purchase a set for next year. You can now pre-order them from Sparkfun and other retailers. The research showed students are really interested in this device, but teachers seemed to struggle with it for a number of reasons. The delivery was really late. Many teachers understood how to teach the basic lessons but struggled to connect larger concepts of computer science and physical computing. Teachers had a hard time making the time for the Micro:Bit due to a lack of training and the unpredictable timing of when they actually got the devices. These would need to be addressed in a successful implementation!
I went to several sessions on blocks-based programming and encouraging diversity in computing, and in the process, discovered some new computing tools that can be used for content creation in a variety of formats!
Netsblox: Found here http://editor.netsblox.org This tool uses SNAP!, a block-based language really similar to Scratch. The researchers have added some interesting blocks to SNAP to encourage distributed computing – remote procedure calls and messaging. Through these blocks, students can have users at different computers interact with each other. You can create multi-player games and also interact with NASA, Google maps, Twitter and more. I thought it was a really exciting idea. I would need to have better control over user accounts and “friends” lists in order to use this with young kids.
TurtleStitch: Found here http://www.turtlestitch.org/ A variant of SNAP! in which you can code a turtle to make an embroidery pattern and then upload the pattern to a professional embroidery machine. The presenters used the program at a STEM camp to encourage student self-expression. The students made their own personal logo and stitched it on a T-shirt! I tried to find embroidery machines that would work with the file formats in this program, but I can’t tell if a basic $400 machine would be able to actually stitch the patterns. I need to do a little more research to see if an embroidery machine would be a good addition to our makerspace.
Beetle Blocks: Found here http://beetleblocks.com/ you can program a “beetle” instead of a turtle. The beetle moves in 3-d space and can extrude filament behind it to create a 3-D model! You can export the 3-D model for use in a 3-D printer or in any other modeling tool such as Blender, Unity, or TinkerCad. I love this tool. I found some great examples by another CS teacher / blogger I follow, Laurel Pollard. She makes earrings with Beetle Blocks, among other cool things. I made a tower of hearts and 3-d printed it. I thought for my first project it wasn’t too bad!
And here it is!
EarSketch: Making music with Python. Intriguing! I didn’t get a chance to play with it, but I’m interested. https://earsketch.gatech.edu/landing/#/
Jupyter Notebooks: This was presented as an interactive notebook in which you can do storytelling and coding, and it gives you a runtime environment for Python code. You can find it here: http://jupyter.org/ I would be really interested in this environment if it does what I think it does. I’m going to explore it this summer. I usually use OneNote as an interactive notebook, and I ask students to copy and paste their code there. How nice would it be to just be able to execute the code and keep notes all in one place?
There are example assignments and puzzles here. http://norvig.com/ipython/
Building Capacity and Professional Development:
I attended a number of sessions that touched on how to develop more CS teaching capacity. New Mexico started a program to train science teachers in NetLogo, and through a blend of online and in-person learning, recruited dozens of teachers to offer a new course integrating simulations and coding into science. Utah created a tiered certification program for teachers, allowing many teachers to offer CS at an entry point appropriate for them. The UK created a computing certificate for teachers that included online coursework, an individual coding project, and an action research component on CS pedagogy. I loved this model and thought it has a lot of potential for my own district.
I also got to attend a “birds of a feather” session on the K-12 CSTA standards, which are almost ready for full release. I like the standards overall. I notice that they represent a big philosophical change from what I am used to, which is the K-12 Common Core math standards. In order for someone to teach the CSTA standards well, they would have to offer a chance to create an involved capstone project. Many of the standards are something you *could* teach with a couple of lessons and a quiz, but students can’t truly demonstrate they learned the concept without actually creating a meaningful, authentic project that includes the idea. We talked about the need for examples and rubrics. What does mastery vs. proficiency look like at different grade bands? Those conversations will need to be hashed out, but the standards-writers could help us along with built-in rubrics where appropriate.
Networking with Friends
Finally it was awesome to meet up with several people I knew from online but hadn’t met in person. 🙂 Thanks to Sheena Vaidyanathan, Kim Wilkens, and Todd Lash, my Twitter #csk8 friends who sought me out and said hi! And Mike Zamansky, a fellow blogger and Tweeter. It was great to connect and share ideas. I also got to meet several of Kristina’s AP CS contacts from around the internet and it was great. Thanks to all of you for commiserating with me – this job is hard, and it often helps to know you share a lot of the same struggles.
I really enjoyed SIGCSE 2017 and I felt I came away with a lot of interesting tools to try, and new insights on computer science education. I hope I get to attend another CS education conference again sometime!