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!
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.