Summer Learning

I should be doing a million things right now–grading, responding to email, etc.  but I’m going to clear my head a bit and write a post about summer.  I’m sitting outside on one of the many benches we have around the school.  The birds are chirping.  There’s a slight breeze and it’s warm.  In the summer, I start to get tired of the artificial climate indoors and prefer a little sweltering to the refrigeration of air conditioning.

I am planning a lot of learning this summer, as I do every summer.  I’m repeating a couple of conferences from last year and attending another that I haven’t been to in a while.  I’m going to be at conferences 3 weeks in a row, which might be a bit much, but I know I’ll be challenged and will learn a lot.  I will start my conference going with ISTE, which is here in Philly this year.  It’s been a few years since I’ve gone as I felt like I’d gotten as much out of it as I could.  I’m presenting this year, and I’m looking forward to attending some other sessions on new ideas.

Next, I will go to Constructing Modern Knowledge.  This is where some serious learning will happen.  I’ll be rolling up my sleeves, and actually trying to create a project using programming and materials I may never have used before.  i learned a lot last summer, and I expect to learn more this year.

Finally, I will end with CSTA, a conference I’ve been enjoying for 5 years now.  This is the conference where I get to get into the nuts and bolts of teaching CS and people don’t look at me like I have two heads when I tell them I teach Computer Science.  No one will think I’m teaching word processing when I mention the word computer.

In between, I will likely work on my programming skills, perhaps learning yet another language, and I’ll be figuring out how to approach my new role.  I always tweak my courses, both in response to student feedback and by adding in new things I’ve learned about.  Yes, summers are for relaxing, but they can also be for gaining new perspectives and learning new things.

Best thing that happened in class

This is our last week of classes.  Monday and Tuesday, my students will present their final projects.  We didn’t have quite enough time to do another intense programming project, so I decided to let them do something a little different.  They had to pick a concept they learned in Computer Science and demonstrate it in a multimedia project.  Although I didn’t require any programming, some students have used programming anyway, because that was the medium they wanted to use.  The projects I’ve seen so far have been creative and fun.  And I think some of them will be useful for showing other students why Computer Science is a great thing to do.  One of my favorites so far is a painting by a sophomore:



I love some of the subtle references like the echoes of a circuit board and the icons and the brain.  I can’t wait to frame it and hang it somewhere prominent! I am always trying to get my students to think outside the box, and so far this project seems like it’s pushing them to do that.  I’ll share more as they come in.  Seeing them is the best thing that’s happened this week!


Getting through the end of the year

This time of year is always hectic for teachers and students.  Students are finishing final projects, taking tests and preparing for exams.  Teachers are helping students through those tests and projects, creating exams, and then there’s the grading.  And there are meetings, lots of meetings, because everyone suddenly thinks, “Oh, the end of the year is coming and I need to meet with x committee.”  Here are some ways I’m finding to get through the craziness.

1. Take it one day at a time.  Don’t think about all the stuff you have to do or that you will have to do next week.  Just work on what you need to get done now.

2. Take breaks.  Luckily this time of year usually coincides with lovely weather.  Go for a walk. Have a cup of tea.  Play a quick game of Candy Crush.  Just don’t think about work.

3. Celebrate! Think about your successes and your students’ successes.  This is the time of year when we’re doing that anyway, and it makes all the work feel worth it!

Will this be on the test?

I feel incredibly lucky to be at a place where standardized testing is not the norm.  While a lot of schools have lost time to days of testing, and teachers, parents and students have questioned the purpose and validity of the tests, we’ve plugged along, doing what we do.  That’s not to say that tests, even standardized ones, don’t infiltrate our lives.  For us, the SAT and ACT loom large.  When our aggregate scores show a decline, we worry.  Is there something we can do to improve those scores?  Have we changed something in the way we teach x that might have inadvertently impacted those scores?  We resist teaching to the test, but we can’t help but be influenced by tests.

Assessment is a good thing sometimes, but it’s clear to me that we’re relying too heavily as a society on what certain assessments tell us.  And even when assessments tell us something, we’re reluctant to do the hard work (and spend the money) to fix the problem.  The issue of underperforming schools is a complex issue, and what a lot of research tells us is that we need to fix the problems outside of schools–poverty, drugs, poor parenting skills, absent parents, etc.–in order to fix the problems in schools.  Telling those students over and over again that they’re not performing at grade level according to a test (whose validity is questionable at best) does not help things.

I’m a big fan of data, but it seems to me that we’re relying on too narrow a slice of data to deal with a complex issue such as learning, which is tied up with a lot of things.  I’m a bigger fan of humanistic interpretations of data that look through a variety of lenses.  Instead of just saying, here are the numbers, we should be saying, what do these numbers really mean? And why? The why is hugely important, and I don’t see too many people who are supporters of heavy testing asking that question. Ever.

When we look at data at our school, the first question we ask is why? Why does it look like this? What are some possible reasons for this? Is this something we can do something about? Or is it something outside of our control?  And sometimes it goes the other way.  We have a problem and we think, hmm, can we get some data that might tell us something?  It’s always in context, and I think that that’s what’s often missing from testing these days.  There’s no context.

Goal Setting

In our official evaluation calendar, this is the time of year when faculty set goals for next year.  Often these goals get tweaked in the fall, but basically, by now, we start reflecting on how the year went, and how we could improve things for next year.  We’ve received feedback from department chairs and divisions directors, and even students.  Armed with that feedback, we will decide what to prioritize.

Next year, I will have some lofty, school-wide goals.  I am still working on that, but I have some ideas.  I will still be teaching two classes (3 really, 1 year-long, 2 semester classes), so I have been thinking about how to approach them.

Introduction to Computer Science went well this year.   I had 28 students split into 2 sections.  We went a little slower as I spent a lot of time helping people in class.  I really want to find a way to further encourage self-dependence rather than everyone waiting for me.  Honestly, the projects where folks did not get a lot of help turned out better than the ones where I had to hand-hold a lot.   The feedback from the students was that they wanted a few more structured lessons on the concepts.  I agree, but I also think partly they don’t really grasp the concepts when I teach them and then when they’re trying to use them in a project, they realize they didn’t grasp them.  They liked the videos I created, so I think I will do more of those.  I’m not satisfied with any of the textbooks I’ve tried, so it’s all on me, I guess.  I’m thinking about moving the robot stuff to the end of the year and opening up the possibility of building robots instead of or in addition to working with pre-built ones.

CSII kind of worked, but we lost a lot of time to snow.  I also struggled more than usual keeping them on task.  Last year, I had 3 students compared to 10 this year, so that was a very different experience.  I’m considering starting in Python and shifting to Processing for CSII.

Mobile Computing was new.  We used Stencyl, and it worked fairly well.  But I think I’m going to look for something that’s a little less buggy and a little more CS-y.  I’m thinking about TouchDevelop, but I know very little about it, so we’ll see.  The structure of the course worked fairly well, so I will keep that and just change up the language/tool.

Creative Computing was an experiment in the Middle School.  I’ve enjoyed it, and I think the students got a fair amount out of it.  Frankly, I didn’t put enough time into developing this.  It won’t be offered next year as we changed our schedule, but I got to try some new things and got some ideas for other classes.  I learned how to laser cut so that was good.

So there’s work to do over the summer!

Have you thought about goals for next year yet? Reflecting on this year? I think I’ve reached the point where I’m ready to wrap this year up. It’s so close!

Mother’s Day with a twist

At this moment,  I’m sitting around with Geeky Girl and Mr. Geeky, chatting over Krispy Kreme doughnuts, which is exactly what I asked for.  GG questioned the fact that the special Mother’s Day doughnuts were pink and then we started talking about how hard it must be for those with two mothers.  And then, of course, we said the same was true for those with two fathers.  And we decided that instead of having separate days for mothers and fathers, we should combine them into one parents’/guardians’ day.  I’m sure there are reasons why this wouldn’t work, but it seems like a good idea.  And it allows us to include a variety of family structures rather than celebrate just traditional ones.  Hallmark would lobby against this, I’m sure, but being beholden to a greeting card company to tell us what to celebrate and how seems a little crazy, yes?

So this Mother’s Day, I’m thinking about not just mothers in the traditional sense, but those who act as parental support for anyone, whether legally or just emotionally, whether male or female or other.  Taking care of children and being their emotional support is challenging work, however you come to it.

Teacher Appreciation Week

Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week.  Around my school, nothing much happens.  This time of year, we’re all just keeping our heads down until we get to the finish line.  That said, we did end the week with our annual faculty/staff/trustee party last night.  There’s food and drinks and awards are given out.  There’s a special trustee award that I actually received last year and it went to two great people this year, one of whom I had nominated.   I got to talk to some colleagues I don’t normally get to talk to and that was nice.  The day before I led a session on design thinking for my colleagues and we tackled an actual problem and came up with ideas.  Those two events combined left me feeling very appreciative of my colleagues.

Then after the party, I went to another work-related party for parents of the class of 2017.  Some of my favorite parents were there, and I never see them because none of us tend to go to many parent events.  We had a great time talking, and many people told me what a great teacher I was for their daughters, which was nice to hear.   I heard things about how taking my class made their daughters think differently. It made me feel like I was doing *something* right at least.  I think that’s the hardest part about being a teacher.  It’s hard to tell if you’re making a difference.  Hearing that you are from others happens so rarely.  I hope that other teachers out there heard words of thanks and appreciation this week.  I got lucky, and am thankful for being surrounded by other teachers who inspire me every day, and for students who challenge me and make me want to always do right by them.

Someday, I will blog (regularly) again

Currently, I am faced with the usual end of the year mad dash to the finish, with meetings every day, final papers and projects to grade, etc.  In addition, I’m already doing my new job a little.  So I’ve been in more meetings and coordinating more things.  It’s left little time for much else.  As I’ve said many times before, I value this space for reflection on teaching and working in education, so I do hope to return soon.  I have several blog posts in my head that I hope will make it to the screen.

I’ve seen several other posts and tweets and facebook posts about the craziness of the end of the year, so I know I’m not alone, and I know this, too, shall pass.

Spinning, literally

This has been a difficult health year for me.  Normally, I don’t ever get sick, but this year, I had a serious round of flu and yesterday, I landed in the ER with a terrible bout of vertigo, something I’ve had before, though it’s been quite a while.  This round was quite severe and not fun at all.  I felt better today and by the end of the day, was feeling almost normal.  I’m doing the Epley maneuver at night before I go to bed and I’m avoiding sleeping on the side that’s most problematic, which, let me tell you, is really hard.  All signs point to this resolving itself soon.

I can almost see the light at the end of the school-year tunnel, though the tunnel still seems quite long.  I’ve been thinking about this blog quite a lot.  I have not found a good schedule for regular blogging yet.  The morning isn’t quite enough time to write and often by the end of the day, I’m too tired to think.  I supposed I could start a post in the evening and finish in the morning if need be.  Some might say I should abandon the whole thing and shift my energy to Twitter or some other platform.  But I like writing and reflecting, and I think it’s good practice.  It makes me think through things more carefully rather than condensing everything down to 240 characters.  A goal of mine next year is to fit blogging into my regular schedule again.  I should have a more flexible schedule, which should make it possible to set aside 1/2 hour or so to write.  We’ll see.

Solving problems

I like to solve problems.  It’s basically how I got involved in this whole tech thing in the first place.  You need your WordPerfect 3.1 document in a Microsoft Word 5.1 format? I’ll figure it out.  You want to create an animation of the solar system? Cool! Let’s figure it out.  You need data on how many people click that apply button? No problem, let’s figure that out.

Those are techy problems, but I also like solving people problems. Students who are struggling, faculty who express opposition to an idea, those are interesting problems to solve, too.  Or bigger problems, like what education should look like in 2020 and if we want education to look like that, then how do we start building something so that we can get there?  And that, I think is where I’m headed with my new position I’ve taken on, Interim Dean of Academic Affairs.  It’s somewhat undefined, but it loosely means I, along with the division directors, department chairs and the Head of School, am helping to solve the problems that we may face or challenges we set for ourselves.

While I’ve been a little skeptical about the path I’ve set myself on, I do find that I enjoy tackling these larger problems.  It’s like a know that need undoing.  I’m lucky that I’m surrounded by a lot of smart people who can give me advice, and who have great ideas of their own.  I feel like we’re in this together.  So we’ll see how this goes for the next year.  It should be an interesting journey.