04/22/14

Beginning the wind down

English: The Kraken roller coaster ride at Sea...

English: The Kraken roller coaster ride at Seaworld in . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I feel like I’m on the down side of a roller coaster with a really long drop.  There are just a few days left until our seniors leave for internships and only about 4 weeks left before exams.  I’m winding up several projects in addition to my classes and I can almost feel summer.

Last year at this time, I was feeling somewhat the same way although I appeared to have a bit more energy then than I do now.  For the last few weeks, I’ve stayed at school to finish up work until 5 or 5:30 and then did more when I got home.  I’ve been exhausted.  Things have slacked up a little, so I’ve been able to come home earlier.  I even went for a walk with Mr. Geeky yesterday.  But I’m still exhausted.

I’m feeling very mentally tired.  When I’m at school, I feel like I’m in overdrive so that when I get home, I don’t want to do anything except maybe play 2048 and stare at the wall.

This is temporary I know.  After the year is over, I’ll be raring to go again, thinking about cool things to teach, tinkering with projects, and probably learning a new programming language.  Lots of great things have happened this year for my school and my department (which I’ll share soon), and I’m excited about the direction things are going.  Hint: I have 23 students signed up for CS I next year.  I’ll write about that more later, but for now, I’m going to do something mindless.

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04/14/14

All the World’s a Stage

Me as the Baroness Eberfeld.
Me as the Baroness Eberfeld.

 

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of participating in the school’s production of the Sound of Music.  I had a tiny role–window dressing mostly–but it was a lot of fun.  My colleagues participated as nuns and one as a housekeeper.  The students had the main roles and they were absolutely amazing.  I have never been in a play of this complexity and magnitude before though I hung out with drama people in college and had helped with a couple of middle school plays, so had a sense of how much work it was.  Being this close to the action was quite a different experience.  The director of the play does amazing work and it was a real experience to see her in action.  I learned some things about how to manage children through a group project like this.

I bonded with my fellow players, both faculty and student and just generally enjoyed doing something so completely different from what I usually do.  My colleagues also commented on how the play took them out of their comfort zone and reminded them that this is what they ask of their students all the time, to do things they might not be comfortable doing.  My colleagues who played nuns and had to learn a complex song with harmonies and dance at the same time felt a real sense of accomplishment in being able to successfully pull the whole thing off.  Watching them in action was truly wonderful.  They all came together and really got outside their own needs for the good of the play.  It was amazing to watch.

We also went out to celebrate after opening, which was a hoot.  We sent everyone off with a rousing chorus of “So Long, Farewell.”  We told jokes and shared experiences.  I haven’t laughed so much in a long time.  It was a great shared experience, one I hope to repeat again someday.

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04/7/14

Other Duties as Assigned

Everyone knows this catch-all phrase on most job descriptions.  It’s meant to capture all the little things that one does as part of the job that may not be captured by the specific duties listed.  I generally view many of these other duties as things that make you a part of the community.  At my current job, they involve things like chaperoning dances, advising and participating in evening events.  Participating in these things often brings you closer to your co-workers and your students, even if they sometimes feel onerous.  The first time I was asked to chaperone–on an overnight trip–my response was, “Of course.  This is what I signed up for.”  And it is.

One of my biggest disappointments in my previous job was how little I felt like I was part of the community.  I wanted to have a “we’re all in this together” kind of feeling, but never did.  I partly blame the faculty-staff divide, which kept faculty from considering us staff to be part of the same enterprise as they were.  But there wasn’t even a community feeling within our own department.  There was a lot of division there.  I have no idea what to chalk that up to, but it did not feel good.

The kinds of things that fall into these duties have been myriad and I suspect there will be more to come.  Here’s just a taste:

  • Cleaning up vomit at a dance
  • Holding various pieces of clothing, some of them intimate
  • Driving students on field trips
  • Dealing with snakes on field trips
  • Telling, for the third time, the story of Haley Zega, in an attempt to convince people not to wander off
  • Letting my students see me in my frog pajamas (their response: you’re still a kid, aren’t you?)
  • Giving up my own feminine hygiene products to students (hurray for all-girls’ schools)
  • Driving students to our brother school to enact a prom-posal.
  • Participating in the school play
  • Bringing doughnuts for the school play
  • Giving away books to students because I think they’ll like them
  • Buying food for after-school clubs and parties (food is a constant)
  • Making a fool of myself in various ways: dancing, cheering, being goofy

And that’s just things I’ve done for students.  There are similar things for faculty, most recently bringing tools to help with set design for the school play.  And there are plenty of bonding moments I’ve had with students over the years.  I love that there are students who can say to me, “Remember the time . . .” and begin a funny story from class or a field trip or other school event.  When I tell my non-teacher friends about the kinds of things I’m called on or volunteer to do, they think I’m crazy, but those are the things that I often appreciate the most because they make me feel like we’re all in it together.

04/6/14

Analyzing Data Analysis

On Friday, I introduced the computation part of our data analysis project.  I was very excited about this and created an example using Google spreadsheets.  Even though I think another tool would be more powerful, I stuck with spreadsheets since most of the students are completely unfamiliar with anything else.

What we want the students to do is to take a question from the survey we conducted and break it down not just by how many people answered it a certain way, but also by a piece of demographic data.  So, they might look at the question of whether people expect to have children and see whether more women or men expect to have children.  To to that, you need to make a statement like “if ‘yes’ [to children question] and ‘male’”.  And you have to do that for all combinations. I walked through my example in the class and eyes glazed over.  Admittedly, I went fairly quickly, but these are mostly seniors, and I would hope they would have some experience with formulas in Excel or Google spreadsheets.  But no.  Nothing wrong with that, really, but something I want to correct going forward.  I do know that one of our math teachers teaches some simple formulas during a single class period, but it’s out of context and they never–as far as I know–return to it.

In order for our students to complete this project, they have to use formulas.  Well, they could do it by hand, but that would be so time consuming and crazy.  So I’m thinking I need to run a workshop for the teachers on ways they can incorporate this skill and I need to find out more about where it could be used.

I was talking about this with Mr. Geeky, and he pointed out that most people are not good at this kind of analysis.  They don’t even think to ask questions that drill down into the data, questions like, “What is the income breakdown? Or gender breakdown? Or racial breakdown?”  They don’t know the difference between mean and median and how important looking at both might be.  I often use the classic example of a bar where the average (mean) income of the customers is $40k.  Bill Gates walks in and now the average income is over $1 million.  Now the average income has become meaningless as something that tells you anything about the customers in the bar.  One thing that computing offers is ways to slice data quickly so that you can start to see questions to ask and you can start trying to answer them with the data.  This makes me even more convinced that this assignment is an important one.  I’m looking forward to its outcome.

04/1/14

Time, take 2

Yes, I think I’ll be writing about the time crunch issue again and again.  I went into this week thinking I was going to get a hand on the time thing, that I was going to make it through my day feeling accomplished and with time to spare. Ha!

The Bad:

  • Interruptions.  My “free time” at work, the time I use to plan, grade, tackle projects is not only brief, but often interrupted.  Some of these interruptions are necessary but some aren’t.  Much of my work is done in common space, prone to interruption.  I have no other option.
  • A *lot* on my plate.  In addition to teaching, I have a bunch of other things that are taking up my time, things with deadlines and stuff.
  • Working at home, during “family time”.  This is the what I didn’t want to do.  I wanted to try to make a clean break, but see bullet one.
  • Illness.  I took on a cold at the end of spring break, which I thought would be gone by now, but it’s holding on, wearing me down and keeping me from sleeping well, which makes me less productive the next day.

The Good

  • No screen time.  I vowed to keep 5-7 every day away from the computer or tv.  This has meant that I’ve puttered around doing little projects or reading.  But see last bullet above.  Once I’m feeling better, I think this will be more productive.
  • Saying no to things I think I’m obligated to do.  I was taking an online course that I thought would be helpful, so I dutifully sat down to watch some of the videos.  Midway through the second one, I stopped watching because I realized a) none of the material was that new and b) it therefore wouldn’t be helpful.

I want to work a little more on the home front, especially recruiting more help.  But that’s going take, you guessed it, more time.

03/31/14

Data

I’m teaching an interdisciplinary course this semester and I’ve been struggling somewhat to figure out how to bring my discipline into the mix.  We conducted a survey and will analyze the results.  As I was thinking about what we were going to do with the survey, I made a big, “Doh!” noise, thinking, of course, that’s where my discipline is–the data.  I love data, and one of my favorite things to do with students is show them how to store and use data.   Data was a huge part of my dissertation and I spent a large chunk of it analyzing all the data I had at my fingertips, which was mostly text, word counts, and link and hit counts.  Data always reveals something and I love the way computing helps to show pathways through what the data reveals.

In just putting the survey together, our students have already realized that data isn’t perfect, that data alone can’t reveal everything about why humans do what they do.  And even scientific data is messy.  So what I’m hoping to do is show them some computationally sound ways to slice our dataset (or other datasets), but then talk about what data does and does not tell you.  Most of our readings have basically been an analysis of data.  Many students have pointed to gaps in the data.  For example, in readings about couples and household chores, there was no data about homosexual couples, which would be an interesting comparison to make with heterosexual couples.

I’m actually excited about the possibilities of having students analyze data and realize that a lot of disciplines need data and computation applied to that data in order to do most of its work.  The things we’ve read read like a story, but that’s after a human, using computation, has pieced together a story out of the data at hand.  That is hard, important work, facilitated by machines, but still very human and hopefully very appealing to those who may not be choosing computing as their main field.  It’s a very real application of computing to other disciplines, and that makes me very excited, indeed! (yes, I’m a geek)

03/30/14

Back from hiatus

It’s the last day of spring break.  As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been in a bit of a time crunch.  Just before break was incredibly busy.  I basically unplugged for the first 3 or 4 days.  I was on my computer, but I was playing games mostly instead of checking email or reading blogs.  The weather here kind of sucked and most of the family was sick (and now I am, yippee), so we spent a lot of time on the couch, reading and watching tv.   I did tackle a few household projects, but didn’t push myself.   It was enjoyable to not feel pressed.

We have a little over 8 weeks of school left, which seems mostly manageable and it’s peppered by a couple of long weekends.  I want to make the most of it and try to get some significant work done as well as push my students to get their best work done.  And I want to do that without feeling halfway insane.

I’m reading a book called Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time about how we all work too hard and women, especially feel crunched for time as they work full time and then shoulder most of the housework and childcare–still.  One thing I like about the place I work is the culture is mostly about working hard during your work hours, but there’s no expectation to respond to email or otherwise publicly engage with work outside of normal hours.  Most of my colleagues grade and plan after school or in the evenings, but it’s not constant and most do it without much complaint.  I still struggle with the Puritan work ethic myself and feel like even my leisure time needs to be occupied with “valuable” activities.  Just sitting, watching tv, doodling, whatever, that’s not good enough.

Laura, at Apt. 11D linked to an article with a similar theme.  Her readers find the data a bit spurious.  There’s a lot of data in Overwhelmed.  Her readers should read it. :)  We really do work too much.  40 years ago, economists predicted that we’d all work 20 hours a week and that would be considered full time.  We’d have more time for volunteering and general leisure.  I know, you’re laughing.

I aim to use my time wisely, including for leisure, for the rest of the school year.  We’ll see how it goes.

03/6/14

Time

Did you notice that I had a flurry of posts and then disappeared?  After yet another snow day on Monday, I’ve been running at about 100 miles an hour.  Right now I’m in an airport, taking care of business.  Emails are flying back and forth about several pending things.  Everything has to be done before spring break.  I’ve mentioned before that 50% of my job is managing the Academic Tech stuff at work and that’s where most of my work is right now.  We rolled out a 1:1 program last year and we’re expanding it this year, which involves all kinds of communications, training sessions, budgeting, and other administrative tasks.  I have several colleagues that work with me on this but just keeping us all on the same page is a challenge, despite using a variety of technologies.

In addition, I wrote a little web application to manage student voting, which is going on now.  I have to “close the polls” in a little bit and run the code that calculates the results.  It’s not a huge amount of work, but it’s on a strict timeline.

That leaves little time for you know, the teaching stuff.  Grades were due Tuesday, so I did a lot of work on that, and a new trimester started, so I got new kids.  I’m busy getting them ramped up, but we’ll be disrupted a bit by spring break.  I really just want some time to structure some lessons, to look forward through the rest of the year and make sure we’re all on track in all my classes, and I have to think about next year as well, where I’m building a whole new curriculum.  I’m building in an 8th grade elective as well, so there’s a lot going on, and I just feel like I haven’t had time to really think about all that and think through all the moving parts.

And that doesn’t even include the time I need just to eat, sleep, hang with the family, etc.  I feel like my house is a hotel right now.  I show up to sleep but otherwise, I’m not really there.  Once spring break hits, I know I’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel.  And having busyness like this makes me even more grateful for summer, where I can spend some time tinkering with things, thinking about stuff and yes, some relaxing.

02/27/14

Certification for CS Teachers

If you’re not a teacher, you might not know that teachers in the public school system go through a teacher certification process, a process that varies by state (and sometimes district) and sometimes by discipline.  Most education programs include certification as part of their degree, but some do not.  Most states do not have a certification for Computer Science.  Or the ones that do don’t require one to have a certification.  A clearer picture of the situation is available here.  I mentioned this to my colleagues the other day and they were quite surprised.  They assumed you could get certified to teach CS.  I’m not certified, actually, to teach anything and many of my colleagues aren’t either because we’re not required to be.  Most of my colleagues have a Master’s at least in their subject area, plus Education courses perhaps, and many have their Ph.D.’s as well.  But our school and schools like ours are a tiny percentage of the whole education system and most schools look to the certification process as a first pass at evaluating during the hiring process.

Mark Guzdial pointed to this article that I’d seen before about the huge need for CS teachers in New York, where they’re pushing a district-wide CS program.  A similar program is being pushed in Chicago.  These two cities need thousands of teachers.  Even at public schools, teachers are often required to have at least a Bachelor’s in their field along with the Education classes and student teacher experience needed for certification.  Two problems: there are almost no CS education programs or certification process and schools are competing with much more lucrative opportunities available to students with CS degrees.  How do you attract a teacher who could take a software engineering job and make six figures to a job where the hours will be just as long but you might get paid 1/2 or even 1/3 as much?

It would be great to have a temporary certification process in place.  There are people out there with CS degrees but with no education background.  Here in PA, many potential CS teachers get certified in Career Technical Education or Math.  And you never know which certification a school is going to want.  And the danger is that they’ll decide you should teach math instead of CS because hey, you’re certified to teach it.  And then there are people who have CS degrees, but didn’t think they were going to teach and now want to.  It’s not clear how they should be certified.  On the flip side of that, there are teachers with certifications in related fields–math, IT, CTE, Science–who might have some CS background, but need more CS to teach advanced courses.  It would be interesting to have some standards to fit both of these cases.  Ideally, of course, you’d have a full on CS certification process, but I think we’re going to need some stop-gap measures in the meantime.

02/24/14

Riding the Hype Wave

I currently have a foot in two (related) fields that are experiencing a bit of hype right now: the Maker Movement and Coding/Computer Science.  This is not my first experience being in the midst of a technology hype.  Interestingly, what’s changed is that the previous hypes were really fear mongering.  The Internet is destroying us!  And it’s eating our children!  Both of these fields are mostly experiencing a positive hype cycle.

I feel sort of good about my job security as long as there’s substance under the hype–and there is–but it’s hard to tell by looking sometimes.  For both of these, the substance came first and both have been around for a very long time.  All of us need to realize that whatever the hype, we’re standing on the shoulders of giants.  These things didn’t spring out of nothing.  Some people worked hard to build these things, build ideas, philosophies, and curricula around these things.  The fact that the New York Times is now talking about one or the other of them every other day doesn’t change the core.

But it does make it hard to be a practitioner at times, because first, you have to get past the hype.  Here are some things the hype tells you:

1. Everyone should be required to take a CS/Maker course!

2. CS/Maker courses will *save* education because jobs!

3. CS/Maker courses will break down disciplinary barriers!

4. CS is a foreign language.  It is the language of our time!

5. Makered is shop class plus technology!

6. CS/Makered is about problem solving! And critical thinking! It’s great!

Some of these things may be true.  Some may have a kernel of truth in them, but when you’re dealing with hyperbole, it’s hard to deal with reality.  Let me use a simple example.  I’ve heard the argument about CS counting as a foreign language many times.  It’s in the news, even.  And there are bills about it.  I get that people want to get CS in and this seems like a good way to do it within existing structures.  But let’s play this out.  What students do you think are going to sign up for CS as a language?  Girls? Minorities? Other underrepresented groups?  I’m thinking they’ll stick with Spanish or French.  But let’s be generous and say that you do get a wide variety of kids who sign up for CS as a language and think it’s going to be like Spanish I.  What happens when they find out there’s some math involved?  Or that it gets pretty hard?  That you can’t just memorize stuff?  That’s no good.

Right now, I believe we are in the Inflated Expectations peak of the Hype Cycle.  Everyone’s going to throw spaghetti at the refrigerator and see what happens.  The experiments that are well thought out, that are created to be sustainable, those will last through the trough of disillusionment.  But some people will throw up a makerspace, won’t staff it with someone who knows what they’re doing, who understands making, and when the money and enthusiasm run out, they’ll have a 3D printer that will gather dust.

Doing these things well takes time, takes iteration, takes failing and learning from that failure.  I’ve been working on stuff for four years at my school.  I figure I have four more years before I feel like things are starting to fall into place, just in time for some new iteration.

I have more to say, but we’ll take it up in #makered on Tuesday.

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