I’m not new anymore

I’m headed into my fifth year at my job.  For the first time during this week of opening meetings and training sessions, I don’t feel new.  I’m not sure why, though I have a working theory.  I think this year we reached a tipping point where there are as many people who are newer to the school than I am as there are those that have been here longer.  Newer people ask me questions about things in ways that they didn’t before.  And I actually have answers.  I know the history of some stuff and can explain it.  On the other hand, a lot of the legacy things (especially in the technology area) that I was dealing with have been replaced with systems I’ve put into place.  The program I was hired to build is now nearly fully formed and thriving.  Advisors, college counselors and division directors now recommend my courses rather than having no idea about their existence.   4 years ago when I offered my first intro to CS course, I had 7 students.  They’ve all now graduated.  My Intro course this year has 29 students in it (I gained another yesterday!).  My upper level courses have a total of about 25 students in them.  Students want to take my courses, which is super cool.    And this year, the 8th graders I started with as an advisor and teacher will graduate.  This graduating class will be the first class where I know almost everyone and had almost everyone as a student.

But there are still things that are new.  I have new department members, with an actual department.  Woo hoo.  We have a new middle school program.  I have two new classes to teach this year.  I’m planning to add another new class next year.  And even in my “old” classes, I’ve changed things up and brought in new things.

And I still love the job as if it were new.  I’m someone who thrives on change.  I almost think you have to in order to be in my field.  Even if the only change is fresh new faces in the classroom, I need something to be different every year.  I’m looking forward to facing this year as someone who’s “been there done that” but who still hasn’t seen it all!


Today is our 20th anniversary.  It’s hard to believe.  I don’t feel like someone who’s been married for 20 years.  We’ll do a little celebrating tonight and more this weekend.  But we’re kind of practical about the whole thing, what with school being right around the corner.  I’ve written about our anniversary almost every year since I started this blog over 9 years ago.  Here are some of those posts:

It’s been fun.  Here’s to 20 more!


Putting Together a Course

I’ve been building classes and syllabi for over 20 years. Which is kind of freaky. I still feel new to it somehow. I think because I challenge myself to do it better every year. Putting classes together is hard work. I was explaining this to a non teacher the other day. One thing I said was that often it takes 2 hours to plan an hour long class. Which is sometimes true though thankfully not always. I thought I’d share my process and get others to share. I’m curious about the many different ways of thinking through building a course.

I begin, usually, by thinking about the end. Where to I want students to get? I often think about a capstone project an what they should be able to accomplish by the end of the course. Then I think about how to get there. I think about themes or topics and what order to go in.

Here’s an example. I’m still thinking through my 8th grade elective. It’s a CS/maker course and I want my students to be able to create a complex project that involves something physical like a robot or lights or any object and something digital like a program that drives the physical or that he physical drives the digital. So I’m thinking of themes like this: digital design, physical design, from digital to physical (programming an object), from physical to digital (using sensor data). There are sub themes in there like interface design and working with data.

From the themes, I start to develop discrete assignments and projects. In the 8th grade class, I begin with web design, then do game design. Well do two games, one in scratch and one in JavaScript. They’ll learn HTML and CSS and about how web servers work. I’m thinking 4-6 weeks for the first theme, though I haven’t mapped it out yet.

And that’s what I do next. I start deciding what exactly we’ll do each day. Will we need to read something before class? What activities will we do? How much explanation will I need to give and what supporting materials will I need to have on hand? I try to map as much of this out ahead of time as I can, but sometimes I’m planning these single class periods the day before. And sometimes things change. Projects take longer or shorter than I thought. A snow day hits. The students really want to learn X. And so I adapt.

Adapting is key. Though I always have a plan, I always try to gage where my students are and where they want to go and adjust accordingly. I want them to have a sense of where I think we might go but I try to make it clear that it’s their journey and they have some say over how we get there.

How do you plan? And how flexible are you?


The invention of tabs for web browsers has been one of my favorite things that’s happened in the browser world.  However, I’m notorious for having a bunch of tabs open at once.  I currently have 20, which is a small number for me.  Some of the things that are open are things I check regularly and it doesn’t make sense to close them (email, my fitbit dashboard, Google Drive, and my course management system).  but some are documents and articles I’ve opened that I haven’t decided if it’s okay to close or not.  I have 2 spreadsheets open, a book review, a couple of grant program sites that I might apply for.  My fear is if I close them, I’ll lose them.

Bookmarking systems like Diigo, Delicious, even Storify, are ways of saving some of those things for later.  But I haven’t found a perfect system.  I have buttons for Storify, Pinterest, Diigo, and more on my browser toolbar.  The problem is, once I click one of those buttons, the article may as well not exist.  Because I don’t have a system for going back to them.  Sometimes I tweet the article and that’s all I really wanted to do, but often, I recall that several articles are related and then, either I have them up and can do something with them, or I have to go searching for them again.  Sometimes I want to share the article with my faculty.  Other times I want to share it here.  And sometimes, I’m on a different device like my iPad or phone.  And saving and sharing are different there.

I need a better system.  I need a system that works across devices.  I need a way to save something, sort it, and send it where it needs to go based on how it’s sorted.  For example, I’d love to be able to read an article and if I want to blog about it here, I could tag it “personal blog” and save the link as a draft to work with here.  If I want to send it to the school blog, I could tag it “school blog”.  Currently, IFTT can do some of that, but I have to have separate accounts.  I can’t have two blogs on IFTT and set up a recipe to send to different blogs based on a tag.  Ditto for Twitter.  But this is one of my goals, to create something that works better, that allows me to look at a tab and think about what I want to do with the information and quickly and easily do what I want to do–maybe do more than one thing with one click.  I think I just need to spend some time thinking through the system I want.  I think I have the tools already.  I just need to arrange them appropriately.  A little up front time might save me time in the long run.

If anyone has ideas, please do let me know.  What systems work for you?

Savoring the last few days

This weekend is really the last weekend of summer for me.  Tuesday, the meetings begin, and the following Tuesday, the students show up.  I’m already really working, having taught the new MS students how to log into their various accounts.  But I’m trying to hold onto some free time.  So, yesterday after lunch, I didn’t do any school work.  And today I’m here to do some work and teach new US students, but I’m trying to be low key about it.  I’m trying to remember the lessons from Distraction Addiction and my own desire to not get overly stressed about stuff.   I could easily spin my wheels about prepping for class, about getting things done for faculty.  But I’m not.  I’m going to calmly work through my to-do list.  And when I’ve had enough, I’ve had enough.

We shipped Geeky Boy back off to school last night, this time setting him up in his own apartment.  It’s nice having him so close.  As he left, I promised a trip downtown to take him out to dinner in a few weeks.  If he were further away, that wouldn’t work.

Geeky Girl is in sports already, practicing every morning.  Next week, practice will continue, but in the afternoon.  She, too, is trying to capture the last few days by relaxing during her off time.

Life is starting to feel a bit hectic already, but we’re trying to keep the hecticness at bay as long as possible.  It’s a challenge, but we’re working on it.


English: A typical Deutsche Bahn railway stati...
English: A typical Deutsche Bahn railway station clock (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I work a fair amount in the summer, but it’s at a completely different pace.  I get up later.  I have coffee and breakfast.  I go out on the deck with my computer and work.  I’ll take a break and then work some more.  I’ll eat lunch and then, depending on how motivated I am, I might work some more, or I might work around the house.

Once school starts, the day gets broken up into 1 hour and 15 minute increments at best and 40 minute increments at worst.  I don’t generally have 3 hour stretches of time to focus on one thing.  This year’s schedule looks much better than previous years.  I’m crossing over divisions less–only one MS class.  And some days, I really do have an almost 3-hour stretch.  I’m hoping to use that time wisely.

Last year, I had 7 preps.  This year, I have 3.  If you’re a teacher, you know how much better that is.  Even if I only spent 15 minutes or so on each of my middle school classes, that was still 45 minutes of prep at a minimum.  Most days, it was more than that.  I do have a couple of students who want to do an independent study, so that will eat up an hour probably on a couple of days, but we’ll see.

I remember fondly my senior year in college when all my classes were on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  My day started around 9:30 and didn’t end until 4, I think, but 3 days a week were all mine.  I had a job, but it didn’t start until 3:30 at the earliest and mostly I worked on the weekend.  I spent a lot of that time writing at my dining room table, also sleeping and eating.  Hey, it was college!  I can’t even remember having a schedule like that for years except when I wasn’t working.

So, here’s hoping that my time won’t get too eaten up, that I can find ways to make the best of it and that I can find time for myself.

New Year, New Goals

It’s about that time.  Meetings will start next week, students return the week after.  I’ve got meetings this week already, some with new students, some with administrative staff.  So I feel like I’m already working.  Every school year, I set goals or resolutions and reset them at the real new year in January.  It’s kind of nice to see what’s working and what’s not.  And I like that I have a record of them.  Even though I probably miss 80-90% of my goals, I still feel like I make progress.  If I set a goal, for example to lose 10 pound and I lose 7, I count that as success.  I set the goal high on purpose.

Last year, I set goals for my health, for working with colleagues and for expanding understanding of CS.  I mostly accomplished them, except for the social media use.  Getting there.  In January, I had the idea that I was going to focus on a theme each month, but that lasted all of one month.  Clearly, concrete goals work better for me.  So here’s some things I want to work on this year:

1. The house.  The clutter is taking over.  It’s well hidden in rooms we don’t use–the 3rd floor, a guest bedroom, a weird porch area.  I’ve tackled this before and I’ve periodically purged some things, but now I want to get serious.  Every time I see the clutter, it drives me nuts.  And those areas could be useful to us.  In addition to dealing with the clutter, I’m hoping to keep the visible areas cleaner.  For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing okay with this as have other family members, but we’ll see.

2. Keep on walking.  I got a fitbit and it’s great for letting me know how the walking is going.  I’ve been trying to walk every afternoon for 1/2 hour to 45 minutes.  Doing that usually gets me to my 10,000 steps, combine with my regular walking around that I do.  I plan to walk after school at school while waiting for Geeky Girl to finish sports.  The ultimate goal is to lose some of the weight I gained back after losing it last year.  I kept it off until around January or February and then life just got in the way.  My habits slipped.  I blame all the snow.

3. Be mindful of time.  I have a good schedule this year, though I am still busy.  But I only have 3 preps instead of 7.  So that is going to help.  I still run one committee and am on a task force that is tackling something huge right now, but I have more time in the day to accomplish what I need to.  I’m hoping to do a better job of working in stretches and keeping track of what needs to be accomplished.

4.  Work stays at work.  This is related to the above item.   I’m pretty good about not bringing work home, and sometimes it’s necessary to work at home because of a pressing deadline, but I would rather stay an hour after school to finish something than to bring it home and have it interfere with family time.  I’m planning to focus on those relationships and keeping work out of my family time.

That seems like enough to start with, yes?  We’ll see how it goes.

Leading in the digital age

Being an administrator in an era awash in technology-driven information must be challenging. For the last 10 or so years, I’ve been the leader of Ed Tech for two different institutions, one a college, one a K-12 school. I’ve always been called on to advise administrators how to handle challenges raised by technology. Let me list some of them and then discuss. One thing to note. The environment didn’t much matter. Colleges face similar challenges to secondary and primary schools. So here are some of the big ones:

  • what devices to get for students and/or faculty
  • how to handle anonymously written mean posts from members of the community
  • how to handle educators fears’ about using technology
  • the challenges of opening up online
  • privacy concerns
  • what software do we use
  • how do we best train faculty
  • how do we handle infractions of our acceptable use policy

Let me take these in turn. These are just my answers. As they say on the Internet, ymmv (look it up)


I remember the shift from desktop computers to laptops. We argued for days about whether to offer laptops as an option for faculty. Similarly, more recently, we spent a long time debating tablets vs. chrome books vs. laptops for our 1:1 program. Choose the devices that work best for what you want your students (or faculty) to accomplish. And that fit within your budget. Even though I personally think tablets are too limiting, it may be that 90% of what you need to do can be done on them and it might save you a million dollars to go with them rather than laptops. In today’s tight budgets, cost is always part of the equation. Whatever you choose, you must work with teachers to help them use it effectively. More on that later.

Mean stuff happens

Believe it or not, I’ve had to deal with this every year at both the college and K-12 level. Give people who have a grudge an anonymous platform and they’ll use it. And when those people are young and immature, they will use it even when the community guidelines and ethos tell them not to. When you can definitively find out who is behind comments, you can mete out appropriate discipline, but often you can’t. We dealt with these as a community, reminding everyone of our responsibilities to each other. And we dealt with the victim and bystanders, giving them strategies for handling these kinds of situations. This is not going to go away. It’s never a one and done kind of thing. Build community and that will help.


Back in my college days, a group of us went around giving talks about Fear 2.0, addressing faculty fear about Web 2.0 tools like blogs and wikis. Facebook was in its infancy and twitter didn’t exist yet. Faculty were afraid of exposing themselves, of doing stupid things in public. When I was trying to get faculty to participate in an open courseware project, many were afraid of people thinking their syllabi were “weird”. Another was worried about class blogging, saying that classroom spaces were sacred. It was sad to see how how insecure faculty felt about their teaching. I find that to be less true of my K-12 colleagues. Their fear is usually about figuring things out well enough to use them. I get that not everyone wants to be online as much as I am, but I think you’re missing out. I refer you to Alfred’s post for more on this topic.

The next two items, about opening up and privacy are related to the fear. As Alfred says, you do have to be responsible online and there is always a chance you’re going to offend someone. But it’s not that hard to behave properly. Student privacy so always a concern when putting student work online or having them blog. This is often solved through the use of pseudonyms or first names only. I encourage people to be public with student work rather than hide it behind a password. They should be proud of it and the response they get to it is often worth it.


Like devices, this is somewhat constantly changing, and budget dependent.  I always advocate for open source options, especially for saving money, but often these are the most robust options out there.  Nowadays, you can even pay for support for some of these.  Although we still have Microsoft and other paid-for, downloaded options, increasingly, we’re using cloud applications, fully online products, some of which are free.  The thing I tell most people now is not to get too attached to software.  It might disappear or change completely.  And these days, you really should be looking around every couple of years for better tools.


Working with faculty can be difficult, but it’s essential to provide time and space for faculty to explore new devices, and new software.  I also think it’s important to cultivate an environment where faculty are encouraged to learn on their own and where they’re not waiting for the “official” training session to try to figure out their new ipad or the new Learning Management System.  I offer time over lunch for faculty to share what they’re doing and to ask questions.  Those sessions have varied from being conversations about helping students manage their time and assignments to more direct instruction about tools (often in response to specific how to questions).  These are weekly sessions with free lunch provided.  And for the most part, it’s a strategy that works.  It also helps that the tools we’ve focused on are flexible and fairly easy to learn.  Some faculty that I thought would struggle have taken to them beautifully.  It’s about giving them time and being supportive, no matter where they are, but also having the expectation that they will get to a certain level.


These are the things that haunt many an administrator.  The news is filled with overreach in this area: students going to prison for calling someone a dork online or getting suspended for showing a YouTube video in class.  Likewise, the news is filled with horrible things on the student side: students committing suicide after being bullied online, students posting videos of rape via Vine and Twitter.  These are the nightmare scenarios that keep some people up at night.  It’s essential to find balance, to not overreact, but also to punish appropriately when infractions do happen.  We have detentions for most things–from using a cell phone inappropriately to posting a nasty tweet about a fellow student.  Multiple infractions lead to suspensions and really bad cases can lead to being asked to leave the school.  We have slightly different rules for younger students.  In middle school, device use is limited to academic purposes only, even during free time.  Students may ask to use a device for YouTube watching or other leisure activities.  Our high school students don’t have these restrictions.  When they are not in class, they may use their laptops or iPads in whatever way they choose.  And they can use their cell phones in the student lounge areas.  Our rules have been put in place in response to student behavior and in accordance with our community guidelines.  We have thought about how we want our students to behave, and how to build the kind of community we want.  We’ve tightened up some things and loosened up others over the years.  Students themselves, for example, have asked us to be tougher on using devices in class, punishing those who stray from class content as they find it distracting.  Rules and structure help students learn and train them to moderate their online behavior.  But I think this is one of the toughest, constantly changing area to deal with.  AUPs should be evaluated every year.  And each school should use the AUP not as a hammer but like the constitution, a set of guidelines to live by to create the environment, on and offline, that you want.


Celebrating Scott McLeod’s Leadership Day in honor of his 8th blog anniversary.  FYI, this year marks 10 years for me. :)

What Computers Can (and can’t) Do but Should They

Futurists and others hope for the day when everything we do is automated, when humans are living a life of leisure while our robot and AI servants do our bidding.  This is not my area of expertise, and certainly, I’ve seen computers become capable of helping us do a multitude of tasks.   Mapping, facial recognition, search, building cars, driving cars!–these are all things computers and/or robots are currently doing, and in some cases, doing well.  People are also using algorithms to create art and poetry, activities we might think of as being uniquely human.  So these things seep into areas that we might not think they can or even should.

My good friend, Audrey Watters, often writes about the ways that education relies on computer data-crunching to evaluate student learning or teacher performance.  Now, I’m a big fan of data and what it can reveal, but I’m no fan of letting a computer program evaluate something as messy as learning all by itself.  For one thing, most of these programs evaluate learning strictly through multiple choice tests, which can only tell you so much about how well a student is doing.  Personally, I weigh process a whole lot more than product, which is what those tests evaluate without regard to process.  I have no idea how a computer program is going to evaluate a project.

My former career was as a writing teacher and the grading of papers by computer is a fantasy many have longed for to alleviate the long hours of assessing student writing.  Essay graders exist, but they aren’t that good, taking long words and more complex sentences as strong signals for good writing.  Good writing is more than that, as anyone who writes or reads, much less teaches, knows.  Still, there could be a role for computers in the writing process besides being used as a word processor or plagiarism checker. This article from Slate discusses how students respond better to computer feedback than teacher feedback.  The reasoning makes sense to this for the same reasons people in general trust any data coming from a computer.  Students think computers are more objective, maybe even more accurate than their teachers.  And, they’re less anxious about getting feedback from a machine than a judgemental teacher.   So maybe this is a reasonable role for computers and algorithms as part of the process, and not as the evaluator of the product.


AP Computer Science

Last week, Mark Guzdial wrote about the new CS: Principles course that is replacing the current AP CS course.   The current AP uses Java and in fact, is somewhat focused on teaching Java, the language as much as it is about teaching CS.  The change for the exam and course comes because the current setup turns off many people and it has been suggested that the current AP setup for CS is one factor that contributes to the lack of test takers generally and the lack of women and other underrepresented groups taking AP CS.

Mark suggests, however, that the new CS: Principles course and test might fail because colleges won’t offer credit for the course the way they did for the current AP, where colleges might be assured that students had a good understanding of a standard programming language.  He says:

It’s reasonable to say that an AP will only succeed (e.g., students will take it) if they can get credit or placement for the exam in college or university.  Typically, colleges and universities give credit for courses that are currently taught.  Will we see colleges and universities start teaching CS Principles?  Will they give credit for a course that they don’t teach? For languages they don’t teach?

Mark’s questions here are reasonable, but I don’t think they are the whole story.  His assumption is that students take AP courses to get credit, which might speed their ability to take advanced courses or even to finish college (which would save them money).  But that’s not the only, and maybe not even the main reason students take AP courses.  They take them to get into college in the first place.  AP is a signifier that the course is rigorous and generally at the college level.  It is the most advanced course students can take in high school, and a student who has taken several AP courses signals that they are a serious student, worthy of admitting to many prestigious colleges.

I know this in part because we have no AP courses at my school, and one of the issues that raises is how to signal to colleges that our upper level courses are as rigorous as typical AP courses.  We eliminated AP courses, in fact, because they weren’t rigorous enough.  They were limiting, focused often on memorizing facts rather than learning to do science or history in the way that colleges often expect.

At least one commenter mentions this in the comment thread, which is well worth the read.  Mark worries, in comment 30 (sorry, can’t link), that the signaling aspect of AP will miss underrepresented groups because that’s just not something they think about.  Mark and others think that unless CSP will give credit for a particular course, an intro CS course or a quantitative reasoning course or something along those lines, students won’t take the course at the high school level.  They might be right.

I don’t have time right now to pull the data, but I’m curious how many schools offer credit for the current AP CS course.  I know quite a few that don’t, either because their CS I course is very different from what’s taught in AP or just because they don’t really offer credit for many AP courses generally.  The question of the impact of any AP course on student enrollment in certain colleges and certain majors as well as whether they explore a field in high school is a complex one.  Reading the comments on Mark’s post will give you an insight into the complexity.  I note that there are no high school teachers commenting on that post.  A shame, because that perspective, I think, would be a bit different.