The Home Stretch

We have about 6 weeks of actual classes left, followed by a couple of weeks of exams.  I do not give exams, so that means I’m pretty much done when classes are done.  I still have to fill out report cards, but that’s made easier by not having to grade finals.  I wish it were different, actually.  My middle school classes meet once a week and are not graded.  My students receive comments, but only a pass/fail grade.  And of course, it’s silly to fail anyone.  I’m hoping to change that for next year and at least add grades.  And perhaps somewhere down the road, I can get more time with the students–twice a week? three times a week?  I dream of how much I could do with them if I had more time.

And for upper school, I’m hoping for enough interest to have more classes.  Next year, I’m looking at having at least 9 and possibly 11 students for my intro to computing class.  For a new class that’s an elective, that’s pretty exciting.  I’m also doing an independent student on web design and hope to turn that into a senior elective after next year.  I also have to think about follow-up classes to intro–advanced programming? game programming? something else?

I told someone at lunch yesterday that I was ready for a restart.  I’m looking forward to building on what I’ve learned this year, creating all new things, building on what I’ve already created.  It’s one of the things that great about education.  Opportunity to change, to learn, to do things differently next time.  Hopefully, the students see that too.

Robotics Competition Results and More

DSCN1028We had a successful tournament.  The combined boys/girls team had a total of 5 robots in the competition.  The robot that the girls contributed the most to came in 34th.  Considering this was their first time is this competition, they did really well.  I also had a great time watching the matches and even stepped in to coach one match when we found ourselves shorthanded.

The girls took on many roles–coaching, programming, tightening parts, and driving.  I know it was quite an experience for me and I think it was for them as well.

bj had asked about starting a robotics club.  I have learned a lot from this experience, so I’ll share what I know.  The VEX Robotics competition was a good place to start.  It’s competitive but not cutthroat.  The threshold to entry is relatively low, compared to something like FIRST robotics, and it’s a decent balance of engineering and programming.

So here are some things I’ve learned:

1) You don’t have to know everything or even anything about the particular platform you’re using.  We hired mentors (who ended up winning the Mentors of the Year award) to teach the kids the basics and to work with them along the way.

2) You need a core of committed students.  Generally you need four students willing to spend most if not all of their days after school for a couple of hours for several months, plus competitions that take place on weekends.  If you have interested students who can’t committ that much time, feel free to include them.  They can contribute where they can and might become interested enough to make the commitment next time around.  In VEX, there are awards for team web site, team animation, and other peripherals that are good places for these students to contribute. 

3) Fundraising.  It takes a chunk of change to attend the World competition.  It cost us close to $1k per person for the trip, and then each girl spent $30-40 per day on food.  Next year’s competition is in Disneyland, so it’s not getting any cheaper.  Start fundraising early to defray the costs of the trip.  Many of the teams had corporate sponsors and included those names on their team shirts.  There are also costs for parts for the robots themselves.  The initial robot kit costs close to $600, and you will need many more parts to create the robot design you want. 

As for my time and effort, I was lucky.  The club was essentially run by a woman at our brother school.  I came when I could, which averaged once or twice per week.  I am planning to be more involved next year and am working on a schedule that allows the girls to work on their robot here during club period, and head to the other school to do more work on days they have time.  That might happen every day or three days a week.  It’s very much up in the air right now.  I also was unable to make any of the regional competitions.  I want to make at least one or two of these.  I was not compensated for my “extra” work, but I really don’t feel that it was necessary.  I was essentially rewarded with a trip to Disney World and I am perfectly fine with that.

As for getting students involved, this was completely initiated by the students.  Three of the four participants are graduating, so I’ve begun recruiting for next year.  Luckily, I have several 8th graders who are interested and I’m talking to a few 10th graders as well.  The girls’ success will be featured on the web site, so I hope that will attract more students.  The club will also be listed in the club directory next year, which it wasn’t last year.

Although I think this is a great opportunity, I am also hoping to have a club that focuses on other aspects of CS.  So I’m looking at having a club base on MAKE magazine, where we build and create things from a variety of materials and use microcontrollers to make them come to life.  I might even partner with an art teacher to create something really interesting.  Everyone has different interests and skills and I don’t want to exclude students from opportunities to explore computer science simply because they’re not interested in robotics.  Plus, there isn’t a huge amount of programming in the robotics competition.  It’s something you *can* focus on, but don’t have to.

As I told someone last week, I’m throwing spaghetti against the fridge and seeing what works.  I think it will be a couple of years before I find out what works.

Ahem, tap, tap, is this thing on?

Sorry to have disappeared.  I was sick throughout my spring break.  I wanted to take baths and stay in bed all day, but with our house remodel going on, that wasn’t possible.  So I stumbled out of bed most days and went to a coffee shop, ran some errands with Mr. Geeky and generally tried to survive.  Then Mr. Geeky’s uncle died and we drove to the funeral.  Sadly, I’m increasingly at an age where funerals are how you see family.  It used to be weddings.  I was sick throughout the entire time we were there–about 3 days–though I began to rally towards the end. Going through the mountains on the way back, my sinuses felt like they would explode–worst feeling ever.  Still frustrated by being sick, I actually left early my first day back to work to go to the doctor.  I love my doctor.  After taking a look at my sinuses, she said, “Can you breathe through your nose?”  “Yes,” I said.  “I find that hard to believe. No wonder you don’t feel good.”    I am now on the mend thanks to her.  Maybe I would have mended anyway, but I felt well taken care of.

Next week, I head to Florida with my high school students to participate in a robotics competition.  We are all very excited and I do hope we win.  The girls have worked hard to make this happen.  We also have some down time, which we are going to spend at Harry Potter World.  As a pretty big fan of both the books and the movies, I’m looking forward to that.  I have no idea what I’m getting myself into with this competition, but I think it will be quite an experience.  I’m likely to be doing this again next year, so this will be a good learning experience.

I have a post in the wings about personal data and how much it is collected these days.  I’ve had more than my fair share of encounters with the extraction of my data.  And I’ve been thinking a lot about it.

Even when it’s hard, it’s fun

I have had quite a few moments in my job where things are hard.  Dealing with the roller coaster of middle school emotions is one area that’s hard.  Figuring out that delicate balance between encouragement and discipline is also hard.  And, as I indicated a bit in my last post, dealing with society’s crazy gender expectations as they play out for my discipline is also hard.  I was starting to feel particularly discouraged by this until the last couple of days.  We have a special week just before spring break where each faculty member offers what is essentially a three-day-long course in an area they’re interested in–sometimes it’s a tangent to their actual subject area–a science teacher does infectious disease, for example.  And sometimes it’s completely unrelated–cooking.  I’m doing e-textiles.  And though I tried to make it sound as sexy as possible, I knew it couldn’t beat out the pastry making course.  I was hoping at least a couple of students ended up there, as their second choice.

And then, a student came up to me and said, “Ms. Blankenship, I hope I get into your course.  I put it as my first choice.”  And then later, another student told me she’d also put it first, but wondered if we could make horses instead of elephants.  Sure thing, I said.  To be fair, one of my homeroom students said it sounded cool, but she put it 4th.  At least she liked it.

The day before, a couple of rising seniors approached me to ask if there was any web design in my CS course.  Not really, I said.  They asked if I’d do it as an independent study.  Sure, I said.  Even though I knew that it would be extra work (It’s a course I’ll be offering after next year anyway.)

This morning, a student taking a Java course online sent me two programs she’d written that were failing to run.  My Java experience is 3 weeks sitting in on a class (it’s on my list of things to learn).  She’d come to me for help before and we talked in abstract terms about how to code the solutions–she needed nested loops.  I saw her programs and could tell they weren’t right, but couldn’t figure out exactly how because I didn’t know the Java syntax.  So I coded up how I would solve them in Python, went back to her Java, and figured out what was wrong (lack of initialized variables in one case and just a poor use of if statements in another).  I’m not sure yet if it helped her, but I was happy to provide some direction nonetheless.

As that last example clearly indicates, I’m often right at the edge of what I know when I’m teaching.  I haven’t been in this situation since my first couple of years of grad school.  Yes, it’s hard, but I like it.  I like having to push myself to figure something out, to learn something new.  Mr. Geeky said the other day after I was relating some other story to him, these girls will sure keep you on your toes.  Indeed they will.

Top Secret Rosies and Middle School

On Wednesday, I went to see the film, Top Secret Rosies and participate in a Q & A with the director afterwards. The film is well worth seeing for anyone interested in the beginnings of computing and especially for those interested in women in math and computing.   During the Q & A, someone asked about getting women/girls interested in CS and the director’s response was that they needed to get to girls sooner, preferably middle school.  A couple of people around me poked me.  I wanted to jump up and shout, “Yes!” 

I don’t know that many people that try to teach CS of any kind in middle school, and I, myself, balance teaching applications and skills students need for their other classes and basic computing skills.  I’m especially proud of my sixth graders who work with HTML and CSS and who learn a little about web protocols and how the Internet works.  While that’s not strictly code, it introduces them to the idea that humans tell computers what to do through special languages–and we even talk about binary. 

And we begin learning about the logic of programming in eighth grade through Scratch.  I’m also doing an after school session for 4th and 5th graders where they’ll be doing a little of everything that I do across the middle school.  I’m planting seeds that I hope will grow into my future CS students and our future programmers and problem solvers.

The film made pretty clear that women have a long history of being discouraged from pursing highly technical and mathematical careers.  To some extent, I still see the uphill battle I’m fighting as some girls still tell me how “uncool” is it to be good at computer science.  That makes me sad, and I hope that five years from now, I won’t be hearing that as often.

I can’t

Over my life as a technology “guru” of various stripes, I’ve heard some form of “I can’t.” 

“Oh, I’m not tech savvy.”

“Oh, I don’t know much about computers.”

“Oh, I’m not smart enough to do that [technology x].”*

Didn’t we just have a whole election campaign around the words, “Yes, we can?”  Sadly, I understand where these words come from.  I’ve said them myself.  I said them about Computer Science when I first encountered it.  I said it about Calculus when I first encountered it.  I’ve said it about numerous other things.  I don’t like this negative talk, from myself, from my students, or from my faculty.   And I want to overcome them.

This negative self talk comes from many places.  Sometimes it means, “I’m uncomfortable trying something new and failing.”  Sometimes it means, “I don’t want to fail because then people will think I’m not as smart as I seem.”  Sometimes it means, “This is not a priority for me.”  That last one is actually okay with me; I just would prefer that people said that instead of suggesting that their abilities are limited.  Sometimes I want to channel Yoda:

But then I don’t want to suggest that trying and failing is a bad thing. What Yoda says before is famous line is “It’s only different in your mind.” Learning math or CS or a new technology only seems different in your mind. It’s like learning anything. Yes, it can be hard. Yes, it can be frustrating. But it can also open a whole new world.

*Actual quotes

Getting protective

I’m referring to students here.  Once, when I was interviewing for a job in admissions, the director asked me what kinds of students I’d have a soft spot for.  Because this was a fancy-pants liberal arts college in the Northeast, and I’m from the south, I said, Well, I’d be on the lookout for a kid from a small town in the South, who’s had to raise him or herself and 3 siblings and still made an A in AP Physics. Generally, I appreciate kids who’ve been through some stuff–a divorce, a death, an illness, a major job loss, a financially-strapped family, etc.  In my current job, I’m often on the lookout for kids who don’t fit perfectly.  I think there are clear paths for certain kids, kids who know they want to be a doctor or a lawyer.  They have a collection of classes and extracurricular activities they need to participate in and excel at.  And they often do.  But there are kids who aren’t necessarily bad at those things, but they aren’t at the top either.  Or they struggle more generally with “fitting in.”  They have friends, but not a lot.  They’re a little rough around the edges.

I really like those kids.  Often, those kids are really good at techie kinds of things.  They like to figure things out.  They like trying and failing.  And they keep trying.  They end up with some really great stuff.   I am, I must say, a bit protective of those kids.  On numerous occasions over the last couple of months, when someone has said of a student that they’re struggling in x subject, I’m able to say, You should see their technology skills. Often the response to that is, Great, how can we take advantage of that?

What’s kind of sad to me, though, is that many kids still see technology and Computer Science as odd. It’s not as acceptable as Biology or Chemistry or Math or even Drama.  It’s beyond the pale for some kids.  I’m hoping very much to change that, while still remaining protective of those kids who are drawn to this discipline because they don’t fit anywhere else.  At the very least, I’d like kids to see the power a little programming experience could give them as a Biologist, Chemist, even as a doctor.

Building a program by yourself

Takes time.  I have to remember this.  I also have to remember that I’m not currently teaching the course that will be the foundation of the program.  It’s all still just on paper.  And it’s only 50% of my job.  The other 50% is also in need of some support and building, but I have colleagues to help with that.  That program is about supporting the teachers in using technology and I’ve found a pretty receptive audience for that.  There’s more to be done, and I have some ideas for that that I’m planning to implement soon.

The other program, the CS program, I’m not worried (that much) about, but still I feel like I should do something.  Here’s what I am doing so far: talking up the program with parents and kids; running a MS CS club to build interest early; running an after-school program for 4-5 graders to build interest even earlier; promoting the program through the web site, open houses, and more.  I get this feeling there’s more.  The robotics club for high school is basically run at another school and I haven’t been able to attend since winter break.  It’s mostly attended by seniors, kids I haven’t really connected with, which is not helping my cause I’m sure.  I’d like to do something club-wise for CS that’s not robotics perhaps this year, but definitely next year.  I still might have to do robotics because a) there’s some demand for it, though more demand than actual commitment; and b) we have the materials lying around.   I guess I get the feeling that if I just do the right extra thing, suddenly 14 kids will show up wanting to take CS in the fall.  Unfortunately, I have no idea what that thing is.  So I keep trying different things.  What I know for sure is that it’s just going to take time.

Computing Creatively

Yesterday, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a reunion of the workshop I attended at MIT this past summer on Creative Computing.  A lot came out of that original workshop for me.  I adopted Scratch for my 8th grade technology classes.  Inspired by the fabric-oriented high-low tech lab, I am doing a soft-circuit project with middle schoolers as part of a special project week we have in the spring.  I also solidfied much of my basic knowledge about programming and because of that, was able to forge ahead to learn more complex programming concepts.  So, it was a very productive 3 days that have had a lasting impact.

In a single day, I got almost as much out as I did before.  One thing that was nice about this go around was that I now had actually been in my classroom so I knew more about what I was looking for, what questions to ask, etc.  The advice people offered made more sense than it did back in July when I hadn’t even started my position yet.  Now, I’m ready to explore  a wide variety of things, including using Pico boards with Scratch and using Scratch in my Upper School animation class, something I was inclined to do before, but after seeing some animations demonstrated yesterday, I am now thoroughly convinced.  I’m thinking about using Pico boards with the soft-circuit project I’m doing with the middle schoolers and may explore using them next year in 8th grade, especially for students who have some experience with Scratch.  And I saw some really cool projects from non-computer science classes that have inspired me to plan a workshop/demo on Scratch that highlights some things that Scratch might be used for outside of CS/Technology classes.

Besides all the great Scratch info, I also got some ideas for arduino boards as one of the graduate students there pointed out a programming environment for them that is “drag-and-drop.”  And I found out about a project–which I ran into spontaneously again this morning–where one can build blocks for Scratch, essentially taking it to another level.

And, of course, it was really fun to see people I’d seen this summer, including another Laura with whom I did not get a chance to talk much last time and with whom I have a lot in common.  She is three years ahead of me in a similar position to mine, so it was lovely to get some advice from her and to see where I might be in a few years’ time.

The last week or so has been really productive for me as I’ve worked on several different projects and got many plans in place.  Going to this reunion really helped keep that productivity streak going.

Being limited to teaching what you know

One of the things I’m coming to grips with is my own limitations in my field.  As I learn more, I’m more aware than ever of how much there is to know.   There are literally hundreds of programming languages and there are probably ten or so that are used on a regular basis “out there.”  And then, if you have to incorporate the even broader field of IT/general technology, there are thousands of applications, concepts, etc.  Maybe millions.  There’s no way to know all of it.  Some of it is very specialized, used only in particular contexts.  There’s no reason to know how to use some things or use some languages unless you do some particular thing.  I try to focus on foundations, on concepts, as opposed to learning a particular language or application (though I do often teach those concepts through a particular language or application).

 Today I met with my “Creative Computing” club.  We spent the first part of the year working with a student from a nearby college learning how to program robots.  We only had about 6 weeks of that (we meet every other week), and it looks like we might be without our student for the spring semester.  So I asked the students what they wanted the rest of their year to look like.

Now, my agenda for this club is to introduct students to computer science concepts very early on.  They get some programming in 8th grade, but this is an opportunity to explore different types of programming and/or programming in a different context and without a grade hanging over your head.  I could have come up with a plan, but this is a club, after all, and so I thought student input would be good.  I got everything from Lego Robots to Maya to Photoshop to animation.  Half of what they brought up was a) not really computer science-y and b) stuff I knew nothing about.

It kind of gave me pause when I thought about all that I’m sort of semi-expected to know.  3-D modelling? the ins and outs of image editing? building robots?  Some of it I want to know more about, but some it, I just have no desire to learn (3-D modelling, for instance).  Mainly, it’s because I have no desire to know 50 different things, but not be able to do any of them well.  I’d like to know maybe 5 things pretty darn well.  I’m always willing to learn new things, but I have my limits.

I have to teach what I know, and just keep learning, figuring out what I need to know and need to pass on to my students.

As for my current students, I’m figuring out a way to mush their interests in with what I know–it should work out well.  One thing we all agreed on was that we wanted to create a web site, maybe even a blog.  Now that’s something I know how to do (and teach).