Succeeding at school, after school?

I’ve just finished How Children Succeed by Paul Tough.  This has been on my reading list for a while now, and I finally got around to reading it.  It’s actually a quick read despite covering a lot of research on learning and success.  Tough covers a lot of the research having to do with ideas like grit, the growth mindset, persistence, etc.  The bottom line of the book is that interventions need to address the so-called “soft” skills to create success in students, not just in high school, but beyond.  I also listened to the NPR show “3 Miles” not too long ago and the message there is basically the same. It’s not kids’ intelligence or lack thereof that keeps them from succeeding, but their inability to stick with something when it gets hard, not understanding that you can and should ask for help, a lack of time management and organizational skills, a lack of understanding of social mores in different settings.

I liked that the book looked not just at underperforming public schools, but also a couple of private schools where kids are highly successful, at least in terms of getting into college and the traditional sense of that idea.  However, many of those students end up lost when they get to college or get out of college (for more on this, read Excellent Sheep).  These kids were less likely to be creative and innovative; they stuck with the safe route, even if it meant being not so happy.

This seems to be the trend in education, that what’s important is not “book learning” per se, but a certain strength of character.  More importantly, the idea is not that you either have that character or you don’t, but that those traits and skills can be taught.  Even though Tough showcases several success stories, he also mentions those that don’t make it, and the tiny, tiny number of those that do.  Too many kids in the public school system are not getting a good education in either the traditional book learning sense or in terms of building soft skills that lead to success.  And that I find utterly depressing.  And it’s not like this is news to me.  I think the depressing thing is that year after year, there is some solid research that shows how to address some of these problems, and year after year, we ignore that research.  Because it’s hard to implement. It costs money, etc.  It seems crucial to our success as a country that we fix this.  Sadly, I’m not seeing any movement on this in the near future.

More on the CS for All Proposal

I know I should have looked away when I saw this, but I couldn’t help reading a New York Post opinion piece on Bill deBlasio’s proposal to bring CS to NYC’s public schools.  Most criticisms I’ve seen have expressed concern about the implementation, not about whether it should be done at all.  This piece says it’s just a bad idea all the way around.  The first part of the author’s argument is that students aren’t passing the math and reading tests at high enough rates, so surely they can’t do CS.  She’s right about the difficulty of recruiting CS majors to teach.  And much as I hate the idea sometimes of running non-CS majors through a workshop to learn enough CS to teach an intro, that may, in fact, be where we have to start.  And deBlasio didn’t say it had to be at the high school level. It’s an option at the middle school level as well, where I think a well-trained teacher can do a lot with CS concepts.

Her other point of contention is just giving “failing public schools” more money which she thinks will be wasted.  So, in essence, the money could be earmarked for anything and she wouldn’t like it.

Her next argument is that tech CEO’s–really just David Gelernter–has stated that he doesn’t hire CS majors anyway, so what’s the point of creating more of them.  First, he’s one guy.  Second, several people, including Mark Guzdial, a respected CS Education researcher, has pointed out that Gelernter’s suggestion would skew white and male.  Putting CS in high schools, where everyone has the opportunity to learn CS can offset this imbalance.

Finally, she argues that “High school is the time when students are supposed to shore up their reading and writing and math skills so that they can be qualified for college or some other kind of vocational training.”  I would say that high school is a time to explore career options.  And if CS is not taught in high school, the idea of CS being part of one’s career options is off the table.  Yes, there are certain skills we want our students to graduate from high school with, but it’s not just math and reading.  That focus comes from the crazy focus on standardized tests (and arguing against that is another blog post).  Computer Science can actually be used to teach math and reading skills, if that’s what schools want.  It can also teach logic (useful in arguments against journalists), critical thinking, systems thinking, problem solving, creativity, and more, depending on the context in which it’s taught.

Will NYC’s proposal be challenging to implement? No doubt, but I think it’s worth trying, and I’m selfishly rooting for it to succeed.


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!

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.

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.

Men Only

In the last few days, I’ve encountered some things where men are the only reference point.  Here are some smart people: list of men.  Here are some books you should read: only male authors.  Here are some people to follow on Twitter: only men.  Usually, it’s been men who’ve done this, but not always.  And sometimes those references are to people I know and admire, and sure, read their book or follow them on Twitter.  But also diversify.  Women, smart women, often don’t put themselves out there as much as men, sometimes out of fear, and sometimes out of lack of time, and sometimes out of a choice of what to prioritize.  Find some women to include in your Twitter feed, blog and book reading, and people to seek advice from.

Want some suggestions?  Here are a few:

  • Audrey Watters (@audreywatters)
  • Leslie Madsen-Brooks (@lesliemb)
  • Maggie Powers (@mpowers3)
  • Janet Stemwedel (@docfreeride)
  • Laura McKenna (@laura11d)
  • Lisa Palmieri (@Learn21Tech)

Leave your suggestions in the comments.  I’m always looking for more!

College Visits

We made our first college visit for Geeky Girl yesterday.  She’s only a sophomore, but she wanted to get one under her belt before visiting was for real.  The weird thing about college visits for both my kids is that their parents work at colleges (or at least they both used to).  They’ve spent quality time in real colleges, either places we worked, or at conferences.  So colleges are not entirely a mystery.

Also, I know a lot about the inner workings of colleges and will look past the sales pitch at things like adjunct teaching percentages and endowment numbers.  Geeky Girl, at least, found this useful.  Yesterday, when the admissions team touted the 99% of their classes are taught by “real” faculty stat, I quickly googled the percentage of those real faculty who were adjuncts. 22% it turned out.

I thought the visit we went on yesterday was a good example of these visits.  There was the pitch, and then the tour, and the tour guides had a lot of good things to say, solid things about academics and about the social life.  Geeky Girl did not look particularly happy on the tour, but afterwards said she thought it was cool.  She remembered some of the stats and was impressed by some of the academic things they mentioned.

I reminded her that the college was selling her on the school as much as she was selling herself to the school, and to keep that in mind as we go through this whole process.  In fact, I said, sometimes the school was more desperate than she would be.  She recognized the whole thing as a sales pitch.  I didn’t even need to say anything.

When I applied to colleges almost 30 years ago, I did two visits.  The first was in the form of a summer program.  The second involved visiting a friend.  In theory, I was supposed to go on the official tour for that second visit, but I did, um, other things instead.  Both visits were informative.  At the first visit, I got a real sense of the faculty and the classes and dorm life.  On the second, I got a real sense of the social life.  I ended up going to the first school and not the second.  I knew I’d never make it to class at the second school. Note that my parents were not on either visit.  And this was typical for most of my peers.  The whole college thing is very different these days.

Had my parents or I treated the college application process with just a smidge of the intensity people treat it with now, I think I probably would have ended up in a more prestigious school.  My mother did poke me to fill up the “left side of my folder” with activities, but otherwise did not really participate.  Brochures showed up at my house.  I would go to the library and pull up the catalogs of schools on microfiche, and I used the Princeton review to find out the real scoop on schools.  But I had no real guidance in terms of selecting schools where I might fit nor in sculpting an application to get into a school that might be a stretch for me.  I pretty much threw darts at a map.

While Geeky Boy wasn’t really interested in college, Geeky Girl is a different story.  She’s interested and she has the record to have some choices.  She also kind of knows what she’s looking for.  And she’s savvy enough to do the right things to put her in a good position for college applications.  So far, she’s taking it seriously, but not getting super stressed about it.  I, too, haven’t put any pressure on.  Study for the SATs? Maybe a little if you feel like it.  Do crazy academic things in the summer? Meh, it’s vacation, but if something strikes your fancy, okay.  The only things I’ve pushed her on are running for office and getting involved in things at school, not because of college (okay, maybe a little), but because I think she brings a lot to the table.  I’m trying to be the balancing in force in an environment where people study for SATs in 8th grade, and spend their entire summers enrolled in fancy-sounding academic camps. So far, she has a good head on her shoulders about the whole thing, so I think we’re going to be okay.  Still, it will be an interesting ride.

Past, Present, Future

First, let’s talk about the past.  Last night, when I got back from a wonderful day spent at UMW with old friends, sharing stories about how we met, people we knew, etc., I started digging through the blog archives to figure out the thread.  All of us had gaps in our memory, and most of us have known each other for around 10 years, so we almost can’t remember when we didn’t know each other.  The first mention of any connection I can find is this one, noting that Barbara Ganley’s blog is awesome and you should all read it.  Later that summer, Barbara G., Barbara S. and I would do a presentation at BlogHer, memorialized here and here.  Finally, there’s the first Faculty Academy, where I met many of the people I was reading and connecting with online in person.

Barbara G. had talked about fear at FA that year, and I wrote more about it here, and that, I think, spawned the fear crew and more conversations about fear, at least one of which is documented here.  As I drifted into K-12 and Barbara G. went on to do her own thing, and Martha had another kid, and Leslie moved to Idaho, we no longer came together, but we kept up online as always.  And maybe we’re not blogging as much, but there’s Twitter and Facebook.

Presently, we’re all in different places, but essentially, everyone is still connected, mostly through education and technology and all that entails.  Thankfully, our conversations have shifted a little as things really have changed.  We have makerspaces and the idea of posting online doesn’t seem crazy anymore.  The thing I think we all have in common is a need to push the envelope and to keep pushing people out of their comfort zones so that learning can happen.  Ironically, this involves looking back to the past sometimes.  Some people get stuck in the past, wishing for the old days of just books in libraries and no smart phones.  But some, like Jim Groom, look back at the old tv consoles and video games and computers (now stacked  in his office) and see the DIY spirit that was there and the hope of the future they didn’t yet know.  Those things seemed so cool in the 70s and 80s.  People are not as amazed by new tech as they once were. What we try to do, I think, is bring that amazement and wonder back.  And now, I sound a little like Gardner, so that completes my circle.

None of us know what the future will be like, but we keep looking in that direction, with a healthy respect for the past and for where people are.  Everyone I talked with yesterday wants to make change in some way.  Sometimes that’s directly through their work, and sometimes that’s through other activities (but it’s colored by their work, I’m sure).  And that’s exciting and inspirational, and makes me ready to keep moving forward.  Thanks, UMW crew, for the inspiration and the memories.

Woman of Fear #1

Back at Educon, I made a promise to visit all the women who’ve influenced my development as an educator.  I’m currently sitting at the kitchen table of Martha, the first stop on my tour.  Martha is graciously hosting me, and I feel terrible that I haven’t visited sooner since I live a mere 3 hours away.

I met Martha about 10 years ago.  One of the faculty she worked with emailed me to serve on a panel at this thing called Faculty Academy.  I said yes and he put me in touch with Martha.  I also met at least one of the other women on my tour through Faculty Academy and maybe a second, Barbara 1 and Barbara 2.   So Martha’s running the whole show, and the show is truly impressive.  FA inspired me for years, and I was lucky enough to do a keynote for them in 2009 (a keynote immortalized in video, a video I have watched and all I can think is, “What is going on with my hair?”).

Martha, the two Barbaras, and Leslie, and I had a gig about fear of technology in education.  This wasn’t the healthy fear of data mining and privacy, but a fear of embracing technology to enhance teaching and learning.  We went around the country talking about it, and trying to help those in the room overcome it and/or help their colleagues at home overcome it.  While some have gotten past that and Martha and her colleagues are examples of people doing really interesting things with technology, in my conversations with Martha over the last few hours, it’s clear a kind of fear still exists even 10 years later.  As I used to say back then, I find it so interesting that faculty will push their students to get out of their comfort zone and simultaneously refuse to leave their own.

So Martha is pretty amazing.  She is fearless in many ways.  She takes risks but isn’t afraid to say no.  Things that would freak me out, she seems perfectly comfortable with.  At least on the outside.  I have one more day to visit, and then I’m on my way.  I’ve dragged Geeky Girl on this trip, and I’m glad.  I hope it sends the message that it’s important to honor the people who’ve meant something to you and who inspire you.  Too often we don’t do that.  I’m especially happy that the people whom I’ve chosen are women.  I didn’t really seek women out as mentors in college.  It wasn’t until grad school that I even encountered a woman that served as a mentor, and even then, I ended up getting most of my support from a male mentor.  The women of fear were really the first women that I felt like I truly learned something from.  Years after we no longer work together, I  still turn to them for advice and inspiration (even if they don’t always know that).  I’m hoping to visit the rest of my posse this summer: LesIie, Barbara G., Barbara S., and Audrey.  More than ever, I need the inspiration.

“Soft” skills

I’ve been thinking a lot about the so-called soft skills.  These are things like communication, ability to read people or a situation, ability to work with others, critical thinking, networking, professionalism, ability to learn, etc.  Actually the Department of Labor has a list.

As I work with students and colleagues, I think about how important these are, and that they are, in fact, more important than so-called hard skills.  I don’t remember all of the things I learned 30 years ago.  Some of the math has stuck with me, a lot of the grammar and writing and books I read, some of the science, and much of the history.  But partly those stick with me because I use them all the time through the soft skills.  And I continue to learn and read, and there’s this machine I use everyday where I can look up information I don’t know.

Having good soft skills often means that you can get your ideas heard, that you can connect your hard skills to  others’ interests and need and so you become an invaluable part of a project or an organization.  Having a reputation of working well with others means that people will be more likely to ask you to participate in important initiatives or projects.  The ability to communicate with others in all kinds of settings–and knowing the appropriate way to communicate–creates connections with others. All of these things can forward your career and/or your organization.

In my classes, I am teaching Computer Science, but I hope that I am also teaching the soft skills.  Students learn to work together, find information and solve problems on their own, and communicate with each other, in writing, and in formal presentations.

I often tell people a story about lessons I learned outside the classroom.  In college, I was in a sorority, which when I tell people that, they’re like, what?  But I learned some valuable lessons through my participation.  One thing we did was to practice having conversations with incoming freshmen and alums.  We would all draw roles out of a hat, so we’d be assigned 80-year-old alum, freshman interested in English who is super quiet, or overly talkative freshman.  We would run through scenarios several times, and the leadership would walk around and assess how everyone was doing, give tips for dealing with difficult situations, and sometimes cause trouble themselves.  We would talk as a group afterwards about things that came up.  There was an understanding that communicating took practice and that people need strategies.

That practice still pays off to this day.  I’m comfortable going to events with all different kinds of people and carrying on a conversation no matter what socioeconomic group they’re in, what profession they’re in, or what they’re interests are.  Being willing and able to talk to all kinds of people leads to all kinds of connections that may pay off in the future.  It pays off in my connections online as well.

Often, when things go awry, it’s a failure of soft skills.  Communication goes awry or is non-existent.  A situation gets read incorrectly or someone didn’t think through a decision from multiple angles.  Although I am always learning new computing skills, those are relatively easy, it’s the soft skills I work on more often, and those are sometimes harder.