End of Year Review

I have a few more days left, filled with mostly grading and cleaning, but before I put everything away and dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, I wan’t to get some thoughts down about how this year has gone down.

First, it was a busy, busy year for me.  I took on a lot.  I was teaching 3 middle school classes, 3 Upper School classes, teaching 4 students in Independent study classes, running a Middle School club, running the Robotics Club, chairing 2 committees, and supporting various technology in the school.  It was overwhelming at times, and I don’t recommend it, but I managed.  I like to do more than just manage, though, so I’m going to start planning for next year, so that I can do better.

On the positive front, all but one of my middle school classes will be taken on by a new person I hired this year, who is going to expand them into more full-blown maker classes with CS as the connective tissue as it were.  I’ll be helping with that development, but it will mostly be in his hands, freeing me up to focus primarily on Upper School and on developing CS more fully as a core part of the school’s curriculum.  And that is exciting!

So here’s the breakdown and the color commentary.

Computer Science I: This went fairly well, though I want to make some tweaks.  I want to spend a little more time at the beginning of the year on connecting Computer Science to the outside world.  To that end, I’m planning to add in an online discussion where students will post commentary about articles related to CS.  I’m thinking that will be once a week up through the end of first semester.  I also want to do some more formative assessments and checking for understanding, so I’m going to add in some more quizzes, some quick exit polls, and at least one more substantial test.  I’m a project-based kind of teacher, but I’ve found that my students have forgotten some basics along the way that they’ve needed.

Computer Science II:  This is permanently becoming a semester course.  This year, it was small, and it will be small again, though slightly bigger this time.  We basically did two big projects.  I think that works, but I would like to add in a few more quizzes.  I’m not as concerned about tests.

Physical Computing: I won’t be teaching this next year and when I teach it again the following year, I will keep it mostly the same.  The only thing I want to add is a little more scaffolding at the beginning.

Mobile Computing: This will be a new course.  I have to spend the summer figuring it out.  I have picked a book and a framework.  Now I just have to develop the course.

8th Grade Computing: This is also a new course, which is mostly going to be maker oriented.  I have thought through the first few weeks, but beyond that I haven’t a clue.  That, too, will be worked out this summer.

Robotics Club: I struggle with this club.  I’ve been open with my students about my struggle and they get it.  We participate in a competition, but we don’t put the time in to really do super well in the competition.  I want to focus on learning, not competition, and there’s some agreement about that among the members, though they also like to win.  We had a bit of an existential crisis this year, thinking we might pull back from competition or choose a different, less pressure-cooker competition to participate in.  We’ve decided to stick with the competition for this year, but we’ve designated a single “competition team,” who will focus on getting competition ready asap.  They’ll start earlier than everyone else, get first dibs on parts, and have set deadlines for building.  The other students will be put on training teams, focusing on learning the ropes of building and programming a robot.  The club leaders will be working with them to teach them what they need to know.  I’m hoping that my new partner in crime will take on Middle School Robotics, or will just incorporate it into the class.  Because having the MS merged with US did not work so well.  I tried, but it failed.

In general, it was a good year.  I was probably too busy for my own good.  But the fruits of my labor over the last 4 years are paying off, which is nice to see.  I’m going to work kind of frantically to finish out the year, which doesn’t completely end until June 11, then I’m going to rest for a bit.  That probably just means I’ll work 4 hours a day instead of 10.  And I’ll work on things that interest me, rather than grading or emailing random people.  And I will goof off a little more than normal.  At least I hope so.

The March on Washington

This week is full of talk about the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.  The Civil Rights movement looms large in my life.  I spent my college years in Memphis where King’s death is a huge part of the fabric of that place. I wrote a paper about the integration of my school, which affected me deeply.  My school integrated in 1967.  The very next year, of course, King was shot while supporting the Sanitation Workers’ strike.  They were striking for better wages and conditions after the death of two workers who were crushed while escaping the rain (they weren’t allowed into the office because they were black).  I had felt the racial tension everywhere while at school, but doing this paper made real some of the reasons for that tension.  How do you recover from experiencing violence and death perpetrated on you because of your race?  How do you recover from people thinking you’re not as smart, capable, or valuable because of your race?  It was a deep wound that could be felt even 25 years later.

While I was in school, I protested the closing of the Lorraine Hotel where King was shot and which had become a place for low-income residents.  It was slated to become a civil rights museum (and it eventually did) with some unfortunately pretty insensitive displays (including the ability to stand where King did and have a laser beam “shoot” you).  I protested Apartheid, of course, and worked to divest the college and participated in a conversation with some big donors who had investments in South Africa and who were slated to build a new building on campus.  We lost that fight, too.

And while I’m not as active in direct action on Civil Rights, I still live my life according to the ideals and principles that we are all created equal, but that it is sometimes work to make that equality real.  Systems, individuals, etc. are often working against equality: racial, gender, and economic.  I work every day to convey those values, to investigate ways that inequality and discrimination creep into everyday interactions.  We’ve come a long way, for sure, but there is a lot more to do.

Being an impostor

My friend Leslie, one of the smartest people I know, wrote a great post about overcoming the impostor syndrome. Boy, howdy, can I relate.  Just as I started to my own sense of confidence and accomplishment, I switch fields entirely and so I was back to square one.  Leslie talks about reading articles in her field (also, basically mine from a former life, Derrida anyone?) and not understanding it, finding the lingo frustrating and opaque, but believing that everyone else around her understood it because they made references to other works and seemed to be getting along just fine.  Turned out they weren’t, but she had no way of knowing.

When I was in undergrad, it took me a long time, like maybe late junior or senior year, before I really started contributing to discussions.  I was overwhelmed by the people around me, who were just as smart or smarter than me.  Valedictorians abounded.  Sometime in grad school (2nd time around), I got the confidence to just put stuff out there.  Most of the time, it was well received, but once, when we were discussing Plato’s cave, I went too far.  I kind of knew the allegory of Plato’s cave and what it meant, but hadn’t really looked at it since undergrad or maybe even high school. There I was, nodding and throwing out phrases, when my prof called on me to explain Plato’s cave. I stammered, saying something like, “Well, there’s a cave . . .” It was truly embarrassing.  I was being one of those people in Leslie’s class who was pretending to know but who really didn’t.  I never did that again.  Luckily, I had enough confidence to not worry about putting myself out there again, but I prepared beforehand.

In my current field, I find it embarrassing that I don’t have my degree in my field, similar to Leslie’s current situation. People’s eyes widen when I tell them my background. But, as Mr. Geeky told me years ago when he was trying to convince me to follow the Computer Science path, I was really already doing CS anyway. It wasn’t as much of a leap as I thought it was.

It feels weird to teach other teachers, as I did earlier this week, or to get asked my opinion on something in the field. But, when it comes to teaching, when it comes to paying attention to how students learn and process information, that I know something about. I’m not a content area expert (yet). My students and I learn together a lot of the time. I hope that makes them stronger. It definitely makes me stronger.

My students and I talk about the impostor syndrome quite a bit. Many of them don’t feel confident in their abilities. They’ve already expressed to me that they are worried about taking a first year CS course, despite the fact that they’ve already covered most of that material and then some in my classes. I have to imagine that no boy would feel that way after 3 years of CS in high school. Like Leslie, I try to model for my students. Mostly, I try to model how to figure things out when you don’t know the answer. I model persistence in figuring out a problem, and I model learning new things by being willing to teach things I don’t really know. I hope I can also model for them a way out of the impostor syndrome which makes them not the Plato’s cave idiot I was, but the prepared and honest person I became after that.

Own it

I’m trying to wrap my head around all that I have going on, mostly at work. It’s all good. It’s all important, and yet, I feel like I’m barely keeping the balls in the air. And I have this nagging sense that I’m not up to the task. Those balls are going to drop. I’m having a hard time owning the authority, the expertise I have. This is a familiar feeling. I had it when working on my Ph.D. There’s a little imposter syndrome in there, but there’s also fear of failure, fear of angering people, fear of making the wrong decision.

I keep telling myself to own it. To just do what I think is right, work as hard as I can, and own whatever happens. But I’m struggling a bit. Am I working hard enough? Is there something i could do better? what can i delegate? Calgon, take me away, is sounding better and better.

What my life looks like

If you asked me if I was ambitious, I’d say no. I’m edging past middle age and though I believe people can become great leaders or famous in some way at any age, that’s not my goal. I believe in being the best I can be at what I do. And that is actually ambitious. And what I do is quite a lot. I’m a teacher of computing, broadly defined. I can’t focus on just one thing, and the field is constantly changing so I have to keep my skills up. I’m also the person who provides avenues for professional development for my teachers in the area of technology. Another rapidly evolving field. And I’m a strong supporter of advocating for CS education in schools and for CS education for women more specifically, which means volunteering in my community and elsewhere, mentoring students, developing programs to educate my immediate community, and more. And I’m the mother of two children, who both need to be fed and clothed, but also guided and supported as they navigate their lives. And I’m a wife, daughter, sister, and friend, meaning I have many relationships to nurture and give time to.

So that means that the photos I wanted to take over the last couple of days didn’t happen because I was in meetings, driving children to school, working with teachers, meeting with students, writing articles, commenting on blogs, curating materials to share with my colleagues, having informal but important conversations in the hallway, attending an evening school event, planning and making dinner, chatting with friends, and listening to my spouse over a martini. It means that this weekend, I will do the homework I assigned to my students, start programming something for a colleague, finish up two or three short articles, spackle my bedroom walls with my hubby, go clothes shopping with my daughter, work with my son on his college application plan, do some volunteer work, go grocery shopping, and make soup for the week. This is a lot. And I wish sometimes I could do more, but I do actually sleep and relax–a lot. Because if I didn’t, I might explode.

It’s a difficult thing to always be trying to effect change in yourself and others without exhausting yourself. I’m well aware that if I abandoned my family responsibilities and my need for rest and relaxation, I could do more, but my life wouldn’t feel as satisfying if I did that. What goes are things like blogging, taking pictures, exercise, mundane housework. I can handle that.

Stupid Protestant Work Ethic

At some point in my adult life, I began to work harder than I know I did as a teenager or even a college student.  Some of this was by necessity.  A 9-5 job is a very different commitment than 4 or 5 classes in college. Even though I have worked at “real jobs” since I was 14, I approach work differently than I did then.  Those jobs were just jobs.  Now I feel a level of investment in my work that makes me put a lot more effort into it.  At all of my jobs for the last 15 years or so, I have really cared about doing a good job, not so much because I wanted to get promoted or whatever, but because, as an educator, I knew people depended on me.  I’ve sought ways of improving what I do: by going to conferences, by talking to experienced colleagues, or by reading books.  I’m also often asking myself what more I could be doing to make wherever I work a better place.  I put a lot into my work.  As a result, I usually get a lot out of it, too.  I feel good about what I’m doing.

However, that kind of cycle of constantly looking for things to do better or more of has the potential to burn me out.  And so, I don’t take work home (much).  When I come home, I may read a blog or article on education, but I don’t grade or prepare for class or check email.  I leave work at work.  For my own sanity, this is how it needs to be.  And yet, I sometimes feel guilty.  I know colleagues who take their work home.  I feel guilty that I don’t.  But as another colleague was telling me, we need to step away from work.  It makes us better able to cope the next day if we’ve spent some time relaxing, being with our families and not thinking about work.  And so, I try to put the guilt away, rest, reconnect so that I have the physical and emotional energy I need to do my best at work.

Looking back

It’s the last day of the year.  We have festivities planned and I will do what I normally do, which is to look forward not back.  But also, I like to learn from the past.  A year ago, I was halfway through the first year of a new job.  I was still really feeling my way.  To some extent, I still am, though there are certain parts of my job, especially interacting with kids, where I feel perfectly fine.  I think the nature of my field is such that I will always feel a little stretched.  So, it was mostly a good year.  One great thing about having a blog is that you have a bit of a record of your life.  I picked out the most popular posts to see what life was like and what my readers found most interesting.  Here’s the top six, with some commentary.

6.  Top Secret Rosies and Middle School:  In this post I reflect on seeing the movie Top Secret Rosies, which I ended up showing to a bunch of middle-schoolers.  They really related to the women in the movie and were impressed with their skills as the first real programmers.  I’m still proud of the work I’m doing at the middle school level in terms of computer science and hope to continue that work in the years to come.

5. Could you live without the Internet?:  A reflection on purposeful use of the Internet, and whether some critics of the Internet aren’t right about how it makes our connections weaker and our minds mushy.  One of the reasons I’ve started blogging more is of course, I have more time over the break, but also, I wanted to return to the reflective nature of blogging.  I wanted to use the Internet for its best purposes: to learn, to think through ideas, to connect with people with shared interests.  I think it’s important for us to keep thinking about our interactions with technology and not just accept them blindly.

4. Robotics competition results and more:  Some thoughts on last year’s robotics competitions.  I definitely learned a lot from that and thought I didn’t implement some of my plans for this year at the upper school level, I hope to next year.

3. Some thoughts on gender and robotics:  I muse about robotics again, and whether it’s worth the time and money and some of the inherent gender issues that come up, especially in this particular area.  I have a feeling this will be a regular feature of the blog.  I’m still sorting out what I think about it.  There are both pros and cons.

2. The meaning of life is over: A post about turning 43, wanting to lose weight (yes, it’s often on my mind), and what it’s like getting older.

1. Getting geeky wit’ it:  A post about taking my Mac apart to change out its hard drive, getting a new phone and other geeky projects. I enjoy writing these posts for sure!

Surprisingly, two or three of my top visited posts for 2011 are posts from 2010, so I didn’t include them.  It’s nice to see the geeky content is reigning supreme.  Here’s wishing you all a wonderful 2012, and may it be a bit geeky, too!

Snow Day: Pausing

We got our hoped-for snow day today.  For Upper School, the semester is winding down.  Final projects are due.  Exams are around the corner.  I have many tasks, large and small to work on over the next month or so, much of it related to recruiting new students.  I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to be able to support the broader efforts of the school.  It’s a lot of work, but it’s so worth it. And, of course, my efforts benefit me as well.  I hope not just to recruit students to the school as a whole, but to recruit students to my classes.  Since my classes at the upper school level are electives, I have to convince people to make room in their schedule for it.

Since I returned from winter break, I hadn’t felt completely geared up for school even though I have much on my plate.  Having the snow day, I think, will help me collect myself a bit.  We’ve started an addition on our house, which hasn’t been terribly disruptive, but it prevented me from doing laundry for a while.  I even had to make a trip to the laundromat.  Soon, it will cause more disruption as we lose a bathroom for a while, and part of the master bedroom.  We’ve already rearranged the bedroom in preparation for the walls coming down and a new one being put up.  It’s nice to have the day to catch up on some of the household turmoil.  I did bring home some work, but I’m guessing I won’t do much, if any.  I might plan out what I want to accomplish when I get back, but not much more than that.

I hope everyone else loaded down with snow takes a moment to pause.  It’s a rare opportunity to not do anything.

Reboot . . .

Almost a month since my last post–whoa!  Over the last few days, I considered closing up shop.  I barely have time to read blogs anymore much less write in one.  But, like Janet, I do find writing here when I can useful.  I have a ton of things to reflect on and talk about.  Here are just some bullets of stuff going on in my life right now:

  • Running two robotics clubs, one of which meets every day after school–lots to say about what I do/don’t like about these two very different clubs
  • Rethinking one of my courses, which is requiring new prep
  • Promoting computer science, which is well-supported by the administrators and my colleagues here, though not always understood.  I’m still fighting the perception that CS = learning Word and Excel or that CS is unneccessary because either a) these kids all know how to use their computers and so don’t need CS or b) all the jobs in CS are being outsourced.  a) drives me more crazy than b).
  • Struggling to find time to learn new skills.
  • Getting frustrated by the CS education blogs I’ve been reading that make some odd assumptions about how K-12 works.
  • Loving, loving my job.  My colleagues are just awesome.  The students are great, and despite working really, really hard–and a lot!–I love coming to work every day.  I’m still getting used to the fact that people support my work and me.  I’m used to something very different.  I’m loving feeling like I’m in the right place.

Reflecting on the first third

Next week I’ll have my last classes of the first trimester.  It’s been quite a ride so far.  I would say that it’s been mostly successful; however, there are things I definitely want to change for the new trimester.

6th grade web design.  In this class, I had stepped through the process of creating the content from word processor to using Weebly for creating simple web sites.  We added everything to the word processing document and then moved it to the web.  Two snags really created problems for us.  One was that creating the charts and graphs proved more difficult than I thought.  Not only was making the chart/graph difficult, but converting it to a picture was hard, too.  In some cases, we actually took screenshots.  We made it through that part, though, and I want to keep it, just with some modifications.  The second big snag was the wiki.  I then wanted to put everything on a wiki, allowing everyone to edit each other’s work.  First, the kids got confused when their pictures didn’t copy over.  The pictures had to be reinserted, which caused everyone great consternation.  Second, no one really got around to editing each other’s work, so the whole point of the wiki was lost.  And then, when we moved to Weebly, we had to go through the whole process again, and so more consternation.   On the plus side, they love, love working with their websites.

Things I’m going to change:

  • Starting with the web, not word processing.  We’re actually going to start with html and css, so they know what’s behind their web sites.  I’m also going to review some basic concepts like url’s, searching, local vs. remote storage, etc.
  • No wikis, but I will do a website review (which I’m doing today in class) using a Google form.
  • More work with images.  I thought we’d get to more of this, but we didn’t, so I’m going to add in creating a header for their page and some other basic image editing techniques.

7th grade digital storytelling.  This class had both conceptual and technical issues.  While digitial storytelling is a great idea, I needed to put more parameters on what they used for their stories.  I have a lot of Glee remakes.  The technical issues are what really put a damper on this class. I decided to use Windows Live Movie Maker because I had easy access to it.  The tool was easy to use and I didn’t have to do a whole lot of instruction on it, but it doesn’t work if your footage is stored on a network drive, which is where the students needed to store their footage.  We ended up copying it over to the hard drive and working from there and then exporting the movie at the end of each day, but many students lost work or lost video because they weren’t careful about where they were saving things.  I have students who have no project as a result. 

Changes I’m making:

  • Having them draw on their English curriculum for stories.  I’m also giving them one or two other options.  They need a framework.
  • Using Jaycut for our video editing tool.  It’s online.  Students can access their work from anywhere, and hopefully, they won’t lose their work this way.
  • Not having a video shoot day.  I had handed out flip video cameras for the students to use and gave them a day to shoot video.  A) They didn’t shoot good video or enough video leading to b) another video shoot day, which result in a) again.  The cameras are available for check out from the library.  If they want to shoot video, they are responsible for doing it outside of class.

In 8th grade Scratch programming, I’m just rearranging the order of some things to take advantage of a game design contest for middle schoolers.  Otherwise the class has gone really well.

In all my classes, I need to have more discrete assignments that can be assessed at the end of every class.  8th grade has more of that than the other two.  I need to have a “By the end of class, you need to complete . . .” objectives.  The classes are pass/fail, so I intentionally made them more project-based, but I need to have the steps more clearly defined for the kids.  They are for me, but I think the kids lose track pretty easily.

I’ve developed my CS curriculum and will present it later this month for official approval.  I’m also looking for grant money to get the program off the ground with the right equipment and facilities.  That keeps me pretty busy outside of my classes.  And I’m also running two robotics clubs, which also keeps me busy.

I’m generally happy with what the students are getting in their technology/CS classes. I wish I had more time with them, but I try to pack in a lot in the time I do have.  I hope that will pay off for them in the long run.  I’m also doing a fair amount of work with teachers getting them to incorporate a variety of technology into their classes.  I feel like a student here will have a pretty good foundation in a variety of applications and computing concepts by the time they’ve completed 9th or 10th grade. I hope to keep building on that.