Let’s talk about late penalties

I’ve got a confession to make: I’m not always the best student.

In the midst of a global Pandemic, I completely forgot an assignment that was due for the graduate class I’m currently taking. When I realized it was due (read: the same day it was due), I was in the midst of preparing for the first week of e-learning for the college course I teach, and a week away from starting to teach my high schoolers online. My motivation was low, and I made the professional decision to use my energy on preparing for my students.

I turned in the assignment – a NGSS aligned lesson plan – a week late. I took that week to create a lesson that not only aligned with both NGSS and CSTA Standards, but one that was digital. I created something that I could actually use in my classroom during this time.

The feedback I got from the instructor was that the lesson plan was extremely well done, and scored a 100% against the rubric. Unfortunately, because it was late, I would receive a 75%.

Turning in one assignment one week late in the middle of a global Pandemic lowered my overall course grade 5% – half a letter grade.

And look – I’m an adult. I made the professional decision to choose my students over my grade. I’ll likely still earn an A in the class, and even if I don’t, I know that I’ve mastered the material. Despite my internalized desire to earn A’s, I know that grades are largely subjective and rarely communicate the full picture of a student’s learning.

But it got me thinking: if we, as educators, believe that grades should reflect content mastery, how can we justify taking off points for lateness?

Whether or not work is turned in on time has nothing to do with mastery of the material and everything to do with compliance.

I should probably be completely transparent and share that if I had my way, we’d throw grades completely out the window for an ongoing feedback structure that supports rather than stifles intrinsic motivation. As a public school teacher, I understand that grades are the structures in which most of us still operate, and I still give grades to my students.

So even if we accept that we must give grades (at least for now), it is our duty to be critical of the decisions we make with regards to grades.

I don’t penalize late work. When students turn in an assignment, I grade it as if it were on time. If they request an extension, I grant it. I’d rather they turn in high quality work past the due date than rush to turn in lower quality work on time. If our goal is mastery, we should care less about WHEN mastery is attained and more about the mastery itself.

One of the arguments that people give for penalizing late work is that it teaches students that it is important that their work is on time. They share that this is reflective of the “real world.”

But in the “real world,” hard deadlines have purpose, and they’re only used when turning in work late matters. Newspapers have deadlines because they need to go to print. Retail employees need to be on time to their shift because otherwise, the store can’t open. Lawyers need to complete their briefs so that trials can proceed in a timely manner. In each of these situations, there is purpose to being on time, and being late has actual negative impacts.

In the classroom, we’re choosing to motivate students with points, rather than teaching them why timeliness matters. Honestly, late deductions are the lazy way out, and ultimately result in us missing an opportunity to empower students to build intrinsic motivation for timeliness.

Instead, we should focus on articulating why each deadline matters for students. Is it because it’s part of a larger assignment and serves as a benchmark to ensure they’re on track? Does the work contribute to future learning? Is it so you can give them feedback so they can continue to grow in their mastery and improve for the next time?

Will some students struggle at first without the extrinsic motivation of losing points? Yes. But longterm, our goal as educators is to adequately prepare them for the real world. And in the real world, they won’t get promoted for submitting half-hearted work by the deadline… they’ll be expected to do high quality work. They’ll need to know how to communicate when they need more time to deliver their best.

And if we can’t communicate why work should be done by a specific day/time? Well then, maybe it’s on us to reconsider why we set that deadline in the first place.

Digital lesson planning: A deeper dive, part two

In true Pandemic educator fashion, I overpromised and underdelivered in terms of this series. Like I’ve said before, all of us are building the plane while in the air, and sometimes that means that blogposts we swear we’d write end up taking a few weeks longer to actually hit the blog. No matter, this three part follow up series is now being condensed into two. This way, you have all of the information you need to run and plan engaging, curated lessons.

If you’re coming to this post and haven’t read the first few posts, be sure to start with the next few links. They’ll provide you with the lesson planning template we’re working through, as well as some guidance on how to get started:

Lesson Plan Template || Stop Reinventing the Wheel || Deeper Dive Part One

So – to catch up – we’re working through the following five steps for digital resource curation:

  1. Identify what you want them to learn
  2. Scour the internet and categorize your resources (Curate!)
  3. Create any resources needed to fill the gaps
  4. Create two choice boards
  5. Pull it all together in one student facing file

We’ve already discussed the first two, and today, we’ll talk about the final three. Let’s jump in.

Create any resources needed to fill the gaps. Okay, so you’ve traversed the internet and categorized your resources based on type and objective. Now we can easily identify where you should invest your time in creating additional resources. This might mean recording a few videos of you teaching concepts, developing a Google Form quiz to check for understanding, or creating a graphic organizer students can use to ensure they’re “getting it.” Within our lesson planning template, we’ve divided these into four categories:

  1. Resources that teach concepts: This includes recording videos of your teaching, screenrecording yourself using a tool (although many of these do exist on YouTube), developing a hands-on activity, etc.
  2. Resources that organize learning: Here you’ll list any graphic organizers you need to create. This could include pre-learning activities (like KWL charts), questions students should use to guide their exploration, or things like preset Cornell Notes sheets.
  3. Resources that facilitate interaction: These are tools that you will most definitely need to build. Even though students are apart, learning is profoundly social, and it’s really important to build in opportunities for connection. This might be creating a discussion board topic on an existing LMS, using Padlet to allow students to contribute their ideas, or creating a Flipgrid topic to allow students to share.
  4. Resources that check for understanding: What quizzes, questions, or practice opportunities do you need to create to empower students to check in with their learning? I love using Google Forms because students are familiar with them, and they’re easy to access on mobile devices as well as laptops. This might also include writing reflection questions to help students process their learning.

Create two choice boards. Okay, here’s the deal. You don’t need every student to do the exact same work. In fact, the reality is that during this time, not every student has the same ability to do the same work. Operating your digital learning space through a lens of choice gives students the ability to learn at their own pace, adapt their learning to do work that fits within their current situation (unplugged if they’re sharing a computer, choosing less time intensive products if they’re needing to watch siblings or care for family members), and the chance to do work that is interesting to them! In this step, we’re going to create two choice boards:

  1. Learning process choice board: Using the planning document you’ve already been working in, pull and link all resources sorted by type and objective. You’ll also need to provide instructions – how many resources should students explore at a minimum? Do you want them to complete a graphic organizer as they work? You can use this simple student-facing template here.
  2. Product choice board: Develop a list of choices of ways that students can show their learning/mastery of the objectives. You should provide at least two choices, but more is always better! You’ll want to develop a standardized rubric that can be applied to all of the choices and include that as well. A fairly robust board template I use is linked here, and you can find the accompanying rubric at this link.

Pull it all together in one student-facing Google Doc. Okay – we’ve done a lot of work! Now, we need to put it into a format that easily communicates what students need to complete and how they will turn in their assignments. You can use the template linked here to make sure you have all your bases covered. I’ve also utilized Google Slides, which are really helpful for ensuring your students are working through all of the activities you’ve had planned. A sample version of students slides that implements the choice board is linked here.

Perhaps this is our only foray into distance learning, or maybe we’ll be doing some form of it in the Fall. Regardless, lessons learned in curating existing resources can help us to protect our time as teachers, while also meeting more students’ needs through differentiation.

Digital lesson planning: A deeper dive, part one

If you missed Friday’s blog post, you’ll want to start there. Today, we’ll start walking through the Digital Lesson Planning Template, linked here.

So you can get a peek at where we’re going, I used this template to plan my content for this week for my students, which focuses on analyzing data (a CS standard), applied to global climate change through the lens of the Coronavirus. You can check out the slides I shared with my students (along with a video walking through a few directions) here.

The key to planning an effective digital lesson (without losing your mind) is to curate resources before spending hours creating and uploading your own. I follow these five steps:

  1. Identify what you want them to learn
  2. Scour the internet and categorize your resources (Curate!)
  3. Create any resources needed to fill the gaps
  4. Create two choice boards
  5. Pull it all together in one student facing file

Today, we’ll go through the first two, tomorrow we’ll focus on resource creation, and finally, we’ll talk about student-facing files on Wednesday. So, without further ado, lets get started:

Identify what you want them to learn. The first step of digital lesson planning likely looks a lot like traditional lesson planning: start with the end in mind. What do you want them to learn this week? What content standards will this week’s work align with? What objectives will you share with students? Are there specific things they need to be able to do (skills they need to demonstrate), or is there some flexibility in HOW they will show mastery?

Scour the internet and categorize your resources. This is the fun part. Use a few of my favorite go-to sites and our old friend, Google, to find resources that would support students as they work to learn the material. Your goal in this process is to identify a diverse set of resources that fit all objectives/standards while also giving students multiple options for how they will learn the information. I like to use a Google Doc template like this one to track resources — it helps you to separate out different objectives and ensure you’ve included videos, readings/articles, recordings, and tasks that encourage student exploration. Bonus: this is a great starter template for one of the choice boards we’ll talk about later. If you’re new to curating resources, the following websites are a great place to start:

  • YouTube: If you’re teaching a standardized curriculum (like the many CS teachers who utilize CS Discoveries), search specific lessons – there are tons of existing, strong tutorials that other teachers have produced that you can link for students. If you’re not, search the concept and the appropriate grade level (for example: “middle school cs variables”). As a general rule, I try not to include videos longer than 10 minutes, but there are of course exceptions.
  • Newsela. You can use Newsela to find news articles about a wide variety of topics. Newsela is one of my FAVORITE resources for readings because all of their articles can be adapted for different lexile levels (hooray differentiation!) and many are translatable into Spanish. There’s also the option to include a multiple choice quiz to check reading comprehension.
  • Quizlet, Quizizz, or other quizzing sites you love. I love Quizlet and Quizizz because there are so many existing quizzes created by other educators or students that you can use either as is or with minimal modification. These tools provide students with the opportunity to check their understanding – a key to helping students own their own learning.

So, if you’re keeping track, you should be through the first page of our Digital Lesson Planning template. We’ll pick back up tomorrow for round two! In the meantime, share some of your favorite resources to curate from in the comments.

Stop reinventing the wheel: A curation-centered lesson plan for digital learning

If you’re like me, you’re finding that planning for digital learning during the Coronavirus Pandemic takes up a LOT of time. Between planning for instruction, creating new resources, giving feedback, checking in on student socioemotional health, trying to contact students who have yet to access learning opportunities, and getting on office hours calls, the new normal is far more time-intensive than what we’re used to.

I don’t need to tell you that the “normal” way of planning won’t work. We’ve been experiencing it together over the last few weeks.

There is no better time than now to assert that one of our primary roles as educators is to serve as curators of information for our students. This is not new – in the age of hyper-connectivity, being facilitators in our physical classrooms should mean curating existing resources from all over the world to support our students experiencing well-rounded, multi-faceted education.

The difference is that now, curation is not an option. In fact, it is the only way to maintain your sanity while offering robust learning experiences for your students.

You do not need to be the only person “teaching” your students concepts in order for them to learn. In fact, we do our students a great disservice by not pulling in existing resources to help support learning.

I am giving you permission to stop creating every resource your students need. It is incredibly time consuming – writing scripts, filming videos, uploading them to YouTube, linking them… and it’s not always effective.

Here, I’ve linked the digital lesson planning document I’ve been using to plan a week of learning for my students. It’s standards-aligned and objective focused, has differentiation of process and product built in, and helps you to maximize your time by focusing on only creating resources that don’t already exist.

This way of planning focuses on developing a structure for asynchronous learning, recognizing that synchronous learning is a) not the same as in class instruction and b) in many cases, inequitable in that not every student has the same ability to log on and be fully present in that learning experience. In our district, we instead utilize open office hour times that teachers are on Zoom calls to provide live support to students as they work through modules at their own pace.

On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of next week, I’ll release a series of blog posts and videos walking you through how I work through this document to plan for digital learning in a way that maximizes my time and student learning.

I can’t wait to share how to use this tool with you! In the meantime, take a few moments to click around the document and linked templates on your own. See you back here on Monday for part 1.

The Agile Educator: Start-Stop-Continue

It’s no secret that I’m a huge proponent of bringing agile processes into education. In the past, I’ve blogged about how Scrum can empower students to do work that matters through long-term, real world, team projects. Incorporating agile into the classroom makes content more accessible through meaningful work and also gives students practice with actual collaboration, prioritization, and project management. These skills translate into nearly every field, and can be used for the rest of their lives.

Educators, too, have a responsibility to be agile. Teaching should be a highly iterative job, with educators regularly assessing both their process (how did I teach the material?) and product (what did my students learn? Are they moving closer to mastery?). Masterful educators do this multiple times a day – even multiple times a class period! – and often without realizing they’re doing it.

While student performance on assessments and observational data are excellent tools for assessing our product, assessing the process requires a little more effort, because it’s nearly impossible to evaluate our teaching without involving the primary stakeholders — our students.

Fortunately, agile gives us a tool for process reflection: the retrospective. A well run retrospective allows us to explore what went well and what we could have done better and to create actionable commitments for our next iteration. When exploring our teaching practices, our focus should be on what’s working for our students, what’s causing confusion, and what else could we do to further improve learning.

My favorite template to use is Start-Stop-Continue. I ran this with my 100 person lecture class on the first day of week 4 (so three weeks into class), and it took fifteen minutes to get a wealth of information.

Start-Stop-Continue is really easy, and requires very little prep. You’ll need enough post-its for all students, and designated areas labeled “Start,” “Stop,” and “Continue.” I used sticky chart paper, with three separate sheets (for each category) on both walls of the room. You can click here to access the slides I used, or – of course – make your own.

I start by asking students to group themselves into groups of 2-4. They’re – of course – welcome to work on their own, but many students like having this time to talk. I introduce the activity, sharing that one of my core values as an educator is continuous improvement. I share that I want to make sure that this class is working for them, and that in order to do that, we have to regularly assess the learning process. I also tell them that Start-Stop-Continue is a version of a retrospective, which is an agile process that’s used in teams around the world.

I tell students that I am going to show them a series of prompts, and that I want them to write ideas on post-its, with each idea getting its own post-it. All of these are broadcast on the board, but I also read them out to serve as mind-joggers:

Start: What activities or actions should our class or the instructor begin doing to move us closer to our goal of mastery? I ask them to consider:

  • Actions or things they do in other classes that are really helpful
  • New ideas they have that we could implement as a full class
  • Resources they wish they had to help them learn better

Stop: What activities or actions should our class or the instructor stop doing? I ask them to consider:

  • Actions or things we/I currently do that are not having the intended outcome
  • Actions or things that are making the class more confusing
  • Resources that are not working for them, and why

Continue: What activities or actions should our class or the instructor continue doing? I ask them to consider:

  • Activities or resources are helpful and/or having their intended outcome
  • Structures or supports that are the most helpful
  • Resources, feelings, activities, class format

When they’ve finished writing ideas, they place their post-its on the corresponding chart paper, taking the time to group like post-its so it’s easier to review.

The final – and arguably most important – step in the retrospective is creating actionable commitments and actually following through. If we ask students their opinion, we have to be more than just open to change – we have to do it.

Our first retrospective yielded some important and immediately implementable changes to our class… so we made them. I now include live coding with every lecture, with direction comments built into the HTML and CSS I share with students so they can follow along. Students love in class exercises, and want more outside of class groups, so we’re coordinating meeting times – some of which are held by TAs in lieu of individual office hours – for students who want to meet together. They suggested a new format for my Slides, requested a master tag resource, and asked if I could post guided notes before each lecture so they knew what to focus on. You can read all of my commitments to my students, compiled from their feedback, here.

We’ll continue to use this method every three weeks so our team can continuously improve and ensure we’re meeting a wide variety of student needs through teaching strategies, offerings outside of class, and resources. It takes fifteen minutes, but leads to a more effective course, while also building student-educator trust.

If you haven’t tried a retrospective, it’s a must do. It’s an easy and effective way to ensure that our teaching strategies and resources are meeting the needs of our students, and challenges us to commit to continuous growth and improvement… exactly what we would expect from our students.

CS for All: Rethinking the Traditional Lecture

Last week, I began teaching an introductory Computer Science course at the University level. The course introduces students to computer science primarily through HTML, CSS, and JavaScript in a 100-person lecture format. The student information forms I had students fill out on the first day of class revealed that nearly 80% of them have never taken a computer science course before.

Interestingly, the course is typically taught in strictly lecture format, with students working alongside the professor on the day’s sample code. The onus, then, was on students to practice at home, or visit TA office hours. Of course, this can be intimidating if you’re lost in class, or if you see the course as existing merely to satisfy a requirement. To me, though, this course is an excellent recruitment course for Computer Science, given that for the majority of students it is a path they have likely not considered.

And so, the traditional lecture format must be rethought and retooled to create an inclusive environment where students can experience Computer Science with low-risk. Opportunities must exist within the framework of in-class time for students to collaborate, try, fail, and ultimately succeed. Before students submit individual graded projects or take exams, they must feel comfortable working with the language (in my case, HTML, CSS, and JavaScript), and they need guidance on how to practice before it “counts” for their grade.

In other words, I need to figure out a way to bring in some of the scaffolds from my secondary teaching experience into a traditional, lecture-based college class.

At this point, I’m still in the first weeks, but I wanted to use my blog as a way to share what I’m trying – what’s working (or not), what we’re iterating, and how we’re incorporating what research tells us works for inclusive CS education into higher education. Here’s our first iteration:

A change in format to prioritize in class development of socio-academic peer groups. Rather than three 50 minute lectures a week, only Mondays will be a more traditional lecture format. On Wednesdays, students will work on in class exercises applying new knowledge from Monday. Fridays will feature differentiated small group review (with help from TA leadership) and extension. While projects, quizzes, and exams will all be individual, students will be allowed – and encouraged – to collaborate on all other programming assignments. Each student will still turn in their own code for all in class exercises, but they may work together to debug, locate resources, and write code. Not only does this create a lower-risk environment for them to learn, but it builds in collaborative structures, which hopefully will translate to them feeling a sense of belonging in our class. Additionally, recognizing that this is most students’ first computer science class, the inclusion of practice time in class models the importance of practicing their coding skills outside of class, too – which leads me to…

Additional real-world, practice problems: One of my TAs had an excellent idea to write challenge problems for students to practice with outside of class. We’ll be taking this one step further by creating a practice problem bank for students to work on, in preparation for projects, but also to encourage them to continue to practice their skills. These challenges will be ungraded, but students will be able to submit them to us to get feedback. It was really an excellent idea, as it gives students a real-world application of their learning, and also gives them a direction for practicing – which is something that non-CS majors may struggle to find on their own.

Scaffolds for self-efficacy: The practice problem bank, encouragement of collaboration, and links to resources such as W3Schools are all scaffolds that students can use to build mastery. In addition, I’m creating review videos, which I’m posting on my YouTube channel and sharing with all students. I also made the choice to share my lecture notes and slides with students, stemming from a student sharing that she was overwhelmed with trying to follow along with my code, slides, and also take notes. Ultimately, my goal is for students to master the content and feel confident in their abilities to program in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Withholding resources that could support some students to penalize others for choosing to not come to class seemed punitive and ultimately more harmful than good.

Ultimately, if our goal is to diversify tech, we must make our introductory computer science courses at all levels accessible and welcoming to all students. While not all students may decide to pursue a future within Computer Science, each deserves the opportunity to try and see if it is a good fit for them. Incorporating strategies that research consistently identifies for recruiting and retaining both female and underrepresented students seems like a no brainer, no matter which level of education the course is offered.

I’ll continue to blog and share resources, and am – of course! – open to thoughts or feedback you may have. Share them via the comments below.

I am a Better High School Teacher Because I Taught Middle School First

For the first four years of my career, I taught middle school.

When you tell people you teach middle school, they often respond with a sour look, and a “wow, that must be so difficult.” And, at times, it was difficult. Of course, they should also know that middle school is arguably the toughest time in a kid’s life. They’re not quite a young adult, but pushing back against the idea that they’re a child, too.

I always used to tell people how much I loved teaching middle school – kids were old enough to understand my sarcasm, but still young enough to be kids. They were sweet, excited to learn, and somehow thought I was “cool.” And let me be clear, I was never “cool” in middle school. The reality of middle school is that students are at a time in their lives when they’re tough to love – they’re moody, awkward, and trying to figure out who they are – but also at a place where they need to be loved the most. I loved teaching middle school because I DID love my students… and I think they could tell.

Now that I’ve moved on to high school, there are many things I love about teaching older kids too. I love that they’re independent, and more motivated to get work done. They want to talk about real things going on in their lives, and I love talking with them about their post-high school dreams. It’s also been fun to be able to teach higher level concepts.

But I have to be honest: I am a better high school teacher because I taught middle school first. Here’s why:

Differentiation is king. When I taught middle school, both Computer Science and Tech Ed were elective courses that kids didn’t actually get “credit” for. This meant I often had large classes (typically 30-35 students), that were pretty diverse in terms of academic needs. I had students with IEPs, 504s, English Language Learners, students with varying reading levels and math levels… all in the same class, and often without the support of a dedicated special educator or co-teacher. The result? It was nearly impossible for me to meet every student’s needs at any given time. Because of this, I learned how to create resources that students could use to scaffold learning — resources that helped support content acquisition without sacrificing rigor. In my transition to high school, I’ve brought with me choice boards, review videos, and differentiated opportunities for students to both learn and show mastery of content.

Organization and structure matter for big kids, too. When you begin your first middle school job, the focus is on class structures – not content. You spend the first day of prep figuring out things that non-teachers may see as trivial: how will they ask to use the bathroom? What’s your procedure for when a student is absent? Where will they find a pencil should they need one? Routine is also emphasized: start your class with a warm-up, teach your students routine for how class goes, and always end with some sort of closure or wrap up. Of course, all of these things are just good teaching practices, but sometimes can get lost in the transition to teaching true young adults. Easy structures that should be in every high school class? A place where students can go to retrieve work they missed while absent, easily accessible resources for makeup work and – of course – a canister of pencils that they can grab if (let’s be honest, when) they need one.

Give directions more than once, and in multiple ways. Anyone who has taught middle school knows that simply giving directions is not enough. For one assignment, middle schoolers may require directions projected on the board, printed on a sheet of paper in front of them, and their teacher going over them… usually, more than once. The same applies for high school, and it will still save you tons of confusion as an assignment progresses. My favorite way to begin a project or introduce an assignment is to post all necessary documents and directions on Google Classroom, and then review the rubric and directions as a class while they’re projected on the board. Finally, I ask students to come up with questions someone might have about the assignment/directions, which takes away some of the fear of their questions being perceived as “dumb” by classmates.

Bring the fun. Every day. Middle schoolers have notoriously short attention spans. Add that to the fact that they’ve still got their kid streak going strong, and I felt challenged to bring the fun each day I taught. Whether that was silly attention getters like trying to balance cups of water on my head (the room went silent — try it!), building out full immersive experiences that led to me teaching in costume, or flash STEM challenges that let kids build with candy, I genuinely had fun most days I taught. I think there’s this misconception that high schoolers just want to come to school, take notes, and earn their grades so they can move on to college or the “real world.” And while high school fun may look different than middle school fun, happy students learn better than unhappy students, and prioritizing fun every once in a while won’t take away from your content. This might look different for everyone — I make fun of myself, build in immersive lessons (more on this next week), bring donuts, talk sports (and yes, take their smack talk), and let them build the playlist.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back to teaching middle school, but I am so grateful that it’s where I spent the first four years of my career. Most important of all, starting in middle school taught me the importance of loving kids, no matter the grade you’re teaching. I learned to keep my love for students central to my classroom and teaching practices. Loving kids means assuming positive intent, trusting them, and giving them a fresh start every day. While loving kids doesn’t automatically make you a great educator, it is a prerequisite for greatness.

We need more women in tech. Here are a few things K-12 educators can do about it.

According to the National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT), careers within the Computer and Information Sciences are projected to grow 19% by 2026, as compared to 7% for all occupations. Within that classification, every category of job role will see growth with the exception of a basic computer programmer. Further, NCWIT reports that Computer Science, as a field, boasts the smallest gender gap in median salary, just shy of $3000, as compared to a nearly $4,000 gap in Finance, and more than $8,000 gap in Education.

Despite the growth of computing careers, high salary expectations for women, and promise of more comparable pay, computer science as a field struggles to both attract and retain women throughout the course of their computer science educational pursuit. As of 2016, women earned only 17% of Bachelor’s Degrees in Computer Science, an 11% decrease since 1990. Minority women are even further underrepresented within the field, with less than half of those degrees being earned by women of color (NCWIT, 2019).

The data suggest that while improvements have been made in reaching women at the upper high school level, it has made little impact on the number of women intending to pursue computer science as a career. Research at all levels of education has suggested that while focus has been placed on recruiting and retaining females in computer science at the upper high school and collegiate level, it may be too late to significantly impact closing the gender gap in tech, and may be targeting changes that don’t necessarily impact women’s desire to pursue computer science at a high level. Instead, multiple independent research papers have suggested that attracting and retaining women in technology begins much earlier, in upper elementary and middle school. Significant change requires a shift in pedagogy that gives girls the opportunity to do computing work with real world application. Curriculum must expose them to adequately rigorous challenges that increase their self confidence with regards to programming and provide them with a supportive academic and social community of their peers that increases their sense of belonging.

Based on existing research, there are four major implications for computer science teachers and curriculum developers as the field evolves to spur a more diverse and balanced workforce. Computer science coursework at the secondary level should allow students to solve real world problems, work collaboratively with a peer support group throughout the learning process, provide scaffolded rigor so that all students have the opportunity to build self confidence through challenging work, and be offered to all students beginning at the middle school level.

Computer science curriculum at the secondary level should focus on giving students the opportunity to work collaboratively to solve real world problems. Beyond just teaching a student how to program, educators must give students the tools to work as a team, beyond just role specialization. Incorporation of Agile Scrum and similar industry standard tools allows students to effectively collaborate in way that mirrors what they will experience in a future career path, and allows students to explore multiple angles of a computing career, making it more accessible to females who might not be interested in a traditional programming role. Further, collaboration allows for students – both male and female – to create social and academic relationships with their peers, which may lead to higher retention of females within computer science educational pathways.

Next, gendered spaces should exist within school so that girls are able to collaborate with their peers and find commonalities with other girls as they work through challenging content. Ideally, these spaces – typically clubs – should have female mentors, although the research shows that having female peer support is more valuable than having female mentors.

Because self-efficacy is perceived, scaffolds to learning should be offered to all students throughout the learning process so that students can work to build independence and confidence with the material. These could be offered as workbooks or notesheets, additional videos or tutorials, or teacher support in the form of small group instruction or one on one conferencing. Students should have access to additional practice, chunking of larger scale projects, and/or extended time, as necessary. Success throughout the process should be reinforced and celebrated, so that girls are constantly building self confidence.

Equity in computer science coursework begins with equity in access. The research consistently concludes that early experience with programming correlates with choosing to take a computer science course or declaring a computer science major at the collegiate level. Counselors and educators should be trained to share computer science coursework as a potential course offering to all students. Utilizing school-wide opportunities to try coding like Hour of Code could be another pathway to give every student the chance to experience programming, and may have a real impact on whether or not students pursue further coursework.

Closing the gender gap in tech begins with closing the gender gap in computer science education. Despite the fact that women make up only 26% of the computing workforce (NCWIT, 2019), with only 9% of the computing workforce being made up of women of color, changes to pedagogical approaches to computer science at the secondary level could significantly impact collegiate enrollment of women in CS. With the projection of a decrease in the number of true computer programmer roles while dynamic, collaborative roles within computing are on the rise, there is no better time to develop multi-faceted computer science curriculum to better meet the needs of girls and our work force.

Equity begins with access; computer science cannot be a course reserved for only wealthy, high achieving students. Offering computer science to fulfill a degree requirement can help ensure that more students are incentivized to experience the course at a secondary level, which in turn, could lead to increased enrollment at the tertiary level. Curriculum should be collaborative, and students should have the opportunity to do meaningful work with real world implications. Finally, girls must be provided with spaces where they are supported by people like them, whether it be a club, a study group, or an intentionally grouped team within a course.

Want to read more in depth research? The reference list for this post can be found here.

Project Management: Help Ticket System

One of the marks of a 21st Century Classroom is project-based learning (PBL). One of the oft-overlooked requirements of PBL is student-driven selection of their guiding question and/or how they’ll solve the problem.

Make no mistake: it is absolutely easier to manage all students working on the exact same project. It’s easier to pace the work, easier to address misconceptions and questions, and ultimately, easier to assess. But if our goal is to give our students the opportunity to do meaningful work, we have to give some space for student choice.

The result? At any given time, you could be required to support 15-30 different projects at once.

Overwhelming, to say the least.

Enter the Help Ticket System. It’s so simple that you’ll be able to immediately implement it into your classroom. It’s so powerful that you’ll wonder how you got through projects before.

Here’s how it works:

On a white board, set up the following chart. The white board should be easily visible to you, the educator, and all students.

Next, explain to students how the Help Ticket System works:

  1. Whenever they need support on part of their project, they must first ask three of their peers for help.
  2. If they’re still stuck, they’ll get up and write their name and their challenge on the Help Ticket board. They must be specific in their challenge (For a research paper, for example, they’d write “I need help finding resources about [specific topic]” rather than “Research”).
  3. If their challenge is preventing them from moving forward, they’ll draw a star next to it.
  4. Finally, they’ll get back to work. They should not interrupt you while you work with other students so that you can support as many students as possible.

As the educator, you’ll use this system to help you prioritize which students you help and when. Because it’s visible from anywhere in the room, you can quickly decide whom to move to next. Typically, I work from top to bottom with a few exceptions:

  • If a student is starred, they become a priority.
  • If I see that multiple students have the same challenge, I pull a small group and work with all students at once.
  • If I notice that I have already helped a student with a similar challenge to one that is listed, I’ll ask the student I previously helped to serve as a coach. This allows them to extend their learning through teaching, and also maximizes the number of students receiving timely support.
  • Because the Help Ticket board is public, students are able to help their peers – this is a great way to give kids a working brain break or to engage a student who might be ahead of the group.

A few benefits of using this system:

  • Students are able to work on a multitude of different projects, while still allowing you to meet their needs.
  • Students are empowered to coach each other, enabling you to spend quality time with as many students as possible, while ensuring timely feedback and support for all.
  • Student coaching = student leadership. You are able to build capacity and challenge students who might be further ahead, while also amplifying strengths.
  • When students are required to be specific in stating their challenge, they have to clarify exactly what the problem is. This gives them the opportunity to really think through their issue, which not only helps you to better support them but also ensures they’re doing some of the mental work, too.
  • Standing up and walking over to write their challenge on the board is a built in mini-brain break. We’re forcing them to walk away from the challenge and literally take a breath. Not to mention, standing up increases oxygen to the brain.
  • The quick visualization makes it easy for you to pull small groups with similar challenges, allowing you to quickly deliver mini-lessons or meet the needs of many students all at once.

Because of the benefits of standing and walking, I tend to lean towards using a physical white board. However, you could easily do this on a Google Sheet as well. I’ve created a template for you to use if you prefer this format. It’s read-only, so you’ll need to “Make a Copy” for your own use, and then share it with your students so they have access.

Let me know if you’ve tried and love the Help Ticket System! Any other ideas for easy project management? Share them in the comments!

Reflections on CSTA 2019

One of the things they don’t (or more likely, can’t) prepare you for as you move into teaching computer science is how alone you feel sometimes. As high of a demand as there is for computer science, both in the workplace and in schools, oftentimes you are the only computer science teacher in the building. Sometimes, you are one of very few (if any) in the county or district.

Being the only one of you in your building means a few things. You’ll teach multiple courses (during my time in middle school, I had four unique preps) without the ability to collaboratively plan for them, teach larger courses, sometimes without adequate special educator support to meet every student’s diverse needs, and occasionally feel misunderstood or undervalued. It comes with the territory.

I promise I did not write this post to complain.

This past weekend, I traveled to Phoenix for the Computer Science Teachers Association national conference. It was my second year, and I facilitated a workshop, two sessions, and shared a Nifty Assignment.

Last July, at my first CSTA, was the first time I did not feel alone as a computer science teacher.

It was the first time I understood that even though I might be “the only one” in my building, I am part of a movement so much bigger than my classroom, my building, or even my district.

This CSTA was no different. I leave feeling energized and ready to take on a new school year (and a new grade level!), with connections to passionate, pedagogy-focused educators across the country willing to share knowledge and resources so that all of our students can succeed. Every session I attended was focused on providing teachers with real tools (often sharing all resources) that are immediately implementable in the classroom.

Computer science teachers equip students with skills that extend so far beyond their course. We build innovators, problem solvers, and critical thinkers. We teach students that problems have multiple solutions, and that the best solutions are iterated over and over again. We develop tenacity through rigorous, real-world problems that give students the opportunity to experience productive struggle and flow. We teach students that persistence is tantamount to success, and that oftentimes, the solution may not be a matter of trying harder, but rather of shifting the way you think.

Our field is critical, and if the growth of CSTA is any indication, pretty soon, very few of us will be “the only one” in our building.

But for now, I will start the year in a new school as the only computer science teacher, working to grow our program so that all students can experience the magic of computer science.

This time, I know I’m not alone.