The Hardest Lesson I’ve Ever Taught

“Haha, you need help from a girl!”

He’s a 5th grader in the robotics club I help run. He’s 10, maybe 11, years old. He says those words to another boy in the club, who was indeed receiving help from a girl. And even as the words are still coming out of his mouth, I knew they need to be addressed.

I want to tell him that at that very moment, I too was getting help from one of the girls in the club. I want to tell him girls can be incredibly helpful. I want to tell him that I’ve received great help from incredible women, and that some of the smartest people I know are women.

I want to tell him that that doesn’t mean all women have to be helpful, or that women are only good at being helpful. I want to tell him that even when a woman isn’t the smartest person he knows, that’s ok, because the girls are just like boys, and some will be smarter and some won’t, and gender doesn’t matter for that.

I want to tell him that by using a girl to insult a boy that he was also insulting the girl. I want to tell him that the fact that girls are in the robotics club is a somewhat unusual thing. I want to tell him that girls being one third of the robotics club is even less common. I want to tell him that that number probably won’t last in the years ahead.

I want to tell him that insults just like that one will be repeated time and time again. I want to tell him that talking that way about the women around him will slowly drive them away from robotics, and from technology fields. I want to tell him that subtle sexism, and blatant, for that matter, is pervasive in STEM, and that sexism is hugely damaging to both individuals as they are and as they dream to be.

I want to tell him about sexism. I want to tell him about gender roles in society, and about how some of the ideas he’s already formed are not only wrong, but hurtful to others. I want to tell him that not only is mocking the other boy wrong, but that by using mockery to define manliness, he is spreading a malformed definition of what it means to be a man. I want to tell him that being manly doesn’t mean being above women.

I want to tell him that insulting others in the classroom is never tolerable. I want to tell him that, from the start, insulting the other boy is unacceptable. I want to tell him that asking questions and asking for help are the best ways to learn. I want to tell him that he should learn from anyone who can teach him, regardless of race, or gender, or age, or orientation, or any other factor that divides us.

I have, realistically, a few seconds to say about two sentences, before his attention span for my words cuts out. Even if that weren’t the case, I have to say all of this in a way that helps him learn, not that makes him feel burdened by gender roles and norms being unwillingly hoisted upon him. I have to communicate critically important ideas and messages to a middle schooler who hasn’t yet had the life experiences to really understand what I’m about to say. And I have, approximately, 10 seconds.

He completes his sentence, and a moment later, I begin trying to teach the most important lesson I’ll teach all year.

Learning Is Only For Professionals

If these young minds haven’t already decided on a career of programming, then they’re just wasting time

In talking with parents, it’s not infrequent that I heard a sentiment similar to:

“What is the value in graphical programming? Don’t real programmers use text languages? Should we really be simplifying it, if they’ll have to learn a different kind of programming later?”

During these discussions, I find that I could not agree more with the points being raised. My job involves writing a fair amount of code, and I would be laughed out of any room for suggesting to use Scratch, Blockly, or any of their kin to implement a product design specification.

Certainly, the only purposeful way to learn programming is to jump in to what is needed at a professional level. In fact, it’s an educational model that I believe needs to be more widely implemented. For any subject, students should be introduced to the concepts at the same time as the professional tools. There are numerous examples of even young children who are up to the challenge, so why should we not try to teach every child in the same manner? Computer science is, after all, only for professional programmers.

With this in mind, I propose the following humble changes:
• When being introduced to basic arithmetic, students should be shown how addition and subtraction are used in the evaluation of harmonic series for estimation of non-real numbers. Math is only for mathematicians.
• When learning about the Earth’s unique ability to readily support human life, children should learn in parallel how to properly maintain cell cultures, with an emphasis on maintaining a sterile control environment in a laboratory setting. It is a basic professional process that is a fundamental component in determining what is and is not alive. Science is only for scientists.
• Snap-together plastic robots are a common method to teach children the fundamentals of both programming and of mechanical engineering. However, if a child is unable to simultaneously learn professional welding techniques, such as ones needed in the construction of an extraterrestrial rover, their interest should perhaps be directed elsewhere. Engineering is only for engineers.
• Early in a child’s Physical Education curriculum, they learn the benefits of stretching as a component of exercise. This should be expanded to include knowledge of professional level physical therapy. If detailed muscular knowledge is uninteresting or too difficult for the student, they should defer stretching, and perhaps all exercise, until more fully ready. Physical Education is only for medical professionals.
• Shortly after mastering the alphabet, children should be tasked to write a story. Many children enjoy writing from even a young age. However, all children should be required to submit their stories to a publisher, and to successfully have their work published. If they cannot, they certainly should not waste their time learning further forms of expressive writing. Writing is only for authors.
• Many children dream of becoming president. If, after watching Schoolhouse Rock, a child cannot even begin to get a post office renamed, their dream of high elected office, much less president should be discouraged [1]. Civic engagement is only for politicians.

It is a great blessing when children discover their passions early in life. By introducing professional level tools and requirements to younger and younger children, we should be able to isolate their true callings earlier, or at least, prepare them for the professional workforce by a much younger age. That is, of course, the principle goal of education, and we should strive to make it the exclusive one.

[1] An exception can be made here if money earned from lemonade stand fundraisers is deposited into a Political Action Committee designed to lobby for renaming local post offices.

Admitting Mistakes

As a volunteer teacher, I have a liberty that many professional teachers do not: publicly admitting my mistakes without fear of losing my job. And admitting mistakes is important. It’s very true that the first step to fixing a problem is admitting there is one, and it’s near impossible to learn from our mistakes is we don’t admit they ever happened.

In that spirit, from time to time, I’ll be sharing a story of when something didn’t go right. I’ll start, though with a small one this time: in a previous post, I talked about an impromptu moment of learning that happened. I wrote that I had learned that one of my students was Jewish, and that I had the opportunity to connect a little more with her by wishing her a Happy Hanukkah before break.

The morning before break, I completely forgot.

On the scale of things too forget, it’s a small one. But it’s worth sweating the small things when building a relationship, even (really, especially) a teacher-student one. I know I remember many of the small moments I had with my best teachers much more than any of their lectures.

Look out for the next part in this series, where I share a time I taught for a semester and felt like no one learned anything – and how it turned the following semester into one of the best ever.

When Students Become Teachers

Morning in Quincy, WA – home of Quincy High School and a gorgeous section of the Columbia River

Every year in December, one week is designated as Computer Science Education Week, during which schools and non-profits across the world ask people to sit down and complete one hour of code. There is an incredible number of pre-planned lessons and activities, from Star Wars to Frozen to flags, that can help anyone of any age sit down and learn to code.

My high school students are now a semester in to our Introduction to Computer Science course, and so they’re mostly more advanced than the Hour of Code activities. While Hour of Code wouldn’t be the most useful in our classroom, I came to a realization: the knowledge our students had would be plenty useful to anyone participating in Hour of Code. There’s nothing quite like a real, live teacher to help you get introduced to a new topic.

Our teaching team (other volunteers from Microsoft + the in-classroom teacher employed by the district) quickly settled on a plan: our students would spend time traveling to the elementary schools in the district, and help run an Hour of Code for as many K-6 grade classes as they could. The provided activities would be the lesson plan, the videos would be the main instruction, and our students would take on our role as teaching assistants.

On Friday, we traveled out to the school for an in-person visit, and spent the class period debriefing with the students. And the survey says: smashing success. The students loved going out and being teachers, and the teachers loved having the high schoolers in to show off what the “big kids” are learning. Many of the student reflections commented on how easy it was to help teach what they called “the basics”. Those basics, including loops and conditionals, are exactly the topics we has as our main learning outcomes for the semester, so it was rewarding to hear that they’ve internalized those concepts so well that it’s now just “basic”.

The students also got their eyes opened to just how different each newcomer is. Some of the elementary students could quickly pick up the activities and needed only a little help, while others needed help nailing down the different between a right click and a left click. Our high schoolers could also relate with the elementary students incredibly easily, and share their own struggles when trying to understand the concepts.

During lunchtime of our visit, we invited teachers and administrators to the classroom, and our students has the opportunity to show off some of the projects they had made, and help the grown-ups start on an Hour of Code too. This lead to one of the most incredible moments of the day, between one of our students, a bit of a trouble maker, and the vice principal, the main disciplinarian. The vice principal came ready to listen and learn, and our student got a chance to show off his work, show off something he was proud of, and teach something he knew that the vice principal didn’t. Each got to see a side of the other that they usually don’t – a moment of learning well outside of the normal curriculum.

P.S. I’d be remiss not to mention the incredible amount of planning and coordination done by Mr. Kondo, a downright incredible teacher at Quincy HS and our partner in CS education, for making the entire experience possible

An Unplanned Lesson

While this blog will usually be about my experiences teaching coding, I have a wonderful recent story I can’t help but share.

On Friday mornings, I volunteer at a local elementary school, helping run a robotics club for 5th graders. This past Friday, there were a wonderful five minutes of learning that were totally unplanned (and unplann-able!), but that were the best few minutes of my day – and they didn’t have anything do to with robotics.

The scene: myself and two students returning a cart of laptops to the classroom after club:

  • Student A, humming “Jingle Bells”: “uggg, I don’t even know why I have this song stuck in my head!”
  • Me: “Well, it’s a good time of year to have Christmas songs stuck in your head!”
  • A: “Except I celebrate Hanukkah, so it’s a little awkward”
  • Me: “You can just get some Hanukkah songs stuck in your head instead!”
  • Student B: “Are there even Hanukkah songs?”
  • A: “Yeah, there are.. like…”
  • A starts singing “I have a little dreidel”, I join in
  • We finish the first bit of the song, return the cart, and the students go off to start school

In just these few minutes, some amazing learning was able to happen –

  • I was able to connect with a student in a way outside of lesson plans. Students’ faces light right up when you can talk (or sing!) with them about their life outside of your lesson plans, and they will transfer that connection back to your classes.
  • I have an opportunity to deepen this connection in the future, simply by recalling it and wishing her a Happy Hanukkah before winter break.
  • The other student got to learn something about another culture/religion that she may not have otherwise, and have a personal connection to it, because she learned it directly from a peer

Those lessons and connections are hard enough to build into a curriculum when you try!

Lesson learned: always be ready to jump in and learn at a moment’s notice.