From TEALS: Wednesday Weekly Wisdom #0

As a part of my volunteering with TEALS, I do most of my teaching remotely, communicated with my class via Skype. Despite large advances in technology, remote education is still a small field, and so the experienced remote instruction volunteers with TEALS are uniquely equipped to help prepare new volunteers.

As a part of this, I’ve started a weekly blog, aimed at covering topics that I feel new volunteers should know, and that are typically not covered during training sessions. I’m reblogging them here, all with the “weekly wisdom” tag, in case they’re of any use or interest to you, my loyal readers. Below is my introductory post, and the rest will come across the summer.



Hey remote volunteers!

My name is Matt, and I’m entering my third year of remote teaching with TEALS. In the past couple of years of volunteering, I’ve learned a lot about how remote education works. As a returning volunteer, I sometimes get asked to share some of the things I’ve learned, especially with the huge growth in new remote volunteers joining the effort.

I’m going to start some weekly posting on remote education practices or concepts that I think are important. If you’re a new volunteer, I hope you find them helpful, and if you’re an experienced volunteer, I’d love to hear about your experiences on the topic – I’m still learning too!

A lot of my experience relates to rural schools, but I hope the ideas are generally applicable. If you have a question to ask or an experience to share, leave a comment or start a new topic! Exchanging ideas helps everyone 🙂

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How technology education clashes with basic student needs – and leaves the most in need behind.

The integration of technology into schools across the country is growing, and creating incredible new opportunities for students to learn and broaden their horizons. Tech is transforming schools. With new opportunities, however, come new problems. For example, I’m teaching computer science to a group of high school students, nearly half of whom do not have access to a computer outside of school. Assigning homework that requires a computer would be giving those students work that they cannot possibly complete at home. And this is in a course that teaches them to program computers!

A growing number of schools are fortunate enough to have funding to implement “one laptop per child” policies, giving students a computer that they are often allowed to take home with them. The next step in that progression is to expand internet access, so that those students can get online at home as well. Amazing progress has been made against these issues: according to a 2015 Gallup/Google survey, 91% of students report having a computer at home that has access to the internet[1]. In terms of tech education, this creates powerful learning opportunities for students.

Except for when it doesn’t.

I recently participated in a Twitter chat focused on technology education in rural schools (#ruraledchat). One of the discussion topics was about struggles in planning technology based assignments when students have neither computer nor internet access at home, which I’m familiar with. One teacher’s follow-up, however, caught me completely off guard:



Tammy G Neil: “Since my entire curriculum is online, I have to take into account those without access at home. It’s sometimes a struggle.”

Elizabeth Hill: “Do you have any easy to share suggestions about that? my district is going 1:1 and some of my Ss don’t have electricity…”


To hammer that home: this teacher’s struggle with planning tech lessons was that some of her students lack electricity.

This floored me. I had never stopped to consider the challenge posed by the lack of electricity. Setting aside all of the struggles of simply living a life as a student without power, it poses a near total barrier to home technology access. In the  best case scenario, the ability to complete an assignment becomes a race against the battery capacity of the school provided laptop, and it clearly gets much worse from there. The top question invading my mind was, simply, how many students are affected by this? Is a lack of electricity a widespread barrier to technology education? I dove into the facts to find out.

Or at least, I attempted to. The first thing I found is that there nobody really knows how many families in the US lack access to electricity. Some sources cite that 100% of US families have access[2], but this is demonstrably false. Lacking direct data, I turned to a few other sources to try to narrow in on an approximation. Helping place an upper bound is the Gallup/Google survey above. If 91% of students surveyed report having a computer with internet access at home, then absolutely no more than 9% lack electricity – and probably many fewer, given the multitude of other reasons that a home may lack a computer or internet access.

Trying to drill in to that 9%, the best stand-in I could find for living situation was data about student homelessness. The McKinney-Vento Actdefines, among other things, how schools have to count and handle homeless students[3]. Homeless students are not the only ones without power, but it provides a decent proxy. While the numbers are generally accurate, they may be low, as two issues are known to cause underreporting: first, that students who are homeless often do not self-identify, which is a major way of finding them, and second, that when identified as homeless, students will state that they have greater accommodations than they do. Being able to complete your tech homework when you’re homeless ranks low on the list of concerns in life, but that only drives home the point about the limits of technology.

Now, the numbers: the Department of Education reports that in the 2014-15 school year, the latest for which data is available, there were 1,290,649 homeless students in the US, which is a little under 3% of all students[4]. This definition of homelessness, however, encompasses a broad range of living situations. Some might have reliable access to electricity, such as those who live in motels or are “doubled up”, living in someone else’s home with them. Others, like those who spend their nights in homeless shelters, may have less consistent access to an electric socket from which to make use of their tech.

What’s more certain, however, is that a subset of this population will have little to no outside access to the power grid. They are the 40,306 students who fall into the category of “unsheltered homeless”, and they’ll spend a majority of their nights in parks, abandoned buildings, or similar places. What I find most astonishing about this group is the fact that, despite these circumstances, they manage to remain enrolled in school at all. The only positive aspect about this number is that it is a smaller percentage of the overall student population, coming in at under one half of one percent.

But it’s uncertain yet in which direction these numbers are headed. Even as the economy recovered from the great recession of 2008-2009, the number of homeless students grew, reaching a record high for the 2013-14 school year, and then falling only slightly[4],[5].

When we talk about helping students learn so they can live better lives, this is the group most in need of that help. And yet, the tools and technology meant to help all students learn has little hope of helping them. Like many cases, helping “all” really means “most”. This creates a tough balancing act for teachers and schools looking to increase the role of tech in the classroom, and it’s a balancing act I was hardly considering. How can we design technology oriented lessons that make no assumption about the students’ home resources? Can we even do that, and if we can, how good can those lessons be? How should we balance the fact that by using tech to improve some students’ education, we might be taking our most in need students and isolating them even further?

In the larger scheme of things, is it possible to solve this problem closer to its root? The “free and reduced lunch” program uses existing school infrastructure to offer students who would otherwise go hungry an opportunity for breakfast and lunch, under the guiding principle that lacking food is a major barrier to learning. Could we leverage school infrastructure in a similar way to provide students with greater access to electricity and internet access outside of the confines of class time?

I like to try to end my posts with a nice “lessons learned” section, but in this case, I’m overwhelmed. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is internalizing words I’ve heard before, but never felt as deeply as I do now:

“When we complain about how hard some kids are to teach, think about how hard some of their lives are to live”




Banner image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and used under the Creative Commons license.

Admitting Mistakes 2

Following up on an earlier post, I’m going to dedicate some more time to take advantage of the fact that I can freely talk about my mistakes as an educator, and talk about another time where things just went wrong. This one is a bit larger of a thing gone wrong, so it will require some background.

In the fall of 2015, I joined a wonderful group of people as a member of a TEALS teaching team. Our team was to help teach an intro to CS course for a class of high school students. The curriculum was largely provided by TEALS, and it been used fairly widely for years, with numerous tweaks along the way.

We were given a semester long curriculum, and one written by bunch of pros at that. Naturally, we then spent the semester teaching the course as written.

At the end of the semester, I took on the responsibility of being the primary grader for the final project. Students had to build the game “hangman”, and it was a great capstone, covering just about every concept and programming structure taught across the semester. We gave plenty of time to work on the project, and checked in with students frequently, so we were generally optimistic about how the grades would come out. Even though some of the smaller assignments had recently been a little rough, we had made sure to cover the common issues and solutions, so we weren’t concerned.

You all probably see where this is headed. Grading the assignment was terribly difficult. Nearly every student struggled with some portion of it. There were some items on the rubric that just about nobody got. Concepts that we thought we had reviewed well were totally and completely misapplied. Lacking understanding, many students found ways to follow the letter of the law of the rubric, even when it meant going out of their way to do something wrong.

How did so many of our students get to the end of the semester with such a misunderstanding of what we had been teaching? What the heck went wrong?

It didn’t take us too long to agree on the first one – in teaching the course as written, we erred on the side of following the curriculum, not of following our students. While we adjusted little bits and pieces of the material, and would slow down or speed up instruction slightly, our main focus was on making sure we covered the entire semester’s worth of material in our semesters worth of time. That caused us to miss the fact that the course as written was really more than one semester’s worth of learning for our class.

Figuring out how to correct that mistake is what led us to understanding the more fundamental one we had made: following other people’s definitions for what success looks like in our own classroom. We had the incredible gift of teaching an introductory course that didn’t end with a standardized test. The only thing that mattered is that our students learned some computer science while taking our course. We could extend, pivot, re-write, or totally trash any of our lesson plans at any point to achieve that goal. When planning and teaching the next semester, we fully embraced that freedom.

The end result? A class full of students that had fun every day, and who connected far more deeply with the material than the first time around. And some truly fantastic final projects.

Lessons learned:

“every classroom is different” isn’t just a true statement, it’s a fundamental truth about education. It does more than suggest that even the best curriculum be adapted different each time, it requires that adaptation.

More importantly, when striving to succeed, the first step is to be deliberate in defining success.

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