Wednesday Weekly Wisdom #5: I’m a TA and …what’s my job again?

Welcome to Wednesday Weekly Wisdom. Click here for background on what I mean, or read last week’s post here

 

This week’s wisdom is directed to one specific set of you all: my fellow remote TAs.

As you’ve probably realized by now, the TA role in TEALS is a bit different to the TA role that you may have experienced in a University course. The TEALS TA role is not secondary to a class professor, but is an equal member of Co-Teaching Trifectas or TA Support Tandems[1]. The importance of the role and it’s place in the classroom are what keep me coming back as one each year.

But a not uncommon feeling I’ve head when I talk to other TAs is one of being kinda sorta useless – or at least, not very useful. Sure, you’re grading assignments, and trying to do check-ins with students in class, but you’re left with a feeling that you’re not having the impact in your classroom that you were hoping you’d have.

If this feeling comes up, it’s worth stepping back to analyze why. It could be that there are smaller, day-to-day practices you could be leveraging more. Things like asking your students follow up questions when you chat them, and making sure that at least one of your questions cannot be answered with a “yes” or a “no”. There are certainly students who are absent, or are struggling to keep up with the pace of the class, and maybe those students aren’t getting the help they need. Working with those students can easily occupy a TA for a whole day.

It could also be that there are larger classroom practices that your team isn’t employing, and should strongly consider. As a TA, you’ll be leaving some great, personalized feedback for students on their projects and assignments. When was the last time you took class time to have students review and respond to this feedback? Remember, students need to hear it 7 times or do it 3 times to really absorb a concept. Responding to feedback is another time to hear, and correcting an assignment is another time to do. You’ll be the first to notice when the entire class does much worse on an assignment than expected, and you’ll be most familiar with the errors they made. This makes you best prepared to dissect what concept seems to have been collectively missed and to lead a review of that concept.

And finally, if you find yourself with some free time, you can use that freedom to add to your classroom in ways beyond the curriculum. Quick learning students will need additional meaningful challenges to grow. There are entire libraries of projects in every language that can inspire your students, but they’ll need some adapting for use in your classroom. And don’t forget that the classroom teacher is one of your students as well. They’ll have to maintain, modify, and grow this class long after TEALS steps out, and every resource you can find or create for them will set them up for long term success.

As you know, teaching is so much more than lecturing. As a TA, you’ll be less occupied by the lecture than the teachers, which means you get to be more concerned with all of the other aspects. You’ve got the most freedom to take your CS course beyond the confines of powerpoint – use it!

 

[1] Some more background, for my non-TEALS audience. Co-teaching and TA Support are two models of school engagement in TEALS, and TA is one of the roles that volunteers take on. The TEALS website has more information on both their engagement models and the volunteer roles.

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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:

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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”

 


References:

[1] https://services.google.com/fh/files/misc/searching-for-computer-science_report.pdf
[2] http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EG.ELC.ACCS.ZS?locations=US
[3] https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/11301
[4] https://eddataexpress.ed.gov/data-elements.cfm
[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/number-of-us-homeless-students-has-doubled-since-before-the-recession/2015/09/14/0c1fadb6-58c2-11e5-8bb1-b488d231bba2_story.html?utm_term=.77226a226f4a

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