Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Power of Encouragement

I recently heard an expression used in the context of overcoming the diversity issues in the IT and computing fields - what we need to combat the lack of diversity are 'circuit breakers' or practices that can truly break the cycle, or circuit of inequity. Put together with Google's CS research paper "Encouraging Students Toward Computer Science Learning" and a book called the Power of Our Words, I came across a circuit breaker that is so powerful, yet so overlooked - the power of encouragement. Consider the following from Google's paper - that students who have been encouraged by a teacher or parent are three times more likely to be interested in learning CS. Here's the clincher though - that not all kids do not have the same likelihood of receiving this critical encouragement. The report highlights the role that unintentional biases in well-intentioned parents and the very best of teachers have that in turn lead to inequity in terms of expectations, instructional practice, and encouragement. From the report, for example, boys are nearly twice as likely as girls to report that a parent has told them that they would be good at CS.

So where does this journey begin? I believe a critical first step is reflecting on one's own biases and as an educator, it means thinking about hard questions such as: Who do I believe can or cannot learn computer science? From there, it goes to reflecting on one's own teaching practice and curriculum - is it responsive to all students' needs or does it only cater to a select, 'advanced' few who have already had a head start with computing anyway? Encouraging comes in many forms in the classroom. It comes in the form of words and communicating to every student that sense of "I believe in you and that you are a creative problem-solver with the ability to change the world with your incredible ideas." It comes from providing them with role models and mentors who can show them that they can do CS through programs like Technolochicas that elevate the voice of Latina women and inspire more to pursue computing pathways.

Our words are powerful - in the words of Yehuda Berg:
Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.”

Monday, November 20, 2017

CSforAZ Updates

It's been an amazing journey this year - working with a group of dedicated volunteers to bring computer science to all.  I wanted to share our latest endeavor - a newsletter to update the CS community on all the latest updates and events. Here's our first edition!

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Mentoring to Sponsor

I was out at dinner a little while back with one of my former students and a college student majoring in computer science (CS) with whom I had worked on a variety of community initiatives around CS. It wasn't just any dinner though. It was intentionally arranged so that they could meet a contact of mine who was heading up a new initiative to inspire Latinas and their families about opportunities in technology - Technolochicas. You see, Technolochicas was looking for ambassadors - young Latinas who could serve as role models to the entire community of how they had pursued CS and technology-related endeavors. Immediately these two girls came to mind - both incredibly inspiring and accomplished at their young age already with CS. Being a Technolochicas ambassador would be an incredible way to raise their visibility, so when this contact was planning to be in town, we got to work on arranging a dinner together. Along with my contact and students, two other accomplished young Latinas were also there - in fact, one was an engineer with General Motors. As we sit and begin to converse, sharing stories and backgrounds, the engineer suddenly exclaims to me, "You're a sponsor!" I responded with, "You mean a mentor? I don't have money to be anyone's sponsor...I'm just a teacher." She follows with, "No, a sponsor. A sponsor does more than just guide and listen to their mentees. They go out of their way to help them make connections, they help them become more visible and known. That's what you are - their sponsor." As if that her convincing me wasn't enough, I went online and found this article describing the difference between being a mentor and a sponsor. These three points about being a sponsor stood out to me. Sponsors:

  • Intentionally orchestrate plans by design, not default - CHECK!
  • Champion and promote their mentees through increased visibility - CHECK!
  • Advocate for and expose mentees to opportunities CHECK!    So there you have it. I'm a sponsor and didn't even know it! And there is no other way I'd have it. What greater joy is there than to see former students recognized for their efforts? Here are some intros to a few of the inspiring young women at dinner that night:

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Three powerful words

As I start a new school year with a new group of computer science students, I am reminded of the three powerful words that capture the everyday, seemingly normal miracles of teaching and learning. It happened after teaching the first lessons of html and my 6th graders were just beginning to create ordered and unordered lists. All at once, I heard a chorus of voices exclaim with joy, "I did it." There you have it. Three powerful words. I did it. It struck me at that moment that this is what learning is all about. It's about being about to do something that I was not previously able to do. It's about surprising myself with what I am capable of doing - that is empowering. It's about stretching beyond what is currently possible and continuing to push the boundaries of what is possible.

Then I took a step back to reflect further. What does this mean to me as an educator? I realized that this is what makes teaching such a joy. To be able to witness students celebrate their own accomplishments as they are equipped and empowered with new skills. Taking it a step further, what does that mean to me in terms of ensuring that all of my students have access to these "I did it" experiences. Do I have students that cannot yet say these three words and what can I do about it? Asking myself these questions then brought to mind reading I had done on Universal Design and the parallels between Universal Design (UD) in the physical world with architecture, for example, and Universal Design for Learning.

I love in the 10 things to know about UD  that the first thing to know is that "Universal Design strives to improve the original design concept by making it more inclusive." In teaching, the same applies. As I strive to provide these "I did it" experiences to all of my students, it's about making my lesson more inclusive without taking away any rigor from it. It's also about understanding that UD "aspires to benefit every member of the population by promoting accessible and usable products, services and environments." As I reflected on what this meant to me in the classroom, I realized it is about remembering to use strategies that benefit all of my students. For example, building pair programming into my computer science benefits all of my students. Even more so, building in structures where my students switch partners every 5-10 minutes or so creates benefits for all of my students as well since they are in an environment that has them collaborating, communicating, and problem-solving together. Doing things to intentionally and deliberately build an inclusive community is essential, as highlighted in this great article on broadening participation in computing by supporting great teaching. 
Here's to a year full of empowering our students with many more choruses of "I did it's!"

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Equity and Access to CS

As a CS educator, the issues related to equity in and access to CS are very real to me. As a middle school teacher, I had classes of 37 students with only 3 girls. Within a year after intentional support from administration and starting a Girls Who Code club, the numbers of girls enrolling in my classes were up and so was my hope that we really could get to the 50/50 mark. 

With this experience in mind, I submitted a proposal to put together and moderate a panel for the annual convening of Arizona's superintendents, district, and school leaders - Equity and Access to K-12 Computer Science Education. For this panel, I invited Kevin Wang, founder of Microsoft TEALS, a K-12 district representative, Code.org regional partner representative, and a higher education representative from the CS department at University of Arizona. Together, the panel addressed questions related to equity and access to CS education.
To start everyone off with an overall understanding of the issue, I showed this video about equity in CS education.

Inequity in Computer Science Education from Bryan Twarek on Vimeo.

Following this, two questions were posed to the panel and each panelist responded from their various perspectives - industry, higher ed, K-12, and PD provider supporting teachers. 
1) Why is equity and access to CS education K-12 so critical?

2) What are some of the challenges you see to 'CS for all'? What are some ways that these challenges can be overcome?

The last 15 minutes of the panel was then dedicated to the audience to ask any questions that they had. There were some tough, but though-provoking questions posed that led to some great discussion. From a district leader's perspective, there are so many things to consider when starting out with CS - teacher training, resources, time, scheduling, stakeholder support, just to list a few. Perhaps most importantly, this panel was about opening up the way to share strategies, approaches, and concerns, all while supporting one another by brainstorming resources and ways to overcome challenges.

Among the challenges, particularly unique ones face rural schools. It was inspiring to see and hear about how Microsoft TEALS is impacting this area. 

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Real-life Stories

There is nothing like a story to inspire, uplift, and give hope that anything is possible.  Now imagine listening to the real-life stories of women as they share their experiences that exemplify the traits of determination, passion, advocate, resilience, inspire, and endurance. That is powerful. With my school district's equity challenge, my director of IT enlisted the help of others to host a 'real-life stories' night to highlight the experiences of women in IT.  I was honored to be invited as one of the speakers along with two of my former students.

The stories were incredible - a refugee who endured to establish a new life for her family, spending her last coins on buying a dictionary in order to learn English and who is now an IT specialist; a medical school student who is now researching neuroscience and learned to be 'relentlessly optimistic'; two students who first experienced the power of computer science as members of their robotics team in middle school who are now entering university and continue to use their computing skills to create apps for social good; a stay-at-home mom who learned to code at her kitchen table and founded Women who Code in Phoenix; a regional manager for Google who made a career-switch because of her passion for education; a teacher who continues to advocate for equity and access to computer science for all.

Some big-takeaways for me were:
1) never underestimate the power of mentoring
2) stand together to stand strong - community means everything as we are on this journey together
3) don't be afraid to set a goal and ask for it

At the end of the evening, all of the speakers were presented with this lovely frame with an inspiring message:

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Going for the Gold

I had a very special experience recently - to attend my first Girl Scout Gold Award ceremony. This year, I've been the project mentor for a former student of mine who has been working on her Gold Award. Her project? To start Coding Clubs in the community, of course!  We started back in the fall of 2016 by running a few coding clubs at a Boys and Girls Club and a public library to see which materials would work the best. She decided to go with Code.org's K-5 curriculum for a few different reasons - accessible entry point to CS for ALL kids no matter their background, streamlined platform with easy sign-in and tracking participants' progress. So, she did it! She continued by reaching out to new community centers and recruited high school friends who needed volunteer hours to help run the clubs. The best part? She created continuity folders so that each site could continue running the clubs on their own. This ceremony was the very first event held at the brand-new Parsons Leadership Center - a gorgeous facility with a mountainous backdrop and desert landscaping.

Some of my favorite quotes from the speakers that day as they addressed the Gold, Silver, and Bronze awardees:
"We believe in equality, opportunity, and potential for girls."
"The future of society rests on your shoulders...we depend on you to be leaders of confidence and honor...we need you to lead."

Program cover
Program blurb

Taking the Gold Award Charge

Special locket with handmade charms including Code.org, Raspberry Pi and Google ones! Gold for Riley and silver for me - to go along with the song about friendship sung at the end of the ceremony