Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ada Lovelace Day

I think people who work at the intersection of computer science and other disciplines do some of the most interesting work there is. In particular, I think there are women doing amazing work at the intersection of the social sciences (like linguistics and sociology) and computer science.

Jane Margolis is my hero because she has looked critically at the culture of computer science and not only found ways in which it is unwelcoming to some groups (notably girls and minorities) but has also worked passionately to change it. In particular, her work with the Computer Science Equity Alliance is inspirational. Jane is energetic and thoughtful and perceptive, and she constantly works to make the world of computer science better.

Jane introduced me to another of my heroes, Justine Cassell. I first learned of her because of the book From Barbie to Mortal Kombat. I had the opportunity to talk to her briefly at the Hopper conference this fall and was so impressed by her analytical mind and energetic presentation. Justine has also done a lot of interesting work on gender and technology.

Finally, the researchers of ABI and NCWIT earn my respect every time I talk to them. Catherine Ashcraft had the most interesting observations about gendered behavior and how it is different from sex, which convinced me she's brilliant. Lecia Barker and Caroline Simard produce consistently fascinating research.

This post was produced for my Ada Lovelace pledge. Two other posts on this subject I found inspiring today were "Why Care about Gender?" and "The Impact of Positive Female Role Models"

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Mental math

I believe in growth mindset - the idea that you can get better at things by working at them. It can be a hard thing to live at times - we all seem to have certain places where we have blinders about our ability to improve (or our students' ability to improve!)

With that in mind, I have been working on my mental math abilities. I've been playing a game where I keep track of changing numbers by adding and subtracting. The numbers are pretty small - usually less than 10, though not always, but the running total can grow fairly large.

I am sure that it's good for my brain to play this game, that I'm improving my ability to do mental math.

Here's what I wonder, though: does it matter if I get the right answer? I have discovered at times that as I keep track of the running total, I have made computational errors - not particularly surprising, since it isn't something I'm particularly stellar at. My sense is that it's the activity of trying the math rather than getting the right answer that's important, especially since I doubt that I'm reinforcing bad math by occasionally adding numbers incorrectly. However, I can believe it would be a problem to form neural pathways to bad computation. I don't know of any studies that have looked at this, so I'm not sure we know the answer.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Encountering the Other

I've been thinking a lot about constructivism and constructionism and Freire and diversity lately. I can believe that almost totally open-ended discussions and activities can be engaging and educational. (Almost totally open-ended! Not totally open-ended! Though there's a good point in A Mathematician's Lament that anything one doesn't stumble across in 12 years of thinking about a topic probably isn't all that important.)

I am thinking of knowing the kind of activity you want kids to engage in, but allowing them to propose all the particulars. Let them figure out what the important parts are. Say you want them to learn how to write a program. Ask them what kind of program they want to write. What kind of problems do they have that could be solved with a program? Then let them figure out (with support) how to write the program - they figure out the constructs, you provide the syntax. It's just-in-time teaching. At an extreme, you might even be able to let them figure out what they wanted to learn at all in the context of your class, but without them knowing something about the context it seems like proposing problems is a better way to start.

I have a hard time believing this way of teaching is scalable - how can you get all the thousands of teachers in this country to be that open-ended? It's hard and you have to have an incredible grasp of the material to be able to guide students gently. (Or perhaps you could pull it off if you knew nothing, with teacher and class learning it together, but that's not comfortable for most teachers!) That said, as I have practiced open-ended teaching more and more, I've become better at it, which makes me think it is teachable, which means it might be scalable. It would require a sea change in how we think about education - we might not get to all the standards this way.

The extreme educational theorists believe in this way of teaching because of its respect for students' culture and experience. And I haven't ever questioned that, except to contemplate that the historical role of education in the US is to inculturate children into the dominant value set and that if we take underprivileged students and fail to give them that clue, we do them a disservice when they have to compete as adults in the dominant culture. (I am a terrible teacher because I will regularly point out to underprivileged students how to fly under the radar like the privileged kids do.)

So it was with great interest that I read Siobhan Curious' latest post: Encountering the Other about the role of literature in our lives. Specifically, she has a quote from a Harper's article Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School:
Happily ignoring the fact that the whole point of reading is to force us into an encounter with the other, our high schools and colleges labor mightily to provide students with mirrors of their own experience, lest they be made uncomfortable, effectively undercutting diversity in the name of diversity.
One is wise enough to think one should tread lightly on a discussion of valuing diversity vs. valuing the dominant culture (as though one can't value both!) So one will stop writing now other than to wonder what you think?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cultural and Gendered Values

I can't remember when I first heard about the work at Georgia Tech on African Americans and gaming. Maybe it was in a post of Mark Guzdial's? Anyway, I thought this post by Latoya Peterson was very interesting. My favorite quote applies to far more than just African American males:
Hacker culture is privileged in the CS learning environment, meaning that many students are drawn to the program because of their existing skills. This marginalizes many students who decide to enter at the college level, and do not have years of experience experimenting with programs on their own. CS programs also tend to trend toward the strongest programmers in the class, encouraging a DIY approach to learning, and leaving behind students who are new to the discipline.
On the one hand, we want to value diverse cultures, and I know that many people who succeed in this culture feel marginalized in the broader culture. And isn't it true that in many programs, particular skill-sets are valued? On the other hand, it certainly gives me pause that it's so difficult to enter the discipline as early as college, especially given that many students have no access to computer science before they get to college. Look at how many other (related, even) disciplines are welcoming to students who have no prior experience, even at the graduate level - information science, education, and business being obvious examples.

We keep talking about how to increase the pipeline and have more graduates. I think a major part of the problem is the culture. Computer science is not a welcoming culture. Wouldn't it be great if instead of being denigrated, newcomers were encouraged and supported?

I see that Mark has a new post up pointing out especially the comments relating to the class aspects brought up in the comments, along with a link to another post about this topic.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Public Service Announcement: CS & IT Symposium

For years, I have maintained that the very best day of professional development in my year is the day of the CSTA CS&IT Symposium. And since I've always wondered if it was just me, I have been gratified both to see references to other people posting this thought on the web, and one notable year when in the symposium feedback I found out that someone wrote, "Wicked Teacher of the West said this was the best PD day of the year and she was right!" So you can take it from many anonymous strangers on the web that it's great!

For K-12 computer science teachers, this is a full day of PD just for you, with options whether you teach IT applications, AP CS, or anything in between - and not just high school either, there are sessions applicable to lower grades too.

The symposium gets better and better every year. The keynotes are thought-provoking, and the breakout sessions are full of ideas to take right back to the classroom. In fact, my biggest complaint about the day is that there are always multiple sessions I want to attend at the same time! And finally, the lunch is excellent - it's worth the price of admission for the great food and chance to spend time with other teachers!

Registration for the symposium is now open. It will be held on July 13 at Google Headquarters in Mountain View, CA. The registration is limited to 200 people and last year they did 'sell out' so I'd encourage you not to procrastinate. Registration information and more details are at the symposium website. (

If you want to make it into a vacation, not only are there mountains, sun, the Pacific Ocean a short drive away, but Mountain View is a mecca for geeks, particularly the Computer History Museum, the Tech Museum in San Jose, and the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Taking a break

I've finished nearly all of the grading - enough to think of myself as done, although I have four extra credit projects still unassessed. Fortunately they'll be easy because any kid good enough to have done extra credit is likely to have done it well. Also they're unlikely to change my assessment of those students - kids motivated enough to do extra credit have usually been doing well all along. I will of course look at the projects tomorrow.

Before I go to bed, I want to post a few articles I've come across but haven't felt the luxury to form complete commentary on. The articles are good enough to stand alone; you should read them!

The Atlantic looked at Teach for America's upcoming report on What Makes a Great Teacher? I hope to take the ideas, especially about constant re-evaluation and changing what doesn't work, and implement them this semester.

I have thought Lisa Damour was fabulous ever since I heard her speak about Growth Mindset and Stereotype threat. I think the things she is looking at are important and I think she's smart and able to explain things in a way that are easy to understand. So I was pleased to see her article about teaching girls to tinker in Education Week. And that was before I knew she mentions computer science!

Clay Shirkey's Rant About Women is getting a fair amount of play. I *really* want to know what Sarita Yardi thinks, since I can tell she has strong opinions but so far I haven't seen them. I'm willing to overlook the strong language and think he has some very good points. I'm sure my opinion is informed by the fact that I've been trying to do some self-aggrandizing writing lately and I'm not very good at making it sound like I'm all that.

I'm trying to be more positive in 2010. So the article from Teacher Magazine about having better classroom management by focusing on the positive was nicely timed. I'm not seeing stuffed animals in the classroom in my future, but maybe I can yell less.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Looking for the motivation fairy

I'm supposed to be writing grades, but I'm having an impossible time settling down and getting anything done. When it became obvious that working from home wasn't working, I came to school. So far that has prompted me to open my gradebook, which is a step in the right direction, but more of a baby step than a meaningful step.

I'm not even engaging in structured procrastination, just kind of noodling around.

Please, motivation fairy, show up soon!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Who Are You?

During the holiday break, I attempted to declutter my craft closet. The craft supplies are organized by craft in boxes in a closet, but the closet was stuffed to the gills, making it hard to get to many of the boxes, which is a major barrier to doing the crafts. It was time for some of the supplies to go.

I weeded the contents of boxes, getting rid of supplies I don't really like and won't use. In some cases, I weeded crafts, emptying out whole boxes.

I got stuck when it came to one craft. I have nice supplies. I like them. They're well organized and fit nicely into the space they're in, so getting rid of some of them is harder than getting rid of none or all. I realized that I am not ready to let go of my vision of myself as a person who does that craft.

We have a lot of visions of ourselves, labels we apply. Most CS teachers I know think of themselves as programmers. Few think of themselves as computer scientists.

I wonder how this affects our students. Are our labels accurate? Are you a programmer, if you know how to program and do it sometimes, but not often? Are you a programmer if you love to program but almost never do it? Does it affect how you think about curriculum if you think of yourself as a programmer but not a computer scientist? Do the kids pick up on your attitudes about yourself and what you do?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Dear people: you can change

Although I am quite sure there are cultural influences at work keeping women and other underrepresented groups out of computing, I have not been all that excited by the recent reports about Geeks Drive Women Out of CS. I think the research being reported on is important and valid, but I am underwhelmed by the reporting itself, starting with the headline.

However, a blog post by the same name with recommendations for girls, boys, and teachers, aimed at getting more girls into CS classes was entertaining, accessible, and way better than the articles I've read. Yes, some of it relies heavily on stereotypes. But I'm delighted by a slightly snarky attitude that suggests resilience and demands welcoming attitudes.

Go read it. Really!

Saturday, January 2, 2010


I don't like New Year's Resolutions.

First, they seem ill-timed to me. I read a line in the last week or two about how terrible a time of year this is to make resolutions, especially weight loss ones. It's dark all the time, so you don't want to get out and exercise. It's winter so there's no good fresh produce. "I resolve to do something that will be nearly impossible! Yay!" For me, like many teachers and students, the new year begins in September.

Second, I don't really like the word 'resolutions'. I like the word 'goals'. Goal leaves more room to not succeed without actually failing.

I have found that I do better when I let goals just happen to me, rather than making them. I feel like making some change, so I make it, without waiting for the new year or forcing myself to make a change because it's the new year. It means I change when I'm ready to change, which means I'm more likely to be successful.

However, I am intrigued by the 6 Changes approach to creating new habits. I like the parts about making something a habit (not a resolution!), it's based on triggers, and you don't have to change everything at the same time. I don't like the part about breaking it into baby steps.

What I need to do is figure out a system for keeping my to do list. Don't know how to break that one into baby steps!

I also need to get my head out of vacation mode and back into school mode! I have tests to grade, paragraphs to write, and lessons to plan. But it's been a relaxing couple of weeks.