This summer I had the opportunity to attend The Reimagining Education Summer Institute run by Teachers College thanks to the Barnard NOYCE scholars program. In addition, I took the class Racial Literacy in Digital Spaces taught by Professor Detra Price-Dennis. I am in the process of getting my Master’s in Computer Science, but in order to continue teaching I must also take Education or Math courses. This course helped me with that requirement.
Throughout the course and institute I reflected on how what we learned connected to my practice. I learned a lot about the importance of being racially literate, how students need to have a voice in the classroom, how students’ interests need to be centralized, how an expectation of excellence for all students is key, and how racial and digital literacies connect to these ideas. After these experiences, I was able to connect the main ideas of racial literacy, personal narratives, expectations of excellence, and digital literacies to my personal teaching practices by looking at past incidents and planning for the future of my classroom.
When I came into the Institute, I thought that my school didn’t have many issues involving race. Our student body is comprised of almost all recent immigrants. Since they are new to the country, I assumed they didn’t have the prejudices that seem to be ingrained into people born in the US. However, there were a few students and incidents that I kept thinking about during this conference. One scenario was between two Dominican students, Rafael* and Henry*. Rafael is white and Henry is brown. The two tend to play around, but in a recent incident they went too far and yelled slurs at each other. I pulled each one out to conference individually to figure out how it started, but since the door was open, they both kept yelling. I called the deans for assistance, but the problem, at its core, was never addressed. In the workshop entitled Facilitating Dialogues on Racial Microaggressions, I learned from Mariel Buque that what I was witnessing was an instance of microaggression. To address it, I should have stopped the class immediately and had a conversation about how it made them feel. This is in contrast to what I did, which turned it into a “he said” conversation, only making it worse. If I had talked about their feelings, it might have resulted in a better resolution. This case is an example of how issues of race should be addressed in the class: allow students to communicate their feelings and tell their personal sides of the story. This in turn increases the racial literacy of all students.
Another student I thought about was Lin*. She was the only Chinese student in our school throughout her 9th-11th grades. She hated being identified as Chinese. She once unexpectedly ran out of class. When I asked her to explain, she said that there were things that teachers do not see, but she didn’t want to tell me what happened. Two years ago, two more Chinese students joined in the 10th grade. Lin did not want to publicly associate with them. I learned from Race(ing) stories: digital storytelling as a tool for critical race scholarship (2011) by Rolon-Dow and Digitizing Race (2007) by Nakamura that lots of Asians experience racism. I was struck when I read another student’s account of how she was called a “fake Asian” because she only got a B on math and prefered humanities. Maybe this was also bothering Lin. I am now more aware and my racial literacy has expanded. One way I can address this is by having students write their own narratives and share their stories. In my computer science class, I can assign a similar project as done in the papers by Hall (2010) and Rolon-Dow. Both allowed students to share their counter-narratives. In my curriculum I already have them make an animated short movie - I can tweak the unit so that we learn about counter-narratives as well. I can challenge them to create a script of their personal experiences and then make the animation based on the script. By creating this project where students tell their personal narratives, I would be utilizing digital media to allow students’ voices to be heard inside the class and contribute to growth in both their digital and racial literacies.
Communication of high expectations was also a big takeaway from this institute. One idea I appreciated was revolutionary love, in particular Erica Walker’s ETTA principles. ETTA stands for Expectations of excellence, Transformative teaching, Tasks + talk, and Accessible opportunity. One practice I have that lives up to the ETTA principles is creating stations with student leaders for in-class preparation before tests. Station leaders are in charge of making sure everyone in their group understands their station’s topic. I rotate the station leaders for each unit so almost every student in the class is held to this high expectation and forced to communicate. This has had a transformative effect. One student, Melany*, had a 70 in my class. Once I made her a station leader together with another student, her average rose closer to 90. However, there were a few very low skilled students who I did not make station leaders. It is probably because I did not truly believe they could succeed. Next year, I will make sure even the lowest skilled students have a chance to be station leaders, even the ones who don’t know how to read in any language. As Vanessa Siddle Walker said, anyone who has a language can learn. I will just have to give them more support to make it more accessible such as extra help for two lunch periods before they are station leaders. By communicating these expectations of excellence, students will have more confidence in themselves which will transform their personal narratives and they will start to believe that they are “math people.”
Another key takeaway I learned from my experience is the importance of being racially literate. My racial literacy grew when listening to Enrique Aleman and hearing the story of the movie Stolen Education. The movie shows how Mexicans were segregated - they were not allowed to go to the same schools, barber shops, or seats of a theater and that students used to be hit if they spoke Spanish. Thinking about my own school, we limit the amount students can speak in their native languages. About half of our students speak Spanish and our Spanish speakers often take the longest to learn English. To address this, our principal told us to make sure students are speaking English in class. (To her credit, she also hired a Spanish teacher and started cultural assemblies where students can share their cultures with the entire school.) In Laura Ascenzi-Moreno’s workshop, The Multilingual Classroom, we learned about translanguage, which encourages students to express themselves in whichever language they would like. I often let my students write in their own languages, but only if they don’t know how to write it in English. But I am still questioning how much I should let them speak in their native language. If I limit it, am I demonstrating that I don’t care about their language? If I let them speak and write in their own language all the time, am I not doing my job as a teacher of Emergent Multilingual Students? These are not simple questions - I must reflect on them and delve into how my policies are formed from racial bias.
As is evident, the class and institute taught me so much. By analyzing instances of microaggressions, delving how I can incorporate personal narratives, taking a closer look at my expectations of excellence for all students, and growing my own racial literacies, I know my classroom practice will improve. Thank you so much to Professor Rivera and Melissa Flores and the entire Barnard NOYCE Scholars program for a wonderful and transformative experience!
I can’t believe that it has already been three years since I have left Barnard (although, one can never truly leave Barnard). For the past three years I have been working at the High School of Language and Innovation. It is a public high school in central Bronx, with students from all over the world - Central and South America, Western Africa, Yemen, Albania, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, China, Vietnam, and Italy. I am really glad that at Barnard we had such a focus on teaching English Language Learners because I have needed those skills everyday! I mostly teach Algebra I, but I also have taught Computer Science, Economics, Algebra II, and Calculus. However, I think I learn more from my students than they learn from me.
I am very grateful for my studies in the Barnard Education program, especially my student teaching experiences. They taught me how to handle the stress and gave me much needed support with Professor Rivera and my cooperating teacher, Rachel Parsons. That being said, in the beginning teaching was quite a challenge. I got to work early at 7:30 am, left around 8:00 pm, then got home and worked for a couple more hours, inevitably falling asleep on the couch. In my first year I taught 9th grade Algebra, Computer Science, and Calculus. It was a lot to plan for and I was not very good at managing the class. However, I received a lot of help. Calculus and Algebra were co-taught classes. Together with my co-teachers and other members of our math department team, we planned units, assessments, and lessons together. I was able to draw on their previous experiences, which helped a lot! With their support and feedback from administrators, I learned valuable techniques. One is the Ladder of Consequences. Having a set routine helped me know how to address misbehavior. Here is the ladder as it is implemented in our school now:
I often repeat steps 1 and 2 several times before moving to the third step and sometimes I add in “Move your seat”. This has been a really helpful tool and I wish all new teachers knew about it!
This past year has been much more manageable! I have gotten the hang of planning lessons - I can plan them much faster and better than I did before. I still get to school at 7:30, but I leave around 6:00 and I don’t take work home (except for the weekends). It has even been easier despite the fact that I have started my Master’s in Computer Science. In the beginning, I usually received “Developing” in my observation reviews, but now I usually am reviewed as “Effective”. I’m also excited to have received tenure! In addition, this coming year I will be the Math Department Chair. For all new teachers - It does get easier!
Girls Who Code has been an amazing experience. This past week I had the privilege of attending the IAC and AT&T Girls Who Code Graduations. Aside from receiving certificates, the girls pitched and demoed their final projects. I watched as 13 groups of 1-5 girls got up and proudly described their product. They had such confidence and professionalism. Their products were amazing. One of my favorites, was called Le Fridge by Eva Jiang and Erin Kim. Using this app you can create a list of items you have in your fridge or pantry and the app will recommend recipes for which you already have 70% of the ingredients already. You can also create a shopping list in the app. When you check things off this list they will automatically add to your fridge list. They created the code for this in just 4 days. In the future they will add a feature that tells you when items in the fridge are about to go bad and recommend recipes that uses those food items. The basic practicality and sense of what people need behind this app made me proud to have been a part of its creation, even if the girls did all by themselves. Their idea was well thought-out, planned, and executed, and that made all the difference.
Other projects included a musical digital painting experience, a competitive online game that challenges users to be healthy and active, an app that teaches children letters from different alphabets, an app to help those who are depressed, an app to notify where cat-calling and sexual abuse happens along with on the spot advice on what to say and do, and many others. Not only did our girls present their apps, but they also proposed ways to make money, even off the free apps, so that their projects could survive in the market. This demonstrates that the girls learned more than just programming, they learned to create apps that satisfy a need or solve a problem and they learned some basic business strategies. We didn’t just develop a program to create coding automatons – we developed a program to help our girls better the world while making a living.
At graduation, a few mothers came up to me and told me that this was the best program for their daughters. They were amazed at how their daughters got on stage and presented their work. They were surprised by all the different projects that the girls created. And the number one thing they emphasized was the confidence their daughters gained this summer. This made my day because it assured me that these girls matured not just as programmers but as individuals.
On my last day, I headed down to the 2nd floor to the AppNexus program. The girls were standing in a circle crying and sharing their experiences. They each mentioned that they received so much from this program. Not only did they know how to program, but they made connections with friends and people in the industry and were so appreciative to Girls Who Code. I was touched and I realized again, that one of the most important parts of this experience was the bonds they formed as a class. Number one in creating a good classroom is creating a bond between the students where they support one another and care for each other. I know these girls will stay in contact and be key in helping each other achieve their goals. Reshma constantly promotes the sisterhood and this was a perfect example.
I learned so much this summer about programming as well. The past few weeks I have been working with spreadsheets creating quizzes and forms that grade automatically, that update volunteer information spreadsheets and multiple master lists automatically. I worked on automating emails and linking forms. This is not only a useful skill to have in general, but also a meaningful and practical resume booster. A few years ago, I was speaking to a friend about putting “proficient in excel” on my resume and he told me that I didn’t know enough to say that, he said that I had to know add functions and complex formulas. I discovered recently that he didn’t even know how to do a sum in excel and assumed I didn’t either. In fact then, I could have written that I was proficient in excel. Now I can write that I am an expert.
It has been crazy and fun working at Girls Who Code this past month! Part of working at a non-profit with a start-up environment is that part of every person’s job is expansion and publicity. So, when the press calls at eight in the morning saying that they want to come and shoot in the afternoon, everyone stops what they are doing to pull that together; and the press has been here a lot. CBS, The New York Times Magazine, and many other press organizations have come and filmed our girls and written articles about Girls Who Code. For the big names, we had to pull together events and everyone did something to contribute to each one. It was a blast to see everyone work together to make these events happen at the drop of a hat.
I also enjoyed expanding the curriculum to cover a wider array of topics while teaching the same content knowledge of programming. Previously the girls learned to program with projects that dealt only with video games, graphics and mobile/web development, and a few projects that don’t have significance in their lives. I added artificial intelligence and cryptography to the curriculum. While Artificial Intelligence was previously in the summer curriculum, Cryptography was not found in Girls Who Code curriculum at all. It is not a topic that many people know about, but I think is really cool. The way that math and computer science can be manipulated in a way to make the internet a safer place is beautiful.
One challenge I had here is that most of the math in encryption schemes we use today uses very advanced mathematical methods. So, for levels one and two, I had to use older encryption schemes, like the Caesar Cipher and the Vigenere Cipher. These ciphers are fun and use algebra, but they are not current because they are easily broken. To combat this, I have students solving some challenge questions that ask students to think like cryptographers. I hope that by adding cryptography into the curriculum, I will add breadth to the topics covered and to get more students interested in how computer science affects them on a daily basis.
The New York summer programs start next week. My job then shifts: instead of spending all my time on the computer planning lessons, I will get to be in classrooms and work with the girls and teachers. My job will be to help teachers understand lesson plans, scaffold lessons, and assess student work. The experience I gained student teaching and in all my classes will be very useful here. Additionally, it will help me work through all of these skills for myself before I get back into teaching this coming year. I actually just accepted a position at the High School of Language and Innovation in the Bronx teaching math. I am very excited to start!
In my new position at Girls Who Code, I will have a very good model. I have seen Ashley lead conference calls with the West coast teachers. She is very good at pinpointing parts of the lesson that give students a struggle. The other day, one program’s lesson did not go as well as we’d hoped; the problem was that students were not so interested in the assignment. Luckily that was the first program to enact the lesson, so that very day she created a new lesson to cover the same content in a more meaningful way. She had distributed it to teachers by four in the afternoon so that other programs would not face the same problem. This is one great example of how she took feedback and made the lessons better. As I’ve stated many time before: I am so glad to have Ashley as a true model and my boss.
My first day at work was the second day of teacher training. They flew in all the teachers and some of the TAs for the summer program to New York to learn about Girls Who Code and teach some basics of teaching (most of them are recent college graduates). It was a lot of talking, but I learned a lot. Ashley, the Head Curriculum Developer, taught some basic techniques. She modeled how to scaffold a lesson to make the lesson student driven.
One huge component that was stressed over and over was creating a supportive environment. Although this is technically a class, Ashley stressed bonding activities; when the girls came to speak to us, that was the main thing they remembered. They remembered walking in on the first day, feeling shy, and like everyone was better than them. Through the bonding games, students started feeling comfortable with each other. They asked one another questions, struck up conversations, and even several years after this class, they hang out. It showed me the importance of creating a supportive and close knit classroom environment.
This week, I started more of what I will be working on this summer. My current task is to revamp the clubs curriculum. The clubs program is a lower scale version of the summer program that happens in schools and tech companies over the school year, two hours every week for six months (which with the school calendar, is really the whole year). The class has a volunteer teacher and is comprised of twenty students of all levels. The program has three levels taught at the same time. The level 1 students get the most hand holding and instructional time while levels 2 and 3 students work more on their own. Currently, the projects are static and less relevant to students’ lives and actual industry projects. My job is to change that. For the past few days, I have been reading the hundreds of pages of curricula for the summer program and clubs program as it is now. In addition, I have read the mission statement of Girls Who Code and their teaching philosophy.
I have a lot of support at Girls Who Code. There are only about seven employees based in New York. I have the privilege of sitting at a desk across from Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code and a leader in working to “close the gender gap in STEM education and empower girls to pursue careers in technology and engineering”. Ashely is right next to me, and her passion in getting more girls hooked on computer science is contagious. All around me are powerful women working to improve STEM education for girls and democratizing computer science education. It is simply an awesome place to work.