EppsNet Archive: High School

Teaching Computer Science: Ask More Questions

20 Apr 2015 /
Primary School in "open air"...

English: Primary School in “open air”, in Bucharest, around 1842. Wood engraving, 11x22cm

You need to ask more questions. I think there’s a general fear about asking questions. There’s a risk of looking foolish in front of the whole group when it turns out that everyone else already knows the answer.

It’s actually very unusual for someone to ask a question to which everyone else knows the answer. If you find it happens to you a lot, you probably want to get that checked out, but normally it’s very unusual.

Another scenario: Somebody, maybe a teacher, says something and you think “That doesn’t make sense. I wonder if it makes sense to everyone else. Rather than risk looking foolish in front of the whole group, I’ll wait and see if someone else asks a question.”

So you wait for someone to ask a question and no one asks a question. Why? Because they’re all waiting for someone to ask a question.

Many people, including teachers, are not good at organizing their thoughts and articulating them with precision and that’s why you can’t understand what they’re saying. Don’t assume that it’s a problem with you. You need to move people to a position of clarity by asking questions.

Also, people love the person who’s willing to ask questions because it relieves them of the need to ask questions.

Education, like everything else, you get out of it what you put into it. Don’t sit in a class with unanswered questions in your head and let everything wash over you like a tidal wave.

My own kid, even in a good school district, I don’t feel like he got a good education because of good teachers, I feel like he got a good education in spite of bad teachers. He got a good education because he put a lot into it and he got a lot out of it. And his classmates who got a good education did so because they put a lot into it and they got a lot out of it.

All of which is a long way of saying “ask more questions.”

Any questions?


Teaching Computer Science: Extra Credit

15 Apr 2015 /

I wish I got a dollar for every time a student asks, “Can I get extra credit for [insert action for which it makes no sense to give extra credit]?”

Today in class we did a difficult programming exercise. It wasn’t graded but I asked everyone to turn it in so I could evaluate the difficulty of the assignment.

“Can we get extra credit for turning it in?” a student asked me.

“How does it make sense to give extra credit for turning it in? Everyone is turning it in.”

“It raises everyone’s grades,” he said. “Like a rising tide lifts all boats.”


Teaching Computer Science: Combating Procrastination

6 Apr 2015 /

Students had a project due last week and I got a lot of messages and emails asking for help. Of course, when we handed out the assignment two months ago, we advised students not to wait till the last minute to work on it. Teachers and parents saying “Don’t wait till the last minute” is just an understood part of the process. It’s something that gets said but it’s background noise.

A couple of alternatives occur to me:

  1. Reverse psychology. Say “My advice is to start as late as possible. Try to do two months of work in the last week, or better yet, the last night.” This seems too easy to see through and therefore unlikely to work.
  2. Hand out the 20-page spec and tell the students that it’s due tomorrow. WHAT!? YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS! NOBODY COULD DO THIS IN ONE DAY! “You’re right. It’s actually due in two months. But now that we’ve agreed that it can’t be done in one day, I don’t want to see anyone working on it at the last minute.”

Teaching Computer Science: The Last Minute

1 Apr 2015 /

“Reminder that your projects are due tomorrow so don’t wait till the last minute. Oh wait, this is the last minute.”

Deadlines can be fun when they apply to other people . . .


Teaching Computer Science: Pro Tips for Finishing a Project

5 Mar 2015 /

Woman teaching geometry, from Euclid's Elements.

  1. For many (most?) students doing an object-oriented development project for the first time, this assignment is too difficult to do without a lot of guidance. Therefore: ask for help early and often.
  2. If you wait till the night before a checkpoint, you won’t have enough time to finish and we won’t have enough time to help you effectively. Therefore: ask for help early and often.
  3. I’m seeing students struggling to write code that we’ve already given you. That’s not a good use of your time. Know what we’ve given you and use it.
  4. This is what your program needs to do: [Feature list goes here].
  5. Pick a feature and try to implement it (or part of it). If you can’t do it, come to class tomorrow and ask a question.
  6. Repeat Step 5 until done.

Teaching Computer Science: Ski Week

3 Mar 2015 /

Skier

Corona del Mar High School doesn’t just take Presidents Day off . . . they take the whole week off and call it Ski Week.

It’s a total non sequitur in terms of paying tribute to our nation’s greatest leaders. George Washington didn’t ski. Abraham Lincoln didn’t ski.

“How do you know Abraham Lincoln didn’t ski?” a student asks.

“He was too busy writing the Gettysburg Address.”

“He wrote that in 20 minutes.”

“There was the whole Civil War thing going on. He didn’t have time for ski trips with his buddies.”

It’s hard to think of a notable historical figure who also a skier. If you want to accomplish great deeds, you have to give things up. You can’t get bogged down in nonsense.


No Class Today

2 Mar 2015 /

http://ktla.com/2015/03/02/teacher-reportedly-found-hanging-in-classroom-at-high-school-in-placentia/

— via KTLA


Teaching Computer Science: Lessons Learned

1 Mar 2015 /

We did a programming lab in class . . . before we started, I mentioned several times that Java code that would be useful for the lab was posted on the class website.

So it surprised me that several groups got stuck during the lab when they got to the part where the sample code would have been useful because they didn’t go to the website and download the sample code.

Going forward, I will preface important announcements by saying “I cannot emphasize this strongly enough . . .” while pounding my fist on a solid object.


See You in Hell

31 Jan 2015 /
Satan

Satan

[See You in Hell is a feature by our guest blogger, Satan — PE]

Greetings from the underworld!

I just read about a father and son teaming up to punch out the son’s high school basketball coach because the teen wasn’t getting enough playing time.

Basketball duo

What a heartwarming story! A lot of young black men don’t have a male role model in their lives.

See you in Hell . . .


Teaching Computer Science: Today Was Not the Best Day to Say What You Just Said

14 Jan 2015 /

Class website

I asked the class to pass in today’s homework and a student said, “I couldn’t figure out what homework was due today.”

I wasn’t feeling at my best to begin with. I was tired because I was up late making sure the class website was updated with all relevant materials, homework assignments were listed at the top of the page under the Homework header with due dates listed in bold font next to each assignment so that there’s no way anyone looking at the website, assuming they’re old enough to read, could fail to understand what is the homework and when is it due.

So when that kid said that he couldn’t figure out what the homework was, I felt the futility of life grabbing me by the throat and I was mad . . .


Teaching Computer Science: Collected Thoughts

10 Jan 2015 /

If you recognize the person on this next slide, please raise your hand. Don’t yell out the name, just raise your hand.

Derek Jeter

About two-thirds of you recognize Derek Jeter. I thought everyone would recognize him, but still a clear majority.

I’m not a Yankees fan or a Derek Jeter fan particularly but the Captain and I are on the same page on this topic. I have to admit I was pretty competitive as a student. I didn’t want anyone to do better than me and I especially didn’t want anyone to do better than me because they worked harder than me.

This Jeter quote reminded me of a quote from another notable sports figure . . .

Bob Knight

This is Bob Knight, college basketball coach, most notably at the University of Indiana. He won 902 games, three NCAA championships, and he coached the 1984 Olympic basketball team to a gold medal.

Notice that he says “everyone” and “no one.” He doesn’t say some people don’t want to come to practice. There’s a universal aspiration to accomplish great results without a corresponding level of effort. I recognize that in myself, definitely. As far as I can tell, this approach rarely if ever works, even for people we think of as prodigies.

Mozart used to say that anyone who thought composing music came easily to him was very much mistaken. While all the other kids were playing kickball, Mozart was in the house practicing his music lessons. In case you’re thinking that kickball wasn’t even a game at that time, you may be right. The point is that if there was kickball, Mozart wouldn’t have been playing it because he was practicing his music lessons.

One more on this topic . . .

Michelangelo's David

This is a quote from Michelangelo. Nothing great seems to happen without a lot of practice.

Once again, please raise your hand if you recognize the person on this next slide.

Anton Chekhov

He looks Russian.

Yes, he is Russian.

Dostoevsky? Tolstoy? Mendeleev? Pushkin? Boris Pasternak?

No . . . he’s known as an author of plays and short stories.

[A student sitting next to a smart but quiet young man from Russia points to the Russian boy and says, “He knows.”]

Who is it? Chekhov.

Right . . . this is Anton Chekhov. He wasn’t a programmer but his advice is relevant to many different endeavors.

Don’t overcomplicate things. A good heuristic – which is a fancy way of saying “rule of thumb” – is to do the simplest thing that could possibly work. Method A could work, Method B could work — which one should we try first? Try the simplest one first.

Note that the heuristic doesn’t say to do the simplest thing. If the simplest thing couldn’t possibly work, don’t do it. Do the simplest thing that might actually work.

One final slide. I don’t think anyone will know these people so I’m not asking for a show of hands.

2 days in a closet

I saw an article last week about a man and a woman who were “trapped” in a janitor’s closet at the Daytona State College Marine and Environmental Science Center for two days. They got themselves in the closet last Sunday and finally on Tuesday, the gentleman on the right got the idea to call 911. Why that idea took two days to incubate is unclear. Police showed up to let them out and found out the closet was not locked. They could have opened the door themselves.

Maybe the lock was meth’d up, like the woman. “Meth’d” up, get it?

Are they students at Daytona State College? The article doesn’t say. Do any of you have Daytona State College on your college wish list? If so, you may want to take it off. Or just keep it as a safety school in case Harvard and the Sorbonne don’t come through for you.

What can we learn from this story? I don’t want to say “don’t make assumptions” but don’t make unwarranted assumptions. Don’t make assumptions about things that you can easily verify. If you’re in a closet, don’t assume the door is locked. Try it and see. A lot of uncertainty can be dispelled by trying things out.

Assumptions can hurt you as a programmer. You might be stuck because you’re assuming some condition is true that isn’t true. Or you’re assuming that some condition can never be true when it really can be true. Don’t make unwarranted assumptions.

I couldn’t help noticing that a lot more people recognized Derek Jeter than recognized Anton Chekhov. If you want to achieve great renown, if you want to be part of the public consciousness, entertain people in a simple-minded way, like hitting a ball with a stick and running around in a park. People can be entertained by Derek Jeter without expending any effort.

Where Chekhov went wrong is that he failed to anticipate a world where nobody reads anymore. Furthermore, he believed that the role of an artist was to ask questions, not to answer them. His plays and stories don’t have a traditional structure where everything is tied up neatly at the end, so you not only have to put in the time to read them, you have to go into overtime to ponder the moral ambiguities. Who has time for that in their busy lives?


Teaching Computer Science: Those Who Don’t Like to Read

16 Dec 2014 /

Students with books

I recommended a couple of books that I’ve read recently and liked — Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman — to the class in case anyone was looking for a book to read over winter break or maybe as a holiday gift.

“What if you don’t like to read?” someone asked.

“Well, in that case you can spend your entire life inside your own head and never know or care what life looks like to other people.”

In hindsight, it occurred to me that I could have suggested audio books for people who don’t like to read, but . . . woulda coulda shoulda, you know what I’m saying?


Teaching Computer Science: No School Before Thanksgiving

26 Nov 2014 /

There was no school today because a lot of kids don’t like to show up the day before Thanksgiving, so the district decided not to have classes on the day before Thanksgiving. Once they get used to having Wednesday off, they won’t show up on Tuesday and we’ll have to give them Tuesday off. Then of course there’s no sense in having a one-day school week so we’ll give them the whole week off.

And since they’re already off on Veterans Day and the day after Halloween, let’s just give them the whole month of November off.

I’m concerned that American education is getting worse faster than we can lower our standards.


Teaching Computer Science: Exam Tips from the Pros

18 Nov 2014 /

When I cover something in a review session or study guide, it’s because I know it’s going to be on the test. There were questions during this morning’s test about the workings of several Java methods, all of which were covered in the review session and the study guide. I can’t answer questions like that during the test so if you have questions about review topics, ask them in advance of test day.

Some people seem to think that having an excuse for not knowing something is as good as actually knowing it. “But we hardly spent any time on Topic X in class.” “But we just learned Topic Y yesterday.”

Even if either one of those were true, what difference would it make? It’s on the study guide and it’s going to be on the test.

Given a choice between knowing something and having an excuse for not knowing it, always go with the first option: knowing it.


Teaching Computer Science: Mindset

17 Nov 2014 /
Studying

Photo Credit: dongga BS

I’m not comfortable giving people advice that they didn’t ask for, so I usually preface it by saying “Feel free to ignore this . . .”

That being said, I want to talk about the mindset I think you should have for this class, maybe for other classes, maybe even for things outside of school.

Feel free to ignore this . . .

Education has allowed me to make a living doing things that I like and things that I’m good at. A lot of people are not able to say that. Most people, I think, are not able to say that. Most people are like “I hate Mondays” and “Thank god it’s Friday” and that sort of thing.

I have had jobs where I spent the day doing things that I don’t like and I’m not good at and it’s painful. And the amount of money you get paid to do it doesn’t seem to make it any less painful.

I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins . . . some of them were serious about education and some of them weren’t. And the ones who weren’t, I don’t want to say they’re all losers, but they’re all . . . disappointments. As I expected they would be. My wife doesn’t like when I say this — she thinks it’s bad karma or something — but I like it when people screw around in school and go on to have disappointing lives because it reinforces everything that I believe to be true about life.

It’s satisfying when people make bad decisions and suffer the consequences, isn’t it? I think it is.

My own mindset, and this doesn’t apply just to school, is that no one is going to outwork me and no one is going to outlearn me. If you’re working on homework or a programming assignment, or you’re studying for a test or quiz, and you get stuck on something, and you try to get unstuck by reading the textbook, or going to the website and reviewing lecture slides or handouts or watching a video or posting a question to the Facebook group, you’re doing things the right way. You should do well in the class, you should do well on the AP exam and I’ll do everything I can to help you do well in the class and on the AP exam.

If you hear yourself saying things like, “I spent the weekend playing 47 straight hours of video games, and by the way, I have no idea what’s going on in this class,” you’re unlikely to do well.

If you’re asking questions about assignments on or after the due date, you’re unlikely to do well.

If you miss a class and don’t check the website to see what you missed, you’re unlikely to do well. Everything we cover in class is on the website, plus a lot of extra stuff as well.

“Nobody’s going to outwork me and nobody’s going to outlearn me.”

Again, if that doesn’t make sense to you, feel free to ignore it . . .


Teaching Computer Science: Diversity for Girls Only

27 Oct 2014 /

NCWIT photo

I called the class’s attention to the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing, which honors young women at the high-school level for their computing-related achievements and interests. Awardees are selected for their computing and IT aptitude, leadership ability, academic history, and plans for post-secondary education.

The website features a photo of a black girl, an Asian girl, a white girl, and in case you’re not in any of those groups, there’s an ethnically ambiguous girl on the left you can probably identify with. Diversity and inclusiveness for all. All are welcome.

You still have to be a girl of course, they’re not that inclusive . . .


Teaching Computer Science: Diversity Takes a Hit

24 Sep 2014 /

They told us during teacher training in the summer not to scare off the students. But programming is difficult. There’s a lot of complexity and detail to master. The first couple of programming classes I took, we started off with around 50 people on the first day, and had around 12 left for the final exam. Entry-level programming classes have very high dropout rates.

One of our students dropped the class this week, a girl. So much for promoting diversity in computer science . . .


Teaching Computer Science: Applause

23 Sep 2014 /

Applause

We did an interactive exercise to write a simple program that prints numbers and the squares of the numbers — a for loop, basically. We went around the room with each student providing one element of the loop and me writing them on the whiteboard: for, open paren, int, i, equals, 1, semicolon, etc.

I thought it went very well. The timing was good and it was obvious that most of the class understood what was going on. When we got to a girl who’s usually ahead of everyone and knows all the answers, what we needed from her was “curly bracket” but what she actually said was “semicolon” and there was a collective groan from the rest of the class.

When the last student said “close curly bracket,” there was spontaneous applause, immediately, before I even wrote it on the board. It wasn’t like a concert at the high school auditorium where a piece ends and there’s a gap — “Is it over? Do we clap now?” It was like a classical concert with a high-brow audience that knows exactly when the piece ends and when to clap.


Teaching Computer Science: Asking for Help

15 Sep 2014 /

I’m not sure students are asking for help enough despite my repeated admonitions to do so.

On the first day of class, I said, “Ask for help early and often. If you ask for help when you’re in trouble, you waited too long. Ask for help when things are going well. That’s a good heuristic in this class and in other areas of life as well.”

Later I said, “Learn to distinguish between persistence and floundering. Persistence is good. Floundering is bad. Don’t flounder.”

Yesterday I said, “You may think, ‘Well, if I was a better programmer, I wouldn’t have to ask for help.’ That’s incorrect. As you get to be a better programmer, you’re given harder problems to work on. I’ve been programming for 30 years — almost — and I ask for help every day.”

Honestly I feel like a mental case repeating the same thing over and over and yet out of 34 students in the class, 12 didn’t turn in the first assignment, most apparently because even though they finished it, they didn’t know how to turn it in (via an upload link on the class website) and didn’t ask for help or couldn’t figure out how to locate Java files in a project directory and didn’t ask for help . . .


Would Jesus Tow My Car?

8 Sep 2014 /
Jesus

The lot that I usually park in at the high school was full this morning so I parked across the street at what looked like a large church. I checked in at the school office to make sure that was okay . . .

“I couldn’t find a space in the lot out front so I parked across the street,” I said to the woman at the desk. “Is that okay?”

“Did you park on the street or at the church?” she asked.

“I parked at the church . . . I asked myself, ‘What would Jesus do? Would he tow my car just because it doesn’t belong there?’ No, because he’s all about forgiveness and love.”

“Jesus doesn’t love you when you park in that lot. You need to move your car.”


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