First Person

A Computer Science Teacher's Take on Tech: Start With Relationships

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Technology can be powerful for learning and collaborating—as a computer science teacher, it’s what I live and breathe. And yet I also recognize that the most important community-building students do in my class doesn’t involve screens at all.

This lesson—that the tools are inconsequential until students feel safe and supported—is one I’ve learned many times over many years.

As an elementary school student, I was a handful. I never followed instructions, I was hyperactive, and I was rarely doing what the group was doing. One day, I returned to school after having been sick for almost a week, and before long, I was back to my usual antics during circle time. My teacher looked at me as I was clowning around and said, “Douglas, it was so nice and quiet last week when you weren’t here.”

I don’t remember much else of that year. What stayed with me was what I felt in that moment. I had become invisible. She was telling me that the classroom was a better place without me in it, and that was devastating.

Surprisingly, I ended up becoming a teacher. At my first school, I taught kids who were just as challenging as I had been. But my mentor teacher, Karen Ivens, was an experienced, talented educator. She was unassuming, soft-spoken, and elegant, and the kids were enthralled. I was captivated, too. I couldn’t figure out how she was able to capture their attention. I wanted to learn from Mrs. Ivens. I wanted to be the master of the teachable moment. So I observed everything she did.

I became convinced that Mrs. Ivens had a magical voice. Whenever she wanted to teach something, the kids would all immediately stop and listen. Maybe it was because she never yelled. Maybe it was because she smiled a lot. Maybe it was because she always prefaced everything with their first names, so they knew she was speaking directly to them. Try as I might, I could never get the kids to listen to me as attentively as they did to her. I spent a year student-teaching with Mrs. Ivens and I never did figure it out.

Later in my career, while working as a tech-integration specialist, I had a standing meeting with the head of the middle school. I would go into her office full of questions and things to plan. She started each meeting by asking me what I did over the weekend, how my kids were, what I was planning over the break. We would end up chatting, sometimes for most of our allotted time. Often, we wouldn’t get around to talking about all the important stuff, like the purchase orders, the budget, or how to schedule the science teachers into the computer lab next week.

Finally, I began to wonder if maybe she was just not very good at time management. And yet orders got filled, budgets were filed, and the computer lab had a way of running itself after a while. It wasn’t until years later, when I had my own staff and my own meetings, that I realized that by starting every meeting by talking about me, she was showing me that I was most important in that moment. That what I cared about, and who I was, was more important than the day-to-day minutiae. That the middle school was a better place because I was in it.

I then thought back to Mrs. Ivens with the magical voice. How she often stopped on the stairs, her arms full of papers, and helped a child tie his shoe. Sometimes, she would just reach out and ruffle a student’s hair, affectionately, for no other reason than to show they were there, together, in that moment. She would ask each child how his parents were, whether the new bunny had a name, if he were feeling better, how the game had gone. And she would remember every answer.

I used to think that great teaching happened in the teachable moments. I finally realized that great teaching happens in the spaces between the teachable moments.

Collaboration With Low- and High-Tech Tools

Great teaching happens in all the things you do, and all the conversations you have, and in all the ways you provide for kids to get to know you, and each other, as individuals. Great teaching happens in the way you let kids know that they are what matters—that the technologies, tools, and projects may change, but what doesn’t change is the fact that they are essential members of the learning community, that no one is invisible, and that everyone has value.

Taking those lessons to heart, I decided to find ways to create space for building community in my own classroom.

In my computer science class at Punahou School, the large independent school in Honolulu where I work, we use a tool called Slack to allow real-time collaboration between students, teachers, teachers’ assistants, and former students. My co-teacher and I now have more than 160 students from the last three years in our Slack group, talking about computer science and the problem sets that current students are struggling with. Often, when students have questions, it’s faster to get an answer through the Slack channel from another student than to wait for an email response from me or a TA. From time to time, former students will pipe in with a hint, a suggestion, or an encouraging word.

When planning the final exam for our course, it bothered us that although we promoted collaboration throughout the course, but on the final exam, students were entirely on their own. We still see value in giving a final exam, but ours now has a twist. We give the students four fairly complex problems ahead of the test. On exam day, each student is asked to solve one of the problems at random on paper.

After an hour of work, we collect whatever that student has worked on so far and switch it for another student’s paper who has been working on a different problem. The second student has 15 minutes to read over the classmate’s work and make comments, corrections, or suggestions. We then pass the papers back to their original owners, who have 30 minutes to incorporate the classmates’ feedback into the solution.

For the most part, students welcome the feedback; it’s often easier to spot small mistakes when checking someone else’s work. Students also end up being effectively assessed on their knowledge of two of the four questions. Many students feel motivated to study not so much for their own success but because they would be embarrassed to receive a classmate’s paper and not have anything useful to say.

We also create community events such as Puzzle Day, when students work in small groups to solve challenging pencil-and-paper puzzles; extra-help nights for students at a local coffee shop; and a Share Fair, in which students can show off their work to the greater community.

All those events are an essential part of building positive and supportive relationships between students, many of which last well beyond the end of the course and even after graduation. In my computer science class, the friendships and bonds of trust that are formed when students are challenged, supported, and celebrated are far more significant and resonant than the programming language they learned, the type of computer they used, or the final grade that they received.

As teachers, we have a vital role in creating positive learning environments in our classrooms. Great teaching happens in the spaces between the classes, the projects, the tests, and the teachable moments. It is what tells students that they are safe, they are important, and they are valued, and that creates the space for learning to happen.

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