Archive for August, 2011

Mon 8/29: What to do on Day One

August 30, 2011 2 comments

I was just reading an excellent post by Ben Wildeboer on his blog about what to do on Day One, and it made me reflect on the evolution of this curious pedagogical organism in my classes over the years. In the beginning, when I was teaching at NMH, I used to do a very traditional first-day lesson plan: pass out the course description, pass out the schedule, answer any questions, and have a nice day. (Yeah, I really used to suck as a teacher.) The only odd thing is that I used to have my students make little name tents for themselves out of manila folders that they would put on their desks for the first few days until I learned all their names. This probably wasn’t necessary, but it did provide a neat opportunity for nostalgia as I amassed an ever-growing stack of manila folder name tents.

Here at Hotchkiss, I don’t do handouts on the first day, and I don’t need the name tents. Part of the reason for both these facts is that CS enrollment here, as with many of our peer schools, is dreadfully low. (One of our neighboring schools won’t be teaching any computer science again this year because the math teacher who covered those classes left school.) Most of my classes usually begin with 2-4 students, and then I hold my breath to see how they will grow during the drop/add period. Usually I am the beneficiary of some schedule conflicts, which doesn’t bother me at all. Whatever puts warm bodies in my classroom is fine with me.

Anyway, a lot of the activities that are floating around the Web work really well with 15-20 students, but seem a bit comical with only two or three. (“Get in groups — oh, wait.”) So I made a decision a few years ago that I would reschedule Day One into Day Two. We do all that boring handout stuff on the second day of classes. Instead, on the first day, we just roll up our sleeves and get to work. After a very brief introduction, I throw my students into programming, or web design, or whatever the first unit is about. I figure, the best way to hook them is to show them what they have in store. And it certainly gets the momentum going as soon as possible.

Categories: compsci, Hotchkiss, teaching

Fri 8/26: Blogging standards

August 26, 2011 Leave a comment

As the beginning of the year draws inexorably closer, I’m slowly gathering momentum for my fall classes. One of the biggest challenges in designing a new class with standards-based grading is developing all the new standards for the course. I haven’t really found any pre-established standards for my Web 2.0 class, so I’m trying to create them myself. Here’s my first attempt at a set of standards for the unit on blogging — any feedback?

Blogging – content Level 3

  • Each blog post is Well-written
  • Each blog post is Original
  • Each blog post is Relevant
  • Each blog post is Detailed

Level 2

  • Blog contains the required number of posts
  • Each blog post is the minimum length


Blogging – layout Level 3

  • Theme and color scheme fits well with tone of blog
  • Blog widgets arranged in decreasing order of importance

Level 2

  • Overall layout makes it easy to find blog posts
  • Theme and color scheme does not conflict with tone of blog


Blogging – extras Level 3

  • Blog contains a way to browse posts by category
  • Blog contains a calendar or monthly archive

Level 2

  • Blog contains a blogroll w/ at least 5 links
  • Blog contains a search bar


Categories: CO335, sbar

Sun 8/21: SBG, and why nothing different “makes sense”

August 22, 2011 Leave a comment

I was reading my passel of edu-blogs tonight, and came across this excellent post by Frank Noschese  about the merits of standards-based grading. It reminded me of some of the feedback that I got from my math students last quarter when I introduced SBG to them during my stint as a maternity replacement. There were several objections, which I tried to answer then and will try to answer now because they are bound to come up again:

Student: The way you are averaging is unfair! (Ed. note: I use the “decaying average” that is the default in ActiveGrade)
Wistar: Well, the point is that I want to get the most accurate picture of how you are doing at the end of the semester, not the beginning

Student: I don’t like how your grade can go down if you do worse on an assignment.
Wistar: Well, that’s true, but you also have unlimited opportunities for reassessment if you are unhappy with your grade.

Student: I don’t like how you don’t grade our homework.
Wistar: I want to evaluate your understanding, not your work effort. If you work harder, it will translate into better understanding anyway. And grading homework turns every assignment into a take-home quiz.

Student: (freaking out) I don’t understand! I have a C average now! The world will end! I’ve never had a grade this bad before!
Wistar: You’re just not used to standards-based grading yet. Of course your grade is lower at the beginning — you don’t understand things as well now as you will later. And remember the reassessment?

Ultimately, what it seems to come down to is that a lot of students equate “fair” with “best for me”. (Wow, teenagers taking a self-centered view of the world? I’m shocked that there’s gambling in this casino.) And the ones that don’t are just struggling with something that runs counter to 8-10 years of prior education. After a while, they usually relax and relent.

Categories: sbar

Tue 8/16: The value of iteration

August 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Only one week between posts — that’s still not really what I’m aiming for, but a week is better than a month. It occurred to me the other day that even if I can’t write about what I’m working on, I could write some responses to some of the other blog posts I’ve read, which should give me enough material to write until the cows come home. I’m also adding a to-do item to spend 1 hour in professional development every other day, so that should encourage more output as well.

I was reading a great post by Frank Noschese about the value of iteration in learning and in teaching, and it really resonated with a lot of the work that I have done in teaching computer science. In particular, he talks about how many learners have difficulty trying more than one strategy, but ultimately the successful ones are willing to experiment and make mistakes.

For me as a teacher, it seems like getting students to be comfortable making mistakes is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome with new programmers. By the time that kids get to high school, they have been hard-wired to think that the worst thing to do is be wrong, and the most dangerous thing to do is to try. If I had a nickel for every time a student pointed at the computer screen and asked me, “Will this work?” — well, at least I’d have a lot of nickels.

Usually my response is simply, “Did you try it?” When I walk away without giving them the security blanket of a teacher blessing, sometimes they freak out. I try to tell them, calmly, “You don’t need me to tell you if your program works. Try running it to see what happens. You won’t blow up the computer.” Usually, they chuckle and give it a try. Still, I can see the miasma of resentment and, more importantly, fear behind their eyes sometimes. What do you mean, try it? Why won’t you help me? What if I made a mistake?

In some sense, you could really look at just this phenomenon and use it as a predictor of ultimate success in programming. People who are willing to experiment, to explore, and to really screw things up make good programmers. Those who are scared to color outside the lines don’t. It really doesn’t matter as much how well they can store the Java API in their head — they can compensate for shortcomings in knowledge way more easily than they can compensate for shortcomings in attitude.

As I usually tell my students early in the semester, programming is a contact sport — the more time you have in contact with the keyboard, the better you’ll get. But really, isn’t that true with just about every discipline?

Categories: compsci, programming, teaching

Mon 8/8: Blogging unit expanded

August 9, 2011 2 comments

I read somewhere that the only way to become a good writer is to write, and the only way to cure writer’s block is to write, so I think I just need to screw my courage to the sticking point and start churning out posts. Part of the problem, I think, is that I look out there at all the other well-established teaching blogs and it seems as if each one of their posts has something profound to say about education. That’s an illusion, I’m sure, but an intimidating one. In any case, the main purpose of this blog was to let me think out loud about my teaching, not to impress people, so it doesn’t matter if things are a little rough around the edges for now.

I’ve started to outline a rough schedule for my CO335 unit on blogging. Here it is:



Unit 1: Blogging



Creating blogs and posts

Homework: Complete intro survey; write blog post #1



Intro to CO335; Setting up a blog site

Homework: Lay out blog page; write blog post #2



Blog do’s & don’ts

Homework: Write blog critique #1 (blog post #3)



Extra blog features

Homework: Write blog critique #2 (blog post #4)



Social survey: blogging
Homework: Write RP #1 (blog post #5)