Sunday, April 05, 2020

Coding For Fun and Mental Exercise

Recently, I started reading a book about the mathematics of cryptography. (Mathematics of Secrets) Fascinating. A lot of the math is hard (to put it lightly) for me but the stories that go along with the development of it all are fascinating.

So far I have learned a few things and made my Caesar Cipher program much more efficient. I really need to revisit my Vigenère cipher program and make it more efficient and more interesting. The other night I coded up a quick transposition cipher. It was fun and once I got the algorithm down in code it was easier to get to sleep. Writing the code does help me understand what I am reading and that is a real benefit.

We’ll see how I am feeling when I get to the chapter on public key encryption. So far, I am sticking with the easy math and playing with ciphers that are far from modern cryptography. I'll leave that to the professionals.

Caesar and Vigenere are common enough programming assignments but I may write up the transposition cipher as a project for future use. If not for my own classroom for a project book I have in mind. Miles Berry pointed out that teaching ciphers by having students write a little code and experiment with different variations is much more fun and engaging for students than exercises away from the computer. Doing this stuff by hand can be a bit tedious.

For now though I am finding some pleasure is writing some not very complicated code as a way of exploring ideas that I am learning. I’ve had a chance to play with some libraries and methods that I haven’t really gotten to use before. That’s been fun. So much of my coding the last couple of years as been limited to the stuff I teach in a first programming course. I’m using this time to stretch myself a bit. Perhaps get my coding “muscles” back in shape.

In any case, for me,  coding == fun

Friday, April 03, 2020

Three Weeks of Teaching From Home

two of my international students have returned home to China. I spent some time talking to one of them after class today.It was interesting to talk to someone in quarantine. I’ve never done that personally with someone I know. He told me the first couple of days were fine. Eat, Sleep, go to class, and play games. After about three days it got pretty old. He is not allowed to leave his hotel room. Meals are brought to him. They take his temperature three times a day. Not an easy schedule for a teen aged boy.

I think that attending classes virtually are probably pretty helpful for him. They keep him connected with people and some sense of normal in a very abnormal situation. I know it is helping me.

A lot of schools seem to be having a lot less teacher student interaction. Often it seems like assignments are distributed on Monday, collected on Friday, and teachers hold virtual office hours once or twice a week.Sounds like a nightmare to me. Trying to create assignments that students can do and that make educational sense to do without a teacher in the room or presenting some information first is a scary thought for me. How does one even do that? At least my students are getting new material and things are progressing even though slower than normal.

One school district near me went though all sorts of hoops just to get to the point where teachers can record themselves and share videos. Online meetings are still optional for teachers and students. I feel bad for all concerned.

At my school, we’re still planning only in short periods of time. We’re still going to have our scheduled vacation week the last week in April. Its too early to plan beyond that. Next week is Easter week and as a Catholic school we will not be having classes on Good Friday. We may go to four day weeks after that as well but I don’t know if that has been decided yet. Baby steps.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Please Blog About Your Emergency Remote Teaching

It seems like there are a large number of long Twitter treads where educators are reporting their experiences and how their school is handling this period of emergency online teaching.  I love reading them but they are hard to follow, hard to find, and hard to share. They are also fleeting. I wish more people would use this time to start a blog.

Personally, I have found blogging about what is going on in my teaching practice and what I am learning to be a great  stress reliever. It is also creating a resource I can look back on later to see what happened and how things appeared at the time.

Blogger, GitHub, WordPress, Medium, and Tumblr are some sites you can use and have free offerings. I found this line that may help you choose one. How to Choose the Best Blogging Platform in 2020 (Compared)

Think about it. We’re teaching in a new time and in a new way. No one is an expert yet and we all have things to share. Let me know if you decide to start a blog and I will link to it for here. And read it. I want to know what you are up to.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Teaching From Home–What about Cheating?

The College Board has been making some moves to make it harder to cheat on Advanced Placement exams. Given that their business plan relies a lot of the integrity of the exams that makes a lot of sense for them. A lot of teachers seem really worried about cheating when students are learning from home with no one watching them closely to prevent cheating.

The Washington Post reports that Mass school closures in the wake of the coronavirus are driving a new wave of student surveillance Apparently one can hire a company to have a person watch a test taker through their webcam while they take the test. It’s as if taking the test itself were not enough stress.

In some ways I get it. Cheating defeats the whole purpose of a test. Well, depending on what you see as the purpose of the test. If you are a student who values the test only for what it does to your grade than cheating seems like it is fully in support of the goal. If you are a teacher trying to fairly access what students are learning it defeats the purpose.

Now I work pretty hard to catch cheating normally. I look for students handing in identical work, code that comes from the Internet and not a student’s own mind, and all sorts of other things. Its something we do as part of teaching I guess. We do need to make students aware that tests and other evaluations are for their good more than for ours.

We’re living in a crazy time though. I have always believed that the cheater will pay a price for their cheating one way or another one day. I’ve never been a fan of grades for the sake of having a grade either. Even as a student, school was first and foremost about learning and not grades.

So am I concerned that students may cheat? Sure. Am I going to lay awake at night trying to figure out how to stop them? Not really. I have much to much else to worry about than student grades. I hope they don’t cheat. I will not be blind to cheating I do catch. But it is not top of mind right now. Top of mind is doing the best job I can of teaching and having some trust that students are working at learning.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Changing How We Think About School

What my school is doing is trying to replicate the brick-and-mortar model in the online world. Other schools are doing something more like “correspondence school” We fall back on old models at times like this when the world is turned sideways.I’m getting all sorts of ideas about what I would like in a remote lecture tool as well as what I would like for other interactions. But as someone pointed out to me, we are trying to replicate the brick-and-mortar model in the online world and that may not be the best way to teach online.

Peli de Halleux, creator of MakeCode at Microsoft, asked me “Why replicate the brick-and-mortar model in the online world? Isn’t there opportunities to improve things are taught (and not just make it worse)?”

It’s a really great question. The problem right now is that we are scrambling. Doing things right, I mean really right, takes time and planning and knowledge that most educators don’t have. in a real way we are making it up as we go along. Are we learning? We sure are. Is there enough sharing of what we are learning? I think not.

There is some for sure. Educational Twitter and Facebook are humming. There is some blogging for sure. I suspect that most teachers who read blogs (not enough read and far too few write blog) are siloed in their reading. I know I mostly follow CS educators. I hope someone is studying all this though.

We don’t know enough about online teaching. What we are doing is not a MOOC which is good because MOOCs have a poor record. It is something very different.

Mark Guzdial wrote So much to learn about emergency remote teaching, but so little to claim about online learning which addresses some of the issues around using the present time for research. This is far from a well-thought out scientific experiment as you can get.

That doesn’t mean it is a bad time to try things though. In fact, out of necessity we have to try things. Chris Lehmann, founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, has been blogging about his and his schools experiences and wrote today about Teaching Without Compulsory School. In many school districts school has more or less become voluntary. How do you manage in that environment were as one spoof I saw on Facebook said “welcome to my online classroom where the due dates are made up and the grades don’t matter?”

Most teachers are not all that entertaining. There is no way I can make a video that will keep a student’s attention for more than 10 minutes. I can hope for 5 minutes but 10 is optimistic. Sure students will watch a movie for 90 minutes but who has $100,000,000 dollars to make a couple of 60 minute classes?

Most of us need some degree of compulsion. Students don’t always, often?, see the value of what school is trying to teach them. oh well. Maybe I should take a nap. I stayed awake most of the night worrying about this stuff.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Teaching From Home–Day 11–Is this our new normal?

Well. we’re definitely going to stay online until May. Our last week in April is a vacation week. I am hoping it still is. What will May bring? I have no idea. What about June? My school usually runs into June for a week to ten days. Most of the public school around me go even further into June.

Things are going fairly well so far I guess. Things take longer though. Its harder and takes longer to help individual students. I can’t just jump from student to student and desk to desk as easily. I don’t mind that much but it is going to get old. My one hope is that I will model my debugging enough times and clear enough that students will be able to learn from other people’s mistakes.

The school I teach at was highlighted in a newspaper article in the New Hampshire Union Leader. That is the state’s largest newspaper and has wide reach. So that was cool. There are a number of pictures of teachers at work at home and at school. Check it out at Teachers and students adjust to remote learning using online tools

For the first two weeks a few teachers taught from school in empty classrooms. They have been asked to teach from home now. Even though schools are allowed to teach from school our administration feels that the spirit of the guidelines suggest we set a better example from home. Or something like that. Personally I like not having that drive every day.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Teaching From Home–Day 10B–Plan? What Plan?

When administration announced we were moving to remote teaching I started adjusting my plans. Now understand that when the semester started I had a plan for every singe school day for every one of my classes. They were great plans. Several of them have been used as recently as this past fall semester. Now I had to adjust for a schedule that had classes meeting 5 out of 10 school days rather than 7 out of 10. Oh boy!

So one sets priorities. In the case of AP CS Principles, what do I need to get covered for the exam and how do I get the last performance task in by the due date from the College Board. For my other classes, what are the key concepts that I need students to lean to feel like the course was a succes. I planned accordingly. Then of course the schedule changed again.

We’re not going to have school this Wednesday. Everyone needs a little time away from screens. Don’t tell anyone but I am likely to use some of the day figuring out how to teach some things. So I adjusted again.

The College Board announced changes for my AP course. No exam. AP grades will be based on the Performance Tasks and we have a later deadline for those. Great! Now what am I going to do with the time I scheduled for test review in May? At lease I have some room for the performance task. I’m still going to try and get that in before April break because who knows what comes next.

I have plans for my other two courses. I think they’re ok. For now at least. Will we even have a full school year? I don’t know? Will we have finals? I don’t know. I figure that my plans are solid for no more than a week at a time.

This uncertainty is the biggest stressor for me tight now. I suspect I am not alone.

Teaching From Home–Day 10A –I'm One of the Lucky Ones

There has been a lot in the news about schools being closed and how schools are dealing with it. There seems to be everything for regular online synchronous teaching like my school is doing to no school at all. A range in between. The school district I live in is posting assignments on Monday to be completed by Friday. That's it. No interaction with teachers.

I don’t know who that is harder on – students who are doing boring work without teachers to help, teachers who struggle to find meaningful work that students can do without a teacher, or parents who are having to make sure their kids do the work.

Teachers are not trained for this sort of teaching. Not any of it. It’s not like a MOOC where someone spends months planning things, recording videos, developing special tests and exercises. This is new.
Teachers have been asked to do more with less as long as there have been schools though. Teachers are resilient and innovative. Its a necessity even in good times. And so teachers are doing amazing things and trying to maintain learning and some sort of connection to students.

I’ve got great internet. My students have great internet. I’m hearing stories of teachers having very poor internet though. Rural areas in the US, like in many other countries, don’t have the same quality and speed that more heavily developed areas do. So I’m lucky.

Training and preparation are another area where I feel lucky. We had a short introduction to teaching from home and some tools to do so at least two weeks before we actually moved to remote teaching. We were told to think about how we would be teaching remotely and we did. Then there was a full day of training before we started. Training seems to run the range for several days (yeah!) to none at all.

Even still there is a lot of figuring things out as we go. It’s amazing how helpful Facebook has been though. Teachers are sharing ideas and tools like crazy. In spite of physical separation it feels like teachers are building community rather than losing it. This may turn out to be a good side effect.