Friday, April 24, 2020

Planning for the End of the Year

My school will be on our regularly scheduled April break next week. It’s a nice breather for me and probably for the students as well. It’s been a long time since I have had a school aged child in the house so I don’t know what it will be like for parents. One of the things I will be doing is planning. How am I going to finish up this school year?

We’re not doing our normal end of semester/year major assessments. You might think that simplifies things but it really doesn’t. I have final exams and finial project plans already made up. They are no no use to me now.

My Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles students will be finishing up their Explore Task, the last part of the work they are required to complete for the AP Exam, early the week we restart.  I’m looking at various topics to go deeper into as we finish the year. I might as well take advantage of the time that way.

My Honors Programming class has covered the regularly planned material. This is partially a result of the weird schedule, an exceptional group of students, and the fact that normally we would be starting semester projects soon after April break. I don’t really want to add the stress of sneaking in a major project. Two major benefits of the semester project are that they help students see what they have learned in a larger context and that it lets them explore some new ideas on their own. What I am thinking now is that I will introduce some fun stuff that we don’t always get to and let them work on a couple of smaller, but hopefully interesting and challenging, projects. This may achieve what the major semester project usually does.

My freshmen still have new material to learn. They also normally get a semester project to work on but we’ll actually not have as much time for that as I would like One of the other teachers teaching that course is talking about modeling the design and creation of a more complicated project for the students. Not requiring them to write it themselves but seeing him model the design process.. That’s an interesting idea. I haven’t decided what I want to do though. What ever it is has to include most of the major concepts we have learned so far and help students see it in context though. That is my task to develop over the break.

Also, over the break I will spend some time working on some little educational and, hopefully fun, games for my 5 year old grandson. I wrote him a memory game using pictures of him and his family this week and he seems to enjoy it. I’m playing with some sight reading game ideas now.

SO how are you wrapping up your school year? Something different from normal?

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

School Buildings Without Students are Sad

For the first time in 5 weeks I visited school today. My purpose was to clear out my personal stuff. I am retiring and I needed to get everything at some point and since today was a non-teaching day I decided to do it today. We still have a month of school of course but there will not be any return for classes in the building.

The building should be full of students. It’s just not right for a building that was made for students to be without them.  I’m glad I didn’t wander far from my computer lab.

I was fine packing up the boxes. I found a few items I had forgotten about – so that is where the document camera I bought was being kept safe!  I also tossed out a lot of old papers and what not. A student handbook from 2014? Why was that still in the desk drawer? I think the desk is cleaner now than it was when I took it over 7.5 years ago.

Putting things in the car made it seem more final though. I got a touch emotional. I think it was easier to do in an empty building without students and peers around. I’m really going to miss saying a proper good bye to my students and to the other faculty though. At some point the building will be open and I’ll stop by.

I didn’t wander around the building. Judging by cars in the parking lot there were a few people in the building. I saw and talked, at a safe distance,to two of the maintenance people. I’ll miss them. They really embrace the mission of the school and are just awesome people.

No more visits until there are students in the building again.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Ending School With a Whimper not a Bang

The other shoe dropped today. New Hampshire’s governor ordered public schools to continue emergency remote teaching for the rest of the school year. This was not unexpected as many other states have already come to the same conclusion. At least I can plan better.

Having a bit of certainty, an official last day of classes, no final exams, and a few other details makes planning a lot easier.

We’re still having April break. Our last day of classes will be May 22nd.  We’re skipping final exams which means we can use all the time remaining to cover new material. It also means end of the year grading is a little easier for me. I normally have my freshmen class and Programming Honors courses write semester ending projects.. Without those I have enough time to cover everything I want to cover even though we are meeting fewer sessions than we are used to holding.

I’ve been thinking about all of the personal items I left at school. Normally I would pack up during final exams week and bring every thing home after the end of year teacher meeting. That’s obviously not going to work. I can still get into the building if I need to and because of where my computer lab is I can do so with very little chance of meeting other people.It will be sad packing up in an empty building.

We’re going to try to have a number of the big end of year events, awards, Baccalaureate, and even Commencement virtually.  I wonder if I will be asked to wear my academic gown for Commencement? I really do get a kick out of wearing that but wearing it where no one can see it seems pointless.

I really feel badly for the students, especially the seniors. They are missing some once in a life time activities. Sure many of them will have graduation from university or even graduate school but there is something special about high school graduation.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Planning For School in the Fall of 2020

This time of year I always start thinking about the next school year. Even though I don’t expect to be teaching (announced my retirement already) I can’t stop thinking about the fall. Will schools be in their buildings or will the start the year teaching remotely. Universities are thinking about a possible school year without students on campus. I don’t think anyone wants that. It’s a worst case situation.

There are some learnings we can use which ever way we go though. As I have written earlier, my school is using virtual machines that students can connect to from home. I really hope this is in place in the fall. It opens the door for so many options, especially but not exclusively, for computer science programs. If I were at VMware or Microsoft I would be working on cookbook solutions for school IT people to work with over the summer.

Other options like servers hosted on Microsoft Azure or Amazon Web Services (AWS) may also be good options. They would have to work on good pricing and easy to follow instructions for IT people, teachers, and students though to make it work.

I know schools using GitHub very effectively as well. That has an advantage of teaching an important industry skill. It has the disadvantage in that students may not have the right software of powerful enough computers at home. Maybe a hybrid solution with GitHub and some virtual machines would help here. Again, none of this scales with training resources for teachers. Not every It person is as good as the one at my school. And even he is constantly learning new things.

Learning Management Systems may have to adapt as well. Can your schools LMS distribute and collect assignments? many can but some cannot. Schools are likely to be looking closely at how well their LMS handles remote teaching.

Our current computer conferencing solutions seem much better suited for industry than for education. Other issues are showing up just because so many more people are using these tools. Poor Zoom has been playing catchup with concerns for the last month. Google Meet has also be changing and improving because of feedback from educators. Microsoft Teams is used by a few (and they mostly like it) but not many seem to know about it. I do expect a lot more online training for Teams aimed at schools to come. There is already a lot. Perhaps all of these companies, if they get a chance to catch their breath, will start looking closely at the needs of educators.

I have already seen surveys from companies asking teachers what problems they have and how they are trying to solve them. Teacher needs have never gotten so much attention from companies large and small. Maybe we’ll see a big jump in functionality for schools and teachers. A man can hope.

Right now we don’t know what will happen in the fall. Will there be enough testing and treatment for families to feel comfortable sending there children into schools which are germ factories in the best of times. Or will we be starting the year teaching and learning remotely? No one really knows. So we plan for the first and hope for the best.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Revisiting Old Coding Problem Friends

John Conway died the other day. He created the famous "Conway's Game of Life" that is familiar to so many programmers and computer scientists.

I've recently decided I want to write some fun programs and since I can't find the last version of this program that I did I decided to write a new one. Very satisfying.

I did all the things I tell my students to do. I broke it down into small modular methods and tested each individual method as it was finished. Interestingly enough the hardest part, relatively speaking, what getting the generations right. The Wikipedia page, linked to above, had some of the common and interesting patterns and I used them to validate my algorithm.

I came close to making the common mistake my students make of “testing” without knowing what good results are. The patterns in Wikipedia helped with that.

The Game of Life is a cool project. I should really assign it to my students this year.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

A Look at Technology For Remotely Teaching Computer Science

While I do believe that people are the most important part of emergency remote teaching,  technology does have a serious role to play. One key piece of technology that my school is using is virtual machines that students connect to from home over the Internet. This gives them full access to the resources they would have if they were in our physical computer labs. I had our wonderful Director of Technology describe what he set up.

“Essentially what I've done is set up a Windows Server 2019 Remote Desktop Server. I then used VMWare Horizon and created a RDS Server Farm with VMWare and use VMWare security server for the connection broker. This can also be done with Windows Server creating a connection broker, but for me it was easier to use VMware.
No VPN required which was the goal. I configured the server to behave like the students desktops on the computers in our labs. Basically students can log in from any basic device, Windows, Mac, Chromebook and get a Windows 10ish interface that they can work on.”

The extra goodie that I learned to use the other day is the Microsoft Server Manager It looks to be a very powerful tool.  I am pretty sure I don’t want to mess around with it too much. I don’t want t o break what is already working.

The one feature I will be using with students starting on Monday is one that lets me look at and even control student sessions. This should make debugging student issues much easier.  It is still not the same as being there but it’s as good as I’m going to get anytime soon.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Emergency Remote Teaching is About People Not Technology

Attendance at my emergency remote teaching classes has been very close to 100%. Frankly, this didn’t surprise me at all. Apparently I should have been surprised. According to a poll reported by NPR, 4 In 10 U.S. Teens Say They Haven't Done Online Learning Since Schools Closed The difference between public and private shows a huge difference though. According to the article  “47% of public school students saying they have not attended a class, compared with just 18% of private school students.”

I don’t think that it is enough to say public or private though. I attended a public magnet high school as a student myself and even today that school bucks the trend. According to a New York  Times article “At Brooklyn Technical High School, one of the city’s most competitive, Serge Avery, a social studies teacher, said 98 percent of his students have been participating in daily online activities,”

There is a lot at play here of course  Privilege is a major factor but there is more to that. Somewhere around 61% of Brooklyn Tech’s students qualify for free or reduced cost lunch.

I was asked specifically about why my school has such a high participation rate.

There is no one thing at play. I think the school culture has a lot to do with it. I think this is true of any school. Education is important to our students. They give up something to attend our school. There is a parallels here with Brooklyn Teck. Both school require leaving one’s local high school and travelling. Both schools make it hard to git in but provide a lot of support to students who do attend.

My school started planning and preparing students and teachers for this weeks before we went online. It was no big surprise when it happened. Students were mentally ready to move online. Many of the tools we use online are tools they have been using for a long time. They were already used to receiving and turning in assignments online for example. Many of them have used video chat of one form or another for years.

I think relationships between students and teachers (perhaps part of the culture) also plays a part. Part of our school’s whole belief system is that students are known, valued, and treasured. Students joke about it some but they know it is a core value and respond well to it.

At its core this is a people issue not a technology issue. Students participate if they see the value in participating. We are still grading - progress reports come out today and we have been online for four weeks. Parents want their kids to learn. That is what they are paying for and they do so because they value education. Students do tend to value what their parents value.

If school matters, students attend.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

When Are We Going Back To (bricks and mortar) School?

That’s the question my students asked the most yesterday. We’re in our fourth week of remote emergency teaching and I think it is starting to wear on most of us. It especially hard on the young people though. One thing I am more and more convinced of is that school is a great deal more than sitting in a classroom and doing school work. My students, consciously or not, are realizing the same thing.

Those casual interactions between classes are important to our students. Students interact with their peers and their teachers in ways that are often overlooked but which make up the total school experience.

Going to school online is not going to be a replacement for going to school in a physical place.

Dr. Fauci has been saying that he expects that schools will reopen in the fall. I didn’t hear any indication in his most recent remarks that suggest they will open again this spring. Summer camps are still at risk according to Dr. Fauci. I wonder what summer break is going to be like.

When we return in the fall, things are going to be different. I hope they will be better. Testing is getting better and the prospects for better medical treatment and even a vaccine are looking up. Most experts expect COVID-19 to be back in the fall again. We all hope not as bad but I think we’ll all be thinking about sick students differently than in the past.

Any teacher will tell you that students come to school sick. Some because there is no one to take care of them at home. Some because they don’t want to miss any more school. At my school we see a lot of the latter. One think I hope we learn about and prepare for is letting students stay home and attend classes remotely. We’re all learning about the tools we have now and perhaps the tools will get even better. If more students can stay home when sick and not miss as much of their education schools will become healthier places.

There are many other things that will happen in well-run schools to make them healthier places. Better cleaning and more attention to covering ones mouth when coughing just to name two.. We’re all becoming more sensitive to what spreads germs.

We’re really seeing how much more there is to school than most people ever realized. Perhaps it will lead to less penny pinching of education in the future. I can only hope.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Living in Interesting Times and Sharing Thinking

You may have noticed I didn’t post anything in this blog yesterday. Part of that is because I had to make an unexpected trip to my family’s vacation home. A neighbor reported an open window and we can’t have that. It was weird driving though what is normally a booming tourist and vacation area and not seeing much traffic and most all of the businesses closed. People are staying home.

While I didn’t post here yesterday that doesn’t mean I kept my metaphoric mouth shut. Doug Peterson interviewed me over the weekend and posted the result on his blog.I think it is some of my best thinking. Doug knows how to ask questions that get me thinking. You can read that interview at 10 Questions for Alfred Thompson

My good friend, Jane Prey  also had questions for me. She wanted to know what I wished I had known before I started remote emergency teaching. My thoughts may be read as the CSTA web site at Software, Hardware, and People

Last week I asked people to blog more about their experiences and how they are teaching. A number of people have been doing that. Mark Guzdial wrote two posts over the last couple of days. While he is teaching at the university level I think there is good advice for all educators in them. I recommend them to you.

Dan Anderson has his own COVID19 Update on his blog. In it he shares the questions he is asking to check in with his students. I think we all know that teaching is about more than just covering the subject matter.  I hope to see more from Dan. 

IF you are looking for how the move looks at my school from the administration point of view this article is a good read Private School Profiles: How Bishop Guertin High School is Responding to COVID-19

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.