Back to School With Computer Science for All!

As New York City public school students go back to school, hundreds of educators prepared for the new school year by attending the 2019 CS Institute, which took place August 5-16, as part of Computer Science for All (CS4All). 

Launched in 2015, CS4All is an unprecedented public-private partnership supported by a range of foundations, corporations, nonprofits, families, and individuals. The goal is to, by 2025, bring high-quality computer science education to New York City’s 1.1 million public school students in grades K – 12. To achieve this goal, the initiative will train 5,000 educators to teach computer science. 

To date, CS4All has trained more than 1,900 teachers across 800 schools. In the 2018-19 school year alone, 160,000 New York City students learned computer science, more than the number of students in most school districts in the United States. 

As CS4All’s largest annual professional development opportunity, the CS Institute is a critical part of how the initiative is creating the momentum necessary to reach its goal. The training was led by the Computer Science for All (CS4All) team, experienced NYC CS teachers (trained by CS4All), and other partners. It is designed to support schools in either bringing high quality CS instruction to their classrooms for the very first time or to increase their school-wide capacity to provide every student with at least one meaningful unit of CS instruction at every grade band.

Elementary and middle school teachers received training on computer science units, designed to be incorporated into other content areas. Middle and high school teachers were trained on introductory CS courses and Advanced Placement Computer Science courses. In addition, a new cohort of SEPjr teachers (our intensive elementary school training program) was created to engage young learners in foundational CS concepts and applications, through creative computing platforms such as Scratch, robotics, and maker education. All training is guided by the CS Blueprint developed by the CS4All team.

As a new school year begins, teachers reflected on the CS institute and on what comes next:

Cecelia Holt-Washington, teacher at PS 375 in Brooklyn and SEPjr. teacher trainer at the CS Institute

Cecelia Holt-Washington (left) supporting an activity at the SEPjr. training

Cecelia Holt-Washington (left) supporting an activity at the SEPjr. training

As a teacher for 18 years and as a “tinkerer” at heart, getting to support teachers who are new to CS and exploring its endless possibilities together at the CS Institute was such a joy. Just like their students, teachers need to see, touch, and feel computer science in hands-on ways in order to learn, and to then become leaders of that learning.

We covered a jam-packed curriculum with various approaches and activities tailored for students in grades K-5 that range from using robots and computers to unplugged activities. Our focus was to support young learners this new year and beyond in becoming problem-solvers and computational thinkers through experiences that build on one another and are interwoven across core subjects.

Young learners have this misconception that magic happens when you turn on the computer. Now, this year, more students will learn the inner workings and components of computers in order to build a foundation for CS. That’s where the real magic happens. 

Teacher trainers are more experienced teachers in CS who help to facilitate and lead PD sessions offered by the CS4All team

Teacher trainers are more experienced teachers in CS who help to facilitate and lead PD sessions offered by the CS4All team

At the CS Institute teachers are trained to introduce CS to students for the first time by exploring how computers work and by collecting data. Teachers guide students in projects that allow them to be creative and become thoughtful users of technology.

Throughout the CS Institute we also learned how CS is a powerful way to meet students where they are. Most already love computers and hands-on activities. Given that, CS can be an easy way to bring in all students, especially those who may otherwise be disengaged. Students’ lives are full of connections teachers can make, for instance, how to tie a shoe, or how to brush your teeth. These things require algorithms and are the same as giving a computer step-by-step instructions to complete a task... it’s all code! 

This is just the tip of the iceberg. For students and teachers alike, CS instills a deep sense of perseverance. No matter how hard the task may seem, you learn to keep trying and trying -- skills which carry into daily life and adulthood. It is such a special moment when you hear that “I got it!” from the back of the classroom. Those moments are why we do this work. As a result of the hard (and fun) work we put in at the CS Institute, this upcoming school year so many more students and teachers will get to experience the magic of CS, and ask the question “what if?” as they explore endless possibilities.

Brittany Concannon, new-to-CS teacher at Queens High School of Teaching

Brittany Concannon, teacher at Queens HS of Teaching, at the 2019 CS Institute

Brittany Concannon, teacher at Queens HS of Teaching, at the 2019 CS Institute

For the last eight years, I’ve taught Earth Science and Astronomy at Queens High School of Teaching. Now, I’m over the moon excited to say I’ll be teaching Intro to Computational Media, a year-long CS course. My goal this year is to offer a space for our students to be curious and create, as well as to empower them through CS projects that are rooted in who they are and who they want to be.

I first realized I had to bring CS to my school last year, when my school joined hundreds of schools across the City to participate in CS Education Week. A young woman who plans to pursue a career in fashion had initially said to me, “I don’t know if CS really relates to what I want to do career-wise.” As a week full of coding and other CS activities went on, we explored the many ways technology is embedded within virtually every sector. By the end of the week, as she sketched ideas for future wearable technology, she internalized how learning CS only opens up possibilities and can lead her to pursue a more creative and purposeful career in fashion.

At the CS Institute, we got ready to teach CS by becoming students ourselves. We learned concepts by not only reviewing the curricula, but also by practicing through a Teacher/Learner/Observer (TLO) format -- role-playing in order to model and improve upon a lesson. 

It works like this: a teacher leads a lesson to a group of educators pretending to be students. Meanwhile, another teacher plays the role of observer, in order to lead a debrief discussion after the lesson. After the debrief, we switch roles. Everyone gets to teach and experience the lesson as a student, while giving and receiving feedback. Not only is it a brilliant way to learn quickly, but it also helped me to grasp how to fine-tune my own approach for my students by putting myself in their shoes.

As a new-to-CS teacher, this year I’ll be learning while I teach. This may seem daunting to some, but in my experience few things help you to better empathize and connect with students than being a learner yourself. From the get-go, on the first day of school, I plan to tell them, “we’re both going to explore the frustrations, the joy of CS and make mistakes together -- because that’s just how you learn.” 

The CS Institute gave me the foundation to feel confident and ready to pioneer a new course at the high school where I teach. And luckily, I know I’ll never feel alone. As CS expands to reach every student in New York City, I’m now part of a rapidly-growing and closely connected CS4All network of educators regularly engaging online and in-person as we continue learning, in order to lead this new and exciting subject area.

Rich Parker, new-to-CS teacher at Benjamin Banneker Academy to teach AP Computer Science Principles

Rich Parker, a music teacher, will now also teach AP CS this school year

Rich Parker, a music teacher, will now also teach AP CS this school year

Normally, I teach AP Music Theory at Benjamin Banneker Academy in Brooklyn, but this year I’ll also be teaching AP Computer Science Principles, mainly to 10th graders. Now that the CS Institute is over, I can’t wait to hit the ground running with everything I learned and just get right into it with my students. 

Seeing that now, more than ever, more New York City students of color and young women are taking and passing the AP exam is beyond inspiring. This fact emboldens me to rise to the challenge and to fill my students with energy and motivation as soon as I see them. 

On Day 1, I will say to them: “it is our goal as a classroom to make sure everyone can pass this exam -- we will rise together as a community and not leave anyone behind.” I want them to get over the fear of failure and I want them to feel accountable to the success of the entire class. 

Look, I know as a teacher of color serving students who look like me that, too often, the idea of vulnerability is just not promoted in our communities. Everyone wants to be tough, super-smart, and just making it on their own. In my classroom, I will create an ethic and environment, where it is ok to struggle and make mistakes. 

That vulnerability is something I plan to model for them. For example, at the CS Institute I was the only music teacher in the room! I want to walk my students through how and where I struggled in learning something new, and the mindset that it took for me to progress and feel confident to teach AP CSP. I’ll even show them my own evolution from drawing a simple square in code, to more complex programming. 

As I focus on building a strong community, I was happy to learn the “driver-navigator protocol” for peer programming at the CS Institute. The way it works is, in pairs, one student is the “driver” responsible for typing the code and the other person is the “navigator” both reviewing in real time and talking next steps out loud. Then, they switch roles. It’s a powerful way for students to become invested in each other’s success as well as confident communicators about code -- an essential skill for their future careers.

The world is changing and whether or not students realize it yet, they will need to innovate their way through future challenges. Throughout their life they will need to reinvent themselves and adapt to or create new technologies we can’t even conceive of yet. Our role as educators in CS is to prepare them to lead us. 

Yokasta Evans-Lora, teacher at Brooklyn Arbor Elementary School and teacher trainer on Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education in CS

Yokasta Evans-Lora teaches at Brooklyn Arbor Elementary School and led CS trainings on culturally responsive pedagogy at the CS Institute

Yokasta Evans-Lora teaches at Brooklyn Arbor Elementary School and led CS trainings on culturally responsive pedagogy at the CS Institute

As an educator for over 11 years, for me, teaching is a pure labor of love and it’s personal. That’s because when I first came to this country from the Dominican Republic in fourth grade, I didn’t speak a word of English. Every day that I teach, I try to foster the wonder, cultural relevance, and independence I wanted to experience in the classroom, especially as a young learner new to this country. 

Brooklyn Arbor Elementary School, where I teach 3rd grade, has been implementing CS4All as part of SEPjr for the last three years. The CS Institute meant I was able to support teachers beyond our school doors, widely spreading the resilience and love of learning that CS is already bringing to our students.

At the CS Institute, I led multiple sessions on Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education, or CR-SE, as a core part of how we teach CS. This means supporting teachers to strengthen the classroom strategies and commit to the personal reflection necessary to ensure CS is rigorous and affirming of every one of our students. It’s not an add-on, it is simply how CS4All trains educators, develops curriculum, and lays out expectations in the CS Blueprint. 

Let me break it down. All students must learn CS, especially black, Latinx, and female students traditionally left out. it is our responsibility to ensure they are the future leaders of the workforce -- that’s our why. All students, through CS, should be able to be creative, make mistakes, iterate, and feel empowered as they develop 21st century skills -- that’s the what. So then, how this comes together is by teachers - in tandem with understanding CS concepts, strategies, and curriculum - sharpening their skills to incorporate who their students are as assets within all aspects of their learning. 

For example, last year I developed an interdisciplinary mini-unit titled “What Makes You a Superhero?” First we read Kamala Harris’ book Superheroes Are Everywhere. Then students learned about character traits and identified the traits that make them "superheroes" as a way of recognizing their "super powers" and what they bring to our community and society. After the discussion students developed a basic game using Scratch, a block-based program, to bring to life their cultural values and the traits they believe to be important. This is what it looked like:

This student describes herself as “a book lover who loves stories," so she created a game to earn points by "capturing knowledge."

This student describes herself as “a book lover who loves stories," so she created a game to earn points by "capturing knowledge."

This student's narrator uses character traits to describe the characters in the story. She highlighted that her female characters liked sports, saying "girls can like things that boys like and they can be anything they want to be.”

This student's narrator uses character traits to describe the characters in the story. She highlighted that her female characters liked sports, saying "girls can like things that boys like and they can be anything they want to be.”

There’s an old education adage that says “you can’t be it, if you can’t see it.” Through CS4All, we are making it possible for every child to see themselves in CS. In fact, before school starts, educators across the City will be putting up posters of CS pioneers, like Jerry Lawson (African-American programmer who developed the first video game system), Ellen Ochoa (first Latina in space), Edie Windsor (LGBTQ activist and programming juggernaut), Joy Buolamwini (leader of Artificial Intelligence fighting for social change), and Dr. Evelyn Boyd Granville (one of the first African-American women to get a PhD in Mathematics). It’s going to be a powerful school year! 


If you or your organization would like to support CS4All, please make a commitment today.

Julian Vinocur