Reflections from Infosys Foundation USA’s Pathfinders Summer Institute 2019

Bo Mendez, Computer Science and Music Teacher at Summit Sierra High School, Seattle, WA | June 18, 2020

I remember walking into my second year of Pathfinders Summer Institute and wondering: will I learn anything new? My worries were unfounded. I decided to take the session this year, which was very different from the AP Computer Science Principles training I took the previous year. I learned how to wire a circuit board, and gained access to engaging lessons on HTML. One of the skills we developed as a team was finding creative solutions to challenges in our code. I remember receiving a goal, like building an accelerometer, and then being pushed to break down the problem into small pieces until I eventually found a solution. I hoped to provide this same type of experience for my students.

Reflections from Infosys Foundation USA’s Pathfinders Summer Institute 2019

This year has brought a huge challenge to all of our classrooms. Schools closed on March 17th in Washington, and we were forced to find creative solutions to continue teaching our students. I am so grateful to be teaching at Summit Public Schools, which created a high-quality online teaching and learning environment after only two-days of planning. Right now, my students have just finished creating their first webpage using HTML and CSS. They are beautiful, and each student was able to learn the skills to build their website virtually. This achievement takes a tremendous amount of discipline as well as a growth mindset, and I am proud of each student for persevering! My own struggles with writing code inspired me to push my students to experience a productive struggle as well. I wanted to offer them the chance to experience a challenge, and grow to see themselves successfully overcome that hurdle.

The first day of class centered on a debate: "What is a computer?" It was an open-ended question to promote discussion and diversity of opinion. Emotions were high, and this ignited the fire for our class to problem solve. It also established the classroom as a place where students could safely voice their opinions, and challenge others'. I stood by one important value: I did not answer questions, but only asked them. It frustrated students at first, but soon they started asking each other questions, and many started saying, "Mr. Mendez isn't going to answer your question, you're just going to have to figure it out." I always followed up a question with another question, and tried to guide students to use their prior knowledge to build connections. My favorite example comes from our lesson on building towers. Students struggled to find a solution to building a 100-foot tower, so we practiced with five feet, then 10, and worked our way up to understanding how it applied to 100 feet. I believe because students built resilience toward challenges in this class, they had a much easier time facing the current challenge of learning online. And it's showing! I have seen improvement in my students' grades since teaching this course last year. Now, 100% of my students are passing this class, and 92% have an A or higher. Did I mention I am proud of these kiddos?

Right now, we face a huge challenge as students transition to online learning. Some students already struggled with engagement in-person, and many have encountered new challenges with the virtual platform. My approach has shifted: slow down and allow students to explore, using as many existing resources as possible. My students are ending the year creating projects on Scratch. At first, I was nervous to have them learn a new language online. However, once I learned about the plethora of self-guided resources available for Scratch, I knew my students would be successful. Scratch has its own set of interactive tutorials from the introduction, to creating your own pong game. I created a guide with these tutorials that allow students to add these tools to their toolbox, and gain the skills necessary to build something of which they could be proud. Now that we are nearing the end of the school year, with about a month of Scratch experience, I am seeing more sophisticated strategy games, interactive stories, and even some surveys. We are making the best of our virtual class experience. We start with our usual check-in, "What are you proud of this week?” move to student examples where we explore a new block/strategy, and then go into targeted work time. I am grateful for the chance to continue teaching, and I think it brings some level of fun to my students' days.

I would like to thank the Pathfinders Summer Institute for equipping me with the tools and mindset to prepare my students for the challenges they faced this year. I would also like to thank Teach for America for creating the opportunity to attend Pathfinders, and always serving as a professional support in my career. I encourage any interested educator to explore the option of adding Computer Science to your school, or expanding your CS pedagogy through the Pathfinders Summer Institute. I wish you the best, and to the class of 2020 (and my senior mentees): You did it!