Peanut Butter Not Included – Adapting CS50X for the High School Classroom

This summer I had the opportunity to participate in the CS50 AP Bootcamp sponsored by Microsoft. I’m so excited to bring this incredible curriculum into my classroom. I couldn’t wait to introduce my students to all the fun, so I let an activity from CS50 inspire my first lesson.

After the obligatory syllabus and classroom procedures administrivia, I decided to kick off my intro level Coding course with an activity to demonstrate how a computer “thinks”. I wanted to do the peanut butter and jelly demo they use in CS50, but I was worried about time constraints, bringing food into the computer labs, and finding time to run to the grocery store during my last weekend of summer. With these concerns in mind, I decided to adapt the lesson so it better suited my classroom.

  1. We began with a discussion of the topic: Who is smarter – a human or a computer? After a brief conversation, we agreed that a computer may be better at certain tasks, but that it would only know how to do what someone tells it to do.
  2. Here’s where the pb&j demo would go. Instead I asked a student to hang a piece of paper on the back wall. The student found the supplies (a roll of tape and stack of paper I set out on a desk at the front of the room before class) and proceeded to follow-through with the request. Then I played the part of a computer and had the students instruct me to do the same thing. I was worried that this tamed-down version would lose some of the fun from the CS50 original, but honestly, it worked out great. I think the secret is in how you sell it. I tried to take every instruction as literally as possible. When they said, “Turn right,” I spun in circles on the spot. When they instructed me to walk forward, I plowed right into a desk that was in my path. They thought it was hilarious and, by the end, they had determined that a lot more thought went into a simple process than what they had originally assumed.
  3. After the demo, we had a chat about computers, computational thinking, and algorithms.
  4. To reinforce the activity, I paired up the students and asked them to turn their chairs so they were seated back-to-back. Each pair assigned one person to be the computer and the other person was the programmer. The programmer was given a random design and her task was to try to get the computer to replicate the design. The computer couldn’t see the design (of course) and couldn’t communicate to the programmer through questions or responses. It was fun watching them try to communicate with precision. (It was even more entertaining listening to the “computers” grumble while they tried to decipher their tasks. I wonder if my computer has ever felt that way while I’m working on a program!) When the programmer finished her instructions, the computers revealed the (usually laughable) output. I spent a few minutes with each pair discussing how they could have improved their program. (I.e. Why do you think the computer drew the circles in a row instead of each one inside the previous one? How could you fix that bug?)
  5. For homework, I asked each student to email me a program that would teach a robot how to move in a square. This was a great informal assessment tool to check in with each individual. It also allowed me the opportunity to challenge the students who already “got it” by asking them to find a way to simplify their programs.

These activities really set the tone that I was hoping for with the course. It was interactive, collaborative, and fun – a fantastic start to the semester! The ideas for this combination of activities came from the following sources:

Check them all out!

And for your enjoyment, here is a sample output from one of my students and the design she was trying to replicate.  Nailed it, right?  I’m posting this with her permission (she’s quite proud!).

And our "computer's" output.

Our “computer’s” output.

Here's the assigned design.


The Sum of Three Days

Sorry for the long delay between posts.  Here’s a summary:

Friday was mid-quarter.  Yikes!  Where did the time go?  Usually mid-quarter finds me frantically updating grades online and feeling guilty when I receive the friendly reminder from my principal that this task is an expectation for the job.  This year I felt (surprisingly) guilt-free.  I’m going to credit all the hours I spent organizing the room back in August for this one.  My new grading system is efficient.  Students turn work in to their class tray.  I clear the tray at the end of the day. and move it to the grading file on my desk.  Once it’s graded it is stored in the “to be returned” hanging file holder.  I’ve also been using the participation logs to indicate when a student turns in a digital assignment (dropbox, email, shared folder, etc).  These practices have made me much more aware of students with missing grades which is a huge relief at mid-quarter.

I had a closing shift at my other job on Friday, so my total hours for the log were just the regular school day, 8.5.

Sunday I spent 1.5 hours prepping lessons for the upcoming week.

Monday evening marked the first meeting with my retreat team for the senior class retreat in January.  Several teachers meet with the two student teams for four months leading up to the actual retreats.  In total we will meet for Formation Meetings six times, have one workday and one run-through of the retreat.  It is a huge commitment from the students and for me as one of the adult leaders.  I love these meetings, but they are exhausting.  School day, an extra hour prepping and grading, and the meeting meant an 11 hour day for me on Monday.

Tuesday was my crazy block day.  Crazy. I teach all four block periods with only an hour free for lunch and “activity”.  Yesterday, the yearbook staff had their virtual artist session during this period.  The girls brought their lunches to my room and we had a conference call with a designer who showed us some ideas for our cover.  Pretty cool technology and the girls loved every minute of it, but it meant I was racing yesterday from one class to another from 7-3 without any real break.  Which left me totally burnt out and unwilling to bring any additional work home with me that night.  8 hours for that day, but it felt like 80.

So from Friday through Tuesday I’m logging 29 hours.

It’s going to be a long day today because I’m the freshman class moderator and we have their induction ceremony tonight.  More on that in another post!

Lessons Learned from My Retail Gig

The past two days have been a blur of prepping lessons, grading assignments, emailing parents, arranging details for an upcoming field trip and budgeting yearbook.  Oh yeah, I’ve done some teaching as well.

With so much going on, I consider my greatest accomplishment to be my ability to stay present with my classes.  Each time the bell rings, I force myself to put away my current task and switch gears to welcome a new class.  It can be frustrating at times because I’m rarely finished with a task before I’m forced to shift my focus to something else.  It feel like there are way too many loose ends.

This is one way that my part-time job as SuperSalesGal has actually helped me as a teacher.  Working 15-20 hours at another job forces me to get comfortable with the unfinished.  I’ve had to learn to ask myself, “Is there any point in bringing your lesson plan book home tonight?” Or, “Grading tonight. The prepping will need to wait until tomorrow.”  I’ve learned a lot about priorities now that my time is divided between two jobs.

I also feel like the retail job can help to keep me sane when teaching has me jumping from one unfinished task to another. My coworkers think I’m crazy, but I love finding little projects and tasks to be done around the store.  Tonight I spent the better part of a 4.5 hour shift organizing a makeup drawer.  I cleaned, labeled and sorted.  And I didn’t stop until I was finished.  There’s a sense of accomplishment that comes with completing a task that I don’t think teachers always get to experience.  As SuperSalesGal, I see visible results of my efforts – a clean drawer, an organized shelf, products with the correct pricetags.  With teaching, the outcomes are more gradual and not always obvious.

Between yesterday and today, I put in 18 hours.


August Wrap-up and Welcome September

The Friday after Back to School Night was a shortened day.  We had a late start to compensate for the extra hours from the night before. I had to work most of the weekend and even found a few moments for some downtime away from school “stuff”. So adding in seven hours from Friday brought the August total to…

178 hours

So after a long weekend away, September has come rushing in. I can’t believe it. We are truly in full-swing now. At my school, this means committees. Today I spent my planning period (and half of lunch) in a meeting with some members of our administration. Tomorrow I don’t have a planning period at all (due to the block day). Thursday, I’ll spend it meeting with the other adult leaders of the senior retreat. And Friday I’m supposed to meet with a rep from a yearbook publisher.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So…planning period…what’s that again?

Today’s total = 10 hours.

Half the Classes, Double the Fun: A Modified Block Schedule

Last year my school implemented a new schedule. We went from a six period per day, eight periods per term rotation schedule (don't ask) to a seven period per term modified block schedule. Basically what this comes out to on a normal week is three days with all seven classes (45 minutes per class) and two days of block classes (80 minutes per class). The block days meet with four classes one day and three the next.

There was a lot of fear and anxiety that came with the new schedule and it does have its downfalls, but overall, I've gotta say, I'm digging it. It suits subjects that benefit from every day meetings (every class meets four times per week), as well as class that require longer class periods (i.e. science labs). It's kind of like having the best of both worlds. Now that we're in year two of the modified block schedule, I've begun to look forward to the block classes.

Today was our first block day of the year. The pace of the block days is so much more relaxed than the seven period days. It was nice to follow the madness of the first day of classes with a more leisurely schedule.

I tend to treat the block days in much the same way as I treat non-blocks in theology. I rarely spend an entire class lecturing, so I don't have to worry about overloading the kids with info on the block days. I think more in terms of variety. A typical block session in one of my courses may include: a longer prayer (often an inspirational song or video), an individual work assignment (maybe 20 minutes), a full class follow up discussion (25 minutes), and then some kind of creative assignment that allows them to move around and talk to others. Add in a minute here or there for transitioning from working on their laptops to another medium and an 80 minute class truly seems to fly by.

I had all of my preps today (because life couldn't possibly take it easy on me and balance out my schedule between the block days). The nice thing about that is that I have no planning to do for tomorrow since I'll only have one class (besides yearbook) and they will be doing the same assignments I already prepared for the other section for today.

Since I had no prep work for tomorrow, I was actually able to leave at semi-decent time. 9.5 hours today.

Oh yeah. Today I used the icebreaker I told you about in this post. I had only planned to use it with the sophomores, but they had so much fun with it, I ended up using it for the seniors and frosh as well. I highly recommend this one. It was almost as fun as the silent interviews from yesterday.


Non-teaching Teacher Tasks

Try saying that three times fast.

The title of today’s post was the best way I could think to describe my day.  Today was filled with fairly typical things that a part of a teacher’s job, but don’t involve teaching.

I wrote an article about the student trip I lead this summer to Europe.  My school is always looking to for exciting and new things to feature in our various publications.  The director of the school’s magazine asked if I could send her a description of the trip and some photos to feature in the next issue.  So I wrote my article and searched for the best photos I had.  I photoshopped the pics so they’d be publication-ready.  I also emailed the students who attended the trip and requested that they share some of their own reflections for the magazine as well.

After the article, I met with my department chair to discuss class sizes.  We’re meeting as a full department tomorrow, so today we mainly just focused on managing techniques for my own classes.  We also debated the pros and cons of moving the yearbook staff to its own room.  I’m not sure what, if anything, will come from that discussion, but we’re brainstorming some options we might have.

I fixed a desk chair (even though I am possibly the least handy person in the entire world).

I wrote another college recommendation letter and uploaded it to the student portfolio website.  

I began planning the agenda for the freshman class meeting next week.  My co-moderator is out on maternity leave which makes me the sole keeper of the dreaded freshman class business binder.  Luckily for me, my co-moderator is extremely organized, so it wasn’t too painful.  Still I’m not really looking forward to moderating the frosh alone for first quarter.

I also designed some labels for each of my class participation clipboards and organized a new filing system for my planning and grading materials.

But by far, the most important task I completed today was reprogramming my Keurig machine. Mmmm…tea. 😉

These are the kind of tasks that I think are often overlooked as part of a teacher’s job.  The students aren’t in classes yet, so today I was able to accomplish these things between 8:30 and 4:30, but that is not the usual.  These are the types of tasks that sneak up on a person and work their way into our planning period and when they do that, we then have to find time for actual planning.

I hope this post doesn’t sound whiny because that is not the intent.  I had a great day.  I love my job and I didn’t mind any of these tasks – they had to be done.  It’s just that I often think it’s assumed in our culture that teachers are only working when they are up in front of a classroom filled with kids.  And I think this is an unfair assumption to make.  

So in total today, I spent 8 hours on my non-teaching teacher tasks.  

Tomorrow is an exciting day.  I meet my frosh for the first time!

Update: I couldn’t bear to watch my Cardinals lose tonight, so I did some additional school work after dinner. I just finished working on my frosh theology class. I’ve now updated the website, revised classroom procedures and planned and prepped the first week of lessons. I’m adding another 3.5 hours of work bringing the total for today to 11.5. And now…I’m going to bed. 🙂

Why I Teach

Yesterday, I blogged about distractions that arise at the start of a new school year. When I went to bed last night, I vowed to be more focused today.

The day started in a promising manner. I had an opening shift at my other job, so I planned to work from home this evening on some of my class websites. I woke up early, dressed as SuperSalesGal and headed out the door. I went to the bank, picked up some goodies for my coworkers at the bakery and dropped by the post office. My day was off to a roaring (and productive) start.

And then it all came crashing to a halt. I received a phone call from my dad saying that my great aunt was in the hospital and they didn’t think she would make it much longer. My mom and dad happened to be visiting her when she started feeling sick and stayed with her and my uncle through the ordeal. My dad said my mom amazed him in the way she handled everything.

I didn’t know my great aunt all that well. We lived in separate states and didn’t see each other often. She was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer a few months ago, so in a way, I expected this call. Still, the news was like a weight tied around my heart. And it dragged down my motivation and focus with it.

And then I received a visit from a former student. This girl was on my yearbook staff and we had formed a special bond over the years. She stopped by the store to say hello before she leaves for college next week. Maybe it was my morose mood projecting upon everyone in my vicinity , but her visit quickly turned from cheerful to somber as she tearfully confessed her fears as she prepared for this major change. She said, “I wish I were going back to HighSchool*. I’m so scared.”

I thought to myself, “Is this the same kid who had a countdown going until graduation?” but I kept the thought to myself and launched into teacher mode instead. I hugged her and empathized. I told her how scared I was my first day of college and we laughed about some of the stories. Then I told her I believed in her…that she was SO ready for this…that I was so excited for her. I made her promised to send me pictures of her dorm room and to visit when she was in town. And I made her some makeup samples. When all else fails, try lip gloss. 😉

That weight was still tied around my heart, but my mind was no longer on my sadness. A part of me was with my former student now. Her fears were my fears, just as her hopes became my own. And I was reminded why I’ve stuck with this job for 8 years and counting. It isn’t for the power or fabulous pay. It’s not even for the summer vacations. It’s for the opportunity to make a difference in an individual’s life. It’s for the students. (And the snow days…)

I never got my productive zen back after my shift, but I did manage to spend the past hour prepping the first week of lessons for my senior level course. And, in the end, I think today was still a pretty big success.

*English teachers, please don’t freak out and correct me on my spelling of “high school.” I’m protecting the innocent here and using that as a replacement for the name of the actual school. Also, please ignore all other mistakes in this post and forever (in this blog). 😉