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.


Back to School Night

Tonight we had Back to School Night. At my school, this is a night when parents run through their daughters’ schedules and spend 15 minutes with each of their teachers.  As a teacher of both under- and upperclassmen, I get both ends of the attendance spectrum.  Freshman and sophomore classes = standing room only. Senior class…ummm…not so much.

Basically I try to show the parents my website and talk about the methods of evaluation.  I try to keep it light and lively. I teach all the afternoon sessions, so the majority of my parents were coming to me at the end of the night. They were tired. I was tired. I felt like I was repeating myself over and over again.  It makes for a long day.  Luckily for me, our school had early dismissal today so the students were out at 1:35.  I stuck around for the afternoon and worked on my websites and lesson plan book for next week, but I took a break before the parent night to get dinner with some friends. 

In total, I logged 10 hours today.


Posted by one of my favorite Facebook pages, “teachers with a sense of humor” (click on the picture to check out their page). I made this my new screensaver. I’m pretty sure this is like a mirror image of me when this happens in my class.

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). 😉

Punching In

Summer is awesome. Or, at least for me, this summer was awesome. I went to Europe read a lot and reconnected with my loved ones. Oh, and had some variation of this conversation, more often than I can count.

Me: Hey. How’s it going?

Idiot: Fine. Just been working, you know? Oh, wait. You don’t know. You’re on your annual three month vacation.

I can take a joke. (I make them at my own expense on a daily basis.) And it’s not that I don’t appreciate a few weeks of vacay. (Summer is awesome, remember?) It’s just that this idea that educators get to enjoy three months of tanning in exchange for 9 months of babysitting is so far off-base, I’m not even sure how to respond to statements like the one above.

I could clear up the misconception by giving a glimpse of my (awesome) summer.  I could explain that my time in Europe  was as a chaperone high school juniors and seniors. Or that, mixed in with my YA dystopian and cozy mystery reads, my Kindle is filled with tomes on classroom management and the latest instructional manual on Adobe CS6. I could point out that my time with loved ones included meeting former students for lunch, writing sincere and heartfelt recommendation letters and emailing some of the latest graduates to say just once more that, yes, they were going to do great in college.

I could explain those things to my idiot friend, but I don’t. I don’t because they won’t matter – not to idiot.  Because I didn’t do those things in an office, they won’t count as work. It wasn’t on the clock.

And I don’t explain any of that for another reason, too.  I don’t explain because I don’t want to explain.  I worked my butt off last school year. (Unfortunately my pants tell another story.) I love teaching and I put my whole heart into it. I deserve a break to recharge.

Which brings me to this blog.  I want to document one year of teaching.  The hours spent planning, grading and meeting, but also the ones spent cheering on the team, chaperoning the service trips and leading the retreats.  Because there’s more to my job than babysitting.  So maybe, this way, when some idiot makes a joke about my vacation next summer, I can just direct them here.

Because I earned it.