End-Of-Year Retrospective

I just finished my third year of teaching AP CS Principles. Each year I give a survey at the end of the year asking lots of questions about how things went. The results are best summarized by the amazing Justin Aion on twitter:

I’ve taken a once-over look at the results. Now I want to get into details and see how things went this year. I want to do this here so I can refer back to it later and because this blog is where I go to get reflective. So, let’s get reflective.

In terms of things we learned: What was your favorite thing we did all year? Tell me a bit about why you liked it

Themes: Lots of things popped up in terms of what we learned – coding, CyberSecurity, Privacy & Big Data, etc – but the why behind them fell into 3 categories:

  • Being Creative. Whenever we could have projects that gave students a creative choice for the final result: students liked it
  • Relevant / Applicable Content. Whenever I could make connections between the content and real-life (like privacy, cybersecurity, and the Internet): students liked it. One student commented that it felt like “the curtain was being pulled back and the mystery revealed”.
  • Ownership Over Process & Final Result: Whenever students had the opportunity to delve deep into a project and create something they made & designed themselves: they liked it. This last one reminds me of the Open Middle philosophy of problems – I set the problem, but there’s enough leighway and openness in how we get to the solution that students have ownership over that process.

Memorable Quotes:

“When I know how to do something, I have fun while doing it”

“I liked coding in general, the whole problem-solving and watching something you made come together is satisfying to me”

“I liked creating images and sharing them. It allowed a lot of creativity so it was definitely one of my favorite parts of the class”

In terms of things we learned: What was your **least** favorite thing we did all year? Tell me a bit about why you didn’t like it

Themes: Lots of different things showed up here and lots of nitty-gritty specific things showed up here. Stuff we did for a single day (like Moore’s Law) rather than entire units, which I see as a good thing. Among the results, the major themes were:

  • Working in Isolation. If a student completed a task in isolation, they tended to not like that task. Some coding projects & data-analysis projects popped up under this reasoning. This reinforces my desire to maintain a social classroom, but shows there are places to work on this.
  • Content Confusion / Uncertainty: Basically – if a student felt they didn’t really understand the content, then they didn’t like the unit. Makes sense, right? Something I didn’t do a great job with this year was posting ‘notes’ after lessons for students to refer back to – I think this could have helped alleviate this. Next year, I plan to lean a bit on Khan Academy’s resources for after-the-lesson notes for students to get clarity of they didn’t understand something.

Memorable Quotes:

“I thought the parts where we didn’t do much hands-on activities were a little slow in comparison to what we had done before that”

“I thought it was not as hands-on as the other units were. The things I remembered most were the things you taught with fun activities

“I wasn’t there when we learned it and I struggled catching up. I didn’t like how confused I was and I felt left behind. But when I did catch up it was all good”

In terms of things we did / how class ran: What was your favorite thing we did all year? Tell me more about why you liked it

Themes: These responses were really fascinating to read. I saw students reflecting on the sometimes symbiotic, ever iterating relationship between teacher & student in the classroom – I try something, they respond to it, I adjust, and the cycle continues. I got some really cool feedback from this question, such as:

  • Collaboration – students seemed to really appreciate the group discussions I tried this year and how I tried to incorporate partner activities into the class. The full-class discussions got lots of shoutouts, which felt really validating
  • Hands-On Activities – this quote pretty much sums up everything I had hoped for: “My favorite things were the interactive activities that we did during the lessons. I believe it helped me remember the resource better due to the fact that I had a fun activity associated with a certain topic“. Anchoring content to some sort of social or emotional or silly or interactive experience has been a big part of how I design certain units and lessons, so it was nice to see this echoed here.
  • Variety of Content / Methods – This popped up in a few interesting ways, with one student commenting that things always felt “a nice balance of fresh and familiar”. This year I tried to introduce a variety of instructional modes / strategies (how we work in partners, how we take notes, etc) and return to them at different times throughout the year in different contexts – I think this might be what this comment is hinting at. It also helps that AP CS Principles has a wide variety of content that’s easy to ebb and flow together, so it’s easy to mix up content which is nice.

Memorable Quotes

“My favorite things were when the class worked together – the little surprise pop-up activities where we would just move around the class doing hands-on things, or simply explaining a topic to one another”

“I liked the discussions we did on some coding and other AP-related questions. I think this helped open my mind and other people’s minds on opinions other students had to say and I say that was a positive experience”

“I love that you include anyone and heavily discourage negative vibes in the classroom. This class was the most fun class I had because I knew going in that it would be a safe place where I could learn new things and put my ideas out there” (this one made me feel good, and validated a lot of work I did on classroom culture & incorporating SEL ideas into my room)

In terms of what we did / how class ran: What was your **least** favorite thing we did all year? Tell me a bit about why you didn’t like it?

Themes: Surprisingly, Pair Programming popped up a lot here. My students didn’t really see the benefits – here are a few insightful quotes:

“Pair Programming was just one of those things that didn’t catch on with me. I didn’t know if there was any true benefit that we got out of pair programming over just coding on our own and asking questions/ideas/thoughts”

“My least favorite thing was pair programming, mostly because it was either hit or miss with the partners. The pairing can lead to just one person taking over and doing all the work which can lead to the other person not learning at the same level or not getting hands on learning as needed”

I’m taking this feedback with a grain of salt because: I noticed Pair Programming was effective this year with some unintentional A/B testing. I would be teaching a lesson and, usually out of lax planning, wouldn’t force pair programming on participants. And, usually, these lessons went slower and had a less positive classroom environment. So, the next period (that had more people), I would adjust and enforce pair programming, where I noticed students moved quicker and had a more jovial demeanor in class.

This makes me think I need to be more intentional about when I use Pair Programming and be more clear about why I’m using it in that moment. I don’t think it’s enough for me to say generally why I’m using it – I need to let students know why, for this particular activity, I decided to use Pair Programming.

I also think I need to switch up partners way more often. I was hesitant to do that this year because of really stupid bureaucratic technical reasons, like that their user profile doesn’t transfer between computers so it takes a little longer to log-in and none of their logins are saved. These are small management issues in class that prevented me from switching up partners more often than I could’ve. Next year, I think I need to be a lot more intentional about switching between partners way more frequently so they’re not always working in the same pairs. I think that would help decrease the feeling of “hit or miss” with partners and could help with the collaborative aspect of class.

Anyway – the other theme that popped up here was How I Graded Class Discussions, which was totally fair and really valuable feedback. I knew I wanted to do class discussions, and I also know that grades are one way to communicate what I value, so I knew I had to grade these discussions somehow. I transitioned between a few different grading schemes, which isn’t always fair to the students since they get used to one type of grading expectation only to have it shift a few weeks later. This definitely popped up in the comments.

The theme here seemed to be that students who didn’t speak-up much felt unfairly punished since an early-version of my grading gave them a lower score if they didn’t contribute. Eventually I adjusted this by having a class grade based on equity of voice, hoping that would encourage students to draw others into the conversation, but I also got feedback that students didn’t like that system either. Ultimately, there were aspects of my grading system that felt more punitive than anything else, which I think is fair since I was still figuring out how to quantify what I valued. In the absence of clarity around the things I value and want to encourage, the default is to focus on the things I want to discourage which is where my grading went. This also 100% explains my classroom management in the first few years of teaching.

Some ideas I have for next year are: having ‘role cards’ that I give to certain students that either force them to overtly participate in certain ways (speaking at least twice, supporting a comment) or force them to defer from the discussion in some way. (only ask questions, only invite others to participate) I can use these to still encourage broad participation and hold students accountable over multiple discussions.

I’m also thinking of adding a way of tracking the discussion for students to participate covertly and still get a ‘grade’. They may not speak up, but they can turn in a paper with some structured discussion notes that I can use for their grade instead. The downside to this though is that it can easily lead to the same group of students participating in the discussion, which is why I think I would need to do this in conjunction with role cards so they force others to paraticipate in the conversation.

Other Reflections

After the targeted questions above, I had a series of prompts asking students to respond to different aspects of my class that I was trying. These were kinda cool to read since I was basically pulling back the curtain on my teaching and asking how those decisions felt to them. Like “Hey – I tried not to assign a ton of homework. How did that feel?”; or “Hey – I tried to bring up social issues that can sometimes lead to real & heavy conversations – how did that feel?”. Here are some themes from those responses:

Less Homework Means More Value on Peer Interactions & Collaboration. This was a really fascinating to read – several students interpreted my lack of homework assignments as a statement of value on my in-class activities & peer interactions. They called out that, without having to focus on homework, they felt like every day in class was extra important and that the real learning happened in the room among their peers. I had mostly stopped assigning homework for digital equity reasons (which also surfaced here), so it was interesting to see how my lack of homework re-framed what was valuable in my class and where the real learning happens. It’s made me think that I want to make this point more explicitly next year to help reframe this thinking earlier in the year.

Students Have Low Opinions Of Tests. I don’t mean that they don’t like tests as an emotional base-level reaction – I mean that they don’t think it’s a useful measurement of their learning or how well they understand things. I asked them to respond to the statement of “This class doesn’t have a lot of ‘tests’ – we mostly complete larger projects’ – check out these zingers:

“I think the projects were a lot more interactive with the content we learned and it gave me an incentive to retain the information I learned rather than studying and taking a boring test on specific terms or ideas”

“I enjoyed [the projects] because we were graded on more than our memorization skills and we were able to apply what we learned to the project”

“I liked the projects because they play more at the creative aspects of thought rather than memorization or time wasted on learning testing strategies than the material”

I don’t think tests are very efficient as it’s just remembering facts that went through during class. The projects I feel were a good representation of what we had learned and retained throughout the school year”

“This was one aspect I liked because it felt like I wasn’t learning just to pass a test”

So yah – that was really interesting just to see a level of meta-awareness that I hadn’t necessarily anticipated. What’s interesting is we did have AP Practice quizzes & tests especially in the second semester, but many times students could work on them in groups and correct their mistakes, so I think they didn’t really think of these as ‘tests’ even though they had AP Test questions on them. Super curious.

I also asked students to reflect on a few topics & lessons where I intentionally highlighted some of the ethical & social impacts of technology and how these impacts might effect them personally. I’d been lurking on #ethicalCS and, more specifically, following the work of @jovialjoy and trying to have been trying to bring these ideas into my classes. These have also been some of the lessons I’ve been most unsure about in planning & delivering since I don’t really have any model for this in my own past educational experiences. Social justice & #ethicalCS were never topics in any of my classes, so I always feel like I’m floating in uncharted waters when I teach lessons where having probing & personally relevant discussions is the point of the lesson.

All that to say – even with my hesitation, I learned Students Want To Talk About Social Justice, Ethical Consequences, & Societal Issues. They want a type of relevance that feels like it has stakes and contains problems worth solving, even though I’m still unsure on how to deliver these lessons. I think this motivates me to try and find deeper and more personal connections between the content and my students’ lives. Not just “Hey – you you use Facial Recognition every day to unlock your iPhones and that’s cool!”, but more “Hey – Facial Recognition has inherent biases depending on your race, let’s look at some ways that could impact the people in this room and our community”. I’m still learning how to navigate that latter conversation, but my students seem to be telling me that they want me to keep trying to figure it out.

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