Citizen Schools recap

Posted in community, personal, technology at 2:08 pm by wingerz


Several months ago, Lee and I decided to volunteer with Citizen Schools. We taught a small class of sixth and seventh graders how to program a video game in Scheme. While it was a large time commitment and, at times, a struggle, it’s something that I am happy to have done and would encourage others with flexible hours to explore. For those who have not been following along, I tracked our progress throughout the 10-week apprenticeship:

Becoming a Citizen Teacher
Slowly (but surely) getting to WOW
Citizen Schools, Week 4
Night before WOW
Citizen Schools celebrations

I have spent most of my volunteering hours working with students; as the son of an educator, I cringe when I hear about how poorly the US does on math and science tests (which, unfortunately, is quite often). After working for several years with Boston Latin Academy in an event-coordinator role, I was interested in finding something inside the classroom just to get a glimpse of what it was like.

It was hard. There is no doubt that the students we had were very bright, but getting them to focus was quite difficult. We constantly questioned our ability to teach them effectively. We worried about losing control of the class, which was usually on the brink of chaos. On some Mondays the thought alone of facing them made us exhausted. And we were only doing this 90 minutes a week with a small class, getting to the school around 230pm, not waking up every weekday at the crack of dawn to teach for several hours. Teachers most certainly deserve that summer break of theirs.

Of course, the challenges made the rewards all the sweeter. We savored the times when students volunteered to answer questions, showed off accomplishments to us and to each other, and worked together to solve problems. They really hit their stride towards the end of the class, when every session was spent adding new functionality to their video games. We were happy to see them perform spectacularly at the end-of-term events, where they explained the inner workings of their code to friends, teachers, and strangers.

One of the things that I’ve realized is that it is incredibly easy to make excuses for everyone, especially the students. This one is having a tough time at home, that one had a rough day at school, this other one didn’t really want to be put in this class in the first place. It has the potential to be a huge demotivator for the teacher – at times it can seem too hard to overcome the baggage that the students are dragging around. But regardless of what was going on, I came to realize that we had those students for 90 minutes a week, and no matter what was going on in their lives it was our duty to try our hardest to teach them something. I imagine that it takes an incredible amount of willpower and energy to do this full-time, and I definitely appreciate more the teachers that I have learned from.

Overall I think that the Citizen Schools program is a very good one. Aside from teaching students how to behave properly be encouraging the demonstration of certain core values, it also addresses two problems of education: the disconnect between concepts learned in class and their application to real world problems as well as the one between a classroom and its local community. Bridging these gaps will give students interesting problems to think about and also make students aware of local career opportunities. In theory it should make their classroom studies more relevant to the world outside, and hopefully more interesting to them.

We have met several passionate educators (who have become good friends) – Emmanuel Schanzer, who developed the Boostrap curriculum; Alex Stryker and Kevin Ingram, who helped us maintain order in our classroom; Chris Conroy, who scrambled every week to make sure our classroom was equipped with everything we needed; and Brent Holsinger, who also provided a lot of support. Everyone gave us a lot of valuable advice and feedback, and it was great to have so much help.


  1. jess said,

    June 18, 2007 at 12:19 am

    scheme is an evil language. i recall lee cackling while i struggled to finish my scheme programs over ten years ago. the sound still echoes in my head.

  2. wingerz said,

    June 18, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    Lee did a fair amount of cackling in our class as well.

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