I’ve never been into Twitter, though I recognize its appeal as a communication medium. It’s quick and convenient; a good place to share a transient thought and to record every freaking thing you’re up to.
My protest is against my wife’s usage of Twitter as a substitute for blogging. Some people should not be reduced to expressing their thoughts in 140 characters. It’s deprived me of one of the great joys of my life – reading my wife’s beautiful prose. Consider the following examples of words that would have gone unwritten and unread:
And Grant’s favorite (which I just spent some time hunting down):
For those of you who don’t know, Jen has started a new blog but thinks that no one is going to read it. Please give her some encouragement.
jcliao, consider yourself called-out.
The most ridiculous thing about my stay at Adtech (my IBM group) is that it lasted longer than college. There were about twenty of us, and we formed a talented, self-contained, and self-directing group. By the time I arrived, Adtech had already established itself and was charting its own course. The thing that kept me coming in (and enjoying it) was the team. We became very close, eating lunch together nearly every day. There were a good number of social gatherings with the extended Adtech family which includes several adorable children and lots of cool significant others. Jen and I played on the Adtech softball team for a year, which was a lot of fun.
The work was always interesting and changing at a good pace – projects were long enough to develop a deeper understanding of the technology but not so long that they dragged on. It was difficult to get the attention of the behemoth that is IBM, but it’s good to see that all of my work hasn’t completely disappeared. Technology areas included a rich Internet application framework, cluster computing and monitoring, a tiny bit of graphics programming, and Semantic Web technologies. I was also able to get involved in several community educational programs.
Even though most of us have left IBM, we’ve been meeting up on a semi-regular basis for lunch in Kendall Square. I’ll miss hanging out, though there are good number of us in the Bay Area now. Hoping to stay in close touch with everyone and to visit occasionally before the kids all grow up.
After spending over 5 great years at IBM, I’ve started a new job at Endeca. The bad news is that I’m currently computerless – the machine I ordered a month ago isn’t scheduled to be delivered for another two months. Unfortunately this means for now photo-processing (and recipe-posting) is on hold indefinitely while I try to figure out whether to get something else in the meantime.
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.
We made it. Two Mondays ago we had the Online WOW! at the MIT Media Lab. Students explained how their games worked to event attendees in a science fair-style setup. One of our students, John, participated in a web videoconference with some students from a classroom in California and got to show off his game to them. This past Monday was our last class, during which we reflected and celebrated by handing out game CDs and playing the Wii.
Last Wednesday we had the Gavin WOW! We got to see some of our students in the contexts of their other apprenticeships, like dance and TV production. Of course, there was also a lot of game-playing and explaining as well. Overall I was quite impressed by how much they retained, and I really enjoyed seeing the students take pride in their work as they showed off their games.
Will post some final thoughts in the days to come. It has been a great experience all around, and at least one student is intent on continuing work on his game, which we count as one of our successes.
A few months ago I was working with Cathleen Finn (in IBM Corporate Community Relations), and she mentioned the pains she had to go through to get lists of employees working in New England states (for the purpose of sending recruitment emails). The process involves making a request to someone in another group and waiting for them to come back with a spreadsheet. Of course this is a process that has to be done every time and can take several days. It’s especially frustrating because we have all of the data (in a LDAP directory) but there isn’t any good way to get at it to solve this problem.
Lee, Elias, and I had mucked around with SquirrelRDF a while back, running it from the command line. Since I didn’t have access to that machine, I looked up our LDAP schema, wrote a mapping file, and wrote a SPARQL query to pull email addresses for everyone working at an office location in Massachusetts. It took a while to run the query, but in the end I got exactly the data I was looking for, no more and no less.
I played around with SquirrelRDF a bit more intending to set it up as a service to be used in some of our internal Semantic Web demos. I wrote up some of what I did in a recently published developerWorks article.
So the instruction part of our Citizen Schools apprenticeship has come to an end. Tomorrow evening at MIT we are holding an event for some of the technology apprenticeships across the city. Our students will get to demonstrate their games and explain basic concepts via some posters that they created last week.
The last few classes have been quite good, except for the week before spring break when only four students showed up. We enjoyed giving a lot of attention to the students who did show up, but we had to catch everyone else up over the next few weeks. The key thing that Lee and I have found very effective (suggested by Emmanuel) is trying to maintain a good deal of structure within the lessons, giving them one small milestone at a time rather than open-ended tasks.
There have been a lot of opportunities for the students to work on their games, and for the most part they have been more engaged than at the beginning of the class. Instead of covering function definitions and boolean logic, they’ve had fun drawing character graphics (using rectangles, circles, and triangles as primitives), moving characters around, and implementing collision detection. Of course we’ve had the occasional straggler who isn’t at all interested in exploring what can be done given their game framework, but overall things have been very positive. Students have been excitedly showing each other what they’ve done.
One thing that amuses me to no end: We have two students who we’ve assigned to work together. They have been paired together just about every week that they attend class. But without fail when they walk into the room and see their notebooks together, each will try to move to another workstation, and they complain (pretty loudly) about not wanting to work together. This is not all that surprising considering that most of our other partnerships don’t exactly demonstrate good teamwork; partners regularly antagonize each other. The thing about these guys, though, is that once they get down to work they actually help each other, looking over what’s being typed, making suggestions, and answering each other’s questions. It’s really great to see.
Thursday was Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day. I didn’t have a daughter or son to bring to work, but I did end up running an activity session for eighteen children aged 8 to 11. The topic was the Internet, and we covered the differences between analog and digital data, simulated a simple packet-routing scenario, and discussed the pros and cons of having a centrally regulated Internet. I was really happy to see the students point out two of the best things that the Internet has going for it: 1) free access for all and 2) no censorship. Pretty cool to see these guys so far ahead of where I was technology-wise at their age.
At this point we look forward to the surprises that every Monday brings. This past week, we got two brand new students, and a student who had supposedly been dismissed from the program for behavior issues was back in class. We shuffled our pre-arranged seating to accommodate the changes as students were finding their seats. The new students were great – they picked up the material quickly and worked well together.
The class went reasonably well – we covered boolean functions (AND and OR). Students are still struggling with writing functions; it’s a pretty big leap in abstraction that they haven’t quite mastered yet. Fortunately, disruptions were kept to a minimum so that we could focus on teaching the content.
I think that I’ve become more comfortable with the idea of not trying to befriend all of the students. I gave out my first strike of the year, and I’ve definitely tried to not humor students who are obviously trying to push the behavior envelope.
I’ve always had a lot of respect for teachers, but the last three weeks have boosted that respect to stratospheric heights. We’ve done the first three lessons of our Citizen Schools Scheme curriculum, covering numbers, strings, graphics, and booleans. The students on the whole are very bright and eager to learn, but challenges are posed by the non-ideal classroom setup (it’s the school’s “library”/computer lab), frequently disruptive students (hitting each other and calling each other names), and a challenging curriculum full of abstract concepts.
We try to address challenges from week to week. For example, our seating strategy has changed (and hopefully improved). During week 1, we left the chairs more or less as they were in the room, so of course students came in and sat as far apart as possible from each other. Before week 2 started, we laid out the chairs beforehand, two chairs to a computer for partner work, but we made the mistake of letting students choose their seats and partners (leading to a lot of “Well I don’t want to work with X!”). Today we put students’ notebooks where we wanted them to sit but created a bad pairing, leading to day-long trouble. Now we’ve figured out a few rules about how to best arrange the students to maximize cooperation and learning while minimizing disruptions and are eager to try them in Week 4.
Behavior problems aside, it’s hard to keep students engaged, especially when it isn’t clear how
(+ 1 2) is related to the video games they play at home. In trying to make the link between simple code and games more tangible, today’s lesson included a screenshot from StarFox to introduce simple graphics and a monster from Doom 2 to introduce booleans. After all, who cares about booleans – unless they’re the only thing saving you from this wretched beast. The images definitely captured everyone’s attention, so it’s something that we’ll be including with every lesson. I was surprised that one of the students recognized both games since they were way before his time.
While it has been frustrating at times, we’re always eager to get back into the classroom to try out new techniques.The Citizen Schools staff (including Emmanuel, who co-taught with me while Lee was away this week) have been amazing, spending a lot of time exchanging ideas over the phone and in emails. We’ve learned to roll with the punches and have been embracing both the successes and failures (opportunities) in the classroom.
And to think, we have it so easy compared to full-time teachers – we only teach 90 minutes a week from a great curriculum prepared by someone else and an in-class Team Leader to help with discipline.
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