First Person

Why I transformed my sixth grade science class into a coding class, and how you can too

Like many middle school science teachers, I’ve spent more time talking about rocks and minerals than I care to discuss.

As a sixth-grade science teacher at Excellence Girls Charter School, an Uncommon school, earth science was an important part of my work. And throughout my career, I have found ways to make those lessons engaging: One day, students were handed a top-secret mission from NASA to create a planet similar to Earth, requiring them to learn about the interior of our planet, its atmosphere, and the water, carbon, and nitrogen cycles. Another day, the students walked into a classroom filled with fog. They could barely find their desks, and that’s how they learned about cumulus clouds.

Still, I questioned whether those topics were the best use of my students’ time.

It was difficult to give students a real answer about how the curriculum would affect their futures, especially for the ones who might opt to go down a technical track after high school. Not that there aren’t plenty of careers in health and environmental sciences they might choose from, but I wanted to equip them with knowledge that would create tangible career options for every single one of them.

A few years ago, I read an article about a homeless man who learned how to code and got a job at Microsoft without a college degree. I thought, “My students love technology. If he can learn to code and springboard himself into a lucrative career, so can they.” That’s when I started a coding club in my school in North Carolina.

There was one problem: I didn’t know the first thing about how to code.

The night before each club meeting, I would practice lessons on Codeacademy and then teach them to my students. We fell in love with coding together.

Many of the students that hadn’t performed well academically in the past did extremely well in coding club. They also started showing up to my science class fully engaged. They had found a class where they could see a future for themselves. Still, I was troubled that the girls almost seemed to feel out of place.

I started at Excellence Girls Middle Academy one and a half years ago, and yes, I started out teaching rocks and minerals. My principal, a former science teacher, is amazing and loves math and technology. She immediately agreed that we needed a coding enrichment initiative, and I started my coding club there with 20 girls.

The girls in the club were fearless. They exuded confidence that they could do anything and be anyone. Being surrounded by each other, it was a no-brainer to them that women could be programmers.

In my coding brain, this means: < if girls == fearlessness && excellence> < Girls + coding == empowerment >. How could I deny any of my students this opportunity?

At the end of my first year at Excellence Girls, I told my principal I couldn’t teach rocks and minerals anymore, and that I could only stay if we replaced my earth science class with a computer science class.

She agreed. I found a summer fellowship that the Flatiron School was offering in partnership with Teach For America, and since I was a TFA alumnus, I got to learn to code for free. I now have a solid foundation in Ruby on Rails, HTML, and CSS, and I teach 87 girls an introduction to computer science course full time.

My point is not to draw more attention to what I’m doing or to downplay the importance of more traditional subjects.

But I see my coding class as giving students an important opportunity they might not otherwise have: to grow comfortable enough to pursue coding in the future, which could lead to in-demand career options for them and more much-needed diversity in the tech sector.

I’m inspired to see the mayor rolling out the Computer Science For All initiative over the next 10 years, and it’s great to see Teach For America getting involved. But I urge teachers not to wait for the city’s initiatives to reach their schools. You don’t have to be a part of TFA to do this either. Just start a coding club at your school this year.

I know firsthand how unnerving it can be, especially if you don’t have any coding experience. Turn to organizations like ScriptEd, New York on Tech, and the iZone, which provide free lesson plans and tools. If you want your students to be exposed to other people of color in STEM fields, my blog POCIT (People of Color in Tech) provides interviews with people with diverse backgrounds.

It’s possible to turn sixth-grade science class into a place that engages students now, and helps them engage with their futures.

First Person

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.