Teaching High School Computer Science, first impressions with Microsoft TEALS and CS Academy

CS Academy Screenshot

I started teaching computer science at William Raines High School in Jacksonville Florida last week.

I feel inspired.

There are four of us, Anamaria, Kevin, Sean, and myself supporting one teacher, Donna, teach intro to computer science for over thirty high school students. I think about my kids’ school, where there is a teacher and classroom assistant for 18 kids, a ratio of 9:1. By assisting, we are bringing the ratio in this class to from 30:1 to 6:1. I’ve already met 8 students. I know some of them play Madden and Call of Duty. I know some are creative and like to do side projects. I really hope to build a greater connection with the students as the year continues.

In these first weeks, we have been studying the basics of Python using Carnegie Mellon’s [1] CS Academy. To prepare for the semester, I had worked with my 11 year-old and some of his friends using CS Academy and found it to to be a gentle, yet powerful introduction to programming. My son had done some Scratch programming, a visual framework, which eliminates problems with syntax errors that challenge new programmers. Python was a challenge because suddenly commas and quotes really matter and interpreter errors are sometimes hard to follow.

Today, I got a chance to really engage one on one with some of the students. What I found was students were so fast to pick up concepts and the big picture. The ones who struggled were simply having trouble with commas and quotes. With a few leading questions, they were off to the races.

The pacing of the lesson is a a challenge. There is an interactive portion of each lesson, where students perform coding exercises with the instructor. Some students run into issues here, such as the aforementioned syntax errors. As a teaching team, we have been struggling with the ability to quickly intervene to help students. The in-person instructor is really the best person to identify these issues, but it’s very time consuming as she walks around the class of 30 students, checking for issues. As she walks around, the lesson is slowed and the students who have finished get bored and disengage. Also, with 4 virtual teaching assistants, most of us are unable to effectively identify and intervene. I believe much of this could be improved in the virtual meeting tools. See [2] Below.

Then there’s the pacing of the course. CS Academy has suggestions on this, which really help. However, each class is different and I’m certain the ability to understand students’ progress through CS Academy will be a huge benefit. At a glance we can see different students are progressing at different paces:

I think our goal here will be to intervene to:

  • give students who are out ahead additional, related projects that might be fun, without skipping ahead
  • give students who are behind a helping hand, without singling them out in front of their classmates

It’s fantastic to have such objective measures of student progress!

I am excited for next week.

Some ideas

  • Remind students to “run” their programs early and often. Running the program regularly reinforces that the computer can always give you feedback and lowers the time to finding bugs, making them easier to figure out.
  • Remind students to look for commas, quotes, and parenthesis first
  • Constantly encourage students to help each other
  • Get Donna a bluetooth headset, with a mute button, so she can walk around and still be in contact with the teaching team.
  • Should we try playing some music during the interactive checkpoints?
  • Brainstorm on ways to identify and intervene, without drawing attention to students


[1] My alma mater. Good to see them doing good things!

[2] Improving Microsoft Teams to support Microsoft TEALS, I’ll put my product management hat on. TEALS teaching teams need to quickly identify and remotely intervene with students to maintain the pace of the class. Beyond Breakout Rooms:

  • As an instructor/classroom assistant, I would like to be able to see the screens of all my students in a gallery, so I can quickly identify who is running into problems and who is finished.
  • As an instructor/classroom assistant, I would like to be able to initiate a 1:1 discussion with a student, so I can rapidly help them.
  • As a student, I would like to be able to initiate a 1:1 discussion with an instructor, so I can rapidly get help.

Points 2, 3 may be redundant, as it could be supported by full Teams accounts. As I write this, all the teaching assistants are stuck with guest Teams accounts. 😦 More to come.

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