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

Footnotes

[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.

Saving Superman

Superman is dying.  We didn’t realize it.  We thought all he was doing was waiting around for Lex Luthor to strike, and then he’d fly into action.

But when the world isn’t in actue danger, Superman is working, in his mind.  He is ideating and prioritizing and acting and planning and checking and doing and adjusting and observing and orienting and deciding and acting.  There is no time lose.  

And yet, being here, on Earth, super-man.  Man.  He’s just a man.  Maybe he can fly faster than a speeding bullet.  Maybe he’s more powerful than a locomotive.  But his heart.  Did you know he has a heart?  It needs to beat with a passion.  It needs to sustain him.  To remind him why he is here.

Moving fast and taking it all on his own, capable shoulders, he became a hero.  Yet, he has not slowed.  He has not taken a break in almost 100 years.  He’s died in at least one universe.  But in this one, in ours, a dimension where Superman is a metaphor, so many of us are trying to be Superhuman.  Our virtue, our strength of will is so strong.  There are many of us.  We want to save the world.  But we will only do it if we survive.  If we finally integrate the part that can drive us.  Our passion, our emotion, our feelings are another source of strength.  It just takes time and effort to master.

We have already learned some mastery.  In the moment, when confronted by danger, our training and our mastery of emotion allows us to fight.  We see this in sports, and war, and crisis.  We fight despite the fear.  It lessens, as we master it, we box it up.  Yet, the most difficult fights can’t be won in a day.  They are lifelong pursuits.  Justice.  Safety.  A better world for our grandkids.  We keep the fear, the emotion, boxed up.  We don’t slow down.  We need to go faster.  The problem is bigger than we once thought.  There is another, new problem. 

We must learn, Superman’s heart and passion and emotion, is an asset.  It can sustain us.  It can power us.

In this alternate dimension of metaphorical Superhumans, we must make time to feel.  We must support the other Superwomen and Supermen, for they may need to step away from the fight to learn this side of mastery: the side of not quenching the fires, but of stoking them and living at that new level of emotion.

Set aside the pill bottle, beer bottle.  Call off work.  Tell a friend what you’re doing.  Sit with a friend.  Sit in the feelings.  And when you have relearned to feel, remind yourself, I’m Superman (Or Superwoman or SuperWhateverYouIdentifyWith). [1]

[1] I wanted to write “I’m fucking Superman,” but if you get the inflection wrong, you might read the word fucking as a verb, which changes the entire meaning.  If true, congratulations!  I’m still looking for my Superwoman.

Products & Services – Delta Air Lines Leaves a Little To Be Desired

Summary

  • I felt like my time was not valued based on spending 2 hours on hold.
  • I think the Delta agent wasn’t honest about being able to issue a refund on my ticket. The agent changed the story on what was possible when I requested to complain about the system to a superior.
  • Points of improvement:
    • Eliminating hold time by adding staff or creating a call-back system.
    • Making sure incentives for staff are clear and geared towards resolving customer issues.
  • General Feelings: neutral, negative

The story

I had a trip booked to British Columbia in 2020 for $350. Covid happened, and Delta gave me a credit for the cost of the ticket.

This summer, I decided to go to Montana with some friends. I went to use my Delta credit. Super, everything was fantastic. I paid $800, minus the $350 credit. Woot! So excited to go see Glacier and Yellowstone!

Then the west caught on fire. So, we ended up rebooking for New England. We might not get the dramatic scenery, but we would get some relatively clear air and some good food.

When I looked at my CC statement, I felt a little remorse. Booking flights and AirBnbs for one trip is expensive, much less two. I did a little accounting of all the trips and found most of the refunds and switches had been handled correctly. Except for the Delta one.

My credit had never been applied and I had been charged the full fare. When I went back and looked for the credit, I couldn’t find it on the receipt for the ticket or on the Delta site. Something had gotten mixed up along the way and the website was saying there was no longer any credit.

I resigned to call Delta.

I put it off a few weeks. When I finally called, it was as bad as I had thought it might be. “Your expected hold time is less than… two hours.” It took about two hours to get through to a human.

When I finally did get through, I explained my issue: I had bought a ticket to Montana and had exchanged that for a ticket to Massachussetts. The ticket to Montana didn’t have the credit for $350 applied.

The attendant and I worked out that I had a $100 credit for the difference between the Montana and Massachussetts tickets. The attendant found my ticket from last year, and couldn’t tell me why the credit hadn’t been applied, even though it was “attached” to my Montana ticket.

The attendant then explained that she could get me my $350 credit back as well as get me a $50 credit by rebooking my existing ticket at a lower rate.

I asked, will that apply the $350? The attendant said I would have to use that credit at a later time. The attendant apologized and said that there may have been some sort of failure because so many people are using the online booking system and that sort of thing may happen.

I politely said I thought Delta should be able to refund the amount of my original credit.

The attendant explained the ticket was non-refundable.

I said again, I thought that because it was clearly a mistake by the Delta system, I thought they should refund it anyway, but I understood the attendant didn’t have that authority.

We went through with it and I received my $50 credit.

I thanked the attendant and then asked if there was anyone I could speak to about the system glitch and Delta’s policies when they made a mistake.

At that moment, the attendant said it would be possible to refund my ticket, rebook at the new, reduced rate, and use my credit.

Then, in a moment, we were done. I thanked the attendant and went on my way. In hindsight, I’m concerned. My request to escalate the issue was clearly the trigger for the refund of the non-refundable ticket. I had clearly asked for the same outcome, explicitly during the conversation and been rejected. I seriously doubt a call center attendant would take the initiative to hold onto my money for Delta without some incentive or policy behind it. The interaction felt dishonest. It felt like I was being sold. The two hour hold time felt like a barrier put up to keep me from getting service.

Product UX Rant: How frustrating is the MacOS Finder in 2021!?

Expletives deleted. [1]

I am sold on the Apple ecosystem. It makes so much easy and predictable. I am resigned to not being able to effectively share photos with my parents who are on Android. I am resigned to regularly shelling out money for new devices because my old one reaches planned obsolescence. I do all this for convenience and consistency in self-centered experience.

Yet, the Mac Finder is incredibly frustrating and breaks the experience of using Mac. I regularly find discrepancies between ability to take actions in various flavors of file management on the Mac. Windows IS BETTER. Windows has consistently been better.

I love to organize and file, yet I have files everywhere on my Mac. I realized this is because creating folders is total ****. An uncommonly large %, (I have no idea what this % is, it just feels big) creating folders is unintuitive. This may be because the create folder button is in a different place in a dialog or finder, it isn’t showing up, or worst… when I click “create folder”, the folder goes in an unintuitive **** place. If I’m navigating a Finder tree, and I have made a single selection 3 folders deep, and I click “New Folder,” I want the new folder to go under my selection. Finder puts it at the top level. To actually get the folder 3 levels deep, you have to click into that folder, making it the root, losing the context of the tree.

I can hear the Mac Fanboys saying “get over it,” but… no, this is the level of experience and intuition that Mac has always promised. Moving on…

Why does drag and drop work half the time and give you 0 clues on what the **** is wrong when it isn’t enabled? I had this trouble today when trying to drag and drop files from the downloads directory to a place where I can find them later. I will select or multi-select files and then click drag and … nothing. No sign that I have grabbed the files and they sure don’t move where I want them. I can command click and I see “Copy,” but no “Cut,” the corresponding “Move” action. WTF!?

Then, just when I get so frustrated I start a blog post and then try really breaking down the different behaviors, it starts to work. Magic! The self-healing Finder. It just takes frustration and break of my flow to make it work. This is why I use the Apple ecosystem. [2]

I can hear the Mac Fanboys saying “get over it,” but… no, this is the level of experience and intuition that Mac has always promised. Moving on…

There are other idiosyncrasies in Finder, but these are enough that I run into them EVERY TIME I TRY TO ORGANIZE MY FILES, and the result is that I DON’T ORGANIZE MY FILES. For a trillion dollar company that has billions in the bank, put a designer and two engineers on Finder for two weeks. Please.

[1]: A little context… I’m big on compassion and engaging in collaborative dialog, but sometimes I just want to release my passionate frustration. This is something Steve Jobs was known for. I think I’d like to reserve this for 1% of the time. The time when it really matters. This is practice.

[2] Honestly, Finder and sharing photos are my big complaints… well also that damn butterfly keyboard that is on both Mac laptops I own. Oh, also, why can’t I charge my iPhone off my Mac without a dongle?

What penalty shootouts can teach us about ourselves

I watched the UEFA European Championship Football (Soccer) final yesterday. The match was decided by a penalty shootout, as was one of the semi-finals. So exciting! If you don’t know, a penalty shootout happens when two teams are tied after a standard amount of time, followed by an extended time period. Teams will take 5 penalty shots each, and the team with the most goals at that point is the winner.

Ignoring the challenge of goalie versus shooter, shot placement, and shooter tendencies, I think nerve is the most interesting aspect of the shootout. At the UEFA Championship level, every player is physically capable of burying an unstoppable shot. Goalies are fantastic athletes, but a full-speed shot to either upper corner of the net is simply unstoppable. Yet, being able to perform in the moment, with ample time to be in ones own head, separates the best shooters from the worst. The best shooters bury an unstoppable ball or are able to fake out the goalie and kick it to an open area. However, shooters often miss or kick it within reach of the goalie. The commentators said a few really interesting things leading to the shootout, but the most interesting was,

“You pick the players who can live with missing.”

Thinking about the hierarchy of needs, the players who can live with missing are the players who feel safe in who they are if they miss. Life will not end. Their kids will not stop loving them. Their partner will not leave them. (If they do, are they really the right partner?) It’s so amazing how being a shot taker at the highest level requires letting go and being able to life with the outcome either way. It’s also an awesome life lesson.

Being aware that mental health is an essential aspect of performance and that actively improving our mental health is a normal and good thing, is part of the normalization and elevation of the discussion. Mental health and the psychological safety to make mistakes and recover are themes of the best business books. They are values that will continue to prove themselves in the coming years.

Congratulations to England on a fantastic tournament! Congratulations to Italy on coming back to force the shootout and then coming back to win!

One way you pay more for healthcare if you don’t have insurance

Unfortunately, my son didn’t have the best luck recently with his teeth. He had 4 cavities and a painful abscess in 2019 and 3 cavities in 2021. (1) The procedures to fix them were stress free, done by a fantastic children’s dentist. The main difference in the experience was that in 2019, my work insurance paid. In 2021, I paid directly. When I went to look at the recent bill, for $2100, I was really surprised at the price. $200 for a filling, $50 for dental sealant, times 3. Also, over two sessions, nitrous oxide for both sessions at $130 each.

I was curious.

I went back and looked at my insurance statement from 2019. The fillings were charged at around $200, but the insurance company only paid about $130. The dental sealant also wasn’t on it. Overall, googling the billing codes like 02392, I was able to find an insurance table from Joint Benefits Trust, that showed what JBT pays. Again, $200 reduced to $130, about a 50% up-charge for the unwitting.

Now, this is old news for the indoctrinated in the insurance industry. For me, a 20 year health IT leader, with some time spent at a giant medical coding company, I’ve only experienced this tangentially, and it still is a charge I put on a credit card before I went looking. I can imagine if I was disadvantaged and had less time or education to inspire and allow me to do such a search. I might pay it or I might not take my kids to the dentist.

Theres a philosophical argument that will come up at this point in US politics. Is this just a case of “buyer beware” or “personal choice,” “freedom,” or “personal responsibility?”

First I think dental care is essential, not a luxury. (2)

Second, In my case, I can say my situation was “buyer beware.” Yet, I have every advantage, including time, education, and financial security to ask the questions. I would not project that onto other parents who don’t have insurance, who don’t have the advantages.

Third, I fully intend to engage my dentist and discuss this. I strongly assert, healthcare and business in general, work best when based on a foundation of trust. (3) I need to trust that my dentist is thinking about my situation, without insurance, and giving me the same treatment he is giving an insurance company.

If I were financially stressed and unaware of medical billing codes, I would want someone helping me. As I tend to believe in the golden rule and that society doesn’t work if we don’t trust and help each other, I am willing to pay a little extra or live under a law, not to help a dentist buy a Porsche, but to help a poor family take care of their kid’s teeth.

  1. Luckily all the work was on baby teeth. Thanks for asking.
  2. I won’t argue this here, but am willing to discuss with anyone who thinks otherwise
  3. Again, this assertion is beyond the scope of this, but if you read any of the top business books, this is a core theme (4.)
  4. I’m not going to really defend this either. I may be full of it… But the business books I’ve read are definitely pro-trust.

Product Management: How Vanguard looks at Net Promoters and KPIs

As a human being, I’m constantly skipping surveys. As a product nerd, I find it really interesting to review them. They can tell you what the surveyor really values.

Let’s look at one from Vanguard and try to figure out who they are and think through the value of their survey.

Will you recommend us? If you will, you are a net promoter. If not, you are either neutral, or worse, a net detractor. This is the most important question because it provides a general feeling about the company, service, or product. It’s very intentional that it’s the lead-in question and that even if you disregard the rest of the survey, it’s critical information for the service/product provider.

I think these are the most interesting questions. Vanguard knows I have pressure on my time and I’m ready to bail in a few moments. They only asked one additional page of 8 questions. So what do they ask: “how are we doing on things we value?”

The questions very likely get to the heart of the surveyor’s key performance indicators, KPI’s. These, in turn can be distilled into the surveyor’s values.

  • Easy to do business with
  • Necessary guidance based on an understanding of my goals
  • A leader in advice and cost
  • Is respected

When I finished the survey I thought, “They really respected my time, and kept it short.” I felt really positive. This goes a step further in that they really understand who they are and what they are doing. They are focused.

This is a great example from a great company.

Top 1000 Calvin and Hobbes of All Time… #3

Original Post: Feb 14, 2009

Simply, brilliant. There’s something about this coming from a young boy that makes it hilarious. Thank you, Calvin. … Unfortunately, I have heard this often enough in the real world with high enough stakes that it is funny.

There is no dichotomy between thinking and doing. Thoughts are lost to time without doing, whether it be communication or some other action. Doing is often ineffectual or destructive without thought. Thought brings instinct together with the lessons of experience. Maybe the right way to put it is: Thinking allows us to do good (and well).