Bits and Behavior
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Bits and Behavior

A stage with the CSTA logo and a rainbow city skyline.
CS teacher pride, manifested as a rainbow Chicago skyline.

CSTA 2022 trip report: teaching, equity, and a bit of professional healing

I grew up around teachers — the ones who taught me obviously, but also my mother, who was a 5th grade teacher for several decades, and also several of my aunts and cousins. Talk of school, grading, and summer prep were constants in my home. And once I was old enough, I became a teacher myself, tutoring my peers in middle school and high school, teaching classes in college as an undergraduate, and ultimately becoming a professor (who now apparently studies teaching!)

But CS teaching, in so many ways, looks and feels different from most of the teaching that I grew up with, at all levels. For one, at this point in history in the United States, it is so often done by white men, particularly in higher education. That’s always been a bit disorienting for me, as the vast majority of my teachers growing up were women. But beyond gender and race, CS teaching is so often about projects instead of canon: they often feel more like my art classes in middle school, full of expression, problem solving, perspective, and a constant sense of not being good enough. And finally, CS teaching, especially in K-12, is amidst a national movement of education reform and growth. This gives it an entirely different energy than other subject areas, which I’ve always found static, inflexible, and cold (with the exception of some of the refreshing ideas in the Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core).

The CSTA annual conference, then, has always been of particular interest to me. I’ve been aware of it for almost a decade, but could never make the time alongside other summer travel to research conferences. But when I started doing CS education research and began working with teachers, schools, and districts, it became hard to ignore. I took advantage of the online format during the pandemic and joined to see what it was like in 2020. Everyone was so friendly, I decided to join again in 2021, and had the good fortune to be invited as one of the keynote speakers. After these two (somewhat impersonal) virtual experiences, I was committed: I would go the next time it was in person and see if it might become one of my yearly trips.

Fortunately, it was in person this year, held in Chicago, home to a long history of K-12 CS education activism and growth, perhaps more so than anywhere else in the country. I was excited to return to Chicago, after visiting many times while living in Pittsburgh, but never really getting to spend significant time there. I relished a solid three days of adventuring, offering a session I’d planned with my doctoral student Jayne Everson, hanging out with my newish postdoc Jean Salac, along with any other folks from the CS education community I’ve met over the years.

The Chicago skyline and a reflection of me above it from the glare of the window.
The soon to be cloudy city skyline from my 31st floor hotel room.

Thursday

After a flight change and delay, I arrived Thursday afternoon after the conference started, so my first event was the opening reception. I got some quick food, caught up with many of the folks from Washington state (who I hadn’t seen for a couple years), then went and got some dumplings in Chinatown with some postdocs. That was enough after a long day of travel!

Amy in a blue floral dress talking to an attendee pointing to a laptop.
I chat with a session attendee about the book. Credit: BT Twarek.

Friday

I started Friday morning with a quick coffee and sandwich, then headed to the 8 am pride affinity group session. A solid twenty queer folks and allies joined and shared successes and struggles with being queer in K-12, but also supporting LGTBQ+ students in conservative schools and states. But it was mostly celebratory: teachers were doing so much with so little, and fighting the good fight to make space for themselves and their students in oppressive places.

After some networking, I made the long walk to my session with Jayne, where we led some discussion and active learning about critical CS pedagogy. We focused the session on our book, Critically Conscious Computing, and had teachers collaborate around designing lessons based on the book’s unit sketches, and then share them with other tables, and then discuss the tensions that arose with the broader group. The teachers and professional development providers surfaced all kinds of fascinating opportunities and challenges, including questions about up and downscaling the ideas in the book, questions about which topics were too controversial for adolescents to learn, and ways of building community around the book’s ideas. Jayne did a great job framing and facilitating throughout.

A stage with panelists looking at the projector screen with a video playing with a Black man talking lyrically about Black men in teaching.
The panel shows a video on why Black men leave teaching.

After our session, I went to a session on the lack of Black men in CS and CS education. Several Black men led the session, starting with a video about Black men teaching in general. The video talked about hip hop, dance, dress, and slang being demonized and devalued in schools as an example of a lack of cultural responsiveness in schools, not just in teaching, but in administration and culture too. Some of the panelists also talked about the power of Black male representation in teaching in general, let alone CS, in creating a sense of potential shared experience and culture. But they also talked about the immense diversity of Black people—not all are interested in hip hop, in fact some might not be interested in music at all, or might be into anime! Some in the audience talked about the need to really engage with students where they are and with who they are. Some mentioned students who didn’t grow up with a father, and don’t see much beyond their neighborhoods, and how often male teachers can play some role of filling that gap by showing them what the rest of the world looks like. Others mentioned the baseline of Black church, building on the level of respect that many Black boys learn on Sundays. They also talked about how white folks can connect with Black youth, talking about the tensions between going into a Black community, versus being from a Black community, but being white. Relationships, trust, vulnerability, respect, and paying it forward, were central throughout all of the discussions. Folks also talked about the need to support career development and growth for Black men in teaching and the crucial role of school leadership in that.

After a long lunch over pizza with some wonderful research colleagues, I went to the second half of a session on translanguaging for K-8 learning. Translanguaging isn’t translation, but rather allowing for students to use whatever language means they have, combining languages, non-verbal communication, and other tools, rather than creating arbitrary boundaries about what language can and cannot be used. In CS, some research suggests that making room for translanguaging is associated with stronger learning outcomes as well. They mentioned Sara Vogel’s PiLa-CS website as a resource for teachers. They also mentioned language tools like the Google Chrome translation extension, helping teachers and students more freely move between languages. They also talked about translanguaging dictionaries, an approach to students creating multimodal explanations of code patterns that leverage their own language in ways that are useful to them.

The CSTA main stage with Yolanda gesturing to the audience.
Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz talks racial literacy and it’s relationship to equitable CS teaching.

After a short fundraising and advocacy call, and a group photo with Washington state folks, I headed to the keynote. Friday’s speaker was Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz (Teachers College, Columbia), whose talk was titled “A Racially Literate Approach to Building Equitable Computer Science Communities”. She started by thanking teachers for choosing teaching, and then quickly turned to the topic of racial literacy by asking everyone to reflect on what we’re feeling about the tensions between the simultaneous justice and injustice many of experience every day. She then talked about how difficult it is for children to imagine what they cannot see, pointing to the importance of media and representation in shaping possibilities amongst youth. She invoked Ruha Benjamin in talking about the importance of enriching our social worlds, especially with how much we invest in our material worlds. This brought her to racial literacy, which she conceptualized as interruption, archaeology of self, historical literacy, critical reflection, critical humility, and critical love. She argued that we often don’t engage in any of this literacy because of our ego, fear, and uncertainty, which displace humility and action. She then shared a video about the American Psychiatric Association, which shared a formal apology about its history of structural racism after a process of developing racial literacy organizationally. She ended with a quote about how painful it can be to do the archaeology of the self, but that it can also be restorative.

After the keynote and a quick meeting with my undergraduate researchers about an instrument for a study, I went to the awards reception, where several teachers and students were recognized. I spent much of the evening talking with Richard Ladner and Gina Fugate about accessibility and tool infrastructure, and with others about emerging pathways to faculty positions in colleges of education. I was fortunate to bump into Michelle Friend, who invited me to crash a University of Omaha dinner gathering, where we talked about peer review, methods, teacher pathways, programming languages, and more.

Michelle Friend on stage gesturing at the podium with a slide that says “Researcher-Practitioner Gap”
Michelle leads us in a discussion of K-12 teacher challenges.

Saturday

For breakfast, I went back to the cozy Spoke & Bird, and bumped into Michelle again, and joined for breakfast with her, Maya Israel, Monica McGill, and Janice Mak, then went to Michelle’s session on challenges that K-12 CS teachers have. She started by talking about the researcher-practitioner gap and then presented some evidence from a survey about teacher challenges. They received nearly 400 survey responses, analyzed them from a locus of control lens, and found that many of the problems were internal but also many were external. Many of the teacher-centered problems were about perceived content knowledge deficits, pedagogy, pacing, and maintaining a culture of respect and curiosity. We talked about these at our table and noted that many of them aren’t so much about teachers, but really about the lack of resources and the burden of scale, which are external. The list of teacher-adjacent problems were things like lack of administrative support, overwhelming teaching load, lack of prep time, and low budgets. At our table, we talked about the trend of states lowering the bar for long term substitutes and even for teachers, eroding the respect and resources for the profession even further. Some problems were student centered, and primarily concerned the heterogeneity of student knowledge and needs and expectations around student expectations. At our table we talked about the challenges of making space for diversity with administrative pressures about student careers and the need for room for play.

After a break, I went to a panel following up on the keynote from the evening before on racial literacy. A panel talked about their reflections on the keynote, with some resonating with the idea that our silence won’t protect us, or students, and others with the notion of critical love — of what you do, of your students, of your parents. The moderator also helped contextualize the discussion, reminding us that this equity work has been happening in research and schools for decades. Many shared their journeys of starting from love and starting a journey of learning and critical humility. The conversation shifted to talking about getting students engaged in interruption too, helping them see that CS is not foreign, but personal, invoking a powerful phrase “if you can’t see, you can’t be”. But some talked about how critical it is to know ourselves to be able to do this work, which can often be some of the hardest work in developing racial literacy. The conversation then turned to how to create critical conversations in the classroom, including talking about capitalism, power, and racism as it is embedded in code and as they relate to computing, careers, and society. They also surfaced the challenges of getting other teachers and school leaders to see that CS is important, and pointed to collaboration, community, and standards alignment as key strategies.

An over the shoulder shot of Richard using Blocks for All on an iPad.
Richard demonstrates Blocks for All.

After a serendipitous lunch with a new PhD student at Stanford, I went to Richard Ladner and Gina Fugate’s “Three Inclusive Programming Environments” session, to nerd out on educational programming languages. We played with Code Jumper, Blocks4All, and Quorum, all of which I’ve been aware of but none of which I’d used much or at all. I was impressed with all of them in their commitment to accessibility and support of play, but there were a number of other limitations I noticed: the low expressive “ceiling” of Blocks for All, the large download and installation requirements of Quorum Studio, which is a deterrent to some rural schools and any schools with IT constraints, and the inescapable hardware requirements of CodeJumper. This shows how hard it is easy get accessibility right: not only are there a lot of things to get right, but they intersect with other forms of exclusion and structural inequities. I also enjoyed watching the teachers in the room play with the different environment and noticed how much time, demonstration, and instruction was needed to learn even the basics of the environments.

The CSTA rainbow stage with Sonal speaking in a beige blazer
Sonal speaks briefly about mobilizing community.

After a bit of a social break, I went to the last keynote session, where Sonal Patel spoke briefly of San Bernadino County talked about creating an equity-focused task force to mobilize the community and Amazon Future Engineers spoke about their internship program. Sue Sentance was the keynote speaker, but she was unable to join in person due to a family emergency. But in a recorded video, she and her Raspberry Pi collaborators talked about the teacher lens at the Raspberry Pi foundation and her experiences in England trying to bring research into practice. They developed 12 teaching principles and talked in some depth about working together, fostering program comprehension, structuring lessons, and getting “hands-on”.

Before the Saturday reception, I ventured west to Pilsen with Jean Salac to get some sweets. My frozen coco banana was a perfect salve to the humid overcast day. We mostly talked about food culture, Chicago, the midwest, and our shared love of divey, unpretentious comfort food. It was also a fun chance to experience CTA bus transit, which, like a lot of U.S. cities, seemed chronically underfunded and neglected, unlike those in Europe and the Pacific Northwest.

A view of the atrium with several hundred attendees talking, drinking, and dancing.
CSTA attendees mingle, dance, and play.

The reception was at the beautiful Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. I socialized a bit with the wonderful folks in the community, sharing my sabbatical plans and gossiping about community drama. I explored the fascinating Lego exhibit. I explored the museum, playing with other attendees and taking photos. And I had many wonderful conversations, mostly not about CS or teaching. It was clear that most of the attendees (who were mostly K-12 teachers), where mostly in need of escape, recovery, and some joy, and the museum reception offered all of that and more. I was going to stay the rest of the evening, but after a bloody mishap with a sharp metal edge on a bathroom stall door, I decided to go back to the hotel and tend to my wound.

Amy in a mirror with the focus on her bleeding thumb.
It wasn’t bad, but it was bloody.

Sunday

I would have loved to stay for the last full day of the conference, but even after just two full days of socializing, I was a bit burned out and wanted a quiet travel day home to see my wife and cat. I went downtown, got a tasty coffee at Two Zero Three Coffee Bar, tool a stroll on the foggy river walk and then caught the Blue Line to O’Hare. Thank you CSTA for hosting a wonderful event and for being such a welcoming, engaged, and loving community!

Amy in a green dress and black mask with her hair down in the convention center.
Bye CSTA!

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Amy J. Ko

Amy J. Ko

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.