Voices from the Field — Jeff Solin, Teacher Maker & Advocate
In this two part series, Jeff Solin of Chicago Public Schools shares his 16 year journey in teaching, and the innovative tech projects and summer opportunities offered at Lane Tech high.
Over my 16 years of teaching in Chicago Public Schools, I’ve changed. My pedagogy has changed, my teaching style has changed, my curriculum has changed, and my personal and professional goals have changed. It’s not that things were wrong before, it’s that seeds were planted and I have focused on a path of personal learning and growth.
Some things haven’t changed. My connections with students haven’t changed, my passion for computer science and technology and its ability to make the world a better place hasn’t changed, and my commitment to do anything I can for my students hasn’t changed. Many of the core values that got me to leave industry and start teaching 17 years ago haven’t changed, however their manifestations in my work have.
As a new teacher I thought about the importance of treating everyone equally. It was important to me that students knew I was color blind, or gender blind, or whatever blind. As I grew as an educator through reading, relationship building, meaningful professional development, continued education with National Board certifications and a M.Ed, and getting to know many more students and their families, I realized that “blindness” was never the answer. I learned that equality was not equity.
Teaching with a blindness to students’ differences was missing an opportunity to engage them, to teach students about one another, to teach students about themselves, and to help me understand what makes each student who they are.
Two books that really helped me see the importance of integrating and weaving culture and diversity into the curriculum, instead of ignoring it are Stuck in the Shallow End by Jane Margolis, and Why Race and Culture Matter Matter in Schools by Tyrone Howard. I learned the importance of building communities that help empower people, and those communities are especially important when it comes to the underserved and the underrepresented. Today my educational philosophy hinges on providing equitable learning opportunities, building communities and support structures, and helping to show all of my students that their voices are needed, that they deserve a seat at the table, and that without diverse approaches to problem solving, we end up with solutions that serve the few instead of the many.
In early 2016, a small team of us successfully convinced the Chicago Board of Education to make CS a graduation requirement. We presented the importance of equitable and accessible CS education for all of Chicago’s students and the Board voted unanimously in our favor. Many of us had been fighting to get CS into schools for well over a decade, and the work finally paid off. We could finally say that equitable and accessible CS curriculum (Exploring Computer Science) would reach the nearly 400,000 students in our district.
On a smaller and more personal scale, I have been putting much of my focus on curricular, logistical and environmental changes to increase the meaningful participation of women in our computer science program at our school and other schools across the city and beyond. Over the past few years my colleagues and I have worked to build environments and curriculum that use Making as way to empower and engage students. Research studies such as the one from AAUW titled Why So Few? Women in S.T.E.M. point to less experience with spacial activities, tinkering, and other hands-on activities as some of the reasons young women are put at a disadvantage in STEM learning. I strongly believe that a change in curriculum and resources with respect to iteration, design thinking, and civic engagement can bring more young women into STEM (more effectively STEAM by integrating the arts). The implementation of those beliefs is paying off. I have made deliberate changes to the lab I built, to the curriculum, and the level of civic engagement and meaning in the student projects. Through the support of my administration and the generous funding of the parents and community, I designed and built the LTMaker Lab and wrote the Innovation and Creation Lab course and curriculum that are taught in the lab. Just like I teach my students, the lab itself and the curriculum within it are iterative and constantly evolving. I’ve always had an issue with feeling confident with visual creativity. I was comfortable with technology, but less so expressing myself through visual arts. As I began getting involved in Making, and learning about this beautiful combination of hands-on, technical and creative work, it helped me open up. I really enjoyed the combination of using high-tech tools to turn my ideas into something tangible. I felt pride in the work. I often have students coming in that have confidence issues in the same way that I did. It’s incredibly rewarding to help these kids unlock their creative potential and see their amazing ideas come to fruition. Integrating more meaningful projects and collaborative spaces for students to be creative with technology has helped bring more young women into our program, and it’s helping to keep them interested in taking additional classes. There are so many ways to be creative in CS, with and without coding. It’s our job as educators to help students experience, understand, use, build, and change technology so that they can solve the problems they care the most about.
Five years ago there was one CS teacher reaching roughly 150 of the 4500 students per year. We have been thoughtful about hiring a diverse group of dedicated teachers and we now have 12 full time CS teachers of different genders and backgrounds, reaching almost 1900 students through 13 different CS courses. Our CS department has been working from a variety of angles to help increase opportunities for girls in STEAM. The numbers of female students enrolled in our CS program has continued to climb as we modify our curriculum and expand our course offerings, but we still have much work to do. Our department partnering with amazing organizations like the National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT) has been instrumental in giving the young women in my classes ongoing opportunities, connections, community, support, and encouragement through the Aspirations in Computing program and their research-based resources. CS department teachers advised three Technovation Challenge teams, we have a JV all-female robotics team, our varsity robotics team (in partnership with Physics) boasts over 50% female representation, run a GEMS club, run a student-led and developed winter camp for 5th-8th grade girls funded by NCWIT AspireIT, run a Tech Art club in the LTMaker Lab, run a Girls Who Code club, have free outreach workshops and open houses, and more. Our current and active collaborations include projects, curriculum development, and professional development with The James Dyson Foundation, Argonne National Labs, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, University of Chicago, Indiana University, the Chicago Cubs, Northwestern University and the National Science Foundation.
At Lane Tech, most of our students are disadvantaged and underrepresented, sometimes by their gender, sometimes by the color of their skin, sometimes by their family’s resources, sometimes by their documentation status — and usually by a combination of those reasons. This is the case for most of the students across the district. The challenges to overcome are not insignificant, but my colleagues and I are committed to continue to advocate, support, learn from, and find CS education resources and opportunities to equitably serve ALL the students of the Chicago Public Schools.
Jeff Solin is a Computer Science teacher and a founding member of the Chicago chapter of the Computer Science Teachers Association. He is the first recipient of the 2018 National NCWIT Aspirations in Computing Educator Award for his commitment to bringing Computer Science education to thousands of underrepresented students in Chicago Public Schools. Learn more about Jeff’s projects and find Summer Engagement Opportunities here!