Joe Greenawalt: Teacher, facilitator, and CS Advocate
La Plata High School, Charles County Public Schools
How did you get started teaching Computer Science?
When I was a full time math teacher, years ago, I loved trying out new ideas and creative ways to engage students. My supervisor said that she half expected to find me standing on my head one day because she'd seen me try so many unusual things. I'm really glad that I said yes when I was offered a computer science class to teach. It’s not that I had the background I needed- but I had the confidence that I could learn new things. I think that that attitude was critical to becoming a computer science teacher.
Having to learn new things has been a way of life as a CS teacher. Even after many years of teaching CS, I'm still learning new things. It's not only new content that I'm learning, but also how to share with others, and how to better support a greater variety of kids. There’s also learning how to react productively, listen carefully, and help each teacher to be successful with the course and their students. This is an ongoing challenge worth staying in the field to accomplish. We need to see beyond the curriculum to see the bigger goals. Most curriculum doesn't have the quality of support needed for teachers to evaluate what students do or don’t understand. The real goal is having students truly understand what it is that they are doing and why. It’s a change from the mindset of earning points or grades - to creating lasting understanding. It’s so much more than just doing the steps. The real goal is to open the hearts and minds of our students.
What's a challenge you've overcome?
Sometimes, something that starts out sounding like the worst sort of news can turn out to be a great opportunity. MSDE made a decision many years ago that CS would not count as a required technology education credit. The district administrators called in all the CS teachers and told us that we would need to get recertified so that we could teach other courses. They no longer saw a need for computer science teachers.
These days we get great joy from the breadth and diversity of the CS program in Charles county… but it is really only as a result of the effort to get MSDE to modify their decision from long ago and all of the work and connections we made in solving that problem. CS has grown to be so much better than it was before; it's more inclusive, more organized, and more engaging than it was when it started out. The CS program in Charles County turned into a model of something that works to share with other states.
It is a challenge to convince legislators and administrators that computer science is foundational knowledge in this world of technology, and it's also a challenge to convince students to do something unknown, or take a risk. Most students don’t know enough about CS to give it a try without a strong nudge, and long before they find out what it is, they’ll dismiss it as an option for them without someone to show them the value.
How do you measure success?
At the high school level, we often defer to the College Board to define what an acceptable measure of success is with the AP courses and the score reports. What does it mean to succeed in AP CS-A? Exam scores? Going on to a career in a CS-related field? These can be false indicators of success. CS is a foundational literacy, a method of problem solving, that benefits students who go into any field. An AP exam score is a picture at a moment in time when students are changing rapidly. It's important to encourage AP CS-A students to see this as a process, rather than a product. A student who gets a 2 on the AP exam- but has learned a lot in the process- has gained something of real value. If students are engaged and persist, it won't matter so much when or where they started.
We really need to define for ourselves what success is. It's a concern when people define who can and cannot succeed much too early. It's so important that the administrators recognize the value of diversity in CS all the way through the advanced levels. There needs to be a pathway with opportunities for every student. AP classes and CTE programs can both be blockades that keep students out if we are not careful. The state legislated in 2018 that CS be made available to all students, and that districts show efforts to broaden participation to under-represented groups.
What experiences do you value as a leader in CS?
Working as an AP reader for the College Board (scoring the AP exams) was a very valuable experience. It built my confidence in my competence. It also allowed me the opportunity to build strong connections with other CS teachers and faculty, and led to a great opportunity to help develop the AP CS-Principles course working with other CS enthusiasts from high schools and higher education facilities from all over the country. The computer science education community is a group that cares very much about bringing opportunities to students across the country.