Kathleen Mazurek (she/they)
Dual certified special education/art teacher at the William S. Baer school in Baltimore City Public schools.
How did you get into CS? How did you get into teaching CS?
My background is in design and illustration, so I knew Adobe Creative Suite in undergrad. It was expensive, so I ended up coming back into it when I found more open source resources.
After I graduated I taught art, so I've always wanted to get kids set up because there's so many careers in design; there are a lot of things you can do on paper, and you can kind of translate that into other applications. I got into CS just from talking with folks who spoke the same language as me; CS is kind of like a mentality, a mindset where you see connections between things.
The first time I taught CS was in a public school. I told our principal that I wanted to teach Design Principles; even if you don’t have Adobe, you can do it with Microsoft paint. She said, you can teach art in the computer lab once a week; so we did sketchbooks, practiced in Photoshop with the blending tool and charcoal, talked about dodging and burning, making vector masks, drawing over top of things… then also cutting out stencils so kids could get in the habit of using the mouse to draw and really paying attention to their lines. And then my friend, who was teaching Spanish at my school at the time, saw me doing this- and this is why I love CS, because people just see the connections- and she said, ‘I'm teaching my kids Scratch; it seems like something you would really like,’ and that opened the door for me. I fell immediately in love with it because it was marrying what I was doing with graphic design and digital illustration and taking it to a whole other level. I continue to bring that design element to my practice because that's how I started, and it can activate a lot more students to try. I found that when students have those kinds of options, to be able to choose to code or design on a given day, that kind of break and floating within a team helps kids stick with the process more. Once I saw more folks doing stuff with open source software and then just falling in love with the process, I couldn't step away from it. I was like, more kids need to know about this. It’s something I value personally because it made me get more into app development and thinking about design in a bigger way. That’s why I really want to make sure that it's an exposure opportunity I provide to my kids; you never know if it's going to be a jumping off point for someone.
What are some challenges that you've experienced getting to where you are now? What are some successes that you've had?
I'm a district trainer for 21st Century School, so I teach Cubetto and Sphero Indi, and I've also taught design courses with them for their blended learning workshops. I feel like the biggest access points for teachers are time and materials. When you have other curriculums with timelines you need to meet, even if you do have all the gear, it still won't happen in the bigger picture if you don’t have that time dedicated and measured; that’s my biggest challenge right now. You get the training, the administrators want to support it- but they need to have where they can support the content in the schedule written out for them. Especially in a special education setting, there are so many instructional hours you need to hit for math and for reading. Coding covers so many nested math and reading goals, and that's part of what I want to do with my fellowship: really dig deep into the standards and computational thinking and say, ‘Here's where it hits math standards; here's where it hits these reading standards.’ This can be a support for students’ IEP! There are so many kids I work with right now who are scoring below grade level in their IEP- but they understand computational thinking. And it’s not just in my school; CSTA has connected me with so many folks who are sharing the same experience. The biggest challenge is making time for it in the schedule, making a case for it within the school day, and then making sure you have consistent access to the technology- including funds for when things break. For example, we got a bunch of laptops during the pandemic; that was a big struggle for Baltimore City before the pandemic, and then during it the district raised a lot of money to get laptops. And that's commendable, but making sure there's enough money to repair and replace them, budgeting for them like you would for textbooks, is equally important. And they are doing that! I think that Baltimore City is really standing out in that regard. They're paying for subscriptions for services that support things like Codable and code.org. They have all that and the teachers can use it, so now it's mainly just making a case for CS to exist within the school day, where it's consistent but also fluid, and I think that we're getting closer and closer to that by the day.
Of course, you also want to have a qualified teacher there; my district secures grants to offset underfunding that the Kirwan commission has pushed to rectify because of Baltimore City’s need for more infrastructure and social supports, but we still need more direct services. The approach our district is taking in schools that can’t afford a media specialist or dedicated computer science teacher is to give incentives for other teachers to infuse computer science in their classroom. Because our school doesn’t have one, I'm working on finding ways to really support the teachers who are doing it and different ways for schools to have access to it, making sure that even though they might have different access points, the amount of time they're getting is equitable.
Getting that tablet donation was a great success, because our kids did have laptops for a while. It was harder to make a case for kids with special needs to get one. I work at a special public day school and our students have significant challenges. The reasoning behind it isn't valid to a certain degree: they want to make sure that if a child has a laptop, they're going to be able to access it. Of course, if a child is just not going to be able to access the content on a laptop, it wouldn't make sense to give them one; it would be exploitative. But during the pandemic, a lot of our teachers took on the training, plus a lot of families really got into the technology. They liked the more interactive online learning platforms, and a lot of the parents were like, ‘Wow, my kid has a tablet at home and they love it; this is something that's unlocking a strength within them.’ But then when we went back to in-person learning, we made the choice for families to keep laptops home in case of quarantine because they already have to track so many health and sensory needs in addition to bringing a laptop back and forth. So I asked if we could consistently have tablets for the art room, because I felt like there was such a big opportunity being lost. When we had to do virtual learning, all of my classes had a really high attendance rate, because we were doing Tynker, we were doing coding curriculum; it was something the parents really liked, and the kids had fun building it with their parents. I remember one student being really upset when we couldn't do it anymore. But we were able to finally get tablets donated at the end of the year and we’ve been using them since then. We have a lot of students coming in from McMechen, which is a vocational school, and our school is making more of a vocational push. We have transition plans that are called Dream Programs where kids get to pick out what they want to do, and one of the paths is Graphic Design and CS. The tablets allow them more individualized time to really navigate the menus and take their time processing it; they don't have to share it with anybody. They have the coding platform, but they also have Auto Desk Sketchbook as a platform. I try to keep it all within the connection of either making a music video, a video game, a website, or an app. The kids see all the connections as far as making layers, making something move, and then coding is just that additional special sauce. We usually remix a few pre-made templates of the event, the sound, the looks, the animation block, and then a loop. Then from there, if that's something the students can independently do, we expand from that. So that's been a big success in that we made a case to the parents, and it's really helped new students adjust to our school, because they're like, ‘Wow! This is something I can do independently; I can plug in more challenges.’ And it's a way where it's fun; no one feels left out when you're teaching CS. You can scaffold it and everybody's playing a part in the process with coding. There's so many steps you can delegate and break down- and it gives them a sense of empowerment, because they see their peers doing it. With special education, sometimes there's a lot of manipulatives, which are fun, and worksheet activities… but it was really great to have it all on a tablet, to see our high schoolers walk in, really proud to have their own tablet, have a design job, and then hear that they were getting to take computer science and coding programs like public high schools do.
Do you have any advice for other educators who are looking to get into CS?
The biggest part- and I think if I had known this sooner I would have started it sooner- think about coding as communication. That was the key to getting the tablets, that was the key to getting family support. Really think about why you teach coding; it’s a fun social opportunity; it's a skill, and you don't know how much your kids might already know and bring to the table. So it's your opportunity to learn more about your students and to learn more yourself. There are so many different levels where you can enter, and failure is a part of the process. But really think about coding as an art form. When you have it set up that way, you have more flexibility to how it can look and kids feel more at ease to collaborate with each other. Then if that's something a student really likes, you can go from there into robotics, which is where it gets more difficult. But if you want to incorporate coding, start with art and design. That allows you to pace everything- because that’s the biggest thing, how you pace it. Allowing students a chance to try something new, feel okay with not getting it right the first time, ask for help- but also giving them time to process and explore. I guarantee that if you approach it as an artform, it really enriches the conversations you can have and what you know about your kids.
Anything else on your mind?
Going back to framing CS as communication, a lot of my students use communication boards to communicate, and that's creating an algorithm. They have to sequence picture symbols that mean words into a sentence, and when you break coding down, it's the same thing- with Scratch, with Tynker, with block programming. I’ve been seeing this for five years, ever since I’ve been at Baer: when you break it down that way, you connect it to something they already know and they get it. They're like, ‘Oh my gosh, I've always been talking like this; this is something I'm already good at!’ It allows them an opportunity to really show off their skills and also to do something with their peers. I encourage people to teach coding and Scratch to any students they have, and if they have students in self-contained classrooms to really make a point to include them in the process. Make sure that you are not just offering it to kids who you think are tech-y or fit that kind of stereotypical profile. Make sure you're offering it to all learners- kids with special needs especially, because they often get left out under the pretext that it's too difficult.