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To help more New York City teachers get comfortable teaching computer science, Cornell Tech offers a ‘safety net’

Through a partnership with Cornell University, fifth-grade teacher Brittany Ciana receives coaching to help get her comfortable teaching computer science at P.S./I.S. 217 on Roosevelt Island.
Through a partnership with Cornell University, fifth-grade teacher Brittany Ciana receives coaching to help get her comfortable teaching computer science at P.S./I.S. 217 on Roosevelt Island.
Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat

Brittany Ciana panicked when she learned she would have to teach computer science in addition to fifth-grade math. Her mind raced back to her last experience with the subject: a frustrating programming class in high school.

That reluctance seemed far behind her on a recent spring day, when Ciana zipped through a lesson on how to program micro-controllers at P.S./I.S. 217 on Roosevelt Island in Manhattan. After quickly quizzing her class on the components of a computer, Ciana drifted from student to student to help them make palm-sized chips flash their names in red lights.

Her confidence had grown because Ciana was not alone that day. Meg Ray — a teacher in residence at the school — acts as a coach, nearby and ready to step in when needed to help or to act as a sounding board.

“I had a safety net,” Ciana said.

This residency model was developed by Cornell Tech to help teachers grow more comfortable delivering lessons in computer science, an increasingly in-demand subject for which, until recently, there was no formal state certification. With well-equipped teachers, the hope is that all students in a school will have the chance to learn computer science.

It’s a timely and relevant challenge to tackle: Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York City has made it a goal to ensure every school has access to computer science courses through an $80 million initiative called Computer Science for All. To make that a reality, the city estimates it will need to train 5,000 teachers.

Meg and the three other residents are on the front lines of that effort, supporting teachers who are tech-phobic or just aren’t sure how to incorporate computer science in their day-to-day lessons. Working with teachers in five-week cycles, Ray kicks off with a one-on-one planning meeting with each teacher that can include a mini-lesson on the content they’ll introduce to students.

“Teachers are learning computer science as they go,” Ray said.

Then the pair head into the classroom, where Ray’s role adjusts to the teacher’s needs. She might co-teach a class to model specific strategies — or she might hang back, only stepping in when specific feedback is needed. As teachers get more skilled, she may simply observe.

The cycle wraps up with a debrief meeting, where they’ll go over what worked and what felt uncomfortable, troubleshooting and fine-tuning improvements together for the next lesson.

That process is repeated all year for some teachers, while others might work with Ray just for a specific unit of study. She’s strategic about whom she pairs up with, making sure at least one teacher from each grade level is engaged. That way, the teacher can, in turn, work with her peers to apply the lessons learned across classrooms in an entire grade.

The model, incubated on Roosevelt Island, was born out of frustration. Cornell had been partnering with P.S./I.S. 217, providing training sessions for teachers on weekends, during breaks, and after school. The effects, however, were fleeting.

Unsatisfied with the results, the principal at the time wished out loud for something more akin to the consultants she hired to build lessons and support teachers in more traditional subjects like math and English courses.

“I took this comment of hers back to the dean, and I said, ‘This is actually what we need. We need someone in the school — not to teach computer science, but to support teachers,’” said Diane Levitt, who oversees the residency program as the senior director of K-12 education at Cornell Tech.

With philanthropic backing, the model is set to expand to seven schools. It’s still too soon to know how well it’s working, though Levitt said the university is committed to studying its effectiveness. Ultimately, the goal — and the challenge — is to create a teacher training model that can scale to meet the needs of a school system, but also adapts to individual schools.

Ray taught high school in the Bronx for three years and went on to earn a certificate in computer science instruction. Rather than viewing herself as an expert, she said her role is to collaborate with teachers, who are sometimes reluctant to try to fit computer science into an already busy school day. Sometimes the topic is seen as one more thing that gets in the way of core subjects like reading and writing — the kind of instruction and learning that schools and teachers get judged on.

“I’ve been a teacher. I know there are always new things coming down the pipeline,” she said. “It can feel overwhelming.”

On Roosevelt Island, computer science has become a part of the fabric of P.S/I.S. 217. There are weekly computer science periods for elementary students, much in the same way many schools teach subjects like art or music. But computer science is also expected to get baked into the curriculum for every subject — especially in the middle school grades.

On a recent school day, teacher Nicole Christian introduced her eighth-graders to the latest book they’d be studying, “Fahrenheit 451,” and how it ties in with real-life resistance movements such as Black Lives Matter. They would explore the modern-day implications of the dystopian novel by building their own devices to record a podcast.

Principal Mandana Beckman said she makes it clear to new hires that they’ll expected to weave computer science into lessons in this way. But, through the residency, she also makes sure teachers are supported.

“We try to make sure that teachers understand that up front,” she said. “If you fail, you fail. But you get smarter from the experience.”

The education department said the residency model isn’t possible on a large scale. Instead, the focus has been on training teachers who can serve as leaders within their own schools. The city offers sessions during the summer and throughout the year.

Others are also looking for ways to build a pipeline of computer science teachers. CSNYC, the philanthropy-supported venture that has helped spearhead the city’s Computer Science for All initiative, has brought together local universities to brainstorm how to accomplish that.

Teacher training isn’t the only hurdle. Building up the materials and curriculum available to teachers is another area of need, Levitt said. For Christian’s lesson on “Fahrenheit 451,” Ray sought out a consultant who developed class materials and lesson plans that integrate both local learning standards and the computer science components..

Levitt said one challenge educators face today is that computer science currently looks different in every school. Without a standard sequence of skills that are taught, schools can’t count on students having a foundation to take on more complex material, like learning to write some code in the programming language Python in fifth grade, as the students at PS/IS 217 did this year.

“We’re supposed to get them ready for the world. And the world we’re supposed to get them ready for is digital,” Levitt said.

This story has been updated to clarify Ciana’s students were programming micro-controllers and Levitt’s view of one challenge educators face.

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