From 2017 to 2021, CSTA Equity Fellow Shawn Patrick Higgins was a coding and media arts teacher at Parkrose Middle School in Portland, Oregon, one of the most diverse schools in the state.
From 2017 to 2021, CSTA Equity Fellow Shawn Patrick Higgins was a coding and media arts teacher at Parkrose Middle School in Portland, Oregon, one of the most diverse schools in the state. In this and his prior teaching roles, he has directly focused on disrupting the inequity of marginalized groups in relation to coding and creative digital making.
“I define equity most broadly as the ‘widening of the path,'” shared Higgins. “It’s about making sure all students have the ability to feel as strong a sense of belonging, place, and welcome as possible. The great advantage I have in being a media arts teacher AND coding teacher is that I am able to surround my classroom with visual projects by former students from all kinds of backgrounds and languages.”
“It’s also about making sure students are fully able to represent and embody themselves and their personal passions and fandoms in their work,” he continued. “Equity is about creating a classroom environment with multiple and flexible routes to success, where different identities can most easily access and feel success.”
A big tradition in Higgins’ class is a focus on projects where students literally put themselves or family or friends visually or vocally in their Scratch and Wick projects, screenshotting and printing out as they go. “As the years have gone by, and with as diverse as we are at Parkrose, seeing the walls fill up with all the faces and families has an effect that can’t be understated when new 6th graders come into the room and they see a neat-looking project with an older cousin or friend of their older sibling that looks just like them. Slowly that sense of place grows.”
In addition to visual placemaking, Higgins has tried to manifest logistical equity by using multiple Google Classrooms and creating a structure for students to move at their own comfort level. Each student needs to complete eight projects per semester and is able to repeat a project for half as much project credit.
“While a small structural anecdote, that system has been embraced by quite a few students who found success in repetition for a short time, and then feel empowered to move forward as they saw fit and equity is just that: empowering those who have different strengths, needs and identities so they can best discover success.”
For Higgins, one of the most important strategies in access is that the students need to be able to see technology as a useful tool for representing and sharing their passions. In order for it to be useful, it needs to be as ever-present as possible and can’t have any price or platform barriers that would shut out some students. One of the number one things that can be done to increase access and disrupt inequity is to make sure you are teaching with a web-based platform-neutral program. It can’t cost money and it can’t only work on a Mac or an iPad or Windows.
Secondly, a program that requires installation may be an additional barrier to usage. For example, a student may have to use a computer at the library on which they are unable to install a “free” program because they are unable to download. Because of all those reasons web apps – though sometimes not as powerful as other alternatives – are the most equitable programs to teach with. An example of this might be choosing Scratch over Gamemaker or Wick over Adobe Animate. Access and a student’s ability to engage and USE it in their live experience must be paramount.
Another notable strategy Higgins looks to for promoting engagement and access for all, but especially with ELL students, is having companion videos and screencasts going over the project as visually as is possible. If the project demos are on YouTube or Twitch, students who would struggle with understanding specific directions on longer projects can review these visual demonstrations at their own pace.
“I’ve had multiple students with almost no English speaking ability (Spanish, Vietnamese, and Ukrainian being the most common at my school) successfully complete the majority of the visual projects in their portfolios thanks to the visual nature of the project screencasts in combination with strategic seating with other bilingual students,” shared Higgins.
One of the biggest partnerships Higgins was involved with at Parkrose School District is with CSforOR, which has helped bring Exploring Computer Science to Parkrose Highschool, creating a 6-12 CS pipeline for our small district.
“Knowing that the students will have that more technical experience with ECS in high school has really let me focus on building that passion and engagement with a focus on more open project-based fun at the middle school level,” shared Higgins. “My 7th and 8th-grade elective class is about 55% female, which I attribute to the design and interactive project focus of the coding. Out of my 65 8th-grade female students last year, 35% of them continued on to take ECS in 9th grade! (which was almost half of the incoming 9th-grade class!)” [Note: These numbers were from 2019 school year]
Higgins has spent his career focusing on the intersection of middle school code and art and engagement. He applied to become a CSTA Equity Fellow to future refine this concept through the lens of equity and cohort feedback to improve his own teaching practice.
“While I’ve been involved with many digital PLCs with OCSTA, ScratchEd and PBS, I’ve never really had the experience of participating in a committed group that is so focused on equity and coding. I am excited about how much I can learn from the specific focus of this fellowship and refine my understanding of my own experience as an educator.”
Learn more about the CSTA Equity Fellowship and its cohorts here.