CSTA Equity Fellow and Special Educator at Landmark School Sarah Ciras began teaching computer science to her special education students about seven years ago after a student approached her about learning about the topic.
Ciras began recruiting students for her project-based learning course with much success. Her students loved being able to bring their ideas and interests into the classroom. “Allowing students to create their own projects is a key way I build engagement, ” she said. “This freedom allows independence and pushes students to achieve in the face of roadblocks.”
In her classroom, Ciras focuses on dismantling ableism – there is no one way to learn CS. Her students have options to read a book, complete an online course, build a game, and make interactive art. Additionally, she focuses on making it okay to fail. “Failure is not a bad thing in my classroom,” said Ciras. “I work hard to normalize asking for help and being wrong. I am not always right, and I let them know, to the point where one day one of my students made me a certificate stating ‘Ms. Ciras was right without googling something!’ We hung it on the wall. It was not a mark of shame, but a mark of progress.”
“Students who are willing to put their hearts into this subject matter and see where it takes them. Students who are willing to fail; willing to make mistakes. I have sent many of my students to college for CS, and many of them have done well in their coursework, despite the fact that their CS education was non-traditional. I also work to employ an intersectional lens to my classes, actively recruiting female students and students of color.”
After teaching CS for a year, she became frustrated that she was unable to find anything to help make computer science more accessible to students with Language Based Learning Disabilities (LBLD). Ciras created her own and first presented at a CSTA Annual Conference in 2015 on ways to make CS accessible. This led Ciras to receive invitations to partner with AccessCSForAll and to work with Code.org on making their curriculum more accessible to kids with LBLD. She has also run professional development courses for teachers of neurodiverse students and provided input to the College Board for AP CSPrinciples. Ciras also speaks at conferences and is working on grants to create more resources for LBLD students.
Ciras’ work guides her definition of equity. “Equity, to me, is the way in which I seek to reach all students who are interested in learning Computer Science (CS). I actively work to make CS accessible to students with LBLD in my teaching practice by determining ways in which I can reduce the written and verbal load, while maintaining a rigorous course and a high level of academic integrity. Equity is the way in which we make our teachings accessible for everyone, and not only that, but sets the students up to succeed. It is not simply enough to open the door to create equity, one must push to bring students in through active recruitment strategies and programs to encourage retention. Every student is different, regardless of disability status, and understanding that can go a long way to helping them succeed in the CS classroom.”
Through the CSTA Equity Fellowship, Ciras wants to be a part of a larger community looking to establish equitable teaching practices in CS. “I think a worthwhile investment of time would be to create accessible computer science lessons for students with disabilities. I have been lucky enough to be able to create my own courses, and within that, I have found a myriad of ways to help students succeed in the CS classroom, and would love to work to apply those methods to a wider set of CS coursework.”
Currently, Ciras is working on a project with her fellow cohorts. She is working on writing a section of a book on best practices for equitable teaching in computer science and serves as a co-lead on the project with Megan Bowen and Eboni Zook. Her section focuses on the various ways that LBLD can manifest in the computer science classroom and how to make the curriculum accessible.
You can learn more about Ciras, this year’s cohort, and the CSTA Equity Fellowship program here.