Prior to 2012, I was a science teacher with a ton of energy and a new-teacher salary, so I took every paid and all-expenses-covered professional development (PD) opportunity that came my way. One such workshop was the University of Virginia’s Tapestry (now Lighthouse Tapestry) program, designed to help high school computer science teachers recruit and engage students from underrepresented groups.
Prior to 2012, I was a science teacher with a ton of energy and a new-teacher salary, so I took every paid and all-expenses-covered professional development (PD) opportunity that came my way. One such workshop was the University of Virginia’s Tapestry (now Lighthouse Tapestry) program, designed to help high school computer science teachers recruit and engage students from underrepresented groups. I wasn’t a high school teacher or a computer science teacher, but I’d been hired for the next year to teach integrated science at a new freshman academy and we were promised technology-I figured that made me about as qualified as anybody and sent in my application.
Being accepted into the program changed my life.
It was at Tapestry that I first learned of the equity issues in computer science education. Over the course of a week, Drs. Joann and Jim Cahoon spent several hours sharing data from their and others’ research on computer science recruitment, enrollment, and retention. It was there that I learned about stereotype threat-something that resonates with me still, and about which I will passionately pontificate whenever given the chance.
A very blurry early cell phone picture of Melody and Jill Westerlund with other Tapestry participants in 2012.
The Tapestry workshop didn’t just define the problem of equity in computer science education; they had research-developed solutions to help solve the problem. And they brought in some of their past success stories to share how the Tapestry strategies had worked for them. Seth Reichelson, a rock-star computer science teacher from Florida, shared how he took the strategies from Tapestry to bust stereotype threat and build a community in his classroom that helped him grow his enrollment to over 300 students. Bob Luciano, another of the greats, shared how he fostered problem solving and growth mindset in his classroom with logic problems.
The year I first attended Tapestry, I was surrounded by the likes of such CS Ed community legends as Jill Westerlund and Buffie Holley. The early adopters like Jill, Buffie, Seth, and Bob made us feel like we could go out and recruit more girls and URMs to CS, and we did!
CS teachers often come to the field by way of teaching other subjects, somehow getting recruited or “volun-told” to do the CS classes at their schools. I was lucky enough to drink the Tapestry equity Kool-aid before actually jumping into teaching CS, and it was definitely what enabled me to keep going. When the work was hard, and Java made me want to cry, and I had 4 different preps plus all of my students’ crazy recruitment events, Tapestry had given me a “why” that helped me keep going. This was bigger than me: offering CS to every student and making sure they had a fair chance to enjoy it without stereotype threat or bias was my all-consuming mission.
New CS teachers often aren’t given the chance to realize their “why.” They are moved into a CS position and, as with any other subject, jump into trying to master the content first. They’re often given or find pre-packaged curricula (there are so many free and robust resources out there these days; it’s really the golden age of CS curricula) that has, thankfully, been developed by some of those pioneers of CS education-many even Tapestry alumni-who have a heart for equity and inclusion in CS. The lessons themselves are well-designed and provide students the opportunity to thrive and relate to the content.
All of that is meaningless, though, if a teacher isn’t first educated on stereotype threat, on implicit bias, on what is going to keep girls, or ELs, or students in special ed, from signing up for or enjoying their class. Well-meaning teachers who don’t know any better host “Geek Girl” clubs, or try myth-busting stereotypes with their students, or set up their classrooms with nerdy memorabilia, without realizing that, to a significant subset of the student body, those actions are actually sending the message that they don’t belong.
In Spring 2021, I was recognized as a winner of the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) National AiC Educator Award. This award was incredibly meaningful to me as a form of recognition for the work I have put in toward increasing participation in CS for young women and those who identify as nonbinary or genderqueer. This kind of recognition should and can go to any teacher who takes action to increase access to CS for their women, non-binary, and genderqueer students. NCWIT, which I first learned about at the Tapestry workshop, provides awards to educators and their students in 84 affiliate regions across the United States, Guam, Puerto Rico, U.S. overseas military bases, and Canada. They have incredible, expert-developed recruitment resources and a community of people who have made equity in CS their life’s work. For teachers who are interested in recruiting more girls to CS, or those who have already been working toward that goal on their own, the Award for Aspirations in Computing (AiC) and the NCWIT AiC Educator Awards are a great place to start. Through this program I got recognition that gave me clout with my administrators, students, and parents. My students received benefits and acceptance into a local and world-wide community of award recipients. My toolbox of equity and inclusion resources expanded dramatically.
The summer of 2021, shortly after learning I had received the NCWIT AiC National Educator Award, I left the classroom to take a position as a professional development facilitator for BootUp PD. BootUp is a company that provides robust resources and training for K-6 teachers to integrate computer science with their students-a perfect fit for someone like me who is determined to spread the gospel of computer science far and wide. As happy as I was to know I would be impacting even more students by helping their teachers become confident computer science educators, my biggest fear leaving the classroom was that all my hard work would be erased. I had zero control over who replaced me, and no right to step into their business and offer advice. I wish, though, that every person who steps into a computer science teaching position would first go through a rigorous and no-nonsense equity and inclusion workshop like Tapestry. I tell teachers in my workshops all the time, “Not knowing the content is okay. We can model figuring it out together with our students. Our students can even teach us some of it! We won’t be experts overnight, and that’s okay.” What our students can’t teach us, however, and what we really must be experts in, is how to provide a safe and inviting place for all students to fall in love with CS.
This is the single most important part of our jobs as CS educators. We have the ability to turn students on to CS and its power to transform their lives and their futures, but without educating ourselves, we can just as easily turn a student off of CS forever.
CS Education pathways at universities, onboarding programs for new teachers, and training for experienced teachers who are new to CS should all begin with an intense deep-dive into equity and inclusion in computer science-it’s worth the time.
Update: For anyone interested in participating in or hosting a Tapestry workshop, they are still around under the name Lighthouse for CS and offer workshops and an online course. They are happy to partner with institutions or others to host the Lighthouse CC course and/or Lighthouse Tapestry workshops. You can reach their fantastic team at: email@example.com
About the Author
Melody Hagaman taught computer science for ten years of her 13-year teaching career and has been recognized with the NCWIT AiC Educator Award as well as the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. She now works for BootUp PD, an organization that provides computer science curriculum and training for K-6 teachers. When she isn’t trying to spread equity and computer science all over the place, she enjoys traveling, singing, and acting.