Teacher Meg Ray is bridging the digital divide

I had the pleasure of meeting Meg at this year’s PyGotham, a Python conference in NYC.  Meg’s talk was “High Technology for High Needs Students: A Year of Programming in the Bronx”.  She wasn’t a Computer Science major but is one of thousands of teachers who’ve stepped up, learned to code, and are now helping bridge the digital divide by giving students vital exposure and access to technology.  I’m so happy she agreed to share more about her background and how she teaches.

This is another of our series of interviews with educational innovators.  You can find past interviews here.

Meg Ray
Meg Ray

Elliott: You’re a real advocate for computer science education and you’re working with a population of students that’s not had great access to technology. Can you tell us a bit about your students and what you’re teaching them?

Meg: I teach a software engineering class to 9th graders at a Title 1 school in the Bronx. The students that I teach come from demographics that are underrepresented in college computer science programs and in computer science related careers. At Bronx Compass High School, where I teach, software engineering is a required class for all 9th graders. Not only are students of color often denied access to technology and high quality computer science curriculum, but these students often opt out of computer science at disproportionately high rates due to lack of exposure and lack of identification with the field. My class addresses this by exposing all students in the school to a highly engaging introductory curriculum. Students can then decide to continue with more advanced classes. Equity is about more than filling schools with technology; it’s also about redefining the relationship that students have with technology.

Equity is about more than filling schools with technology; it is also about redefining the relationship that students have with technology. 

The curriculum I use focuses on programming. Students create and host public web pages and create apps using Python. We delve into foundational concepts and also practice problem-solving skills. I try to take an approach that balances the goals of learning to “think like a programmer” and learning the mechanics of coding.

Elliott: It sounds like your students really do have the opportunity to express themselves in code.  Are there any teaching moments or experiences that stand out for you?

Meg: In my class, students have to struggle to learn. First, they are learning a subject that most of them have very little experience and context for, so I ask them to sit with confusion sometimes. Second, I require students to demonstrate that they have attempted to solve problems using trial and error and available resources before they get help from me. This is a shift from the classroom cultures that many of them are used to. Helping students learn the process of learning challenging things is very rewarding for me.

 Helping students learn the process of learning challenging things is very rewarding for me.

This year, when I first introduced HTML, students went through this struggle. As they started “getting it,” the practice HTML docs that they would turn in started changing. Instead of using the example text like “This is a heading.” or “This is a paragraph.” I started getting pages that would say, “This is the best thing I’ve ever done in school.” or “This is so cool!!!” (high praise from any 9th grader).

Meg and her husband (center) on a field trip with students

Elliott: That is high praise!  What’s your background with teaching? How did you come to incorporate code into your work?

Meg: I am certified as a special education teacher. This is my third year teaching, but I have background in working with teenagers with disabilities. As a high school student, I changed my career choice from aerospace engineer to actor. I feel that there were social and systemic pressures involved that I wasn’t aware of at the time, and I can understand my students’ initial feelings that science and technology isn’t for them.

I understand my students’ initial feelings that science and technology isn’t for them

In “high need schools” in NYC, teaching computer science often falls to the teacher who is willing, because there are very few teachers who are currently qualified. I am willing to work at becoming qualified, and I believe in the value of offering computer science to every high school student. So, when an opportunity to teach programming came up, I took it. My hope is to give students who might be interested in going into computer science, but opt out of it like I did, one more reason to keep pursuing it.

Elliott:  Tell us a bit about any challenges you’ve run into in the classroom and how you’re solving them.

Meg: I feel like I am always learning a few steps ahead of the students, and they deserve expert instruction. In order to provide them with the best curriculum and instruction I can, I surround myself with resources. My husband is my personal programming tutor and volunteer curriculum consultant. I attend trainings and Meetups on weeknights and weekends. I also try to engage with professional programmers as often as I can. I have noticed that there is a lot of excitement in education about teaching computer science.  I also noticed at PyCon and the NYC Python Meetup that there is a lot of buzz in the Python community in particular about programming and education. I feel that both educators and programmers can be more effective in computer science education if we were able to link these conversations. One of my goals is to bring programmers and teachers together. To this end, I have been working with Errol King, a programmer (founder and creative director of “Beta the Game”), to lead a series of education-focused hackathons involving both communities.

I feel like I am always learning a few steps ahead of the students, and they deserve expert instruction.

Elliott:  Hackathons to bring teachers and programmers together is a great idea.  Besides great events like these,  resources or tools have you found valuable that you’d share with other teachers?

Meg: There are so many great tools out there. I look for tools that don’t replace my teaching, but that I can integrate into my curriculum to make student learning more effective. Trinket is a great example of this. I still develop and adjust lessons based on my students’ individual and group needs. Trinket allows me to do this by providing a quick way for students to practice and access code and by providing me with a way to assess and track that practice. I appreciate tools that help me stay organized, are accessible to students in the cloud, are quick to access and use in the classroom, and provide an engaging element to students. Some other tools that I use in my classroom are Mozilla Webmaker (X-Ray Goggles, Thimble), Blockly, EarSketch, and RenPy.


Elliott: What’s next on the horizon for you and your teaching? Are there any projects you’re working on that you’re excited for?
Meg: I plan to stay in the classroom and continue to refine my curriculum for software engineering. Meanwhile, I am developing my content knowledge by working toward a graduate certificate in “Teaching Computer Science with Blended Learning” through Pace University and two NYC Department of Education Programs, Blended Learning Institute and Software Engineering Pilot. I plan to also remain involved in the Python community through collaborating with local programmers and finding as many ways as possible to bring educators and programmers together.  In the future, I hope to be able to share what I have learned through teaching computer science at Bronx Compass and my successes there with others to influence policy and develop curriculums that expand access to many more students.

You can follow my adventures in teaching programming on Twitter @teach_bx_CS.