Teaching APCS-A for the first time

I got an email from a friend the other day. Among other things, he mentioned that he would be teaching APCS-A for the first time this year. He's a little trepidatious. He knows his stuff but he hasn't really done much using Java.

I was going to respond in an email but thought I might share here instead.

TL;DR - for all you APCS teachers who are new or new to Java - learn your core CS, lean on your resources and support and it's OK to tell your kids "I don't know, I'll get back to you.". Don't worry, you'll be great.

The first time I taught APCS was some time around 1991 or 1992. It was at Seward Park High School. It was the AB curriculum - that is one semester of programming in Pascal and one semester of Data Structures and Algorithms. Being a computer science major the core material was never a concern. I had taken APCS the first time it was offered in May 1984 in Pascal and while most of my college and pre-teaching professional work was in C, my college started it's CS sequence with Pascal. I was more concerned with the actual teaching part. I had taught math for a year and a half at that point but never CS and by any measure I was still wet behind the ears. I never finished that first experience because I was excessed to Stuy mid semester. I wasn't particularly happy with my performance but looking back, I think I did a pretty good job given the situation and my experience.

After teaching math for a year and a half I was back in APCS at Stuy. Still in Pascal. I spent the next few years figuring out how to teach CS and APCS in particular along with starting a couple of new classes. When the College Board decided to move the AP class to C++ I was happy, sad and a little worried. Pascal had a bunch of limitations but I had never used C++. True, I was a C programmer at heart but I had never really done the OOP thing. I did, as it turned out, design a number of my C systems in an Object Typed design: I would use a single file per "class" where local variables were de facto instance variables and functions in the file were methods and each file was a singleton class. I read Booch and Meyer on my own but I had no schooling in OOP and no professional experience.

As it turned out, I didn't have to worry. I knew my CS and while it took me a while to become comfortable with OOP, the class, and of course I knew this from the get go, started from nothing and built up complexity a step at a time. The worst that might have happened is that some of my solutions might have been more C-esque than C++.

The move to Java was a little more jarring. Now we had a totally new language. I couldn't fall back on C. It removed memory management and explicit pointers and it had to be used in an Object Oriented manner. I remember asking Mike Schidlowsky, a former student turned friend who was the Java consultant on the Java edition of Sedgewick's Algorithms book how to do something. It had to do with passing and modifying arrays. In C there were a number of ways to accomplish what I wanted to do. In Java, I couldn't figure out how to do it the way I wanted. My friend Mike told me "you just don't do it that way in Java." Again, it turned out that I didn't have to worry. The basic coding was still the same as were the data structures and algorithms. The only challenge was that I had to get into a Java OOP mindset which it turned out wasn't that hard.

While I never really warmed up to OOP - I find other paradigms more natural for me, I knew my CS and got more and more comfortable with the Java (or C++) way of doing things as time wore on. Sometimes I would say "I don't know" or "let's figure it out" but that's OK.

Nowadays, there are many more resources available for CS teachers. If you're new, lean on them. Use the mailing lists, stackexchange, facebook groups. Online resources like repl.it, codehs.com etc. Yes, it's true that you'll be better next time around and even better years down the road but right now, you're probably better than you think.

A number of my former students volunteer for TEALS - a really great program that brings software engineers into the classroom to work with non-CS teachers to deliver instruction. A number of my kids have shared the following sentiment:

I don't know if I'm really helping the teacher to become self sufficient or if I'm a great teacher but I do know one thing - while I'm there, the kids are getting a hell of a lot more than if I wasn't there."

– Remember that as well.


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