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C'est la Z

Supporting Our Students

Austin Cory Bart put together a great post about supporting Black students in CS1. Cory asked about this on the SIGCSE mailing list and in his post he both breaks things down and shares all the resources that he compiled from the ensuing discussion.

There's a lot of good stuff both in the post and in the links but there's a lot to get lost in. As teachers we can sometimes affect change at a department or school level but we can always make a difference in our classes and with our students.

I titled this post "Supporting Our Students" and not "Supporting Black Students." I'm certainly not pulling any all lives matter BS but rather reflecting back on something that shaped my approach with my students and started to open my eyes and that specific experience for me was an all students experience.

I cut my teach at Seward Park High School down on the Lower East Side. It was a high poverty school and a very diverse one. I had top flight honors students, criminal thugs, druggies, sweet kids whom the system failed and everything else you can imagine. The main groups were classified back then as Chinese and Hispanic and then Black then White but within those groups there were subdivisions. Shortly before I got the gig the school had brokered an in school truce between the factions of Chinese gangs and while the term of the day was Hispanic the students were from a variety of places.

One day I was talking to a guidance counselor in the hall. We didn't know each other - I shanghaied her in another conversation - I had something to ask. She said "wait - you're Zamansky right?" Yep. "I was wondering who you were, all the students want to be in your class." I was confused. I wasn't super popular - I was just in about a year and a half. I also wasn't so good. I'd rate myself as an above average very raw young teacher but that's about it. She explained that I was one of the only teachers where students from all the population groups wanted to be in my class. The Hispanic students, for instance all wanted to be in Pablo Chang's math class, the Chinese in another teachers but apparently I appealed to everyone equally.

I started to think about why that might be the case and it got me thinking about what I had learned in my short time teaching. Prior to teaching I led a pretty sheltered life. I went to public school up until college and had a pretty diverse group of friends but as a kid you can be pretty oblivious to economic and race related differences. As an adult I went to a private college, NYU, and started off at Goldman Sachs. Not exactly a recipe for awareness. I quickly realized that not all kids learned the same, thought the same and going further, lived the same.

It taught me that it's not merely about talking to your students, it's about listening to them. Given time and the chance, they'll open up and you'll learn about their challenges. When it seems there giving you a song and dance, don't assume they're trying to pull a fast one. Give them the benefit of the doubt. You'll get burned now and again by a kid taking advantage but things have a way of coming clean and if you don't give the kid the benefit of the doubt you can irreparably harm your relationship. Trust is key in education. Besides I've been burned way more by giving the benefit of the doubt to people professionally than as a teacher and at the end of the day I'd rather lose sleep angry over being taken advantage of than lose sleep feeling guilty for damaging my relationship with a student for the wrong reasons.

If you treat your students like people - young people but people nonetheless and earnestly listen and try to learn from them and learn about them that's your guide. I'm not saying I'm particularly good at helping my kids - I'm your stereotypical socially awkward computer geek but the more I listened the more I understood the individual issues my students had to deal with. My Black students, my immigrant students, my poor students and all the rest. Sure there were common themes but every one has a unique story.

While we teach our assorted subjects to our students really at the end of the day more so than teaching any specific computer science I hope to be a force for good in their lives and their development as people. The best way I can do that is to listen, try to learn, try to understand and then try to help and support.

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