Montello Teaches Computer Science K-6

by Dr. Lynn Brown, Dave Lockstein, and Aggie Salter

Montello is not waiting for the future. Our students are creating their future opportunities by learning Computer Science K – 6, including digital citizenship and coding. With a tremendous shift in our teaching practices in the past couple of years, our staff is intentionally connecting the school experience with life beyond the classroom. More importantly, our Board, community, and staff share a fundamental belief about the importance of the ever changing landscape of technology and its partnership with curriculum for our students future. Today is never tomorrow. Nothing stays the same. Alec Ross, former Director of Technology at the State Department, said, “If big data, genomics, cyber, and robotics are among the high-growth industries of the future, then the people who will make their livings in those industries need to be fluent in the coding languages behind them.” In Montello, coding begins in kindergarten. Yes, our kindergarteners are coding.

Montello boasts a 17 year Montello School District (MSD) veteran music teacher and Certified Google Educator and Trainer. She was passionate about using technology in her elementary music classroom to create greater engagement, achieve music standards, and ultimately have students take more ownership of their own learning. Piloting Quincy Jones’ Playground Sessions and creating her own online curriculum, it was then that this teacher realized her students’ quick acquisition of grade level standards using technology and their thirst for continued learning. Four years ago she offered the Hour of Code as an optional activity during lunch for fifth graders. “The Hour of Code is a global movement reaching over 100 million students in more than 180 countries.” ( This teacher and the fifth-grade teachers had no idea who would show up, and much to their surprise, every single 5th grade student came during their lunch! The following year, volunteer middle and high school students were trained to assist fellow students. From 2013-14 through 2015-16, Hour of Code was offered to grades four and five in their classrooms and grades seven and eight during their lunchtime. Not surprised, there was 100% participation.

In August 2014, MSD hired a new Director of Technology (DOT) who articulated a vision to change the way our teachers taught, our students learned, and the way technology was viewed. He believed technology would help shape curriculum from the foundation up; eventually becoming invisible when standardized in all aspects of education. We realized that the technology skills of both the DOT and our music teacher/technology coach were two sides of the same coin. With his strengths in vision and infrastructure implementation and her skills in classroom technology integration and coaching, our action plan was formed into three distinct but connected components of today’s innovative Montello classrooms:

  1. Get devices in the hands of staff and students
  2. Change the role of the teacher to facilitator/partner in learning
  3. Provide real world applications and experiences so students are prepared to leave our school
  1.  Get devices in the hands of staff and students

The DOT pushed his device neutral philosophy for every staff member and student. He didn’t care that Montello was a poor rural district in the the eyes of outsiders. Our new DOT brought a vision of evolution from digital obscurity to one-to-world. This meant access anytime, anywhere, on any device. With his eye on both efficiency and effectiveness, the District moved to GAFE (Google Apps for Education). Leases were replaced with economic options, the number of servers were reduced, hardware rotations were established, and equipment was standardized. The long-term technology budget was actually reduced! Within one year, Chromebooks were purchased for every middle and high school student. Redistributed equipment was given to elementary students who now had 2:1 access. In the fall of 2015, our district was 1:1 in grades K-12 with a planned dedicated rotation schedule for new hardware. With equipment in place, access throughout the day, and instructional tools available anywhere, anytime, it required us to change our classroom practice. By doing so, we found alternative resources and began to revolutionize how we delivered instruction.

  1.  Change the role of the teacher to facilitator/partner in learning

Technology is a tool, not an end unto itself. The teacher’s role has certainly changed. He or she is a facilitator, a partner in learning, and no longer a sage on the stage. When our music teacher became half-time music teacher and half-time technology coach, she realized that in order to ignite long-lasting change, she needed to change teacher beliefs. Modeling new classroom tools, providing extended training opportunities and support alongside MSD classroom teachers, mindsets and practices began to shift. The result – increased engagement from both teachers and students, more timely feedback to individualize instruction, and greater student ownership for their learning. This year, she transitioned to our full-time Integration Technology Specialist (ITS). She supports the PK-12 staff in technology integration in their classrooms as well as provides Computer Science instruction to students in grades K – 6 making MSD’s footprint bigger as we prepare our students to compete in a global market economy.

  1. Provide real world applications and experiences so students are prepared to leave our school

The synergy of the abilities of our ITS and DOT, combined with the support from the Board and Administration and a staff eager to learn, has positioned Montello to more fully implement Academic and Career Planning.  One of those vehicles is teaching Computer Science K – 6. The essential skills in those classes include innovation (collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking), digital citizenship, and coding (Java and beginning implementation of C++, and C Sharp). Our ITS continually searches out-of-the-box possibilities, while learning alongside her students and staff, in order to enhance the education repertoire of all she serves. Also, those initial Hour of Code student volunteers later formed our Technology Expedition Team (TekEx), a group of students working under our school-to-work program who provide tech support on all levels – from customer service to hardware and software support. These opportunities are allowing them to gain certifications and experience needed to start a career in technology right out of high school.

We are only in year three of a multi-year initiative that increases our students experiences, exposures, and skill sets to the world beyond Montello.  Yet, in the midst of these adaptive shifts, MSD staff never forget that relationships and connections with students and each other are the single most important aspect to deepen our learning. “We have to make a connection to the heart before we can make connections to the brain,” says our ITS. In Montello, we believe each child regardless of age should go as fast as the student needs/wants to learn, with standards to help guide that process, and technology should help foster that growth. It should create engagement and a connection to the outside world – ensuring that they are prepared to leave our learning community. Montello stakeholders are increasing their global footprint in the hopes of our students’ and community’s greater contribution to mankind. Let’s find our collective voice to prepare our children for an ever changing world. MSD bears testimony that even small rural districts can teach computer science and begin in kindergarten, yes in kindergarten!

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A Teacher’s Legacy

I plopped down in an overstuffed chair. Two older ladies carried on about St. Raphael’s Friday fish fry. We all had time to burn before the nurse called our names. I picked up the February 7 issue of Time Magazine. I thumbed through the pages searching for the news makers and obituaries. A bit morbid, I know. A bald man with an ear to ear toothy smile caught my attention. Marvin Minsky, MIT professor and co-founder of the AILab, died January 24, 2016 at the age of 88. Who is this guy? I thought. I read the obituary, an eloquent personal homage from a former student, Ray Kurzweil.

Kurzweil wrote, “When I was fourteen I wrote Marvin Minsky a letter asking to meet with him. He invited me to visit him at MIT and he spent hours with me as if he had nothing else to do.” The year, 1962:  John Kennedy confronts the Cuban Missile Crisis, Algeria gains its independence from France, Rod Laver wins Wimbledon. Melvin Minsky dominates the brave new world of artificial intelligence from the laboratories of AILab at MIT. A pioneer in the fledgling science of computers, “Marvin was one of the very few people in computing whose vision and perspectives liberated the computer from being a glorified adding machine to start to realize its destiny as one of the most powerful amplifiers for human endeavors in history.” Age 35, a busy man in constant demand, Marvin Minsky had every reason to blow off a fourteen year old boy from New York city. But what did he do? Marvin took the time, sat down, and wrote a thoughtful personal letter to a young man he never met. That act of kindness, that afternoon of generosity in the laboratory at MIT changed the lives of a professor and a prodigy forever.

Kurzweil and Minsky continued to correspond over the next three years.  The young Ray Kurzweil oozed brilliance, he always did. In 1965 Kurzweil won first prize at the International Science Fair. He wrote a computer program that recognized patterns in the works of his favorite classical composers. The program synthesized these patterns into unique but similar musical pieces. Ray Kurzweil entered MIT in 1967 to study under Marvin Minsky. Within 18 months he exhausted the entire computer programming catalog. Ray sold the rights to his first software venture for $100,000 plus royalties during his sophomore year. His legend grew exponentially. PBS listed Ray Kurzweil among the 16 most influential men of the past century. The relationship between Marvin and Ray never wavered – it only deepened. Kurzweil said, “He was one of humanity’s greatest thinkers. He was also my only mentor.”

Marvin Minsky, a WWII veteran, entered Harvard after the war. He completed his doctoral studies in mathematics at Princeton University. But Marvin longed for more than the pure science could offer. His boundless curiosity flirted with genetics and physics. Neither satisfied and then it happened. He engaged the question of intelligence. Minsky recalled, “The problem of intelligence seemed hopelessly profound. I can’t remember considering anything else worth doing.” His newfound passion led to a life long pursuit at MIT. Marvin Minsky invited thousands of students to join his journey at the artificial intelligence laboratories of MIT.

Above all else, Marvin Minsky was a passionate teacher. Learning and students never lost their luster. He forever challenged his students, “You don’t really understand something if you understand it one way.” Mastery of content establishes a prequel. Organization, association, and elaboration write the introduction. Defining and resolving a problem constitutes a chapter. Following chapters must construct new questions and novel solutions. Always think big, then think small. Only then dare to write the conclusion of understanding. Minsky’s demands fueled the brightest young minds in the world. They fought to get chairs at his night lectures. Danny Hillis, a former student and transformative figure in his own right, said, “Marvin taught me how to think. He had a style and playful curiosity that was a huge influence on me. He always challenged you to question the status quo. He loved it when you argued with him.”

Minsky lived in the midst of a sea of 140 plus IQs. But this story has little to do with the brilliance of intellectuals. Do we base a love story on the distinction of brown eyes to blue eyes? Of course not. No, this story has everything to do with the conduct and character of education. An adult extends his hand to the extended hand of a child. Engagement bonds a relationship. Its effects last for a lifetime. Teachers, this is your story.

Thinking Skills Matter

I obsess about the learning dynamic. My journey covers the seven seas of learning theory, testimonials, conventions, seminars, and exhaustive training under recognized gurus. I separate meat from bones in my field. Believe me, there are too many bones. But why do I continue the pursuit? How can I cast off broken promises and false hope? I know the power of a teacher to affect someone’s life. I know the power of an administrator to compound that potential exponentially.

Dr. Adam Falk, president of Williams College, addressed potential incoming freshmen in the spring of 2015. He highlighted a central theme. “We are not here to create vessels of information. We are here to develop your minds. Exercise and reinforce the habits of mind. Think, feel, analyze – let your mind express itself. Strengthen the higher capacities.” Williams College is no joke. These eighteen year-olds are the academic cream of high schools around the world. Dr. Falk implies a reality these kids may not fully comprehend. Your critical thinking skills, highly developed for a high school senior, must be honed and elevated, indeed these skills can and will be elevated during your four years at Williams College. Teachers will encourage, push, and prod to make it happen.

Dr. Nate Kornell, a cognitive psychologist and professor at Williams College, amplifies this reality in his blog piece, Stop Worrying About Starting Grad School.

“The bottom line: your knowledge and skills on the first day are almost irrelevant four years later. What matters more is how much your skills are going to improve. That depends on your talent, attitude, and work ethic.

Graduate school is exactly the same. You aren’t prepared. No one is. You’re a flailing newborn spitting up all over and crying a lot (or at least I was).

What actually matters is whether you’re smart, ready to work hard, ready to get deeply interested and invested in whatever’s coming, and ready to do what you have to do to learn and improve.

You are running a marathon. The real question is how much better are you prepared to get?”

The learning dynamic demands more and more of our critical thinking skills. Those skills develop our inherent talent. Kornell said it best, “How much better are you prepared to get?”

If development of “the higher capacities” is critical at the college and graduate level, how important are they at the K-12 level? A cursory study of demographics and economics screams, “Life will not end well for those who cannot think for themselves and determine their futures.” Of those who don’t graduate from high school, only a smattering of outliers rise to productive careers. For better, for worse, we affect the lives of children. That is a fact and a choice.

We know for a fact, thinking skills taught and reinforced increases student achievement. Further, we know we have capacity to push IQ up as much as five points over the ages of six to ten. Trust me, five points of talent can make a significant difference in choices for an emerging adult. Men, would you rather have a 12 volt cordless drill or an 18 volt? Why the 18 volt? The 18 volt cordless drill has more power and greater endurance. That drill solves a greater range of problems. The mind is no different. Greater capacity, greater efficiency enhances skills which apply themselves to a greater range of problems. In sum, we possess the power to adapt and learn.

The newborn baby flails helplessly, its cry the only tool to express its needs and desires. Mom and Dad mediate a new relationship. We call it bonding but we are our baby’s first teachers. That developing mind will be nurtured by many others. Cognitive development builds biologically and environmentally, an inevitable exponential march toward independence. In the world, we call it life. In the classroom, we call it mediation. The teacher plays a dominant role at the K-12 level, a dominant but lesser role at the collegiate level, and a peer coach role at the graduate level. Greater and greater self-teaching occurs as the student progresses. His/her habits of mind, his/her powers of critical thinking, enable the individual to shape their environment. He/she emerges a fully functioning adult.

My three sons flew from the nest a decade ago. My first grandchild greets us in June. It matters little to me or you what they do for a living. Here is the critical point of their journey, the hard earned fruits of collaborative labors in their lives. Each works at a profession they chose for themselves. Each of them loves and is loved with dignity, and each invests in the welfare of others outside of family. Isn’t this what we are really about? Aren’t we a part of the universal question posited in each individual, “Who am I?” Don’t we have a responsibility to elevate the life of each child we intersect? I obsess about learning, about teaching, about caring for children because it matters more than any one person can ever comprehend.