When the world comes to you

A few weeks ago my principal asked if I would host some visitors in my class. This is a frequent occurrence, because our school is part of several networks of schools and visiting one another is normal. We also have relationships with sister schools in Germany, South Korea, China, and Japan.


SACIV visitors

Friday, eleven people came to my 7th period. One was a former student who now works for the San Antonio Council for International Visitors, a nonprofit that aims to “build international friendships, facilitate the exchange of ideas, foster cultural understanding, and promote San Antonio as an international city.” One was an interpreter from the U.S. State Department, and another was a facilitator of this particular exchange. The other eight were important people from other countries hoping to learn about cybersecurity and digital communications in the United States. They were coming to our school to see how we teach young people to communicate digitally, so Digital Media class was a good fit.

Due to the time frame of their visit, they were only going to spend time with my 7th period, but I wanted to get the other classes involved. So in periods 1-6, I passed out the one-page biographies of each visitor and asked groups of 3 or 4 students to write questions for that person on an index card. I was curious to see what they would ask of an Ethical Hacker from Slovakia, the Chief Analyst for fighting human trafficking in Macedonia, or the person who headed up the cyber crime division in Hungary’s version of the FBI.

Fortunately, I have two periods off (lunch and conference) right before 7th period, so I had time to rearrange the furniture into larger groups. I made placards for the official guests, and seated two at each table, along with 6 to 8 of my freshmen. The students had just designed business cards in a graphic design unit, and Friday was the day I printed them out. I placed the business cards in certain seats, with certain items. The person sitting to the right of a guest was given that person’s bio, and the task of introducing them to the group by reading the three most interesting things (in their opinion) on the piece of paper. The student in the middle had a computer, and was tasked with showing their digital portfolio to the group. The others received the index cards with the questions from the other class periods, and chose which ones to ask.

At first, the students were intimidated, but very quickly they felt at ease. Every student got to interact with each visitor, because the adults rotated from group to group after ten minutes. The structure, which was necessary at first, was less needed after the second rotation, so I gave them permission to just talk. That’s when the walls really came down.

One of my favorite moments was when the lawyer from Tajikistan gave her business card to one of the students, and I encouraged the student to give her business card in return. She was so excited! Several students got in a spirited discussion with their experts on the Area 51 Raid, which was happening that day. The guests encouraged the students to look up images of their countries and they were impressed by the beauty of a place like Macedonia.

For the last 5 minutes of class, I invited people to share something they learned or appreciated about the experience. Several students hopped to their feet to say what they enjoyed. When class ended, the local tour guide told me the visitors asked if they could just keep visiting high schools for the rest of their itinerary.


Data Visualization, Part 2: Connecting with a Local Expert

While reading a local newspaper during the summer, I noticed one of their authors, Emily Royall, had the title Data Director in her byline. Intrigued, I reached out via email and we later met for coffee. My initial idea was that perhaps she could supply us with data and my students could visualize it in some way that could be useful to her for an article. We came up with better ideas.

During our face-to-face meeting, Emily became enthusiastic about my students, and agreed to come be a guest speaker.  We scheduled her visit for the day after I gave the required district lesson about digital citizenship; topically, this worked perfectly. As a data expert, Emily had lots of advice for my students regarding online privacy.  One of their favorite moments was checking their Instagram categories to see how the app had categorized them as potential targets for advertisements.

Emily is the CEO of her own company that uses design and data to highlight inequities in society. As an artist, she had a project that could use our help. She was staging an exhibit at a local art gallery. Emily had downloaded her Facebook data file and printed out the comments she had posted, which required 700 pages. She planned to fold each page into the type of fortune tellers students make in middle school. We helped. At the end of the day, we had a tall stack of folded papers.  On October 5, a local gallery hosted the opening of her exhibit, and students were able to go see their work on display.

Forming this partnership with Emily Royall allowed my students and I to dive deeper into the ways physical objects can represent data, as well as to understand how our actions online create data.

Hour of Code

Hour of Code is an international effort to encourage people to learn computer coding. It happens annually in December, and is supported by a consortium of companies, celebrities, and educational partners. As the technology teacher at the International School of the Americas, this year I planned something special for my six classes.

First, we spent two days writing code. Rather than start from scratch, or use tools available online, I created my own lesson based on a coding workshop I attended at the 2014 Deeper Learning Conference at High Tech High in San Diego. My students used a freeware tool called Processing 3.0.1 to copy/paste lines of code I provided, then answered questions about the code by tweaking different numbers and symbols. By using a discovery model, students were able to decipher the code on their own.

Students were highly successful with the activity, even though it was challenging. One student, in response to the “Did you like this?” question at the end, said, “It was kind of confusing at first but once things started to work, it was really really exciting.”

After students had the coding experience, it was important for me to show them WHY coding is important, and HOW it is used in real life. At ISA, we strive to create Global Citizens who improve the world. Fortunately, I have been teaching a very long time (27 years!) and I am in contact with many of my former students. One student, Jewel Vandiver Willett, works for a tech startup called YourCause that has established itself as a global leader in the field of Corporate Social Responsibility. She made plans to come visit my class during Hour of Code and we created an exciting lesson together.

Second period video conferences with Peter Black, UX Designer, and Edward Adjei, Senior Software Architect, at YourCause.

On day 1 of Jewell’s visit, we video conferenced with coding engineers, software architects, and even the CEO of YourCause. We learned about their backgrounds, their education, and their most interesting projects.

We learned YourCause designed a software platform that allows the employees of their corporate clients to give money to non-profit causes, volunteer, and more. Seeing how coding can help save the world was powerful. YourCause is responsible for over $400 per MINUTE being donated to vetted charities, and has helped the employees of dozens of companies log over 7.7 million volunteer hours.

Jewell Willet explains the corporate structure of YourCause


On Day 2 of Jewell’s visit, students first pulled up the Career Interest Surveys they had taken earlier in the year and read them. Then Jewell explained the corporate structure of her company. While software is their purpose, it takes many people to run the company. As it has grown, YourCause adds more departments and individual job descriptions become more specialized.

In groups of about 8, students were asked to verbally respond to the sentence, “In ten years, YourCause should hire me to be a _________ because _______.” Each group choose one representative to interview with Jewell in front of the class.

The best performers in the mock interviews receive a YourCause Tshirt.

The best performers in the mock interviews received a YourCause Tshirt.


After each major project at ISA, students write blogs to serve as entries in their Digital Portfolio. In an ironic twist, they found out they would not be writing a post about this particular experience. However, our guest speaker’s boss asked her to write a blog post about her visit. Telling my classes this bit of information made them realize that blog posts are used in real life, and the skills they are learning are applicable after high school.