Episode 26 – Jeremy Wickenheiser, Mel McGee and Sarah Jensen
Doris: In 2014 Jeremy was in the first one. They’re going to introduce themselves on what they do and what’s happened since the workshop. Jeremy Wickenheiser from Denver School of Science and Technology, who came to the first workshop ever, brave soul. Cool.
Mel, who’s from here in Cleveland and is the founder and creator of an organization called We Can Code IT. Very exciting. Mel came to the California workshop last year. Sarah Jensen, from Nichols School, who came to the Boston workshop last year, and Nichols is an independent school, so we have an independent school. Now we’ll tell you what she’s doing, which is really exciting, and Jeremy, from a public charter school in Denver, and if you guys could start by introducing yourself, just talking about yourself, where you’re from, what you do, and what came out of the workshop, the whole thing.
Doris: Yeah, go for it, Jeremy.
Jeremy: My name’s Jeremy Wickenheiser. I teach currently at the Denver School of Science and Technology, DSST public schools. We started with one school 14 years ago and now grown out to I think six or seven at least right now. Went out to 22 schools across the city serving 10,500 students in Denver. I have a claim to fame of our network of schools to this point that 100% of our students are accepted to four-year universities from very diverse backgrounds and socioeconomic backgrounds, those types of pieces.
As Doris mentioned, I went in the summer of 2014, so a couple of summers ago, the very first workshop that was out in [inaudible]. My background is actually as a science teacher and science research. I did my undergraduate degree in creative studies with an emphasis in biology, so it’s research related to biology. I’ve taught for many years in a traditional classroom, teaching science, physics, AP biology, engineering, lots of different things kind of in that realm, both in public schools and public charter schools. I would say our reason for being there at that first workshop was really we’ve done a good job, I would say, as a network, in terms of preparing kids with academic content knowledge, and we have recognized that point, but we realized in collaboration, in conversation with a lot of our university partners and alumni that there was really I think a piece that was being missed in terms of skills, professional skills, what people might call soft skills or non-cognitive skills. They’re definitely not non-cognitive skills. Take cognition.
We had actually started testing some things before that. We were testing some things in conjunction with starting at Colorado, testing things after school in conjunction with CEOs and cofounders of companies and doing some kind of pitch-related things after school. We were seeing amazing engagement from kids unlike what I have seen in any of my traditional classes. At that point, started looking on the internet in terms of who out there is doing this, who’s doing it well and what else is out there, and there wasn’t a lot out there at that point I would say two years ago, and there still isn’t a lot out there, a lot in terms of high quality, in terms of rigor.
At that point I emailed Doris and Tim, and Doris said, “Oh, we still have a spot in the workshop.” I said, “Great, I’m coming.” Actually, right after that it was [inaudible] after that first three weeks too, so it just worked out. Coming out of that, we’ve done a bunch of things since then. We were already moving in that direction, but we’ve done since then is taken and brought these courses into the school day, and we had the support to do that. If we think this is important in terms of education, it has to happen during the school day.
For us, I would say it’s really an equity piece in terms of why that’s important, and the bigger background piece in terms of why this is important in our communities, there is a lot of data that’s suggesting that at least in Colorado 74% of jobs by 2020 are acquiring some sort of post-secondary training. Not necessarily a college degree, but some sort of post-secondary training. We’re nowhere on track to meet that as a state. We’re going to continue to import workforce talent from around the nation and from out of the country, which is fine, but it’s a real problem that we’re not providing kids with the skills to access those jobs. All these startups are coming to Denver on these sorts of things, and there’s a lot of around that, but our kids can’t engage in those jobs. There’s a huge disconnect between what the workplace wants and demands and what kids are doing in school, and this is about bridging that disconnect. That’s hopefully what all of you are here for today, because that’s what this workshop is going to help you do. Doris, will support you for a very long time. We’re a good team.
Doris has become I think a very good friend from this. What we’ve done in terms of building programs, we have a course in the 12th grade akin to Doris’s intensive course. We’re now rolling out courses in the eighth and ninth grade, so on one of our campuses next year we’ll serve between 250 and 300 students, all with courses during the school day, before we start kind of scaling across our network. We also do work in conjunction with a nonprofit in Denver called The Global Living Institute, and so we do some work in East Africa as well, because I think for us a lot of what we’re framing our pieces around is these global sustainability goals, really wanting kids to tackle big challenges and problems in the world. That’s what it’s about, right?
Doris I’m sure keeps talking to you about doing real meaningful work and solving real problems. The engagement from kids is unbelievable when you do that. I’ve seen kids work harder for these classes than anything else that I’ve ever done in 11 plus years in a traditional classroom in that way. That’s kind of where we’re at.
Doris: That’s great. Thank you. Mel.
Mel: I’m Mel McGee. I’m with a company called We Can Code IT, and I founded We Can Code IT in order to help people learn how to code, so a computer program. We have a very special focus on diversity and inclusion in technology. There’s a huge issue with diversity and inclusion in tech, and you probably have seen it yourself, so I won’t go into that right now. However, I will go into what I got out of the workshop, what I have received, this gift that you have given me in order to help people find jobs and to help retrain people rapidly in a way that they can come from a place where they know very little about programming but they know that they’re growing and they know that a $15 an hour job isn’t going to cut it for them.
In fact, there’s 83% chance that if you have a job that’s $20 or less an hour that you will be unemployed in a few years, and that comes from a presidential report. Anyway, at We Can Code IT, we teach adults and teach them how to code. We help them find a job. We have 100% placement within six months of graduating the program. Students come from backgrounds, we just had one student Alexis who came through the program, and she was disadvantaged. She came from poverty. Her sister passed away, and she felt very responsible for her niece and nephew. She knew she had to do something. She didn’t know what that was, and she had very little time in which to ramp up and figure something out for her life.
She came through our program, and 12 weeks later she had a job at JPMorgan Chase making $62,000 a year to start. Wow, how that changed her life. We had another student Indira, very similar. She was making $15,000 a year, single mom. She got pregnant at 16, thought, “Oh my gosh, what am I going to do?” She was sort of at the end of her rope. She felt that she kept failing, she kept failing. Very bright.
Came through the program. She went to our part-time program, which was 22 weeks, but we follow the same methodology that you teach, Doris, and she has a job, another kind of success story. She’s making up to, if she gets her bonus this year, she’ll be making $72,000, and that’s coming from $15,000 a year in poverty. These are really meaningful lessons that I have learned through your workshops.
Doris: You’re teaching content and you’re teaching skills.
Mel: Content, yeah, this isn’t just entrepreneur. This is real [inaudible].
Doris: They have to learn a code.
Mel: They have to. How do you get somebody to learn how to code, how to code a computer, which is notoriously difficult to do in such a short period of time.
Doris: Cool. Amazing stuff.
Mel: Yeah, and they do real-world projects.
Doris: That’s awesome. Sarah?
Sarah: My name’s Sarah Jensen, and I’m looking out at you thinking I was there last year, this time last year. None of you look as scared as I do. I’m not kidding. I actually visited a talk in one very cold February day as a parent of Nichols students, being new to Nichols, new to Buffalo. We had just moved from Boston, and we came down and met with Scott and Doris and Tim, and then we went over to the upper school campus. As we were talking, I was with our head of school and assistant head of school. Doris and Tim were very very polite and gave us a lot of information, and finally said, “You know, we do have a workshop for this, and if you’re interested, you can learn a lot more about this.”
I got back in the car, three hours with the head of school, assistant head of school, as a parent, and thought, “Okay, I’m not sure where this is going or what’s happening, but it was a continuation that really sparked the different discussions that we were having about how to build on the traditional curriculum at Nichols and prepare our students. Our mission is mind, body, and spirit for the work of life.
How do we take what we’ve done well for 124 years, we’re about to start our 125th year, and build upon that? I was asked to launch an entrepreneurial studies class, the textbook. No anything, just go do it. Great, we’re really excited. Coming to the workshop, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I had reached out to a bunch of prep schools around New England, because that’s what I knew, and I had spent hours online, and I went to business school, so I looked at all those types of resources, but couldn’t really find something that I thought that I could at least start with. This far exceeded my expectations. Do you still have the toolkit?
Doris: Yes, we do, and I’m able to access it.
Sarah: The toolkit was incredible, because sitting there not…I felt like I was highlighting everything, you know. It was like drinking from a fire hose. I was like, really didn’t understand. I couldn’t take it all in, but I knew that what I was hearing was really incredible.
To have the toolkit and to be able to go back and look at it and say okay, this is what I need. Where can that happen, or Tim mentioned this, or what to do. To have a place to start was incredible, so I spent a tremendous amount of my summer looking at the Hawken model, but then also looking at Nichols and saying okay, we’re 45-minute rotating schedule. We are in the city of Buffalo, but we don’t have the same proximity. We’re probably 10 minutes away from most businesses and from our medical campus. How do you do that with seniors. It’s only one class. It’s not an honors class. I had 12 students the first year, everything from national merit finalists to kids who were on the private school equivalent of like an IEP, where we were making accommodations.
I didn’t know that. I didn’t know the students. It was incredible. I feel our focus is really on skills. We [inaudible] an F, because 21st century skills and all the different terminology that…it’s wonderful, but people don’t necessarily know what you’re talking about, or they start to expect too much. I think the failure part for me was huge. Nichols is a highly academic, rigorous school, and these students have spent so much time focused on you tell me what you want, I’ll give it back to you in the format you want it, and you’ll give me the grade, and we’ll move on. While they are incredibly good at that, they were very uncomfortable with these problem that were real-world problems that had no obvious solution. I said, “I don’t know what I can do,” and you said, “The secret is keep it real.” We worked with three CEOs in the fall. The first CEO we met day three of class, and that set the tone for these students to be sitting around a conference room realizing that there opinion matters and that there’s no real answer. It was magical to see.
Our second CEO collaboration was a landscaper who only provided services. He didn’t have the product, but he had an idea for a product, and he wanted to pursue that more because he has to lay off half of his workforce in the winter. Despite Buffalo’s reputation for being snowy, we did not have any snow this past winter, so he had a garden box. We did a rough prototype, and the students created a go-to-market strategy for him. Did a tremendous amount of informational interviewing and surveys and figured out the different channels. One of the students, about three weeks in, the whole thing only lasts about four and a half weeks, said, “Ah, Mrs. Jensen, I don’t think I’m doing it right.” I said, “Well, what do you mean you’re not doing it right?” He said, “Well, when I do the math, what the carrying costs are for these employees and what we could make, I think we can only save five jobs,” and I was blown away. I said, “Guys, this isn’t a word problem.” The students, Jeremy, to your point, they talk in a way that’s far exceeded my expectations, their own expectations, their parents, the business community, their teachers really.
Some of the kids that I had, anything, were seniors, and they had sort of had a reputation of not being super diligent. They were taking my class, it was an elective, they thought it’d be easy, and I had advisors and parents and all these people coming back and saying, “I cannot believe the growth I’ve seen in this child,” and I won’t take credit for it. I really believe that using the Hawken model you create this environment and you scaffold it and you take your hands off the wheel, and these kids, they grow themselves, the peer, the friendships. It’s just been amazing.
Doris: I had some questions, but I’d also like you guys to ask questions if you have any. Do you have any questions yet, anybody? I have a question about how this, as you’re creating these programs in side schools, what you’re seeing in terms of the impact on the traditional classes, or the traditional faculty. Is there any impact, or it’s just a separate…You talked a little about what’s happened at DSST since you did the first class.
Jeremy: Doris has visited our school too, so… She spent time with our kids. I would say I operate on a little bit of an island, if you will. Like Doris said, she’s had the weird one here and the weird one there in terms of doing something pretty different than other people, but I think there’s a recognition of I want that. I want my kids to be engaged like that, I want to see that from my kids. How do I do that? That’s I think actually one of the next steps that we’re taking here this next year is working with some teachers, so basically just changing one unit within your course and those types of pieces.
Everybody can see the value that it has for the students. We see it literally paying off financially in terms of scholarship dollars and all sorts of things for students and just all the skills that they come out of that with. People want those same things within their class, and how do we do content with it? It’s totally possible to do that, and so that’s where we’re [inaudible].
Sarah: I would say nobody quite knew what to make of me when I got to campus, and that actually was kind of right. I have my own space, which is in the basement, and so it looks like a startup space, and it’s noisy. Most of the classrooms, there’s a teacher standing up, there are students at the desk. Mine, I fed them every Friday. I had Fun Food Friday. I expected a lot of the students. I had constant flow of people in and out engaging them. Not speaking to them, but being target customers or being sharks to hear, so that I have to figure out how to interact with somebody, I have to learn to walk up, shake the hand, write a thank you note, all of those things.
Initially, there was a buzz around in my classroom and a lot of people looking in the window wondering what was happening. Very quickly I think they saw how transferable the skills were and how enthusiastic…These are seniors, so seniors are very focused on college and on their next steps, and so to have seniors excited and talking about it, that was my best advertisement, and quickly everybody wanted our seniors to help with the freshman geometry class, who were presenting in front of the mayor about the new buildings project on the outer harbor in Buffalo. Everybody was suddenly very interested in what we were doing, how our presentations were, at a completely different level, how to get these kids so engaged. The teachers were talking to me, but they also wanted my students, and I kept saying, “But I’m super busy, but here are their elective times or their free times,” and so the statistics teachers loves to talk to the geometry class, helped our kids out, because they initiated it to go figure out some survey stats. Then they were very happy to help the younger, the underclassmen with their projects and give feedback on presentations and how to do it.
Towards the end of the year, we did a professional development morning, not morning, really honestly an hour, with the middle school. We have a five through eight middle school, and any of my students, our class was officially over, so we bribed them with coffee and with really good donuts, and they came. We did a Design Thinking project with the exercise with the middle school faculty, mixed our kids up, not only on the actual execution of it, but in the debrief, and so they could have the around-the-table casual conversations and then formal discussions, and I put together a couple slides how the middle school might use design thinking and some of the other tools that I’m using in my classroom, and the response was incredible. I would say some wanted to replicate what we had just created in their sixth grade math class, so I was in there doing that, helping somebody else with the marshmallow challenge. That’s a classic.
Others were already talking about history and English and were collaborating. Next year one of our units for my class is actually going to be pairing up with the seventh-graders to solve our to try and solve a real-world problem that’s particular to the Great Lakes in Buffalo, so in a year they went from, “Who’s that crazy woman in the basement? We don’t know what she does,” to “Oh my goodness, this is wonderful,” and constantly having conversations about how to engage, whether a 20-unit or just one project or a bigger piece of it. I think that’s exciting too when they can see it at all different levels.
I think a lot of people initially thought, “Well, that’s because they’re seniors. Their skill set is…” and what they’re quickly realizing is that the skills that they’re learning traditionally, will those help? It’s really oftentimes the skills that they’re learning on the state or on a basketball court that actually translate better into this class and once they realize that they can put it together in different…or not in the content.
Doris: I’ll ask you about the experience of teaching. It takes a leap of faith to go into something where you’re teaching something and you’re not the expert. You can’t be. You can’t know. It’s a real problem, it’s not yet solved. You don’t know where their path is going to take you. As somebody who’s been, if I’ve been teaching for 14 years, and I know this is the curriculum, this is what I’m going to do, I’m an expert in it, versus this, which is entirely different, what’s the experience of teaching this thing, teaching when they’re working on a real problem, they’re creating as a team? What’s the experience like, deciding what to do every day, what to do the next day?
Jeremy: I like it. I drink the same Kool-Aid as Doris. I think the big piece of it is, you know, when you ask maybe Doris, “can you give me your curriculum,” and she goes, “No,” because you can’t, because it changes always in the moment. Personally, that fits my personality. I can’t envision myself pulling out a file cabinet every year from teaching the same standard biology or what have you. I think it is challenging as a teacher in terms of like the time. It takes a lot of time to put everything together. A lot of times people might walk in and see your class and go, “You’re not really doing anything.” No, I am not. That’s right, I am not doing anything, because I already did all of that before class and set everything up in that way, and now I’m really just facilitating.
It also takes a lot of humility in the sense that I’m not in control. I’m not in control, and it’s a collaborative experience in that way. For me, that’s really refreshing as an educator to work with young people in that way. It’s so deep and meaningful. Our course, we take the use of the Hawken pieces, and we also do a lot of different stuff too. It’s really built around this idea of figuring out who am I and how I’m going to create impact, kind of personal self-discovery work and those types of pieces, and I would say I get to know kids in 5 or 10 minutes more than I know them in four years in working with them over the course of that journey. It creates just a very deep, intimate experience where after the course finishes they all come over to dinner at my house or they all want to hang out with each other in ways beyond when school’s done, because they don’t really see each other in the same way.
When the alumni are back in town, we all want to get together for Thanksgiving or things like that. It really creates almost like a cohort of young people that are going to create deep meaning and impact in the world. I think that’s really what it does.
Sarah: I don’t have 14 years of teaching experience, but I guess what I would echo that is that it levels the playing field or changes the playing field. The students that were incredibly strong writers, might be the ones who were staring at their shoes for the first 2 presentations, first 20 presentations, we found 35 presentations throughout the year, everything from weekly updates to in front of 70 people downtown in our new innovation center, which is on our medical campus. The students, we had a business luncheon where we set tables and the students had to present a few of them, and then we were collaborating with the business community or the Buffalo community to solve this problem associated with a startup, a new initiative that had to do with addressing food deserts and the lack of entrepreneurial opportunities for the most impoverished neighborhoods in Buffalo.
It is a huge challenge. I often walk around in other parts of the campus when my students are in there. I think that if any of you have ever coached, it’s similar to having a captain’s practice. You’ve talked to people, you’ve put it together, but you just have to get out of the way, and it doesn’t happen quickly, and they need to learn the pains of having spent the time chit-chatting about what was on Netflix the night before. You have to take your parenting hat way off and not try and shepherd them through the process, but it is scary. Every time you stand up there and your students are in front of an authentic audience, which is the magic hands down, the difference between what they’re doing in many of their other classes and what they’re doing in my class in their level of preparation, coordination. Just how much they care about it is absolutely their audience, and constantly changing the format of who they’re speaking to and how it’s happening.
I almost didn’t know enough to be scared initially, and definitely I sort of crossed my fingers, but I would say that learning alongside the students, if you can say, “We’re all in this together. I am not an expert. I do not have all the answers. You don’t have the answers. We’ll figure it out together,” that’s been incredible, and the group that graduated, the 12 that graduated, they I think will be friends forever, and I told them they’re my senior advisors. Like any startup, or a startup about startups, and they will forever…I want to hear back from them. I want to know about how this class and the skills from this class influenced them and helped them or if I was totally wrong. They’re not shy. They would tell me that, “I don’t think so.” I’m here 5 years, 10 years. I’m really excited to see where that goes.
Doris: We talked about how in order to really learn something deeply and apply it in different situations, you not only learn it, but you have to apply it and then reflect on it. Now, we’ve talked about the fact that the reflection piece has been really big for your students, and they’re learning it’s really hard technical content.
Mel: Yeah, I got it. You can solve a technology problem in multiple ways, and we do value that deeply, and a lot of times students are comparing, oh, we do it different. Which way is best? Tell me, Mel, which was is best? I don’t come…I come from a development…It always gives me a smile, and I love them to discuss this. They talk back and forth. It’s theirs to discover. I can say, “You know, it depends on the scenario,” but doesn’t it always? Doesn’t it always depend on the scenario? Do you need to get this done fast? If so, doing it just as fast as you can as a developer. Sure. Sometimes you need that in the room. Sometimes you need the fastest ever for this smallest program. There are so many different reasons, and that’s one thing I think the students really come away with when they do the reflections, when they talk about it, and they also reflect, not only upon what they’re learning, but they reflect on how they’re feeling every day, what’s going on in their lives, and because of that, because we care about them as human beings, not as little robots that we’re going to program and send out to do some job that they, can they really have a fit? We do. There’s this camaraderie. We’re all really invested in helping each other out. It is so powerful, because you know when they teach each other or share with each other they’re learning themselves.
Doris: They have a deadline. You’ve get something real they’ve got to create, and there’s nothing out there except what they come up with.
Mel: All is in front of the world. They put it on a repository online, and their test is from employers.
Doris: Really important.
Mel: Yeah. It’s really practicing that with each other, and it’s very real.
Doris: I’d like to hear if there any questions now that you think would be of interest to everybody.
Audience: One of the thing in really helping them as students in this experience is to struggle through adversity and fail. You learn from that, and kind of looking forward, that’s for myself as well, and so I’m wondering if you would be willing to share one of your colossal flops and what you learned from that by going through the process.
Sarah: How much time do you have? Ask me to be here.
Mel: Failure. A student’s failure, our failure, I feel that…
Jeremy: I don’t know, I mean it’s tough to implement this, right? It can’t all have worked out, so what can be different for your school, could be different in the way that you implement it, and I think it’s about letting kids know or letting whoever you’re working with know on day one I don’t have the answers to this. We are doing this together, and we’re going to figure this out together, and you’re going to make a lot of missteps along the way. Maybe you pick a problem that’s too hard for the kids to start with or maybe it’s structured in the wrong way. There’s all sorts of different things. Maybe you sequence things incorrectly. The kids aren’t afraid to tell you that didn’t work. That didn’t work. It’s like, you’re right, that didn’t work.
That’s question two, is a lot of classes I was at involved for it, they have busywork, lots of busywork. I think that’s a thing that we make a commitment to the kids, if you really think this work is busywork, you need to let us know, because we don’t have time for busywork in here. If you think it’s busywork, let’s have a discussion in terms of why we’re doing what we’re doing in that way. When you look at young people today, they want to find meaning and purpose in what they’re doing. I think that’s why there’s so much affinity for work with this, especially with kids today, is that that’s what they want. They want that much more so than a high-paying salary or anything else. They want meaning and purpose in what they’re doing, and this is that. It is doing meaningful work. I could tell you lots of ones.
Mel: I have to chime in here, because I just heard my name. We just graduated 30 of our adult programming students, and at the graduation I was trying to think, you know, what am I going to teach them? What are the violent words I’m going to say? One of the things was fail the, and they looked at that and they started laughing. I said, “Out of everyone in the world, I think programmers, especially junior developers, know failure more, and it gets shoved in their face,” because I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a computer programmer try to program before, but when you do, there is no he’s sort of got it. No, you either have it or you don’t, or you have big red ant come in your face, and everybody’s doing it.
In the beginning, some of the students would, I didn’t think we’re going to read it. They just closed it, because it scared them. I’d say, “No, no, read it. It’s trying to tell you something. It’s trying to tell you how to fix it.” Eventually they got it, eventually they got it, and I thought, you know, having them learn failure that way, but persistence. Persistence at each time. Each time you get an error, you just learn a little bit more. Each time you get it, just learn a little more. What else is it telling you? What is that trying to tell you? Put your mouse over it. It’ll tell you something. Until you get it.
Sarah: That’s great.
Mel: Yeah, I think it’s great to learn, not, you know, learn how to deal with barriers. So what? Keep going. So what? Keep going. Try again, try another way.
Doris: I as a teacher, all of my failures, and it’s where I get my headaches, and it keeps going, fall into the category of I over prepared or I under prepared. That’s kind of a simplistic way of putting it, but you have to learn. I’m always saying, “Just try it. Do one then do another then do another, but give yourself space. After you’ve tried it for the first time, give yourself space before you try it for the second time, because you’re going to want to change a lot of things that you did and do them differently.”
One of the things on the student failure side is they have a deadline and they’re going to be presenting in front of people they really care about about something real that requires a ton of learning a work to do well, and very often what they present is not high quality. It’s true. Very honest. I’m sorry, I’m very honest. What they present is just not that great, because the bell goes off and they didn’t get through all the stuff, or they were busy having team dynamic issues and talk about Netflix instead of…and so they get…but guess what happens? They get into multiple reps, so when they go through and they look back and they say, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t do my analytics very well, I didn’t do the quantitative, we didn’t do the quantitative analysis well enough, we didn’t do the writing piece of this well enough. We didn’t articulate, we didn’t do the design well enough.”
Man, we were talking about going to do more research. None of us ever did it. It was shallow. You’ve all experienced that, that you present something and afterwards you thought, there were parts of that I wish we could have done differently, done better, and then you get to do it again, which is really nice, but there are times with failures.