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Teaching Enthusiastic Creation to the Next Generation

Using widely-available tech tools to get middle school students excited to learn


Image of businessman compiling macro white puzzle. Building businessShawn Patrick Higgins combines his enthusiasm for computer science with the creative arts to help his students learn and thrive as the Computer Science and Technology Teacher at Parkrose Middle School in Portland, Oregon. Even though computer science has established itself fairly well at the high-school level, middle school has not caught up to the level of secondary education. Shawn is determined to get middle school kids passionate about computer science through game making and coding.

Shawn focuses on using audio with his teaching. Many of his students are Title 1 and may not have the computer skills that other kids have from dealing with technology and computers in their everyday life like other more fortunate kids when coming into Shawn’s program. Shawn creates audio projects using collaborative Soundtrap software and uses tracks extracted from existing pop culture videos, making the projects relevant and exciting for his students. By removing the visual layer from the videos he uncomplicates the task, helping younger kids with little or no experience understand and jump into production with both feet.

By using cloud-based services, Shawn’s kids can access their projects from anywhere, including home, which boosts their enthusiasm level. Shawn’s energy is infectious, as demonstrated in the video and it comes through clearly in his interactions with his students.

Interview Transcript

Dr. Berger:   Shawn, it’s nice to spend some time with you. You are in a much more comfortable environment than I am today. I’m jealous!

Shawn Patrick Higgins:  I didn’t realize we’d have a video component to this, so don’t mind the unmade bed and the laundry on the floor.

DB:  It just means you’re busy working hard. I like that.

SPH:  Yes. I got home a second ago, and I was running a little late so I didn’t have time to properly clean up as much as I should but ─

DB:  No! Look, you’re in education. There’s a lot going on. And I wanted to talk to you… I read a piece in EdScoop and the title was How a Cloud-Based Music App Adds New Energy to Computer Science Instruction.

I think of computer science back when I was in school ─ I’m 40 now; I’ve passed that threshold ─ but it was very different back then than what it is now.

Catch up the audience to computer science in teaching children. How has technology impacted your ability to add excitement with students when leading them in that fashion?

SPH:  I think one of the main things if I’m talking to someone and introducing myself especially when I talk “I’m a middle school teacher” and they go, “Oh, what are you doing?” ─

“Computer Science.”

“What would that look like?”

I also say, “Creative technology,” and I combine those two aspects although from state to state and from district to district, there isn’t a unified vision of what that looks like.  There’s CSTA ─ Computer Science Teacher Association and IFDE and their standards, but those standards are all over the place.

A big thing that is happening all over the country; and all over the world – there are a few select countries that are beating the United States out.

Surprisingly, Vietnam has one of the most comprehensive K-8 introduction to computer platforms. They do a lot of offline stuff which was kind of bizarre especially compared to the United States and where we should be at.

There have been a lot of changes, so there’s a kind of the original technology class. It’s typing and at this point, it’s in the Office Suites.

But what that has evolved to on a middle school level looks very different. Computer science is starting to thrive and doing well at the high school level. There are a lot of focused efforts to expand. They just introduced a different AP exam that incorporates Scratch and some of the intros to coding languages where they focus on concepts, instead of a specific language and syntax.

But at the middle school level and the elementary K-8 level, computer science is all over the place.

What we’re trying to do is get students passionate about using technology in creative ways, and it becomes game-making. There are partnerships with Minecraft and things like that.

Microsoft has had a big push as they picked up Minecraft two years ago. Code.org is also up in Seattle on the West Coast has been super huge and influential in building this entire idea and structure of what computer science looks like K-8 and in high school as well.

That’s a general update.

DB: I appreciate the update. I’m glad to know other people are like me in wondering exactly how computer science has evolved from a curriculum and how you interface with students in that way.

Tell me about the audio component because I know that that was one of the things that you discussed in the article. Tell me about the power of audio and technology in the way you have been looking to integrate it into the work you’re doing with your students.

SPH:   Right! I think there are two different ways I focus on incorporating audio. One is with my students. I focus with students and I’ve been teaching in a school that’s over ninety percent Title 1. Many students don’t have a lot of access to technology at the middle school level and some students haven’t had hardly anything in elementary.

It’s trying to get them passionate about interfacing and making basic skills ─ all the workflow, how to save things even using a mouse in sixth grade. Some kids aren’t super comfortable saving a file, deleting a file, and things like that.

So, how to get students passionate is to get them involved. And that often is, if you talk about “Hey, we’re going to create a podcast and edit some audio” in the abstract – it doesn’t necessarily catch the kids. They’re like, “What do you mean?”

Most students have phones that are capable of recording mp3. So they can record on their phone and get that sense of email but even that is building very basic level skills; and on a sixth-grade level, that can work well.

But if you talk about “Okay, if Drake and Rihanna want to talk about their feelings for each other, what we can do is we can find conversations that they’re having and we’re going to chop them off and make them talk to each other. How about that?”

And kids will go, “Oh, yeah!”

Or Drake and Chris Brown need to fight. If you try to create, try to focus on social media and pop culture and use that then audio is just manifesting something that they’re interested in and creating a story with. We get that currency and that buy-in until they’re like “Alright, we’re interested in this project” and go from there.

Before, as we mentioned a little bit at the start, my background was actually in photo and video; my degree is in video before I came to teach. I’ve been here six years now; and the year before, I taught after-school photo and video classes with Portland Community Media, which is our local public access.

Almost all my audio projects are what used to be my video projects but we’ve taken out the visual layer, so it’s a lot easier for younger students and students who haven’t had a lot of experience. Jumping into Premiere Pro or something like that is kind of high level and pretty intimidating.

You try to strip out different pieces as technology. It’s been evolving to this kind of cloud base where students can access it from home or they can access it in the classroom, they can keep working on the same projects.

My classroom is where I have found the most success in that the students can keep going.

I used to have an entire Adobe CSx six years ago and I got some licenses. But the kids couldn’t use it at home.

Ultimately, I had to give that up in favor of the more cloud-based stuff and that was for the visual stuff; there’s Pixlr. And just last year was the first time I got to use Soundtrap.

I tried to use Audacity and some of the free stuff but they can’t access it from home. The easier you make it, the better. Make it cool and you make it easy. And that’s how you get kids interested in the beginning.

If it’s not either of those, you’ll lose kids on both sides.

DB:  Even the adults  – you’ll lose.

SPH:  There’s that, too. I get so involved and I’ve been doing it for a while, especially in Scratch which is the intro to programming language out of MIT. Scratch and LEGO Mindstorms both came from the same place. There is this whole idea of visual block-based coding as an introduction for students.

I think those are the two big ones. There are a lot of startups and a lot of newer things the last two or three years, but I think the old dogs in Intro to Coding are Scratch and Mindstorms.

Also, in Scratch, there’s an audio tab, too. That’s kind of how I focus my class ─

You asked about this earlier. In Scratch, there are three tabs. Sprites which is visual; Sounds and you can import your Sounds tab, and then there’s the coding tab.

All the focus and I think rightfully so, has been on the coding ─ getting kids involved in coding. But in Scratch, there’s not just the coding tab; there are the other two. There’s the visual tab, the arts tab, and the audio tab.

How I sell what I do is “Okay, we’re going to build up this pyramid and Scratch is at the top. But underneath it, we need to think about game making; we need to think about logic; we need to think about our visuals, our posters, our visual design; and we need to think about our audio.

So those are the three building blocks, that’s how I visualize it.

DB:  Shawn, let’s go into this. The folks who are listening to our interview, I’m sure that they can feel the energy that you have. Here’s what I think is interesting and exciting.

When we find professionals and, more importantly, people who are passionate about working in education ─ and if you go down the rabbit hole with me…I think we do not do a very good job in education of marketing all the fun, interesting, innovative things that you can do (depending upon your talent or the areas that you enjoy to pursue) that are challenging to you.

We see that in other industries. But we don’t often see it in education. The energy that you convey with what you’re able to do with students and that it changes all the time ─ where does that come from? Do you get the same sense that I’m getting or is it just that I’m experiencing you as your students do –  which I would imagine they must adore you because you integrate things that are pop culture, things that they will experience when they get out that make it creative, challenging and fun?

SPH:  Yes. I’m in a unique position. I’ve been in this for six years. For the first three years, I think I was the only middle school computer science teacher in Portland Public Schools District. I think that there are two others that have that title now.

So I’m in a rare position because of this focus. And then, I’m in an even rarer position because we’re a very small charter school. I teach all the kids.

Computer science as opposed to being this elective which is a very different class mindset ─ if it’s elective, it’s just the kids who are down that are like, “Yes, let’s do this; let’s focus on this.”

I’ve got everybody. So I think the focus and the passion are “I’ve got to make it interesting. I’ve got to be able to go where they’re going, ” or I will lose kids entirely.

You need to be passionate about it. A lot of the kids were not primed to be interested in technology. I mentor all the girls in the class; we have about a hundred students this year and I teach everybody every day. So that’s a unique position to be in on that kind of computer science coding model.

Being excited about is a product that I’m setting for the kids, if I can get excited about, we can kind keep that string around. When I’ve tried a couple of things that I didn’t know well and I wasn’t excited about, they fell totally flat.

DB: I think it’s wonderful. To your point there at the end, the fear of failure is something that I think we’re starting to embrace. It’s okay whether it’s at the building level, the district level, the teacher level, the student level, or the parent level.

I think that little small bit at the end is key to the whole thing to stay engaged.

It’s been so nice to catch up with you, Shawn. Continued success!

The kids in your school are very lucky to have you and I can imagine what my career would have been like if I had computer science in your classroom.

SPH:  You would have probably got into podcast ─

DB:  [laughs] Thanks, Shawn.

SPH:  Absolutely! Thank you.


About Shawn Patrick Higgins:

Shawn Patrick Higgins has many years of experience teaching youth about video and creative technology, with more than 5 years experience teaching middle school computer science and managing educational technology. He specializes in project-based, collaborative learning in new media and fostering STEAM learning environments as a creative alternative pathway to student success.

Shawn is currently the Coordinator of Digital Literacy at Self Enhancement Inc, one of the oldest education and equity non-profits in Oregon. Self Enhancement is a charter school, after-school program and wrap-around family services organization focused on supporting high-needs youth of color in the Portland area.

Follow Sean Higgins on Twitter.

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post

Author Further Reading

This post includes mentions of a partner of MindRocket Media Group the parent company of edCircuit

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