Tech teacher tag team is changing lives at East Cleveland high school
This feature first appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Synergy is the interaction of elements that, when combined, produce a total effect greater than the sum of the individual elements. In short, it means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In mathematical terms, 1 + 1 = 3.
Our world is filled with examples of synergism. In music, different instruments with good tone sound even better when combined in an orchestra. In sports, Karl Malone and John Stockton, both good players individually, flourished beyond all expectation as teammates. Synergy functions even in families, as individual members fulfill their responsibilities, problems are avoided, and the home functions well.
It turns out that synergistic relationships are also effective among information technology (IT) teachers. One marvelous example is what is happening right now at Shaw High School in East Cleveland, Ohio.
Shaw is a Title 1 school. The student body is 99 percent black with many of the kids living in single parent households and regularly dealing with non-school problems that would challenge any adult.
Founded in the mid-1800s, Shaw possesses some powerful assets: a talented faculty devoted to preparing students for life and careers; alumni that are fiercely loyal to the school; and a strong sense of honor and tradition — in June they celebrated their 141st commencement ceremony.
The school is also home to a world-famous marching band, “The Baddest Band in the Land,” that performed at the ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. The band trip was heavily supported by alumni, who helped with expenses.
On top of all that, Shaw has two other powerful assets: IT instructors Shanti’ Coaston and Monique Davis. These two IT aficionados are caring teachers who prioritize the success and welfare of their students. Together, they form a dynamic duo, a terrific tandem, a tenacious tag team that is making a difference in the lives of their students.
Two for the show
Coaston and Davis are co-instructors for Shaw’s IT class and, like any championship combo who know and appreciate one another’s strengths, they accomplish more together than either could do alone. Incidentally, both were recently nominated for Ohio Teacher of the Year.
“They are two hard working ladies,” said Larry Ellis, Shaw’s alternative school principal. “In a nutshell, what they do with the students is phenomenal. They grabbed the tech program and took it to another level.”
Working together has taught Coaston and Davis to read each other well. Although they only teach one period together a day, they talk on the phone numerous times and spend hours collaborating after school.
According to Davis, they have even started finishing each other’s sentences. “We’re like yin and yang,” she said, perfectly complementing each other’s teaching styles. “For example, I can’t speak well in front of others, while Coaston revels in doing it off the cuff with no script.”
Davis currently teaches students with intellectual disabilities. She grew up in the area and is a graduate of Shaw, where she ran track and field, winning honors as a High School All-American. Davis describes herself as an “extroverted introvert,” although she says no one would notice since she is so animated with her students.
She enjoys dabbling at writing poetry and short stories, as well as making wine — her specialty is Green Apple Rising. Away from school, she is also a chihuahua wrangler, chasing after her two puppies, Coder and Data.
Coaston, another Ohio girl, is a self-proclaimed homebody who enjoys peace and quiet — which is unusual since she has been officiating high school and college basketball games for the past 20 years. She did step-dancing in college and has since coached a youth team to nationals. She is also an extreme couponer. Her greatest feat, thus far, is the purchase of $100 worth of merchandise for a mere $5.
The tireless twosome followed different paths into IT instruction. Davis enjoys gadgets and tinkering and acknowledging the pervasiveness of technology in daily life — she makes it a point to integrate tech into all her classes.
“Tech is becoming the way of the world. It’s in everything from people’s basic needs to their most complex,” Davis declared. “Technology is a part of doctors’ offices and even applying for benefits and services online. You need to know something about how it works and how to use it.”
Coaston was a U.S. and world history teacher until a few years ago, when an assistant principal tapped her on the shoulder to ask if she would be interested in teaching computer science. Since she loves to learn and figured computers would be fun, Coaston immediately said yes and was soon on her way to professional development classes to hone her skills.
Clearing teaching hurdles
Computer instruction is always challenging. Doing it in a Title 1 school adds a host of additional challenges. One of their biggest obstacles that Coaston and Davis deal with is outdated machines and devices incapable of running Windows 10.
“It’s difficult to piece together computers for every student,” said Davis. “We did manage to come up with 15 computers, but since they are so old, many were unable to utilize Chrome to access the internet. Newer computers were ordered but because of COVID they were never put in place. I’m really looking forward to getting them and getting the kids to work on them.”
Working with obsolete computers not only slows down instruction, it can at times be absolutely demoralizing. For example, Shaw’s gaming team was forced to remove themselves from a state competition this year because their computers were unable to update to the newest systems and servers.
“The kids were so eager and willing to compete, but we couldn’t get Windows 10 loaded and the computers up and running,” explained Davis. “We tried everything we could think of, troubleshooting right up until the last moment. It just didn’t work.”
“It was a real struggle,” added Coaston. “Even the school’s IT guy couldn’t figure it out.”
A second major challenge that Coaston and Davis regularly face is teaching computer technology at a level appropriate for their students. “We have to teach computers at the level of our students, but it’s hard to do because many aren’t reading at their expected grade level and they struggle with words they’ve never seen before,” said Coaston.
To solve the problem, the instructors teach crucial study habits like looking up the definition of new words. Coaston said, “They come across a word they’ve never seen before and they don’t understand how to go look up the definition, so we teach them how.”
A third challenge is helping students understand the importance of tomorrow’s promise versus the real needs of their everyday lives. “A lot of students live in single parent homes and they want to get jobs to help pay the bills,” explained Davis. “It’s a tough situation, but I tell them not to give up their futures. $10 an hour seems like a lot of money right now, but you can make way more money knowing how to work with computers.”
Although Coaston and Davis are waging an uphill battle, they remain firm in their mission to have every student in East Cleveland’s schools gain valuable computer science experience and become familiar with other technologies. “Technology is just so important to know for all jobs today,” added Davis.
The pair also stay positive and constantly look for new ways to help students learn. This year, realizing the need to motivate their students, Coaston and Davis established a Computer Science Honor Society — the first in Ohio.
Membership is based solely on a student’s GPA in their computer science classes: a 3.0 qualifies. “We have kids that are rock stars in CS classes, but who struggle with the rest of their school schedules,” said Davis. “While they might not make it into an overall honor society, they get to know the joy of succeeding in CS.”
Membership in the honor society is also helping students improve their academic performance in other classes as well. On their own initiative, society members established a requirement for remaining in good standing: Once admitted, a student must maintain at least a 2.0 GPA in all their other classes.
“It was phenomenal to see the kids take control of their learning,” said Coaston. “Their idea was that if you can’t maintain a C average in all your classes, then you aren’t doing what you need to do.”
The students even encourage each other in their non-computer classes. “They get on one another all the time saying things like, ‘Hey! No goofing off.’ I’m so proud of them,” said Davis.
Building critical thinking skills
A big focus in computer classes is the constant push to develop critical thinking skills. Davis is all about computational thinking — methods of expressing problems and solutions in ways that a computer could also execute — while Coaston emphasizes developing basic problem-solving skills.
“Because we live in an industrial system where young people are told what to do, they don’t learn how to solve problems by thinking,” Coaston said.
One aspect of learning to solve problems is keeping students focused and not letting them give up on a problem. Doing so can often mean dealing with complaints about physical discomfort on the part of the student, something Coaston understands.
“When a student complains they have a headache thinking about a problem, I tell them that is just their brain working and sweating, and that they’re getting more intelligent,” she said. “Brain sweat means your intelligence is growing.”
Students do get the opportunity to utilize their developing problem-solving skills by working on the school’s help desk and doing basic fixes to school computers. They learn valuable customer service skills and gain confidence as they fill out service tickets and solve computer problems for other teachers and staff.
“It’s great when a student comes back to the room after fixing a problem for another staff member and is excited to explain how they solved the problem,” said Davis.
Shaw’s school year was going along well until March, when the COVID-19 pandemic completely upended instruction by closing down the school. Not having students in a physical classroom required some out-of-the-box thinking and a lot of hard work for Coaston and Davis.
“The pandemic really exposed the digital divide and inequity in computer science,” said Coaston. To make sure their students kept progressing and completed the year successfully, the instructors relied heavily on the relationships they had developed with the students in the classroom.
One particular problem was how to teach computer skills when so many of the students lacked access to electronic devices and the internet at home. With trademark determination, the duo put in long hours compiling lesson packets and reaching out to each of their students. “We had to get creative,” explained Coaston.
Getting creative meant relying heavily on a number of tech platforms. Coaston and Davis each established virtual office hours so students and parents could visit and ask questions as needed. They also made phone calls and sent texts to students, and held regular Zoom meetings.
Reaching out to each student personally meant a lot of long days. “We definitely put in our eight hours a day and usually more,” said Coaston. Davis agreed and said, “Much more difficult than teaching in class.”
Because many students didn’t have access to computers at home, Coaston and Davis went the cell phone route. “Since every kid has a cell phone,” explained Coaston, “we not only sent lesson packets home, but also made all of our assignments phone compatible.”
It also became quickly evident how important regular contact with students was. “Seeing a kid in the classroom, I have a lot of opportunities to build relationships by asking how they are doing, what is happening outside of school with them, and such,” said Davis. “Without them in class, it was much harder to be aware of them.”
During online and text conversations with students it became apparent that many missed being in school, if only just the social aspect of it. “A lot of conversations were about more than just academics,” explained Coaston. “Students would express their feelings about home life, jobs, the need to socialize, and the lack of internet and communication.”
To solve that problem, Coaston and Davis set up a Google form for students to complete weekly. This online check-in was more than just reporting on schoolwork, as Coaston and Davis made sure to include additional questions about things besides just how to help with home learning.
They also asked about students’ thoughts, feelings, current events, and even fun topics like what Netflix shows or movies could they recommend to their teachers. “I needed a break at times, too, and was always looking for suggestions,” laughed Coaston.
While not every student found it easy or convenient to stay in close contact, those that did had success — all 22 of Coaston’s advanced placement students completed their AP exams and are awaiting their results.
Teaching and communicating via the internet even helped some students learn to advocate for themselves. If a student complained to Coaston or Davis that they didn’t hear back from a teacher in another subject, they received a quick mini-lesson in being proactive when faced with a problem.
Believing that every moment is a teaching moment, Coaston, in her forthright manner, was quick to tell students to take ownership for their stuff and be responsible. She would explain that, because other teachers are very busy too, a student should contact them through e-mail or texts to ask questions and get clarification, and to keep doing so until they received a response.
“I would tell them that I couldn’t speak for them, that they needed to do it for themselves,” Coaston said. “And they did.”
While personally reaching out to each student was demanding on Coaston and Davis, both agree that having a relationship of trust with the students was key. “It worked because that human connection is there and the relationships were being built,” explained Coaston. “Students were able to express their thoughts without that level of judgment. And I, as the teacher, was able to understand their situations.”
One tool that proved invaluable for teaching online was TestOut courseware, especially the hands-on labs and practice questions. “TestOut is fantastic for helping kids learn,” said Davis. “They get to do actual handson work with the labs and the practice questions cover everything they need to know.”
“Some curriculum isn’t teacher- or kid-friendly,” explained Coaston. “TestOut’s is easy to follow and explains things clearly for the teacher and students.”
Coaston does hope that, in the future, TestOut designs their courseware for cell phones. “So many students access the internet through phones,” she said. “Being able to complete courses like peers who have computers would help bridge the digital divide. It would be a game changer.”
COVID-19 exposed not only the inequity gap of IT learning, but the fragility of our way of life. While no one knows for certain what changes the new school year will bring, it is obvious that any and all challenges will be met and solved by dedicated teachers like Coaston and Davis. Their students are fortunate to have them.