Geek and Proud!

I was just commenting on a post called “Why won’t girls code?” and as I have seen, and been angered by a lot of similar items lately I thought it was about time I posted my own opinion on the matter. I will also explain how I started on my path. So, ready for the mammoth post…?

I may have mainly posted about the good old paper based Filofax so far on my website, but I am a technology geek, my love of computers started way back when I was in primary school, I must have been 9 or 10, and has continued throughout my life so far.

I first used a computer when I was in Mr Palmer’s class in year 6 as I had hurt my hand or something so couldn’t use my pen, we had an Acorn or possibly Apple computer in the classroom so I got to actually make use of it. Then my uncle, who I hadn’t seen much, came over from France for a while to see his mum and my mum (his sister). He built us a computer and I watched him sorting it out for us, adding the software and he showed me how to use it. I took far more interest in it than anyone else, including my brother. Mum sent both of us to a computer club that was at the local secondary school 1 evening a week so we would learn more about computers and wouldn’t break it. I remember using LOGO and making the turtle move around the screen, I loved it, my brother was not so enthusiastic.

When I went up to secondary school, we had actual IT lessons once a week, in the school I had been attending computer club at (although the computer club tutor was not a teacher at the school – it was a just community club run at the school). The system back then was basic, it was some flavour or RM if I recall correctly. At the end of my first year of secondary school we had a test in every subject. I did OK at most subjects (not brilliantly, but I got by) but I did really well in IT – I was top of the year! I have never been top at anything so this was amazing news to me.

I remember the new History teacher starting and he was not very familiar with computers and was struggling to work out how to save some work on them, he asked out loud what drive we have to save stuff to – no one said anything, well no one apart from me, absently mindedly informing him it was the “N” drive and carried on with what I was doing.

A while after I bought my own first computer, it was second had but for £30 I wasn’t going to argue. It had Windows 3.11 on it and was very big and heavy, the screen was the worst thing, but it worked.

I had also somehow acquired a really old dinosaur of a computer from my next door neighbour. It used 5 1/2 inch floppy disks and made some very loud noises when it booted up. But it had Gorilla and Nibbles on it, something I hadn’t played on since the computer my uncle had built.You had to use MS DOS so needed to know what to type in to get to what you wanted to run.

I built my first computer when I was 14, my dad and I had gone to a computer fair – at a local sports centre they held them there every so often and there was basically a sports hall full of tables of computer bits and pieces, mostly brand new things but some second hand items were available, it was like a market stall but with computers instead of fruit and vegetables. I loved wandering all around before deciding what I wanted. We cam home from the computer fair and he helped me carry all the kit up to my bedroom as that’s where my new computer would be, he then went downstairs saying “I’m going to get a cup of tea, I will be back in a bit to help you put it together”, half an hour later I was bored with waiting so I started on my own thinking he’d just come and help me in a bit. By the time he came up (probably about 45 minutes after he’d gone to get his tea in the first place) I was just about to put the Windows disc in and load the operating system onto the hard drive. His response was “Oh”, he had no idea what I was about to do so he decided I didn’t need him and went away.

When it was time to take my GCSEs there was no option to take IT or computing or anything that resembled that type of GCSE. We did however get to do some work that would get us a basic certificate to show that we could use certain software applications with some degree of competence. I did the word processing and spreadsheet one but was then told that I wasn’t allowed to move on to any more applications as I wasn’t good enough. This really annoyed me and I will never forget that day. I never could work out why though, I certainly wasn’t thick – I got 4 B’s, 4 C’s and an E in my GCSEs (the E  was in Religious Studies – I’d refused to do my coursework or exam properly as I was annoyed at how they called it Religious Studies yet we only studied one religion. I did 2 sides of A4 paper for my coursework, one side for each piece. Then spent an entire 15 minutes in the exam answering the questions – but referring constantly to Paganism the entire time just to “prove my point” and obtain a “U” but somehow still managed to get an “E”, made me even more annoyed!!!).

Anyway, I digress, I went on to do my A levels in the sixth form of the school but was not happy with my choices. I opted for Art, History and Psychology – 3 great subjects but were far too full of writing and I was really struggling with the written aspect of all 3 – yes even in Art! Although in Art I was also forced to do “fine art” and make things look “proper” rather than surreal or 3D models like I wanted to do. It was during this A level year I first got the internet at home. I had lots of fun learning my way around cyberspace, spent a bit of time in chat rooms and researching lots of different things. There was so much to do online, although it was exceedingly slow – we had dial up. By the February of my A level year and unrelated to the fact I had Internet, I dropped Art, then History and at the end of the 1st year when we had exams (now they would be the AS level real exams but they weren’t around then) I got joint bottom in the Psychology exam – 19% and I decided to leave school and go to college to do an Advanced GNVQ in IT instead. Why? Well one of my male friends joked at me “Why don’t you come with me to college in September?” I asked him what to study, he replied “computing?”. I had no other plans so I filled in an application, attended an interview and started in the September on the Advanced GNVQ IT course – my friend was only doing the Intermediate one so I didn’t really see him after that!

I had some fantastic tutors at college and if it hadn’t been for them I would not be where I am today. I didn’t understand what University was when I was in sixth form – it was like I’d walked in one day and everyone was talking about UCAS forms, I didn’t have a clue what one of them was let alone why I’d want to fill in one. I felt like I’d missed some talk or assembly or something. When the topic came up at college, we had a talk, it actually made sense and I even realised I was going to apply to go to University! But that was after I’d been through most of my first year, after I’d done the basics on the course around the same time as I choose my specialist path way for my GNVQ.

I opted to do the programming side as learning how to code sounded much more fun than how to use software in a business setting! I loved it! We taught ourselves VB as our tutor was off due to his dad dying but when he came back we learnt C++, which I understood but was not a massive fan of and Assembly – which I’d done so well in I was the first person in the class to get my program running correctly and make the Z80 board flash it’s lights as for a traffic light sequence, beating the likes of the lads that we C++ wizards – I was so proud! Whilst all this was going on I had decided to teach myself how to make websites using HTML, which led to 2 of my classmates also learning it and we set up our own websites and would see who could make theirs the best.

Strangely enough I had decided I wanted to go into Radio, I had done my work experience on what was at the time “Essex FM” and then managed to win a week co-presenting one of the shows by taking part in the road show they put on at the Southend air show that year. It was fairly obvious I was a natural – it has often been said that I have the voice for radio, I then joke back – and also the face! I applied to do Media Technology at University – it had elements of IT in but was also geared to the technical side of the media – using all the equipment, more hands on than media studies.

I had to take a basic HTML module in the first year and I knew way more than the professor who was unfortunate enough to have pulled the short straw to have to take us for it. The rest of my classmates realised this and came to ask me for help and ideas. It is never fun handing in your coursework and only getting a “D” for it. I’d received the “D” as the tutor had seen the JavaScript code in the middle of the source code and had marked me down as he thought I had cheated and used a program such as Dreamweaver to make it – furious partly because I had hand coded it ALL in Notepad and partly because HE clearly had no idea what he was looking at I pulled him up on it. I showed him that the code he was referring to was in fact the JavaScript that made the animated GIF work at the top of the page – one of the things we were supposed to add for the higher marks! He umm’d and aaahh’d and said OK fine, I will let you have a “C” for it then. Massively unimpressed. Luckily we only had to pass the first year – it didn’t count towards our final grade, but from my point of view I was put off trying to be any good at my work because they didn’t want to see that, they wanted you to regurgitate and deliver exactly what they expected.

It also didn’t help that by December we’d been given our first written assignment, although I understood the topic and could answer it, I couldn’t seem to get it out on paper and make any sense. I took myself off to the support department and asked for some help with essay writing – after all this was where I’d failed during my A levels, couldn’t fail now with this so it was time for help. So after telling the really kind and supportive lady what I needed help with, she asked me if I was Dyslexic, I said no, so she asked me again what I was struggling with, I repeated my issues and she booked me in for a Dyslexia assessment. Turns out I am Dyslexic. Suddenly things made sense, why I’d struggled with essays and writing all through school, why my reading aloud was (unknown to me) ssketchy and I followed it with my finger so I didn’t loose myself amongst the word jumble. I never knew this wasn’t a normal thing to do! I had some how made it to the end of my first term at University without having any support or guidance, I had just developed “coping” strategies. No wonder it took me so long to do my homework, why I got so annoyed with my maths work as I’d read the question wrong and it made no sense, on reading it out loud to my dad it suddenly did make sense so I’d run back up stairs – suddenly no longer crying or screaming about it and finished it up. I had always just persevered and some how managed to get through.

I got some initial help, extra time in coursework/exams, later on a tutor and computer with software that would help make it easier for me to get my thoughts onto the page and was doing much better, not great, I still spent ages doing my work – especially compared to my flatmates who were able to stay up later doing anything but working and then put together their coursework in hours and get a good grade. I also had a hard time focussing, not because I was not trying to but because it just didn’t happen even though I tried and tried, I just got more and more frustrated.

I had started to help out with a local Scout group, two new Beaver Scouts joined, one was Autistic and had ADHD tendencies and the other was just “regular”. Except that after a while he was more of a handful than the Autistic Beaver. Knowing uni had a great support department I went to look for advice to help us with the Autism and ADHD as it was not something I had come across before and the other leaders, although very supportive and caring, could only do so much. I was stood there reading the giant poster on the wall about ADHD, as I went down the symptoms it was like I was reading a description of myself. I read it over several times, making sure I was actually reading it correctly, I was. I took the handouts I collected about ADHD and Autism to show the other leaders the next day at Scouts and  immediately handed it to the Beaver leader. She started reading it and every so often looked up at me then continued reading. When she finished reading she handed it back to me and looking me straight in the eye said “well that certainly explains a few things”.  Several months later I finally had the official diagnoses of ADHD, several symptoms of which had been noted in my Dyslexia assessment although nothing more had been said or done about it until I set the ball rolling towards the end of my undergraduate course.

When I got my first prescription of ADHD medication I told my house mates but I wasn’t sure about taking them. They were a controlled substance and they could potentially put me on a more “normal” level, although until I started taking them no one could say for sure what I would be like. The bottle was sat there for a few days and I eventually decided to take them, I didn’t tell my house mates that I had taken them either as I felt a bit weird about it all. A few days in to the tablets one of my house mates suddenly said “You’ve started taking your tablets haven’t you? I can’t believe how much different you are!” I was puzzled, I hadn’t thought about them after I’d started taking them but she went on to explain that I wasn’t in such a whirlwind and was a lot quieter than “normal”. Others had also started noticing as well. I was finding things easier, it took a while but just as the tablets were properly in my system they suddenly stopped working, so my dosage had to be increased. This happened again and the doctor decided to switch from the slow release ones to the regular ones. They however made me hallucinate so I had to be switched to another completely different tablet entirely, they worked and I am still on them today. During all this medication switching, I had completed my BSc with honours and had started my MSc IT course.

Not only was I finally able to concentrate on my work, I was also able to discuss the work and argue the different cases and draw my own conclusion, I was allowed to do this finally. MSc work wants you to do more than just regurgitate what you have learn, it wants you to push the boundaries and explore ideas and question things. During my BSc I had got an average mark of 55% it was a good 2:2 but not good enough to get a 2:1. In my Computer Ethics module – which was very heavy in reading articles about Kant’s theories or Aristotle and the philosophy of virtue ethics, which I had to keep up with reading and writing short papers on each week ready to be discussed in class (having looked up every other work in some cases) – I came out with 74% (a 1st) from the combination of my weekly work and my final piece of coursework. I was over the moon! I had finally found something that I was good at rather than just being OK at.

After my MSc year, I went to study my PGCE in Secondary ICT. A very gruelling year with some of the worst people to have to work with and learn from I have unfortunately had to come across in my life up until that point. With the help of my second placement school, who were very supportive, I was able to get through the year and secure my first teaching job. I spent three years constantly trying to fit in, I never felt like I was what was wanted and yet the students always thanked me for what I had taught them, sometimes I’d ask them to open a program and they’d complain like mad, I asked them what was wrong with the program and they replied “we had to use it last year but I can’t use it” they didn’t understand how to use it and were made to feel stupid previously for not “getting it”. I managed to fix this and they gradually realised why I said it was one of my favourite programs, some of them even started to like it. Most of the teaching I did during these 3 years was how to use MS Office, the topics we’d use alongside them were equally dull so I would end up changing them around as much as I could get away with so they were at least sort of interesting. My final year at this school enabled me to change the schemes of work for year 7, I was finally able to do something productive. These changes were really necessary, but as usual there was still some things I could really change, which was incredibly frustrating. There was so much scope but no one wanted to really make the changes. Sure I could make all the changes I wanted but would the changes be adopted, no. The reason for this was because it was out of their comfort zone, I don’t mean the students comfort zone either, I mean the teachers. I luckily had to teach about half of the year 7 year group that year so they all got the lessons I had planned, with all the changes. Sure there were things that didn’t work as hoped but they were worked through and the students learnt and progressed better than even they expected.

I had taken voluntary redundancy so at the end of the school year last year I was out of a job. I have never been so fed up of free time in all my life. The job centre didn’t even have the right options to put my degrees into their system, they were above what they use I guess. I was so grateful that in January, by shear luck I got myself a job in a school, mainly teaching Key Stage 4 but I also had some KS3 and KS5 for good measure. I had been questioning if I was in the right profession, I had a really horrendous time over the past few years in places there were a few brilliant things, like being nominated for a Teaching Award, but other times I would really rather forget. Even though as soon as I started in this new job I got laryngitis and had no voice for most of the first half term I was there more than anyone else. I regularly stayed until 6pm and have clocked out at 7pm on various occasions and only then because the site team wanted to lock the building up. I stayed there working with year 11 to get their coursework completed and to mark it. If it had not been for me there would have been a lot of unhappy people as far as their ICT coursework was concerned.

I had a great bunch of students and they worked with me to get themselves sorted despite the issues before I arrived. I had students that had taken their Functional skills exams 3 times already and failed, they had no belief that they could ever pass their exam, they were unmotivated and lacked self confidence in their ICT Skills. I worked out their raw knowledge of the software they had to used and realised very quickly why these girls had not yet passed. I started off gently, encouraging them with positive comments and showing them I believed in them. There was 4 weeks until they could next take the exam, I would have only seen them twice in this time so I arranged with the necessary people to have them during my free time for extra lessons. By the time they had their last lesson with me prior to the exam they were confident and I was excited for them. They had even gone to their next lesson and were talking about it then and I received an email telling me how positive they were about passing the exam the next day. I was so pleased when several weeks after their exam their results came through – they had all passed! I was so proud of them.

Even students I didn’t know said hello to me as I walked past, it was a really good environment for the students but also for me. I realised, even though I was working twice as hard as I was being paid for, I was happy, properly happy, for the first time in several years.

As I started at the school Gove had just made his announcement about the ICT curriculum being open to change from September 2012. It was something that was discussed as I went on my tour of the school on my “interview” and although a lot of things that have come out of his mouth in my opinion are rubbish and need to be stuffed back in his mouth, the encouraging schools to move away from the current ICT curriculum is a damn good thing. The time scale is off tremendously as there are lots of teachers who aren’t programmers or what have you, so to implement such changes even just from the teaching it point of view and ignoring the fact that new schemes or work need to be developed (which take time) it was never going to happen this year. Some schools might be in the position to change sections but I would imagine for the vast majority it will be a work in progress over the next few years.

I am waiting for my own Raspberry Pi to be shipped, this computer, which is aimed at being available for children to buy (at around £30 to buy) and learn programming on (software is preloaded with the operating  system so that you can start to program “straight out of the box”. It has Scratch, which some schools already teach using their regular computers and there is Python already installed (and it’s where the “Pi” in Raspberry Pi comes from) so you can learn and create programs using Python. Python is a simple language to learn and even some primary schools are teaching it! I am looking forward to my RPi arriving, they are something that will help students learn about programming – as long as the lessons are set up to make them interesting and not misleading. This sort of learning will encourage students to think in different ways about the world around them rather than just expecting answers to be given to them they should start to search out answers for things they haven’t had the questions for yet. As long as the exam boards then take this shift on board as well IT will be moving forward in a great direction. However the exam boards must work pre-emptively and make sure what they are setting is correct and allows for answers to be correct when the answer is correct not wrong because the exam paper has it wrong or different. There is no point teaching about old technology just for them to pass an exam, in the real world people working with computers need to be able to do a task on a computer they are not familiar with and do the task as well as if it was the computer they have been using for years. They need transferable skills, instead of this is step by step how to complete this particular task but this is what you need to come out with, how can we get there. Students learn more effectively by doing, by trial and error and by “playing” when it comes to technology – it is how they learnt to use their mobile phone, social networking sites and their games console so why not allow them to learn in that way in school? It can still be guided, you can have peer experts and develop their team work all at the same time. What we shouldn’t be doing is trying to persuade students it is anything but challenging, they need to see it for what it is and learn it anyway. They will also learn some valuable life skills on the way, working through problems rather than running away, actual problem solving and they will be developing their ability to learn independently rather than wanting to be spoon fed.

I am passionate about IT and programming, if you have read any of my other posts you will see that I also love paper and stationery. Just because I am a computer geek does not mean I don’t love paper or use paper based  methods to do some things. One of the only sensible things to come out of my PGCE tutors mouth about ICT was about knowing when it is more efficient to complete a task on the computer rather than on paper. That is something else we do not seem to encourage students to think about, they need to be prepared for life and part of that is being able to decide for them self which way is more efficient, given that they know they could do the task more than one way, perhaps one situation would demand a particular way but another situation would be better done in an entirely different way.

Seeing as the word count on this post is at 4660 at present (well so says the WordPress counter under this paragraph) and ever increasing with my typing, I will leave my thoughts there for now and retire to bed as once again it is 4am and I am still awake – which should perhaps explain any mega dodgy sentences. 😉

If you have any thoughts on the subject feel free to comment below.

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2 Thoughts to “Geek and Proud!”

  1. Any thoughts? Hundreds of them! Like how I first used a computer at school in 1980 (it was an RM 380Z, as I suspect yours was.) Like how I regularly worked through the night learning BASIC and then Z80 machine code on my ZX81 and how writing and selling ZX81 and the Spectrum programmes gave me an unusually high income in my early teens (£550 in one week was a lot of money in 1984!)

    My Pi arrived last week and it’s not set up yet. I have kids who are exactly the right age to get the most from it, though, and all they seem to be learning at school from IT is how to make PowerPoint slides. My eldest starts GCSE electronics in September, so I’m hoping I can engender an interest in coding at the same time. Gove’s an idiot in most instances, but either inspired or just well-advised in this one.

    Thanks for such a personal and evocative post. It’s unearthed all sorts of memories for me.

    1. SazD

      Wow was really excited to see someone had commented on my post, especially with such an enthusiastic response! Thank you 🙂

      The first computer I used was a little later than 1980 – I wasn’t even born then! It was in 1992 or there abouts.
      Love it that you were earning so much when you were a teenager! Could do with earning some of that right now.

      Don’t get me started on PowerPoint – it really winds me up what students are taught to do in it. Particularly with transitions and “animations” – who wants their text following a scribble around?!?

      I am sure with some guidance from you your kids will find plenty to play with and learn from the Raspberry Pi. You will have to let me know what they get up to!

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