If only I had learned to code!

Ana-María Medina, Ph.D., is a mom, a professor at St. Edward’s University, the founder of Loving Life is Easy, and the Homeschool/Alt Ed Marketing Coordinator at Code Wizards HQ. In this guest post she explains why learning the language of coding is just as important as learning a foreign language.

As a Spanish educator for the last seventeen years, I have the value of language acquisition memorized. I have convinced hundreds of students (and parents!) that second language and immersion experiences are investments that keep giving for the long term. None of this is new. The Eaton Institute outlines the Top 10 Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language, and among the weightiest of these are that it enhances brain power and that it improves career opportunities.

Considering that our kids are going into a world in which the college investment is, for many, of questionable value, the ability to stand out is a rarity, so learning a foreign language—or many—is a must. I specifically encourage Spanish. Spanish will be the most-spoken language on Earth in 2050. Although Spanish is a romance language (unlike English), it is, according to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, one of the top 10 easiest languages to learn for English speakers. This is another plus.

That being said, I now find myself encouraging fluency in a “newer language,” one that is equally accessible to all second language learners and can’t be misunderstood because of an accent or grammar: coding.

If you had ever told me that in 2019 I, as a humanist, would promote computer languages, I would have cried, bloody lie! Can it transform your personality? Can it bring cohesiveness to our society? Can it encourage new ways of seeing the world? To my surprise, I have discovered that the answer to all of these questions is YES.

This is why I am not only encouraging students to take coding but also reaching out to parents to humanize what can seem to be a very “inhuman” subject. Not long ago, if I had seen a screenshot of children’s computer coding work like the one below, I would not have gotten a sense of community or of creating something that could carry out such an intricate, complex task. But I was wrong. The way I view it now, the world is adapting to a new language that isn’t at all familiar to me but will be a game changer for my son.

Comic created using HTML code taught during live class instruction from  Code Wizards HQ . Photo credit:  Homeschool Review Crew .

Comic created using HTML code taught during live class instruction from Code Wizards HQ. Photo credit: Homeschool Review Crew.

Experts have hailed coding education as a huge benefit to a child’s future success in the job market. It enhances the ability to process problems logically (vs. emotionally) and adds nuance to the understanding of how our world works. Most importantly, however, may be that it is the newest way to actively engage in changing the future. How is this possible? Think about how Facebook, Netflix, Google, Apps, etc. have enabled activists to organize and reach out to others on critical issues and raise awareness of everything around us. Coding, some believe, has already changed the world for the better.

States are now proposing bills that would grant coding equal standing with other “traditional” second languages in school curricula. A fiery debate has ensued about equating one with the other. It isn’t a choice between one or the other, though. Our children need both. As an educator, my teaching philosophy isn’t “My goal is to teach students words”; rather, it is that “Through my classroom, students see and experience the Hispanic World.” Not only do I teach them the language; I also help them understand Spanish-speaking cultures and everything they entail, to the best of my ability in the time given. They say that hindsight is 20/20, and in this case it is true. I now see clearly that I could have provided my students even more opportunities in new and inspiring ways by collaborating with native speakers, reaching across the globe in seconds . . . if only I had learned to code.

Ana-María Medina, Ph.D.

Math for Computer Science: Breaking down barriers to early computer science education


Eric Bennett, M.Ed., directs
Future Set Tech Camp, where creativity meets technology in project-based STEM summer camps, Saturday workshops, and after-school programs. He joins us on the blog to explain why he created a free online Math for Computer Science course for kids.

The idea that elementary-aged children will benefit from a course on a buzzy programming language is certainly appealing to well-intentioned parents: understanding the world around us increasingly means understanding technology; jobs in software engineering and information technology are both high-paying and in-demand; many children are naturally curious about technology. The problem with this idea is that writing even the most basic computer program requires an understanding of math concepts beyond the scope of a typical elementary curriculum. If students lack this math knowledge, computer science instruction will not have the intended benefit: students might be able to copy an instructor’s code but will not understand how it works or be able to produce code of their own.

Since math is used so extensively in computer science, is it possible that students will learn it through the process of writing a computer program or developing a video game? While the notion of learning math through games or in the context of a fun project is seductive, the reality is that mathematics is best learned through structured practice. Procedural fluency, as it is termed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), is a critical component to teaching mathematics, and fluency is only developed through repetition. Creative applications such as coding or game development will certainly enhance a child’s understanding but cannot replace more rigorous instruction.


For these reasons, mathematics has often been used as a prerequisite for computer science courses: students are allowed to enroll in a computer science course only after completing a particular mathematics course. While this approach ensures that students are prepared to reap the benefits of a computer science course, it also creates a barrier to entry. Thus, whether students simply lack math knowledge or it is enforced as a prerequisite, the benefits of courses in computer programming and video game development are limited for many interested students. Two solutions to this problem are clear: the first would involve selecting computer science curriculum that does not require this math knowledge; the second would be to deliver targeted mathematics instruction to interested students.

Front-end web design involves HTML and CSS, both of which are markup languages rather than programming languages. Just as a word processor can be instructed to adjust font sizes, spacing, and alignment, markup languages can be used to add structure to the words on a web page. While numbers can be used to specify sizes, dimensions, and positions within these markup languages, they cannot be expressed as variables, expressions, or equations. Thus, HTML and CSS are an excellent introduction to computer science for elementary-aged students. However, because most of these students are more interested in creating a fun game than an informative website, this solution may not be ideal.

The math concepts involved in computer programming and video game development are typically taught to older students, so this content should be presented to elementary students in a different way. Visual models and manipulatives are often used to assist struggling students and are promoted by the NCTM for their effectiveness in teaching conceptual understanding. These techniques, then, should serve elementary students well in tackling more advanced math concepts. Additionally, in computer programming, calculations are made by the computer program rather than the computer programmer. For the purposes of computer science readiness, then, tedious fraction and decimal arithmetic can be pushed aside in favor of integer operations and more abstract concepts like variables and variable expressions. For an example of a curriculum constructed according to these principles, check out Future Set Tech Camp’s Math for Computer Science, a free online course.

Rather than using mathematics as a barrier to entry, closing the door to many interested students, we can use computer science to motivate these students to learn specific, carefully presented math concepts. With so many children naturally drawn to technology and our job market’s demand for computer science skills stronger than ever, there are clear benefits in delivering computer science education to elementary-aged students. With the right mathematics and computer science curriculum, these benefits can be fully realized.

Eric Bennett

Teen Sister Circles: Where girls discover their power


Guest contributor Heather Hoover is the director of GS Teen Sister Circles Division for Global Sisterhood. Based in Austin, Texas, and serving 85 countries worldwide, Global Sisterhood provides a community platform for the feminine rising through in-person Sister Circles and online transformational resources. Heather has a background in education and social services as a teacher and director.  She has facilitated women’s circles for almost 15 years and is currently a mother to three children, ages 12, 9, and 7.

I can remember some specific moments in my life, as a young girl growing up, that made a mark on me as a person. These moments defined who I would become and shaped some deep-seated beliefs about myself. They were not all moments of joy and triumph but often darker times when I doubted myself, felt insecure, isolated, and concerned about what others thought about me. These moments deeply affected how I would relate to others as an adult.

Most adults remember our middle school and high school days as times of awkwardness due to our changing bodies and hormones that made us feel different and out of place. We can chalk it up to “just the teenage years” —we all go or “grow” through it.

But imagine if we had had a safe and intentional space to explore those feelings, or to process our problems, our insecurities, fears, and doubts. Imagine if we had had a place where we felt truly seen, heard, and accepted without judgment, and a place that could have given us the tools to build a foundation for self-confidence, communication skills, relating to others, trusting, and knowing our own inner guidance.

I imagine things would have been very different if I’d had those opportunities. It might not have been as much work to get to the place of trust in myself and others where I am today. Unfortunately, many adult women I know have never been able to shed the negative beliefs about themselves that were created early on, and they still deal with self-doubt around their own value.

I especially see this, now, as a mother of my 12-year-old daughter and two other children. I’m also seeing how very different the world is from when I grew up. In some ways, the pressures on young girls are the same, and in other ways, they are accentuated and more intense with social media.  It is imperative that girls and young people be provided the tools to navigate all of the social and emotional stresses of living in the world today.

Offering young women safe and authentic in-person connections and support is essential so that they can understand their truth, tap into what their heart truly desires, and believe they can achieve it.

This is what leads me to my current work.

Sister Circles

I work with Global Sisterhood, a consciously minded business that enables women all over the world to gather in safe and authentic spaces to remove our masks, be heard, be seen, and be supported with community and transformational themes essential to women’s empowerment. These circles have literally changed my life and the lives of many women I have witnessed over the years.

Through my own growth, my passion was born. Today, I create safe and fun spaces for teen girls to discover how to have a healthy body image, navigate social media, trust and know their inner voice, communicate their boundaries clearly, be able to resolve conflict, and grow in their abilities to be resilient leaders who know their innate worth and value.

Often, women in our adult circles have voiced, “If only I’d had a space like this when I was younger.” This is why Global Sisterhood is now creating Teen Sister Circles to support girls all over the world to feel supported, safe, seen, and heard, so they can trust themselves and fully step into their gifts and power.

I began this work when I was a teacher at the Whole Life Learning Center, where my colleague and I facilitated Teen Sister Circles. It was amazing to see the girls open up, be vulnerable, share, and recognize they were not alone in their process. It was a nourishing space filled with art, music, movement, activities, deep sharing, games, a time to make friends, a sweet and safe space just to be.

In another teen sister circle I was part of, I also witnessed tremendous self-esteem grow within the girls, and it was an honor to help guide this process. I remember one girl was very shy and afraid to express herself, but at the end of our circles, at the graduation, she read a letter to her mother on forgiveness, and by choice read it in front of all the girls and their parents. It was powerful and moved all of us to tears. It was a privilege to watch the change in this beautiful young woman and the confidence that was blossoming in her.

Research shows that by supporting women and girls we change the world, and through my work with teen girls, I believe this to be true. I believe that through Teen Sister Circles, we can greatly enhance our daughters’ lives and prevent young girls from developing negative beliefs about themselves through social pressures and our fast-paced modern culture. Our girls need a safe and sacred space to share what’s really going on inside their hearts and minds, so they can feel empowered and confident in who they are and who they are becoming. The result of participating in one of our circles will be your daughter feeling confident to be herself and stand up for her values and truths.

If you are interested in learning more about Teen Sister Circles and the topics we cover, for your daughter or gender-neutral youth, please contact me: heather@globalsisterhood.org. It is my hope that these Teen Sister Circles can offer your daughter the space, time, and opportunities for reflection that will help her know herself as the unique, special young woman that you truly know her to be.

Heather Hoover

Smart City Saturday: Teen hackathon addresses youth trafficking


Guest contributor Sarah Hernholm is the founder and president of WIT – Whatever It Takes and creator of Smart City Saturday, which hosts teen hackathons in four U.S. cities. She joins us on the blog to explain what’s in store for teens who join the upcoming January hackathon in downtown Austin.

We aren’t voiceless.
—Grace V., during her interview on NBC 7
when asked why she attended Smart City Saturday

Many of the teens who attend Smart City Saturday (SCS) arrive to the event feeling a little apprehensive, slightly unsure of what to expect, and unaware of the transformation they are about to experience. From the get-go, they are diving into the topic of the hackathon. This year, 2018–2019, SCS is focusing on youth trafficking—specifically challenges connected to education and prevention. Teens get to hear from survivors and thrivers and work directly with experts in the subject matter as well as coaches in design thinking and problem solving. They work alongside teens from different schools, backgrounds, and ages. The experience is a game changer for all involved. You can hear directly from teens who’ve experienced SCS in this video from a San Diego news report:

Upcoming Austin Hackathon

We are excited to bring the Smart City Saturday hackathon to Austin, Texas, on Saturday, January 26, from 10am to 6:30pm. The event will be hosted by Google at Google HQ downtown. Thanks to Snap Kitchen, all teens will enjoy a delicious and healthy lunch. In addition, SCS has partnered with Socrata, the City of Austin, and other organizations to make sure teens have access to data, resources, and individuals who will help them have a successful hackathon experience. 

Getting Involved

SCS is looking for 50 teens who are ready to tackle the issue of youth trafficking in Austin. Applications are being accepted online here. Once your application is received, it will be reviewed, and you will receive acceptance information within 48 hours. There are fees associated with this event, but financial aid is provided to all teens in need. Also, all teens have the chance to win up to $1,000 in prize money. 

Never Too Young

Smart City Saturday is a program put on by the nonprofit organization WIT – Whatever It Takes. WIT provides opportunities for high school teens to develop their emotional intelligence as they become entrepreneurs and community activists. It hosts the only 6-unit college-credit social entrepreneur class in the country for high school teens. You can read more about WIT at doingwit.org. The people of WIT believe you are never too young to make a big impact.

Sarah Hernholm

Learning (and loving) math through games

Math Pentathlon.jpg

Dr. Mandy Menzer is a psychologist in private practice in South Austin. In addition, she is currently the Math Pentathlon coordinator at AHB Community School. Dr. Menzer has been involved in the Math Pentathlon program as a coach, game monitor, and parent for nine years. We’re excited to welcome Dr. Menzer to the blog today as a guest contributor. If you have any questions about Math Pentathlon or participating in the AHB Math Pentathlon program (your kid does not have to be enrolled full-time at AHB), you can contact her at mandy@drmenzer.com.

Why do smart people enjoy saying that they are bad at math?
Few people would consider proudly announcing that they are bad at writing or reading.

Petra Bonfert-Taylor

It is a common refrain for adults in our society to talk about how math is boring or complicated when it comes time to divide up a check or calculate the compound interest on our mortgage, for example. Is it any surprise that kids from an early age pick up on math as something to be avoided at all costs? As parents, we struggle with how to help our kids get through the never-ending grind of multiplication tables and percentages before moving on to the mysteries of Algebra and other advanced-level math, where we really start to feel out of our league.

And yet, there is an activity that kids actually enjoy doing that integrates all different types of mathematical and quantitative reasoning. GAMES!  Virtually any game that you can think of incorporates some type of mathematical concept that kids already understand at a practical level and that a sneaky parent or educator can further build on. Monopoly? Keeping track of the money in your hand and adding and subtracting to your stash. In fact, any game involving dice (or cards, for that matter) can lead to discussions around probability, even in terms of something as simple as which properties you should buy (the answer is anything within 7 spaces of a frequent landing spot such as Go or Jail).

Have a kid who is into sports? Chances are that they know a lot of numbers and statistics around their favorite player or team, which they may be more than happy to spend time digging into. Even a “word” game like Scrabble contains a lot of math, in terms of Which letters give me the most points? and How can I stick those letters on some big multipliers?

And lest we forget, video games can also integrate math skills, such as visual-spatial reasoning, problem solving, pattern recognition, and strategic thinking. I know that nothing else in life has challenged my brain as much as some of the puzzles in the Legend of Zelda videogame series.

As a psychologist and mom to two boys, as well as a huge math dork myself, I have long believed that games can be the gateway drug to achievement in math. Certainly, kids who enjoy mathematical activities are more likely to spend time practicing it (or at least make the nightly math homework less of a battle), and there seems to be data to back this up. “A new study led by Johns Hopkins University psychologists shows Bedtime Math’s Crazy 8 club significantly reduces children’s feelings of math anxiety after eight weeks of participation in the club. The effect was more pronounced among younger kids in kindergarten through second grade club.”

So how can I get started?

  1. Figure out what kinds of games your kids are into, and play with them! Depending on the age of your kid, sneak some extra thought questions in here and there (“Hmmm, is it worth selling off a cheaper Monopoly property here to build a third house on this property over there?”) or simply play dumb (“I’m not sure if I have enough money to build all three of these things . . .”). Engage them in a conversation as to whether LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan and make them back it up with stats and data.
  2. Make everyday activities into math games. In my carpool, we routinely guess what time we will arrive at school. We have discovered that it generally takes about 11 minutes from Lady Bird Lake to get to school, so if they want to claim the “11-minute guess,” they have to do the math to figure out what time it will be 11 minutes from now. Older kids may really get incentivized by the whole concept of compound interest if you make it worth their while (“If you’ll save some of your allowance, I’ll give you 10% interest, compounded weekly.”) After all, who doesn’t like free money?
  3. Find games and activities that have math components that YOU enjoy, and model that for them. Candy Crush? Pattern recognition. Gardening or building projects require a lot of geometry and measurement. You may not need to add anything new; simply verbalize and acknowledge the mathematical elements in what you are already enjoying and let your kid see your enjoyment.

In addition, there are numerous games, apps, and activities that are specifically geared toward “math fun.” Some of my favorites include:

If you are interested in a way to get some consistent and fun math time in this school year, you can consider joining the Math Pentathlon program, which is offered by many local schools. If your school does not offer a program, feel free to join ours, which starts up September 12. We have a few slots available for kids who are in Kindergarten through 3rd grade. My family has participated 10 times with two wildly different children, and it’s always been a wonderful experience for us. Contact me, Dr. Mandy Menzer, at mmh20cornell@yahoo.com with any questions.

Dr. Mandy Menzer

What is a “wicked” problem?


Wicked Workshop is a maker-based experience that introduces youth to architecture through reality-based projects that tackle "wicked" problems such as inadequate housing and environmental health. The workshops are led by today’s guest contributor, Phyllis Henderson (Fifi), a parent of two with a 20+ year background in architecture, design, teaching, and research focused on the human experience of the built environment and nature.

What is a “wicked” problem?

A wicked problem is one that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Wickedness isn’t a degree of difficulty. Wicked issues are different because traditional processes can’t resolve them. A wicked problem has innumerable causes, is tough to describe, and doesn’t have one right answer. Environmental degradation, homelessness, and poverty are classic examples of wicked problems. They’re the opposite of hard but ordinary problems, which people can solve in a finite period by applying standard techniques. Not only do conventional processes fail to tackle wicked problems, but they also may exacerbate situations by generating undesirable consequences.

What are we doing?

We offer a K–12 maker program that introduces decision-making strategies for complex problem solving and critical thinking opportunities that are recognized as vital 21st-century skills necessary to succeed in work, life, and citizenship.  We do this through a straightforward hands-on curriculum that incrementally introduces materials and methods of construction, environmental and climate considerations, and cultures from around the globe. Students achieve global education, civic literacy, and advocacy while practicing adaptability, self-direction, collaboration, and leadership.

How do we do it?

We approach a wicked problem such as inadequate housing by first introducing a house from a particular culture. Students learn about structure, materials, construction, society, culture, environment, geography, and geometry through drawing and making. For example, for the Tatami House, we will visit Japanese culture and wood construction; for the Toltec Clay House we look at clay/mud and straw structures and Central African cultures. Students then apply their knowledge to design and construct their own iteration (or several iterations) that will ultimately be placed within a community setting and address the wicked problem.  This basic structure gives us ample opportunity to explore issues of citizenship and community while maintaining personalization and individual growth.


Why do we do it?

The positive implications and opportunities of the Wicked Workshop are far reaching for education and society. Students learn about partnerships and the value of collaboration as we directly engage community experts who are themselves working on wicked problems.  Students will present their work in a casual gallery setting for friendly constructive critique, suggestions for next steps, and how their ideas translate to real-world civic applications or possible service opportunities.

Will this be too complex for my Kindergartener or too simple for my 12th grader?

Not at all!  This program is designed to be open-ended to support learners at varying levels of maturity. We bring big ideas to a younger audience in a makerspace environment that is friendly and stress-free.  We encourage independent thinking, self-directed learning, exploration, iteration, and creativity.  We ask thinkers to make and makers to think through safe exploration where there are no wrong answers. We layer technical information in a makerspace way—through building, drawing, and talking about our ideas. For example, when we introduce inadequate housing to Kindergarteners (a wicked problem), we might talk about a fallen bird house or a fairy garden without proper water supply. For older students, we might look at the Tiny House Community (Community First! Village) in Austin and explore more complex urban density concepts.


Why such “big problems”?  My child likes crafts and making things but doesn’t want more “school” after school.

Neither do we! We are motivated toward making and tinkering. We will be making models, drawings, books, board games, cities, animal habitats, and more as we explore all aspects of the built environment.  When we find surprises in our research, we will explore them through making. “Big problems” serve as the real-world framework to guide decision-making and introduce the concept of civic responsibility and societal engagement—a role often played by the architect. We’re not planning to solve the world’s problems; however, big problems bring big ideas, and kids are capable of incredible things when given adequate time and space.  The goal of the studio workshop is to encourage each student to develop a process for making decisions (big and small) and to cultivate a level of comfort for giving and accepting criticism in an environment of self-discovery and thoughtful guidance.

Where did the idea for Wicked Workshop come from, and who’s teaching it?

My name is Phyllis Henderson, but I am called by my nickname “Fifi.” I’m a mom to two active girls, an architect, and an educator.  As a mom, I spend a lot of time looking for opportunities for my girls to build self-esteem, independence, and critical thinking skills.  As an educator with a PhD in architectural history and theory, I recognized that Design Thinking was being used outside of professional design practice to help resolve issues in multiple industries, including business and societal sectors.  Design Thinking is a non-linear, strategy-based process for problem solving that tackles issues through empathy and iterative hands-on making. It was developed by Stanford University’s “d” school for people in business, higher education, the public sector, and K–12 education as a process to create real change. As an architect, I practiced this methodology as a direct extension of my traditional university architecture school curriculum and decided to scale that learning experience for a younger audience.

Working with kids on big problems has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career, and I am energized by the ideas, dynamism, and joy that kids bring to wicked problems. I’m looking forward to another year of amazing kids who tackle wicked problems!

Phyllis Henderson