Reforming the American criminal justice system, one case at a time

Batman is going to jail for life, without the possibility of parole. It likely wasn’t the sentence he deserved, but it was the one we as a class needed right now.

We were in Day 2 of our seventh grade criminal justice unit, and Batman had just been found guilty of first-degree murder. Our students had served as witnesses, judge and jury as Mr. Murphy and I belligerently argued our sides. This lighthearted case followed our first day kickoff, walking through the eye-opening real-world case of Reynolds Wintersmith Jr., a first-time offender who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for selling crack cocaine to support his parentless siblings.

The learning objectives of this unit were relatively straightforward – students would learn how the American criminal justice system works, how it frequently fails stakeholders from suspects to taxpayers, and how there are not a lot of easy fixes to the many issues plaguing it. To invest students in such a complicated set of issues, we broke them into teams of four and had them create their own personalized criminal justice systems. Each team spent a class period debating topics such as mandatory minimum sentences, marijuana laws, stop and frisk policies, civil forfeiture, juvenile detention and treatment of felons post-release – many of the most controversial topics associated with criminal justice reform.

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The interactive storytelling platform used to capture the students’ criminal justice systems and process each day’s real-world-inspired case.

Once they reached consensus on an issue, they locked in their choice. For example, for three strikes laws, they might choose to follow states like Washington, requiring at least one offense to be a serious and violent felony for the law to come into effect. They might increase the severity of the law to apply after just two felonies, even if neither is violent. Or they might trust judges to determine sentences in all cases, removing a mathematical formula from the process entirely. Mr. Murphy and I were careful to present both sides of each issue so as to minimize bias in their decisions, regardless of our personal stances on topics like solitary confinement and police militarization.

With custom criminal justice systems ready to roll, the rest of the unit consisted of students processing real-world-inspired cases. This was built on Twine, a digital interactive fiction platform – essentially a computer-based Choose Your Own Adventure book that I could code cases into. The cases unfolded based on all previous decisions a team had made. For instance, when running through the case of Cristian Fernandez, a 12-year-old charged with murdering his brother, some teams tried Cristian as a juvenile while others sent him to adult court. When considering the case of Davon Crawford, a repeat violent offender who ended his own life after killing his family, some teams were able to avoid tragedy based on their three-strikes decisions – though many teams had already softened their law after processing the case of Anthony Jerome Jackson, a three-time nonviolent offender sentenced to life in prison for taking a wallet from a hotel room. There were some cases we ran through together as a class to elicit large group debates – getting trapped in the poverty cycle of suspended licenses and lost jobs in a system that graciously doesn’t use jail time to punish unpaid fines and fees, or determining if and when it’s morally acceptable to seize and sell suspected criminals’ cars and houses when your police department really wants to buy a new tank.

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The logic flow for one of the cases shown in Twine.

As students worked through the each case, they were prompted to justify their decisions and suggest changes to their own systems in short-form essays. As each case concluded, they read through the true story of each case so they could understand how their criminal justice systems handled things differently. They were also given the opportunity to change the relevant portions of their systems – changes that would ripple across all future cases. It was remarkable to hear students discussing some very mature topics and to see how personally injusticed they felt as they took on the roles of suspects denied proper counsel, families with children killed by SWAT teams and police officers forced to make quick decisions without the equipment they needed to stay safe.

This unit leveraged the computational thinking skills of algorithmic thinking and decomposition. We presented the criminal justice system at a high level as an algorithmic system used to process cases from arrest through sentencing and release – the steps differed depending on the circumstances of the case, but there was always a definitive outcome for the suspect. The American criminal justice system as a whole was decomposed into twelve key issues that students had to decide on in order to build up their own system. There are many more issues we could have had students consider, but it was great to see the wide array of opinions on those we focused on in this first iteration.

Batman is still in prison today, awaiting the results of his second appeal. Even after three weeks of diving deep into the failures of the system that landed him behind bars, no one seemed to think his brand of justice was preferable.

Charging cell phones with the power of the sun

When first asked to lead a hands-on project around renewable energy, the sheer volume of possibilities seemed intimidating. Energy source aside, I wanted something that would motivate our seventh graders to persevere through the inevitable challenges of their first week-long design project. What is it that a group of young adults with fairly reliable access to light and heat care most about powering? Their cell phones, of course.

Having identified the target device to power, there were still a multitude of renewable energy sources to choose between. Should we wire together a hundred pounds of potatoes? Build a hand crank generator using a DC motor or a magnet? Dive deep and build a Seebeck generator or a wind turbine?

In the end, I went with what I know – solar energy. Through two volunteer projects to install solar energy at orphanages in Africa, I’ve learned the basics of solar power and why it is incredibly important for the future of our planet. However, I also knew we didn’t need a (pricey) panel and inverter just to charge a low-end Android phone.

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My Earthquake Brings All the Kids to the Desk

In addition to our faux earthquake apocalypse, our sixth grade earthquake unit included a hands-on design project that put our students in the role of structural engineer. At her previous schools, Ms. Worthington has had students create structures out of straws, Popsicle sticks, paper and tape that were then subjected to her very scientific shaking of the desks. Here at Excel, we knew it was time to step up her game.

Without knowing how to do it or even really what I meant, I committed to creating an earthquake simulation table. Something more fair – it would shake each structure consistently the same way – but more importantly, something to really motivate our students into seeing this challenge as a serious, computational thinking powered competition.

After considering several options online, I landed on a design using a DC motor that cranks a wooden top back and forth along rails. The original inspiration comes from the US Department of Energy’s Jefferson Lab. Our modified version replaces the motor/top interface with 3D-printed components and leaves the circuitry powering the design exposed to curious minds. An early attempt to leverage an Arduino-powered servo didn’t give us enough speed to disturb even the weakest structures, but thanks to some quick thinking by (and many hours of weekend work from) our very own electronics expert Mr. Williams, the table was ready to go in the nick of time. The simulation table even featured three different speeds (based on adding and removing batteries through the use of large switches) to simulate different earthquake strengths.

Students leveraged all they had learned about earthquakes and good building design to create their own structures. Pyramid-shaped projects proved to be the strongest, though with enough tape there were plenty of less-conventional designs that withstood some serious shaking as well. Listen to a student describe her winning structure below!

Saving the World from Earthquakes and Volcanoes

On Tuesday, February 2nd, breaking news reached students here at Excel – the world was in danger of being destroyed by a rash of earthquakes all across the globe, and top scientists and politicians were calling on our students to save the world. Using the power of computational thinking to decompose the potentially apocalyptic problem and analyzing real-world data to find patterns, it was up to our sixth graders to understand what was happening and where we might be safe.

This lesson was heavily inspired by CIESE’s Musical Plates project, a wonderful (albeit slightly outdated) lesson plan on using real-time data freely available online to understand the relationships between earthquakes, volcanoes and tectonic plate boundaries. As our lesson began, students were asked to answer the following questions:

  1. Where are earthquakes happening? Are they clustered or do they seem random?
  2. Can we predict where earthquakes will happen next?
  3. What is causing these earthquakes to occur?

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Creating beautiful art, one point at a time

At Excel, we firmly believe in the value of STEAM education – that is, ensuring art has a seat at the same table as science, technology, engineering and math. Letting students flex their creative muscles is just as critical to students’ success as boosting traditional STEM skills and technical intuition. When my colleague Mr. Bulale showed me the unit plan for his sixth grade math unit on graphing positive and negative integers, I figured this could be a great place to inject a little artistic freedom.

I spent an afternoon creating a Chrome app (that would run full-screen on our students’ Chromebooks) that allowed students to interactively draw lines on a coordinate plane using ordered pairs. Leveraging some coordinate lists from another school, I created a few sample pieces and added some additional functionality – zoom levels, custom colors and mirroring across each axis.

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Excel’s Hour of Code

Like thousands of schools around the world, this week we held our Hour of Code, introducing our sixth grade students to programming using code.org‘s excellent platform and curricula. Building on the computational thinking lessons we’ve been working on so far this year, the chance to apply these concepts to tangible computer science exercises was a thrill for our students. We kicked things off by discussing all of the different career paths in which students would benefit by knowing programming principals, and establishing some common vocabulary like “debugging”. As computers were distributed, the excitement in the room was palpable.

Students chose between three sets of lessons – creating a Star Wars game controlling droids old and new, adventuring in the world of Minecraft, or creating geometric art masterpieces on ice in Frozen. All three started students off with the basics – teaching the computer to move a character around the screen a certain distance (be it a step, a grid square or 100 pixels) and then chaining multiple instructions together to solve specific problems. Soon enough, students were deep into their own creations, dreaming up fractals on ice or spawning hundreds of Star Wars creatures every time they bumped into a wall. Gleeful cries of “I finally got it!” and “Look at what I did!” were well-balanced by concentrated silences and moments of brief frustration that were often resolved by helpful peers.

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Video: Computational Thinking at Excel Public Charter School

If you’ve been following along with our Computational Thinking blog, you’ve likely got a good idea around what our CT program entails here at Excel. If not, we spent the past couple of weeks creating a short video to serve as a quick primer for our program – check it out below and share it with anyone you think may be interested!

An Interview with Cristina Marcalow, Humanities Teacher Extraordinaire

I recently sat down with our sixth grade English Language Arts and Social Studies teacher, Cristina Marcalow, to discuss her perspective on our Computational Thinking program a few months into the school year.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your experience with the Computational Thinking program here at Excel.

Cristina: It’s been awesome to go to Eli with random ideas that I’ve had, like “oh wow, this seems like it might relate to computational thinking”, and I’ll just randomly go up to him and share a quick idea that I have and the next thing I know, a day – one time it was the next day, another time it was a couple days later – he was running my class and applying the random thought that I had, that I probably never would have been able to execute, he was pulling it off in my class with students, getting them to think in different ways.

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The Rise and Fall of Seventy-Five Civilizations

I remember when the plague struck. It was during Year One, and suddenly every civilization was decimated. The groans of agony made me question my decision to unleash this so early into the game. But only for a moment.

The pain, while palpable, was easily explained. The students in Ms. Marcalow’s sixth grade humanities classes had spent a considerable amount of time dreaming up civilizations they could call their own. These wondrous lands were located in vastly different environments, populated with a wide array of vegetation and animals, rich in various natural resources and technologies. Heartville, surrounded by the Heart Sea (of course), was chock full of roses and horses. Austin Bay Beach seemed like a lovely ocean-side town with fields of wheat and silk. Ellaville had chickens, corn and a row of Victorian houses along the river. Each civilization had a name, a colorful map, and, until the moment the plague hit, a seemingly bright future.

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Cross-post: From corporation to classroom, a thoughtful leap @ DailyEdventures

Last Tuesday I had the pleasure of speaking with Anthony Salcito, Vice President of Worldwide Education at Microsoft. We discussed computational thinking and our vision here at Excel, as well as my path from former Microsoft employee to my role as Computational Thinking Program Manager at a public charter school. Read highlights from our conversation and watch the video interview over at DailyEdventures here: http://dailyedventures.com/index.php/2015/10/27/eli-sheldon/