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.

Q: Can you tell me about the recent Civilizations project?

Cristina: I’ve taught world history in the past, and I’ve tried to teach the ideas of “Guns, Germs and Steel”, Jared Diamond’s really famous book, before to middle schoolers, and he has some really big, really important, really influential ideas, but in the past some of those ideas, those big concepts, I’ve struggled to get students to really grapple with them and understand. For example, one of the big ideas is that because Europeans were able to domesticate animals, they suffered plagues, but then they also developed these immunities, and part of the reason why Europeans were so effective at essentially conquering the world was simply because they had these immunities. His ideas kind of go back to this geography and connects a lot of really interesting concepts. That’s all really important, but also hard for kids to grasp, and so my random idea was what if they could somehow generate some of these ideas or these scenarios in their own civilizations, sort of simulating a Sim City type of game. So I went to Eli and he was able to pull that together and essentially create a game with set rules of how resources affect population growth, how geographic and resource factors affect how a civilization develops, and by putting those big ideas into simple rules in this game, students were using those rules, excited to learn about the rules and see how they actually affected their civilizations, and I had students at the edge of their seats in tears when the plague hit their civilization, but then cheering when their civilization was growing because of their increased immunity. That was an idea that I’ve never been able to really get sixth graders to grasp on a really deep comprehension level, and they were grasping it within a couple days of playing this game. So that was really awesome, to see how we could take this big concepts, apply them into this game and get students grasping them.

Q: Can you talk about the lesson on algorithms and how that worked into what you were already teaching?

Cristina: Eli came in and taught a lesson on algorithms. It had been right after we reviewed the cardinal and intermediate directions. It was a pretty simple lesson where students were sending a guy through a maze by using the cardinal directions, telling him very specific algorithmic steps on what to do: take one step north, move one step east, move one step southwest, and he was moving through this grid. Eli did a great job explaining how that type of thinking, by setting rules and setting parameters and letting that play out in a game, which is exactly also the type of thinking students were using in their Civilizations game – how that relates to computer science. Now I’ll just kind of slip that word into lessons once in a while. We outline, and outlining notes follows an algorithmic process. So I’m able to say “wow, while we’re outlining these notes, we’re actually practicing computational thinking”, and you see students sit up a little straighter and they get a little more excited about outlining notes, but more than just getting them more excited about it, they also are starting to see how there are those rules that they follow, and it helps them understand that there are rules and processes to a lot of things in life.

Thanks for taking the time to share, Cristina!

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