Teacher Spotlight: Mendez High’s Alicia Morris on her ‘Computer Science for All’ initiative and letting innovation take place by ‘not being so risk-averse’
Esmeralda Fabián Romero | August 7, 2019
This interview is one in a series spotlighting Los Angeles teachers, their unique and innovative classroom approaches, and their thoughts on how the education system can better support teachers in guiding students to success.
Alicia Morris’s career as a production auditor in Hollywood was in full swing when she became a parent and decided to switch to a more “meaningful” profession. She says it didn’t take her long to realize that teaching could have “more of an impact locally within a community,” so she worked to become a teacher.
Morris has now been teaching for nearly two decades at L.A. Unified schools, half the time at the elementary level and the last 10 years as a math and computer science teacher at Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School – one of the 18 schools in the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. Mendez, located in Boyle Heights in east Los Angeles, is one of the most improved schools and has one of the highest graduation rates in the district (90 percent in 2018).
At Mendez, Morris has focused on helping her students, mostly low-income Latinos, gain access to technology and computer science courses. She believes all students in California should have the same opportunity and that all schools across the state should offer computer science courses.
She says for that to happen there should be “a balance between the policies and the reality of the work” and more funding at the state level. At the district level, she thinks more teachers should have credentialing opportunities to teach those courses. “If we don’t have the course selection and we don’t have the credentials for the teachers to teach the courses, it’s not going to happen.”
California adopted its first-ever computer science standards last year, but they are not mandatory.
A study released in June showed that 61 percent of high schools in California do not offer computer science. Of the nearly 2 million high school students in the state, only 3 percent were enrolled in a computer science course in the 2016-17 school year, and in 2018 only 1 percent were enrolled in an Advanced Placement computer science course, which can count as college credit. Also, according to the report, minority students, including Latinos, have less access to those courses.
“California has standards, but we have not dedicated any money and we haven’t made it a requirement for our high schools to offer computer science. We do see this as a matter of equity, because we think that there’s so much involved in computer science that, if we’re not offering it, it’s problematic,” she said.
Morris, who leads a “Computer Science for All” initiative at Mendez, also believes that in order for L.A. Unified to meet its mission of being “a progressive global leader in education,” it has to align support and resources for innovation to happen in the classroom. “If you’re going to put it in writing, back it up. Be prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve it.”
At Mendez, Morris was the only computer science teacher in 2013 when the school began offering the course. The Computer Science for All initiative pathway at her school became official in 2017 and offers introductory computer science courses to all incoming ninth-graders. Students in 10th, 11th and 12th grades may choose to continue taking computer science courses.
Morris would like to see more computer science courses added at her school and districtwide as well, so she is contributing to that goal by developing coursework and professional development for other teachers. “We’d like to scale what we’re doing, share our work with other schools so they may replicate and do the same.”
LA School Report asked Morris about what could be done better or what needs to change in the education system to allow reforms and innovation to take place in the classroom, as well as her goals for the new school year. Her answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What have you seen as the best benefit of this initiative for your students?
The why of it, the reason we would do this is, what we’re really looking at is a cultural shift, we want our learners to be problem solvers. And so we want to provide every student with the essential thinking and analytical skills to succeed in computational thinking practices that are involved and required in computer science courses, the skills that we think are necessary for our students to succeed in college and career and beyond. So really look at it as a matter of equity.
What are your students’ strengths, and what challenges do they face?
Well, some of the challenges that they face are similar to what we see in communities that are underrepresented and underserved. We have some levels of poverty that make it difficult to have the access, let’s say for instance, to the same amount of technology, the same amount of information at homes. We have the political landscape at this time where some of our community members may be undocumented. And that brings in a lot of tension, in terms of, “How can I come to school and be 100 percent present to the learning if I’ve got all of these other concerns at home? Maybe my mom isn’t home, maybe I’m here with an aunt and uncle because my parents aren’t here with me.” So the struggles that we have because of the high immigrant population, we might have struggles around poverty, so that we don’t have as much access. We might have some violence that is a little too close to home.
Those are the distractors from the work. They’re very real, and so they become part of our conversation in the classroom. Before we can get to any learning, we might be addressing all of those, or some of those in some regard. And then how our students deal with that, and some of their strengths are being able to come together as a community.
We have restorative justice practices. We sit and we discuss these concerns or their concerns. We have a very tight community of support. So I think students do come to school and engage in practices that feel relevant to them, not only in terms of academics but also in terms of their socio-emotional state. So it does become a place where we come to work out problems, whatever type of problems they may be. So their strength is they’re very resilient, very creative and working on and continuing to struggle. And in the struggle, finding a light and moving forward, going onto college and career, which is very exciting.
How easy or difficult was it for you to become a teacher?
The process at the time, approximately 20 years ago, was considerably easier than it is today, I think. It was a different time. The standardized test, the CST, and I believe No Child Left Behind, was something that was of the time. It was beginning to get to that point where qualifications and certification were the topics of the day. But at the time it wasn’t difficult, especially in Los Angeles. There was a strong need for teachers. I found my school very easily and fell right into a community and started teaching in Highland Park’s Aldama Elementary School. And that’s really where I learned how to be a teacher.
How do you remember your first day or your first year teaching?
The first day was so long ago, but what I do remember was the awesomeness of responsibility that the job felt like. It was after that first day, I knew how intense it could be and how dynamic it could be and how amazing, but also how exhausting it could be. So that’s what I remember from the first day. And from the first year, it was 2001, I taught third grade at Aldama, and Harry Potter was really popular at the time, as were standardized tests, so I remember I wanted to emphasize reading comprehension. I found these plastic black glasses that didn’t have a lens and I called them the reading comprehension glasses, and we gave a pair to every student and we would wear them during reading time so that we could have better comprehension. We took a picture of the whole class. So that was the beginning of me sort of taking on that role of quirky and fun, but trying to engage the student in the learning. It was adorable.
What has been your best moment or day as a teacher, or one of your proudest accomplishments so far?
I think I’m proudest regularly when current students and alumni return to the campus after school hours, coming to get support on whatever problems they’re working on, things that are going on with them. This includes them getting advice or coming for materials or tutoring. And it’s especially meaningful for me when former students come back, and they come back to the campus to support each other, to support the current students and teachers. They come back to help me a lot of times, to clean up the room, pack up. And so it happens often enough that it reinforces this belief that I have that schools are our community centers where we can all kind of find encouragement to solve problems and share resources and grow together. I think that it happens every semester multiple times, and that’s when I think I’m proudest.
What is the best way that either the school or the school district or even the state could do in better serving your students?
I’m going to look at the state level and just suggest a tool that I found recently that’s really interesting. It’s this interactive map that compiles the data from the Conference Board and the National Center for Education. There are three criteria points. One is if there is any money dedicated to the state or funding for computer science professional development. The second criteria would be, is it a requirement that all high schools offer computer science. And the third criteria is, what kind of standards have been developed for K-12 computer science. There are 14 out of 50 states that have all three checks: Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, Iowa, Arkansas, Indiana, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Hawaii.
California has only one of the three check marks and it’s the standards. California has standards, but we have not dedicated any money and we haven’t made it a requirement for our high schools to offer computer science. Because we do see this as a matter of equity, because we think that there’s so much involved in computer science that, if we’re not offering it, it’s problematic. We’re saying we want to develop our students into critical and analytical consumers and producers, not just consumers of technology, and be part of the innovation. California is among three that only has one of three check marks. That’s California, Alaska and Montana.
What do you think needs to happen, in the school or the district, for a teacher to be able to bring innovation to the classroom?
Ideally, I think we have to find the balance between the policies and the reality of the work. So want is a four-letter word. Once it is written or announced as a mission or a vision, follow through until you get there. Align everything to that mission or that vision. Money and thoughtful implementation. If you want to achieve a goal such as, and I’ll just quickly read a goal, “L.A. Unified will be a progressive global leader in education, providing a dynamic and inspiring learning experience, where all students graduate ready for success.” That is LAUSD’s mission. If you’re going to put it in writing, back it up. Be prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve it.
I think that we’re looking at some frameworks of product development like Scrum, where it’s really organic to the group and allowing every school at their school site to use their funding and fund them. Funding is essential. All schools have funding at the school site level. So let’s implement the computer science curriculum and technology, but let’s allow people to innovate by not being so risk-averse because innovation requires taking a chance and risking. Make it part of the culture that we want to take some risks in education and innovate, and be the progressive leader that we say we want to be.
And then the funding is, we have a strong computer science department at our school that we’ve funded and grown very organically. However, sustainability is going to be a problem for us at the district level. We need to think about how to implement and sustain computer science education. But at our school site level, now we need to think about how are we going to fund professional development for our teachers to collaborate and how do we continue to grow the curriculum. And how do we update our technology because as you know, innovation, it takes money.
What can the district do? We need credentialing and course selection. If we don’t have the course selection and we don’t have the credentials for the teachers to teach the courses, it’s not going to happen. So credentialing and course selection.
What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect about your job? What do you think is the biggest misperception people have about teachers?
I think perhaps the oversimplification of the work could lead to misunderstanding. Learning and teaching are really truly very dynamic, and that’s because it involves interacting with humans and growing with each other. I kind of equate it to parenting different children within the same family. We know that what works for one may not necessarily work for another child of ours. Now multiply that times 120. That might be the number of people that I see in the day that are all different. And then change that set of humans every year.
The complexity of the work that we do because we work with humans and we are trying to work at an individual level with every student. That brings up the next point. Students, they’re evolving and continuously shifting, and the way that they view themselves and they perceive themselves as learners is so nuanced. It involves not just content and pedagogy, but also socio-emotional considerations that also integrate group dynamics. I think the misconception may be that this job ends at 3:00 p.m., when in reality it’s this delicate balance of planning and organizing and probing and evaluating, creating, managing and, most importantly, interacting in real-time with other people.
What do you think is the best way parents can help teachers do their job? How can parents collaborate with teachers?
I think there are some ways that the parents can model some of the things that we’re doing in the classroom so that there is like an in-between what we do in the classroom and what they’re doing at home. Engage your son or daughter in active conversations about problems that they’re working on at school. What kinds of things are you seeing? “Tell me a problem that you’re having right now, not necessarily with another human being, but maybe a problem within the concept that you’re learning.” Also, encourage your child to find the value of productive struggle related to home life or school life. So when is it OK to struggle? And don’t give up on that. Keep trying. Value exploration and discovery. That’s huge because really what learning is about is asking that next question. Also, solve problems together at home. They don’t have to be related to school and let your child see you as a learner first. Oftentimes, students, children see their parent as, “Oh, they have it all together, they know exactly what they’re doing,” and they don’t see the struggle. They don’t see that it takes that resilience and that persistence to produce.
Encourage them to keep trying, especially if success is not attained right away, and value the process and the final product. Maybe avoid focusing solely on the grade, which is really something that we’re starting to notice, is the pressure that the student’s feeling, if they don’t bring home the grade, and there’s so much more there.
What do you think needs to change in the system or needs immediate attention, either in your district, your school or at the state level?
It’s going to be around the idea of accountability and self-evaluation. And it’s going to be for all the stakeholders: teachers, students, parents, community, administration, district, industry, state, higher education especially. But all of us. Mastery learning, changing the academic model will make the change, I think, that we need to see across the table, because the way we’re measuring someone’s learning and understanding of a concept is affecting the way they’re seeing themselves as learners, which is affecting what they’re doing for the rest of their lives. And it’s imperative that we change it as quickly as possible. Implement it and live up to it. All of us. That accountability piece is each one of us taking our part and evaluating. Self-evaluation is critical.
What’s your main goal for the next school year?
We have a computer science department that we have grown. We grew from, I was the only person that taught computer science in 2013, to now there are six of us teaching computer science on our campus. We’re all math teachers and we balance math and computer science. I would like to add some additional courses, not just to our school, I mean additional courses to the district. I’m writing up coursework, professional development for ourselves. We’d like to scale what we’re doing, share our work with other schools so they may replicate and do the same. Right now, we’re in the middle of some research so that we can show how effective it is to have our students taking computer science and then how that might impact their math performance and understanding. We want to continue developing computer science after-school programs as well.