“Example isn't another way to teach, it is the only way to teach”

From “Amazing Mazes” to “Life on Mars,” Citizen Teacher Haggai Mark has developed and taught a variety of computer science apprenticeships for over four years. His experience with Citizen Schools impacted his decision to transition from 30 years as an engineer to a full time Computer Science Curriculum Developer and teacher in California! Name: Haggai Mark

Title:  High School Computer Science Curriculum Developer and Teacher

What was the most recent apprenticeship you taught? A STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and programming apprenticeship I developed, called “Meet Me on Mars”. Students learned how to write a game/program using Scratch (developed at MIT) to simulate a simplified solar system, and a launch of a rocket from Earth to Mars.

How did you hear about Citizen Schools? Through work (I worked at Cisco Systems in San Jose, CA. Cisco is a National Leadership Partner of Citizen Schools).

Why do you think it's important to provide students with real-world, hands-on opportunities?

We as human beings learn a lot by doing, regardless of age. Exposing students to new areas of knowledge and new experiences is like opening windows for them, and letting the light shine in. Giving them hands-on opportunities and examples for doing things with this knowledge is like giving them the wings to fly through these windows.

As Albert Einstein said: “Example isn't another way to teach, it is the only way to teach." I think that Citizen Schools enables and supports this kind of mindset.

What surprised you most about the students and teaching experience?

An important insight I got after teaching different courses and multiple classes is that you never know exactly which “seeds” are going to fall on fertile ground and grow. In other words, in the complex interaction between your personality as a teacher, the material you are trying to teach, the ways you are teaching it, the students you are interacting with, the knowledge and interests they have, and their personality, it’s very hard to predict which “nuggets” of knowledge and skills are really going to take hold, and make an impact on them. And that’s why it’s important to try different ways and different things, and most importantly – persevere. Sometimes you think you are not reaching them and then they totally blow you away with their actions and insights!

What was the greatest "aha" or "WOW" moment during your time with Citizen Schools?

A couple of years ago I was teaching a STEM course called “Amazing Mazes”, which I had developed. The Amazing Mazes course teaches students to use computers to build mazes in a 2D plane (on the computer screen), create "maze walkers" (think, "mice"), and then teach them, using programming, to successfully navigate through these mazes (or "find the cheese", so to speak).

As the students build their maze, they can see both a “graphic representation” of the paths of the maze, and a “programmatic representation” of the maze, which is the collection of commands they are using. These are two very different representations and abstraction levels. And one question is: which of these forms is “really” the maze? It is hard to fully grasp these concepts in middle school.

As it turns out, one 7th grade girl in class got it! She took the list of commands (which is one form of abstraction) she used for building her maze, added new numbers to all her x-y coordinates within those commands, and re-ran her program to generate a new/shifted maze (a different form of abstraction)!

I’m not sure who was more pleased with the resulting new shape on the screen, I, because I was able to teach, or she, because she was able to learn! I guess we were both blown away.

What skills did you gain or develop by teaching the students?

I definitely learned how to plan for different levels and paces of student learning, in order to create differentiated learning. I also learned how to more effectively use educational tools and technologies to enhance interest and learning.

You’ve made a big transition in your career - from the corporate space into the public school system.  How did your work with Citizen Schools impact that transition?

Due to my unique experience in education, I was able to work with Citizen Schools to have enough flexibility to create STEM apprenticeships and teach them, with freedom to choose topics, educational technologies, and teaching techniques.It really allowed me to explore and validate my interests and capabilities, before making a career change. Education and teaching have been on my mind for many years, but as they say "life  happens when you make other plans" and I ended up doing Engineering for 30 years. When I had the opportunity to make a career change it was very natural for me to choose education.

What are you most excited about in your new role?

I love the fact that I will be doing both curriculum development, starting with designing three new Computer Science courses, and teaching them! I am excited about the opportunity to design curricula from scratch and validate their effectiveness through doing hands-on evaluation.

What advice would you give future volunteers?

Picking an area you are both knowledgeable and passionate about is key! Your interest and sense of excitement is “contagious” – it shows immediately, and usually “rubs off” onto the students. It is important to plan for your lessons, but you also need to be flexible, and be willing to seize learning moments, if and when they come, and they will come. The more connections you are able to make with and for the students between what you are teaching and what interests them (and what comes up spontaneously during the lessons), the better.

Learn more about volunteering with Citizen Schools here!