Half Empty Dream Cup of Concrete Roses

Paul Steinberg's Black History month blog post about dreams propelled me to write my first blog post in over a year.

My initial urge was to lament the struggle in retaining and reaching Black males in Computer Science. My friend Byron Robertson is getting his PhD on this very topic. Paul and I interviewed Byron at SC10 last November, but it was a series of private conversations we had that significantly affected my relationship with all my students. I had discovered on my own that being a passionate teacher is a key element. Heck that is about all I have, coupled with a moderate amount of knowledge and experience, and huge doses of the luck in being in the right place at the right time.

An essential factor, new to me, is to link classroom concepts to a student's previous analogous knowledge and experience. This is something I learned to do for myself along the way, which then became an unconscious skill. Byron helped me understand this is far from a universal skill, instead a barrier for many, stopping their learning cold.

I know it helps students to see possible jobs out there, as well as to see the link between course content and these academic and industry possibilities. What I didn't get was to help individual students see how a sequence of career steps is entirely possible and practical for them. I realize this is perhaps one of the most significant and subtle examples of the digital divide; a divide in the ease at which you can envision yourself as a successful computer professional.

These factors directly affected the Parallel Programming Club field trip I led to NERSC in Oakland; a trip we took just before this semester started. I could see how significant it was to talk specifics for over two hours with folks from NERSC. Kudos to NERSCs Jon Bashor for arranging it all, and feeding us some really good pizza. We even got our picture taken in front of Hopper, the fifth fastest computer in the world.

Jeff Duncan-Andrade from the Raza Studies department at SF State, who also teaches a high school class, as well as a high school advisory every morning, recently turned me on to a book of poetry, "The Rose That Grew From Concrete" by Tupac Shakur. Jeff pointed out that the rose growing in concrete, stilted in height with deformed petals, deserves not focus on its lack and why it grew, but instead appreciation and understanding how it grew. A lot of Jeff's students, and my students, cross gang lines on a series of busses to get to school each day. Jeff helped me see the courage and great energy it often takes for students to just get to the school entrance.

This makes me think of my student of mine who I first met last semester when he took two classes from me. He was one of the many students Intel graciously supported in accompanying me to last September's IDF. He learned voraciously and diligently last semester, but still ended up failing both the classes he took. He is also one of the students working on designing and assembling the portable cluster in an attache case: an ungraded project we do outside of any class. He is back taking two classes from me this semester, and is even more focused. He is one of many students who came out of Richmond who will hopefully succeed with filling in knowledge gaps and growing in skills as a successful student. I am better armed to help him and others on their journey.

Thanks Byron and Jeff for helping me be a more effective teacher, advocate, and coach.

The title mentions a half empty cup. I would be remiss in failing to mention that I am seeing greatly increased success among Black males in my classes. One student transferred to Georgia Tech at the end of last semester; another who also happened to start last semester, was the catalyst for starting the Parallel Programming Club and is project lead on our multi-platform rewrite and extension of WiiMote based whiteboards. Successes small and large fuel the dreams leading to more successes. I am delighted to be part of helping students write a new history for themselves.

These things peacefully and purposely fill me this first day of Black History month.
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1 comment

Paul Steinberg (Intel)'s picture

Thank you for such a thoughtful post Tom. I look forward to continuing this discussion on Teach Parallel. I also look forward to reading comments from the Academic Community.

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