Teaching a Java Summer Camp

The Job

The last week in July, I was teaching Java at a summer camp.  The camp was run by Matt Fraser, the director of debate at Stanford, who also owns a company called Education Unlimited that puts on summer camps.  A few days before the start of the camp, he gives me a call saying that his regular person flaked on him, and he needs a replacement.  I accepted.

Lessons Learned

The hardest part of the job was working on the lesson plan.  There was a short set of guidelines (basically, the things that they advertise on their website) – teach Java using Karel the Robot; teach some graphics; they should have some sort of final project by the end of the week – but nothing was provided to me.  I had to come up with all of the handouts, assignments, lecture notes, examples, and class guidelines.  Thankfully, some of my former teachers at Stanford agreed to let me use the curricular materials from when I took their classes, but it was still a lot of work getting it into a form that would work in a one-week timeframe.  Because I made everything in such a rush and because it was my first real teaching experience, I didn’t quite have time to craft my lessons in a form that I would use again (or organize my actual curricular materials such that they would be coherent to a third party), but I did learn a lot.

For one, it’s good to get feedback frequently.  I passed out note cards asking people what they thought of my teaching style two or three times, and I made a remarkable improvement after each set of feedback.  The first time, they overwhelmingly asked me to slow down.  The next time, I discovered that I would need to create a separate set of assignments for the kids who understood the material intuitively so that they wouldn’t be bored.

That also taught me that passing out written feedback forms can work where asking them personally (either individually or in a group) fails.  Because I asked them those same questions, and noone told me to slow down or asked for harder material before I passed out the note cards.

I also learned that a projector is not a substitute for a whiteboard.  Even when teaching computer science, there is something about writing out examples on the whiteboard that just works.  Despite my horrible handwriting, the kids learned better when I did some of my examples on the whiteboard.

I now know why teachers use so many examples.  Even though it only takes one example for me to understand something about any of the sciences, if a student is having a harder time, two or three examples on one subject helps. 

Also, everyone can understand how to program basic graphical stuff even if they don’t understand the basic math stuff.


I still don’t quite know how to deal with the disciplinary issue.  About 2/3 of the kids started playing a cheesy restaurant-running game on Facebook, and they would divert their attention from my lessons or their assignments to play the game every once in a while.  Since, despite that, they were mostly engaged with my lessons, I decided to let them do as they wished.

Partly, my reasoning behind that decision was that it was a summer camp where they came (mostly voluntarily) to learn about computer science.  Education was in their own hands, and it was their choice on how much they wanted to get out of the experience.  I’m not really satisfied with that reasoning though: that feels like giving up on the idea of comprehensive education.  A good teacher would teach fast enough that it would be hard to not pay attention and effectively enough that everyone in the class understood. 

Part of my reasoning was based on my own limitations.  I don’t know how to effectively discipline high school age kids.  I have had lots of teachers that didn’t know how to discipline the classroom, and the ones that tried and failed were worse than the ones that accepted some degree of disorder.  Those teachers weren’t as good as the ones that knew how to discipline a class that got out of hand (or the ones that taught well enough to avoid disorder in the first place, or the ones who knew how to shape disorder so that it worked to their benefit – that’s the best), but I’m still not quite that good.  Also, I get the impression that the teachers that are good enough to avoid disorder work very hard and long on their lesson plans, and I simply didn’t have enough time to get something working that well.

Part of my reasoning was also based on my own experiences.  There are legitimate reasons to not pay attention to the teacher.  At the beginning of my Frosh year, the director of SLE said that we could use laptops for notetaking during lectures but that we weren’t allowed to do anything else because the lectures would move too fast.  That was a lie.  There were a handful of lectures that were so captivating that I did not switch away from the document on which I was taking notes, but there were also plenty of lectures that had about 5 minutes of material, a boring voice, and filled two hours of lecture time.  In those lectures, I was able to read the news or Wikipedia articles or do homework and still get just as much out of the lectures as if I were paying attention the whole time.  In these instances, when the teacher is not effectively engaging the student, it’s legitimate enough for the student to take the education into their own hands.  Games, of course, are a slightly different scenario, but the point remains.

My high school lit teacher recommended a few books to me on how to teach so kids listen: “Me Talk Pretty One Day?”, which is about using humor, and “How to Talk so Kids Can Learn.”  I still haven’t gotten to either of them, but Stanford has both of them in the libraries. 

The Value of Debate

Teaching at a non-debate summer camp also made me realize the value of debate and debate camps.  The only summer camp that I had ever been to as a participant was a debate camp, and I never went for fewer than 4 weeks.  This camp was one week long.  The difference symbolized by that difference in time is embodied throughout the rest of the camp experience.

7 weeks (I went to Michigan’s 7 week debate camp before my Junior year of high school) is long enough to get into a topic.  4 weeks is long enough to teach something.  Even 2 or 3 weeks is long enough.  But a 1 week camp has a day for getting situated, a day for some sort of recreational activity, a day for getting wrapped up, which leaves about half a week for instruction.  With that short of a time, you can babysit and entertain kids, and you can get them interested in a new idea, but you can’t get very deep into a subject at all.  Even 4 weeks (Gonzaga University debate camp before my Senior year of high school) can be short when you have a big enough topic.  And most topics are big enough.

Debate camp also feels much more streamlined, and you can see that reflected in the price.  There are dozens of camps across the country all competing to provide the best education on one topic.  Most instructors are coaches of some sort.  Most have also been to a debate camp as a participant in the past.  Even though debate camps put less of an emphasis on professionalism, because they are such an institution, they feel very polished.  The price also reflects this streamlining: I think that all 13 of my students paid almost $2000 for a week with me.  For my first 4 week debate camp, it cost 1800 (though I spent another few hundred buying my own food – I didn’t buy the meal plan).  My 7 week debate camp cost under $5000 (food included).  My last 4 week debate camp was $1000 plus food (it cost less because I was in the Zag Scholars program that only a few kids get accepted to.  Gonzaga wants to be a top national camp, so they give good debaters a price break).

There is also a greater expectation that debaters are responsible and independent than other campers.  At debate camp, it felt like the expectation was that everyone could take care of themselves.  There was still curfew and separate boys and girl floors (except at Zag Scholars), but it seemed like the camp treated debaters like adults (or they just didn’t want to micromanage us to the extent necessary to do otherwise).  One of the ways that debate camp achieved this was by allowing more unstructured time.  Where a non-debate camp would structure some cheesy event (ie, mandatory-participation talent night), the debate camp would simply allow free time.  Also, the debate camp cautioned debaters where the non-debate camp mandates campers.  For instance, the debate camp might say to not be out alone after dark because there could be meth users roaming the campus (Gonzaga, in Spokane, Washington), whereas the non-debate camp might require groups of three when walking in broad daylight on Stanford’s campus (rich, safe area).

At debate camp, you’re also there because you want to win.  You probably had to coerce your parents to fund the camp, if you didn’t work to pay for it yourself and you probably have any number of other things you could do other than debate.  You would feel cheated if you weren’t getting the most out of your money.  As a result, the debate camp will use almost every hour of the day for doing debate work.  At Zag Scholars, I happily worked myself to exhaustion.  There were lectures, practice debates, and labs starting in the morning and sometimes not ending until midnight with only breaks for meals, and then I would do research late into the night and getting about 6 hours of sleep to finish up an assignment.  That was what I paid for; that was what I expected.  A non-debate summer camp, even if it was extremely competitive, probably couldn’t work their kids for 14-16 hours per day without getting lots of complaints.

Debate, as an activity, lends itself easily to a very mature model of education because 100% of what you learn is applied.  You aren’t learning so that you can get an A; you aren’t even necessarily learning because you like learning.  You’re learning to win.  Every debater is paying attention to a lecture in camp (or not paying attention) or doing research, or doing practices for the sake of putting their skills and knowledge into practice in the next competition.  This means that there aren’t really any subjects that are off topic.  Anything that might be useful in a debate round is a legitimate topic for discussion.  This makes a censored education nearly impossible.  You can’t stop a topic from entering a debate any more than you could stop it from entering Congress or the Supreme Court.  In other words, debate teaches you everything and motivates you to learn everything, so it is impractical to expect that your debaters learn anything short of everything.  Intellectually, debaters must be adults.

I guess debate camp felt kind of like college (with some important differences), whereas non-debate camps felt less academically free than high school.

Intellectual Property

Since I was hired in such a rush, I didn’t sign the contract where I agree to teach until my last day.  Most of the contract was fairly benign – it was basically legalese for “you agree to teach and to be responsible” – but the intellectual property clause (bundled in the subsection about my responsibilities) surprised me. 

I got the impression that it was written by someone who didn’t specialize in intellectual property law.  I’m not a lawyer, but I do read a lot about intellectual property and pay attention to the current court cases about intellectual property.  The way that the clause was worded seemed to me like it would have me give to Education Unlimited (the camp company) things that I didn’t have legal rights over (ie, the software that I had the kids code with; the handouts that Stanford made that I re-used).  I also think that it was much more heavy-handed than most intellectual property agreements in that I would have absolutely no rights over the intellectual property that I created (ie, lesson plans, examples, assignments).

This is especially true of educational intellectual property.  I guess the for-profit education model is different from the non-profit education model, but at Stanford and in all other non-profit educational experiences that I have been a part of, the paradigm has been that free and widespread access to information is a good thing.  I guess it’s part of the mission statement of schools – helping the dissemination of information.  As a result, my professors actively collaborate with people from different schools, and they release their handouts under a license that would allow anyone that’s part of a non-profit educational venture to use their handouts.  In other words, if I were teaching computer science at a college, I wouldn’t have even had to ask my professors to use their handouts and assignments.

I had known for a while that I didn’t like restrictive copyright which, in my mind, limits creativity.  This, however, was the first time I really put that to the test.  I didn’t want something that I created to be limited to copyright.  I didn’t care about whether or not I would get the credit for the assignments, but I would not feel comfortable if I couldn’t give away my work to any other interested educator.  There are times when competition can be healthy (ie, debate), but where the education of youth is concerned, I fundamentally disagree with competing via limiting knowledge.  I think that it is bad if a student suffers, not because they had a bad teacher, but because they had a teacher without all of the necessary tools.

This might make employment slightly difficult – my opinion on education is the same as my opinion on the intellectual property behind life saving medication and most other necessary forms of intellectual property – but I guess I’ll jump that hurdle when I meet it.  I could always shoot for a job at Google’s nonprofit, INSTEDD, that uses open source software to respond to disasters.  I guess I would even be fine with closed source software as long as it was used for the social good and was mostly free – like Google Flu Trends – but the model of helping people for profit with closed source makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong.  Given a choice between helping people and money, I choose helping people.