CS Teacher Spotlight - John Landa from GALA
John Landa is a computer science teacher at the Girls Academic Leadership Academy (GALA), a STEAM-focused magnet school in Los Angeles. John teaches 6th - 10th grade computer science courses including Exploring CS, CS Discoveries, and AP CS Principles among other computer science electives. John’s experience with computer science education extends beyond the classroom, with experience as an instructional coach for computer science teachers, curriculum developer for Exploring CS, and as a professional development facilitator. John was generous enough to spend some time with us to talk about his experiences.
What brought you to teaching computer science?
Wow, it’s a long story. My degrees are in computer science. When I left the industry, I was kind of debating what to do, so I decided that I wanted to try teaching. At that point, to get into teaching, I had to teach math. So that’s what I did my first year. But then, I kind of ran around the school saying, "Hey if you ever want to offer computer science, I can teach that." So my second year, I ended up teaching AP Computer Science. I would even take my kids to UCLA to get more exposure to computer science. Through those trips, I made some contacts at UCLA.
After two years, I changed schools and my new school wanted more computer science electives, which was exactly what I wanted to do. I was teaching programming and the AP class when my contact at UCLA reached out saying, "Hey, we have been trying to push kids to take AP Computer Science but it’s too hard to just jump into. We need to make an intermediate course." So I got involved with the creation of Exploring CS. From there, I taught the pilot of Exploring CS and other electives. I taught some web design and game design courses as well. I then left the classroom for a little while just to work with the Exploring CS program, coach teachers, and to do curriculum and PD stuff. Now this year I’m back in the classroom.
What do you feel has been the impact of teaching computer science?
I hope the impact is that kids are getting exposure to what computer science is. As a kid I hadn't heard about computer science until one of my friends suggested an AP computer science class. He said, “Look, I can make the text on the screen change.” I was like, “What?? You can change colors or text?? Ok, I want to take the class.” Just taking that class opened my mind to something that I became interested in and then I went on to study similar courses. But if I never had that experience, then I would have never known, right?
That chance encounter that you had with one student turned into something that now is your life’s work. That’s awesome that you are trying to open up those pathways for students so it doesn’t have to be a chance encounter.
Right exactly. I want them to at least know what it is. I think it’s two things: One is if kids take computer science and they aren’t interested in pursuing it further, I'm fine with that -- at least they know what it is. Because they've gotten to take history and English -- they know what these subjects are so they can decide whether they want to major in them or not. The other thing is hopefully in computer science students learn some problem solving and computational thinking that will be useful for anything they do.
Earlier, you mentioned that GALA has a strong vision for computer science. What is the general context of computer science at GALA in relation to its STEAM focus?
Well, the original vision was to give kids computer science every year. But when you look at the requirements, it shifted to sixth graders get the 10-week exposure. Then, in ninth grade, everyone takes Exploring CS. Tenth grade everyone takes CS Principles. Next year, AP Computer Science A is going to be an option for juniors so kids can decide if they are interested in it or not. Then we have other electives like robotics.
Are you the only computer science teacher at your school or do you have a cohort?
Currently, I am the only one that is full time computer science teacher and then we have a couple of math teachers that are now teaching one class of Exploring CS. I wish we could collaborate more but we don’t have as much time built into the week to plan. When we do sit down and talk though, it’s great. But then there are times when we are just too busy. I wish there was more space for that.
What are some challenges, if any, that you have experienced teaching CS?
Previously when I taught computer science, especially for the AP class, I had to do my own recruiting at the school. Basically, the school had the policy, “Well, you can teach that if you want to, but you have to fill the class. Otherwise we are going to cut it because we can teach something different.” So I had to do lots of recruiting -- like sending invitational letters to kids. The recruiting was so-so. We would always end up with a group of students in the AP course that would drop out after the first semester. For most kids this was their first computer science class and so it was a struggle to go from zero to one hundred in addition to preparing for the AP test. Ideally, we want some kind of pathway. If you give them something like Exploring CS and CS Discoveries where it is a little more fun, relaxed, and provokes a little more creativity, then they can decide if they want to continue with the AP class.
Do you have any tips for new or even current computer science teachers?
I think the biggest hurdle is that there are a lot of teachers who are scared, thinking, "I don't really think I can teach computer science” or “I only took one class -- how am I going to teach this?" From my experience coaching teachers, I've noticed that the best computer science teachers are the ones who are already good teachers because they look at things and are willing to say, “I don't know the answer to that. Let’s go figure that out.”
Thank you John for taking the time to share your thoughts with us!