CRAM: A Whole Lot More than Fixing Computers

IMG_6541Literacy across the curriculum. Why is it so important? What does it mean for instruction? And what does it look like in a course like Computer Repair And Maintenance (CRAM, for short) where, as far as most people know, students just make repairs to the laptops their peers carry around and use every day?

When my district made the decision in 2011 to issue laptops to every high school student in the district, it was clear there had to be a way to maintain those computers. Hence, the CRAM class was born. Today, the CRAM classes at our two high schools enroll about 35 students each semester.

Interested students sign up for a two-hour block: One hour every day is given over to instruction. Students learn to troubleshoot problems, make simple repairs, configure the devices, install programs, and a whole lot more. The students are staggered throughout the day for that second hour in CRAM. That’s when they man the helpdesk. When students bring their laptops for repair, the CRAM students get hands-on experience with technology and they also build the interpersonal skills that are so critical for customer satisfaction.

But it’s the whole lot more that makes this class an example of what literacy across the curriculum is all about. I had the opportunity to observe my colleague’s CRAM class at my high school a couple of weeks ago. The students were making their weekly presentations about information they glean from reading about hot topics in technology. My colleague supplies the students with a list of tech websites and the students select articles of interest to them. Their assignment is to distill the information and update their peers in a brief, but formal, presentation. All of the students speak from a podium and use the ENO board to highlight the main points in what is really a professional roundtable discussion. Often, on the day I observed, they stepped away from the podium, and they all used gestures and facial expressions that complemented their remarks. They were highly articulate and spoke from a position of comfort and authority. Naturally, they managed the technology with ease. A speech teacher would have been proud.

The topics—mostly mysteries to me—included 5G (the coming standard for wireless), the Linksys wrt199ac wireless router, even a history lesson from a young man named Eric: “Ten Things You Didn’t Know about the Ethernet.” He included a poem he’d found, a parody of Housman’s “I Think That I Shall Never See”:

I think that we shall never see

A graph more lovely than a tree,

A tree whose crucial property

Is loop-free connectivity.

Their peers asked questions, made connections to prior discussions, debated the pros and cons of a particular issue. The questions from the students were serious and largely technical. When a presenter concluded, my colleague opened the floor for discussion.

James, for example, updated the class on AT&T’s mobile router. She–their teacher–asked, “How would you use this router?” and a discussion of its pros and cons ensued. Responses were immediate; there was none of the delay or reluctance to speak that sometimes happens in a class. These students were comfortable with the content and eager to share their thoughts.

An explanation of the Heartbleed bug was another topic. “Will it really destroy the internet?” asked my colleague.

“No,” said Bailey. “In terms of physical destruction, no. But loss of trust is the consequence of malware and Heartbleed and other viruses.” That’s a thoughtful reply and indicates the upper level thinking skills that conversations in this class demand.

The discussion wasn’t deadpan, though. Though they were always respectful and professional, these kids have a sense of humor: Tongue-in-cheek, one boy asked Jonathan about a piece of hardware he was touting in his report, “What color does it come in?”

“Carbon fiber black,” was Jonathan’s quick reply.

During these presentations, other high school students approached the helpdesk with their malfunctioning laptops. Whenever that happened, a designated CRAM student quietly removed himself from the discussion to service the client. He spoke in low tones, and the student needing help followed suit. IMG_6554

A week later, I returned to the class to observe the students, seated in a circle, conducting a formal discussion of net neutrality, a hot topic from the week before that had struck everyone as deserving more attention than a tech report. Their teacher (using a problem/solution format that was formerly utilized in an event called Discussion in National Forensic League speech competition) directed the students to outline the problem and the aspects of it that are unalterable, present a variety of solutions, and then select the best one. The discussion lasted for a full class period—in fact, it went over to the next day.

I was amazed by the range of the students’ remarks, by how aware they are of the world beyond high school. I heard them say

  • ISPs could starve out a website.
  • ISPs are more likely to target big businesses.
  • Let’s be frank here: The Supreme Court is an older generation and the justices don’t understand the impact they’re making.
  • This is kind of like gas prices: People notice, but the increases are gradual and people get used to it.
  • ISPs can affect not just our economy, but the global economy.
  • We need to create a new FCC.

There was much talk about customer bases, profits, Fortune 500 companies, and VPN workarounds—a connection several made to the Arab Spring and the way that protesters got around their countries’ internet blocks.

Each person presented what he felt was the best solution; others responded. One boy, for example, said that we ought to direct the FCC to call internet providers “common carriers.”

“But remember,” said another boy, “We want to connect to other countries.”

Another solution: “We should Install a VPN on every computer—then the ISPs can’t block anyone.”

And the response to it: “Pirates will break it.”

Finally, Bailey pointed out that web neutrality is a multi-faceted problem requiring a multi-faceted solution—a recognition that bespeaks maturity and a thoughtful, in-depth consideration of the issue. How often do even adults view an issue as black and white when really, whatever the topic under consideration, it’s complex? IMG_6552

In the end, their “best” solution was indeed a multi-layered one: Forming a Technology Standards committee, which would be made up of highly qualified IT professionals, that would have the power to create regulations, much like the FCC. It would receive its power to implement those regulations from the federal government. The committee would submit its proposed regulations to a public vote to ensure checks and balances. The first two proposed regulations would be a) creating more local ISPs to eliminate current ISP monopolies and b) developing standard tiered Internet usage guidelines to ensure a continued free exchange of information while allowing the ISPs to earn a profit.

Well, I was impressed. Who wouldn’t be?

The students considered the issue from multiple perspectives and arrived at a solution that addresses multiple concerns. This entire project is a demonstration of the kind of learning the new standards encourage: informed debate, reasoned responses, credible evidence. IMG_6549

Students come to the CRAM class with different levels of knowledge and experience. They receive elective credit for the course, and at the end of the year, they can choose to take a test over the skills they have learned: the CompTIA A+ Certification exam (the computer industry standard). Passing that exam yields an industry standard certificate that can lead to employment. Students can retake the class another year if they choose—the only problem is fitting it into their already crowded schedules. Nevertheless, next year students will be able to take an advanced class—Network II—that will culminate in an opportunity to demonstrate advanced career skills on the Comp TIA Network + Certification exam. At one of the high schools, because of a partnership with Vincennes University, students can receive dual-credit for both years of study.

“If only this had been possible when I was in high school,” remarked my colleague. “Potentially, our students can graduate with 8 college credits, two industry standard certificates, and two years of work-related experience.” IMG_6547

My colleague at the other high school explained a different benefit of the CRAM class: Students gain hands-on experience with laptops. “Many individuals in the IT world do not know how to repair laptops,” he told me. “In fact, our students gain experience that can lead to expertise in small device repair—like cell phones—that other technicians lack.”

He went on to list what he sees as the other top benefits of the CRAM class: Obviously, the certificates; definitely, the interpersonal skills. “Our students learn to communicate,” he told me. “They have to support others, and that means they have to communicate effectively.” IMG_6556

The newly-released Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects mandate the integration of reading, writing, and speaking skills in technical disciplines. The CRAM class is already equipping these aspiring IT and Computer Science experts not only with the technical skills and experience they need, but with the literacy skills that are so critical to success in post-high school coursework and in the workforce. CRAM is a whole lot more than computer repair: It’s real-world learning at its best.

Jumpstarting a Career

MilesHarrisonMiles, who impressed me as being someone a great deal older than seventeen, someone far beyond high school, stood confident and poised before three of his bosses, his teacher, and me. He was explaining the computer inventory system at the USDA Soil Erosion Lab (housed on the Purdue University campus) that it is his responsibility to maintain. Miles is a senior in high school, earning six credit hours this year through on-the-job training combined with career preparation classes at school. Here is what he does during the on-the-job component of his Interdisciplinary Cooperative Education (I.C.E.) program:

• Inventories the computers
• Installs and updates anti-virus software
• Installs the script that automatically updates the inventory of computer hardware
• Maintains an intranet website (which he developed) for use by all groups and individuals at the Soil Erosion lab
• Logs the usage of the fleet of vans the facility operates

He works from noon to about 4:00 PM every day as an I.T. intern, a job he found through the I.C.E. program at his high school. State guidelines mandate that I.C.E. students work a minimum of 15 hours a week; some work much more than that.

His friend works nearby at the USDA Livestock Behavioral Research Unit. Sometimes Nestor is handing piglets, and sometimes, seated in high back, cushioned, faux leather chair, he enters research data into a computer, analyzes that data, and confers with the senior researcher who is his supervisor about what the data reveals. Nestor is an I.C.E. student, too.

Recently I accompanied the I.C.E. teachers from the two high schools in my district on their rounds of local businesses and institutions where their students are employed. The students’ jobs could be in any one of sixteen career clusters that include finance, childcare, health systems, and manufacturing among others.

P1040427Besides the two facilities mentioned above, I visited a chiropractic office where Alyna works the front desk. She greets patients, answers the phone, prepares the day’s schedule, processes payments, and enters patient data into the computer system. At a Ford dealership, I watched Jordan and Andrew rotate tires on a truck. They also do oil changes and other routine procedures and even occasionally are assigned to do a brake job. At Dairy Queen, Ariana talked to me about her responsibilities as a crew leader, and at the end of our conversation, she served her teacher and me a chocolate dipped cone (my treat).

About ninety students in the two high schools combined take advantage of the I.C.E. program every year. They are kids who have a strong work ethic, have maintained good grades and a good attendance record at school, and have an interest in a specific career field—or think they do. Working half-days while they’re in high school gives these students a chance to explore a career field and find out if it’s really for them—before they’ve committed time and money to a post-graduate training program. They earn money while they work, and they interact with adults and develop the kinds of job skills—like responsibility, punctuality, and teamwork—that will serve them well no matter what they do in the future.

Some students already have a job when they enroll in I.C.E., and several told me they found it through networking. Others turn to the teacher, whose challenge is to match the students with their career interests. That was the case for Miles, the I.T. intern, and for Nestor, the student working at USDA. While talking to Nestor, his teacher discovered that he had a love for animals, so she contacted USDA, which had a position just right for his interests and talents.

Teachers supervise students employed at banks and daycares, in residence halls at Purdue, and for trucking companies. I.C.E. students work for veterinarians, in restaurants, for major manufacturers, in health care facilities, and for construction firms. In short, they’re everywhere.

I saw six of these kids on the job, and one commonality I observed is this: They all have uncommonly good communication skills. Each of these students was articulate, poised, and comfortable talking to me. The topic was one they knew well. They were all proud of their ability to do their job and eager to share their experience. They exhibited none of the awkwardness kids often display in speeches they give in English class. “I’m really shy,” Alyna told me, “but this job has taught me how to talk to people.” Indeed, she seemed quite at ease as she checked clients in and took payment from others in the clinic where she worked.

Being able to communicate with team members is even more important than being able to talk to someone like me about the program. Jordan stressed that when he talked about working with a crew in his bay. “You have to know when and how to ask for help. You don’t want to look stupid, but you’ve got to know when to ask for help so you don’t screw up.”

Miles explained that he has to communicate with people from a variety of cultures for whom English may or may not be the native language. English sometimes isn’t even the language of the software these scientists use, yet it is Miles’ job to facilitate the efficient use of the computers. Miles has to communicate effectively with all of the researchers and employees at his facility; his job is not just about installing software or fixing glitches.

Another commonality: These students are all developing the critical thinking skills that are essential to success in any endeavor. Whether it’s figuring out a software installation problem, working in tandem with a crew, or listening to a patient’s problem and scheduling appropriately, the students have to make judgment calls. That takes confidence, and it is confidence that these students are building through their on-the-job training.

Often the students take introductory courses early in their high school years and then, as seniors, pursue employment and the career exploration study that I.C.E. involves. Their experience often translates into a post-high school position. Jordan, for example, is out of high school now. He just happened to be on the job and a member of Andrew’s crew the day I visited the Ford dealership. Jordan explained that he had taken the automotive technology courses offered in high school, spent his senior year in the I.C.E. course, and now is employed half time while he attends advanced classes in Automotive Technology at our community college.

“I got hired at 17 because I was in the I.C.E. program,” he told me. “It made me more competitive than other people.”

P1040425The I.C.E. experience doesn’t always lead to a career in the same field. Andrew, for example, is planning to switch fields and become an electrician. But his employment in the automotive industry has clarified his career goals. “Not only that,” he said, talking to me while he worked on the truck’s tires, “the job has given me life skills.”

Ariana said the same thing. I asked her what the benefit of the I.C.E. program—in her case, working at Dairy Queen—has been. After all, she’s already enlisted in the Army and is on a trajectory to become a “multiple launch rocket systems specialist.” Dairy Queen seems some distance from that career pathway. She was quick to reply. “It’s taught me responsibility,” she said. “And discipline. Especially discipline.”

While their teacher grades their classroom work, which involves formal standards-based study of topics such as financial literacy, legal issues, and ethical behavior—all of which are tied to SCANS foundational skills—it is the employer who assesses the students on a quarterly basis and issues a performance grade. That grade is reality-based. After all, these jobs are for real, and the employers have customers and clients whose satisfaction is paramount.

I don’t think people in general know much about programs like I.C.E. High school students—at least those not involved in the I.C.E. program—typically think I.C.E. is just a way to get out of school in the afternoon. Admittedly, some of the students I talked to were not wild about the traditional high school setting—sitting in desks, listening to teachers, learning from books—and vastly prefer the “hands-on” experience they enjoy with I.C.E. But not one of the students I interviewed said that getting out of school early was a motivating factor in joining the program. Their responses were much more mature than that.

In Miles’ case, one benefit was the glimpse he’s had of the level of education needed in and beyond college for the various positions that exist in Information Technology. He’s developed a practical understanding of the distinction between training in Computer Information Technology and schooling in Computer Science. “Enrolling in I.C.E is one of the best decisions I’ve made,” he told me.

In fact, that’s what they all said.

These days we hear a lot about preparing our students to be “College and Career Ready.” The Common Core and other standards systems are heavy on the college part, but we don’t hear much about the career side of the equation. I.C.E. is an exception. These students are indeed ready to launch their careers—and that means both post-high school training (the college side) and post-high school employment (the career side).

I.C.E. isn’t for everyone, but neither is the traditional 4-year program for everyone. Students like Miles, Andrew, Alyna, and the others are ready for the responsibilities of employment in their chosen fields, and they’re jumpstarting their careers by enrolling in I.C.E.

I have to wonder if a lot of other kids are missing the boat by not taking advantage of this remarkable opportunity.

Becoming Hemingway–or at least Improving Your Prose

P1000007A new app for writers emerged last week: the Hemingway app.

Hemingway, of course, was famous for his spare writing style: straightforward language, short sentences, action verbs, and not so many adjectives. A simple style, some say.

I have to say, the app is fun, and running a few of my own paragraphs through the program verified that doing so is a quick way to detect overuse of adverbs, instances of passive voice, and any long, confusing sentences that would be better broken apart. These are writing problems that result in convoluted sentences.

Theoretically, if you eliminate those three problems in your writing, you’ll approach Hemingway’s plain, terse style. Although there’s more to being Hemingway than that, it would be instructive and possibly amusing for students studying The Old Man and the Sea or A Farewell or Arms or any of Papa’s short stories to put their own prose through the Hemingway app’s paces.

But if your students use Word—or if you do yourself—here’s a way to use Word’s grammar checker to challenge students to improve their prose—and address more issues than the three mentioned above.

When the grammar/spell check finishes, Word reports the writer’s “stats.” Many of these counts (e.g., number of words, number of words in a sentence, number of sentences in a paragraph, number of characters in a word) can be used instructionally. For instance, you can challenge students to write longer sentences—so that average sentence length increases–or to use words with more than one syllable so that the average number of characters in a word increases.

There’s also a way to use those stats to help a student lift the entire level of the paragraph or essay he has written. The next to the last score that Word reports is the Flesch-Kincaid Readability score, a measure of the reading level of the text. You do have to caution students about this score. The Flesch-Kincaid score is the reading level of their writing, so a Flesch-Kincaid score of 4.5 means that a fourth grader in the middle of the year could read and understand what has been written, not that the student is writing “like a 4th grader.” (You also have to caution them not to take the score too seriously.)

The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score is a variation on this theme. A slightly different score, the Reading Ease number indicates just how comfortably the text can be read. The higher the number, the easier the text supposedly is. Secondary students shouldn’t aim for 90, though, because then their writing would be suitable for small children. The easy reading range for 13-15-year-olds is 60-70, according to Flesch-Kincaid.

To begin, you’ll need to enable the readability statistics reporting function on Word’s grammar checker.
File > Options > Proofing
• Check the box that says “Show Readability Statistics.”
• Just below that box, a drop-down menu says ” Grammar.” Change that to “Grammar and Style.” (The grammar checker will be much more useful overall if “Grammar and Style” is the default.)
• Click “OK.”

If you have emphasized some specific writing strategies in your instruction—like sentence combining or the use of transition words—you can challenge your students to apply those strategies to their own writing. These instructional strategies are, in my experience, the most effective ones for elevating the reading level of a piece of writing using Word’s grammar checker:
• Combining sentences with coordinating conjunctions (i.e, creating compound sentences)
• Combining sentences using semi-colons
• Using colons correctly
• Combining sentences with subordinating conjunctions (i.e., creating complex sentences)
• Adding transition words and phrases
• Adding adjectives and otherwise elaborating
• Using words of more than one syllable

What follows is a series of paragraph revisions. The original paragraph was one I fabricated, but you could use a real student’s work to demonstrate this revision method for your students—or try this out with something you’ve written. The number at the end of each paragraph revision is the Flesch-Kincaid readability score for that rendition):

My name is Jose Carter. I am in 7th grade. I like to play football. I like to play basketball. I do not like baseball, though. It is too slow for me. I also like fast cars. I have three sisters. They can be real pains sometimes but sometimes they are a lot of fun. We have a good time during Christmas vacation. We live in a house on a big hill so we slide on the hill a lot. We also have a pond on our property. We go ice-skating whenever the pond is frozen. 2.1

My name is Jose Carter. I am in 7th grade. I like to play football and basketball, but I do not like baseball. It is too slow. As you can imagine, I also like fast cars. I have three sisters who can be real pains sometimes, but sometimes they are a lot of fun. For example, we have a good time during Christmas vacation. Since we live in a house on a big hill, we go sledding whenever there is enough snow. We also have a pond on our property, so we go ice-skating whenever the pond is frozen. 3.2

Hello! I am Jose Carter, a 7th grader at Any Middle School where I am on the football and basketball teams. I do not play baseball, though, because it is a slow sport, and I like speed. As you can imagine, I also like fast cars. Maybe that is why I enjoy sledding down the big hill on our property during Christmas vacation so much. When there is snow, my three sisters (who can be real pains sometimes) and I enjoy this activity very much. We also like ice-skating, which we also do whenever the pond on our property is frozen. 4.3

Let me introduce myself: I am Jose Carter, also known as “Speedy.” I am a 7th grader at Any Middle School and a proud member of the football and basketball teams. I have considered playing on the baseball team, too, but I really do not enjoy that sport because it is so slow-moving. You can probably tell from reading this that I like speed, and thus, as you can imagine, I also like fast cars. Maybe that is why I enjoy sledding down the big hill on our property during Christmas vacation so much. When there is enough snow, my three sisters and I, through repetitive runs down that hill, are able to create a thrillingly slick track. We also enjoy ice-skating on the pond on our property; once again, we carefully groom the ice so that it remains slick and we can travel fast across the frozen surface. 5.2

Using the grammar checker to improve writing can go beyond just checking for spelling errors, comma usage, capital letters, and subject-verb agreement problems. Some students will rise to the challenge of using it to revise their sentences, and they’ll make multiple revisions. But even reluctant revisionists will see improvement in their writing with just one or two attempts.

The grammar checker won’t cure everything—no more than the Hemingway app will turn our students into Hemingway—but such programs have the appeal of games, and a lot of kids like that.

Give it a shot yourself.