Gina Tesoriero “It's challenging to find a balance — to structure and support the kids that need it, but also give them the freedom to fail and bring their own interests into things.”

Gina Tesoriero is a networked education activist and an advocate for web literacy and digital inclusion. She currently works as a Special Education Teacher at the new York City Department of Education. She has been active in the internet health movement as a Hive NYC member, Club Captain, and MozFest volunteer.

Evidence:

Gina’s Story

Tell me what you’re working on now?

Inside or outside of the classroom?

Tell me a little bit about both.

I transitioned to a new school so that I could work specifically with students with special needs. I’m at a middle school in Washington Heights. It’s a public school, a community school, and I’m teaching a STEM-based engineering kind of class to all students that have an IEP [Individualized Education Program]. I had to teach math for a little while because of test prep, but I’m back now to teaching STEM. We’re doing a unit on biomimicry. I try to incorporate sharing knowledge and doing research on their own as much as possible. It’s almost like once I put a computer in front of them to explore content or create content they’re more engaged, so that’s really good.

Outside of school I’m running workshops for teachers. I’m working at a public school in the Bronx leading workshops on design thinking and student-centered environments. I’m excited to be working with the PASE (Partnership for After School Education) again — next month I’ll be helping them run a workshop for teachers on how to do curriculum using Thimble to create web pages about their community.

Is that going to be through the summer?

Just one day. I love teaching and supporting teachers — they have a lot of barriers they think they can’t overcome because they have students with different needs. When they hear that I’m a special education teacher and that I do this with my ICT classes or my self-contained classes, I think it motivates them and shows them that it is possible and that it’s worth it, you know? I really like having that opportunity.

Can you tell me a time when you felt a sense of success? A specific story or an anecdote where something stands out for you that you’re really proud of?

When I first started learning about all the great things you guys are doing — this was around the time when I started my internship with the National Summer Learning Association — I started to learn about all the tools that Mozilla has and all that kind of stuff. I brought it to one of my very challenging students as a way to engage him and interest him, to help him when he couldn’t focus. Because he was so intelligent, he was above a 12th grade reading level in a 7th grade class, but he couldn’t sit still and he wasn’t interested in anything about school, and so he was a terror in the classroom.

I would show him all the different tools and I’d go and learn more and I’d ask him for his opinion on what he wanted to know and I’d research and find stuff, and it seemed like every tool I kept bringing to him just wasn’t doing what I thought. I expected for him to get really excited about it and this would just change him as a student. It didn’t happen like that, but then two years later, he emailed me and told me that he was so thankful for me trying to push him with technology, and all the things that I showed him interested him and he was just too immature to show it.

He ended up getting accepted into a Google mentorship program in high school, and if he was able to upkeep a certain average they were going to pay for his college. I thought it was a total failure, and then two years later I find out that because of his interest and background, he was actually going home and doing these things that I wanted him to do in class. Who knew? It was really exciting finding that out later and something I’ve been really proud of.

That is a success, for sure. What about an example of a challenge? Something that’s maybe top of mind now or something that is more persistent?

It’s just really hard to manage a bunch of different students with different levels of knowledge. There’s a lot of troubleshooting things when you’re dealing with computers and having students work at their own pace. It would sound like a good idea to go over these troubleshooting things, but then other kids were getting bored, because they didn’t have those troubleshooting problems. It’s just really hard that some kids are asking you where to put the URL and then other kids are having more complex problems with a code or something.

For me, it’s just really hard to level the playing field in a way that’s not boring some students and over the head of some other students. I went to a Code.org training last summer, and they did this paired programming thing, which I’m sure I’d heard about a million times, but until I did it myself I didn’t really see the benefit of it. I do that in my class a lot, and I try to be real thoughtful when I pair the students. Sometimes I pair them to have one student be a leader, and sometimes I pair them for two students at the same level, depending on the student and how they’re able to deal with failure and frustration.

It’s really hard to manage everyone’s varied abilities in a classroom, and at the same time also give them open-ended freedom to create. It’s challenging to find a balance — to structure and support the kids that need it, but also give them the freedom to fail and bring their own interests into things.

My next question was going to be how you approached addressing the challenge, but it sounds like you’ve done your own professional development and just thought of different ways to try to solve for that.

Yeah, I mean it’s not perfect. Every day there’s a new thing that comes up, but the paired programming has really helped me at least manage it better. I think all too often teachers say things are perfect, right? That their solution solves everything, but it doesn’t solve it every day.

Now, turning to the broadest issue in the Mozilla universe, which is internet health. In your words, what does a healthy internet mean to you?

Well, I guess I would say that a healthy internet is a place or a space where everyone feels comfortable, where no one’s being targeted or bullied on the internet, where there are representations of different types of people, different interests, different backgrounds. There’s a wide representation of everyone — everyone can find a person on the internet that looks like them or that has similar interests, and where students or anybody is being inspired to interact or to add to or to contribute something make something better instead of just taking in the knowledge.

I would also say it’s a place where the users are smart enough to know how to find out if something’s true or not, where there’s some kind of verification, or at least they know the steps to follow of finding multiple sources that say the same thing, so that they can make sure the information they’re getting is accurate — because with everyone having a hand in creating things, you also have to keep an eye on what’s really accurate, you know?

Right.

A good balance between those two things, where there’s definitely public interactions and public contributions, but that there’s some kind of verification, or at least people are educated in how to do that.

What about the phrase working open? What does that mean to you?

I would say, I think it’s probably meaning the open environments where we allow people to have our work free of charge and to make edits and revisions to it to improve it. Open working is being transparent  — if that means explaining why you’re doing something in some cases, or it might be showing your code for how you’ve built something and letting other users contribute to that and modify it and remix it or offer suggestions on your thoughts or help solve problems that you might encounter.

Can you think of a specific time that working open had a major impact for you?

When I work with teachers a lot, I really value the sharing of teachers. Teachers are so open to share their resources free of charge. No teacher has ever charged me. I really enjoy communicating with them about how to improve the things I’m doing. I think that the teaching profession has this idea of working open, even though it might not be exactly what it means in the digital world, but I do think that they have a good open attitude about things. I guess working open, I really enjoyed being able to look behind websites and see the code that they used to create things, because that’s kind of the way that I learned a little bit about coding was by seeing how it was written and then modifying it. Those things are really helpful to me to gain my whole knowledge.

How did you get involved with Mozilla, and what has then been like for you?

I started with an internship with the Summer Learning Association, and we worked on Maker Party. I worked with Julia. The first thing I ever did was I was told to go to a hackathon in Astoria, and I didn’t know much about coding. I met fourth grade girls that kind of taught me everything. The foundation of my current knowledge is from these fourth-grade girls. They taught me everything, which was the cutest thing ever.

It was a pretty intimidating world to walk into at first, seeing everyone that just talked this language I didn’t even know what anything meant, all these jargon words. I just sat with the kids, and they taught me everything in such an open manner. I was like well, it’s these younger kids, and they’re just so sweet, and they helped me because they’re younger. But the more I got involved in the community, I realized it’s just this New York edtech community that is so welcoming and so quick to help. It has really changed my life.

It’s taught me how to step out of my comfort zone, and it’s given me nothing but positive rewards. I just can’t get over how open and helpful everyone is. I just emailed a teacher, Tracy, a question that I had about circuits, and she solved it for me for nothing. She’s not charging me money, but the stores I go to to ask these questions refer me to consultants that I’ll have to pay — but when I asked Tracy and she gave me an answer in five minutes. I have other people willing to Skype with me or Google Hangout with me so that they can see the problem.

It’s just such a welcoming, open-armed community. I learned so much and I’m still learning. Mozilla changed my life, it really has. It’s given me opportunities and definitely changed my philosophy of teaching and a lot of stuff like that.

Do you have another example of how Mozilla had some kind of impact on your life or your work? I know you just gave some examples, but I’m also wondering is there something related to the conferences that you’ve been speaking at or other specific things you can point to that speak to the impacts?

Yeah. I can definitely share one that’s student-based and one that’s teacher-based.

The student-based one is I just actually wrote about it in a blog post called, Teaching Students to Design the World They Live In. This is similar to the story I told you about, the student that I was speaking about that was really inspired by it. At the same time as I was starting to intern with Mozilla and learning all the tools that you guys have and having all the opportunities that you guys offered me, I was struggling in my class a lot. I really wanted them to be engaged. I thought that if I put computers in front of them, it would help them. It does help some, but it was like a constant battle to keep them on task on the computers.

They were always trying to go and do the fun things or the games or this or that. As I’m interning with Mozilla, I’m learning all these tools, and so I realized that what I was doing with my students was having them be consumers and just do what I’m telling them to do instead of having them create and interact. I found that once I let the students create websites or games using Scratch or videos using Popcorn, they were doing all the things I wanted them to do without being told.

That really impacted the way I teach and the way that more of a project-based approach, to where students are learning something for a purpose, and where the students are using their knowledge to create something that they’re proud of. Nobody cared about researching when they were writing an essay — even if it was on Google Docs. They didn’t care. But when they were researching for a website that they were going to create, they cared. When all the battles I had disappeared because they were creating something that related to something they were interested in, something that gave them almost a status symbol. It was like a status for them, like I created a website. I created this meme. Or I made this video. You know? It was kind of a different — and it changed a lot.

When I was able to work with teachers through the opportunities that Mozilla has offered me, I was able to learn how much teachers do want to try something new. They’re just afraid. I learned more of how I can support teachers was by admitting the obstacles are true. Because I think that it’s so great. A lot of teachers go to these workshops, and everyone’s telling them how it’s so easy and how this is going to change their students and everything’s perfect. But then when the teachers try it, it’s not perfect. The truth is, it never was perfect for anybody. Everyone had obstacles.

The more honest I am with teachers, I felt like the more willing they are to try the things, because they know that it’s like a design process, where you’re making changes and iterations and learning as you go. I learned that a lot, too, as I worked with teachers. Because I thought it was my job to tell them that everything was easy and that they could do it, but it wasn’t. My job was to work through the obstacles that they thought they were facing and give them my suggestions and build ideas with them.

That’s very cool. Do you have any examples of a time when Mozilla disappointed you? Is there something that we could have done to support you more? Or a time you weren’t thrilled with the way things were handled?

I’ll be honest. I’m really sad about mini group. I wish we still had it as a platform to share and collaborate.

Yeah, you’re not the only one. But can you articulate why it was useful and — because it still will be helpful to know what purpose that served for you and what you kind of lost when it went away.

For me, mini group was a constant reminder that this world existed, because I was getting almost inundated with emails, because there is so much — it was such a community. I just had never seen a community like that — a place to post questions. If I had a question about something, I would post it there. Now I’m running around going to stores, trying to reach out to people on Facebook messenger, and trying to ask the question. Had I had the circuit question during mini group, I could have just put it on the mini group. I would have had an answer and several likes.

For me, the mini group was — seeing it in my email reminded me — that the community existed. I was so involved in activities, because I was always hearing about things that were happening. Even if it wasn’t a Mozilla-run program — it might have been one of the partners in the Hive — I would meet a whole new group of people and have a lot of opportunities and learning experiences.

I liked the back-and-forth between people, because it reminded me that I’m not the only one that had questions, or I’m not the only one who’s enthusiastic about this stuff. If I had a question I could ask — that’s what I really liked about the mini group.

There is still communication now, it is just less frequent. It feels a little different.

Yeah. It definitely was. There was something about that platform that we were able to get people on and engaged and active. Then it just dispersed. Now some people are on the listserv, some are on Slack, and it’s been hard to kind of get everyone talking together in one place.

Could you guys make your own mini group? That has the same things as mini groups had?

I’m not sure we want to build a whole platform for that.

Yeah. It’d probably be so much work.

We haven’t really found the perfect replacement for it, either. Lots of people were sad when they closed down, for sure… All right. moving on from mini group…  If you had access to ten skilled volunteer collaborators, what would their skills be, and what would you ask them to do?

I’d want a couple engineers in the crew. Someone that does software, someone that does hardware. A lot of my projects are based on hands-on design challenges for students to solve problems. I’d really like to have access to more of the edtech community that I feel very connected to. I would need more physical engineering, because I’d like to hear about the current problems they’re working on, so that I could bring those problems that they’re engaging into my classroom to try to engage my students in solving problems that are going to be there when they get out of school, more realistic problems.

There’s only so many bridges that can be built, so teaching students bridge building, although it has a lot of purposes, is not the problems they’re going to be facing when they’re out of school. I definitely want more access to engineers. I would also like to have a group that includes educators that aren’t only from the maths or sciences. A lot of teachers that I meet through the edtech community or through the Hive are all science or math teachers. I think that getting English teachers or social studies teachers or art teachers would be really good. I would love to be on a team with someone who can make change within the Department of Edudcation.

What kind of change?

Change on a big scale, change about assessment. But that’s not a Department of Education problem, but I guess a change about [educational] programming. Who has access to computer science and who has access to STEM? What kind of professional development are we providing the people that are doing these things? How much ownership do the teachers in the department have over what they’re teaching?

I’m in a school right now where teachers are fed lesson plans. That can’t be fun. That can’t be good for the kids. I’d want to have all these people at the table, because that would be a really successful conversation about what the real world needs from these kids and how we prepare them for the real world by teaching a little differently or being a little bit more creative with [educational] programming. We need to give teachers a little bit more freedom with what they’re teaching, and a little bit less stress about assessments. Or, at least, give them stress about assessments, but let them create the assessments, you know?

There’s a huge disconnect between the people in charge of education and teachers, and the people in charge of education and the real world. The people in charge of education are in this little bubble, and they don’t really see what the real world is asking of these kids, and they don’t see what the teachers are going through in the day-to-day. They’re just out there making rules based on their experiences, based on their own education. We need to kind of change how we’re training kids if we don’t want to be old people with a lot of problems. We want the kids to start solving these problems. I think we have to better prepare these kids for the future. We’re still trying to do education the same way.

I like the way the department is going with the STEM initiative and stuff, but there’s a lot of holes that aren’t filled in. Even for the STEM team, who does a professional institute twice a year — once in the summer, once over break — there’s are so many inconsistencies in way that people are taught. Nobody is following research-based methods on how to teach adults, that I know of. It’s just unfortunate, we need to train trainers how to train our teachers. Otherwise, they’re just wasting their time.

As professional learning facilitators, we have to be thinking, “Are teachers feeling comfortable and confident to do what you’re teaching them to do in the classroom?” The answer, I bet, is no, because they’re not reflecting enough with the classes, they’re not getting the teachers to really struggle on their own. They’re teaching the teachers like they’re students, which is silly, because you need the teachers to be at the height of frustration for them to want to change — for them to really get something.

It’s definitely a slow process, and it’s such an old institution. Making real change is happening at a snail’s pace.

That is true.

Is there anything else you want to tell me or any questions you have for me? I’m at the end of my questions for you, so let me know if there’s anything else, or if you have questions for me.

I just have never, ever been a part of an institution or project that was so reflective. Every couple of months there’s a survey about how Hive has helped you, or there’s always check ins, or there’s always time for people to be involved in the community call. I really wish Mozilla could share their model out with other companies that are trying to do things, because it works. They’re student-centered, if we were students. They’re participant-centered. They think, “Where to go next? What do the people involved want?”

Thinking about it now, the way Mozilla runs the Hive and the way that they run their programs, I think has kind of changed who I am as a teacher. Because all these check-ins that they do, and how I really feel like if I give my opinion, it matters. I’ve emailed them with problems I’ve had or questions, and if they can’t answer them, they send me to someone who can, and they answer it promptly. Or they ask me follow-up questions about stuff, because you [Mozilla] really whole heartedly care about what people that are using their tools think. I think that’s amazing. I really thank them for teaching me how to really make an impactful program, or creating an impactful experience, for people is by having their voices be heard.

Aw, I’m all verklempt. That’s really nice to know. I want to thank you, again, because you’ve been such an active contributor, and you’ve been enthusiastic and open to trying new things and responsive. We care about and appreciate that you’re seeing it for that, and that you’re pulling from us and from our models what you need to be better at what you do. Thank you.

Yeah, well, I’m so thankful. Mozilla is the best. I think back to the day I applied to that summer learning job, and the idea that things were going to change. I had no idea. You never know when you make these decisions that these are going to have such an impact.