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|Award for Teaching Excellence Recipient: Farrah Falco|
Since 2011, Farrah Falco has been teaching K-8 students all about Computer Science (CS) at STEM Magnet Academy, as a Technology Specialist for Chicago Public Schools. At a young age, Farrah knew she wanted to be a teacher AND a computer scientist. This was back in the 1980s, when the Internet as we know it today, did not exist. She has taken her childhood dream job concept and made teaching CS come alive through trial and error, lots of experimentation, and a dynamic curriculum where individual passions are pursued and every student becomes successful.
Farrah is not shy to employ teaching tools that appeal to the age group at hand. For example, a little Beanie Baby stuffed toy, “Toby the Bear”, has become her teaching partner. Toby’s ventriloquized voice facilitates the lessons to the 6-year students. As Toby tries to follows Farrah’s directions on system navigation, algorithms, and file management, he messes up. A lot. And this is when the children come alive and help poor Toby. They encourage him to never give up. As the children become involved, they also become empathetic to his failures. They cheer on Toby to believe in himself, which he does, and then goes on to complete the assignment successfully.
During a parent/teacher conference, one parent offered the analogy on Farrah’s teaching style: “You teach like I cook.” Farrah has figured out a way to take all the hard and boring stuff and make it fun. This parent has learned how to get her kids to eat their vegetables, preparing healthy meals that are disguised as desserts. Her kids love mom’s desserts: zucchini bread and cauliflower chocolate pudding. The parent goes onto say, ”The students are so busy having a blast in your class that they don’t even realize they’re learning, which is why they love everything you do”.
Take this cooking analogy further and Farrah’s recipe for success includes a blend of many ingredients: hands-on learning, student collaboration, controlled chaos, supporting technology, piloting programs, a loud/happy classroom, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, game-based learning, whole brain teaching, and student-led learning/instruction. This shows up in the classroom with students coding robot turtles to excavate mines in MinecraftEDU so that those materials can then be used to build homes and together create a civilization where through collaboration, teamwork, and planning, the classroom learns to survive and grow.
It is especially with student-led teaching that Farrah has found tremendous success, when kids are allowed to speak and act as leaders, granting them ability to take charge of their own learning. If a student is able to teach others, then Farrah knows that they have mastered that concept. When they teach, the class treats them like a hero or heroine. That is how they learn the greatest lesson she never actually teaches. In the realm of computer science, knowledge is honored and all are welcome.
Farrah believes that if you want a child to excel in every academic area, then you teach them computer science. Logic, problem solving, and creativity aren’t just abilities used to write programs, they are the skills that are needed to solve the world's energy crisis, to change lives, and to save our planet.
This passion has led her to pilot the code.org curriculum back in 2013. She has met teachers new to teaching CS and volunteered to become their mentor. She has invited teachers, principals, and administrators from all over the world into her classroom to observe what CSEd looks like at the elementary level – including a group of African women that wanted to empower female students in their country by teaching them how to code. She is keenly aware of the lack of diversity and inclusion in CS and is committed to helping students who live in poverty gain access to a safe space to follow their passions in the field of CS.
Her advocacy work extends beyond the classroom and campus. Farrah also collaborates with Apple and Strangeloop games on creating and piloting coding/educational programs for kids and she has partnered with several universities to help develop Computer Science curriculum for K-8 teachers. She also is proud to be a part of CS4All whose goal is to "provide equity, empowerment, and opportunities that maximize the innate potential of every student to transform and advance their community, nation, and world."