Thoughts on Moderating a Facebook Group for Educators

Managing a social media group is thankless but fulfilling work.

I moderate a private Facebook group that is open to any substitute teacher and substitute paraprofessional within the NYC Department of Education. We recently admitted our thousandth member to the group! While it might seem like a trivial milestone compared to groups that are much larger than ours, I’m proud of the community that so many of our active group members have fostered. Most of what I do as a page moderator is on full display for anyone to view, but there are some additional pieces behind the scenes, such as group member concerns, reported posts, housekeeping stuff, etc. This short post includes some of my thoughts on the experience so far.

We’re a group of highly educated adults. There are a lot of degrees, teaching credentials, etc. collectively held by the members of this group. We also represent everyone from newly hired/certified teachers to retirees. Everyone (myself included!) has opinions on different things, and I deeply appreciate that the group maintains a pretty cordial atmosphere without the need for a moderator to intervene.

Do what’s best for the members. When the vaccine mandate kicked into effect, the group was getting flooded with requests to join from appointed teachers who wanted to fish around to find subs for the school. I took a hard stance against letting appointed teachers in willy nilly, because that’s what the group wanted. A group poll later led me to create monthly job polls where anyone in the group could share job requests without clogging up the main stream.

It’s important to think about the purpose of the group. As ardently passionate as I am about topics and issues that pertain to per diem educators in the DOE, it’s not a group that one casually spends time perusing like a hobby or interest group. Members generally check the page when they have a question or if some new information is released by the DOE or SubCentral. People visit this group to access information, and I hope that the flow of the group helps them to get that info in a timely manner.

The goal is not to be likeable. This one is related to the previous point. I like to think I’m on good terms with most folks in the group. I’m generally one of the more active posters/commenters, and I always like to help folks find factual information with sources whenever I can. My goal is to get people correct information to help them know what’s going on with renewal, summer school, etc. I’ve been called rude and mean on a few occasions, which I’m totally fine with. My goal is not to be likeable, my goal is to be helpful. I often drop links that contain info to someone’s question and/or briefly echo common questions that have been answered before. Someone just yesterday told me that I didn’t know what I was talking about as a “pandemic sub” (being relatively new to the DOE), and I got a chuckle out of that. Probably my most favorite comment that I’ve personally received so far.

Group members need to feel a sense of ownership in the page. I generally don’t do things without polling members of the group and/or talking to folks and seeing what they’re interested in.

Always find new ways to improve the experience for members. It seems like Facebook is always rolling out new features, and it’s exciting to try them out to see if they improve the experience that group members have when they visit the page. I’ve recently found that pinned/featured posts and hashtags are really helpful tools to help group members find what they need. Summer Rising/school is a hot topic right now, and group members can find info that they need wither by searching in the group or by simply using the #summer2022 hashtag that will pull all related posts within the page.

This group holds a special place in my heart, and I appreciate that I’ve had the chance to play a role in shaping the experience that group members have when they visit the page. I hope that the page continues to grow, and maybe we’ll even hit our next thousand member milestone in a few months!

Shaking the Dust Off of Emacs

Who wouldn’t want to compose most of their text in a program from the 1970’s?

It’s been a while since I’ve messed around with emacs, an extensible, customizable text editor that can literally do anything under the sun.

The summer term at Hunter College began about two weeks ago, marking the beginning of my return to grad school. With it being the start of a new chapter in my academic journey, I thought it would be a great time to revisit my productivity tools.

I’ve previously used Google Drive, which is a great all-around tool for notes. The interface is good enough, generally easy to use, and Drive makes files pretty easy to edit and share. Google Drive is an amazing collaborative tool, and I expect most of my teaching work in the fall will be based around Drive, including lesson plans, lesson slide decks for students, etc.

A few years ago, I dabbled in statistics and computer science when I was a graduate student at Indiana University. In the process, I learned enough Python and R to rekindle a long-forgotten love that I had developed for technology.

My stats coursework was a watershed moment for my productivity, because it was during an introductory statistics course that I discovered R Markdown, a fantastic tool for gathering notes, data, code, etc. all in one place.

R Markdown is a type of markdown language, meaning that plain text can be converted to a number of elements, such as bold or italicized text, links, and more. The beauty of markdown languages lies in their simplicity. Without wading through GUI menus in Word or Google Docs to implement various types of formatted texts, I find it much easier to get my notes and thoughts directly from my head into a digital file. Markdown streamlines the writing process exponentially for those who take the time to learn it, although I recognize it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Many will prefer the familiar GUI’s of Microsoft Office or Google Drive, and that’s completely fine.

Using R Markdown in RStudio was a huge step in the right direction for my productivity, but it still was bogged down by some of the same problems as other GUI editors — it wasn’t always clear how to do certain things, and every time I move my right hand to move the mouse or tap the touchpad I lose just a bit of my efficiency. I know it seems trivial, but the time needed to move a mouse, click on the screen, and return to a typing position really do add up. I later realized that .rmd files could be prepared in plain text files– perhaps I will try experimenting more with the format one day. I sometimes suffer from being enticed by multiple options to get a task done, that I’ve sometimes stopped myself from getting any work done at all. I’ve used emacs these last few weeks, and I’m committed to this workflow, at least for now.

I wanted a text editor that can be whatever I need it to be, and that can also grow with me over time as I learn more about it’s features and the myriad of ways to customize it. I was never a power user by any means, but I worked through the emacs tutorial a couple of times and looked over a cheat sheet enough to realize how powerful of a tool it can be.

As I settle into the term, I’m going to use this summer to experiment with a note taking workflow based on org mode, an emacs mode that streamlines a lot of organizational tasks, such as note-taking, various documents, to-do lists, and more. I largely use org mode as a note-taking system, but there are plenty of other awesome things that I hope to learn over time.

Unfortunately, I’m fairly certain that I’ll never get to share my interest in emacs with future coworkers — teachers who live pretty happily in Microsoft Office and Google Suite tools. Not everyone wants to work inside of a program that looks like a terminal shell from the 1970’s, and that’s totally fine. In the meantime, I’ll likely use emacs for my own use, copying and pasting text wherever it needs to go.

Switching to Linux

In which I extol the virtues of a free operating system.

I was on a roll with venting about technology earlier this week, and thought I’d keep the tech theme going as I move to dump Window$ in favor of another operating system.

When educators think of computers, we tend to default to the Windows vs. Mac dichotomy. Folks tend to prefer one operating system over the other, and that’s totally fine. But what if there were a better option, or hundreds out there? Enter Linux. Linux is a family of open-source operating systems that are all built around something called the Linux kernel. Linux distributions (flavors of the operating system) have a few things going for them, namely that they’re completely free with no catches, well-maintained, and incredibly powerful.

I recently installed Linux Mint, and I’m pretty excited to explore what it can do. Sure it does all of the normal things like access the web browser, print documents, etc., but there’s so much more power in a Linux machine compared to Windows or Mac. I appreciate that this particular flavor of Linux is pretty user-friendly, affording me the flexibility and power of Linux without getting bogged down in constant tinkering that may be necessary on more advanced systems. Mint is derived from a distribution called Ubuntu, which is further derived from Debian. This Debian-based branch of Linux distros is pretty well documented, with plenty of helpful wikis, tidbits, etc. scattered across the internet.

Some of the first programs I set up once I installed the OS were:

  • Emacs: A pretty amazing program that deserves it’s own post (or a dozen, to be realistic). Emacs is an infinitely extendable and customizable text editor and it can be molded to fit the needs of individual users. There’s quite a learning curve, but it very well just might be one of the most powerful pieces of software that I know of.
  • Visual Studio Code: My current Integrated Development Environment (IDE) of choice. It’s basically Microsoft Word for writing computer code.
  • LaTeX/AucTex: A text processor built around a markup language. Very well-known in academic circles for typesetting various mathematical problems, notes, diagrams, etc. (imagine how a math textbook page might look).

I decided to dual boot Linux along my pre-existing Windows setup. This means that every time I start my laptop I have the option of booting into Linux Mint or into Windows. For all intents and purposes they’re two completely different computers that happen to share the same hardware. I thought about completely banishing Windows from my laptop, but I figured it was worth keeping at the very least since I’ve already paid the ‘Windows tax’. There’s also the peace of mind in knowing that if something ever were to go wrong with my Mint setup, I can easily boot into and work from the Windows partition while I figure out how to clean up my digital mess.

No operating system is perfect, but the beauty of Linux is that I’ll be able to customize just about any part of my system. It’s an incredibly liberating feeling compared to the technological shackles placed onto computer users by the likes of Window$ and Apple. There’s still so much for me to learn, but I’m excited to see what I’ll be able to do with Linux.

A screenshot of the Linux Mint desktop. Looks pretty similar to Windows.

Lamenting the Limitations of WordPress

Always read the fine print before you spend hard-earned money.

When setting up this blog and other sites that I’ve worked on, I’ve oscillated between using the usual content management systems like WordPress, Blogger, Blogspot, etc. and using what’s called a static site generator like Jekyll or Hugo. The idea behind static sites is pretty straightforward. CMS’s (like WordPress) can be insanely bulky, obtuse, and possibly even present security risks. This blog post does a good job comparing CMS’s to static sites. CMS’s come ready to go out of the box, whereas a static site may take a bit more effort to setup and fine tune.

As I write this blog post, I’m mildly irritated that there’s no convenient way for me to change the default font size for my blog posts to 14pts (I favor a smaller font for my sites). Despite the fact that I paid $48 for the personal plan, it seems that $48 isn’t worth the ability to sprinkle in some custom CSS. The WordPress powers that be decided that the ability to use custom CSS is worth $96 — double the cost of the personal plan!

p {
  font-size: 14px;
}

See that? That’s literally all I want to do. p represents the body text on my site, and font-size: 14px; would globally set all fonts to 14px. I refuse to shell out any more money to WordPress, especially when I could have complete control over my site through other platforms like a static site generator.

I’ve dabbled in making static sites before, although I didn’t really take the time to learn the requisite tools/scripting languages very well. Instead I just grabbed a theme that looked decent to me and did some light customization together by clobbering code snippets together that I found across the internet.

My requirements for a personal site are pretty simple:

  • Minimal theme that is blog-friendly.
  • Use of Google Analytics and Disqus .
  • Allow users to easily view blog material by chronological order and category tag. I recently found a static site template that had chronological tags to view posts by year on the blog page itself, and a separate tags page for viewers interested in exploring posts categorically.
  • I’d like to combine my professional and music blogs onto one site, and simply keep a separate page that lists my music-related posts separately from my professionally-oriented posts.

At this point, I’m leaning towards jumping ship from WordPress and moving back to a static site, perhaps this time built in Hugo. I have the better part of a year left on my WordPress personal plan subscription, leaving me with plenty of time to do my research and build up a site the way I want it to.

I’m not going to settle for using technology that doesn’t meet my needs/preferences when there are so many options outside the worlds of WordPress, Blogspot, et al. Again, it’s ludicrous that paying $48/year doesn’t allow me the privilege of…globally setting the theme size for my blog. I hope to report back soon with some updates on what I’ve decided to do with the site.

Computer Programming, Revisited

public class HelloWorld {
    public static void main(String[] args) {
        System.out.println("Hello, World");
    }
}

On a chilly evening in January 2014, I was a college freshman sitting in my lab section for CSC 150: Intro to Computer Science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I logged into my assigned workstation and over the course of 30 minutes, I had produced my first ever computer program, the snippet at the top of this blog post.

The syntax appears quite strange to anyone that’s never dabbled in code, but it’s an incredibly simple program. Whenever this program is run, it prints the text “Hello, world” to the computer screen.

As things would transpire, I didn’t go on to become a computer science major — quite the opposite actually. I earned my baccalaureate degree in classical studies (as in the Greco-Roman world, not AC/DC or Shakespeare), and went on to earn my master’s degree in education. Even though I didn’t “stick” with computer science in terms of my academic or professional trajectories, my first exposure to the world of computer code sparked a keen interest that I would revisit six years later through an elective course at Indiana University.

A few nights ago, I came across some old computer programs that I had completed as part of an introduction to Python programming while in grad school. I had organized the files on my GitHub account, which is like a programmer’s version of Google Drive. I downloaded a few simple programs that I had made, and felt a familiar sense of curiosity and intrigue at seeing them come to life in the screen. The more I thought about it, the more that I realized that I had a keen interest in getting back into the world of computer programming. There are a few reasons for that:

  • I dabbled in computer science as an undergrad and grad student, and I really enjoyed the classes that I took. Computer programming exists at a perfect intersection between art and science, and it always appealed to my brain in a unique way. There was always a thrill around getting a program to do exactly what you want it to do, even with the frustrations that come with debugging faulty logic.
  • New York City schools are making a big push for computer science, and I’m fairly confident that I’d like to obtain an additional license in this area. I can only imagine how awestruck I would have been if I knew about programming in high school, and I’d like to share that joy with students one day.
  • I’ve always been a deeply creative person, and coding definitely checks off that box.

I’m not sure exactly where my rekindled interest in computer programming came from, but I’m excited to get back into it, even if only as a hobby. Time is such a precious commodity these days, but I’m sure that I’ll make the most of it. I hope to share some occasional updates and code snippets here on the blog.