Like other students, Rachel Warbelow went to Dev Bootcamp in the Summer of 2013 to learn to code. Unlike other students, Rachel was actually a teacher herself. She needed to learn to code in order to launch SWOTbot, an app that automated the manual process she had developed to track and communicate with her students. When we ran across Rachel’s Indiegogo campaign to buy computers for her class (who she was also teaching to code at the time), we knew we had to find out more about her story.
Read on for more about Rachel's brilliant idea for the SWOT program and how she used Dev Bootcamp to acheive her massive goals.
How and when did you get into teaching? How did SWOT evolve?
I went to Indiana University and majored in journalism and cello performance. I was planning on going to law school, but heard about Teach for America. I applied and ended up getting in, so I accepted the offer and got placed in Las Vegas teaching 4th Grade. I followed up with the same students when they got to 6th Grade and we found that students would return to visit us with these horror stories in Middle School of failing grades, getting into fights -- all sorts of stuff. It felt like the hard work I put into my fifth grade class was canceled out when my kids when to middle school.
My cofounder, Ben Salkowe, was teaching 5th Grade at the same school and finding the same problem, and we wanted to do something about it. We started SWOT as a college-prep, extended-day program. The kids were with us from 7:30am to 5pm. It wasn’t all academics -- we had Choice Time where students were able to choose what they learned (such as violin, sports, etc.), and we started our morning with a fitness block. The rest of the time was focused, high rigor, college-prep academics.
Did you get a lot of support (financial or otherwise) from your school?
We didn’t really feel like we needed to be paid for the extra work. For us, we wanted to see what we could do to change these lives and prove people wrong. That was our motivation -- to prove everyone wrong who said these kids were going to fail and end up dropping out, or worse. We didn’t have funding that first year, but our principal was super supportive -- any grant or extra money she could find, she would go out of her way to get. That was four years ago. Our students that year did so well on the state test that our district took notice, and we got permission to keep our group of students for 6th Grade at the same school. We also added another teacher, so we had a 5th and 6th grade at the elementary school, which in Nevada is unheard of. This year, we’re doing 7th and 8th Grade -- we have about 120 students, and next year will be 6th-9th grade with about 250 students.
Do students have to apply to the SWOT program?
We want this to be student-driven. We don’t want a parent to see “College-Prep” and drag the kid in. The way we recruited in the past was to go to elementary and middle schools and pitch the idea that they’ll be working harder than they’ve ever worked before, but we’re promising that the hard work put you on a different life path. Even if they don’t decide to go to college, and instead go to Dev Bootcamp or a trade school, they still need these skills to be successful. If this is something that they want to do, we tell them to go home and bring their parents to the parent meeting. We also tell them that we don’t know them -- we don’t know if they’ve been suspended, if they throw things in class, or if they’ve failed in the past. We try to target students whose teachers may have given up on them in the past. Often times, those are the kids who are going to change the world; the ones who don’t quite fit into a traditional classroom environment.
It will be cool to see your success rate, when your first cohort of students starts applying to college!
Our first class will be ninth graders next year and several of them are applying to college summer programs right now. That’s another thing -- getting them on a college campus is huge. We want to give them the chance to picture themselves as college students.
When did you decide to go to Dev Bootcamp?
Since we started SWOT, we’ve been tracking student data. I’m kind of a data freak; I love looking at data, analyzing it, and seeing what you can do with it. Our teachers had been doing all of this on clipboards and spreadsheets and a giant mass of disconnected documents. As the program started to grow, the thought of more papers made me want to cry! It was a lot of data, and it took hours to input to make these reports for the students and parents. I love Excel and someone told me that if I enjoyed logic and writing formulas, I would really like programming. So I Googled “learn to code,” and found Codecademy.com, started doing those exercises, and it was like stress relief to me. I knew that I wanted to build an automated system to work with this data, so I started looking at university classes over the summer, and then I found Dev Bootcamp. After looking at some of the blogs that students had written, I knew this was the place I wanted to be. I wanted to be somewhere where people work incredibly hard for really long hours and the university setting often time seemed like people were just there to get the degree. I found that with Dev Bootcamp, you’re not going there to get something, you’re going for the experience and to work as hard as you can. I applied and I ended up getting accepted.
Did you do the summer cohort?
Yes, I did the summer cohort of 2013 from mid-June to late-August. It was the only cohort that fit into my summer break as a teacher. When I applied, they told me it was already filled, and I was so sad! But a few days later I got an email with great news – I would be able to join.
Since this was the summer cohort, did you find that there were a bunch of other teachers and students?
No, there weren’t any other teachers. It was a very eclectic group of people. There was a chimney sweep, people with advanced degrees, and people who barely made it through high school. But what they all had in common is that they were so smart, super motivated, really kind, and willing to work as hard as it took.
Were you upfront about not wanting to go through the job recruiting process?
Yeah, and I wanted to make that pretty clear. I know one of the things they brag about on their website is their job placement. So I told them I wasn’t planning on getting a job out of this, I just didn’t know where else to go to learn how to do what I wanted to do. Obviously that was a bit of an anomaly, but they were pretty supportive in the idea.
Eventually, for your group project, you worked on SWOTbot, right? How did that come about?
I was really excited that it worked out that way. The third to last week, you pitch ideas, and I was almost not going to pitch mine because there were so many cool ideas. But my idea actually got top voted, so I got this amazing team of people (Allen Dayag, Jake Myers, and Eric Allen) to work with on SWOTbot. It was really fun -- we built it in eight days, and obviously had to work on fixing bugs and building out features for the next month.
The manual SWOT program is very data driven, so take us through how it translated into a web app.
The first night we were planning this out, I opened all of the documents I had from the past couple years -- the Excel spreadsheets, the checklists, and the Google Docs. Then, we got on the phone with students and their families. We asked, “If you had this web app where you could access anything about your student, what would be the most important features?” Then we thought about what would be easiest for a teacher. One of the biggest problems with putting technology in a classroom is that a lot of the time it makes my job harder. The technology is slow, it has to connect to the internet, it takes a million buttons to get to the program, etc. So that was our big focus: what will make teachers love to use this? At first, we were thinking to have the app on a computer, but a teacher can’t be moving around the classroom that way. Without the SWOTbot, we did our tracking on clipboards, so we optimized it for an iPad -- we didn’t make it a native iOS app, we made it a web app. That way, teachers can walk around their classrooms or be working with small groups of students and still be entering behaviors and other student data.
That’s so smart. Teachers should be designing technology for teachers.
I just had that conversation with someone. It seems like our district has a million pieces of software for attendance and office referrals and grades. They don’t work well together or communicate with each other. We want all of that information in one place, so a parent logs in and can see attendance, grades, missing work, message the teacher, detentions.
So you have two stories here. The first is your actual app, SWOTbot. The second is that when you got back to school, you started teaching your kids how to code. Tell us about that.
I had the time of my life that summer, and I thought that if someone had introduced me to coding in middle or high school, I don’t know what my life trajectory would have been. For the kids who I haven’t been able to find what makes them tick or spark, what if it was coding? The biggest problem was that our program, the Scholars Working OverTime, didn’t have computers. We’re a middle school housed inside of a wing of a high school. The high school has its own computer labs, but it’s unpredictable when they’ll be available since the high school classes use them. So I said- I’ll just teach my students to code on paper.
It didn’t occur to me how weird that was because I was so excited. I hooked my laptop up to the projector and would type what a kid had written to show them how it worked on screen. The kids really liked that -- they thought it was awesome when they got their paper put in Sublime (a text editor) and we ran it in Terminal. The problem was that when the students were able to use the high school’s computer lab and were able to see their results and have instant gratification, coming back to the classroom and having to code on paper was a letdown for them. If you have a syntax error on paper, it’s not going to tell you. That was a struggle.
These kids are going to be amazing at whiteboarding when it comes time for them to interview!
Yep, on a computer, you start typing the first couple letters, hit TAB, and it fills in the rest. By learning to do this on paper, the kids literally had to know every the placement of every single bracket, semicolon, etc.
Are you using an online program like Codecademy as your curriculum, or lessons you learned from Dev Bootcamp?
A combination of everything. I had to figure out what works best on paper and then combined some of the skills from Dev Bootcamp’s prework, some Codecademy lessons, and a few online tutorials. Mainly it was looking at those things, getting ideas, and then tailoring it to what would be best for the kids.
A lot of what we hear about bootcamps is that frustration is a huge part of the process, but I imagine that with your group of middle schoolers, you don’t necessarily want them to be frustrated- how do you deal with that?
The first day of class, I was honest about the fact that I was literally three months ahead of the students in terms of coding. I told them I didn’t have all of the answers and that even if I did, I wouldn’t necessarily give them out. I think that was a very different mindset than they were used to. In general, in the classroom, you raise your hand and the teacher answers your question. But with coding, you have to be able to find the answer to something you don’t know. That’s still a struggle with my class today -- it’s teaching them the soft skill of being able to independently solve a problem by researching it. It’s a different type of learning and thinking for them.
Outside of SWOT, have other teachers reached out to you about using the app?
Yeah, we had quite a few teachers run across our campaign (to buy computers) on Indiegogo and ask to use the app in their classroom. I wish everyone could use it, but the four of us who developed it had been coding for two months when we made it, so it’s still breakable and has bugs. Our goal is to rebuild it over the summer. Three of the people on our team are now Junior Developers, so they have coding jobs. They’re learning a ton, I’m keeping my skills up, and we’ll make it more accessible and more stable.
Is there any new functionality planned for the next iteration of the app?
Definitely. This year was cool because we were able to see what worked and what we didn’t want. There’s no better feeling than having an idea and being able to build it.