Teachers We Admire: An Interview With Brian Conroy

We are delighted to speak with Brian Conroy and thank him for taking the time to do this interview. 

Brian Conroy holds a B.A. in Theatre Arts and an M.A. in Folklore from San Jose State University. He taught theater, public speaking, debate, and fifth grade for 35 years in the Moreland and Evergreen School Districts; and storytelling at San Jose State University. In 2013 he was named San Jose/Silicon Valley Teacher of the Year. He is listed in the Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers and was inducted into the Santa Clara County Youth Mentors Hall of Fame. As a storyteller, Brian has performed at theaters, colleges and festivals in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle and Barcelona, Spain. He is the author of You Don’t Hear Me ComplainingI’m Just Sayin’Stepping Stones, and the children’s book, Prince Dighavu.   

What inspired you to become a teacher?

Brian: The inspiration evolved over several years as I grew up. My mother operated a licensed child-care center out of our home. Because of this, I had the opportunity to work with children at a fairly young age. During college, I worked for the City of San Jose Recreation Department. At first I ran an after-school program, organizing games, activities and sports. After a year or so, my role changed to directing plays for young people. These experiences gradually convinced me that teaching was the right profession for me.  

Your talent for telling stories is displayed in the books you have written: “I’m Just Sayin’” contains short stories that reflect on the idiosyncrasies in our world, and “Stepping Stones” is an anthology of wisdom-filled folklore. How and when did you start writing these books?

Brian: I’ve been writing since I was in high school, where I was a contributor to our school’s literary magazine. Early on, I wrote predominantly poetry. I also wrote short plays, producing my first original play when I was sixteen. I continued to write and produce plays for young people when I worked for the Parks and Recreation Department. 

Early on in my teaching career, I got involved with the storytelling community, performing as a storyteller. Though some of the stories I told were traditional stories, I gained a reputation for telling original humorous stories. Many of these stories could be labeled as revisionist folktales, in which I would deconstruct a well-known folktale in order to convey a feminist, ethical or pro-environmental message. 

One of the monks at the Buddhist monastery where I practiced discovered I was a storyteller, and asked if I could adapt some Buddhist wisdom stories to make them more accessible to modern audiences. I’ve been telling wisdom stories, fables and parables for over thirty years to Buddhist and interfaith audiences. My book of Buddhist parables: Stepping Stones grew directly out of this work, as well as a recent trip to China.    

When I retired from teaching a few years ago, I got into a daily writing routine, which has been a very satisfying creative and intellectual outlet for me. My two volumes of humorous essays, You Don’t Hear Me Complaining and I’m Just Sayin’ were written during these sessions     

You wrote and produced many plays as fundraisers for your school, which were flawlessly acted by your students. How did you come up with these plays and prepare your students? 

Brian: My goal was to make the plays relevant for the students, as well as enjoyable. Our plays were based on themes that were of interest to the particular group of students I was working with. In writing and developing the ideas for the plays, I took many of my cues from the students themselves. I tried to understand the issues that impacted their lives, the rhythms of their language, and the kinds of characters that might be interesting and challenging to them. There were quite a few instances when I wrote roles specifically for individual students who had been in our program for multiple years. Once I understood their skill sets, I could tailor roles or songs specifically for individuals. 

Our plays were rehearsed over two-month periods as part of an after-school program. Almost all of the students developed their performance skills in the theatre arts classes I taught during the regular school day. The after-school program offered them further opportunities to build on the skills learned in the classroom.  

During the shows, did everything go as smoothly off-stage as it appeared to go on-stage? 

Brian: The process was always fairly smooth and conflict-free. We worked together cooperatively with the focus on collaboration. I didn’t allow students to become prima donnas or develop attitudes. I emphasized the big picture of working together as an ensemble to create something we could all be proud of. 

I typically worked with smaller casts so that each person would feel that his or her role was substantial; that each person’s participation was significant. So often in theater there is a two-tier system of major roles and minor roles. All roles were major roles in our productions. 

Having worked in diverse literary genres such as folklore, narrative and drama, which genre do you enjoy the most as a writer?

Brian: I think my favorite genre is the first-person humorous essay. Over the years I’ve discovered and developed my own distinctive voice as a writer. I enjoy the process of putting my thoughts down on paper, refining my thinking on a particular topic as I write. 

What was the greatest challenge you faced as a teacher?

Brian: The greatest challenge was also the greatest opportunity: that of making the right connections with students. I worked hard to gain the trust of my students and to create an environment in which my students would feel supported and safe to express themselves, be creative, and grow academically.  

Did your teaching change over time?

Brian: As I matured as a teacher, I came to understand my strengths, and I refined these strengths, until I eventually found my own unique style of somewhat unconventional teaching. Most of my teaching methods and strategies were not learned at the university; I learned them by being receptive to my students, and observing what worked and what didn’t. I made a vow to myself early on in my career to avoid getting stale or calling it in. I tried to continually challenge myself by modifying the curriculum for each new group of students.  

With your decades of teaching experience, what advice would you give to teachers today? 

Brian: Keep things fresh. Don’t rely on outdated methods. Modify your activities, update your lecture notes, try new things. Utilize a variety of learning modalities to appeal to the diverse range of learners. Keep learning and reinvigorating your curriculum. If the teaching is engaging for you, it will most likely be engaging for your students.     

What do you plan to write next?

Brian: I’m currently working on two books. One is a series of essays, focusing on myths and legends of musical history from Paganini to Billie Holiday to The Beatles to Prince. I’m in the revision phase of this book, and hope to have it published in the spring of 2021.

The other book is a second collection of Buddhist wisdom tales; a kind of companion to my book of Buddhist parables: Stepping Stones

Thank you for taking the time to do this interview! 

About the interviewer: SPEL is an educational startup.“Merscythe: Adventures with the Codue” is a digital textbook with an adventure story and tutorials for introducing students to Python programming. 

Why is Python so Popular?

IEEE Spectrum ranks the top programming languages each year. Over the last three years, it has ranked Python in first place out of about 300 other programming languages. The languages in the second, third and fourth spots in 2020 were Java, C, and C++, respectively. In 2014, Python was ranked fourth.

What has driven this rise in Python’s popularity?

Python is an open source programming language, which means that it is not proprietary. The development of open source languages is community-driven and this has led to an impressive growth of libraries in Python. Here is a small sampling of the hundreds of libraries written in Python:

  • FlashText can search documents efficiently for a large number of keywords.
  • SciPy is a library that has modules for optimization, calculus, linear algebra, and statistics.
  • wxPython is a toolkit for making graphical user interfaces.
  • PyTorch and TensorFlow are used in machine learning.
  • NumPy provides mathematical functions.
  • Matplotlib provides plotting capabilities.

Machine learning is a rapidly growing area that is needed in every industry today. Examples include self-driving cars, virtual assistants on cell phones, chat-bots and medical diagnoses. Python is widely used in machine learning due to the large number of libraries available in Python as compared to those in other languages such as R and MATLAB.

Python is easier to learn and use than most other languages as the syntax for the language is simpler than that of several other languages such as Java and C. Python has similar keywords to C and Java, which makes it easier for Python programmers to learn these languages and vice versa.

Another advantage is that Python facilitates both object-oriented programming and procedural-oriented programming. Some languages are strictly object-oriented as Java or strictly procedural as C. In object-oriented languages, the program is composed of objects that invoke their methods to perform operations. In procedural languages, the main task in the program is broken up into smaller tasks called procedures or functions. As Python supports both programming paradigms, it is more flexible and easier to program with.

Python is a versatile language that is used in different types of applications such as website creation, financial analysis and machine learning. Python is widely used to create websites because there are many frameworks that simplify this task such as Django, Flask and Tornado.

You can find more information on the methodology used by IEEE Spectrum to arrive at their rankings at this link.

Teaching K-12 programming shouldn’t be harder for remote classes

As schools pivot to fully online, synchronous online, and hybrid learning approaches, teachers face a daunting task: developing effective ways to teach programming in this new environment. At SPEL, we understand the challenges that teachers face and provide the resources they need to succeed when they teach introductory programming courses—whether in-person or remotely. Here are some of the issues associated with online teaching and the solutions that SPEL provides to solve them:

Problem: Getting started poses a technical challenge

Learning management systems don’t typically offer the development environments that are needed for programming. This leaves students to install an environment on their own, which can be a difficult task even for experienced professionals. SPEL’s Python book integrates an editor and related libraries for writing and running programs, so that neither teachers nor students need to install any specialized software to run their programs.

Problem: Troubleshooting code is difficult and time-consuming

Programming teachers know the importance of working with students and helping them understand how to correct errors in their programs. But teachers can’t be available around the clock to answer student questions. The built-in checker tool in SPEL’s Python book provides students with hints on how to correct their program, circumventing frustration and leading to a better learning experience.

Problem: Distance learning is isolating and boring

Online learning can be isolating when there is no face-to-face interaction with the teacher and peers. Additionally, programming as it is traditionally taught can be frustrating, unfocused, and even boring for students. We know how important it is to capture student attention and interest from the onset of the class; If a student does not enjoy a course, they may be dissuaded from pursuing further study in that area altogether. SPEL’s Python book is paired with an exciting adventure story that will keep students engaged and excited about the class curriculum.

The SPEL platform has been developed for teachers, by teachers. SPEL Technologies offers a novel programming experience for classrooms – try our online textbook “Merscythe: Adventures with the Codue” today.

Our Python Digital Textbook

Your students have read all of their books and played their board and video games many times already. What if there was a fun, easy way for them to learn a valuable new skill instead?

Merscythe is a perfectly ordinary thirteen-year-old—until one day, he falls down a hole under a tree and finds himself in a world where magic meets technology. A mesmerizing fantasy world awaits readers: one filled with power-crazed elves, fire-breathing rodents, and a wise bearded spy. Each chapter of “Merscythe: Adventures with the Codue” is unlocked through a Python programming question. As Merscythe traverses the underground realm and learns more about programming and his own magical powers, your learner will also get to learn and apply Python.

SPEL Technologies, Inc.’s Python digital textbook is available for individuals and schools. Computer science education imparts the ability to analyze problems and develop solutions—skills that are essential in other professions as well. And Python is the fastest-growing programming language in the world, with a huge community of users in fields like business analytics, aerospace engineering, and artificial intelligence. The online textbook comes with Python exercises and tutorials, as well as an editor that corrects students’ programs and provides hints for learners. There is no complex software installation or prior computer knowledge required. Additionally, the exciting adventure story will help learners grow their literacy skills.

Merscythe: Adventures with the Codue is recommended for middle and early high school students with no prior programming experience. Get your students started on their programming journey.