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Episode 22: Games for Change with Luis Saltos

Luis Saltos is a computer science teacher at Daniel Carter Beard Junior High School 189. He has been teaching for 15 years, where he previously taught mathematics. He is a Math for America Master teacher and is currently in his 13th year in the program. For the past three years, he has been teaching computer science with an emphasis on video game design. Luis received his B.A. in Mathematics Education and Master’s of Science in Education from Queen’s College at CUNY. Luis was introduced to us through Learner partner Games for Change, an organization that empowers game creators and social innovators. Games for Change offers programs and events for people of all ages and backgrounds to explore, learn, and create at the intersection of games and social impact. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Nati Rodriguez [01:38] 
Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us. Luis is signing in from his classroom today, so we’re really excited to have this time with him during his busy schedule. So, let’s dive in. Tell us about your involvement with the Games for Change Student Challenge? What has that experience been like for you?  

Luis Saltos [01:57] 
Well, I got involved with Games for Change about three years ago, right before the pandemic started in 2020. We were doing work in the classroom, students were really excited, and then the pandemic happened, but I felt ready to go remote because a lot of the work that we were doing was already on the computer. I think I was able to make that transition fairly easy. I wish I was there to support my students in person, but we did whatever we could remotely. I think it’s been great to be able to provide the students with the space for them to work on computing problems through the perspective of video game design. I feel like students came to the realization that video game design is not as easy as playing video games. 

I feel like whenever students see my class and it’s a tech class, it’s a coding class, it’s a video game design class, and it’s like, “yeah, this going to be super easy,” and it’s like, no, it’s not. You’ll see that it’s a lot of troubleshooting, perseverance, a lot of failing, and making mistakes in class. One of the things that students experience through working with these games in the Games for Change Student Challenge is to go and adopt a growth mindset. It really makes me happy as a teacher to see them go from, “this is too hard,” or “I’m not good at this,” to “this is hard, but I’m going to try anyway,” or this may take some time and effort. The experience has been really rewarding for me to provide the students with the opportunity to be in this Games for Change Student Challenge. 

Nati Rodriguez [04:03] 
That’s great. What is that timeline like? These are students that you have in your classroom and they’re competing with a larger audience. How does that work?  

Luis Saltos [04:12] 
They do. First, we start in my classroom. I see my students for the entire year. We start the work in September. In the past, we first tried to do our work and planning. There’s a planning stage that it’s only on paper or try to show them a little bit of the design process, going from making aluminum foil boats to see which design will hold the most pennies in water and see what works, what doesn’t, and what can be changed. We have a period of from September, October, until April when the deadline is for submitting the games. 

Nati Rodriguez [04:55] 
Got it. What have been some of the games that you’ve had your students work on? What have they created?  

Luis Saltos [05:02] 
Last year was the first year that I used Minecraft Education Edition to support the students as the platform to create the games. Minecraft Education Edition is a sandbox, and it’s a 3D world, and the students can create, destroy, and build mindful resources. They can use something called the agent. You can code the agent to do any task you want using block-based coding and text-based coding. There is a low entry-level, but it can be more complex; it has a high ceiling.   

It was one of my students who took this to another level using the agent, or coding the agent, to build buildings and factories in this world so that in the game, a player can go and get rid of coal plants and dirty energy resources and transport them into clean energy. At the end of the game, if the player was able to accomplish these tasks, then the player will get a self-sustaining house.   

I’ve also used Scratch. Scratch is very popular and also uses block-based coding. This was during the pandemic and the name of the game was Pandemic Bullying. This was an impact game, and the game was titled Bullies Are Not Welcome. The students created a clicker game, so you had to click the bully. When they encountered the bully, they would have to click on the bully and there were different options to teach them to get better, to not bully other people, and to send a good message.  

Nati Rodriguez [06:59] 
If I remember correctly, there’s a social theme for these games every year? You mentioned one around the environment or clean energy and then this other one around wellness and bullying. What have been some other themes that you’ve worked on with your students? 

Luis Saltos [07:19] 
Usually, there are three themes per year. What I found as a teacher and as an educator, it was easier for me to just focus on one theme. During one year, they say, “Okay everyone, this is our theme. We selected the theme, and this is where we’re going to focus on.” I don’t remember exactly what the other themes were because I did not work in depth with those themes. 

Nati Rodriguez [07:43] 
What is the theme for this year?  

Luis Saltos [07:45] 
I have not selected a theme yet, but I’m looking forward to it.  

Nati Rodriguez [08:35] 
Something you said earlier about the low barrier and high ceiling reminds me just about the richness of problems that allow students of all levels to access it. How does that show up in your classroom outside of the Games for Change Challenge in your teaching of computer science?  

Luis Saltos [08:57] 
I’d like to give confidence to my students that they can do the work. When they come into my classroom, you don’t need to be an expert; I don’t need you to be an expert in computer science in order to feel like you’re a member of the class, in order for you to feel as a student. This idea of perfection – out the window; I don’t need it. I don’t need you to be perfect. I feel like very often, perfection, it’s so pervasive that I can only do something if I’m perfect at it. How are you going to get perfect at it if you don’t make mistakes first? If you don’t make mistakes in the thing that you are trying to learn?   

I tell my students over and over that I don’t need you to be perfect. I need you to try. I talked about this before in other ways. One of my students, a student who is special needs, made me so happy when he said, “Mr. Saltos – this is hard, but I’m going to try it anyway.”   

“You summed up my entire year. Like my philosophy, you summed it up.”  

That’s exactly what I mean. This is hard, but I’m going to try. I’m going to fail, and I’m going to try again. Being able to have a low-entry level, I think it gives confidence to the students to say I can do this. I think coding – especially with Minecraft Education Edition – it’s so good because it’s the hook that allows students to “hmm, I can do this. Now let me try a more complex problem. I can do it until the problems start getting more challenging and challenging,” and I think it gives them hope.   

Nati Rodriguez [10:45] 
That’s beautiful. You were previously a math teacher, and what you just described looks very different in math and maybe it’s harder to do. I’m not sure. What caused you to transition from math to CS? How do you apply those principles of growth mindset and trying, in the math classroom?  

Luis Saltos [11:10] 
For the last couple of years, I have not been teaching math, but I do tutor outside of school, and I still do math. I love mathematics. I’m a lifelong learner of mathematics. I like to read about it. My first CS course that I took, that took me from math to computer science was on a curriculum called Bootstrap Algebra. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it, but it’s also a video game design curriculum that has a heavy emphasis on the mathematics, the functions, the coordinates, behind the video game design. So that’s how I started.   

During my regular math class, especially after the state test, when students took the state tests and I had some extra time, and after I attended this workshop, I was, “You know what? Let’s give it a try. Let’s see how it goes.” And the students loved it. I loved it.   

I felt the students were really excited to see how math could be applied to something that they do on a daily basis, which is video games. Then I asked my principal if we can start with a computer science course in our school, and my principal agreed. It’s been three or four years since I’ve been fully teaching a computer science course, and it’s mainly focused on video game design.   

To the other point that you mentioned about how it’s similar in mathematics education, my feeling is that it can be very similar to that low-entry level. Also, in math, you usually hear “There’s only one correct answer. There’s only one right answer, and if you don’t get it right, then you’re wrong.” That’s the other myth that I would like to get rid of. You don’t need to be an expert in my math class, or computer science, or in any field, in order for you to be part of the class, that we can meet you where you are and build it up from there. 

Nati Rodriguez [13:35] 
Thank you for sharing that. The last time I checked in, the numbers of CS teachers are not where we need them to be. I’m curious, is the class that you’re offering an elective? It sounds like you have a great leader that allowed you to do that and make this accessible to students. How do you continue to learn in your practice, and what has it been like at your school to now have CS? I imagine it didn’t exist before. 

Luis Saltos [14:09] 
It did not exist before. I teach in a junior high school in a 6th through 8th school. At least in our school, it’s not a true elective. I get the students who are scheduled to be with me, so they don’t really have a choice in that matter, but I think there is a great buy-in from the student population, from the parents, and my administration, to grow the program. Could you remind me of the second part of the question, please? 

Nati Rodriguez [14:41] 
Yeah – a little bit about your principle that allowed this to happen and helped you make that transition. Can you speak about the leadership at your school?  

Luis Saltos [14:51] 
It’s been great to have the support, and if I need to attend workshops to help me attend the workshops through CS for All – there’s a program in New York City called CS for All, and for many years I’ve been part of it, taking workshops and leading workshops as well. Also, through Math for America, also accepts computer science teachers, and I attend workshops and get resources from other Math for America Master teachers as well.   

I’m a math person. I went to college and studied mathematics, and studied computer science very little, not as much as I did math. I feel like it’s my own homework and my own growth to make sure that I try to get better in computer science concepts to be able to help my students better. I wouldn’t be able to do it without the support of my administration. 

Nati Rodriguez [15:53] 
That’s great. You mentioned about studying math and CS. Can you tell us about your own K-12 educational journey? 

Luis Saltos [16:02]  
I’m originally from Ecuador, so I studied up to a certain grade in secondary education in Ecuador, and then I came to New York. So, the education journey is so big. One of the things that I can say, when I was a kid, I always liked math. I always got excited if I learned a concept, and I remember learning how to count to 100 in kindergarten or Pre-K, and I was very excited about it. When I learned how to divide numbers, I got excited about that. When I was here, when I was learning calculus, I was very proud to be able to do some of the work. I feel like I’ve been very blessed to have people who have helped me – teachers, good teachers – to help me foment this love for mathematics. Before college, during college, as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a teacher. 

Nati Rodriguez [17:04] 
That was going to be my next question. What keeps you in the profession? What excites you about your work?  

Luis Saltos [17:13] 
I really love teaching. I love making a difference in my students’ lives, to see their reaction when they finally understand the concepts, and they get it – the ‘aha’ moment is so invaluable. Again, to hear students say things like, “This is hard, and I’m going to try it anyway.” It fills my heart. It’s amazing to be able to make a difference in young people, in young students, and to see what they can achieve later on.   

Nati Rodriguez [17:44] 
What is most challenging about your work?  

Luis Saltos [17:48] 
I think one of the things that are most challenging is sometimes the use of phones in class. It doesn’t matter how good the lesson is or the activity. I feel like if phones were on the table, and they were to be allowed in the class, I can’t win that battle. I know there are ways of using mobile technology in the classroom that is so good to use, but I think sometimes technology can be distracting. 

I think going back to roots and doing work on paper, making designs on paper, and drawing – right now, if you take a look at my classroom, I have colored pencils, markers, and paper on my desk because that’s what my students do to draw their code. I feel like just making that connection is leaving the technology out for a moment. I think it’s good for learning. 

I think another thing that could be challenging too, is I think we need education – the school, the students, and the administration, also the parents – I feel sometimes should take a bigger role in the education and to support, along with the teachers, to support the children at home, it would be invaluable.   

Nati Rodriguez [19:10] 
Thank you. Where do you see yourself in the next three to five years?  

Luis Saltos [19:16] 
I would like to continue teaching, but I also want to become a tennis coach. If I can do that as well, I’d like to have a tennis program with the students here. I’m a very passionate tennis player, and I don’t want to keep it for myself. I would like to be able to help other children with learning how to play tennis.  

Nati Rodriguez [19:45]
And the school doesn’t currently have a program I assume? 

Luis Saltos [19:50] 
We don’t have but I have the support from my principal.   

Again, my principal doesn’t say no. I asked him. He said, if you give me the commitment and the time that you can do it, I’ll sign it. But unfortunately, the commitments after work don’t allow me to stay a certain number of hours after school. Maybe in the future.   

Nati Rodriguez [20:40] 
What are you reading, watching or listening to these days?  

Luis Saltos [20:46] 
I just started reading a book called Things to Do and Make in the Fourth Dimension by Matt Parker. Again, I saw this book, in one of my MFA – the Math for America has a library, I saw that book, and it caught my attention, and I just started reading it. The author is a stand-up comedian and mathematician, and one of his goals is to make math fun. Even though math is counterintuitive and hard and it’s almost like that’s the point. It’s so challenging, so abstract, that it’s difficult. That’s part of the beauty of it. Perhaps sometimes the way that we learned it, the way that we teach math, is not the most attractive to students. Maybe there are some facts and things that we can show them to make math more fun.   

I’m a Lord of the Rings fan, so I finally got a chance to watch the new series on Amazon Prime – The Lord of the Rings: The Power of the Rings. I was so happy to see that, to learn the story behind the age when Lord of the Rings happens. 

Nati Rodriguez [22:03] 
Thank you for sharing those. Is there anything else that you would like to share with our Learner audience? This includes teachers with a range of experience from 5-12+ years.  

Luis Saltos [22:16] 
I would say that game design has a distinct potential to drive these youths’ interest and engagement in computer science and other STEM fields. It’s a powerful tool for activating these 21st-century SEL skills: empathy, cooperation, communication, problem-solving, and systems thinking; that it was a great tool during remote learning. Game design is something worthwhile and engaging for a student during a time when it was difficult to be engaged, especially on a computer. If the students can learn how to troubleshoot – game design allows for troubleshooting – if they can take that concept from the classroom to anything else in their life, that will be a success. If you can give your students or if you can give yourself that opportunity, it will be worthwhile.