Decoding the Keys to Success
“The keys to success”
It may sound quite cliché, but possessing a certain skill set can be the springboard for success. Almost every occupation requires certain skills, and those skills are logic, analytical thinking, and problem solving. One great way to teach and reenforce these skills is with computer programming. Over the summer of 2017, I spent eight days teaching coding in Newark, NJ. In this post, I want to share what I learned, but before I do, I should give a little background.
Suburb to City of Newark
I was raised in a comfortable New Jersey suburb, but I spent many of my days in inner-city Newark. I have attended a church there since I was a young child, and I practically grew up with the children of Newark. Over the years my parents, (following the lead of other parents in my neighborhood) enrolled me in various coding and robotics camps. As a result, I developed an early interest in computer science. On the flip side, many of my friends in Newark, who mostly attended public schools, were not given such luxuries during their summer vacations. As I was thinking about what to do this summer, I naturally thought about my interest in computer science. I wanted to share what I’ve learned over the years in coding by teaching students in Newark.
The original plan
My original plan was to bring a program similar to what was offered in the suburbs to third and fourth graders in the city. I chose to use a free online service, Scratch, so that whatever we did in class, they could also do at home. The structure of the program was a daily two-hour class. I wanted to host it at the church because it was already a central location in the community. Since the church didn’t have any computers that the students could use, the original plan was to ask students to bring a laptop from home. However, several realities about life in the inner-city led me to make significant changes to the program. Ultimately, what started off as a well-intentioned but rather naïve idea turned into something quite different and much more meaningful.
The first reality – Convey the importance of learning how to code
To gauge student interest, I first talked to the parents about the proposed class. In the process, it quickly became clear that computer programming was a very foreign and intimidating subject in this community. This made it difficult to convey the importance of learning how to code. In addition, it was hard to convince parents and students alike that coding is a skill that everyone is capable of learning. I had originally hoped to enroll early elementary age students, yet I ended up with students from third grade up to ninth grade. They came because their parents understood the urgency and value of this education. Therefore, I quickly needed to adapt my curriculum and lesson plans to fit the age range of the students.
The second reality – Limited access to the internet
I anticipated that holding the camp at the church, where there was no computer lab, would naturally prevent some students from participating. It was quite surprising to learn that even the most
achievement oriented families in Newark did not have a laptop at home that they could bring to class.
Therefore, the second thing I needed to change was to find adequate computers to hold the class. The easiest solution, as it turns out, was for me to bring in four laptops from home. My family is by no means extraordinarily wealthy by my town’s standards. And yet, I was able to grab four laptops easily. This really opened my eyes to how different my life is compared to some of my friends in Newark. All throughout my childhood, I had access to things such as Khan Academy and PBS Kids within steps of my room. But they didn’t really have that.
The third reality – Differentiated instruction is hard
The kids who enrolled in the class were very competitive and self-motivated, as it turned out. This made it so very fun to teach the class. In fact, the class drove itself forward at a faster pace than I expected. However, it also opened up situations where certain kids would feel insufficient on specific topics as they compared themselves to the others. Therefore, the third thing that changed was the pace and the style by which we taught the curriculum. As a teacher, I learned that as well as conveying information, I also needed to help students build up confidence. I learned that different people internalize information in vastly different ways, and will grasp different topics at their own pace. Seeing this made me appreciate that teaching takes a lot more skill than people give teachers credit for.
Keys to Success – Looking back and ahead
This whole experience was a reality check for me‒it forced me to look at life from an entirely different perspective. These students achieve so much, even though they are given so little. This made me realize that I shouldn’t congratulate myself too much for my achievements. Like it or not, I was born into luxuries and opportunities that I did not work for, so I really can’t compare my achievements to theirs. My Newark friends have to work far harder than I do, and in many cases they are willing to. That gave me a much bigger respect for what my friends in Newark have accomplished.
I had a lot of fun getting to know how other people think, and seeing sides of them I’ve never seen before. The progression of these students is something I look forward to watching. They might even teach with me the next time we run this coding camp, and I can’t wait for that to happen.
Interested in other examples of teens teaching younger kids?