To preface this entry, some weeks ago the site code.org created a short video starring several big names of tech talking about their early programming experiences and how they applied to their lives in general, not just in their job. Since watching the video, it’s had an interesting effect on how I go about helping out the students at Steinmetz: even if they’re just using HTML and not a “full” language such as Java, or even a non-tecchie-friendly IDE like Scratch, they are still learning a little of the basic underlying concepts of computers and all things involved with it.
It’s been several weeks into the second semester, and just recently we’ve started going over some slightly more complicated assignments. Interestingly enough, the complications (and learning opportunities) don’t necessarily arise from the procedures (as outlined in the textbook we use, they are relatively straightforward) - they occur when someone makes a typo in the HTML itself: several times, students accidentally use a semi-colon where a colon should be and vice versa; some students leave an errant tag; in one instance, even a missing *space* led to very interesting ouput. Even the more advanced students have made such mistakes from time to time. It’s been somewhat trying to spend a few minutes intensely scanning their code to find what and where the problems are, but also rewarding. I’m able to show them the humor in the troubleshooting: computers will blindly follow whatever orders you give them, even if it results in something that’s hardly what you desire them to do!
In the second of the two classes I help out on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’ve been spending more time performing this type of troubleshooting as opposed to more administrative tasks like taking grades - incidentally, such duties have been taken up by another volunteer, a Steinmetz student working for service hours. He adds an interesting dynamic to the class - one does get the impression he uses most of his time to chat up the class’s girls, but on the other hand, it seems to reinforce my authority when I’m able to find typos he missed. Regardless, the class overall performs the day-to-day assignments very well, and they do discuss with each other how to do the assignment, something I feel should be encouraged as it does promote a learning atmosphere. (At least, for those who can stand the other student teacher!)
In addition to more specific troubleshooting, I’ve also been tasked occasionally to help catch up specific students on late assignments. Of note, before anything else, is the approach: how does one do this without accidentally offending them? Sometimes I’ve had the teacher specifically do the “hand-off,” other times I’ve had to walk up to them, sometimes while they’ve been preoccupied with non-homework activity. For the most part they are compliant; still, a difficulty does arise in how to actually teach the material. Ideally, they walk themselves through the procedures; extenuating circumstances like deficiencies in reading or typing, or even lack of motivation or energy, all of which can be linked - necessitates a sort of hand-holding until they get that self-direction.
Needless to say, I’ve learned a lot from my experience so far here; when all’s said and done, though, I hope I’ve been able to provide to these classes something more than their grades. Practical HTML isn’t the most exciting introduction to computers, but it might just be one of the most accessible, and that, more than anything, is what’s important at this stage of education.