The Virtuous Cycle of Coder Dojo

Flatiron School / 18 July 2013

The following is a guest post by Desmond Rawls and originally appeared on his blog. Desmond is currently a student at The Flatiron School. You can follow him on Twitter here.

According to Forbes’ 30 under 30, James Whelton is the face of Coder Dojo. He created the international network of programs teaching kids to code, starting with Ireland. In New York, however, all the hustle starts with Rebecca Garcia. I met with her over the weekend to ask her about the 10,000 young hackers around the world growing up with Coder Dojo.

A natural leader with an idealist’s glow, Rebecca is wearing a hot pink sundress that almost lives up to her own personal energy. I met her at the Flatiron School, an unassuming web development school for adults by day and a hive of revolutionary spirit on the random weekends when Coder Dojo moves in. It looks like all 10,000 students are here. I find Rebecca sitting on the couch with a girl she later told me goes by Sparkle Plenty.

Sparkle Plenty

One of the first students when Coder Dojo NY opened a year ago, Sparkle Plenty has OCD. Except when she’s coding. She’s one of Rebecca’s favorite success stories partly because, with no tech background, she fell in love with the creative process, made it her own, and is even going to robot summer camp. But the bigger reason Rebecca likes talking about her is that Sparkle Plenty wants to build apps to help other kids with OCD.

That’s the virtuous cycle that Coder Dojo is all about. Rebecca says she had always wanted to be involved in non-profits but kept code on the side. When she tried combining the two she realized how powerful code really is. And now Sparkle Plenty is carrying the torch a little bit farther.

How Do You Keep Kids Focused?

I ask Rebecca about the structure of her sessions. There are no lectures, no books, and no requirements. There is no structure. Rebecca explains that her students don’t learn from lectures, they learn from guided practice.

So at the beginning of the day the volunteer mentors debrief their students on the tools they are going to use and how to use them. Then every student works on their own project with content of their choosing. The projects usually have a narrative or game component. That way the students are thinking about the story and don’t realize they’re learning html and css.

All it takes to get the students excited is for the mentors to prompt them by asking about their favorite superheroes and cartoon characters. When they get stuck, students are encouraged to ask the person to their right and the person to their left before asking a mentor. Rebecca says the prospect of presenting their project is what keeps the students motivated.

Necessary Resources

While there is no structure there is a formula: one to one to one. Meaning one mentor one student and one laptop. Sometimes they let it slip down to one mentor for every three students but today it’s one to one and they had to turn away mentors.

The mentors aren’t the problem so much as the laptops. Coder dojo caters to underserved communities and these are communities where laptops are few and far between. Rebecca tells me about one school that had an essay contest to select five students to go to Coder Dojo with the five laptops they had available.

Fortunately, Coder Dojo is partnered with many other similar organizations and schools that sometimes lend them laptops. Still, these are never enough and its not the same when students can’t personalize their laptops or take them home to work on their own.

That Thing

Funding is a big issue. Besides laptops, Rebecca says the schools need more space and the time and money to develop the curriculum. Last year Ben and Jerry’s gave Coder Dojo their Cream of the Crop Award for 10,000 quid and a year of free ice cream. Too bad James Whelton is lactose intolerant. Coder Dojo probably doesn’t need any more ice cream. They do need more cash, though. Recently, Coder Dojo joined NYC’s Hive Learning Network, which will no doubt mean good connections for resources and ideas.

After we talk Rebecca leaves to catch a bus to Boston, where she is helping to organize another Dojo.

These kids have a lot to look forward to.

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