I am spending this summer as a teacher with Girls Who Code. Our movement has grown from a single inaugural class in New York City, to nineteen programs across the country only two years later, reaching nearly four hundred young women and teaching them computer science. People ask me, how is the teaching going? I never know what to say, and I usually stick with an understatement: “It is intense.”
I joined Girls Who Code as a teacher because I like coding, I like teaching, and I like the idea of working toward a world where I might have more than a handful of female coworkers. Little did I know, the term “teacher” doesn’t quite encompass what I would been doing all summer. In addition to explaining how to think and code like a programmer, I am a cross between a college-camp-career counselor, therapist, cheerleader, big sister, mother, and honorary teenage girl. A decade their senior, I’m on the precipice between being cool and being lame, but for the most part, I think I clock in at just cool enough. That’s on days when I’m not asking super basic questions about how to use Instagram.
I am constantly struggling to overcome my students’ fear of trying something new while the risk of failure taunts them, only a few keystrokes away. The older we get, the more courage it takes to try things we’ve never done before, fail, and not let that failure destroy our confidence. This is why it is so important for computer science to be introduced to students as early as elementary school: learning these concepts is significantly easier when we haven’t yet developed our intricate emotional responses to failure, when we aren’t yet scared of making mistakes.
Everyone knows what it’s like to be a teenager, when it seems like judging eyes follow your every move and any deviation from the norm could yield isolation. Today, it isn’t typical for girls to be interested in the technical side of technology, ironic as it sounds. A huge part of teaching with Girls Who Code is convincing and cajoling my students into simply taking the risk of trying. Reminding them that when they stick their necks out to ask or answer a question, no one will snicker or write them off. Telling them that it’s okay to care and it’s okay to screw up, because I’ll always have their backs, and I’ll never leave them behind. It saddens me that there are learning environments in the world where kids and even teachers make other kids feel like they aren’t worthy of learning, but Girls Who Code isn’t one of those places. We celebrate uniqueness, creativity, and especially, risk-taking.
The stereotype of a programmer is a hoodie-attired antisocial nerd in huge headphones, working secluded in a basement for hours on end, never seeing the light of day. I think the biggest disservice this image does to computer science as a field is that it perpetuates the reputation that programming is something we do alone. That’s why this summer, we have been teaching our students to lean on each other and lean on their teaching staff and build relationships with the industry professionals they have met. The Girls Who Code teachers lean on teachers at other sites as well as on the greater Girls Who Code administrative staff. None of this could happen in a vacuum. I wouldn’t be half the teacher I am without the ideas, advice, and encouragement I’ve found in my support system. I want my students to internalize that asking for help is a sign of strength and confidence, not weakness.
Slowly, the time we all spent working through logic, picking out syntax errors, delivering pep-talks, pair programming, and sharing ideas has started to yield results. My student who tended to shut down and turn to her phone’s facebook feed when she was struggling is finally staying on task. Another who had never coded before this summer has found programming so gratifying that she stayed up till 4am trying to finish a class project (to both my pride and dismay). Last week, one student announced that the most important lesson she has learned this summer is that “we are more than our failures.” Nearly the entire class successfully coded solutions to an interview question I’ve seen multiple times while job searching, and on their own, they came up with sorting algorithms that I encountered for the first time in a college computer science course. I’d hire these girls in a heartbeat, and they’re sixteen.
The modern tendency to speed, skim, and skip through the articles we read tempts me to pick the most appealing bits of this story and wrap them into a tidy package to ship out into the world, but I can’t bear to give Girls Who Code such treatment. All of the good we have accomplished means nothing without mention of the obstacles we’re painstakingly chipping away. Our students will have achieved so much between our first day together, when many hadn’t seen a line of code in their lives, and their graduation, by which time they’ll have logged over two hundred hours of classroom instruction and completed at least ten college-level programming assignments. Ask any of my girls if it has been easy, and they’ll say no way. Ask any Girls Who Code teacher if it has been a breeze, and they’ll probably say this is one of the hardest jobs they’ve ever had. The more interesting question is whether it has been worthwhile, and fortunately, the answer is all around us. Girls Who Code alumni are majoring in computer science at the best schools in the country and are interning at the most successful companies of all time. They are starting Girls Who Code clubs in their communities and paying their new skills forward. These girls are on their way to big things, and I’m proud to be part of a movement that is cultivating the great technical minds of tomorrow.
Ilana is teaching with Girls Who Code in San Ramon, California, hosted by General Electric. She graduated from Tufts University with a degree in computer science, after which she worked for four years as a web developer before leaving her job to travel and teach. While not teaching girls how to code, Ilana channels her creative energy into writing essays and poetry.