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PyCon 2013: Young Coders
19 March 2013
This year at PyCon, I had the honor of co-teaching the very first workshop just for children at PyCon. Barbara Shaurette and I taught approximately 35 kids from eight to eighteen the basics of programming Python.
The class was offered for free to all children, and all kids got to take home a Raspberry Pi at the end of the day. The students came from attendees and the local community. Some parents were Python developers, and some had no idea what programming was. They just knew this was a chance to enrich their children's lives.
What did we teach?
Barbara took her materials that she uses for her class and, with minimal tweaks, converted them to a kids' class (I'm lazy, and have no slides for my classes). We tweaked the lesson plan for the second day when we realized that some things were confusing to the kids (or to the teacher who couldn't remember how slices work).
This is roughly what we taught:
- Who are we, and what do we do with Python?
- What is programming?
- What's an algorithm (the peanut butter and jelly example)
- Numbers + math
- if statements
- Loops (for and while)
- Input + Output
- Let's make some games!
- Number guessing
- Raspberry Rogue
- State capitals
- Care and feeding of your Raspberry Pis
With the first class, we had to take lots of breaks. Every other module, we'd let the kids get up and move around or run to the bathroom. The second class, where the kids were older, we didn't need as many breaks (in fact, they often refused breaks), so we got through way more material. In fact, we ran out, so I ended up live coding a few more examples and running through some code Barbara had written for another class.
Barbara and I swapped back and forth as needed. Sometimes, one teacher needed a break. Other times, the other teacher knew more about that module so wanted to take point.
I'll confess, I was worried when I saw how many volunteers were signed up to help us. Would it be too confusing? Would we have too many chefs in the kitchen? I didn't want to tell anyone that they couldn't come, though, just in case some people couldn't make it (or forgot that they had signed up).
I asked the volunteers to stand or sit at the back of the room and watch the kids' monitors rather than the slides. My reasoning? If they're focusing on what Barbara or I were saying, they were missing what was going on with the students. The one thing we couldn't see was the kids' monitors, so we had no idea if they were lost, if their Pi was throwing errors, or if they were done typing an example. I also needed them to grab the 'off' teacher to tell us if we needed to go over something again, or if they'd noticed something particularly interesting that a student had done.
One thing I made sure to ask was that they not interrupt the class, even if they noticed an error. Having two teachers, though, meant that there was always someone they could grab and talk to quietly.
We ended up having around a 1:3 ratio, and it was perfect. Volunteers were able to jump in if a student was floundering, and many developed a relationship with a few select kids over the course of eight hours. The volunteers were also an invaluable asset to me, letting me know with nods and hand signals if I could move on, or if I needed to chill out for a bit.
We used IDLE because it's already on Raspian's desktop. Personally, I like IDLE as a teaching tool. It's included in the standard library, it does tab completion and color coding, and it even has a text editor included so you don't have to start your class off by teaching everyone about paths.
Too bad it's broke as hell.
I believe my first contribution to the Python Standard Library will be fixes to IDLE. I really do like it that much. Happily, the kids were flexible. If they needed to do a workaround, or ignore something on our slides (they were written with the standard shell in mind), they did so. They were total champs. My adult students would have been much more upset.
So... what was it like?
It was amazing. It was exhausting. I wanted to do it again. I wanted a drink.
The kids were fabulous (I only had to use Mom Voice once). They stayed on task in a way I've never seen. Hell, at work, if we've been coding for a whole hour we start whining that we need a Starbucks run. They had a network connection and never once did I see Facebook open. They had a link to Python games as well, and only opened them during breaks.
People kept stopping by and peeking in, then giving us little cheers at the sight of rows of kids with their 'coder faces' on. I tried to impress on the kids that they were the stars of PyCon. I'm not quite sure they bought it, but it's true. Everyone was so excited about the classes. I got stopped at least once an hour by someone who wanted to know about it, or how they could do it themselves.
We even had a group of programmers from Mexico approach Jesse and offer to translate our slides so that they could teach the classes in their home country. I believe we're even finding a way to send them Pis so they can copy our set-up exactly.
How are my son's teachers not alcoholics?
The biggest lesson learned? Two days of teaching, even shared between two teachers, is probably too much. Barbara and I were about to collapse by the end of it. When you teach an eight-hour class, you have to be 'on' for the entire time. Even when we weren't actively teaching, we were looking at the next module, walking the room, talking to a volunteer, or helping a student. Even our break times were spent going over what we needed to change in the slides.
Next time? Two different teachers every day. The optimal pair would be two people who know each other well and can pass the ball back and forth with a minimum amount of effort. Barbara and I have known each other for years, so this was was easy for us. It would have been harder if it was someone I didn't know as well.
Mavis Beacon they aren't
With the exception of a few of the teenagers, the kids were not fast typists. When I was live-coding, some tried to follow along, word for word. As I raced ahead, they became discouraged. We also had long variable names in the examples, which took forever for the kids to type in (and they wanted to type in every code sample).
Oh man, objects...
We were able to get to classes, but it turned out to be something that's a bit difficult to explain. I'm still coming up with a story that will make objects easy for kids to grasp. I don't want to ignore them because many of the kids want to make a game, and that requires understanding what an object is.
Wait, they need to eat?!
We forgot to feed the kids snacks at snack-time. Barbara and I both face-palmed, especially since snacks were provided for tutorial attendees.
I want this class to happen again. I want to see it done at PyCons, big and small. I'd love to see them done in smaller communities, and I even have a few leads back home. People offering to translate our slides has me jumping with joy.
I have ideas for adding to the class, and I'd love to see what other people might add to the material.
I will totally be doing this again and again.