Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

Intimidated, yet Motivated

The first day of our “Girls Only” Coding Club at North Elementary was an overwhelmingly powerful experience for me, as both the leader of the club and Tech Integration teacher at our school. Fourteen girls signed up for our in-school club, which is actually less than I expected. They were so excited to get started, as was I! They came with just as many questions as I did…Are we going to use Scratch? What about Tynker? Can we make games? What is the name of our club going to be? Questions were flying. A few of the coders already had their Chromebooks open and were on Scratch before I had even I turned mine on. They were so excited! I was so excited! It was such a phenomenal feeling!

As we got started, I brought up the fact that having a Girls Only Coding Club at our school, North Elementary, was a unique experience for these girls. I started to give the usual, “When I was a little girl, I didn’t have that opportunity” speech and I teared up. I think most of the girls thought I was getting ready to tell them how lucky they are because computers were not abundant when I was a child, like they are now. Instead, I was attempting to convey the thoughts running through my head, reminding me that I was never encouraged to pursue any type of class or club or really anything that had to do with computers at any point in my education. As I write this, I now see that being a female was its own deterrent during my adolescence. My family did not have much “extra” money. Computers were expensive. I was the youngest daughter of working class parents growing up in southern West Virginia. I was not given the option of learning computer science at school, and quite frankly, I did not find computer science that interesting because I knew it wasn’t a realistic option for me to pursue, whether it be for leisure or for learning. I don’t even remember if there was a CS elective in high school.

All of these thoughts and memories compounded with the realization that maybe I will be enough encouragement to help one of these bright girls seek a career in a male dominated, computer science field brought tears to my eyes. Knowing the statistics presented by the National Center for Education Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics about females who try AP computer science in high school are 10 times more likely to major in it in college, is so motivating, so inspiring to me, a woman who was basically denied this opportunity that yes, I am willing to embarrass myself and learn to code alongside a group of 9 & 10 year old girls. So as I connected my Chromebook to the projector, I confessed that I actually wasn’t very good at coding. I admitted that I didn’t really know much about it at all. I looked up and saw flat affect on their innocent little faces. Gulp!

Moving on, I introduced the girls to FlipGrid, which got a much more enthusiastic response than my confession of not really knowing how to code. I asked them to introduce themselves and tell me what they wanted to learn in our Coding Club. Turns out they all want to learn how to make a game. Double gulp!

This led us right into our remote video chat with Dr. Katrina Keene, who connected with us from Tennessee via Google Hangout. Dr. Keene was great! She asked if any of the girls wanted to share what they knew about coding. It took a few seconds for one of them to share, but once one of the girls opened up and shared, they all wanted to. Listening to them, I learned that three coders have either a father or a mother that work for West Virginia University and with jobs that require coding. One student, Dhruvika, informed us that her dad was working on the one of the newest projects at WVU, a self driving car. Wow! Just a little intimidating…Small gulp. The other girls shared that they had tried coding, maybe went to a camp this summer. One girl, Molly, was brand new to coding, just like me.

Dr. Katrina Keene introduces Dash & Dot

Even though 14 girls each sharing what they knew about coding was a bit drawn out, I really appreciated the fact that Dr. Keene allowed each one of them to tell their story. In my mind, it was reinforcing my idea of giving each girl a voice. She was great at listening and responding to each one of them individually. Dr. Keene explained how computers and coding had helped her with developing a career. She even shared a few coding games she has and introduced our group to her Dash & Dot robots from Wonder Workshop. The girls were amazed that she gets to travel to so many different places and schools around the U.S.

The remainder of our time involved us getting into Scratch and playing around. I had each student create a Scratch account in my Scratch Classroom. I thought it might level the playing field a bit for those who were new to coding if each girl had to create a new account instead of joining with their existing one. If nothing else, it might ease any feelings of intimidation.

Coders work together to explore the Scratch platform

Over the next hour, I had ample opportunity to show the girls how bad I was at coding, as my Chromebook was still hooked up to the projector on mirror mode. I tell my students daily that they teach me just as much as I teach them, and this was a prime example! “It’s OK not to know,” I repeated as I repeated some of the questions I couldn’t answer myself aloud to the group. At first I worried I had disappointed the girls a little when I couldn’t answer some specific questions about the Scratch platform. But I kept reminding myself of the Lead Learner philosophy I had previously read from the curriculum values at code.org — “I don’t have to know it, but together we can figure it out.” As I listened, I heard these young ladies helping each other. I could tell they were gaining confidence with their conversations, asking questions and explaining how the blocks work, what a Sprite was and so on. It seemed all of the girls were increasing their faith in their ability to create with Scratch, except Molly. Two or three times, I heard Molly saying things like “I’m horrible at coding.” “I don’t get it.” “This is hard!” — It was as if she was reading my mind aloud!

When it was time for dismissal, I was relieved. The whole time I sat there listening to Molly struggle, I questioned my plan of just letting them explore and create. Should I give them a project that we each work on and then share? This didn’t seem exactly fair. The advanced kiddos would be quick to create and likely have their Sprites doing things I didn’t know were possible. But at the same time, Molly and a few others seemed to need a little direction. So I added two introductory project templates to the class and told the girls they were allowed to work on them between now and our next meeting if they wanted to, completely optional. I also made a mental note to look at differentiated lessons for our next meeting.

Leaving that afternoon, I knew I had homework to do over the weekend! I spent time on Sunday and most of Monday evening learning about code. Last Christmas, Santa brought a DK Scratch book for my nine year old son. I found it, opened it up, and began reading. I couldn’t tell you the last time I sat and read instructions, step by step, on how to do something. Nowadays, we click around, ask Google, or head to YouTube. But reading and completing directions sequentially was just what I needed. I did it! I successfully coded the Scratch cat to turn psychedelic colors while chasing my mouse! I was proud of my cat! When I showed my kids what I made, they were actually a little impressed, I think.

I also did some digging around and found a free Code.org workshop that I could attend next month. My principal has agreed to let me attend — it is free after all! I have also completed a few Hour of Code lessons and am trying out curriculum lessons on myself and my two sons. At this point, I am working through Level C and learning as I go. My plan for our next meeting is to introduce the coders to the code.org platform using a sequence of lessons and an unplugged activity.

Overall, I was very pleased with our first Coding Club. Even though I felt like I may have disappointed a few of the girls with my lack of expertise, I am confident that I taught them them it’s O.K., even for teachers, to not always know everything. “I don’t have to know it, but together we can figure it out.” And together, we will!