Volunteering at ScriptEd: What I knew, taught and learned?

Classroom photo taken at Oakland Charter High School

What is ScriptEd? 
ScriptEd is a non-profit that got started in the New York city in 2012 and last year expanded to a few schools in the bay area. Its mission is to empower students in under-equipped schools with fundamental coding skills that are needed to thrive in this rapidly changing world. ScriptEd recruits software developers as volunteer instructors to teach for a year-round curriculum in these schools. Its curriculum consists of three levels: foundations, advanced and studio and all the materials and resources in use are open source and available for anyone to teach, modify, distribute, etc. Link to the curriculum: http://github.com/ScriptEdcurriculum/curriculum17–18

I decided to volunteer for them because..
Earlier this year, I helped plan a workshop for students at ScriptEd at my workplace. We spent a day working with students and introduced them to our work and how we operate. ScriptEd caters to an audience that I am very much inclined towards working with at all times; one of the reasons why I decided to volunteer for them. Another reason was that I am always keen on understanding more the school culture in the United States and how is it different from back home in India. I’ve worked with a few students in the US but mostly through an after-school activity, and I have been looking for more profound experiences.

ScriptEd’s class structure 
A typical ScriptEd class has about 20–25 students (tenth graders) with four instructors and runs for an hour and fifteen minutes twice a week. So does ours, and students in our class belong mostly to the Asian and Latino background. Before every class, an instructor pulls the session content from the Github repository, musters over it, make necessary changes, print classroom materials and update a daily session document (consists of a lesson plan, link to resources, details of classroom activities) which is accessible to students at all times during the class. Instructors take turns to lead the classroom session every week. While one instructor leads, others facilitate, watch on students, take attendance, grade student’s work, help them work on assignments and projects, etc. Here is a breakdown of a ScriptEd’s class structure:

  • Do Now — Students work on a small exercise which is related to the previous lesson at the beginning of each class
  • Direct Teach — Instructors teach concepts
  • Guided Practice — Students and instructors work on a small activity together
  • Independent Practice — Students work independently on an assignment or a project
  • Exit Ticket — Students work on a small exercise which is related to the current lesson before leaving the class

I knew.. 
Though deeply rooted in me are the principles of the “4 P’s of creative learning” and “Teaching and Learning the Having of Wonderful Ideas” through time spent at MIT and Harvard, I’ve not yet had the opportunity to apply them in a classroom setting with younger students. Appreciating multiple perspectives, questioning approach, teaching through materials, is what ScriptEd advocates for as well. Coming from a software background, I was quite familiar with the web development basics (such as HTML, CSS, JQuery, etc.). So, the content itself was not complicated to teach, but what was more important to me was how I teach it.

I taught.. 
Over the course of three months from September until now, I taught different lessons that were part of the HTML and CSS intros, and wireframing and flexbox units in the “Foundations” curriculum and also led a hackathon around Scratch. Some of the objectives of the lessons were: using correct syntax to create simple HTML elements, styling a page using CSS properties and values, describing the differences between ‘head’ and ‘body’ by linking Google Fonts to style their page, etc. Students also learned tools like Github, Popcode that they use while working on their assignments.

One of the things we talk about in the active learning space is to let students explore a problem on their own. Because there cannot be just one answer to a problem, and by revealing it beforehand, we would not be able to help them unleash their creative potential. In one of the Scratch lessons, a game challenge was about making the sprite draw a square pattern on the screen. I was very happy to learn that some students were using the control blocks such as the Repeat() and Forever(). I hadn’t imagined seeing this in the first class itself when students had just started learning Scratch, and the solution I had in mind while prepping for the class was quite less efficient than what some of my students produced.

Related to this, there were also some frustrating moments that I endured at the beginning of my journey with ScriptEd. Once I asked a question in the class, and a student responded to it. I think the inner me was hoping to hear a different answer and without acknowledging much, I quickly went ahead to listen to another student’s answer. I realized just a few seconds late that I did something wrong. I went back to the first student to hear him again. But, he yelled at me and said, it doesn’t matter now.. my answer doesn’t matter to you. I realized that I’d hurt student’s sentiments, and understood that’s the level of spontaneity and presence of mind you need while teaching in the classroom. That’s exactly what I was hoping to master through ScriptEd and that’s why I was there.

Students in my class so far have designed and developed posters for the presidential election campaign, of their favorite artist, party invitations, etc. Through these assignments, I got an opportunity to learn more about students personal interests, about their lives, their favorite hobbies, etc. After first few classes, student’s were pretty comfortable using StackOverflow, reference guides, and Google to look for answers to their questions.

I learned.. 
Though they are not new learnings for me, it was about applying them:

  • Building meaningful connections with students is important — In the ScriptEd’s volunteer teacher training, we were encouraged to call out students by their names. For the first few classes, we were asked to pick icebreaker activities of our choice to get to know them better and ask students to keep their name tents upright on the desk during the class.
  • Equity vs. Equality in the classroom — Treating all students with fairness is not enough. It’s important to be able to support students needing more guidance or motivation so that they are able to reach the same level as other students who may not need it. For example, a student could be offered help if they need it from time to time in understanding concepts or working on an assignment, while another could just be questioned on their approach to solving a problem if they don’t need that help, as they probably need a bit more confidence about their learning. I’ve come across these kinds of scenarios in my classroom.
  • It’s not about the content, but how engaging it is and how you deliver it — One might imagine how you could make teaching HTML syntax fun? ScriptEd’s lesson content is a lot of fun to teach and easier for students to grasp. For example: to explain opening and closing tags in HTML, you would give an analogy of mittens. Just as you would need a left and a right mitten to make your hands feel warm, in a similar way you gotta have both the tags for an HTML element. Ohh, and the shape of mittens resembles with that of the HTML tags.
  • To not forget that attention span in humans is less than seven minutes — I learned to often pause for questions, ensure that students are following, paying attention using the attention-getting strategies such as “laptops at 45 degrees please, eyes up here on the board, etc.,”, repeat and iterate over the content, etc.
  • To not give students a lot of take-home assignments — This I guess is a big difference when you are teaching to a group of students who may not all necessarily come from affluent backgrounds. You want to make sure that you are not giving them homework to complete that would require them access to a computing device that they may not have.
  • The difference in the teaching and learning systems between US and India — This topic would require some more research and another post for my understanding to be complete. But, a few things that I noticed were that issues with rigidness in the school curriculum, problems with schools not sufficiently equipped to prepare students with the 21st-century skills is here in the US and there in India as well. The concept of after-school centers is perhaps more prominent in the US than it is in India right now. Highly structured materials, resources, volunteering culture, better organization, principles of creative learning that ScriptEd supports is something I’ve not seen much elsewhere. But, I can’t give a better reasoning for this, as I am sitting in the heart of the silicon valley where all of this is possible.

I have enjoyed my time thoroughly at ScriptEd and loved getting feedback from program managers on what I could improve in delivering content and engaging students in the classroom. Students wishing me on festivals, goodbyes outside the classroom while I uber back home, are the moments close to my heart. I have developed good friendships with my students in the last three months ❤