21st Century, Learning.

Teaching kids how to create in a changing world.


I was sitting at brunch at a Marina del Rey restaurant, outdoors by the bay, drinking cloyingly-sweet cheap champagne and pushing rubbery eggs around my plate with my fork. The bad food and shitty champagne didn’t matter, as the light was Southern California Sunday spectacular, the gentle waves sparkling magically, a portly sea lion stretched out on a nearby dock. The kids were running up and down near the boats, leaning over to peer into the moving water, getting as close to the sea lion as they could and then running away. Sometimes they’d disappear for awhile, to check out the ice cream stand down the the way or to chase a speeding boat, and we didn’t worry since they periodically would sidle up to us for a quick cuddle before running off again.

I was sitting next to my friend Una Fox, who had worked in technology at Yahoo! and Disney, and she was telling me about her recent trip to Ireland, and how she’d met this young guy named James Whelton who was not yet 21, loved skateboarding and hacking, and had teamed up with Bill Liao to start CoderDojo, a free coding club for young people with one main rule, “Be Cool!”

I had recently been checking out schools in the LA area for my 8-year-old son and was struck by the need for good computer science education. I visited one science and math magnet school and asked them about what they taught kids on computers, and the answer was “Word and PowerPoint.” But I wanted something deeper. My son was constantly grabbing my mobile phone to play Angry Birds or Plants vs. Zombies, and I was thinking how I could transmit to him that he could learn to make games, not just passively play them. So when Una asked me to join her in running CoderDojo Los Angeles, I immediately said yes.

I had lived in San Francisco from 1991 to 2006 before moving to Los Angeles. I was there when the Internet exploded. Part of the reason I was able to jump into an Internet career early, with my English and Soviet Studies majors, was because I had not followed a traditional career track. After graduating from Tufts in 1989, I waitressed until I saved up enough for a one-way ticket to Taipei, Taiwan, where I taught English. Here I was, an English major from a good university, who suddenly landed in a city where I could not read. I had to trust taxi drivers who spoke only Taiwanese and hand them scrawled addresses and hope I would get dropped off in the right place. I’d have to fight for a spot on a crowded bus that would enable me to see outside well enough to spot the Ronald McDonald statue that marked the stop at which to disembark. The first Chinese characters I learned to recognize were all street names, and the first phrases were from the noodle lady I walked past every night on the alley on the way home. She’d hold up a pot of steaming noodles ask me: “Ni yao shenme?”

Because I didn’t speak much Mandarin, I let smells of sizzling oil guide me to the fried dumpling stand and Ronald McDonald’s frozen red smile marked major intersections. I learned to count as the guotie vendor held up fingers when I asked the price, while his other hand stirred big fat greasy dumplings in a giant wok. I learned how to watch faces, to notice microexpressions and sweeping gestures, to walk through all those signs with Chinese characters climbing up to the sky and feel them, every day, as the crowds swept me down the streets, until they became bakery, bank, restaurant.

When I returned to San Francisco in 1991, there was a new landscape to discover. I spoke the language but had a whole new context to figure out. I moved into a Victorian flat with three roommates near Alamo Square Park. Across the courtyard, a gold mannequin in the window changed outfits every day. My roommate Heather was even messier than me, tall with wavy red hair, a mattress on her hardwood floor with zines and comics scattered everywhere. She worked for a CD-ROM gaming company called 3DO, and I was intrigued but didn’t really understand what she did. She collected background patterns for their library and sometimes modeled for their games and it sounded really fun. She got me an interview to help organize the pattern library, and it was my first real job interview back from Taiwan and I had no idea what to wear so I wore a navy blue suit. When I got there, everyone wore jeans and funky shirts and I didn’t have a chance.

My next interview was for an insurance company, and they didn’t like that I had gaps in my resume that included six months of traveling in Southeast Asia, so that was that. I then fell into legal temp work since I still wanted to travel and didn’t yet know what I wanted to do in life. In 1994, I worked for a tax attorney who loved technology, and he used to call me into his office to check out the new websites that had appeared on a site called Mozilla. He hired a small firm to create a website for him, and me to help design it and do the copywriting. One day he handed me copies of HTML instructions and said, “You should learn this. You’ll make more money.”

I bought the book “Learn HTML in a Week” and I did. I looked in the San Francisco Chronicle classifieds for a new job, and saw an ad that read: “Small educational software company needs office manager. HTML preferred.” The interview was on an old couch in a basement in the Richmond. The garage was filled with boxes of software. Mark, who interviewed me, used to work for Apple and asked me who the founders were. At the end I was telling him of my dream to connect farflung places with technology — I told him how when I was visiting the north of Bali, I had to wait in a telephone office on a plastic chair in the humid heat for hours, until an operator from Jakarta could patch in a scratchy call to the U.S.

I got the job. Mountain Lake Software had an art and writing contest for kids that was the basis of one of the first children’s sites on the web, CyberKids. I was office manager for a week, and then became editor of Cyberteens, the first teen site on the web. Julie, the co-founder, was more interested in kids than the teens who had been clamoring for their own site, so she was happy for me to do it.

I learned more HTML by building pages for Cyberteens, and Photoshop because it was on my work computer and we needed images. Our first message board was built in Python and to delete nasty posts we’d go in the code and delete them. We all helped each other and there was an expectation that we all could learn what we needed to. There were no classes to take, it was all us figuring it out together. Once when there was a bug in the Cyberteens HTML, a member of the teen audience emailed me with the code to fix it.

One of Mark’s friends, Craig, started an email list to tell us what was happening around town, and then he made the website craigslist. We started a group called San Francisco Web Professionals and I gave a talk at Moscone Center about the Cyberteens community. I told the story of Wendy, a pregnant 15-year-old from a small town and how the Cyberteens community had given her a wellspring of support. What would Wendy have done before the Internet? I wondered. I remember the Anon Salon, an art and technology party South of Market with neon art projects glowing in the dark, costumed netizens wandering from room to room co-creating the future in a burst of post-hippie techno-glee.

Years later, at the brunch in Los Angeles with Una, I wondered how to transmit that sense of learning and wonder in the early San Francisco web community to a new generation. The sun was hot and the kids were all gathered around the sea lion. I raised my glass of cheap champagne in toast to a new journey of teaching coding to kids in LA.

I decided to start CoderDojo Los Angeles with Una and to do my best to transmit some of the values that I had learned in the heady early web days: openness, sharing, risk-taking, self-directed learning, weaving of creativity and technology, peer and project-based learning, the sense of democratization of who could be a creator. No one cared if someone was short or stubby or nerdy or thirteen, as long as they had good ideas and something to contribute.

I emailed James Whelton to get an original copy of the CoderDojo logo and didn’t hear back right away. It turned out the reason why was because he was in the hospital due to a skateboarding accident. Since he was not yet 21, when he visited the States could not legally drink. Immigration officials routinely questioned him on his trips to the U.S. to meet VC’s, since due to the 1o-year Irish passport, his photo was of a 10-year-old, though by now he was a strikingly handsome, tall and witty young man.

James says he was not a good student and found school boring. But he started coding on his own and then figured out how to hack the iPod and gained some notoriety among his classmates. They wanted to learn how to hack from him so he started a club. Later, entrepreneur Bill Liao teamed up with him to spread CoderDojo far and wide.

CoderDojo replicates the values of sharing, learning, community and creation I learned during the early days in San Francisco. During the first CoderDojo Los Angeles, hosted at Google, we taught the kids HTML. By the end of the session, the kids were very excited to make a word red. Then a kid turned to me and asked, his face lit up, “Can we make it green?”

“Yes, yes!” I answered. “You can make it green, you can make it any color you like.”

In most CoderDojo sessions, there is a kid who will turn to me or one of the volunteer mentors and ask permission to create something. We realize that many of these children are used to school environments where following the official rules is very important. They are not trained to have a creative idea and then go ahead and pursue it — they first look around for permission.

Our goal at CoderDojo is to provide an environment that gives them the permission.

Over time, I have realized other ways that traditional school environments hamper kids’ ability to create. During Hour of Code week, I ran Hour of Code sessions at two LAUSD public schools. At the first school, the password we were given to access the Internet was about 50 characters long, so we spent a lot of extra time just getting online. Then, kids couldn’t watch the engaging videos that guided them along the Hour of Code exercise since YouTube videos were blocked and there seemed to be no easy way to get around it. At the second school, the principal used his special password to get around the YouTube block, but it still didn’t work. Kids were still finishing up their projects and could have used five more minutes but the period was over and the bell had rung so they had to leave.

We want to bring the CoderDojo ethos into the public schools, but it is a lot more challenging given the constraints of many traditional educational environments that really were designed to create obedient factory workers, not entrepreneurs and creators. When I was in college, the World Wide Web did not yet exist and there was no Internet career to imagine. Many of my peers didn’t know what they wanted to do but immediately went into law or investment banking. The fact that I went off the beaten path and decided to waitress and travel and learn new languages and new contexts, to put myself in a place where I did not know everything but was in fact a beginner again, was the best preparation I could have had for an Internet career that did not even exist when I was in college. I opened myself up to newness, and I learned to learn and relearn, over and over again.

With CoderDojo, we want to teach kids that sometimes they don’t need to ask permission, that once they learn how to change the color of a word, it can be red or green or blue or purple or orange. The important thing is that they learn how to change it, and use that word as a building block to tell their own story. And that they are empowered to create, and are open to change, and are equipped with the tools to navigate that change.