The “a + b” Teacher

Stephane Come
Sep 3, 2017 · 9 min read
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It was Tuesday morning, the 3rd week of August 1982. I don’t know who was more nervous, the young teacher facing his very first class, or the kids waiting to meet their new Math teacher, Mr. Javet. The room was oddly quiet that morning.

The new teacher walked in the classroom fast and confident. He was on a mission. He quickly glanced at us while heading to the blackboard. He picked up some white chalk and without saying one word started to write on the board..

a + b = b + a

This made no sense. No matter how I looked at what was written on the board, it made no sense. While I sat there in consternation, the only thing I could think of was “Letters are for writing and reading only. Numbers are for adding and subtracting. What kind of mad science was this? Was it a trick?”

Welcome to Algebra!” and that is how the class started. We could hear a pin drop. I don’t remember much of the rest of the class. I had completely shut down my abilities and willingness to learn. I simply decided that I wouldn’t take part in this sort of modern sorcery. It had to be some kind of joke…

A few weeks went by with a couple of tests. In both instances I gave back a blank page. Remember, Letters are for writing. Numbers are for calculating. I had decided that nothing would change that.

It was now time to receive our tests results. Mr. Javet would go around the class, stop at each desk and comment on each student’s performance. I was the last stop. He looked at me and said: “I’m not sure what your problem is, but we are going to find out. I expect you here on Saturday at 9am and you will not leave until you complete these tests.

It was now Saturday morning on our way to school. I was mad. I was afraid. I was quiet. My Mom dropped me off and then left. I didn’t say anything. The school was empty. It felt weird. My friends were home or outside playing. I headed to the classroom where the teacher was waiting. I didn’t know what to expect.

We spent the entire day together. It was a bit of a blurr, but by late afternoon I suddenly got it. Yes, I got it! It was like a door opened and a new dimension appeared. It all made sense and I was hooked. That day, that moment, that teacher changed my life.

A week later I stopped by the school library. I was looking for books on electronics. I found one that had all kinds of equations. It looked cool. Really cool. It look amazingly difficult but it would not stop me. I didn’t understand most of it, yet to this day I never returned it. I was hooked.

It’s now September 2012 and I’m flying over the Atlantic. My kids are asleep. I can’t sleep. I’m reflecting on our wonderful trip. It was my sister’s wedding — a sister from another mother. A few days after her wedding I decided to show my wife where I went to school. The old building was still there, but it was closed. I could still hear the sound of recess. I kind of miss that time. The school had moved to a new building across town. Now I was curious. I had to go check it out. We stopped by. The school was open. I asked the front desk if Mr. Javet was still working there. I didn’t think he would after 30 years, but I would still ask… I was hoping he would be there.

30 years had gone by and if there is one thing I remember from being in school is that one Saturday. It is that one teacher. The one no one liked. The one that was always too strict. The one that never cracked a joke. Yet, he was my favorite teacher. He was the one that pushed me to realize what I was capable of. The Math classes became my favorite lessons. I felt challenged. Something no other teacher had done before. Being outside of my comfort zone felt strange, yet surprisingly good. He was preparing me for my upcoming career in software engineering, but he didn’t know it.

He hadn’t changed one bit. Well, maybe a few gray hairs. It was kind of surreal. We chit-chatted while taking the tour of the new school. There were no more blackboards. Classrooms had computers now. The rooms were much brighter. Too much steel. The old school was much better, it had a warmer feel. I asked if he had seen some of my old classmates. “I now teach their kids.”. Time flies…

Thank you for spending your Saturday with me 30 years ago” I said. “It changed everything!” I added. There are no words to express the gratitude I felt that the time. It’s a moment I will cherish for a long time. I wanted to hug him, but that’s not in the culture over there. We shook hands, I smiled and we left.

My kids are still sleeping while we rush through the air at 36,000 miles high. I feel good. My brain is going as fast as the airplane. I’m thinking. How can I do the same? How can I inspire one kid? Just one kid… I run through some ideas. What if? What if I host a Meetup group and teach kids basic electronics, or even coding? What if it just simple at first? That’s it…

We’re now back home in California. I’m back to work. The kids are back to school. Life resumes, but the idea of the Meetup keeps growing. I sit at my computer and create a new group. Let’s call it Electronics for Kids. I schedule an event at the HackerLab, our local makerspace. I’m hoping a handful of kids will show up. I’m thinking 3 or 4 would be cool. There’s room for 6 in our small office. I’ve got two weeks to get ready for it. Let’s buy some LEDs, resistors and a few breadboards. I haven’t used breadboards for way too long.

It’s 7:45am on Saturday morning. The HackerLab is empty and quiet. I’m excited. It’s going to be fun. We have a dozen people that have RSVP’d. I think I bought enough components as I divide them into small packets.

It’s 8:21am. The first kid shows up with his parents. It’s Alex. It all feels a bit awkward, we don’t know each other. No one knows what to expect. “Welcome to Kids Electronics! Take a seat.”. A few minutes pass. It’s now 8:30am. More people stream in. Now there is a line. It gets loud. I’m handing out packets of components. By now, I can’t even see the end of the line… We have 45 kids, each with their parents. I realize I’m completely unprepared for this. #chaos becomes the hashtag of the moment.

We continue hosting classes every other week. More people join. We make new friends. These people are cool, their kids are so hungry to learn and to try new things. I’m not sure why they keep coming, the workshops are unstructured, a tad chaotic, it’s loud. I struggle to control the noise. But there is a lot of energy in the room. A kid lets the magic smoke escape from his LEDs. Another needs to try it too. It’s now a thing. “Mr. Stephane, I need help!”, two little hands go up, then four, and then many more. I try to help everyone, but end up just running around…

Another Saturday afternoon. By now three classes are over. I skipped breakfast, I skipped lunch. I’m drained, but I feel good. There were a lot of smiles today. Have you ever seen a kid light up his first LED by himself or herself? That face. That expression. It’s magic. It’s contagious. It fuels my desire to continue. I now know… that one kid, he is me on that Saturday afternoon. I can see it on their faces when they leave. This must be worth it. But the format sucks!

Yes, the format sucks! The kids have fun, but I’m not sure they are learning. I don’t know how to change it. The feedback from the parents is good. They want more events, they want us to keep going. I’m not sure I can continue. The hardest part is having a mix of new students with kids that have been with us for months. I want to spend time with each of them, but it seems impossible. I feel bad. There must be something I can do different.

It’s now been more than 9 months since we hosted our last workshop. I miss the kids, I miss the noise, but we’re working on an idea to help them learn. We’re working on a new format. During that time, it seems that every day a new gizmo appears on Kickstarter to teach kids coding. These programs all look verysimilar with a “fun and easy” theme. Why does it have to be easy? Our kids are capable of so much more. Our content is different and it’s now time to test our idea. We get a group of kids to test our new format. They like it, but I think we missed the mark. I realize something. It’s hits me hard. There is a fine line between educating and entertaining. We fell into the same trap and are merely entertaining the kids with some LEDs and JavaScript code. We need to adapt. Quickly. We go back to the drawing board. I go back to all the feedback we received over the past 3 years from hosting our workshops. There is a resounding theme coming from the parents. It is loud and it is clear. “Challenge my kids please!”.

It’s now Summer 2017. We just published our last comic book in the PodPi series. It’s a series of adventures in learning electronics, we’re the first comic doing so. We set out to teach basic electronics and JavaScript coding from the resistor to the cloud. We made it fun, but set out to challenge the kids. If you asked me, it’s not about the electronics, it’s not about coding, it’s about curiosity, problem-solving and above all perseverance. Our very first Meetups saw kids starting to tinker before the classes started — they were all so curious. Man, I loved seeing this. But over the last few years, I’ve seen a trend that worries me. Now, the kids merely sit and wait to be given step by step instructions. They ask “What do I do?”, something they never said in the past. Where is the curiosity? Where’s that spark? Why is it mostly gone? And more importantly, how do we get it back? But I’m encouraged each time a kid comes back to our workshop with our comic books in hand. The books are worn and thorn, some pages are ripped, there are markings all over. They are missing pages. I know these books have been used. A kid asks me if he can get a new one. This format works!

Why did we choose comic books to teach? It’s fun for the kids. It’s provides us a way to present information in a way they can understand and relate to. The comics also allow us to leave gaps that can only be filled with their imagination, sparking their curiosity. We purposely avoid the common step by step instructions and replace it with contextual storytelling. We create a new world for kids to explore. A world where they are allowed to fail and try again. Is it easy? Some lessons are, but most are challenging by design. It’s different. The goal is not to complete all of the lessons, but rather to have the confidence to try something new in the first place, and to keep going.

I now understand what “a + b” means. If “a” is the student, and “b” is the teacher, then this equation is the one for a better world.

Join me and take a minute to thank a teacher next time you get a chance. They make our world better every single day.

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I appreciate your comments and claps should you have enjoyed this story. Thank you for reading it to the end.

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