This last January, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and start volunteering with Ladies Learning Code. My first session as a mentor was in February, and I’ve now mentored at five over the last year.
It’s been one of the highlights of my year. I’ve got to know some incredible people in the community, worked with some truly fantastic students, and had the pleasure of watching numerous people reach that lightbulb moment. It’s amazing getting someone past the point of ‘what have I gotten myself into’ and over to feeling confident in their capabilities.
This weekend, I mentored at the last one for 2015, the annual Girls Learning Code Day workshop. I’m grateful I came to this one with preexisting experience – though the material is substantially simplified from the adult-oriented sessions, there’s a distinct challenge in explaining HTML and CSS to children and adults at the same time.
As a mentor, I had to be mindful to keep it on a level the kids could understand, and at the same time enable the parents to assist their children. Without the experience of working with adult learners, it would have been far more challenging; those previous sessions gave me the tools to anticipate where learners might run into snags with the content, and develop the vocabulary to break the concepts down.
Nevertheless, I was still surprised a few times by the kinds of things my table ran into. For example, the presenter’s material didn’t spend as much time on why nested elements and element hierarchies are important. It also instructed the learners to place their CSS into <style> elements rather than into a discrete style.css file. As a direct consequence, I spent a lot of my time troubleshooting nesting issues, and explaining that, while the learners had formed their CSS correctly, it wasn’t working because they’d put it next to their HTML rather than inside the <style> elements.
To be clear, this is no slight to the instructor. She did a great job, despite her nervousness as a first-time presenter. One thing I’ve observed over and over again is that even the best planned lessons aren’t always absorbed the way one might expect. More than anything, my takeaway is that I need to be more proactive as a mentor when working with kids, and make sure to ask regularly whether my learners are clear on the concept the presenter just covered.
One of the biggest things I value about being a mentor is not only that I’m able to help facilitate others’ learning, but also that it’s forced me to think differently about the material, and the journey to understanding. It’s made me confront that I’m still learning myself – not just my own understanding of web development concepts, my ability to be a good instructor. Working with the kids stretched that ability.
Even though I feel I could have done better with respect to the proactiveness, I still feel I was able to contribute to making Girls Learning Code. The kids and parents were great to work with, the kids came away proud of what they’d accomplished, and both of the parents made a point of thanking me more than once when it all wrapped.
It’s been a great note to end a year of volunteering on. Overall, I’m glad I took the leap to become an active mentor, and I’ve already committed to come back for 2016. Next year, I’ll be challenging myself to expand beyond mentoring for HTML, CSS and WordPress. And, as I build more experience, my ultimate goal is to work my way to leading a session.
Here’s to another great year with Ladies Learning Code.