This last Saturday was a particularly good one: I did something to shift from being simply a learner, to assisting others’ learning experience. That something was volunteering with my local chapter of Ladies Learning Code, a digital literacy initiative that provides affordable, beginner-friendly sessions in technology skills.
I first heard about them in late 2013, when I’d just defended my Masters and was looking for a community and a way to keep developing my own hard-won knowledge base. I took their session on PhotoShop and Illustrator, and was impressed by not only the quality of the workshop, but the enthusiasm and collegiality of the instructor and volunteer mentors.
Not long after, I fell down a year-long WordPress rabbit hole and forgot about it for a while. It was no bad thing from a personal and professional standpoint – being brought on to the Contemporary Ukraine Research Forum as web developer was one of the highlights of 2014 and prompted me to take a course in theme development – but it stalled my participation in the local community.
Now, in 2015, that’s something I’ve resolved to rectify. It’s partly that working (not to mention job hunting) from home is isolating and getting out to participate in the larger community is one of the best ways to break that isolation. But, more importantly, I’ve reached the point where I’m comfortable in my own skills, and it’s time for me to give back by helping others with their learning.
I chose the first session of the year, LLC Edmonton’s HTML and CSS workshop, to take the plunge as a mentor. Despite the overnight dump of snow, about 30 learners braved the roads to attend, plus several other mentors.
Once the instructor started, the time flew.
I initially had a table of three, which became a table of four about an hour in. For the first half hour or so, the uncertainty was palpable. The subject matter was foreign and intimidating to the learners. It was amazing watching my table as they made simple changes to their HTML document, and the baffling cipher in front of them began to transform into a process they could understand and control. One woman even laughed delightedly when she refreshed the browser and saw her changes take effect. With one exception, the help they needed was primarily to break down a given task a bit further until it clicked for them, or to catch them up when the instruction occasionally proceeded faster than their new understanding.
That exception was the latecomer to the session. To get her caught up, I ended up quietly working one on one with her for about half the day; I am tremendously grateful to the mentors at the adjacent tables who jumped in and out to help the other three when I wasn’t able to. She started out flustered, apologetic and baffled, but, over the next few hours, she not only gained confidence but caught up and started adding her own customizations to her page while she waited for the instructor to move on. Though she started behind everyone else, she left excited by what she’d accomplished and was looking forward to teaching her daughter what she’d learned.
By the end of the day, it was amazing how far everyone had come. They’d gone from feeling over their heads to building a simple, well-styled one-page website, no mean feat for a beginner. The last hour was the most intense from a mentoring standpoint, however – by that point in the day, the learners were commenting that were feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information they’d been absorbing. They were generally upbeat and satisfied with their progress, but keeping up with the remaining tasks had become much more challenging.
All said and done, I’m tremendously pleased that I could help out. Having a busy table proved to be no trouble for me; I ended up energized by it. It helped that the Ladies Learning Code group as a whole was tremendously open, welcoming and supportive. Though most other mentors were seasoned, I was by no means the only first-timer. Furthermore, they were from a range of backgrounds – some work in web development, some are interested in web development for personal reasons, and at least one is currently learning web development and programming as part of a career change.
The common thread was love of the subject and desire to instill it in others, and I’m left glad that I took the plunge to share my own.