8:16am. Eat breakfast with students.
8:44am. Final preparation and reminders before hacking begins.
9:43am. Here’s the tally of what I see:
- eight high school students
- one teacher (that’s me)
- three non-profit leaders
- three Philadelphia tech experts
Let’s do that tally another way:
- 8 students
- 7 interested, caring professionals engaging in these students’ work
Right now I’m at Philadelphia’s first ever WebSLAM: a student-centered civic hackathon that unites non-profit organizations who need a website with students who are learning how to build websites and a professional mentor to help each team find success. After weeks and weeks of preparation (plenty of work outisde of school and up to 4 meetings per week in school), we have finally arrived at our hackathon day when students are working furiously to build websites that satisfy their client’s needs. We started at 9:00am. We need to be done by 5:00pm. Awards will be given out by some of the heavy hitters of Philadelphia’s tech scene by 7:00pm. And I’m sure we will all be ready to go home and pass out by 7:15pm.
11:42am. The positive vibes are swirling. Everyone here has something to feel good about. Students are presenting their ideas to adults; adults are coaching the students with technical skills and talking about empathizing with the user’s experience. Although we are talking in the language of HTML tags and CSS properties, it’s clear that programming websites is just a platform for much bigger things that are happening today.
12:00pm. Lunch. But not really.
12:58pm. In the frenzy of all of this, I’m doing my best to pause and reflect. Today has been exciting and exhausting, but so has this month: in all sorts of ways I have had opportunities to step back and watch my students run with the pros. Today it’s students from Computer Science 1 and Make club at the WebSLAM; last week it was students from Computer Science 2 and STEAM working with an R&D engineer at Comcast Innovation Labs; next week it’ll be another group of students from Make club collaborating with a professional artist to complete their interactive wire, fabric, light, and sound sculpture.
And when I take this time to step back and reflect, I see that each of these opportunities has somehow been equally stimulating on both sides: the adults who are engaged, who care, who want to share what they do are thrilled to connect with curious students; and these same curious students are thrilled to connect with real adults from the real world who can verify that the lessons and positive feedback coming from their teacher are real too.
5:15pm. After 8 hours of work, the teachers and the mentors move aside so that the students can pitch their projects to the judges, who are big names in Philadelphia’s tech scene. And after a day of working eye-to-eye with mentors and tech professionals, the students continue by talking with the judges, who are certifiably Important People in the tech scene, as if they had been working alongside them all day too.
But how is that happening? How are students, teachers, mentors, professionals, and widely recognized industry leaders all operating on the same wavelength? What is the glue that is making these connections possible?
Maybe it’s the technology. Maybe it’s the nature of these “digital natives” to speak techese. Or maybe it’s the internet or the language of web development that is leveling the playing field somehow.
It might be any one of those things. I don’t know. But here’s what I would like to think instead: that it is the common bond of self-expression that is pulling together such incredible diversity. Programming isn’t just for the smartest kid in math class; it’s not just for entrepreneurs living in California. Programming is another currency for self-expression. And today I saw differences disappear — differences in age, experience, ability, background — as they yielded to a common whisper of: Hey. See what you’re doing there? That’s part of who I am too.
It was quite a sight to behold. And the cherry on top? Non-profit organizations who are doing good in our community get to walk away with websites that will help them further their missions.
6:00pm. Judges confer. Everyone eats dinner together.
7:03pm. Friends’ Central students end an incredible day of working with professionals and helping out a local non-profit with some thrilling news.