Lessons learned from Code With Me Portland

Code With Me, a two day introduction to HTML/CSS/jQuery for journalists, came to Portland last weekend. Even though it was beautiful weather outside, forty students and twenty mentors gathered deep within The Oregonian to improve their digital chops. Just think a bit on those numbers — that’s a lot of people.

Last December, I reached out to Susan Gage, managing editor for digital at The Oregonian, about hosting a hackathon. We had initial conversations about the idea, pulled in Lauren and Ivar, and started planning. Then, in February, I began hearing a bunch about Sisi, Tom, and Code With Me. I got the full download on how Code With Me works from Sisi at NICAR. After a brief discussion with Lauren and Ivar, it became obvious bringing Code With Me to Portland was a much better idea than a hackathon. So we set about convincing Sisi and Tom it was worth their time.

What worked well:

  • Tom and Sisi have spent a lot of time considering their approach and pulling resources together. All of their effort showed.
  • All of the exercises were available online during and after the presentations. Useful for students to review.
  • Each student had a printed reference sheet with many of the topics we covered.
  • The paper coding exercise was amazing. It was a hands-on, physical application of very digital knowledge, and also promoted discussion between students.
  • Twenty mentors donated their weekends. Wonderful support from the community.
  • The Oregonian stepped up with the location, Knight-Mozilla Open News covered much of the costs, and Automattic generously covered the mentor thank you dinner.

What should be added next time:

  • Refresher for mentors on teaching strategies. Even though we only had two students to work with, it was still challenging to switch into teacher mode, adapt to different learning styles, etc.
  • Assistance with scoping student projects.
  • Provide a set of tools/resources (e.g. jQuery plugins, TableTop.js for transforming a Google Spreadsheet, etc.) mentors can refer to when helping students build their projects.

Some logistical notes:

  • Saturday lunch: Cultured Caveman is a delicious food choice, but one needs to be a little more deliberate about what you need. We were short on some vegetarian options.
  • Mentor dinner: The Picnic House was the only place, of the half dozen I called, I could find to accommodate a party of twenty on Saturday night. Good deal for the associated costs. Service was a little slow / awkward.
  • Sunday lunch: Cha Cha Cha has the catering thing nailed. Enough food and options for everyone’s dietary needs.

After the weekend, here are the open questions I’m thinking about:

  • How can we better enable educators to teach these skills to their students?
  • Do students have the opportunity to apply their new knowledge? How do their skills progress over time?
  • For those of us who want to continue contributing as mentors, where do we go next? What’s the most valuable use of our volunteering time?

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