London CoderDojo

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I mentored at CoderDojo London this weekend. These are just some of my thoughts about it.

CoderDojo is a movement orientated around running free not-for-profit coding clubs and regular sessions for young people.

A regular London chapter has formed, supported by and at the offices of Forward Technology. It takes place in their canteen/theatre which has a nice tiered seating area and a miked up presentation stand.

It’s still the Easter break, but 6 kids turned up with laptops ready to carry on with projects they had already started and learn new stuff. It started with a presentation of what the day’s agenda was, which I mostly zoned out of as I was busy churning through the Javascript tutorial on Codecademy which was going to covered. I’m not a web developer so I didn’t want to show myself up.

After the opening talk the kids started burning through the tutorials at a breakneck pace. Where I went through them a bit slower; they hammered through the interactive tutorial without (seemingly) worrying about learning what they were doing. But that wasn’t the case. Each succeeding question depended on knowledge gained in the previous one, and they obviously had retained it. The mentors watched them going through the exercises and answered questions. I may not know Javascript, but I can spot syntax errors and misspelled commands like a BOSS. So I wasn’t useless as I was worried I would be.

After that section (and after a few breaks - these are kids after all) Adam got everyone to open elucidatedbinary.com/recanvas where you can draw straight into web page and see the results right as you code. And then step by step got them to follow along first creating a line, then a rectangle then filling in the rectangle then drawing circles, arcs and trying to draw the first initial of your name.

This was the most fun of the afternoon. Seeing the results instantaneously really drove them along. They changed the points to see what would happen without worrying about what they were doing. The mentors were kept busy helping them with the syntax, explaing the difference between starting a line and drawing a line, the coordinate system, points, colours, line thickness. These were youngsters who don’t know their way about a keyboard as most of the rest of us do, but I didn’t want to correct them because it would break the flow of what they were doing. I had to draw the letter shapes on paper a couple of times and walk them through the process of working out what the coordinates of each point should be.

I showed one girl how to draw an arc on the canvas, went away and when I came back she proudly showed me that she’d put two filled circles above the arc to make a smiley face. Without being told to or shown how.

One of the extra tasks was to modify a function to draw on the canvas when the mouse was pressed. I saw one boy go to Stack Overflow, find a similar solution, and then, rather than just copy-pasting the code, he turned to me and asked me to explain mousedown to him. (A lesson that many people could stand to learn). I tweeted about it later: {" Helping kids program is hard. You can’t tell them to RTFM “}. Since I would have to refer to the said FM to answer him properly, I deferred the question to someone who knew what he was talking about.

It was an energising experience. The program is in the early days yet, there isn’t a program of tasks to cover. But the enthusiasm of the children and the mentors is the driving force at the moment.

If you have or know of someone who would be interested in this. Either as a mentor or a student, please, let them know about it. The sessions are free to attend, take place in Camden Town on Saturdays between 12-3. You can sign up with EventBrite, which gives an idea of how many attendees there will be and how many mentors are available.