W6D1 Singing in the rain

In some ways this past weekend, with John’s wake and funeral, was a tough one. Still, the presence of my friends and family eased my burden and brought me comfort. When I came back to NYC yesterday, the weather seemed to be a metaphor for my return to the city. Although it was 77 degrees and had all the hallmarks of a beautiful day, somehow the breeze felt cold and biting. I’ve been working to accustom myself to the city’s summer heat, eschewing air conditioning when I have control of it, walking instead of taking the subway (though often the subway stations are the hottest places around), and generally accepting the heat. So, after sitting in the chill of the air conditioned train for a couple hours, I looked forward to hopping off at 125th Street into the warm city air. Though the sky was blue and the sun should’ve warmed the streets and the air above them, I felt a nip as I stepped off the train and the breeze seemed to slice right into my clothing. It felt more like late September than early August.

I awoke this morning and realized for the first time in a long time that I had slept uninterrupted through the night. I checked the weather and saw that it was going to rain all day, although the thought of that didn’t seem to faze me. I hadn’t yet planned my day – which sites to visit or how long to stay. It is week 6 in some classes – the week the girls start designing and developing their final projects, but week 5 in others, where the girls will be learning about data science (extracting knowledge and information from data) and advanced algorithms. I knew I was going to go to a week 5 class – that’s where the direct instruction is still going on.

Since the beginning of the summer, I have been encouraging the teaching assistants to take leadership roles in the classroom, perhaps leading a lesson or part of a lesson. The TAs are all very good in supporting roles, jumping in where necessary to help explain a topic and helping when one on one aid is needed during coding activities. A few TAs have gone well beyond this, and in one or two classrooms, the TAs plan and teach nearly everyday. I figured that this week is my last chance to see the other TAs give it a try. That cemented my decision. There was one classroom where, due to speakers and field trips, I hadn’t physically been present when anybody was teaching the GWC curriculum. That’s where I headed.

There is a TA in the program who is using this position to count as an internship. I’ll refer to her as Ellen. A couple of weeks ago, she asked me to fill out a midsummer evaluation. She’s been doing a great job, and has met the relatively modest goals of the internship. The last question on the survey asked what changes I’d like to see. I said that I’d like to see her take on some leadership roles in the classroom. This is above and beyond what the goals were, but is something I’d like every TA to take away from the summer. GWC is really an excellent place to develop leadership because we celebrate mistakes (we all make them), there are many levels to leadership which they can try, and there is a lot of good support. The cost of failure is small, and the potential wins are big, and isn’t that the best environment for learning?

When I got to her classroom this morning, the two head instructors in the classroom were team teaching about data science, and doing a great job. They introduced an activity to the girls, set the timer for 30 minutes, and the girls got to work.

After they finished, I was pleasantly surprised to see Ellen get up to lead the wrap up of the lesson. For about 20 minutes she lead the girls in a discussion of the activity (building a Venn diagrams on the terms data frame, dictionary, and list, which all have particular meanings in computer science). She collected information from a wide range of girls, held them accountable, summarized the lesson well, checked for understanding, and was upbeat and positive through the whole thing. She had clearly prepared well.

While the girls had been working on the activity, one of the instructors asked all four TAs if they’d be willing to show the girls some code samples of each of those three terms. None of the other TAs volunteered to step up to the plate, so Ellen took this part too, but this time without the luxury of time to prepare.

Again, she did very well, though she met with an additional challenge. At one point, she was talking about dictionaries, and and referred to one called “my_dict”. Only when she pronounced it, she did not clearly enunciate the “t” at the end. Imagine saying that in front of a room of 40 teen aged girls. English is not her first language, so she wasn’t immediately aware of what she had said. The girls were. A wave of laughter began to spread across the room. She didn’t understand why, so one of the instructors explained that she had just referred to a part of male anatomy. When she understood it, she smiled, turned red, and then, to her credit, laughed a hearty laugh right along with the girls. She handled it perfectly – after that she just said “my dictionary”.

Afterwards, I pulled her aside and asked if she had read my midsummer evaluation, because she had just done exactly what I hoped she would do more of. Nope. She can’t see her evaluation. She just did it. I told her what a great job she had done and that I’d be writing an excellent evaluation for her at the end of the summer. The GWC program is all about building courage and resilience, and she hit the ball right out of the park.

I wandered through the rain over to another site later in the afternoon. They were just finishing up an activity spotlighting women data scientists, and had a few minutes before the end of the day. It wasn’t enough time to start the next lesson, so they decided to let the girls ask questions about college. Most of the questions were about how to choose schools. However, one girl, Naisha (not her real name), asked if colleges look at just your GPA, or if they also consider your progress. It turns out that she has one failing grade, in Geometry, from her freshman year. She is a rising junior, and is very concerned about getting into the college of her choice.

I need to back up here, and remind you of who Naisha is. If you’ve been reading along, you may remember a family that came to a Meet and Greet with a dog and a “perfect” older sister, as in “Naisha, why can’t you be more like your sister?” I’ve spent a fair amount of time in that classroom, but never worked directly with her. As it happened today, I was sitting right next to her when she asked that question. It was right at the end of class, and as the other girls were leaving, I said to her, “Don’t worry about that grade. Colleges understand that freshmen make mistakes.”

She stayed after for a few minutes, so we actually got to have a conversation. “Her” top choice college is the same one that dad and older sister went to. She feels pressure (quite a lot) to go there too. It has a good business program which she is interested in. Still, she is worried about her GPA and that particular grade.

I suggested to her that she was more than just those two numbers. I don’t know that she’ll take it to heart, maybe over time. English is her favorite subject and she likes to write. Fortunately, she is taking AP Language this year, so I suggested that if she did well, she could demonstrate that she is good at communications. I also suggested ways that she could become “the girl they remember”, the one that stands out above the others, not because of her grades, but because of other things. Participating in Girls Who Code is one of those things, but I also suggested touring the campus and talking to admissions officers (“You can do that?” “Yep.”) and making sure to go to the information session at her school when the college rep is there, and asking questions and getting to know the rep. I suggested she might write handwritten thank you notes to any interviewers she has. Most of this seemed to take her by surprise. I’m not sure how well some of what I said will stick, but I’m pretty sure I got her to think another way about how to approach college. She is so much more than those numbers. I was really glad I was in the right place, at the right time.

Even though it was seven or eight degrees cooler today, the sun was lost behind a gray blanket of clouds, and I found myself walking in the rain everywhere I went, somehow the weather seemed so much better today than it did yesterday.

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