Mentoring a geeky teen

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our commenters.

In my day job, I’m the teacher librarian at an independent (private) high school in the Midwest. I’m a geek myself, but more along the lines of library work rather than coding (I’ve done a little, but not much) I’m starting to have conversations with students (ages about 14-18) who’d love to learn more. Our school offers digital arts courses and a robotics clubs, but no classes in programming by itself. So, my question is two fold:

  1. What do you wish some nice supportive adult who thought geekiness was great had done for you when you were a teenager? What got you excited, and what made a lasting impression? (And what parts of that do you think are still true even if the specific technology options have changed?)
  2. What sources and options do you think are a really good intro, especially for younger students.

For example: I’ve been starting one of them on basic HTML, with a move to CSS and then scripting once she learns more. I’m hesitant to suggest she look at something like Dreamwidth or AO3 just yet: she’s a great person, but she doesn’t quite have the social or time management skills to handle that kind of project environment without a lot of mentoring yet.

I’d love something that fit that middle ground: a guided resource with lots of advice and ideas that produced an interesting or creative outcome, but that I could help her through without learning it all myself. (much as I’d like to, not realistic at this point, given the stubborn persistence of 24 hours in a day.)

10 thoughts on “Mentoring a geeky teen

  1. Alison

    My most beloved mentor has described mentoring (as opposed to teaching) thusly, “With mentoring both people [the mentor and the protege] walk away with the feeling that they got the most out of a conversation.”

    This contrasts with my experience as a middle and high schooler. It always felt like my teachers, even though they clearly wanted me to succeed, never got anything out of the relationship.

    I presently have multiple mentors in college, including the one referenced above. The difference is that they ask for things in return. Not “move the earth” scale, but things that I would merrily do independently (“look up papers on X,” “design a web page for Y,” etc.). Particularly with female and minority students, research indicates that having a purpose to the activity is more effective than the “because I can” reasoning.

    Tasks that middle/high schoolers could enjoy:

    Creating a blog/web page/forum/wiki for a student group or school resource (which could be just modifying existing code, like making a CSS theme for WordPress’s PHP code).

    Starting a game/web/programming club. It doesn’t necessarily have to accomplish anything; it’s more to provide a time to get to know other geeky students, work on bigger group-projects, and peer-mentoring.

    A recommendation/review system for library books. Even something simple like a google groups could be used.

    Resources that could be appropriate (in order from simplest to most complex):
    Scratch (http://scratch.mit.edu/): tool that teaches programming concepts through a drag/drop interface and created for the 6-16 year olds.

    Alice (http://www.alice.org/): a programming language and lesson resource to teach middle and high schoolers about programming concepts (by making stories, games, etc.)

    Processing (http://processing.org/): a programming language designed for graphic/interactive designers and based on Java. They provide tutorials and source code at varying levels.

    Beginning Perl (http://www.perl.org/books/beginning-perl/): online, complete book that goes through programming in Perl.

    The python tutorial (http://docs.python.org/tutorial): decent, but would leave to more experienced students.

    1. Avendya

      I haven’t used the other tools you mentioned, but I hated Alice when I used it in middle school. It was obvious (to me) that it was programming with training wheels, and “real” computer scientists” didn’t use it. I wanted to do something real.

      I would very much suggest starting with Python or PHP, rather than Alice.

    2. Jenni Hill

      Would any of those be suitable for an adult?

      I’ve very little knowledge of programming but would love to learn. This site has made me want to learn!

      (What am I doing on this website? Well I’m geeky in all those many, many other ways! And I use html at work, but that’s about it.)

      1. Alison

        Processing, Perl, and Python are all languages used by professionals, so yes. :-)

        They serve very different purposes, so I’d recommend dabbling to see which seems like the best fit for you.

  2. spz

    +1 on the find them something useful they can do. Bonus if it gives them responsibility. “I made this, and it’s important”

  3. Juliette

    I was more a maths than computing geek as a kid – the main thing that made a difference to me was being given good books and interesting problems to work on outside of class, but not sure that’s quite so relevant to computing.

    I’d suggest two possible directions – either using the HTML/CSS to lead into Javascript to get a taste of programming or going for python which is my current favourite programming language to recommend to beginners – the environment it comes with is quite friendly but it’s also very much a real and good programming language. Not sure about specific resources though, eek. I think people will learn to use tools like Dreamweaver by themselves when they’re motivated and ready to do so because they are looking for ways to make life easier.

    I’m from the generation that taught themselves to program in BASIC at the age of 8 or 9 because it never occurred to us that we couldn’t! So one thing I would say is that it’s important not to send the message that programming is some difficult mystical thing that only adults can do. I also wouldn’t worry that you haven’t done much coding – you want to mentor rather than teach.

    Other than that, I really agree with the idea above of real projects. It’s definitely good to tell people what’s out there and point people in interesting directions, but it’s that intrinsic motivation of wanting to create something specific that gives you the determination to work through the tutorials or really figure out how something works.

  4. Jenni Hill

    When I was about 10, I wrote into the Marvel UK guys entering a ‘design your own superhero’ competition, and also enclosing a letter. Kids at school had informed me that X-Men and similar comics were a) for boys and b) not ‘grown-up’ enough, and bullied me because of it. I think I must have apologised for being a fan in spite of this.

    One of the editors there, if I can find the letter now (it’s at my parent’s house) I’ll get his name and thank him someday, wrote me a very supportive letter, telling me that comics were for people of all ages and genders. My dad framed it for me. It was on some pretty spiffy Spiderman Marvel letterhead paper too, as I recall, I was really proud of it.

    Best thing a geeky adult ever did for me. :-)

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