#teachtheweb: on becoming a webmaker 6

Portrait of the author as a new coder

Portrait of the author as a new coder

In gearing up for the Mozilla Webmaker #teachtheweb MOOC, I’ve been looking back at how I’ve learned to code what I code. Where did I begin? What did I already know? How did I decide which pathways to follow?

I began “webmaking” in IE-whatever at the turn of the century in an attempt to keep up with Bethany Nowviskie. I spent a lot of time nesting tables and editing Blogger templates. Once in a while I put together a WebQuest for my kids at school using some Flash or Fireworks buttons (like an emboss). I made some pages out of photos I took while on exchange in the Yucat├ín. I made a blog called “Love in the Time of George W,” which no one read, but which kept me busy on the night shift at the reference desk during grad school. I’m still upset by how Texas gutted its CHIP program. (That blog had a pretty kicking dog-with-blue-eyes logo, though, if I do say so myself.)

Then I just kind of stopped learning. It’s not that I didn’t use classroom technology or have kids blog from time to time in response to literature; it’s that I got caught up in chasing after my idea of what it meant to be a “good teacher.” I assigned a lot of reading, writing, and word study, some of it technologically-mediated, but most of it consumptive. The production tasks I assigned students – apart from the aforementioned blogging – were largely offline and teacher-directed. I also played a lot of video games and began my on-going crash-course in being a dad.

I’m still enrolled in that particular course, but I find that as I learn and code more, I play video games less, especially the expensive ones. Now that I’m interested in webmaking, I sometimes go weeks or months at a time without playing a commercial console title. That’s a big deal for a kid who grew up playing ceaseless back-to-back seasons of NHL94 as the Whalers. I still have a soft spot for flexible learning tools like Minecraft and micro-sims like Kairosoft games, but I think I like them because I feel like one day I might be able to make something similar to them. Certainly, the occasional weird game still captures my imagination – like Starseed Pilrgim. Overall, though, my hunger for consumer gaming has gone down as my hunger for coding has risen.

About a year ago, I tried Codecademy. I dutifully completed my weekly exercises until my brain just crashed. Some of my HTML came back to me, but CSS, javascript, and the almighty div remained alien to me. After a month or two, I got tired of banging my head against the lessons that stumped me. I only had rote ways to think through the problems that faced me. I got stuck thinking my learning was stuck.

At that point I had learned enough to make frankenpages with word-toys and text-generators, including a rough sketch of my official “best game idea ever,” Run, Sandwich, Run! I worked with some kids in my classes on coding this or that. We coded a button-mediated, dark-humor kids’ book called “There’s Glue All Around You.” We mixed a lot of Minecraft, modeling, and red-stone into the projects we negotiated together; my kids learned to build really complex circuits and mechanisms inside the game. I, on the other hand, stopped pushing myself to learn more coding.

I remained dedicated to remaking school. I ran hack jams for educators looking to foster democratic education and participatory learning. I just couldn’t imagine myself being as successful with code as I felt when I talked about hacking curriculum and learning spaces.

But then stuff clicked. Last summer, #ds106 brought me back into making art with new media (dammit) and the “slow hunch” of the “adjacent possible” unfolded in my head. I got better at asking Google the questions I needed to answer. I came to the supreme realization of coding that arrives after you accept your fear of making mistakes:

People just make this stuff up.

I don’t meant to say that there aren’t consistent methods, maths, and operations that make code work. Certainly, parts of code are affixed to parts of logic, math, and computation. Knowing the rules helps. But the rest of it is just fiction and speculation waiting for someone to dream it up and wrap in brackets.

I used to imagine that there was this vast library of variables, functions, and divs that I could never read or understand. I used to think that what separated coders from non-coders was scholarship and immersion in some kind of giant code base that I could’t possibly learn. The path not taken.

I mistook coding for scholarship, but it’s really authorship. I thought I needed to be taught coding and that I could not learn it. That I had missed a window. That coding followed a neat progression of courses like my liberal arts education. That you only get one of. At college.

Of course, when I was a kid I thought that people traded houses when they moved and that cable-TV-content-on-demand would never take off because The Muppets was a Friday night ritual, dammit. So all of this could just be me. Or it could be that in the United States we’re teaching the humanities in such a mechanistic and atomized manner that we humanists often deny our own ability to code all together. We were never good at math. Or it could be something else: I, in fact, didn’t do too well in Algebra II, which was taught by my high school’s computer science teacher. Who knows. I’m sure it’s a ++ of things in the loop of my life of the mind. Happily, though, I’ve learned to stop worrying and to love the code – along with the critical and pedagogical problems and opportunities that come with it.

This year I returned to Codecademy and found some javascript and jquery lessons that made much more sense to me than the lessons I previously abandoned. I started understanding that I could accomplish my coding goals in several different ways. I discovered that people share javascript libraries so that when we code we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I grokked more and more of the books on HTML, CSS, and javascript that I’d collected and brought to class hoping that a student would unlock them for me. I saw how HTML, CSS, and javascript worked together in more than an academic, balanced-equation kind of way. I got upset my school computer couldn’t run the latest GitHub client. I came to recognize the surface differences between the coding languages I mess around with on my computer. I saw how my oldest students and I – now in our third year together – had moved away from gaming to making over the course of our community. I got into physical computing and the joy of not understanding why my Raspebrry Pi boot keeps failing. I continued to follow and be inspired by Nowviskie’s work and the work of her colleagues in the digital humanities. I wrote more. I embraced coding as another way to make stuff in the classroom and at home – as another form of composition equal to all the different and brilliant performances my kids find within themselves to show what they learn. I watched my son burn through a half-dozen blogging services and platforms in his attempt to craft the perfect game-review site. I watched my daughter begin designing buildings on her brother’s Minecraft LAN world.

With the help and support of friends at the National Writing Project, the Mozilla Foundation, Teen Tech Girls, and #nerdcamp, I started thinking of myself as a coder, as well as a teacher, husband, parent, gamer, writer, and reader. I even repaired an appliance because I thought to myself, “Hey, it can’t be that different from coding.”

It’s never too late to learn to code. There’s no right way to do it. Wonderful people can help you find ways to learn when you get stuck.

I am excited for #teachtheweb not only because it will help our kids write the future of society, online and off, but also because it will bring us together to make something. It will bring us together to learn in community. It will bring us together to support one another and solve one another’s problema. (And because it gives me a chance to offer study groups on HOMAGO for teachers and HTML toy-making.)

It will, in short, be what our schools and societies should be, could be, and may yet be with care, humor, determination, and belief in each other and our shared power to write the variables, functions, and divs of a country that does not yet exist.

But we are marching towards it.

Hand-in-hand and line-by-line.

6 thoughts on “#teachtheweb: on becoming a webmaker

  1. Reply Lou Buran Apr 27, 2013 2:45 pm

    I wonder how universal these experiences are for husbands, fathers, teachers, gamers, readers, writers, and coders. You have expressed, so well, my sentiments about and excitement for the upcoming course.

    After reading this reflective piece, I am even more excited! You have created value and it hasn't even officially started.

    Thank you for being my first mentor here.

    • Reply Chad Apr 28, 2013 2:34 pm

      Too kind, Lou – thank you!

      I think the most universal piece must go something like this: each of us can find a path to learn, and part of making the open web and open societies is making sure that we help others do the same.

      I’m beginning to realize that my coding right now is a lot like my teaching – idiosyncratic, intuitive, iterative, and closely tied to my interests and my students’ interests. I don’t know that I can effectively recreate or teach what I’ve done, but I am determined to describe and share it, if for no other reason than to shown the world what kids can make and think when trusted to do both.

      Onward together!

      All the best,

  2. Reply Tom Salmon Apr 29, 2013 5:13 pm

    Great post Chad, it really spoke to me as well about participating in this whole experience too. I could feel how important the need to open new doors, and also the joys of finding your own ways to that was in this reflection. It made me think about what it means to mentor or help someone else to do that.

    I am also bringing myself to learn about this stuff in a sort of roundabout way, but this would really be more the start of my journey even though I am trying to mentor others in their learning too. I know exactly what you say about the feeling that you need to learn the way you are used to learning. The first thing I thought about doing was to find a book to read on the subject! :) Luckily I opened up a web browser instead…

    My own experiences in becoming more web literate and learning the basics of coding remind me sometimes of trying to learn to do something quite new, like learning to ride a bicycle. Except that in this case I am riding around with a blindfold on half the time!

    I start going, and then I get the fear and have to take my hands off the handlebars to have a peek, to check I am ok and am not getting lost.

    I think as adults there is more of a mental block – we can sometimes find it hard to think about parts of ourselves ‘digitally’ and to let go of our connection with how we have learned in the past. It is sort the feeling of being a bit digitally awkward.

    Unfortunately everything we have learned to do generally works for us. (a common truism that tells you little about life: in the same way people are always saying that everything you find is usually in the last place you look for it)

    So I know I get used to this sort of autopilot and then expect to always know where I am automatically. But it is stop, go, stop, go – I keep getting these shocks in the digital world.

    There are many possible reasons for this. I might expect courses to deliver the learning I need, but then get stuck because actually I forget to stop caring about the blindfold.

    If I did I would be better at accepting that a certain activity might not work very well or in the way I thought it would. I think like many others with a less technical backgrounds, we tend to face many other stop, go situations but in the end we could do worse than remembering to seek some encouragement and not be so hard on ourselves!

    So these are just some thoughts of mine. I am looking forward to learning and helping others to do the same thing, and I think this is a reminder for me that everyone has different pathways and decisions to make about getting somewhere in the end (wheels or no wheels!)

    I guess that sometimes I forget that as an adult I still need to have support and scaffolding, just like everyone. It is the curse of the adult learner. We find it a bit harder to weave our own story through each learning experience with pressures from inside and out. We have more difficulty to let ourselves just be.

    So to anyone feeling this way – if you feel you should be learning faster or as well as you would like to, and are disappointed or think that if this was a field of expertise you’d be shocked at your lack of it – then take a deep breath….

    Ditch the book, grab some training wheels, a blindfold, get totally lost and rise out of your bed in the morning with a new challenge and let yourself be a little bit excited by it, once in a while :)

    :) Tom

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