Just Kids

posted in: Blog, CV STEM 2015 | 0

Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

July 26, 2015

My daughter arrived in Africa two weeks before me for the start of the Colonie de Vacances in Mali. I asked in a text what the kids were like. We both, somehow, had the idea that African education would be more formal than in the U.S., and the kids more polite. After a few days in Bamako my daughter texted back to me, “They’re kids, kids like anywhere. At first, they were perhaps a little unsure about me. They were confused that I spoke French but wasn’t from France. But once they got comfortable with me, they became … just kids.”

In my opinion, in fact, the students in the Colonie de Vacances are more polite than kids in the U.S. would be. They certainly can get excited, they certainly can get wild, they absolutely love to play, but, all in all, they are pretty disciplined in the class. They say “Bonjour” to the teacher and often shake hands, they raise their hands, always eager to be called on, they stand up when they giving a response, they are studious, work hard, and obviously want to be successful in school. I am honestly extremely impressed by the quality and earnestness of our students and I think they would compare favorably with students in any country in the world.

Having now given 4 classroom hours in computer science instruction I can say that many don’t have much background in this area, with some exceptions, much less than I have seen in the United States. That is not surprising, of course – that is part of the reason iNERDE is here. I do want to write about the exceptions. I have adapted my material to each class, to find the right starting point for each of them and to give them as much as they can absorb but not frustrate them by giving them more than they can master in the short time I have to work with them. I want every student to leave the Colonie de Vacances feeling empowered, having learned something new about computers and successfully put it into practice. For those students that already have a high level or can go fast I have more advanced material. I have students that have shown very high ability, one in Senegal grasped sophisticated concepts in Computer Science with ease. I believe that young person could be a Professor of Computer Science at MIT or start the next Google one day. I want to point out that if there are few people from Africa in such positions today it is not because there is any lack of talent there.

Still, the average mastery of the background concepts needed for Computer Science, at this age, is already lower than it is in the United States. I was in the same situation as my Colonie de Vacances students at the same age. I spent my early years in Newark, New Jersey, growing up in a working class community. I was a smart kid and was at the top of my class in elementary school. My father, thanks to a union job, was eventually able to earn enough to move his family to a suburb, Livingston, New Jersey. Although we lived in the most modest part of town, Livingston is actually a wealthy community and the children I went to school with were mostly from the upper middle class. My remaining years of elementary school, from the third grade on, were miserable. I went from being a top student straight to last in the class. I was already so far behind compared to my classmates that in the remaining three years I could not catch up to them. I began to stutter and to wet my pants. In the fourth grade we had a reading program where the students measured their own progress, reading all the material on one level, taking a self-test, and advancing to the next level only when they had a good result. I wanted to catch up and I cheated, peeking at the answers on the self-test so I could give the right answers and advance. One of the other students saw me do this and reported it to the teacher. I don’t have to tell how I felt, you see that after so many years I still remember this.

I did not feel liked by my teachers, but there was a substitute teacher for a few days in the sixth grade that took to me. He spent time speaking with me, he didn’t make any assumptions about my capabilities and, somehow, that one teacher said things which restored all my lost confidence. When I moved to Junior High School the next year everything changed for me. I was reevaluated and, all of sudden, I was a top student again. I was tracked for the next year into the high achievement program, went in the AP program in High School, won a full scholarship to Deep Springs College and went on to earn a degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at U.C. Berkeley.

By international standards, our Colonie de Vacances students are already behind in subjects which are critical for economic opportunity in the modern world. In our global world, those international standards will determine their access to opportunity. For our 4th and 5th graders it is not too late, but it will be hard work to catch up. iNERDE is here to help give as many kids as possible a shot, and we are working with their teachers to give them an idea of what their kids will need. It will also be hard work for the teachers but they understand what is stake and all of them have expressed their determination to do everything they can.

The kids, they are just kids, but they do have the material to succeed, discipline and determination, curiosity, intelligence, and a strong desire to succeed. My most earnest hope here is that I will do what that substitute teacher did for me, and give the educators working with iNERDE the tools to do the same with many more students.