Want to Teach Kids to Code? honorCode CEO Explains Why You Should Focus on Teachers First

Want to Teach Kids to Code? honorCode CEO Explains Why You Should Focus on Teachers First
Jeffrey Martín (center) and the honorCode team collect their winnings in the Global Change the World competition.
Forbes / Jordan Tempro

Once again, the K-12 world has come upon that week in December when educators, organizations and students alike celebrate all things programming. But this year, former educator and current entrepreneur Jeffrey Martín has a message for all those excited for Hour of Code: it’s not just about teaching the students.

Martín, the founder of Atlanta-based organization honorCode, recently won the $425,000 Global Change the World competition for nonprofit entrepreneurs as part of the Forbes Under 30 Summit held in Boston, Massachusetts back in October. HonorCode is a nonprofit that provides curriculum and training to schools to help prep teachers to educate K-12 kids on coding. It’s not just about the kids—you have to educate the adults, too, he says.

Martín sat down with EdSurge to discuss honorCode, his favorite coding tools, and how you take your average math teacher from fractions and algebra to debugging and running programs.

EdSurge: Jeffrey, thanks for sitting down with us. What exactly is honorCode? You’ve gotten a lot of press recently.

Jeffrey Martín: HonorCode is a nonprofit organization and we provide curriculum and training to schools to bring more web development or computer science education into the general K-12 classroom. We’re piloting a lot of our services this year. We do teacher professional development, and we have a cohort of about 14 teachers that we’re working with over the course of nine months to 1) provide them with our curriculum, and 2) teach them web development. We go through Scratch, HTML, CSS and Javascript.

The thing that is really special about our teacher PD program is that we meet them where their content is. We’re trying to figure out how computer science education can be wrapped up into a history class, or into an English language arts class, and not just the general STEM-related classes.

We also do direct instruction to students. I lead instruction for about 150 6-12 graders at the moment, and then we’re also doing our after-school academy where we leverage a lot of our community partners like Google. We want to give our students exposure to what a tech career could look like in those spaces.

And when you say that you work with teachers, are you talking about computer science or anyone in a K-12 classroom? Are they new to the teaching game?

We are talking about anyone that is in a K-12 classroom. Even out of our cohort of 14 teachers, all of our teachers have been in the classroom for a little over five years, and the bulk of them are around nine or 10-year veterans.

Ok, so they have a lot of experience. Over the past few years, there has been an explosion of online “learn how to code” tools, from Code.org to Khan Academy. But at the same time, I don’t see a lot of products geared at teaching teachers. Why did you decide to focus on the teachers—the generalist ones?

At honorCode, our purpose is to empower schools to build the capacity for tomorrow’s world, and the way that you do that is through teachers. They are the experts—they know how to deal with individual student populations.

We are a very small team, and we’ve done a ton of research. We know that we can’t teach all the students that need to learn computer science. We’re leading 150 students directly through my instruction, but through our teacher training program, we’re impacting 1,200. The more we’re able to get computer science into more teachers’ hands and help coach them, I really think that’s where we’re doing to see that transformative change.

Georgia alone has 20,000 open computer programming jobs, and every single one of those jobs has a median salary of $85,000 a year. A lot of folks can’t pay $12,000 to go to a coding bootcamp, and so we’re trying to find ways to get more computer science education to go around.

Do you have any tools in particular that you like using in the honorCode program?

We actually use some of the platform from Khan Academy, and we also use a website called CodePen. We give the teachers and students a space to play with front-end web development.

There are tons of learn-to-code platforms out there, but how do folks navigate that? How do you teach computer science in a classroom that doesn’t have 1:1 computers for students? How do you do this when you have a school turnaround and 70% of your teachers have transitioned? We are really using a lot of the free resources that we see to help supplement some of this instruction. Those organizations are doing good work too, and there’s enough to go around.

I remember reading that you want Atlanta, where you are based, to become the next Silicon Valley. Do you want to expand outside of the city, or are you focused on that area for now?

We know that in a lot of our Silicon Valley counterparts, though we have tons of unicorn companies out there, there are huge income inequality gaps that happen. Atlanta is not safe from that at all. But the thing that separates us from our West Coast counterparts is our rich civil rights history, and how we are truly championing Atlanta and Georgia to be a city and a state that is for equality with actions behind that. That’s why we want to focus on Atlanta. Though, we are working with the University of Pennsylvania to get some of our curriculum there, and send some to 4.0 Schools in New Orleans. Even though we are Atlanta-focused, we are trying to get this out to as many people—specifically, teachers–as possible.

Yes, there has been a lot of news over the past year coming out about diversity gaps—gender, the lack of people of color—at bigger tech companies like Facebook. What do you think are the biggest contributing factors to that? Access? Or is it something deeper than that?

Well, one, I would be remiss to say that living in our country, we have a lot of “birth defects” that we need to take care of—you see it with women’s rights, with Black Lives Matter, with the Latino community members are fighting being deported, even though they contribute greatly to our economy.

In terms of computer science education access, we have this huge skills gap—not just in computer science, but in our general spaces. We are building up to having that transparency, though. You go through primary, secondary school, a technical program… are we preparing students to contribute to the economy? When you don’t have those conversations between the Google’s and Facebook’s, and the schools and teachers, how are we expected to fix this diversity pipeline?

Big last question: A few weeks back, you won a little under $500,000 at the Forbes “Change the World” Competition. What’s that going to go towards?

With some of it, we want to further expand and develop our computer science curriculum. Also, we’ve been prototyping a social-emotional curriculum. This comes from a very personal story. As a student who grew up in the East Lake Villages area, we had a long history of crime and poverty. Trauma takes you off of your game as a student; how are you expected to learn when you don’t have working lights in your home? In addition to this computer science curriculum, we’re also trying to help students be better at communicating, and not getting frustrated, and be better supports for one another. We want to help push that forward, as well.

To hear the full interview, check out the EdSurge On Air podcast below.

Mary Jo Madda (@MJMadda) is Senior Editor at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM middle school teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

STAY UP TO DATE ON EDTECH.News, research, and opportunities - sent weekly.