A Meditation on Coding by a Juvenile Behind Bars


We like to keep busy at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) so it should come as no surprise that serving as a member of the Social Learning Team for the CS10K Community website isn't my only job function. What else occupies my day? I'm the lead technical assistance provider for the National Evaluation and Technical Assistance Center for the Education of Children and Youth who are Neglected, Delinquent, or At Risk, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education; I direct the recently established National Clearinghouse on Supportive School Discipline, with funding from the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Open Society Foundation; and I'm the project director for the evaluation of the Mentoring for REAL program in New York City Public Schools, a program established to improve the conditions for learning for Black and Hispanic males who have been placed at risk for academic failure.

The older I get, the more difficult it is for me to multi-task so I rejoice whenever my disparate professional interests and responsibilities intersect. I recently came across a Marketplace Learning Series (a National Public Radio affiliate), Can Tech Transform Education for Juvenile Offenders, that does just that. As a former programmer, database developer, educational software developer and middle school computer science teacher, I spent the early part of my career as the sole Black female in my work settings. So admittedly, I get very excited about efforts to broaden participation in computer science.

This story is inspiring. With support from the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, the Wyoming Girls' School, a secure residential facility for female juvenile offenders was featured for its use of educational technology. The school's $6 million annual budget does not include line items for new teaching technology. Instead, the school has turned to hand-me-down wi-fi equipment from the local public school, the use of free tools, like Google for Education and Edmodo, and donations using Donors Choose, a site that connect teachers with specific classroom needs with individuals and organizations eager to help. Now, even its hockey team plans out plays on a smartboard in the classroom!

The Marketplace series, produced by Adriene Hill, shares the experiences of Shawnee, age 14, who fell in love with programming after participating in Hour of Code.  Prior to that, and in her own words, she "didn't particularly like computers. I didn't like technology. I was just that teenager who texted all the time and who was talking on the phone all the time. I didn't really bother to find out how things work."

“When people mediate they do that to come at peace with themselves. That's kind of what coding is for me, it's my meditation.”

Photo by Justin Sheely (Source: Marketplace)

Now Shawnee, takes self-paced computer science courses online and can envision a career in computing. But most importantly, learning to code has given her an outlet to process her feelings. She tells Adriene, "Sometimes, I get really stressed out with all the things that are going on in my life. And when I code I realize it helps me think about that, and not about the things I can’t change. It also reminds me that there are things I can change, and that even when it’s hard to overcome obstacles, you can."

The work we are all doing to build a vibrant computing education workforce really can and will transform lives for students who never dreamed of a different tomorrow--one command line argument at a time. Encourage your students to get into the coding zone and stay Zen.


  • Start from Scratch: A three-week, nationwide initiative of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings designed to expose students to coding and empower them to create personal, animated stories around the theme of restorative justice.
  • Google for Education
  • Edmodo
  • Donors Choose


  • Helpful
  • Insightful