Caroline Combemale is an engaged and connected learner at age 15. When I spoke with her about her passion for learning and teaching, Caroline was teaching the Scratch programming language, facilitating “learning parties” at a public art-technology learning space, playing guitar in a band, maintaining multiple YouTube channels, and teaching other teens how to teach in a “Teens As Teachers” program. Her appetite for learning is expansive – she’s even studied the Ruby, Java, C, Python programming languages for classes through Code Academy. As a learner, her school enables her to learn at her own pace – which, in many subjects, is several years ahead of her age cohort – and to arrange her schedule to make her extracurricular learning and teaching possible. As a teacher, she’s fluent in online media and face-to-face pedagogy. Of course, her unusual aptitudes and enthusiasms set Caroline apart – nobody expects all students to be such prodigious learners. Caroline’s story is evidence, however, of the emergence of young connected learners & teenage teachers as digital media & networked resources expand the scope of learning & teaching beyond traditional schooling.
Caroline, who moved to the U.S. from Belgium at age seven, had been unchallenged academically in one school and bullied in another for her eagerness to learn. A health challenge that required months of recovery at home impelled Caroline’s parents to enroll her in Agora Charter Cyberschool. Working with counselors, she designs her own learning program, which this year include courses in Pre-Calc, Trigonometry and Chemistry. At the beginning of each school term, she receives a package of books, lab supplies, and other learning materials. Her online courses are largely asynchronous, with frequent live multimedia meetings. Within the regular deadlines of her co-designed course of study, Caroline can attend lectures, do exercises, and participate in class discussions mostly according to her own schedule. Agora teachers and students use Blackboard Collaborate synchronous multimedia meetings in school and Caroline uses the same audio-video-text platform for her colearners and participants in her extracurricular activities.
Caroline teaches to engage young people in programming and computational thinking, at Assemble, an art-technology learning space in Pittsburgh that brings together “artists, technologists, and makers with curious adults and kids of all ages through interactive gallery shows, community talkbacks, learning parties, and workshops focused on teaching STEAM principles.”
“I started Scratch when I was eight,” Caroline recalls. “I started learning it because a teacher at my old school introduced me to it, because I really wanted to learn how to program. I was like ‘Hey teacher, I really want to learn how to program, and you’re a technology teacher. So can you show me how to make a computer game?’ and so she was like ‘Ah, I have this great program. It’s called Scratch.’ She gave me some information and was just like ‘make something.’ So I did, and I kind of fell in love with it and started to stay after school work on the game with her and after a while it just became second nature. I just started using Scratch all the time and then I started teaching it.”
Caroline interns with Assemble’s outreach program as well, taking the gallery activities to different parts of town. “I also work with learning parties where we have experts in their field come in from around Pittsburgh and anyone who wants to come into the space can learn about the experts’ topics. Like we had one on rainbows and other ones on robotics, where does food come from, drawing, mapping. I helped facilitate those as well.”
“I also help with Unblurred,” Caroline added: “which is the first Friday of every month – kind of like learning parties, except it’s geared more towards adults. It’s more artsy rather than science and technology and engineering and math. We have an artist presenting for the month there. Anyone can come in the space, look at the art, and get involved with the projects we have there. We try to incorporate every part of the scene during both events, but learning parties are geared more towards science, technology, engineering and math, and then Unblurred is more art. I help with both of those.”
If that wasn’t enough, Caroline teaches at Carnegie Science Center’s Sci Tech Days twice a year: “It’s an event where kids can go and take a workshop – like a field trip where they go and take a class. So I teach Scratch twice a year, three classes a day for four days. I have an entire lab to myself, which is really nice – 15 computers, two kids for a computer. I have my own screen so I can show them how to do Scratch.”
Caroline has plenty of face-to-face contact in the physical learning spaces she teaches in, and uses social media to communicate with her own classmates, who are spread throughout the state. She’s also lead guitarist in a band and participates in parliamentary debates at the high school. “Assemble, band, and debate are my three things right now outside school. So I do get to interact directly with a lot of kids, even if they don’t go to my school. My best friend actually does go to my school, and that’s how I met her. We met in class and we started talking and found out we both live in Pittsburgh. It was like ‘well, we should definitely meet,’ and so we did and now she’s my best friend.
Caroline’s enthusiasm for learning and teaching is expansive. Working in Assemble’s “Teens as Teachers” program, it occurred to her that “since I’m a teen and I’m teaching, why not give other teens the opportunity? So I’m working on a project where I hope to get young adults and kids involved in teaching what they love to their peers and their community.” Two first-year high school students are starting to teach Scratch to their middle school peers. Caroline’s vision is overarching: “We’ll teach them the skills they should teach, and then also how to teach. And, after that, we’ll help them go into schools and get something started, because it’s really sad how many schools here don’t have programming classes.”
I asked her what she tells other young people about how to go about teaching. “You don’t want to be all ‘oh be quiet,’ but you have to be very confident and establish control or your peers won’t take you seriously. I usually don’t tell my students right away, ‘Hey, I’m 15,’ you know, because some of them are older than me. I usually just don’t even say that until I get to know them better. You have to think about your curriculum. You have to know what you are teaching. Knowing what you are going to do and being confident that you know the subject are important, so I sat down with the two teens teaching Scratch to middle-schoolers and went through it with them – what kind of situations they will be dealing with, how to present the material. One of them sat in a class with me that I taught in November.”
Maybe Caroline doesn’t have the training yet that public schools require of their teaching faculty, but she does have several rare qualities of a successful teacher: She loves to learn, she loves the subject she teaches, she loves teaching, she embraces media as pedagogy tools, and she’s not afraid to try new things in front of others.