Saturday, June 25, 2011

Coding in the Clink IV - my second coding retreat at Marion Correctional Institute

On Saturday, I attended Coding in the Clink IV at MCI. It was great to see the inmates again. We all agreed they have made great strides in their learning since the last time we worked with them in March.

This was my second time spending a day programming with inmates at MCI. The first time in, I got to have my stereotypes blasted. As I said in my previous post about Coding in the Clink, one thing that struck me most was how similar the day was to a full-fledged CodeRetreat on the outside.

This time, I was reminded all day of just how careful I need to be when pairing with or coaching a less experienced developer. If I'm not careful, it's easy for me to press ahead with my own ideas and simply explain to my pair what I'm doing. That doesn't always leave my partner room to struggle with ideas, and in that moment I'm not letting them succeed in solving a problem or explaining something to me or probably other ways.

On the outside, while pairing in this way is not what I strive for, a little bit of it isn't necessarily a disaster. Unless they are in way over their head, most devs I pair with will assert themselves and claim their role a partner, even when I'm not sharing well that day. When that happens, I often "wake up" and start "playing nice" again.

But in prison, inmates are predisposed to not assert themselves to outsiders. Dan Weibe mentions it in his post "But-but there are CRIMINALS in prison!":
...The program is seen by the prisoners as a very good thing, and any attack on it ... could get the whole program ejected ... [and] life would immediately become very dangerous for the offending prisoner. Everybody knows this...
Here's the part that illustrates why I have to be extra-careful to be a good pair in the prison:
... in some cases the normal give-and-take of pairing can be hamstrung when a volunteer and a prisoner pair together because the prisoner strains to be pathologically accommodating.

To some extent, I let myself fall victim to that this weekend at CitC IV. I still think the inmates that I paired with had good experiences this time, but I would have liked to offer them more. Looking back to my first visit to MCI, I was better pair/coach that day, doing a good job at things like:
  • meeting the man where he is
  • inviting him to try things
  • asking him some questions that he knows the answer to
  • asking him harder questions so he has to stretch himself to come up with an answer
  • making small suggestions when he's stuck rather than giving answers
  • putting aside my desire to make progress in the code in favor of getting to know my partner a little and facilitating his learning
Now that I've spent some time thinking about this, I feel prepared to be the kind of coach/pair that I know I can be at the next CitC. I just wish the institution could accommodate more than one event like this per quarter.