A Class of My Peers

Aug 16, 2010   //   by JoshShiode   //   Physics Education, Summer Program 2010  //  No Comments

Like most of the new Compass students, the only experience I had discussing things with my teachers in high school (and really all through undergrad) came from staying after class, going to office hours, and random encounters outside of school all together. Every “discussion section” I had in undergrad consisted of a TA standing at the blackboard “helping” us work through the particularly difficult problems on the current homework (generally by solving the problem as we all watched and pretended to understand). So when I came to Berkeley… three years ago, and sat in on the first sessions of my class for first-time teachers and heard about students working in small groups to solve problems that are explicitly not on the homework, I was… confused… I thought to myself, “this actually sounds like teaching!” And then I thought, “Oh crap.. I can probably do their problem sets just fine, but I don’t actually know how to teach!”

Since that introduction to teaching, almost three years ago to the day, that seed idea of facilitating fruitful collaboration as a mode of “good teaching” has grown into a massive redwood… surrounded by a fortress, protected by angry tree-sitters (you could say I drank the Kool-Aid). Over these three years, I’ve had the opportunity to be a small part in that moment of discovery in so many of my students, while also having that moment as a teacher many times too. In my first semester, it was a realization of how much students can do with the smallest amount of guidance–a principle that the Compass students are fertilizing everyday. In my second semester teaching, I took the next step, filling in as a guest lecturer on several occasions. There I took a chance and tried introducing some interaction in a lecture hall filled with students numbering in the hundreds, and realized that students can collaborate fruitfully even in the biggest lecture halls if given the opportunity. This summer with Compass, I’ve been given this wonderful opportunity to build a course from the ground up, with like-minded physics educators (“..wait a second, could it be? And now I know for sure, I just added [n] more guys to my wolf pack”).

When we were putting this curriculum together, we thought a lot about how we’d like our classroom to be. We came up with a number of principles, and when we took a look at them, we knew that the direction of our classroom was going to depend almost entirely on our students. So as we marched forward developing content and lesson plans, all the while, I have to admit, I was pretty scared. What if they don’t think any of this is interesting? What if they decide to take us somewhere entirely different? What if it’s just too hard to help them get here and we have to give them too much? All questions I couldn’t answer without seeing the class in action.. so all useless doubts. Then we had our first mock classroom (Thank you so much, volunteers, if you’re reading!). It went so well in some ways, and in other ways it was disheartening. The basic ideas took hold, but some of the hypotheses we were hoping would come out just didn’t make it. What could we do? Tweak, tweak, tweak.. then hope.

Then came the introductory dinner (what a speech!), and before we all knew it (or felt at all ready) there they were, sitting in front of us Monday morning. And there I was, feeling like I woke up late for an exam I forgot to study for (we all know that feeling..). We started with this crazy paper airplane activity. And as we gathered into our large group discussion, I was thinking, “Oh please work!” Here it comes.. “… that legend on your pictures was great,” “…pictures and words have to work together, and even then they’re not quite enough to be clear,” and “….peer review.” When the students all left for lunch, it was excitement all around. “Did you hear what they were saying?! Peer review?! We didn’t even get that from this activity!” And then the students were back from lunch, and it was time to get into it. “What is a wind turbine?” Needless to say, these Compass students once again exceeded our expectations.

If you’d have told me three weeks ago that we’d already have two complementary pictures of how the wind exerts a force on a turbine blade by the end of Tuesday, I might have called you crazy. And yet, that’s where we found ourselves. As we flesh these pictures out, and start to make testable predictions while simultaneously devising ways to perform the necessary tests, I continue to be impressed. These students are collaborating so well, working toward a goal of answering a genuine research question. Sure, this whole process is a roller-coaster ride. After the arguments that erupted in the first metacognitive class, I was discouraged. But everyone brought me back up, students and teachers and Compass staff. The same has happened and will happen with the other teachers, but these setbacks are always minor. In the end I can always remind myself of how far we’ve come as teachers and students. Already I know, Compass has touched the way I will teach for the rest of my life.

…commence week 2…

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