Under Construction

Last week I had the opportunity of teaching my first class ever. I have to say that I enjoyed it very much! Previously I have been under research assistantships (RA), but last semester I started doing teaching assistantships (TA). Last semester I only went to class and graded assignment and tests, this semester is the same, but I stepped in when the professor could not be present for a day because of a previously scheduled travel. I knew I had to give this class since the beginning of the semester, I did not know how I was going to teach it. I had the slides from the professor, but I could change them and add anything I wanted.

As the time got nearer I got more anxious, I started looking at the slides for this semester, the ones from the previous semester class, and preparing some I wanted to include. I saw first-hand, still, with almost all the materials prepared and having them been handed to me, it was hard to prepare for the class. The venue was an amphitheater with approximately 120 students, this was a challenge because setting up activities and engaging students would have been difficult. I did not want to just lecture and have them staring at me.

I started looking for my voice; I wanted to make the material relatable, for them to make connections to their own lives. I included several activities in the lecture, I lectured for intervals of approximately ten minutes and stopped for the activities, ending with a longer 20 minute activity that allowed me to walk around the classroom and help them more personally if they had doubts. The venue and size of the class not the most conducive for this, but still I believe it worked. I see that I want to be approachable, honest, and knowledgeable about the material I am imparting to my students. I wanted to be the cool professor that made jokes like Sarah E. Deel, but I did not feel comfortable making jokes, so I did not. As Sarah mentions, I did good finding my own voice.

All of this, is from my perspective, it will be interesting to know the students perspectives. I have figured out I really enjoyed the experience; I look forward to more experiences like this. There are things I will change and improve; my teaching voice… is under construction.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Today, in another class we were discussing a current discussion in the engineering education field. What should we focus on teaching, core knowledge or practice/solution of problems? My response was that you cannot have one without the other. You first need to learn the basic concepts before you are able to apply them and find solutions. You need to transfer the knowledge of basic concepts to the students; you could employ different teaching techniques. For Robert Talbert the lecture would not be one of them. He sees lectures as good for “covering material” but “terrible for information transfer.”

I’ll take the role of the devil’s advocate and say that without lectures, how are we going to provide the copious amounts of information for them to ‘learn’ and later be able to apply in problem solving. Talbert says: “Resorting to a lecture because I need to “cover material” is just an admission that I didn’t design my course well. If that’s all the lecture is for, put it online so students can at least pause and rewind.” How do we know we are serving the students well by doing this? Maybe internally motivated students will do this. Will externally motivated students benefit from this? There is a proverb that says: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Certainly, lectures are not a perfect; one size fits all solution for teaching. They are another tool for us to transfer knowledge. There are many other tools that we can employ to motivate students and keep them interested in the topic and wanting to learn more outside the classroom. Like Mark C. Carnes mentions about president Obama in his article, “No one can say that the future president of the Harvard Law Review (and of these United States) was not college material.” Who knows if we are motivating and teaching a future leader of our country, but we are definitely teaching the young minds that will have the future of our country. We should do our best to keep them engaged and effectively transfer knowledge to them.

“C Students: You too, can be president”

Earlier in May, during a commencement speech former president George W. Bush said to the graduating students:

“To those of you who are graduating this afternoon with high honors, awards and distinctions, I say, ‘Well done.’ And as I like to tell the C students: You too, can be president.” (See video)

This blog is not to debate the 43rd US President. I want to elaborate on my thoughts on the matter of grading. Does it work? Does it promote learning? Is it serving the student or the teacher?

I believe I have been a student all my life. My mother still asks me if I didn’t exit my infant stage, in which I asked ‘why?’ every time. I think I can speak for what motivates a student. I have seen students that say I do not care if I get a C, I just want to pass. I have seen students that say, ‘Oh my God, I got a B, I am going to die.’ Does a grade say a student learned the material? I had a professor during my bachelor, that said when he asked about something students should had learn from previous courses that he was using to scaffold into the new knowledge, and not one student answered: ‘crédito aprobado, crédito olvidado’ (in Spanish it rhymes, it means: approved credit, forgotten credit.’ Students are more focused in passing the class, than in learning and cementing knowledge to use later in their other classes or profession. It has happened to me.

During my bachelor degree, I took the courses required in the curriculum that guaranteed that I would of finish and graduate. Now, in a more mature (I believe) stage of my life, pursuing a doctoral degree, I take classes that call my attention that I want to learn from. Most of the time, I am auditing them, no grade involved. I see that I get more immersed in the topics than when I took a required course in order to graduate. But will these be the case with all students? How do we gauge the transfer of knowledge? Is the grade a tool for the teacher to learn how well he disseminated the material? Or is it to know how well the student ‘learned it’? Are the grades forcing students to look inside the box and not explore their creativity and look out of the box? All difficult questions, maybe, with not a single simple answer…

Spaces for Teaching in the 21st Century

Before coming to Virginia Tech (VT) I used to work in a governmental agency in charge of implementing public-private partnerships (P3s) in Puerto Rico. P3s are an option for the government to seek private sector innovation and finance in what typically is publicly procured infrastructure and services. One of the projects in which I worked with was nicknamed “Schools for the 21st Century”. It was an effort to impact academic achievement through the use of infrastructure, providing classrooms that would of promote themselves for collaboration among teachers, motivate student’s creativity, and move the Puerto Rican education system from the industrial age to the creativity age. To bring this project to fruition we needed to interact not only with economists, architects, and other engineers, but with educators.

For years the classrooms were set with desks in rows looking to the front, with the teacher as the source of knowledge. I myself, studied all my life in this type of a setting. With this project we wanted to incorporate different aspects of engineering and architecture that could help teachers teach more effectively. We wanted to incorporate more natural light, studies pointed that having a classroom with more natural light improves the academic performance of students. We separated classrooms with removable walls, allowing the teachers to have separate classrooms for separate classes (let’s say, in one classroom science, in the other art), but giving them the opportunity of opening it and using the space to teach the two sections at the same time (for example; teaching on the Renaissance and Da Vinci, having the opportunity for both teachers to collaborate and teach about science and art.) We wanted to replace the typical chair with a “mini desk” fix into it with desks and chairs that can be configured in different ways to allow for multiple re-configurations of the classroom. The chairs would allow the students to move their backs and not be necessarily in a rigid position during class. These ideas were presented to teachers; some of the interactions with the educators were bittersweet.

Some teachers said they will keep teaching the same way. They said students would become distracted with the clear windows and look outside and that they will not stop moving in the new chairs. They mentioned that they will simply use their classroom how they had been using them in the past. But there was hope; others were exited of the new spaces and possibilities. They mentioned they could implement techniques they had learned in the university, or they had thought of exploring. As Ken Robinson so eloquently expresses in his talk “How to escape education’s Death Valley”, a dessert could look death and without potential, but with the right set of opportunities, just below this deserted surface the seeds of opportunity could bloom.