James Style Since I began working at Macomber Center in the fall, my responsibilities (in addition to heading up the Frisbee department, overseeing the Lego collection, and assisting in domino design) have largely been devoted to teaching a series of classes. This has been fun and challenging both personally (learning to teach kids of different ages in a unique, self-directed learning environment), and institutionally (working in concert with other staff to provide a framework for these semi-formal classes to take place in a way that respects the often informal nature of the center). With the year having just ended I have been in a more reflective mood, trying to figure out what worked and what did not, and trying to articulate everything I have learned.
Like any true insight in life this has mostly involved the long, tedious process of realizing the blindingly obvious. A good example of this was realizing that the definition of a class is not as obvious as it may seem, and that each kid often has their own idea about what a class is. How long is class? How often does a class meet? Is there homework for a class? How does a class actually function? For kids who may never have been in a class before, and who are expected to take an active and independent role in their own learning, their ideas of what a class is and how it is supposed to take place may be highly idiosyncratic, not clear to others, and yet the subject of strong feelings. Failure to realize this can lead to confusion.
Of course like the students I have my own assumptions about what a class is. When these clash with student’s ideas novel situations can arise. Early on I realized that my own idea of a class - where a teacher writes on a whiteboard while students calmly and passively listen - was quite absurd. During class I was often either joined by several students happily writing next to me on the whiteboard or, in one case, asked to hand over the marker so the student could write on the whiteboard while I spoke. This was a little disconcerting as the whiteboard helps me focus and organize what I want to say, and yet it also makes perfect sense as it helps the students focus and organize what they are hearing.
Disagreement about the nature of a class can also lead to confusion. Earlier in the year, for instance, I noticed sometimes that what I was offering and had prepared was not what the class was expecting or wanted. When working one-on-one, these differences are easier to overcome because the class can be readily adapted to the specific interests of the individual kid (I can, for instance, relinquish the whiteboard to the student). In group settings, however, these differences can be trickier to overcome because not only is there the confusion between myself and the kid, but also between the kids themselves (maybe, for for example, one kid is distracted by multiple people writing on the whiteboard). This is particularly true when leading classes with kids of different ages. Not only might each kid desire something different from the class or understand the material in different ways but their fundamental assumptions about how a class should work can be different. Of course, no one is more right than any other.
How should we deal with this? Learning (and this includes teaching) at Macomber means being entirely open-minded about what a class is and how a class should function. It is not my role to tell the kids what a class is or how a class should function. More and more, however, I do view it as my role to challenge kids to be clearer about what they want a class to be and how they want a class to work. A class at Macomber is not a fixed thing either in my mind or in the kids' minds; everyone involved has to take an active role in shaping it. Some kids can be very specific about what they want; others less so. In addition to asking important nuts-and-bolts-type questions such as “how long do you want to meet for?” and “how often do you want to meet?”, I want the kids to think about things like “what are the goals of the class?” and “how will we know those goals are being met?”. As the kids gain more experience with classes I want them to reflect more on what they want and how they can get it both individually and as a group. It is not as simple as getting feedback from kids about how I am doing as a teacher or how the class is going for them (though this is important too) but it is important for everyone to think about how we are doing as a class and we can improve.