Teaching English: observations

In addition to teaching 6.004 (Computation Structures) this semester, I was also a volunteer ESL instructor to Chinese immigrants with a Harvard student-run program called Chinatown ESL. The program, though still constantly seeking improvement (as every program should), seems very mature and effective. Its curriculum is divided into 5 levels, with the first level assuming no English background whatsoever and with the last level entirely taught in English. The classes are also split into Mandarin or Cantonese versions. I taught the first level alongside my co-instructor Ina for 2 hours every weekend, and it not only gave me another perspective on teaching and an opportunity to practice my Chinese, but it was an entirely rewarding experience on its own.

Student demographics
The students were in the age range of 30-80, though they would occasionally bring their grand/kids. They were all somehow affiliated with the Boston Chinatown community. The male-female distribution was roughly uniform, perhaps leaning a bit towards more females. My guess is that most of the students were parents. Some of them were taking the class (Level 1) for the first time, but a number of them were taking it for the second or third time. The spread of English background was fairly wide. A number of students probably could have attended a higher level, but insisted that they had forgotten all of their English and wanted to “start over.”

Like my 6.004 students, these students also had a predilection towards handouts. The difference, however, is that the handouts we used in this class were mostly homework assignments, quizzes, and practice sheets — rather than colorful explanations of concepts. But the effect was all the same because these students really appreciated any additional practice they could have on their own. In other words, they loved homework! One student would attend another class (at the same time), but then would stop by my class at the end to request a handout and turn in my class’s homework!

On the other hand, we also gave them verbal and oral homework — namely, to find a person on the street and have a short conversation, or to listen to an audio CD and read along in the textbook. We have no way of checking whether they actually followed through, and my hopes are not high because they expressed several times how weird it would be to do so. Which makes their hyper-active participation in class even more unexpected.

Active participation
A sharp contrast to my 6.004 students, my English students will not hesitate a single moment to voice their opinions on my teaching style, the lesson content, the teaching atmosphere, the number and speed of handouts coming around, the difficulty of the quizzes, etc. They will ask questions, add their own commentary, and even help with our Chinese (when it’s lacking). They will speak up without being prompted, and it would often take us some time to get them all to quiet down so that we can actually start or resume teaching. Aside from the part where it is sometimes difficult to teach over 10 other voices, I am not at all suggesting that their is bad — rather, it just makes me so happy how active they are in their learning. They are there for 2 hours a week, and dammit they are getting the most that they can out of it. I like that a lot.

To me, taking the class as seriously as they are is really a sufficient way to show gratitude. But during our last class yesterday, they really went above and beyond. Last week, we suggested that they bring some food to share during the last class, so yesterday we had an amazing potluck of authentic Chinese food. Many of them made their dishes from scratch, including Tofu Skins (豆腐皮), which just seems ridiculously difficult to make, and Beef Shins (牛腱) perpared in an amazing manner like my parents used to. They would continue to gently (or not-so-gently) encourage us to eat more, give us their thanks and appreciation, sing for us… it all reminded me of those extremely cordial meals and welcomes in China earlier this year. One by one, they trickled out, but not before helping to clean up and thanking us one last time, and we would say to them “See you next time!” one last time too.

Ina and I announced to them out intentions to teach Level 2 come next semester, and my heart just melted away when a number of them told us they would study the Level 1 material hard over the summer session and hope to join us again in Level 2.

Teaching recitation: observations

This semester, I am a recitation instructor for 6.004: Computation Structures, a foundation class for EECS majors here at MIT. The class demographic is primarily sophomore and juniors, and enrollment is upwards of 200 students. It is a very well-established class whose curriculum has not changed much in the last 8 years and whose course logistics and organization are mostly smoothed out. It is an ideal environment for inexperienced TAs to focus on teaching, learning, and communicating rather than the frustration of system inefficiencies.

Well, I’m absolutely loving it. Every recitation is solving a small part of the puzzle and a storyboarding adventure. Below are just a few observations I’ve made over the past few weeks.

Students are physically drawn towards handouts. The more colors, the less readily available — the more exotic, basically — the more attractive. One time, I made a multi-colored handwritten handout for a topic that I had trouble explaining in words and distributed them during recitation. Word must have spread somehow, because attendance during one of my sections increased by 50% the next class. That day, the classroom was so full of unfamiliar faces that I thought I was in the wrong place.

Tabula rasa
Undergrads here in EECS are quite passive about their learning in recitation. There is some prevalent inhibition from talking at all, even to voice some basic concerns (e.g. please move, you are blocking the board; please write bigger/darker/clearer). At the very beginning, I am presenting to a blank wall of stares that occasionally look down to jot down notes. Students seem to need to be taught to speak, to smile, to frown, to laugh, to raise their hand and ask questions. They do seem to be born with the ability to walk out and to not show up again, but they are otherwise blank slates. It’s up to me to keep them or lose them.

But the real side effect of this phenomenon on me is that I am pleasantly surprised (shocked, rather) everytime students say “have a good weekend” back at me and everytime I don’t hear a lot of shuffling of papers and backpack zippers at 1:56pm.

Pre-spring break attendance
Yay, spring break! Everyone I know (myself included) skipped class today (er, yesterday) in lieu of fancy spring break plans or laundry or just more quality time with the internet. Beyond all odds and to my utmost pleasant surprise, however, attendance in my sections did not deviate much at all. I estimate regular section attendance at 15-20; attendance today was 13-15. We started placing bets before section to guess how many students would show up. My original guess was 5, and I was willing to (but did not) put money on the number being less than 10. Turns out, my students are much more optimistic (and correct) about attendance than me.

The desire to skip class on the last day before a long vacation is a strong force, so I need to think a bit more about the circumstances around my recitations that countered this force (such that I can replicate this effect!). Another instructor, who observed my section, once described my recitation as “very relaxing,” so maybe coming to class was close enough to the feeling of spring break!

The trouble with asking for feedback
Turns out, it is hard to cater to 20 different students all at once. When I asked for feedback on the amount of lecture review versus problem solving preferred, I got back a uniform distribution of the entire spectrum of choices. They did all agree, however, that I ought to make fewer mistakes, So there is at least that bit of feedback on which I can act.

Areas of improvement
Names: I’ve never been good with names, but that is no excuse to not even try. I still don’t know names, for the most part. Knowing names is a key part of engagement in teaching.

Blackboard organization: It occurs to me that my blackboard organization is sloppy, or at least, non-ideal for notetakers. The tradeoff that I am concerned about is that more time spent writing things on the board means less time to explain and interact with students.

The Torch or the Firehose
One last note. Professor Mattuck put together a guide on teaching recitation at MIT, and it’s absolutely fantastic. It’s a great read and points out common pitfalls. It also inspires better teaching. MIT could really benefit from closer attention to excellent teaching.