Learning from Teaching

This post was brought to you by a 12-hour flight from Milan to Miami. Splash actually on a plane!

I want to share some of my experiences teaching. My experience may be different from other GTLers because it was so unstructured and varied. All of my classes were one-off lectures or activities, and I usually didn’t have a set curriculum or hint about what the teachers were expecting before the day-of. I ended up teaching with 8 teachers and met 19 class sections (out of the 20 in the school). However, my classes generally fit a few categories, so I’ll break this into parts.


This is what I came to Italy to teach. I originally had ideas about doing a series of classes where I taught how to structure an argument and how to refute it, ran some fun public speaking activities, and then had the students debate to practice the skills. However, because I often only met with the classes to debate once or twice and the teachers just wanted to run the debates immediately, that’s what we did. I would describe how debates worked, the students would choose a topic they were interested in, and they would split into teams.

I enjoyed hearing the suggested topics to debate. I think because I introduced myself as interested in climate, they always suggested debating climate change. We dissuaded them from that topic because the vocabulary would be difficult and it would require a lot of prior research. For the younger students, they mostly chose school-related debates, such as whether students should have full-day schools (they currently don’t), if there should be school on Saturday, if schools should use online or paper textbooks (none of the students preferred ebooks), and if homework is good for learning. We got to more complicated topics with the older students, including universal health care, weed legalization, and immigration.

Debate classes were some of my favorites because the students really got into it. They enjoyed being able to argue with each other, and because we required everyone to speak at least once, everyone felt involved. It’s hard to get shy students involved in regular discussions, but they all seemed involved in working with their teammates and giving their part of the speeches. Having a bit of healthy competition can often spark interest and participation. I was very impressed by their English skills and ability to pick apart each other’s arguments. (These classes also required very little prior preparation by me.)


A large portion of my time teaching was spent in unstructured discussions. How well these went usually depended on the teacher’s ability to continue the conversation or pick on students to ask questions or participate. Teachers had varying levels of discussion-driving skills. A few times, the teacher didn’t show up to class, so I led the discussion, with varying levels of success.

At first, most of these discussions were about me, MIT, and America because the teachers thought the students would have lots of questions when first meeting me. Sometimes this worked. More often, the teacher had more questions for me than the students, so it was mostly a conversation between the two of us. Later on, I had discussions about books/movies, social media culture, climate change, the American school system, the American government system (which was a really fun class), and the MIT website (lol).

One teacher wanted me to talk about the American school system to all her classes because she thought it was interesting and a good way to share culture. As a result, we ended up having the same discussion several times. This was hard because despite how much I love talking about education systems, talking about the price of American universities and the high school social scene can get old.

One teacher once asked me to join her class five minutes after the bell rang, and she had nothing planned. We ended up looking at the spotlight articles on the MIT website, and the students asked me questions about what the words meant/what the article was about. This was probably a waste of class time for the students, but we had some fun times talking about feminism and black holes and what is chemical engineering (hint: I don’t know either).

The discussions that I ran alone were generally unplanned. I had luck with a few classes because the students were young, energetic, and there were a lot of them. In these classes, I picked a few questions to ask to the whole class and made everyone answer. This got everyone involved and able to talk about themselves, which was good. It also made them very excited, so it was hard to keep the room at a reasonable volume. I also led a discussion with an older class. My vague instruction a few minutes before the class was to talk about climate change, so I tried to get them involved in talking about the issues and possible solutions. I did not do a good job at getting them interested. I ended up ranting about the world’s depressing future for 25 minutes and then trying to get them to discuss their other interests for the last 25. It was uncomfortable for everyone involved.

I also got the chance to administer a test. Many of their exams are oral exams, called ‘interrogations.’ I got to interrogate the students on an English novel that they read over winter break. I asked them about the plot, characters, and what they thought about the book. The other students listened in and also had to ask questions. It was interesting for me, but the students always have to sit and listen while their classmates get interrogated, so they looked pretty bored.

Science Lectures

I taught three types of science lectures: past and future climate (twice), ecology (x3), and weather (x10). I actually had enough prior notice to prepare these lectures, so I made slides and discussion questions beforehand. This took much more preparation time than the debates and discussions, but it paid off with reasonably interesting classes. I also gave the classes multiple times, so I could figure out the best way to explain certain things over time.

My weather lecture was fun, which is good because I gave it to 10 different classes. I got to the point where I could predict the students’ reactions to explanations and my stupid jokes. On my 9th class, the teacher was pulling students outside to interrogate them while I taught the rest of the class. The students were really distracted by this, and as a result I got distracted by them. But luckily, I had rehearsed this class 8 times before and my mouth just kept going without my brain’s input. Practicing actually helps!

My major takeaways from these classes were that:

  • Pictures and diagrams are great ways to bridge a language barrier.
  • Videos or pretty websites can be entertaining and a good break from lecturing.
  • Having planned questions to ask the students helps because it’s hard to think on the spot.
  • Students were most interested in things that relate to their lives or what they’ve learned in the past. I would bring up the local winds, how weather affects planes, how wind patterns affected Christopher Columbus, etc. and this often generated questions.
  • One part of my weather class involved me drawing Italy on the board, which never failed to generate laughs (at me).
  • Even the 10th time, the class will be a little different because of the students’ responses. Sometimes they have really interesting questions that can take the class on a totally different side quest. I never got bored of teaching the weather class.

I’ll stop there. Here are some pictures from the past three weeks:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s