Back to High School! Part II

I’m now back at MIT, but I still need to finish writing up part II of my last post, so here goes:

11:25 AM [Lunch]

Students at Nueva have an extremely long lunch period. Part of that time is so students can eat lunch, but part of that time is also for student clubs to meet. I ate a solidly decent lunch of ravioli with Apple. I asked him about his classes, his outside projects, and what teaching is like in general. He asked me a few questions about what I do and what I’m interested in. He mentioned that teaching teaching at private schools often has fewer requirements (no certs required, no test prep required) and more freedoms. Apparently to start as a teacher, you can shadow / be mentored by a more experienced teacher for a bit to prepare for real teaching.

As lunch went on, I was able to take a bit of a mental break from all the activity and interaction. Near the end, I met Donut, a CS teacher and MIT grad. We talked for a bit about MIT, Course 6, and talked some about shared interests. She teaches a machine learning class (that I went to at the end of the day), so we talked about how she runs the class (which I’ll get into later).

Donut is also the new head of Invention Studio (after Connie left), so at the end of lunch, we listened to a team’s dry run presentation for their Design Review event. Along with the two student heads of Invention Studio, we listened to the student’s presentation and gave them some advice to prepare for Design Review (which was in 5 days). Nueva was a school built on design-thinking and a lot of other alternative methods. To Connie Nueva often represents the ideal picture / the extreme bounds that high school education can reach. Despite all of these things aligning, I think I saw the students struggle with lots of the same things students in my high school struggle with and students at MIT still struggle with.

The main struggle I saw was an uncomfortability with uncertainty. If students don’t know how to do something, their mind shuts off or it flounders around. These students in particular didn’t know how to get past an engineering blocker in their product. Rather than trying to take some first steps towards progress, they stalled because they couldn’t see most of the steps to get to their goal. Something about the size and unfamiliarity of the problem puts a mental block on students that they need a mentor to pull them up from.

12:55 PM [Third Block]

In third block, I visited a class that was on the philosophy of science. In particular, the discussion was about usefulness of intractable scientific theories. Before class, students read a reading about string theory and multiverse theory, which are essentially grand physics theories we aren’t really sure how to measure. Packed into this problem comes lots of questions — are these valid theories if we can’t support / deny them? how many resources should we put into these problems? are these theories just mathematical models or are they describing how the universe “actually” works?

Lots of these questions were brought up in students’ pre-discussion questions, so during class we slowly tried to step through a few of them. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get too deep into these questions. Students, while some were happy to contribute, would get distracted from whatever point was being made. They weren’t able to dig deeper into these problems — so it hit me that this was a problem with lots of discussions I had in high school. I’d often feel disengaged because the discussions wouldn’t matter. They would be a bunch of people saying a few surface-level random thoughts about a potentially interesting subject with no actual consequences.

2:15 PM [Fourth Block]

In the last block of the day, I went to Donut’s machine learning class. Class was fairly unstructured work time based on a lab about word vectors and NLP. Through the lab, students were given a brief intro to the subject material and asked to play with the code (potentially in line with some suggested tasks). One super bright side of this structure is that students had the freedom to use these tools for whatever they found interesting. In subjects like ML, this is especially great because these tools can be used for so many things. The downside is that students aren’t necessarily developing a solid understanding. As with all self-studying, students get out however much they put into it and for some students this may not be enough (though it is hard to say what “enough” is).

3:30 PM [End of Day]

After all these classes came to a close, I went back downstairs to pick up my things and Lyft back to work. Before I left, I got to stop by and thank all the wonderful teachers and students I met throughout the day. Nueva truly does seem like an awesome place to work — lots of awesome teachers and students. Reflecting a bit on what it’d be like to work at a private school, I imagine I’d really enjoy it. Each day, I’d get to work with a bunch of bright kids. I’d get to work with and learn with really passionate teachers. I’d also get to face different challenges each day and work on sharing the subjects I love with others.

One drawback that usually comes hand in hand with working at a private school is the feeling of not making a meaningful impact. Why serve the privileged students at the top when there are so many others that need it? If part of the goal of teaching is to make a difference in the world, how much of a difference is working at a private school? Later that night, I ended up talking to Connie about this, and she passed along some insight that I feel like I had started to realize a little bit after teaching in ESP programs and spending the day at Nueva: when you’re teaching at privileged schools like Nueva, you’re directly teaching the next generation of world leaders — the people who need to be able to make the difficult decisions — so hopefully as a teacher, you can rub off on them and prepare them to solve the problems in the world.


Thanks to everyone who read any of my lengthy (and probably confusing) posts! It’s been lots of fun writing these posts over the last month, and I’ve gotten lots out of spending time reflecting on my experiences — hopefully I’ve also helped you learn something new/realize something you didn’t know before!

Evan

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