To talk of many things

To talk of many things
Changsha, China

Changsha, China


“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to talk of many things,
Of shoes, and ships, and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings,
And why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings.”
– Lewis Carroll

* * *
The last course in the Teaching in English program is designed to give students the chance to show off everything they’ve learned in previous weeks of the program by teaching a 20 minute demonstration lesson on a topic of their choice. The professors in my class had been working diligently on their lesson plans for the last two weeks. Some chose to teach a concept from their subject area, while others delved into topics of personal interest.

As a class of 26 instructors, we had been giving our colleagues feedback before, during, and after class, and back at the hotel where we were all living .

As I reviewed the professors’ PowerPoint presentations, speaking notes, handouts, and plans to involve their colleagues in active learning, I knew what a treat of a last week we would enjoy together, sampling a buffet of fascinating topics and learning techniques.

The lesson from the first week of the course, on making lesson content inherently engaging, had not been lost on most of these instructors. The engineers explained the theory behind road width, the pipe roof method of ensuring safety in tunnel excavation, and the difference between ground water and surface water quality. An applied chemist discussed glow sticks.

The computer science people discussed viruses and computer worms. We also learned about the differences between IQ and EQ, the concepts of “paying it back” and “paying it forward,” the benefits of running, and medieval architectural styles, to name only a few lesson topics.

Even more of a thrill for me than the diversity of lesson subjects was the variety of methods the professors used for the direct teaching of content. They connected their topics to learning theories and practices we’d discussed in class. They explained abstract concepts with movie clips from Forrest Gump, Troy, and William and Catherine’s wedding. We listened to the Radetsky March, and a variety of other music.

An applied mathematician demonstrated greatest common divisor using apples and oranges. A computer security professor compared the Trojan Horse virus to the Trojan Horse of Greek mythology. The image selections in their PowerPoints were thoughtful, illuminating, hilarious, and often deeply moving.

And the progress the professors showed in their ability to involve their colleagues in learning activities? Stellar! Many showed significant movement away from ” stand and deliver” lectures; and some displayed complete comfort with their role as the “guide on the side,” keeping their colleagues busy doing rather than listening throughout the full 20 minutes of the lesson.

Individual work was a common initial activity. Some professors asked their colleagues to provide definitions or explanations, then post them for discussion and analysis. Others asked for volunteers to assist them in showing the practical application of concepts.

Group work was a part of other lesson plans. The professors monitored their colleagues as they discussed concepts, and offered individual feedback.

For me , the opportunity to participate as a learner was a rare treat. I sat in on group discussions. I participated in an activity designed to assist us to learn the difference between decimal and binary numbers. Although I failed to accomplish the timed activity (make a number under 31 from the dots displayed on chairs in under 10 seconds), I realized that I might have been more engaged in math if one of my instructors had involved me in this type of activity.

I also learned that my concept of medieval Cathedral architecture was severely messed up. A professor asked us to draw a picture of a cathedral at the beginning of his lesson. Then he taught the lesson and followed up by requiring us to modify our initial drawing, based on what we had learned. My rose window was out of synch with the rest of my Gothic drawing, so I erased it. Then I watched as the other students drew their sketches on the blackboard, and the professor discussed what they had learned.

By the end of the week, we were exhausted but exhilarated by what we’d taught and learned. We finished the demonstration lessons just in time for our end of program party that night, and the upcoming graduation, agreeing that we were all richly deserving of both.


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