at peace

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. —Ernest Hemingway

I’m not much of a writer, but every so often I feel compelled to write down all the ideas flowing through my mind. Today is one of those days.

This morning I managed to accidentally lock myself out of my room, which definitely put me out of my element. I was a bit frantic because I had a presentation at 9am, which meant that at the very least, I really needed to get my laptop from my room. Fortunately, I was able to find someone with a spare key to my room, so that minor problem was easily resolved. The moment I stepped foot into my room again after spending an hour and a half in exile, I was determined to make the best out of the rest of the day.

I proceeded to give my presentation at 9am, which I think went pretty well. I got some incredible feedback from my peers. In fact, the feedback was so thoughtful and constructive that I have made a new goal for myself to work on my “feedback giving” skills. Since I’m often afraid of hurting the other person’s feelings, I tend to sugarcoat my feedback, which I realize can do more harm than good. From now on, I challenge myself to develop my opinion more so that I can actually provide valuable feedback to others.

As a side note, receiving feedback from my peers was a nice reminder that I’m fortunate to be surrounded by outstanding individuals, all of whom know something that I don’t. It’s pretty humbling knowing that there’s something I can learn from everyone here.

On a slightly different note, I’m taking an online circuits course this semester, and while there are some challenges to taking an experimental online course, there are some huge benefits. By far my favorite part has been the easy access to professors and course staff. At MIT, office hours are rarely held by professors themselves. More often, undergraduate and graduate teaching assistants are the only ones present at the office hours.

On the other hand, the professor for my online circuits course holds weekly office hours, which I have taken full advantage of the past several weeks. Even if I am already done with all the problems for that week, I choose one of the most challenging ones to discuss with my professor. He always manages to share with me new approaches to thinking about and solving the problems. Discussing the material with other people has certainly helped cement my understanding of core concepts, as well as helped me identify my own misconceptions.

During my first two years of college, there weren’t many professors who knew me by name since I took mostly large lecture classes. Now, however, I actually feel like I have a more personal connection with my circuits professor, which is pretty darn awesome. He makes tea for all the students who visit him, and after we discuss all my circuits problems, we usually have time to just chat and drink tea. We’ve talked about what it was like to attend MIT back in the 1960s, how he met his wife, how pop music is made to sound loud through amplification and clipping, and his super high-quality speakers from the 1960s, to name but a few topics. My weekly visits to see my professor and TA feel less like attending office hours and more like meet-ups with friends to discuss cool topics that may or may not be related to what my professor calls the “art of circuits.”

In short, although college life can get pretty hectic, I feel like I’ve managed to find peace within myself, and I honestly couldn’t be happier.

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Feedback is golden

Last week, our class read a New York Times article about the flaws in the American education system, particularly in the way we teach math. We keep changing our standards for students, but a major reason why we still aren’t able to achieve as much as students in other countries is that we don’t teach our teachers how to properly incorporate the new standards into their classrooms.

What I found most interesting was that in Japan, teachers have jugyokenkyu, which literally translates into “lesson study.” A teacher teaches a lesson in front of students, other teachers, and at least one university observer. Afterward, the observer discusses what happened during the lesson with the teacher. Each public lesson offers an opportunity to test out a new hypothesis, a new idea on how to help children learn. The discussion allows the observer and teachers to reflect on how successful the hypothesis was.

I just got back from Day 3 of Code It, and I couldn’t help but think how our mentor feedback system is similar to jugyokenkyu. Because I am essentially creating the curriculum for Code It for the first time, everything I do is testing out a hypothesis. I choose certain concepts and projects to teach based on my own personal experiences, but what really makes Code It successful (in my own eyes) is the continuous feedback from all the mentors.

After each Code It session, mentors stay around for a quick debrief. Last week, the mentors were in overwhelming agreement that the pace was too fast for the girls. A lot of the girls fell behind, which put a lot of pressure on the mentors to explain everything again to each of the three girls they were in charge of. To solve that problem, I made three changes for this week:

  1. Post-It system. Girls who were falling behind would stick a Post-It note on the back of the computer so that I would have constant visual feedback on who needed more time.
  2. Mentor hand-raise system. Rather than have the girls raise their hands if they needed more time, I would check in with mentors directly. If the mentor had any girls who were struggling, she would raise her hand to let me know.
  3. Breaking the barrier between me and the mentors. This one is rather simple. I just let the mentors know that if at any time I was going too fast, they should just say, “Hey, Kelsey! Please stop.” And I really will stop.

I think the general consensus for today was that the pace was much better. However, I still received additional super valuable feedback from the mentors. For one, I learned that the girls who did fall behind today fell behind because they were still sampling the different sound selections even after I had moved onto the next instruction. Together we decided that next week, I should tell the girls which sound to select and simply tell them that they could go back and customize it later.

This week, I also tried out a “scavenger hunt” type deal where I would show the girls the desired end product and ask them to write the code to create that end product. One of the mentors pointed out that some of the girls struggled to remember what the end product was, so it would have been better if I kept the end product on the board. Next week I’ll write out the specifications of the desired end product, so they have that to reference.

The key takeaway from today’s session is how valuable feedback is. I’m so lucky to have about nine mentors helping me out each weekend because I constantly have feedback on how I’m doing. A lot of teachers don’t have that luxury, so I’m grateful that I can get immediate feedback on ways to improve.