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Reflections abou/Critique of Summer Institute 2010

Jessica Watkins's picture

Thinking back on my three weeks spent at Bryn Mawr’s Summer Science Institute for K-12 Teachers, one of the most important things I learned was how to do a proper “brain drain,” a listing of words or phrases that immediately come to mind when a certain word is said. So why not start off with a bit of brain draining to help describe the Institute and what it accomplished?




Between and amongst Institute participants there existed nothing if not a strong sense of camaraderie. Contributing to this was the fact that, no matter how vastly different with regard to race, culture, religion or social status, all participants were here for the same reason—to take their years of teaching experience, as well as experience dealing with school administrations and encountering resistance to ideas, and fashion them into a collective dialogue that would help build better learning environments. This isn’t to say that the rich diversity present in the Institute was not embraced. On the contrary, the participants’ differences were often the jumping off point for discussion that culminated in a greater realization of the equality between them. As a student who had never before worked with teachers on an equal level (as a collaborator instead of a student under their authority), it was nice to indulge in this equality and accept the fact that no one person’s knowledge takes precedence over that of another. If the Institute taught me one thing it is that, yes, I am a student, but so is everyone else. Even teachers are constantly learning—the brain is hardwired to do so for adaptive purposes. Imagine having the capability to learn cut off after you acquired a certain, predetermined amount of knowledge. If your environment was to change, and you had to learn how to do things differently, what would you do? It is human nature to “learn something new every day,” and it was almost impossible not to do so when such valuable dialogue was being created on a daily basis.

It did not take long to realize that the program was very much a microcosm of the educational environment present throughout the country, a mini classroom in its own right (a delicious bit of irony, considering the “students” were actually teachers). And, like any classroom, it experienced a great many ups and downs as part of the learning process. As the participants began to realize the importance of a collective voice, rather than any one being considered the most important (a “conductor,” as we discussed), they started to reap the benefits of listening without passing judgment. The group environment went from one where stories about culture and experience were hesitantly told to one where stories were shared in the fullest sense of the term. Even an apparent challenge such as Sudoku, which the participants were encouraged to play every day in order to unconsciously become more efficient players, eventually became a group learning experience as the teachers observed each other’s strategies and helped one another solve puzzles. I believe that the teachers ultimately recognized that the work they were doing in this environment put them in the same shoes as those students they teach during the year. For most I think it was a humbling experience, being both a student and teacher at the same time, and one that required a certain sense of humility in order to see how valuable the thoughts of others truly are (no matter what their age).



I find it interesting that this phrase came to mind, because overall the Institute was not frustrating or hectic—rather, I looked forward to coming to work every day in anticipation of a judgment-free, safe environment where conversation would arise in a calm, level-headed way. However, certain parts of the program proved challenging for both the participants and myself. 

·         Technology—Issues with the Serendip interface, usernames/passwords, and just computers in general abounded. However, I saw no way to get around this seeing as whenever any kind of technology is involved there is the risk of technical problems. I was surprised at times that some of the participants had as little knowledge as they did about computers, especially considering they are educators in such a technology-friendly society. Realistically, this is probably just a generational difference, but it begs the question of whether or not the participants would have benefited from a computer/Serendip review session (a crash course, if you will) at the beginning of the program. There was some review in the first day of the Institute, but it was minimal and would have been better if presented as something more generalized that wasn’t just focused on Serendip issues, but laptop issues as well (logging in under the Bryn Mawr domain, saving to a particular hard drive or USB device). As the Institute went on, one of the biggest problems I saw was participants forgetting or not knowing how to create portfolio entries or embed links. If we had reviewed this step-by-step with them on the first day, and had them do an example on their own to boost their confidence and see if they had any problems, we could have eliminated many issues later on. It also would have helped to have a set of instructions already on the Serendip website on the first day explaining how to create entries, etc.

·         Sudoku—Anger arising from the difficult nature of the game was inevitable, but not really where the “frustration” comes from in this category. In the beginning of the Sudoku experiment, participants were encouraged to work together periodically to solve puzzles and learn techniques from their peers. However, I only observed this once or twice, when the participants were actively told to come together and solve a puzzle. With a little bit of prodding a few times a week, I believe that eventually the participants would have decided to solve the puzzles together without the encouragement of the facilitators. For instance, if once every two or three days we had used the last half hour or so as a structured group Sudoku time, after a week the participants might have looked forward on their own  to working in a group. Eventually we would not have even had to tell them to get into groups any more. And, as another benefit, we could have brought this to their attention at the end of the program so they would use it as a model for fostering group work in their classrooms.


Conversation as Storytelling

Human beings are born social animals. So when it comes to having a conversation we should be born professionals, right? 

Wrong. I realized at the Institute that while humans are quite adept at expressing their feelings, mastering the art of having a conversation (that is, one in which both parties have a chance to speak their mind in a constructive way) takes a little work. If the Institute accomplished anything, it was preparing the participants for conveying their thoughts under the broader task of open-ended discussion. The beginning of the program was marked by an observed tendency of participants to rush into a conversation, their only goal being to get a word in edgewise or make sure they had stated their full opinion. By the end, things had turned around. Now the discussion taking place was much more varied because the participants had realized the benefits of listening as opposed to dominating the conversation. Admittedly, the most important lesson learned was how to bite one’s tongue and learn from what others were saying. 

As both a participant and an observer (and as a self-proclaimed “people watcher”) it was interesting to monitor the evolution of our dialogue. I perceived the mindset of the participants to be this: “I’ll listen for a bit, and jump in when I hear something that goes against what I believe so I can lay my full opinion on the table.” The thing that changed this attitude, or at least what I  believe changed it, was our facilitator, Paul Grobstein. One of Dr. Grobstein’s most remarkable qualities while at the Institute was not a commanding presence or even a commanding voice—rather, it was his use of silence as a way to convey his respect and interest in the conversation. Participants observed him observing them, not jumping in to voice his opinion whenever the subject of the conversation turned. The legal pad laid carefully out in front of him served as a palette on which he painted the thoughts that, while important to him at the moment, served a better purpose if kept for later so he could build upon them. And so, as time went on and the participants watched him and each other, conversation became less “every man for himself” and much more collaborative, a story written together. 

Equally important was the internal conversation that took place in our seminar room during the last couple hours of every day. One point that came up over and over during the Institute was the value of “free time” to jot down notes in a journal, draw, brain drain, etc. So important is this free time, we discussed, that it is tantamount to structured lesson time. Allowing the participants this period of time every day to organize (or disorganize) their thoughts was extremely important, as it lead to their individual interests being articulated in a mini-project to be posted at the end of the Institute. This was just the thing that bothered me, however. Most of the mini-projects were simply written and posted. Very few participants opted to present their projects in the last few days. If in the beginning of the program we had stressed the importance of not just individual exploration but the sharing of this exploration, I believe we would have had more participants willing to present. Maybe if the idea of presenting a project was brought up earlier, rather than in the last week of the Institute, it would have been built up in their minds as something to look forward to and plan. Then we could have woven many more ideas into the collective story we had been writing for the three weeks prior.




joycetheriot's picture

Metacognitive Strategies

Metacognition slideMetacognition slide

I presented to the faculty at my high school and borrowed your brain drain clip art.

Thanks, the presentation went well!

joycetheriot's picture

Beautifully Scripted and Designed

While trying to find the summer institute page without a link; I somehow googled into this lovely post by Teal. I've been to our site many times yet have never seen this page. I love the institute but am sad about how disconnected we are when we try to go back and refresh in the warm waters of our summer interactions! I wish that there was a better way to keep all of our messages, thoughts, and classroom-updates together in our post institute shares.

Enough whining about technology! Teal  I am so proud to think that a small idea that led me to brain drain my students as a warm-up activity last year has now evolved into your incredible artwork (did you design it?) and your masterful summation of our summer of 2010. I have little time as I sit in my science room waiting for class to start but I had to respond now and post in my portfolio with this website /exchange/node/7821 so I can return again to write more to you and about our summer. Your analysis is fantastic, so perceptive and interesting. I hope you are currently enjoying your school year and are still checking in at Serendip. More later!