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July 6, 2010 / Ben Chun

Lesson Plan Judo

The students I’m teaching this summer at MEET are here for their third summer, so they’re the “seniors” (and will actually be seniors in high school this coming school year). There are four instructors, including me, for this group of 26 students — a pretty amazing ratio. This allows us to do a lot of work in smaller project groups, and give everyone tons of attention. It’s  a challenge to keep ourselves coordinated and balance between our different classroom styles, but it’s great to be able to divide up the responsibility for preparing the major lectures and exercises.

On the first day, we instructors introduced ourselves, and then went in with what I thought was a great plan: We’d randomly pick pairs of students and have them introduce one another, since they know each other well, but we were really just meeting them for the first time. We wanted some personal stories from the past couple years, memories, embarrassing stories — pretty much anything that would help us remember their names and personalities. We also wanted to get a sense of the group dynamic and hopefully prime the idea that MEET has given them a special set of relationships.

Eugene and I modeled the exercise, and then we fired up my Urbanspoon-inspired random student picker (written in Processing, of course). We got a pair up to the front, and they kinda, um, yeah, hmmm, said a couple of things about each other and then we let them off the hook and clapped. This went on for two or three pairs the same way.

I was moderating at this point, the other instructors sitting in the audience, in a mindset that was pretty focused on keeping the show running. Then one of our more outspoken students raised her hand with a suggestion:

Can’t we just call up a random student and have the whole class say things about them?

At this point, in my mind, we enter bullet time (another term we probably shouldn’t really use over here) and I’m trying to figure out if I should either go with the new idea or keep the activity consistent. So I throw it back on the student: “Sure, we can do that… if you come up here and go first.” I don’t know exactly why I said that, but in retrospect, it was a good move: if she was just stirring the pot, it might have backed her down and allowed us to move on. What actually happened is that she said, “Sure, fine,” and came up to the front.

Suddenly our activity was at least five thousand times better. For each and every student that came up, there were interesting facts, praise for their abilities, stories about nicknames, and all the things we hoped for but weren’t getting out of the pairs. If I had shut the student down and kept the activity going the way we planned it, this never would have happened.

I think teaching has a great analogy here to martial arts. The moves are never exactly the same, since the opponent is never exactly the same. But you can learn, with practice and experience, a general set of techniques and be able to decide which one to use in a given situation and apply it smoothly. To extend the analogy a little further: I feel the momentum of a situation. I can either oppose it with great force at great cost, or I can look for an opportunity to redirect the existing energy toward my own goal. You know which one I think is more elegant.

The past few days have included a huge amount of technical teaching, covering topics from Java servlets to MVC architecture to database design and SQL, but this one moment during introductions is the one that’s sticking with me. There’s almost no way to anticipate the way a group you’ve never met will react to an activity — so there’s a split second in which to decide if we should go with a new, student-generated idea or stick with the plan. I’m glad I felt comfortable enough to go with the student’s idea in this case!

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