Will You Marry Me?

(reflections from week 2 at the SW 9/16/11)

We had an amazing first two weeks at the Sustainability Workshop.  Since communicating complex emotion through written word is not my strength, I’ll give you the math guy equivalent – the first week was something like a triple integral over a Gaussian surface. The second week was more like a Laplace transform applied to a non-vanishing derivative.  Yeah, that good.

The past two weeks have been so full of wonderful teaching and learning moments, the biggest challenge we’re facing now is how we capture them all.  It’s a great problem to have and yet it seems almost unsolvable.  There is just not enough time and energy in the day to do it.  I have found myself in this totally unexpected place – being blown away multiple times each by these incredible interactions.  These are the types of interactions teachers long for – the essence of students owning their education.  And maybe it’s more than that – it’s this idea of being committed to a learning community that takes care of each other’s learning.  This is what school is supposed to be.

As I think about the highlights from the week, there are just too many to write about – it even seems like there are too many just from today.  Seth Williams, the District Attorney,  stopped by for an hour. A few students gave him a tour of the building.  One student was jumping out of his skin to tell the DA about Sherman Alexie’s book and why he couldn’t put it down.  He went on to explain how the book was helping him to shape his project.  In my 15 years of teaching I haven’t seen a student that excited to tell a guest about almost anything – never a book.   Seth told the students about his story and the conversation that ensued was wonderful.  Later in the afternoon we had another guest – a young robotics PhD from Drexel shared “how you do a project” engineering style.  He dazzled our students with his “cool” engineering projects that included everything from his homemade marshmallow roaster to his autonomous robotic helicopter.  The students were all in.  And the list goes on – students wrestling with their college essays to small groups helping each other refine and perfect their work to students staying after school on a Friday to help plan the ribbon-cutting event.

But I think my favorite highlight from today (and maybe the week) was the group consultancy we did. All week the students worked on their first big project.  It’s due in about 7 days.  They began to informally to do peer editing and we felt the need to model how to do it more effectively.  We split the students into two groups and then asked for volunteers to present some aspect of their project with the entire group.  Each student in the audience was then asked to write down one thing they thought was particularly effective and one thing that they thought needed work (we pushed them to be as detailed as possible).  Before we started, we asked them why we were doing this activity and they nailed it.  “So the presenter can improve their presentation”.  “So I can learn from the presenter’s mistakes.” “So we can learn from each other’s projects and get ideas for our own.” And finally, “So we can learn how to be more effective in helping each other.”  A tear welled up in my eye.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had a large group (14 others) critique your work publicly.  It’s intimidating.  I was concerned no one would want to volunteer.  But we actually had the opposite.  I had too many volunteers and had to figure out who would go first and so on.  The first presentation was excellent and the feedback was something you might expect from a thoughtful group of graduate students – really.  The second was the same.  Amazing.  The last presenter decided to share his college essay.  He decided that he wanted the group to read it out loud – so each person read one paragraph as if it we had planned it that way.  Again, the students offered really impressive feedback.  The final piece of feedback came from a beautiful and brilliant female student.  She explained with great care what she adored about his essay and then offered insightful suggestions on how to improve it.  She finished with, “I love it!  Will you marry me?” The entire room burst into laughter.  And then one of the more serious students said, “Of course he will.”  What a week.