Teaching is a Learning Process

Volunteers from Vertex Pharmaceuticals have engaged more than 100 students in science, technology, engineer and math (STEM) learning since 2009. Vertex also recently became an important funding partner of our work.  On May 1st, a team of students led by Vertex volunteer Eric Block will present their learning at the Citizen Schools STEM WOW! event. Three-time Citizen Teacher, Eric Block, took some time to reflect back on his first very first apprenticeship experience as he prepares for the big event. When I was asked to teach a group of middle school students chemistry through the Citizen Schools apprenticeship program it seemed like a good idea at first. I’m a chemist, I recognize the need for our kids to be scientifically literate if they’re going to keep up with increasing global competition, and I thought it would be a fun and painless way to see if I had the chops for teaching...

While I was making up mind to take the plunge, I thought of all the cool concepts we could cover.  All the awesome experiments we could do.  I imagined the students getting excited and watching their eyes light up as they grasped the concepts of entropy and saw the beauty inherent in the periodic table.  We would discuss the seminal work of Priestley, Lavoisier, and Heisenberg, and trace the arc of our understanding of nature, revealed.  I signed up to lead the class in the spring semester at the Edwards school in Charlestown, MA.

Then reality set in. I met with my teaching partner, Miss G, who was a big help in supporting me throughout the apprenticeship.  She patiently explained that unstable, toxic, and/or smelly chemicals (you know, all the fun stuff), are generally frowned upon in most middle schools.  Clearly, my lesson plan would require some serious tweaking, and the clock was ticking down toward my first class.

I then discovered that putting together my first 90-minute class took quite a bit of research and preparation time. Finally, with my notes, lecture slides and equipment in place, I was ready for my first class. This. Was. Going. To. Be. EPIC!

And then I learned some more things.

These kids didn’t want to be lectured to.  They wanted to have fun, and there was no way they’d sit still for 20 minutes. Or 15. Or even 5.  It had to be fast and interactive, so I improvised, encouraging them to ask questions.  Rookie mistake:

  • “What would happen if I could grab a piece of the sun?”
  • “I like pandas”
  • “Is it true that you swallow eight spiders a year?”

The second lesson went a little smoother as I got a better grip on the class dynamics, and the third lesson was even better, and so on through the semester.  Some kids were totally involved, some were bored and rambunctious, and one girl never said a word, which I found most unnerving of all.  Neither cajoling, joking, or direct interrogation could get more than a few syllables out her over the course of the ten weeks.  We had an event at the end of the course featuring a movie that highlighted what the kids learned, and then we were done.

I was exhausted, but happy.  I met with my teaching partner for a wrap-up, where she gave me written thank-you notes from the kids.  Some had just a name, and some, a sentence or two.  When I got to the one from “the girl who didn’t talk,” my jaw dropped:

letter from student

This was the last lesson I learned that semester, and one I would pass on to anyone currently teaching an apprenticeship or considering one:  Just showing up and giving it your best shot will have an effect on these kids, the magnitude of which you may never know, but which will be much greater than you will ever realize.

You can see this apprenticeship and many more in action at a WOW! event near you in Massachusetts, North Carolina, New York, New Jersey, California, Illinois, New Mexico and Texas.