Volunteering: A Learning Experience for Student and Teacher

Darakshan Mir is a Graduate Student at Rutgers University and a volunteer Citizen Teacher  with Citizen Schools through the New York Academy of Sciences. Looking back at the Coloring Outside of the Lines apprenticeship that I taught this past fall, I really feel lucky that I had the opportunity to get involved in something as meaningful as this. The apprenticeship taught me a lot about teaching, learning and empathy.

Coloring Outside the Lines was designed for students to explore and learn math concepts while applying them to creating tessellations - two-dimensional planes that feature the repetition of a geometric shape with no overlaps and no gaps (like a honeycomb). The apprenticeship focused on building innovation capabilities in students as they were tasked with using the design process to create their own unique tessellations. I was amazed how my students got involved in the WOW! and how well some of them performed in the WOW!. I had many students, who were constantly involved and invested in the work, who connected to it, and it wasn't surprising to see them shine through at the end of the apprenticeship. But, I personally found the trajectory of two other students very interesting.

One of the students was in special education and both me and my Citizen Schools staff partner had assumed that it was going to be difficult coaching her to do what the rest of the class was doing, so we had set different goals for her. Until, one day after showing a video of how tessellations could be made, she was hooked. We figured out that instead of telling her, and demonstrating to her, what needs to be done, if we just showed her a video about what the end-product would be, and the steps that led to it, she could instantly understand it--- very intuitively. Thereafter, she really got into making tessellations. She was far ahead of most other students in the class, many times helping others. She made three wonderful tessellation projects, when most others did just one! She really knew what to do. It was very inspiring and humbling for me. I learnt not to make assumptions about how people learn, I learnt that different people have different ways of learning, and some ways work far better than others for individuals. At the end, she even presented her work to adult experts in the field, though she was very shy!

Another student really surprised me on the day of the WOW!. Throughout the apprenticeship, he wasn't really invested in the work, even though it was clear that he was capable of doing it and much more. Still, he completed his tessellation project and put it up for the WOW!. When people came around and asked him questions, I was really surprised by how well he did. He answered experts in a very professional manner. Even when they asked him hard questions, he was able to answer demonstrating a mastery of the subject. He had really internalized many concepts, even when he didn't seem to be completely engaged! I think, at the end of the apprenticeship, he was encouraged by the expert audience (rightly so). He really felt like he had been successful!

It wasn't until the WOW!, that I realized how profound a learning experience it was, for both the students and the teachers.