RTT/Olin Iteration

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This is a reflection on my development process for the RTT program I made for other Olin students. It serves as a specific companion to the more general guide for how to design an RTT program. It was written shortly after week 3 of the 5 week program.

The target audience for the program is college engineering students who enjoy volunteering in schools. Olin is a small school of only 300, but a surprising number of students are interested in teaching and/or volunteering with kids. My primary focus in the program design was to find something that a volunteer student could commit to, teach them a few concrete teaching skills, and increase the likelihood that they would pursue teaching as an ongoing volunteer opportunity or career option. This specific group of Olin students I initially targeted was volunteering together at the same school, making it easier to assign specific examples (read THIS school's charter and behavior policy and compare to what you observed, as opposed to reading something interesting but random).

Though the Olin students have a similar background to the students entering TFA and the MATCH School, they have less time committed and will probably incur less responsibility for a classroom of kids. As a result, I decided that meeting together for an hour each week for 5-6 weeks would be an appropriate length for the course. Between sessions, there was about 30-60 minutes of reading assigned. Compared to the full-time, structured programs, this would amount to less than a day of training. However, given different goals, it is sufficient.

Instead of designing a complete program from the start, I used the list of core components to generate a preliminary list of topics that could fill the 5-6 weeks. The first week was designed as a simple introduction to the program. I started with the background of my project and a general overview of the course. Students did the prerequisite reading during the meeting time, and then we discussed and practiced role plays as a group. This seemed concrete, concise, and useful, so it was enough to get people to come back a to the second meeting. A number of scheduling issues arose, moving the time from Friday afternoons to Thursday lunch and changing over a few people, but in the end, a fairly consistent group of 5 students has been at every session (through week 3 when this was written).

Once things settled down, I gained a feel for what things worked well with the group and what parts of the lesson needed to change. It was tough soliciting feedback from the group since most students are very busy, but the few responses I received reiterated a few issues I noticed and offered great solutions. Week 1 had everyone practicing as a large group with no predefined scenarios. In week 2, I created example scenarios and put them on note cards for students to do in both the large group and in pairs/triples. The idea was good, but the scenarios were too vague to be useful and the exercise was generally confusing. By week 3, I had better scenarios and mixed the large and small group role plays, which worked great. Unfortunately, the group got through everything I had planned in half of the time I alloted. I was saved by an event in the Olin dining hall that interrupted us immediately after I ran out of material. That said, if I had to fill this time, I would have done a design exercise with the current topic (behavior policies) instead of introducing new material. This idea would be to collectively design the behavior policy at an imaginary new public middle school, justifying each policy and discussing the type of training required for staff and volunteers to properly uphold it.

Unfortunately, I received another curve ball after week 2 when student schedules, driving logistics, and outside factors changed the student's relationship with the original charter school. Since it was still a common experience for most of the group, I continued using them as an example, but it changed my plans for the final 2 weeks.

I had considered the idea of introducing lesson plan design, but it seemed initially irrelevant for the tutors who seemed to face more issues related to behavior than a need to design their own lessons. With the students no longer going to the charter school, and an increased chance that they would be using their own curriculum with whoever they worked with next, I brought this back as a way to preempt behavior issues through effective lesson design. Since the group is interested in working with under-served public school students, I also decided to combine this with a look into state standards and curriculum mapping as the topics that lead into the development of goal-based lessons.

I knew the last session needed to include a look into the students' futures in teaching. I combined this with the many roles a teacher can take on so students would better understand the profession and the many ways they could fit into it. Building on the theme of group camaraderie, I would like to include time to celebrate the end of the program, talk about what students enjoyed and learned the most about, and share a snack together. Perhaps I will make a small certificate with their name and the topics we covered, certifying them as "rapidly-trained-teachers", partly in good humor, and partly to remind them of the many areas of teaching we looked into.

I'm sure there will be more twists and unexpected surprises heading into the final 2 weeks, but I am confident that the goals of the Olin program will continue to guide the curriculum development towards something that is positive and useful to the participating students. Here are a few of the most important lessons I've learned so far in this process:

  • Begin with clear goals for the program and share them with the participants. Goals stay relatively constant through changing situations. Sharing goals can help create buy-in and participation.
  • When teaching, make sure the examples are well-scripted in advance of a role play. It seems like they will be easy for groups to generate on the fly or expand on their own, but it is actually quite difficult to do and wastes a lot of group time.
  • Make better time estimates of how long each part of the lesson will take. If the teacher has never taught this topic before, design a lesson that could stop halfway or could go twice as long as necessary in a pinch. This requires much more effort on behalf of the teacher.
  • Be flexible: the number of changes made from week 1 to 2 and week 2 to 3 were astounding. Be prepared to design something new or modify existing content.
  • Practice: do a dry run through the parts of the lesson that center around the teacher. Time this to get a better idea of how much time is remaining for other activities. Again, this takes more work from the teacher.
  • Push hard for feedback: even when nobody responds to the first call for feedback, do it 2 or 3 more times. The feedback really helps you understand the student perspective of the class.
  • Be careful with the depth vs. breadth balance. I focused on something fairly deep and focused during the first two weeks and zoomed out near the end. Depth leads to greater tangibility of the task and a better sense that clear learning took place. If the goal is for students to not be surprised by the existence of something once they are on the job, breadth may be a better focus.