Teaching Summer School Students
This summer I am helping to teach a university-level class on the history of medicine in America. Such a broad class necessitates large topics for each session such as “hospitals,” “disease,” and “diagnosis.” The class is small, fourteen students, and is largely composed of advanced high school students around age sixteen. Many of them have never taken a history of science class before, and are usually grappling with the idea of “socially constructed science” for the first time. A large number are planning to pursue a medical degree, but are realizing that medicine is created from society’s values, bias, and social order.
This is my first opportunity to teach students younger than university students, and while their writing and reasoning skills are still developing, it is their enthusiasm and work ethic that has impressed me. While they may be dealing with an entirely new way of thinking about “facts” and learning, I have found myself thinking that some of these fifteen and sixteen-year-olds are working smarter – visiting office hours, forcing themselves to think beyond what they have been taught – than some of the junior and senior (3rd and 4th year) undergraduates I have taught.
Is this because of the students themselves? Presumably only those who are truly invested in their education would want to take classes at a top university during their summer off from normal schooling. Or, more sobering to consider, is this what happens to students after a rigorous few years at university? While this is an overly simplistic model, and an extremely small sample size, the contrast is striking. I have had more students come to my office hours the second week of this summer school class than in most of last spring semester teaching at university.
However, in terms of the actual workload, the students are currently struggling to move beyond the model of being told exactly what to do on assignments, espoused in high school. Rather than being asked to take midterms and write essays as with many high school and university classes, they are instead supposed to write a blog entry every week, using class readings, lectures, and discussions as a springboard for further research. They are encouraged to choose their own platform and make the website their own. This is a unique format for most students, including the few undergraduate and graduate students, but attempts to inspire originality and creativity to help the students to pursue their own intellectual interests.
After week one, most students merely summarized some interesting points from the lectures, reiterating what we had taught them. Many of them seemed unsure how to write an academic, but informal, piece on what sparked their curiosity. A few took to the assignment naturally, choosing a topic we had not covered and using outside resources to make a claim. A few used novel ideas on how to present their research, including taking on a historical persona and applying our US-based discussion to other countries. But how to inspire those that may not have the same innate intellectual curiosity? We asked them to think of each blog entry as a way to teach us, the teaching staff, something new. We encouraged them to take one interesting fact or question from class and go on the quest of research. I await next week’s assignments to see how they work to improve upon their first attempts.
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