About Peter Chipman

I'm a lexicographer, an editor, and a lover of language and literature. Also a proud father of two, an occasional bell-ringer, a thirteenth-generation New England Yankee, a former owner of a one-room schoolhouse, and the current owner of a 220-year-old farmhouse.

Shake Up Your Teaching with OCW Instructor Insights

When you’re faced with an unexpected teaching challenge, OpenCourseWare’s Instructor Insights can help.

lecture seating

Photo courtesy of ladylong on Flickr. License: CC BY-NC

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

Imagine: You’re an experienced math instructor at a respected university, and you’ve just heard some alarming news. The university’s president has announced a new initiative to improve students’ communication skills by incorporating writing assignments into the curricula of introductory-level courses in all departments. One of your standby courses, Intro to Non-Euclidean Multidimensional Geometry, falls under the new policy.

What are you to do? For the past fourteen years you’ve taught the course in a tried-and-true format that works for you, with straightforward lectures, weekly problem sets, and regular quizzes and exams. How are you supposed to go about incorporating writing assignments?

Acting on the advice of a colleague at another institution, you pay a visit to MIT’s OpenCourseWare website. At the OCW Educator portal, you search for Instructor Insights on the topic of “Teaching Communication”⁠—specifically, on the subtopic of “Writing.” To your surprise (and delight), the search results turn up three OCW math courses featuring Instructor Insights on that very topic:

screen shot of finder tool

Structuring the Course

The Instructor Insights page for 18.310 Principles of Discrete Applied Mathematics includes links to three subpages on which Michel Goemans, Peter Shor, Lorenzo Orecchia, and Susan Ruff discuss aspects of how they designed the course to teach students the fundamental principles of writing papers in mathematics. They explain how the course’s recitation sections help students develop a critical appreciation of writing in mathematics by examining the mathematical content of a writing sample and discussing how the content is communicated. They also reveal how they’ve structured the final term paper assignment in the past and how they might change it in the future. Finally, they discuss how they use norming meetings and other techniques to ensure consistency in assessing students’ writing.

Giving Feedback and Encouraging Revision

In the “Writing” section of the OCW site for 18.821 Project Laboratory in Mathematics, Professor Haynes Miller and Lecturer in Writing, Rhetoric & Professional Communication Susan Ruff describe the criteria for good mathematical writing and the components of the writing workshop, and they explain how students use feedback on earlier drafts of their writing to improve later drafts. This section also features links to two actual student papers from the course, including the first drafts, Miller’s and Ruff’s comments on those drafts, a video of a “debriefing meeting” for the first draft of one of the papers, and the final versions of both papers.

Teaching the Elements of Mathematical Style

Dr. Andrew Snowden, the instructor for 18.904 Seminar in Topology, shares his insights into ways of teaching students to give mathematical presentations and write mathematical papers. As added resources, he includes links to two .pdf documents that he provided to his students: a guide to writing papers using the LaTeX document preparation system and a general style guide to common student mistakes in writing math papers and how to avoid them.

Moving On to Future Challenges

The resources above represent OCW’s offerings on a very specific topic, the teaching of writing in math courses. We hope you’ll return to the Educator portal many times in the future when you’re facing a new pedagogical challenge or even when you just feel the need to shake things up and enrich your teaching with new techniques!

A Panoply of Language Offerings at MIT and on OCW

A cup and a piece of paper with hand-written Japanese kanji characters on it

Studying Japanese culture goes hand in hand with studying the Japanese language. (Image courtesy of Jennifer Pack on Flickr. License CC BY-NC.)

There’s more to learning a language than just working your way through a textbook, say these MIT instructors.

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

Aside from English, MIT offers courses in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. (MIT students wishing to study a language not on this list, such as Arabic, Irish, Swahili, or Tibetan, can do so by cross-registering for courses at Harvard or Wellesley.) Many of MIT’s language course offerings are represented on OpenCourseWare, and several of their OCW course sites include Instructor Insights either in text or video form. Here are five OCW offerings that feature Instructor Insights on approaches to teaching languages:

21G.101 Chinese I (Regular)

Haohsiang Liao believes strongly that, as he puts it, “the way you behave in a second culture is as important as your use of the language.” In the videos on the Instructor Insights page for this course, which are presented in both English and Chinese, Dr. Liao says that this is why cultural competence is a core part of MIT’s Chinese curriculum. He also explains the importance of creating an immersive classroom environment, and the rationale behind the curriculum’s covering speaking and listening before reading and writing. Among the helpful details Liao shares in the videos are explanations of how he uses a daily grading system to provide continuous feedback to students, how students can develop their ear for a language by listening to audio filesand why he asks struggling students to physically show him how they prepare for class.

“The way you behave in a second culture is as important as your use of the language.”
-Haohsiang Liao

21G.1007 Chinese I (Streamlined)

In Min-Min Liang’s Instructor Insights videos, which like Haohsiang Liao’s are offered in both English and Chinese, she discusses her philosophy of teaching (“The main philosophy for me is to have a welcoming environment to help students to speak the language, not to talk about the language”) and explains why the curriculum and structure of the streamlined course is well suited for heritage learners of Chinese. She also shares practical details about how using an online tool makes it easier for students to practice and receive feedback on their pronunciation, how she assesses student learning, and how authentic texts might supplement the somewhat contrived material presented by language textbooks.

“The main philosophy for me is to have a welcoming environment to help students to speak the language, not to talk about the language.”
-Min-Min Liang

21G.410 Advanced German: Professional Communication

A man seated in his office, gesturing with his hands as he speaks

Peter Weise engaged in conversation in his office on the MIT campus. (Photo by OCW.)

When Peter Weise set out to teach an advanced German course on the kinds of language used in professional settings, he discovered that there was no textbook available for the kind of course he wanted to teach. “It’s much easier for students to learn language through content they find relevant and engaging than it is through textbook materials,” he observes. In his written Instructor Insights, he describes how he assembled a customized curriculum based on authentic texts, how he uses video recording and native speakers to provide feedback on students’ speaking skills, what role guest speakers can play in modeling authentic speech and speech behaviors, and how he uses reflective practice and student feedback to improve his teaching.

“It’s much easier for students to learn language through content they find relevant and engaging than it is through textbook materials.”
-Peter Weise

21G.503 Japanese III

The Instructor Insights page for this course features English and Japanese videos in which Takako Aikawa discusses various aspects of how she and her co-instructor Emiko Rafique approach the teaching of Japanese, using separate grammar sessions and drill sessions, daily grades along with two interview tests to assess students’ fluency, the incorporation of body language lessons and cultural tips in each grammar lesson, and community social events that give students opportunities to interact with native speakers.

“Language needs to be learned together with context.”
-Takako Aikawa

21G.711 Advanced Spanish Conversation and Composition

A woman on a bicycle and a man on a motorcycle, both looking at their mobile phones while they are stopped in traffic

Life in European cities, like elsewhere around the world, has been radically transformed by technologies such as smartphones. (Image courtesy of Simona on Flickr. License CC BY-NC.)

Like Peter Weise, Margarita Ribas Groeger finds that the best way to motivate students to develop their ability to write and speak in a second language is to give them something to write and talk about that they’ll find relevant and interesting. On the Instructor Insights page for this course, she describes how “looking at Spanish-speaking societies through the ways they have been affected by science and technology offered an alternative thematic focus to the fifth or sixth semester Spanish language curriculum.” She also lists the recurring questions that the course explored, all themed around the social and cultural impact of technology in Hispanic societies.

“Looking at Spanish-speaking societies through the ways they have been affected by science and technology offered an alternative thematic focus to the fifth or sixth semester Spanish language curriculum.”
-Margarita Ribas Groeger

M. Amah Edoh on Creating a Supportive Academic Culture

Close up photo of woman in blue shirt standing in Killian Court at MIT

M. Amah Edoh, Assistant Professor of African Studies (Image courtesy of Jonathan Sachs Photography.)

Educators can’t just be providers of information, Professor Edoh argues; they have to be nurturers of their students’ intellectual growth.

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

Assistant Professor M. Amah Edoh is a young faculty member, young enough to remember what it felt like to be a student. Her approach to teaching reflects this fact. The Instructor Insights section of the OpenCourseWare site for her course 21G.026 Global Africa: Creative Cultures provides interesting details about how she taught that specific course, but it also offers a generous helping of observations about pedagogy in general and the role faculty members can play in helping students move from mystery to mastery. Here are a few highlights.

Course Planning

Every academic course has a central topic or idea, but Professor Edoh emphasizes that the instructor should also consider what the central question is, so that the course can be an exploration rather than a mere transfer of information:

“It’s crucial to be clear on what the core issue is, what the question is that animates this class….As long as the core question is clear, you can tailor the building blocks to your interests.”

Of course, students will bring more energy to the classroom if their work there also draws on their own interests, not just their professor’s. So Professor Edoh used the final project assignment in 21G.026 to draw on the different creative skills–cooking, drawing, horticulture, creative writing, and so on–that each student brought to the course.

“I had no idea how it would turn out, because I didn’t know what they were bringing to the table, what particular creative skills they had. But I want to believe—this is something I try to enact in my own life—that we all have creative skills, and that whatever you have, we can do something with it.”

The Need for Flexibility in Teaching

New faculty members, Edoh suggests, may not immediately realize that successful teaching depends on not always having every moment of every class planned in advance, and that lecturers need to be able to revise their teaching plan constantly in response to the needs of the moment. Doing this effectively doesn’t necessarily come easily, but it’s a core competency for a master teacher:

“When you’re a student, the professors up front seem to know exactly what they’re doing and what they’re talking about; you don’t fully appreciate the fact that it’s a lot of intuitive and improvisational work. You can be surprised at how taxing it is.”

Teaching at MIT

To counteract the tendency of the university to become a closed circle or the proverbial ivory tower, Professor Edoh asks her students to attend cultural performances out in the world to supplement and enrich their in-class learning:

“Even the experience of leaving MIT is really useful. Part of our duty as educators is to help broaden our students’ horizons, not only in the classroom but also by encouraging them to explore beyond campus.”

She also seeks to show students that the humanities have something to say about technology, and that we can fruitfully examine the meanings and cultural implications of technical systems and practices, not just the details of their operation or their practical potentials:

“At MIT in particular, we tend to fetishize technology and consider it as existing in a realm outside of other material practices, other ways of knowing. One of my personal missions is to show that technology is no different from these other practices—they’re all objects, ways of doing, ways of knowing. So whether we’re talking about plant healing or developing the next nano-technology, we can think about these things next to each other, no matter where they’re happening.”

Academic Study and the Wider World

As Professor Edoh sees it, the so-called ivory tower is an illusion; it’s neither possible nor desirable for the academy to remain divorced from the wider world. At its best, she suggests, academic work exists in constant dialogue with real-world experience, with each enriching the other:

“What we do in the classroom is not separate. Academic work isn’t separate from life, and it’s not something that’s only accessible to some people. We’re always theorizing. Making sense of our experience is about theorizing. If we can help students make links between what they’re reading for school and what they’re experiencing in the world around them, we’re in great shape as educators.”

Nurturing Student Growth

Professor Edoh distinctly remembers what it was like to be a student struggling to make sense of the often-obscure writings one encounters in academic life:

“When I was in grad school for my PhD, I was frustrated by the fact that academic texts often feel like they’re written to not be understood. This made me really angry. I thought, ‘OK, I’ve been in school for many years. How is it that this still makes no sense? If it makes no sense to me, what are we doing here? What is the point of the academic enterprise if we produce work that can’t be understood?’…The danger when you’re a student, especially at elite institutions, is that when you don’t understand, you think there’s something wrong with you: you’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough. But it’s actually a structural issue, and it’s the writers’ responsibility to write better work, to write more clearly.”

She feels passionately that it’s a professor’s job to make academic discourse less intimidating, and to encourage students as they take their first tentative steps toward being confident participants in scholarly and intellectual work:

“What made the biggest difference for me in the classroom as a student was instructors who made me feel like I had something to offer. Having instructors who make you feel you have nothing to offer is not just neutral, it’s damaging. It’s really important for me to valorize students’ voices, to show that I’m taking their work seriously.”

“My teaching philosophy stresses the importance of using classroom time to build students’ confidence, to instill in our students a sense that they’re capable of doing this work, to undo some of the damage that academic work has done for so many people—to try to make it less alienating. To say, ‘We can do this. And we know how to do this. It’s OK not to know this particular material, because we’re in school to learn. We’re not supposed to know everything when we come here. But we know how to learn and that’s what we’re here for.'”

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday, Herb Gross!

a middle-age man standing in front of a blackboard with mathematical figures on it.

Herb Gross, making math make sense in a video recorded at MIT in 1970. (Image by MIT OpenCourseWare.)

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

Today we’re delighted to wish a very happy birthday to Professor Herb Gross, who is turning 90. When he was a senior lecturer in mathematics at MIT in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was recruited to film a series of instructional videos under the title of Calculus Revisited. In the digital era, these videos have reached a much larger audience than might originally have been expected; between 2010 and 2011 MIT OpenCourseWare worked with Professor Gross to publish them as a trilogy of special supplemental resources on our website: Single Variable Calculus, Multivariable Calculus, and Complex Variables, Differential Equations, and Linear Algebra.

The videos might seem to have a lot going against them: they’re nearly fifty years old, they’re in low-definition black and white, and they have no special effects or flashy visuals. (Their content consists purely of Professor Gross standing in front of a blackboard, explaining math.) But collectively, these resources have been accessed well over a million times at the OCW website, and they’re also extremely popular and much loved on YouTube.

Herb Gross’s time at MIT was part of a long career in teaching math, often to those students most in need of patient encouragement and support. He taught for many years at community colleges, and starting in the late 1970s he was also involved in prison education, creating math programs for inmates at correctional institutions in Massachusetts and later in North Carolina. In 1988 he instituted his Gateways to Mathematics video course at several prisons in North Carolina. (The material for the entire course has been preserved at the Internet Archive.) He enjoys making teaching videos and regards them as offering some advantages not available to live teaching; he explains that “You can pause, rewind, and/or fast forward the lectures as you see fit—not to mention that the boards are written in a much more orderly way than how I wrote in the live classroom!”

Professor Gross has always maintained that the best mathematicians don’t necessarily make the best math teachers, and likewise that you don’t have to be a great mathematician to be a great math teacher. As he puts it, “There are many examples of great athletes who failed as coaches; and there have been great coaches who were at best mediocre players.” He has returned to this analogy again and again throughout the years, most memorably in another video series, Teacher as Coach, produced in 1988 by the North Carolina Department of Community Colleges. He sees his vocation in life as being the best coach he can be for the most vulnerable and “mathephobic” of students. And he has always been dedicated to the idea that the best teaching materials should be made freely available to as wide an audience as possible. To further this goal, not only did he work with MIT OpenCourseWare to put the Calculus Revisited videos online forty years after they were originally recorded, he also has created his own website, where all his work in arithmetic, algebra, and calculus is available free of charge.

Writing in reply to YouTube viewer comments on one of the Calculus Revisited videos, Professor Gross says, “It took several days to prepare each lecture. While this seems to be a very long time, the beauty lies in the fact that the lecture is there forever and is available to any viewer, in any place and at any time. In my case the reward is that it would have taken me several lifetimes to reach the same number of students if I had been teaching in a traditional classroom.” Though he’s now retired, he sees his online lectures as allowing him a sort of pedagogical immortality: “I feel very blessed that thanks to the Internet, I will be able to continue teaching for years and possibly generations to come.”

We’re so grateful to Professor Gross for sharing his knowledge and love of math so generously, with so many students, over so many decades. Happy birthday to you, Professor Gross!

Courses from MIT’s 2019 MacVicar Fellows

Four faculty portrait photos.

The 2019 MacVicar Faculty fellows are (from left to right): Erik Demaine, Graham Jones, T. L. Taylor, and Joshua Angrist.
(Courtesy of MIT Registrar’s Office.)

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

For the past 27 years, the MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program has honored several MIT professors each year who have made outstanding contributions to undergraduate teaching, educational innovation, and mentoring.

This year’s awardees are Professors Joshua Angrist (economics), Erik Demaine (computer science), Graham Jones (anthropology), and T. L. Taylor (comparative media studies).

OCW is honored to share courses from all of this year’s Fellows:

Joshua Angrist

Erik Demaine

Graham Jones

T. L. Taylor

Through the OCW Educator initiative, we have also collected Instructor Insights from Professor Angrist concerning the need to overhaul econometrics pedagogy, and from Professor Demaine about his love of algorithms and how he seeks to communicate that love in teaching 6.849 Geometric Folding Algorithms: Linkages, Origami, Polyhedra and 6.851 Advanced Data Structures.

Interested in more Instructor Insights from past MacVicar Fellows? Visit our OCW Educator portal to search for Insights from MIT Teaching Award Recipients. Delve into the minds of David Autor, Steven Hall, Anne McCants, Haynes Miller, and many other MIT professors advancing teaching and learning in their fields.

Improving Student Engagement through Active Learning

a classroom with students standing up, one holding a slip of paper in his hand.

Students engaging in an active learning exercise in a 6.033 recitation session. (Photo by MIT OCW)

By Peter Chipman, Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

Dr. Katrina LaCurts, a lecturer in MIT’s department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, had a problem. Her course 6.033 Computer System Engineering included twice-weekly recitation sessions in addition to the regular lectures. These recitations were meant to allow students to discuss questions raised in the lectures and readings and to work through sample problems in smaller groups. But recitation instructors reported that many students weren’t participating in discussions because they hadn’t done the assigned readings. When the instructors tried to compensate by going over key material from the readings all over again in class, not only did this take up valuable time, it also produced an undesirable secondary effect: when students came to expect that recitations would recapitulate the key points from the readings, they had even less incentive to do the readings themselves, and they came to class even less prepared to participate meaningfully.

So in redesigning the course, Dr. LaCurts decided to emphasize active learning as a key element in the recitations. What is “active learning”? It’s a general term for any and all classroom techniques that have a participatory, non-passive component, ranging from small-group discussion to skits, polls, simulations, and role playing. Dr. LaCurts describes her motivation for making this change:

“There’s some evidence that this style of learning is good for a lot of things. There’s evidence to support the effectiveness of student engagement in exam scores, failure rates, how well students remember content, student attitudes, study habits. And there’s also evidence that active learning has a disproportionate benefit for minorities, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and female students in male dominated fields.”

An Unsuccessful First Try

But Dr. LaCurts soon found out that implementing active learning in a large, multi-section course is easier said than done. In one of the video excerpts posted on the Instructor Insights page of the OCW course site, she explains that simply telling instructors to implement active learning was ineffective:

“It turns out you can’t tell your recitation instructors to do a thing that they’ve never done before and just have them magically do it. In particular, you can’t tell your instructors to fundamentally change the way they teach and magically have that happen. I would say it’s difficult enough for us to change the way we teach, much less to get other people to change the way they teach.”

She concluded that to implement active learning effectively, she’d have to take a more active approach herself. Here are the steps she recommends for anyone trying to encourage a team of instructors to incorporate active learning in their class sessions:

1. Get Everyone on Board

The very first staff meeting, before the semester had even begun, was about active learning. Dr. LaCurts and her teaching staff, consisting of nine recitation instructors, nine teaching assistants, and thirteen communications instructors, discussed why active learning is better than lecturing, and how it could support the other learning objectives in 6.033 Computer System Engineering. Dr. LaCurts explained that there would be extensive support for the recitation instructors’ efforts, with check-ins throughout the semester to make sure active learning was really working for them and for the students. She appealed to everyone’s scientific nature, explaining that this restructuring of the course was a sort of research project, to find out whether active learning techniques would work in 6.033. She also told them that if the experiment went badly, they wouldn’t keep doing it.

Dr. LaCurts did expect some pushback. She’s in charge of a lot of educators, some of whom have been at MIT for a very long time. But she reports that talking about active learning early on and setting expectations from the beginning was surprisingly helpful. Everybody–not just the recitation instructors but also the teaching assistants and communications instructors–knew that active learning wasn’t an optional element of the course, it was their primary instructional goal for the semester.

2. Plan a Lot

Dr. LaCurts supplied her staff with an annotated version of a well-known list of several hundred active learning activities. In the second staff meeting, she and her staff went through the whole list. They knew that not all of the activities would work in the recitations, but going through the list gave everyone a better sense of what active learning can be.

Dr. LaCurts also identified specific active learning techniques for each recitation. In previous semesters, she had planned recitations strictly for technical content. She would tell instructors the technical issues they needed to hit on, but her instructors had great leeway in how they taught those topics. Now, in addition to the technical content, she began specifying two or three active learning techniques that could be employed in each recitation. For instance, she might point out places where students could break into groups to discuss a particular question, or where it would be useful to hold a debate in the class. For each recitation, the instructors had multiple options for implementing active learning in their sections, and from among these options, they could pick the ones they were the most comfortable with.

3. Support Staff as Individuals

Dr. LaCurts didn’t just plan these activities and set the staff free. She took the time to observe recitation sessions throughout the semester, making sure to stress that she wasn’t there to evaluate the instructors themselves but to see what was working and what wasn’t, so staff could implement those techniques more effectively in future sessions.

In practice, Dr. LaCurts was pleased to discover that in her observations she found far more successful activities than problematic ones. Most of her feedback to the instructors consisted of pointing out things they were doing that were really well, and encouraging them to share those techniques with the other instructors. In the end, she says, “I kind of thought of myself more as a cheerleader for them and what they were doing, than someone who was coming in and really critiquing anything.”

4. Support Staff as a Group

Dr. LaCurts’s staff had many creative ideas as to how to use active learning techniques to present the course’s technical content. So at every staff meeting, instructors would share techniques they had tried and report on how they went. Knowing what worked well in other recitation sections gave more hesitant instructors the confidence to try similar techniques with their own students.

Conversely, fostering a space for discussion at staff meetings meant that everybody was generally comfortable bringing up techniques that they had tried but that weren’t going as well. Dr. LaCurts reports that it was helpful for the staff to have this dedicated space for mutual support and nonjudgmental reflection.

What Kinds of Things Did Students Do?

Small group discussion is a very common type of active learning: students are put in small groups and asked to talk something over and then report back for a class-wide discussion. Dr. LaCurts has found that talking in these small groups beforehand makes the shyer students a lot more confident, and that asking each group to contribute to the eventual discussion means that the discussion isn’t dominated by one or two groups.

In a second technique, debating, students are asked to read two short papers that come to opposing conclusions. The recitation section is split into two teams, with each team assigned to debate in favor of one of the papers’ conclusions. Students usually enjoy this activity, Dr. LaCurts says: “They love to argue, so they’re very excited to do this.” But she admits the activity does require more monitoring on the instructors’ part, to ensure that no one team or person dominates the debate. To combat that, teams are asked to meet beforehand to prepare their arguments for the in-class debate.

A third technique is to ask students to draw pictures on the board, illustrating a particular system or component. The class then comes together to discuss what each drawing is showing, what features the various depictions share, what level of abstraction each drawing captures, and so on. This activity is especially useful because part of the communication curriculum for 6.033 Computer System Engineering involves learning how to design and draw figures. The activity provides a way for students to practice that skill while also forcing them to figure out exactly what the system is doing.

The last technique Dr. LaCurts describes in her video is one where students are asked to physically act out a computer system’s completion of a task. Students are assigned roles as parts of the system, usually with two or three students assigned to each role so shyer students will be more comfortable and no one student is in charge of something. Each part of the system is given instructions, and the system is set into operation. Afterward, the class reconvenes to discuss how the system performed (or failed to perform) its task.

Two women, one wearing a large paper hat, standing in the front of a classrom.

Dr. LaCurts (right) and a volunteer (left, in silly hat) demonstrate acting out how a master machine assigns tasks in MapReduce. (Image by MIT OCW.)

How It Turned Out

Dr. LaCurts reports that restructuring 6.033 Computer System Engineering has resulted in significant improvements in class participation. In surveys, students reported feeling comfortable in the recitations and overwhelmingly felt that these activities improved their engagement. Further, Dr. LaCurts and her staff have seen that students are understanding the details of the systems better, while developing a sense of camaraderie.

It hasn’t been only the students who have benefited from the restructuring of the recitation sessions, however. The staff has benefited as well, as Dr. LaCurts explains:

“It’s a lot of work, but this class is so much fun now. It’s fun for me to run. It’s fun for instructors to teach. I don’t know how many people would tell you that their 400-person class is fun to run. But I have a great time. And the amount of enjoyment that we get out of teaching 6.033 this way really comes through for the students.”

To Learn More

Want to know more about active learning in MIT classrooms? The following courses feature Instructor Insights that you may find of interest:

An electron micrograph of long, slender cells interacting with shorter, thicker, roughly cylindrical cells.8.591J Systems Biology

In this course, Professor Jeff Gore uses color-coded flash cards to quickly survey students’ responses to key concept questions. At the Instructor Insights page, he discusses how and why he uses these cards, and he addresses the perceived barriers to implementing active learning in large classrooms.

The body of a helicopterlike device.16.06 Principles of Automatic Control

The Instructor Insights page for this course features videos on the experience of using active learning, including a candid description of the apprehensions students may feel when asked to try unfamiliar activities in the classroom.

A graph of several curves of varying heights and widths18.05 Introduction to Probability and Statistics

In one of the Instructor Insights for this course, Dr. Jeremy Orloff and Dr. Jonathan Bloom discuss the importance of trust in their active learning classroom and their strategies for promoting it.

Students holding up a QR card5.95J Teaching College-Level Science and Engineering

Dr. Janet Rankin shares an overview of active learning and seven active learning strategies in the Instructor Insights videos for this course, which aims to prepare graduate students to teach in higher education settings.

Talking about Creoles, Speaking in Kreyòl

By Peter Chipman, Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

a cluster of small passenger boats on the beach in a cove.

Brightly painted water taxis crowd a beach in Haiti. (Image courtesy of Steve Bennett on flickr. License: CC BY-NC.)

We’re excited to announce the publication of the OpenCourseWare version of Professor Michel DeGraff’s course 24.908 Creole Languages and Caribbean Identities, as taught at MIT in the Spring semester of 2017.

Instructor Insights Two Times Over

In a departure from our typical procedure, the videos Professor DeGraff recorded for the course’s Instructor Insights page are all presented twice: once with him speaking in English, and then a second time with him speaking in his native language, Haitian Creole (or Kreyòl). Professor DeGraff decided to do this because he feels it’s important to spread the word, both to English speakers and to speakers of Creole languages, that Creoles aren’t flawed or debased versions of colonial languages such as French, but rather are fully-developed and grammatical languages in their own right. By making his insights available to educators and students in Creole-speaking communities, Professor DeGraff hopes to ensure that his academic research and his teaching will be a vehicle for social change.

Customizing the Course to Students’ Backgrounds

To make the course as meaningful as possible for his students, Professor DeGraff begins each semester by finding out where each student is coming from. “On the very first day,” he explains, “while they are still fresh and unsuspecting of the class contents, of my own ideology, I give them a survey where I ask very simple questions. You know, their major, their year….I also ask them personal questions. Where were they born? Where did they travel? And during what years? … And I ask them about some of the course content. You know, what do they know about Creole languages? How do they define identity? What does identity mean? What kind of images does the word Caribbean trigger in their minds?…Through these questions, I’m able to see and to get a sense of both their personal background, but also what kind of assumptions they bring to the course. And then I can use that to have a beginning where I can address the fundamental assumptions they do bring in the course, and also to connect the discussion to their personal profiles.”

Professor DeGraff sitting in his office at MIT.

Professor Michel DeGraff has been teaching linguistics at MIT for more than 20 years. (Image by OpenCourseWare.)

Reading the World, Not Just the Word

In addition to Professor DeGraff’s videos, the Instructor Insights page has links to four Student Insights videos, in which students José Esparza and Dalila Stanfield describe what they learned in the course and what advice they’d give to educators who are designing courses on similar topics. Both students feel that it’s important to create a classroom environment that promotes discussions about identities—“It’s not just about the curriculum; it’s about the space you create,” as Dalila Stanfield explains in the second of her two videos. Esparza, who draws on the work of Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo (1987) in his assessment of the course, agrees: “Being able to have a space of discussion, a space in which people can tell their own stories … That’s one of the essential parts to making this a true learning experience that helps you read read the world and not just the word.” (You can get a feel for how these discussions went by viewing the course’s selection of class videos.)

Learning Outcomes beyond the Class

Professor DeGraff hopes students who participate in 24.908 Creole Languages and Caribbean Identities will take what they’ve learned and apply it “to themselves, to their communities, to their countries.” He shares as an example one student who went on to volunteer in a bilingual education program in Boston, providing children with immersion from kindergarten in both Creole and English. “To me, that’s a dream,” he says, “because it’s one case where what you learn in the course can be directly applied in the real world context, which can make actual positive change in the lives of these children.”

A trilingual sign reading 'Au Revoir,' 'Orevwa' and 'Goodbye.'.

A sign in French, Haitian Creole, and English at the airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Image courtesy of Jason Rosenberg on flickr. License: CC BY.)

Reference: Buy at Amazon Freire, Paulo, and Donaldo Macedo. “Literacy and the Pedagogy of Political Empowerment” and “Rethinking Literacy A Dialogue.” In Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. Praeger, 1987. ISBN: 9780897891264. [Preview with Google Books]