Students become teachers through Perspectives and Explorations programs
Published: Friday, April 6, 2012
Updated: Friday, April 6, 2012 07:04
Initial course selection for freshmen is undoubtedly overwhelming, with hundreds of classes in over forty departments to pick from and a freshman advising class to choose. Among those advising classes, the student-taught Explorations and Perspectives programs, run by the Experimental College (ExCollege), are among the most popular choices for incoming students.
According to Robyn Gittleman, director of the ExCollege and head of the Explorations program, peer teaching has been a focus of the ExCollege since it’s beginning. This has manifested itself through Explorations, which is made up of seminars prepared and taught by upperclassmen.
“Peer teaching started in the second or third year and then the Explorations program basically piggybacked on that,” Gittleman said.
The award-winning Explorations program, which celebrates its 40th anniversary next semester, began in the fall of 1972. The program became so popular that capacity was limited for interested students. It was out of this high demand, Gittleman said, that the Perspectives program was born in 1988, with the intent of creating a more focused program.
“We started out with something on the environment and then civil rights. We kept changing the topic [each year],” Gittleman said.
Finally, on the suggestion of Associate Director of the Experimental College Howard Woolf, the new Perspectives program gained a focus on film studies. But the programs remain similar in many ways, such as the active role the co-teachers take with their freshman students.
“We’re thinking of them as role models and guides for the first year students. And if there’s a problem we talked about it and we made sure everyone was okay,” Gittleman said.
According to senior Michelle Wilson, who taught an Explorations course last fall with senior Kismet Lantos-Swett, the learning experience is not only for the students taking the class. She described the difficulty associated with instructing students.
“You get a lot of insight into how a teacher feels,” Wilson said. “It’s time consuming. You get an appreciation for how much time professors spend. We spent at least ten hours a week doing class preparation.”
Senior Travis Grodkiewicz taught a Perspectives course on independent film last fall and said that organizational skills were critical to teaching the class.
“If you get behind on your work for the class, it’s sort of a downward spiral,” he said.
He added that the ExCollege staff works closely with the peer teachers to help them prepare for teaching a course. The student teachers — many of whom participated in Explorations or Perspectives classes themselves — return to campus a week before Orientation for instructional training.
“We met with Howard Woolf and Cindy Stewart from the ExCollege and went over ways to get the kids involved and encouraging a comfortable atmosphere for discussion in the class,” Grodkiewicz said.
According to Gittleman, student teachers often come with their own intuition as to what works in a classroom.
“If they see someone who hasn’t done the reading, they can catch them faster than anyone else,” she said.
She added that the student instructors understand from their own experiences the stresses of preparing for midterms in graded courses. All student-taught classes are a pass/fail credit for the peer teachers.
“Because they’re in classes themselves, they know the rhythm of the semester,” she said.
The cooperative nature of Explorations and Perspectives, unlike the other forms of peer teaching offered by the ExCollege, helps students better adjust to teaching a course, Gittleman said. Both Wilson and Grodkiewicz agreed.
“[My partner] and I tried to do a lot of the class preparation together and very rarely worked independently,” Wilson said. “It seemed best for the team teaching aspect of it.”
Still, Wilson felt that designing and leading the courses requires a large amount of effort.
“There’s a good reason that the ExCollege doesn’t let you take more than three other classes on top of this one,” she said.
A lighter course load is just one of many requirements for Explorations and Perspectives leaders. They also must be sure that the courses they do take are not course overly challenging and must demonstrate a higher GPA as an indication of the ability to manage academic demands.
Gittleman said that she stresses to her students that they must prioritize the class they teach.
“You can’t skip out on teaching or drop an Explorations course,” she said.
According to Gittleman, the Experimental College makes an effort to accept as many applicants to teach as possible. She looks for dedicated students with good ideas for courses. As part of the application, peer teachers must include a syllabus, which she helps students to develop.
The course outline for Explorations courses tends to be more open-ended. Perspectives courses are more structured, according to Grodkiewicz. Each course first looks at the film industry and film techniques before diving into its specific focus. But Grodkiewicz said some flexibility is maintained.
“We blended our subject throughout the course,” he said.
By the time peer teachers return for Orientation, the syllabi for all courses should be finalized. From there, Gittleman meets with students almost once a week to guide them through the process of teaching.
Despite the programs’ popularity, Gittleman has noticed a decline in the number of students interested in teaching. She sees the program’s hefty requirements, which can be difficult to balance with a senior year schedule, as a possible reason.
“Tufts students seem to be overwhelmed with double majoring and triple majoring as well as [extracurricular] activities,” she said.