Friday, October 05, 2007

The show must go on

So it is: the learning experiences one remembers best from years past are those in which one played the most active role as a student.

The Latin American Civilization and Culture course I took during my last quarter as an undergraduate, some...holy years ago, was taught by one of the finest teachers I've ever had, Dr. Miriam Bornstein-Gomez. (Truly the entire faculty of the University of Denver's Spanish Department is fantastic, and I was made happy this evening to find, upon looking up the department's website, that all but one of the professors I had during my years there are still teaching.) She herself was strong and strict (I feared her for the first few weeks of class, honestly) but supportive and approachable, and her class was exciting and fun. She challenged her students to seek out every ounce of their talent, every day. An advocate of active learning, Profesora Bornstein felt there was no better way for us to learn about the atrocities committed during Pizarro's conquest of the Inca empire than to let her class put Pizarro on trial for the crimes he'd committed.

As the sole male member of the class of a dozen or so (and one of the most proficient speakers), I suppose I was the natural choice to play Pizarro, and so I was cast. I was assigned a defense attorney, played admirably by a young woman named Shailini, whose name I still remember because, truth be told, I had a bit of a crush on her and had vainly asked her out earlier that semester. Opposing us in the classroom court would be a pair of prosecuting attorneys who would have the right to call on any one of a handful of witnesses, played by other students in the class. The remaining students fulfilled the role of the jury, while Profesora Bornstein presided as judge.

I remember some impressions of the proceedings, but few details. I seem to recall that I adopted a cocksure attitude and tried to shift the blame onto the conquered Incas. In my good but not completely fluent Spanish, my attitude probably came off more comic than cocky, and I recall Profesora Bornstein laughing several times during the trial.

Strangely enough, though I can recall with punctilious detail the layout and orientation of the classroom (it was a small room, tucked into a tight corner on the third floor of the General Classroom Building, one wall of windows looking out over the quad to the building's east), I can't remember what verdict was rendered.

Nevertheless, the fact that I remember anything at all from that course, in a field that was not my major, more than a decade ago, is a testament to good teaching.

Today I distributed the first handout dealing with the next team project in Calculus, Newton v. Leibniz. Over the next five weeks, each team in each class will be asked to (1) "audition" for one of the roles in the trial (Newton and counsel? Leibniz and counsel? colleagues of either? historical or mathematical experts? jurors?), (2) write a brief or letter of support or document describing initial findings, as appropriate, before the trial, (3) fulfill an active role in the trial's proceedings, up to and including rendering a verdict, and (4) write a brief paper reflecting on the experience of the trial once everything else is done.

A few of the teams in the first section seemed to show some interest in the project already, exchanging knowing glances and nodding when I spoke of the "casting call" that'll start the project off. The second section's response was a bit more subdued, but I'm chalking this up, at least in part, to the fact that their teams have been shuffled around, whereas the first section's teams have remained the same. (The team evaluations for the first section were overwhelmingly positive ones, with a number of people saying explicitly that they'd like to stay in the same teams; there were no negative comments. Meanwhile there were a few teams in the second section that didn't function quite so smoothly for various reasons, so I felt a rearrangement was definitely in order there.)

I encouraged them to throw themselves into this project, to be creative, to have fun with it. As is true every semester, I've got a good number of talented students in both sections, and I'm looking forward to seeing what they can pull out of their hats.

Today I also distributed the handout describing the 280 folks' next written assignment, Professional Proof Analysis, in which the students are asked to apply our "Four Cs" rubric to three proofs of the same (hopefully somewhat familiar) mathematical result, the second part of the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, written by three different sets of university textbook authors (Stewart, Schwartz, and Hass-Weir-Thomas). I'm interested to get their take on these proofs, if some will stand out from others in one category or another, if they really all seem the same. Whatever they come up with, I'm sure the results will be interesting. This is definitely one of the assignments I'll collect for the Writing Assessment Pilot.

Yeah, I'm excited.

I only hope the students are half as excited about these projects as I am.

No comments: