Sunday, December 18, 2016

What I Learned From Lecturing

Last time I posted on here, I talked a lot about lecturing: how ineffective it was if done wrong, how boring it could be, how it was, “a red, hairy demon that ought to be banished from our school’s curriculum. It saps student engagement! Destroys curiosity! It’s just a vehicle for teachers to show the rest of the world how much smarter they are.”
             Well, I led a lecture in class a month ago, and it turns out I was right about one thing: you do have to be smart to stand in front of a class for an hour and not make a fool of yourself. It’s not as easy as it looks. Like, at all. Granted, I was mostly kidding when I wrote the above lines, but I definitely didn’t understand how difficult talking for an hour actually was.
Now, my eyes have been opened. I have a whole new perspective on the world. I’ve seen the light, man! I will now rescind everything bad I’ve ever said about my teachers. Every last thought, phrase, and whispered curse late at night. Or at least most of them.
The first - and most important thing - I didn’t understand about lecturing was how long an hour actually is. When you’re sitting at your desk (either taking notes, doodling, or imagining your next story) the time seems like it goes by fairly regularly. Depending on the class, it might feel like forever. You might be hungry or have to go to the bathroom, and the minutes will feel like they’re covered in molasses. Or, if you’re in a good class, you’ll sit at your desk, ten or so seconds will pass and then you’ll be standing up again to leave at the end of the“hour.”
But when you’re standing up there in front of everyone with twenty pairs of eyes watching you, waiting for you to make a mistake, wondering exactly what you’re going to talk about...time does some pretty strange things.
For me, the first five minutes of my lecture went pretty quickly. I knew how I was going to open the lesson, (which was a Neuroscience take on the body’s motor control) knew where I was going to go after that, and knew the first two questions I was going to ask. From there, I figured I could tie in everything else I had planned. I was a smart kid, right? Had given presentations before, was familiar with the material I was going to cover. I could figure it out, right?
To be fair, it didn’t go as badly as you might be expecting. I only stumbled over myself a couple times - mostly between the five and fifteen minute mark. - Those were the longest minutes. I started talking about the different building blocks of the muscle system (myosin, actin, muscle fibers, the like), but I didn’t have much of a frame for the information. Looking back, it would have been easy to build the information into the structure I had established at the beginning (which had been a short story about Little Eric, the creature from the primordial ooze - our professor’s name is Eric -) but, for some reason, it hadn’t occurred to me during my prep time. In the end, the information got through, but it could have gotten through better.
After that, the next half hour went fairly quickly. I worked my way through the different muscle units and then talked the class through the different units of the nervous system that controlled them. From there, we took a trip up the spinal cord and discussed how the sensory information travels to the brain for processing. There were a couple hiccups around the thirty minute mark (getting to the spinal cord was a little rough), and those two or three minutes felt closer to ten, but the last half hour went well except for one mistake.
I was inaccurate about one concept in the last fifteen minutes (I mixed up the specific names of the different descending spinal tracts) but I managed to catch myself and fix it before the end of class. In the end, I hope it didn’t end up mattering too much. A couple kids in the class gave me grief about it, and my professor mentioned it in his review, but that’s life, right? Sometimes you confuse the techtospinal tract, lateral reticulospinal tract, medial corticospinal tract, medial reticulospinal tract, and vestibulospinal tract by thinking they’re all part of the ventromedial group of descending motor tracks. It happens. You just gotta remember that the techtospinal tract, lateral reticulospinal tract, medial reticulospinal tract, and vestibulospinal tract are actually the parts of the ventromedial group. The medial corticospinal tract doesn’t actually exist. You’re thinking of the lateral corticospinal tract, which is actually a part of the lateral group of descending motor tracts. It’s simple, right?
            During my lecture, the professor who usually talks in front of the class, Eric, took notes on my performance. When I finished, we debriefed about the things I had done right and wrong. Like any good workshop, he started with the things he had liked: he opened by saying that I was a ‘natural’ in front of the class. I didn’t talk straight from my PowerPoint, I had a good stage presence, and I generally kept the kids on their toes by asking questions and making them think. Hearing that made me feel good. My whole goal had been, “don’t let them be bored,” and it was nice to hear I had mostly succeeded.
            However, there were a number of things I could have improved on. The first was that I hadn’t gone in-depth enough with the stories and examples I gave. One of the biggest benefits students get from lecture is the story behind all the information they’re reading about. Any teacher can go through the material and teach the definitions given in the book. It takes a good teacher to tie the concepts in the book together to create a memorable narrative. This gives students a hook to hang lesson material on, and these stories are usually the things students remember after the class.
            In my particular case, I could have gone more in-depth with the story of Little Eric and done a better job tying it into the material at the beginning of the lecture. I also could have done a little more with the baseball and CCR analogies that I brought up. (What do baseball and CCR have to do with Neuroscience? Well, someone pitching a baseball is a good example of the functionality of the ventrolateral spinal tract. That spinal tract carries the signals for full-body movements. Pitching, like walking, is a full body movement. In contrast, the lateral spinal tract carries information relating to fine motor control movement, like playing musical instruments. CCR is the name of a famous band, and it’s also a handy acronym for the three parts of the lateral spinal tract: the lateral Corticospinal tract, the Corticobulbar tract, and the Rubrospinal tract.)  
            There were also a couple times during my presentation where I could have better defined the terms I was using and been more concise in my language. This is especially important in science classes where students are being asked to learn and remember large numbers of different concepts. There have to be clear distinctions and differences drawn between similar ideas. Without these clear lines, important ideas can become muddled together. From a teacher’s perspective, this means it’s vital to be 100% confident in the material you’re teaching. I wasn’t. I was only about 93% confident in my knowledge of concepts, and this showed on a couple of occasions: there were questions I didn’t word clearly enough, there were a couple phrases that didn’t quite make sense, and there were a couple of pauses when I tried to figure out where the hell I was going to go next. But, like anything, this gets better with practice. The more you do something, the better you are at it…usually.
            There were also a couple practical issues during my lecture: I spelled some words wrong on the board, and I stood in front of my PowerPoint too much. The first one made me look like an idiot. The second made it difficult for the kids to figure out what I was trying to point to. To fix the first, Eric said I could write some of these words in my notebook. I’ll feel a little silly writing words like ‘exercise’ at the top of my notes in the future, but at least I won’t look foolish. To fix the second, I just need to watch where I’m standing while I’m on-stage, which is fairly easy once you’re paying attention to it.
            All in all, I really enjoyed my time preparing and giving my lecture. It was a new experience, and I learned a lot about how to make lectures and presentations interesting to my audience. I also spent an entire hour on-stage, which is more than I ever have before. And, you know? It’s difficult to fill an hour of time! And some professors make it look so easy that it’s boring to watch, which takes real talent, skill, and preparation.
            In seriousness, though, being a teacher is difficult. You always have to be on your toes, you have to know your material better than the back of your hand, and you have to be engaging while you do it. That’s not easy, and the people who do it have a more difficult job than we give them credit for. 

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