Michele Pratusevich


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July 25, 2013

MEET summer 2013 on mostly academics

In Fall 2013 I applied to be a summer instructor for MEET, an NGO who’s mission is to empower Israeli and Palestinian youth to create social, political, and economic change within the Middle East, both by giving them a network for interaction but also business and technical skills. By some strange happenstance, I was accepted to be an instructor (to teach Y2s web development, something I knew nothing about), and I agreed. Through a whirlwind of preparation, culture shock, and educational mayhem, I think I helped bring MEET one small step closer to it’s mission.

Between July 8, 2013 and July 21, 2013, I (as a member of a 5-person team), taught web programming (MVC patterns, Django, HTML, CSS, Javascript) to 60 Israeli and Palestinian high school students at the Hebrew University campus in Jerusalem for around 8 hours a day, 6 days a week.

the task and the team

Our team of 5 instructors - me, Aline, Kyle, Lorenzo, and Nikhil, could not have been more diverse in our experience with computer science and teaching, but we were tasked with teaching the group of Y2 students (a group of 40) how to make a dynamic website. We were not given a syllabus or any context, but were told that by the end of the summer the students had to know HTML, CSS, Javascript, Django, and how to put all of those together to make a dynamic website.

Lorenzo was the veteran: he had been at MEET two previous summers, and was given the role of team lead. In his former life he graduated from MIT with a degree in math and was now working for a financial company in Mexico City.

Aline was the other vet: she had been at MEET once before, had graduated MIT with a degree in neuroscience (but had started out as a CS person), worked as a professional chef, and now worked as a technical recruiter in San Francisco.

Nikhil was the second half of our international cohort: he graduated from MIT with a degree in EECS and was now pursuing a master’s in India while simultaneously working for GE.

Kyle was my year at MIT, also EECS, and star of the track team, set up to work in Chicago for a financial company after the summer.

Our task was incredible: we had no material from previous years, so we had to come up with a curriculum, come up with projects, develop the lessons, and deliver them to the students. All in the span of 13 academic days. BAM.

the summer preparations

The spring preparation I was told was going go take about 10 hours in the spring, on top of a few in-person training sessions.

The in-person training sessions were incredibly interesting: the history of the Middle East / the conflict, a geography lesson about the Middle East, a seminar on teaching, a talk about other initiatives doing peace work similar to MEET, a session where a Gazan Palestinian and an Israeli Jew were brought in to talk to us about their own personal narratives, and a session about MEET in general. It was an opportunity to meet other instructors not on my team and get a bit of insight into the organization and the problem it was trying to solve.

Because the 5 of us were in different timezones all over the world, we did not plan much other than the basics of who was responsible for what topics. Most of us (myself included) had never even learned Django ourselves, and we were expected to teach it to the students.

We had discussions about whether we needed to do an intro lesson on topics like “what is a server” and “what is a database” - the basics many CS students take now for granted. How would we have student work? How would project work be saved? How would the projects look like? What experience did the students already have? How well did they ACTUALLY know python?

These were all questions I in retrospect should have asked more often and more forcefully. I now understand that I came to the summer not wholly prepared for what we were going to teach and not understanding the context of the students we were teaching. I was told that “the students were really smart” and “the students work really hard”, which I took to mean that they had mastered basic python and knew some stuff from CS outside of what they were taught. Oh boy is that a wrong assumption to make in teaching.

I also realized that while I knew the students were learning both CS and business, I didn’t know what they were learning in the business curriculum. I didn’t know for how long. I really didn’t know much…

On the plane flight from JFK to Tel Aviv (which by the way, took me nearly 18 hours including layover time), I spend the majority of it working through the Django tutorials and playing with my own Django app. I figured, if I can work through the Django tutorials in a sleep-deprived plane flight, how hard could it be to teach this to some high schoolers who knew python?

I landed in Tel Aviv and was academically prepared to teach the material. The lessons were not super prepped, but I figured, how hard could that be?

the students and the instructors

One thing to understand is the deliberate naming that is “instructor”. MEET does not hire “teachers”, they hire “instructors” and “mentors”. These people are meant to be role models for the students, to be guidance and advice, rather than teachers. MEET is not school, and we don’t want to treat the students as such.

The role of the instructor is not only to provide high-quality education but also to provide a role model for following MEET’s 6 values:

  1. Lead by example
  2. Think big
  3. Act with integrity
  4. Treat everyone with respect and equality
  5. Embrace teamwork
  6. Strive for excellence

So we are not teachers - we are positive role models. This is a subtle point of social engineering that has stuck and made a lasting positive impact. By calling the MIT cohort “instructors”, we are emphasizing the discinction between formal educator and informal role model. As one of the MIT instructors, I felt like I was closer to the latter than the former, all because of that one word choice.

the summer

In the week before the student classes began, the instructors and the staff all bonded with a barbecue at Mustafa’s house (MEET Student Relations Manager, living in Beit Zafafa), a trip to the Negev, dinners, lunches, office MEETings, and class prep time. We worked frantically to prepare our lectures and yet have time to explore Jerusalem, this historic, amazing city we all wanted to be in.

We started teaching, and quickly realized the level of the students: the short of it is that they were not as strong as we were told. In fact, most of our assumptions were just not correct. The thing I am proud of was that we started off the summer with a lecture on clients and servers, what that means, and where a website fits into that.

But when we started to teach Django and Javascript - arguably harder concepts than HTML and CSS - we ran into problems. We discovered that students didn’t have a good idea about what classes where, what URLs were, or really what we were trying to do in the first place. Aline, Kyle, and I worked and re-worked the lessons to finally find a better fit for the students as we were approaching crunch time for the projects. We were lucky to have two groups of students to teach. The unfortunate part was that one group of students got the shorter end of the stick while the “second” group got the benefit of our re-works.

I now understand that this work and rework process is natural for an instructor - to work, rework, test, retest, present, re-present, and guide the students in any and all ways possible. The unfortunate side effect of that was that we were regularly pulling 11+ hour days (between in-class time, socializing with the students at dinner, re-designing the lessons, testing the labs, testing the software on the university and then MEET computers, and running occasional tutoring sessions) and then socializing with staff and instructors and exploring the city / surroundings of Jerusalem in our “free” time. It was a love-hate relationship as you can understand.

the projects

The way we designed the curriculum for the summer was with the goal in mind that the students had to have, in groups, something presented at the end of the summer that demonstrated all that they had learned over the summer. So we alloted 7 full days of project work (that was about 20 hours for each group), to create a website that we (the instructors) had designed for them.

We each had to build the project prototype to prove to both ourselves and the rest of the Middle East staff that we were in fact capable of building such a website, and to prove that it was possible.

We had 5 projects overall, and each student team took a project and ran with it. Some groups went far, some groups not that far, but all ended up with projects that they presented at the end of the summer program to the rest of MEET. Oh, did I mention the code for the projects is on Github. The projects are not actually live anywhere (we did not buy server space or have time to teach how to deploy an actual website), but the students nonetheless had enough time to barely build a functioning local copy of a few projects with Django.

the end

Even though the summer experience was not easy, I can say that the prep work over the spring semester and the countless hours, reworks, and redesigns of the lessons during the summer were worth it: the students were proud of their projects by the end of the summer, the instructors as a group were closer, and all came out of the summer feeling a bit closer to achieving the MEET mission.

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2013 July 25 -- MEET summer 2013 on mostly academics

2013 July 22 -- MEET project descriptions from Summer 2013

2013 July 10 -- MEET the program