Last year I got PADI certified as an open-water scuba diver. Despite a lifelong love of the ocean and a stint as a lifeguard, I was surprised by how challenging I found the course. First of all, I was far more scared of being underwater than I had ever imagined. The first time I went down I had a mini panic attack and had to come right back up (we were shoulder deep in a pool, so this was both easy and slightly embarrassing.) Second, as the course advanced, I found the math challenging, basic math used to determine the pressure and time limits for safe diving. There is nothing to it, really, but I have never been “fast” or “good” at math, and I felt very slow and very bad at it in practice and on the written exam. I flushed with anxiety as I sat next to my two friends and the pressure conversion questions literally started swimming around on the page.
In short, it was a great experience. First of all, because I got to swim with spotted stingray, schools of silver barracuda, baby sharks, and one very friendly batfish. But it was also a great experience because it was so humbling. It was humbling because I was genuinely afraid each time we went down to the bottom of the ocean until my very last dive, when something finally clicked and I relaxed (on the fourth time, mind you). And it was humbling because I felt very insecure and, for lack of a better word, “stupid.” I felt like a bumbling landlubber next to these salty dive masters and boatmen. I felt idiotic when I could never remember the sequence of events to check our equipment before throwing ourselves backwards into the sea, or that I never seemed to remember how to unhook all my equipment post-dive and always needed help. I’m really uncomfortable when I am not an expert, and I felt very much like a fish out of water when I was diving because I was so new, so flustered, so anxious trying to calm my nerves and remember all the information I was supposed to have retained but hadn’t.
Basically, I felt like most of my students feel.
It was a good reminder, because even at the wise old age of 34, it’s so easy to feel fifteen and dumb again. All you have to do is be a student of something you are not good at. I recommend it highly.
In this spirit, I’ve just begun my first MOOC — massive open online course — with Coursera. It’s an education course taught by faculty at the university of Edinburgh called “E-learning and Digital Cultures.” While I feel a little more expert in this arena than in the subaquatic one, it’s great to be a student learning something new again. This class is a free, open course with no required homework, so you do as much or as want with it as you’d like. I spent a couple hours this weekend in the class readings and video page and came away with pages and pages of useful resources for my current 1984/Dystopian Society unit. That alone was worth taking the course.
Check out Coursera’s offerings here — https://www.coursera.org/ — I got lost in dreamland scrolling through them, fantasizing about taking courses in algebra, Greek history, and poetry with professors from great schools around the world.
It doesn’t have to be a MOOC, but make an effort between now and the end of the school year to take a personal challenge: agree to be a student for one course or activity, especially in one that takes you a little bit out of your comfort zone and asks you to stretch your mind (or body, or both) in learning. It’s good to be the student sometimes; you’ll have more empathy for your own students and better understand the concepts of learning, understanding, and misunderstanding as a result. You also might get to see some giant manta rays.