I love to teach.
It’s a passion that stretches across three decades and the past millennium back to high school, when I thought it would be fun to be a teacher someday and spoke to teachers about what and why they did.
In 1985 I worked with three- to five-year-olds four days a week at the Bellehaven Child Development Center in East Menlo Park.
I only was there for a quarter, but it was long enough for me to feel that I was where I belonged.
The following year, after my parents were in a near-fatal car accident, I returned home to be with my family.
Pierce School Principal Al Fortune invited me into his office, expressed his concern in a surprisingly quiet tone and offered me a job as a recess aide.
Touched by his gesture, I accepted on the spot.
I only learned later that the reason the job was open was because the previous recess aide had fled her post after having been pushed into the snow and pelted with snowballs by members of the eighth grade class who were labeled by adults throughout the building as “the worst class in 30 years.”
The eighth graders were as advertised, eyes glittering with malice and the knowledge that they had toppled the last authority figure.
Nevertheless, I loved working with them and the rest of the grades.
After graduating from Stanford, I returned to Pierce for my most formative teaching apprenticeship: a two-year stint in Paul Tamburello’s fourth grade classroom-the same class where I had been a student a dozen years earlier.
To this day I still draw on the lessons I learned in Paul’s laboratory of teaching excellence.
He taught me how to help students chart their progress, how to cultivate a healthy sense of dramatic occasion and humor even as you’re pushing the students beyond the limits of what they think is possible.
He showed me how and when to be firm, and how you can at times win by losing.
The more power you give out, the more power you get back, he would say.
Paul continually displayed an organic sense of learning, creating whole units from a student’s comment that reinforced essential skills while showing his charges that they could follow their curiosity wherever it lead.
Above all, Paul demonstrated over and over again the importance of witness, tenacity and perspective.
I’ve applied those lessons in the quarter century since I finished what he called my “post-graduate degree in fourth grade.”
Most recently, that has taken place in my Data Journalism classroom here at the University of Diego Portales in Santiago.
It took a while to sort out exactly who on the roster actually will attend the class on a regular basis, and we’ve gotten there.
It also has taken me a couple of months to fully understand the implication of the Chilean university system for students’ attendance and delivery of the assignments I’ve given them.
As opposed to the United States, where students take anywhere from three to five classes, here students take as many as eight or nine classes.
This has all kinds of academic consequences for them, not the least of which is that they calculate exactly how many classes they need to make to reach the 60 percent departmental requirement to pass the course.
I’ve adjusted to this environment by assigning three cumulative projects throughout the semester, by working to make the class as stimulating as possible, to alternate between exhorting the students to attend and noting their absence, and, at base, to accept whoever comes that day as the lineup we have to work with for that session.
As Paul did throughout his teaching career, I’ve worked to link what we do in the class to the larger world. I do this so that students understand why they are learning what we are doing and so that they have tangible examples of where they can go.
Like Paul, I bring in guest speakers to expose students to the community of people throughout the world who share our love of data.
Today, the invitado, or guest, was Joe Germuska, a former history major from Northwestern who played a key role in the development of the Chicago Tribune’s NewsApps team, and who has been, since December, working at Northwestern University’s Knight Lab. This interdisciplinary space seeks to help advance news media innovation through exploration and experimentation.
He also helped me get here by introducing me at the June 2012 IRE conference to Miguel Paz, the founder of Poderopedia, a site that traces relationships between Chilean elites.
Miguel connected me to Carlos Aldunate, who wrote me the letter of invitation that was a requirement for becoming a Fulbright scholar.
Joe told the students about his background, talked them through a number of projects he had helped develop like the Chicago Tribune’s crime site and CensusReporter.org, a tool he worked on that tries to make Census data more accessible to reporters.
He talked about the importance of placing data into context and of making information as accessible as possible.
He stressed the integrated approach to planning and development, saying they are related, not separate, stages.
At base, Joe emphasized the need to be skeptical, critical consumers of information and technology, and the role that programming skills can play in assisting.
The students applauded Joe’s comments with genuine enthusiasm.
From there we went over yesterday’s visit to La Nacion, the newspaper in Argentina I visited yesterday. I passed out stickers that Gaby Bouret and other members of the data team had given me.
We went over their midterm projects.
I told them in general what they had done well in comparison with the first one they had completed about a month earlier. I also went over the elements I liked from each student’s project.
With some it was their graphic.
With others it was the map they had created.
Still others wrote a fine summary, opening paragraph or conclusion.
Projects’ structure, writing skill and the fact of passing the work in at all each generated praise.
The students clearly understood better how to do data-oriented journalism, even if the depth of their work was not what it could be.
I told them other areas where they needed to improve and shared what I would do to raise the quality of my work with them.
One thing I had not done as well as I could have was to give the students sufficient time to work on the practical tools I had shown them.
So, after explaining how I was going to give them more time, I did just that.
The students spent the end of class starting with the assignment.
These are all strategies I absorbed during my apprenticeship.
It’s always a positive sign when students voluntarily stay beyond the scheduled time the class ends.
That happened today with close to a dozen of them.
As they walked by me on the way out, they did a combination of shaking hands, exchanging high fives, or, in the Chilean custom, kissing me on the cheek.
Their eyes danced with pleasure.
So did mine, both because of the progress they are making and because of the space we have created amongst us.
In this space failure is a virtue and all are accepted.
In this space we learn from each other and the best idea wins.
In this space we work to support each other.
I am deeply grateful to all those, including Joe, who have helped me be here and have this opportunity.
I’m profoundly appreciative of my students for how they’ve engaged this new and often challenging class.
And I feel doubly blessed to have learned how to teach in Paul’s class more than a quarter cenutry ago and to still be challenging what he shared with me all these many years later.