Mentoring: Experiential Teaching in Action

Some of the members of the Mentor and Leadership Development Program at MCNY, 2013

Some of the members of the Mentor and Leadership Development Program at MCNY, 2013

While waiting for classes to begin at Teachers College, I’m serving as a graduate member of the Mentor and Leadership Development Program (MLDP). at my previous home, MCNY.  One of the great things about doing so is that, while we are always helping students learn new things, we also get to learn new things…even things we’ve been doing all along.

One such lesson came near the end of the last semester.  A student came to us asking about experiential learning—the process of “learning by doing”.  While we were giving examples of this process, one of the mentors asked, “Is there such a thing as experiential teaching?”

That question had us scratching our heads.  Can a person teach “experience”?  Would they simply be using their experiences as anecdotal references in order to inspire their students to follow their example?  Or can a person use their experience ‘in the moment’—that is, can someone reproduce the same conditions in which they learned a skill, and help guide a student through that same experience?

In her blog article, Jen Stanchfield notes that experience is an idea that not only can be used as a learning experience, but a teaching one as well.  While the idea of experiential education is not new (see John Dewey and David Kolb), its use as a teaching methodology has been gaining in popularity, especially at the college level.  Stanchfield tells us that people learn best when they are part of the learning process (what Dewey called active learners) rather than simply being fed information and tested on whether it stuck (passive learners).  She takes Dewey’s idea and puts it into the 21st century, citing studies by Sousa (2005) and Willis (2010) that show learning and retention are improved when the learner is fully engaged (physically, emotionally, and socially) in the learning process.

As mentors, we aim to make the student (the “mentee”) an active participant in the mentoring process.  It would be easy to just give the mentee the answer to a question and see if he or she remembers it later, but that would just be parroting.  Because of the wide range of subjects and the diversity of our student base, we try to use the method that works best with each student, as no one method works for everyone.  That said, however, the one that works most often is the use of prior experience.

Since all mentors are either current or former students of MCNY, our experiences with assignments or projects are still pretty fresh; thus, we can recall what steps were taken to reach the desired goal.

When a mentee comes to us seeking assistance, we draw upon that experience and use it as a guideline to help them solve the problem.  It is very important to note that we do not do the work for the mentee; we show them how the work is done, asking if they understand the steps needed to finish the process.  In this way, the mentees can work at their own pace, rather than that of the class.  They are part of the process every step of the way, from their first contact with the mentor to the completion of the task at hand and beyond.  They have invested their presence, time, effort and (in most cases) pride to make sure they succeed; it is not mandatory, so for them the reward is well worth the risk.

For the mentor, the reward comes in learning how best to usewhat we have learned in order tohelp others succeed as we have—not by lecturing them,but by guiding themthrough each step of the process.  In doing so, we gain such gifts as patience, attention to detail, improved communication skills, and above all, teaching.

Can you spot the error in this shirt?

So yes, there is such a thing as experiential teaching.  It can be seen in many areas, from the play areas of kindergartens to college internships to workplace apprenticeships.  Whether we realize it or not, it also appears daily at the MLDP.

“Roar, Lion, Roar!”

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One afternoon I found myself staring at the open jaws of a lion.  For most, that would be an imposing sight.  For me, however, it was sort of a welcome.  This was the Scholar’s Lion, a statue near one of the many buildings on the campus of Columbia University.  Like the other students who attend Teachers College, one of the many arms of this sprawling campus, I had become a part of this lion’s pride.

I stared at the lion in wonder—not so much because of its massive size or its ferocious stance, but because of the sheer fact that I was standing there at all.  How was this possible?  How did I go from a life of loss and uncertainty to preparing for my Master’s degree in Education in one of the most prestigious schools in the country?  How did I go from crabgrass to ivy in only three years?

Believe it or not, the power responsible for such a dramatic change came from four little words: “You CAN do it!”

The first time I had come across those words, they were part of a large sign draped on the side of a building that was being constructed in my neighborhood.  The sign was for something called Metropolitan College of New York.  I had never heard of it, so I assumed the block-long, 17-story edifice would house this new college.  At that time, my life was in complete disarray. My girlfriend of 20 years had died a few months prior, and I was at a loss as to what to do with my life.  I had thrown myself completely into caring for her, as she had various illnesses.  I left The College of Human Services back in 1989 to care for her, but her death in 2009 left me with a life of emptiness.  After six months of grieving, I still had been unsure about what to do, and that’s when I saw that sign.  Curiosity got the best of me, and so I looked up the college on the Internet.  Imagine my surprise when I found out that it was the same college I had left over 20 years ago, in a new location and with a new name!  The words, “You CAN do it!” stood out to me.  Could I pick up where I left off?  Could I adjust to 20 years of changing technology and teaching methodology?  Could I keep up with all the younger students who would be there?  So many questions, but at least I had a direction…and if not an answer, then at least some encouragement.

That July, I came to MCNY for my registration.  I was met by a cheery woman who was half my age and full of positivity.  When she had trouble finding my records on the computer, I reminded her that I had not been to school in over 20 years—a fact she reinforced by pulling my files from an old ring binder.  I told her that I felt like Rip Van Winkle, waking up after a 20-year sleep.  She simply smiled and said, “Don’t worry, you can do it!”  As we completed the registration process, she shook my hand.  “Welcome back to the world, Mr. Johnson.”

The first week of the Fall semester was almost a blur for me.  Some things were familiar (computers, math), while others were confusing (values and ethics in particular).  For the most part, I was the oldest student in my classes, but it didn’t seem to matter much.  As it was in 1989, students came in all age ranges and backgrounds, though women seemed to outnumber men in this timeline.  There was a major constant—the Constructive Action.  When I attended in the past, we had an “Intro to the CA” class, which I failed (along with three of my first six classes), so I never really got to actually work on one.  Just reading about it in the Purpose Handbook made it seem like an intimidating task.

“You CAN do it!”

The little lady in the Harry Potter glasses sat on her desk and repeated the school’s mantra to her Constructive Action class in a heavy Puerto Rican accent.  She told us about the document, showing us that it was really a series of documents that, when put together, constitute a completed piece of work.  She walked us through the process, one step at a time, and in doing so allowed us to express ourselves in a manner in which I had not been accustomed.  We did not just answer questions that were given to us; we explored ourselves.  Our turning points, our weaknesses, our decisions, our goals, our hopes and dreams…our lives, inner and outer, were put on paper and discussed in class.  Some students felt these issues were too personal to share with others, others felt too shy to share, though they really wanted to.  I fell into the latter group; even when asked questions, I would give short answers or say nothing at all.

If there was one thing I learned from that CA class, it was that the instructor, Anisia (she disliked being called “Dr. Quiñones”) knew how to get even the toughest nut to crack.  Before I knew it, I had told her about my background, my mother’s bouts with alcohol and drugs, my struggles caring for my late girlfriend…even the fact that I was an atheist.  All was laid bare in her class for all to see, to share, to discuss, and to learn. 

I believe that experience helped me to learn about myself and my capabilities, and allowed me to take on the challenges of an accelerated college with drive instead of fear.  I earned an “A” in her class…as well as the other six, landing me on the Dean’s List.  As the Purposes moved on, I continued to excel, achieving Dean’s List in Purposes 2, 4, 6, and 7.  I had done well in outside internships, but really felt at home working as a Mentor in the college.  Anisia’s keen intuition had picked up my love for teaching before I myself had even realized it.

As I was trying to decide where to do the Master’s degree, Anisia had suggested Teachers College at Columbia University.  The fact that it was her alma mater had something to do with it—she knew I would get the best learning experience if I wanted to pursue teaching as a profession.  I scoffed at the idea; how could I even think to go to an Ivy League college, much less pay the tuition or even get accepted?  To her, the Ivy League was not out of my league—she knew I could do it, but I was not so sure.  Even so, I put in an application, as well as for one for Teaching Fellows (I would have put one in for NYU, but I missed the deadline).  If those had failed, I would still have the MS Ed. program at MCNY to fall back on, so it was at least worth a shot.  I graduated magna cum laude, with a GPA of 3.87.  I was also part of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, and spoke at the Commencement Ceremonies.  Even with all this happening, getting into Columbia seemed like a pipe dream.

To my surprise, I was accepted at Teachers College!  To those who had supported me, this was not surprising at all, as they seemed to know it was possible…that, indeed, I COULD do it.  I learned that having people believe in you and your abilities helps you to do the same and that belief can take you to heights you never dreamed possible.

So here I am, standing in front of a scruffy but proud lion.  Should I fear him and the challenges he symbolizes?  Should I be intimidated by the Ivy League atmosphere?  Should I feel like I don’t belong here?  NO!  Because I CAN do this, too!

“Roar, Lion, Roar!”