Friday, October 17, 2008

2nd CESTL Story: A Powerful Learning Experience

A Powerful Learning Experience:

The 2nd CESTL Conference

Curriculum & Instruction

School of Education
University of Texas at Brownsville

April 26, 2008 was a special date for all the undergraduates who were taking EDCI 4322 Human Development & Instruction course and the graduate students of EDCI 6304 Learning & Cognition course in the School of Education at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College (UTB/TSC). On that day, a special conference—Conference of Elementary Secondary Teaching & Learning (CESTL)—was held in the elegant EDBC Cassia Room in the School of Education. This CESTL conference was special in the way that it was a student-run conference: It was organized by the students, for the students, and presented by the students themselves. It was special because not only were the students the participants, but also they were the presenters themselves.

On Saturday, a total of 50 students presented their research at the CESTL, plus about 20 other people from the UTB/TSC and the Brownsville community attended this conference as well. The CESTL conference covered a wide range of topics related to classroom teaching and learning including learning and motivation, learning environment, learning process, learning conditions, learning style, learning strategies, peer relationship and learning, learning and instruction, teacher characteristics and learning, professional development and teaching, special education, race and learning, culture and learning, and policy and learning. All these topics were selected by the students themselves based on their own interest. As a special treat, intermissions of the CESTL included music and cultural performance of a Chinese ribbon dance.

Background of the CESTL

What’s the story behind CESTL? How was the CESTL developed at UTB/TSC? The CESTL was developed by Dr. Dengting Boyanton, a new Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology in the Curriculum & Instruction department in the School of Education. As a learning psychologist, Dr. Boyanton strongly believes that learning is more powerful when the students take an active role in their own learning through actively exploring, observing, reflecting, analyzing, and making sense out of their own world rather than being passively told so by the professors. She also believes that learning is more powerful when the students are able to teach others what they have learned. Lastly, Dr. Boyanton believes that learning should be shared with others and knowledge should be used to contribute to the society. “My students are doing a lot of wonderful research. I think it will be a shame if nobody knows about and benefits from it. That’s why I strive to create a community of knowledge-sharing in the classroom; and I always encourage my students to share their work with and learn from each other.” Said Boyanton. “And this is why I would like to organize a student-run conference.”

However, CESTL was not the first but the second student-run conference organized by Dr. Boyanton. The idea of having a student-run conference had been in her mind when she was still studying at the University of Virginia (UVa) as a doctoral student. In fact, her first trial was when she was directing an Intensive Chinese Language Program as the Program Director in summer, 2007 at UVa. This Chinese language program was eight-week long and all her students were beginners without any Chinese background. On the first day of this program, Dr. Boyanton introduced the course project and stated that they were expected to do research on China and present their findings at the China in Foreigners’ Eye Conference (CFEC), all her students were shocked at that moment. “Presenting a research about China after eight weeks of learning Chinese? And using Chinese only? How can that be possible?” For most students, Dr. Boyanton was expecting a miracle. “That was a very daunting task.” Said Professor Fred Damon, a UVa Anthropology Professor who was then taking the summer Chinese course with Dr. Boyanton.

However, after eight weeks, the miracle happened. The China in Foreigners’ Eye Conference (CFEC) turned out to be a huge success. All the students did a fabulous job presenting their research on China at the conference, speaking fluent and beautiful Chinese. Not only was Dr. Boyanton pleased, all her students themselves were amazed by their own progress. The success of this Chinese Language Program immediately attracted attention from the public and it has since been reported by both local and national media including UVa Today, Daily Progress, Cavalier Daily, and Qiaobao 侨报 (China Press). Dr. Boyanton learned one important lesson from this experience: “Don’t let the students tell you that they cannot do it, because they can, if they try hard enough.”

Preparing for the CESTL

Preparing for the CESTL has been a long, challenging, and time-consuming process in the parts of both Dr. Boyanton and her students. The students started working on it almost the minute they walked into Dr. Boyanton’s first class. “This course requires you to do a lot of work. This is a course where you are not just the learner, but also the researcher. Not only are you expected to attend this course weekly, but also to do a lot of fieldwork outside of the class. You will present your research findings at the CESTL conference.” Dr. Boyanton stated her high expectations for the students while welcoming them with a big smile on her face. One thing for sure, all the students immediately felt overwhelmed and yet motivated at the same time. “When the syllabus was introduced and reviewed, I must admit I felt a little overwhelmed. I felt overwhelmed because of the assignments required for the class, but then I felt a sense of motivation as well.” Said Mayra Garcia, a graduate student from the Learning & Cognition course.

Throughout the whole semester, Dr. Boyanton spent a lot of time guiding the students conducting their research step by step from how to choose a research topic, how to form a good research question, how to write the research proposal, how to contact the research site and participants, how to observe in the classroom, how to conduct the interviews, how to write up the final paper report, and above all, how to give a powerful presentation. “Teaching the course materials and supervising over 50 students’ field research at the same time was a challenge. The main challenge I had was the time. I had a lot of course materials to cover; and guiding them how to conduct the research was time-consuming because few students knew how to do it. Therefore, class time was really precious for me and I had to design each of my lesson plans very carefully to make sure every minute was fully used.” Dr. Boyanton said.

Since the first class, all students have been very excited and motivated to do their research project and worked extremely hard throughout the whole semester. Of course, there were some down moments and also a lot of confusions, frustrations, struggle, and stress during the whole research process due to the fact that many students “have never done this before,” and “have no idea where to start.” Also, some students doubted themselves and were convinced that they would never accomplish this task. However, all students worked steadily hard despite of all the challenges and difficulties. They received a lot of feedback as well as encouragement from Dr. Boyanton from time to time. They constantly worked and reworked on the project, making progresses and gaining confidence little by little. “These students were extremely motivated and hardworking. I am touched by their strong will power, and I am impressed by the amount of time and effort they put in their research project.” Dr. Boyanton said.

In order to prepare for the final presentation at the CESTL, many students have practiced many times with their friends, spouses, cousins, and brothers and sisters. “I practiced with one of my colleagues, then I practiced at home with my family.” Said graduate student Griselda Garcia, “I hope everybody enjoyed my presentation.”

Although preparing for the CESTL took a lot of time and effort, most students actually enjoyed this process. “Preparing for the CESTL was one of the most enjoyable assignments I have ever had. Sure, it was a little stressful, especially that last week of trying to make sure I was ready for it. I rehearsed my presentation so many times with a stopwatch, but I was still so nervous that I was going to mess up on my timing.” Said Eldon Clark, an undergraduate from the Human Development & Instruction course.

Presenting at the CESTL

After a whole semester’s hard work, stress, preparation, and waiting, April 26 finally arrived! How did the students do at the CESTL? How did they feel? Naturally, almost all students felt extremely nervous, anxious, and scared about the conference. During the last class period prior to the conference, Dr. Boyanton noticed that all students looked extremely tense, which was very unusual for them. So she asked, “I see you that are all feeling very anxious about the conference. From 1 to 10, how high is your anxiety level right now?” “11!” Some students responded, which was true for most students. “The CESTL was an experience that I will never forget. I felt so many emotions at one time, fear, nervous, and anxiety.” Said Kristy, an undergraduate from the Human Development & Instruction course. “To be honest with you, I was really scared and nervous before I did my presentation.” Said undergraduate Karla Araujo.

“I was very nervous and the truth was that I did not want to participate, but I told myself that I could do it, and that someday I had to do it and this was the moment. When I was waiting for my turn, I tried to control my nervousness, but when it was almost my turn, I started trembling…” Nanyka shared similar experiences about the CESTL.

However, after the presentations, all the fear and anxiety disappeared, replaced with relief, joy, excitement, confidence, pride, and sense of achievement. This strong sense of achievement forced the students to take a new look at themselves and realize how much potentials they had. For example, after the presentation, undergraduate Kristy surprisingly realized that she actually was “capable of giving a presentation in front of many other people.”

The most powerful impact that the CESTL had on the students, was that it instilled a strong sense of pride, confidence, and achievement in them. “When I finished speaking, I felt relaxed and proud of myself because of all the hard work I put into this presentation.” Said undergraduate Suki. “This presentation was a wonderful experience for all of us who participated... At the end, we were all very proud of ourselves and we were very excited because we did it.” Said undergraduate Nanyka. Undergraduate Jessica Arriaga commented that the CESTL “was an achievement for everyone to share their findings in their research.” Karla Araujo, another undergraduate was amazed how this CESTL experience dramatically helped her increase her self-esteem:

"When I went back to my seat, Sandra came up to me and congratulated me, I felt so good! She showed me once again, that people can really make you feel great again, and right there, I gain some much confidence on myself and I know that I can fulfill my goals. Then, a girl from another class came up to me, too, and asked me some questions about my research; she told me that her daughter had just been diagnosed with autism and told me that she really liked my presentation, I felt so good! When the presentations were done, some of my friends and I were leaving, and a lady from another class came up to us and told me that, she really liked my presentation, and that I covered so much information and explained it in a way that it was easy to understand. Right there, I felt in heaven! It is amazing how ones’ self-esteem can get really high after getting some amazing feedback!" Karla described her experience.

Another characteristic of the CESTL conference was that many students felt that they gained so much valuable information on teaching and learning through listening to each others’ presentations. “The presentation was most importantly a learning experience where you interchange knowledge with others by giving and receiving.” Said Jessica Arriaga. As a result of this knowledge “giving and receiving,” students felt more motivated and better prepared for their future teaching career. As Eldon Clark put it:

"The thing I liked most about it is with all of your great ideas that you shared, I feel better prepared to be a teacher. After Saturday, I have never been so excited to walk into my own classroom for the first time! Thanks, guys, for your presentations, and thanks, Dr. Boyanton, for giving us this opportunity."

“I really enjoyed everyone's presentation. A lot of hard work and time went into the presentations. I think that everyone at the conference walked away with new information.” Said Nora Lamas, a graduate student from Learning & Cognition course. Analicia Springer, another graduate student added that this CESTL conference provided her with “a new perspective” on her teaching practices especially on how to motivate middle school students to learn.

Needless to say, all students were impressed with their own and each others’ presentations. “I was amazed at the dedication and knowledge all my peers showed on Saturday. I was actually impressed, very impressed. I think we all did a great job.” Said Valerie Green, an undergraduate from the Human Development & Instruction course.

While the undergraduates felt very “intimidated” by the presence of graduate students, all the graduate students were very impressed by the undergraduates’ performance at the CESTL. “I was impressed with the undergraduates' work and hope that they are as committed when they become educators. Their presentations showed countless hours of work.” Said graduate student Aracelie Gutierrez. Dorothy Hung, another graduate student from Singapore, expressed her impressions of the undergraduate students:

"When I look at the undergraduates and the work that they have done, I can easily believe that the extent of work they had put in must have been far beyond what was required of them. They have shown me a new face of Brownsville that I have not seen before. I think there is much hope for Brownsville, Texas, I believe they represent the cream of the crop. They are not only intelligent but also passionate to become teachers. They will do what is best for their students. Perhaps more than anything, they seemed to have come away, from their research, with the understanding of what good teachers are like and how they too can become good future educators. When this group of young people starts their career, I believe as they become more confident of themselves, they will become movers and shakers in the field of education, or whatever they choose to be."

Overall Impression of the CESTL

So how do students feel about the CESTL experience as a whole? Although the conference lasted for eight hours (from 11:30am to 7:30pm), and some students felt hungry and exhausted by the end, all students reported that they enjoyed this experience and had a great time. Undergraduate student Robert Ramirez described the CESTL as “one of the most interesting and enjoyable experiences” he had ever attended or been part of in his life. Eldon Clark summarized this conference as “fun, exciting, nerve-racking, and an overall great experience.” Undergraduate Maricela Gonzalez said that she “had an absolute blast this term.” Graduate student Mayra Garcia enjoyed the CESTL because “it brought our class closer together.” And if you ask undergraduate student Ry* what he enjoyed most at the CESTL, he would tell you that not just the many wonderful presentations, but also the fact of being with his classmates who had become his good friends, and above all, the Chinese Ribbon Dance performed by Dr. Boyanton.

"I enjoyed myself with my friends. I learned a lot and heard some very interesting things on Saturday. And to be real honest, the cherry on top was your ribbon dance!! I loved it!! I thank you for showing us and giving us a taste of your culture because as you know I am fascinated by other cultures. Thank you for a wonderful experience over all at my first conference where I was a presenter." Ry* said.

Will the students attend the CESTL again? The answer is definitely “yes” for most students. “I spent a memorable Saturday learning about various educational topics ranging from learning strategies to high stakes testing.” Said graduate student Emily Fierros, “I would love to attend this type of research conference again.”

How did Dr. Boyanton feel about this CESTL experience over all? “I felt great! Like the students, I also felt joy, pride, excitement, and sense of achievement. As an educator, nothing makes me happier to watch my students walk out of my classroom with the feelings of excitement, satisfaction, confidence, sense of achievement, and passion for teaching.” Said Dr. Boyanton.

2nd CESTL pictures:
2nd CESTL videos:
Please copy and paste it to a new browser if you have trouble open it.
2nd CESTL Conference Video Part 1

2nd CESTL Conference Video Part 2

2nd CESTL Conference Video Part 3

2nd CESTL Conference Video Part 4

2nd CESTL Conference Video Part 5

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