Learning How to Teach, Teaching How to Learn
The College’s long-running Mentoring and Student Teaching program, which welcomed its newest class in January, gives Haverford students the opportunity to tutor local secondary school students in science and writing, creating a relaxed environment where learning is a mutual experience.
Another spring semester at Haverford means another cohort of the annual Mentoring and Student Teaching (MAST) program, which for three decades has given local secondary school students an opportunity to experiment with hands-on science and hone writing skills in close collaboration with Haverford student mentors.
The program, which meets Saturday mornings from late January through early April, is characterized by an intimate student-tutor setting. Each Haverford tutor is matched with only two to four high school or middle school students from a diverse array of Philadelphia-area schools. MAST provides the 60 to 65 students enrolled each year with both laboratory experience and writing sessions, which can help students refine college application essays. The program also creates a unique bridge between the College and its surrounding community, giving secondary school students a chance to learn in fun, collaborative ways, and providing a unique opportunity for Haverford students to serve as teachers and mentors.
“We’re… a community that is dedicated to the learning process,” said College President Kim Benston during this year’s orientation ceremony on Jan. 28. “Not just learning things, but learning how to learn, learning how to learn together, learning how to learn collaboratively. We feel you’re joining us and we’re joining you in forming a richer community of understanding.”
MAST was the creation of the late Emeritus Professor of Biology Slavica Matacic, who founded the program in the fall of 1987. Initially, its focus was on giving students of color from the surrounding community a chance to conduct scientific research with Haverford students of color in an environment that would increase student confidence with college-level curricula. In a field that traditionally has lacked racial, gender, and class diversity, MAST’s mission was to create a space for underrepresented students to be emboldened and uplifted in an empowering community.
“I do think [the younger students] get a sense of what it’s like to be in college,” said Instructor in Biology Katherine Heston, who now helps oversee MAST’s science program. “The students ask their tutors questions about what it’s like to be in college, and some of them keep in touch with their tutors after the program is over. From the point of view of the undergraduates, our tutors are learning how to teach and finding out if they’re interested in teaching careers.”
Those involved in organizing the program strive every year to make it better. The writing program, for example, was added in 1991 by Martha Wintner, now a senior lecturer emerita of English. And while staff members like Marielle Eaton, the program coordinator of the Koshland Integrated Natural Sciences Center, provide oversight and support, the student coordinators are given a healthy amount of agency to influence the program as they see fit.
“I work mostly with the student coordinators, who deserve a lot of credit for the success of the program. Their level of responsibility only grows through the course of MAST,” said Eaton, who noted that coordinators are responsible for both selecting and managing tutors. “We have to have responsible coordinators.”
Sasha Mathrani ’18 and Ashley Guzman ’19, this year’s coordinators of the middle school and high school science programs, respectively, are veterans, entering their second year in these positions. The trust that is endowed in Haverford students, they say, has allowed them to strive towards their goal of creating an environment at MAST where everyone ultimately feels comfortable, confident, and engaged.
Mathrani, who is majoring in biology major and minoring in education, says that as a coordinator, a focus of hers is, “making science fun, as opposed to this scary thing [where] you have to study for tests and memorize a bunch of facts,” as well as making the experience “more about being fun, learning to ask questions, to mess up and figure things out.”
As part of their work, the two Fords have joined forces with Heather Curl ’03, now a lecturer in the Bi-Co Education Department, and Benjamin Hughes, program coordinator in the Office of Multicultural Affairs, to lead workshops in pedagogy and diversity with all tutors. The program has also made conscious efforts to continue to diversify its tutor base and create a more interdisciplinary learning space that is “a little bit less by the books,” according to Mathrani. All of these efforts are sustained with the goal of continuing to foster an environment where students and tutors interact as equals who are committed to learning from each other and remaining inquisitive, while still being okay with not knowing the answer sometimes.
“It’s really funny when you go into lab thinking you’re prepared, and then a kid asks you a question and you’re just like, ‘Oh actually, I didn’t know this,’ … So you just go with it, and you see what they have to say about it,” explains Guzman, who is a prospective history of art major and chemistry minor.
After many years of MAST, the program has developed an extensive legacy of former students and tutors. Some have even boasted both distinctions. Franklin “Jay” Garcia ’16 was a MAST student in his junior year at a charter high school in Philadelphia. He went on to be a Chesick Scholar and MAST tutor at Haverford. Garcia, after graduating with a degree in biology last May, is now a Fulbright recipient conducting research in Groningen, Holland.
“My writing and science curricula up to that point had been subpar, and MAST helped supplement that,” said Garcia, who hopes to go into pediatric medicine. “As a tutor, I enjoyed working with children who were in the same position I had been.” The program not only gave him preliminary experience with new material, he says, but also showed him some challenges of working with young people. “Keeping a handful of teenagers focused during a shark dissection is easy. But keeping that same group focused during [trigonometry] or an aspirin-synthesis lab is not.”
No two years of MAST are exactly alike, with new labs, curricula, students, and tutors characterizing the program’s activities and atmosphere. Still, one thing promises to remain the same: a chance for students of many ages, experiences, and backgrounds to learn from each other.