When I first signed up to teach PLAN 247: Solving Urban Problems it was the Fall of 2019. It was a simpler time, Covid was not yet a household name, classes occurred on campus, and, while racial tensions were brewing beneath the surface, they had yet to spill out into the streets in the form of protests through most of our major cities.
I had expected to teach in one of the familiar classrooms in our familiar department building on our familiar campus. Instead, the first class I taught was online, first from an office set up in a spare room of my parents house, and, later, in an office nook set up in my own home. While I have been training, in some sense or another, to teach a class in person through a series of TAships, I came to the online classroom with very little experience in how to make this work.
That said, I’m a millennial, and I had a few ideas up my sleeves that I wanted to trial out.
I made google slides the backbone of my course lecture style. I invited all the students to join the document and gave them permission to edit, leaving open spots where they were explicitly required to do so. I broke up my slide decks a couple of different ways.
First, I had traditional lectures. In these, I went through different concepts and then assigned them discussion questions that highlighted key takeaways and invited them to write down and later explain their positions to the class:
Second, I had case studies. In these, I presented controversial planning solutions and showed multiple sides of the argument for or against them, using 5-10 different perspectives.
Afterwards, I asked them to take opposing, argumentative positions (even if they didn’t agree with them!), and led small debates on different features of the issue at hand.
Finally, I created a range of activities. These classes began with a lecture on the issue at large, then broke out into parallel exercises that students put together live. I left blank slides for them to fill in, with directions on what sort of pictures they should include, what questions they should answer, and links to relevant resources. Each student had an assigned city that they followed throughout the class. To keep time, and to show without having to go into a overload of detail, I went through the exercise myself with my own city.
Overall, I think it ended up being very successful. The students were wonderfully engaged for such a rough time of the year, and for such a complicated shift in their learning structure. They participated in class, talked to each other, and, in the end, presented policy recommendations to solve urban problems in their case study city. It was an odd first go around of teaching, but I honestly enjoyed it more than expected, and look forward to finding new ways to engage students in the future.