My Experience in the Reaction for Education Program
I participated in the 6-week Reaction for Education program led by NGO makesense alongside many other Laidlaw Scholars from around the world. Here, I want to share my experience with you!
I am truly grateful for my experience in the makesense Reaction for Education program, because over the past six weeks I’ve improved my leadership skills, honed my problem-solving abilities, and made many meaningful connections with passionate change-makers around the world. In this report, I hope to show all my experiences week by week and share what I’ve learned.
When we had the first Zoom call with everyone in our batch, I was blown away by everyone’s passion and enthusiasm. Every single person had their own unique reason for joining the program, and honestly, I felt a little worried that I was unqualified to be there since I’ve never really done tutoring or participated in any educational programs before. However, I also felt motivated because I knew I could learn a lot from everyone else.
Since the program ran on such a rapid timeline, I was initially quite skeptical about being able to complete all the daily tasks on time. But talking with others who had the same concern reassured me; I gradually realized that the most important thing was to be proactive and start making efforts toward accomplishing the goals, because change can’t always be made in a day, or even a week—it’s often the result of cumulative work and dedication. Evelyn and Kenza, our mobilizers, also stressed that it was ok to adjust the daily tasks to our personal situations and community’s needs.
With all this in mind, I reflected on my own situation—I’m currently spending the summer in China, where the pandemic first started but has since been brought under control. After asking my family members and friends, they confirmed that most schools have already returned to in-person classes, and universities are set to reopen in the fall. On the other side of the world in the US, however, COVID cases are still soaring, and most students will be facing more online classes. During this time, educational inequalities have been exacerbated along racial and socioeconomic lines, since many students don’t have access to technological devices at home, and many parents and guardians who are essential workers are unable to look after their children. As a result, I decided to begin by looking for initiatives based in the US.
What first came to mind before doing any online research was this program called HYPOTHEkids, a summer program for underserved students interested in the STEM field. Another member of the lab I work in once mentioned that she was mentoring students in the program, so I reached out to ask if the program was still looking for help. She responded that she would let me know after a conversation with the program coordinators. Meanwhile, I also found this tutoring organization that was started at my university called Columbia Volunteer Tutor Corps (CVTC). I sent them a message on their Facebook page asking if they were still looking for volunteers and inquiring about their current challenges and needs. Although I was eager to start making an impact, I knew that both initiatives would probably take a while to respond to my questions. At this point in the program, I still felt uncertain about what kind of contribution I wanted to make and was capable of making in the educational field—should I join a pre-existing initiative? What if I’m not qualified enough or they don’t need my help? Should I start a new initiative? But how should I go about doing that?
Thankfully, we were able to discuss all these doubts and mental obstacles candidly in our daily meetings. I was glad that Kenza and Evelyn acknowledged many of us were having a hard time figuring out what to do in the first few days in the program and encouraged us to discuss these challenges amongst ourselves. Their positivity and firm attitude definitely helped keep us motivated, giving us the fuel to keep on taking concrete actions every day, even if we weren’t seeing results right away.
Another thing I found extremely helpful during the meetings was the sharing of successes. Hearing what others in my batch had accomplished in such a short time span inspired me and gave me ideas of how I could better assess the needs in my community. For example, one of the members of our batch and also a student at Columbia University, Deborah Moreno, created a google form that she posted to many parent WhatsApp groups and received over 50 responses in a single day. I was really impressed and realized her method was not only much more effective than messaging people one by one, but could also compile all the different responses in one place. Therefore, I also created my own survey and emailed my high school teachers so I could gather their opinions on virtual learning. Some of them also shared the survey with their colleagues or students.
Through the responses gathered, I identified several virtual learning challenges: 1) teachers didn’t have enough time to become acquainted with certain online education platforms; 2) classes were mostly asynchronous (meaning teachers used recorded lectures and participation in zoom sessions was not mandatory), so teachers lacked connection with students; 3) students had unequal access to devices and software; 4) attendance during office hours was significantly less than before. In addition, they expressed some of their hopes for the next school year: more support for students that struggle working independently; more required synchronous sessions; more training on different educational platforms.
One unexpected benefit of the survey was that it helped me acquaint myself with all kinds of ed-tech websites and platforms teachers have been using during remote instruction. In addition to Zoom and Google Classroom, which almost every teacher listed, there were also platforms I had never heard about before but are actually well-known in the educational field, like Nearpod, Peardeck, Edpuzzle, etc. These responses would later come in handy during the coming weeks of the program.
By the end of the week, I had a clearer idea of the challenges my communities were facing and how I could help solve them. I wanted to develop some kind of platform to address the lack of technical training and unequal access to technology expressed by teachers and students. When Scarlet Bliss, a fellow US batch member and student at Tufts University, proposed the idea of creating a website compiling tech support resources, I reached out to her to see if she wanted to collaborate. She said yes, and for the first time that week, I felt like I was working toward a concrete goal and felt confident in my ability to make a tangible impact.
Additionally, I was glad to have finally received responses from the two initiatives I contacted at the beginning of the week. I set up a call with one of the program coordinators at HYPOTHEkids to see how I could help their program and applied as an administrative volunteer to CVTC. It was gratifying to see my earlier efforts actually paying off and blossoming into larger projects.
After assessing needs within our communities and exploring the different ways of making an impact in the educational field, it was time to dive into our own specialized projects. Week 2 was an incredible learning experience because it gave me the opportunity to undertake something I had never done before.
At the start of the week, Michelle Wang, a student at the University of Toronto, joined our website project as a third member! All of us were very eager to collaborate on the project, so we created a WhatsApp group to brainstorm and bounce around ideas. The first thing we did was create a Google Doc of all the resources we wanted to include on the site; it slowly became clear that they fell into three main categories— resources for teachers (tech tutorials, ed-tech platforms), for students (tutoring organizations, mental health resources, etc.), and for families (student timetables, educational activities for young children).
The next step was to create an actual website. None of us had any experience building a website nor any coding experience, so we decided to use the free website builder Wix. I looked up a tutorial on YouTube and began following along to make the skeleton of the website. It was surprisingly simple—and actually really fun as well! I spent a few hours just playing around with the color scheme, fonts, button designs, and so on. It was really exciting to see our vision coming alive in front of my eyes. From there, Michelle, Scarlet, and I distributed the work among us. I was responsible for the Resources for Teachers page, Scarlet took on the Resources for Students and Connect page (blog), and Michelle opted for the About Us and Resources for Families page. Since the website only allowed one editor at a time, we learned to assign a schedule for when the three of us would work on the website—this was actually made easier by the fact that I was in a time zone 12 hours ahead of theirs.
Thanks to teachers’ responses to the Google Form I sent out, I had a good starting point to work off of while compiling ed-tech resources. However, since there are so many different platforms out there, I still had a lot of additional research to do. Which ones have the best teacher ratings? Which ones are the most affordable? What unique advantages does each platform have? And what age range of students are they designed for? These are all questions I needed to find the answers to, because I wanted to make sure our website does more than just link to different resources. My goal is to create a teacher-friendly page where anyone can easily learn about all kinds of educational platforms in one place (without having to visit each individual site) and subsequently choose the ones that are most suitable for their virtual classroom.
Although we did a lot of the work for TE(a)CH independently, we still set up meetings to periodically update each other on our progress and to figure out solutions to any problems we encountered. One time, Michelle’s work didn’t save properly and she found it all erased when she checked on the site the next day. Even though we were initially quite panicked, we quickly set up a meeting to discuss how to solve this issue. We realized that we could just restore the site to a previous version, and copy all the edits made after that point. This little crisis actually made the three of us grow closer, and even though we had never met face-to-face, we felt like we had known one another for a long time.
During the zoom call with our batch, we showcased our work-in-progress website and received a lot of positive feedback, which was extremely gratifying after a week of hard work. Evelyn also offered a suggestion for our website name—TE(a)CH, which cleverly combines the words “tech” and “teach,” two major themes of our project. We later adopted this as our official name and even purchased the domain te-a-ch.com.
To sum up what Week 2 taught me: I learned how to build a website for the first time, how to remain calm and problem-solve when an unexpected issue occurs, and how to use creativity to realize a collective vision.
While Week 2 was an exhilarating trek into the unknown, Week 3 required us to ground ourselves once more and tap into our personal connections to spread the word about the Reaction for Education program.
I started by posting the program information on social media, LinkedIn, and some Slack workspaces I’m in, but unfortunately, no one responded that they wanted to participate in the program. I then switched up my strategy and started messaging some of my friends directly to see if they would be interested—this turned out to be a lot more effective, and I ended up recruiting five people!
Meanwhile, in preparation for Week 4, the Reaction for Education team discussed parts of the program that we wished to improve and collaborated to enhance the experience for new participants. I was part of the group that helped update the participant kits on Notion with resources we discovered and/or produced during our time in the program.
Besides this and continuing to work on the TE(a)CH site, during Week 3 I also became onboarded as an Outreach Volunteer at CVTC responsible for recruiting volunteers and families to the program. I also had the opportunity to talk with a coordinator from HYPOTHEkids—he mentioned that he knew some teachers that are struggling to adjust to remote instruction, and I connected him with the tutoring program at CVTC and also showed him the TE(a)CH website. He also shared some of his own STEM teaching resources to share on our site. It was really cool to see the various efforts I’ve made and the different networks I’ve joined during the program all come together! It showed me how important it is to have conversations with others and identify how your work overlaps, so you can build each other up and create a bigger impact. Like the slogan of the makesense program—“Alone we go faster, but together we go further!”
Week 4 was my favorite week of the entire program because we had the opportunity to mobilize our own groups of new volunteers. Our group had seven people in total—Michelle and I were co-mobilizers, and the other five people were our friends in the US and Canada coming from all kinds of different backgrounds, including the University of Toronto, University of Alberta, Washington University in St. Louis, and even a rising senior at the high school I attended.
The slides shared by the makesense coordinators were really helpful in setting up the structure and overall content of our daily calls. We usually started off with a brief overview, went on to a short icebreaker, and then presented the individual slides while dedicating segments along the way for group discussions and Q&As. But through trial-and-error as well as drawing inspiration from other groups’ training successes, Michelle and I also gradually developed our own routine that worked best in our group. We began incorporating a few elements into our daily calls:
1) Longer and more informal icebreakers. We always started our calls with a lighthearted activity or prompt like “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?” This was a great way for the participants to get to know each other better, and made them more comfortable with sharing their ideas with the group.
2) the “Rose, Bud, Thorn” activity, which allowed each participant to share their achievements as well as challenges or concerns.
And 3) my favorite part—creative group photos at the end of every call. As an experienced past camp counsellor, Michelle was incredible at coming up with fun photo prompts that fit the theme of each call. Not only have they deepened our bond as a group, but they also a great memory to look back on.
Michelle and I were super proud of our group members for being so proactive and eager to share their experiences. They all brought different perspectives to the table and made so much impact in just one short week. During the global call, one of our group members volunteered to share her experience and the work she’s done with helping Speech and Debate competitors transition to an online format and communicating with her school board to ensure high school seniors have access to college application guidance. Other group members sent lists of initiatives to their university contacts, provided free wifi services to low-income students, and started envisioning a project to collect used tech devices and redistribute them to those in need.
As a mobilizer, I also improved my public speaking skills, learned how to be flexible and adapt to different situations, as well as how to foster a sense of community and positivity when our only way of communication is through screens.
In Week 5, we mainly worked on furthering our own projects. Two members of Scarlet’s mobilized group joined the TE(a)CH team—Michelle Wong (yup, we have two Michelle’s), who has taken on the role of content developer, and Eugene Wong, who is in charge of TE(a)CH’s social media communications. Three weeks ago, Scarlet, Michelle, and I never imagined our project would come so far, but now with five people working together, we’re confident that we can continue improving the site and expanding our impact.
To showcase our efforts to a wider audience, we decided to create a video introducing each aspect of our website. After gathering audio and video clips from each of us, Scarlet compiled them into an amazing video, which you can check out here! Eugene has also started posting regularly on our social media accounts (go follow our Instagram for updates). Gaining a following is definitely not easy, and all of us are still searching for ways to promote our visibility. Currently, we are in the process of reaching out to our personal contacts, universities, and other education-related accounts and organizations. Through this process, I’ve also learned a lot about website SEO (Search Engine Optimization), legal requirements to become a nonprofit organization, and many other things I never knew about before. I realized that even though it may seem easy to create a website or initiative, there are actually a lot of little details involved that can affect the number of people you are able to reach.
The best part of Week 5 was getting to talk to Sharon Moo, an expert in marketing and management who is preparing to launch her own startup that deals with helping teenagers and young adults better navigate their educational experience. Zulekha, a Reaction for Education member in the UK who used to work for Sharon, told us that Sharon saw Scarlet’s LinkedIn post about TE(a)CH and was interested in hearing more about our vision for the site. She helped connect us with Sharon, and we set up a call, during which we exchanged insights and discussed officially partnering when her startup got off the ground. We were filled with excitement at this news, because this was an opportunity to not only learn from someone much more experienced than us, but also significantly widen our audience.
As I reached the final week of the program I began to reflect on this amazing journey that I’m extremely grateful to have embarked on. I’ve loved getting to know so many wonderful, intelligent, passionate people around the world and I’m so proud of all the resources and initiatives we were able to create in a month and a half.
Of course, there are also aspects of the program that can be improved for future participants. For instance, I wish we had more time to mobilize, because the volunteers felt one week was not enough for them to pursue a specialized project or make a long-term impact on their communities. Additionally, I think a lot of the confusion and skepticism we experienced in the first week can be avoided in future runs of the program; it would be reassuring for participants to receive more explanation of how their actions in the first week go on to influence the following weeks. And lastly, although I liked how the rapid timeline of the program pushed us to quickly take various actions, it would help to provide more specific advice on what kinds of actions you can take if you are feeling lost.
I really enjoyed all the global celebratory calls, and I hope they remain a constant in the program. It was really interesting to learn about the different projects undertaken by people all over the world, and since everyone was always so positive and encouraging, I always left these sessions with a warm feeling inside.
I know this sounds very cheesy, but the Reaction for Education program is only the beginning of so many different possibilities and future efforts. It has shown me how much we can achieve in such a short time frame if we have the right guidance and a great community from which to draw inspiration and motivation. I will use the tools and skills I’ve learned during this program to continue working toward my goals and creating the changes I want to see.