Last December, I wrote Two thousand students walk into MIT, a blog post about Splash. And this’ll be a post about Summer HSSP, which is a similar program to Splash. Except, you know, it’s virtual. And the perspective will be different, because, you know, I was one of the three directors of the program.
- The why game
- The students are coming
- The fruit of my labor
The why game
Teach anything, learn anything
It’s probably a good idea to give an introduction to ESP, and what we do, that’s shorter than linking my entire previous post. This is the MIT ESP team:
We’re a group of MIT undergraduates. Well, mostly MIT undergraduates; one of my co-directors was Matt B., who is in fact not affiliated with MIT beyond ESP. We run educational programs every year, like Splash, Spark, HSSP, and Cascade. They all have roughly the same format: teachers come and teach roughly hour-long classes, to lots of students, in MIT’s campus.
The differences are when they happen, who the students are, how large it is, and how long it is. Splash, for example, happens for one weekend every November, and it’s aimed at high school students. Last Splash, we had 2,142 enrolled students, 608 teachers, and 504 classes.
What are these classes about? ESP’s motto is learn anything, teach anything, do anything, and we really mean anything. Just check the course catalog for Splash 2019, with classes like Representations of Girlhood in Modern Cinema, Lambda Calculus and Puzzles, how 2 rocket, How to be very smart (like us), and Gayness Is Defiance.
In the spring, we run Spark and Spring HSSP. Spark is similar to Splash, being a one-weekend program in March, but it’s for middle schoolers instead. Spring HSSP is a long-term program, open to middle schoolers and high schoolers, where teachers teach a series of classes over seven Saturdays, from February to April.
For Spring HSSP, I was in charge of dealing with class supplies, along with Matthew C. ’23. And I think we did okay. We emailed back-and-forth with teachers, prepared things from ESP’s inventory, kept track of purchases. During the first week of Spring HSSP, there weren’t any huge problems with class supplies.
But unfortunately, as part of MIT’s coronavirus response, we had to cancel both programs. And this made me pretty sad.
And hence, the student body was dispersed. ESP turned its weekly meetings into online ones, and we had discussions through Discord instead of the office.
When the time came for us, a few weeks after everyone got kicked out, to elect directors for the summer and fall programs, we didn’t really know what was going to happen. We had a lot of uncertainty about whether or not to run Summer HSSP at all. We had Splash directors and Cascade directors in the list of positions, but we didn’t even know if these programs would run in the fall, let alone how they’d be run.
With all the uncertainty, it didn’t seem that there was anyone interested in being Summer HSSP director. And that’s only natural. Summer HSSP, if it did happen, would be ESP’s first ever virtual program, which meant that a lot of our usual systems would have to be changed. And directing the program normally is already a feat, given the amount of work it involves.
I don’t know what, exactly, led me to nominating myself for directing Summer HSSP. Part of the reason was just wanting to see the program happen. Summer HSSP has been running since 1957, when it started as the Summer Studies Program. It then became the High School Studies Program by 1967.
Since then, it’s expanded to include middle schoolers, and be held in the spring too, but we still keep the HSSP acronym. So part of my motivation was thinking it’d be really sad if this was the first year, ever, that Summer HSSP didn’t happen, in over sixty years.
And part of me felt really excited. It’d be ESP’s first ever virtual program, which meant so much possibility. Imagine what we could do if we didn’t have to worry about the logistics of dealing with classrooms, or checking-in hundreds of students in-person!
Part of the motivation was more personal. When I first joined ESP, I was very responsibility-averse, and I specifically avoided any named roles. Helping out with class supplies for Spring HSSP was the first thing I actually had responsibility for, and I’m not sure what happened, but somehow, I enjoyed it. And part of me thought that directing might be a good chance to, you know, grow, whatever that means.
But at the same time, I felt terrified by the idea. I was scared.
“I think something I have to keep reminding myself is that nothing that happens right now is on just one or two people,” Emily C. ’22 told me, when we talked about directing. “Directors will be leading ESP in this program, but won’t be like, carrying all the decisions and burdens.”
After a few days of thinking and talking with other people, the balance of reasons tipped, even if I didn’t fully understand why. I decided to nominate myself.
The election came. It was clarified, repeatedly, that electing Summer HSSP directors didn’t mean that the program was guaranteed to happen; that would be a separate decision. There were some questions and answers. And the three of us who accepted nominations for Summer HSSP director, me, Wayne Z. ’23, and Matt B., were all elected.
Speaking with a director voice
It was pretty soon after we got elected that things were set in motion. We had a meeting with the chairs and some previous HSSP directors to talk about the mystical, magical process of directing. There was a lot of information, and a lot of advice, and a lot of encouragement.
The advice I remember most was to think about delegation. Directing didn’t mean doing everything by ourselves, because that’s just impossible; there are too many things to do. Instead, it meant nicely asking other people for help to do things, and to keep track of what needs to be done. And I know it sounds, I don’t know, obvious, but it really wasn’t something I did before, not in any serious capacity.
Things started happening soon afterward. One of my favorite HSSP traditions is coming up with the backronym. As mentioned earlier, HSSP doesn’t really stand for anything now, so the directors come up with a backronym for what they want it to stand for. It gives a nice theme for the art, and helps personalize it a little. For example, last Spring HSSP, the backronym was Highly Suspect Sloth Party, and we had cute drawings of sloths in our art:I remember talking to the Spring HSSP directors, Grace C. ’23, Christina W. ’23, and Zawad C. ’23, about how they chose their backronym. They had a whole blackboard filled with choices of adjectives and nouns for each of the letters, and considered dozens and dozens of possibilities, and it took them around an hour.
For Matt, Wayne, and I, the process was something like this:
Matt: I like fractals.
Matt: Snakes on a Plane? Like the Cartesian plane?
CJ: But what about the art?
Matt: Sharks. Sharks on a Plane.
Wayne: I like sharks. Highly Self-Similar Sharks on a Plane?
CJ, Matt: Sounds good to me!
We reached out to ESP’s art working group with the name, and we got lots and lots of cool art.
For the first few weeks or so, it felt really uncomfortable. We were making decisions that would shape the whole program. When is the program going to happen? Who are we opening registration to? How are things going to work, virtually? And at first, I didn’t feel really great about helping make these kinds of decisions.
In the meantime, we talked to other people to help set things up. We scheduled meetings with SOLE, and filled out some forms to register the program. We talked to our publicity team to discuss our schedule for teacher registration, and what we’re doing to publicize it. We talked to our data czars, our community working group, our online education director, even our website administrators.
It was a lot of emails.
I was really grateful I had co-directors. We kept a spreadsheet, tracking all of the moving parts of the program, all of the things that needed to happen, when they needed to happen, who we were talking to. I understood what was meant by delegation and you can’t run the program alone, because wow, there are a lot of things to keep track of. And I was just glad that we had other people in the ESP team available to just ask for advice, to just talk to, and to remind us of things we needed to do. Little by little, it felt like HSSP was coming together.
The good kind of contagious
Teacher registration opened. We sent out emails, and had Facebook profile picture frames. We even got to take over the @mitstudents Instagram, and posted some nice pictures.For HSSP, we require teachers to prepare for a short, informal interview about their class. We talk about how they found out about HSSP, what their class was about, what they planned to cover each week. We ask them to give a short, two-minute sample of their class. Interviews took around 20 minutes, and they were pretty quick.
But we also had a lot of teachers. Teaching lots and lots of classes.
Having so many teachers sign up was really exciting. We didn’t know whether making the program virtual would mean more or less teachers registering. We certainly didn’t expect to get fifty classes, let alone a hundred and twenty! But it also meant we had to do a lot of interviews. Even though a lot of people in the ESP team volunteered to help out, I still ended up interviewing around twenty-five classes, over the two weeks that we scheduled teacher interviews.
Sure, it was tiring. Interviewing five classes, back-to-back, is tiring. But each of the interviews felt good, in their own ways.
Sometimes I got assigned to people who were familiar. I interviewed Benji K., Hahn L., and Haneul S., three of my friends among the Harvard 23s. They were teaching a group theory class. I remember interviewing Julian H. ’21 for his class Intro to Marxism, which was neat, because I attended that class when he taught it for Splash for MIT!
Sometimes, I interviewed teachers about things I was interested in. Susan K. ’21 and Amy K., Pomona ’22, were teaching How to Stay Awake in a Classical Music Concert. For their teaching sample, they told stories about Shostakovich and Berlioz, and since then I’ve listened to their music differently. I also interviewed Chris E. ’21 and Alex H., Florida State ’21, and they were teaching a class about constructed languages. And if you’ve read my Splash post, you’d know I’m interested in Esperanto, which isn’t the only constructed language I like.
We had teachers from across the country, even across the globe. We had undergraduates and grad students, people who were in industry, and people in academia. But no matter who I interviewed, there was one thing that was the same. All of the teachers were deeply interested about what they were teaching, and their enthusiasm was contagious. I enjoyed listening teachers talk about microorganisms, and developmental psychology, and James Madison, even if I didn’t know anything about them.
In these challenging times
Probably one of the most challenging things of directing Summer HSSP was figuring how the logistics would work online. ESP didn’t really have any precedent, this being our first virtual program and all.
Other colleges across the US run educational programs too, under the organization Learning Unlimited. LU ran Rainstorm earlier in the summer; here’s the class catalog. It’s comparable to one of MIT ESP’s Splashes, but scaled down and virtual. Classes happened over Zoom, with virtual classrooms that teachers went in and out of, and that people from the LU team helped moderate. I taught some classes and moderated some rooms myself.
Rainstorm definitely gave us some more confidence that ESP could pull off the logistics for a virtual program too. We had a lot of discussions and emails about how, exactly, the logistics would work out. The two main things we were deciding between was doing something similar to Rainstorm, where there were virtual “rooms” that each class was scheduled in, or whether each class should have its own recurring Zoom meeting.
The logistics would be substantially different with either option, and as you can imagine, people in ESP like figuring out logistics. We also discussed which parts of an in-person program translate to a virtual one. Would there be student check-in or teacher check-in? How do we communicate instructions to students? What does a virtual help desk look like?
Soon after teacher registration closed, we spent an evening where we just hung out on a Zoom call and scheduled classes into virtual classrooms. This is the traditional Scheduling Weekend, which for HSSPs, didn’t really take a whole weekend. I remember the Splash Scheduling Weekend, with the ESP office being filled with people just helping schedule classes and doing other preparations for the program. There was food, and music, and we just hung out and talked to each other all afternoon.
And you know, there was a celebratory feeling when it all ended. It’s like the “halfway” point of preparing for a program, happening in between teacher registration and student registration, a sort-of midway celebration, because I guess people are too tired to celebrate after the program itself.
Our Scheduling Weekend was comparatively tamer: we sat down in front of our computers, stared at a spreadsheet, and scheduled classes. It was way easier to schedule classes, because we didn’t have to worry about the capacity of each classroom, or which classrooms needed to have projectors, and whatnot. We made sure that each timeslot had a balance of grade levels and topics, but otherwise, the only real requirement was that we schedule classes only when teachers were available.
After we got all the classes scheduled, someone, and I don’t remember who, observed that we’ve come pretty far. Only a few weeks ago, everyone was so unsure about whether Summer HSSP was even going to happen. Yet here we were, at the sort of point-of-no-return of the program, without a single doubt that it’ll run.
It felt good, in a sense, thinking about that. But somehow, I didn’t feel relief. I didn’t feel the usual sense of celebration. Instead, I felt like the work we had to do was only going to go up.
The students are coming
The third derivative
If teacher registration for Summer HSSP exceeded our expectations, then student registration blew them out of the water.
As Matt said, the night before the deadline, “The rate of increase of the rate of increase of the rate of increase of student registration is extremely positive.” Wayne remarked that this was probably the first time someone talked about the third derivative of student registrations, in comparison to Nixon’s announcement that “the rate of increase of inflation was decreasing”.
The last few minutes leading up to the lottery deadline, we hopped on a Zoom call and invited whoever was around in ESP to join us. We made guesses as to what the final number of students would be, and just talked about our mutual surprise at the large, large number of students who registered for the program. It was pretty exciting.
We started nailing down a lot more of the logistical details and infrastructure. We decided to have virtual Zoom classrooms, rather than asking teachers to make individual meetings. Largely through the efforts of our online logistics subdirector, Yoshi S. ’22, we readied the systems to distribute links, check-in teachers, and generally prepare ourselves to troubleshoot if things go wrong, which they inevitably do.
The week leading up to the program was a lot of staging, and getting ready to launch things on the day-of. The community working group finalized and practice what was going to be the opening ceremony, a kickoff event that’d be streamed on YouTube. Through IS&T’s help, we secured MIT Zoom accounts for many of our teachers who didn’t have one; it wasn’t strictly necessary, but made things a bit easier. Logistics emails were written and sent, Zoom links were compiled and sent, people were assigned to do day-of tasks like checking in teachers and managing Help Desk.
I tried to spend the Friday night before the first day of HSSP doing non-HSSP things. Conveniently enough, we had a puzzle writing session for Mystery Hunt, which was something that helped take my mind off the program, if only for a little bit. I was tense, worried that something really bad would happen, but I tried to sleep early that night, knowing I’d need to wake up early the next day.
Really pushing the shark theme
I wake up around half past 10 and start answering emails. There were a lot of emails asking about where the Zoom links were, to which we mostly responded by telling them to check their Spam folders, to which they mostly responded saying they found it. There were a couple cases when people really didn’t receive their emails, and we had to resend their schedules.
The Help Desk for the program, which was on a Zoom call that would last for the whole afternoon, opened at 11. Some people from the ESP team start managing it, and students started coming in to ask for help. So far, so good.
Matt and Shardul C. ’22, the two people leading the kickoff, started streaming to YouTube. Moderators from the community working group kept an eye on the chat and helped with technical issues, and the ceremonies themselves started at 11:15, with Matt and Shardul enthusiastically presenting a slideshow over a livestreamed Zoom call.
They also had a trivia quiz and a logistics quiz, and they offered to ship shark plushies to the people who scored highest. One of the questions of the trivia quiz, for example, was to identify which of these was not a shark:
It was a pretty hype opening ceremony, to be honest, quite above my expectations. The response was also way better than I expected it to be, and that was always nice. The opening ceremony ended, students started joining their classes, and the rest of the first day went pretty smoothly.
We must learn to adapt
Well, not really.
Immediately after the opening ceremony ended, the Teacher Checkin Zoom meeting and the Help Desk Zoom meeting started ended, seemingly for no reason. Messages popped up when we tried to restart them: you’re hosting another meeting, do you want to end the other one?
The way Zoom works is that a person can’t be the host of two meetings at once. In our testing, a person could make two Zoom meetings, but as long as they weren’t actively hosting both meetings, it was fine and both could co-exist. So we were all very confused when this issue started coming up, and couldn’t figure out the reason why.
We were in a call troubleshooting, and didn’t really know why these Zoom issues were happening. Soon enough it was ten minutes before classes were supposed to start, and more and more people started being affected by the issue. I couldn’t really think of solutions, and I was just there, passively listening, worried that the program was going to fall apart in ten minutes.
I worked with other people in writing an email to students and teachers to inform them about the situation, and it gets sent. Eventually, the ESP team came up with the solution of letting teachers make their own Zoom meetings for the classes, sending it to their students directly, and sending it to us so we can keep track.
I don’t remember much of what happened next, but what the next thing I remember very clearly was the moment I snapped. I was going through emails, and I happened to read one email that was particularly hurtful. And it’s not as if I haven’t read these kinds of emails before, working with ESP, but somehow, that was it, like the proverbial needle that broke the camel’s back.
By the end of the email I was crying. I was trying to hold it back, but it didn’t work.
So I stopped reading my email. And I told my co-directors that I was stepping out, for a bit.
And then I cried.
The fruit of my labor
I sat on my couch and cried for five straight minutes. I don’t remember everything that went through my head, but I did remember feeling like I wanted to quit. I wanted to stop being involved with HSSP at all, a feeling that was slowly building up the days leading to the program, which only got worse. But more than that, I wanted to quit ESP, and I wanted to quit living. I was having the worst suicidal thoughts in months.
In a message, I told someone:
i feel particularly bad because
you know, hssp was practically a part time job if you consider the amount of time i spent on it
and now the entire program is in flames
and everyone is sending angry emails and it feels like a resoundingly personal attack
to have put my heart and soul into making this happen, literally hundreds of hours over three months
only to have it blow up because of a stupid zoom issue
and now i cant deal with it
everyone else in esp is out there, doing something and i am just utterly incapable
a crying mess, while everyone else is trying to make it work
i dont know what to do any more. i dont know what i should feel about myself, if my solution to a thing like this is chickening out.
I spent the next hour or so continuing to lie on the couch, in that sort of state after you’ve cried for a while but can’t exactly do normal things yet. Then I took a walk.
I went to Killian Court, and stood in front of the great lawn, facing the dome. It was a warm day, and there wasn’t anyone actually on the grass, so I got a full view of Building 10 under the sky, just like all those pictures. And I just stood there for several minutes, thinking about my place in MIT. Do I belong here? Do I deserve to be here? How does this reflect on me as a person? Am I just bad at dealing with emergencies?
And I guess it sounds silly, but you know, aren’t these exactly the kinds of situations people ask you about in interviews? When they ask you to name a time you’ve had to deal with something particularly challenging, and what you did to deal with it. If that was a test, I failed. It really did feel like the months of work I put in as a director were invalidated by those thirty minutes.
The rest of the day I spent generally avoiding talking about HSSP. I teach math for a few hours, I got takeout because man I was feeling bad, and I work on some puzzles with friends. I didn’t learn what happened with HSSP until the next day. I wake up, and I browsed Twitter, and I saw this tweet from Cameron K. ’23:
There were a couple messages from other people in ESP, checking in on me, asking how I was doing, both from the day before and earlier than morning. One of them, from Paolo A. ’21, still strikes me:
your program is a good thing. i know you said you found it hard to believe that it is. but it’s a good thing. you are doing a good thing. you are giving an opportunity to students who wouldn’t have done anything else this summer.
That moment, my thoughts went from
- I don’t deserve other people in ESP being so nice to me, to
- I don’t deserve them in my life, to
- I don’t deserve being here at MIT, and it’s really wild how I ended up here, when only a few years ago I was fantasizing about studying abroad, and really, I’m just incredibly lucky, to
- I’ll be here for a while. I’ll be here for years, literal years. I have room to fail, because really, isn’t that the point?, to
- I have time, to
- I’m so glad I’m in MIT, to
- I’m so glad I have ESP in my life, to
- I’m so glad these people are so nice to me.
I started replying to their messages, thanking them, talking to people about how I felt. It took a long, long while before I felt closer to normal, but it happened.
A sense of scale
The rest of the program went by much smoother, and the last day of HSSP happened last Saturday. It didn’t really feel like a huge relief or anything, given that I was already getting less and less involved with it as it went on. It didn’t really feel that satisfying when it ended either, and I still couldn’t internalize HSSP being a good thing, or that I did a good thing, or whatever. To be honest, it felt like I didn’t really do anything. It was literally the case that all the work I did for this program was sit in front of my laptop and type things.
Now that it’s ended, I want to reflect on the people who helped make this program happen. One of the things I said in my Splash post was that I didn’t have a good grasp of the scale involved in running Splash. After Summer HSSP, I have a much better idea of the scale, and I want to help give you an impression of how many people work together to make it happen.
I already mentioned the publicity team, directed by Laura C. ’23 and Lily Z. ’22. They were the ones who sent out lots and lots of email announcements to teachers and students, and they were also in charge of the @mitstudents Instagram takeover. They’re a big reason of why we had so many teachers sign up for this program!
Then there are the Directors of Teaching Resources, Brandon P. ’23 and Christina W. ’23, who put together not one, not two, but three teacher orientations for the program, covering everything from online teaching tips to how to use Zoom effectively to important program logistics.
There’s the community working group, directed by Paolo A. ’21 and Leslie Y. ’22. They did lots of things, like making a Slack for teachers, or running the kickoff. My favorite thing they did, which Zawad C. ’23 put a lot of work managing, was a blog called The Ripple. There are lots of posts from students and teachers about their experience, which I really enjoyed reading. There aren’t that many, so you should read all of them, but if I had to pick, read The Sharks at HSSP and Scattered Thoughts. There are also lots of other people who did things for the community working group, but I don’t really have space to list everything.
Then there’s art, directed by Laura C. ’23 and Grace C. ’23. Other than making lots and lots of great shark-themed art, they also made some great shark-themed merchandise! I really loved these stickers, designed by Janice T. ’22:
We also had Felix L. ’23, whom you may know from other work for the MIT Admissions office, who was in charge of the lecture series. These were classes that changed weekly that students could drop in and out of. He taught many of these classes himself, talking about architecture, the art of making playlists, running MIT student panels, and giving an MIT tour on Minecraft. I taught one of the lecture series classes myself, talking about coats of arms and flags:
There are people whose work is less visible, but critical in making the program work too:
- I already mentioned Yoshi S. ’22, who made sure all the Zoom rooms worked out, and built a lot of infrastructure to make it easier for us to troubleshoot.
- There’s Jeffery L. ’23, who corresponded with all 183 teachers to get them background checked, as required by MIT’s minors policy.
- There’s Andrew L. ’22, Alex L. ’22, and Jeffery Y. ’22, who helped out a lot with the website and tracked some important program data.
- There’s Matthew C. ’23, who made sure the thousands, literally thousands of emails we got, all got answered.
- There’s Emily C. ’22, Shardul C. ’22, Paolo A. ’21, and Avery N. ’22, who helped keep track of everything and answered a lot of our questions about directing.
- There are people among MIT staff who helped us out too! There’s Ethan F. from SOLE, who gave us a lot of advice, Andrea F. who helped a lot with background checks, and Rohan K. who helped with outreach.
- My co-directors Wayne Z. ’23 and Matt B., who literally did two-thirds of the directing, kept me sane, told me to take breaks, and helped pick up my duties when I couldn’t.
- There are the lots and lots of people in ESP, who didn’t have named roles, but helped interview teachers, write and review emails, moderate large classes, check teachers in, and troubleshoot during the day-of. And I’m going to cop out and not mention them because there are lots and lots of them. But as someone didn’t have a named role in ESP for a long time, I have an idea of the lots and lots of work these people put in.
And even though I have a better idea of the scale, it still amazes me, boggles me, how it all fits together, how much work goes into this. It still feels like years and years of experience are hidden from me, and that I’m only just beginning to understand it all.
I’ve said it before, but it feels amazing to be a part of all of this. A small part, in the scale of things, but a part nonetheless.
All of this to say: what did I learn?
I’m not sure. I wish I had an easy answer, like learning about the importance of teamwork and relying on others, or how to make decisions that have a lot of moving parts, or how to deal with things when they don’t go to plan. None of these things feel exactly right.
Of things I could definitely say I learned, I learned a lot about filling out forms, working with Django, diagnosing email headers, using Google Sheets. And of course, none of these are the most valuable things I’ve gotten out of HSSP, by far.
It feels like I’ve grown. That much, I can tell. But in what ways, I don’t know. Maybe I won’t know for a while.
Would I do this again? I think I would. Maybe not directing a program again, but I’m still looking forward to being with ESP in the future, and to continue making programs like HSSP and Splash happen, whether taking on a role like art, or managing the website, or just being around. While I feel really tired, right now, I recognize that this is a temporary feeling, and in a few weeks I would probably feel more ready to do things again.
When I made my Splash post eight months ago, I ended with a conversation with Andrew L. ’22, with us talking about why I did things for ESP. At the time, I said I did things because it was fun, and I enjoyed it, and it made me feel fulfilled. While this still feels true to some extent, it definitely wasn’t the case that everything I did for HSSP was fun, or enjoyable, or made me feel fulfilled. If I were to answer why do you do things for ESP now, I think I would say something along the lines of:
I’m not sure. I wish I had an easy answer, like I enjoy it, or am learning a lot from it, or really like the people in ESP. All of these things are true, yet it doesn’t feel like the whole picture. There have been days when I didn’t feel like I was enjoying or learning, but I kept going nonetheless, and I’m not sure why.
As much as I want to say I do things for ESP because I’m passionate about education, or because it feels like I’m making a difference in the lives of teachers and students, that kind of fulfillment isn’t always there. It’s not something I can tell myself when everything’s breaking down to make me feel better. It’s not what carries me from day to day.
What does, then?
I don’t know. Inertia, maybe. A sense of obligation. Getting that occasional email from that really happy student. Listening to people talk about what classes they’re taking, or what classes they’re teaching. Hearing teachers, because of their HSSP experience, considering a teaching career. Late nights in the ESP office sitting on couches and talking.
It’s the innumerable tiny moments that keep me going. It’s the smallest parts that make me feel better, little by little. It’s the million little things I can’t put to words that make it worth it.
It’s cliched. I get it. And it’s not the whole picture.
But it’s true.