Squelching Class Discussion

Last week, I wrote about some things I do to encourage students to talk in class.  This week, I had one of the best, if not the best, class discussion I’ve ever had.  It was so good that there was a span of about ten minutes (I looked at my watch, actually, as I could see what was happening, and I was enjoying every minute of it) where all I did was call on students to help manage who was talking when, making sure everyone who wanted to get heard got heard.  Out of a class of 26 students, 14 of them spoke and made good contributions to the class.

However, in another class this week, a first-year writing class, I had the opposite situation.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t having class discussion; instead, I had one or two people who were dominating.  They were even talking over each other, sometimes apologizing, but sometimes not.  It was clear that one of them was frustrated with the other.  I could have done what some professors do:  “Let’s hear what someone from this of the room has to say” or “What does one of you who hasn’t spoken think?”  For some reason, though, those questions have never seemed genuine coming from me, so I have to find other ways to engage students who aren’t contributing.

I used to use a good deal of group work in this class, dividing students into small groups where they would work on one or two questions I wanted us to consider that day.  I would then select a random spokesperson from each group (whose birthday is nearest to Christmas or who has the most vowels in their name, silly ways, granted, but truly random ones, given that I don’t know that information) to make sure people were accountable.  What I found, though, was that groups would work well for a few minutes, then quickly get off the subject.  When I wandered around, they would come back to what they were supposed to do, but dividing the class encouraged them to drift off, which I felt was wasting class time.

Thus, last semester, I switched to more of an all class discussion set up with me very much in front and in charge to try to get them to see how we could have an extended conversation on one subject, essentially teaching them how to have a discussion.  That went really well, as I later broke the class into groups, and they were more focused.  This semester, I planned to do the same.  However, the dominance of the two students led me to bring out the groups much earlier.  As with previous semesters, I spent the first fifteen minutes or so talking about some literary terms, then I divided the class into groups to find examples of those in the stories we had read.

When we came back together as a group, the discussion was much better than it had been the previous week.  Not only did I force several students to talk who might not have otherwise, several other students who had not spoken the previous class, either because they were unable to get into the conversation or they were unwilling to do so, made strong contributions to the discussion.

I might try switching back to the all class discussion on Tuesday to see how it goes, but I’m not sure yet.  I want to make sure I can build on the good discussion from Thursday and not lose that momentum.  If you have good ways to create class discussion, feel free to post them below.

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Having Students Think Before Class

This past week, I was sitting with some colleagues eating lunch, and I mentioned the great class discussion one of my classes had just had.  I didn’t tell them this part, but it was so good that I had trouble steering them where I wanted them to go, even though they were still talking about really good ideas.  At one point, a student said something that I definitely didn’t agree with, but I didn’t even need to respond, as several other students did instead.  It felt like a real conversation.

When I mentioned to my peers a couple of the students who had spoken, they were surprised.  It’s clear those students don’t talk in other classes.  I then had to admit that those students didn’t talk without my making them do so.  I didn’t cold call on them, as that has long bothered me.  Instead, I had set them up to have something to say in class, so they could have something prepared to say.

We use Moodle, which is similar to Blackboard and other such course software.  I use it so students can see their grades at any given time, which has cut down on the number of end-of-semester complaints significantly, and I put up some readings there they can’t access any other way.  But in the past few years, I’ve started using the forums to have students comment on reading before coming to class.  I began using them for exercises in a poetry writing course, then transitioned to these comments in a 400-level course.

The demand is not great on students, as they only have to write 150-250 words on what they read for the day, and the burden isn’t heavy on me, either, as I can read through them and score them in about 15 minutes or so the morning of class.  I take notes on a post-it of who said what, and I then use those comments to provoke class discussion.  Sometimes, in the middle of a class, instead of making a point myself, I’ll call on someone who I know said something along the same lines in their post for the day.  Since they’ve already written it, they’re more comfortable sharing their thoughts, and I know what I’m going to get.

I’ve tried other methods for this that didn’t work as well.  In 300-level classes, students write one-page papers every week and a half or so, and I once tried using those to guide class discussion.  I would call on a student and ask him/her to tell what the paper was about, then use that to springboard off of.  When I talked with students a few weeks into the semester, they felt that such an approach constrained discussion rather than encouraged it.  There were other topics they wanted to discuss that didn’t fit with what they had written.  They were right.  I hadn’t known that was the problem, but I did know that discussion did not go well.

Last semester, I tried using note cards, as I was trying to move away from the online system.  My class last fall complained about the amount of time they spent on Moodle, given that several of us in the department were using it.  I had a small class (12 students), so I thought that would be a good time to experiment with the note cards.  They handed them to me at the beginning of class, and I would quickly look through them before we started.  I seldom used them in class discussion because I just didn’t have time to process them in the few minutes before class began.  I need the time Moodle posts give me to think through their comments and organize my thoughts around these new thoughts.

No matter what system one uses, though (some people use freewriting at the beginning of class, for example), having students put something down in writing before coming to class helps them think about the material more deeply than they would otherwise.  Having those thoughts before we walk into class helps make our discussions much richer and deeper.

A Few Articles From the Previous Week

“What Do You Do on the First Day of Class” — lots of people have posts about the first day of class right now, so here’s one that links to several others; what really struck me, though, was his comment, “It made the exercise more fun, and it also gave me some insight into what kids these days are into. It never hurts for a teacher to be aware of that.”  I’ve wondered a good deal about this, and, at least right now, I’m not sure it’s true.  My knowledge of their pop culture doesn’t make me a better teacher.  In fact, I wonder if I should know about their pop culture at all.  Perhaps this deserves a longer blog post and more thinking.

“What Will You Do When Your Doctorate Is Done?” — one of the questions I receive most often is what students can do with their English degrees if they don’t want to teach.  While this article is geared at those finished doctorates, it can also work for those who just have a bachelor’s degree.

“Productivity or Sexism?” — Not that we need more evidence that sexism is still alive and well in higher education, but this article shows women who have the same level of research productivity as men who don’t get tenure at the same rates.  I was at least glad to see that English is doing much better than other disciplines.

Everything In Its Place

I recently read a story on NPR’s website about the orderly nature of chefs.  They use a system called mise-en-place:  “The system that makes kitchens go is called mise-en-place, or, literally, put in place. It’s a French phrase that means to gather and arrange the ingredients and tools needed for cooking.”  The story describes how chefs set up their kitchen in the most orderly fashion, that their hands move only inches once they begin the actual cooking.  One instructor says, “Once [students] set up their station I should be able to blindfold them and tell them … and they should know that their tongs are always here, their oil is always right here, their salt and pepper is always right here.”

Now, anyone who knows me knows I’m an orderly person to begin with.  My wife can certainly attest that I am much like these chefs.  Everything I have any control over in our house is always in the same place, whether it’s items in the refrigerator or in my study.  I could easily be blindfolded and find whatever it is I need if I’m in a space where I am the one to choose where things go (she has grudgingly accepted the refrigerator set up). Continue reading

What Do I Know?

I’ve been thinking this week about a student I taught years ago, whom I’ll call Karen.  She was older than many of the other students, probably 8-10 years older, actually. She had also lived a life that was more dramatic, certainly more colorful than many of her peers.  If we ever had students work in groups, her group would inevitably get off the subject, and she would be telling them stories from her pre-college life, which interested them intensely.  She was also an amazingly good student, and she read all of the time.

She was in a U.S. Literature I class I was teaching one fall, and we were discussing Henry David Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience.”  I love Thoreau, and I love teaching him, as his work seems so applicable to today’s world.  I see students who are obsessed with technology and the latest thing, ideas Thoreau criticized, though he went after newspapers and trains.  With “On Civil Disobedience,” though, I liked to talk about what we believe in so much that we would be willing to go to jail for it.  Note that I use the past tense “liked.”  I still talk about those ideas, but in a different way than I once did.

When I was younger, I was more prone to stir up students, to push them to do some radical action.  I still try to make literature practical, but I also recognize the limits I should place on my influence, largely due to what happened in Karen’s class.  I was holding forth about the heroism of Thoreau for being willing to go to jail for his beliefs.  Essentially, I was telling the students that they should do the same.  Karen, who sat on the front row, raised her hand and said quietly, but directly, “Have you ever been in jail?”  I had not and have not, and I think she knew it.  When I admitted that, she said, quietly, again, “It’s not a good place.”

It’s easy for professors to stand in front of classrooms and encourage students to do things with their lives that they have never done.  And it’s especially easy because students listen more than we would like to believe; after all, if we believe they really listen, we would be more careful with our words.  But we believe that, since we are experts in one narrow field in this world, we are experts in everything.  Literature professors hold forth on politics; political science professors talk about health care; economics professors discuss religion.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying we cannot or should not discuss matters outside of our field, even in the classroom.  However, I am saying we should come to those matters as the amateurs we are, and we should convey that to our students.  I wasn’t exploring the idea of whether or not one should go to jail for certain beliefs; I was telling the students what they should do, even though I had never done it myself.  While I would argue that our jobs do go beyond just teaching material, I also know that admitting what we do and do not know about other subjects would help us teach students to think through matters themselves, not just listen to us pontificate about things we know little or noting about.  We should not use our classrooms as bully pulpits, especially on subjects that have no place there.  But what do I know?

Note: this post was inspired by Susan Behrens’s commentary early last week, which is definitely worth reading.