22 January 2014

Everyone Talks!

By Imranul Haque, shadow_lit AT yahoo.com (Own work)
 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
My teaching goal for this semester is to get everyone talking.  Everyone.  I'm not teaching any new preps, I'm not trying out any bold new teaching formats, I'm mostly teaching texts I've taught at least once before, and so I'm focussing my energy on hearing from every student, every class (within reason).

I've already failed, but that's kind of how it goes. More on that below.

Some things I've tried before that have worked (I just need to do them more, and more consistently):

  • tell them the question and ask them to think for a few minutes before I start calling on people to answer (see a good explanation of the strategy here by Garrett Ford Morrison) 
  • asking a question and then going around the discussion circle, eliciting an answer from each person in turn rather than awaiting volunteers (does a student claim to have nothing to say? "okay, think about it a little more and I'll come back to you in a few minutes")
  • "rotating chair" discussions: student poses a discussion question, calls on fellow students to answer it, decides when the question has been discussed sufficiently, then picks someone who did not participate in the conversation to ask the next question.
  • "fishbowl" discussions: I divide the class into three or four groups and hold discussion with each group in turn, while the rest of the class sits in a ring around the discussion group.  Those in the outer ring have a worksheet on which to record reflections, observations, questions, but they can't talk--only those in the "fishbowl" can.  After a fixed amount of time, each group is dismissed and a new group enters the fishbowl.  Often I pick the groups based on how much students participate.  People who rarely talk get to talk just with each other.  I collect the reflection worksheets afterwards and often get a lot of insight into the kinds of things people think about in discussion but don't say.  
  • student-led discussions: students sign up to prep the reading for a particular day and devise a 15-minute lesson plan of sorts.  On their day they lead the first 15 minutes of discussion.  I sit in the back of the room and don't say anything while they guide their classmates into the reading. Depending on how things are going, I either take over at the 15-minute mark or let the conversation continue, but with my participation.
  • small-group activities in a variety of formats.  I always call first on the least-usually-participatory student in each group to present the group's ideas to the class.
  • seeing what my colleagues do.  There are any number of useful teaching phrases too individually inconsequential to list here that I use all the time not because they ever came to me naturally in the course of a conversation, but because I saw how they worked in someone else's class and adopted them as my own.  Hearing someone else's stock of responses to smart and not-so-smart student remarks gives me more possibilities to draw on and keep the conversation patterns out of ruts.
This semester's innovation: as I do every semester, I had students take mug shots of each other with my phone.  They write their names big the back of the sheet of paper on which I ask for basic first-day-of-class information and hold them up in the photo so I can easily connect names and faces. This year I asked them to hold on to their sheets and hand them in only once they had spoken in our discussion on a short literary text that we read in class.  Nobody could speak a second time until I'd collected all the sheets.  Like many of these devices, it seems to work because it's so formulaic. Students know they have to talk, which lowers the stakes for saying something smart, which frees them to speak without worrying about being judged.

It felt good!  People had things to say, the pace was self-sustaining, the room felt comfortable.  But did I mention that I failed?  I collected all the sheets in my first class.  In the second class a non-native-English-speaker presented the sheet to me at the end of class and I apologized profusely.  In the third class (which was larger, 36 as opposed to 24 students) I ran out of time and mental space to keep track of who had talked and who hadn't--I collected three sheets at the end of class and told those three we'd start with them on Thursday.

Full-disclosure: I was one of those students who rarely talked in class.  Most of my learning took place outside the class, when I wrestled with the material on my own to write my papers. I would have been one of the students (and there are always a few in every class) who loathes group work, but I recall no such activities ever taking place in the--gulp--'80s.  To the extent that class discussion shows students how to grapple with a text, how to question their own assumptions, how to entertain alternative viewpoints, I was already there. The books interested me--but the thought that I might learn anything from a fellow student, or that my fellow student might learn from me never crossed my mind.  It took parenthood to teach me that you can learn as much (and learn it better) from other people as from a book.   I'm really glad I don't have a lot of me's in my classes.

(Something I want to think more about: getting students not to raise their hands.  First comment to that linked post suggests an appealing teamwork strategy for increasing student participation, one I can see working really well for getting students to articulate and defend different interpretations of a given text.)

(Here's a list of strategies I found just now while looking for a link to the "rotating chair" concept.  Turns out other people use the term differently than I do.  There could be some useful ideas to pursue here.  Like a lot of material on college pedagogy that's out there, it's not discipline-specific, which makes it less helpful than it could be.)

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