Question of the day: How do you engage your class?

To kick off the coming week, here’s another question (or set of questions) from Michael Laser:

“What activities have you done with your students that yielded the most interest, the most engagement? How do you get them talking, and even enjoying the class? Are there activities that you can share that have accomplished all this? If so, please reply with a description!”

Please weigh in below…

Mind-Mapping as a Teaching Tool

As I planned out the first unit on Scarcity for my Introduction to College Writing course, I realized that the text presented a unique challenge. It seemed to me that the authors’ extensive research and personal examples served to clarify the concepts while at the same time complicate the relationships between ideas. While reading Scarcity myself, I found that I needed to track how the central themes related specifically to the examples found in any particular chapter. This experience made me realize that I needed to find a better way to support my students in identifying the various concepts and how they related to the arguments presented in Scarcity. I decided that Mind-Mapping was the most appropriate tool for handling the complexities within the text. I spent two class periods teaching the basic concepts and methodology of Mind-Mapping; much to my chagrin, it seems to have marvelously affected the quality of my students’ first essay drafts.

For anyone who is unfamiliar with Mind-Mapping, Brian Weller and Tony Buzan developed the concept in the 1970’s (for more information, see: Essentially, Mind-Mapping is a methodology for linking written notes, pictures and colors to memory that is, according to research, more effective than traditional note-taking methods. The process of Mind-Mapping arranges info-graphics (combinations of words and images), picto-graphics (pictures that tell a particular story), and meaningful phrases, keywords and symbols organically on paper in order to capture ideas. Continue reading

Question of the day: What do you do during peer review?

Michael Laser and Tavya Jackson suggested that we feature questions about some general teaching situations on the blog, so that we can get input from varied quarters and discussion of some of our common classroom challenges.

To kick things off, here’s one from Michael:

“Today we did peer review of my classes’ 1st drafts. While the students read and commented on each others’ work, I occupied myself at the front of the room. Instinct told me that a great teacher would have been doing something different – engaging and helping somehow. But I didn’t want to intrude on their concentration and conversations.

Any thoughts? What do you do while they’re reading and taking notes on each others’ work?”

Please weigh in below.

Engendering Authority in the Classroom

Since most of us have made our way back into the classroom over the last three days, I thought I would start off a discussion about something that concerns many (most?) instructors, especially those who are new to the classroom (whether in general or to a new one in particular): the issue of authority and, especially, how one establishes it early in the semester with a new set of students.

A large part of the reason that I am considering this issue is because I just used my favorite ice-breaker in all four of my 105 courses, the one that I described in detail in a blog post a year ago: First day of class: Breaking the ice.

For those not interested in wading through it, the quick version is as follows: On the first day of class I show up early and sit among the students, causing them to think I am one too. Then, when it’s time to begin, I stand up and introduce myself, which invariably freaks out and thoroughly amuses the students.

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Peer Review, How I Hate to Love You

It’s a topic we have all thought about deeply. We have attended workshops and presentations, read scholarship, tried new and exciting ways of getting our students to collaborate during the revision process in our writing classes – and collaborate effectively.  I thought I had it down, really.  Then, the other day, I had a conference with one of my most impressive and hard-working students, and that all changed.

This student works diligently to revise his essays and to earn his grades.  He is straightforward and participates in class regularly, and has never missed an assignment. Overall, this is a student whose feedback I seriously value in terms of what might work in class and what might not work.  As we were conferencing over a draft of his essay, he asked, “Will we be doing peer review for this essay?”  When I answered that no, we would instead be using one-on-one conferences and instructor feedback for this one essay, he replied, “Oh good.  Peer review has mostly been useless for me.”

Punch to the gut!  Man down! Red Team Go!  S.O.S.! All manner of emergency exclamations ran through my mind.  Useless? How could this be? Grades are improving (for the most part).  Writing is getting better (through my rose-colored glasses).  In short, I had gotten cocky.  So, I asked my student, “Why do you say that, Student?”  His response was an eye-opener, and something I hope we can all use as a catalyst for discussion on the topic. 

Student said, “Well, the one time we sat in a circle was helpful.”  (To be clear, this is what I call “Carousel Peer Review.” I sit students in a circle and give them each four identical sheets of paper. Each paper contains a space for the reviewer’s name, the writer’s name, and three questions:

1. What is the author’s central claim?  Explain whether or not it is arguable and if not, how it could be.

2. What is the best part of the essay and why?

3. What part of the essay needs the most improvement and why?

Students pass their essay to the left once, read and fill out the sheet and when I call time, pass the essay to the left again and complete it for another, and so on. This way, they get four short but focused peer reviews, which I hand back at the end of class.)  So, I asked Student, “Is it because you got so many reviews back?” And he replied…

         “No. It was the best because everyone had to be quiet.”

He went on to explain that during past peer reviews, in which students had been placed in small groups with traditional and more elaborate peer review sheets to fill out, he felt that nothing got done, that it was just an opportunity to socialize and that the last time we had done it, the other students in his group had not revised their essays at all. “And,” he asked, “Why should I revise their papers for them if they do not want to do the work?” So of course, I start questioning my methods.  I mean, it’s not as if I do not circle the room and meet with each group during peer review, but we all know that small group work can be a tricky monster; students can seem really on-task when we approach their group, but then revert back to talk of Facebook and what is going on that night or what they watched on TV that week as soon as we are out of ear shot.  In addition, if we are using peer review as a way for students to receive revision comments outside of instructor feedback (say, for a middle draft when we have already extensively commented on first drafts), unless we closely evaluate each essay on peer review day (which sort of defeats the purpose), we don’t really have a way of knowing whether or not a student has truly revised the essay. 

Several ideas are coming to the surface. Should students show up to peer review day with a written summary of their revisions?  Should a requirement of peer review be that they somehow articulate their revisions to the group?  Do we have to be such police officers?

 So, I put these questions to all of you.  How do you handle the not-doers, the “I refuse to revise because only my classmates are going to be reading this anyway” students?  To beat a dead horse, how do you make your peer review effective?



Teaching drama in 106

(I’ve been meaning to put up the following since the workshop I did in February (I think). Since we’re almost into April, this might not be that helpful, but I’m hoping it sparks some ideas and conversation. Anyway, here goes…)

If I had to select my single primary aim when teaching drama, it is to have students approach and understand it on its own terms, rather than viewing it similarly to prose or poetry. To that end, here are a few of the approaches that I utilize, which I find not only facilitate the above end but also allow me to achieve a number of other things I want in the classroom.

(1) Begin by asking students their answers to the question of “What makes drama different from poetry and prose?” For the students who have little or no interest in drama, modify the above and ask them, “What—beside boredom—comes to mind when you think of drama? How do you visualize it?” The primary benefit of this step is to put preconceived notions on the table. Not only does that allow me to address (and, if needed, correct) such notions, but it provides useful material for me to reference back to during later discussions, as I build on—and/or take apart—these preconceptions.

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Do I Really Scare My Students?

I recently observed a colleague’s class, during which I noticed that out of the relatively small-sized group, the same few students were raising their hands to answer questions and offer responses, while several others kept quiet for the duration. At one point during the discussion, the instructor reminded her students that she will only call on them if they raise their hands; she won’t ask anyone to speak if they’re not volunteering. Nevertheless, by the end of the class, the discussion had been pretty lively, prompted by a combination of large and small group work.

I was pretty surprised to learn of this instructor’s method, and when I mentioned it to another colleague, he told me that–again, to my surprise–he uses the same method in his classes: he only calls on students who raise their hands.

Both colleagues offered a similar explanation for this approach: the class participation component of the course grade is based on student participation in whole class discussions, in small group work, in various online activities, and the like. That is, class participation does not just mean raising one’s hand. Not all students are comfortable speaking in front of the whole class, and because they are offered a variety of ways in which to meaningfully engage in the coursework, they won’t have to speak if they don’t choose to. Students are made aware of this from the beginning of the semester, and so the classroom dynamic is initially established as non-threatening, the classroom a space where students need not fear being called on when they don’t have a response, when they might not feel like sharing their ideas with the class, or perhaps when they simply aren’t prepared to speak about the day’s reading or writing assignment.

As suggested by the title of this blog post and by my reaction to learning of my colleagues’ class participation methods, I take a very different approach. In all of my teaching, I have always striven to hear from as many different students as possible in any given class–and this sometimes entails calling on students who have not volunteered to speak. And, as I find unnervingly coincidental in light of just talking directly with fellow instructors about their reasons for not calling on their students, I received for the first time in my ten-year teaching career, a comment in a student evaluation speaking to this very issue: “Sometimes I felt scared speaking in front of the class & by calling on a student makes them more scared [sic]. When I was ready, I did speak in front of the class.” You can imagine my horror at realizing that I actually made this student (and I must be realistic here, maybe others as well) feel scared.

I hope this goes without saying, but I don’t ever call on students to scare them. Like my colleagues, I set out to create a safe and comfortable learning environment. I, too, offer (and count for students’ participation grades) various methods of student participation inside and outside of the classroom. Nevertheless, I have always felt that by talking in class (in whole group discussions), students have the opportunity to share and see the value of their ideas, however unformed or tentative their ideas may be; also, I believe students may be more engaged by talking rather than only by listening. Also, I think it’s important to hear a variety of opinions, experiences, and interpretations; the more frequent hand-raisers themselves seem to appreciate the inclusion of other voices in the discussion. Further, I don’t call on students totally cold; that is, when students have with them something they’ve written–either before coming to class or during class time–I feel it’s fair to ask them to share what they’ve written as a means to generate or to further discussion. I also always give them the option of reading what they wrote or just explaining/summarizing/rewording it–an option that it seems to alleviate some of the self-consciousness students may have about their writing. This way, they are still able to communicate their ideas, and this exercise may even help them clarify or strengthen their ideas through discussion, which they can then potentially translate to their writing.

There’s much more I could share on the matter, but in the interest of keeping this (relatively) short, let me conclude by saying that now having learned that I may in fact be scaring some of my students(!), I will continue to seriously consider what is best for my students and for achieving the course goals.

I’d love to hear how some of you handle class participation: do you call on students as part of your regular teaching practice? Any suggestions for doing so without scaring students?