Listening and Responding to Our Students

The other day I found myself with an unexpected visitor casually observing one of my composition classes, and no lesson plan.

Well, I had a lesson plan; the second draft of an essay was due that day, and I had a revision activity planned for my students.  But in response to my casual question of “How are these essays coming?” at the beginning of class, my students hit me with a barrage of complaint:  they were stuck, they didn’t know what else to say, they didn’t know how to organize their ideas, they weren’t sure if they were answering the question in the assignment, they had only written one page because they kept starting over.  So I decided to put off my planned revision exercise and try to spend part of class time working through my students’ difficulties with the essay.  I took a poll of the class, and it turned out that almost everyone was struggling with organization and introductions.  Together we reviewed what they had learned about introductions and made a checklist for a good introduction.  Then several students volunteered to read their introductions to the class, and the class evaluated whether or not the introductions met the criteria on the checklist, then gave the writers feedback on how to improve.  Together they determined, for instance, that yes, Mary’s introduction had a “hook,” but it wasn’t very effective, and she could make it more compelling by adding a second, contradictory clause to the sentence.  Next, the students exchanged drafts and did a quick peer review focusing solely on introductions, using the checklist we had developed.

At some point, my original lesson plan was entirely scrapped, and we spent the remainder of class creating a sample outline for an essay on the assigned topic, after which the students had a little time to make their own informal outlines to help organize their essays.  Of course, I could have gone ahead with my planned activity, and it probably would have benefited the students in some ways as well, but instead, I chose to let my students assess what they needed most, and to respond to those needs, even though it meant coming up with a new 75-minute lesson plan on the spot, in front of an observer.

I once heard a colleague compare teaching to performing live improvisational comedy:  you might go in with a general plan of what you’re going to do, but you can never predict how the other people involved will react, and once you’ve lost your audience, you have to work twice as hard to get them back…if you ever do.

I think my colleague had a valid point.  There are risks involved in classroom teaching, precisely because we can’t predict what will happen each day when we stand at the front of a room full of fifteen or twenty (or more) distinct individuals.  As a result of this risk factor, it can be tempting to plan obsessively and stick to those plans pretty rigidly.  I think, though, that the most successful teachers are those who are willing to cultivate a more flexible and responsive approach in the classroom.  Not only does this allow for us to address the real needs that students are able to identify and articulate, it also creates an atmosphere in which students can feel valued and develop a sense of their own authority as writers.  If I trust my students to figure out what they need the most help with, and respond by providing that help, the message I hope it sends to them is that they have the ability to assess their writing and take concrete steps to improve it.  I think this was demonstrated by the active role my students took the other day in creating our class checklist for effective introductions, and thoughtfully critiquing each others’ work based on this checklist.  In a way, it was more work for me (and a lot more talking on the fly), but the class is not about me, it’s about my students.  I don’t think I’ve ever met a composition instructor who would disagree (at least, not that I knew of), but I don’t think it hurts to remind ourselves of this point every once in a while.

To this end, I not only come to class prepared to ditch a lesson plan now and then; I also try to encourage a fair amount of reflection by my students.  Here are some specific things I do in class to help with this goal:

Post-writes—Every time a final draft of an essay is due, before I collect it from my students, I have them spend up to ten minutes writing about their work on that essay.  I ask them to tell me what they liked or disliked about the topic, what they found challenging about the essay, what parts of their essays they feel like they did well, what parts they may feel less confident about, and if there is any section or aspect of the essay that they’d like me to pay particular attention to when I’m grading it.  I collect these post-writes along with the essays, and read them before I begin grading each essay.

Unit post-mortems—As we are wrapping up a learning unit, I will often ask my students to tell me what they thought of it.  Were they interested in the topic?  Was it hard to talk about?  What did they think of the readings?  Would they advise me to use the unit again in a future course?  I take my students’ responses with a grain of salt, but I do think about them and use the general gist of their feedback to help me revise my syllabi and assignments from time to time.

Debates—This is something new I’ve tried this semester, and so far, it’s worked very well.  I give my students a basic debate format (opening statements, rebuttals, cross-examination, second statements/rebuttals, closing statements), set time limits, create teams and a panel of judges, give them a question to debate, assign a time-keeper…and surrender responsibility.  One of the “rules” of the debate is that I’m not allowed to comment in any way while it is ongoing, and sometimes it’s incredibly hard not to say anything, but when the students are totally responsible for keeping the debate going, they really get into the discussion, and the “judges” tend to take their role very seriously.  I’m finding it’s a great way to take the focus off of me and to let my students explore the nuances of a topic on their own.

Immediate feedback—Sometimes, for whatever reason, a lesson or activity that I’ve planned completely flops.  Now matter how much enthusiasm I muster at the chalkboard or from my spot in the circle, my students just sit and stare.  When this happens, if the class doesn’t perk up within a reasonable time frame, I will stop what I’m doing and ask them directly, “What is the problem?”  Sometimes it might be that no one did the reading, or the weather is truly awful and everyone wants to go back to bed, and there’s not much I can do about that except tell them to sit up and make an effort.  But sometimes, it might be that the students didn’t understand the assignment, or that they did the reading but feel uncomfortable discussing it, and just talking about that discomfort can help to get the discussion started.  Even if the lesson is falling flat because of factors that are beyond my control, I’ve generally found that simply by stopping and asking my students what’s going on, I’m able to get a better response from them.  I don’t know whether this is because of the novelty of the occurrence or because it shows them that I care about their engagement with the material, but if it works, I’ll take it.

Balancing our students’ varying and somewhat unpredictable needs with our program’s requirements and our own carefully laid plans is one of the challenges of teaching, but listening and responding to our students can also be one of the most rewarding aspects of what we do.  What are some of your strategies for keeping the classroom focused on the students’ needs?

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2 thoughts on “Listening and Responding to Our Students

  1. This recent impromptu class sounds like a great success! Although having the surprise observer there (what was that about?!) may have initially added a bit more anxiety, in the end, it sounds like this was a wonderfully organic and productive class for a colleague to observe. I also really appreciate your description of specific activities you use to generate student reflection; I usually have students do essay post-writes as well, but I’ve never done a unit reflection, which I think I’ll try out. As you suggest, that activity provides students with an opportunity to stand back and think about what they’ve been reading and writing about for the previous couple of weeks, while also providing the instructor useful feedback to consider in future course planning. Thanks for sharing those activities!

    Along these lines of ditching the lesson plan to adapt the day’s activities to each class’s needs/students’ shared struggles, etc., I find myself doing this more and more (particularly in lower-level classes) on reading days. Over the last couple of semesters, I’ve noticed that students are simply not ready to participate (meaningfully at least) in the activity I have planned because, as a whole, they just did not understand the material.

    Each time I assign a new reading, I assign a written homework assignment intended to help the students begin thinking through and generating ideas in response to the text. My subsequent in-class plans are designed as a follow-up to the homework prompt. So, for example, if the homework asks students to describe and evaluate the author’s purpose and rhetorical approach to achieve this purpose, my lesson plan will begin by discussing what students have written and then will primarily aim to take the discussion a step further with some kind of writing/group work/class discussion activity. My logic is pretty basic: since the students have thought through the text on their own and already done some writing about it, we can use our class time to build on that work–to share, challenge, and expand our ideas about the reading and dig a bit deeper, form connections to other course texts and to real-world situations, etc. As I’m finding more and more, though, this isn’t always possible, at least not until our next class.

    Similar to jacksonta’s experience asking a casual question at the start of class (“How are these essays coming?”), when I begin class by asking “What did you think of the reading?” I’m often answered with a lot of “It was hard”; “I really didn’t get it”; and–I have to add here–my favorite: “It was too long!” (this usually about an article that was probably no more than 8 pages… but perhaps that’s a discussion for another time…). When this happens, I ditch my lesson plan and instead help my students work through the reading very closely, drawing on the their own ideas and homework responses as frequently as I can to guide our analysis of the reading. When their answers or interpretations reflect a misreading, I push them to explain how they reached their response–looking back at specific moments in the text itself usually enables students to work together to get to the bottom of what the author really means when he says [fill in the blank]. And these moments when students directly help one another figure things out are always wonderful to see!

    My goal in days like these is always to help students see that what they think they don’t get, they probably do. I tackle such discussions by asking what didn’t they understand? We end up creating a list of aspects of the reading to discuss, and although I might initially be disappointed that we won’t be doing the activity I came into the classroom excited to do (after all that planning?!), these discussions are often the most valuable. I try to facilitate a discussion that relies on the students’ efforts to understand the context of the reading, the writer’s tone and intended audience–and how all of this can help inform their understanding of the argument and examples. That is, this kind of unplanned summary and analysis (instead of post-summary evaluation and response, application, etc.) more often than not shows students how they themselves are capable at looking at what’s in the text, identifying the key rhetorical elements that help put the piece together, and explaining it in their own words to their classmates.

    There are certainly many other factors related to this type of classroom experience (such as what role textbook selection and/or lack of effort on the students’ part plays in this issue ), but for now, I thought it interesting to explore how our work with reading as a practice itself often takes shape in the classroom. Much like our work teaching writing, our work teaching the materials about which we ask students to write, can quite productively be guided by our students’ concerns and challenges. The days when my lesson plans go out the window are often the most rewarding because this is when so much student-generated conversation happens. And this helps prepare students for what comes next: developing their ideas in their writing…

  2. jacksonta, I really like the sound of your impromptu class (and, like petricht2012, am really curious about the unexpected observer!). I’m a big fan of a teaching approach which adapts to the needs of the students (which may sometimes include things that the students aren’t aware they need and/or elements they don’t want to deal with and need to, of course) and I like the “teaching as improv comedy” model, having always thought that what we do in the classroom is often a performance art.

    Personally, one broadly overarching strategy that I use for keeping the classroom focused on the students is that I just don’t use lesson plans any more. I’ve used the method of having lesson plans and being prepared to ditch/modify them as needed, but I found myself changing or dropping things on the fly so often that I simply ditched them nearly a decade ago. I’ll go in with some ideas for things I want to touch on and, on occasion, perhaps a few notes or page references or a reminder to myself (which will usually be scribbled on whatever piece of paper was handy), but that’s about it.

    I find that not having a lesson plan makes me more adaptive and perhaps more receptive to (and certainly reliant on) student cues, since I need to keep my students engaged and be pulling on the areas I see them gravitating toward or needing emphasis on for the class to progress. Anything that I absolutely want to cover in class I can easily insert into the discussion at various points or propel the conversation toward as needed, so I feel no lack in that area either, since I know students will end up taking away from the class what I feel they need to. And I never go home feeling sorry that I wasted the things I planned on since the plans arise from the class as it develops, rather than primarily existing before it. I do end up using a lot of the strategies you (and petricht2012) mentioned, and I particularly like to use student reflection on what we’re doing to get them thinking about how they’re approaching/responding to our material (a form of weird meta “reflection on reflection,” so to speak), since I find that works really well for my classes and me.

    While the above approach can be a little risky, in that it keeps me on my toes constantly and has the potential for flopping badly with a completely unresponsive class, I’ve found that to be more a theoretical danger than something that occurs in practice. I find that it leads to a more dynamic and adaptive class, which benefits my students (who see that their interests and needs have a significant effect on the class) and me (since it’s far more interesting to teach such a class and also ensures that the same class will be completely different even if I teach it four times in one day).

    I’d ramble on (as usual), but it’s time to buzz off to teach. And, as noted above, to discover exactly what it is that my students and I are going to do today.

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