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?