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?