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Talking in Class

posted: 3.11.11 by archived

I started blogging seven or eight years ago as a way to engage in professional conversation. I was new to teaching, twenty years out of graduate school and eager to find someone to talk to—but I soon realized how difficult that would be with the hectic and conflicting schedules of the 5-5 teaching loads of full-time faculty and the multiple teaching gigs of my fellow adjuncts. Though blogging does help me to feel connected professionally, there’s nothing quite so invigorating as sitting down at a table of colleagues to talk teaching. That’s what I had a chance to do yesterday, at a Reflective Practice session with five other teachers where I raised one of the issues I’ve been struggling with lately: how do I get my Writing about Literature students to talk to each other?

My colleagues offered these suggestions for use in the classroom:

  • Try a fishbowl, where a group of 5–7 students sit in the middle and carry on a discussion while the rest of the class watches, taking notes as they await their turn to “sub in.” (I had heard about this method for use in high school classrooms, but hadn’t thought to apply it to my own class; note to myself to read up on active learning strategies!)
  • Throw out an offbeat question that connects characters to students’ real lives (which character would make the best friend?), or try what-if or what-next questions.
  • Ask students to prepare a visual that connects to a story or poem; a colleague reported that in a unit on suspense she asks students to construct a representation of their Evil Twin.
  • Many teachers said that they’d had the most success with small-group discussions (centered on a group of questions provided by the instructor or a poem to present to the class; several mentioned using groups to generate questions for whole-class discussion or writing assignments). Students seem more relaxed in groups, leading to greater participation overall, but teachers stressed the importance of either formally assigned roles within the group process or the requirement that everyone participate in the report-back-to-class portion (if that happens orally).

The complicating factor for my class this semester is its online delivery. As reported earlier, I’ve been using both a CMS and individual student blogs, which has created some confusion for students and not necessarily led to the sort of conversation that seems desirable in a literature class. A simple sort of post-and-then-comment strategy is not working so well, with minimal participation and little of the sort of lively debate I’d like to see. Colleagues were very helpful with suggestions there as well:

  • We discussed the possibility of using group blogs (or groups set up within the CMS); this might be less overwhelming for students in terms of reading each other’s posts, and a smaller group size might lead to more active discussion. (And I need to reconsider whether my preference for blogs is more a matter of aesthetics than pedagogy.)
  • Another colleague suggested assignments that required students to reference each other’s posts, which offers interesting possibilities, I think.

These suggestions, the issues I’m dealing with, and my sense that I’ve got a lot more to learn about how to best teach my students leave me with a combination of anxiety and eagerness and a depth of gratitude that we get the chance every semester to start anew. In teaching first-semester composition (“just” writing), I’ve focused more narrowly on assignment design rather than course design, and I’ve paid more attention to how I respond to students on the page (or the blog) rather than in the classroom. It’s a little early in the semester (or late!), but I’m feeling very keenly the sense, as Barclay puts it in his blog title, of “emerging.”

But, to return to the question at hand, as always I’d appreciate any comments or advice readers can give about how best to stimulate discussion, either online or face to face.

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas
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