I finished my classes last May running on fumes. All year I was teaching new classes, trying out new strategies, attempting to keep students engaged with challenging material and projects. The semester wasn’t a flop, but the rewards felt meager when I compared them to all my efforts at professional development, new classroom activities, and stimulating discussion starters. My mind kept returning to a post a graduate school friend wrote now nearly a year ago about conserving energy while teaching, but I kept coming up short on insight into what that might look like in my classroom.
Last year when a more senior colleague and hugely successful teacher observed my classroom, she encouraged me to let students do more of the work and to cultivate a little less formal atmosphere. Her words resonated with me–I didn’t like dominating the classroom with my voice either. But it’s hard not to also hear this feedback as a prompt to change my personality to be more of an entertainer. Still, I spent the summer trying to think of ways to liven things up in ways that wouldn’t feel too weird and contrived.
As long as I’ve been teaching, I’ve been well aware of the evils of lecturing and hierarchical teacher-student dynamics. But I’ve also been in many classrooms where student-led discussions fell flat and where attempts to get students to take ownership of their own learning resulted in students feel lost rather than empowered. On top of that, working at a teaching institution results in a lot of pressure to be awesome at teaching, and for me that translates to a meticulously prepared lesson plan, non-stop demonstrations of brilliance, and blissfully happy students. No biggie.
At the beginning of this semester I randomly picked up a book left behind by a predecessor, Teaching with Your Mouth Shut by Donald Finkel. In the book, Finkel describes a discussion technique where in each class session a different student takes questions from the rest of the class and writes them on the board. The students select the 3-4 questions they most want to discuss, and the teacher sits back while the students dive in.
Yes! A format I can follow!
So I’m using Finkel’s approach this semester, augmenting it by prompting students to prepare three questions/talking points for each class period as part of earning participation points. Then at the beginning of class, I give them time to write these questions down and briefly share with their classmates nearby. Like the classic pair-and-share, this gives students a chance to articulate and vet their ideas before presenting them to the whole group. Only then do we proceed with collecting questions on the board.*
It’s still quite early in the semester, so we will see how turning things over to the students in this way works long term. So far I’ve used this technique for both first-year and upper-level classes, and in both contexts, I was very happy with the insights, level of discussion, and willingness in these polite Midwestern students to gently push back against each others’ ideas. There’s been surprisingly few extended moments of silence and no individuals dominating the conversation. At least 50% of the class is actively participating in the discussions (and I hope to see this number grow).
Some things that still need fine-tuning include getting the quiet ones talking while still keeping participation voluntary and free-flowing. I also worry about the students who don’t enjoy class discussions and who may be tuning out because of that. I worry about the super smart students who appear bored or uncertain. I worry about the students I don’t know yet and have difficulty gauging at all. Hopefully with enough variation in class activities and readings, everyone will get their needs met at least part of the time.
I’ve long been assigning students reading responses in some fashion or another. Sometimes they submit them ahead of time and then I organize their responses around themes that emerge and use that as a basis for class discussions. Other times the reading response is more like a quiz, demonstrating that they’ve done the reading. Whatever the format, the idea is that students have something concrete in front of them to refer to during class discussions. Where this new technique improves upon those approaches is in giving students the unfiltered latitude to determine the flow of discussion. And prompting them to come to class with talking points assures that at the very least they will have a few places to begin the discussion.
As we know, the great thing about teaching is that there is always something more to learn. That can be discouraging too when learning new approaches and techniques feels like a Sisyphean task, requiring great effort with no finish line.
So here I am, rolling one more technique up the hill, but I have to say it doesn’t feel as heavy this time. I feel less drained and more energized after class. Class prep prompts less anxiety because I know the students are carrying more of that weight.
There’s even energy left over to write a blog post.
*Now my class time is divided into three distinct parts: 1) A few retrieval activities that recap the preceding class periods, 2) the student-led discussion, and 3) a wrap-up of the discussion with any points that need clarification/connection/context and setting up upcoming readings, assignments, etc. Hopefully this provides some of the variation necessary to address all the students’ learning needs.