Wednesday, March 29, 2006

We Interrupt Your Scheduled Boy-Craziness for Some Pedagogical Strategies

New Kid's got a thread going over on her blog, a kind of pedagogical round-table or round-up in which commenters are asking questions about situations that they find challenging in the classroom. I added my own query to the comment-thread, but as I was reading through others' responses I noticed that a lot of people's concerns were literature-class related, so I thought I would post about it over here, and perhaps then the comment thread from this post could be a branch off of New Kid's in which all of the lit-minded folks could get more specific about pedagogical strategies in literature classes. I'm in no way claiming to be an expert on this stuff, but teaching four classes a semester (well, except for this semester) and teaching a wide range of students with a wide range of levels and backgrounds, I have thought about this stuff a great deal. So, over in the comment thread at New Kid's.....

Prefer Not to Say wants to know:

1. "How to design a non-lecture-style classroom activity for a work of literature (ie, not composition classroom) that doesn't wind up being vastly reductive, or just busywork. I am all ears if anyone has ANY activity that works on ANY text."

Ok, this is kind of a tall order, but I think a version of the following can work on any text, no matter what the genre. I know I've used it for poetry, novels, and plays.

  • Break students into groups of four. (Four is, I think, the ideal group number. Five can mean that some people don't participate; three can sometimes seem to small. At the beginning of the semester I tend always to assign the groups; as the semester progresses I sometimes assign the groups, and I sometimes let them choose with whom they work.)
  • Give each group a set of identical questions (about three) but different things through which to focus those questions. (For example, when I taught Hamlet, I did this activity with characters. I assigned each group a character, and they had to come up with answers for the following: a) describe the character - what he/she looks like, personality traits, etc. b) the character's relationship to the other characters in the play - including alliances and conflicts, and c) pick one scene that you believe defines this character and discuss why you think so. If you don't want to do characters, you can do it with themes; if you don't want to do it with themes/symbols, or you can do it by content, so each group would be assigned a different chapter, and then they have to a) summarize it b) discuss how it relates to the text as a whole - or the reading for that day as a whole and c) pick a pivotal moment that they think is crucial to the reading of the entire text and discuss why.)
  • This is the most important part: Each group has only 15-20 minutes for the activity. While they are working, you plot out spaces for each group to write their answers on the dry-erase board (ideally) in different colored markers. When the group is done, they record their responses on the board, and then the discussion for that day revolves around looking at each group's answers and looking at the passages that they thought were most crucial. (I generally do this activity in a class that meets for 1 hour and 15 minutes, but if you had a 50 minute class you could easily spread it over two class periods, or eliminate different parts of the activity, giving them less time to meet in groups and more time for class discussion. Oh, and I usually use this activity in lower-division classes with approximately 30 students.)

2. How to teach non-modernist poetry. Really. Like Shakespearean sonnets. What are your aims when you bust out those sonnets? What concrete steps do you take to get there?

Ok, this is a great question for me because a) I'm not actually a "poetry person," i.e., I do not tend to do my scholarship on poetry, b) I do teach poetry - everything from Shakespearean sonnets to postmodern poetry, and c) I'm one of those people who specializes in 20th century stuff, technically, so old-fashioned formal poetry isn't necessarily my thing (although I think it's so important to teach it).

  • I like teaching things like Shakespearean Sonnets or odes or ballads or whatever because I do think that it's important that students understand that poetry is not just feelings thrown on a page with some rhymes but rather that it has metrical and aesthetic constraints. Unless one teaches "old-fashioned" poetry, students do not see that. And yes, I spend time in my lower-division classes on scanning lines of poetry and explaining to them how different poetic conventions (enjambment, repetition, etc.) affect meaning. It's easier to see these things in "old-fashioned" poems than it is in, say, The Wasteland, for novice readers of poetry.
  • I'm not sure how to explain the concrete steps thing, except that 1) we always read poetry aloud, whatever kind of poem we're reading; 2) we always take poems apart line by line, stanza by stanza; 3) I focus particular attention on the "turns" in poetry and on layers of images and meaning. A great book for students/teachers of "old-fashioned" poetry is Mary Oliver's Rules for the Dance - which is short and yet really comprehensive for one's purposes in lower-division classes.

As a corollary to Prefer Not to Say's question about in-class activities, Dr. Virago asks:

And as a corollary to that, how do you do small group work without worrying that some kid on the other side of the room is saying something completely wacky and that the rest are agreeing with him/her?

I think that's the reason I like the reporting on the board aspect of the above activity that I described. If they record what the group has discussed, and if they record something wacky, it then gives me a way of talking about it that is not an assault on the wack job but also that allows me to correct the error for the whole class. It distances the bizarre reading from the individual and instead makes it be about everything that's on the board. Also, one can often find ways to use what other students have written to get students to realize that the wacky thing is wrong - I don't have to do the correcting at all - I just need to question them and push them based on what all of the groups have reported back.

Next, LaLecturess asks:

I'd like help (from the literary types) on how to switch things up on days when I'm just d-r-a-g-g-i-n-g my class through a passage that I think is important, but when they're not producing anything and they don't want to look at the language closely enough. [. . .] Other than calling on people at random one after another, or moving on to something else, or lecturing them on the importance of close-reading, does anyone have any good strategies?

Ok, this one I can answer much better than the poetry one, as my life is one of looking at passages that make students want to cry. Here are some strategies that I've used:

  • Usually I tend to read the passage in its entirety first, aloud. This is a fine strategy to begin, but if they're not talking, the only way to fix it is to take the focus off of me reading and rambling. Thus, once I've read the passage, and if they are silent, I tend to...
  • Have a student or students be the readers of portions of the passage - don't do it yourself. This takes the focus off of you, and it puts the ownership of the passage onto them. Standing toward the back of the room can help with this as well, designating a student to write people's comments on the board, and leading discussion from behind.
  • Lead the discussion by focusing on very precise points in the passage. Ask questions, and don't be afraid of silence. Sometimes, silence means they're thinking. I think we English Professor Types forget that, as in graduate school we are trained to blab to prove that we are worthy of being there.
  • If they're still not talking, try letting them free-write for five minutes in response to the passage without putting their names on their papers, and then doing this "round-robin" activity, where you move the class into a circle, and - kind of like in musical chairs - you have the students pass the papers around until you yell "stop" and then you call on somebody to read what is written on the paper in front of him/her. This means that nobody knows who wrote what, and it also means that you aren't calling somebody out by calling on him or her. It can get a little rowdy, but it has always worked for me.
  • When all else fails, be the Mean Professor and tell them that you are disgusted by their lack of participation and that they should leave because you can't teach people who aren't engaged. This is the nuclear option, but sometimes they need a jolt to understand that they are responsible for getting the most out of the class that they can. Sometimes an "I've read this carefully before and so it makes no difference to me if we go through this. You, on the other hand, will be tested on this, so perhaps you have more of a reason to worry than I do, and I'm not here to spew information out at you for you to regurgitate it back" does wonders as well. You may make the more sensitive ones cry, and your evaluations may suffer, but sometimes the class is much better for it. Use at your own discretion.

Ok, those are all the thoughts I had. Any other thoughts in response to these questions? Any other lit-specific questions? Any idea what I should wear tonight? Because I'm wigging out just a wee bit about this whole d-a-t-e that is fixing to occur. At least writing this post did distract me for a bit....


meg said...

I already said this over on NewK's, but I've had tremendous success with forming permanent groups at the beginning of the term. I choose carefully, of course, and I ask them to let me know if there is someone they don't want to be grouped with.

On those days when they just won't engage, I'll throw them a curveball question: What Hollywood actor would be best to play Hrothgar and why? Why is this the worst piece we've read so far? What songs would you pick for the soundtrack of this work? etc.

I let chaos reign for five or ten minutes, and then I steer conversation (as transparently as possible) back to what *I* want us to talk about.

Dr. Crazy said...

Permanent groups can be good, but I've had mixed results in some classes - how do you decide who ends up in what group? How large are the groups? Do tell more, Meg!

Also, I like the curve-ball question suggestion. I'll have to use that!

meg said...

Figuring out the groups is an anxiety-provoking exercise, but I haven't failed at it yet. I go by personality (balancing strong ones etc) and interests for the most part, plus year (no 1 frosh + 4 seniors or vice versa) and a few other subtle factors. And I take note of who has been responding to whom in discussion so far.

I go with five-person groups, so that one or two people can be sick with the Ubiquitous Floating Cold without ruining the vibe on any particular day.

I make them name themselves, and I always say "Because if I pick the means of designating the groups, someone will always complain, 'Aw, why do WE have to be Mr. Pink?!?!?" And then, inevitably, one group chooses to call themselves Mr. Pink.

I'm with you about the white board, colored pens, etc.

Bardiac said...

I just put Oliver's book on my Amazon wish list! Thanks for the suggestion! Do you know John Hollander's *Rhyme's Reason*? I learned a lot about reading poetry from it, and there are memorable bits I can remember and use.

I find poetry incredibly difficult as a reader, which, oddly enough means I do a pretty good job teaching it. Like you, I have my classes spend a lot of time reading it aloud. Feeling or tasting poetry in the mouth is vital.

Great post! I love reading about how people teach well. And now I want to come sit in on your classes, too!

Bardiac said...

PS. I also LOVE the musical chairs idea. I am SO stealing that!

La Lecturess said...

Hey, thanks Dr. C! I really like the round-robin suggestion & will probably try it with my one particularly despair-inducing class.

I also like much of the advice that you gave PFtS; I'm always looking for new strategies for working with groups.

Good luck on the date~~

(Oh, and Bardiac: I was assigned Rhyme's Reason in college, as a supplement to an intro level class, and I didn't find it to be useful. Now, however, I look at it periodically and think, "what a fabulous book!" Maybe it's the fact that the professor in question never told us what to do with it...)

Laura said...

I used to teach a lot of non-modern poetry, mostly renaissance. I once had the students compare a poem from a set we'd read to something we wouldn't normally consider art. I got some comparisons to boy bands, a photograph, and to the Dixie Chicks.

I've also cut sonnets into separate lines and have the students piece them together and we talk aobut why they put those lines where they chose to.

Dr. Crazy said...

Bardiac, et. al. -
If you are interested in the Mary Oliver book, you should be able to get a desk copy from the publisher just by contacting your local rep. It's a textbook publisher so it's not a tremendous hassle to convince them to give you one.

Also, this is a great discussion! So many good ideas! It's times like these when I wish my blog was totally public so that I could use it to demonstrate that I'm actively thinking about ways to improve my teaching :P

Scott Rogers said...

Usually, I'll take the discussion points I'd normally fire at them and print them out, chop them up, and put'em in groups to answer. Works like a charm.

Dr. Virago said...

Hey Dr. Crazy, I just wanted to pop in and say thank you for answering my pedagogical question. I always worry about having enough time for good group work *and* discussing it as a full class, and it never occurred to me give the groups a hard and fast time limit. Since my students tend to dither and get off track, that would probably be a very good thing for them.

Anyway, just wanted you to know that I read and appreciated your response -- I just didn't have time to comment when you posted it. But I know you'll get this comment by e-mail at least.