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....