Winging It

If you ask seasoned college professors whether they have ever walked into classroom unprepared and had it work, you will see a smile and a look of guilty recognition. For whatever reason, we all find ourselves teaching without a net sometimes. And sometimes, amazingly, it works. Even so, it's a really bad technique to rely upon.

It happened to me this morning. Last Friday I had a brain lapse and began teaching Monday's lesson. The students just sat there blankly through forty minutes of discussion before one of them had the perspicacity to ask, "Why are we talking about Paul's Letter to the Romans? That's next Monday's reading."


Then I spent all day Saturday working on my tenure review portfolio and most of Sunday catching up on grading and rereading Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women for sophomore honors seminar. This morning I had a two-hour meeting. The upshot was that Intro to Humanities was placed on the back burner. Now it was 9:00 a.m. and I needed a creative idea for class and needed it fast.

So in the hour between the meeting and class, I typed up a blank test template. There was a section for true/false, another for matching and one for fill in the blank. I even left some empty spaces for essay prompts. I put the students in four teams when class started and had them write questions onto the empty test copies. They had to design the exam to include the material we've covered so far. They went back through their notes and the readings and were really engaged in what needed to be on the quiz and how to word each question. They even wrote some meaty comparison-contrast essay prompts. The teams spent around 25 minutes designing their quizzes. Then they switched quizzes and took each one another's exams.

The best part was the interactive discussion and review of the course's major concepts. As students worked, I flitted from table to table listening to them re-debate heroism in the Iliad, Socrates' examined life, and the nature of the tragic hero in Oedipus. They didn't have time to respond to the essay prompts they wrote, so I offered extra credit to anyone who wanted to tackle one. It worked really well and was a fun, engaged but substance-filled 50 minutes.

I wouldn't want to teach without a net every day, but sometimes it does focus the teaching mind with that odd, brace-for the crash, adrenaline rush clarity.


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