Red Coat, Blue Coat

It's never a bad idea to do a brief check-in with classes around a month into the semester.  My standard procedure is to take about 10 minutes at the start of a class (always the start, never the end) and have students anonymously jot down answers to four questions:
  • What idea in this class has intrigued, scandalized, amused or confused you so far?  Why?
  • Have any of the ideas in this course cropped up out of class (in conversation, in relation to other subjects, or just as a thought you reflected upon)?  If so, when?  How?
  • What's one thing I could change that would help you in the course?
  • What's one thing you could change?
I type up all of the responses onto one sheet and share it at the next class meeting, circling any points of consensus.  This information serves multiple functions.  The first two questions help me gauge how much deep learning is going on, especially the second one.  Sometimes students will tell you really interesting stories about how they are applying the ideas of the course in their lives. 
One young woman told me she phoned her mother everyday after class and went over the entire discussion again because she and her mom were so interested in the subject.  Really, no fooling.  And you often hear how ideas in your course resonate with ideas in other courses, which is great evidence that some transfer of knowledge is actually taking place. 
The third question, however, is really important.  Once you show them the data, it's incumbent on you to make some adjustment (else they'll think you're full of it for even asking what they think).  Sometimes there are good pedagogical reasons why you can't make a requested change, but you can almost always change something as a show of good faith that you value their opinion.
I did this exercise two weeks ago in my first-year honors seminar and the request that came back loud and clear was that they wanted more student-led discussion.  So I agreed to turn over each Wednesday to them to discuss the material on their own.  As you might imagine, this didn't go well the first time out: long pauses, reluctance to speak, irrelevant lines of questioning, getting off task.   I mean it's not for nothing I'm paid to be in the room.
But okay, I thought, I needed to let them flounder before I began to prod.   So this past Wednesday I announced some ground rules for discussion and then promptly butted out.  Here was the protocol:
Get into groups of three and compile a list of 3 questions you would like to ask about anything in King Lear up to and including Act IV.  Make sure your questions are strong questions and text-focused.  That means you should make clear the passages or incidents that inspire or relate to your questions.  Cite by act, scene and line numbers.  You should also look for interesting connections or contrasts in the text.  Here are some examples of strong and weak questions:
Weak questions                      
  • What do you guys think of Lear?
  • Do you think Lear deserves Cordelia’s sympathy given the way he’s treated her?
  • Who do you like better?  Goneril or Regan?  Why?
Strong, text-focused questions: 
  • Cordelia feels sorrow for Lear’s suffering despite how she’s been treated (IV, 4, 25-29).  How does her reaction to suffering compare to Edgar’s in Act III, scene 6 (100-113), and also Edgar’s feelings when he again meets his father in Act IV?  Are they right to feel this way about their fathers?  Do their father’s deserve their sympathy?  Why?  Why not?
  • Edmund deceives his father (II, 1, 35-75), but Edgar also deceives his father (IV, 6, 67-80).  Is either one of them justified in lying to their father?  Why?  Why not?
When your group has its three questions, exchange yours with another group.  Discuss the other group’s questions for 10-15 minutes and then get together to share your responses with each other.  It is perfectly okay to say you didn’t understand a question and ask for clarification, or to say your group didn’t agree on how to answer the question.  

The goal here is to make sure that all questions get discussed and that different views and ideas are shared.
I will not intervene.  Indeed, I am in Siberia until 1:55 pm.

This little exercise actually went pretty well.  They asked better, more  thoughtful questions and had to be accountable to one another for their answers.  The smaller-sized groups got the quieter students more involved, and most groups did some good wrestling with the play.  I asked them afterward how they liked this system and they all said it worked pretty well.  So the key was to create autonomy in the classroom while avoiding complete, structure-less, direction-less chaos.
*  *  *
When my son was young, my wife and I would do something similar.  We would try to create choice but always within some safe, controlled range of options.  Instead of saying "Go get your coat on," we would ask, "Which coat do you want to wear today?  The red one or the blue one?"   And we left off the table the option of no coat at all. 
This worked pretty well for awhile, but my son is a pretty smart kid and it wasn't long before he glommed onto what we were doing.  So he came bounding into our bedroom one Saturday morning at about six a.m, dived on my chest and woke me up.  "Dad," he said, "It's your choice.  You can get up and play with me, or you will get up and play with me.  Choose!"
No gimmick works forever.  Teaching, like parenting, is always a series of five-minute solutions.


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