They helped me right the boat

If you’ve ever been in a boat, you’ll know that when the boat yaws (turns) to one side or another, the deck flips up and it can feel like you’re going to slide into the murky deep. If you don’t want to turn (or yaw) that way, you had better correct course soon, or you will end up far from your destination.

My MW class has been yawing to one side recently, and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to right the boat and get them back on course. I don’t just mean get everyone working on the same things and understanding the same things; I was afraid that I would lose their confidence because I had given them some low-quality teaching for a week or so. I reflected on this and prayed about it, and then I felt that the class was tightly enough bonded to each other and to me that they would do a lot of the work to right their boat themselves. In other words, I could start the process of getting us back on track, and they would participate fully in that correcting process and even help me direct the class back on route.

Their boat was yawing because, last week, I directed each of my three sections of 121 through a particularly challenging set of assignments. I had never assigned anything like these activities before, and my students had never performed anything like them before. My MW section is the first one in my schedule, and so I try all my new stuff out on them first. What works, I do again with the TTh sections. What doesn’t work, I revise for the TTh sections. What that means, though, is that the TTh sections get pretty clear instructions and examples, and the MW section gets less than my best teaching (because it isn’t practiced beforehand on someone else).

This less-than-best teaching left them confused and frustrated. They were given work to do, but unclear instructions on how to proceed, and many of them didn’t have a lot of prior experience on which they could draw to derive a model for their work. In class today, I went around during small group discussion to check off their homework, like I usually do. About half of them had completed their homework to an acceptable degree, and about half of them had major questions that prevented them from completing their work. I was expecting this, so I knew what to do — at least to start.

I stopped the group discussion, skipped class discussion of the writing prompt, and put the homework up on the projector. I apologized for talking too fast last week (which I did, as my English 100 students pointed out to me last week — I talk faster when I am nervous or when I am pressed for time), and I said I would try to talk at the rate I do when I have a second-language speaker of English in the class (which I do in both TTh sections). Then, slowly, I explained the parts I already knew they were confused about.

I asked if there were more questions, and they explained what they understood and what they still didn’t understand. Various students offered insights into how they, individually, had figured out how to do the assignments, and the whole class collaborated to come to a consensus on procedures and purposes related to this work. Four students stayed after class to discuss further questions with me, at least two of them solely for the purpose of helping their classmates to understand. As this smaller group broke up, one student expressed continuing doubt that she could complete the assignment, and all three of the other students offered her help outside of class and ensured she had their contact information.

My students helped me right their boat.

I have seen students willing to help one another many times before, in other classes, but this is the first time I have seen so much collaboration willingly and generously offered, not only to other students, but to me as the teacher. The novelty of the experience makes me wonder why this class behaved the way they did.

I have had this section for two weeks longer than either of the others (which are late-start sections), plus I see five of them an extra time each week in my English 100 class. I am currently making use of these five guys as my small group leaders. They work hard at being good leaders and also succeeding in class. They also take the time to tell me when my teaching methods are not working for them — or when I talk too fast. Sometimes, I have to tell them that I just want them to do it the way I have already said. But lots of times, I can use what they give me, and I do. I try to publicly give them credit for their suggestions, too.

I think that, perhaps, this section’s active participation in the boat-righting process today is due to the closer connection I have with my five guys in English 100, along with our practice of small group work organized around principles of cooperation and mutual aid, plus the willingness I have shown to alter my practices to suit their needs. I am not discounting the personal connections I have with my students who are not currently group leaders. However, the class-wide, concerted effort to get everyone back on course required that students have meaningful connections to each other as well as to me. They already had pathways established for mutual knowledge-making.

Yes! Knowledge gets made in groups.

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