In-class essay: English 121 MW

10-10-12

My 121 MW class has taught me some new things about class dynamics, the role of the teacher, and scaffolding instruction. For the first several weeks, I mainly concentrated on getting this class to do what I wanted. If they were chatting so much that I couldn’t get through the material in class, they would fall behind. While this is true to an extent, they were also manifesting some very interesting class dynamics that have implications for more effective teaching in a group like this.

For example, they entertain themselves a lot in my class. Cognition research tells us that, if we want students to pay full attention to class activities, we should increase their perception load through the use of materials or techniques that demand or invite full engagement, such as multimedia or active learning. Through their highly verbal, extremely interactive behavior, this class makes their own opportunities for full engagement—it’s just not always engagement with the course content. As the teacher, I can shut down their hyper-interaction, or I can use it to further my teaching goals. If I use it to further my teaching goals, I have to revise my expectations of my role and how to present the educational scaffolding they need to grow into successful communicators.

Usually, I see myself fulfilling a combination of several roles in the classroom. I am the stand-up comedian (to get students’ attention, to develop class camaraderie, and to get students to consider new points of view). I am the guide in unfamiliar territory. I am the big sister who has been there and done that, the mentor who embodies what they can become, the friend who believes in their potential to succeed and to change the world. I am the mom, making rules based on my desire to help my students, but designing these rules pragmatically, so I can enforce them to good effect without making myself crazy.

In this MW class, though, everyone is a comedian. On the one hand, they have used this dynamic to create a sense of social safety and the freedom to draw outside the lines. On the other hand, they steal my thunder. When I am not the headliner, I lose control of the discussion, so some course content doesn’t get communicated the way I would like. Like I said, I can either shut these students down, or I can figure out how to use their lively wit and willingness to engage to somehow achieve my pedagogical goals.

I start with what they have given me. Several students (Daniel, Cameron, and Phineas, especially), are extremely free with direct feedback about what is working for them and what is not. (Blessing/curse, yada yada yada.) Overall, though, the entire class gives me daily clues as to how I might proceed. While they often misdirect class discussion and my lectures, they also redirect us back on course and belatedly reinforce my authority in the classroom (after I yell, “My turn!” or raise my eyebrows and stare around the classroom with exaggerated sternness). These clues tell me that their interference is not meant to be rude, and they do not intend to prevent group learning. They just want to be actively involved with me and with each other, so the course content can mean something personal, and they want to enjoy the process of learning together.

This means that they are already engaged in a lively pattern of making new knowledge out of new information. They are already tying ideas together across conventional boundaries—they have to, in order to be funny in the classroom. (Old knowledge is more tired than funny.) If I give them educational scaffolding in the form of meaningful games or humorous or dramatic presentations that clearly illustrate concepts, they are likely to not only run but play with these new concepts in their classwork, in their homework, and in their personal lives. Play becomes what it was when they were small: a way to learn directly from lived experience.

I also make a point of directly encouraging them to verbally formulate their new knowledge, by asking, “What did you learn?” after we play a new game and at the end of a unit. I don’t stop asking until they’ve given me some intelligent answers—in fact, today’s in-class essay topic is, “What 3 things have you learned in this class over the past month?” These students want to engage with me through conversation, and they want to show me what they know, so when I invite them to do just that, they make good use of the opportunity. Their in-class essays are full of interesting self-commentary and exploration of new ideas.

A few of my students are reading this blog. (Hi!) I’m writing this essay in part to show them that I am doing the same thing they are: I am learning something in this class. I am making new knowledge about how to teach a wider range of people, the roles they need me to fill, and the “learning by doing” sort of performance through which they learn best. African American artist Glenn Ligon said, when interviewed for the television program Art:21,

So often people will say, “I get your message.” But I don’t think that message (if I have a message) is so separated from what the object is, how it’s painted. Indeed, that’s where the work starts from: a kind of making, rather than a message that is layered into an object. (Season 6, Episode 3.)

That is the kind of learning these students are asking for: a learning that comes from a kind of making that embodies the principle being taught, rather than a message that is layered into otherwise unrelated activities. Lecture and the garden variety of class discussion are good tools, but they may not startle self-entertaining students like these into experiencing the world in a new way. If I guide them through a perception-changing experience, a kind of performance artwork, the students may generate new ideas about writing, about communication, about power, and about what it means to be human—one and one and one, and also many.

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