From an English Major: Reflections on Two Undergrad Classroom Experiences

PALS Note: We are super excited to interrupt your summer break for a post by Christna Stubbs. Stubbs is a recent graduate of the University of The Bahamas and will be attending Acadia University for graduate school in the fall. In this post, she writes about some of the classroom activities that stood out to her the most as an undergrad. This is a new perspective for the blog, and we welcome the commentary from our students. 

As I sat, thinking about the thousands of things I could write about regarding this topic, I was forced to reminisce on my past classroom experiences. I literally mulled over in my mind the very first class I took as a fresh-faced freshman, to the last one I took as seasoned senior. Thinking back on that period of my life as an undergrad, I find myself remembering my “AHA” moments…You know those moments, right? The moments in class when you become excited about the text you’re studying. It’s like a lightbulb goes off in your head after days, or sometimes weeks of feeling like you’re sitting in class with a highly decorated dunce cap on your head, or “I don’t understand” tattooed across your forehead.

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After these “AHA” moments, you FINALLY understand why the lecturer was so excited when she introduced the text on the first day, and why she looked so disappointed when the class didn’t seem to share her initial excitement. The text somehow becomes more than just another text that you have to read or write about, or pretend to like in order to appease your lecturer (you students know what I’m talking about); it resonates with you, it becomes one of those texts that you know you will always remember.

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It’s those “AHA” moments that reminded me of why I love literature in the first place. When I think about the classes I took in the past that allowed for those experiences to occur, in contrast to the classes that made me want to die of boredom, I realized a few really noticeable differences. So, I decided, (after days of brainstorming!) why not take you through two of my experiences as an undergrad student? I want to talk to you guys about what took place in the classroom that influenced one of my “AHA” moments, and what occurred in another classroom that simply didn’t make the cut.

So, without further ado…let’s dive in!

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CLASSROOM #1

Before I say anything else, let me assure you that I really do love British Literature, and I appreciate all that I learned in this particular course. However, I just don’t recall ever having any “AHA” moments in this class, and here’s why:

As a class, we were never given any tools/exercises that encouraged us to engage with the texts.

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Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that all lecturers are obligated to come up with clever ways to make the literature more appealing to their students, but I must say that it can make the world of difference. (Take it from a student.) At the time, I really could not fathom why I always felt disconnected from the lectures or discussions. I somehow always felt out of the loop, and it took a toll on my confidence as a student. As a sophomore, I began to rethink my decision to study English because of my inability to fully understand or connect with the material that we studied in this particular class. When I think back on that experience, I honestly believe that I felt this way because as a class we were never really given any tools that would encourage us to engage with the readings. Class time often consisted of the lecturer beginning with a detailed biography of the author, moving onto a lecture on the reading. We usually wrapped up with the lecturer asking everyone about their thoughts on the lecture (which many of us never had)…it was all very methodical. Rigid even.

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Apart from this routine, we were never really given a chance to engage closely with the text. It may have been different if our lecturer might have begun class-time by asking everyone how they felt that the reading could possibly connect to their lives? For instance, our class consisted largely of black, postcolonial students, and up to that point, many of us had taken at least two levels of West Indian Literature, in which we were to read at least five postcolonial texts per semester. Because of our rich background in postcolonial literature, and also being products of a postcolonial society, it would have been nice if we were given the freedom to discuss how reading British Literature made us feel, since it was a huge colonizing force. Did we come to class with any preconceived notions about some of the authors because of our exposure to postcolonialism? Did we feel disdain when we read it? Were we able to appreciate it in any way? Did we want to cringe when we found out that Wordsworth would be on the reading list for the semester? Simple questions like these would have been really great exercises that compelled us to engage more with a lot of the readings that we were assigned. I think if we were given tools like these, or similar to these, class-time would have been a lot less anxiety-ridden, and drawn-out.

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Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy most of the readings, but they were just that…readings that I enjoyed. I was never able to engage with the texts apart from the usual themes that are usually explored or explained. Now, I do think that it’s wonderful to enjoy the texts that you read in class, but I believe that it is even more wonderful to learn something from the texts that you read. I think a text should teach you something– about life, about the people around you, or about yourself; a text should challenge you, and make you look at the world in a way that you never would have thought about looking at it before. Because we were not allowed the opportunity to do more than just enjoy the readings in this class, most of the class-time felt like a race against the clock. I think I spent more time looking at my watch and thinking about what I would be eating for lunch than trying to understand the material. While I did always appreciate the lectures and discussions (the parts I were able to fathom, at least), I believe that if we were given exercises that compelled us to engage with the text, or think about it in a way that different from the usual, maybe class-time would have been a bit more enthusing. Who knows, I may have had an “AHA” moment?

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CLASSROOM #2

The very first day that we opened Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy in my Caribbean Women Writers class, I was honestly unimpressed.

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I couldn’t get why everyone kept runnin’ on bout dis Lucy book. Translation from Bahamian English: “I could not understand why everyone kept praising the Lucy book”. I felt like Lucy covered the same old themes that we discussed about Kincaid’s work in previous classes. Nothing new or original stood out to me about the text. My lecturer, however, who so graciously wanted us to appreciate the book as much as she did, began class by eagerly asking each person what they thought of the text. I bit my tongue, not wanting to disappoint her or sound like a killjoy, but chose to speak up after a few gruelling minutes,“It honestly didn’t do much for me.” And that was the truth at the time.

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Some of the other students seemed to think otherwise, but it’s safe to say that most of us shared the same sentiments. Thankfully, my lecturer did not look the least bit disappointed, but continued to discuss various themes that we would cover throughout the semester. I honestly left class that day eager to move on to the other texts that were scheduled on the syllabus.

Little did I know, my lecturer was cooking up ways to force us to really engage with the text, and by the next class, she didn’t care to ask us if we had a change of heart overnight, but instead instructed everyone to take out a copy of the text. This is one of the first things that made this classroom experience amazing—a simple exercise that my lecturer introduced to the class. This exercise not only changed the way we all engaged with the text, but it inspired discussions that simply could not end, even after the semester was over.

Our lecturer had us read through the very first chapter of Lucy quietly, making us highlight whatever colour that we noticed. My first reaction was…Huh? Colours? What does that have to do with anything?…. but I did it anyway, and the results were mind-boggling. After highlighting the colours that stood out, she asked us to look at the colours pointed out in chapter one, and think about the moments in the text where these colours reappeared. Can they represent something more than what we see at first glance?

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I remember looking down at the words that I highlighted, “pale yellow,” and I thought long and hard about the moments in the text where this colour yellow resurfaced—half listening to the array of colours that my classmates pointed out and explained.

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I can still recall sitting there, fighting with myself, trying hard to remember that one moment…then something clicked to me, and guess what guys? I became excited, like super excited. This was the beginning of my “AHA” moment. I could not remember the last time I was so excited to discuss a revelation that I had in the classroom. I eagerly raised my hand, and explained (with giddy pride) that Kincaid used pale-yellow to describe the appearance of the sun in America on Lucy’s first day as an au pair. She described it as being “pale-yellow, as if the sun had grown weak from trying too hard to shine; but still sunny” (5). I vigorously turned to middle of the book where this pale-yellow colour emerged again, describing what seemed to be an aura of sunlight that enveloped the character Mariah, the mother of the children that Lucy cared for. Now guys, at this point, I had disregarded the character of Mariah…I mean like completely wrote her off, simply because I didn’t think her character had any depth worth exploring.

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However, after I thought about the re-appearance of the pale-yellow colour, and connected it to the character. I realized that just like that pale-yellow sun tried hard to shine, Mariah tried hard to live a perfect life, although it really was not perfect. I knew, even after giving that answer that I was barely scraping the surface, and I wanted to know more. This pale-yellow colour could mean something so much deeper than I thought. I don’t think I would have ever begun to understand the character of Mariah without my lecturer compelling us to think about what the colours meant. I became so engrossed with this pale-yellow colour and its connection to Mariah that I wrote my first paper of that semester on the topic.

Now, while this colour exercise initiated my “AHA” moment, I think that my classmates polished it off for me. Because we were all so excited about our revelations after the colour exercise, we became eager to discuss other aspects of the text, like Lucy’s actions towards her friends and Mariah. Some of my classmates thought that Lucy was just a messed up, angry person; however, after sharing our own experiences and attempting to place ourselves in Lucy’s shoes, most, if not everyone in the class felt as though they could relate to Lucy’s experience as not only a black individual, but one whose actions were a result of her disdain for colonialist ideology. As products of a postcolonial society, many of us, like Lucy were bombarded with colonial ideals. Like Lucy, we were taught to adore flowers that never once bloomed in our native land, and like Lucy, we were praised when we spoke “proper” English, because our native tongue, Bahamian English “implied ignorance”. Because of this, we understood Lucy’s decision to leave home at the beginning of the text. We didn’t see it as her being selfish, or disobedient to her mother—we saw it as her desire for autonomy—to define herself on her own terms, not on the terms that her mother (who constantly imposed on Lucy colonial ideologies and ideals), sought to define for her. Living in a society where colonial ideologies are still pervasive, we all agreed that it somehow made sense for Lucy to leave home. We knew that the longer she stayed, the easier it would be for her to conform to the colonial ideals that she sought to flee. We were even better able to understand the somewhat cold, and indifferent life that she lived. We could almost empathize with Lucy, despite these personality flaws, because we knew that her actions were a result of her desire to reject everything that her colonial counterparts sought to impose upon her. We no longer looked at Lucy as an angry, promiscuous character; she became more of a comrade, someone who we could understand, despite some of the bizarre things that she did. Like Lucy, we refuse to be mentally enslaved to the ideals that our forefathers fought to free us from. Like Lucy, we wished not to be controlled by the oppressive ideologies of our colonial pasts. Because we became so connected to Lucy as a character, many days, we left the classroom feeling inspired and united—all with a similar purpose, to refuse to be controlled by ideologies that permeated our society (like Lucy) and live life to the fullest. This here was the polishing off my “AHA” moment—being able to discuss the text with classmates that just got it. They understood my struggles, and we were all able to connect with Lucy because she too shared a lot of those struggles.

Now, when I see my copy of Lucy sitting on my book-shelf, I smile. I think about my role as a postcolonial individual, I think about the fact that I could see a small glimpse myself in Lucy. Most importantly, I think about the simple colour exercise that my passionate lecturer thought of, and my amazing classmates—both of which made my smile possible.

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I can probably talk about my classroom experiences for about 100 pages, but I’m on a word limit here guys. So, I guess I’ll just wrap up by saying that although they may seem trivial, utilizing simple exercises in a classroom to encourage students to engage with a text can make a break a student. This couldn’t be more true for me. When I thought about the “AHA” moments that I experienced during my undergrad career, I realized that they almost always occurred because of simple exercises that my lecturers thought of. These exercises changed the way that I not only viewed the literature that I studied but fostered a class environment that allowed myself and my fellow classmates to feel comfortable enough to both express ourselves and connect with the texts that we read and each other.

As I transition into my graduate career this fall, I truly hope that these exercises aren’t forgotten, because I believe that it is these very same simple exercises that pave the way for many of our “AHA” moments.

Contributor Bio:

11076246_10155439349135397_5313472970728128444_n (1)I recently graduated from the University of The Bahamas with a Bachelor of Arts in English. I will be attending Acadia University in the Fall to pursue my Master of Arts in English. I am an avid blogger, and I’m interested in Postcolonial and Children’s Literature, as well as literature that explores themes regarding Gender and Sexuality.

Student-Centered, Collaborative Learning and “Literature Circles” in the American Literature Classroom

PALS Note: We welcome our second guest post this year from Randi Tanglen. Tanglen is an Associate Professor of English and director of the faculty development and teaching center at Austin College. In this post, she addresses how to encourage student-led work through literature circles. 

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Most instructors see the value in student-centered learning and small group discussions as means for students to develop, challenge, acquire, and check their ideas. The collaborative aspects of small group discussions allow students to create new knowledge about literature with each other, in ways that may not be possible in a class lecture or discussion. Yet we have all had classroom experiences in which breaking into small groups for discussion of a course text has led to student silence and even disengagement. I have found that the “literature circle” format leads to active small group discussion, greater student participation in group discussion, and deeper and collaborative student learning. In the literature circle format, students choose their own course text (from an instructor-provided list), read it with a fixed group of four other classmates over the course of a two-week unit, and facilitate their own small group discussions with short papers they bring to each class period.

What Are Literature Circles?
With literature circles, groups of five students meet for several class periods to discuss a work of literature in-depth. Some of my students describe literature circles as a “book club,” but with more structure and academic rigor. The literature circle format is a student-centered, collaborative approach to teaching literature originally developed for and primarily utilized in elementary and middle school classrooms. The objective of literature circles is to promote in-depth, student-driven discussion and higher order thinking skills in younger students. Because literature circles promote “collaborative classrooms where students take increasing responsibility for choosing, reading, and discussing books,” I have found that the literature circle class structure also can be successfully adapted to the college classroom as well (Harvey Daniels, Literature Circles 7). Harvey Daniels explains that literature circles usually exhibit several key characteristics, including students first choosing their own reading selection and then coming together in “small temporary groups…formed based on book choice” (Daniels 18).

One class of students might be separated into several small groups, with each group reading a different book. Another unique characteristic of this teaching strategy is that students use written responses to guide their reading and discussion; the fact that “discussion topics come from the students” means that the “[t]he teacher serves as a facilitator, not a group member or instructor” (Daniels, Literature Circles 18). When they go well, literature circles promote student-centered and student led small group discussion. The proponents of literature circles claim that as a result of students having choice in their reading materials and more autonomy in discussion, they are more likely to continue reading outside of class and to become life-long readers. I have found that the use of literature circles promotes intellectual autonomy with college students who far too often look to their professor for the “right” answers instead of learning to develop ideas for themselves. Indeed, some students even tell me that they read the books from other literature circles after the semester is over.

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Literature Circle Group Member Roles and Daily Writing
What distinguishes the literature circle format from other small-group discussion formats is that each member of the group has a specific group role and prepares an assignment before class period. The students assign themselves one of five roles and prepare a brief, one to two page paper based on that role to guide their group discussions. The idea behind the specific group roles is that “readers who approach a text with clear-cut, conscious purposes will comprehend more” (Daniels, Literature Circles 13).

Before we begin the first literature circle, I give students a handout that explains each role and my expectations for the short paper each group member will write:  

  1.  Summarizer: Prepares a brief and concise summary of the day’s reading assignment;
  2.  Question Asker: Develops about 10 higher-order discussion questions to promote critical and analytical thinking about the literature;
  3.  Connector: Finds connections between the book and other literature and literary movements studied in this class or other courses;
  4.  Close Reader: Locates significant passages and analyzes them in relation to the larger work, the unit theme, and the overall concerns of the course;
  5.  Researcher: Finds background information on the author or historical or cultural contexts that will enhance the group’s understanding and interpretation of the literature.

The students bring their papers to class and use them to guide their group discussion. When the group meets during each class session, the student re-assign and change roles, so by the end of the unit, each student will have performed each role at least once. The papers students bring to class based on their group member role are informal but structured; in my classes, the daily literature circle writing is a form of “low stakes” writing that cumulatively accounts for about 20 percent of the entire course grade. At the end of each literature circle unit, students are assigned a major, formal essay that integrates elements of their previous literature circle papers. Every instructor will develop their own grading criteria and method, but I assess the daily literature papers based on the following criteria:

Full credit Reasons to lose points
Content *Makes a substantial and meaningful contribution to the group’s topic/discussion

*Promotes deeper and more meaningful understanding of the literature

*Questions and close reading are analytical, not descriptive

*Writing has a clear focus and purpose

*Limited or partial discussion of the topic

*Does not promote a deeper or meaningful understanding of the literature

*Limited discussion and analysis

*Focus and purpose are not clear

Development *Fully treats topic; no areas in need of further discussion

*Connects research, questions, and ideas back to the literature

*Undeveloped ideas; expanded explanation or analysis needed

*Connection to the literature isn’t stated or is unclear

Details *MLA format

*Relevant and scholarly sources (for Researcher role)

*Sources cited correctly with Works Cited

*Few/no mechanical or usage errors

*Deviation for MLA format

*Questionable, non-scholarly, or irrelevant sources

*Uncited or dropped sources

*Errors that distract from meaning and clarity

How to Incorporate Literature Circles into American Literature Courses
The literature circle format has also solved a problem that I often have with teaching early American and nineteenth-century American literature courses—I don’t know what to cut from the syllabus due to the prolific and exciting recovery work that has been done in the field over the past few decades. With the literature circle format, one class of students can simultaneously read several different texts at the same time. For example, in a lower-division class I teach on the slave narrative literary tradition, the class together reads the narratives of Olaudah Equiano (1789), Frederick Douglass (1845), Harriet Jacobs (1861), and Solomon Northup (1853). At the end of the semester, my twenty-student class breaks into four different five-member groups to read different slave narratives such as those of Mary Prince (1831), Henry Bibb (1849), Henry Box Brown (1851), or William Wells Brown (1855).

In an early American survey course for non-majors, after reading several works of literature from an anthology, at the end of the semester the class forms literature circle groups to read several present day adaptions of the literature we have just read or contemporary historical fiction dealing with the social and political themes addressed in the earlier literature such as issues of slavery and race in the development of the United States, the role of women in the era of the New England Puritans, or the place of American Indians in early American society. In the past, students have had the choice of reading Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979); I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé (1986); A Mercy by Toni Morrison (2008);Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks (2011); or When She Woke by Hillary Jordan (2011).

I have previously written about how I have used the literature circle approach in a nineteenth-century American literature seminar for English majors called “Canons of Nineteenth-Century American Literature.” The entire course is based on several literature circle units that each expose students to a wide range of canonical, underrepresented, and popular nineteenth-century American literary traditions. For example, in the first unit, “The Indian Reform Novel,” students form literature circles around Hobomok (1824) by Lydia Maria Child, The Last of the Mohicans (1826) by James Fenimore Cooper, or Hope Leslie (1827) by Catherine Maria Sedgwick. While I have used the literature circle format in courses that emphasize the earlier periods of American literature, it would also work quite well in courses that focus on contemporary American literature as well.

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Advantages and Disadvantages of the Literature Circle Format
Literature circles promote the type of student-centered discussion that I valued as a feminist teacher and scholar. Often the students run the class sessions themselves and I fade into t0-he background as they explore and share their own ideas based on their literature circle papers. However, since I’m not leading discussions or preparing the daily discussion questions that students explore in class, I am not always sure if students are catching on to the key passages or nuances in plot and character that affect the cultural work and meaning of the text. But I can check for student comprehension by reading their daily responses and then supplementing gaps in student comprehension with facilitative comments on those daily papers and brief class lectures.

Structuring the class like this places the responsibility on the students, so that they end up doing most of the intellectual work of the course. Once I step back, I find that the students are usually capable of filling in the gaps and making the connections that I would usually make for them in a traditional lecture or professor-facilitated classroom format. And the near-daily writing, met by my constant feedback, improves student writing and promotes the development of sharper arguments in their final essays. Indeed, the five tasks—asking questions, summarizing, researching, making connections, and close reading—are all required of any strong literary analysis paper at the lower- and upper-divisions. With the literature circle format, students isolate and practice the specific intellectual skills they will use for longer writing assignments.

While most students hate “group work,” the collaborative benefit of literature circles should not be overlooked. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), a clearinghouse for liberal arts education research and advocacy, has identified 10 high-impact educational practices, including “Collaborative Projects and Assignments,” which promote students’ “learning to work and solve problems in the company of others, and sharpening one’s own understanding by listening seriously to the insights of others, especially those with different backgrounds and life experiences.” My students have told me they like being able to choose their own texts and come up with their own reading schedules with each other, and that they are more likely to do the class reading because they have to answer to their classmates and group members if they don’t. In my experience, students genuinely enjoy hearing and learn from the perspectives of their group member; in end-of-semester evaluations, students consistently comment that the literature circles provide opportunities to interact with the literature and their fellow students in deeper and more meaningful ways. Perhaps the strongest testament to student appreciation of literature circles is that many of my former students are now employing this collaborative learning method in their own K-12 language arts and English classrooms.

I teach at a liberal arts colleges with small class sizes of no more than 20-25 students, and I’m not sure how the format would work in larger classes, although I imagine the format could be adapted. The discussion-based nature of literature circles may create some limitations for online courses, but I think the different discussion roles could be applied and used to facilitate dynamic student interactions in online and hybrid courses as well. I would love to hear how other instructors use the literature circle format in their American literature courses.

Bio: 

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Randi Tanglen is associate professor of English and director of the Robert and Joyce Johnson Center for Faculty Development and Excellence in Teaching at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. She is currently co-editing a volume of essays on “Teaching Western American Literature.”