Bad Teacher: In Defense of “Winging It” in the Classroom

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This semester it feels like I’ve had an awful lot of those days where I’m just not as prepared for class as I’d like to be, and I’ve been struggling with guilt about that. I have a very reasonable teaching load, so it’s not a matter of being overwhelmed or tired. I am teaching a course for the first time, so I’m still figuring out how the course works, and maybe that is a factor. I’ve also been more aware lately of how easy it can be to unintentionally silence my students. It is stunning to me how easy it is after a decade of teaching for someone even as introverted as I am to turn facilitating a discussion into a lecture–to just dominate the discussion because I can. But whatever the reason, this semester I’ve found myself in my office a few hours before class trying to figure out what to do in class besides just sit in a circle and discuss the day’s reading. And you know what? The classes I’ve “planned” (and I use the term very loosely here) on those days have been by far the most successful. While I’ve had carefully planned classes fall flat, I’ve never had a class that I’ve improvised go terribly. So, for my final post of the year, I thought I share with you the things I’ve stumbled upon that have saved the day in case they might save your day in these final weeks of the semester.

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Worksheets and Handouts. I know it seems antithetical to not planning but if you are going to wing it, you need worksheets. Think of them as props. But pedagogically sound props. What worksheets give you is structure–and they make that structure clear to the students. In my experience, when you sit down to put together a worksheet, no matter how rudimentary, you end up planning a really effective lesson. I’ve also found that students really appreciate worksheets and handouts. We often assume that students prefer digital documents, but because so much of their lives are carried out in digital spaces they get overwhelmed by all they have to keep up with. Sometimes a hard copy keeps all of us focused a bit better than just conveying ideas orally or through a document somewhere on the course website. I know for me a printed handout or worksheet helps me to clearly walk students through activities and processes. I’d also like to think that by providing so much structure even to an otherwise typical in-class discussion or activity that I’m modeling how inquiry and critical thinking and research actually work–generally, the activities I assign in class are really just processes that scholars do in their heads without a second thought.

Student-led discussion. Another strategy I’ve used is turning over discussion to the students–again, in a structured way though.  I’ll give them a guiding question, or I’ll take a few minutes to recap what we discussed in the last class or week. Then, I make it a game: I won’t talk for 10 minutes (or 20 or 30, depending on the particular class and whether or not we’ve done this activity before). Sometimes there is awkward silence but eventually someone will talk. And, while they talk, I take notes on the board. After the time is up, I walk through those notes, pointing out to them the patterns, observations, insights, and questions that I identified as I listened. It can also be a good opportunity to point out the strategies that the students used in their discussion, both what worked and didn’t work. Usually, there are a couple strong discussion leaders in a class, and I can point to the way that they invited a classmate to contribute to the conversation or built on something that had been said previously. Not only does this strategy help students to understand the course content but also it does important work in teaching students how to participate in a group discussion and make it productive for themselves. It is all too easy to take for granted that discussing complicated and complex ideas is in itself a skill that must be practiced and learned. Giving students a structure in which to practice that skill enriches the class and the students’ experience in other classes and in their future workplaces.

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Self-Assessment. In another instance I stumbled onto an effective lesson after I forgot to fill out the assessment rubric we use in our writing program. I had graded the papers and given lots of in-text and summative comments but filling out the rubric had just slipped my mind. So, I quickly made copies of the rubric for each student and asked them to review their graded essays (that they had likely forgotten the content of after 2 weeks) and my comments (which many students don’t expect to get), and then fill out their rubrics based on that. I also asked them to parse out what mistakes they wouldn’t likely make again (typos due to proofreading late at night or citation errors because they overlooked the directions) and which they needed to keep in mind next time (lack of a thesis, too many ideas in a single paragraph). This activity, like those above, does double duty. While it provides a chance to revisit previous writing and to talk about what it means to revise, this activity also ensured that students knew where/how (and that) I had provided feedback and had time in class to ask me to clarify that feedback when needed. In other words, the activity brought transparency to my role in their writing process, and it provided the students with an opportunity to practice taking the lead in their own learning.

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Making Connections. Most recently, I realized that we couldn’t just keep barreling through the readings. I was pretty sure none of us were attending to the details like we should, and I couldn’t put any of us through another meandering 75-minute discussion where I knew that I would end up talking far too much. So, I wrote down on index cards the titles of each of the works that we’d read in the last couple of weeks and gave each student 2 cards at random. They then had to come up with 3 points of connection. The next week, each student added a third reading to their lineup, found another 2-3 connections, and then they shared with the class what they had come up with. Through the presentations, we were able to identify the core concepts and questions of the course, bringing some sense of closure to the semester. In addition, the activity has helped me to think about how I will structure and teach the course differently next time.

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Elevator pitches. I teach the writing process as a multimodal process, meaning that I design activities and assignments that encourage students to draft and revise ideas in multiple modes (oral, visual, and electronic). One of the easiest and most effective activities to promote a multimodal writing process is the elevator pitch. Basically, the students sit in a circle and each takes a turn giving a 1-3 minute overview of whatever project they are working on in this class. What are they researching or writing about? What is their purpose and argument? What is their methodology? Why should this work and their conclusions matter to us? There is never a bad time in a semester for students to practice articulating their responses to the course material, and oftentimes that can open up fruitful discussions both about their individual projects and about the course readings.

Canceling Class. Sometimes though, our students need the break. At least once each semester, I will end up canceling class and calling it “open office hours.” On these days, the students can come to class and work together or individually, and my job is just to be available to them. I always feel a bit guilty and lazy about doing this until I get about halfway through the class period. But every time I end up having a great conversation with a group of students or answering a question that really helps a student move forward with a project. Every. Time.

I hope that perhaps you might find in this list an activity or approach that helps you here at the end of the semester (or at the end of a future semester). But even more so, I hope that this list is a reminder that we should all be kind to ourselves: teaching is difficult and it is even harder when we put pressure on ourselves to be at our best every day. Sometimes, “winging it” or “making it up as we go” is actually the best teaching.

 

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Making Room for BIG Books

Despite what some students might think, a semester is really short!

All instructors know the feeling of wanting to cover more material than a semester can actually hold. As a result, perhaps especially in survey or genre courses potentially covering centuries of literature, we often opt to teach shorter-length works or excerpts from longer works. While this gives us the satisfaction of “covering more ground” and the assurance that students will (hopefully) complete assigned readings, doesn’t a BIG part of literary study involve reading BIG books?

While I don’t have a rigid definition in mind of what constitutes “big” or “long,” I generally mean works, usually novels, of 400+ pages.  I know people have different educational experiences, but when I reflect on both my high school and college careers, I realize I didn’t read many “big” or “long” works at all. It wasn’t until graduate school that I was regularly assigned long novels in my classes.

Throughout college, I found that most of my long novel reading was non-assigned. If my instructors mentioned important canonical works in class, I often made a point to find them in the library and read them during my free time or during winter/summer breaks. BIG BOOKs

There are certainly still self-motivated students who read a lot on their own time, but they’re not necessarily reading “big” books. Also, many students, despite the desire to read more, really don’t have the time to do so between taking classes or working.

If experience and training in reading “big” books is essential to the development of English majors, and average English majors can’t fit “big” books in on their own time, then it’s important to make room for “big” books in our courses whenever we can. I try to incorporate at least one long novel into each of my literature classes.

Of course, making room for a 400+ page novel is easier said than done, and both instructors and students have their concerns. While I speak on behalf of common instructor concerns below, I interviewed several former students who read “long” novels in my classes to get a better idea of their perspectives (I paraphrase much of their commentary below for the sake of format).

Instructor Concerns about Course Objectives: I have a lot of historical ground to cover, so can I replace several shorter works with one longer work and still convey historical developments? It’s also important for my class to convey stylistic range and authorial diversity, so can I really afford to sacrifice any voices?

My Response: Meeting course objectives is generally non-negotiable. In survey courses or courses where diversity is an essential objective, including a “big” book may not be feasible.  However, I usually only include one long novel per applicable class, so there is still room to include shorter length works and diverse range of voices.

Instructor Concerns about Pacing: How much class time do I need to devote to a long novel? How much reading can I expect students to complete for each class? Will my students even read a long novel through to the end?

Student Concerns about Pacing: How long are we spending with this huge novel? Will I have enough time to read, or will I have to skim? Will the language and style be readable or difficult? Will the subject matter be hard to understand? If we’re only spending two weeks on it, how much of the material will we actually cover during class? Is it worth putting in all the time to read a huge novel if we’re only spending a couple weeks on it?

Response: Several semesters ago, I considered including Moby-Dick in a genre class on the novel. A seasoned colleague told me not to bother. He said, “It’s too long and too old. No one will read it.” I think it’s unfair to assume that students simply won’t complete an assigned work just because it’s too long or too old. We all know that students don’t always complete readings, even when they’re short and contemporary.

Moby Dick

Upon talking to students, I’m most compelled by a frustration they share. Many students are not, despite popular belief, frustrated by a large quantity of reading, but by the disproportional amount of class time devoted to discussing a large quantity of reading. Students are practical about their time, and I can’t blame them. When students invest a lot of time in reading, they want to see a return on that investment by discussing material comprehensively in class. It makes sense that students will invest more in a text that takes up a month of class time rather than a week.  As my students explain, regardless of length, it’s frustrating to read something that goes unaddressed during class.

The ability to complete readings successfully is dependent upon slow pacing, which prevents students from rushing or skimming through a narrative and feeling “mixed up” or “hazy” on points during discussion.  When more class time is devoted to a work, students are not only more likely to finish reading but also to have a stronger comprehension of what they read.

Additionally, the students I interviewed expressed enthusiasm about having extended class time to think “more deeply” about a work, cover “more territory,” and explore “diverse perspectives” during discussion. Even in advanced classes where strong students could reasonably be expected to complete 200-300 pages of reading in a week, it’s unlikely we could do more than scratch the surface of those 300 pages in a week’s worth of discussion.

In matters of pacing, instructors also need to consider the language, style, and density of the material. For example, I usually spend four to five weeks on John Steinbeck’s 600ish page novel East of Eden, but I usually spend six to seven weeks on an older work like James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, even though it’s about 150ish pages shorter than Steinbeck’s novel.  While students find that Steinbeck’s narrative is written in readable and mostly conversational contemporary English, students find that Cooper’s long-winded language and convoluted writing style slow down the reading pace.

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Instructor Concerns about Placement: Where should I position a “long” novel on my syllabus? Is it better to start or finish a class with a “long” novel?

Student Concerns about Placement: Will I have to read a “long” novel during the busiest parts of my semester? Will I feel overwhelmed with all the work I have to do?

Response: I have positioned long novels at the beginning (for reasons of historical chronology), middle, and end of courses, and my experiences have been most successful when placing long novels at the end of a semester. I discovered insight as to why through student interview. As I’ve already addressed, reading “big” books isn’t exactly common practice for most students, so seeing a “long” novel assigned in a class can be feel overwhelming and intimidating. Therefore, throwing students into the “deep end” of the “lengthy literature pool” at the start of the semester isn’t ideal.

Students also disclosed a preference for starting with shorter works, not only to build up reading “endurance” and confidence, but also to get comfortable with the dynamics of group discussion in a given class.  Students are usually comfortable with reading practices and class dynamics by mid-semester, but it’s best to wait until after the chaos of midterms to start a long work. Also, students noted that while they are busy at the end of the semester, most exams and papers are due after classes end. Slowly working through a long novel in the final weeks of a semester, therefore, can feel more “therapeutic” than “taxing.”

Instructor Concerns about Value: Will assigning a long novel be worth it? Will my students really gain anything from the experience?

Student Concerns about Value: Will reading a long novel be worth it? Will I really gain anything from the experience?

Response: When I asked students how they felt after completing a long novel, they agreed that the overall experience is rewarding.  One student noted, “I feel accomplished when I finish a long novel; there is some sort of pride rooted in the ability to complete a task that at first seemed daunting and almost overwhelming.” Another student noted, “After finishing a long novel, the initial feeling that follows is relief. Then, accomplishment–I actually completed something!…If a novel is special enough, something about me changes afterward.”

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A BIG part of making sure a BIG book is a BIG hit is generating enthusiasm about the experience throughout the semester. It’s important for students to think of a long novel at the end of the semester as a “grand finale,” not a “final punishment.” Additionally, it’s important to stress that the group will work through the text slowly and that, as the instructor, you’ll be there to walk them through it all. These kinds of consistent prefatory remarks will help students feel (at least) a little better about a task that for many will be a totally new experience.

Do you teach “big” books? If so, what “big” books do you include in your classes? Where do you position them, and how long do you spend with them? How do your students engage with “big” books?