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.



On the Importance of Repetition in Poetry: Robert Hayden and Drake

PALS is pleased to welcome a guest post by Alex Bernstein a poet, teacher, and editor in New York City. Please find below Bernstein’s descriptions of how he made Robert Hayden’s poetry more accessible through Drake. 

Poetry is a great medium for teaching students close reading skills. Usually, when introducing poetry to students who have never enjoyed reading at all, I say that poems are meant to be difficult because they are designed expressly to reanimate and reactivate the language we already know. This disclaimer often leads to relief: if you use language, I say, in any way on a daily basis, you can actively read poetry. The poet and teacher, Matthew Zapruder, says in his collection of essays, Why Poetry (2017), “the true difficulty—and reward—of poetry is in reading what is actually on the page carefully” (18). For me, the “reward” of poetry in the classroom is seeing how attention and concentration to what’s “on the page” lead students to glimmers of actuality, the paradox and complexity and uncertainty, that lies behind the way we usually perceive the world. This often means that students must confront their own personal histories, come to understand themselves within a larger social context, and see their lives in the reflection of a deep engagement with words. However, everything begins on the page, and if I can get students through the doors of their own attention, then all the learning objectives for a particular unit seem to fall into place: critical thinking; close, active reading; and comprehension of rhetorical devices.

So, how to get students to pay attention? In the lesson that follows, I outline how to teach close reading skills to students who have no formal experience with poetry by emphasizing the importance of looking for patterns of repetition. I work partly with what I’ve called, The Method, a series of list making procedures which ask students to select and analyze key repetitions—sounds, words, and syntax—in Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” and Drake’s “Nice for What.” When I first mentioned this lesson plan to some of my colleagues, they were excited, I think, by the possibility of pairing Hayden with Drake. Ultimately, I wanted a way of getting my students’ attention, and we were all still listening to Drake’s new album Scorpion (2018). I knew I wanted to discuss the importance of repetition in poetry and to tie in Drake somehow. I immediately thought of Hayden’s lines, “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices.” However, the class discussion of Hayden and Drake really developed what, at the outset, felt like a hunch into an insightful and meaningful learning experience for me and my students.

On the Importance of Repetition

I’m always thinking about repetition in relation to the poems I’m reading and teaching. Repetition forms the building blocks of rhythm and of the larger fabric of associations that make up a poem’s spirit and architecture. It’s a pattern-building, mnemonic process which is always going on and instinctively informs the movement from attention to pleasure which is the joy of both reading closely and thinking about daily habits beyond language. Making my students aware of how daily experiences touch in us certain patterns and rhythms is important to setting the tone for our conversation about Hayden and Drake. I begin the lesson by discussing with students how repetition informs our everyday lives—walking through the front door of our homes, waking up in order to get to work on time, the evening sunset. I ask them to free write—in list form—for 7-10 minutes about the kinds of objects, people, and activities they return to on a regular basis. As most of my students are aspiring nurses already working in hospitals, we spend a lot of the time discussing how caring for people in clinical settings often means returning to them: managing prescriptions, performing tests, adhering to feeding schedules, etc. The discussion also returns to picking up children from school, which, for parents who are also students, often means managing time effectively. The larger theme which emerges out of our discussion is that repetition builds a sense of security into our daily lives: the comfort of healthy patients, the welfare of a child’s safety. Although they might seem mundane, the commonplace acts of repetition we inhabit regularly have about them a metrical quality. They ensure the completion of tasks and build and relieve worthwhile tensions. They compel a kind of lyric attention, of memory and inspiration, and ask us to return to people and to things, giving us a larger sense of connectedness. This is what poems do, I tell my students. They ask us, quite literally and line by line, to return with our attention to words, to people, and to things.

Robert Hayden and “Those Winter Sundays”

I then hand out to students a one-sheet called, “Close Reading and Interpretive Claims,” or The Method: a step-by-step approach to breaking down texts, objects, and images. The lesson on Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” and Drake’s “Nice for What” focuses only on step 1: locate and list exact repetitions. Twice we read Hayden’s poem aloud as a class and discuss our initial observations. For students who don’t have much experience reading poetry, a good entry into any poem is listening to its sounds. We make a list on the whiteboard of all the repeating sounds: blueblack, cracked, ached, weekday, banked, thanked, wake, breaking, call, chronic. We notice the hard, percussive K sounds are repeated 10 times. We then move on to listing exact repetitions of words and phrases:

Sunday (x2)

cold (x3)

What did I know (x2)

him/his/he’d (x4)

The act of making lists, I tell my students, is an act of discernment. By identifying these repetitions as a class, we are implicitly making interpretations about the poem together. For instance, the repetition of cold three times, we notice, immediately makes apparent its opposite, fire, which is only ever mapped out according to its equivalents: blaze and warm. At this point, we haven’t yet begun to speak about the relationship between the poet and his father. We are charting the language and learning how to read the poem according to its sounds and melody. One student points out that the hard, percussive K sounds are Hayden’s way of implicating the harsher elements of winter, a season that, when put up against the poem’s motif of fire, sets the tone of reconciliation. We conclude that, in the poem’s main repetition—“What did I know, what did I know…?”—Hayden discovers the harmony of sound that embodies the poem’s spirit of admiration towards his father.

Drake and “Nice for What”


One reason Hayden’s “Those Winter Sunday’s” pairs well with Drake’s “Nice for What” is because both use repetition as a device for layering and harmonizing different textures of sound. Drake’s song meanders, whereas Hayden’s poem is formally tighter and more discrete. However, both Hayden and Drake use repetition to chart out melodies which suggest admiration and reconciliation toward their respective traditions. As a class, we read the lyrics and watch the music video for “Nice for What.” It’s easy to get lost in the verses’ maze of sound-play, so I focus the discussion on Drake’s chorus, which is a remix of Lauren Hill’s “Ex Factor”:

Care for me, care for me, I know you care for me

There for me, there for me, said you’d be there for me

Cry for me, cry for me, you said you’d die for me

Give to me, give to me, why won’t you live for me?

On the white board, we make a list of exact repetitions: for me (x10), care (x3), there (x3), cry (x2), give (x2). We also point out the different rhymes in the chorus: care and there; cry and die; give and live. One student notices the coiling effect the chorus has throughout the song, as if, she says, Lauren Hill is an omnipresent force looped in and out of Drake’s verses. I also want the music video to be as much a part of our discussion as the lyrics are. Another student points out how Drake’s decision to remain on the side-lines for most of the video empowers the 20 iconoclast women (such as Misty Copeland, Rashida Jones, and Issa Rae) who are the reoccurring centerpieces of the video. Many of the students know well Hill’s “Ex Factor” from her debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), and they are quick to point out how the combination of powerful iconoclast women and the looping remix of Lauren Hill makes Drake more than just a “male cheerleader”; the thoughtfulness and savvy of the video actually feels sincere, one student says. Like Hayden, Drake’s remix of Hill’s “Ex Factor” is percussive and hymnic. However, one of my students points out, where Hayden is subtle, Drake announces his intentions like an anthem.


It is a myth that, in order to understand poems, one must always know what is going on. If you have never closely read a poem, you are drawn first to the repetitions and textures of sound, then you begin to discover the narrative elements. Following those initial intuitions of sound and texture is actually how students begin to form personal relationships with poems, a kind of research that makes students into lifelong readers. The acts of breaking apart, of counting, and of listing patterns of repetition as a class gave my students a system and a practice for discovering the larger associative frameworks which were the hearts of the poems they were assigned, and when it came time to write their compare and contrast essays, they used the skills learned from our class discussions to develop the conversation in ways that felt very personal. In the lesson on Hayden and Drake, more than anything else, I wanted students to feel themselves thinking, to feel the pressures and tensions of making leaps and following language and sound associatively, and, in turn, to feel the joy of surprise and discovery in the act of reading literally. What students ended up with was rich, clever perspectives about how repetition informs creativity and how creativity informs their lives.

* Zapruder, Matthew. Why Poetry. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2017.


Alex Bernstein is a poet, teacher, and editor living in New York City. A recent graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program, he is an adjunct English professor and director of the writing center at Mildred Elley college. His prose and poems have been published or are forthcoming in The Adirondack Review, The New England Review, Bellevue Literary Review, The West 4th Street Review, and elsewhere.