The Agentive Classroom

PALS is excited to welcome a guest post by Kristin Lacey. Lacey is a PhD student at Boston University working on nineteenth-century American literature. In her post, Lacey explores how she and her students form their classroom community and how they build agency into the semester’s activities.


With each semester I’ve taught, I’ve asked more of my students. By “more,” I don’t mean more reading and writing—I mean more investment in building a meaningful classroom community together. Asking students to regularly provide feedback on the class’s progression and their experience teaches students—particularly those who are reticent to ask for help or speak up in class—that they have agency in shaping their educational experience. None of the exercises I do with my students are groundbreaking alone, but taken together, they form the backbone of a classroom that honors students’ work and learning. Below I outline several activities I do in the beginning of the semester and one activity we do throughout that help give my students agency in the classroom. 

Paradoxically, giving students a stake in the classroom begins with an exercise that students 1) have no say in and 2) meet with almost universal outcry. This terrifying proposition? Learning (actually learning) their classmates’ names. I learned this strategy from Johanna Winant on Twitter in 2017 and have been using it since to great effect. In the first class during syllabus review, I tell students that they will take tests on their classmates’ names at the start of the second, third, and fourth class sessions; this might vary depending on class size—in my class of nine, a third test was unnecessary. I also say that they must get at least 70% on the last test. I don’t give them the other end of this toothless ultimatum and have never had to—your mileage may vary. I have never had a student miss more than two names by the last test. The actual test looks like this: I ask students to take out a pen and half-sheet of paper. I then stand behind a student (in a non-threatening manner) and their classmates write down the student’s name; we then go around the room until everyone’s name has been written (or wildly guessed). I correct the tests after class (or during, if they’re doing a free write or pair share), write the correct response for near-misses, and hand them back. 

Students often meet this task with shock or ask “why” point-blank; I respond that it’s important to practice collegial scholarly conversations by knowing who we’re talking to and responding directly. Perhaps the best unintended outcome of the exercise is the immediate student camaraderie that results from facing this seemingly insurmountable task. One class immediately burst into a strategizing session: “Everybody, take a selfie and put it in a Google Doc so we can study!” Inevitably, I walk into the classroom on the second day and students panic as they remember their impending fate: “Wait, what’s your name?! What’s her name?” and sometimes will organize their own rapid-response icebreaker as a memory tool. Rather than nag students throughout the semester about addressing each other by name, I simply require it, and they always rise to the occasion.

In my second class session, I ease students into providing reflective feedback by doing a group brainstorm about what works well and what doesn’t in a group discussion. Students begin to understand that I will be asking them to reflect on their past experience in order to make our class a more effective learning environment. Selfishly, this is also a great way to get students to say, “I hate when one person dominates the conversation!” so that I don’t have to. I ask students to remember what they and their classmates find useful for discussions, and the list we produce together serves as an aspirational backdrop for the conversations we have thereafter. Later in the semester, we do another group brainstorm about what works well (and doesn’t) in peer review workshops. It is here that I hope someone will say, “It’s annoying when my peer reviewer doesn’t give me anything to work on and just says it’s great!” If not, I take my cue and share that nugget of wisdom: No paper is ever perfect or “done,” and you can always find something to improve. 

I use the second class, too, for an exercise borrowed from my beloved undergraduate mentor, Samina Najmi: I ask students to think about perceptions we have about students who stay quiet in class—not perceptions that they claim or believe, but that someone in the universe might have. Students are often reluctant to be the first to voice negative perceptions, but after reassurance, students say variations of the following: Quiet students can’t keep up, haven’t done the reading, or simply don’t care. I explain that the neutral or positive perceptions—quiet students are anxious, thinking, listening, forming their own responses—are much more likely to be true, and that I welcome whatever form of participation students can muster. I find that students don’t take this as an excuse to remain quiet, but instead as a promise that they won’t be judged for being quieter or for not having perfectly polished answers. This past semester, I had one student say that she’s always been terrified of speaking in class, but that after our class, she found it “wasn’t so scary.” This is a particularly important message to convey to marginalized students, including first-generation college students who might take longer to find their way in class discussions—for me, there isn’t a single definition of participation, let alone of valuable participation.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I check in with students anonymously throughout the semester through what I call “Post-It check-ins.” Once a month at the end of class, I ask students to anonymously write what works well for them about our class and/or what they’re struggling with; they then leave the Post-Its on the wall or board by the door on their way out. Afterward, I adjust in-class activities, discussion structures, or reading schedules to reflect their needs. This can be as easy as including a ten-minute refresher on writing a claim, preceded by the acknowledgement that some students had questions about it. Students are incredibly thoughtful, even in the space of a Post-It, about their experience and their genuine investment in improving their work. It’s important, though, to actually do something with the feedback you receive to maintain students’ trust as they share their important (and sometimes vulnerable) thoughts. Even if you’re unable to change lesson plans in the days following a Post-It check-in, a verbal acknowledgement that you’ve read and plan to address students’ worries goes a long way: “I know some of you are confused about passive voice—how to find it and how to change it—and we’re going to do an exercise next week that should help.” 

Trust students to be your collaborators in the classroom. It doesn’t mean you’re any less responsible for their learning, or that you need to call your students “co-teachers,” or that you don’t have authority: it simply means that giving students a stake in the classroom—how it’s organized, what you spend time on, and what skills they develop—makes it a more just, livable, and human place in which to learn. 

Kristin Lacey is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Boston University. She has taught courses on satire, nineteenth-century American literature, and literary representations of “madwomen.” Her dissertation studies the rise of individual ambition in the nineteenth-century United States, particularly how women navigated this cultural shift in fiction and primary materials like conduct manuals and women’s magazines.


Experiencing New Texts for the First Time Alongside Our Students

As our semesters draw to their staggered ends, we start planning our summer reading list and writing groups, along with our physical and mental rejuvenation activities to commence upon our recovery from the intense end of the semester grade-a-thons. PALS contributor Catherine Hostetter shared her first few summer reads with us last week. My pile is already well into the double digits with contemporary lit from my book club, pedagogy texts, and some classics–I may have downloaded all of the volumes of Clarissa to my Kindle (wish me luck!). Finally, we may have some texts in that pile that we are considering adding to our syllabi next semester.

My suggestion: take a leap of faith or make an educated choice. Either way, pick a new-to-you text to teach next semester and set it aside in order to read it for the first time alongside your students.

Course Design to Empower Students

Depending on the course, I like to switch out at least one novel or a whole group of texts in order to keep the class fresh for both my students and myself. Every semester that I have taught a literature course, I have chosen a text that was previously unread by me to include. This is an intentional move.

This is also not something I came up with on my own. I remember the first time I took a class during my undergraduate career where my professor pointed to a novel on the syllabus and stated that she had never read it before. Of course, the rest of the syllabus was an old shoe for her. The majority of my professors taught texts they knew inside and out, texts they had taught many times before, texts they had read plenty of criticism about. The experience of reading a new text with my professor was an especially empowering one.

PALS contributor Caitlin Kelly recently reflected on what happens when we don’t over prepare for class and follow students’ lead in an attempt to silence ourselves instead of silencing them with our knowledge of the literature. Reading a text for the first time alongside our students changes the dynamic. We don’t have our normal prior knowledge of the text nor do we have previous experiences teaching it to draw upon nor do we know how it plays out. Moreover, we get to share affective responses with students that we may have moved beyond by our 5th, 10th, or 20th read.

The Classics – Pick Canonical Works to Feel Safe

Last year in a post about teaching students to read through dislike or boredom of texts, I referenced reading Jane Eyre for the first time with my students in the late survey of British literature. I knew what happened in Jane Eyre despite never having read it. I had read ample criticism that referenced it. And I had attempted and failed to read it multiple times. So after the first 150 pages, it was a new-to-me novel, and I got to experience it for the first time with my class. Those who loved it showed me new ways of seeing it, and those who disliked it made me work harder to see it and approach it evenly for the sake of teaching it responsibly.

In addition to Jane Eyre, I have also finally read Moby-Dick because I put it on my syllabus. I had considered reading it at different points, but I had never really moved beyond purchasing it. I love the ocean, grew up in a west coast beach town, and am a surfer. I had read other 19th century sea literature with varying degrees of appreciation. However, anticipating the whale taxonomic classifications and the like moby-dick-brian-brainawaiting me made me want to clean my house instead of read. So I placed it on my early American literature survey course’s syllabus and charged through it with my students. We all had different chapters and sections of the novel that spoke to us. When one would question the relevance of a certain part, another would step in with the value for the work as a whole. We had several graduate level seminar discussions that thoroughly impressed me. I prepared most activities and discussions based off of what they posted to our online discussion board before class, but we also had the Norton critical edition to offer us additional critical support. 

In both of these examples, I chose to include novels–long 19th century novels–that did not appeal to me aesthetically or content-wise. I went on the journey with my students and came out with at very different appreciation than I would have arrived at if I read them on my own.

New Releases – Have a Little Faith

The other situation I have found myself in is waiting in anticipation for a book’s publication date. Last spring semester, I chose Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir for my developmental composition course. Its release date was one week before the start of the semester. I placed the order in November and waited patiently for it to arrive at the end of January.

BLM MemoirChoosing a new text by an already established writer comes with some security, whereas I went in relatively blind with my choice, relying on the reviews of those who had read advanced copies. I chose Cullors’ memoir because I repeatedly experienced classrooms where the majority of students had little to no knowledge of the black lives matter movement. I wanted students to hear about BLM from one of its founders. It was beyond the perfect choice for my course. It tied together all of the scholarship and writing assignments from across the entire semester from social media to communication to mental health to black lives matter. Cullors’ memoir is a goldmine of topics for students to explore. Students also found it to be a page turner. They were reading ahead and connecting deeply with Cullors’ life.

Not Canonical, Not Awaiting Publication

Finally, I have chosen to teach an entire short story collection based on previously reading and teaching a single short story from it. After wandering through a series of Kentucky Club.jpgtexts looking for a short story addressing immigration, I came upon a recommendation for one of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s short stories from Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. I included one of his short stories in an online Intro to American literature course. Due to the overwhelming responses to that short story from my students, I place the entire collection on my syllabus and read it in its entirety with my students. It ended up being students’ favorite text of the semester once more. Again, this was an active decision to not read it before the semester. However, I was familiar with one of its stories, and trusted him to deliver with the rest of the collection.

If this is intimidating, go small. Start with a short story, a few poems, maybe a novella. Go with a canonical novel that has never made it to your “already read” list, but that you know is going to deliver. If you are feeling brave, choose a text that doesn’t have that prior seal of approval. Take that journey through a new-to-you text with your students and enjoy the unknown!