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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Teaching the Crucible in the Age of Trump

Dear College Professor, I Taught The Crucible in the Age of Trump.

“NO COLLUSION . . . A TOTAL WITCHHUNT!” – Donald J. Trump, Washington DC, 2018.
I don’t truck with no Devil!” – Tituba, Salem, 1692. The Crucible by Arthur Miller.

Dear College Professor,

I’m teaching Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in my college preparatory high school classroom.

Miller’s play, which, just to remind you, uses the Salem Witch trials as an allegory for the hysteria and authoritarianism of the 1950’s Red Scare bears striking parallels to the multiple federal investigations of our 45th President of the United States – many of these invoked by the President himself and his repeated use or (misuse) of the term “Witch Hunt.”

I first began thinking about how factions within American society had appropriated and altered the meaning Miller’s interrogation of “Witch Hunts” in 2017 when Donald Trump and his associates began adapting the term to discredit those who asked questions about Trump – particularly questions about his relationship with Russia.

Back then, I was beginning my blog Love in the House of the Seven Gables, which studies and reiterates aspects of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel The House of the Seven Gables. Because Hawthorne set his novel against the backdrop of the Salem Witch Trials, connections between Hawthorne’s novel and contemporary politics came naturally to me.

Since 2017, the term has become only more prevalent. At times our culture uses it in ways similar to its Miller’s original meaning, such as when immigrants and Muslims are demonized. At other times, the phrase “Witch Hunt” is used in what I can only consider a “Trumpian” sense – because Trump appears to have originated this new use of the term – where instead of being applied to highlight persecution of marginalized peoples by those in positions of power, term is used to by the powerful to disavow any investigation into their actions. This is the sense of the term as used by those who defended now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh against allegations of violence against women during his confirmation hearings. For a concise history of how the term “Witch Hunt,” has changed in American society, I recommend Erin Cassesse’s Vox article.

Even with such media high exposure to the term “Witch Hunt,” I wondered what connections my students could make between the play and contemporary politics. I wanted to help them see how dramatically a play that Miller wrote in 1953, set in 1692, could be strikingly relevant to 2019. I wanted to help them see how an American play first performed before most of their parents were born could still be relevant to their 21st-century world.

How many of them, I wondered, were already aware of the obvious parallels between Miller’s play and our own political crises? How many, while reading, could connect the dots. And among those who couldn’t, could I help them see it? Surely, I thought, no one could be sitting in a college prep classroom in the Age of Trump without having heard the term “Witch Hunt.” Or depending where they’d heard the term,  “WITCH HUNT!!!” Would they understand that “This is Not A Witch Hunt”?

Well College Professor, I was in for a surprise. You might be, too.  

Even though I’m only a high school teacher, I’m telling you this because my students will soon be your students, either literally or figuratively. As I’ve mentioned before, I used to teach college writing and literature. Because I have served as a university instructor, I can anticipate your expectations. Yet as a high school teacher, I have first-hand knowledge of how your incoming students view and interact with the world.  

I hope that my insights will aid you as you encourage your own students to critically interrogate connections between American literature and contemporary American culture. As blog posts on this very teaching and American literature website, like Caitlin Kelly’s Teaching Charlotte Temple after #MeToo and Randi Taglen’s Teaching Failure: Aunt Phillis’s Cabin suggest, you are interested in doing this.

The Crucible and This Trumpian Moment

FireShot Capture 018 - Cable Spins Mueller Report In Clashin_ - https___www.huffpost.com_entry_mueHannity dropping the mic on a particularly Monty Burns-like Robert Mueller. Youtube.

I began teaching the play the week of March 25th, 2019, which was by coincidence the week after Robert Mueller delivered his report of the Trump-Russia investigation to Attorney General William Barr. Over the weekend, the term “Witch Hunt,” had been broadcast over cable news and social media perhaps more than ever.  As soon as the Mueller Report was released, Sean Hannity, one of Fox News’ highest rating pundits, had declared, “The Witch Hunt is Over!” Immediately thereafter, with no hint irony, Hannity urged the federal government to investigate Ukraine’s support of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. It kind of seemed like Hannity does not understand the lessons of the Crucible. Would my students? Over the past couple of weeks, what I expected to be a challenge in helping students develop critical thinking skills has turned out to be a problem of information.

In this post, I want to tell you what I found out, how I’m trying to remedy and adapt. I’ll tell you about a short research project I assigned my students as part of my adaptation. In about a week, when I’ve had a chance to review the projects, I’ll tell you how it turns out.  

5494470688_9c012ef54b_zMap Puzzle via Ken Hawkins

A Conundrum Discovered

From previous experience with these students, I knew that we could move easily between analysis of The Crucible and the connections that Arthur Miller established between the Salem Witch Trials and the Red Scare in his 1996 article “Why I Wrote The Crucible.” After all, we’ve been working to make connections between different texts, as well as between texts and real life, over the course of this school year.

I wondered, though, how easily could we move between the themes of the play and discussions around contemporary political discourse? And if it wasn’t easy, how could I teach the critical thinking necessary to analyze the connections between the language of the play and similar phraseology in contemporary politics?

I tried to make this assessment on Day 1 of our study of text through an all-class discussion. Students had read only our textbook’s introduction to the play (which gives historical context of the Salem Witch Trials, and literary context for the McCarthy Hearings), the author’s Note on Historical Accuracy, and the Overture to Act I. These readings provided the exposition necessary for students to see how Miller set his play during the Salem Witch Trials as an allegory to analyze how mass-hysteria, coupled with political leaders interested more in authority and personal interest than justice, had ravaged 1950’s society and persecuted the innocent.

The class proved capable of following along with Miller’s connections. I then asked what I thought would be a simple question: “Has anyone heard the term ‘Witch Hunt’ discussed in relation to current events in American society?” Met with silence, I rephrased the question: “Where have you heard this term applied in contemporary politics or news?” Again, silence.

Finally, one student (who happened to Hispanic) raised her hand. “OK,” she said, “I’ll just say it. This reminds me of the ICE raids on immigrant communities.” This comment offered a parallel that a few others picked up on. We then discussed parallels between the mass hysteria describes in his Overture to ACT I and the fears held by sectors of American society who believe that immigrants – especially from the Middle East or Central America, are entering our society with the intent to harm us (and now I’ll just say it, white people).

In the next class, one student asked amid the uncomfortable silence. “Do we have to talk about this, because isn’t this politics?” This student unintentionally let me know that she was quite familiar with current events.  I replied that “it is, and it isn’t. It’s political, but Miller’s play is political. And our goal in this discussion is not to engage in a political debate, but to analyze how the term “Witch Hunt” is being used in contemporary society.” Still, students were very, very quiet.

Simple Questions

When you are a teacher, it can be hard to sense whether students really don’t know what you’re talking about, or they just don’t want to acknowledge that they know what you are talking about. To find out, I created an anonymous survey for my remaining class sections.

My first few questions that came up with expected results. I learned that only 1% of my students had previously read The Crucible, or seen a movie version. Seventy percent had studied the McCarthy Hearings and the Red Scare a couple of weeks ago in their U.S. History class. This second result explained why our discussions of Miller’s use of the Salem Witch Trials to set his allegory of the McCarthy hearings had gone pretty smoothly.

Responses to my next few questions just as clearly explained why we were not able to generate any discussion of 21st-century use of the term “Witch Hunt.” My questions and my students’ response are detailed below.

Crucible Survey 3

So roughly 65% of students had indeed heard the term “Witch Hunt” in contemporary news, an additional 20% had at least some idea what we were talking about. As students sometimes do, my students knew what I was talking about, but didn’t feel like talking about it in class. But why?

Their answers to my next two questions did not answer this question directly but enabled me to make what are probably reliable inferences.

Crucible Survey 1

Crucible Survey 2

I asked these last two questions because I wanted to get a sense of how much disagreement, and degree of disagreement, exists in my classroom.

Contrary to popular belief, young people in high school and college are not disconnected from politics. You may disagree with me. I know this statement contradicts adult folklore and the stereotype of students scrolling up and down their phones all day. Young people are exposed to information about contemporary politics daily.

Information is not the problem. The problem is the kind of information.

I know what you’re thinking. What?

“What”? Giphy.

Bear with me a moment. And forgive me for not frequently citing sources. You will find that the hypothesis that follows is based on common knowledge.

Young people today – the age of my high school students and your college students- consume less print and radio news than their parents. And though their parents watch a lot of cable news, young people get most of their news through social media. This was my personal experience based on casual conversations with students when I taught college. It is my experience based on conversations with my current students. And my survey results confirm it.

The social media increase our own innate tendencies toward confirmation bias by bombarding us with advertisements based on demographics and “likes” and clicks. If Facebook knows that you are 17 years old, for example, it will show you advertisements for vape products because that is the target market that the vape giant Juul has told Facebook it wants.

Also based on demographics and internet behavior, Facebook (and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and the Snapchat, and other things that you and I don’t even know about) will also recommend that we follow accounts run by political advocacy organizations and by companies who make their living by promulgating totally fake news. These advocacy organizations and fake news sources produce biased, oversimplified, and incendiary information.

Based on whom I’m friends with, how old I am, where I live, and my behavior on social media (or my gmails or anything and everything) the social medias will encourage me to click and follow accounts that it thinks will confirm my political views – through “fake” news or alternative facts or news based on highly partisan conclusions.

The same can be said of our cable news sources – especially the place where most of my students hear political information on television – Fox News.

Don’t get mad at me. I know, from yet more personal experience trying to have conversations with people who watch only Fox News, that people get mad when you question the veracity of that network. But just remember, this is the network that told viewers Barack Obama is a Muslim and is even now telling its viewers that the Mueller report “totally exonerates” Donald Trump from any wrongdoing – even when this is exactly the opposite of what even AG Barr, quoting Mueller’s report, just said.

My students do not seek out Fox News as their primary news source, but it’s what 50% of their parents are watching. I thought this is because I taught in a predominantly red state. But I’ll tell you, reader, I did a little research. And the numbers produced in my survey are pretty close to the national average. Fox News has more than half the market share among Cable News viewers, with CNN following at 35% and MSNBC at 10%. And even among those not getting their TV news from Fox News, those who watch CNN and MSNBC are regularly informed of Fox’s most egregious distortions. 

You and I are old enough to remember when there was no Fox, no MSNBC. Only network news and print sources. For my students, Fox has been on the TV in their parents’ homes since they were born. And targeted social media ads have populated their screens since they were teenagers. For them, all of this is normal. I must be beginning to sound very old to you. Let’s move on.

In short, the “news” we find on social media, where 60% of my students indicate they receive most of their news, massively distorts information – or deliberately delivers us disinformation. And television, when it does give us true information, does not encourage us to understand differing points of view. Combined, our television and social media often encourage us to regard those who do not share our political views as less intelligent, less moral, less human.

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What other people look like you like when you get too much news from social media. “Werewolf Me” via Paul Huber.

A Remedy Considered

Based on their survey responses and my initial attempts at classroom conversations about contemporary use of the term “WITCH HUNT!,” I decided that if we were going to analyze the terms’ current use in relation to Miller’s allegory of the Witch Hunt, we were going to have to do it on the “down low,” as the cool kids call it these days.

So I reconceived the conversations that I had imagined us having as a class into a small group assignment. As we discussed the text The Crucible in class, students would keep track of key pieces of information in Miller’s Salem Witch Trials. I created a graphic organizer that prompted students to identify accusers, accused, of what the accused were accused, and the types of evidence. I also asked them to think about whether the evidence is based on fact, fear, or personal grievances.

In other words, they would ask “is this a Witch Hunt”? Then, they’d research corresponding information about the McCarthy trials and ask the same questions. So far, we’re just talking about The Crucible. So everybody should be safe.

Next, the group will select a 21st-century issue and ask the same questions.

I’m asking students to be as specific as possible so that they have concrete evidence that they can examine.

This is where things may get dicey. There may be controversy – but at this point, the students just need to gather what they deem to be reliable evidence together. I’m hoping this may allow them to discuss a controversial 21st-century issue, even the issue that looms most prominently in my mind – the Russia investigation of the 45th President of the United States. But to require them to examine this issue doesn’t feel right for a number of reasons.

Finally, based on their group research, students will write a short essay that answers the question – are the accusations real, or are they fake – or “Is it a Witch Hunt?” Answering this question individually will permit members of the group to come to different conclusions if and when they disagree on how to assess the evidence.

And once I’ve had time to read and digest my students’ work, I’ll get back to you with a follow-up letter, College Professor. I’ll let you know what happened. Because during the roughly year and a half that will pass before my students become your students, my students will mature a lot. Their brains will grow. But they’ll still be the same people, with hopefully more developed critical thinking skills but quite possibly a very similar worldview to the one they have now. I want to help you know what to expect in case you ever try to teach anything you find politically relevant to the present day. Because I’m here to help.

As is always the case when we try something new as teachers, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Do you know what’s going to happen? Do you have any advice? If so, let me know in the comments

Thanks for listening to me for so long. I’ll see you later.

Clay Zuba is an English Teacher at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Phoenix, Arizona, where he teaches American Literature and writing. In 2016, he was awarded a Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Delaware. His acclaimed blog love7g.com about Nathaniel Hawthorne is a precursor to his upcoming historical novel Love in the House of the Seven Gables.