Saturday, December 31, 2011

Classroom Struggles

I'm preparing for an interview for a new job, and I've been thinking about some of the standard questions that are asked. One of them is, "Tell us about a class that went poorly." Another version of this question that I like better is, "Tell us about a challenging class session."

It's hard to come up with scenarios. I don't have students disrupting class in loud or violent ways. I don't have rebellions. The larger failures aren't overt. Sometimes an individual student is unfocused or pays too much attention to his/her laptop rather than the class, in which case I say something to the student privately. (This reminds me that I want to say something about student professionalism later.)

The biggest problems I run into are students not preparing for class and students not responding to my discussion prompts. I try to address these as soon as I notice them. I have allowed myself to get a little mad when I see several students without books, but I'm thinking in future that I will use the "I'm very disappointed in you" tack. Last semester I ran into the problem of a class that stopped talking, and I addressed it with a large class conversation about what makes a good class. I used a reflection activity I had found online (I'll try to look for this later) and it led to a good conversation about why active learning was important. I also address low participation with group work. These strategies aren't always effective to the same degrees, but they always lead to some improvement.

Another instance of "failure" (sort of) is when an activity doesn't turn out the way I thought it would. Last summer I tried a roundtable activity that I had heard about at a panel at the College English Association conference. The instructor presenting it typically used the roundtable to cover lots of background materials, like information about the Great Revival in the U.S. Each student would be responsible for one reading. The teacher would prepare general questions and have the students take turns asking them to the participants, who would respond when appropriate. I modified this assignment, probably past all recognition. Instead of contextual information, the students read stories from Stephen King's Skeleton Crew. I prepared questions for the students to ask, but the roundtable quickly devolved into the students merely reporting on their stories. I had wanted them to choose, based on the reports, what we would read as a class the next day, but they were incapable of choosing and so I made the decision.

What went wrong? I don't actually think it was the switch in genre. At first I thought they weren't well-prepared enough, but checking my notes I see that I had them prepare written reports addressing these questions:

    1. What happens in the story? Who are the major characters, and how are they connected?
    2. In what sense is this a “horror” story? What is the primary fear?
    3. What is the setting, and how is it important to the narrative?
    4. What is the mode of narration, and how does it contribute to the suspense?
    5. Identify 2 additional elements of fiction and explain how they are important to the story.

So it wasn't preparation. I suspect the mistake I made was the prompts for the roundtable itself. I believe I used these same preparatory questions and had each of them answer in turn, rather than creating a set of questions for the students to ask each other. 

Yes, that was the problem. The students never had ownership of the activity. And that was also why they couldn't make the choice for the next day's reading. This active learning technique remained about me, instead of about them.

What problems have you encountered in your classes? What did you learn from them?

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