Musical Chairs

Currently I work a very WIDE room for my freshman composition class. I’d estimate it’s about four seats deep and ten seats wide. When I lead a standard class discussion, I have to march the length of the room — from the door to the window at the far end — and project my voice rather loudly when I’m on one side or the other. But that doesn’t bother me. What’s troubling is that it spreads the students far apart from each other. It divides them; and there is a sort of “faction” mentality that seems evident to me when debates get hot: one side argues against the other, from the comfortable distance of the double-wide trailer sized room.

You don’t have to be a communications theorist to recognize that students tend to territorialize their space in a learning environment. —Musical Chairs (Pedablogue)

Last fall, whenever a student got up to give an oral presentation, I would sit in their vacated seat. I enjoyed the chance to see the room from so many different perspectives.

This great entry on classroom space got me thinking a little more about how my students’ relationships with each other in the blogosphere affects the in-class dynamic.

In the past, when I’ve offered a free, no-bad-consequences draft review, I’m always disappointed at how few students take me up on it. I did notice that some of the same students who wouldn’t submit rough drafts would have at least something prepared for an oral report. Perhaps they don’t mind getting a zero on a rough draft when I’m the only one who knows they didn’t do the work, but when I call on their name for their oral presentation, they didn’t want to have to say “I’m not prepared” in front of their peers.

I thought I’d try to put this phenomenon to use, and started planning informal oral presentations a day or two before a rough draft was due. I eased the freshmen into it by letting them present on a personal topic of their own choice, so they would feel more comfortable presenting. For all my classes, I made it clear I wouldn’t mark them down for saying “um” or for fidgeting.

While I saw the oral presentations as a way for students to try out new ideas without necessarily churning out pages and pages of detailed support, and while I thought the student papers improved markedly after we workshopped the thesis statements and supporting ideas the students floated during their informal presentations, too often the students were simply focused on getting through the presentation.

Displaced from the comfortable anonymity of their accustomed seat, students felt too vulnerable to appreciate constructive criticism. I graded the oral presentations very generously, because I wanted to reward and encourage the process rather than evaluate the product, but the anxieties students felt about performing made their way into their evaluations at the end of the course. Students didn’t mention how much better their writing was as a result of their oral ordeals. Some even complained that their peers’ presentations were so lame and repetitive that they would have preferred me to lecture more. My efforts to create a more student-centered learning environment seemed to invite a backlash. So a little reorganization was clearly in order.

This term, I’ve drastically reduced my reliance on formal student presentations. I let students know I don’t want them to enter the classroom as a blank slate. In my lit classes, I’ve been distributing the teaching task, diffusing it among the whole student body, making it part of the routine environment of the classroom.

Each student needs to prepare an “agenda item” they have prepared in advance, and that they will be ready to share if called upon. I ask them to post a brief entry on their blog, 24 hours before class, in which they offer a quotation from the assigned reading, and state what their “agenda item” is — that is, what they plan to talk about, when called on in class. Then, they bring to class a 200-word reflection, that mentions by name a student whose blogged idea has helped them develop their ideas about the assigned text.

Friday morning in “Drama as Literature,” we were discussing the first two acts of Hamlet. Because I checked the student blogs before class, I already knew the students were talking about Hamlet’s madness, Gertrude’s complicity, and the dramatic effectiveness of the ghost. The first student who spoke mentioned being inspired by a second student’s blog entry. The second student then mentioned being inspired by a third student’s entry. This went on for a string of six or eight students, for about fifteen minutes, each building on what the previous student had said, before the first pause in the discussion.

During that pause, I called attention to what had just happened, and praised the students for sustaining the conversation on their own.

When the students in this class give informal presentations, I split them up into small groups, and send them out to a courtyard or patio. I float around and try to listen in on the discussion, but my physical absence reminds them to think of their peers as their primary audience. Several students blogged about how much they enjoyed the experience, and the informal reflections they submitted afterwards were overwhelmingly positive.

Once when I was late to class due to a domestic incident (I told the class it involved a shower curtain, a large spider, and a potty-training toddler), I sent word via the division secretary that I’d be a bit late, and the students went around the room and shared their agenda items. When I did show up, they seemed quite pleased with themselves for having been so productive on their own.

I’m a little spoiled, since all the students in that class are English majors. I’m also teaching two sections of a lit seminar and a news writing course that includes students who are less than thrilled to be there. While some students are enthusiastic and dependably well-prepared, it’s clear that some students haven’t made the class a top priority. That’s okay — I got a C in my college Latin course, and it wasn’t because I disliked the subject or the teacher, it was just because I chose to put my time and effort elsewhere.

The news writing class is changing the focus from a series of short exercises to some longer, more in-depth units, so I’m hoping I can use some of blog-enhanced classroom discussion techniques. In the next five or so weeks, we’ll work our way chapter-by-chapter through two books, and I plan to have the students sign up for a particular chapter, and let a different student take the class through the “agenda item” sequence each time. At 32 students, that’s large by SHU standards, but as a writing class, it’s large by any standard. I’m going to let students know I expect them to participate regularly, and I’ll start asking them to evaluate and reflect on their own contributions to the online and in-class discussion.

When I switched places with the students who gave oral presentations last year, I was trying to send a message that, for the next 20 minutes, I was just one of the students. But the act of trading places with the students emphasized the difference between us. When I wasn’t sitting in a student space, I was The Teacher.

By asking all students to prepare agenda items, I am distributing the authoritarian role of the agenda-setter. It is sometimes stressful for me, since I have to work twice as hard weaving connections between the student agenda items, filling in gaps with 5-minute mini-lectures on catharsis or the role of the raisonneur.

I still haven’t worked in “anagnorisis” or “the fourth wall,” and earlier in the week, three students in a row asked me a question that stumped me. There were three high school seniors visiting the classroom that day, and I kept having to admit my ignorance. I’m teaching without a net when I let the students set the agenda — but the 24-hour lead time really helps. I have time to prepare those 5-minute spurts of info, when I notice the students are hungry for background information on the Protestant reformation, or if they’re puzzled by a mythological reference, or they’re curious about the author’s biography.

Rather than letting the students take turns being the “sage on the stage,” I’d like them to take turns being the “guide on the side,” and shouldering the responsibility. In a typical class, some student has usually checked the Wikipedia entry for an author’s biography, or has read the author before, or got inspired and did some outside research.

Musical chairs is a good metaphor, but I’d like to think of removing the empty chairs that separate the students, until every student is connected with his or her peers all the time. If we all swap roles a
nd trade ideas as rapidly and smoothly as my lit students did in Friday morning’s Hamlet class, I think we’ll all enjoy the result.

4 thoughts on “Musical Chairs

  1. Teaching without a net goes beyond description: it’s both white-knuckle terror and a patch of wild strawberries. I’m “role-swapping” now and, wow, the student reactions are amazing.

  2. Actually, it was my own students who were asking the stumpers, but I can see how my post might have been ambiguous. I think having the vistors there did help the classroom environment. We had talked about whether Faustus was too intellectual to listen to the warnings his heart might otherwise have sent, and pointed out that one of the first things Faustus asks Mephistopheles for is a wife, and later near the end Mephistopheles distracts Faustus with the image of Helen of Troy, who goes off stage with him. Thus I suggested that it wasn’t so much Faustus’s head or heart, but something lower down, that was motivating Faustus. I paused, then turned to the visiting high schoolers and said, “This is college! We can talk about stuff like that here!”

    I ended that class with something like “You’ve all sold your souls to Seton Hill University for four years. When it’s all over, I hope you’ve got more to show for it than Faustus got out of his deal.”

  3. Wonderful post, Dennis. I think you make some very good points about the pressures of presentation and the value of “role-swapping” in a college class (I think it’s really a matter of shifting the students out of their entrenched subject position — the teacher will always have a capital T in their eyes, I think). I found it interesting that the high schoolers that visited were the ones asking the tough questions. How do you account for that? Do you think this will subsequently influence your students in some way?

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