Monday, September 12, 2011

You Don't Have Time to Read This

My dear new high-school teachers, especially English teachers, please know that I’m aware of the irony of my writing something to make your professional life easier or more fulfilling or both at a time when you are too busy even to check your e-mail. But if I wait until you do have time – next summer – my advice won’t be helpful.

Well, that’s the way it always goes: Your leaky roof needs repairing most when it’s raining too hard to get up there. With that in mind, I return to the task at hand – offering tips for improving discussion classes — even if my words float harmlessly into an empty universe:

Because you are a human being, it can be very difficult not to load up your responses to student comments with warmth, affection, disdain, contempt, disbelief, etc. But try your best not to do this, not to make your responses personal. For one thing, a student’s comment shouldn’t be weighted with his family history (both his brother and sister were royal pains in the ass when they were your students), the history of his earlier comments (“That’s the fifth time you’ve connected this poem to Harry Potter. Could you perhaps climb up the ol’ literary ladder a bit?”), his lack of earlier comments (“Whoa! Look who decided to join us!”) or your ongoing tense relationship with him (you respond grudgingly through gritted teeth, avoiding eye contact).

Every student’s input is potentially another brush stroke in the evolving portrait of an idea. It’s all about how that particular comment contributes to the process that’s happening this moment. Your job is to measure the fit, to appreciate the effort, to make clear its connection to what has gone on before or to tactfully show how it is perhaps a brush stroke for another portrait, not the one that’s being painted today.

Do your best to respond thoughtfully, gratefully, and evenly to each comment. Do not respond to the first three with “Okay, good, fine,” and to the fourth one with “THAT’S IT! NOW WE’RE GETTING SOMEWHERE! GREAT POINT, BOBBY!” This shines altogether too much light on the lameness of the first three efforts. You can’t entirely choke back your enthusiasm for the Blue Ribbon insight and still be authentic, but you can be careful with your wording. Some teachers successfully address this issue by simply saying “Thanks” after each comment, unless further elaboration or clarification is needed.

Try to spread the wealth. Don’t keep calling on Irwina, especially if other hands are up, even if Irwina’s comments tend to be especially insightful. If no other hands are up, pause for a second, then solicit other responses: “Okay, let’s hear from somebody else. Irwina can’t be the only one in here with ideas.” If Irwina becomes the sole spokesperson early in the semester, her classmates may happily allow her to carry the ball for the entire game.

Don’t, however, try to force everyone into the discussion. Students can be involved, participating, and actively learning without saying anything. Clearly, it is good to get as many ideas and pieces of ideas in the air as possible, but calling on someone who is pathologically shy may result in a continuity-breaking momentary freeze. The rest of the class will take a timeout from thinking about the topic at hand to share the anxiety of the stammering, quaking, dry-mouthed, coerced responder, while the responder will try to find ways to become invisible for the rest of the semester starting now.
Furthermore, introspective, contemplative, introverted students may sit in silence not due to lack of interest, but because they are busy internally processing and synthesizing their classmates’ observations. In college, I was one of these students, and I would get intensely caught up in a lively discussion only to find that by the time I was ready to step my toe in the river, the relevant water was downstream a ways. I did not want to begin my comment with something like, “Getting back to what Sheila said about Nick Carraway a few minutes ago …”

My best responses weren’t formulated until a few minutes after class, at which point, striding across campus to my next class, I would see the fallacies in comments A and B, the wisdom in C and D, and was now prepared to articulate a coherent contribution of my own.

Not to hold on to a grudge or anything, but I still sting at the memory of a high-school English teacher asking me a question about Emerson’s transcendentalism. I thought hard about her question and I could almost see the answer in the deep recesses of my adolescent mind. “I don’t exactly know,” I said. “You don’t exactly know?” she said. “I’d say you don’t know at all.” Without that snarky rejoinder, and given a bit more time, I believe an answer would’ve eventually made its way to the surface and I could’ve added to that class’s great store of Emersonian wisdom.

While I don’t like the idea of forced participation (or grading participation based on quantity), I also don’t like the idea of some publishable insight, some aphorism of the ages, trapped forever in the mind of a mute inglorious Milton in the third row, two desks from the back.

So I battle my distaste for calling on reluctant or seemingly reluctant students by trying to read their facial expressions. Most teenagers have not yet developed great poker faces, so if they have something to share, even if they’re shy, they’ll look like they’re about ready to jump out of their desk. If not, their face will say “If you call on me, I will either faint or race for the door.”

Sometimes I just ask students after class, “Hey, if I call on you, will you talk?” Or, “Are you one of those students who don’t mind reading aloud in class?” If I can’t catch them after class, I ask them in writing.

(If you’re asking questions to see if they read, of course, it’s tough luck if they’re shy or introspective: be ready or be embarrassed.)

Be sure, of course, to make it clear that students must be recognized before they speak. Otherwise, Irwina will begin sharing her opinion before you’ve finished asking the question, and all the other little ideas in the room will die a silent death.

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