I realized today as I started preparing materials for my class on “Urban Environments in Literature and Film” that my students are pretty much teaching my class for me. Yesterday, I asked the day’s assigned group leaders to send me a list formulated in conjunction with their peers of 3-5 big questions they wanted answered or issues we should track as we proceed through our final novel, LA Confidential. Today, I am compiling some links and background readings based on what they sent me. I am doing work in response to an agenda that my students have set.
This happened by accident. The cession of power happened so gradually that I don’t think any of us noticed it, and the even bigger surprise is that it’s working out swimmingly. As a literature student and instructor, I am, of course, well indoctrinated in “student centered” classroom methods that incorporate Socratic dialogue and small group work. But never have I been in a situation in which the roles have been so radically reversed, in which I am essentially doing homework for my students. And what’s even more surprising is just how swimmingly this is working.
The first half of our semester proceeded pretty much like any advanced literature seminar. I would come to class with a very brief informal lecture prepared, lay out some issues in order to guide the subsequent discussion, and then the students would respond based on the agenda I had set. This seemed to be working just fine. The Bachelor’s level students here are elite students, and the level of participation (with way more than 50% of the class talking on any given day) was far exceeding my expectations. Not only do these students talk, they have opinions. They read texts critically and have interesting things to say about them. A couple of them read the scholarly introductions. I know for a fact that one finishes the books early and seeks out secondary sources on his own.
It was illuminating, then, to find out that the students themselves were dissatisfied with their level of participation when it was repeatedly cited as a weakness of the course on the midterm evaluations I had them hand in. I’ve had excellent students complain about their disengaged classmates before, and no one likes awkward silences. But the dissatisfaction in this case turned out to have a lot to do with my students’ varying degrees of comfort with spoken English. They are excellent readers and solid writers (the range of abilities is roughly equal to that of the American students I have taught but with different areas of difficulty). Students who didn’t talk very much said that they had things they wanted to say but that it took so long for them to put a coherent sentence together in their head that inevitably a more proficient student would beat them to it or the discussion would wander away from the topic. Several said they wished they had more opportunities to prepare what they were going to say in class outside of their daily journaling. And others said that they simply had a hard time understanding what was being said–either by me or by their classmates–if voices started overlapping or if we started speaking fast because we were especially engaged in that topic.
I had also noticed that my students seemed not completely comfortable with the kind of free-flowing discussion I was trying to foster. They still raised their hands to speak. They felt like they needed to have perfectly formed thoughts in order to participate. Some of this is a cultural issue–Russian secondary education has a reputation for being pretty authoritarian–but it was also clearly a confidence issue.
So, I decided to try and maintain the discussion format while giving students more opportunities to engage in a more structured, prepared way. I started having them do quick presentations on the subjects of their papers (two students per class session for a total of 10-15 minutes of class time). And for each session, I assign four student leaders who prepare topics and questions ahead of time for class discussion. They are then broken down into four small groups, which the student leaders guide through the subject matter they have prepared. At the halfway point, the groups have to produce some kind of deliverable (a presentation to the rest of the class, a visual map of the chapter, a set of unresolved questions, etc.), and what we do for the rest of class is determined by what they deliver. After about a week of this, I was doing very little in class aside from observing groups, synthesizing their conversations, and filling in gaps. No more lecturing, no more coming into the classroom with a pre-determined agenda.
Flipped classrooms are certainly not a new concept, but it’s something I deployed reluctantly for two reasons:
1) I was afraid that they would not arrive at the discussion topics that I thought were most important. This turned out to be unfounded, largely because my students are well-trained readers (Russian education is also highly literary). A class with a much lower level of ability probably could not handle this level of freedom. My students wound up covering almost precisely what I would have covered. The leaders asked good questions, and they weren’t afraid to return to topics previously covered in order to figure out if peoples’ views had changed. In cases where I thought they had missed or glossed over something, I could use the second half of class to insist they delve into it deeper. During one discussion of a middle section of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the groups were consistently noticing the fact that character names get re-used, but they didn’t make anything of it other than, “Huh, that’s weird.” So I had the group leaders go up to the blackboard and take direction from their peers in mapping the way names were used across storylines to figure out what was going on.
2) My “good student” impulse sometimes supersedes my “good teacher” impulse. What I mean by this is that I as a teacher at the beginning of her career frequently feel the need to “prove” my mastery of the content to my students, when it’s supposed to be the other way around. Thus, class becomes a performance centered on the teacher rather than a collaboration facilitated by the teacher.
So, what began as an exercise to give every student an opportunity to talk, to lead, and to prepare what they want to say (each student leads twice) has resulted in class sessions where I do almost no talking, which is a kind of platonic ideal for some instructors. And it’s resulted in a situation in which my students have set the agenda for the remaining three weeks, and I am taking my lead from them. Approaching LA Confidential, I would have started by talking about noir genre tropes, but these kids are already past that (our last “text” was Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, where they had plenty of opportunity to reflect on and discuss Nolan’s and the Batman franchise’s indebtedness to noir). Instead two of the three groups spent the majority of class time discussing immigration, crime, and racism in the novel’s first section. This makes sense. Coming off of Rushdie earlier in the semester, immigration and cities as cites of multi-cultural interaction are already very much on our minds. Immigration is also a very raw political issue in Moscow at the moment. But it meant that instead of feeling the need to explain things they already understood, I instead started putting together a list of sources to help fill in background knowledge on immigration from Mexico to California in the 1950s.
In conclusion, this is a classroom model that has worked well for the past several weeks and one that I would likely deploy again with necessary adjustments for students’ level of ability. But if you have a class that is capable of setting a substantive agenda and independently performing good critical analysis, then sometimes its just best to get out of their way.