Tag Archives: english

The Student Has Become the Master: Flipped Classrooms for Advanced Students

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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 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.

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Language Barriers, Introversion, and the Status of English

There are many practical difficulties involved in trying to function day-to-day in a language that you don’t speak or understand well, even if you speak or understand a little. There’s ordering in restaurants and making sure you got the right change at the grocery store, of course. And things get additionally complicated when you are trying to get a mobile phone or talk to a potential landlord. 

But there’s problems that arise that don’t necessarily seem obvious on the surface, and I’ll venture to say that they are additionally stressful if you are naturally pretty introverted and are taxed by social interactions in general. If you add a dose of needing a bit too badly for every single person to like you and judge you kindly to that, it’s even worse. Because going out every day and living life in a country where you can’t communicate all that well means learning to cope with the fact that you are going to sometimes be perceived as unintelligent, that people are going to get frustrated with you, and that you aren’t going to be able to read people and adapt to interpersonal interactions in the way that you are used to. 

I learned enough Russian before coming here to make life significantly easier than if I hadn’t. But because of lack of exposure to native speakers and my learning style, I read and write it a lot better than I speak and understand it. So over the past few days, virtually every time someone has come at me in Russian, I’ve just sort of frozen and either looked at the person accompanying me or stammered out, “Я не говорю по-русский” (I don’t speak Russian). I’m assured that this will improve substantially in a few months time. But in the meantime, it takes a little bit extra effort to go do normal stuff because in addition to the hassles of trying to communicate, I have to confront a sense of exposure, vulnerability, and ineptitude that is distinctly uncomfortable. I suppose that’s what makes this a character-building experience.

I have to keep in mind, however, that English is in many ways an aspirational language. In just a few days, I’ve had multiple Russians tell me I don’t really need much Russian to get by and to express wonder that more young people in this country don’t learn it. I was hired to help Russian college students become better writers in English because it’s a critical competency that they need if they want to enter the international academic and business communities. “English is the language of the world,” one person–who speaks five languages–said in response to my lament that American students receive relatively little foreign language education.

It’s perhaps for that reason that my interactions with Russians have involved more confusion and awkwardness than outright hostility (though I’m sure there will be some of that eventually). No one on Russian television has said that these Americans should learn Russian or go back to their own country. And while xenophobia is a thing here and there surely are those who hold that sentiment, I think that does suggest something about the relative privilege native English-speakers experience.

David Sedaris said in one of his books that there are two types of French: hard French and easy French. Hard French involves the conjugation of verbs and memorization of vocabulary. Easy French is just English spoken slowly and loudly in a French person’s face. The sense of entitlement that informs Easy French isn’t something I identify with. And that’s not because I’m such a good person. It’s because I am an awkward person who cares too much about what people think of me. Still, this experience makes me think about the foreign visitors and immigrants and exchange students I’ve encountered back in the U.S. who have had very little English and the exasperated attitudes I’ve heard expressed by all sorts of people, including fellow educators. It sucks to think that I might be the target of that sort of hostility, even if it isn’t expressed.

So, if you encounter someone who doesn’t speak English (or whatever) all that well, consider that this is a person who is not just struggling with the inconvenience of trying to get stuff done. Recall that this is a person who may also be experiencing a very profound sense of alienation from other human beings due to the difficulty of reading other people’s intonations and moods, of feeling heard and understood and not judged. This is not (necessarily) an unintelligent or lazy person. Learning a new language is hard and takes a long time (and English is a monster), and this person just needs some signals that you are on their side. It makes a big difference when someone else is willing to laugh at the awkwardness and just bumble along with you and point you in the right direction in a non-condescending way.