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Tips for Teaching

Passing the Hat

Take a hat. Place slips of paper with typed out quotes in said hat. Shake well. The hat was a wool fedora and, though it may have been equally productive, I wasn’t trying to pull a Dadaist poem from the hat but rather was trying to open up classroom discussion to all of my students, those ready and willing to speak as well as the meek, the disinterested. That the exercise (to be described in greater detail below) was only partially successful was due to a few factors that I’ve identified upon reflection: first, there was my own over-eagerness to force the exercise to work and then, second, my too quick mis-assessment about students’ attitudes toward work both inside and outside of class.

Mini miscalculation number one: admitting to the class that I had been assigned to complete the hatful of quotes exercise in my practicum. It seems kind of meta to me now, thinking of how I tried to explain this to them, “I’m a student in a class about teaching this class and this is both my homework assignment and our class exercise,” and I have no idea why I thought it wise to even try. On reading through Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill’s Discussion as a Way of Teaching, I had identified the hatful of quotes exercise (described in Chapter Four, “Getting Discussion Going,” page 81) as something I would like to try out; so it seemed fortuitous when I was assigned the exercise. Rather than just accepting the chance and rolling with it, I felt some small desire to distance myself from the exercise by talking about it like I knew it was slightly silly or out of the norm but, sorry, I have to do it for class!

I had cut up slips of paper with quotations from the previous evening’s reading assignment—that ad assignment stand-by, Thomas Frank’s “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent”—and put the slips in the hat. The idea was to have each student pull a slip, free write on the quote with some direction (we had read about putting other people’s arguments in our own words in They Say/I Say, so their “if all else fails” directive was to put this quote and/or Frank’s main point in their own words), and then generate some discussion from each student’s reaction to their quotes. Point of clarification, there were four different quotes from Frank in the hat. My plan was to first ask for a volunteer to read his or her quote aloud and then for everyone else who pulled the same quote to speak before opening the quote and the points raised in relation to the quote up to the whole class.

Miscalculation number two (a calibration I’m still trying to gauge): assuming, even if my students had completed a reading response to the Frank essay, that they had read through the entire essay or read it carefully enough to have more to say than just “Frank thinks advertising is bad.” So one of my more talkative students readily volunteered to read his quote and his response first but, when asked for clarification or elaboration on his points, said student responded that he didn’t know because he had only read a little bit of the article. Ok. The next student repeated the pattern, “I thought ____ means ____ but I can’t say any more about it because I didn’t read the whole essay.” So, over-reacting to the prospect of my class activity collapsing, uncomfortable with the silence and just a wee bit aggravated, I went on a rant detailing the finer points of what Frank was up to in the quote under discussion, its relation to the main line of his argument. I’m still working on developing wait time, enjoying the silence like a good Depeche Mode song, but my slight case of paroxysm seemed, at the time, to do the trick. Subsequent clusters of quotations had some understanding of where I wanted the discussion to go but it was all too pat. I’d done the heavy-lifting, drawn the links or whatever and now they were parroting my points back to me. I’d taken a few strange admissions of guilt as symptomatic for the whole class and then overcompensated, stifling whatever original material, dissenting opinions, questions, the class had written on their lined sheets in favor of hearing my reading of Frank in redux.

I left class feeling somewhat satisfied. I’d achieved some of my goals: everyone spoke! they understood the Frank article! But then I realized that, who really cares about the Frank article? I’d wanted to work on developing the kind of “democratic discussion” that Brookfield and Preskill describe in their book, a classroom in which, to quote these authors quoting Henry Giroux, we “struggle together within social relations that strengthen rather than weaken possibilities for active citizenship” (19). Instead, I’d told them how I read Frank’s essay. Looking back those few weeks (the semester seems so long and the hatful of quotes session seems ages ago now), this was but some first baby steps towards the kind of discussion I want to encourage in my classroom. I think I shamed some people for daring to not do their reading (or at least shamed them for publicly declaring that they hadn’t read). And maybe, being generous to my teaching practice on that day, I’d modeled the kind of reading I wanted students to do at home and then carry with them to discussion the next day in class. But really what was most useful, I started to recognize that for discussion to be worthwhile sometimes I had to shut up, enjoy the silence and pass the hat.

Jonathan Plumb is a PhD candidate at Wayne State in Literature and Culture after 1870 with a research interest in the Avant-Garde and spatial dynamics. He is currently teaching his first section of 1020.

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