The beginning of a new semester is upon us, but for most it has not arrived yet. That means we’re in that final stage of polishing syllabi and searching out those last minute tips and pointers on being better educators, using our classroom time better, and managing the grade load. On my quest for fresh ideas for the spring, I stumbled upon James M. Lang’s most recent CHE article, “Small Changes in Teaching.” Lang offers four strategies for the first five minutes of a class period, and while I was excited to see that Lang offers writing as a strategy for starting class, I was more excited to find that each of the activities he presents can be used for community building as well. Lang doesn’t bring up this opportunity in his article, so I thought I might share with you how you might use three of these techniques to incorporate community building at the start of each class. (I could write all day about how I use writing to start a class, but that’s a different post)

Ask a question

Lang’s first strategy is to begin class with a short list of questions that will be answered in class during the day’s lecture/discussion. On the surface, this does not seem immediately like a strategy that applies to community building (and even less to writing), but with some tweaking, this can become one of your students’ favorite class starters as well as a good community builder.

For instance, let’s say that your students are just coming into class after reading the assignment for a revision unit. Rather than beginning class with a discussion of the assignment, shift the focus to the students. Ask them to discuss their previous experiences with revisions. This will help the students connect back to another experience (for better or worse) with revision, which connects to previous learning, and this will also help the students find common ground with their classmates. In addition, you gain a wealth of knowledge about student experiences that you can use as you begin to approach teaching the students revision strategies.

Of course, you can use these question sessions to discuss problems the students encountered with a difficult reading, issues and questions they have about an assignment, or any other related problems they are having with writing. The key to questions is getting more than just a few students to provide input. Early in the course, those outspoken students will start the conversations and offer answers willingly, but if you can encourage others to bring their voice to the conversation, they will often find camaraderie among their peers. I find encouraging the more reluctant students comes through the approach. My students spend the first minutes (usually closer to 10) in a circle away from any writing materials, and I make it a point to not bring any form of writing materials (including discussion notes) to the circle. Reminding the reluctant students that their statements are not being graded or recorded in any way often helps them to begin to come out of their shell.

What did we learn last time?

Lang’s second strategy is bringing students to recall the last class period, but I want to alter this one even more for use in a writing class, especially since any number of classes can be in-class writing workshops where information is not specifically taught and the question cannot be answered with a majority discussion. I recommend switching this question around and asking students to elaborate on something they learned in the class that they are applying to their current writing assignment.

The strategies we teach concerning writing are those that students should internalize as strategies for all writing assignments, and the only way they will internalize these strategies is by learning to think about concepts and apply them to their own writing with less and less prompting. For example, I introduce my first-semester students to rhetorical appeals and audience considerations even before we begin discussing their first writing assignment, and through our class discussions, I expect that by the time we reach their third essay, they recognize the need to consider these key components of writing without my prompting. Thus, asking students, in broad terms, to discuss application of previous terms not only emphasizes the importance of these considerations, but also opens up the opportunity for group brainstorming about what and how to work important considerations into their writing.

Reactivate what they learned in a previous course

Lang’s third strategy, and the last I will reframe at length, is to tap into the knowledge students have from other courses; however, I recommend inverting this for a writing class. I frequently use class time as an opportunity to ask students how they are applying the writing strategies and concepts learned in my class to their other classes. This strategy helps me consider how students are taking away knowledge and reapplying it, but it also gives me the opportunity to see if there are any ways that I should adapt my own material to better suit the needs of the students.

For example, I often have students discuss the ways they take the organization techniques I teach them, most specifically outlining, to get started on an essay prompt for a test question. But in this same discussion, they offer up their frustrations at building a great outline and writing, what they perceive to be a great response, but getting a C on the essay exam because they did not give all the details the professor was looking for. When this happens in my class, it is often a confession made by one student who opens the discussion to similar concerns from other students. For me, this becomes a point when I know I should take a few class days to teach students more about how to manage time with an in-class essay exam.

In other instances, students will begin to discuss how they applied organization or revision strategies to a paper for another class, and in many cases, begin to realize they have gained confidence in their writing. I celebrate these realizations, but I also seek out the students who are hesitant to express their own frustrations. These students are the ones who can most use the assistance of their classmates and can reveal for me other ways that I can slightly adapt my teaching to meet their needs in other classes. But again, I sometimes need to teach them to take the risk and speak up during discussions.

Lang’s work is an important read, and I recommend reading the original article (from which I’ve only pulled the broad strategies); you may find some other nugget of wisdom that offers you another strategy for your class.  The strategies I’ve offered here are some that I use for class discussion frequently in my courses, and they work well with large class discussions. I also use these in small group discussions, where I will give the students a question or a topic to discuss with their peer group, give them five minutes to discuss and then ask them to come up with one point they want to take from the group discussion and pass on to the class. I also want to stress the importance of making these discussions no-stake conversations, which certainly should include encouraging reluctant students to contribute, but not calling students out. The reluctant students who have concerns may prefer to speak to you one-on-one after class, and you can always use their questions or concerns anonymously later, but offer advice to them individually. The strategies for starting a writing class I provide are from my own experiences, but are not the only ways to begin a class. You will only know what works best for you if you begin to experiment with the work you are doing and see what works best for you in your classroom.

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